Wednesday, January 30, 2008

1001 Albums Number 20

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

I didn't think that much of the last Miles Davis album on this list (Birth of the Cool) but the highly regarded Kind of Blue works a little better for me.

It's much more of an arty album, divided into five long tracks which are still in Davis' 'cool jazz' style, but which have more of a modern, bebop influence in the stuttering rhythms and chromatic melodies, making it immediately more appealing to me. All the same the music is still laid back and inoffensive to a degree that I find almost aggravating, but I still appreciate the artistry even when the mood is not my cup of tea.

I do particularly like the last track, 'Flamenco Sketches', which has some nice tension between the mellow jazz and a melancholy flamenco guitar, but it seems to be the case that, by and large, Miles Davis and I just have fundamentally different desires as to what we want out of music.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Long Weekend Munter Cuddle Fest '08

Big Day Out Sydney 2008

Even with a great performance by Tool last years Big Day Out (my first in Sydney) was a bit average. At the time I blamed the Australian attendees innate inferiority to a Kiwi crowd, but this year was an absolute blast, so either I was being prejudiced or I'm going native.

My enjoyment was in spite of the fact that I'd had a bender the night before and was feeling less than super, but a nice champagne breakfast where I helped myself to a bit of a hair of the dog and a shitload of pancakes got me ready to face the day.

One thing I wish that I'd taken a photo of was the guy they had dancing on top of the entrance to the venue. He was dressed up like that little retard from Melbourne who was in the news last week for inviting everyone on myspace to a party, and was greeting everyone entering the park: “Come on in everyone, it's a party! Woooo!” I thought it was pretty funny.

During the early afternoon we spent a good deal of time just wandering around, and one of the coolest things I saw was the drum playing robot. You can't tell from this picture but it's playing 'Bullet in your Head' by Rage.

A drum playing robot

The first band I made an effort to see was Regurgitator, who I have some fond memories of. They were the first band I saw at the first Big Day Out I went to way back in 1999 (oh my god, that's almost ten years ago...) and were really good back then but I saw them again a couple of years ago and was pretty disappointed. They weren't actually any better this time around but they at least closed out with good versions of 'What's at the End' and 'Polyester Girl'.


I'm not sure what the deal was with the girls in the wedding dresses

Next up were Midnight Juggernauts, who I wanted to give a chance but after two songs I was bored to tears. I thought their first song was some kind of drawn out intro and was surprised when it suddenly ended to applause.

There then followed a terrifying interlude in which I tried to find a toilet stall that wasn't utterly horrifying, with only limited success.

Tom Morello + half of Anti-Flag

I made it round to the small stage to see in order to see The Nightwatchmen, a.k.a. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine solo with an acoustic guitar. I'd heard this stuff before and didn't find it very interesting, but I'm glad I gave him a chance because it's the kind of music that's meant to be experienced live. It might be simple and low key (and completely different to Rage) but protest songs work best when heard as part of a crowd and you can pump your fist in the air along with everyone else pledging support for the striking miners union. By the end I was ready to go smash up a McDonalds or something.

Tom plays the tom

I'm not sure why I was surprised but Morello turns out to be a pretty good front man. As befitting the genre he was playing in he put on a folksy, friendly manner, chatting with the audience and joking that his album is 'available for illegal downloading as soon as you get home'. When he had to stop to retune his guitar he had everyone jump around and scream our heads off so that there wouldn't be a lull in the performance. Highlights of his set included the jump up and down singalong end of his second to last song 'The Road I Must Travel' and his Aussie pleasing covers of ACDC's 'Dirty Deeds' and Midnight Oil's 'Beds Are Burning', for which he was joined by two members of Anti-Flag.

Anti-Flag and The Nightwatchmen play 'Beds Are Burning'

After a few shenanigans in the boiler room I returned to the small stages for Battles. My last chance to see them in concert was soured by personal problems, so I was very glad that they got a chance to impress me again when my only emotional issue that they had to contend with was my full bladder. Battles have reworked their songs a bit for the live show, drawing the grooves out more so that the tracks now stretch to seven or eight minutes each. Their performance was as phenomenal as ever. Kind of sort of frontman Tyondai Braxton stunned me once more with his ability to play keys and guitar simultaneously, and the legendary John Stanier showed incredible skill on the drum kit, as the entire 45 minute concert was performed with each song segueing directly into the other, save for the finale 'Race: In', meaning that Stanier drummed for about 35 minutes nonstop. As the long, polyrhythmic intro of 'Race: In' approached it's climax you could see the strain and concentration on his face, and the release of tension when he turned around and smashed that high ride cymbal was a brilliant moment.

