Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Saturday Night Prog Metal Awesomeness

Opeth
Virgin Black
Live at Luna Park September 6

Man does my neck fucking hurt.

I'm ashamed to admit it but I got into Opeth just a little too late to make it to their last Sydney show (which was two years back now). Fortunately they returned this weekend past on tour for their superlative new album Watershed and my years of regret can finally be put behind me.


The openers were goth metallers Virgin Black, who I saw almost nothing of on account of being across the road drinking in the pub. By all accounts they were OK but nothing to slit one's wrists over missing. All I can say about them of my first hand experience is that they produced a hell of a mighty bass rumble during their last song while I was waiting in line for the coat check.

But as for Opeth...


Heir Apparent

I was 90% sure they would open with this track, as it seemed like such an obvious way to get around the cliché of opening with the first track off the new album by instead opening with the track that was almost going to be the first track off the new album and that still starts things off with the required kick in the face of metal brutality. Having seen Opeth live on DVD before I wasn't expecting too much of an energetic set from them but pleasingly they exceeded my expectations on this count and gave this song in particular the extra balls and energy that a good live performance requires.


Master's Apprentices

Then it was straight into an older but no less brutal kick in the face metal track. The audience responded most favourably to this not so old classic. To my approval I noticed that there wasn't any serious moshing going on, just jumping, fist pumping and head banging. Not that I have anything against moshing when it's appropriate for the music but there are too many fucking kids nowadays who'll start a moshpit for anything. It's fine when it's Rage Against the Machine, Slayer or Dillinger Escape Plan but for fucks sake why at MSI or Tool? I imagine these idiots at a Wiggles concert, dragging little kids out of the way to make a circle and going “Big Red Car! Fuck yearh lets go!”

The Baying Of The Hounds

Mikael introduced this one by saying “All the tracks on this album except one are about the devil. This one is about dogs.” The first of his infamously dopey stage banter, which we got a lot of. To be honest I mostly found him pretty funny, in a characteristically literal Western European kind of way.

Anywho, the start of this song was killer and had a huge bouncing mosh pit going.


Serenity Painted Death

I'm not a huge fan of Still Life, and Mikael introduced this one by saying that none of them liked playing this particular song that much (the only member who did was their old drummer) which vindicates my opinion a little. I actually made a bathroom dash during this track, which for some reason I always feel a little ashamed of doing during a concert, but at least it gave me a chance to notice the light show they had going, which was projected back out over the audience rather than being focused on the band. Very cool!

To Rid The Disease

The obligatory acoustic track off Damnation. Some of the kids seemed pretty impatient with it but I really enjoyed it. It was good to see that Opeth genuinely are as comfortable with the mellow stuff as the heavy songs in a live setting, but this was the only track in that vein for the night. It's a pity because I would have liked to hear 'Face Of Melinda' or 'Coil' as well.



The Lotus Eater

This was a new song that I had been really looking forward to. Unfortunately this was one of the first times they'd played it live and while it was tight technically it didn't come together quite as well as it could of. I was of course still really pleased to hear it but was actually a little disappointed by the lack of audience response to the wacky boogie breakdown.

Bleak

This is one of my favourite Opeth tracks and it went off, except for an unfortunate five minutes of downtime in the middle where Mikael's guitar cut out. (“At least now you know that we play everything you hear!” was his response.) The band stalled for time by resorting to the stereotypical metal cliché of the wank drum solo, which was followed by a wank guitar solo from new guitarist Fredrik Akesson and for good measure a wank keyboard solo too. Say what you like about the new guys but they sure as fucking hell have chops.



The Night and the Silent Water

Mikael introduced this one as being written about his grandfather who passed away. The audience responded with the perfect sitcom “Awwwww” sound effect. This one went off pretty awesomely too, but not as awesome as...

Deliverance!

I might be a totally predictable fanboy but I fucking love this song. That legendary outro was more brutal than my best expectations. The new drummer, Ax, may not have put as much of a syncopated snap into that classic riff as Lopez used to but man did he smash the shit out of it. It was awesome.

Demon Of The Fall

And they finished the main set with the other song that they're obliged to play every night for the rest of their lives. It was good too. They also said that they hoped to come back again next year, here's hoping!



The Drapery Falls

This song was the encore. Mikael apologised for taking a while to come back out, “Mendez had to go to the bathroom”. This track is a little mellower and made a very nice moody end to the night.


To be honest I kept my expectations tempered for this one, based on the slightly unenergetic vibe of Opeth's live albums and my reasoning that the music is fairly cerebral and not ideal metal concert material. Fortunately and to my delight my expectations were well exceeded. They brought the rock and then some and it was enhanced by one of the best metal concert audiences I've ever seen. Despite the presence of quite a few kids the audience was mostly mature, appreciative and didn't smell too bad. I'm hoping, hoping, hoping that Opeth do come back next year!

The wank solos:



To Rid The Disease (Sydneysiders still can't clap in time):



The breakdown of Master's Apprentices. Sideways and wobbly but good sound quality:

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ambient Metal Roundup Part 1

So I've picked up a shitload of new music recently and this is mostly the fault of the fine mp3 blogs Invisible Oranges and I'm The Most Important Person In The Fucking World. Both of these sites have been dishing out a decent dose post/ambient metal in recent weeks and I'll make a start on writing about some of it in this post.

Ambient metal may well sound like an oxymoron and it could be argued that some of this stuff isn't truly metal. I certainly wouldn't say so but the guy who tried to tell me on Saturday night that metal was by definition 'dumb' (and that henceforth Isis and Dillinger Escape Plan aren't actually metal bands) probably would. In any case there's a definite subgenre out there that takes distorted metalish guitars and the general feeling of heaviness associated with metal, and uses them to create long instrumental tracks with structures better described as soundscapes than songs.

We'll start out with Breatherman by Ocoai, the least ambient of all the albums in this post. They still comfortably sit within the genre described above as their songs are fairly long and sans vocals, but compared to the other bands I'm about to describe they still have some inclination towards providing melodies and riffs. These guys are pretty upbeat for a metal band too, which is a refreshing change and they keep this mood without skimping on the heaviness. For all their chiming piano solos, melancholy trumpet noodling and their slow pace Ocoai still make sure they bust out a huge lumbering monster of a guitar riff every now and again. They may not be as heavy as some but their more relaxed, spacious and positive atmosphere makes a pleasing alternative to the more downbeat and oppressive likes of Isis and Rosetta.

Fitting far more easily into the ambient metal genre are The Angelic Process and their album Weighing Souls With Sand. This record totally eschews the standard metal repertoire of riffs, solos and screaming in favour of a heavy chug and a haze of ambient distortion accompanied by distant vocals that has as much in common with industrial as metal. The outcome is (perhaps a little surprisingly) a very beautiful, soothing sort of music with a mood not dissimilar to that of Wolves In The Throne Room. It's a very good album, but sadly there won't be any more like it since one of the principal members of the band passed away earlier this year.

Lastly we have the self titled album by asbestoscape. This is some seriously great stuff, although I'm not sure if I'd call it either metal or ambient. It certainly sounds unique and doesn't fit into any preconceived genres, a very pleasing quality in an age where it often feels as though there is nothing new under the sun. Absestoscape's songs are (relatively) short and based around simple repetitive buzzsaw guitar riffs, backed by droning bass and processed drumming that ranges from the straightforward to IDM influenced glitch. Yet from these simple elements we get some remarkably catchy and engaging tunes. It's smart, unique and fun music, I highly recommend it to pretty much anyone.

There'll probably be a part two to this post in a couple of weeks but odds are that it might wait a while since fucking awesome concert season kicks off with Opeth this Saturday!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Black Metal Roundup

I've been buying so much music recently that it's been hard to find time to listen to it all but it just so happened that this week four black metal albums fell into my hands at about the same time, providing a convenient theme for a post.

