Wednesday, May 29, 2013
*NYC Metal package at Time Out New York. This one's been gestating a long time; I'm really happy with how it turned out. Don't miss the portrait gallery—featuring exclusive shots of Immolation, Ross the Boss, Colin Marston, the dudes of Saint Vitus and many more—and the equally wide-ranging Spotify playlist.
*Black Host review at Pitchfork. This is a fascinating record and a very worthy follow-up to Gerald Cleaver's prior bandleading date, Be It As I See It, discussed in brief here. As a point of comparison, here are some thoughts on a Black Host live gig I caught in December of 2011.
*The 100 Greatest Drummers of Alternative Music at Spin. This one's close to my heart. I came of age, both as a listener and as a drummer, during the ’90s "alternative" era; I learned to play drums, and appreciate them, from people like John Stanier, one of 16 artists I blurbed for this list. (Others I wrote about include Greg Saunier, Brian Chippendale, Blake Fleming, Drumbo, Tomas Haake, Bill Ward, Han Bennink, etc.) I was part of the nomination process, but I didn't have final say re: who was included—three names you'd see on there if the latter had been the case: Tony Williams, Bill Bruford, Mac McNeilly. Still, I can always get behind a good rethink of a given canon. Among the drummers I didn't blurb, the ones that mean the most to me here are: Dale Crover (likely my personal No. 1 among this field; balletic brontosaurus), Chuck Biscuits (the punisher; Black Flag, sure, but my God, his Danzig work…), Britt Walford (a beautifully weighty and creative player whose talents are too often overlooked), Lombardo (beast), Che (mythical creature), Copeland (ultimate style-ist), Canty (post-hardcore poet), Stevenson (prog-punk champion).
*Giorgio Moroder interview at Red Bull. I had a pleasure speaking with this wise and charming man. Didn't know his work so well going in; relished the chance to study up. For the uninitiated, I highly recommend this comprehensive Moroder mixtape.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
When I ran into Fred Pessaro (Invisible Oranges / Brooklyn Vegan) at Maryland Deathfest on Saturday afternoon and asked him how he was doing, he flashed a weary grin and said, "Grinding." I knew what he meant, having covered the festival last year. When you're on assignment at an event like this (four days, ten or so hours apiece), you enter a strange state—half concentration, half exhaustion. You know that if you slow down, you'll more or less collapse, but since you're on the job slowing down isn't an option, anyway. You become the fest and the fest becomes you.
Don't get me wrong; I had a blast at MDF last year. I tried to line up some "official" coverage for this year's fest, but it didn't pan out. I considered cancelling my trip altogether, but when my friend Tom (a knowledgeable and open-minded listener, though not particularly a metal fan) offered to come along, I changed my mind. I attended MDF XI as a "civilian."
That meant that I didn't have to sweat completism. I would've loved to have been in Baltimore Thursday night for Bolt Thrower, Cobalt and Deiphago, among others, but it didn't work out schedule-wise. Similarly, it would've been cool to stick around for the Sunday offerings such as Pentagram, Venom, Manilla Road, etc., but I chose to give my body/ears a break and head back to NYC today. (If you're looking for exhaustive coverage, by the way, make sure to check in with Fred at IO.)
I'm typically not very good at cutting losses when it comes to decisions like this. I get pretty spoiled-brat-ish about show/festival attendance; as much as the aforementioned grind can be grueling, the all-in approach appeals to me. I hate feeling like I've missed something. But I've got a great summer of shows ahead (can't wait for Cannibal Corpse + Napalm Death + Immolation on June 5, and for Milford Graves night at The Vision Festival a week later), so I'm at peace with my two-day MDF 2013 jaunt.
In the end, my experience of the fest boiled down to six sets—three per day on Friday and Saturday. I saw plenty more than that, but as any devoted festivalgoer knows, when you're at an event like this, there are sets you watch and there are sets you live. For me, these were the latter.
In many ways, Convulse was a quintessential presence at MDF. There about five different subcamps of fest attendees, those who show up looking for their doom, black-metal, "trad" metal, grindcore or death-metal fixes. I'm not saying these interests don't overlap; plenty of fans are just looking to soak it all up. But I'd venture to say that most come into the fest with a bias. For me, that bias is death metal, specifically, the death metal of my youth. My experience of the festival is sort of like watching one of the Relapse Records compilations that my teenage self used to pore over (1993's Corporate Death, e.g.) come to life.