'Atlas'. Everyone joined in on the "Woo Ooh Ooh"s

John Stainer is a fucking demon

Battles are a bit of an abstract, egghead band so it's not all that surprising that their audience was full of big black glasses wearing indie geeks, and just as at the Gaelic last year they were a boring, tepid bunch. Fortunately I found a group of really wasted guys who were dancing and joined in. It turns out that Battles live are a lot more fun when you're waving your arms and jumping up and down like an idiot to them. The climax of 'Atlas' was the huge 'fuck yeah!' moment of the day (save for the other one, and you can probably guess what it was, that came at the end of the night) when I found myself involuntarily headbanging my arse off. It was a damn good set and one that quite easily washed away the bad taste of the last time I saw them.

I caught a wee bit of Karnivool, a fairly decent Aussie nu metal act, and I would have liked to have stuck around for a bit more of them but I really needed to get off my feet and rest for a little while in preparation for the headliners. So I ended up seeing a little bit of The Arcade Fire from the stands, who I knew nothing about and who sounded kind of nice but made very little impression. Although I was pleased by their brief inclusion of a few lines of a Bjork song, who we should have been seeing right then but who had cancelled on account of illness (much to my dismay).

And then at last it was time for Rage Against the Machine, who played almost exactly the same setlist as on Tuesday, but with 'Wake Up' switched out for 'War Within a Breath'; a slightly bewildering decision, sure 'War Within a Breath' is a great song but how can they not play 'Wake Up'? The band were tighter and not as tired as they were on Tuesday, but playing in the stadium instead of the smaller venue did mean that some of the atmosphere was lost.

This time around I was in the moshpit so it was a completely different experience to the previous concert. I had to deal with the usual festival moshpit perils: Mr. Ultraviolence, Ms. Clear Out A Space The Size Of A Circle Pit To Take Photos Of Her Friends and worst of all, Mr. Stand There And Do Nothing. For the first few songs I couldn't really appreciate the music because I was moving around looking for a good spot. I ended up in about the worst possible position, sandwiched between a circle pit and a group of sweaty munters crammed together faces to armpits like clowns in a phone booth. I am tempted to suggest that these people only come to metal concerts to experience the untender touch of their fellow man, rather than for the music. After I realised that I was the only one singing along and even trying to pay attention to who was on the stage, I moved back to where I saw a bunch of people jumping, and found a spot where I could kind of see, it wasn't too crowded and people were getting down and having a bit of a boogie.

Part Two of Terrible Rage Against the Machine Photo Masterpiece Theatre

Once I'd sorted that out I had a great time. I can only speculate as to what it must have looked like from the stands but the moshpit must have been enormous. Every song (with the possible exception of 'Renegades of Funk' again) went off like a motherfucker. The climax to the whole day came of course at the end of the set, when they pulled out old reliable 'Killing in the Name', a song perhaps suited like no other to be played for a stadium full of screaming munters by a band who've just returned from an eight year hiatus. The 'fuck you I won't do what you tell me' pay off is one of the most insane things I've ever seen at a concert. Just as the slow build up paused and the band hit the chorus to that infamous refrain, the stadium floodlights came on to reveal the moshpit flying up into the air as one for as far as I could see in all directions, and when everyone hit the ground again on the second beat everything. Just. Went. Fucking. Nuts. Dreadlocks thrashing everywhere. I could swear I saw dudes flying past me horizontally, although perhaps it was just that I was at 45 degrees and they were at 45 degrees in the other direction. A fucking glorious end to the day.

After that it was home to bed for me. Here's hoping next year will be as good!

An uncomfortable night to be a Howard supporter

Rage Against the Machine
Live at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, Jan 22nd

Moshpit tickets sold out in seconds so, just as with Tool at the same time last year, I was seated for Rage Against the Machine's Big Day Out sideshow. It was a pity because unlike Tool, who can be appreciated quite nicely from a seated location, Rage are a band that ideally you want to be in the moshpit for. Fortunately my seats were a little better than last year. I was still near the back of the theatre but at least we were dead centre stage.

The openers were Anti-Flag, whose tepid pop punk did little for me and they seemed to be chosen as a support act more for their consonant political leanings than any musical similarity. Mind you they weren't terrible and they passed the time, even if they weren't as much fun as the Mexican Wave.

During the wait for Rage to take the stage the tension and anticipation in the crowd, even way back where I was, was strong. When the house lights dropped off and the huge red star at the back of the stage lit up to the strains of what I'm pretty sure was the Soviet national anthem, everyone leapt to their feet with a roar and, after frontman Zach de la Rocha introduced the band (“We're Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California!” No kidding bro!), the opening riff of Testify had everyone from the front of the moshpit back to the nosebleed seats boogieing their arses off. Tom Morello's first solo of the night was greeted by a massive cheer.

All my photos were exceptionally shit that night, so this is the only one I'll post. Hopefully when I get my new phone tomorrow it will usher in a bold new era of concert photos.

"Oh shit!” says Zach, apparently referring to the insanity of the moshpit, and with barely a pause they launched into the galvanising intro to Bulls On Parade. Turns out everyone else loves that wah wah guitar riff as much as I do. Next up was People of the Sun. With such an impressive backlog of surefire hits the energy stayed at ridiculously high levels for the entire concert with barely a moment for either the band or the audience to catch their breath for the full eighty minutes.

