Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 death-metal top 5 (so far)

A confession: I've spent more time defending Illud Divinum Insanus, the new Morbid Angel album that came out last month and was immediately met with a storm of contempt, than actually listening to it. I was so busy elucidating why I felt it wasn't the piece of crap so many others pegged it to be that I glossed over the fact that it might not be such a durable statement. Is it crap? Absolutely not. Is it a great Morbid Angel album? Let's just say that I'm not sure it will stand the test of time the way Covenant or even Heretic has.

I've read a lot of reviews that take an "ignore Illud and try THIS instead" stance, pointing to some "truer" recent representative of the death-metal ideal (Nader Sadek's In the Flesh, e.g., which features ex-Morbid frontman Steve Tucker). That seems dubious to me. I kind of feel like it's important to deal with the record at hand and not judge it against some broad, nebulous convention.

All the same, it's hard to ignore the fact that 2011 has been an outstanding year for meat-and-potatoes death metal, and as much as I hate to admit it, Illud Divinum Insanus is not one of the main reasons why. With all due respect to Morbid Angel, here are five of my 2011 death-metal favorites, all of which will be in the running come year-end-list time.

Surreal Overdose (Patac)

This Virgina band has a long and illustrious history in the metal underground, a history I knew pretty much nothing about. I've heard their name for years, and I've always been sort of tickled by the name of drummer/bandleader KING FOWLEY when I've come across it in metal mags, but before this record, I'd never really investigated Deceased. I think I had an impression of them as one of the countless sub–Cannibal Corpse bands who purvey pummeling yet faceless grunt-and-grind over lengthy careers. I could not have been more wrong in this (essentially baseless) preconception, though: Make no mistake, Deceased is a seriously progressive band, and this record is a bona fide epic.

There's definitely some straight-up blasting death metal on Surreal Overdose—their sixth full-length—but there's just as much rollicking hardcore and, crucially, triumphant thrash. I've been getting down to a lot of …And Justice for All and Rust in Peace lately, and this album thrives on a brand of riff obsession that reminds me of that late-’80s/early-’90s tech-thrash flowering. Combine that sensibility with anthemic, punklike choruses and a serious dystopian sci-fi jones and you've got a very vintage-style album, almost Voivod-ish in its obsessive devotion to epic narrative scope, where the music feels like a constantly deepening STORYLINE.

As raw as the band sounds—Fowley's vocals remind me a bit of Sepultura's Max Cavalera—there's a real progginess to this album that I just love. Sound effects, dialogue samples, constant tempo changes, just tons and tons of INTRIGUE and MEMORABILITY. I actually think of this album as not terribly distant from something like David Comes to Life by Fucked Up (which I also really dig)—taking an "extreme" musical style and polishing it with a sort of epic sheen. The result in each case is a best-of-both-worlds scenario—a fascinating marriage of the primitive and the grand. I seriously doubt I will hear a better metal album (let alone death metal) than this in 2011. Hear/buy it via Bandcamp. Here's a track:

All Guts, No Glory (Relapse)

Like Deceased, Exhumed is another band I'd heard of for years that I'd basically written off as generic. (In both cases, maybe the band names had something to do with it?) But thanks to some very intriguing recent coverage over at Invisible Oranges, including this wildly entertaining essay on Metallica's "Trapped Under Ice" by Exhumed guitarist Matt Harvey," I decided to give their new one a look. And man, this album just smokes.

Like on Surreal Overdose, there's a major thrash/hardcore thing going on here, an almost hysterical riff obsession. Exhumed shares with Deceased a certain over-the-top-ness, but if in Deceased that quality plays out in pulpy, nerdy narrative grandiosity, in Exhumed it comes across as more of a heathen-ish zaniness. There's sinister-minded camp all over this record, from the gruesomely funny cover art (depicting the band members as flesh-eating zombies) to the cornball song titles ("Your Funeral, My Feast") and the "one guy shrieking, the other one barfing" dual-vocal approach. But I assure you, this music is absolutely dead serious. The riffage (not to mention the soloing) simply could not be more righteous. I hear this stuff, and I just want to headbang at warp speed. Guitar nerds, you will be in heaven. This one is also on Bandcamp. Here's the aforementioned "Your Funeral…":

P.S. I was super-intrigued when Invisible Oranges labeled the previous Exhumed effort, Anatomy Is Destiny, "the …And Justice for All of goregrind" (in the intro to this Matt Harvey Q&A). Having sampled Anatomy a bit on Spotify over the last few days, I'm glad to report that this assessment isn't far off.

Towards the Megalith (Profound Lore)\

Incantation—yet another veteran death-metal band that I'd long assumed was kind of marginal. All the same, I knew that they were revered in the underground, so when I heard that a new Profound Lore band, Disma, featured former Incantation member Craig Pillard on the mic, I was intrigued.

