Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raging against the machine: Another look at Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun

"…an abstraction painted with a flame-thrower…"—John Corbett

"mindblasting… a smashing clanging wonderland of noise"—Thurston Moore

"The first day went over with rehearsing…, trying to find a way to get the music on tape. After all this trouble, it was a good thing to find some bars, the day/night ended with some tasty beer. Finally I had stashed all the comrades in some friends['] beds or on some ma[t]tresses, Buschi and I were left over, as usual. After some more beers we had to find a place to sleep a couple of hours, next to the club there was a building site under construction. We entered, slept a bit on some cardboard, had a beer for breakfast, went to the club, waiting for the comrades, ready to go."—Peter Brötzmann

The quotes above refer to the album Machine Gun, by the Peter Brötzmann Octet. Machine Gun is one of those agreed-upon landmarks: widely proclaimed as seminal, five stars and a crown in The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, etc. Not to mention the street cred, evidenced by the Thurston Moore quote above. It's a bogeyman of a record—purportedly the most extreme free jazz there is. I remember seeing a copy in a friend's room in college and asking about it; the response I got was a pair of raised eyebrows, i.e., "Shit, man, I don't know what to tell you about that one." The Thurston Moore quote says it all: Machine Gun is a NOISE record, in the foretelling-of–No Fun Fest sense.

I've been listening to Machine Gun over the past few days, and—just like I always am when I pull out this incredible record—I've been newly struck by the fact that this "wonderland of noise" really isn't that at all. What it is, is a very early, very great example of midsize-ensemble free-jazz composition and arrangement. This recording has a thousand times more purpose and direction than anyone seems to want to admit, least of all Brötzmann, who has been perfectly happy to feed the mythology with his tales of sleeping on cardboard and beer for breakfast.

Machine Gun is not simply a document of eight men—most prominently, the stampeding reed section of Brötzmann, Evan Parker and Willem Breuker—blowing their brains out. There is a lot of that to be found on the record, and what of it there is, is majorly amplified in terms of its cacophony by the insanely in-the-red engineering. (The album was, after all, recorded in a concrete-block basement jazz club—though not in front of a live audience—in Bremen.) But what makes the "mindblasting" improv sections on Machine Gun so effective is how they're contrasted with a number of very different textures. Make no mistake: The three pieces that make up the original record, which sound beautiful on the Atavistic reissue The Complete Machine Gun Sessions, are meticulously MAPPED. There are free-jazz blowouts (Dave Burrell's "Echo" comes to mind) and then there are free-jazz compositions; the pieces on Machine Gun are the latter. (Note, for starters, Brötzmann's account of a full day of rehearsal.)

Take the title track. The signature opening section—the head, as it were—that staggered, jagged, broken-glass reed shudder, with the two drummers and the two bassists scraping up a racket underneath, only lasts about 45 seconds. Then Evan Parker begins to solo, with comparatively delicate accompaniment underneath—just one of the basses (I'm pretty sure) and the tamer of the two drummers, Sven-Åke Johansson. The fundamental principle that makes this record a compositional masterpiece in addition to a cacophonous one is already here: You blast with the full ensemble, and then you peel away layers. You plot out an arc. "Machine Gun" is like Coltrane's "Ascension" in a way, but it's a much more engaging piece of music because it's not simply BLAST-solo-BLAST-solo, etc. During Parker's solo (man, that serrated tenor sound—so beautiful and so fully formed, even in 1968), the full ensemble comes in at times to goad him, to blast him out. They're RIFFING in the classic big-band sense, that great old trick where the band will take up a momentum-maintaining theme behind the soloist. Unlike in "Ascension," the players don't politely wait till Parker is done—they rudely interrupt him. It's fantastically effective.

Fred Van Hove's piano solo begins around the 4:00 mark, and you hear something very different going on here. Again the band settles down; this time, it's Johansson and both basses swirling around busily but sensitively underneath. And right around 5:02, the riffing begins again, but this time it's different: not a full-band BLAST as before, but a quick, repeated swooping figure from only the horns. This is the kind of arrangement I love—each soloist is treated to a customized background context. Han Bennink enters eventually, clanging away on what sounds like a trash-can lid and upping the chaos. The swooping figure returns, and eventually the piece escalates into mania, but it quickly dies down. The two bassists play a tense duet at around 8:00, and then around 10:00, the band enters with a slurry, boozy roar, escalating in pitch and tempo, as though a dial were being turned up. Then Breuker solos on bass clarinet starting around 10:52, and note that he gets still another background context; I can't tell if the basses are playing, but the drummer is Bennink, not Johansson, and unlike in Parker's solo, Van Hove is on board. Eventually everyone drops out but Breuker, and after a brief unaccompanied section, he duets with Bennink for a few tense seconds.