First up we have Odinist: The Destruction Of Reason By Illumination by French act Blut Aus Nord. This album nicely achieves a balance between black metal's love of dirty production and the need to actually hear what's going on. The production is surprisingly crisp, especially on the drums, but has a good messy wash to the guitars and vocals that gives it some grit but not so much that the melody is obscured. The sound of the album is very reminiscent of Mayhem's most recent record Ordo Ad Chao, which preceded Odinist's release by about six months. The riffs share a similar spiralling, unsettling, atonal style and the drumming reminds me a little of Hellhammer (Mayhem's drummer), alternating between straight up blast beats and pleasingly syncopated stuttering, both driven by a kick drum that sounds crisp but not so much so that it turns into the dreaded typewriter trigger. The vocals are kind of relegated to the background but are pretty good and I must once again make the comparison with Ordo Ad Chao as they are quite similar to those of Attila Csihar on the latest Mayhem release (but not to his comical gibbering on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas).

Odinist is a pretty good listen despite the fact that every song is in an identical style; so much so that while I'd be able to recognise a song off this album quite easily I'd never be able to tell you what the title or even the track number is. Fortunately the song they repeat is a good one and doesn't wear out it's welcome over the album's brief forty minute running time.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry: Blut Aus Nord's take on the black metal philosophy appears to be informed largely by mysticism (and particularly Crowley, who's writing provides the album's subtitle). In other words, the same old same old.

Agalloch's The Mantle isn't exactly black metal, but it is folk metal of a kind that has a history often interwoven with that of black metal so I'll call it close enough to include in this post. Despite the presence of distorted electrics in the background Agalloch's songs are primarily driven by clean acoustic guitars, although on the other hand the vocals give the music its tentative black metal connection, alternating between clean singing and a gurgle/whisper that's 100% black metal derived. The overall effect is actually quite cool and original. Acoustic guitar strumming accompanied by subdued distorted electric rhythm guitar, straight up rock drumming, black metal vocals and flamenco lead guitar is something I certainly admit I've never heard any other band try. The result is a melancholy and dreamy vibe that still has the energy and epic sense of metal. I must admit though that I'm not as keen on this album as I am on Odinist, as even though The Mantle has far more variety over the course of a full hour I always tire of it before the end. Nevertheless it's still well worth a listen.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry: I have to admit that I haven't checked the lyrics but Agalloch seem to be invoking extreme environmentalism, with lyrics and a mood that evokes the natural world and song titles like 'A Celebration For The Death Of Man...'. This is a nice twist on the usual black metal bullshit, and one that a few bands seem to have adopted in recent times.

Which leads us to Wolves In The Throne Room's first album Diadem Of Twelve Stars. Last year saw the release of Two Hunters, an absolute masterpiece which took the evil sounding trappings of black metal, added the occasional soaring female vocal and rendered it into something positive and uplifting. Transcendent, to use the band's own term. It took just one listen of Two Hunters to make Wolves by far my favourite black metal band but I still kept my expectations for their first album modest, and sure enough it doesn't quite live up to the standard of it's successor. All the elements that made Two Hunters so great are already present, dual guitars in a wash of distortion creating more of a texture than a melody and heaviness blended seamlessly with melancholy and their trademark transcendent, uplifting mood. Unfortunately it's held back from greatness by a vestigial concern with riffage (not their strong point) and other conventional metal trappings, as well as songs with excessive lengths outstripping the quality of the ideas therein contained. Listen to Two Hunters and give Diadem Of Twelve Stars a go too only if you're really into it.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry:
These guys are another bunch of extreme environmentalists, playing gigs out in the forests over there in California and living in a country lodge 'off the grid'. It doesn't factor too much into their music however, beyond the fact that they focus on the wonder of the natural world to the exclusion of other traditional black metal topics.

The story with Shining's IV: The Eerie Cold is quite similar to that of Diadem. Last year Shining released V: Halmstad, a fucking brilliant blend of prog and black metal, but as with Wolves' first album I found this predecessor lacking. Mind you in all other ways Shining may well be the absolute antithesis of Wolves In The Throne Room. For a start they come from the other side of the world (Sweden). Secondly their take on black metal is totally evil (more on this when we get to their gimmickry section) where Wolves are about as positive as black metal ever can be. Thirdly as opposed to Wolves' skill at mood and texture, Shining excel in the area of straight up metal riffing. Not a track goes by without at least one passage with a groove so fucking powerful that you can't help but nod your head and stamp your foot, which is a little peculiar considering that it comes from a band who's main lyrical focus is desolation, depression and suicide. More in line with expectations for a band with such an image are the ghastly vocals and the maudlin piano and cello interludes, which are also very good. Shining's style and riffs may be derived from typical black metal tremello picking and gurgled vocals but they have very much evolved into their own unique kind of music, incorporating a straight up rock energy and creating something that may be very dark and dismal but is incredibly catchy at the same time.

As with Wolves though, The Eerie Cold is but an inferior copy of its successor. For every head bangingly awesome riff on this album, it is still just an imperfect precursor to an even awesomer one on Halmstad. Nevertheless whereas Diadem Of Twelve Stars is a little tedious to listen to The Eerie Cold is still a solid album, even if it does always make me want to put on Halmstd immediately afterwards.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry:
Suicide (amongst other things of a similarly offensive nature). These guys claim to be proud of a number of suicides in their native Sweden that may or may not have been caused by their music. Having watched a few interviews with Shining's obnoxious frontman Kvaroth (and listened to the annoying monologue at the start of The Eerie Cold a couple of times) it must be noted that this band's conceits deserve to be labelled gimmickry more than most. When pretty much everything they do or say seems calculated for maximum offensiveness and obnoxiousness with no consistent philosophy behind it I think it's safe to say that they don't really mean it. (Even if it was pretty funny when Kvaroth called that interviewer a troglodyte.) It's just like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: “The fact that these bands haven't killed themselves in ritual self suicide already proves that they're in it for the money just like everyone else.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friendly Fire Will Not Be Tolerated!

Call Of Duty 4 (PS3)

If I'd known that this game was so short I would have saved the snark for this article instead of writing that throwaway post last week.

This is my first game post in a long while, and my first ever about a PS3 game, so I may as well start with a few words about the system itself. As a piece of hardware it can't be argued that it's not impressive. Sure it might be an enormous beastly monolith of a console sizewise but it is still only half the size of my PC (itself an enormous behemoth, by today's PC standards). At least it makes up for it's huge form factor by being whisper quiet, unlike the PS2 (or again my PC, which makes a roar like a dying elephant when it starts up). And as you'd expect from a piece of electronics containing such a ridiculous amount of processing power it renders games beautifully, at the very least justifying its reputation as the technical apex of console gaming today. I haven't bought any blu-ray discs yet (watching hi-def movies on my tiny 22” screens would be a bit of a joke), so I can't comment on that aspect of it, but it's fair to say that overall I'm pretty happy with the PS3 hardware.

Lets skip the incredibly aggravating fact that the model I own is not backwards compatible with PS2 games (guess I'll never finish Final Fantasy 12 then), and focus on the one huge damning failure on the part of the PS3, the much lamented fact that there are seriously, absolutely no good games available for it. At all. It's a real shame (and something of a mystery) that a system with such potential is going to waste, but here's hoping that Sony pull their thumb out one day soon. I was frankly a bit shocked at my lack of choices the first time I went shopping for games for it. While I ended up picking up Dynasty Warriors 6 (shallow but addictive), Assassin's Creed (brilliant ideas, boring gameplay) and Grand Theft Auto 4 (ditto) I considered it a pretty paltry haul consisting only of things that are barely OK, but that I ended up buying just for the sake of having something for the console. It's almost comical, why do we get the shitty Burnout Paradise, but the awesome Burnout Revenge is an Xbox exclusive? The other week in desperation I ended up picking up Call Of Duty, which has gotten pretty good reviews (or at least the Xbox version has).

