Sunday, May 29, 2011

Wisdom from Threadgill, via Iverson

If you haven't read (and listened to) Ethan Iverson's lengthy interview with the great Henry Threadgill, I strongly encourage you to do so. Below is one of my favorite passages. There will never be another Henry Threadgill, but when another artist of his staggeringly wide-ranging creativity comes along, it will be someone who has grasped this core point. (When Threadgill says "the same sort of information base," he's referring to contemporary Cuban musicians, who, he argues, leave their country with a firm grounding in music from all over the world.)

"Here in this country, we should have the same sort of information base in music and leave people alone in terms of being specific about it. Don't be helping people with being no jazz musician or anything else. Don't help them with that. Help them with the knowledge of how to use science to the best of their ability to reproduce sound, how to research information and these types of things. Keep them in a neutral zone so that they can become whoever they will be."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Defending the indefensible: Morbid Angel's Illud Divinum Insanus, pre-release

[Ed.: After I wrote this post, I continued my Illud-related ranting at That's How Kids Die. I posted a lengthy comment there—also reprinted below—after I'd spent more time with the record.]

Like every other extreme-metal fan with an internet connection, I've had Morbid Angel on the brain recently. I discussed the build-up to their new album, Illud Divinum Insanus (out in early June), in an earlier post, but now that the record has actually circulated among reviewers and fans—I heard a "beeped" streaming version—aesthetic debates are raging.

To summarize: Basically Morbid Angel—a veteran death-metal band, one of the most respected in its field—has embraced the left-field influence of industrial music (think pounding electronic beats) on this record, and folks are calling foul, portraying this as some kind of jumping-the-shark move. My basic feeling, having spent quality time with their entire catalog, is that this point holds no water, simply because Morbid Angel has always mingled straightforward death-metal badassery with elements of severely questionable taste. Below is a slightly cleaned-up and augmented version of a comment I posted on Invisible Oranges this morning, in response to a flood of blanket hater-type remarks left by prior commenters. Check out the original post for context.


I think it’s worth revisiting the original point made by Invisible Oranges ed. Cosmo Lee: “…every Morbid Angel record sounds drastically different, and also “bad” in some way (too clean, too murky, too strong, too weak).…” [See this prior Invisible Oranges post for context.] To expand upon that, being a fan of this band in the David Vincent years—I’ve been a die-hard since about ’93—has always been about reconciling the incredibly savage and awesome (all of Covenant, basically) with the borderline cheesy. Think of Vincent’s goofball laugh on “Maze of Torment,” or the MIDI-style instrumentals on Blessed Are the Sick or the—for lack of a better term—radio-friendly tracks like “Dawn of the Angry” or Caesar’s Palace” on Domination, both of which I love, but they still walk the line of questionable taste in pretty much the exact same way that “I Am Morbid” does. Then there’s the whole matter of Trey’s constant shouting-out of folks like Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra, or the band’s horrific graphic sense (people have been ripping on the cover of Illud, but what about the cover of Domination?!?). What I’m saying is that, as Cosmo implied, it’s not like Morbid Angel has ever really been some sort of bastion of stone-faced death-metal purism and that this new twist is some sort of huge, shocking concession. Since the early ’90s at least, they’ve portrayed themselves as a bunch of extremely loopy, out-there dudes who happen to be great at writing death metal. They’ve always been completely willing to fall on their face if it meant trying out something different, and I deeply respect them for that. That Trey is so willing to let his dorkiness hang out there—the Super Nintendo shout-outs in the Domination thank-you list, e.g.!—totally endears him to me. I'm a big proponent of "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself" in any kind of art, and Morbid Angel embodies that in spades.

I think the important counterweight to all this is the Steve Tucker period. While I enjoy Formulas and Gateways, both are far more generic albums than anything from the Vincent years. To me, there are no tracks on either of those albums that can hold a candle to core Morbid Angel masterpieces like “Rapture” or “Lord of All Fevers and Plagues,” and if that was all I knew of Morbid Angel, they wouldn’t really mean anything to me at all. (As it stands, they’re probably my favorite metal band, period.) During the Tucker period, you saw what a “pure” Morbid Angel would look like, i.e., one with a lot of that lovable loopiness stripped away, and honestly I found it somewhat boring. Heretic is another matter—the songwriting and production improved by leaps and bounds on that—but think of all the insane filler on that album! I just don’t understand why people are pretending that this new left turn is any more weird, surprising or (if you want to look at this way) disappointing than any other oddball aesthetic move they’ve ever pulled. The fact is that I'd infinitely prefer a Morbid record sprinkled with weird industrial detours than with tacked-on throwaway tracks like "Drum Check".