Then, at 12:22, comes a new theme, a strident, national-anthem-sounding motif, that grapples with white noise and then exhausts itself, collapsing in a boozy heap (roughly 13:20). Then it's time for Brötzmann to solo and he gets the wildest accompaniment, centering around Van Hove and Bennink (his trusty triomates then and for years after). Intruding on his freak-out is the classic, college-football-halftime rave-up (around 15:00). Pure, shrieking noise again triumphs and the saxes fan out in the staggered, swarm-of-bee-stings formation of the piece's opening. Several unison jabs end the piece.

If it's not clear yet, what I'm trying to say is that "Machine Gun" is absolutely, positively not a mindless, aggro blowout. What it is, is a SUITE, packed with EVENTS, with contrast. "Ascension" sounds like a crude scribble in comparison. Any reader of this blog knows that I love it when jazz compositions don't tip their hand at the outset, where you are rewarded for listening through to the end of a piece (and not just with another iteration of the head). "Machine Gun" is like that—there's always something new around the corner. When you get to the fight-song rave-up at 15:00, you brighten up: "Ah, here's some new info." It's not a fussy piece of music; everyone colors outside the lines and the transitions are imprecise. But there is a roadmap. We're not dealing with, like, slash-and-burn Japanese noise here, in other words; we're dealing with big-band-style arrangement, scaled down for an eight-piece ensemble and pitted AGAINST pure abstraction. "Against" is the key. Without the contrast, this would be a boring piece, merely extreme and not exciting or built to last.

You don't hear much mention of the other pieces on the record, but they're great. And just like Brötzmann's title track, they have a lot to offer compositionally. Van Hove's "Responsible" quickly enters blowout mode, but not before a more-or-less swinging intro featuring the two bassists (one of whom is basically walking) and two drummers. Brötzmann gets out front with a brilliant chest-thumping solo on baritone, pretty much the blueprint for Mats Gustafsson's entire career. The background orchestration is looser here; Van Hove is noticeably absent, but the other horns seem to throw in commentary as they wish rather than in any sort of predetermined or conducted riff pattern. At around 3:00, there's a fascinating textural shift and we're into classic Euro free-improv mode, with small sounds prevailing: Van Hove's harplike inside-the-piano tinkering (I think that's what he's doing), Bennink's bongo drums, etc. Parker solos here, again bringing the staccato ruckus.

And then what's this? Around 4:50, the bassist on the left starts up a tense eighth-note pulse, around which Van Hove, Johansson and the bassist on the right quickly orient themselves, setting up a pensive mood. One of the saxes (I think it's Breuker) enters with this very deep ballad-like theme, a slow, swaying, elegiac sort of thing. And then around 6:00, the drummers and one bassist fire up a groovy, Latin-ish groove. See? Again, so many EVENTS here. This is through-composed music. It's wonderful and absolutely nothing like the more crudely sketched American free jazz of the time. Machine Gun is free jazz as, say, Mingus might do it, had he been so inclined. Momentum is always a concern, the skillful deployment of first this element then this one, successive textures unfolding. "Mindblasting," yes, but also thoughtful as hell.

At 6:41, what's this?!? It's another theme, a pleasant, almost mambo-like dance that instantly brings you right into a Vegas-y frame of mind. All of a sudden this band of marauding, sleeping-on-cardboard, beer-for-breakfast, spirit-of-’68 Euro-free-jazz renegades has morphed into a Rat Pack cocktail orchestra. Considering the overall picture of Machine Gun (a picture that includes 40 years of hyperbole re: this record's ULTIMATE EXTREMITY), this intrusion of chilled-out tunefulness is more shocking than any noise outburst could ever be.

