I feel pretty bad for sleeping on the recent record from Helms Alee – a slumber that would have continued indefinitely had it not been for my friend Nick, who misses Helms Alee’s forbears more keenly than me, I guess. The guitarist for this Seattle band was also a guitarist and the singer for those yeoman devotees of 5/4 sludge, Harkonen, who in Grizz released one of the most refined distillations of Hydra Head’s then-burgeoning sensitive yet hairy post-hardcore sound.
Some of Harkonen’s gutbucket punk survives in Helms Alee, but as the Melvillean band name indicates, the newer band isn’t so urgently straightforward. It’s a fairly skeletal 3-piece with the aforementioned guitar-singer and a drummer and bass player, both of whom are women, and both of whom also sing. Like a lot of the newer post-metal bands, their songs seem to grow out of jams and follow no particularly schematic path, but unlike a lot of the other recent Hydra Head bands, Helms Alee understand the value of concision, and the songs don’t ramble.
Night Terror is a near-perfect debut – it has a rough-hewn looseness I recognize from time spent hanging out in a practice space with a couple guitars, a big heap of effects pedals, and a stoned drummer (fans of Harkonen’s time-signature trickery will not be disappointed by Helms Alee), and it wears its influences unashamedly, without particularly drawing attention to them. Bits of Karp, the Pixies, Neurosis, Jawbox, Swans and the like knit themselves together without visible seams, and the band tries on a whole bunch of vocal approaches, ranging from the old urgent yawps of Harkonen to beautiful (if rough) multi-part harmonies. Whoever recorded the record clearly loves drums, and the engineering puts all three members of the band on an equal footing, which gives the performances a strong ensemble feel, which in turn reminds me of Fugazi and their ability to get a jazz feel out of punk songs.
In sum, this is the sort of record that’s practically guaranteed to get a sympathetic hearing from me, and combined with the evocative and poetic lyrics and a couple of sturdy, gorgeous post-rock singles (“A Weirding Away” and “Grandfather Claws”), this has me retroactively declaring this to be one of my favorite records from 2008, even though I didn’t hear it until this week.
It fits in neatly with 2 of my 3 other favorites from 2008, and for posterity’s sake I’ll give my unordered list of my 4 favorite records from 2008 here:
- Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
- asbestoscape: s/t
- Helms Alee: Night Terors
- Clark: Turning Dragon
And here’s an unsorted list of other 2008 releases I thought were pretty great for one reason or another:
- Breeders: Mountain Battles
- Dusk & Blackdown: Margins Music
- Portishead: Third
- Vivian Girls: s/t
- Gojira: The Way of All Flesh
- Genghis Tron: Board Up the House
- Lil’ Mama: VYP: Voice of the Young People
- Arckanum: Antikosmos
- Avigail: The Other Side
- Boris: Smile
- Cadence Weapon: Afterparty Babies
- Earth: The Bee Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
- Gas: Nah und Fern
- Hollywood Holt: Holt Goes to Hollywood
- Bannon: The Blood of Thine Enemies
- JME: Famous?
- Krallice: s/t
- M83: Saturdays = Youth
- Matmos: Supreme Balloon
- Meshuggah: obZen
- Omit: Interceptor
- Slagmaur: Svin
- Soilent Green: Inevitable Collapse in the Presence of Conviction
- Sparks: Exotic Creatures of the Deep
- Zomes: s/t
…but to put things that way misses what my 2008 was actually like. I started the year with the goal of listening my way through my music collection, but in February discovered the wilds of Blogspot’s MP3 blogs, and ended up spending a large chunk of the year listening to the esoteric detritus of about 40 years’ worth of underground (or at least underheard) music. I spent the better part of 2008 listening to hundreds of hours of music for the first time and then moving on to the next thing – a uniquely exhausting experience.
The most exhausting aspect of living in a state of perpetual novelty is the deeply frustrating recognition that an awful lot of what I heard (Mnemonists, Organum, Roland Kayne, HNAS, Sparks, the Flying Lizards) was sophisticated, complex music that would reward repeated, close listening and just not having the time to give it the attention it deserves.