I’m withholding full judgment of Illud until I can really spend time w/ the unbeeped tracks. But I can say that I LOVED the wild unpredictability of it the first few times I checked out the stream, and that the more straight-up death metal material sounded completely raging and state-of-the-art. Honestly, I think we should start thinking of this album as a return to form rather than some sort of bizarre derailment.


In response to this review of Illud:


I don’t agree with your assessment of the record, but this a well-written and -argued review. I was glad you mentioned your enjoyment of Heretic in particular b/c a lot of people commenting on Illud seem to sort of wave their hand backward and refer to “old Morbid Angel” as if it were a single monolithic thing. The fact is that while so many people are calling this album out as a jumping of the shark, I felt that exact same way about the trio of Steve Tucker albums at the time they were released. I’ve since come around on Heretic, and there are some decent moments on Gateways and some very intriguing oddball outbursts on Formulas (that swing breakdown in “Invocation of the Continual One” gets me every time), but honestly I think it’s just as easy to accuse those albums of sullying the legacy of the earlier releases as it is to say the same of Illud.

Yes, there’s an awful lot of cheese on this record, but I don’t agree with you that the death-metal tracks are negligible. I actually think the slower songs, like “I Am Morbid” and “Beauty Meets Beast” are extremely fun, not to mention heavy and catchy, very much in the vein of “Caesar’s Palace” from Domination, i.e., this sort of poppy doom/death vibe. And the fast stuff, like “Nevermore” and “Blades for Baal,” sounds totally brutal and committed to me, if not as memorable compositionally as similar stuff from the Domination era (which is clearly the closest point of comparison in terms of the MA back catalog).

As for the industrial tracks, I definitely don’t love them, but I don’t think they’re throwaways. I actually think some of Trey’s most interesting and unusual playing on the record comes on these, esp. “Too Extreme!” The electronic beats are definitely fueling his creativity and songwriting, however dated and silly they might come off. As I’ve written on my own blog——I really think people need to step back and think about how much filler there is in the Morbid Angel back catalog. The last Vincent full-length contained two pointless instrumentals, as well as several uninteresting or negligible songs (“Hatework,” “Inquisition,” “This Means War”). Heretic, as often been pointed out, contains a ton of skippable nonsongs, as does Formulas. Even Blessed Are the Sick has a number of these. Basically the band has always gotten off on throwing these sorts of curveballs, it’s just that here they seem to have spent a lot more time and energy on said curveballs.

I think Cosmo Lee made a good point here: Namely that each Morbid album has its own weird idiosyncrasies, whether it’s terrible production (Blessed Are the Sick) or a totally generic veneer (Gateways). To me, the only flawless one is Covenant, which I think is literally the best metal album ever made. The fact is that almost any of the albums since then could be viewed as a travesty in light of that masterpiece. I totally understand your negative feelings toward Illud, and I share some of the annoyance at the pervasive cheese, but I don’t think this album is an embarrassment or a letdown to long-time fans. Trey sounds great on it, for one (way more unhinged than on the previous three albums, in my opinion) and Vincent sounds extremely intense, whether or not you agree with how that intensity is channeled. I just think that the left-field nature of this album has led people to forget that there have been some very unusual and in some cases inconsistent entries in the Morbid discography up till now. In other words, it’s not as though you’re dealing with an “all killer no filler” band up that has all of a sudden turned into a loopy and unpredictable one.

To sum up: As a longtime Morbid devotee, I think Illud is an exciting and substantial album, if also a frustrating one in spots.

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #3: Trevor Dunn

The third installment of my Heavy Metal Be-Bop series, an interview with Trevor Dunn, is finally live at Invisible Oranges. This Q&A was a pleasure. Dunn is a really friendly guy, and he's also admirably casual about his mindblowingly eclectic résumé: Playing metal one night and jazz the next is not a gimmick for him; it's simply the professional path he follows as an open-minded freelance musician.

