“Pentastar: In the Style of Demons” by Earth – Review

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Earth is a great steaming magnetic blob of melted iron with a delicate gravy skin of cooled dirt atop the inconceivable heat. Earth, by contrast, is hollow at its core: crumbling, dark, clouded with grime, withered and abscessed like the golden arm of Dylan Carlson. It chugs along through dead space, unchanging and directionless, an existential ride to nowhere. Piles of filthy newspapers gather in the corner like dead leaves after a rainstorm. The sky outside is gray and the clouds don’t seem to move at all. The air is dead and cold — not biting, not even brisk. The vacuum stands still and rebukes you for disturbing it.

The riff from “Introduction” takes up 5x∞ bars before an organ enters and the song grinds to a halt. Only marginally does it change, over five minutes, in inflection and slight intensity. The drums do not rock. They feel like periodic slumps, as though the emaciated drummer attempted to lift his sticks on each beat and failed, letting them fall against the skins.

“High Command” is marginally more digestible. Its groove and vocals help it maintain the appearance of life; the subject matter is, of course, scoring drugs. The fact that Carlson’s fellow junkies are characterized as Nazis lets us know he’s aware of the danger he’s in, but so far he has done nothing to stop the chain of events. The song dies on a gallows, kicking a little as it crosses the threshold. It is one of my favorites from the album.

Did I mention the key changes between songs? “Introduction” is in E; “High Command” falls to D; “Crooked Axis for String Quartet” (with four guitars — a literal, if not actual string quartet) theoretically brings things back up a step, but since track 2 emphasized the D on the A string, a seventh above the starting note of “Crooked Axis”, it helps the third song appear much deeper and more plaintive than its predecessor. “Crooked Axis” is entirely different from the first two pieces: a fuzzed bottom E string vibrates drearily in the background, a growl that gives soulful weight to a pair of fluttering, gorgeously sad guitars that dance in the upper register. The high frets of a bass gurgle periodically with a few funereal notes, and then the song ends on the original drone.

“Tallahassee”‘s groove is more secretive, what with the muted high notes. Carlson, a noted car enthusiast, shot an appropriately mysterious music video for the track, replete with red Plymouth and dudes cruising under a cloud-lit sky. Fun fact: the guy has never held a driver’s license.

(Fucking shit! I promised I wouldn’t do another track-by-track review.

Oh well.) The final song on the first side (the record can be had for like fifteen dollars on Amazon), “Charioteer,” treads along classically with that rhythm whose name I can’t remember, the one that sounds like nothing at all, which pops up in all kinds of orchestral stuff. The line, too, is more than pentatonic, but highly repetitive and so simple you’ll hum it all day for no reason.

The second half begins with a rip and a roar, as the guitars tear into Jimi Hendrix’s “Peace in Mississippi” and are dragged back to Earth (pardon me) by the plodding, sub-?uestlove-simple drums. As a guitar solos aimlessly, the rhythm changes as marginally as that of “Introduction.” The song is little more than an extended rock jam, but satisfying as all hell for people who like that kind of thing, myself included. It stops on a dime and

immediately a deep and pleasing piano chord falls into the atmosphere, the sound one expects a motion-capture water droplet to make upon splashing into a pool. At this point, my entire body goes limp, like the first time I heard Steve Roden’s “Airria (Hanging Gardens)“; my neck muscles give way and I slump back against the chair in which I sit.

The entirety of “Sonar and Depth Charge” consists of a pair of extended chords sounding off against one another. No other instruments appear; every time I listen to it I half expect John Coltrane to pop up after the first four bars, and every time I am irrationally disappointed. At first the piece, like all of Earth’s music, is deceptively simple, but it doesn’t even sound like a song so much as a sketch, a demo. It’s not even in time. The pedals creak constantly, and the sound is so murky that no respectable studio would have put its name on such a recording. Several listens later it sinks in: this is not regular music. Tap your foot to the spacing of the first two chords, and you will discover that the song has a rhythm; Carlson is simply avoiding it, playing the off beats like a jazz pianist. (This took me a long time to realize, so be aware that I’m sharing hard-won knowledge.) “Sonar and Depth Charge,” in all its majesty, is not wholly unique in the Earth catalogue, but its mood is not as despondent; there is no fuzz or distortion to deflect the listener from inspecting his innermost self. Like those paintings of a single ragged line down the otherwise blank canvas, the song gives a man permission to cry, dredging up his strongest suppressed sadness with its occasional stabs and liberating internal spaces.

Repaired and cleansed, I can now stare down the theme from “Introduction,” reprised in “Coda Maestoso in F-Flat Minor” (a little music-theory joke). The central riff is backed by tremolo guitar now, and rumbles along as before for three minutes or so before the organ enters in a brilliant swell and Sean McElligot spins out a air-worthy guitar solo. (For a guy with such a spindly tone, he can certainly make it scream.) We have heard one two other solos on the entire album, both decent but not inspiring; here he pulls out all the stops and rips the song to shreds, shrieking in triumph. Man has won — Man has stood his ground — Death is cheated, and inspires no more terror. Of course he will eventually overtake us, but we don’t have to make it easy on him.

What Brad Torreano of Allmusic doesn’t seem to understand is that these are the goods, these numb, melancholy abstracts portraying their numb, melancholy maker. I grimly suspect that Dylan Carlson’s stock would have gone up a million percent if he died of an overdose immediately after recording Pentastar. He and his fluctuating band remain one of the Nineties’ best groups because they didn’t romanticize the life of a junkie, like the music press so often does for those poor drug-addled schmucks who end up frothing spit, spasming in the doorway of a condemned building. “Drugs were part of his inspiration!” Obviously. Look at what they forced Carlson to make. He recognized that there was no gain in dying early or sacrificing himself — all those heroin deaths are nothing more and nothing less than a terrible loss. Instead, like Flipper, he celebrated life on side 2, recognizing the latent darkness and then refuting it with a brilliant climax. Fuck music, the music is incidental. The man is what counts.