It’s been said before and it’s going to get said a lot more: we live in an era of unparalleled cultural production, and unlike pretty much every prior era of human culture, we’ve got the means and inclination to hold onto pretty much everything we produce. Music is a much more populist concern than it’s been, historically speaking, and despite being a largely popular artform is also much less ephemeral. There is absolutely no way to stay on top of it anymore – you have to pick your battles, and I find it very hard to choose.
This year cracked the bindings on what’s left of my tastes (I even spent a lot more time listening to jazz, which has been my traditional blind spot), and I am now completely powerless to concretely describe what kind of music I like except in a very vague, Potter Stewart-ish way of saying I know it when I hear it. At the same time, spending so much time with stuff that was last hip – if it ever was – about 20 years ago helped me see with a crystalline clarity how much of the musical discourse surrounding us all is driven by fashion. I really could not give a fuck less about 90% of the music I see discussed, even by critics I wholeheartedly respect.
The difficulty I find in writing this blog is rooted in that fact. Thanks to the work of MP3 blogs like Mutant Sounds and No Longer Forgotten Music, I’ve been able to weave an impenetrable web of reference around myself, and to talk about it in ways anyone outside my head can understand, I need to develop a concrete vocabulary for talking about some very amorphous sounds. It’s a worthwhile task, but one that’s frustrating and exhausting, and it’s really been enough work just finding and listening to all this stuff (and, you know, living the rest of my life). All I can say is that I’ll keep working on it.
But enough of that. 2008 was a demanding year in a lot of ways (most having nothing to do with music), but I can’t help but feel that it showed the way to a more productive and interesting 2009 and 2010. I’ll do what I can to realize that promise, and I hope you have the energy to do the same.
I was never really a huge Guns N’ Roses fan, except for maybe a two week period around the time I first heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, which is still one of my favorite 70s pop songs to not come out in the 70s. Still, I spent enough time waiting for My Bloody Valentine to put out the successor to Loveless to develop an appreciation for musicians disappearing off into the woods to labor, forlornly and obsessively, on some envisioned magnum opus that may never come together.
So I felt obligated to check out Chinese Democracy, and my conclusion is that it’s worth checking out. It’s a magnificent folly, where by “folly” I mean something like the Winchester Mystery House. It’s overstuffed, clearly a product of overweening ambition and a prodigious amount of labor, and in the end it’s inevitably unsatisfying. I guess the real news is that Axl Rose was able to produce something listenable and interesting after working and reworking it so many times over the year: the songwriting is uniformly strong and he still has one of the finest singing voices in hard rock.
My favorite thing about it is probably something that drives a number of other people crazy: he’s had a multitude of guitarists work with him, and random little squiggles of soloing pop up all over the whole album. Since many of these ornaments come out of the fevered imagination of Buckethead – in my opinion, one of the best guitarists of all time – they often overshadow the rest of the music, but speaking as someone who was, for years and years, bored to death of guitar solos, I pretty much love how excessive it all is.
Also, Axl still hasn’t gotten over his crush on 70s Paul McCartney, so gratuitous string sections and piano bridges and syrupy, sentimental verses abound. We’re about 10,000 light years from Appetite for Destruction here, but given how this is pretty much an Axl Rose joint, that seems appropriate to me. It’s not 1989 anymore.
What I most emphatically do not love is the mastering of the record. Whomever mastered this thing was clearly thinking of car stereos and iPods, because the dynamics are veritably crushed into a brick wall. It’s weird hearing all this (over)detailed music so brutally flattened, and it definitely sabotages the good-time 70s AOR vibe Rose seems to be reaching for in many places.
Anyway, like a lot of long-delayed projects there’s no way Chinese Democracy can live up to all its crazy hype, but at least it doesn’t suck. One should be thankful for small favors.
OH NOES! I got TAGGED with a MEME! Cosmo hit me with this, and because I needed to get back into writing, I accede to his demands.