If you're in New York, go see this man live—he plays all the time. (Check his website for details.) Dunn was a revelation at a recent gig I caught by the Celestial Septet (Nels Cline Singers + ROVA Sax Quartet).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sums of Parts: Nick Sakes from Dazzling Killmen to XADDAX

You often hear about artistic entities that are "more than the sum of their parts," as though it's somehow shameful or inadequate for something to simply be the sum of its parts. What if those parts are each excellent on their own, as in the Brooklyn band XADDAX (a duo with Nick Sakes on guitar/vocals and Chrissy Rossettie on electroacoustic drum kit, pictured above)? I would think that adding them together would be an achievement worth celebrating.

If you're not familiar with the work of Nick Sakes, let me try to put him into a context. There is a certain category of well-known (or even just "known") DIY-rock lifer who's been around forever and has been in a long string of bands. Folks like Ian MacKaye, Tim Kinsella (Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc), Geoff Farina (Karate, Glorytellers, etc.), Mike Hill (Anodyne, Tombs), Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil), J. Read (Revenge, Axis of Advance), Mira Billotte (Quix*o*tic, White Magic), Ben Weasel (Screeching Weasel, The Riverdales), Fred Erskine (Hoover, The Crownhate Ruin), Pen Rollings (Honor Role, Breadwinner), Tara Jane O'Neil (Rodan, The Sonora Pine), Dave Pajo (Slint, Tortoise), Jared Warren (Karp, Big Business), Walter Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand), Rick Froberg (Drive Like Jehu, Obits), Mick Barr (Crom-Tech, Orthrelm)—even icons like Robert Pollard or Kathleen Hanna fit in this general classification.

That was a pretty long list and sort of an arbitrary one (I worship, say, Schreifels and Read but could take or leave a couple of the others). The point I'm trying to make, though, is that there is sort of generally accepted canon of these types of independent musicians: Everyone would include, MacKaye, e.g., but move down the list and you'll get a different set of names depending on whether the person you're polling happens to be into punk, post-hardcore, metal, folk, indie rock, what have you, and depending on where they grew up or reside. But if anyone's keeping some sort of master ledger of these sorts of folks and Nick Sakes isn't on it, that list is incomplete. And if you, kind reader, are into extreme/experimental-minded rock-based music of any kind and have not checked out Mr. Sakes's various projects stretching from 1990 through the present (including Dazzling Killmen, Colossamite, Sicbay and now XADDAX), you really need to remedy that. In terms of combining raw aggression with unconventional yet totally memorable form, Nick Sakes is one of the most potent musicians I've ever heard.

More than that, though, and this is where I circle back to my initial point about sums of parts and whatnot, Nick Sakes is one of the finest collaborators I've ever heard. I've been following his career since the early ’90s (just after the Killmen's demise), and in a way, my entire view of the American rock underground revolves around him. He's played in bands with some extraordinarily talented musicians—to name two of the more well-known ones, John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez (both currently of Deerhoof) were both in Colossamite—and in each of those bands, you can hear (A) a whole lot of Nick Sakes and (B) a whole lot of whomever else was working in the project. None of these bands is merely Nick plus Some Other Musicians. Each of them has been a true, start-from-scratch collaboration.

The St. Louis–based Dazzling Killmen (active from the early-to-mid ’90s) was a whole band of master collaborators: the surgically precise rhythm section of bassist Darin Gray (Grand Ulena, On Fillmore) and drummer Blake Fleming (Laddio Bolocko, The Mars Volta), plus the uncategorizable avant-rock soundpainter Tim Garrigan (You Fantastic!, folky solo material) on guitar, along with Sakes's more riff-oriented guitar and bloodcurdling shrieks. Put all that together, and voila:

Colossamite, a late-’90s Twin Cities band, upped the post-Beefheart vibe in a major way, thanks to the free-improv/art-metal pedigrees of Dieterich, Rodriguez and drummer Chad Popple. (Rodriguez and Popple both played in the fascinating post-hardcore fusion band Iceburn around the same time they played in Colossamite, and all three of these musicians have worked together on and off as Gorge Trio for years.) Sakes in Colossamite was not at all the same as Sakes in Killmen; the former project brought out a loopier, more off-the-wall side of his personality. He retained the core of what he did (see: bloodcurdling shrieks) but added a major dose of cryptic humor. Check out his insane Spanish-language ranting on this track:

