Friday, December 18, 2015

2015 in review

This year, I often felt like I was sneaking new music in. I started a new job, put out a record and saw a two-decade obsession finally bear fruit. Honestly, there wasn't all that much room for anything else. But as I look back through the year's releases, I see quite a few that made an impression.

Genre pretty much went out the window, which is the way it ought to be. Last night, my wonderful girlfriend, Alex, and I spent some time sharing our current pop obsessions, which seem to be everyone's current pop obsessions. I love all the songs making the rounds: "Hotline Bling," "The Hills," "Here" (the latter is probably the single of the year for me). Bieber's "Sorry" is another in-the-air favorite that will not leave my brain. I did file jazz, metal and general-purpose year-end lists for various polls, but looking back, none of them feel definitive to me. That orderly, fenced-off approach doesn't reflect how music fits into my life. The other night, some friends and I sat around spinning vinyl ranging from the latest Sheer Mag 7" (my album of the year, even though it isn't an album) to the new Fleetwood Mac Tusk reissue, the stellar Laddio Bolocko box set and, just because, Bob Dylan's Infidels. It's all sitting by my turntable, along with a ton of other records that captivated me at one point or another recently: Sonny Rollins's The Bridge, the Eagles' One of These Nights, Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity, Pat Metheny's 80/81, Blue Öyster Cult's Tyranny and Mutation, Roky Erickson's The Evil One, Joni Mitchell's Hejira, the Stooges' Fun House, etc. (I'm proud to say that the craw set and STATS LP are there too.) Music.

It's all in play at all times. It has to be a free space. In that spirit, here are some of the records that I enjoyed this year, that happened to come out this year, in no particular order—10 of them will eventually make up my Pazz and Jop ballot. Links to Bandcamp only, because that's where online music really lives

Krallice Ygg Huur (self-released)
This record to me is pure astonishment. It's my favorite thing Krallice has ever done—and that's saying a lot because I love much of their prior work, especially the self-titled debut and 2011's Diotima—and one of my favorite things that either Mick Barr and Colin Marston have ever done, which is saying even more. (Close call with Annwn and Skullgrid, respectively.) The amount of musical information here is staggering, as is the confidence and majestic flair with which it is rendered. This is art music, plain and simple, the vanguard of contemporary composition, that happens to be transmitted in a format we might refer to in shorthand as metal.

Sheer Mag II (Wilsuns/Katorga)
Probably the release I really and truly felt the most of any that came out in 2015. It's a four-song EP, but as an aesthetic statement of purpose, it's as weighty as any album I heard this year. The soul, the smarts, the wounded swagger. This is just pure rough rock-and-soul attitude filtered through an at times dauntingly complex sophisto-pop aesthetic. And vocals to melt your heart and cut through whatever distraction might be unfairly monopolizing your spirit on a given day. This just kicks so, so, so much ass.

Henry Threadgill Zooid In for a Penny, in for a Pound (Pi)
Zooid just keep pushing. One of the most insular bands on earth, and one of the most fascinating to stand outside of and cast one's listening gaze upon. I heard this music at Roulette a year ago, and it seemed like a new high bar for the group. The album completely does the set justice. So much beautiful detail, either when the band is cooking in its trademark oblique-chamber-funk mode or stripping back for mini sonic dioramas of curious detail and staunch refinement. Oddities and wonders abound, and they're only amplified by heightened attention. When you put on a Zooid record, you listen, and you listen to the members of Zooid listening, each playing their part in Threadgill's imaginative wonderland.

Mayday Parade Black Lines (Fearless)
Not a new band, but a new one to me. Mainstays of the Warped Tour scene and exponents of an emo offshoot that's near and dear to my heart and probably best exemplified by Say Anything's 2004 masterwork, …Is a Real Boy. Hugely passionate and anthemic pop-oriented rock music with a belt-to-the-rafters theatrical bent and an undercurrent of showy self-laceration. This album is totally, knowingly over-the-top and, if you're as into this sound as I am, eminently replayable.

Milford Graves and Bill Laswell Space / Time • Redemption (TUM)
I saw these two play duets at the Stone last year, and the chemistry was lacking. They find a groove on this album simply by coexisting. This is basically an ambient release, elevated above the mundane by the primeval thump of one of the mightiest and most mysterious percussionists on earth, and Laswell's melodic and textural know-how, which can blur into wallpaper-ism but here seems subtle and right and soothing and benevolent. To me, this is a logical sequel to Sonny Sharrock's Guitar (one of my very favorite records of all time), and not just because a) there's a track named for Sonny here and b) Laswell produced Guitar. Mystical, swirling, churning tone baths. 

Jeff Lynne's ELO Alone in the Universe (Columbia)
I'm not an ELO completist, but I aspire to be one someday. Jeff Lynne's lifelong project, i.e., crafting Beatlesque pop music of limitless accessibility that doesn't apologize for its sly surreality and lyrical eccentricity, is a worthy one, and judging by this album, and by the outstanding live show I saw at Irving Plaza last month, he's still operating at a very high level. There are a handful of songs here ("When I Was a Boy," "One Step at a Time") that feel like future greatest hits, which, given the depth the ELO greatest-hit pool, is really saying something.

Stanley Cowell Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive)
I spent a fair amount of time with this one but it didn't feel like anywhere near enough. I hear Juneteenth as a cousin of Dave Burrell's breathtaking 1979 solo-piano version of Windward Passages, one of those albums where a pianist translates the vast orchestral universe inside their head to the keys. This feels like a magnum opus for Cowell and an important reminder that this giant continues to do great, vital work. Further thoughts here.

Voice Coils Heaven's Sense (Shatter Your Leaves)
Another EP that delineates an entire sonic world. This, like the Krallice record, seems to me to be a state-of-the-art example of not exactly where music is at this moment, because nothing else really sounds like Heaven's Sense, but of a sort of speculative future of music, where pop could end up if diligence and wisdom and higher instincts prevailed. Demanding, yes, but so sensuous and pleasurable and coherent at the same time. There are hooks in "An Atrium" that have run through my head for days. If you consider yourself a fan of so-called progressive music of any kind, or of pop that aims at a kind of ethereal complexity and sweeping and refined emotional heft—I'll throw out Kate Bush and Yes as two inadequate touchstones—you must, must, must hear this. The descriptor "haunting" has been drained of most of its meaning, but it applies here.

Mary Halvorson Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
Another release with a kind of fierce beauty and interiority to it, but while the Voice Coils EP is all about high-wire ensemble dazzlement, this is stripped back and close to the bone. A simple description of what Meltframe is—meditation on and deconstruction of melody—feels way too clinical. This is an album that sings with emotion. A personal language on a common instrument, spoken plainly—sort of the rule for how all jazz ought to feel but rarely does. All the approaches to the gorgeous and carefully selected source material work equally well: harsh, subdued, dense/effects-heavy, sparse/unadorned or one melting gradually into the other.

Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse)
A debut album that sets forth a strikingly well-formed band concept. Shades of Killing Joke, Motörhead, recent Prong and, yes, mid-to-late-period Voivod (that band's Michel "Away" Langevin is Tau Cross's drummer). Gloom-painted postpunk–meets-thrash-meets–hard rock with outstanding hooks and tons of variety; surprisingly, the folky tracks work as well as the ragers. Rob "The Baron" Miller's impassioned delivery brings real grizzled pathos. Further thoughts here.

Black Star Riders The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
The group that began life as the Band Once Again Known as Thin Lizzy but Without Phil Lynott is now, thankfully, rolling up their sleeves and doing it the hard way: forging ahead and making new music. This album sounds like it could have been made anywhere from about 1983 through 1989, but no one for whom music like this—hook-forward, arena-scaled, cheese-oblivious hard rock—holds any appeal is going to care about its "relevance." This album completely, wholeheartedly rocks. The Riders pay homage to Lizzy, yes, but really they're just honoring the tough-guy songwriting tradition in general; there's just as much Bon Jovi in here, and that's fine by me. Fantastic songs—well, on the first half of the album, at least—and a frontman, Ricky Warwick, who's easy to believe and root for.