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“Demo Tapes” by the Previous Engagements – Review

23-hoursFeel not ashamed if you don’t know what the Previous Engagements are — in fact they come from my old home town of Hollister, CA. A combo inspired by the Strokes and the less good tail end of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career, they are comprised of singer/guitarist Nick Burchard, bassist Liam Miller, and drummer Jon Chase. They play things pretty conventionally, without the noise, dissonance, or most of the idiosyncracies that distinguish most bands I like. So why are they up here?

Because, seventy-odd percent of the time, they ROCK!

Really! Their demo CD-R (since they’re all in college now, I expect it will probably be their only recording, unless they pull a Chicago XX like the Low-Maintenance Perennials) contains ten tracks, all recorded “in Nick’s living room” according to the liner notes; they hiss, fuzz, clip and dither, but never does the recording really sound like that lo-fi crap that previous generations of bands would have had to record to big brothers’ boomboxes. The recording is better than expected for a garage band — no stereo tricks for these one-mic genii, but the instruments do not blend together into a formless, fluctuating caramel gloop, which is just one of the things the Engagements have going for them. Nick Burchard performs pretty well as a punk singer.

I sat through most of one of their concerts. They played seventeen songs before I had to leave, most of which seemed to be originals; there was an indistinguishable Strokes cover, and maybe something else, but they appeared to be a pretty prolific bunch. (They definitely came up with more than the ten songs here.) Nick’s guitar had a single distortion pedal that I saw onstage, and he would turn it on and off, which generally indicated whether the song would be good or boring; it also sets the tone of most of the album, now that I think about it. His guitar solos cleaved uncomfortably close to my own, probably owing to the fact that we took lessons from the same teacher at Mr. O’s music academy. I sat directly in front of his squealing amp for most of the show, so I came away a little deaf. Earlier in the show, we (a friend and I) had borrowed Jonny to play drums for our performance of “Chameleon,” and he did pretty damned well for a guy who had never heard the song before. His shining moment(s), however, came with the Engagements and the songs he knew how to play. Listen to the drum intros for songs like “Fire” and “Kneecaps,” and you’ll see what I mean. The guy is a badass alt-rock drummer.

I interviewed bassist Liam once about going to college in Santa Barbara; it’s now on my list of schools to apply to, so I can’t really say anything bad about his performance. Luckily, I don’t have to — he was apparently the primary author of “Kneecaps'” driving bassline, which rules, and he plays a lot better elsewhere than most guys who learned bass while playing in the band. That’s some Flea shit right there.

Nick’s amp and the sheer length notwithstanding, I enjoyed the show a great deal, and was inspired by the fact that a decent garage band can emerge from Hollister. If I can only replicate those kinds of results with my own current band… but never mind. I’m pretty sure I heard most or all of the songs on 23 Hours during the show; I remember my two favorites, “Kneecaps” and “Another Day,” and hoping that they were included on the CD’s available outside. I remember discovering, disappointed, that the songs were burned to a CD-R. I remember calling Nick’s mom and asking for the files on a thumb drive, and ripping them to my computer. (I listen to the Engagements on my iPod pretty much exclusively.)

The songs lean more towards the punk than pop, for the most part. Heck of a relief. “Another Day,” “Fire” and “Kneecaps,” as mentioned before, are among the best of the bunch, and make for great listening. “Another Day” in particular sticks strongly in my head, even when I haven’t listened to it in awhile. It reminds me just the slightest of simplified Fugazi: punk drive, but with closer to five or six chord changes and a chorus that consists of a badass singalong shout: “Gonna  have to wait for another day, gonna have to wait for another day. GONNA HAVE TO WAIT FOR ANOTHER DAY, GONNA HAVE TO WAIT FOR ANOTHER DAY!” (If you look the band up on YouTube, be disappointed, and realize that the Previous Engagements with two-hundred-odd views is NOT the half-great Hollister group. It is a shitty unappealing pop-punk-nu-metal band that probably lives in Texas or some hellhole.)

Anyway, to overpraise these great songs is to reduce the importance of the good ones — there are plenty of those too. In fact, the first half is almost spotless in its punk-based charm. Very few mid-tempo songs prevail, and the songs themselves stick profusely in my head. “Warm Winter” reminds me of the Skin Yard rarity “Out of the Attic.” Only “Not For You” really kind of stinks. Nick yelps “oh baaaaby, can’t you seeeeee?” I remember hearing this one at the show and being about as bored by it; I think he introduced it as “the one my girlfriend likes,” which is never a good sign.

The second half is almost as good. “Years In the Shade” is a kind of walking ballad, but its barely upbeat chord progression keeps it going doing the chorus; “Years In the Shade” is based on a series of picked blues-rock notes that I’m pleasantly surprised to say that I’ve never heard in anyone else’s songs. Good to hear a little originality. However, most of part two is only slightly less languid than the aforementioned “Not For You,” and it exemplifies “side 2 syndrome” (as one cognizant Alice in Chains reviewer observed of the group’s album Facelift). I really don’t like “Justified” that much — it moves with the urgency of a sedated DMV clerk — but the progression from verse to chorus rings well in my ears, so I give it a pass.”Final Goodbyes” closes things out on an average note, somewhat like the album itself: a combination of strong energy and questionable but ultimately rewarding melodrama. It’s in swingless, fast-waltz 3/4. (Oh I almost forgot track 9)

“Fire” is probably my personal favorite song from the entire record. I’ve figured out the guitar part, and plan to get m’band on playing it live sometime. I remember walking home from the SAT Subject Test when a neuron misfired somewhere and the song abruptly entered my head. I stopped immediately and began to notice the beautiful stretch of the land near the high school, the ranches that spanned the whole valley up to the horizon. The grass in those fields was unusually green, the cows content and the air crisp, the sky blue and cloudless. I took in the view gratefully, aware that I had no obligations for the rest of the day. “Fire” echoed through my mind as I turned around and walked back to the town, in the direction of home.