Sicbay (also Twin Cities, early-to-mid aughts), which made three incredible albums that I really wish were better known, was Sakes's most pop-oriented concern, a perfect channeling of his trademark seething tension into brief, super-melodic and super-memorable—yet still very unconventional—songs. (For a more detailed discussion, see my 2003 Dusted review of Sicbay's awesome second album, Overreaction Time.) Again, we saw a totally different side of Sakes here—his most overtly tuneful vocalizing to date, for one—and that's due in large part to the brilliance of his collaborator Dave Erb, whose guitar playing was sort of like if you took those gorgeous Thin Lizzy leads and scrambled them in a blender so that they were still every bit as gorgeous but also alarmingly jagged and disconcertingly shaded, a concept which, if I'm correctly recalling several conversations I've had with Erb, was very much coming out of a progressive-postpunk (e.g., XTC) sort of place. But again, it's also due to Sakes's willingness to meet his collaborators halfway. Like Colossamite, Sicbay was very much the sum of its parts, not just the Guy from Dazzling Killmen and Some Other Guy. (Sadly, YouTube only has one very blown-out, and nearly pictureless, live clip, but it'll have to do.)

Which brings us to the present day and the band known as XADDAX. Sicbay petered out a while back (’06 or ’07?), and about a year so ago, Nick Sakes from Minneapolis to Brooklyn. (It's probably worth mentioning at this point that I began corresponding with Nick on a fan level sometime in the late ’90s and that we've since become friends.) Right away, he began playing music with the drummer Chrissy Rossettie—who had been in a number of projects, including the Chicago-based My Name Is Rar-Rar (admirably batshit post–No Wave noise-punk)—and after a long gestation period, the two emerged as XADDAX.

It's been wonderful to reside in the same city as a steadily gigging Nick Sakes and to observe his latest collaboration up close. I saw XADDAX for the third time last night—my band STATS had previously shared two very fun Cake Shop bills with them—and I was newly struck by this whole Sum of Its Parts aspect of Sakes's musical career. I guess what I'm saying is that there's no typical Nick Sakes band. Everyone in the Killmen, Colossamite and Sicbay (I should give a shout-out here to that band's succession of drummers, Greg Schaal, Ed Rodriguez—yep, the guitarist from Colossamite and Deerhoof, plus the Flying Luttenbachers—and Jonathan Warnberg, the latter a fantastic and underdocumented player who was also in Signal to Trust) had an equal stake in what was going down, and the very same is true of XADDAX.

Since there are only two members of XADDAX, that division-of-labor vibe is right in front of your face: What Rossettie brings to the table is quite literally half of the band's overall presentation. More specifically, her contribution—as drummer and full-spectrum sound generator—is an inspired short-circuiting-cyborg vibe. As she discusses in this excellent interview, Rossettie plays a hot-wired electroacoustic kit, which she wields like a post-industrial orchestra. On the bottom, there are her driving hypnotic, martial, daringly lengthy patterns. The obsessive detail and emphasis on repetition in her playing reminds me a lot conceptually of what's going on in Obscura- and From Wisdom to Hate–era Gorguts. Go here (skip to about 3:57) to watch Luc Lemay discussing this concept: As he puts it, "The drum was like a riff itself, which loops with the riff." (This idea of a through-composed drum line, i.e., not just an accompaniment to a guitar riff but an actual part of a song's fundamental DNA, as it pertains to Gorguts specifically, came up in my recent interview with Dan Weiss.)

The same sort of thing is happening in XADDAX, but rather than blast-beat-oriented death metal, here the concept of the through-composed drum riff is filtered through a perversely danceable postpunk or No Wave vibe. Furthermore, Rossettie has equipped her aforementioned cyborg kit with various electronic pads and triggers (being a totally acoustic drummer, I'm 100% unqualified to even begin to explain how this all works; see the Q&A linked above for details). Some of these produce "in time" noises, like you might hear coming from a MIDI keyboard (i.e., you press a key and you get a brief, rhythmic sound), but some of them seem to set off bursts of pure chaos (i.e., you press a key and you get a long, arrhythmic string of sonic INFORMATION, like a sample that doesn't loop, or something).