The Call Of Duty series is part of a booming genre of World War II based FPSs, although this fourth instalment deviates from its predecessors by being set in the modern day (with the obligatory Middle Eastern and ex-Soviet bad guys). There are a lot of things I can praise about this game. For a start it doesn't force you to sit through the obnoxious ten minute install that the other PS3 games I've bought have done. Secondly it looks fantastic, by far the best looking game I've seen to date on a pretty good looking console, and the gameplay is slick, easy to pick up and satisfying to play. However its greatest achievement is a real sense of immersion; the trappings of a real special ops operation are probably not at all accurate but are at least convincing enough to distract you from the fact that you can get shot three times in the head and walk away, and that the terrorist organisation appears to have so much manpower that they can afford to send hundreds of their grunts to get slaughtered by US marines. A late night session leaves the player feeling too jittery and wound up to sleep, with a head full of exploding grenades and close call bullet traces.

Yet despite it's initial appeal I ultimately found Call Of Duty a let down. As I implied earlier, the story is the usual retarded bullshit, and further to that it's also too short. I was quite surprised when the game suddenly came to an end after killing a bad guy who was only introduced a couple of levels earlier. Of course I'm used to this kind of bullshit and considering how little time I have for games nowadays I shouldn't complain too much about the length, but what really lets Call Of Duty down is that the gameplay, while slick, is actually very shallow. For the first few levels the constant sensory overload is enough to distract the player, but it eventually becomes apparent that despite the surface appearance of tactical complexity there's very little to the game except for blindly charging into battle and relying on chance to save you from the occasional incoming grenade. Despite a wide array of abilities, including flash bombs, C4, airstrikes and night vision, you never need to do anything except tap the auto aim button and fire your default weapon for most of the game, an action that is soothing (and satisfying when you pop some poor Ruski's noggin off with a head shot), but ultimately wears thin after a few levels.

Yes the game's real strength is in multiplayer, and I actually happen to have played a moderate amount of it (not my usual style I know), and can confirm that it's pretty decent. This is all well and good, but I'm still waiting impatiently for a genuinely good single player game to let the PS3 show what it can do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

They Stole Our Honour!

So I've been playing Call of Duty 4, and I hope this isn't a big spoiler for anyone but it turns out that the bad dude is a crazy Russian general who's mad about losing the cold war. Holy fucking shit! Who could have seen that coming! It's only exactly the same plot twist that's been used by every goddamn modern warfare game released in the past ten years (and a season of 24). It's like the entertainment industry sits down every time they try to write a story and say "Who could we use for a bad guy...? I know! The Russians!", and then after several months of production they realise that the USSR doesn't exist anymore but because their dessicated, worn out brains can't think outside of the same old tired cliches they used for thirty years straight, they roll with it anyway.

Just for once I'd like to play a game where you play a former Russian secret service agent who's called back into action in order to stop a crazy American former general who, pissed that the cold war is over, steals a nuke and tries to blow up Moscow.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Saturday Night Icelandic Pixie Confetti Party

I said they were probably going to suck. I was wrong. I must admit, there was a bit of disingenuousness in that statement, chiefly for the purpose of deliberately keeping my expectations low. I was sceptical of just how engaging a band this twee and mellow could be in a live setting and also I was hesitant because it was at the Hordern Pavilion, a venue which has an inexplicable habit of hosting concerts that disappoint me. Luckily this time around my misgivings were unwarranted on both counts.

The openers, Pivot, were playing as I arrived. This three piece (local to Sydney) has a unique style which layers glitchy electronica in the vein of Autechre (but less avant garde and more catchy) over live drums and guitar. They're a little hard to describe in more detail than that off of a single listen, partly because they traversed a range of moods even in the single half set I saw. However I can happily report that they were a pretty decent live act, with loads of energy and confidence.

Pivot

As for Sigur Ros themselves, here's the setlist:

Svefn-G-Englar
Glosoli
Se Lest
Ny Batteri
Vid Spilum Endalaust
Hoppipolla
Med Blodnasir
Festival
Fljotavik
Saeglopur
Inni Mer Syngur
Hafsol
Gobbledigook

Untitled #8

All Alright

I stole this list from the comments to the concerts last.fm page, as I have little chance of actually remembering it on my own considering that both the length of Sigur Ros' songs and the fact that the titles are in a language I don't understand mean that I've never been too good at remembering which one was which anyway.


As you may or may not be able to tell, the song selection is fairly evenly divided between tracks from the new album, their previous one (Takk...) and their classic Agaetis Byrjun. Despite my misgivings about the new record those songs fitted in pretty well to the set. I must admit that several times I found myself thinking “I'm pretty sure this is a new song, but I'm really enjoying it... maybe it's actually an old one...”

As performers the band were as laid back and as twee as their music. Frontman Jonsi Birgisson, despite being a towering nordic giant, sounds like a pixie with his heavily accented, elfin English. The renditions of the songs were a little too similar to the album for my liking, but were performed with soul and plenty of gusto on the louder parts, especially those exuberantly stompy drums. Birgisson's extended coos (extended as in, 'going on for ages') should be mentioned too as an unexpected bit of showiness/showmanship from a band with such a reserved image.


It was cool to go to a concert where for a change at least half of it was about feeling nice instead of being goaded into an hour long frenzy. It actually took a bit of adjusting to but it turns out that nodding your head and smiling is actually also a fun way to appreciate live music. Mind you that was only half the performance, the rest was big stompy energetic fun even though you wouldn't know it to look at my fellow concertgoers, most of whom seemed to find even nodding their heads to be beneath their dignity. Fucking indie kids are probably scared of messing up their hair or losing their brightly coloured dark sunglasses.


The only lowlight of the set was 'Festival', my least favourite track from the new album, and one that was elevated in the live setting from 'too long and dead fucking boring' to 'too long and still pretty boring'. Fortunately there were plenty of great songs to compensate. The bombast and hooky piano riffs of Takk...'s two big anthems 'Glosoli' and 'Saeglopur' went down very well and the brass band marching onstage during 'Se Lest' was a highlight too. I was also really impressed by the absolute quiet during the final minutes of the opener ('Svefn-G-Englar'), even if the audience was unemotive they were still clearly enraptured. Closing out the main set with the new single 'Gobbledigook' was a great decision, I'm not all that fond of the track on the album but with everyone clapping along and glitter and confetti being fired everywhere, it was a sweet moment, one where I could almost completely by into Sigur Ros' tweeness.

The only track from () was the first encore, predictably enough 'Untitled #8' (or 'The Pop Song') (by far the scariest thing Sigur Ros have ever recorded). As expected given the fact that their music has moved in a very different direction since that album they didn't reach the same anger and intensity as the recorded version but it was still nice and loud and an epic way to finish out the concert.

Or not quite. After rapturous applause the band returned to leave us with the very mellow, sweet 'All Alright', which appropriately provided much less of a downer to end off a night that was mostly ridiculously upbeat.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Have A Little Fun Tonight

Jerry Lee Lewis – Live At The Star Club, Hamburg

It was another crazy weekend here at Wildebeest Asylum HQ and my head is totally frazzled, but this week I'm going to push on nonetheless and try and wring something sensible out of my fingers through the haze of a headachy hangover and serious sleep deprivation.

The subject of this week's musing is one of the 1001 albums. I anticipated Jerry Lee Lewis with little excitement, knowing little about him and following on the heels of the dire previous entry in the series, Buck Owens' ear murdering country drawling. I was expecting to just give it one quick listen and then move on. How wrong I was. Even half way through the first track I was thinking “Oh this is much better than I anticipated!” and as it transpired Lewis was just warming up. Three songs into his set when he drops into 'Money' (you know the song, “Thats. What I want!”) I was floored by the absolute insanity of his performance. Lewis' piano playing is phenomenal. His riffs may be simple but considering that he's screaming like a madman whilst bashing them out like the keyboard killed his parents, and combined with his reputation for playing behind his back or while standing on top of the piano it's very impressive. His singing is amazing too. Sure most of the time he's just shouting but there's no doubt that he's giving it all he's got both physically and emotionally. And his backing band keep up in the intensity department. The guitar solos may be just two note wailing but even the likes of Opeth or Dragonforce should envy the rawness and wild energy that they capture.