Title Fight Hyperview (ANTI-)
There's apparently some sort of subgenre-oriented skin-shedding going on with this record—hardcore-gone-shoegaze, I believe—but since I'm not familiar with Title Fight's past work, I'm taking this at face value. Hyperview is simply a lush and enveloping melodic indie-rock album, undergirded with post-hardcore muscle and glistening with a melancholy emotional mist. The color field of guitars and the raw-throated cries that burst out from beneath them lead to a kind of mood-drunkenness that's a pleasure to get lost in. It helps that the songs themselves are as strong as the atmosphere.

Jack DeJohnette Made in Chicago (ECM)
As I indicated here, the quintet heard on this album has evolved considerably since they recorded this album at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2013, but Made in Chicago still holds up as a supergroup effort that capitalizes on every bit of its enormous potential. The stars here, and I think Mr. DeJohnette would agree, are Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, and the presence of a master drummer-leader who also happens to be one of the best listeners in jazz only makes their contributions—both as composers and improvisers—sound that much sweeter (or nastier or more otherworldly, depending on the moment). Not just great artists sharing the stage, but the sound of a group aesthetic crystallizing, and the stage being set for future wonders.

Laddio Bolocko Live and Unreleased 1997–2000 (No Quarter)
Post-hardcore colliding with funk, free jazz, sound collage and psychedelia in a totally organic way. The prog impulse channeled into fiercely danceable body music, fueled by one of the greatest drummers of our time, Blake Fleming, who I first came to know through the illustrious and incredible Dazzling Killmen. I'd always felt that I hadn't quite gotten the complete picture regarding this band from its earlier No Quarter compilation, The Life and Times of…, and this release confirms it. A heady barrage of archival material, some quizzical and fragmented, some gorgeously dialed in and fleshed out. (I adore the groove-science "Afrostructure" series, which falls somewhere in between these two poles.) The final stretch of this sprawling set, with the studio version of the two-part cosmic-groove-prog opus "How About This For My Hair?" and a live set from Slovenia that's so intense it feels like it could leave scars (but is also wonderfully subdued and sensitive in spots), is the reason why archival releases like this are essential to the musical ecosystem: to bring to light bygone marvels you never knew existed.

Sonny Rollins Quartet With Don Cherry Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 (Solar)
Speaking of bygone marvels. We maybe had a clue with this one in the form of Our Man in Jazz, but did we really know the enormity of what went down until now? 

Blind Idiot God Before Ever After (Indivisible)
BIG share Laddio Bolocko's NYC-via–St. Louis trajectory, as well as their wide-open conception of what rock-based post-hardcore music can sound and feel like. Another Laswell production, and a balletic, rumbling behemoth of a comeback album. Everything about Before Ever After sounds to me like an improvement on the already-intriguing formula that BIG advanced on their late-’80s/early-’90s work. Can't wait to see where they go from here.

Revenge Behold.Total.Rejection (Season of Mist)
J. Read is like a gigantic mutant rat that leaps out of the darkness, chomps on your leg and refuses to unclench its jaws as you flail about in agony. The man is a driven psychopath behind the drums and one of metal's truest, most original underground voices. On days when I lose faith in the idea of metal, grow weary with its self-straitjacketing conventions, I can still reach for a Revenge album—and specifically this, which is easily the band's most compelling record to date—and feel something. Pure, seething soul and fire, and the deft commingling of chaos and precision. Just when you think this album is a total blastbeat blur, it snaps back into focus with a skull-rattling rawk breakdown or cave-prog precision attack. If you want to know my "metal album of the year," it's a tie between this and Ygg Huur—despite what my ballot says below; again, feelings change and evolve, which is why polls are just arbitrary snapshots in time—albums that represent two very different extremes of "extreme metal" that actually feel, you know, extreme. Further thoughts here.

The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
This album didn't top my 2015 jazz ballot, but if I were casting said vote right now instead of a few weeks back, it probably would. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is a near-perfect record, an exemplary illustration of everything we already know the Bad Plus does well—at this point, their sonic fingerprint is as instantly recognizable as that of, say, the Who—given a smart tweak/kick-in-the-ass via the presence of a contemporary tenor-saxophone master. This quartet was already great four years ago, but here, there's a sense of shared purpose that feels hard-earned through hours and hours spent together onstage. Instantly memorable compositions, performances that move with convincing emotional purpose and with utmost concern for the musical material at hand, whether it's crisp, refined and determinedly melodic or sprawling, choppy and, well, determinedly melodic. Jazz always needs more song-focus, more band-focus, and the Bad Plus keep showing us how handsomely those philosophies can pay off. Here, they have some very able assistance. Not really measuring by length here, but this is the 2015 "epic" for me.

So yes, maybe I'm getting in a small dig at Kamasi Washington's The Epic there (and also, more explicitly, in the Stanley Cowell blurb linked above). The Epic certainly wasn't an album I disliked, but nor was it was one I connected with on any deep level. I heard glossy, tastefully updated retro bombast with strong melodies, some truly ass-kicking post-Coltrane/turbo-bop moments and long stretches of not-much-happening. I'd hold up any of the jazz albums listed above as far better examples of "where jazz is at" than The Epic any day. But then again…

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope)
The Kamasi-wave wasn't really about Kamasi. It was about Washington's role in this thorny masterpiece, which topped every poll both because of its sociopolitical urgency in a year where the topics Lamar dealt with on To Pimp… were not only impossible to ignore but impossible not to despair over, and because, well, it was an enthralling LP, period, a searing self-interrogation that balanced every menacing boast with a choked-up sniffle. Everyone seemed to want to tell me that the album I just described was actually D'Angelo's Black Messiah. I didn't quite connect with that one, either, but I believed every last second of this.

Iron Maiden The Book of Souls (Parlophone/Sanctuary)
Same goes for this. I like Iron Maiden, which seems weird to say, since they're a band beloved by their fan base in an uniquely rabid way and ignored by pretty much everyone else. Honestly, I just don't know the catalog that well, but The Book of Souls was an instant "yes, please" for me. I love the way the visceral, bottom-heavy production sound combines with Bruce Dickinson's heroic yet endearingly strained-sounding vocals, and I love how itself this band remains, how committed they sound to this thing called metal that is really, for them, simply Iron Maiden Music. Like the Black Star Riders album, The Book of Souls rocks in a timeless way. I didn't once make it through the entire LP in a single sitting, but whenever I checked in with it—from archetypal single "Speed of Light" to that hammy yet genuinely touching 18-minute finale, "Empire of the Clouds"—I felt uplifted and inspired.

Weather Report The Legendary Tapes 1978–1981 (Legacy)
This hits me in a similar way: a supremely confident band, doing its thing. As a group, Weather Report had a strange magic—virtuosic daredevilry, yes, but also festive melody and childlike wonder and a certain kind of zany party-prog verve. None of the truly great acts that we label as "fusion" (ahem…) really sounded anything alike, and this release helps us see Weather Report for the style-transcendent anomaly that they were, and adds to the welcome hoopla surrounding the Jaco documentary release (and my own private hoopla surrounding a recent deep immersion in the Jaco–Joni Mitchell collaboration).

Morgoth Ungod (Century Media)
Deactivate brain. Rage. Repeat. (For those who related to this, as well as my Obituary and Asphyx gushing over the years, you need to hear Ungod.)