So you put all that together with Nick Sakes, who continues to abuse his vocal cords in various bellowing, hissing manners and contributes a kind of awkwardly-clanking-machine riffage—math-rock-ish in a way, but much rawer and looser than, say, the Killmen—and you get this:

Xaddax - Lives On Nerves by Xaddax

So after hearing that (incredible) track—look out for it and others on a forthcoming Skin Graft full-length—if you check out the various Sakes projects discussed above and check out My Name Is Rar-Rar (there are a bunch of tracks streaming on Bandcamp), you'll see that XADDAX is once again a deeply collaborative, sum-of-its-parts affair. There is no possible way that either Sakes or Rossettie could've or would've made this music without the other, and that no-element-is-replaceable specificity is the key ingredient in almost all great bands.

Again, Sum of Its Parts, simply that and not necessarily "More Than," isn't a negligible concept. It's quite enough for two elements to coexist in pleasing harmony—like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese's cup—or in inspired disharmony—like Rossettie's haywire beats and Sakes's dire guitar and vocals in XADDAX. There's probably a corny message about the give-and-take of all human relationships buried somewhere in here ("Can't we all just get along, or agree to squabble productively?"), but I'll just say that Nick Sakes's two-decade career, from the Killmen all the way through XADDAX, has demonstrated again and again the huge potential of strong musical personalities colliding in wholly fruitful and mutually respectful manners. You take those parts and you add them together, and that's more than enough.


Check out XADDAX on SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

Friday, May 06, 2011

A model mellow-out: Freddie T and the People

I am never not going to want to know what's up with Fred Erskine. As discussed in this ancient DFSBP post, I've been interested in the man's work since the mid-’90s, when he played bass in two of my then-favorite active bands (the Crownhate Ruin and June of 44, both of whom blew my mind live) and one of my then-favorite nonactive bands (Hoover). (I still really dig all three of these bands, esp. Hoover, which I consider all-time-great.) Erskine's achievement, incorporating funk and reggae elements meaningfully within the post-hardcore idiom, was simple-sounding but totally profound. As with Joe Lally from Fugazi, Erskine made me want to focus on the bass above all else while listening—his bulbous, trancey lines (rendered in one the coolest and most distinctive tones I've ever heard on the instrument) were magnetizing. He was like a guru of groove—"Remember kids, this may be punk, but we can't forget the lessons of great soul"—and he elevated any band he was in to a certain level of class and worldliness, helping them to transcend the sometimes-hermetic post-hardcore sphere. Fred was also a really unusual and expressive vocalist—part bleater and part screecher. He always sounded like he meant it.

Aside from the three bands mentioned above, Erskine has undertaken a bunch of other projects, and I've dutifully checked them all out. I haven't always been thrilled. Him, his dubbed-out, somewhat Tortoise-y project with June of 44 drummer Doug Scharin (together, Erskine and Scharin were maybe the most incredible rhythm section I've ever seen live) seemed monotonous and not edgy enough, and the horns-heavy Boom (check out these two posts from Hardcore for Nerds) was an interesting detour but not something I ever really felt like spending good time with. Ditto for the band Abilene, a later project led by Erskine's Hoover comrade Alex T. Dunham, in which Fred played trumpet.

Just a Fire, a now defunct Chicago-based band, was an exception—definitely my favorite latter-day Erskine concern. Their two LPs were slightly spotty, but the good stuff on them was truly great. I would highly recommend the first JaF album, 2004's Light Up, to any Crownhate Ruin fan, and there were a few mindblowing tracks (e.g., "Runaway") on the second one, Spanish Time, which I reviewed for Time Out NY a while back. As promising as Just a Fire was, the project never seemed to really take. I saw them in ’05 or ’06, and it was a cool but sadly underattended show. At some point after that, I heard that Erskine had moved to Indiana to start a family, and I assumed that I wouldn't be hearing too much more music from him.