The songs themselves have been reduced to hoary, clichéd golden oldies by the decades. 'Good Golly Miss Molly', 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Hound Dog' may garner a bit of intellectual respect for their place in music history but few of our generation have much genuine inclination to actually listen to them. All the same in this performance Lewis howls his way through them with an energy and yes even savagery that would give even the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan something to think about, and should cause half assed metal bands who treat a live performance as a job no more exciting than sitting in an office all day (I'm looking at you Satyricon, Slipknot and the Deftones) to hang up their scary masks, wipe off their scary makeup and admit that a forty year old album made by a devout Christian lad has made them look like a bunch of gutless pussies.

The concert recorded on this album was performed at a time when Lewis' star was on the wane, following the media response to revelations of a dubious nature about his personal life (and it's wasn't just some moral majority era wowserism either, marrying one's thirteen year old cousin would probably still be frowned upon today), and it's easy to hear in his manic performance the sound of self-destruction; as though he feels he's lost everything and has nothing left but the catharsis of throwing every piece of oneself into the primal thunder of rock and roll. One of the tragic things about art is that we can only ever achieve our full potential when one's personal life has wound up in such an unpleasant place that the anger or despair brings about some kind of transcendence to create something beyond the norm. Sure I've heard plenty of great performances where the performers are jazzed up in a positive way, usually simply by the pleasure they take in creating music, but those can never quite match up to the spectacle of seeing or hearing someone totally fucking losing it for real. And the appreciation of this is not schadenfreude or pity or voyeurism, but the feeling that you've witnessed something truly genuine; that the hands smashing that keyboard or throttling that guitar are driven by real emotion instead of a mere abstract passion to make some good music. It's a little depressing but of course it's the human cost that it took to create the performance that makes it special. And that's why this album is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time, and why when I see Sigur Ros tonight they're probably going to suck.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm Like A Dog Chasing Cars! I Wouldn't Know What To Do If I Caught One!

The Dark Knight
directed by Christopher Nolan

I've been listening to all sorts of stuff recently, but there's nothing that I really have a lot to say about (except that TID are really good. Go download their album. It's free!), so this week we're going to take a rare detour into the world of film.

I very rarely actually go to the theatre nowadays, and considering what a fiasco I had getting there it's no wonder why. Most of the problems I had, as with most of the problems in the world today, were the immediate and direct fault of the Catholic Church. As you may or may not be aware, last week large portions of Sydney were closed down to facilitate the arrival of many hundreds of thousands of the gullible, simple minded and deluded who were here to see their favourite rotten old ex-Nazi and his cadre of kiddy fiddlers.

Quite aside from the personal inconvenience it caused me, I find it appalling and offensive that the NSW government is willing to close down half the city, attempt to suspend our right to free speech and spend literally millions of taxpayer dollars for the sake of the Catholic Church, who for all the people who seem to have forgotten, were the nice chaps behind the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention their general bigotry, the paedophilia and their consistent opposition to reason and progress throughout modern history. Attention Australian government! These people are not our friends! They are in fact one of the most corrupt and vile institutions in Western history! Please remember this next time!

So anyway all this meant that getting out to Bondi Junction was a total ordeal, as the entire central city was turned into some kind of neutered, conformist carnival, filled with roaming packs of teenagers alternating fascist style chants of “Aussie aussie aussie” and “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”, and singing that godawful fucking 'Jesus loves me yes he does' song. And of course the additional strain on the public transport system meant that the trains broke down and I was stuck in Martin Place station with these people for a quarter of an hour. (In a typically droll piece of public transport organisation we were told after 15 minutes that the train wasn't coming and we should catch the bus, at which point everyone dutifully files out of the station only to hear an announcement that the train was fixed and was arriving in one minute.) It's enough to make you want to go Varg Vikarnes styles on the Sydney cathedral.

I arrived fifteen minutes late but of course, that was no problem. Having not been to the movies for so long I was surprised to learn that nowadays they run a full half hour of ads before the film actually starts. I can't believe that these fuckers get away with that, but I guess with margins being so slim for the cinema business nowadays they really have no choice.

So with all my bitching out of the way I can happily confirm that The Dark Knight is actually a damn good action movie. Perhaps a little long, and with some unfortunate cuts required for its PG13 rating, but otherwise unassailable.

Having not seen Batman Begins I had no expectations for this particular iteration of the franchise, and with relief I note that it has nothing in common with the retarded camp of the Joel Schumacher movies. It does share the Frank Miller inspired grimness of the Tim Burton films, but Burton's characteristic cartooniness has been removed to create a far more realistic tone (relatively speaking that is, in typical action movie fashion people still crash through glass windows, dive through explosions, get shot a couple of times and still manage to walk away afterwards). Gotham City is not so superficially gothic this time around. The demented baroque and art deco nightmares that populated the city in previous versions are gone, leaving cold, grim skyscrapers that somehow end up feeling more gothic than the cartoony buildings they replaced.

The story is familiar territory for anyone who's been exposed to Batman in any of his prior media incarnations. The villains used in this particular instalment are Two Face and The Joker, and while nothing really happens that hasn't been done before the plot is smartly executed, unafraid of complexity and subtlety and not at all predictable. As an action movie it works well too. Despite having enough intelligence in the plot and thoughtful character interaction there's a huge action setpiece every half an hour or so, each of which contains at least one moment that caused my inner fourteen year old to grin his head off and say “That was fucking cool!”.

The papers over here have been full of the predictable posthumous overselling of Heath Ledger's performabce, which needs to be called out as the knee jerk hysterical media overreaction that it is. “Oscar-worthy” they're all screaming, as if this was Shakespeare and not just a decent action movie, and as if anyone with a brain actually gives a shit about the Oscars, that sad tepid one night of the year where the brain dead pillocks in the movie industry make a misguided attempt to raise their artistic consciousness to the level of 'middle brow'. Having said all that Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is genuinely great. Even in Tim Burton's version the Joker wasn't a terribly threatening villain, as his comic nature tended to overshadow any potential menace he could provide. Ledger's Joker on the other hand is one of the most memorable villains to enter filmdom in recent years. Even aside from his hideous facial deformaties his grotesque hunched shuffle and disgusting lip smacking make him truly repulsive. Also his humour isn't overdone; this Joker is first and foremost a frightening psychopath, and although he's still consistently funny, it's very much a twisted, dark and violent kind of comedy. I loved this scene:



although it was better in the movie. I'm sure there were a few more seconds of the Joker muttering away about his magic trick that made the joke.

Other members of the cast deserve mention too. Christian Bale makes a great Batman. In previous versions Batman came across as being almost as fucked up and insane as the supervillains he battles but while Bale's Batman is still a man driven by an unhealthy compulsion he's more human, more sympathetic and more heroic than the Frank Miller inspired psychotics that populate other versions of the story. I also really liked his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, who's makes great comic relief as an apparently over privileged nincompoop. It makes for a far more convincing cover for Batman's secret identity. Maggie Gyllenhaal was very good as the love interest too, she was given a little more substance and personality than the standard damsel in distress, even if she did ultimately end up playing that role (and that she's far too cute to buy as a cop).

It must be noted that The Dark Knight is depressing as hell. On one side the plot is anchored by the tragic story arc of Two-Face, who goes from being a symbol of bravery and hope to becoming an insane murderous monster, and on the other we have the Joker, who is presented as a cypher with no backstory or motivation, an unavoidable consequence of Batman's attempts to do good in the world. If the universe itself will react to the presence of a truly selfless hero by creating a supervillian with an equal and opposite capacity for evil then it seems that the thesis of the film is that the world is a cruel, hopeless place and that any attempt to altruistically improve life for your fellow citizens will only cause a backlash that will make things worse because deep down, people would rather have the freedom to be selfish themselves than see the selfishness of others be punished. However the film fortunately throws in a few moments of redemption towards the end, providing just enough counterpoint to offer hope, but not enough to change the fact that this is one huge downer of a movie.