Towards the Megalith does not disappoint in the least. If Surreal Overdose and All Guts are all about being pelted with rapid-fire streams of ideas (riffs, words, what have you), Towards the Megalith lumbers along at a much slower pace. Whether moving at molasses-y doom speed or a bottom-heavy midtempo, this band has enormous girth to it. You think of elephants and tanks and other sluggish yet unstoppable forces. Pillard's got a classic death-metal growl-and-gurgle style. Like a lot about Towards the Megalith, his delivery is familiar yet extremely satisfying. This band just wants to create a sense of slo-mo menace, without getting too ponderous or emo about it. The record's title is apt: You really do start to think of ancient societies and their terrifying moonlight rites when you hear this one. You can check out one track over at Stereogum, and one at Profound Lore, where you can also (of course) buy the record.

Macabre Eternal (Peaceville)

Out of all these bands, Autopsy is the one I'd had the most prior experience with. I wasn't hip to their early classics, such as 1991's Mental Funeral, at the time they came out, but I caught up to them over the past few years and was seriously impressed. The band seemed truly committed to taking Sabbathy evil-ness and riff worship and pushing these concepts into the realm of ugly, gross-out death metal. As on the old records, I'm not in love with the delivery of vocalist of Chris Reifert (who, like King Fowley, doubles in drums), who can sound overly cartoonish to me, like a parody of death-metal vocals. But there's a certain camp to what he does that fits in well with Autopsy's relentless garagey vibe. The playing is proficient as hell, but the band plays with a real rock & roll rawness. Unlike some death metal, which seems utterly disconnected from the blues, Autopsy is all about the sludgy churn, the badass midtempo groove. As with their old stuff, it's quite a treat on Macabre Eternal (their picking-up-right-where-they-left-off "comeback") to hear those core hard-rock values married to pulpy, gore-obsessed lyrical themes. Hear some samples and pick up Macabre Eternal at Peaceville.

Cannabis Corpse

Beneath Grow Lights Thou Shalt Rise (Tankcrimes)

What a fantastically fun record this is. As you might guess from the name, Cannabis Corpse started as something of a joke: I'm not quite clear on whether they were actually covering Cannibal Corpse songs (replacing all the blood-and-guts lyrics with lyrics about weed) or simply riffing on Cannibal's song titles and imagery. To be clear, though: Despite the titles punning on classic death-metal tracks by Decide, Morbid Angel and the like, all the current Cannabis material is original, and with this new record, these guys have taken a major step up in the seriousness-of-craft department.

These guys may just have Cannibal Corpse themselves beat when it comes to playing death metal that ROCKS. The orchestration on this album is absolutely incredible: Every instrument has its place, and all the components groove together so hard. (The beautifully clear production doesn't hurt.) The approach reminds me more of something like Thin Lizzy than it does death metal, a genre in which clarity and instrument separation and naturalness-of-sound don't tend to be high priorities. Despite the growly vocals, these guys actually sound like a more thrash-metal-informed version of the Fucking Champs to me than death metal proper. As with the Champs, these guys play extremely CRAFT-FORWARD metal, metal which has no interest in default rawness. They've written some extremely accomplished and detailed songs here, and they obviously want you be able to hear exactly what's going on.

As with every Cannabis Corpse listener, you've probably got preconceptions that they're a joke band, but this is probably the most pro presentation I've heard on a metal record this year: playing, songwriting, orchestration, production—it all just sounds beautiful and you need to hear it. Get thee to Bandcamp! Here's a track:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Roundhouse: Reading Harry Crews

I was sure I had Harry Crews pegged. A friend of a friend mentioned the author at a party a few weeks ago. I can't remember whether the term "hard-boiled" was used, but "Southern" definitely was, and Flannery O'Connor was invoked as a comparison. I said that I had never heard of Crews (when I heard the name spoken, I thought "Cruise"). The friend of a friend, the host of the party in question, surprised me by walking over to his bookshelf, picking out a Crews book—Body, from 1992—and handing it to me. "Here," he said. "Take this. Maybe someday you'll give me a book, or maybe you'll give someone else a book."

I was struck by the gesture. More people should gift books to near-strangers instead of hoarding them. Paradoxically I may have also felt slightly put-upon. Back in 2006, I wrote on DFSBP about the burden of book recommendations, and especially book gifts. My reading time is very limited—usually the combined length of my morning and evening subway commutes—and therefore, I choose my books carefully. Naturally, I trust my own instincts re: what I feel like reading much more than those of others. That's not to say I don't check out books that are recommended to me; I just like to approach them at my own pace. When someone says, "Here, take this," I usually feel a sense of obligation that I could do without.

I was charmed by the gesture, though, and I took the Crews home. It was a slim book, and after a few pages, I felt like I'd apprehended what it was. I'd been reading something heavy (Cormac McCarthy, my default novelist), and I liked that the Crews was brisk and funny: a broadly satirical story about a bodybuilding competition, featuring all kinds of what reviewers like to refer to as "colorful" characters.

I liked also that the author himself seemed to be a character. In his promo photo, Crews wore a tough expression and a mohawk. Googling around, I found that he was the son of a poor sharecropper and that he was given to hardline pronouncements. This YouTube interview with Crews fascinated me on a macho level. "The writer's job is to get naked," says Crews. "To hide nothing. To not look away from anything. To look at it. To not blink. To not be embarrassed by it, or ashamed of it. Strip it down, and let's get down to where the blood is, the bone is, instead of hiding it in clothes and all kinds of other stuff."

