Thursday, July 19, 2012

Flushing the pipes: Channel Orange and the art of speed-reviewing

Here, via Time Out New York, is my review of Frank Ocean's Channel Orange.

This version of the piece, the same one that appears in the current print issue of TONY, is actually my second stab at an assessment of Channel Orange, and the one I'm much happier with. At the end of the review linked above, you'll find a link to the first review I published, which went live the day of the album's surprise-attack midnight release.

The short answer to "Why are there two?" is that soon after I published the first one online, I realized that it had been a rush job. I spent more time with the album over the next couple days, and it steadily grew on me. I realized I could still complete a new version of the piece in time for our print deadline, and thanks to my patient and understanding editor, Steve Smith, take 2 is the one that ended up running.

This sequence of events sounds pretty straightforward, but the fact is that it kind of drove me insane last week. (My wife could certainly describe this state of mind in greater detail.) My initial response to the record—the follow-up, I should add, to my favorite album of 2011—was mixed, and as the rave reviews started rolling in, I started to second guess myself, not because I felt like my take needed to mirror everyone else's, but because I realized that I simply hadn't spent sufficient time with the record.

During my career, I've had to write surprisingly few rush reviews. Typically if I'm reviewing a record, I have the music weeks or months in advance. With the Ocean, though, that wasn't an option. I heard it for the first time when everyone else did, last Tuesday morning. As soon as the reviews started going live—i.e., pretty much immediately—I felt compelled to jump into the fray. I was talking about the album with some friends and fellow music writers over e-mail, but that didn't suffice; I felt, for no reason other that that journalists in the internet age tend to feel that they're late on a story (even something as in-the-grand-scheme-of-things trivial as a review of a newly released work of art) mere hours after the window on said story has opened, that I needed to publish immediately.

The problem with that urgency is an obvious one: First impressions are iffy. (I should state another obvious point here, i.e., that there's no such thing as a "correct" record review, only one where the writer has had sufficient time and space to get familiar with the album in question and work out their formal impression of it—the argument they want to make.) This is a constant pitfall of deadline-oriented writing-about-music (or writing-about-art, period) and this particular instance certainly wasn't the first time I'd published a review and second-guessed it. What was special in this case, was the intensity of my bummed-out-ness re: that second-guessing: not exactly the feeling that I had let the artist down (because, let's be serious, my Channel Orange review was one of approximately a zillion that have been published; in the end, what I said matters to relatively few people aside from myself), but the feeling that I hadn't given myself the time and space I needed to simply do a good job on the piece, to come up with something I could stand by and be happy with going forward. The latter criteria, incidentally, do apply to the second version of the review, the more positive one you'll find at the link above.

Along with the aforementioned bummed-out-ness came a painfully complete understanding of why I felt that way, and what I needed to do in the future to avoid feeling that way again. Film reviewers may very well have to settle for one pass through the movie in question, simply because of the logistical impracticality/impossibility of watching the entire thing again in time for their deadline. But music reviewers tend to have the luxury of at least a couple spins, and here's the reason why we ought to take full advantage of that luxury (or at the very least, why I plan to in the future): When you're hearing a record for the first time, especially a record that you've looked forward to, by an artist you already know you care about, you're not really hearing the record. You're hearing some kind of composite sonic image: the record you hoped you'd hear, overlaid on the actual thing. In many cases, and I think in the case of my Channel Orange experience, your expectations are so extensive and so powerful that they simply drown out the sounds that come out of the speakers. Listen a few more times, and you can begin to edge that essentially meaningless set of expectations out of the picture; you can, in other words, hear the record on its own terms rather than on yours. Now again, I'm not saying that at that point, whatever you write is somehow "correct." What I'm saying is that at least you're engaging with the given record in a fair way; you're giving it ample chance to reveal itself.

Record reviewing is no exact science. There may, in fact, be few more inexact sciences. But as I said above, it really comes down to the writer's own feelings. If others get something out of the piece, that's all the better, but as a writer, you simply want to be able to stand by what you wrote, to feel afterward that it accurately expresses, in an objective way, how you feel, what you'd meant to say. As any writer could tell you, sometimes that isn't the case, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you finish a draft of a piece and it appalls you. If you're on deadline, you might hand it in anyway, because you have no choice, but you don't feel a sense of proud ownership. And that sense of proud ownership is all I mean to ponder here, i.e., how best to end up feeling that way. In the super-specific case of a record review, I think it's important to take one's time, or to take as much time as one has, because you're more likely to end up proud of what you've written, or at the very least to feel comfortable standing by it. Now, of course, there are plenty of records that have taken me far more than a few spins to warm up to—several years' worth of spins, in some cases—but I'm speaking here about a deadline-oriented situation. What you want to do in these cases is make sure you've flushed the pipes—that is to say, eroded as much of your essentially irrelevant and potentially insidious expectations as possible—before you drink the water. That's when you're doing your job, i.e., writing about the thing in front of you, rather than the version of the thing you've been carrying around in your mind. I was fortunate enough to get a second crack at Channel Orange; I hope that next time, I'll have the good sense to wait before taking my initial swing.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The misery/mastery of Asphyx and other recent raves