It's not high art, but The Dark Knight is far more intelligent than the clichéd pabulum that generally passes for action movies nowadays, and that's refreshing. The film has done very well financially on its opening week and it's being spun by the media as being totally attributable to Heath Ledger. Not to undersell his performance, which again is as great as the reviews are all saying, but I'd like to believe that the reason that it has done so well is mostly because it's a well made, intelligent movie. Compare it to the insultingly stupid, lowest common denominator films that it's competing with. Which would you rather pay $17 to see, a smart, well acted movie with a bit of depth, or You Don't Mess With The Zohan?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Years in Music

I've had surprisingly little 'home in front of the computer' time this week, so in lieu of writing a real post I'm going to participate, slightly tardily, in this meme that has been floating around in which you pick an album for every year that you've been alive. The exact criteria for the choices are left quite vague, so I'm approaching it with the idea that I'll pick the album that is most closely associated with that period of my life.

1980:
That said, for obvious reasons it's a bit hard to do so for my pre-teen years. In fact it's almost impossible to pick anything at all for the first few entries, since for most of the early Eighties it's hard to even find albums that I've even heard for some years. So my first pick is Flash Gordon by Queen. I've never heard the album, but I sure loved that title track when I was 10. “Flash! Aah ahh!”

1981:
This is the only year out of the twenty eight that I'm genuinely at total a loss to pick anything for so I'm going to go with Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports, even though I've never heard a second of it, just because I always liked that guy.

1982:
In contrast 82 is actually an easy one. Dire Strait's Love Over Gold was the first album I ever fell in love with. At the age of two I probably wasn't that fussed about it, but I really got into it once I turned five!

1983:
Pink Floyd - The Final Cut. It wasn't until fifteen years later that I actually heard it, but as covered previously here I still have a soft spot for the Pink Floyd album that everyone else hates.

1984:
This is another tricky pick due to scarcity of decent music that I'm familiar with from 1984, but I'm going with Metallica's Ride the Lightening, even if I don't think I've ever listened to it once all the way through. Eighties metal deserves to be namechecked at least once on this list.

1985:
Again I'm going to go with Dire Straits. Brothers in Arms has always felt like the quintessential Eighties album to me, which is perhaps a little strange given that it's a throwback to Seventies stadium rock in the era of new wave and synthpop, but it sure got played a lot around my house.

1986:
It would be remiss of me to leave Coil off the list! Horse Rotorvator is certainly not my favourite album of theirs, but it's far and away the best thing I could find for 86.

1987:
I'm going to reprise 1983 here and go with Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Yet another album that everyone hates, but that I grew to enjoy before I was told that I wasn't supposed to like it.

1988:
And just as it would be unjust to forget Coil, it would also be unforgivable not to mention Skinny Puppy, one of the few good things to come out of a wretched musical decade. Again, VIVIsectVI is one of my less liked albums of theirs, but it's still the best thing I could find listed for a crummy year.

1989:
The Cure's Disintegration. It would probably be more honest to pick NIN's Pretty Hate Machine, but that band is going to pop up a lot later, and Disintegration's unbelievably depressing mood made a pretty huge impression on me when I first heard it, ten years after its release.

1990:
I'll go with Skinny Puppy again. Too Dark Park actually does happen to be my favourite album of theirs.

1991:
There are albums that meant more to me that I could pick, but Nirvana's Nevermind is, to me, the quintessential Nineties album, and provided a pretty consistent soundtrack to my high school days.

1992:
Pretty much the last year that I had any trouble picking an album for. Nine Inch Nail's Broken is a great album. But not that great.

1993:
I wanted to pick Einsturzende Neubauten's Tabula Rasa, or Nirvana's In Utero for the sake of diversity, but who am I kidding? I love Tool's Undertow to pieces. Even if they far surpass it in many ways on later albums, it has a raw dirtiness that I still return to often.

1994:
This was a really fucking great year for music. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged, Jeff Buckley's Grace and Mayhem's De Mysteriius Dom Sathanas are all worthy candidates, but are all comfortably eclipsed by NIN's The Downward Spiral, an album which has all kinds of special significance to me, and which I've blathered on about in this blog many times before already.

1995:
The Smashing Pumpkin's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness hasn't aged that well, but it was both ubiquitous and universally adored (see what I did there) for a good long time in the mid Nineties.

1996:
Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. Great album, although one I didn't come to until quite recently. I'm really only picking it so that I don't have every Tool album somewhere on this list.

1997:
Radiohead's Ok Computer. I didn't actually get this one until the next year, but its morbid paranoia made an unfortunately appropriate soundtrack to my last years of high school.

1998:
This is the point at which I can actually start doing this list properly, as it wasn't until this year that I became a real music geek. The soundtrack to this year for me was actually Ok Computer and Mellon Collie more than anything else, but Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals was a pretty constant companion too (honourable mention also goes to The Smashing Pumpkin's Adore and PJ Harvey's Is This Desire?). Can you tell that I was a miserable teenager that year?

1999:
A total no brainer. I must have listened to NIN's The Fragile at least three times a day for a year after it came out. I still remember skipping uni classes to go and buy it the day it came out. And hanging around in the record store for about an hour the day before because they were playing it on the PA.

2000:
A Perfect Circle - Mer de Noms. More fun memories associated with this album, such as coming home totally shitfaced from one of those fun Uni mid afternoon booze ups to find that my friend had left this album in my room for me. When I woke up the next morning I remembered nothing about what it sounded like, only that at the time I was listening to it I thought it was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard.

2001:
Tool – Lateralus. How could I pick anything else? Not just the soundtrack to that year, but to most of my life since...

2002:
I'm pretty sure we listened to Korn's Untouchables and System of a Down's Steal This Album a lot more, (and we definitely listened to Cripple Mr. Onion's album even more still, but it was a year or two old at the time) but Boards of Canada's Geogaddi always brings to mind all the times we sat in the sun chilling out and drinking Summer Ale. It felt like we did that a lot back then, even though it was barely ever sunny in Christchurch, and I was hell busy with my final year of Uni.

2003:
Massive Attack's 100th Window would probably do as well, but Radiohead's Hail to the Thief lived in our kitchen stereo for most of the year and got played probably twice a day at least (once by Barnes, once by me). It must have driven our other flatmates nuts.

2004:
There were many far better albums released this year (Nick Cave's Lyre of Orpheus, Dillinger Escape Plan's Miss Machine and Isis' Panopticon come instantly to mind), but Velvet Revolver's Contraband got a hell of a lot of playtime from me this year, and is fairly strongly associated with an old girlfriend as well. I sure wish I could pick a better album for this year, but this is the actual honest choice.

2005:
I blame Meshuggah's Catch 33 (along with Miss Machine and Panopticon, but they came out the year before) for turning me from a relatively middle of the road hard rocker into an unredeemable metal troglodyte. Damn you brutally heavy, technical music!

2006:
This was the year I moved to Australia, and Tool's 10,000 Days was the soundtrack to the three months of pissing around it took me to get here. Few albums are as strongly associated with specific times as this one is for me.

2007:
I'm a bit torn here. Musically I think of this as the year I got turned on to Nightwish, so I could list Dark Passion Play, but the truth is I like Once a hell of a lot more, and even if the music didn't do quite as much for me Nine Inch Nail's Year Zero is the obvious choice, both for the innovative way that Trent Reznor used the internet as his liner notes, and for how the album concept reflected world events of the last five years so well.

