Monday, February 15, 2016

Moment's Greatest Hits 3

The third in a series of recent faves.

I saw Voivod play at Gramercy Theatre on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a good show, but more importantly, it reminded me of what fun, peculiar band they are. Widely recognized as one of the emblematic groups of the '80s metal underground, Voivod are, it turns out, not really emblematic of anything other than themselves. Their music is not particularly forbidding or aggressive. It has a lighthearted quality to it that comes through all the more when you see how friendly and excited they appear in the live setting: guitarist Daniel "Chewy" Mongrain bounding around the stage with a huge grin, drummer Michael "Away" Langevin flashing a peace sign when frontman Denis "Snake" Bélanger introduced him with a playful soccer-stadium chant ("A-wayyyyy / Away, Away, Away...").

Voivod is an idea. Or a series of ideas. They decided long ago what the parameters of their audiovisual presentation would be, and they've stuck to those parameters through the decades. It's fascinating to me that since the sad passing of Voivod's sonic architect, guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour, in 2005, the band has almost become more idiosyncratic, more Voidvodian, than ever. After Piggy died, Voivod put out two albums using guitar tracks he had recorded before his death, 2006's Katorz and 2009's Infini. I like these albums, but not as much as like 2013's Target Earth, the first Voivod album to feature Chewy instead of Piggy. Chewy is the quintessential torchbearer: He initially learned guitar by learning Voivod songs, and he approaches his role in the band with an acolyte's fervor. The result is strange sort of reanimation, or suspended animation, of the Piggy-era Voivod aesthetic.

Just as with the band's classic work—I spun 1988's awesome Dimension Hatröss last night—this track (from the band's upcoming EP, Post-Society) defies you to engage with it on anything other than its own terms. The strange harmonic atmosphere of the music, like this sort of funhouse-mirror version of punk/thrash, where all the notes sound sour, bent. Snake's nasal, heavily accented, almost sickly moan, perhaps this very strange band's strangest aspect. The swirling, dreamy interludes. That awkward, dissonant art-funk breakdown around 4:40. The general sense of a music taking its time, stretching its legs, being what it feels like it needs to be, regardless of genre. Over the years, Voivod have forged their own musical ethnicity, and it's such a pleasure to see them embracing it ever more deeply as they age. The music they're making now is both profoundly self-indulgent and exactly what any fan could hope for. ("Post-Society" is another instant Voivod masterpiece.)

The Replacements 
The other day I had the pleasure of editing an excerpt from the upcoming Replacements biography, Trouble Boys. The bit in question concerns the band's disastrous SNL appearance in 1986, or disastrous if you happen to have been one of the parties invested in establishing the band as a legitimate mainstream force. A faction to which, as is clear from the account and the surviving videos, the band members clearly did not belong. Their concern, it seems was merely, to echo the Voivod assessment above, to be themselves, and the results were wondrous. I don't know that I've seen a more potent distillation of the reckless-youth aspect of rock and roll than this "Bastards of Young" performance.

It's just a heartbreakingly raw, true, exuberant moment, the kind that every great rock band seems to have, as the buzz crests and they either continue on up, as Westerberg puts it, the "ladder of success" to superstardom or flame out or slowly decline or some combination of those three. There's a nothing-to-lose quality about this band at this time—sort of reminiscent of the Strokes here; try "Hard to Explain" at 12:35—that's just really poignant and timeless to me. And re: Westerberg's vocal prowess and overall charm/charisma, there really are no words. (I remember hearing him for the first time on the Singles soundtrack, loving his contributions and having no idea as to his musical history.)

James Salter
Speaking of that sort of moment, when a life or career crests precipitously, Cassada, a 2000 rewrite of the late, great James Salter's 1961 novel The Arm of Flesh, is an incredible encapsulation of same. Salter's subject is, as always, men and their pursuit of immortality, meaning, fulfillment and, yes, women. This is a brief book, an impressionistic one—a semi-autobiographical, '50s-set tale of American fighter pilots training in Germany, who never see combat—but its emotional impact is heavy. The book does a great job of contrasting the transcendent, almost holy feeling of flight with the listless, dysfunctional, stunted on-the-ground lives these men lead. Salter's obsession was the taste of greatness, or of true happiness, and how that taste lingers, haunts, even when the feeling leaves.

Michael Mann
Speaking of quintessentially masculine art, I saw a director's cut of Blackhat as part of BAM's Michael Mann retrospective, which winds down tomorrow. In much of Mann's work, whenever human beings are conversing, or having sex, or doing anything that isn't shooting or running or preparing to run or shoot, the film in question can veer precariously close to unintentional parody. The phenomenal Heat isn't without its silly moments, but it's one of Mann's greatest achievements precisely because, probably due to the caliber of actor he was working with, he managed to right this imbalance: The intimate, non-action-movie moments are as compelling as the astonishing set pieces. Blackhat is, in many ways, the exact opposite, and thus one of the most quintessentially Mann-y movies he's ever made. To put it bluntly, whenever the focus is on anything but action, the movie is profoundly, laughably absurd. (That's not to say I don't relish the cheese; I absolutely do, and could watch 100 examples of this kind of movie in a row.) But when the choreography and orchestration of violence kicks in, you're reminded that you're in the hands of a master.

Speaking of being reminded that you're in the hands of a master, Sicbay's 2001 debut album, The Firelit S'coughs, has been reissued on vinyl by the Modern Radio label. Nick Sakes has never been in a band that wasn't great, and like all his other projects, Sicbay were great in a totally different way than any of his other bands. Sakes was coming off the singularly demented Colossamite when he co-founded Sicbay in Minneapolis in 1999. His foil in the new project was the unsung guitar master Dave Erb, who brought to the table a beautifully honed melodic expertise. Together with a series of drummers—the first of whom, appearing on S'coughs, was current Deerhoof guitarist Ed Rodriguez, who also played guitar in Colossamite—they crafted a borderless sound: part hooky indie rock, part discordant post-hardcore, but all compact and refined. Sicbay were masters of song form. Whatever the objective of a given song, it was typically apparent within 20 seconds or so. Perfectly formed verses, choruses, post-choruses, bridges flying past in two or three minutes. And yet, as the same time, the music could be as gnarled or daunting as Sakes's prior triumphs with Dazzling Killmen and Colossamite. S'coughs is where it all startedthe rawest and most diverse of their albums. But even at this early stage, they had the whole thing figured out. Masterpiece. (Albums two and three, Overreaction Time and Suspicious Icons, are also essential.)

Snarky Puppy
And in closing, this tasty confection from Snarky Puppy. I was a few years late to the party for these guys, but once I sampled their wares, the appeal was obvious. This performance flirts with cheese—and the song itself can sound like beefed-up TV bumper music—but there's an exuberance here, a delight in the details, that's irresistible. A modern-day Brecker Brothers with hints of Meshuggah, maybe? In this day and age, playing music of such flash, intricacy and unabashed joy comes off as downright punk.

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