A busy spell has kept me away from DFSBP for more than two weeks. Here's a top-heavy summary of what's been on my mind, musicwise.

In my Maryland Deathfest round-up, I mentioned some new friends my wife and I made that weekend, a metal-obsessed couple from Wisconsin. During the whirlwind "Dude, you need to check this out" discussions I had with H.S. (the male half of the pair) at MDF, he was more fired up about the Dutch outfit Asphyx than any other band he recommended. I'd heard samplings of their stuff in recent months—material from the new album, Deathhammer—but hadn't yet spent good time with any of their records. A few weeks after the fest, I received a package in the mail from H.S. containing a few old-fashioned mix CDs, one of which featured a whole bunch of Asphyx songs, including a few from their 1991 debut LP, The Rack. These tracks sent me into a delirious Asphyx obsession. I respectfully took temporary leave from the mixtapes and went burrowing into their discography, not coming up for air for something like two weeks.

While the early stuff hit me hard, it was the more recent material—Deathhammer, which came out this past February, and 2009's Death…the Brutal Way—that really ensnared me. As DFSBP readers may have noticed, old-school death metal—or more specifically, recent work by old-school death-metal bands such as Obituary, Cannibal Corpse and Immolation— has formed a major pillar of my listening over the past few years. A lot of what I've been craving this sort of gruesome primitiveness, expressed most purely in Obituary's work. It's an anti-evolutionary stance, a commitment to improving as a band without "progressing" in obvious, easily quantifiable ways. (I also touched on this in my recent Unsane review.) It has something to do with becoming more and more one's self as a band without messing with the core formula. Having stacked the old Asphyx records up against the new—and I'm specifically talking about the work they've done with their signature frontman Martin Van Drunen, i.e., two early-’90s LPs, and then these two latest ones, made after he rejoined the band in 2007—I can say that they are a perfect example of this. The latest Asphyx records sound a thousand times crisper and more hi-fi than the band's ’90s output, but they also have this unquantifiable x-factor that I also hear in recent Obituary. I can only describe it as the weight of years. Like Obituary, Asphyx thrives on the concept of anguish. The simulation of pain and suffering and ponderous psychic weight is their bread and butter. These new Asphyx records are among the most sheerly pained I've ever come across in the realm of death metal. Even at fast tempos, the band—and especially Van Drunen, who has one of the most genuinely dire, soul-vomiting deliveries I've heard coming from a death-metal frontman—sounds like its being driven against its will through frozen wastes, the music serving as a "Why have you forsaken me?" outcry.

The Asphyx songs that hit me the hardest were the slow ones, grim death marches like "Minefield" from Deathhammer. Like much of Asphyx's recent material, this song deals with a horrors-of-war theme. Martin Van Drunen (along with current Asphyx guitarist Paul Baayens) also plays in a World War II–themed metal band called Hail of Bullets, and he's funneled that same obsession into Asphyx. Here's a stream of "Minefield"—play it deafeningly loud, I implore you—and a sampling of lyrics:

