“Locust Abortion Technician” by the Butthole Surfers – Review

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(What have the Butthole Surfers done with my good taste? I listen to Locust Abortion Technician over and over again, like a masochist who volunteers to play rodeo clown. I used to like fun, tuneful bits like “Sweat Loaf” — always been a great thing to blast at my neighbors, and “Human Cannonball” has been hummed once or twice whilst the author attended some kind of Boy Scout Camp. [No place is more incongruous with the Butthole Aesthetic than an island at sea, that much I know]. Even the “Kuntz” experiment is tolerable. Essentially, back then I was pleased to have [cult]ivated such progressive taste as Weather Report and Nick Cave’s solo work — the dumb, weird bits of the album being “regressive,” according to my disbelieving sensibility. How could something as ugly as these fragmentary, non-composed “songs” entertain anyone? Then, one day a few weeks later, a sinister phenomenon materialized between my senseless neurons, the immediate effect of which was that certain things got “stuck in my head” — things like Paul Leary’s solos in “Weber” and “The O-Men,” lodged between amygdala and cerebellum, resting on those skronky, wavery little bits involving high notes. (Oh hell) Meanwhile, a downward trend began in my estimation of formerly beloved, more conventional tracks like the aforementioned “Sweat Loaf” or “Human Cannonball,” as their relative normality began to grate slightly when juxtaposed with such tendrilous equilibrial wondermassive cornelian complex terrificatory compositions as the also-aforementioned “Weber” and “The O-Men,” which I had previously prized only for its parody of the noted Seattle punks the U-Men. I transpose’ut that surf the Hole Tour Butters took thru Seattle, on which they probably discovered said U-Men, was also the stop at which Kim Thayil first saw them, and became the fan who would play so learily (and, it must be said, ranaldovesque) on Soundgarden’s nottingbad first album. Currently, even more grotesque bits (i.b. “Pittsburgh to Lebanon,” the ultra-slow “Graveyard”) course through my surprising skull jelly like the fumes of mustard gas, and I am transmogrificated like the stinking sheep that I am into a mindless devotee of the Butthole Surfers [I bring them offerings! Not blood, really — often the B.S. [short for Benevolent Superbeings] settle for tofu with a dash of garlic salt.] I cannot stop listening, and in listening cannot stop adoring — caught in a cycle — victim — can’t even write like a normal person — who typed this crap on my blog pag)

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“…the reverse may be true” by Disen Gage – Review

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Three Russian albums figure prominently in my music collection. The first I found was Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra’s version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. While I have not listened to many other recordings of that famous piece, I can say without reservation that the Gergiev version rises head and shoulders above the ones I have, stupendously portraying what Stravinsky himself called the “earth cracking open and groaning.” The second, Air Canda, is the self-nominative debut of a jazzy progressive-rock band with a strong dedication to the brainy avant-garde but also to the propositions of rock and funk. They are the reason I took notice of R.A.I.G. Records, the label on which Disen Gage were also based for awhile.

This album, as you may have guessed by now, is the third. It was my second R.A.I.G. purchase. I was drawn in by its cover art, with the birdcage-headed man and all; it was supposed to be trippy, but was just absurd enough to get a chuckle out of a cultured listener. After all, that’s what I was. *Elicits a bored “pffft” from the crowd*

Since I was browsing the catalog on Bandcamp, I was able to listen to the music beforehand. I focused my beams on the first two pieces, “What’s Up on Planet Plyuk?” and “Landing (including “Mamushka”),” and attempted entry.

Disclaimer: “Planet Plyuk” is a track to avoid for anyone who dislikes the polka. Its hilarious intro includes the sound of water moving through pipes behind a cheap plywood wall, as though the listener were crammed into some European-size apartment. The music begins. The reverb is cold and relatively narrow, but spacious on the top, cloudy but not gloomy. It is morning music for Western Russia, the soundtrack over which one wakes up and asks: “Shit, what am I going to do today?”

As the song develops, the nerdy little lead guitar (this is, after all, a band of biochemistry Ph.D.’s) takes charge and speaks with more eloquence, repeating himself for effect occasionally and suddenly, with the band’s entry, drops into a lower register to address us in friendly song. The band behind him is hard-hitting and swaggers through — hey, that’s a rock beat behind our friend, and a horn section. What kind of goofy crap is this? I came for the oompah, and I leave with a parade march.

Give the bass a few measures to himself, as he boinks along in 5/4 with some lowercase electronic beeps and boops, and then the rest of the instruments take over the song again. Suddenly it’s a fast 4/4 gunslinger, with the original guitar right out in front of the hollow trebly drums, the bass pining beneath it; the guitar cries a few more notes from the original theme, before the tape loops backwards in the machine for two bars and the guitar drops back in again without missing a beat; he exits and the song’s brakes kick in soon enough. As the band finally drops out, the plumbing noise returns momentarily, only to exit as well with a grand spacious whoosh. A building wave of cymbals crests over the next song, and a series of dissonant major thirds introduces “Landing.”