2008:
Opeth – Watershed. See my post of a few weeks back. This album still fucking rocks!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Unthemed Weekly Music Roundup

So I've listened to a whole bunch of shit this week, and all of it seems worth commenting on, even if none of it really grabbed me enough in a good or bad way to write a full post about.

Ambient Noise Madness:
Black Boned Angel – Bliss And Void Inseparable
Vargr – Northern Black Supremacy

This week I also became reacquainted with Black Boned Angel, who I'd heard before and really liked but never acquired until now. Black Boned Angel is a solo project of one Campbell Kneale, a Wellingtonian, who also records as Birchfield Cat Motel. In the Black Boned Angel incarnation his music is dark, avant-garde ambient, a genre that I used to love but which I have neglected in recent years. Bliss And Void Inseparable is an hour long piece that lurches unnaturally from one moody, disturbing piece of creepy noise to another, and if you're into that sort of thing it's pretty good.

I stumbled across Bliss and Void Inseparable while purchasing Vargr's Nothern Black Supremacy, which bridges the gap between my old and new listening habits by taking ambient industrial and infusing it with a gritty dose of black metal. They do so by taking the BM genre trappings, gurgled vocals, tremolo guitar riffs and blast beat drums and cranking up the murkiness of the production, reducing it all into a distorted wash that blends in perfectly as a backdrop to the industrial noise. The two genre's really do make a surprisingly good match, not just because the sounds mould together so well, but also because they share a few aesthetic and philosophical principles, such as their charming fascination with fascist imagery.

1001 Albums:
The Beatles – A Hard Day's Night
Jacques Brel – Olympia 64

I quite liked With the Beatles which I listened to a month or so back. The songs were nothing special but they performed with a youthful vigour that surpassed any other similar album I've reached on this list so far and introduced the rawness and energy that characterises rock and roll in my mind and is lacking from the likes of say the Everly Brothers. A Hard Day's Night in comparison was a little bit of a disappointment. Perhaps it's just because I've been exposed to these songs literally since the day I was born, as an inescapable part of the pop cultural atmosphere, but the whole album just breezed right past my ears and left little impression.

Jacques Brel on the other hand is a total revelation. I've never heard of him before but in his native France (well, actually he's Belgian, but his musical career was based in France) he is considered an influential singer songwriter. I'm at a real loss as to how to describe his music. It certainly fits into no category I can think of, although iTunes has classified it as 'caberet', and that's as good a guess as any. Brel sings accompanied by a sprightly orchestra which includes plenty of accordion and piany (as opposed to piano!), giving it an definite French character. I guess superficially you might compare this album to those of Frank Sinatra, in that it's a single male vocalist backed by an orchestra which acts in a purely supporting role, but Brel's vocal quirks and dramatic, bitter delivery put me in mind of Mike Patton more than anyone. Brel is clearly a big influence on Patton, at least when he's in crooning mode. And I almost forgot to mention, this album is really good! I love it even though Brel's best quality is supposedly his lyrics and I can't understand a word of it, as it's all in French.

One other random chain of influence. British singer songwriter Scott Walker was heavily influenced by Brel, covering him often. Walker's 2006 album The Drift is one of the albums Mikael Akerfeldt has been citing as an influence on the latest Opeth album. Coming from such a far flung corner of the musical map I'm totally surprised (but also delighted) by just how relevant this guy is to the obscure corners of metaldom.

Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Sigur Rós are one of the few upbeat, happy bands to make serious inroads into my music collection, which in general resembles a grim nightmare world of hatred, despair and violence. I was a little disappointed with their b-sides album Hvarf/Heim that was released last year, but didn't think too much of it since their last two real albums (() and Takk) were so damn good. Sadly their new album with the nonstandard character filled title too long for me to be bothered typing out again disappoints in a similar way to Hvarf/Heim. At first I wondered (as I often do) if perhaps I haven't stuck my head so far out into the world of extreme metal that I've lost the ability to appreciate music without blast beats, vocals howled by a madman and lyrics about strangling people with their own intestines, so I made a point of listening to Ágætis Byrjun, one of their earlier albums, again and found that I still thought it rocked. By this highly scientific method I have proved that it is indeed Sigur Rós that have started to suck, not me.

Upon consideration I've decided that the thing that's changed about them is that their older albums had more flavour to their emotional landscape. While their main angle has always been prettiness, twinkling piano and uplift, on earlier albums it was leavened with moments of melancholy (and on () even heaviness) but they seem to have discarded these shades of subtlety in recent years. On this release the climactic, soaring conclusion to 'Ára bátur' (backed by the London Oratory School Choir) would on an earlier album have been the triumphant, redemptive centrepiece of an emotional journey that visited a variety of moods, but in this case is just the point where they crank things up from 'really really happy' to 'super extra fucking happy'.

On the other hand these guys are touring here next month, and I am still looking forward to it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wake! Lift!

Rosetta – The Galilean Satellite, Wake/Lift and Live at Hermann's Bar 21st July

Over at I'm the Most Important Fucking Person in the World they've been running a series on bands that sound like Isis/Neurosis/Cult of Luna, as a response to and criticism of the particularly lazy way that the metal music press like to dismiss such bands as 'just another Cult of NeurIsis clone'. Rosetta would be a perfect candidate for their series, as their sound is quite unashamedly derivative of Isis and Neurosis (and in fact, Aaron Turner, vocalist of Isis, designed the artwork for The Galilean Satellite), but who cares how much they fit into an oversaturated genre when their music is so fucking great?

From their progenitors Rosetta borrow the long track lengths, raw, shouted vocals, a slow cycle of build and release and use of alternating gentle interludes and heavy climaxes. The more unique elements that Rosetta display are dense and frequent use of ambient electronica, an enveloping, spacey sound and a positive, uplifting vibe. Not just the electronics, but also the full sound of the instruments create a much richer soundscape than say Isis, who tend to be somewhat sparse and (at least until their last album) somewhat more purist in their adherence to a standard rock format. Rosetta also have a more uplifting, at times even joyous, emotional vibe to their music, which is a nice point of difference to their post-metal contemporaries and indeed to metal as a whole, which of course tends to be melancholic, when it's not downright depressing.

Rosetta have two full length albums out (as well as a few EPs which I haven't heard). Their first, The Galilean Satellite, is the more conventional post-metal record of the two. The songs are all roughly between ten minutes and a quarter of an hour long and are leisurely arranged, allowing plenty of time for the gradual cycling from peaceful acoustic and ambient passages to the heavy climaxes where they indulge in the genre's signature sound, lumbering riffs belting out a wall of crushing distortion. And of course, it's a concept album. This one is about a man who forsakes the company of his fellow humans and begins a life of isolation on Europa (one of Jupiter's moons, hence the album title), but eventually realises that he can't live without human companionship and returns to Earth. It might sound a little cheesy, but simple stories work best as album concepts and this one is well serviced by articulate lyrics and a powerful delivery. The Galilean Satellite also comes with a companion disc of purely ambient music and while it's a perfectly good album in it's own right it's actually meant to be played synchronously with the album proper. It's very a cool idea, even if Neurosis did do something similar a couple of years back.

Wake/Lift is their second album, and it shifts gears slightly by tightening up the arrangements and putting more focus on melody and riffage at the expense of the ambience, which is neither a bad nor good thing, just a difference. By and large the two albums are pretty similar, and they both rock out something wicked so I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite.

Now I would never had heard of these guys, but they happened to be doing an Australian tour last month; unusual for an overseas band with so little exposure but most welcome all the same. Fortunately a half page interview in a local free music rag caught a friends eye and after a quick look at their myspace page I was sold.

The gig was at the dark and pokey Hermann's Bar, on campus at Sydney Uni. I was curious to see what kind of crowd a band like this would bring in (if any) considering the relatively sparse attendance for Isis last year. I was heartened to see that there at least was one, and as you'd expect mostly comprised of shy young men dressed all in black, some trailing bored, disinterested girlfriends.