They then introduced the first track off the self titled album, Bombtrack. Zach seemed bored with the old stuff, he mixed the vocals around more and didn't seem as enthused during those songs. On the other hand the rest of the band were fully into it, perhaps they were just relieved that it wasn't Chris Cornell singing. And of course the punters went totally nuts.

Vietnow was followed by Bullet in your Head, which featured the first holy fucking shit solo from Morello, which he began by flipping his hand super fast back and forth around his guitar's neck and only got more crazy from there. Know your Enemy is another fan favourite, and Morello's solo was nuts on this one too. Renegades of Funk was perhaps the concerts' low point. I guess they felt obligated to play something from Renegades, but lets be honest, this is the averagest song off their averagest album.

Guerilla Radio was surprisingly well received. The house lights came on when the full band came in after the intro, giving us high in the stands the spectacular sight of a couple of thousand people totally going off in unison. Next up was Calm like a Bomb, not my favourite song of theirs but it still seemed to be popular, and without a beat the end segued right into Sleep Now In The Fire! I didn't like the way Zach sung it so much (he actually sang, rather than rapped), but it was still one of the highlights of the night.

Wake Up made a fucking awesome finish to the main set. Zach made a long speech during the breakdown, starting with a rant about the Iraq War, thanking Australia for kicking out 'that bootlicker Mr. Howard', mentioning Martin Luther King Day and telling us that 'the real vote takes place in the streets'. I must admit that I wonder just how Zach feels about watching an arena full of people cheer and pump their fists in the air in response to his call for a violent communist revolution when the next day most of us are going to go back to our desks in a tall office building in the CBD and keep on greasing the wheels of international finance. Following the speech Morello's squalling guitar fill ushered in the high point of the concert, as the entire audience bellowed “Wake up” and Morello blew the roof off with his finest work of the night in an unbelievable outro solo.

They kept us waiting a while for the encore, and from the looks of things it was because they were totally knackered. During the last few songs Zach spent a lot of time crouched on the edge of the stage, and it sounded like he was struggling for breath between lines. Mind you it didn't stop him bouncing all over the place during the instrumental breaks. First track of the encore was Freedom (big cheers greeted the cow bells in the 'anger is a gift part') which segued straight into an excerpt from Township Rebellion, (“Shackle your minds as you're left on the cross”), which in turn slowed down into those unmistakable drop D power chords that announce Killing in the Name, the ultimate show closer. It went off like a motherfucker of course, but from where I was standing not the best part of the concert (that was 'Wake Up'), so you'll have to wait until my Big Day Out post for me to describe how fucking crazy the 'fuck you I won't do what you tell me' bit went off.

It was definitely a fun concert, even back where I was sitting, but I do have a few criticisms. Although as individuals the band were great it was apparent that they haven't played these songs together for a while. There were a few flubbed transitions and they played a few of the tracks noticeably slower than they're performed on the album. Zach especially seemed really tired, he looked like he was about to pass out at the end of 'Freedom'. Plus the mix sounded pretty awful from where I was and for the first few songs I could barely hear the guitar.

But of course these guys overcame these difficulties by virtue of the fact that their songs are among the most effortlessly catchy arena metal anthems ever written, and that their individual performances were all great. As well as Morello being a freaky fucking guitar theurgist, drummer Brad Wilk deserves special mention for cranking things up a few notches from the recorded versions with crazy fills all over the place and just damn playing with a metric dickload of energy.

It doesn't rival the fantastic concerts I saw at about this time last year, but it was most definitely a promising omen for the year ahead. Especially with Nightwish next Friday!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Are you staying, or what?

Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles Weider Offen

As Einstürzende Neubauten began work on Alles Weider Offen they were coming off a truly stunning hatrick of great albums (Silence is Sexy, Perpetuum Mobile and Grundstueck) and they had set themselves a very high standard to match. Sadly, they didn't quite make it.

Alles Weider Offen is still a decent enough album. It goes without saying that on a Neubauten release that the production is impeccable, and a few standout tracks are up to their usual standard. The opener 'Die Wellen' and ten minute mid album centrepiece 'Unvollstaendigkeit' are moody epics in the vein that Neubauten have tapped to so much success with in the past. However the rest of the album feels less passionate than their other recent work, and that's a serious disappointment.

Alles Weider Offen continues the trajectory that Neubauten's music has been taking over the last few years. The instrumentation is not as pretty as Silence is Sexy, the swooning strings have largely been replaced with a return to the industrial percussion that characterised their earlier work even if the raw aggression that they had in the Eighties has been replaced by a very German, contemplative sense of beauty. The new album also further develops their forays into a weird kind of pop music, many songs have a twisted sort of R&B feel to them, and there are a few tracks such as 'Let's Do It A Da Da' which are outright bubblegum pop in their approach, although of course not in their execution. These upbeat, energetic songs don't sit well next to their more usual style of moody, epic music, which is perhaps part of the reason why this album has an unsatisfying, inconsistent feeling.