I found it funny that when I mentioned Crews in an e-mail to a friend of my mom's who teaches English in a North Carolina high school, she described him thusly: "Harry Crews is one of those Hemingway-esque guys, a little cruder, perhaps, whom other dudes really like." This seemed like a very apt description for the attraction I felt toward Crews. I tend to enjoy authors whom dudes really like—Faulkner, McCarthy—and Crews seemed simply like a more modern and easily caricatured version of the ones I was used to. At first, the prose conformed exactly to my image of the man, and I enjoyed that shallowness, for lack of a better word—the 25-words-or-less-ness of it, the way that I knew exactly what to say if a friend asked me about what I was reading. Not like when you're reading a novel, and you feel like you're racing to catch up with the author's intellect. But when you feel of a book that you "get it" immediately as its begun. It's the kind of smugness one who's accustomed to "literary" novels might (wrongly) feel reading, say, Stephen King. "Oh, I know what this is." It's like saying you want to take a break from thinking too hard.

As I moved through Body, I slowly realized that I got it less and less. Not to say that I had trouble understanding the plot or anything, but it became clear to me that I had vastly underestimated the emotional and intellectual heft of this book. At some point in the narrative, these caricatures had become full-blown characters, and devastating ones at that.

The book focuses on a champion female bodybuilder, Shereel Dupont, who is days away from winning the sport's ultimate title, Ms. Cosmos. Dupont seems like a shoo-in, until her estranged family shows up and breaks her crucial concentration. The book is basically the story of her regaining her composure in the frantic day or so before the competition.

On one level, the book is a cartoonish satire about a culture—bodybuilding—that couldn't be an easier target. Crews really gets off on the grotesqueness of the sport, the way its version of ultimate fitness is so often a thinly veiled version of great mental and physical malady, the way its focus on pumping one's self up often gives way to a rapacious sexual arrogance (see Arnold Schwarzenegger's classic "I'm coming day and night" rant).

But Crews doesn't just sketch his characters and walk away. He lives with them and forces you to do the same, way past the point where you can comfortably dismiss them as caricatures. It's as though one minute you're sitting with a bunch of other nerdy intellectuals, mocking bodybuilders on TV, and the next, you're backstage with them, uncomfortably close to all the sights and smells.

And it's not only the physical sensations. In its darkest moments, this book is coal-black. Crews delivers on his spiel above re: not blinking. His real subject here is the strange duality involved in TRAINING, in disciplining and denying one's self in order to achieve a goal that one has led one's self to believe means everything, and in doing so to a maniacal extreme. He's interested in the cost of that, how that mechanism betters people on one level, even as it chews them up and spits them out on another, turns them into unfeeling husks or crazed sociopaths. As you might guess from the book's title, Crews is also interested in the human body and its endless, impossible hungers. "It seemed a body could never be satisfied in this sorry world," muses one character.

To use the book's own analogy, it's like Crews starts with caricatures and buffs them up until they snap into vivid three-dimensionality. I realized what was going on as I was reading, but the bait-and-switch didn't become fully clear to me till I reached the last page. I won't get into what happens, but I will say that when I closed the book, I felt like I'd been punched in the heart.

"Hard-boiled," "Southern," writer "whom other dudes really like." Crews is all of these things. And I don't resent the shorthand either. We all use it. How else could we talk about things with each other? But what a wonderful thing to realize how completely you've underestimated an artist's power, when you think you've sized up their moves and then out of nowhere, they deliver a blinding roundhouse to your jaw.

More than anything, reading Body reminded me of an elementary lesson re: novels, which is that they ask a lot. You can't just dip your toe in; you have to go swimming, let yourself believe. (Otherwise, you're doomed to a lifetime of "getting it" without ever really feeling it or understanding what "it" is.) In the best cases, long after you're lulled into false security/cockiness, a slow-moving Great White bursts through the school of minnows and gobbles you right up.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Energy music

Gary Moore - guitar, vocals; Phil Lynott - bass, backing vocals; Scott Gorham - guitar; Don Airey - keyboard; Cozy Powell - drums

Vintage-hard-rock fanaticism has overrun my brain during the past few days, and here is one example of why. When you're able to cram this much musical information into a driving, anthemic performance, you're doing something very right.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On record: Max Roach's Scott Free

One good reason to try out Spotify if you're on the fence: From what I can tell, the majority of the Black Saint and Soul Note catalogs are accessible via the service. For those unfamiliar with these imprints, a good analogy would be if all the great ’60s jazz labels (Blue Note, Riverside, ESP, Verve, etc.) were combined into two linked entities. In the Black Saint/Soul Note heyday—roughly the mid-’70s through the mid-’90s—everybody who was anybody recorded for label bosses Giacomo Pelliciotti and Giovanni Bonandrini. (I'll just throw out Andrew Hill, Bill Dixon, Sam Rivers, Steve Lacy, Paul Motian, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton as a random sampling.) In short, the combined BS/SN holdings are one of greatest jazz troves there is—easily up there with, say, the Blue Note or ECM catalogs. (Now that I think about it, I realize how important a strong visual aesthetic was/is to the success of Blue Note and ECM; BS/SN have many things, but this is not one of them.)