There is very little else one can say about “Landing,” except that it’s a crying shame that it includes no spy-chase music video. It starts with laid-back intrigue, rises to an insistent thrust; adopts a secretive industrial tone, returns to spy music; erupts into hideous metallic laughter, and swings back and forth like a maniac to the screams of synthesized horns; has a moment of clarity and beauty; returns to brilliant mechanized instability. Another piece of quietude attempts to clarify the situation — this must be the nightclub scene. Instead it only makes things foggier and more incomprehensible. The pursuer steps outside to clear his head, sees his target. Their pulses rise in unison, until the one is chasing the other through the streets of Berlin or Moscow or some such sophisticated city, stealing mopeds left and right, flailing desperately through the eight-inch avenues, crossing thousand-year-old bridges, but each equally matched (the music changes chords slightly to indicate whose point of view is whose) until the triumphant hero comes close, and then I guess both find a tank to drive like in that Pierce Brosnan-as-James Bond movie. All hell breaks loose to the pounding doop-chick beat, with little interludes for the band members to shout “Mamushka” at increasing volumes, trading fours with their own instruments to heighten the manic-schizophrenic minisym. Then a tragic denouement, ending the song on a minor chord when a major should have triumphed — the bad guy wins, I guess. Shit happens.

Next is “Lehaim to N.E.P.” I used to think that it was a tribute to some kind of futuristic train route, like “Trans-Europe Express,” but I googled “Lehaim” and “N.E.P.” separately and learned that the former is a Jewish blessing (along the lines of “to life” or “long live X”) and the latter the acronym for Lenin’s pro-capitalistic New Economic Plan. In other words, the title actually means “long live pro-capitalistic Soviet policy.” Go figure. The song itself is as nonsensical as its title, bursting into flowering trumpet solos and snaking along the most dumb-hilarious melodic lines this side of Frank Zappa. A couple of guitar solos serve to raise the song’s profile more than a little. It ends on exactly the wrong chord after an irregular number of bars, just to mess with us.

“Exyrinx” begins with a solemn solo guitar lead, issued from high on a windswept ridge in the steppes of the barren East. Bass and drums work in tandem, pursuing mind-bending goofy textures in the pursuit of  irony. Over this does the guitar progress, dropping into its cavernous low register and appearing in the right speaker and the high and low center of the aural space. It grows more distinct and trebly over time, as electronic whicks and whocks build in the background (god, this producer is brilliant) until the bass adopts a different rhythm and guitar 2 enters; a short, anxious new theme enters and drops out again in favor of the old jam, but returns and moves forward (jumping out occasionally to a new piece) and perverting the original beat once more before returning to the height of tension, a paranoid guitar wailing in the foreground and balling up again before the release of a flood of tension and the return to a more insistent variation on the original lead. The bass and drums repeat their earlier loop and a gentle tremulous organ washes the surrounding soundscape clean, like a mother and her bubble-bath soap. The guitar becomes sentimental once again and winds the piece down again to a crackling lo-fie background.

“To Kill Kenny” is not the best track here, but leaves no doubts about the band’s love of arpeggios. I do not complain — I love innovative ones myself, and when the rhythmic guitar on the left begins to interact with the right it becomes pure bliss. The song adopts a pleading tone partway through, but leads eventually to a speedening crescendo and several key changes to ultimately… sort of… pass away. The last chord in the song is major when it should be minor. (I already used the term “Picardy third” in my Jack Johnson review, so I will demur here.)

Say, isn’t that Les Claypool? “The Parovoz Hitchhikers to Japan” (if you can’t tell, the concept is related to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which I absolutely adore) begins with a slap-bass riff, and the guitar moves in predatorily to play some surprisingly pentatonic licks: key one, semitone higher, octave jump, octave and semitone, before reverting and skipping back down the neck with this epic flourish (hear and believe!) before rolling under again and then returning to the original riff. The epic lick is repeated, and the return to subtlety; then another factory-made quasi-rhythmic clang, until crowds of people materialize in the background, and steel drums — of all the hilariously tasteless instruments to insert — play a brief solo. A halting boink grows in intensity until a guitar screams behind it, begging the audience for reprieve before it finally goes the “artistic” route and commits suicide, and a blistering return from the first motif only once, before the song fades out on a single synthesizer chord.

This was originally my favorite track.

“God Saw Otherwise,” if I may appropriate mental-health imagery for a second, begins with a bad case of Tourette’s Syndrome, interrupting its timid guitar lines with explosive bassy thumps every few measures. Each chorus (the structure is almost conventional, when compared to the likes of “Landing” and “Exyrinx”) lets loose with heavyweight thuds, and a decent enough bridge makes it a good song, if not epic. It passes out in about three minutes from lack of oxygen.

“Laxatives Are Included” constitutes a return to form, however. A sluggish bassline introduces the song, until the guitar and drums give it a sense of more regimented laziness: a drowsy platoon on parade. Throughout, a Blixa Bargeld-ish sheen of slide feedback shimmers and squiggles comically. The song dunders along quite hilariously for a few minutes, until it goes back to straight 4/4 and begins a devious series of variations on the original theme; the song, ridden with anxiety, picks up the the pace gradually, reaches a reverbed climax, then reverts to a momentary attempt to find the fret the guitarists were playing earlier. The original theme is stated, and the bass slides into the midrange to give us the final note. The shiny ambient Blixa guitar fades.