The supporter version of Alles Weider Offen comes with a b-sides album (and a DVD, which I've missed out on for various reasons attributable to my own incompetence) which was released track by track as they were completed during the recording process. These songs are actually surprisingly good, they're shorter, more experimental and less cohesive than the real album tracks but taken one at a time they're almost all great songs.

This album has been a long time coming and it's quite a disappointment that it turned out to be not up to their usual high standards. Still, it's good that their online subscription business model is still working out for them (they've been doing it for five years now, anticipating Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails' rejection of the record label system by quite some time), and I'm still looking forward to finding out what they'll do next.

Here's their official video for 'Nagorny Karabach'. Blixa Bargeld sure is a peculiar fellow:

Monday, January 21, 2008

Towards Ragnarok

Burzum – Dauði Baldrs

And with Dauði Baldrs we have finally made it through the entire Burzum catalogue to date. This record is the second to last that Varg released, and the first one he made in prison. The melodies are of the same stock as those from Burzum's older black metal albums but due to production concerns (the only instrument Varg is allowed in prison is a synthesiser) this album is entirely devoid of drums and guitars.

Dauði Baldrs is less ambient and minimal than it's successor Hliðskjálf; indeed the songs are straight up black metal performed sans vocals and with different instrumentation (one track is even melodically a straight up copy of an earlier black metal styled song), but I can't avoid making the same comparison as I did when I listened to the latter album - that this stuff sounds a hell of a lot like Coil. The chiming bells and spacey strings of 'Hermoðr Á Helferð' sound almost exactly like those on Coil's 'Titan Arch'. Burzum's interest in the occult is another similarity shared with those post industrial hedonists, and where the earlier black metal albums evoked the dark, gothic northern European wilderness, Dauði Baldrs has more of an abstract, mystical mood.

The songs suffer a little from the lack of vocals. Without them a standard black metal song is too simple and repetitive, and stripping away the distortion and feralness and replacing it with synth strings and horns only emphasises the fact that, for all his originality in developing the style of black metal, Varg's songs aren't actually that interesting in and of themselves.

It's been interesting to see how he influenced and in fact set a standard for the genre but other than Filosofem I don't think I'll be revisiting this music all that much. After all, even I feel a little bit uncomfortable listening to the work of a murderous neo-nazi.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


The new Meshuggah track is so awesome that it actually will melt your face off. Whatever you do don't listen to it!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Since You Betrayed Me So...

PJ Harvey – White Chalk

It's an indication of how far I've stuck my head down into the dank, dark oubliette of the metal world that my first reaction to this album was 'OK, but... meh...'. It took the right context for it's brilliance to be revealed, and this happened to be while trying to sleep in Singapore airport and needing something quiet enough to relax me to sleep but substantial enough to drown out the soul killing awfulness of the muzak being played over the speakers. At that moment, trying to find a way to get comfortable on the horrible plastic chairs, I was unexpectedly stunned by its beauty.

PJ Harvey has always made a point on not repeating herself so it's par for the course that White Chalk sounds like nothing else she's ever done. Throughout the album Harvey sings in a high, fragile sounding voice and is accompanied by a similarly fragile sounding piano. Reinforced by the lyrics and concept art, the songs have a Victorian gothic air about them, as Harvey's stories of loss, longing and regret portray romantic characters from a bygone era.

Despite the artifice of the White Chalk's concept the music is very moving, and there's some killer songwriting to be found. While most of the album is low key and contemplative, space is found for a few climactic outbursts, which don't come as an eruption of heaviness but rather when Harvey's voice builds from the disassociated, regretful sighing that she affects for most of the album to a howling, tormented shriek. Given an environment when you can pay it the attention it deserves, White Chalk is beautiful, in a strange, moody kind of way, and more intense and affecting than you'd expect from something that comes from so far out of left field.

Here's 'The Mountain':

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

1001 Albums Number 19

Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles

I've got to admit, I know next to nothing about Ray Charles, other than that he died recently and that everyone thinks he's awesome, so it is at the risk of sounding like an ignoramus that I must admit that, for the most part, The Genius of Ray Charles doesn't do much for me. It's not to say that it's bad, but the poppy jazz that he plays has a tendency to float through one ear and out the other. Mind you, I like the enthusiasm of his singing and I think that his piano playing is pretty good. In fact now that I think about it I do really like a few of the mellow later songs on the b-side (such as 'Come Rain Or Come Shine' and 'Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying') where the noisy, rambunctious jazz band is reigned in and Ray's voice and piano take the spotlight.

I'm reminded of Little Richard, where I admired the performance, but not so much the songs.