Kirk Knuffke Arms and Hands (Royal Potato Family)
This cornet specialist continues to record in all kinds of interesting contexts, bringing fresh ideas to each situation. I agree with the core mission statement of Arms and Hands—that bringing together Bill Goodwin and Mark Helias was a fantastic idea. (Lamplighter, another 2015 Knuffke session featuring Goodwin, is also well worth your time, and from what I've read and the samples, this sounds awesome.) Another example of jazz-as-personal-sonic-signature, in personnel, mood, repertoire.

Update, 12/28/15:
David S. Ware / Apogee Birth of a Being (Aum Fidelity)
Heart-burstingly passionate trio music—perhaps the single most convincing document of post-Ayler free jazz I've heard—from 1977, reissued here with extra material. Apogee, a working band with Cooper-Moore (then Gene Ashton) on piano and Marc Edwards on drums, is, to me, every bit as compelling as Ware's later, better-known quartet with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, etc. Massive.

Update, 12/29/15
Killing Joke Pylon (Spinefarm)
The only reason this one wasn't on here before is that I hadn't yet had a chance to spend good time with it. As with ELO, I'm not a Killing Joke completist, but I aspire to be one. I adored KJ's 2010 album, Absolute Dissent, but sort of slept on 2012's MMXII. I need to go back and remedy that, because this new one is another monster. Menace, beauty, relentless momentum, enthralling texture. Few bands can conjure such a pervasive, well-shaded sensation of gloom.

Update, 12/30/15
Elder Lore (Armageddon Shop)
Whoo boy, does this thing kick ass. A few people (one being my friend and former colleague Steve Smith) had tipped me off to Lore during the course of the year, but I didn't really dig in till just now. I'll reprise a line I just tweeted, because it sums up my thoughts well: This is like recent Mastodon gone full prog, with vastly better production. I'm still digesting this, but it seems to me that the quality of the songwriting on Lore matches the enormous ambition on display here, which is sort of insane given how high these guys are clearly aiming.

A documentary that aims for and achieves definitive status via its smart balance of the personal and the musical. Watching this, you feel like you're seeing Jaco from all sides. Moving and insightful testimony from collaborators (Peter Erskine, Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, et al.) and confidants (Bill Milkowski's contribution is particularly valuable). Breathtaking footage. A complicated life, dealt with sensitively yet unflinchingly.

Update, 12/31/15
Napalm Death Apex Predator — Easy Meat (Century Media)
Namechecked below but deserves a special shout-out. What I love about newer Napalm Death is, paradoxically, how clean it sounds. The current incarnation of this band is miles away from state-of-the-art extremity; by comparison, the Revenge album above makes 2015 Napalm (at least the recorded version) sound like Chuck Berry. But I'm fascinated by the way they've refined their craft for maximum accessibility and coherence, while remaining committed to speed and abrasiveness, and a genuine sense of purgative rage, embodied by Barney Greenway. You can hear everything that's going on in this music, and there's great care taken in the composition, pacing, mood. Extremity isn't really the issue: Napalm Death is, at this point simply, a great, adventurous rock band.

P.S. Phil Freeman's guide to the ND discography is essential for those of us who know bits and pieces of the band's long, complicated history but not the whole thing.


The nitty-gritty

2015 Jazz Ballot (with regard to this poll)
1. Milford Graves and Bill Laswell Space/Time • Redemption (TUM)
2. Jack DeJohnette Made in Chicago (ECM)
3. Henry Threadgill Zooid In for a Penny, in for a Pound (Pi)
4. Mary Halvorson Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
5. The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
6. Stanley Cowell Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive)
7. Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg Celestial Weather (TUM)
8. Kirk Knuffke Arms and Hands (Royal Potato Family)
9. Jon Irabagon Behind the Sky (Irabbagast)
10. John Zorn Inferno (Tzadik)

2015 Metal Ballot (with regard to this list)
1. Revenge Behold.Total.Rejection (Season of Mist)
2. Black Star Riders The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
3. Iron Maiden The Book of Souls (Parlophone/Sanctuary)
4. Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse)
5. Blind Idiot God Before Ever After (Indivisible)
6. Krallice Ygg Huur (self-released)
7. Morgoth Ungod (Century Media)
8. Royal Thunder Crooked Doors (Relapse)
9. Napalm Death Apex Predator — Easy Meat (Century Media)
10. Embodied Torment Liturgy of Ritual Execution (New Standard Elite)

10 Best Shows I Saw in 2015
1/13 - Celebrating Charlie Haden (The Town Hall)
2/13 - John Zorn, Steve Coleman, Milford Graves + Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn, Tyshawn Sorey (Village Vanguard)
2/26 - Xylouris White (Bowery Ballroom)
3/15 - Charles Lloyd Quartet (Village Vanguard)
5/10 - Morpheus Descends (Saint Vitus)
6/11 - Feast of the Epiphany + Travis Laplante (IBeam)
6/20 - Dead Moon + Borbetomagus (Pioneer Works)
6/29 - Rush (MSG)
8/21 - Krallice (The Stone)
10/5 - Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago (Cornell University)

With a special honorable mention for Ayahuasca, Godstopper, Couch Slut and Pyrryon at BRIEFCASEFEST 2015.


Friday, December 11, 2015

craw, '1993–1997' is out

Today marks the release of the new Kickstarter-funded craw box set on Northern Spy Records (designed by Aqualamb), as well as the digital release of the individual remastered albums that make up the set. It makes me happy beyond words to see this music back out there in the world.

Here are some links to explore:

Northern Spy

As well as some press coverage:

Tiny Mix Tapes (review)
Noisey (feature)
New York Times (1993–1997 included in the 2015 Holiday Gift Guide; scroll down to the Music section, Pop & Jazz)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

As it happens: Sonny Rollins at the Village Gate, 1962

This has been a year of major ’60s-era finds in jazz. Garth Caylor's Nineteen + shook up my world back in April, and I'm currently fixating on this behemoth, which fits in nicely with my ongoing Sonny Rollins obsession. I'd like to thank Phil Freeman for alerting me to the existence of this set—an exhaustive six-disc issue of the entire 1962 Sonny Rollins–Don Cherry–Bob Cranshaw–Billy Higgins Village Gate run that yielded the severely truncated three-track Our Man in Jazz LP—because I haven't read a single mention of it elsewhere. I'm not sure what rights issues are at play here (this is the first I've heard of Solar Records, who seem to specialize in complete reissues of sessions already put out either in full or in part by other labels)—maybe we're looking at a quasi-bootleg. Even so, I can't look away.

I feel that if this set had come out on, say, Mosaic, it would be one of those landmark archival jazz releases that gets unanimously heralded as the precious find that it is—the 2005 Monk/Coltrane CD, for example. Like the many other great jazz boxes that immerse you in the life of a band during a particular phase—e.g., Miles's Plugged Nickel box or the first two Bootleg Series releases—Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 feels like an object for lifelong study. It's huge and sprawling and untameable and, as Phil's write-up suggests, nearly impossible to digest in any single sitting, but it's the kind of release that gets inside your head and takes you over. Having spent a couple weeks savoring the set in pieces, it now feels to me like an essential part of the Rollins canon, as well as a key document of the extended Ornette Coleman family and the development of free jazz in general. Beyond all that "historical significance" business, it's simply a source of enormous aural pleasure—an extended document of four great, distinctive improvisers conversing.

I find myself gravitating in particular to the many lengthy pieces here labeled "Untitled Original" (distinguished with the letters A, B, C and so forth), many of them taken from sets played on July 29 and 30 of ’62. According to the liner notes and from what I can tell, these are examples of straight improv, and the results are remarkable in their variety and extremity. This music doesn't simply sound like Rollins stepping into the Ornette world, nor does it sound like Rollins bringing Cherry and Higgins into his world. (The set is a valuable reminder that these players were already unified—as I'm reading in Eric Nisenson's valuable Open Sky, Rollins had practiced with Coleman and Cherry for years before the Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins band's public breakthrough.) It often sounds like, in a very stark way, exactly what it is—these four guys stepping onto that stage on those nights and simply starting to play, sometimes achieving a magical sort of communion and sometimes feeling around blindly in the dark. As Freeman writes, "This is music that's all about the moment." Given that some of these tracks run more than a half-hour, it's not surprising that there are lulls and dead ends, but there are these moments where the music turns a corner and hits upon something startlingly fresh, either in general or in the realm of what we've previously known from Rollins and Cherry, separately or together.