“Diggin’ What You’re Doin'” by Big Black and His Congregation – Review

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Couldn’t find a nice big photo of the sleeve alone, so I pulled this from the Internet. Recognize any of those albums in the corner?   (I don’t.)

The full title is “If You’re Diggin’ What You’re Doin’, Keep On Doin’ What You’re Diggin'”. A record-setter on multiple counts: most properly capitalized words in a row, greatest number of words, greatest number of apostrophes (for a while it looked like “28 Jumpin’ ‘n’ Jivin’ R’N’B Recordings” would take that cake), and — most crucially — longest title recited fully during the song! Most people who give their songs long names don’t end up quoting them directly, aside from when the Beatles had nothing to hide with their monkey and the Minutemen requested that you not be too gentle with them, so it refreshes one to see musicians willing to own up to their ridiculously long song titles. (This includes the classical guys who include all that useless “Opus 4, Movement 1, Part 1 – Pointless Title” stuff at the beginning. Why?)

The album was pressed on the Universal City Records, a subsidiary of MCA, which is now out of business. Its victims (popularly known as “signed artists”) included Neil Diamond, Rakim, Elton John and Strawberry Alarm Clock, whatever the hell that is, and was shuttered in 1972, saddening millions everywhere who hoped to get their hands on ol’ Neil’s early crap. (In fact I found Stones at Goodwill a little while ago, and decided to buy it because of the UNI label; I took it up to the counter and the cashier said “oooh, Neil Young?” I shifted it under my arm so he could see the “Diamond” underneath. “Almost. Maybe a little less cool.”) (Also, I now know that I don’t like Neil Diamond.)

Diggin’ What You’re Doin’ has that distinctive swirly Universal City label in the center, with the yellow center surrounded by slabs of pink and green. I quite like it. My copy’s edge is somewhat worn, making it difficult sometimes to land on the spot required to start “Diggin’ What You’re Doin'” or “234 Northwest Twelfth” at their very beginnings; I’ve taken to placing the needle with my bare hand instead of the lever.

It lands like the Apollo 11, in a cloud of dust and profound anticipation. Almost immediately, if I’ve done it right, a rich and passionate chorus stabs from the speakers: “If you’re diggin’ what you’re doin’ — goooo riiiight ooooooooooon… dooooin’ what yooou’re diiiiiggiiiiiiiiiin’!” The group launches into four bars of frantic funk before stopping and adopting a smile-inducing midtempo groove, and the choir returns at a regular speed. The lyrics of the first and titular song endorse the pursuit of happiness, in that peculiarly hippy fashion whereby the narrator doesn’t really care that much what you do, but advises you to be merry. Interestingly, a short couplet (“And you’re speedin’ up all the time/Usin’ plenty dope, drinkin’ whiskey and wine“) seems to contradict that other fixation peculiar to hippies, though.

Such themes permeate the other tracks. Each seems to be about leaving behind some dark state of worry for enlightenment and personal freedom: “Children’s Philosophy” hides environmental worries behind pop strings and a jaunty feel, while “Vanity” finds the narrator leaving behind some kind of relationship with a power imbalance, be it romantic, paternal or social. (This does seem like a very Sixties-ish record, with its harping on “love and peace” serving as a metaphor for broader angst about a simplified view of the world.) There are a few tracks which abandon the pretense of a good time for pure, menacing mystery: “234 Northwest Twelfth” is dark, primitive, enveloping psychedelic funk on par with “I Walk On Guilded Splinters”; meanwhile, the repetition in “Long Hair” slowly beats what might have been an innocuous anti-yuppie statement (“They are taking over the long hair”) into a foreboding promise. Those ghostly backing singers only raise the stakes.

Overall the mood is one of hope, of abandoning the sinking ship. While the short pop songs reinforce it lyrically, the buildup of each jam song is what really sinks it home. Big Black and His Congregation are a topflight funk band: witness the guitarist, playing with that ultra-trebly fuzz-buzz tone common to mostly Black pre-punk music (see Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” or Amanaz’s “History of Man” for other examples), attempt to squeeze solos from “Diggin'” “234” and “You and Me.” These songs aren’t about the improvisation, really, but the feel. The lead instrument doesn’t serve as the center of attention; instead it responds to the groove, as all the others do, that strange state of vibing with the other musicians even without clear direction so common to the music Big Black was steeped in; the great black hole, the pulsing mass in the center of the aural architecture that resides in no single player, stretches and yawns like a drowsy lion, throbbing in time and feeding off of and into the musicians assembled around it in supplication.

(In the words of Douglas Adams: “this is… this is total vocabulary failure!”)

If you do see Big Black’s old albums lying around in a deep crate, waiting to be picked up by a discerning music lover, don’t hesitate — dig it! Personally, I’m on the hunt for Elements of Now!, so I would appreciate any direction y’all could give me.