Next up: I give Miles Davis another go.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Children of the Cave

Finntroll – Nattfodd

If you've ever heard the term 'polka metal' before, you probably thought it was a joke. Well I am pleased to inform you that Nattfodd proves that it is very real indeed. The genre of folk metal combines black metal with traditional music of the band's country of origin (or at least that of a country they think is really cool) and in Finntroll's case this is traditional Finnish polka, which is not dissimilar to the kind of oompah music you might hear in a German beer hall.

Now you're forgiven if you think that this sounds like a totally retarded idea, but give it a chance because I assure you that it's actually pretty fucking awesome and there is more to Finntroll than just this goofy gimmick. The only reason that it works at all is because the band are skilled songwriters and they wring a lot of variety and musical ideas from the starting point of the two vastly dissimilar genres and also by including ambient and acoustic interludes.

Where most black metal is laden with a mood of doom and despair, Finntroll's take is more upbeat so that when the evil sounding tremolo strumming morphs into a happy polka lick and is joined by a perky accordian and horns it fits naturally, and in fact the whole album is loads of fun to listen to and is dare I say it even joyous, an adjective that is almost inconceivable to apply to black metal.

While black metal traditionally deals with themes of evil and the occult, Finntroll's lyrics are occupied with far more accessible subjects, such as being a troll, living in the forest and drinking lots of beer. In fact their innocent, cheerful celebration of nature and the simple life is a nice counterpoint to say Burzum's morbid evocation of the Scandinavian wilderness as the grim, frostbitten, 'whites only' abode of Satan.

Get past the ridiculous concept and you'll find that this album is great fun. It's definitely what I'd have playing in my beer hall!

Here's the unnecessarily slo-moed video for 'Trollhammaren':

For Hate's Sake I Spit My Last Breath At Thee

Moby Dick
by Herman Melville

It's always a bit of a gamble picking up a so called classic novel. There's every chance that it might turn out to be Dickens, or some other shite that has managed to coast into the canon under the cover of night and is kept there by the malice of some secretive cabal of English teachers. Fortunately Moby Dick is not one of those novels, and is in fact pretty fucking awesome.

The novel is recounted by a man who calls himself Ishmael, although after the first couple of chapters our narrator disappears from the story more or less altogether. Ishmael takes a job aboard a whaling ship which, much to his misfortune, is captained by the insane Ahab, a man who has developed a terrible obsession with the eponymous Moby Dick: the whale that attacked the last boat he captained and bit off his leg. And as anyone with a passing familiarity with the story knows, the voyage and Ahab's quest do not have a happy ending.

Moby Dick was not well received upon it's release in 1851 and it's easy to see why. The novel has a remarkably post modern sensibility for its time, and it makes every bit of sense that it did not become respected until after the World Wars. Melville's character Ishmael is obviously a stand in for himself, and having had much practical real world experience with whaling he spends a good half of the book detailing the technical particulars of life and work on board the whaler and the lives of the whales themselves. These constant digressions, which increase in frequency and length as the novel goes on, were maddening to the audience at the time of the books original release.

Melville also has a very post modern sense of irony and a fairly relativistic attitude. Ahab's whaler, the Pequod, is staffed by three harpooners of Pacific Island, Native American and African origin, and despite his use of a lot of terminology that we would regard as slightly racist nowadays, his sympathies clearly lie with these noble savages, especially in comparison to their twisted, obsessed civilised shipmates. His digressions upon why the whale should be classified as a fish, not a mammal, and why whaling will never have a noticeable impact on the population of the hunted animals may or may not be ironic, but are damn funny nonetheless. In fact, the constant, verbose, irrelevant tangents remind me of David Foster Wallace's epic (but fantastic) pile of bloviating digression Infinite Jest, a book so pomo that it threatens to collapse into a singularity of hipness under the weight of all its cynical irony and smirking self-referentiality.

Above all, Moby Dick, despite its length and formal nineteenth century language, is great fun to read. Melville's wit is very fine, both in straight up humour (I loved the cook's sermon to the sharks:
Dough you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness – 'top dat dam slappin' ob de tail! How you tink to hear, 'spose you keep up such a dam sleppin' and bitin' dare?”
Cook,” cried Stubb, collaring him, “I wont have that swearing. Talk to 'em gentlemanly.”
Once more the sermon proceeded.
Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now. Look here, bred'ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don't be tearin' de blubber out your neighbour's mout, I say. Is not one shark good right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o' you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts soemtimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness ob de mout is not to swaller wid, but to bite off de blubber for small fry ob sharks, dat can't get into de scrouge to help demselves.”
) and the quality of the writing in the more poetic and romantic parts. Also the story of Ahab's doomed quest is as iconic as they come and the allegorical meanings of his obsession with Moby Dick are a clamouring multitude. Among those suggested explicitly by Melville in the book: Moby Dick as God, Moby Dick as Satan, Moby Dick as the immense, uncaring universe and Moby Dick saying “Stop anthropomorphising me, I'm just a fucking whale!”.