"Untitled Original C" begins with approximately two minutes of weightless, sound-based improv, the borderline-unsettling kind that I associate with early days of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as documented on the ’67/’68 Nessa box. As is often the case on this set, it's Higgins who pushes the music onto a rhythmic grid—throughout these performances, it's fascinating to hear how the rest of the band reacts to his penchant for hard, propulsive groove, sometimes jumping on the train and other times resisting the momentum. Here, we get a tantalizing bit of the former, but then the bottom drops out again and we're back in this sort of one-sound-at-a-time murmur zone.

In its nakedness and frank experimentation, this music is as radical as what Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray would play in Copenhagen seven months later. It's such a pleasure to hear Rollins and Cherry conversing in this sort of private, unhurried way. The music makes perfect sense, but there's no rush to make it make sense, to hurry the process of the improvising, to deliver to the audience anything other than a succession of unfolding sonic phenomena. As "Untitled Original C" progresses, the music enters a sort of march cadence, then leaves it; becomes an uptempo freebop battle, with Rollins and Cherry trading phrases, overlapping them. (In a lot of ways, I hear this band as a direct precursor to the CRHB band discussed here, and to Mu and Old and New Dreams, as much as it's a descendant of anything Ornette had done prior—given the existing bond between Rollins and Coleman, one has to assume that OC was in attendance for some of these performances, or at least that he heard Rollins/Cherry/Cranshaw/Higgins at some point, either live or on record.) Higgins steps on the gas and then stops. Rollins is playing what sounds like a classical etude. The horns trade riffs with the drums. Musical events occur; the band discards them.

Things get even rawer on "Untitled Original E/Untitled Original A #3," with Rollins juggling Morse code bleats and ragged fanfares, turning off the brain and just sound-making. And then, on a glorious, nearly 40-minute "Oleo" on the last disc, a performance that deserves legendary status: pure, hurtling abandon, Rollins racing along like liquid steel.

This set is glorious or it's tedious, depending on where your head is at, what you're asking of the music at that time. But objectively, as a document of these artists at work, Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 is essential. We get to sit with this band, watch them grind through the process, sweat it out, have fun. There's a conspiratorial glee about the best of these recordings; you can almost sense Rollins breathing deeply the air of freedom*. We get to savor these players' beautifully idiosyncratic voices, separately and together, as we would those of great actors whom we'd known as individuals, but not as a unit—at least not as well as we do now.

We accept the phrase "free jazz" as though it means one thing, as though the music of say The Shape of Jazz to Come bears any real relationship to that of Spiritual Unity, other than that they're both wonderful and both share certain instrumentation and common inspirational roots. But were the Who really anything like the Beatles, once each had achieved a mature style? When I hear Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962, I hear an all-in kind of improvising. Rollins led the band, but he wanted the band, the situation to lead him. These players swing and they suspend time; they jell and they clash. They do what they do in the order that they do it, for as long as they happen to, and that's the music for that set, that night.

You can cling to the notion that Rollins, on one hand, and Cherry and Higgins, on the other, were musicians from different schools. You can worry about what it "means" for these supposedly disparate artists to have shared the stage. Or you can accept that all it means it what it sounded like—not an unbroken string of profundity, but a search, that thing that Rollins has been about all along. The revelations, yes, but also the fits and starts, the muddles and the missteps along the way. Sound, just like life, as it happens.

*"I use a variety of systems… What I'm trying to do is get to the point where I can have a really complete expression of what I'm thinking about… I'm trying to play jazz, creative jazz, where you play things in the moment, at the moment that I get it—it comes into your mind and you're able to play it… I might use any kind of technique or harmonic system… Everything is going in the service of trying to reach Sonny Rollins and play myself." —Rollins in Eric Nisenson's Open Sky

Friday, November 06, 2015

Hands off the wheel: The inspired madness of late Sonny Rollins

It is a great regret of mine that I've never seen Sonny Rollins play saxophone live. Two years straight, I've seen him appear at events where he has not played: last summer's Ornette tribute in Prospect Park, which Rollins opened with a warm introductory blessing, and the Jazz Foundation of America's 2015 A Great Night in Harlem concert, which featured a lengthy tribute to Rollins and beautiful remarks from the man himself. At this point, when Rollins seems to have retired from public performance, it doesn't look like I'll get the chance to remedy my oversight.

Until recently, I'd never been a Rollins obsessive. A Rollins admirer, sure. I bought Saxophone Colossus early on in my jazz listening journey and recognized its obvious joys and wonders, filling in the gaps later with the ’57 Vanguard recordings and other touchstones. But for a listener with my personal set of preferences, Sonny Rollins was easy to take for granted. It sounds strange for a jazz obsessive to say that they're sometimes ambivalent about solos, but that's the case with me. I love to hear great improvisation, but I'm more attuned to the overall framework and vibe of the music than I am to the foreground/background duality that has become more and more codified in mainstream jazz over time. On, say, a ’60s Blue Note recording by Andrew Hill, Grachan Moncur III, Wayne Shorter or Sam Rivers—a period that remains a gold standard for me—there really is no foreground or background, first because every player in every band is always a giant and second because bandleaders like these had a distinct compositional agenda. Like Mingus or Coltrane or Jarrett or Motian, they each crafted an entire soundworld for their small-group music.

You can praise Sonny Rollins in 1,000 different ways, but though he's written many standards, his contribution to jazz—at least as I see it—is not primarily compositional, not overly fixated on a complete soundworld. (I know that I'm being reductive here—Freedom Suite is one obvious counterpoint—but I'm speaking about the macro-level impact of Rollins in jazz, what he'll be best remembered for.) He is, maybe second only to Charlie Parker, the immortal soloist, the man who could take even the most mundane of source material—and, let's be honest, the most mundane of ensembles; unlike Coltrane and Miles Davis, his other rough contemporaries, though Rollins has often worked with outstanding bands, he's never had a truly stellar, sustained, identifiable working group to call his own—and spin it into gold with his superhuman prowess on the horn. Even more so than the early masterworks such as Saxophone Colossus and The Bridge, I'm particularly blown away by the Sonny Rollins of the ’80s, where he attained a level of command, power and sustained poise that I've never heard in any other saxophonist. Read ’em and weep: 1980, 1986. The bravado, charisma, mastery are just dripping off him.

I could watch performances like those for days. But they're not the Rollins that's turning me on most at the moment. In the days since the JFA event, I've been on a serious Sonny kick that's focused almost exclusively on the past 15 years or so. Rollins in the present tense is a much less "perfect" musician than the one seen in the clips above, and in my opinion a more fascinating one. Recent Sonny Rollins is a rejoinder to the idea that jazz is something to be mastered; it's a demonstration of how the further along you go with improvisation, the more questions you raise, the weirder and more distinctive you can sound. When I hear recent Sonny Rollins, I hear a total lack of fear or hang-up. It's not about dominance and mastery. It's about searching.