We then get “Ikar’s Guide to the Galaxy.” (Get it? Like “Hiker’s,” but different? We’re so funny, Disen Gage and I.) This is the other “epic” song present. The opening motif reminds me a lot of Irish music, with the pentatonic jig and all that, but the band is never less than eager to jerk you around, and quickly winds things down into palm-muted territory, where under the guitars we can hear a synthesizer and somebody making cute mouth noises. The speaker begins to shout “Lyuli-Potzelui” (apparently means “gypsy kisses” in Uzbek or something) in a ridiculous falsetto. They will do it again. A few more bars, and then a short burst of incendiary ’80’s metal guitar, then a muted vibraphone solo. Seriously.

More mechanical beats and atonal guitar abuse. These chugging riffs raise the stakes until we’re at an entirely new level, and then the breaks begins: cracks in the foundation, band members screaming the words from the song’s title (which appears to mean “gypsy kisses,” but I don’t speak Uzbek so it’s uncertain) for a few bars, trading off with the guitars like in “Landing” until the song just… disappears. In its place is a French voice and some cool-jazzy bass ambience, which is replaced soon enough by a spacious, melodramatic piece that could have come from a 20th-century symphony or a semi-lame jazz fusion album. Not that it’s bad — just a little over-the-top. Kind of like the rest of the album. But hey, it comes with the territory when you’re the best ironic prog band in Russia.

A couple of peeping sounds introduce “How Much Is Oxygen On Planet Khanud?” and a bassline follows them. It swings along for a couple of minutes, but eventually slides into that big, dramatic atmosphere from the end of the previous song. This one is a bit more fleshed out, and features what sounds almost like a bass solo with both noisy and wahed guitars; the first motif, now absent the swing, plays once more. The tempo picks up, doing that half-step-at-a-time I love so much in Guru Guru and jazzy music, but unfortunately the piece dissipates in time and the album comes to a regrettable end. A man shouts in Russian as the peeps come back and the toilet sound from track 1 is reprised, and that’s the end of …the reverse may be true.

A final note (DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE HEARD THE RECORDING): according to the Bandcamp liner notes, the album was recorded solely with the use of guitars and effects pedals. That means all the instruments you heard — brass section, trumpet, steel drums, harmonium, peep-whistle (whatever played the intro to “Planet Khanud”), vibes, synthesizer, flute, calliope, theremin and anything else I missed — are special effects played on some dude’s guitar. Each solo, it seems, was played in the style of the instrument it emulated, and quite well done too. I think it might be Sergei Bagin who brings these pedals to the table — they aren’t in evidence on The Screw-Loose Entertainment, the album recorded before he joined the band, but they are definitely in the fabric of its descendant Libertage. You’ve probably stopped reading by now, so let me reiterate:

DISEN GAGE = GOOD. REVERSE IS BEST DISEN GAGE ALBUM. GO NOW. TUNE IN.

My opinion of this album continues to rise.

Why I Won’t Use Ratings Anymore

I used to include ratings (out of 10) in my reviews. I understood somewhat that this was a stupid thing to do, and so to indicate ironic detachment from the whole concept of ratings systems, I called it the “Arbitrary Scale.”. However, I read today that Julian Cope hates irony because he believes it a way of endorsing what one could never publicly like: “Like bands that put car shit on their album sleeves and say it’s anti-car.” (He had another great line in there about putting giant tits on the cover, but this is a family website. Sort of.) I realized that I was, in fact, endorsing the use of quantitative rubrics to evaluate non-quantitative things — like music, for Christ’s sake. I may have pretended to hate doing it, but I did it regardless. What kind of fuckface does that make me?

Not anymore. I realize that no one is actually reading my reviews or articles right now (shame on the world), but from this point forward I commit: I shall not rate music on a numerical scale. No five stars, no four stars, no ten points, no nothing of that variety.  Part of the time, Robert Christgau had the right idea when he appraised some albums as “bombs” and “choice cuts” and such, instead of trying to add up and divide the points accrued in the listener’s own fatuous head. Julian Cope, too, in his Head Heritage website, has made progress against he use of ratings systems by talking at length about the music he loves. In fact, I realize that I do something more similar to him than to a conventional reviewer: they are handed records to evaluate, to fill space in a publication; Cope is advocating for what he loves through the Internet. Just like me. If I were to go the traditional numerical route, I would either have to stick with a series of meaningless high ratings for all the personal favorites I now write about, or I would have to review shit that I hate to give some perspective on the evaluative system. From now on, then, I pledge that I will not attempt to evaluate albums based on math, my least favorite subject. Why should I give it any acknowledgement in what I feel about this music? Instead I will stick to writing, my chief mode of expression. I am not pledging to avoid evaluating my records — that, after all, is the whole point of this blog — I am pledging to keep calculation out of art.