Convulse, a Finnish band, appeared on that very comp, though I don't remember paying much attention to them at the time. As many bands do, they played what I think of as a "communion" set at MDF XI. Some bands come to the fest to launch a proper comeback; some never went away; and some are just starting out. Then there's a whole other class of bands: acts who turn up in Baltimore for a kind of ceremonial reason. Typically, these are bands that broke up long ago, after putting out one or two minor classics, cult-favorite releases valued by subgenre die-hards but rarely cited outside those circles. In most cases, these bands have never had a chance to greet their respective cults; what acclaim there is has been posthumous. They show up at MDF, then—usually in makeshift lineups featuring only one or two vintage-period members—in a kind of high-five capacity. (Convulse's fellow Finns Demigod did much the same at MDF X and were equally awesome.) "Thank you for not forgetting us," these sets say. "The music we made then still means something to us, and we're thrilled that you feel the same."
Convulse doesn't fit this bill exactly. They are, in fact, staging a comeback, with a new EP already out and an LP promised for this year. But that's not what their MDF set was about. There may have been new material sprinkled in; I'm not familiar enough with their catalog to know for sure. The focus, though, was on World Without God, originally released in 1991 and reissued by Relapse in 2010. It's telling that even though Convulse put out another record back in the day—1994's Reflections, a strange and compelling hybrid of death metal and groovy rock—the band's merch offerings consisted entirely of WWG shirts, and copies of the album on CD and vinyl. (Since I do most of my death-metal listening on either my iPod or my work computer, I held out for the iTunes option.)
The material on WWG is, in the grand scheme of things, fairly run-of-the-mill. This is genre music, i.e., the kind of death metal that only a death-metal die-hard needs to hear. (I'm sure the same could be said of, say, any number of generic yet great '50s hardbop sessions.) Its ingredients are simple: an overall feeling of doomy menace; simple, lumbering riffs; midtempo hardcore beats; the occasional low-velocity blastbeat or 6/8 thrash breakdown; standard-issue Cookie Monster vocals. No curveballs; no fuss. The entire value of this music lies in what you bring to it.
I happen to love this style, and thus I adored Convulse's set. It was a "by the tribe, for the tribe" affair. Even if they didn't know the particular songs, the audience knew every move by heart—blast, break, lumber, repeat—and reveled in the frill-less-ness. The band was tight; fists were raised and horns were thrown, love hurtling back and forth between audience and band. Everyone was there for the same purpose: to exalt this 20-year-old formula that we still can't get enough of.
The band played at 5pm on one of the two outdoor stages. The sun was shining; my Maryland Deathfest experience was just beginning. Convulse was playing beautifully streamlined, classically styled death metal. It hit me like great rock 'n roll.
Much of what I wrote above also applies to Benediction—the broad concepts, if not the details. Unlike Convulse, Benediction, another classic-period death-metal group, never disbanded. Since their 1990 debut, they've put out a respectable five full-lengths. But their profile in the States is pretty low. I'm not sure exactly how many times they've toured here since the early/mid ’90s, if at all, but I don't think it's been many. Like Convulse's MDF appearance, this felt like a one-off communion gig.
It was a gloriously fun show. So much personality. Benediction is from Birmingham, England—"Where heavy metal was fawkin' invented," noted vocalist Dave Hunt (you might know him as V.I.T.R.I.O.L. from Anaal Nathrakh) early in the set, displaying a little hometown Black Sabbath pride, as he well should—and their brand of death metal is uniquely U.K.-ish in the sense that, say, the Exploited are U.K.-ish. It's raw, strident, beery and willfully obnoxious. The fact that guitarists Darren Brookes and Peter Rew, and bassist Frank Healy all look like they'd been around the block a couple thousand times apiece doesn't hurt the image. As Hunt put it, "Benediction is the most punk band ever to be a death-metal band."
As far as I know, Benediction played a career-spanning set, but you wouldn't have known it—the material was all of a piece. The formula was as stripped down as Convulse's, but the energy was different—more tough, gruff, hard-nosed; less doom and atmosphere and more rock. Hard-charging and anti-flash, with a lot of pit-fueling midtempo chugging. Hunt, an all-around great frontman with an awesome gurgly, spit-flecked roar, had an old-school showman's way of introducing Brookes, Rew and Healy (all original members, as I understand it) each time they'd play a little unaccompanied passage, and it was enormously charming. I loved seeing these grizzled death-metal lifers getting their proper due. Can't wait to dig into the Benediction catalog.