I'm particularly interested in the first two tracks above. "Sonny, Please," the title track to the 2006 Rollins album of the same name, is a perfect illustration of the weird alchemy of late Rollins. A straightforward vamp piece. A catchy but brief head. The band is there almost wholly as a backdrop. Around 1:40 is when I really snap to attention. Rollins's tone start to fray, his lines becoming both jagged and weightless—shards of scrambled notes, fluttering above the imperturbable rhythm. There is one thrilling passage, from about 1:54 to 2:09, where Rollins sounds as liberated as any other saxophonist I've ever heard, liberated from conventional ideas of mastery, where surface fluidity is equated with virtuosity. He sounds like he's inventing at the very edge of his imagination, producing  a stream of pure thought, a brittle and mercurial sound. Not the sound of a colossus, a king; the sound of a seer. He gets going again at 2:30, tossing ideas into the air, attaining this sort of growling, fluttering momentum. If I heard the phrase from 2:51 through 2:56 in a blindfold test, I would never think "Sonny Rollins"—well, never before this recent listening jag. Evan Parker on tenor might be my first guess, for the way the lines have this paradoxical supple jaggedness, proceeding gruffly without evolving into a full on post-Coltrane scream. The solo settles a bit from there, as Rollins starts to sound like he's drifting with the song rather than wrestling against it. Then at 4:10, it again becomes choppy and violent. I love the harshness of these passages, the way they rub against the oppressive normalcy of the music around them, the way they exemplify the restlessness of the Rollins quest, his commitment to actually getting somewhere new with each solo, or at least trying to, a quest that seems to have grown ever more extreme in Sonny's later years.

"Biji" is a 2001 live recording from the intensely rewarding Road Shows series. As a song and a performance, it is even more mundane than "Sonny, Please." It's classic feel-good mainstream jazz, complete with an ’80s-sounding funk bridge, the kind one could easily write off as cruise-ship fluff. After the head, Sonny spars a bit with Clifton Anderson's trombone, then cedes the stage to his band. Long solos by Anderson and pianist Stephen Scott ensue. (I've never really been a Dean Benedetti–type jazz listener, but recent Rollins often has me fast-forwarding past his sidemen's solos in search of the good stuff.) We're six minutes into an eight-minute track before we get to the meat of "Biji," and for a bit, Rollins is playing along with the prevailing feel-good vibe. But listen to what happens at 6:56, how through around 7:18 Rollins sounds like he's driving a sputtering Harley through a polite dinner party, trailing noxious exhaust. There's a kind of willful derangement at work here, a bullish commitment to seeing the idea through no matter how abrasive or jarring. Sonny sounds like the lines are playing him rather than the other way around. It's not the imperturbable command of Rollins in the ’60s or the ’80s; it's the sound of man taking his hands off the wheel.

Late Sonny, in these moments of lift-off, embodies the true meaning of free jazz, not the phrase but the literal truth of the words—like Progressive Rock versus rock that's actually progressive. To go as far as Sonny Rollins has in order to achieve not a kind of ultimate comfort but a newfound recklessness, to have the courage to produce at this late-career stage a stream of sound that reminds the listener that jazz is not an equation to be solved but a tireless inward-directed journey, that to me is the real genius of the lifelong improviser's art.

The playlist above features a couple other examples of late Sonny at his wildest and most inspired—buckle up for the turbulence at 3:30–3:50 in "Nishi"—as well as an extended solo on a 1986 "Best Wishes" that harks back to the walking-on-air madness of the other ’80s clips discussed earlier in this post. Rollins's fierce solo on the 1980 "Blossom" is the perfect blend of these two approaches. This 1993 performance is another must-hear: The passage from about 50:00–50:40 is a feast of the kind of jagged, rapid-fire improvising that makes the more recent material so thrilling.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

craw, booked

Received physical proofs for the 200-page bound books that will come packaged with the upcoming craw vinyl box set. Contents include a complete, previously unpublished oral history of the band, newly proofed lyrics, tons of photos and ephemera, etc.

Couldn't be happier to see this dream project—20 years in the making, all in all, and my eat/sleep/breathe obsession for the past couple years—become a reality. Thank you to all Kickstarter backers, Aqualamb and Northern Spy. (And to Ben Young for crucial inspiration.)

Can't wait to send 1993–1997 out into the world.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

American treasure: Jack DeJohnette's Made in Chicago and the AACM in the present tense

Photograph: Paul Natkin / ECM Records

Made in Chicago, a Jack DeJohnette album that came out on ECM earlier this year, is an important statement, easily one of the most striking jazz releases of 2015, almost by default. The mere facts of the album—a master drummer of the progressive mainstream reengages with his roots in the unparalleled experiments-in-sound collective the AACM, which turns 50 this year—make it special. And it's a damn good record, one I'm still digesting and savoring months after I first heard it.

But seeing the Made in Chicago group live, as I did Sunday at Cornell University, was a whole other experience. It's clear to me that since their 2013 debut gig, the Chicago Jazz Festival performance documented on the ECM album, this group has evolved from a project, an unusually well-plotted experiment, into an actual band, a collective of composers and improvisers committed to developing a shared language over time.

When an artist or group of artists gains a reputation for experimentalism, there's always a risk, from the perspective of audience or creator, that what once seemed radical can devolve into shtick. Somehow, that hasn't happened with the AACM representatives in Made in Chicago: saxophonists and multi-instrumentalists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. (Incidentally, Mitchell turned 75 in August, Abrams 85 in September; Threadgill is 71.) Seeing these three together onstage was a profoundly intense experience, and not just because their respective sonic palettes can, at times, tend toward the extreme or confrontational. More what I mean is that all three seemed absolutely sharp, fully attuned to each passing moment.

Watching the show, I got the sense of being in some sort of temple or dojo—an extension of the project founded by Abrams and others back in 1965 as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and documented and broadcast to the world on Mitchell's debut album, titled, simply and tellingly, Sound—where the practices of listening and responding in real time are sacred. I noticed the listening, the reception of sound—Threadgill, seated when not playing, zeroing in on Mitchell's solos, nodding in approval; Abrams, head bowed as if in prayer while bassist Larry Gray played an unaccompanied intro on arco cello—as much as its creation.

You felt, hearing this band play, the certainty and conviction of the original AACM mission, the self-belief that allowed these musicians to band together 50 years ago in the spirit of pursuing their individual and collective aesthetics, and then live their lives according to that belief. But the miracle is how good it all sounds today—how uncompromising, yes, but also how engaging, how human.

I felt, throughout the set, this strong feeling of pushing, of extremity, like the band was taking an idea into its collective vise and slowly, steadily squeezing and refining. This quality came through especially on a piece during which DeJohnette performed exclusively on an electronic drum pad that I'm pretty sure was a Wavedrum. During a solo intro, he struck the pad, producing echoing, marimba-like tones, and scraped his stick across the side as one would play a güiro. I remember the rest of the band slowly wading in with small, piquant textures—I believe Mitchell was on sopranino and Threadgill flute, with Abrams strumming the piano's strings by hand—so that the sound gradually fattened and amplified, eventually achieving an alarming density, with DeJohnette pounding mercilessly on the Wavedrum. The piece didn't develop so much as expand. It was one sound, one idea, that became a mini universe.

There was something especially driven and focused about that piece, but the whole set had this sort of staring-contest intensity, not hostile or off-putting, but simply extreme. The opening piece, which built off Gray's cello intro into a series of beautifully calm, refined statements, some solo and some overlapping, was extreme in its sparseness. The one that followed brought more of a familiar sort of free-jazz heat, with DeJohnette bashing out rubato time—his drum-hero bravado serving as a fascinating counterpoint to his bandmates' deep-seated strangeness—as Mitchell unleashed for the first time his trademark alien-speech circular breathing on alto. Here and elsewhere in the set, it was fascinating to compare Threadgill's approach—focused more on brief, choppy, gut-wrenchingly soulful phrases than a steady stream of sound—to Mitchell's. The two are just so fully themselves, as is Abrams, who executes the oddest, most ear-bending ideas, either skipping and stabbing his way across the piano or softly caressing the keys, with a palpable sense of loving care. The set ended with Mitchell's "Chant," the seesawing minimalist epic that leads off Made in Chicago—this was the only piece in the set that I'm sure appears on the album, but there may have been others—and came off as a lovably demented roof-raiser live.