The availability of BS/SN on Spotify was a nice coincidence, given that my first order of listening business after Sunday's Odean Pope show was to study up on the Pope discography. Aside from his substantial work as a leader—I've been digging into the early trios on Moers as well as the wealth of Saxophone Choir material—he made a long string of ’80s Soul Note dates as part of Max Roach's quartet (or at times, with the strings-augmented double quartet).

I sampled a few of these today and enjoyed them all. But one date, 1984's Scott Free, stood way out from the pack. I cannot express to you how killer this album is. If you are a fan of gritty, pianoless freebop in the Ornette—or to cite another BS/SN ensemble, Old and New Dreams—mold, you have to hear it. There is just so much fire and abandon in this album. Pope and Roach make for a seriously punk jazz dream team—they're respectful players and great listeners, but they're always game to get their hands dirty.

One reason I bring up Ornette and his cronies is that Scott Free feels a lot like a Don Cherry Blue Note album. Like those stone-cold classics—especially the glorious Complete CommunionScott Free is something of a suite: essentially a single 40-minute piece split in half. There's not as much thematic material to chew on as in the Cherries—the very solid motifs that are there were written by the Roach quartet's trumpeter, Cecil Bridgewater—but there are just as many changes of scenery, which is something I'm always looking for in jazz. (Pope's septet delivered a lot of that at Iridium the other night) For example, you hear traditionally outfitted solos throughout the course of the record—horn plus rhythm section—but you also hear a duo, as well as unaccompanied turns by Roach, bassist Tyrone Brown and Pope.

Part one of "Scott Free" (the work bears the same title as the album) starts off with some frenetic head action—very Ornette/Cherry-ish in its simultaneous tightness and barely-contained-ness—and quickly moves into a brief yet hardy avant-funk episode, with Roach working the backbeat and both Pope and Bridgewater wailing away. Then Bridgewater solos over a midtempo swing groove. Right here is when the brainmelting began for me: Bridgewater returns to the theme around the 7:00 mark, and seconds later, Roach explodes into a hurtling tempo. It's Pope's turn to solo and he just wants to get ugly, blowing with maximum brawn and heft and total punk rawness. This is the best of ’80s jazz right here: Unlike in a ’60s recording, the sound is totally dry and unromanticized, like the glare of cheesy stage lights, and the players are just going for it. This is honestly one of the most thrilling improvisational passages I've ever heard. There's no point in describing it—you just need to hear it. Max Roach, bebop king/innovator, squaring off with a total live-wire tenor. I love the Shepp and Taylor duets as much as the next guy, but this is the sound of a working band, of players building off a common language, a repertoire, starting at the top and just blasting off. I love the sound of it.

I won't go play-by-play through the rest of this (though I'm tempted to narrate the unfailingly tough and swinging, not to mention beyond-poetic, Roach solo near the end of part one, and the steely, wounded, blues-drenched, ecstatic, speaking-in-tongues unaccompanied Pope statement near the beginning of part two, the latter of which gives way—in a mindblowing display of good taste—to a Tyrone Brown solo with a laid-back Roach on brushes chugging along underneath). If you seek the grit and the fire and the surging jazz energy, presented with pro studio fidelity, just trust me and check this out. It's pure punk lava and you will not be sorry. Scott Free is what you want to hear in every sense: (1) An old-time master (Roach) at the helm. (2) An honest-to-god working band. (3) Young, hungry sidemen. (4) Great, non-invasive production—where the drums sound so loud and crisp and unglamorous. People tell you jazz languished in the ’80s, you shove Scott Free at them and tell them to shut it.

There's all kinds of other overlooked vintage Roach on Spotify, including several other Soul Note quartet dates (I dug Pictures in a Frame and In the Light), and some considerably weirder stuff, like the absolutely baffling It's Christmas Again (recorded just days/weeks after Scott Free, and featuring the quartet along with guests like Lee Konitz and Tony Scott), on which the band's funky improvisations serve as the backdrop to a polemical poetry reading (vocalized, I'm pretty sure, by Roach, but not, I'm pretty sure, written by him) that has less to do with Santa Claus than with a harsh reminder of racism and its role in America's founding. Then there's the weighty/classy Members, Don't Get Weary, a near-heartbreaking 1968 postbop quintet set with heavy sidefolk Charles Tolliver, Gary Bartz, Stanley Cowell and Jymie Merritt.

If you decide to sign up for Spotify, check all of this out, and if you haven't yet made up your mind, you can always buy a download of Scott Free for—I really can't believe this to be true—a measly $1.78 on Amazon. (They still haven't figured out how to price jazz albums with only a few long tracks.)

Lastly, in the course of writing this post, I've discovered that someone has uploaded video of an entire 1989 Roach quartet show to Dailymotion (a.k.a. second-rate YouTube). If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check that out right this second.