Crawling through barbed wire
Into no-man's land
Soil soaked in blood
The crying of men
Terror unveiling
In between the lines
They scream mutilated
Detonating mines
You wouldn't think twice about lyrics like this if you read them out of context. I guess that's kind of a "Duh" observation, but I think it's worth pointing out. More than many bands I could name, in any genre, Asphyx is about raw sensation. Formally, i.e., when it comes to the on-paper aspects of what they do, they could not be more straightforward or potentially dismissable. They play some of the most easily pigeonhole-able death metal I know; basically they pick a tempo, either crawling or galloping (in the hardcore-derived sense—no blast beats here), and just let Van Drunen loose over it. But the sensation they give off, this feeling that you get from "Minefield," of trudging depression, of men being ground mercilessly into dust by their own savage impulses, of the cold unforgiving-ness of the universe, is the furthest thing from commonplace. In terms of pure feeling, I can think of very few metal bands that sock me in the gut the way Asphyx do. I love the minimal structures of their songs, the way they only shift gears when they really mean it. The first 2:20 of "Minefield" is straight crawling-on-hands-and-knees molasses doom, and then at that point, they switch into this woozy, lumbering shuffle groove. I can't get enough of this relentless drive, the way the band gradually flattens you with one texture till you absolutely can't take it anymore, and then switches to another and does the exact same thing. Death metal should feel like this: endless, vast, utterly miserable. You should want to tap out because it's so unrelenting. It should make you wince, as if against a biting wind, and Asphyx at their best have that effect on me. Crucially, they can also bring me to the verge of tears. Listen to the downshift back to trudging misery that happens at around 4:25 in "Minefield." Here Baayens blindsides you with an incredibly majestic lead, an Iommi-worthy elegy that lays aside brutality in favor of epic sadness. This is some funereal, bell-tolling, hand-of-doom shit here, people. It sounds to me like an epilogue to the gruesome war depicted in the main body of the song; you imagine a surviving soldier standing beside a mass grave as the rain drives down on him, realizing he's no better off than the ones who perished. (I should note here that Asphyx named their second LP Last One on Earth.)

If these sorts of sensations appeal to you—maybe "appeal" isn't the right word; it might be better to say, "If you feel the pull of this cold, dark, gritty art the way I do…"—I encourage you to check out Deathhammer in its entirety. The great thing about Asphyx is that they're not a one-note band; maybe a three-note band, but definitely not a one-note band. Aside from the molasses-paced, war-is-hell-and-so-is-life vibe they're working with on "Minefield," latter-day Asphyx has also been digging into this meta-metallic theme, i.e., the idea of actually pairing death metal with lyrics about death metal. It's an idea that's no so uncommon in, say, hip-hop, where part of the point is to rap about how good one is at, well, rapping. Asphyx does something very similar on their two latest albums. It's important to understand that the titles Death…the Brutal Way and Deathhammer refer not simply to dying, but rather to the craft of death metal itself.

Here's how drummer Bob Bagchus (the only remaining original member of the band) put it in a Decibel interview:

Decibel: What is the Deathhammer?
Bob Bagchus: Deathhammer represents the book of death metal. Our view on real death metal. It’s like the rules of what real death metal was supposed to be. Death metal was supposed to be hard, raw, dirty, creepy, dark and brutal to the bone. Music to be scared of. Just listen to bands like old Venom, Messiah, Slaughter, Hellhammer, Possessed, old Death, Autopsy, Necrophagia, early Mayhem, Necrovore, Incubus (Florida) etc., and you’ll know what we mean. During the last decade, it seems that death metal has turned into this hyper-blast technical nonsense bullshit that they dare to call “death metal.” In fact, it’s a contest of who can play the fastest bpm or riffs (sometimes 10 in 1 single song) and they seem to forget about the song itself. I mean, where’s the song? Where’s the catchiness and where is the atmosphere? Nowhere! And this is supposed to be death metal? It’s a joke! We say, “Go listen to Hellhammer’s Triumph of Death and discover what real death metal is!” So we thought that there should be a sort of guide book to remind those people of the essence of real death metal. We, of course, don’t want to be arrogant—hell no—but since death metal is in our hearts and souls, we hate to see it destroyed by those technical-bullshit-musically-graduated-soulless bands, pretending they know it all. Death metal comes from the heart, not from the mind.

As if the album's title track weren't already a perfect summation of these principles, dig how van Drunen growls, "This is some death metal, you bastards!" during the guitar break around :37:

The point that Bagchus makes above might seem like sort of an obvious one, but the truth is, it's an important gauntlet to lay down. Over the past 15 years or so, death metal really has bifurcated to an almost absurd degree. You've got this staunchly primitive, slither-through-the-muck-and-bang-your-fuckin'-head aesthetic that reemerged old-schoolers like Autopsy (and, I'd argue, Obituary, though I'm not sure whether or not they'd have a place in Bagchus's death-metal "guide book") and a bunch of neo-old-schoolers (I'm not knowledgeable enough about that movement to name names) champion, and then on the other hand, you've got this noodly, absurdly intricate technicality, as perfected by bands like Necrophagist. Now I absolutely love Necrophagist, and I also love Atheist and a ton of other bands that I'd place in that latter category, but listening to a super-techy but, to me, hard-to-really-love band like, say Origin, or a million faceless typewriter-blast-beat outfits, it's hard not to agree with Bagchus's polemic. Fortunately, this is music not war, and no one has to take sides. I'm sure that whenever the new Necrophagist album drops, I'll be happily indulging the side of my death-metal brain that can't get enough speed, precision and virtuosity, but lately, my compass has been pointing straight toward Aspyhx's shaggy, mud-smeared version of the truth.