“A Tribute to Jack Johnson” by Miles Davis – Review

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Today I listened to this album in the car with my recording-arts mentor. As we drove back from his studio in Morgan Hill, CA I remembered that the last time I had played a CD in his car it was the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On the Dime. I was amused briefly to realize the near total opposition of the two: the Minutemen album was seventy-five minutes long, filled to the absolute brim with forty-three little M-80 blasts, each about ninety seconds in length; Davis’ was a single record which staggered under the weight of two slablike tracks, each between twenty-five and twenty-seven minutes long. Double Nickels was composed of funk-rock that attempted to pass as jazz; Jack Johnson was a summit of jazz and fusion masters who had come together to play funk and rock and roll. I grow away from the former and towards the latter.

I don’t like Bitches Brew either. I listened to that rotten soup of good intentions for a year without making any headway, and the only track I ever enjoyed in part was “Pharaoh’s Dance.” Ultimately I have shelved it; perhaps I will return. Probably not. (My insincere apologies to Greg Tate, who wrote so lovingly of the Bad Brains: I like some of what you like. Other stuff, not really.)

Anyway, the backing band for this earth scorcher is one of the first reasons I saw fit to invest in it. John McLaughlin, perhaps my personal favorite guitarist, gets chances aplenty to scream over “Right Off” in his eminently air-guitar-worthy Mahavishnu style, but in “Yesternow” he exercises a subtlety surprising for the author of such schmaltz as “A Lotus On Irish Streams” (and pretty much all of the Orchestra’s later work). It appears that he has discovered the wah-wah and distortion pedals under a loose cobblestone at an Indian temple and resolved to let everyone else know they exist. The album begins with one of his power-chord flourishes in stumbling 4/4, before drummer Billy Cobham irons out the bunched-up rhythm with a swingin’ rock beat. (Side note: Cobham also drummed for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and his duet with John McLaughlin in the intro to “The Noonward Race” is a sound to behold. In terms of sheer technique he may actually exceed Neil Peart, and in dynamic sensibility [and not being a libertarian asshole] he far exceeds Rush’s drummer. Give’m a hand, folks.) McLaughlin rips the next two minutes apart into a series of scowling guitar runs; these segue obliquely into a key change (from E to Bb pentatonic) which appears to catch the bassist by surprise. (Bassist Michael Henderson performs admirably throughout, though he gets the usual rock-bassist shaft because of his secondary role to the lead instruments. His basslines are highly constant, however, and do not disappoint when scored against the bass’s true benchmark: maintenance of the groove, the ass-shaking chest-thrusting foot-tapping groove. One revels in the drummer’s antics, pantomiming and praising; when the bassist takes control, however, it’s like Victor Wooten’s imaginary mentor says in The Music Lesson: “They’re really cheering for you.”

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About here, the man who was supposed to be on the album cover enters in. (On the original release, Davis’ trumpeting profile against a black background was exchanged for a stylized painting of the titular boxer. The printers also spelled Teo Macero’s name wrong. Twice.) Miles plays trumpet in bleating blasts, as he always has. He has McLaughlin to take care of breathless speed-leads and lightning scales, so he focuses on sustained squeals in the upper register, and often harps on one or two notes in rapid succession at Thompson-gun speed. No gunslinging here, though — Miles need not protect his massive reputation. In fact, he only appears on the first side for about eight of its twenty-seven minutes, and for the rest lets his manic sidemen, all about ten or twenty years his junior, turn them jazz cats loose from the bag. This is a badass setup.

After about ten minutes the producer inserts a minute-long segment of Miles’ trumpet playing, accompanied in the left speaker by an earaching electronic loop that is the only downside to headphone listening. Ultimately the break serves the recording well by providing a short reprieve from the relentless rock attack of side 1, which might grow monotonous if left unchecked. No one, however, would call it their favorite part of the album, and one is relieved when “Right Off” resumes. A saxophonist named Steve Grossman makes a series of reedy, nerdy soprano runs which use too many notes but make their point well enough. He plays for several minutes and says a great many florid things, perhaps oversharing; in any case he performs well. I can’t help wishing, however, that we’d gotten another Wayne Shorter solo in a Miles band; had Wayne been there to turn brass into gold, there’s no telling how brilliantly copies of this album would have glowed yellow on record-store shelves. Anyway, after Grossman’s session flashes the keyboard of the famed Herbie Hancock, whose Headhunters solo album yielded my enthusiastic approval (I actually put a band together to play “Chameleon” for a school talent show). Hancock’s fascination with cheesy synthesizers is still several years distant, and he is instead given a “Louie Louie” organ with which to make a serious point about the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Fortunately he ignores the festival owners’ orders and lays down a damned fine solo.

After Herbie, however, the very texture of the music changes. Cobham suddenly begins to whack away at another 4/4 beat, the same from the album’s beginning, which McLaughlin accompanies with a bizarre 12-bar guitar lick. Apparently some bands have recycled the riff as the “Theme from Jack Johnson,” none of whom I can find on the Internet. The songs I can find which are titled “Theme from Jack Johnson” do not actually include the 12-bar lick in their interpretations of Davis songs, instead riffing on the intro/outro of “Right Off” and the primary bassline in “Yesternow.” Can’t say I blame them, as those motifs are far more interesting.