The band played a quick encore, a loose, swinging freebop improv that was by far the closest thing to conventional jazz in the set. It was a powerful reminder of the deliberate nature of the whole Made in Chicago endeavor. These are master musicians who can play whatever they want. And time after time during this set, they chose to take it there, pushing, ratcheting up the intensity and the focus and the abstraction to borderline uncomfortable levels, avoiding the easy out. Working up at times to recognizable points of climax or cohesion, but sometimes just letting the sounds exist and hang in the air. There was no hand-holding of the audience, no explanation or disclaimer—DeJohnette didn't say a word to the crowd until he introduced the musicians at the end of the set—just sound and commitment.

Made in Chicago is a band very much still in progress, still finding out what it has to say. If they keep giving concerts as special, as fully realized, as the one I saw, they could become one of the key endeavors of the AACM as a whole, a living emblem of what this collective (not just Abrams, Mitchell and Threadgill, but also Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis and so many others), this American treasure, has meant and still means.


Postscript (10/9/15): I realized after I wrote this post that it doesn't address the Made in Chicago endeavor in the larger context of Jack DeJohnette bandleading endeavors, which is an oversight. I don't know all of DeJohnette's work as a leader, but I love what I've heard of the bands known as Special Edition—particularly the late-’70s and early-’80s albums reissued in the 2013 ECM box and this excellent 1983 concert—and New Directions. Both of those groups are totally different from Made in Chicago, and from each other. Special Edition is, to me, the most compositionally driven of the three, featuring precise little-big-band-style arrangements that foreground Jack DeJohnette, the writer. New Directions, at least judging by the self-titled album linked above, is more of a "vibe" band—an atmospheric post-fusion trance-out project à la DeJohnette and John Abercrombie's earlier collaboration in Gateway. (Incidentally, that first New Directions album is magical and, like pretty much all of DeJohnette's work as a leader, bafflingly underrated.)

What Made in Chicago does share with New Directions is that focus on texture and interaction over composition. Both are players' bands. When you hear New Directions, you come away thinking more about Abercrombie and trumpeter Lester Bowie—interestingly, another AACM member—than DeJohnette, and the same is true as regards Abrams, Threadgill and Mitchell's roles in Made in Chicago. (MIC almost seems designed to spotlight these men's talents in the way that the Iverson/Heath/Street trio is built to showcase the drumming of Al "Tootie" Heath.") MIC is about Jack DeJohnette immersing (or perhaps re-immersing) in the AACM concept rather than employing AACM musicians in service of his own concept, and as I hope the above post indicates, both aesthetics are strengthened in the process. MIC is an exemplary, all-in collaboration among masters.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

craw: release date + reunion shows

Just wanted to share some exciting news re: the craw reissue…

The box set, titled 1993–1997, will be out 12/11/15 from Northern Spy, with design by the fine folks at Aqualamb. Go here for preorders, and to read a detailed description of the release.

Craw will be playing two special reunion shows in support of the release. All seven ex-members of the band will be present at each show, performing material from all four of their studio albums in rotating lineups. This has never happened before and most likely won't happen again. These will be the first craw shows of any sort since 2010, the first craw shows featuring vocalist Joe McTighe since 2002 and the first featuring the band's classic five-piece configuration since 1997.

Friday, 12/18/15
The Grog Shop; Cleveland, OH
Info/tickets here

Saturday, 12/19/15
Saint Vitus; Brooklyn, NY
Info/tickets here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Always has been: Krallice at the Stone and a decade in NYC

I do not like to mythologize, but there is something to this time that I have lived through, in this place. 

Last night, I went to see Krallice at the Stone, performing their head-spinning new album, Ygg huur, in its entirety. (If you're reading this on August 22 or 23, 2015, the Mick Barr residency is still in full swing.) A vanguard underground metal band, playing in a tiny black box. A seated show, polite clapping in between songs. It all made a certain amount of sense, if you had access to the proper context.

Before the show, I was talking to Torsten Meyer, the indefatigable videographer—and generally funny, friendly, down-to-earth dude—whose archive of heavy, extreme and otherwise underground shows in NYC during the past nine years or so stands as a definitive document of the aforementioned time and place. Torsten moved to NYC in 2006, which we both agreed was a sort of golden age for NYC music. The dates are fuzzy, but I do in fact remember a kind of heyday being in full swing at that time. For the listener engaged with not just, as Torsten pointed out, a certain kind of lawless DIY environment (shout-out to Todd P) that encouraged wildness, fun, creativity, but also the fuzzy but unmistakable idea of progress, a petri-dish environment where you felt like you were actually witnessing the birth of something unprecedented, this time, and the years before and after it, felt electric. 

I will never forget what it was like to witness Orthrelm performing their avant-metal-minimalist masterpiece, OV, in full while seated several feet away from Josh Blair's kick drum at a repurposed Tribeca firehouse in 2003, or Lightning Bolt turning a roomful of buzzed, rowdy showgoers into a maelstrom of sweaty, ecstatic chaos at a foul-smelling loft in a part of Brooklyn that then seemed like an industrial frontier town, or Coptic Light erupting, billowing out waves of exuberant and cathartic free rock at the Lucky Cat on Grand St. (later Bruar Falls and the Grand Victory), or the sextet lineup of Zs setting up in a circle at Tonic, poised in front of music stands, redefining "new music" as a kind of punk-minded aggression mixed with ruthless, scholarly precision, or a fledgling Behold… the Arctopus plying righteously maximalist tech metal in front of a tiny audience on an even tinier stage at Williamsburg's late-lamented Rock Star Bar (a.k.a. the Local), or Peter Evans gurgling and sputtering demented, virtuosic madness through his pocket trumpet in the back room of a Chelsea café, or Vaz ripping through their haunting noise-punk blasts-that-felt-like dirges in a series of deep-Greenpoint dive bars.

I was also a participant, was there on drums when Aa would play at packed lofts on Johnson Ave or S. 5th St., setting rooms off, rooms that didn't need much of a push because they were already filled with the buzzed and deliriously happy. Or with Stay Fucked in the basement of Micheline's in Bushwick, the living room of 248BS, the back of Coco 66, the checkerboard room at Death by Audio. Uncle Paulie's, Dead Herring, Cake Shop, the Charleston, rooms whose names I can't recall but whose layouts and sensations I remember intensely well. That feeling that I got then and still get now when my drums are stacked up in the corner and I'm watching the opening band and gearing up, setting my mental dials to "Destroy."

There was something happening during these years. I worked at Time Out New York, doing my best to document and publicize it all at the same time as I was participating in it. I remember interviewing Mick Barr (of Orthrelm and later of Krallice) in 2005 and feeling like I was speaking to a mythic figure, not because he had any airs of being in any way superior, but because everyone who saw Mick play during that time, witnessed the fire and endurance and invention flying off him, that turbocharged picking hand, that unassuming commitment to going all the way, to the heart of the sun, or somewhere further, more alien, knew they were privy to something historic. Getting to know musicians like Colin Marston, Kevin Shea, Mary Halvorson, Kevin Hufnagel. Extremely nice, genuine people who, underneath, were absolutely driven to greatness and newness. Progress, virtuosity, grabbing their creative moment by the throat. 

Last night, I felt a palpable sense that even though this community, this current has in some ways dispersed, as these artists and others have continued down their paths or shot off into other ones, the mythic not-that-long-ago New York, the signal community of my life as a person engaged with and active in the arts—aside from the Kansas City post-hardcore scene in which I came of age as a music lover but not yet a player—is still very much intact. There were Mick and Colin, together on "stage." There were Hufnagel and Mike Pride and Marc Edwards in the audience. There were friendly faces newer to me, luminaries of a slightly later wave: Mario Diaz De Leon, Nick McMaster, Andrew Hock, Chris Pitsiokos. The ones that, when the history of all this is written, when Tonic circa 2006 or the Stone circa 2015 is remembered by those who had their minds blown at these places—just as jazz musicians and their fans did at Minton's in the ’40s—will be known as the Cats. 