Whatever I'm describing above, Carcass is in many ways the opposite of it. For more than 20 years, they've embodied a certain strain of progressiveness in death metal. And I don't mean the delirious techiness of, say, Gorguts or Necrophagist. Carcass's achievement was something different: They streamlined death metal, whittled its edges to sharp, gleaming points, while at the same time aerating it, letting in all kinds of nourishing "outside" influences from the greater world of rock. As any fan could tell you, their 1993 album Heartwork is a masterpiece of outward-looking death metal. It keeps one foot in the genre, but it makes no secret of the fact that it values brisk, economical, wickedly catchy songwriting more than maintaining an allegiance to certain style.
So when Carcass took the MDF stage on Friday, against a backdrop of fancy video screens, it was clear that true rock stars had arrived. I was wondering how the death-metal die-hards at MDF would embrace the flash and polish of the Heartwork material, but I quickly realized that my skepticism was silly. One great thing about MDF is how all-embracing most of the fans are. I mentioned subgenre-loyal factions above, and that's a very real phenomenon, but in the end, the attendees are lovers of metal, full stop, who embrace a doom 'n roll supergroup Down (Saturday's headliner) just as warmly as a determinedly underground old-school death-metal act, a mournful doom-death crew or a fiendish black-metal band.
People went apeshit for Carcass and rightly so. I'm most familiar with Heartwork and its predecessor, 1991's Necroticism--Descanting the Insalubrious, and the band played plenty of material from those LPs. I'm pretty sure the balance of the set focused on their two prior records, which I'm looking forward to spending more time with. So this was an all-classics affair, and everyone seemed to know every word. The performance was, to my ears, very nearly flawless. The band plays with incredible flair. The current Carcass lineup, which has a new album due out later this year, consists of cofounders Jeff Walker (bass, vocals) and Bill Steer (guitar), along with two new recruits. I was a little bummed when I heard that Michael Amott (whose melodic shred was a key component of both Necroticism and Heartwork) wasn't involved in the current Carcass reunion, but once the set started, that became a complete non-factor. Guitarist Ben Ash and drummer Daniel Wilding fit perfectly into the mix.
On Twitter, I described Carcass post-set as extreme metal's Thin Lizzy, a comparison I stand by. They're a death-metal band with the flair (I keep coming back to that word) and polish of that almighty Irish rock force, my gold standard when it comes to the elusive rock 'n roll quality I think of as "tastiness." Sure, there are the surface similarities—the soaring dual-guitar ballet, the charismatic frontman doubling on bass—but there's also a spiritual one. Thin Lizzy were so good that they rock while almost seeming to relax. Carcass is the same way. The chops are simply a fact of what they do. There's no struggle, only a kind of gleaming fierceness. Maybe the best word for their presentation is pro. In the wake of the performance I witnessed, I could not be more psyched for the upcoming Carcass full-length, Surgical Steel. The current incarnation of this band is laying waste without breaking a sweat.
Broken Hope (Saturday)
And still another face of death, as it were. Chicago's Broken Hope were a band I'd had a vague awareness of in the '90s, but I'd always thought of them as a second-rate Cannibal Corpse or somesuch—gore-fixated, brutal, basic. I was intrigued to hear about their reunion last year; it seemed like a well-plotted reboot rather than a nostalgia trip. (The 2010 suicide of former vocalist Joe Ptacek adds a sad, poignant wrinkle to the narrative.) I approached their set yesterday with mild interest; I figured I'd check out a few songs and wander off if they didn't grab me, which, in the end, is a pretty typical MDF experience.
From the first few seconds, this band sucked me in like a tractor beam. With all due respect to Suffocation, who played an absolutely ripping set at Saint Vitus back in April and who have released my favorite metal album of 2013 so far, this Broken Hope set might have been the single tightest, most powerful, most no-nonsense set of death metal I've ever seen. This band is a coiled spring. Unlike Convulse, whose vibe was friendly and almost casual, Broken Hope were in full-on attack mode. Vocalist Damian Leski is a beast of a human, a hulking yet agile man whose sole purpose in life seems to be to do what he did yesterday evening: growl himself redfaced over mercilessly gnarled and punishing blastbeats and slams.
And my God, were those blastbeats and slams tasty. This band is a hyper-efficient riff factory, churning out part after part after glorious part. The music was like lifeblood for the mosh pit. People were going absolutely crazy during this set, myself included. The pit became a single heaving organism. I remember one dude kept sort of stumbling around in this cartoonish "death-metal zombie" trance, and I knew exactly what he was feeling. This brand of death metal sums up what is meant by infectious. The way this music was gripping people, affecting them, seeming to alter their metabolism, literally enthralling them, seemed to me very analogous to how great dance music functions. I think of that silly scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon speaks of the music "just owning you." That is what was going on here.