15 favorite music books

Inspired by Ethan Iverson's list, in turn inspired by Pitchfork's list, here are 15 of my favorite books about music. Like EI's selection, this is simply the result of a quick bookshelf scan, but unlike that list, this one does include memoirs, biographies and the like.

As Serious as Your Life

Valerie Wilmer
I still remember the thrill of discovering this in Labyrinth Books in Morningside Heights. "Holy shit, there's a whole book about free jazz?!?"

Forces in Motion

Graham Lock
I've gushed about this one before. A tender and informative duet between author and subject (that being Anthony Braxton).

Chronicles, Volume One
Bob Dylan
A magical and terrifying tome. People say it's obscure, but it's totally clear. Tells us more than we ever thought we'd hear from the horse's mouth.

Shakey: Neil Young's Biography
Jimmy McDonough
Another one I've praised to the heavens. A constant spray of mindblowing information. The essential guide to one of our most essential artists.

Steve Lacy: Conversations
Jason Weiss ed.
A series of startlingly lucid interviews with one of the great jazz philosophers.

This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band
Levon Helm with Stephen Davis
The straight dope about one of my most beloved bands. You'll never watch The Last Waltz the same way again.

Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis 1967–1991
Paul Tingen
This book has a philosophical patina that can be off-putting, but push through and you'll find a painstakingly detailed, step-by-step study of this crucial period, all tied to the Miles disocgraphy. Great interview material.

Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
Bill Milkowski
One of my favorite interview books. Zorn, Laswell, Fripp, Quine, the Marsalises, Tony Williams, Jimmy Smith and a ton of others.

Scott Tennent [33 1/3 series]
Does exactly what a history book should: Tell you a ton that you don't already know. Some prior thoughts here.

Miles Ornette Cecil
Howard Mandel
An oblique book, incorporating new and previously published material, but it has its own logic. A record of decades spent ruminating on (and interacting with) three masters. Prior thoughts here.

Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal

Jeff Wagner
A no-nonsense encyclopedia of a favorite subgenre. Prior thoughts here.

The Jazz Ear
Ben Ratliff
Probably my favorite jazz book. Sit-downs with the masters that double as definitive portraits. Prior thoughts here.

Precious Metal
Albert Mudrian ed.
Speaking of definitive portraits. 25 classic extreme-metal albums get the Behind the Music treatment. Some of these records you'll know; others you'll be thrilled to discover. Prior thoughts here.

Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews
Arthur Taylor
Intimate, hard-hitting conversations. Taylor, a master jazz drummer, interviewed his peers and they rose to the occasion. I'll never forget, e.g., Hampton Hawes's profane musings.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D.G. Kelley
Kelley lays it all out in a readable fashion. This is the kind of book that should exist for every major figure in politics, sports, the arts, whatever, i.e., the place you go first. Prior thoughts here.

P.S. I've only just started it, but the new Bob Mould book is really cool.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The unruly engine: Odean Pope at Iridum

I caught Odean Pope and his septet at Iridium last night, and it was one of the loudest sets of live jazz I've ever heard. This was an incredibly forceful band, one that seemed to punch holes through the air when all players aligned for the ensemble passages. (It didn't hurt that the featured guests were saxist James Carter and drummer Billy Hart.) I had heard Pope's latest record, Odean's List, some months back but I hadn't refreshed before the show and thus didn't really have the sound in mind. It was pretty brutal, a turbocharged postbop display. In recollecting the show, I think of Charles Tolliver's recent big-band music. This outfit of Pope's is a much smaller band, obviously, but like the Tolliver orchestra, it focuses on a dizzyingly exact blare, notes perfectly stacked to yield maximum sheen and volume. It's jazz as attack music, the polar opposite of pensive.

This jazz steamroller was definitely an awesome thing to behold. The set included some deeply old-school jazz machoness, often originating from the two guest stars. This was my first time hearing James Carter live, and though I had a sense from records that he was a bit of a beast, I didn't really get just how beastly he actually was. You can't witness this man play and not think of a bull, or some other snorting, writhing creature—or, for that matter, some elemental force. He basically uses his horn as an implement via which to rend sound; that's the only word that seems to do his approach justice. What his saxophones (tenor and baritone) emit is a stream of aggravated air, as though the molecules were so terrified of his lungpower that they just come sputtering and stampeding out. Some notes ring clear and loud; others are trampled in the crush, and they squeak and yelp as they expire. He may be the closest performer I've ever seen live to someone like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one of these true world-destroying sax behemoths.

At times Carter simply drowned the band out—it's pretty much impossible to listen to anyone else when he's soloing—but Pope set up some cool cage matches for him, including a lengthy duet with Hart near the end of the set, during which the esteemed drummer took on a kind of schoolyard toughness. It was a friendly square-off, but clearly a take-no-prisoners one: Each player was unmistakably trying to knock the other off his horse. If I had my choice I'd rather hear Hart in a more cooperative context, but this was an exciting alternative.