In keeping with the spirit of his post, I will not try to come up with the definitive list of 7 tracks I am all into right now, because like him, my favorites lately are totally ephemeral, largely due to the endless deathmarch slog of trying to listen to every bizarre cassette release ever ripped and posted to Blogspot (currently getting lots of play: Smersh. Dier. S•Core.). Instead, I will offer a list of 7 songs that seem to be getting stuck in my head with unusual frequency (whether or not they’re any good, as we shall see), or that are evocative of the leaden, gray summer I am “enjoying” in San Francisco’s wishfully named Sunset neighborhood.
Alec Empire – “New Man”
Taken from his most recent solo effort, The Golden Foretaste Of Heaven, which seems to be intended, in all seriousness, as an electroclash album, years after electroclash collapsed into a cosmic sucking wound of bad electro-house and nth-derivative Daft Punk clones. Why he chose now to abandon the maximally abrasive digital hardcore sound in favor of a particularly unsubtle version of Gary Numan is beyond me. Empire has always had a twonked sense of humor and a broader range than the somewhat monochromatic sound of DHR would indicate, and “New Man”, which features lines like “as long as I can bleed / I’m pretty much okay” display both. This really reminds me of Luke Slater’s doomed electropop efforts on Alright On Top, particularly “Stars and Heroes”, which displayed a similarly take-no-prisoners combination of devastatingly catchy yet obsolete pop and thuddingly obvious beats. Both are mind-obliteratingly catchy.
Novembre – “Deorbit”
Somehow fuses late 80s stadium rock with some genuinely progressive (gothic) metal sounds, and comes out sounding like Catherine Wheel’s Chrome by way of Opeth. I’d never heard of this Italian band before Amazon’s recommendation engine coughed up The Blue, and this is the song that keeps coming back to me, even though The Blue is overall one of the most solid and coherent progressive metal records I’ve heard in the last couple years. “Deorbit” is full of extremely clever songwriting and, to my ear at least, genuine progression over its length, without ever failing to be accessible. Heavy, full of twists and turns, culminating in some of the most perplexing vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a while, and featuring some nifty soloing. It’s a beautiful, mournful, exuberant song.
Fairport Convention – “The Deserter”
If you think Fairport Convention is a bunch of hippies singing about faeyries dancing round the toadstool, you should probably pull your head out of your ass, because you’re missing some of the finest, most on-point music made in the last 100 years. There was a time when Liege & Lief was an essential element of any halfway literate (white) music fan’s collection, and I’d argue that’s a tradition that should have perpetuated to the present day. Recorded in the wake of catastrophe by some of the most talented musicians of the era (Sandy Denny’s voice! Richard Thompson’s guitar! Dave Mattacks’ drumming!), it’s a stunning display of virtuosity that resolutely refuses to age.
“The Deserter” is a traditional song about fleeing the English Army. The words tell a simple story of flight, betrayal, unjust “justice” and reluctant fealty, and the music is one of those simple folk melodies that hangs in the air long after the song has finished, but what really stands out is the execution. Whether it’s Joe Boyd’s production or the band’s careful teamwork, the result is a song that fills the room, seeping into every corner and crevice, regardless of how loud it’s played.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Today”
I don’t even like Siamese Dream, and I would have sworn I burned this song out of my system at least 10 years ago, but throughout the process of building bookshelves and unpacking boxes and cleaning floors and the various other moving-related tasks I’ve had to do over the last couple months, this song has been an omnipresent and only sometimes unwelcome companion. I sort of think a song about the joys of ending it all in a glorious burst of ecstasy would be less appealing if the weather in our neighborhood had been less crap. Just saying.
Jamie Woon – “Wayfaring Stranger [Burial remix]”
Another simple, haunting English folk song – this time run through the Burializr™, coming out sounding like it was meant to be that way all along. Like most people, I think, I have no idea who Jamie Woon is, but this remix is probably one of the two or three best things Burial’s ever done (along with the original dubplate mix of “U Hurt Me”). A good song for misty early mornings and foggy late nights.