With such great humour, poetry and insightful philosophy Moby Dick truly deserves its reputation as one of the great American novels. Well done Western canon of literature, you got it right this time at least.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Annoying Whinge of the Day

As mp3 (and aac) becomes the new standard for music storage in the digital era, the complaining of audiophiles about the lack of music quality gets louder and more insistent. Via Arts and Letters Daily, here's a good example of what I'm talking about. Sure, I too am disheartened when I read that recording levels are being manipulated for volume (for best results on a portable mp3 player) at the cost of quality, but the anguished moaning about how an entire generation of kids is growing up with no experience of a quality music recording is starting to annoy me.

Here's something that no one seems to be considering: Moore's Law. In ten years, our portable mp3 players will probably be able to hold every surviving audio record ever made at lossless quality and still have room for rips of all three Lord of the Rings boxed set DVDs. Fear not audiophiles, the current trend towards shite audio quality is just a passing phase, the birth pains of the digital era. In a few years you'll be able to go back to arguing over whether the kind of wire used in your headphone cables makes the music sound 'warmer'.

Friday, January 11, 2008

This Is The Sound Of A Downtuned Guitar

Opeth – The Roundhouse Tapes

I was going to wait for Opeth's new live record to come out on DVD but restraint failed me and I grabbed the audio CD version. It turned out to be a wise choice, as the DVD has since been delayed until next September.

On paper at least, this album looks amazing. The setlist to the concert is like something from a wet dream; if you were to ask me to choose the best song off each Opeth album I would come up with almost exactly the same list (Opeth nerd note: I would actually replace 'Windowpane' with 'Closure' and include 'Deliverance').

Unfortunately as it turns out The Roundhouse Tapes is a bit superfluous. The songs are performed almost exactly the way they appear on the album, which is by no means a bad thing because the original version are awesome, but I was expecting little more. There are some differences of course. Per's keyboards are not present on the original versions of the older songs, and his work makes a nice addition to them. They have a new drummer, Martin Axenrot, who fits in well. His predecessor Martin Lopez will be much missed, with his jazzy take on death metal drumming, but Axenrot has his own style, one that makes me think a little of Josh Freese from A Perfect Circle and Nine Inch Nails with his huge sound and epic crashing fills.

In the technical arena all five band members deliver note perfect performances. Perhaps the most impressive instrument on stage is Mikael's voice, which surprises with its power both in clean and death metal mode, just as it did on their last live album Lamentations. We also get a lot of Mikael's intersong banter. He has a reputation for talking total crap at his concerts but I found most of what he said to be at least mildly amusing, “This song has some lyrics that are absolute black metal nonsense” made me laugh more than once.

I'm told that in person Opeth are a phenomenal band (and still not a day goes by that I don't kick myself for missing my chance to see them in 2006) but that doesn't really come through on this live album. Still, it's no bad thing to have alternate versions of nine of the best songs ever written sitting on my ipod.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

1001 Albums Number 18

Ella Fitzgerald – Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book

Our third consecutive female jazz vocalist is the most famous of them all, Ella Fitzgerald. As the title tells us, on this album she sings over the course of three long discs the songs of old timey songwriter George Gershwin.

Fitzgerald's voice is obviously deserving of it's reputation. When compared to Holiday and Vaughan she surpasses them with her strength and confidence, and while the other singers have their singular qualities, Fitzgerald's is the obvious candidate for iconification with her bold, poised and assured character shining through her singing. Even if you never knew who she was, you'd recognise her voice as it's solidly embedded in the public consciousness.

Gershwin's music deserves note too. This album is in the same musical style as Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin and the Frank Sinatra's albums but where I found the backing music of those recordings to be lacking substance, the guy whose name is in the album title is well done by here. His songs blend the accessibility of pop and the sophistication of classical, and his brother Ira's lyrics defy the cheesiness that's inevitable given the songs' Broadway origin and remain compelling and witty throughout.

There are two surprising omissions on this album. There are no songs from the Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which is perhaps understandable given that Fitzgerald had already recorded an album of the whole opera (with Louie Armstrong), but I was really looking forward to hearing her acclaimed version of 'Summertime'. There's also none of Fitzgerald's scatting until the last track, which is a little disappointing since it was one of the things that she was most famous for.

This album clocks in at a fucking long 180 minutes, so it's a testament to Fitzgerald and Gershwin's considerable skill that I quite happily sat through the whole thing three times!

Next up: Ray Charles.

A Mouth Without A Heart, An Action Without Meaning

Dillinger Escape Plan – Ire Works

Poor old Dillinger Escape Plan have had a rough time over the last couple of years. Since the release of the brilliant Miss Machine, both of their guitarists have suffered from muscle problems that prevented them from performing. Fortunately main songwriter Ben Weinman has recovered, but sadly second guitarist Brian Benoit will probably never be able to play again. On top of that the drummer, Chris Pennie, quit the band and for inexplicable reasons joined the dire Coheed and Cambria, a band whose unique blend of all the worst aspects of emo, prog rock and nu metal reveals an artistic capacity for terribleness that is the dark twin of Dillinger's genius.