No other time during my two days at MDF XI, or at last year's fest, or at any other death-metal show I've been to, have I seen band and crowd so symbiotically amped during a show. Sure, the energy was feral, with a whiff of beatdown-ism. (Leski comes from the punishing school of death-metal frontmen, those for whom the goal is to make the crowd—or, more specifically, "You sick motherfuckers!"—feel thoroughly brutalized. George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher from Cannibal Corpse puts a sort of cuddly spin on that formula; Leski, on the other hand, was a downright scary presence.) But the sense of release was weirdly wholesome. Overall, the set was what great metal is supposed to be, a seething purge.
And in focusing on the energy/vibe aspects of the set, I don't mean to take anything away from the craft of the music. What I loved about Broken Hope is that they rode that fine line of technicality and brutality so skillfully. Riffs shuffled constantly and took all kinds of unexpected twists, but the parts always cycled enough times that you could internalize their contours and precision-headbang to your heart's content. The force of the playing was dizzying. Serious kudos are due to drummer Mike Miczek, who slammed with more force and control than any other blastbeat-oriented player I heard a MDF XI.
This band is an absolute machine. If you have the slightest affinity for the so-called brutal school of death metal, the kind that thrives on the juxtaposition of swirling technicality and pit-fueling slam riffs, you need to see the current incarnation of Broken Hope. (They're coming out with a new album soon, so expect touring to follow.) I can barely describe the feeling of joy they left me with. I was glowing.
I was ready for a break after Broken Hope. I just wanted to sit down and process and let the brutalized-but-ecstatic feeling linger. But it was not to be. Melvins had struck me as sort of an odd band out at Deathfest. They've never fit into "metal," per se; their aesthetic has always been too bizarre, too expansive. At their best, they can lay waste to any sort of rock-oriented subgenre-ism. (In particular, they make the endless factionalism of extreme metal—"We play death/doom," "We play blackened death," "We play stoner sludge"—which was definitely on display at Deathfest, seem a little absurd; there's nothing wrong with specializing in a style, but it's good to be reminded that not all heavy music exists in some tiny little box.) And that is what happened last night. The band, operating in its double-drummer quartet lineup, put on a clinic in the art of omni-dimensional rock— crushing harder just about every other band I saw over the weekend, but doing so with such staunchly eccentric style.
You cannot put the Melvins in a box, but they will happily show up at your box of choice (in this case, the death-metal realm), set up camp and lay waste. I'm sometimes guilty of taking the Melvins for granted; then I see them live and remember that they are very likely the greatest rock band (and I mean that in the broadest sense, from "rock 'n roll" all the way up to extreme metal) of our time. The force of the current lineup is absolutely withering. They started slow and agonizing with "Hag Me," and from there, it was on: Classic after classic. "Hooch," "Night Goat," Revolve," "With Teeth," "Honey Bucket," "Anaconda." The drive of these songs, their groove, their engine, their melody, their full-spectrum rock-ness. It is all embodied in the particular qualities of Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover, each of whom is the best in the world at what he does. Is there any frontman on earth with Buzz's range, his force and drama and sheer personality? Is there any drummer who can match Dale's hulking precision, his combination of brontosaurus weight and ingenious design? The authority of this set was totally mesmerizing. Having seen Melvins play five or so times since 2006, I can say that they're only getting fiercer as an onstage unit. If you care even slightly about any kind of "hard" rock music, you must, must see them as soon as you can, and then again at every opportunity after that.
I was thinking about sticking around to see the Sunday offerings at MDF, but this set swayed me the other way. I knew that nothing was going to top it, in terms of sheer intensity. In that sense, I got exactly what I was hoping for from Revenge.
I've been into this band for a few years now. I had a serious "What in God's name...?" epiphany when I stumbled on 2004's Victory.Intolerance.Mastery in a extreme-metal-loving co-worker's iTunes folder a couple years back. I had never heard such world-swallowing filth in my life—a tornado of vomitous negativity, just, like, pure barf music, with vocals that alternated between a typical hellish shriek and what sounded like the grunting of a human-pig hybrid. And my God, the drumming of James "J." Read... I had never heard anything so simultaneously raw and commanding, so rickety yet controlled. Neck-snapping blasts, Neanderthal midtempo grooves and these tumbling, hold-on-for-your life rolls, all executed on a set that sounded like it had been fished out of the garbage—dead toms, clangy cymbals. I felt like I had found some sort of ideal that I never knew I was looking for. It was the polar opposite of sanitized extreme metal drumming. It was, I felt, one of the most purely punk drum-set performance I'd ever heard.