Seeing Krallice play, the currents that have made up this disparate, ever-changing scene all converged. Conservatory-level complexity coupled with the gritty DIY spirit. This band, constructors of labyrinths, many-tentacled octopi of sound, filled with strange lurches, epic vistas, harsh and sour notes, ear-bending chords, tectonic tempo displacement—pummeling, doomy bliss. Krallice have always concerned themselves with a certain kind of sci-fi sprawl, way beyond language and genre—"years past matter," to quote one of their album titles. The currents of Colin Marston and Mick Barr's countless former and current projects—a short list would have to include Behold… the Arctopus, Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, Orthrelm, Crom-Tech, Ocrilim and the Flying Luttenbachers—converging into these heaving, hurtling planets of sound. To reduce their art to something like "black metal" would be silly. Krallice is cosmic, a mother brain alive with ideas, afire with a certain kind of harnessed madness. It's brutal and balletic (qualities embodied in the playing of Lev Weinstein, one of the most genuinely powerful, precise and exciting extreme-metal drummers I've ever seen, a player who restores the centrality of actual full-body engagement to an art form that can sometimes seem like mere spasm-ing of the extremities), visceral and composerly, so finely wrought, so clearly avant-garde and, whatever you happen to think of it, so obviously accomplished.

Again, if you've been paying attention, Krallice at the Stone—these musicians, with these backgrounds, in this place, with these influences and aspirations and track records of greatness, performing a metal album named after a Scelsi piece at a seated show in an LES black box owned by a giant of disparate experimental musics—made a certain kind of perfect sense. New music is metal is jazz is avant-rock is progress is challenge is virtuosity is newness is New York; always has been. 

This hybridization, this blurring and mingling, is straightforward, and, except in the minds of those who put the classification before the idea and the intent, fairly obvious and really not that big a deal. This is not a trend; it's not even an organized movement, though you could draw a sort of family tree, charting the countless interactions among those named (and not named) above. You could call it a scene if you wanted to. It's a collection of committed people, really. Those who were there last night and those who have been there on countless nights like it (shout-outs to my friends Joe and Tony, John and Aron and Julian and Mike and Josh and Nick L. and Nadav and Judd and Sean, and Nick P.). There were, and are, all kinds of New Yorks. I'm proud to say that this has been, and still is, mine.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Have 'Mercy'

My band STATS has a new album coming out on August 8 out now, in both vinyl and digital formats. The LP, entitled Mercy, is our first full-length recording, which seems especially significant given that the band has existed in one form or another for 13 years. I'm very proud of the record, and I feel that it's a great document of what STATS does, which is to create raw, complex, emotional music that brings in elements from (post-)hardcore, rock + roll, extreme metal and various other styles. To order Mercy, click here. Here's a stream:

I would like to say thanks to my bandmates Joe Petrucelli and Tony Gedrich for their roles in the shared experience of creating this music, and for their badass performances throughout the record. I would also like to thank Ed Ricart at New Atlantis, for believing in Mercy and for helping us release it out into the world; Ben Greenberg, for a beautifully visceral recording; Dave Perlis, for contributing masterful vocals, melody and lyrics on the song "Countach"; and Drew "Remi Thornton" Katz for providing the haunting photograph seen on the cover.

We will celebrate the album with a performance at Baby's All Right on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. (Facebook event page is here.) This will be the first STATS show in more than two years. Joining us are two of the most intense and challenging bands in NYC, Survival and Couch Slut.


More STATS/Mercy:

*Hear the song "The Freeze, the Fritz" here.

*Hear the song "Human Butt" and read an interview here.

*Hear the song "Countach" here.

*Read an interview about our hometown of NYC here.

*Read a post by Joe on Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing, written in conjunction with Mercy's release.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


I'm generally superstitious about announcing events before they come to pass, but now seems like the right time to mention that on Monday, July 20, I'll be starting a new full-time job as a senior editor at I'm thrilled and grateful for the opportunity.

I leave behind a dream job (a series of them, really) at Time Out New York, a publication where I spent 10 great years. I'm tempted to shout out all my TONY friends and former colleagues, who helped make the past decade of my working life exceedingly rewarding, challenging and fun, but I'm worried I'll leave out a crucial name or two.

Best just to say a heartfelt thanks to all those folks, as well as everyone else I've worked with during this time: publicists, bookers, artists and just about anyone who devotes their life to the business of music in NYC. It's been wonderful collaborating with you, and even though my new job will have more of a national focus, I look forward to furthering those relationships as time goes on.

I'll still be checking out as much music as possible, live and recorded, and covering it whenever and however I can—including, as always, on DFSBP. Once I'm settled in, I'll post my new work e-mail address for anyone who might want to get in touch. Please feel to get in touch via e-mail: hank [dot] shteamer [at] rollingstone [dot] com.


With help from my partners at Northern Spy and Aqualamb, I'm hard at work on my Kickstarter-funded dream project, the craw box set. I'll post any major updates concerning the release here, but you can also keep tabs on all craw-related matters via Facebook.


My own band STATS, in which I play drums and share vocal and composition duties with my dear friends Tony Gedrich (bass) and Joe Petrucelli (guitar), will release a new LP, Mercy—our debut full-length—via New Atlantis Records on August 8, 2015. Go here for more info; stream a track here; and stream a different track and read an interview here. If you listen, please listen loud.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

The moment knows: Poo and Paul

Thomas Haley: You said you're much better now than you've ever been, and you're getting better… 
Masabumi Kikuchi: Because I'm free. 
TH: What do you mean? 
MK: Free. Freedom of choice. I can go anywhere, because I start believing in myself.
 —"Out of Bounds: A portrait of Masabumi Kikuchi"
Ethan Iverson:  Seems to me that you [and Paul Motian] share something about space.
MK:  Yeah. Yeah…space to give opponent.
EI:  Opponent! [Laughs]
MK:  Yeah, opponent! Opponent? Is that how you say it?
EI:  Yeah that's right. Collaborator and opponent.
"Interview with Masabumi Kikuchi"
MK: “Just floating. Floating sound and harmony. No songs.”
"Floating in Time, Hiding in Sight"
It is a great regret of mine that I never saw Masabumi "Poo" Kikuchi perform with Paul Motian, by all accounts his musical soulmate. I did see Poo play a short solo tribute to his departed friend and longtime collaborator, and I'll never forget it. There's a sizable body of Poo/Paul work on record, and I've only scratched the surface: Sunrise, plus a couple of the Tethered Moon and Trio 2000 discs.

Having heard the sad news of Poo's death, I put on the 2004 Tethered Moon album Experiencing Tosca last night.

"Prologue," a Poo solo feature, is unreasonably gorgeous. Light and warmth and an angelic touch. "Part I," by contrast, is craggy, even forbidding. As with the sessions documented in the excellent short documentary "Out of Bounds," linked above, there's a sense that in playing this album, the listener is stumbling into a private rite. That though the music may at times sound rapturous, it is fundamentally insular, a fulfillment of the players' personal missions, individual and collective. If the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio embodies a giving, generous spirit—I'm generalizing, of course; like most Paul Motian endeavors, that trio embodies all things—Tethered Moon aims at something thornier, harder to grasp. The way the trio vacillates between beauty and its opposite, between something that might be called swing and total fracture, seems almost reckless. Not wanton or destructive, just stubborn in its freedom of choice. That's the spirit of the best Paul Motian music, and Poo was clearly dialed into it.