Thus, I was very pleasantly surprised the other day when I stumbled upon People In, the semi-new (December 2010) debut album by a new Erskine project, Freddie T and the People. The band came through Brooklyn last year, and I'm really bummed I missed it, because this record is honestly outstanding—one of my favorites of the year so far. (It technically came out last year, yeah, but to me, it's a new release.) What Freddie T and the People sounds like to me is Erskine coming into a very legitimate kind of maturity—not a tedious growing up, but an honest, natural mellowing out, with just enough feistiness under the surface. I heard the Boom, which was active at the same time as June of 44, as a mash-up, an awkward marriage of Erskine's post-hardcore and soul/reggae influences. But Freddie T and the People is all of a piece: People In is basically a very convincing soul record (complete with horns, backing vox, reverby production, the whole thing) seasoned with tasteful little Erskine-isms.

As in the Boom, Erskine plays guitar rather than bass in this band. On paper, that fact is a bummer to me—again, I adore his bass work and want to hear as much of it as I can. In practice, I'm cool with it. Erskine brings a ton of flair to his guitar playing here. I'm in love with his twangy punk-Ventures lead on People In's self-titled opening instrumental, in which you can hear some of his trademark sinuous rhythm sense translated to the guitar, with an added element of fun, fiery grandstanding. (Here's a clip of him ripping it live in Chicago.) I remember that back in the Crownhate Ruin days, Erskine was rocking a sort of ’50s greaser vibe, with pomaded hair and gas-station-attendant-type shirts; here his music seems to have caught up to that. It's like super-soulful surf funk executed with punk rawness.

The record works just as well when Erskine is singing. "Enemies" is a little masterpiece. Again you have that sort of Dick Dale feel in the guitar, laid over a driving beat. Erskine's lyrics ("I been running myself into the ground") have a sort of classic Beat vibe, i.e., sort of cosmically bummed. Unlike in Just a Fire, where he was writing about politics, here Erskine is just talking about the way he feels; it's totally lived-in and plainspoken and real. The horn arrangement is so natural and happy-making. The band name comes into clear focus here—this sounds like a gang—a huge ’70s-style band like Earth, Wind & Fire or Parliament—a leader and a bunch of friendly collaborators, all committed to bringing the tunes to vibrant life. (I'm not familiar with any of these other players, but they're all great—even, yes, the bass player. Apparently some of ’em hail from Racebannon, a ferocious band I've heard a bit of but need to check out more.) And in contrast with the Boom, Erskine is actually writing really hooky music these days: The "Enemies" refrain has been cycling in my head for days.

What really blows my mind about the album is that it typifies what can be a somewhat painful process for a fan to witness—namely the gradual mellowing of an artist you know and love from really intense projects—yet completely bucks the stereotype of that having be a lame or disappointing progression. Take "Beautiful Simple Moments," a straightforward song that's actually about beautiful, simple moments ("a warm autumn day," "my fireplace is burnin' in the living room," etc.). Miraculously, it's totally unsappy. Despite the subject matter, the song has a defiant spirit to it, and it actually feels kind of hard-ass. And this is coming from an artist who used to specialize in seething frustration ("You want to play games / I want to play war," Erskine screeches in one of my favorite Hoover songs, "Weeds," from the excellent self-titled posthumous EP) and inscrutable spaz-outs (I've never had the slightest idea what he was yowling about in "Distant" from Hoover's The Lurid Traversal of Route 7—"I've got my cat back / You've got those glasses"??!).

People In is concise and good all the way through. While I dig the reworking of the great Just a Fire track "Graduation," the new tracks get me the most. The hooks just burst out, and I love the pacing of the record, how brief, super-melodic instrumentals (like "People In") serve as interludes between the longer, meatier tracks. It's crazy—I've only had this album for a few days, and I'm starting to think of many of the songs as bona fide hits. (To name just two, the showstopping soul ballad "You Are Your Brother" and the hard-as-nails funk-rock track "Voodoo" are both total killers.) Erskine's voice is still eccentric and maybe an acquired taste if you're not familiar with his prior work, but it's just such a pleasure to hear him belt this music out, to sound so native in this new style. Nothing put-on or forced—just a joyous "This is where I'm at right now." The biggest compliment I can pay People In is that I don't miss Erskine's previous output when I'm listening to it, and considering how I feel about Hoover and the Crownhate Ruin, that's really saying something. People In is maybe the classiest, most thoroughly enjoyable late-career mellow-out album I've ever heard. I'm thrilled that Erskine, chill though he may be at this stage, has retained the fire, the bite and the soul.