I sought out Read's work in various other contexts and was never disappointed. Axis of Advance—as filthy-sounding as Revenge, but with a sort of dystopic sci-fi conceptual bent—hit me just as hard, and after some initial puzzlement, I grew to love Blood Revolt (his collaboration with Primordial's A.A. Nemtheanga) too. I still need to get familiar with his earlier band, Conqueror, and the first couple Revenge records, but you get the point: Read is one of my favorite instrumentalists on the planet.
I was almost scared to see Revenge live. Scared, on one hand, by how violent I knew the crowd was going to be, and scared too that their set might not live up to the gross majesty of the recordings. I needn't have worried on the latter count. Live, the band gives off an identical sensation to that of their recordings: ungodly, pedal-to-metal recklessness; pure bestial chaos; pick your metaphor. It was mayhem.
I wish I could've watched Read from behind the drum kit—I could only see his hair and his scowling, wide-eyed face for most of the set—so I could check out exactly how he executes those patented rapid-fire rolls of his. I did get to marvel at his blastbeat technique. Blastbeats are a tough racket: typically, you either see a puny technique, or one that's so strong and virtuosic that it seems machinelike. Read's method is his own. He's absolutely smashing the kit, and he's in total command, but he still maintains a certain roughness. I'm really at a loss to describe how he does what he does behind the drums. It's like he's found a way to perfect and harness a sound/style (a sense of chaos, really) that typically results from a drummer playing just at the edge of his/her ability. He's not struggling, but he maintains the feeling of struggle, harnesses it.
You don't remember Revenge songs, as a rule, either on record or live. What you do remember are parts. Dirgey intros, headlong blasts with trilly, demented solos from Chris "Vermin" Ross, also of Axis of Advance and Blood Revolt, skull-rattling midtempo rockouts. Ross and bassist Tim "Haasiophis" Grieco are integral to the music, but it's really Read's show. As Profound Lore's Chris Bruni put it in a Tweet, his performance is a display of "pure hatred." I'm not sure there is a more possessed musician in extreme metal. Judging by interviews I've read—see here and here—Read seems like a reticent, difficult guy. He's clearly a man following his own muse, and judging by some allusions to skinhead culture in those Q&As, possibly some sort of ethically questionable ideology. I've heard rumors, but I don't want to throw any specific terms out there unsubstantiated. Does anyone happen to know exactly what's up with Read's politics? Would be curious to know if he's ever made an overt statement.
Anyway, I've gotten off track here. The chaos pouring off the stage definitely seeped into the crowd. The audience vibe during this set definitely didn't feel like the relatively run-of-the-mill catharsis that went down during, say, Broken Hope's set. I was up in front of the pit, and I'd look back behind me and see some dude just catapult forward as though he'd been hurled; one guy was inexplicably swinging a garbage bag; people seemed to regress into this feral state. But then at the same time, I'd see people just beaming in a sort of blissful disbelief. That's sort of the state I found myself in, like, "How can this be so fantastically intense, so full-on"? It was fascinating to watch Revenge after the Melvins, to see two bands so good at two completely different things. Revenge is a special band. I'm not going to lie and say I pull out their records all that much, but there's a certain kind of cleansing power that I associate with them—analogous to taking a really stiff shot or inhaling menthol. It really is the furthest I've ever heard metal go in terms of a certain kind of animal lawlessness. It's not just they're the fastest or the noisiest or the most bewildering. It's that they're the most… heathenish, maybe? It's a sound that radiates pure disgust, and they completely own it, both on record and, I'm happy to report, onstage.
A few additional thoughts:
Repulsion (Friday): I respect this band's place in the history of death/grind, but I've never really been able to get with the undifferentiated rawness. I liked the good-natured bent of their MDF set, though. Scott Carlson and Matt Olivo are funny guys, and their M.O. is just to crank it up and rip. Their devotion to pure primitiveness makes more sense when it's couple with their everydude stage presence.
Down (Saturday): I still think this supergroup adds up to less than the sum of its parts, i.e., I'm a much bigger fan of all these guys' past and present work outside of Down—Pantera, Eyehategod, Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity—than I am of this band. But I respect the M.O. of the project: a bunch of veteran metal gods who happen to be tight bros getting together to worship the Sabbath and the sweet leaf. They were a nice comedown after the insanity of Revenge, and I'm always up for some nice, inspirational Phil Anselmo banter. I almost felt myself getting choked up when he started talking about how proud his late ex-bandmate Dimebag Darrell would've been to look out into the sea extreme-metal die-hards he saw before him.
