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.