Luckily, the “Theme” ends pretty quickly and, holy of holies, the band actually returns to the introduction in E pentatonic. (I mean no offense to schmaltzians, but E is a way better key than Bb.) This outro is the highlight of the entire album. It defies words, except that

the head shakes from left to right to up and down and in all directions, hair and wonderment splattering the walls with Pollockian patterns of wonder and blunt socket extatic yes indeed it is in fact Herbie Hancock getting a shot at the organ manipulative pedals and hand pusher syndromic cyclopic virgin buttons of bliss swirling howl undue trapezoidal microcosms reverbrating more and more unto detailed bliss

during the organ solo. Afterwards Grossman embarks on a far more interesting solo, and John McLaughlin reminds us that he’s here, and he’s fucking mad. If the song were asphalt it would not play on a turntable, but for the sake of argument if the song were asphalt McLaughlin is an airplane that crashes onto it in bloody burst of fire and screeching metal. There is no way to end the song but on a fade-out, because a jam like “Right Off” goes on into infinity. Like Finnegan’s Wake, the ideal listener would loop it so that the ending segues softly into the blasting beginning. Fortunately, I get a little spent after twenty-seven swingin’ minutes of Miles Davis boogie rock, so I allow the second track to happen.

Side 2, “Yesternow,” is where most critics like Bob Christgau and I run out of energy. (He just leaves it at “music for a vacation on the moon.” Lazy bastard writes like four sentences per album. How can he not stand not advocating more for stuff he loves? Good incisive writer, though.) However, it deserves none of the shadow that “Right Off” attempts to cast over it, and stands purty darn strongly as its own twenty-six-minute celebration of funky bliss. Michael Henderson, der bajista barista, lays it down with a single bassline which he repeats endlessly for ten minutes. (The preceding sentence is a shining example of the oxymoron figure of speech.) John McLaughlin is uncharacteristically subdued, stinging softly with wahed-out chordal moans. Steve Grossman makes a short and passing appearance. Herbie plays a few muted organ chords, which space out and eventually die away at the end of the section. Billy Cobham hangs cymbal splashes on the confection like a diamonds on a chandelier, and Miles inserts oddly placed trumpet thingies into the overall stuff. I have officially run out of words. Luckily producer Teo Macero was kind enough to slap another soft interlude, extracted directly from the first few minutes of “Shhh/Peaceful,” into the middle of the half-hour track, giving me new vocabulary and a chance to discuss something that isn’t the first ten minutes of “Yesternow.” I have not mentioned the man often enough in this text, and will do so now: Macero is responsible for the bizarre shifts in tone and motif throughout Miles’ Sixties and Seventies work. He was a big fan of that tape-splicing technique which self-loving (read: wanking) “progressive” and psychedelic rock bands adopted to extend their songs to unsustainable lengths; Macero, however, was good at it. Get me not wrong — his product on Bitches Brew was not very interesting, but the sessions themselves were sow’s ears, and he couldn’t have made a whole lot of good of them. Instead, he got to hone his skills on that disappointing album, and developed new ways of interpolating and connecting song parts in time for Jack Johnson. It was he who managed to splice the straight-4/4 “Theme” into the swinging “Right Off,” and here takes four parts (the interlude, and three takes of “Willie Nelson” which comprise the parts of the song) and links them together in a similarly terrific fashion. Once the interlude ends we see that a second guitarist has joined the band: a guy named Sonny Sharrock, who plays a bleeping, blooping axe in the right channel. I have only ever heard one guitar like that: Blixa Bargeld of the Bad Seeds (and Einstazander Newbarton or whatever it is — I’ve never listened to it). Now I’ve heard two. It squeals and blubs throughout, playing as if through an amplifier recovered in that Antikythera shipwreck, watery and fluid and operates on an utterly alien premise which people only started aping years later. Meanwhile, McLaughlin plays his pentatonic licks in the left speaker, and before you know it he leaves a single measure of feedback echoing therein before embarking on a new lockstep pattern with Henderson; Sharrock continues his rude  futurism. Miles appears here and there to play his characteristic extended notes. We haven’t seen a group leader this absent since moderator Lester Holt during the second presidential debate of 2016. (ZINGER!)

Once the extended jam dies away, however, an entirely mood overtakes the piece. Heart-rending funeral brass bleat a sad march as Teo resurrects the trumpet solo from “Right Off,” and unexpected mysterious bittersweetness predominates for the last two minutes; the chords are sad and stately, the muted echoing trumpet devastates the soul, until a voice actor speaks authoritatively: “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black — and they never let me forget it. I’m black, alright — I’ll never let them forget it” — a reminder that the record is a soundtrack, and a salute, to the life of Miles’ favorite boxer.

The album ends on a Picardy third — a major chord when a one expects a minor. It’s a common form of resolution and indicates small but resolute hope.