Primordial – “As Rome Burns”
My so-called “friends” owe me big time for never telling me about Primordial. The Gathering Wilderness and To the Nameless Dead are absolutely monstrous records, roaring out of the gate with a ferocious, boundless passion and intelligence that cannot be denied. Notionally this is some kind of pagan or black metal, but it doesn’t really sound like most of the music marching under either banner. Amon Amarth at their best sound a little like Primordial, but without Primordial’s effortless wielding of their own (Celtic) folk traditions, and without Primordial’s ability to use traditional music as a springboard for something fearlessly new. Perhaps Primordial are more akin to Neurosis, although Primordial are more rooted in traditional notions of heavy metal, and there’s little of the self-conscious artiness bands who model themselves on Neurosis these days seem to find obligatory. Maybe they’re a little less earthy and more refined version of Root, which will make sense to fans of that particular group of Czech weirdoes but nobody else. Primordial are mostly just a really, really talented metal band.
To the Nameless Dead is an album about the collapse of empire, and “As Rome Burns”, with its insistently repeated refrain “sing, sing, sing to the slaves that Rome burns” has a timeliness / timelessness and urgency I find compelling, especially when wedded to rolling tribal rhythms and thickly droning guitars. Special attention must be drawn to Alan Nemtheanga’s singing, which is perfectly suited to the urgent, storytelling style of songwriting favored by Primordial.
Truly, I haven’t been so excited by a new metal discovery since I first heard Abigor’s Supreme Immortal Art. Primordial could quit now as winners, but I have a feeling they have more in store for us. I hope so.
Ministry – “Radar Love”
Another song, like “Today”, that is on this list more because of its persistence than any actual quality it may have (thank the NAMELESS DEAD I’ve managed to dislodge Nine Inch Nails’ Broken from my frontal cortex, along with the nasty-ass visuals that go along with it, thanks to watching its stupid, demeaning and evil video). I mean, I love “Radar Love” – what’s not to love? it’s one of the best road trip songs of all time – but Ministry’s version is at best 2/3 assed. The main thing it has going for it is its ridiculously over the top and full-throttle take on the chorus, which makes me think of drag racing and funny cars more than lazy trawls down the highway. Not that that’s a bad thing. It just doesn’t strike me as what Golden Earring had in mind.
…but one thing is for sure: when I start wading through the thickets of accusations and counteraccusations, rumor-mongering, sectarian and factional grudge-slinging and post-Situationist po-faced “pranksterism” around the neo-folk / neo-pagan scene, I get the exact same headache I used to get when I was a teenager trying to figure out the American Communist left by reading RCP and SWP newspapers (if you don’t know those acronyms, good for you – all you need to know is that they were / are both claiming the True Marxist mantle for themselves, and they loathe each other).
Out on the fringes of politics and ideology there lies a sticky morass of extremism and paranoia that manifests itself in seemingly incomprehensible shifts in belief, where people will go from hard, statist left to hard, individualist right, without stopping at any point in between. It’s the same phenomenon that produces former-Trotskyite neocons like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, only with much less disastrous consequences (Douglas P may be a jerk, but he hasn’t (successfully) started any land wars in Asia lately). In the case of neo-folk, though, art is involved, and art necessarily involves ambiguity. The problem of figuring out who actually believes what and who is a lying sack of shit becomes completely intractable, so there’s this peculiar Schrödinger’s box, within which a group like Sol Invictus is either a bunch of neo-Nazi meat puppets or kindly, misunderstood friends to Jew and puppy alike, or Death In June are either in hock to Croatian war criminals or bemused visitors to the region who donated money to innocent victims of the Balkan war. If you care about not giving your time and money to people whose principles you abhor, sorting through these messes can be troubling and maddening in equal measure.
To get a flavor for the complete vacuum of truth this sort of churning strife engenders, first read this hatchet job on Sol Invictus by Stewart Home (his Wikipedia talk page is more germane than the Wikipedia entry itself), and then read this confused atttempt to grapple with it on the blog of some innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. To me, it seems inescapable that the neo-pagan crowd has an awful lot invested in keeping their politics as amorphous as possible (mostly to keep their audiences from devouring themselves in an orgy of mutual loathing – fans of neo-folk run across the political spectrum. Black shirts and jackboots for some, tiny pagan flags for others!); it’s more telling to me if (IF!) Albin Julius of Der Blutharsch is an admirer of Jörg Haider than if he’s gone out of his way to make friends with SOME Israelis (as my good buddy Joel forcefully pointed out to me recently, it’s possible to find Israelis who are fans of just about anything, which means that you can’t exactly treat Der Blutharsch having Israeli fans as being equivalent to them getting [K] stamped on their asses by the Rabbinate of Jerusalem).