Ihsahn (Saturday): I caught about 15 minutes of this set, rushing over shortly before Revenge finished. (The MDF schedule typically avoids blatant overlap between stages, but these sets went down at almost exactly the same time.) Ihsahn, frontman of legendary Norwegian black-metal band Emperor—not being a huge fan of the subgenre, I don't know their records all that well; they're on my list—now plays a kind of epic, super-polished prog-metal. It was a serious trip moving right from the feral insanity of Revenge to the dramatic, super-choreographed presentation of Ihsahn and his bandmates, who came off like some sort of Warped Tour boy band onstage. At that point in the night, I was completely overloaded from the consecutive Broken Hope–Melvins–Revenge assault and couldn't really take in any more fresh info. I'm not sure I'm fully on board with the slickness of the Ihsahn presentation (it reminds me a bit of fellow Norwegians Shining, who haven't quite clicked with me for similar reasons), but I'm intrigued by the material. Looking forward to learning more.
The Obsessed / Weedeater (Saturday): I have mixed feelings re: a certain brand of what I'll call "lifer" doom, a subscene that seems to revolve entirely around the concept of dues-paying, of hard-living men whose extremely basic music gets elevated to the realm of the poetic thanks mainly to the admittedly romantic notion that they've been around a long time, grinding it out in the trenches. I do in fact admire what Scott "Wino" Weinrich does in general. I particularly love the Hidden Hand record Mother Teacher Destroyer, as well as his recent solo "folk" record, Adrift. But I found what I heard of his MDF XI set with the Obsessed to be pretty stultifying, and I felt the same about the Saint Vitus set (also feat. Wino) that I caught last year at MDF X. I love a whole lot of super-basic, anti-evolutionary metal—Obituary being a primo example—but the Obsessed just seemed like a lifeless rehash of the post-Sabbath doom concept. To say that they merely paled in comparison to Melvins would, I think, be too generous. Maybe it's just a function of how much Sabbath means to me, but I think we need to hold the doom movement to a higher standard—the throwing together of a couple bluesy, generically "dark" riffs does not make for a great song, and the presence of grizzled elders, respectable as their devotion to their craft may be, does not necessarily confer true gravity onto a set of music. Sabbath is the highest sort of poetry, not just a set of stylistic moves repeated ad nauseum. Honoring that legacy is a tall order. (For me, one band making a serious go of it these days would be Pallbearer.)
I felt much the same about Weedeater. I'm a huge fan of Eyehategod, but I'm conflicted re: this whole Southern-sludge mythos that celebrates the self-abuse of figures like Mike IX Williams (EHG) and "Dixie" Dave Collins (of Weedeater, Buzzov*en), as though that somehow makes their music truer. The bottom line is that Eyehategod is a great band because they've devoted years to the perfection of their sludge-punk craft. They play together as well as any other heavy-rock band in the world. With Weedeater, on the other hand, I got the sense that the entire point of the band is to fuel and glorify Collins's substance-abuse habit. He made a point of showily chugging whiskey between every song, and the band's merch table had a hand-lettered sign posted that said something to the effect of "We need drugs, weed, pills—please." Is that not just a tad pathetic, maybe? I get the perverse appeal of that sort of attitude, but for me, the music just didn't hold up. Abuse drugs if you like, sure, but don't use that as a stand-in for making great art happen. Weedeater's brand of sludge is crustier and edgier than that of the Obsessed, and while I saw the appeal in Collins's deranged-hobo stage presence, the riffs and the feel just weren't drawing me in.
I'll just say in conclusion that MDF is a really special festival. I'll treasure memories of all six of the sets covered in detail above. There's something magical about joining up with one's tribe, as it were. I realize that I don't fit the description of the typical metalhead in a lot of ways, but I still feel the same primal, blood-deep connection to this music that I did when I was 14. I relish those moments when the music takes over and I just have to rush the stage, headbang, dance, throw some energy back in return, surrounded by a pack of die-hards, responding to the exact same deep-seated impulses. I can only imagine how great it must feel for the practitioners, for a band like Broken Hope who's been waiting a good 20 years to greet its public, to come face-to-face with a mirror, an audience who lives and breathes for this music in much the same way they do. Genres can be limiting factors, but they can also be tent posts to really around. We don't know why we respond on a molecular level when we hear those low, growling tones, those zombified riffs of bands like Convulse, but they call to us; we regress into some deep trance. A dark zone, in a sense, a celebration of animal ferocity, but also, it must be said, a place of bliss, of release, where you can revel in the volume and the force, witness a creative act that seems to give voice to every aggressive feeling you've had to suppress, sublimating those emotions into an entirely non-violent, life-affirming vent.