(digital or limited-edition LP)!

P.S. If you don't know Erskine's prior work, you need to hear:

1) "Ride Your Ride" by the Crownhate Ruin

2) "Electrolux" by Hoover

3) "Seemingly Endless Steamer" by June of 44 (dear God, the Erskine/Scharin interplay on this song…)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Sweat + exaltation: In praise of the Tony Williams Lifetime

Emergency!, by the Tony Williams Lifetime, is my favorite album right this second. I remember buying it in college and connecting strongly with the first track ("Emergency" itself), but it never became an obsession. Now I hear it as a mindblower.

The other night on WKCR, Mitch Goldman had Vernon Reid as his guest and they were listening to rare recordings of early fusion—including some live material by Lifetime—the idea being to examine this budding genre "before it had a name." A great concept for sure, and it led me back to Lifetime with fresh ears.

I love the abandon in the second section (beginning at :54, after the Hendrixy intro) of "Sangria for Three" (see above), the dervish spirit, driven by Williams's Latin-ish beat. The boomy bass drum, the singing toms. And the sense of total abandon. Virtuosity, yes, but with true racing excitement. McLaughlin just as much about perverse note tangles as about fluidity (listen at 2:26 in particular). All the distortion, the buzzing volume, swarms of organ from Larry Young. It's music you want to turn up absurdly loud, just to get at the sheer head-busting aspect of it. Take heed around 3:12, when all three hammer on this looped drone, building tension and busting it open.

The music has so much dirt to it, so much punk energy, and the before-it-had-a-name concept is important. I'm not exactly sure when the fusion backlash started in earnest (does anyone know if there were certain critics, say, who led the charge, or was it an across-the-board thing, aimed largely at Miles?), but I wonder if people were hearing this as some sort of concession. What this first version of Lifetime definitely is not, is the sterile concept that came to be associated with fusion, the empty chops displays, dexterity without soul, etc. It couldn't be less that, really. It's hungry music, with terrifying, about-to-come-off-the-rails drive to it. Williams didn't want to show off—he wanted to take a familiar concept, the jazz organ trio (see this fascinating 1997 Williams interview: "Everybody talks about Lifetime being the first fusion band, but it was really sort of a throwback to what was going on when I started out in Boston. I played with a lot of organ trios because that was one of the big sounds there, and that's what the original Lifetime really was."), and get modern with with it, get weird, get out, get severely loud and brain-bent and psychedelic. (On the latter tip, I'd always dismissed Williams's vocals on this record as tedious, but last night, I started to hear them as an integrated part of the whole—this is psychedelic, exploratory, truly experimental music, and the dreamy, textural vocals, on the track "Where," say, help advance that aspect. It's like Floyd jazz.)

And there is SO much freedom in this music, a freedom that moves way beyond Free Jazz. The level of listening in the moment, of following tangential impulses, really gets me. Check out at 3:46 in this track, when Williams drops out and McLaughlin and Young start to paint with pure color. Dabs and blobs of overdriven sound. An acquaintance with the technology ("What is this thing called distortion?"). Actual improvisation, de-styled, and such a wonderful curveball after the sweaty headlongness of the first section. Williams isn't playing, but I bet he had his eyes closed and that he was fascinated. Listen from about 5:22–5:26—I think I hear the snares in his snare drum rattling sympathetically.

Shortly into this second part, Williams drops the brain-rattling beat. Young lays into the keys, yielding a howling wind. Again, the desire to crank this music up is absolutely irresistible; you just want to keep driving it further. During the reprise of the Latin section (about 1:10, introduced by a flurry of Williams's patented molten-lava press rolls), McLaughlin seems to say, "I'm done with notes." He's in this sort of rhythm-guitar trance, tossing out exaggeratedly clipped figures that seem to hint at the full-on staccato-swagger world-swallowing riff he would later bust out in the middle of Miles's "Right Off" (from A Tribute to Jack Johnson—skip to 7:45 here), which was recorded about ten months later (April 7, 1970 vs. May 26 and 28, 1969 for Emergency!). Kicking up dust is paramount here, McLaughlin just riding the dervish rhythm. The band is like a horde, a swarm, a miasma, advancing end-over-end, Williams flattening the time with more unbearably poetic press rolls (listen around 3:06). A shaggy, squawking meteorite, grooving through the universe.