“The Greatest Gift” by Scratch Acid – Review

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There is no symbolism to this review’s placement in my personal chronology. Following the Birthday Party’s best work with the collected output of Scratch Acid is not meant to indicate that the latter is derivative of the former, though there is a definite trace of the former in the latter’s music. It would seem the former was latter’s inspiration for a good bit of latter sound, but latter proved as formative for at least as many third parties. Kurt Cobain — you know what? never mind. I won’t include the Kurt Cobain opinion here, partly because everyone does it and partly because I don’t like Nirvana a whole lot anyway, so I will give the slot to Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, who proclaimed in a Jonathan Gold interview that “we were way more into stuff like Scratch Acid” than the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. It matters not that his claim is total horseshit, because it’s hard not to like Kim — he recognizes the essential coolness of a lot of noisy bands (Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid) and is the only “extrovert” in Soundgarden, willing to run his mouth to the press. In a world where my friends’ friends vent on Facebook about how much other people exhaust them, Kim will happily tell any interviewer that Soundgarden invented and popularized drop-D tuning, even when the Melvins actually did it about four or five years earlier, but who cares? You get to hear the man who played the “Like Suicide” solo speak in public. Cobain seemed to have that same gregariousness, from what I’ve read, but I think Kim was part of a cooler band (if not by a whole lot).

During an extended Q&A session at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, I felt the itch to get the hell up and sit in the lobby for a minute. It was a long day. While sitting in one of those nice chairs outside the radio station, I boredly pulled up my Mark Prindle page and read about that Scratch Acid outfit I’d always heard about but never paid attention to. All their albums, it seemed, were conveniently printed a while back on a single 74-minute CD, titled The Greatest Gift. I resolved to look for it. Later that weekend, as I toured the depths of Everyday Music (the one on West Burnside) I happened upon the only Scratch Acid CD in the entire rack, which turned out to be the compilation I had read about briefly. That was a good ol’ trip to the CD rack: I also picked up the out-of-print Pink Flag CD ($8.50), along with The Stooges ($4.25), Birdland w/Lester Bangs ($5.00), a scratched-ass(id) copy of Hinten/UFO ($8.50) and We’re Only In It For the Money ($8.50), in the digital remaster that everyone claims is terrible because the boneheaded record company didn’t store the masters properly and forced poor Frank Zappa to overdub dozens of parts for the CD. I think it works rather well, especially since that old mix was no great shakes either. Sounds like they wrapped the mics in felt. (We do not speak of the copy of Big Black’s terrible live “Pigpile” album that I bought as well, sacrificing the Fall’s Live At the Witch Trials. Need to re-order my priorities.)

Christ, I go on a lot of tangents.

As any reliable person could tell you, the CD is made up of three albums. The first, the Scratch Acid EP, is generally regarded as their best, an estimation with which I agree. By all means it has the best mix of any SA recording, lacking both the castrated whoompf of Just Keep Eating and the ultra-clarified Berserker scritch-a-scratch fest. (Steve Albini, it must be said, likes the Birthday Party a little too much.) The first EP also has the best songwriting of the three, because for every go-nowhere “Cannibal” there is a “The Greatest Gift” (an unhinged twist on surf-rock), a “Monsters” (pure fucking chaos), an “Owner’s Lament” (whose string quartet has grown tremendously on me), and pretty much all of Side 2. Thus, of all the songs, 87.5% are terrific, and the remaining twelve and a half aren’t really bad, so I think the whole thing fulfills about ~94% of its potential. Off the charts for a band with only one bad studio song under their gator-leather belts.

The best thing about the first Scratch Acid album is that they sound so fully baked already. The amateurs who played three listless instrumental jams to introduce the Butthole Surfers had, like Jack Kerouac with his Bennies and infinite roll of copy paper, transcended most of their inspiration to turn out relatively unique product. Sure, some of it sounds a bit like the Birthday Party (“Monsters,” “Mess,” “She Said”), but wine still tastes like grapes even after it ferments.

The only full-length LP the band released, Just Keep Eating, is probably my least favorite of the three records included on The Greatest Gift. This doesn’t really say much — the first four tracks would blow doors off saloons if they had a stronger, more trebleful mix, and “Amicus” and “Cheese Plug” are not bad at all — but it is hard to listen sometimes to the middling to lame likes of “Ain’t That Love,” “Holes” and the absolute nadir of Scratchy creativity: “Spit a Kiss.” David Yow may NOT mumble his choruses! The total mix is the sonic equivalent of those bootleg movies you see on YouTube and Torrent, where they put a big shiny dot in the center and slow things down a lot to avoid copyright issues. I honestly don’t know what the band or the producer were doing — David Yow himself hated it, and I think I remember Rey Washam saying unkind things about it as well. Must have either been a budget thing, or they had executive-asshole producer, like with Soundgarden and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first albums. Speaking of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, doesn’t “Cheese Plug” sound like something from that album? Maybe a lot less forgettable than most Chili Peppers songs, but stylistically similar.

Blah. Now that I’ve washed my mouth out, we can discuss the Berserker EP. No record with six songs has any excuse for being inconsistent, yet Berserker may have crossed this line. Fully one-third of the EP is made up of near-total shit: “Moron’s Moron” is some kind of patience-murdering take on industrial crap, peddling futilely on a two-chord exercise bike for old people, and “This Is Bliss,” while it does have that hilarious little “om-om-nom-a-nom-a-nom” bit after the third chorus, is comprised mostly of cheese. Luckily, we can turn to the other four songs for reliable entertainment. Even if “Mary Had a Little Drug Problem” sounds like the Bad Brains in their funk-metal phase, it still rocks, and “Skin Drips” reminds me (once again) of the Birthday Party’s “6-Inch Gold Blade,” with its bouncy Eurobeat swing and reliance on the two top bass strings. The most wonderful pair of songs are total exhibitions for Rey’s drums. “For Crying Out Loud” works the cymbals with semi-jazzy offbeatness, under a blistering spaghetti-Western lick and lyrics  written by/about David Yow’s cat. My personal favorite is closer “Flying Houses,” which I only recently realized was about a tornado instead of some acid nightmare. Those fortuitous pauses are a little undercut by the sound of the improperly stored tape (listen in and you can hear the preemptive echo of the band playing before it actually plays — the magnetic particles kind of bleed through when you stick the masters in somebody’s Texas storage pod for years before pulling them out again to remaster) but still, the drums make the song. I can’t imagine “Flying Houses” without the toms. Maybe you can, but you don’t have a blog, now do you, asshole?