Breuker's "Music for Han Bennink I"—the "I" (as in the Roman numeral) appears in the title on the LP-jacket reproduction found in the reissue but not in the new liner notes—is another riot of THEMES. This is the most meticulous piece on the record, yet it's every bit as exciting as "Machine Gun." The opening theme, consisting of a bar of seven followed by a bar of six, is total proto-jazz-punk. Listen to this alongside Little Women and you'll see what I mean. After a few seconds, the band drops out and lets Johansson groove alone for a bit. Then they reassemble, play the theme again and peter out. At the :58 mark, a spastic bridge of sorts: a quick riff, then a hit; then the quick riff again, then two hits. It's an almost proggish device (Dazzling Killmen use a very similar figure midway through "Dig That Hole", and given the avant-jazz inclinations of their rhythm section, it wouldn't shock me if the reference was an intentional one) yet delivered here in total punk, aggro manner.

Next, the horns stumble around as if in a daze and then the band lays out again, this time for a Bennink solo, which starts calm and works itself up into a righteous froth. Then at 2:55, the turbo-polka opening theme returns briefly, setting the stage for a bellowing Brötzmann solo. Note that the drummers lay out at the beginning; it's just bass and piano. Johansson enters first, setting the stage for Bennink's grand entry, a flurry of proto-blast-beat mania, at 4:19. Again there's this skillful organization, this question of who exactly will play underneath whose solo, who will enter when, etc. (Some of this organization may very well be spontaneous, but it's still a kind of arrangement/plotting.) Bennink sets off a riot in the ensemble, but it's short-lived. Right around 5:08, the texture morphs drastically into a soft, exceedingly gentle three-horn meditation. The spastic bridge is back at 5:46, followed by an opening-theme statement that's quickly blown to bits. Some genuinely fearsome improv, probably the most intense on the whole record ensues. The opening theme keeps threatening to return, but no, this is a total meltdown—the kind of thing you think you're going to hear for 40 minutes straight when you read up on Machine Gun lore.

Right around 7:12, one of the saxes cues a new theme (the fourth motif of this piece, by my count), a marching-type figure that makes a bid for the spotlight but has to grapple with not only the marauding ensemble but the opening theme, which keeps reemerging in shadow form. Chaos reigns in this section, but it's a chaos born of competing orders. An unaccompanied Van Hove solo starts around 8:13: deranged, flailing, making its way into runaway-player-piano territory before receding into ominous silence. I love it.

Thus ends the piece and the original record (the Complete edition includes alternate takes of both "Machine Gun" and "Responsible," as well as a live version of the former). I think it's clear what I'm trying to say: Machine Gun is the most thoughtful kind of barrage. Brötzmann wants noise, but he also wants a PLAN. And moreover, he wants the plans of his collaborators, as evidenced by his inclusion of pieces by Breuker and Van Hove. This entire scheme—large-ensemble blow-your-brains-out improv meets big-band smarts—of course came to full flower in Brötzmann's Chicago Octet/Tentet/Tentet+1/Tentet+2/etc., founded in the late ’90s. (You can hear the concept developing on "Fuck de Boere," from ’70, and "Alarm," from ’81.) I've lately been really digging the Tentet's inaugural release, a self-titled three-CD set on Okka Disk, which is packed full of varying compositional strategies.

What am I saying, overall? Sometimes it's good to fight the received knowledge re: a CLASSIC, and get back to it and see what's actually there. Brötzmann himself may have done much to perpetuate the image of Machine Gun, and his body of work as a whole, as a sort of macho-meltdown sort of thing, but there's way more to it than that. The fact is that he is a brilliant composer/conceptualist/bandleader/arranger, over and above his status as a leather-lunged saxophone beast. This combination of meticulousness and total abandon is why Machine Gun endures.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sacred scrape: Stuck on Peter Brötzmann

Photo by Peter Gannushkin/

[After-the-fact note: In the post below, I mistakenly ID'd two recent Peter Brötzmann records on Smalltown Superjazz, Sweetsweat and Wood Cuts, as studio records; it turns out that they are very much in-concert albums. I'm not sure where I got this erroneous impression—maybe it was from the fact that the recordings sound so damn great!—but I regret not verifying the info. In any case, I think some of the points below are of general interest—e.g., that free jazz should sometimes be documented in the studio, not just on stage—so I'm going to let the post stand. Maybe this is also an interesting illustration of how foreknowledge (even faulty foreknowledge) of recording circumstances can really color the way you listen. You do your best to square the sound with the story, or something. At any rate, I apologize for the misinformation.