When you hear this, you feel like you might know what is truly meant by the term "jam band," the platonic ideal of it. This is actually a jam, an equal ante-ing up by three players, doing their best to assemble the trippiest, most righteous group vibe. It's actually what fusion is supposed to be, drawing on the volume and the balls and cacophony of late-’60s hard rock, as well as the dexterity and deep listening of mid-to-late-’60s jazz (the kind the Williams himself was playing with Miles). But really, you don't think about any of that. You just think about the radioactive dust, the head-busting solar energy.

As before, the beat drops out around 4:10. Listen to the cooling rain of Williams's cymbal rolls. The ensuing McLaughlin/Young duet is like a bath of retro sound, kitschy in its way but so pure, defined by an actual not-knowingness of what will happen next. It must have been so liberating for jazz players to just toss form out the window in this way, and even the form of what was then thought of as avant-garde jazz, which was a more-or-less anti-rock style of expression. No, this is about letting in ALL the noise swirling around at the time, not just a Free Jazz blare, but also the ugliness and the mystery at the edge of the period's rock and funk, the pure-sound bliss out/exorcism that lived in the blank spaces between the genres.

Williams's drops the beat around 6:08. (I think I hear a faint vocal sailing over top.) Larry Young sounding like he's being electrocuted by his own instrument, galvanizing this Frankenstein lurch of a groove. By about 7:10, Williams gives it up, lets the nothingness creep in, and we head into a pure-sound crescendo. You just want this throbbing swell to go on forever. I'm so intrigued by the perversity of this band, its complete lack of decorum or "good taste." And that's not to say this music is not thoughtful or highly interactive; just that it pushes where it needs to go when it needs to go there. If an explosion, a pure-sound sunburst, has to happen at this or that point in the music, it happens.

What a shame that this before-it-had-a-name couldn't have just been seen as the next logical step, as the freedom-quest that it actually was, an improvisational music form that matched the times, rising up to meet all of what was possible. I've read that Tony Williams was a great admirer of John Bonham (and vice versa). He couldn't sound like him if he tried (has anyone ever really been able to?), but he could lob a kind of response bomb to the rock he was digging. That's what this music is to me, an attempt not exactly to get with the times, to concede to them (my sense is that that's what Williams, Miles and whomever else were called out for at the time: selling out, somehow, by plugging in), but to amass and assimilate them, as a rolling snowball would. At its best, as on Emergency!, the result isn't "jazz + rock," it's just pure meltdown—sweat + exaltation.


P.S. Anyone know the whole Lifetime catalog well? My current knowledge is spotty. I very much enjoy the Holdsworth era, e.g., Believe It, even though it's a lot cleaner and less sheerly mindblwing than the McLaughlin-Young stuff. What else is worth checking out? There are so many records: Ego, Turn It Over, Million Dollar Legs, The Old Bum's Rush, etc. etc. The only Lifetime YouTube clips I can find show the Ego lineup with Young, Ted Dunbar, Don Alias and Warren Smith, i.e., here (picture is overly dark, but the sound is amazing) and here and here (the latter features some nice simultaneous singing/drumming from Williams on "There Comes a Time," which includes the amazing line "I love you more when you're spiteful"). A non-Lifetime Tony Williams bonus track: Check out this beautiful 1972 clip of him in trio with Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty.

I'm also curious about McLaughlin's non-Mahavishnu output from around this time (I know Extrapolation but not Devotion) and Larry Young's fusion-era stuff. Is Lawrence of Newark great? I've never really checked it out. There's also an album he made with Joe Chambers called Double Exposure. Are there other records by these players (or like-minded folks—Larry Coryell, maybe?) that get at the Emergency! vibe, or is this record as rare a bird as it seems to me to be? What about, gasp, TRIO OF DOOM w/ Jaco?

P.P.S. Right as I was done writing, I stumbled on a Howard Mandel essay on Spectrum Road, the Lifetime tribute band (feat. Vernon Reid) that's currently making the rounds. Looks like he gives praise to the original stuff too. Psyched to read.