More materially, Home wrote a foreword for a booklet of Sol Invictus lyrics in the 90s. If he thinks Tony Wakeford is a tubby sack of Nazi shit (he seems to be very fond of calling Tony Wakeford a fat man), what’s that all about? And then there’s the Green Anarchism controversy (search for “stewart home” down the page)… it’s all a big fucking mess, and I’m thankful I don’t have to care.
The thing to take away from this is the disorienting sensation that you have fallen completely through the rabbit hole into a world where nobody ever tells the truth if they can wrap it up in a few layers of obfuscatory ideological nonsense first. I’m no closer to determining whether or not Death In June, Sixth Comm, Sol Invictus and a bunch of the other World Serpent neo-folk bands are closet servants of Space Hitler. For now, the fact that nothing conclusive presents itself is probably good enough; I can’t plausibly be a fan of black metal and own records featuring participation by convicted hate criminals and object too strenuously to artists who at least attempt to keep their politics private. (To completely muddy the waters, the most entertaining English-language source on the violent origins of Scandinavian black metal is Lords of Chaos, written by Michael Moynihan, member of Blood Axis and himself despised as a fascist neo-pagan by much of the far left.)
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that my whole train of thought initially started from investigating Death In June’s use of the totenkopf as part of their visual identity – a symbol, paradoxically, that is much more loaded when it is adopted by an English musician than by a German of any stripe, even though its use is illegal in modern Germany. For good and for ill, the totenkopf is part of German cultural heritage, and is much more plausibly adopted as an ambiguous / problematic / “reclaimed” symbol by someone who inherits from that culture than a self-styled “history student” from outside the context – particularly when that same person, like Douglas P, carries around a four-foot-tall metallized version of the logo on a banner he carries with him when he plays live to this day.
Which illustrates, finally, a point that is obvious to me now but wasn’t when I got into the spooky stuff as a curious and alienated teenager, which is that one of the risks of being a fan of dark, marginal and extreme art is that it is easy to fall prey to mental contamination. For every romantic who finds passion in extremity, there is someone much colder seeking to speak to the darkness in others and manipulate it for their own ends. Some dark art is beautiful and much of it is compelling, but it requires confrontation and self-analysis if you’re to avoid succumbing to the bullshit that comes along with it. Just appreciating it for what it is and not paying attention to the context isn’t enough, if you want to keep your hands clean.
Whenever I see Jack Johnson’s name, Pussy Galore’s “Dick Johnson” starts to play in the back of my mind. “Dick Johnson” is sort of, well, the name is as ambitious as the song gets, but I still enjoy it about 50,000 times more than I’ve ever enjoyed anything by Jack Johnson. I honestly lack the capacity to understand how or why people would actively seek out his music.
In other news, Radiohead is coming to town.
I’ve had the following set of evocative descriptions of Dmitri Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets by Rachel Kiel sitting on my computer’s desktop in a sticky since sometime in 2006, after reading it on Alex Ross’s blog:
The First Quartet is a blade of grass,
the Second Quartet is a pocket knife,
the Third Quartet is a captive bird,
the Fourth Quartet is an old train car,
the Fifth Quartet is a piece of blue glass,
the Sixth Quartet is a worn dress,
the Seventh Quartet is a red crayon,
the Eighth Quartet is a forest fire,
the Ninth Quartet is a paper fan,
the Tenth Quartet is the bottom of the ocean,
the Eleventh Quartet is a bullet,
the Twelfth Quartet is a sleeping lover,
the Thirteenth Quartet is a horse’s skull,
the Fourteenth Quartet is a strand of black hair,
the Fifteenth Quartet is an empty room.