To some, Poo was simply that eccentric pianist who growled strangely as he played; to Motian, he was some kind of seer. They got each other, and that rapport practically sweats from the speakers when you listen to them play together. Poo and Paul: letting go; obeying instinct, both their own and that of each musical event. Songs or no songs. Floating or earthbound. Spacious or dense. Only the moment knows. Separately and together, they will be missed.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Snarl and snap: Goodbye, Chris Squire

There is the air of classic prog, the songs' ornate, easily caricatured latticework—in Yes terms, the Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman element. And there is the earth, their harsh, wiry skeleton—in Yes terms, the element of the late, great Chris Squire, along with Alan White and before him Bill Bruford. Anyone playing hard-hitting, compositionally daring rock music (math rock, tech metal, a million other microstyles) is, or ought to be, planting their ideas in the Squire soil.

The girth, the clarity, the metallic thwack of his bass tone. The bridge between, say, Mahavishnu Orchestra, where the bass typically took a backseat, and Rush, where it essentially became a lead instrument. For me, when Chris Squire's bass started to snarl and snap is the eureka moment when so-called prog became electrifying and essential, when geek brain met cyborg muscle. I'm not a Yes completist, but in the classic ’70s material, whenever the rhythm section starts to kick (and/or the Steve Howe visionary-shred roller coaster starts zooming around the track), it's a drop-everything moment for me.

Zero in on the riff that starts at about 6:04 in "Close to the Edge," the one with those thrilling syncopated Squire/Bruford stabs. It's all there. Props also to the monster mutant-funk groove at 6:51, with those grotesque melodic outbursts and chasm-like rests. Thank you, Chris Squire—you harnessed the low end, sacrificing none of its primal power, and made it dance and sing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

True calling: Dead Moon and Borbetomagus live

There are bands that become legend. You read of them for years, in zines and on the internet, often learning of the reverence for the thing before learning of the thing itself. I say "thing" rather than "music" because bands like this come bundled with a whole mythology. So it was with Dead Moon and Borbetomagus—two groups I'd heard about for years and barely heard before last night, when I saw them share an Issue Project Room–backed bill (also featuring a great solo appearance by J Mascis) at Pioneer Works.

Age has a lot to do with it—this underground mythology. "So-and-so have been at it since such-and-such time." All sorts of other factors play into it: biography, even graphic design. Dead Moon, founded in 1987, have it all. One of the coolest logos I—or any underground-music fan, if they're being honest—has ever seen: the screaming-skeleton/crescent-moon design with the drippy-letters font, the kind of iconography that gutter punks and black-metal heads and noise freaks all seem to agree on. The fact that the band is co-fronted by a husband-and-wife team, Fred and Toody Cole, proud grandparents who have been married for 48 years (!).

I don't think I'd heard more than a song or two by Dead Moon before last night's show. (And maybe a few by Pierced Arrows, the Coles' more current project, which is essentially the band I saw last night, as the Pioneer Works gig featured Arrows drummer Kelly Halliburton rather than Moon drummer Andrew Loomis.) Sometimes that can be a hindrance to enjoying a rock show, but that wasn't the case here. Dead Moon have a certain ceremonial way of making a venue, a night, entirely theirs.

I'd spotted the Coles hanging out on one of the upper floors of Pioneer Works during the first couple sets, scoping out the bands. Fred in this enormous black witch hat, Toody with the straggly black-and-gray hair. Once they took the stage, along with Halliburton, a tall, imposing dude wearing skin-tight St. Marks Place–style punk attire and an MC5 T-shirt (yes, it was almost too perfect…) you could tell they were lifers. Setting up, the three had an easy camaraderie, passing set lists between them, clinking beer cans, welcoming front-row fans with wide grins and uniting around Halliburton's kit for a final pre-show huddle.

Looking back, the set itself was a bit of a blur for me. It carried me along, like a drug or a magic carpet. I was transported, initiated might be the better word, into this environment that Dead Moon creates, this bubble where rock & roll is timeless and hungry and passionate and dangerous. The band has a sort of theatrical defiance to them, manifested in Toody's feral stare and imposing stage stance and in Fred's ragged, plaintive vocals, delivered, Lemmy-style, from slightly under the mic, with eyes closed and a wince of abandon and surrender and determination. But there was this other side to the trio's interaction—a camaraderie, a relishing of the preciousness of this perfect medium that they've found to express all they need to express. It was like watching a biker gang assume a tough-guy posture for a photo op, and then drop it once the camera had clicked, back-slapping and cracking up.

The music itself is a strange, primal snarl. It's a puzzle how it sounds so archaic yet so alive. I know that Dead Moon are rough contemporaries and regional cronies of the Wipers, and there's a definite kinship there, a willingness to mine a classic garagey rawk sound for its most dirgey, gloom-laden elements. Dead Moon isn't a metal band, but their songs embody this sort of exaggerated gothic drama, as well as punk's headlong drive—Greg Sage filtered through Screaming Jay Hawkins, maybe? I was surprised and impressed by the variety of the songs, and their potent anthemic quality: "54/40 or Fight," with its stop-time refrain, had me pumping my fist along after one verse/chorus cycle, and "I Hate the Blues," a dark, plodding waltz with a cyclical form that culminates with Fred yowling, "God-damn, I hate the blues!"

It was all such swagger and looseness and stylish attack. The iconography come to life: the logo, the attire (I've neglected to mention Fred's ’70s style leather vest, bolo tie and guitar strap studded with pieces of antler), the attitude. The music did it all justice. Posturing, performing, acting—it all becomes being when the music is strong, driving, dramatic enough. Alchemy occurs and you, the listener, feel like you're mainlining some old, original feeling, like punk chronicled in a Faulkner novel and reanimated before your eyes.

Or noise, for that matter. Borbetomagus, at it since ’79! I'd sampled the records, had a sense of what this trio was about. Again, the legend. The name that weird-music fans love to throw out like a gleeful curse word—like a secret handshake meaning "I'm a sonic masochist." I don't really go in much for "noise" as a style. But I felt what saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller were throwing down. Again, the physicality is inescapable: the saxists, these graying, tall, granitic men who look like types you'd encounter at happy hour in a factory-town dive bar, and the stocky, goateed Miller, with the appearance of a WFMU record collector type.

The sound was rich and painful and loud, and the performance ritualistic. Dietrich is by far the most animated, engaging in all sorts of expressionistic body language—an exaggeratedly wide-legged stance, momentary hand/arm wiggles. The two saxists tossing mics into the bells of their horns. Miller sitting there looking half-idle, strumming and using a slide and manipulating a volume pedal. At first the sound is undifferentiated—a not-unpleasant roar, a pressure on the ears. But then you start to adjust, and to align the saxists' cheek-puffing with the pulsations you're detecting, and you come to appreciate that, though amplified and distorted nearly beyond recognition, what you're hearing are predominantly breath-generated sounds. And then the presentation becomes almost wholesome. Borbetomagus is imposing but not assaultive. Noise bands often affect a sort of "vs. the audience" posture, but this set felt very private, like these guys simply need to do this thing that they've been doing for the past 35 years, and if they weren't doing it onstage, they'd be doing it in one of the members' basements on a weeknight.

Again, the legend become real. And it was warmer and more inviting than I expected. These bands are and aren't what you think they are. Longevity in underground music doesn't always mean profundity, but it does signify a kind of all-in commitment. Dead Moon and Borbetomagus believe in their respective aesthetics, and you can walk in off the street, so to speak, with no prior knowledge—or, as I did, with only a vague, sort of caricatured knowledge—and feel the love and commitment radiating out through these very different stylistic portals. It's all volume and defiance, as well as a friendly embrace of the like-minded. You feel both crushed and caressed, like you're in good, firm but loving hands. The world clicks into place, and you feel the rightness of artists doing what they were put on the planet to do, rising up to meet their true calling. And you feel reinvigorated to go out and do the same.