Dire Realism In Kraftwerk’s “The Man-Machine” – Not a Review

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When I first listened to Kraftwerk’s album The Man Machine, an unnerving X-factor seemed to grip my mind and put me ill at ease. (“Once upon a midnight dreary…”) I was initially unable to pin down what made me uneasy about the songs, but eventually I realized that it was the lyrics: those cold, purely expository verses unencumbered by personal moral judgment. The themes that were explored rang a great number of bells: in “The Robots,” the band discusses the functions of mechanical beings in the lives of future humans. The difference between a Kraftwerk song and a typical American song, I realized, was in the approach that each songwriter would have taken to the subject at hand. Johnny Cash, for example, makes bare references to a more mechanized labor force in his song “Harley,” chuckling at the idea that people can “do it all with computers.” It takes people to innovate and enrich lives! The underlying assumption is that we are a long ways away from an automated future, full of nonhuman servants and companions. People are uncomfortable with the idea. By contrast, Kraftwerk’s robots sing and dance and proclaim their identities, in the sparse words that Ralf and Florian allow them. These are fully functional and personable robots, not dumb machines without people skills. Meanwhile, in real life, virtual reality seems to loom as the next big entertainment boom, and a few experts predict that people will have sex with robots in thirty-five years. The future is closer than we think.

Meanwhile, we see the landscape go up in a flood of “Neon Lights” which illuminate track 5. The typical American songwriter (Joni Mitchell) would describe the lights’ detrimental effect on the surrounding scenery, their glare blocking out the stars and scaring away the wildlife around the city. Kraftwerk, meanwhile, are enthralled by the glittering display of electricity and human ingenuity, and speak only of the lights. Their eyes are for the cosmopolitan and glamorous, much like those of the uncultured masses or “pop artists” in other places, notably Europe and the United States. (Kraftwerk the egalitarians? Nah.)

Most striking, however, is the story of “The Model.” At first the story is familiar: a beautiful woman shows up in the narrator’s life at a nightclub or someplace; he wants to pick her up, but can’t. She’s “above” him, and inaccessible. Meanwhile, she advances through the ranks of TV and magazine ads, until she is nationally recognized and is the toast of high society.

…and the song ends there. What, no retribution? No “go, you faithless Molly-O?” No “God’s gonna cut you down”? No “you think you’re cooler than me?” Nope. In any American songwriter’s work, this would have ended in the girl’s death, overdose, abuse at the hands of managers and advertisers, burnout with the life of a celebrity, misuse/abandonment by a trusted boyfriend, or just plain humiliation. Kraftwerk isn’t concerned with that karma crap; they just chronicle what they see. Even secular Americans (myself included, I admit) have a tendency to believe that some nebulous “universe” will sort the good from the bad and and dole out punishment to arrogant and condescending people (especially the women). Fairy tales and a reinforced belief in the “divine” nature of justice contribute to the bias. That doesn’t happen in our universe, though, and Kraftwerk brushes the ridiculous sentiment aside; instead, they portray events as they happen in a truly capitalistic society, in which the talented and blessed advance through the ranks without a single backward glance at the plebeian losers who gaze longingly at that rapidly receding ass. No lightning bolts will come for Das Model. Hurts like a motherfucker, doesn’t it?

That is the existential truth of Kraftwerk’s spare, deadpan lyrics. The world has no blind hand of justice, no regulation on the relentless march of the future, no built-in consolation for the passed-up and burnt-out. Only other people can provide those. We are fleshy stumbling blocks in the path of progress’s impatient army, and our foot-dragging is wearing on the nerves of whomever is really pulling the strings. We can, of course, do something about it. Or, like Ralf and Florian suggest, we can join the Metropolis, and become Men-Machines like the rest. Your choice(?).

“Into the Vortex” by Hammerhead – Review

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As a decent-sized fan of the Cows, I was nominally familiar with Amphetamine Reptile Records, the now defunct label that signed them and a quarter-million other skronky rock bands. I had also read Mark Prindle’s review of Halo of Flies’ compilation “Music for Insect Minds,” in which AmRep chief Tom Hazelmyer compared his old band’s compilation unfavorably to this particular Hammerhead album. He called Into the Vortex a “great [example] of a band fleshing out an album in its entirety.” Hazelmyer also referred to it in an interview with Terminal Boredom as an “amazing peak hit” and “an apex, possibly,” for the noise-rock genre. How could I not? (aside from hypothetically finding it horribly expensive on Discogs or really just hating what I heard on YouTube)

Some other idiot reviewed “Into the Vortex” as well for a “dollar bin” review blog or something. Give him some shit if you read this — he called them a “typical rough-around-the-edges hard rock band” and uncharitably appraised the first and last songs, while lukewarmitizing the second and eighth. Lame.

After all those “quotation marks,” the reader will probably be “glad” to resume the “regular” review and (“shit!”)

Get me not wrong — there are certainly problems with “Into the Vortex.” The biggest of these is the vocals, whose main perpetrator seems to be guitarist “Interloper.” It is safe to say that the sung parts of this album have grown a little bit on me (a sort of rubbernecking interest), but they are pretty certain to turn off much of the electorate. They make Guy Picciotto sound like fucking Caruso.

In addition, the album does not sound all that revolutionary at first. Most of its songs sound similar to other heavy and “heavy” nineties-rock bands: “Starline Locomotive’s” chord progression echoes the Melvins’ “At the Stake,” “Galaxy 66” has a galloping beat like one of those typical Johnny Cash songs, and “Empty Angel”‘s elastic groove even recalls that first Stone Temple Pilots album. (I was young, alright?) Like the moron at the dustbin review site, I didn’t really comprehend what made the album good — I had only listened a little bit.