As I indicated in my recent Immolation review, the craft of death metal is a craft of love, purely its own reward. Maybe it's easier to feel that in the presence of, say, Convulse or Broken Hope or Benediction—bands who took pains to thank the crowd profusely at every opportunity—than standing before a hate-spewing band like Revenge. But it's all one phenomenon. Let's not pretend this is a game of misery, people; metal is fun.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The New York Art Quartet isn't a household name. Even among my fellow free-jazz enthusiasts, they're still something of a cult-favorite group. That seems a little odd, because the three principal members, saxophonist John Tchicai (R.I.P.), trombonist Roswell Rudd and drummer Milford Graves, have all made major marks in the roughly 48 years since the NYAQ first disbanded. But the fact remains: In the shorthand history of free jazz, you're talking about Ornette, Trane, Cecil, Ayler, Sun Ra, etc.
I've always thought this was a bit of a shame. I've loved the NYAQ's self-titled ESP debut for a long time; to me it's a core-collection free-jazz document. I haven't spent as much time with the follow-up, Mohawk, but it's sounded great when I've sampled it, and the 35th Reunion album is also surprisingly sturdy.
There have been stirrings in the NYAQ camp over the past couple years. First came the Cuneiform release Old Stuff, an archival set that features Tchicai and Rudd with a different rhythm section (including the great Louis Moholo), and then, more recently, the mothership landed: call it art, a new five-LP box set from Triple Point Records.
Some readers of this blog are likely familiar with Ben Young. I will say up front that he is a friend of mine and also a mentor, dating back to my early college days at WKCR. I will follow that by saying that he is absolutely exemplary scholar and advocate of jazz in general—and of free jazz specifically. You might recall the Albert Ayler box he put together for Revenant, or Dixonia, which set a benchmark for Bill Dixon research. Having only cracked open call it art, his latest project, last night, I feel comfortable saying that it's a new pinnacle in the Ben Young oeuvre, and a cause for celebration for anyone who's ever felt that the NYAQ deserves a lot more recognition than they've gotten.
What we have in this set is a trove of unreleased NYAQ recordings. Some are outtakes from the studio sessions we already know, but others are live tapes, either in a concert or radio setting. I'm only on the second LP so far, but the music is divine (and, for the record, the sound quality is excellent, rivaling that of The New York Art Quartet and Mohawk); I already feel my passion for this group reigniting in a serious way.
Speaking of passion for the NYAQ, the book that comes with the set—and though not book-length, per se, it is a book, meaty and hardbound—is a phenomenal work. I mentioned the term "advocate" above, and what we have in these liner notes is a passionately argued advocacy of the NYAQ's central (i.e., rightful) position in the development of free jazz. It is a setting straight of the record, in a sense, but more importantly, this essay is a tying-together of many different threads, an exegesis of the entire scene surrounding this group. As anyone who knows Tchicai, Rudd and Graves's histories could tell you, the NYAQ did not come together in a vacuum; it grew directly out of, e.g., Rudd's so-called School Days collaboration with Steve Lacy (the famed Monk repertory band); the New York Contemporary Five, which included Tchicai along with Archie Shepp and Don Cherry; and the Bill Dixon–Archie Shepp Quartet, which ended up roping in both Tchicai and Rudd. Young's essay takes us through the entire musical history of each NYAQ member, touching not just on the aforementioned groups but also on activities that will be news to all but the most die-hard enthusiasts of these great men. For example, I knew that Milford Graves came up playing Latin jazz, but I had no idea that he led his own group (the Milford Graves Latin Jazz Quintet) in the early ’60s which (A) included a young Chick Corea and (B) appeared at Town Hall in support of Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann. In this booklet, you'll see not only a photograph of the band, but an advertisement for the concert. The research is that deep.
It isn't just facts that we get. We get a case, as it were, an argument about what exactly it was that made the NYAQ special, revolutionary even. I love this observation: "We would want Ornette Coleman's music of the Eisenhower administration to be Free Jazz's big bang, but finally his new style was still wearing a suit that belonged to an older Jazz pattern." Nothing against Ornette, whatsoever, but this is absolutely true. When you're talking about the freedom of jazz, you're talking about the rhythmic explosion—not necessarily some incendiary meltdown, but the literal freeing up of the time, which was a post-Ornette occurrence. The Cecil Taylor–Jimmy Lyons–Sunny Murray group, captured live in those brilliant 1962 recordings, is a major next step, and as Young points out, so is the Ayler–Gary Peacock–Murray band heard on 1964's Spiritual Unity. But the NYAQ was onto something different, something subtler. This is how Young puts it:
"The NYAQ's perfection of the New Thing impulse depended on omitting Ayler's thrust. Where Ayler played strong lines to lead his band, the NYAQ floated translucent phrases into a bubbling pool that diffused attention."