The important thing to note is that these records rule, and I would recommend them to any Brötzmann fan, or novice, for that matter. This all brings up an interesting point, though: Aside from the obvious early triumphs—Machine Gun, e.g.—what are the great Peter Brötzmann studio sessions? Please advise, as I'm clearly not to be trusted on the subject! For that matter, what are the great free-jazz studio sessions? (Again not counting the ’60s, since many of that period's key statements (from Spiritual Unity to Interstellar Space) were studio documents.) I think of things like Cecil Taylor's New World records from ’78, where the fidelity is just marvelous and a real contrast to the live stuff from around the same time.]

I've been listening to little other than Peter Brötzmann lately. (The new Strokes album, which I'm really digging, is an exception—review in TONY next week.) I wrote here about a Tony Malaby/Paul Motian listening jag, and about how I often find myself thusly stuck, happily, in this or that groove. I tend to know what puts me there (in this case, it was Destination Out's posting of a fine Brötzmann solo album, 14 Love Poems [Plus 10 More], preceded by a flat-out incredible Brötzmann/Andrew Cyrille duo album), and to not know what'll get me out. I'm very much okay with.

Brötzmann is one of those periodically recurring jags for me. I can tell by my hard drive that I was on another PB kick not that long ago. What that tells you is that he's one of my masters. The pantheon includes Andrew Hill, the Wipers' Greg Sage, Morbid Angel, ALL, Fred Anderson, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor (of course), John Fahey and a lot of others. Roscoe Mitchell is a recent addition. These are inexhaustible bodies of work. Anyway, I was thinking about how the Brötzmann jag is like the pleasurable (at least for me) part of visiting the dentist, the part where they more or less sandblast your teeth with salt water and you bleed quite a bit, but afterward you can feel new regions of your teeth that you couldn't before since they'd been obscured by build-up. Apologies for the gross simile, but it's appropriate. I think of the phrase "sacred scrape." Brötzmann has an album with those words in the title, but I haven't heard it. Still, it gets to what I'm saying. His playing is like a scouring pad—you get addicted to the sting.

We are lucky that Peter Brötzmann is extremely well documented on record. You can hear the marathon, wild live shit if you like. There's so much of it. Lately, I've been feeling the Unheard Music Series reissues Fuck de Boere (featuring a whole bunch of trombones and some deeply grimy Derek Bailey guitar) and Alarm (another large group blowout featuring some demonic Alex Von Schlippenbach piano work and a multisaxophone cast including the Reverend Frank Wright). (Note: I actually bought both of these in MP3 form from the Amazon store; it's a clunky purchasing/downloading process, but not a bad option if you really need to hear something.) I've also been thinking about how important it is for free jazz, which in the mind's eye often appears like an exclusively in-the-wild sort of thing, to sometimes be documented in the studio.

There's something beautiful about the idea of hiring engineers, meticulously setting up mikes, checking levels, etc., not so that you can document what you've been doing, but so that you can document what you are going to do, right now. And for there to be a label that sees fit to be, like, "We're going to treat this like an album, for real," and bestow upon it beautiful cover art, a track sequence, etc. It's not so much this idea that every utterance of an improviser as great and committed as Brötzmann is to be treasured; it's more that you want to have these points of contrast in the discography. For many great free players, much of their recorded oeuvre is live (think of Cecil Taylor, whose studio sessions have grown rarer and rarer over the course of his career). If they're recorded well, live albums can be great. But they can also feel sort of second-hand, i.e., you weren't in the audience that night, so the musicians weren't playing for you. You're eavesdropping. With studio records, and I'm thinking particularly of two recent Smalltown Superjazz (update your site, guys!) records, Sweetsweat and Wood Cuts, both of which document the duo of Brötzmann and Paal Nilssen-Love in gorgeous, singing, close-up fidelity, the musicians are more or less playing for you, whoever you happen to be, whenever you happen to be tuning in.

You often hear of the "sterility" of the studio, but with "just go, now" improvisers like Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love, that's not really a factor. They're used to manufacturing energy, to just starting up the engine and seeing what might result. It's a wonderfully lavish treat to hear them so clearly, on great-looking, thoughtfully programmed records (on these two albums, the moods and textures vary a lot—from hurtling and abrasive ("Burnt Sugar" on Sweetsweat) to subtle and ornery ("Knucklin" on Wood Cuts, where Brötzmann whips out his trusty tarogato)). It's not so much that these are definitive performances, more true or worthy of documentation than the zillions of live recordings you can hear these musicians on. It's that they are keepsake presentations, meant to be heard and re-heard on whatever listening medium you prefer. We need to make sure that all our great improvisers, young and old, are documented this way.