There were three opening bands, and we arrived just in time to see the first close their set with a Celtic Frost cover. Following this mysterious, unnamed band were The Surrogate, from Brisbane who were an easy fit with the headliners in terms of sound and style. They were pretty fucking good too, with a lot of fine technique on display from all four musicians. Their drummer was especially impressive, handling primary vocals while playing. They performed with tons of guts and were very well received. The only bad thing I can say about them is that their guitarist didn't wash his hands after he uses the bathroom.

The final opening band did not go down so well. In fact I felt a bit sorry for them, as after the enthusiastic applause that The Surrogate invited they received total silence at the end of each song. I don't remember their name, which is perhaps just as well because I wasn't very impressed by them. They sounded about halfway between Converge and Parkway Drive: screamy hardcore stuff. The singer did have a good strong voice, but I thought that their songs were kind of straightforward and boring, and their performances lacked the fire that that style of music really needs.

Finally Rosetta themselves took the stage. They were plagued by technical troubles to start with, including no vocals for the first song, and a muddy mix that rendered their spacey wall of sound mostly into a dull roar. Such things are to be expected at a rock show though and Rosetta compensated admirably with an impassioned performance. It's been a while since I had the opportunity to go to a smaller gig, where you can get right up and close to the band (close enough to get a bit of a shower when the vocalist went nuts on the climaxes), and the audience is well behaved but appreciative.

Hopefully it wasn't too expensive for them to come all the way over here and play. I'd love to see them again soon!

Here's the only video of them on youtube, or at least the only one I could find:



We were a much better audience than those guys by the way.

Monday, June 23, 2008

For The Great Blue Cold Now Reigns

The Ocean – Precambrian

German band The Ocean have been around for a little while now but they're new to me, having caught my attention by way of a surge of music press interest brought on by their first US tour, and they are poised to be the 'next big thing' in the world of beard metal, blending the disparate but congruous influences of Mastodon and Isis.

The Ocean are more correctly named 'The Ocean Collective' (at least according to wikipedia) on account of it's constantly rotating membership. Songwriter/mainman Robin Staps is the constant that gives the band its identity, but he assembles a veritable circus of performers for each album. Precambrian credits more than twenty musicians, many of whom are bought in for just one song. The change in performers on each track brings some nice variety, as even though the genre and songwriter remain the same the interpretations of the performance give every song a different character. It works nicely!

Precambrian is a two disc set, the first named Hadean/Archaean and the second Proterozoic (these are the three eons that comprise the Precambrian, the geological term for the lifespan of the Earth before the current eon), and each track is named after a subdivision of each eon. It might seem to be an odd concept for a metal album, but it's strictly metaphorical; the lyrics (which are terrific by the way) are more concerned with alienation and the death of the soul in the modern age, in a nice blend of Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine. The two discs are themed by musical genre, Hadean/Archaean is all fast metalcore, in the vein of Converge or Mastodon, while Proterozoic contains songs that are longer, more moody and more progressive, similar to Isis and with a cinema soundtrack feel to many songs that calls to mind the various projects of Mike Patton.

Did I mention that this album is fucking brilliant? Opening track 'Hadean' immediately kicks the listener in the face with a brutal riff that combines the inventiveness of Mastodon and the intensity of Converge, and indeed the Hadean/Archaean disc as a whole delivers a divine twenty minutes of metalcore that never stops to catch a breath. As befitting the primordial song titles the music is earthy and volcanic, even if the riffs tend towards unconventional rhythms and the performances are precise in a typically German way.

On Proterozoic disc the songs stretch out to seven or eight minutes in length and incorporate gentle acoustic and electronic parts. There is still plenty of brutal heaviness to be found, but these passages are now accentuating points and climaxes that form only part of much longer songs containing a multitude of themes and moods. The Ocean achieve a much wider palette of styles than many of their post-metal contemporaries, from the dark and spacey 'Siderian', which places an unsettling sax lead in a movie score style soundscape, to the peaceful, pastoral beginning of 'Stenian' and the acoustic guitar backed cello piece 'Statherian', which sits behind a sampled movie quote and builds from mournful to menacing in a way that reminded me, surprisingly enough, of Swedish prog/black metal band Shining. Despite such varied styles, the disc makes up for its schizophrenia with masterful songwriting, and it's moody trippiness makes a nice counterpoint to the angry, gutteral first disc.

I'm a huge sucker for bands that combine the violent and the beautiful, and few others do it as gracefully as The Ocean or with such intelligence. And if the live video below of them performing 'Calymmian' is anything to go by, they're a fucking awesome live band too. Here's hoping they make it to Australia some day...

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Couple Of Early Candidates For Album Of The Year

Meshuggah – obZen
Opeth – Watershed

I've been a big fan of Meshuggah for some years now, but my appreciation for them has always been a little tempered. While there's no denying the awesomeness of their unique polyrhythmic madness, a style that as far as I'm aware no one has even attempted to copy, it's always been the kind of clever music that works more on a cerebral level than on an emotional one. From time to time I would wonder at how awesome it would be if a band came along who built on their technical achievements and infused it with the passion to match, and just how much of a punch to the gut something like that would carry.

So I was greatly delighted when obZen arrived earlier this year and proved that no such hypothetical band was necessary, as Meshuggah have finally fulfilled their potential themselves. One only needs to hear the killer opening riff of the album's single 'Bleed', to hear just how perfectly they've nailed their style this time around. As the barrage of Haake's unmistakable drumming and those brutally low eight string guitars thunder in with such sublime heaviness I'm not only amazed by the speed and precision of the performance (I get wrist strain just imagining playing those triplets, and it's not just from the fapping) but also with the immediate and unavoidable spine shivers and gut dropping feeling that they've never quite managed to evoke before.

'Bleed' may be the standout track but the whole record comes damn close to matching it in awesomeness. Album opener 'Combustion' finds Meshuggah taking a rare detour into the realm of conventional 4/4 rhythms (although the frenzied chromatic riffing and offmeter drumming could almost convince you otherwise) and boasts a classic opening riff, wild guitar solo and throughout just plain thrashes out harder than anything else I've heard this year. 'Dancers to a Discordant System' closes obZen and is about the closest Meshuggah ever come to a writing a ballad. Of course it's still brutally heavy by almost any other band's standards but relative the to rest of the album it's somewhat throttled back, and the soaring outro riff has a melancholy vibe that could almost be described as bittersweet.

But as great as it is to hear these guys finally knock one out of the park, obZen has been overshadowed by another recent death metal record, by a band that has been consistently delivering albums of impeccable quality for years now.

Opeth's Watershed faced a lot of scepticism before its release. Founding member Peter Lindgren and fan-beloved drummer Martin Lopez had both left, and while Mikael Åkerfeldt has always been the songwriter and main personality behind the band internet metalheads are always keen to find an excuse to declare that such and such a band used to be awesome but now sucks. Here's a nice example found here:
The drummer, Axlesnot, or whatever his name is, should be taken out back and shot. The organist/keyboardist should likewise be taken out back and shot, but only after being sodomized repeatedly with the corpse of Axlesnot.
Fortunately despite what you might read on the internet Watershed comfortably lives up to the high standard of its predecessors and is arguably more consistently great than anything they've done before.

The two new members, guitarist Fredrik Åkesson and drummer Martin "Axe" Axenrot, are more straight up metal than the musicians they replaced, lacking Lindgren's sensitive, moody side and Lopez' jazzy snap, and you can definitely a change in the sound. Yet despite this Watershed is Opeth's mellowest album besides Damnation, even if the heaviest parts are heavier than Opeth has ever sounded before, and Åkerfeldt is clearly indulging his interest in Seventies prog rock on this release, or as he likes to refer to Opeth's albums, this 'observation'.