Overall, Scratch Acid is like Tom Waits: They never quite made a perfect album, though the first EP comes closer than any other Austin poster band ever did. I can’t help thinking that a “Best Of” album would have served them better than a simple repackaging, but if this were to be their only CD-available document, then I guess it’s better to include the refuse alongside the great stuff, if only to keep diehard collectors from spending months and G’s trying to hear “Spit a Kiss”.  God, can you imagine the disappointment?

In conclusion, the best songs are:

  • The Greatest Gift
  • Monsters
  • Owner’s Lament
  • El Espectro
  • Lay Screaming
  • Eyeball
  • Big Bone Lick
  • Unlike a Baptist
  • Amicus
  • Cheese Plug
  • For Crying Out Loud
  • Skin Drips
  • Flying Houses
  • Flying Houses
  • Flying Houses
  • I listed “Flying Houses” three times ’cause it fuckin’ rules

“Junkyard” by the Birthday Party – Review

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A star is an inherently unstable structure. It is composed of trillions of millions of colliding particles, all drawn together by gravity in a massive ballet of nuclear fusion; gravity imbues such particles with the speed to crash together and explode in a manner that is, by human standards, absolutely massive. Combine a considerable number of these explosions — some huge and powerful, some less so — and, with gravity to concentrate them heavily, they form a star.

Gravity, as mentioned above, is the motivator of all this wonderful chaos and stuff. However, if we might consider an alternate state of affairs concerning it — a parallel universe, let’s say. The multi-verse principle (or what I understood of it from that NPR lecture) dictates that each universe that exists can hold to different physical rules, and matter and energy can be concentrated in different places.

Using this rule, we can eliminate a lot of universes from consideration right off the bat. There are those in which the Big Bang never happened, and all the energy and matter in the universe remains balled up into an infinitely small point. There are those where the gravitational constant was too weak, and the stars’ constituent particles drifted noncommittally through space, unattracted to one another; there are those where the constant was too strong, and everything has already been sucked into a black hole.

After those there are the realities where the rules were basically the same, but nothing ever materialized in place of the Sun, or the Earth, or the Moon; and finally there are the universes — an unimaginably miniscule number, compared to the infinite possibilities — in which we and our puny affectations exist (with the exception of myself and what I hold dear, of course) to clutter the Earth’s surface. It is here that the Birthday Party exists, and it is the version of events I like best; for a universe without the Birthday Party is a very sad universe indeed.

Perhaps there are universes in which Junkyard is truly perfect — where “Kewpie Doll” is not three offensive minutes long, where “She’s Hit” does not sound like it was recorded to Big Brother Stu’s well-used cassette deck. (God forbid, even “Kiss Me Black” might be about SOMETHING.) Travel to these universes is presently impossible, so we’ll probably have to go without the alternate-reality deluxe version of Junkyard with only great songs, major-retailer distribution and three or four full CD’s of bonus tracks that equal or exceed the kickassitude of the original ten.

Besides, not even nine dimensions up can there be another comparable version of “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can.”

Really — after I first ingested the album, it took thirty days to put down. More than once, I listened to it twice in a single day. With its drums like the sound of grenades from under metal pots, its uncommonly huge dancing bass, trebly guitars that careen and screech like soapbox racers on NO2, and tremendously violent and ridiculous performances from singer Nick Cave, Junkyard‘s very best moments have convinced a small segment of the two past generations that there is nothing for it but to go all in. Throw yourself into the crowd; beat up your bandmates; scream utter nonsense and play cascading, exultatory feedback on your dirt-cheap guitar. Look to Scratch Acid, Halo of Flies, Big Black for confirmation: no one gets away from the Birthday Party. Not even its creators. Especially not its creators.

Let’s take a moment to discuss the best songs.

“Dead Joe” had no precedents from the first album. Sure, there were speedy cacophonous songs on Prayers on Fire, but none that sought to beat the listener over the head quite as forcefully — “Zoo-Music Girl” inspires more headaches than singalongs, and “Dull Day” is about as exciting as its title would suggest. Instead, “Dead Joe” pounds unreservedly back and forth, in the manner of some poor fuck shaking the warm bloody corpse of a beloved friend, dead in a sudden accident. Funnily enough, that’s what the song’s about. The middle eight is the most tasteless, heart-piercing shell shock you may ever hear from a man not actually at the scene of the crash: “You can’t tell the girls from the boys any more.”

“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” may be the grooviest 6/8 song you’ll ever hear, even in a contest that includes Hammerhead‘s “Brest.” It does not swing, but sways back and forth like good Swans, erupting into a horribly scratched guitar lick every few verses for added intensity. The fact that its two-minute ending is little more than a jam on the post-chorus riff (as Cave screams “POW!” at the end of each bar) only elevates it.