With all these problems surrounding the recording, it was hard to guess what to expect from Ire Works. It was also difficult to imagine how their sound could be improved from what they achieved on Miss Machine, so it was a question of whether they'd just try and make the same album again or go in a new direction, as well as whether it would turn out to be any good. The answers turn out to be a surprising sort of compromise to the first question and a 'hell fucking yeah!' to the second.

The meat and bones of the album are a number of two minute thrashers in the style that has endeared DEP to their fans over years past. These will be familiar territory to anyone who's heard any of their older albums. Ben's guitars spit out twisted, free time riffs with astonishing technical skill, vocalist Greg Puciato screams with savage intensity and the new drummer, Gil Sharone, is (much to everyone's relief) a perfect fit for the style and if anything his capacity for controlled cacophony is even sicker than Pennie's. Two of these tracks feature guest vocalists, 'Fix Your Face' brings back original vocalist Dimitri Minakakis and 'Horse Hunter' features Mastodon's Brent Hinds. However I can't help but feel that the band is a little tired of this style, they have after all been doing it for a while. There's nothing here that isn't good, but none of these songs reach the levels of greatness found on their older albums. But despite such a slight deterioration of quality on this half of the album, the rest turns out to be well worthwhile.

Ire Works contains a healthy number of surprises that will no doubt offend many old school fans, but which are in fact uniformly brilliant. Dillinger throw their first curveball on track three, 'Black Bubblegum', which as the name suggests is their version of a pop punk song, complete with a catchy singalong chorus. It's followed by 'Sick on Sunday', a weird ambient piece that bursts into metal at the end, and the trio of 'When Acting As A Particle', 'Non Eye Gong' and 'When Acting As A Wave', which are two twin tracks that appear to be the distant descendants of Calculating Infinity's title track, surrounding a short, angry song in the old style.

Not long after that is the brilliant 'Milk Lizard', a heavy song that replaces their usual rhythmic insanity with a bluesy swagger and a soaring chorus. 'Dead As History' is hard to categorise; introduced by acoustic guitar, strings and piano, transforming into a menacing nu metal chugger and ending the same way it started, now accompanied with twee falsetto vocals.

And finally, just when you think that Ire Works couldn't get any better, it closes with 'Mouths Of Ghosts'. You know that feeling you get when you first hear a song and it gives you goosebumps, and you drop what you were doing and stare at the speakers in astonishment? And then you start to cry a little bit? Well that's how good this song is. It features a heavy ending as a powerful, cathartic finish to the album, but the intro shows off Weinman's considerable aptitude on the piano in a melancholy build up that sounds a little like Pink Floyd crossed with Secret Chiefs 3 in their Western film score mode. It's even more of a surprise to hear as a Dillinger song than 'Black Bubblegum' and is one of the best songs they've ever done.

Ire Works is quite easily one of the top three albums of 2007, perhaps the best. Come for the screamy mathcore craziness, stay for the catchy pop and mellow piano noodling.

Here's 'When Acting As A Particle' and 'Nong Eye Gong' live:

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Nine Inch Nails - Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D

Yes, the normally internet savvy Trent Reznor actually used l33t speak in his album title, showing us all that he's still hip with the funky jives that the kids rapped at each other in 1997. Looking past the stupid title you'll find some nice artwork and a fairly standard NIN remix album, which is to say a wildly uneven disc that contains a few good tracks, a few terrible tracks, and a pretty large amount of averageness.

Amongst the good remixes are Saul William's 'Gunshots By Computer' ('Hyperpower' with Saul's vocals added), a very dancey version of 'My Violent Heart' by Pirate Robot Midget and best of all a welcome return from the Kronos Quartet, performing 'Another Version of the Truth' as a string quartet (just as they did with 'The Frail' on Things Falling Apart all those years ago).

Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D (man that's a pain to type) ends with 'In This Twilight' and 'Zero-Sum' (the remix album follow roughly the same tracklisting as Year Zero itself). Fennesz' version of 'In This Twilight' is brilliant, infusing an already beautiful song with more lush ambience. In contrast Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert's 'Zero-Sum' remix is a missed opportunity, with a boppy bass line and cheesy electronica ruining what was originally the tear jerking album finale. Other lowlights include Olof Dreijer's 'Me I'm Not', because it's not a real NIN remix album unless you include a ten minute borefest, and a long stretch of about half a dozen mediocre remixes in the middle of the disc, which evoking no feeling as much as making me want to listen to the original album again until I remember how badly I've thrashed it into the ground already over the last year or so.