It's a different story, of course, when you can actually attend the gig yourself. Peter Brötzmann is the honoree at this year's Vision Festival, taking place from June 5 through 11. Go here for the schedule. The Brötzmann evening includes both familar settings (a quintet with Nilssen-Love and some Chicago Tentet types) and unusual ones (a duo with vibist Jason Adasiewicz, which I can't wait to hear). I'm not sure if I'll still be sandblasting my ears with Brötzmann 24/7 at that point, but there's no way I'm missing that gig. Long live the sacred scrape.

P.S. Wow—I didn't know till just now that the man has a very nice official website. There's also the great discography, which I employ religiously.

P.P.S. Forgot to mention the Chicago Tentet, other than in passing. Some of these records are great. In keeping with the theme above, I'll recommend a studio effort: Broken English, from 2000, on the great Okka Disk label. This is exemplary large-group improvising. I'm not sure what kind of premeditated scheme is at work, but the players pay close attention to dynamics, to subgroupings, to diversity of texture—the kind of things that make listening to a sizable improvising band like this pleasurable rather than numbing. (And to be fair, the Tentet can at times be numbing.)

P.P.P.S. What incredible graphic sense the man has. It blows my mind each time I go back to Brötzmann. I think the way his records look is absolutely integral to his music. (Same goes for the titles—MACHINE GUN, BALLS and a thousand other great ones—which are among the most punk, not to mention apropos, word-to-music assignations of all time.) (ONE IDEA, THREE WAYS, people!) The cover of Alarm is a masterpiece.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ween outtake: Q&A with Eye of the Boredoms

Last night's release party for my Chocolate and Cheese book (available on Amazon starting 3/31) was a blast. I'd like to extend a sincere thank you to WORD for hosting, to Tom Kelly and Laal Shams for remedying some last-minute technical issues, to Claire Heitlinger for providing the chocolate-and-cheese refreshments, and to everyone that came out.

Two more release events are coming up soon:

Saturday, March 26, 2011 at Farley's Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. 1–4pm

Thursday, April 7, 2011 at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. 7:30pm. Also appearing: fellow 33 1/3 authors Daphne Carr (Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine), Christopher R. Weingarten (Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and Bryan Charles (Pavement's Wowee Zowee).

By way of a countdown to the book's official release, I thought I'd post some interesting odds and ends from my research that didn't make it to the final product. Below is an exceedingly brief interview with Boredoms mainman Yamataka Eye. I tracked down Eye due to his involvement in the little-known record Z-Rock Hawaii, a collaboration between him and Ween—with trusty producer Andrew Weiss along for the ride—that was made right around the same time as Chocolate and Cheese, i.e., somewhere between the fall of ’93 and the spring of ’94. (I remember reading somewhere that though several members of the Boredoms are credited on the record, it was only Eye that actually appeared on it—I can't find the source now, though, so don't quote me on it.)

Z-Rock isn't a great album, but it is a fun one, a meeting of the deranged, outsider-pop minds. Much of the record skews toward inscrutable yet hilarious sound collage (e.g., the immortal "Tuchus") and high-speed, drum-machine-fueled spaz punk (e.g., "Love Like Cement", where the Ween-plus-Boredoms angle really comes through). But my favorite track is "God in My Bed" (streaming above), an atmospheric spoken-word piece that plays like an account of a drug-induced meltdown thanks to a muggy drone background, commentary from a lonely trumpet, some trademark Ween slowed-down-voice action and a deeply disturbed monologue. I love the robot-malfunction "scramble" effect on the vocal at 2:06 and the genuinely creepy conclusion (3:16), which reminds me of John Goodman's climactic rant in Barton Fink: "You want my chicken? My potato salad? You want me to tell you how my day was?!?"