“6-Inch Gold Blade” clearly has its roots in “Nick the Stripper.” Both are in 5/4 and echo the tropes of “Eurobeat” dance music, with their non-dynamic rhythms, reverbed tone and strongly repetitive structure. Unlike “Nick the Stripper,” which was still one of the best songs from Prayers on Fire, “Gold Blade” has a much cooler bassline, swings during the verses, and is complicated enough to merit a little “wow” once the post-chorus ends. Much more fun to air-drum to the latter.

The album closes on “Junkyard,” a song with all the trappings of hair metal: ultra-treble, lots of reverb, muffled drums, fat bass, tough-guy lyrics and a general bouquet of stench and drugs and death; what differentiates it is Nick Cave’s genuinely evil delivery, and the totally un-cheesy backing band. As they beat nails into my brain Old Nick chants lines of text over and over, turning those fat iron spikes in the fire as they twist through my skull. (How can anyone forget the “garbage and honey” refrain after hearing this?) He sings from the bottom of a squalid smack den, rather than atop the 1980s’ customary mound of coke, his frazzled delivery made unforgettable by his underscoring cough at the song’s very end. This fucker means it, doesn’t he?

Can’t forget “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can,” now CAN we? Truth be told, I saved it for last.

From this song and others like it (“Wicked World,” “Apache Rose Peacock,” “Figure of Fun,” “Doctor Dark,” “Release the Bats,” “Telephone Call from Istanbul,” etc.), I have surmised that a lot the very best rock music swings. The beat characteristically lends itself to head-shaking, fast tempi (handy jazz-drum secret: you can always leave out the third beat, and let the other two indicate to the listener how fast it is) and self-absorbed air-drumming. The Birthday Party, however, decided to deconstruct the dancey appeal of the swing rhythm, and put it back together as a herkity-jerkity mess. Seriously, Mick Harvey is an arranger up there with Gil Evans and Duke Ellington (neither of whom I’m really familiar with, but whose names I included to piss off a bunch of staid old jazz farts and confuse everyone else) — his scripted descents into chaos after each verse perfectly complement the bizarre but terrifying lyrics, and impress upon us even more alarmingly that Nick Cave is riding the band bareback. (In reality they were very tightly rehearsed, but tell me that with a straight face after hearing the song and I’ll believe you heart and soul.) Each of the honking, almost meter-less mechanical post-choruses bonks along with a hilarious “lah-dee-dah” feel up until the next verse. The most purely inspired parts of the song, however, must be the two breakdowns, in which Harvey picks up his guitar (he seems to be playing the saxophone as well) and plays a basic Western lick that builds to massive intensity as Roland Howard peals off wild tumbleweed patterns in the right channel and Phil Calvert plays ever more and louder cymbal crashes until the whole structure crashes to a blistering halt , and the two guitarists improvise a wash of noise as Nick howls gleefully about the Savior’s trash car. I only wish he had made at least one joke about how “the Lord is my refuse” or something, but you can’t have everything. At least we live in the Junkyard universe.

“To Be Kind” by the Swans – Review

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I should probably warn you all that as I type, I am listening to this album. Most of the time, when writing, I make a point to listen to something else as I review of a particular album. (I have absolutely no idea why I do this.) This Swans album, however, is very different. It may be untrue to say that I have never heard anything like it — in fact, I made a list of elements I’d previously heard outside the fabric of this titanic record — but it is a crowning fucker of an achievement nonetheless.

You might say the music inspired my words here.

My German and French and Swedish ancestors probably listened to music like this while lying atop the roof of an ornate concert hall, unable to buy their way inside. Of course, classical shit very different from the Swans in terms of style and instrumentation, but the Wagnerisms are many in To Be Kind. Several of the songs rely on huge crescendos to make their point, splashing tsunamis of sound that crush and envelop a listener; the band, a huge combo for a rock setting, seems to have two drummers, at least one bassist, several guitarists, a host of multi-tracked orchestral instruments, an awe-struck chorus, and multiple Michael Giras screaming aboriginal nonsense over the wild frothing stew of it all. Rumor has it they recorded this digitally, and I can certainly hear the bizarre ultra-fi clarity of the format, but the music never feels compressed or anything less than spacious. This is no loudness-war casualty.

The Swans, during their decade-plus-long sleep, seem to have grown ambitious. Where they once whined “I’ll cry for you” for four minutes at a time over jagged noise guitar, in the self-conscious epitome of all sad-rock, they have conquered those demons and emerged as experimenters of the highest order. Dudes of light. Raging hippies with a real budget. (In fact, the production here is exactly the opposite of the limited “psychedelic” recordings we got from the Sixties. Space and grandeur — plenty of reverb, places to wander — are the defining traits of To Be Kind.) The lyrics, too, don’t really say anything new, repeating love-and-peace-and-conscience themes from decades of popular music, but they serve an entirely different purpose from those thoughtless forms. I think of them more as incantations than appeals, meant primarily to hypnotize the listener. Careening instrumental sound alone can’t do the deed. One needs human presence, which we get from Michael Gira and his moans and howls and repetition. Try listening to the last part of “Screen Shot,” with its “Here! Now! Here! Now!” refrain, and feeling unmoved to rotate your top half while air-drumming to the dual percussion.

As for the music itself, it’s hard to describe. To keep from making that smarmy critic’s mistake of name-dropping half-anonymous groups throughout an article about an almost unrelated work, I’ll just get it out of the way early and list the bands whose traces I heard while listening.