Let’s begin, shall we? Good. “Swallow” is an interesting track. Compared to the other songs, its chord progressions rather drift out of the head during instantaneous recall, and the sole remaining components in my mind are the vocals and drums. Before I catch my tasteless self, I often will mutter “My mother she hates me… she turned my father against me…” under my breath in the computer lab. (I don’t know how many other people’s serene moments I’ve ruined with such exclamations.) The song itself turns almost hideously funny, in spite of the repulsive emo lyrics, when the singer’s voice squeaks during the verses.

“The Starline Locomotive” features more tonal and emotive singing, and the music gets correspondingly more digestible. As I mentioned earlier, its sweet chord progression comes mostly from elsewhere, but (it’s late and I need to go to bed)

Shit, this is good. Pardon me, I’m about a week distant from the horribly smug review I had been preparing for Hammerhead’s Into the Vortex. It more than deserves a second listen — it deserves a third, and a fourth, and maybe a tenth or thirty-seventh. As many times as you can without becoming unstable from loss of sleep. In fact, forget sleep — this will clean your brain of the chemical waste that accumulates during the day, the by-products of thinking around your fellow humans and respond to the alternating inanity and mind-boggling horrid putridity they are capable of displaying. When the words and the music are professed junk, only the noise makes sense; when the institutions are devoted to nothing, only the nothing can be devoted to something. So it is with Mr. Hammerhead and his second album.

Now, I realized today on the bus that a track-by-track review for such a unified album is more or less totally pointless. Instead, I plan to comment on the feel of the music, and perhaps include some shit about standout songs’ place in the whole. (Bring your pillow — keyboards make for uncomfortable dozing.)

The music, as a whole, benefits immeasurably from the distorted bass. It gives the recording a lumpy, substantial texture, like that of a baked potato, that (I kid you not) I can almost taste when I listen. Like Violet Beauregard chewing the forbidden gum, I feel the bass crackle between my teeth, and it is immensely crunchy. The guitar atop such scrumptious low-range frequencies is less punchiful than one might expect. It has a bit less distortion than one might expect from a “noise-rock” band, and plays a different sort of riff: what should, in theory, be standard Black Sabbathy shifts in tempo and mood end up somehow distinct. Perhaps it’s the diminished-fifth power chords that are often wedged alongside the root-note-based ones, but these riffs are subtly dissimilar to anyone else’s. And they change so quickly! Lead-off track “Swallow” chews through almost half a dozen in its four minutes, and “Journey to the Center of Tetnus 4” at least as many in seven. Did I mention that they’re not superfluous, either? Each pattern serves not to show how many riffs Hammerhead can cram into a song, but to advance the whole piece. It’s masterful composition, and displays a knowledge of songcraft uncommon to the hard rockers who occupy somewhere to the conservative right of Hammerhead’s niche.

The drums are another matter entirely. They are mixed into the background, serving as a kind of trebly flourish on the guitar’s antics, lacking a great deal of the immediacy that percussion often brings to the songs. On some tracks they plod agonized over the riff (“All This Is Yours”, “Journey”‘s introduction) but more often are an asset to a song: the drums give “Zesta” its water-treading, flailing-in-place feel, carry “Galaxy 66” at a daring gallop, lend a lopsided circularity to “Brest,” accent the elastic snap of the “Empty Angel” riff. Even if they lack in power and impact, the drums are more than essential to the atmosphere that hangs over Into the Vortex like a cloud of carnivorous bricks. If only they were more prominent.

I won’t mention the vocals. They are low-hanging fruit, which turn the stomach with their diffident mumble and hideous screech (traits which do not come together often, or well). Any idiot can listen to the album and make fun of them — it takes a genius like me to get past them and hear how great the backing band is. I also will not mention “All This Is Yours,” a musically repulsive song with absolutely abominable lyrics and no redeeming social value except as a delirious case study. (Fuckin’ A, this one is bad.) No point in listening again.

Again, I will not mention them.

My personal copy of this terrific(ally out-of-print) CD came from a Discogs order placed to Amoeba Music, but that’s probably not the only place you’ll find it. Used-album bins across the Midwest are surely pregnant with its brothers and sisters, so seek them out. Also, if you find Killdozer’s Twelve Point Buck, I’d appreciate a description. I hear it’s good.

“Out of Aferica” by the Heroine Sheiks – Review

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I’m not familiar with the Sheiks’ other work (two previous albums and a pair of CD singles), so I can’t comment on this album’s place in their discography or whatever. However, I have ONE point of reference to describe the experience: the twentieth-century composer Louis “Moondog” Hardin.

The main connection that Moondog has to the Heroine Sheiks is that I bought their albums at the same time; this is probably why I think of them together. Anyway, in his liner notes for the reissue of Moondog/Moondog 2, Hardin opines that his own originality (which he, incidentally, does not believe in) comes from the fact that he adheres to traditional forms, but implements weird elements within those forms. Indeed it does — Moondog 2 contains bizarre time signatures, beautiful harmonic-minor melodies, and percussion that the composer invented during his time as a New York hobo. Still, it falls squarely within the medieval “rounds” or “canon” format, in which the short theme is presented an infinite number of times. He stays weird within a traditional context.