As far as the Eye interview, it was probably the most least profitable Q&A I've ever undertaken, in terms of usable material generated vs. effort expended. (That's just a factual statement, no disrespect intended: That's why they call it a language barrier.) When I reached out to the Boredoms camp, I was told that I could interview Eye over e-mail but that I'd need to have my questions translated into Japanese before sending. Furthermore, the answers would be sent back to me in Japanese, so I'd need to get those translated back into English. A journalistic nightmare to be sure, but I found a friend of a co-worker who was willing to help me out. When I finally got the English answers back, though, they were so brief that I didn't see any way to incorporate them into the manuscript. Oh well, it was an interesting detour in my research. Also, looking back at the Q&A, I realized I'd forgotten how much I loved Eye's answer to my last question...


Eye Q&A re: Z-Rock Hawaii—August, 2009

How did the Z-Rock Hawaii project come about?
I don’t remember exactly, but I loved Ween so I was really excited when they talked to me about it.

What do you remember about working with Ween? How was the music composed and recorded? Did you actually perform in the same room with them?
I was staying at Mickey’s house. I’m pretty sure it was the house they called “The Pod." Andrew was the engineer. I don’t remember exactly how we wrote the songs, but I remember it being fun.

Were you a fan of Ween before you met them? What do you enjoy about their music?
Of course I was a fan. There’s something natural about their music. Something really laid-back and spontaneous.

Since Z-Rock Hawaii was recorded around the same time as Chocolate and Cheese, do you remember hearing anything from that album before it was released? If so, what was your opinion of the material?
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to listen to it back then.

Do you have any other impressions of Chocolate and Cheese? Was it influential to the Boredoms at all?
I’m not sure. I really love it, but I don’t know if it had an influence on the Boredoms.

Do you notice any general similarities between Ween and the Boredoms?
Maybe it’s that we’re all geeks? (I hope that doesn’t sound rude.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On acceptance: Morbid Angel, past and future

I am unreasonably excited about the forthcoming Morbid Angel album, Illud Divinum Insanus, which comes out June 7 via the godly Season of Mist label. (Details here.)

When news first started circulating, well over two years ago, that Morbid Angel was beginning work on a new album with its classic-era frontman, David Vincent (he left the band in 1996, and from 1998 through 2003, M.A. made three albums with Steve Tucker in his place), I viewed it as a chance for one of my favorite bands to get back on track. The Illud song "Nevermore," which the band debuted live in 2008, seemed to herald a return to the classic sound of records like 1993's Covenant (definitively my favorite metal record ever) and 1995's Domination, i.e., grandly majestic and deeply rooted in the power of the riff. I celebrated "Nevermore" on this blog in February of 2009, and I see now that the record was originally supposed to emerge that year—yes, it's been a hell of a wait.

In that post, I wasn't kind to the three Steve Tucker–era M.A. efforts. I wrote: "…even after giving them each many, many chances, I still found them lifeless, boring and unmemorable." Suddenly, though, I find myself coming around. It's like I'm housecleaning in advance of Illud, and I'm appreciating old furniture I hadn't given a second look to in years. I've always had a hell of a time with personnel changes—I addressed that in this post re: my favorite band, craw—and I was severely bummed when Vincent left M.A. in the mid-’90s. I was even more bummed when the first Tucker-era disc, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, emerged in 1998. It seemed that I was watching a band that had once towered over a genre like a colossus become mired in all of said genre's tired conventions, specifically an utter lack of dynamics and faceless, non-expressive vocals.

Over the past couple of days, though, I've really been coming around to Formulas, as well as the final Tucker effort, Heretic (2003). I can still hear why I had such a problem with this run of discs upon first exposure: The fact remains that the first four Morbid Angel albums (1989's Altars of Madness through 1995's Domination) are marvels of metal songcraft—savagely intense, fantastically diverse, improbably catchy. To some death-metal die-hards, M.A. in the first Vincent phase probably even got too accessible for comfort, specifically on Domination. But I always welcomed the coherence of those records as a respite from the directionless extremity that typifies extreme metal at its worst.

What I'm coming to understand now, though, is that Morbid guitarist/mastermind (and only constant member through the band's 27-year (!) existence) Trey Azagthoth (pictured above) deliberately scaled back the accessibility and the gloss on those records. Here he is discussing Formulas upon its ’98 release:

"Domination is a digital environment, it’s a metronome, a bunch of fancy things and singing and that which has nothing to do with anything I’m into, it is a very clear sound, a little too clean, maybe a little too industrial. All that has nothing to do with what I’m wanting to do. This album, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh has no metronome, very little digital stuff, the drums are proper, as far as their mics, it's not just a bunch of samples. A lot more overhead and ambient mics. A much more living feel as opposed to a mechanical feel, which I think Domination was."