  • Il Gruppo (the one with Ennio Morricone, before he was famous), with those groovy beats backing free improvisation and spacey shit. Have you heard their album The Feed-Back? Do it! Amazon-vended blue or green or something vinyl reissues are also available.
  • Primus, during the shorter, funkier numbers. “Oxygen” would have benefited enormously from the addition of a self-aware slap bassline, as sick as the song’s riff may be initially. Les Claypool singing “A Little God In My Hands” would also be hilarious.
  • Frank Zappa, in the blasting avant-garde crescendos mentioned earlier — think “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”, or “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask”. This, however, is done with a much bigger and better-trained band than Zappa ever seemed to have at his disposal. Kinda wish Frank had stuck around to hear what the Swans have become.
  • The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ecstatic circular grooves, especially from the first two albums. I can almost hear “Meeting of the Spirits” in “Bring the Sun,” though it may just be the 6/8 drum pattern; either way, I would find it hard to believe if ol’ Mikey were to claim they didn’t take cues from jazz fusion.
  • Weather Report’s early work, like Weather Report and I Sing the Body ElectricTo Be Kind doesn’t have quite the same group-solo, free-improv nature of those recordings, but both bands seem very excited about exploring the possibilities offered in the astral crap everyone wanted to try out in the early Sixties.
  • Super Æ, the Boredoms’ 1998 victory-on-all-fronts. Believe me, there are a lot of comparisons there. Listen and believe — To Be Kind is, in many ways, a sloppier, more human take on the ideas of Super Æ.
  • Nick Cave’s first two recordings with the Bad Seeds, which relied on a similar jam-rock style, though less successfully so. I’ve fallen out of love with the Bad Seeds’ early stuff while To Be Kind grows on me, so I may have to step back a little to evaluate them side-by-side. Ah, fuck, geddonwiddit.
  • Throbbing Gristle, in the titanic white noise that permeates “Toussaint L’Ouverture” and “Nathalie Neal”. Not much elsewhere.
  • The Melvins. Who the fuck else?
  • (All stupid shit aside, Pigs of the Roman Empire echoes faintly through the more ambitious sections of To Be Kind, though the latter are pulled off with far less glee.)
  • The Doors, whom my friend pointed out while listening to “Toussaint L’Ouverture.” He mentioned that his favorite part was when Michael Gira howled the French national motto, because it reminded him of “The End” from the Doors’ first album. I was floored that I didn’t recognize it sooner. Now that he mentions it, this has a lot of those psychedelic-venture qualities that weren’t really suited to the cold dead drugged-out production of the 1960’s, but work really well in warm digital outer space. Thanks, Bradley!
  • The Stooges’ Fun House, whose “L.A. Blues” comes out strongly from the noisy interlude between the twiddling riff and the funky main jam in “She Loves Us”; I also hear the resemblance of “Dirt” to a couple of songs here (namely tracks 2 and 3; must give credit to that Pitchfork writer for that last reference).
  • Electric Miles Davis — you know, the stuff of Bitches Brew and THE TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON! Big all-star jam band with psychedelic inspiration, way too much studio time and two discs to fill — sound familiar?
  • Can, though Tago Mago is the only album of theirs that I’ve heard. Big locked grooves feature heavily, as I mentioned.
  • Glenn Branca. I’ve only heard his Thirteenth Symphony, namely because it featured a hundred electric guitars. Sadly, it’s a lot less cool than you might imagine. Apparently Michael Gira used to belong to his guitar symphony, and the big noisy crashes of No. 13 are felt strongly — probably more strongly than on the symphony itself. (ZINGER!) Plus, Glenn himself is kind of an asshole about a lot of things in modern music. Any one of his interviews will vindicate my stance here.

I used the word “psychedelic” far too often back there — I promise, I will not use it again.

The music, even when separated from its considerable inspiration, still knocks me fucking flat. This double-CD is a kind of two-hour doctoral course in the power of dynamics and progression. “Bring the Sun” will convince you that I am right. Listen, as it begins with a gentle breathless flutter, until the band starts almost imperceptibly in the background; they suddenly break the barrier, crashing again and again for two full minutes (I promise you, you will be bored during the first few run-throughs) until the scene is set for the biggest, quietest waltz groove possible. They subsist, like John the Baptist, on a locust bassline and the honeyed mumbles of Mike Gira, and wear a soft, guitar-laden camel’s hide, until the pace begins to pick up. From here it is impossible to describe with words what happens. These cheap syllables people use to give name and context to tangible things — how can they possibly apply to the rest of the song? One must seal up the words of the seven thunders.

Suffice to say that “Toussaint L’Ouverture” isn’t quite the equal of its Siamese tune, but it’s still really cool. It’s got some sound effects — the horse, the saw, etc. — that defied and alienated my expectations at first, but grow more acceptable with time. One Amazon reviewer (poor pitiful amateur) called the medley “a definitive Swans song.” Goddamned right.

It’s not fair to expect other songs on the album to be up to this par, but several are also terrific. Look to “Screen Shot” for another example of the design carried fantastically out, and perhaps to “Oxygen” and “A Little God In My Hands” and “To Be Kind” as well. When you find your eyebrows reaching for the ceiling at the idea of a fast-paced rock jam like “Oxygen” stretched over eight minutes, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the horn parts at the end. In short (pardon the totally unapplicable pun), the less lengthy songs tend to please most, with the exception of “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture.”

Not to say the ten-plus-minuters are bad — they just suffer slightly from multipartite syndrome. It’s a well-known phenomenon, diagnosed primarily in heavy metal and progressive-rock “composers” with way too many ideas to fit into a single song. Hammerhead is an example of a band that integrated all the sections into each song with flair and gusto; as much as I will be lambasted for saying so, I think Kansas is another group that excels at this, even if the parts themselves aren’t always interesting.