Carter also dueted with Pope at one point, both players steaming and barreling along simultaneously. It was an impressive fireworks display, but for me, it paled a bit alongside the highlight of the evening. The latter came early in the set. I didn't catch the name of the tune, but the head was to-die-for, a lush, Mingus-y ballad. Interestingly, unlike on the rest of the pieces, all the solos here were totally unaccompanied; the band would play a brief theme statement, and then drop out entirely, leaving the featured player to monologue.

The first few of these breaks were by Pope himself, and they were just glorious. I was not terribly familiar with Pope going into the show. I knew he was a veteran Philly tenor player whose work sort of straddled the avant-garde and the hard-swinging. Maybe in my mind I had aligned him with someone like the late, great Fred Anderson. Anyway, I didn't have a sense of his actual sound, though, and it was a thing of poetry: During these unaccompanied breaks, he combined startling boppy fluidity with wonderful little blemishes—a squeaked note, a spell of noisy overblowing. Neither element took over, so that you never felt like he was pushing beyond what a distinguished player "ought" to do in a jazz-club setting like Iridium, but he was riding that boundary in a very subtly daring way. He tipped his hand slightly, as if to say, "I could get seriously out if I wanted to," but his statements were compact. He also gave generous solo space to pianist George Burton and bassist Lee Smith. He seemed to consider himself just another player in the ensemble.

No disrespect to Carter & Co., but I wouldn't have been too upset if Pope were the only soloist of the night: The gruff, gritty imperfection of his sound brought a crucial sense of struggle to the proceedings, like an unruly engine in a sleek, flawless sedan.

So I'm officially curious about Odean Pope. What are the essential records? I definitely want to dig into his work with Max Roach, as well as his Moers and CIMP sessions. What about the Saxophone Choir or the recent Porter CDs? This stuff is all more or less unfamiliar to me, so I'd welcome any recommendations. Go here (as I'm about to) for a typically informed Bagatellen discussion of the Pope discography.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sandbags: Waking up to Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen
"Racing in the Street"

Some of my college friends were obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. I was just discovering "classic rock" at that time—Beatles and Dylan, mostly—and I had not yet awakened to the possibility that the Boss had something to offer beyond the bombastic new-Americana I knew from the radio. As a budding professional thinker-about-music, I had taken an anti-Bruce stance.

Just as every arts writer has his or her own personal pantheon of all-time greats, we each also construct a mirror image set, populated with creators we love to hate. We take stances based upon our own feelings and opinions, but also in reaction to those of others. What would one stand to gain, for example, by expressing a dislike of a figure like Bruce Springsteen if he were not beloved by so many? If he weren't, the opinion would exist in a vacuum. It would score one no points; the act of expressing it would have no object.

Over the years, I have taken great delight in late-blooming passions for the work of this or that artist. It could be a band I never knew existed (the early-’70s British folk outfit Comus blew my mind the other day) or it could be someone like Bruce, against whom I'd formed a somewhat proud prejudice. I have just finished listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town in its entirety for the first time (via the awesome recent box set The Promise), and it was glorious.

I think of a hot-air balloon, and how you have to throw sandbags overboard in order to soar higher. Negative opinions, especially those that have calcified without much practical experience to back them up, are ballast. We hold onto them tightly. The more other people love, the more we want to hate. The world toasts Arcade Fire; we retreat to our rooms to blog crabbily about them, or we blithely dis them in conversation. Criticism is all well and good, but one has to monitor one's own dislikes and make sure they're informed, "accurate," useful, nonrestrictive.

At this point, it's easy for me to see that holding on to some sort of blanket distaste for a great American artist is self-injurious. I see that I had turned my back on a whole vista of music without giving it a chance. And to what end? This petty pride in saying "No" while many others say "Yes."

Consensus can be a terrible, scary thing. I'm not saying go with the flow at all costs. But sometimes the People are simply right. And from what I am starting to discover, I realize they were right about Bruce.

I've been thinking a lot about the idealized space he inhabits, the ’70s. I am so into this idea of art and commerce being unified. Of not having to turn to this pompous, exclusionary "indie" sphere for your intellectually and emotionally nourishing pop music. You could go to the record store, and there the giants would be, lined up on the racks. Your Jonis and Neils and Cats and Bruces. The band America is another recent obsession—lighter, maybe, but still with so much substance. Music everyone can enjoy, that everyone can think and feel about.

Here's to letting more of that "everyone" in, to embracing a time when appreciating music was not a walled-off act, done in a snobbish spirit, buoyed by passion but also weighed down by reactionary baggage. All of that is why I hate this idea of CRITICISM and why I never self-identify with that term. I know that the same demons whisper in my ear, the seductive call of dislike, of anti-, of crossing your arms, of saying "impress me," of "been there, done that." Of judgment, I guess, but more specifically the kind of tuning out that happens when you feel there's something vast and appealing out there that so many others are privy to and that you're maybe in the process of getting left out of.

I think that's a big part of it, this idea that "I could never catch up." Bruce Springsteen, for example, has 30 albums, and these people have spent a decade or more learning about every one, and I don't want to feel behind. We all want to be ahead of the curve. Sometimes it's great to bring up the rear. To just be like, "You know what? You guys were right." And to not worry about timeliness and just wake up anew to the fact that there is SO MUCH SHIT OUT THERE TO LEARN ABOUT.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is an old album, but it is new to me. It is a reason to be happy today. Goodbye to the anti-Bruce sentiment—one less sandbag to weigh me down.