Now rhetoric isn't everything of course, but I'm definitely starting to wake up to the raw extremity of Formulas. It's a crude, ugly, relentless record that trades the meticulous arrangements of early Morbid for chaotic aggression. When detours in tempo, texture and mood do occur, they're not fluid (as on Covenant songs such as "Sworn to the Black"); they're downright awkward and even baffling. Check out where "Invocation of the Continual One" goes at 1:35:

What in the hell, right? There's definitely some genericness swirling about in other sections of the song (I still can't get with the artificiality of those multitracked "demonic" vocals), but stuff like the 1:35 breakdown is really working for me. What I'm realizing is that though Morbid Angel did streamline in the Tucker years, they never turned their backs on the intoxicating, WTF peculiarity that has always made them so fascinating. Azagthoth is simply too weird a character to ever sound normal.

Heretic hit me similarly the other day. It definitely verges on monotony, but there's enough chaos and variety to keep me interested. Plus, it features one of Morbid's most purely anthemic songs, "Enshrined by Grace":

I can't get enough of that second riff (starting at :15 or so), in which a six-beat half-time bar alternates with ten-beat blast bar. Utterly sick stuff.

I still need to revisit the middle Tucker disc, 2000's Gateways to Annihilation, but overall, I feel like I've got a new, healthier (as corny as that sounds) perspective on the impending arrival of Illud Divinum Insanus. In short, I'm not loading it down with unfair baggage, expecting it to be this messianic thing, i.e., the record that Morbid Angel should have released in 1998, had Vincent not left the fold. Instead, I think I've come to terms with the fact that since Covenant, M.A. has always been a curveball band—they go out on limbs to a degree that can make you really uncomfortable. (Witness all the weird interludes and bonus tracks that mark both Formulas and Heretic.) Their experimentation hasn't always seemed fruitful to me, but I'm learning to be thankful simply for the band's sustained ability to surprise.

Moreover, there simply isn't going to be a return to the classic Morbid Angel that captured my imagination, simply because the band's longtime drummer, Pete Sandoval, is currently sidelined with back problems—young hotshot Tim Yeung is filling in for him on Illud. (At his best—Covenant!–Sandoval is a master of injecting his own kind of stiff, eccentric funkiness into death metal drumming.) Since Sandoval has appeared on every single Morbid full-length to date, I could go and brand his absence on Illud as blasphemous (ha, considering M.A.'s satanic proclivities), but I think I'm over all that now. That would be making the same mistake I made re: the Vincent/Tucker swap. I'll do my best to take what this band gives me at face value, not in comparison with what I was hoping or expecting to receive. The fact is that Trey Azagthoth is a true visionary, one of the greatest American artists working today, and he's never made a record that was anything less than extreme, passionate and deeply fucking surreal. Long live this man's madness, and for the love of satan, bring on Illud Divinum Insanus.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

By and for dreamers: Atheist at Santos Party House

"Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal."

Between songs at Santos Party House tonight, Atheist frontman Kelly Shaefer took a minute to shout out NYC: "Great people, great food…" "Great weed!" an audience member chimed in, and Shaefer ran with it. He described how he had smoked before the set and how he planned to afterward. Then he hit on the statement above: "Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal." A recipe of sorts. Is it really that easy? Is that where all this came from?

By "all this" I mean a seriously innovative band. Atheist's heyday was the early ’90s. They were part of the Florida death-metal scene that birthed such a scary amount of talent: Morbid Angel, Obituary, Cynic, Death, etc. I was into all that stuff growing up, but I never got around to Atheist. I checked them out a few years ago when Relapse reissued their first three full-lengths, but the recording quality of those albums (even with a fine remastering job by my friend Colin Marston) was a stumbling block for me—too muddy, not immediate enough. Sometimes you just can't hear a band through the intervening years.

But last year's reunion album, Jupiter, hit me really hard, and it brought the older records into focus for me. When I heard they were playing NYC, I was ecstatic. I wanted to hear what the new stuff would sound like alongside the old. I wanted to see if the manic energy of the albums would translate.