Many of the lengthier To Be Kind songs have such middling parts. Look to the intro for “She Loves Us,” or the second half of “Kirsten Supine”. The first section of “Nathalie Neal” also falls prey to that unfortunately common musique-concrete fascination with one’s new toys and musical knowledge. (It’s like a 27 Club for pseudo-intellectual old dudes with too much theory and not enough ROCK.) Nonetheless, these parts usually do not overshadow the rest of the songs, which tend to be almost as good as the others.

If I have not mentioned “Some Things We Do,” it is out of apathy. Like “One Woman” from Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, its five-minute length would have caused surprise on a different band’s album, but sandwiched as it is between the two longest tracks on to Be Kind (which are thirty-four and almost-eighteen minutes long, respectively), it almost passes notice. Anyway, the backing doesn’t excite me all that much, and the song just sort of happens instead of blossoming or imploding or anything like the others do. Oh well.

Now I’ve gone and fucked it all up by including three paragraphs at the end that disparage parts of the album. I’m an idiot. Am I really so conditioned by AP testing to think in sustained panic-bursts that I must write the whole thing in one sitting? While my communications project lies neglected?

…yeah, pretty much.

I want you all to know that I think this is one of the most important albums I’ve ever heard. That it beats out everything else in recent years (dates, by the way, are a stupid way of comparing albums, like talking about the vitality of a “scene.” Fucking lame) for sheer rock power. That I am knocked breathless by every little bold dynamic advance the Swans make in “Bring the Sun”: each added drum kick, each nudge upward in the guitars’ intensity, each flutter of the echoey introduction. That the 4/4 time signature is regarded as secular, but 3/4 is rightly the sacred tempo, the pestle that stirs that swirling spiritual cauldron back and forth — the reason why you sway back at each third beat.

The Swans deserve a far larger audience than they have. All those old farts sitting in their desk chairs, typing in the comments sections of their favorite MTV clips on YouTube that “spirit” is gone from music, are old farts who have not heard of the Swans. They probably wouldn’t like this, either. It represents a kind of logical conclusion for heavy guitar music. After all, when you really consider the implications of stuff this unique, the foremost question is: where do we go from here? For all of them, at the end of their creative powers, it’s probably down. The only direction I can think to go, though — as the final thirty-second piano chord fades out of “Toussaint L’Ouverture” — is outward.

Trump to Ban Eastern European Immigration After Watching “The Room”

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Tommy Wiseau on the most recent Trump controversy

Two days before the U.S. election, Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican presidential candidate, pledged in one of his rambling campaign speeches to impose a blanket ban on immigration from Eastern Europe. When asked afterwards to explain his reasoning, the infamous businessman appeared to refer to the movie The Room.

“Well, the Hungarians, you know, bad stuff. Saw a movie of this horrible Croatian, terrible loser, Tommy Wiseau — thank you, Nancy with the wonderful tits — made a terrible movie, worst movie ever. No one ever made a worse film. It was like — well, like a rotten baklava, like Lithuanian bad — I make way better movies, this guy was so awful — where the hell is my coffee? — it was so gross I thought Hillary made it,” he remarked in a later interview.

His Joycean response, like the words of Golem to Gandalf, contained nuggets of truth. Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film The Room, based on a 500-page manuscript that he was unable to get published, is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, due to its poor craftsmanship, disgusting sex scenes, intellectually crippled screenplay, hopeless melodrama, abysmal smooth-R&B soundtrack, out-of-this-world bad acting, football, random sex scenes involving minor characters, horridly clichéd female archetypes, mentioned but totally neglected plot threads, completely inappropriate scripted reactions to events like breast cancer and voyeurism and wife-beating, over-the-top suicidal tantrum in the final scene, and the recurring image of a table full of framed photographs of spoons.

It is believed, because of his on-screen accent, that director Wiseau hails from an indeterminate country in Eastern Europe, though he refuses to personally confirm any origin story.

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Trump’s declaration regarding a bad movie are unprecedented in American politics, and have incurred a widespread backlash. The governments of a number of nations in the Caucasus region signed a unilateral condemnation of his remarks, advising in a resolution that “before commenting, Mr. Trump should examine his own nation’s tradition of terrible movies. Everything from Plan 9 from Outer Space to Manos: The Hands of Fate to Jaws 4 to Samurai Cop 1 & 2 to Food Fight has come out of the United States. Even The Room was conceived, written, directed, produced, funded and premiered there. Each of these pictures, too, is imbued with that uniquely American quality: populism. When anyone can make movies, some of them will, and a few of such films are bound to be awful. In fact, Europeans have a considerably cleaner moviemaking track record than Americans. There is a reason, sir, why people refer to ‘foreign films’ with a bit more respect than they do to Hollywood. In nationalistic terms, we in Europe have Fellini; you have Michael Bay, and Tommy Wiseau too, if you care to keep him.”

A reporter who attempted to read aloud from the letter during the ensuing press conference was punched in the face by an cartoon-style red boxing glove which sprung suddenly from the back of the chair in front of him.

Mr. Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on why he antagonized the leaders of Eastern Europe, when many of them refuse — as the candidate himself has promised — to grant citizenship or entry to refugees from the Syrian civil war. Some speculate that Trump is disparaging Eastern Europe in a symbolic effort to disavow NATO protection for the smaller nations in the area. Highly placed sources have observed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mouth watering profusely whenever former Soviet satellite states are mentioned in conversation, and his public friendship with Donald Trump, combined with these recent statements, have many geopolitical experts worried about American neo-isolationism in the instance of a Trump presidency.

Interviewed bystanders expressed hysterical disbelief at the fact that The Room has become a talking point in global politics.

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Putin lets his hair down. “Two countries down, one hundred and ninety-two to go. Score one for Mother Russia!”