Also worth mentioning is the bonus disc, which contains the original album's master tracks for listeners to use to create their own remixes. It's a great idea, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it, but on the other hand I wonder if maybe anyone who has the tools, experience and inspiration to make a decent remix isn't already making their own music...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

2007 Year End Roundup Addendum

Oh yeah I forgot one category:

Podcast Quote Of The Year:

“The pussycat dolls are in charge of their own sexuality only insofar as a cow is in charge of its own meat.”
- Penny Arcade

Runners Up:

“I fucked her mouth, I fucked her arse, I fucked every hole on her body and then I made some new holes and fucked them too. I fucked her tits and her ears and her nostrils. But I didn't fuck her vagina, so on our wedding night she'll still be puuuuuure and virginal.”
- Dan Savage

“Sure, if you have an addictive personality you can get addicted to anything, from jerking off to reading Tolkien”
“Or both at the same time.”
- Gamers With Jobs Conference Call

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Semi-Icelandic Gibberish Is Not My Natural Tongue

Sigur Rós – Hvarf/Heim

The 'damned by mediocrity' tag on this blog has, to my surprise, not seen a lot of use this year, but fortunately (or not) here come Sigur Rós with a textbook example. Hvart and Heim are a pair of b-side discs, the former consisting of the standard unreleased tracks and the latter containing acoustic rerecordings of songs from their proper albums.

The term 'acoustic' being applied to this band's music might seem a bit redundant, seeing as they already sound like the musical equivalent of cuddling a puppy on Christmas morning, but believe it or not these versions do actually sound different, with the drums being pulled way back and the other instruments being replaced by simpler, gentler versions of themselves. The one downside of this approach is that at the points where the original songs erupt into a string laden climax complete with bombastic drums and distorted bowed guitar, the versions on Heim just kind of peter out.

Both discs have their moments, 'Samskeyti' on Heim and 'Hjomalind' on Hvart are both good, and the beginning of Heim's version of 'Agaetis Byrjun' is quite deliciously pretty, but on the whole this is a typical b-sides album; everything found here is but a mediocre version of something else that they've done better in the past. Sigur Rós are a great band but this album doesn't live up to their normally high standard. Damned by mediocrity I say!

1001 Albums Number 17

Sarah Vaughan – At Mister Kelly's

For the first time since I started these I've found myself unable to track down a record on the 1001 albums list. Soulseek and isohunt have both failed me, so if anyone knows where I can get a copy of Ramblin' Jack Elliot's Jack Takes The Floor, let me know. Instead we're skipping ahead to the next one, Sarah Vaughan's live album At Mister Kelly's.

Vaughan is a jazz singer but unlike her peer Billie Holiday the backing music is more in line with what I normally consider jazz – the piano and drums take a more constant rhythmic role, rather than as merely popping up for a treacly response to the vocals as they do for other jazz vocal performers like Holiday and Sinatra. There are an almost endless number comparisons and contrasts between Vaughan and Holiday that I could make, and I'll just list the most obvious. The first that comes to mind is that while both singers lived a life characterised by drug use and hard partying, Vaughan kept it together and died respected and successful at age 66 as opposed to Holiday's sad story. It makes sense therefore that while Lady in Satin has a sad mood engendered by Holiday's fragile, weary voice, Vaughan is perky and full of energy, and obviously enjoying herself greatly even on the more sombre songs.

Vaughan's voice doesn't have anywhere near the pathos of Holiday's, but it has a combination of strength and character that I find quite enchanting. I also prefer Vaughan's phrasing, perhaps it's just more 'rock' like in manner, but for whatever reason I find her singing to be a lot catchier and more immediately appealing to my ears.

Most notable among the charms of this particular album are the entertaining and charming in between (and during) song stage banter and the more substantial, interesting backing music (when compared to other music of this genre that I've heard). This one is definitely another winner.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

You Show Me That Everything Lies There Inside Of Me

Elis – Show Me The Way

It takes a lot for a little band from Liechtenstein to impinge on the global consciousness of the internet but Elis managed it, although unfortunately under very sad circumstances. Their singer died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm last year, and during a rehearsal no less! This year the band have released the EP Show Me The Way as an interim measure to remind everyone that they have not broken up and to introduce their new singer.

The EP contains three unreleased songs featuring vocals by the late Sabine Dünser, and two versions of their new single 'Show Me The Way', recorded with the new singer Sandra Schleret. There are obvious comparisons to be made between Elis and Nightwish, with the way they blend metal with a melodious female voice, the keyboards supplementing the sound and their willingness to include a peaceful acoustic string-backed song in the midst of all the heaviness. The new song also puts me in mind of Evanescence, with it's chugging nu-metal guitars, although the new vocalist's voice has a more immediate similarity to that of Tarja Turunen (formally of Nightwish).

To my ears neither vocalist is better or worse than the other, but I do have a slight preference for Dünser, whose sweet, gentle voice was more unique within metal. I may have to seek out their last album with her, Griefshire, since she sadly won't be appearing on any more.