The show made me extremely happy. It really drove home the fact that Atheist as a band represents a kind of prog utopia. They play extreme metal but are fantastically unbounded by the style. The forces driving their music are sleek groove—gnarled and accelerated and chomping through change after change, but rooted in the cyclical and meditative—and a kind of relentless, even savage wonder and positivity. Kelly Shaefer has spoken about his pot-fueled lyric writing sessions, and that sort of "I see a universe in the palm of my hand" vibe pervades his songs. A very genuine kind of "Holy shit, I'm alive and I've got to process all these stimuli RIGHT NOW" sort of thing. Songs about alien visitation, about the enormity and awesomeness of nature. ("You call it god, I'll worship the sun / Without all her fire there won't be anyone," he sings in "Second to Sun"—streaming above—the first song on Jupiter and a definite highlight of tonight's set.) His stage presence reflects this—he headbangs plenty but he also spends a lot of time gyrating in a sort of grooved-out hippie dance, miming the contours of the songs in a graceful martial-artsy style.

Shaefer projects pure happiness and gratefulness between songs, and it was genuinely touching to see him walking back near the drum kit during the set to share energy with drummer Steve Flynn. The two worked together on Atheist's first two records (’89's Piece of Time and ’91's Unquestionable Presence) but then not again until Jupiter, which came in 2010. Before they began composing the latter, Shaefer posted the following online: "[I'm] heading to Atlanta next Friday to jam with ATHEIST drummer and my best friend Mr. Steve Flynn, this will mark the first time we have written together since 1991's 'Unquestionable Presence'. So I am curious how it will sound. I know it will be sick, there is a formula that me and Flynn have that automatically sounds like it will be fun to hear what it will sound like. And who knows? If it it goes well...?? We will see what happens." What can I say? I love this kind of camaraderie, and you can see it onstage. Flynn and Shaefer are the twin engines of the band: The former only drums live and the latter only sings, but they both compose guitar parts. It seems like an unusually collaborative process (or "formula," to use Shaefer's term), as Flynn partially explains here.

I didn't catch the names of the two live guitarists and the bassist (two of the three are apparently brand-new recruits), but they all sounded fantastic. This current Atheist incarnation (a ton of players have passed in and out of the band over the years, including bassist Roger Patterson, who died in a tragic tour-van accident in ’91) as a whole was incredibly tight and energetic, and they play with so much humanity. Thanks in large part to Flynn's deeply funky, fusion-ish beats—dig the woodblock! and the tasteful, totally non-default application of double-bass—the band never sounds like a machine, even when it's running a teched-out obstacle course. And live, the old material (some of the tracks played were "Unquestionable Presence," "Retribution," "On They Slay" and the almost Living Colour–ish groove monster "Mineral") blended beautifully with the new. As I noted in my TONY preview of the show, the Jupiter songs seem at once more spazzed-out and more catchy than the first-phase compositions. Live, pieces like "Live and Live Again" and "Faux King Christ" were a total blitz, rapid-fire sunbursts of tech worship. A lot of bands seem to want to dehumanize technical metal, to get as close as they can to the machine. Atheist puts the love back in. It's extremely soulful—not to mention fun—music, and that comes through intensely in their live show.

I kept thinking about Shaefer's weed remark: "Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal." Is it that simple? The explanation seems to gloss over the ingenious method that's at work here. ("…there is a formula that me and Flynn have," etc.) The method that lets you get outside the genre. Atheist use metal as their engine, but the chassis is all custom-built. There is nothing taken for granted in the music, least of all MOOD. Why can't metal be truly psychedelic? Not in the "Dude, let's get smoked out and see how Sabbathy we can sound" sense, but in the sense of let's get high and fucking DREAM some shit up—invent worlds. Atheist is music by and for dreamers. Born out of feverish, sweaty imagining. Shaefer, with his dudely vibe onstage, dancing through the labyrinths of these strange yet irresistible tunes. It's some kind of flower power, mixed with brotherly love. The angst is left out entirely. (Well, not entirely: The song "Fraudulent Cloth" is a deeply pissed anti-Catholic diatribe.) What you have is the pure exhilaration of the prog labyrinth. The point is that you don't even need weed anymore: the visions are all there in the sounds.

"Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal." Whatever takes you there, I say, just so long as you report back re: what you see and hear. It's not the pot cliché of glossing over the details; it's the opposite, a hyperobsession with the little nooks and crannies of the riff temples. For the like-minded few, that's bliss.