P.S. "Streets of Fire," live 1978:

P.P.S. Branford Marsalis on the late Clarence Clemons, via Do the Math.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Big Pants: a progressive-grunge sampler

[NOTE: I've augmented some of the entries and tacked on five additional selections at the end.]

I've had the early-to-mid ’90s on the brain lately. This probably has something to do with (a) my Time Out NY preview of Soundgarden's two upcoming area shows (Friday and Saturday), and (b) my recent conversation with former Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs.

Both Soundgarden and Rollins Band fall into a subgenre that I would term progressive grunge. In employing this term, I'm zeroing on a specific sound that crystallized in the post-Nirvana era, one that spanned the under- and overgrounds. When I think progressive grunge, I think of metal crossed with alternative rock and pumped full of fusiony flash and funky swagger. Of tinny, super-crunchy riffage and proudly slappy bass. Of snares tightened up to a bell-like ping. Of guitars hoisted high and pressed tight to the chest. Of brash syncopated accents. Of stylized brooding, illustrated via strobe lights. Of the dead serious mingling with a certain zaniness. Of post–Perry Farrell dreadlocks, and rapping that no self-respecting rap fan would tolerate. All of this adds up to something my friends and I like to call BP, which stands for "big pants," i.e., the kind favored by skaters during the Lollapalooza era.

Yes, when I think of progressive grunge, I think of cheese, but I also think of a bold and thoughtful movement: unafraid of complexity, catchiness, bombast. This is rock music for the pit and for the airwaves, for the show at the VFW hall as well as for the 120 Minutes countdown. I'm fascinated by the way it can seem both fantastically dated and absolutely fresh. This sound still reverberates in bands like the Mars Volta, but really, it dead-ended sometime in the late ’90s. Still, there's a reason that so many of us who grew up in this era hold these bands so dear (Quicksand—pictured above—is one outfit mentioned below who sound as crucial to me today as they did when I first heard them in high school). Though many of us may have moved on to rawer, more extreme sounds (whether along the underground continuum to, say, the DC or Chicago aesthetics, back to the primeval sources like Sabbath and Zeppelin, or straight through to the Metallicas and the Cannibal Corpses), we crave the clarity of this music, its logic and nimbleness, its melodic jolt and body-moving thrust. We crave its accessibility and revel in its non-dumbed-down-ness. It's much cooler to say you were shaped by hardcore or proto-metal, but when I get right down to it, these are the sounds that helped shape my rock aesthetics.

There's not a lot out there now like this, so we have to look backward. (To be fair, bands like Protest the Hero, and even Mastodon from time to time, push some of these same buttons for me.) Progressive grunge is about the uncompromising post-hardcore spirit slamming up against MTV-ish budgets and production values—in many cases a very fruitful collision. Not to mention a distinctly ’90s one. (Living Colour's Vivid, from 1988, is one important precursor. NOTE: I've added a Colour track—see addendum at the bottom of this post.)

Some of these bands are (or were, at the time of these recordings) widely thought of as progressive-grunge bands (Soundgarden, for example, or Tool). Some are often characterized as weird hardcore bands (Iceburn, Into Another, Suicidal Tendencies). Some are just plain metal bands (Anacrusis). But there's a lot of Venn-diagram overlap among them. A quest for sleek, clever loudness, for bright, pure hooks. Ear-bending hit singles. Think of progressive grunge as the populist version of math rock, i.e., another sort of prog-rock outpost. The obstacle course married to the crowd-pleasing impulse.

Anyone else come of age during the progressive-grunge era? If so—or if you're simply an enthusiast of the period—I'd love to hear what your favorites are.

P.S. All credit to my bros/bandmates Tony and Joe, as well as to my friend Nick P., for helping to reawaken my ears to the possibilities of the BP movement.

P.P.S. In the spirit of how I originally consumed this music (MTV), I have included hit singles where appropriate.

P.P.P.S. Some of these tracks I obsessed over at the time (Rollins, Helmet, Quicksand) and some are more recent discoveries (Handsome, Into Another, Kings X), but I feel they are all of a piece somehow.

P.P.P.P.S. It occurs to me after the fact that Shudder to Think's Pony Express Record (1994) is a progressive-grunge landmark. The record stands historically apart from what's below—it's artier than most of my choices and probably more subtle on the whole—but really, it's not terribly different. If Shudder to Think's first few releases hadn't come out on Dischord, it would be fair to lump them in with, say, early Tool or even Soundgarden. [NOTE: I added a Shudder track. See the addendum at the bottom.]

P.P.P.P.P.S. Faith No More and Primus probably belong in this conversation as well. [NOTE: I added a Primus track. Again, see addendum.]


King's X
"Lost in Germany" (1992):

BP at its most joyful. Chops served up with irresistible strut and swagger.



"Servitude" (1993):

Prog-core perfection. Jazz-rock fueling the mosh.