Almost every track on Watershed is a highlight. In a deliberate subversion of the heavy metal cliché that states an album should open with the heaviest song and save the gentle interlude for the two thirds mark, Watershed begins with the beautiful acoustic break up ballad 'Coil', featuring female vocals no less. It's a good sight better than most of Opeth's earlier acoustic songs, which are usually very nice but are clearly not meant to be anything more than bridges between heavy songs. 'Coil' in contrast stands pretty well on its own.

The next two tracks are the heaviest on the album. 'Heir Apparent' just rocks out from beginning to end, with of course all the usual Opethy digressions, and showcases Åkesson and Axenrot's impressive technical chops. 'The Lotus Eater' is probably the album's flagship song, combining blast beats and brutality with a creepy weird vibe and, inexplicably but awesomely, a boogie breakdown near the end.

On 'Burden' Opeth have made their interpretation of a Seventies prog rock ballad and do a fantastic job of it. Even with little distortion on the guitars Opeth still metalize the genre tropes and make it heavier than such a sensitive ballad should expect be. Plenty of room is found for virtuosity on this track, Åkerfeldt and Åkesson both knock out awesome guitar solos, and keyboardist Per Wiberg gets his moment in the spotlight with an orgasmic organ solo near the beginning.

'Porcelain Heart' is the single and is quite easily the most underwhelming track on Watershed. The choice to use it as a single is understandable, because it is after all the most 'standard Opeth' sounding track on the album so Roadrunner Records have in a typical fit of major label stupidity decided to play things safe, reasoning that even if it's not the strongest track on the album a music video featuring twelve string guitars and hot lesbians will sell records all the same. The song's not bad mind you, Axenrot gets a chance to show off with a crazy drum solo, and there's definitely a place for one Opeth-by-the-numbers track on this album, even if it seems obvious to me that 'The Lotus Eater' is the only sensible choice for a single.

Finally the album closes with 'Hessian Peel' and 'Hex Omega', two lengthy tracks which blend elements of Opeth's death metal roots and their ever growing prog rock influence to create something new and interesting, but hard to describe. Lets just say that it combines the beautiful, the epic and the heavy to create a mighty satisfying end to a great album.

Opeth's new album has overshadowed Meshuggah's effort this year, but having said that I'm seeing both bands in concert later this year (no not touring together unfortunately) and while I'm sure that Opeth will be great, I have a feeling that Meshuggah's live show is going to fucking kill.

Here's a few videos for you.

Meshuggah's 'Bleed'. Great song, great video:



Opeth's 'Porcelain Heart', featuring aforementioned twelve string guitars and lesbians:



But that's not really the best song to showcase the album. Here's a live version of 'Heir Apparent':

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

1001 Albums: Number God Knows What

The Freewheelin' – Bob Dylan

So I am still digging through this '1001 albums you must listen to before you die' list. At the current rate it will take me about twenty years to get through them all, so who knows if I'll ever actually listen to all 1001, but at least to this point (from the mid 1950s to 1963) it has been for the most part an interesting and educating project.

Since I last posted here this list has exposed me to some truly dire music. Marty Robbins' schmaltzy Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was by far the worst. I can handle cringeworthy lyrics and themes as long as there's good music for it to hide behind, but straightup cornball country will do little to mask or forgive the inanity of old west clichés and nauseatingly sincere Christian morality tales. Jimmy Smith's Back at the Chicken Shack and Booker T. and the M.G.s' Green Onions both make strange and misguided attempts to fill out half an hour of instrumental organ led jazz. Don't get me wrong, the organ is a fine instrument, but its use in this context evokes the very worst kind of cheesy Seventies muzak and I have a hard time imagining why people who appear to be talented musicians seem so enthused by it.

Fortunately there have been some good discoveries as well. Muddy Waters Live at Newport is fantastic and I actually sat down and listened to a Beatles album (the very early With the Beatles) from beginning to end for the first time in my life and found it not disappointing. But the highlight so far has to be Ray Price's Night Life, which provides country music with a redemptive counterbalance to the godawful Marty Robbins (perhaps aided by the more engaging subject matter of getting trashed in seedy bars and cavorting with loose women).

But anyway, on to the ostensible subject of this post. The most recent album in this list I listened to is The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which contains many of the famous folk singer's most notable songs, opening with the legendary 'Blowin' in the Wind'. Folk is a new genre to me, but the iconic image of one dude with a guitar and a harmonica railing against the man has its romantic appeal and Dylan is more strongly associated with this image than anyone else. However I found that, on this album at least, Dylan's more didactic songs were pretty grating. Not in a musical way but just because of the subtly unpleasant aroma of self-rightous Sixties hippydom. Sure, on 'Masters of War'
You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
I might agree with Dylan's sentiments, and I may nod along in a pleased manner when Jim Morrison sings almost exactly the same thing on 'Dead Cats, Dead Rats', but this particular song, and others like it, radiate a particular smugness and arrogance that belie the message of the song and cause me to grind my teeth and roll my eyes ever so slightly.

I like Dylan a lot more when he's only half serious. You can read whatever meaning you like into 'Blowin' in the Wind', but taken at face value at least the lyrics are little more than romantic nonsense. It's Dylan's knowing, assured performance that infuses the song with weighty meaning and has rendered it a classic, and I like this persona of his much better. I also really liked 'Talkin' World War III Blues', where Dylan affects a rambling mumble and injects a healthy dose of humour, while still maintaining a political slant as implied by the title.

There's shitloads more Bob Dylan coming up on this list, so we'll see whether I grow fonder of his pompous hippy side or if generation Y cynicism will cause me to grow weary and dismiss him as an outdated, overly earnest faded Boomer icon.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Blog Hiatus

The Wildebeest Asylum will be quiet for the month of February, on account of me taking another crack at FAWM. Here's hoping I'm more successful than I was last time...

Mind you, I do really want to write a post about seeing Nightwish...

Friday, February 01, 2008

Itadakimasu!

Puscifer - 'V' is for Vagina

My expectations for Puscifer, the solo project of Maynard from Tool, were uncharitably low. The juvenile (but amusing) teaser track 'Cuntry Boner' along with Maynard's sarcastic larking during 'V' is for Vagina's prerelease promotion led me to expect that it would be a lame joke album, but I should have given him a bit more credit. After all, the first Puscifer track released ('Rev 22:20' off the Underworld soundtrack) is pretty damn good, and as it turns out the album is far more of a likeness to that song than to 'Cuntry Boner'.

There's a good roster of random guest musicians to be found on 'V' is for Vagina, including Danny Lohner (formally of Nine Inch Nails and A Perfect Circle) and the rhythm section of Rage Against the Machine. The guest with the most obvious influence is dark ambient dude Lustmord, whose menacing, deep, post industrial sound leaves its greasy fingerprints all over the album. Lead single 'Queen B' is representative of 'V' is for Vagina; Maynard puts on his deepest, sexiest voice and croons over a dark, dirty rhythm section, supplemented by industrial electronics. Somewhat surprisingly the tone of the music has much more in common with the likes of (post-)industrial bands like Tweaker or Recoil than with Tool. The lyrics too are not of the same weighty substance as those of Tool or even A Perfect Circle, and instead we get simple, repetitive catch phrases, more suitable for the simpler electronic style of the music. I suspect that part of Maynard's motivation for this project was to take a break from the seriousness and complexity of Tool.

A few more random notes. The cover art is as stupid and goofy as 'Cuntry Boner', but still worth a laugh. I don't like the new version of 'Rev 22:20' included at the end of the album nearly as much as the original, and I think that 'Sour Grapes' would have been a much better album closer. Speaking of which, here's another song who's impassioned end refrain, “It'll always be sour grapes with you boy, until you get right with-a JEEEEEEEEEEEEEESUS!” will add further fuel to the speculation about Maynard's relationship with everyone's least favourite fictional messiah.

Overall 'V' is for Vagina is a most pleasant surprise. Now lets have a new Tool album, or at least another Australasian tour.

Here's the poorly animated video for 'Queen B'.

And for completeness, and because it's funny, here's 'Cuntry Boner':