The upshot is that the Sheiks sound like a rock band, and their songs usually conform to the intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus mode to which pop and rock have stuck for the past several decades, but they ultimately can’t help themselves when it comes time to bonk and squall. Christ, their leader was the singer for the Cows, and the guitarist, an awe-inspiring axe murderer (haw haw) named Martin Ros, played in an alleged noise band called La Pistola; I can’t vouch for the rest of them, but the drummer is rock-solid and the keyboardist is as well-versed in the use of close-placed clusters as I am in ultra-hyphenated descriptors. The bassist, as in many bands, gets short-ass shrift, though he plays great distorted Hammerhead-ish basslines in “You d’Etat” and “Break Up,” and makes a monumental contribution to the humid and simultaneously spine-chilling “closer” song.

In the “Day In the Life” segment from 9/3/16, I compared Out of Aferica to the Melvins’ Stoner Witch; that does not do the Sheiks justice. Certainly, Stoner Witch is great: it displays a pop-music orientation that, considering the Melvins’ major-label status and Buzz Osborne’s legendarily shameless taste, should have been an obvious step to take. The Heroine Sheiks, however, had nothing to lose in 2005 by releasing esoteric noise on level with the more difficult Cows material (think “The Woman Inside”). What Out of Aferica tells us is that this is a band that actively pursues a melodic and “traditional” direction, in accordance with the members’ own inclinations. They want to make noisy stuff that’s based on pentatonic pop and rock, that follows the structures of pop and rock music. They are grounded in earthly music in a way that so many “pure noise” auteurs are not, and I personally love it.

Having covered what makes the band itself special, I will return to the songs themselves. They cover a great deal of stylistic ground: scary ambience bookends the recording, as mysterious, substantial synth tones define “Stabbed By an Angel” and a few muttered Casio chords in “Harmonic Fix” encourages a second glance at the nasty pun in the band’s name; between these two blocks of wonder, however, sits some truly great down-home rock and roll. “Cock Asia” recalls the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For the Man,” if only because of the pounding saloon piano; its leaner, tougher cousin, “Brooklyntown Romeo,” beats rhythmic new relevance into the usually generic root-pentatonic third-fourth riff of its verse. (Can’t forget that chorus shout, either: “I am the Brooklytown Row-ow-ow-ow-OWOOOO yeah! Romeo!”) “Break Up” is absolutely hilarious, as Shannon Selberg impersonates three different people — a bickering man, a bickering woman, and their pissed-off mutual friend — who argue with one another throughout the song. (We don’t get a definitive ending, which may be for the better.) In “Jaws of Life,” it sounds as though the keyboardist played on the far left keys but turned down the bass, producing the series of dry oinks which make up the song’s motif. It’s a lot creepier in practice than on paper. “Through” has a decent bassline and a guitar solo that makes you look twice at Martin Ros, and “You d’Etat,” while it sounds very similar to the Melvins’ “Revolve” (another reason for the Stoner Witch comparison), is my personal favorite song on the CD. The introductory guitar lines in the right speaker makes me wheel my arms through the air, trying to slash those imaginary strings. (When air-guitaring, I never miss a note or hit a wrong fret.)

The attempts at lounge-lizardry are even more varied than the out-and-out rock. Compare “Pillow Talk” (which Grandma can never be allowed to hear. Ever) to “The Obscenery”: one is an unmentionable piece of understated (fun? atmosphere? shit?) and the other is a melancholy examination of Selberg’s life set to a pair of minor chords that come straight from the works of Leonard Cohen and Serge Gainsbourg. Nobody has to like both, but it’s hard not to be attracted to at least one of the two. The bonus track is not bad, either; I especially like the tripletted last line in each chorus: “I – am – out” growls a pair of Shannons over each drum hit. It lends the song a greater menace, as though the speaker rolls his shoulders forward a little bit with each syllable until he looks like absolutely feral in the mind’s eye.

My only concern is the slight misstep “Mr. Innocent,” which isn’t by any means bad. It comes off hokily, though, to put prancy, taunting, mock-confrontational funk-rock after one of the album’s best tension-builders (“Jaws of Life”), and I can’t really tell if it was a good idea to include it in the final album. However, it certainly breaks the tension between “Jaws of Life” and “Through,” both of which are subtle, dynamic pieces. Really, it’s not bad.

In the big picture, this is one of the most terrific albums I think I’ve ever heard. For your own sake, listen to it if you have any interest in bizarre music that was clearly crafted lovingly and without regard for anyone else’s prejudices. The Heroine Sheiks won’t seek you out, but they’re always available.

A final note: pay attention to Shannon Selberg’s free-jazzy bugle solos throughout the CD. I thought they were unnecessary at first, but over time they reveal a great deal of dramatic intuition, and don’t muddle or detract from the music. Try them on!

A finaler note: also, read the Sheiks’ great “biography” from their old website. It rules. http://www.heroinesheiks.com/biography/index.html