"Face Pollution" (1991):

Cornell & Co. at their looniest and most unhinged. A weirdo-punk gem that helps us remember that Soundgarden were once affiliated with SST. In your mind's ear, this band might sound generic, but they were completely off the wall. (NOTE: "Rusty Cage" and "Outshined" represent the prog-grunge ideal—catchy and head-spinning. Do not take it for granted how cool it was/is that these strange, strange songs were in some respect hit singles. "Spoonman" is much cheesier, but similarly bold and unusual.)


"Part of Me" (1992):

Prog comes screaming into early-’90s L.A. Dynamically, Tool still had a long way to go, but the basic ingredients were all there even at this early stage.


Into Another
"Poison Fingers" (1994):

Righteously abrasive BP stylings. Too weird for Lollapalooza yet a beautiful exemplar of the progressive-grunge ethos.


Life of Agony

"Through and Through" (1993):

Emo-hardcore that goes way out on a limb in the service of the pit and the radio.


"Omission" (1993):

Bow down before the prog-grunge masters. Hip-hoppy machismo and pile-driving power.


"Irish Jig"/"Fall" (1992):

More off-the-wall abrasion, but still a prime prog-grunge specimen. Hooks within the hecticness.


Rage Against the Machine

"Down Rodeo" (1996):

The Cadillac of BP groovecore.


"Golem" (1991):

Voivod got grungier and poppier than you think around this time, retaining that offbeat edge. Deadly hooks.


"No Groovy" (1993):

Hometown favorites of mine from the Kansas City vicinity. A deep BP skank. By the way, starting a track out in lo-fi and having it kick in at full power after a little while is a progressive-grunge trademark.


"Come Original" (1999):

Say what you want about these guys, but they snuck badass fusion impulses onto alt-rock radio. The last gasp of BP before nu metal took over?



"Greying Out" (1992):

A glorious WTF, toggling between notey, King's X–y alt-prog and borderline Toad the Wet Sprocket territory. True ’90s art rock.


Rollins Band
"Low Self Opinion" (1992):

MTV-ized hardcore, pumped up with prog know-how.


Suicidal Tendencies
"Accept My Sacrifice" (1992):

Brilliant outsider funk. No other band sounds like this. "Institutionalized" is cool and all, but The Art of Rebellion is an overlooked classic.


Mind Over Four
"Half Way Down"/"Charged" (1993):

More L.A. prog-core. Very early-Tool-ish, pissed off and smarter than you.


Bad Brains
"Rise" (1993):

The hardcore heroes, very handsomely MTV-ized.


"Sound the Alarm" (1993):

Often labeled thrash, but this sounds more like prog-grunge to me. Big emphasis on the hooks and the architecture.


"Milktoast" [a.k.a. "Milquetoast"] (1994):

What can you say about these BP heroes? Body-moving riff fest.


"Needles" (1997):

Not quite top-notch, but a respectable entry from this Helmet/Quicksand/Iceburn spin-off.


[Added Sunday, 7/10/11]

More BP: Five additional progressive-grunge touchstones

Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Suck My Kiss" (1991):

I really shouldn't have omitted this song from the list above. In the early ’90s, the Chili Peppers proved that the only thing more BP than wearing big pants was wearing no pants. "Suck My Kiss" is the final word in lean, mean party metal, and an honest engagement with the P-Funk universe.


"Too Many Puppies" (1990):

Another zany BP classic. There's something about Primus that is deeply grating (okay, a lot of things), but in the end, there's no sense denying the nerd-mosh thrust on display here. Primus offered a back-door entry into the metal world for those who couldn't deal with all the doom and gloom, and for that, they deserve props. It's interesting too, since both Les Claypool and guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde came up playing metal (Claypool famously auditioned for Metallica and LaLonde played in Possession). Revisiting Primus reminds me that I need to reengage with the maniacal free-fusion leads that Ler splattered all over most of the band's catalog.


"Passive Restraints" (1992):

Most know Clutch as affable stoner-metal road dogs, but they were a much more aggro band in the early days. This is a primo BP jam: more post-hardcore (or even just hardcore) than progressive grunge, but it's got that eccentricity to it (the lyrics are key) that makes you think "alt" and Lollapalooza and all that. About as macho as BP got, but still BP.


Shudder to Think
"Gang of $" (1994):

I've often gushed about Shudder to Think's major-label debut, Pony Express Record, on this blog. Please hear it in full if you haven't. Basically Shudder were the Queen of BP: pure pomp and art-rock over-the-top-ness mixed with that polished progginess that is the hallmark of great BP music. Shudder to Think will probably always be remembered more for their indie roots (Dischord) than for their 120 Minutes–ness, but to me, their best material fits in perfectly with the fruitfully commercialized alt-rock movement of the early ’90s. The combination of artiness and big-budget slickness on display here is truly head-spinning.


Living Colour
"Leave It Alone" (1993):

Not as essential as 1988's "Cult of Personality," which is pretty much the blueprint for and the pinnacle of the BP sound, "Leave It Alone" is still a pretty badass slice of progressive grunge. Gotta love that nasty fuzz-funk riff.