I keep them around both to remind me to listen to Shostakovich’s work more, and to remind me of how much can be said about music in how few words.
Thank you very much for your work with the most awesome hardcore band in existence. The damage you have done to your throat (and my ears) over the years is very much appreciated, and I certainly hope you feel better now than you did when you were writing the songs on Jane Doe and You Fail Me, because to be honest you sounded sort of depressed. Although I guess you’re still not feeling so chipper, because your new solo record sounds like it’s going to be pretty emo. That’s OK, though. I miss Swans too.
Also, thank you for being such an awesome artist and designer. Every time I wear my “PLAGUE QUEEN DEATH KING” T-shirt, it makes me smile, and the covers to Jane Doe and No Heroes are among my favorite in heavy music. Elegant and forceful in their economy, very dirty and very punk.
I do have one question for you, though. Well, not really a question, more an observation. A tiny criticism, even. That would probably have been a lot more useful before Supermachiner put out Rise of the Great Machine. Sorry. I was busy then. But anyway, here it is:
Writing the title out as «ρισε οφ τηε γρεατ μαχηινε» is some incredibly dorky design wankery. Wouldn’t «θριαμβος της μεγαλης μηχανης» have made more sense? I mean, if you had to use Greek? Why not stick to blackletter? That always looks pretty hardcore. Or maybe Gaelic would have been nice.
Just to give you an idea of what it’s like to work at Rhapsody, there was a time last year where a bunch of us were hanging out in the kitchen: a mustachioed QA contractor whose tastes seemed to have frozen sometime around 1977, one of the senior editors, and a couple of engineers (including me). I think it was probably the tail-end of a company meeting. Anyway, we were talking about psychedelic music, and – as it does – the conversation turned to Pink Floyd, and Dark Side of the Moon. Some of us got to wondering who did the ridiculously overblown female backing vocals, and not one or two but three of the people in the conversation were able to name both Clare Torry and Lesley Duncan without looking anything up (unlike me just now). I have a lot of random trivia crammed in my head, but I can’t get at it like that; it’s all connected sideways, and I have to get at it indirectly. Also, I just like listening to Dark Side of the Moon, and feel mild twinges of jealousy that my dad got to see it performed live.
From my inbox, just because it’s funny. 20ML are just as witty, self-deprecating and clever in person.
Over 200 tickets have already been pre-sold for our Noise Pop show, so consider this an early heads-up for those of you who would like to see us perform with a British band more buzzy than a beehive.
In the spirit of this election year, we are happy to inform you that 20 Minute Loop has been VOTED into this year’s Noise Pop festival! That’s right. Instead of carefully cultivating our indie cred, or mixing with the right people (without seeming to care or be aware about it, in true indie fashion), or being signed by a really cool label like Absolutely Kosher or Barsuk, or just catching that unpredictable luck wave that has captured a few worthy acts over the years—instead of those possibilities, we have been selected by popular election to appear in this year’s biggest music festival. We have you, the voters—our music-loving constituents—to thank. Democracy in action. And let us tell you right now: we will not discredit the opportunity you have given us. We sense a desire on your part for CHANGE; not the empty promises of beltway hipsters, but real, positive change. More stimulus packages that actually work: individually-packaged breath mints in a Pyrex bowl placed between the monitors, more projectile vomiting into our sneakers, more goats slaughtered, more of the kinds of things that are meaningful to people like Emily Swansea in Alameda, a young woman who has been disappointed by the timid live performances of her favorite bands to the point that she now refuses to lavish any portion of her modest income on twenty-dollar performances that simply replicate recordings. Emily’s struggle is your struggle.
Hard on the heels of my post on Fucked Up and Kelefa Sanneh’s laudable efforts to get them noticed by New York Times readers, I bring to your attention this excellent article by him about dubstep’s ongoing half-assed attempt to penetrate the American gestalt. He does a great job with the nearly intractable problem of describing dubstep (a thing more defined by what it’s not than what it is) and he does it without talking down to the audience. He’s now my favorite critic writing for the Times.