P.S. I leave you with a a further illustration of Asphyx's lovably nerdy death-metal orthodoxy, a lyric excerpt from the title track to Death…the Brutal Way, which actually narrates the band's 2007 comeback gig at Germany's Party San festival. (Note that "Vermin" and "The Rack" are Asphyx song titles.)

Krushing at the Party San, hear the hordes rejoice
Filth to feed the Vermin, 'n beer to oil the voice
We'll beat your eardrums useless, and tie you on the Rack
Bones and nerves are grind to pulp, we are fucken back
Again we set the standards, get the message clear
Leave the fucken stage bitch, no room for you here
Mercy won't be given, as we enter our domain
Endlessly you'll suffer, on the altar of pain

Merchants of brutality, death our only rule
The doctrine of true metal, gods of the old school
Die by fucken Asphyx, ultra loud we slay
Skinned alive you humbly beg for death the brutal way!

Other recent raves:

Marc Ribot Trio
I adored the Marc Ribot Trio set I saw at the Village Vanguard last Friday. Thank you to Nate Chinen (and to G.G., who dropped me a breathless 2am e-mail the next night) for encouraging me to attend.

Rush's Clockwork Angels
The new Rush album is outstanding. I will always be a Rush completist, but I've been mixed on their most recent studio output; I love 2002's Vapor Trails but I find 2007's Snakes & Arrows a little ponderous. This new one, though, is a straight killer: brisk, muscular, extremely varied and catchy across the board. It might be my favorite since 1993's Counterparts, which I consider to be the gold standard for their late-period sound. The title track is a standout, combining the Police-style pop-reggae lilt of their '80s work with the ass-kicking power-trio-ism they've excelled at since the late '70s:

Nick Sakes
This man needs no introduction 'round this parts. (If I'm wrong about that, go here.) Just this week, I discovered a guest-DJ segment that Nick did for WFMU back in March, via the Diane's Kamikaze Fun Machine program. Go here to check out an extended on-air interview and various musical picks from one of my favorite living musicians. (The Sakes portion of the program begins a little over an hour into the stream; WFMU's pop-up player allows you to navigate there easily.)

News: Ween and Frank Ocean
Ween breaks up! Frank Ocean is gay! I've been a little dismayed lately by the sensational treatment of stories like these, especially since said instances concern artists that mean a lot to me.

In the case of Ween, I think it's best to exercise a little patience before we nail the coffin lid shut. The facts are simple: 1) Gene and Dean have been pursuing separate lives/careers for a while now—you know of Mickey's Guide Service, yes?—and Ween has really been more of a sporadic touring project over the last few years. 2) Gene has recently sobered up, not for the first time. He's got a cool new solo record out, and he probably just wants to put a little space between "Aaron Freeman" and the drug-fueled caricature that the Gene Ween persona has become in the minds of a lot of fans. 3) Both men have families, and Ween live shows are presumably their main respective sources of income. It makes a lot of sense to me that the project would be taking a little breather right this second (and even that the hiatus might hold for a few years), but the idea that Ween will never perform/record again seems a bit far-fetched to me. It sort of bugs me how people fall all over themselves to write these grandiose epitaphs in such circumstances. Aaron Freeman is a troubled guy who's obviously developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the band that made him famous, but that has also been his personal undoing in many ways. So he has no plans to record or tour with Ween for the time being—so what? Let's give the man some space to come to terms with his demons. If in, say, five years, Freeman's solo career is thriving, Mickey is still out on his fishing boat full-time and there's been no further word about Ween qua Ween, then yeah, maybe we'll have a clear answer. Right now, at least as far as I—a serious Ween enthusiast and devoted fan—am concerned, this "break-up" is still a temporary hiatus.

In the case of Frank Ocean—who made my favorite album of 2011 and whose new one, Channel Orange, I can't wait to hear—why reduce such a beautiful and elliptical personal statement as this to a mere black & white revelation of sexual preference? The more important revelation is the continued intensity of this dude's self-inventory, and the fascinating methods through which he's seen fit to share that process with his ever-growing audience. I'm proud to be a Frank fan.