What Young seems to be getting at here is that there's more than one free-jazz paradigm. We've come to know and love the so-called "energy music" designation, but we've also learned that it's been a double-edged sword in the long term, this notion of free-jazz as some sort of quasi-religious expressionism, some heroic shout to the heavens that inevitably takes at least an hour to exhaust itself. I'm not taking aim at Ayler or Trane here. I'm just taking issue with the idea that free jazz has to be very obviously cathartic to be great.
Enter the NYAQ. I'm not sure I can do better than the "bubbling pool" designation above. Their music has this sort of unsettled but also sublimely unhurried quality. It wiggles; it tests the water; it pauses; it digresses. There truly is no leader. There is a ton of space. The music can be fast or slow. The constant, though, is a sense of deep listening, of non-autopilot improvisation, of working together in a very real kind of freedom, a freedom which, crucially, encompasses the freedom not to conform to a clichéd Free Jazz orthodoxy, which, even back then, was already crystallizing. You hear musicians conversing in this music, searching, exploring what their instruments can do, and how their aesthetic personalities can interact: Graves's fragmented yet remarkably supple flow; Rudd and Tchicai's vocal-like unspoolings, thoughtful and spare. There's an amazing sense of patience and delicacy to this music that is not the same as tentativeness. It's simply a taking of time, even when the music is, so to speak, cooking. (And thanks to Graves, it does very often dance in its own abstractly buoyant way.) I know what Young means when he speaks of the NYAQ "omitting Ayler's thrust." It's thanks to this omission that this music has aged beautifully. Hearing it now, you don't hear any of that ’60s-ness that's so often spoken of, in many cases rightfully so, when, say, Ayler or late Coltrane comes up, the sense of free jazz as the soundtrack to widespread social unrest. The NYAQ weren't screaming; they were probing.
The music I have on right now is from record 1 of the set. It's a recording of Rudd's "Rosmosis," made live on 12.31.64 at Judson Hall on W. 57th St. during the Four Days in December concert series. Any student of free jazz has likely heard of this series, presented by the Jazz Composers' Guild. (The NYAQ played on the last of the four bills, along with Sun Ra; 12/28 featured bands led by Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon; 12/29 paired Paul Bley with the Jazz Composers' Guild Orchestra, led by Carla Bley and Mike Mantler; and 12/30 included the Archie Shepp Quartet and The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble.) But did any of us have any idea that this material had been recorded? It's amazing what a work of scholarship like call it art does; it brings this history—which previously seemed shadowy, mythic, unattainable—right to your door. And it isn't just the sounds; we also get reproductions of Rudd and Tchicai's scores, letters sent between the members of the group, period advertisements, stunning photographs.
I could say more about this set, but as I've indicated, I'm still very much in the process of digesting it. It was important to me to record my initial awe, though. Given the price, call it art is obviously a connoisseur's piece, but if you are one of those connoisseurs, someone for whom either the NYAQ or the early history of free jazz matters, I feel absolutely assured in informing you that you need to get your hands on this set. Ben Young's Albert Ayler box delved deeper into the life and work of a widely recognized genius; call it art, on the other hand, reclaims from relative obscurity a music that was every bit as game-changing, and—now, almost 50 years on from its making—still has the power to arrest, to induce wonder, to make you marvel at its wit, its dexterity, its inquisitiveness, its sense of play and wonder, its living optimism. This is a vindication.
*Learn more about call it art and Triple Point Records here.
*Rudd and Graves will perform together, along with frequent NYAQ affiliate Amiri Baraka (featured prominently on call it art), at The Vision Festival on June 12, 2013.
Friday, May 03, 2013
Via the Red Bull Music Academy website, here's a new essay on the jazz/metal intersection—a lab report drawn from my ongoing Heavy Metal Be-Bop research. (A print version appeared in The Daily Note, a free paper that circulates in NYC for the duration of the RBMA's May tenure.) By way of an online bonus track, I interviewed Mick Barr, who's discussed extensively in the article. Thanks to Piotr Orlov, Sam Hockley-Smith and Todd Burns for their help in bringing these pieces to life.
UPDATE: The extended cut of the Barr interview is now live at heavymetalbebop.com.