Saturday, November 19, 2016

I'm glad it exists: "Criticism," fandom and Metallica's 'Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct'

For the benefit of those existing outside the bubble of "arts media," there is a strange set of phenomena that arrive when a major artist/band/director/etc. with a considerably lengthy career and extensive body of work unveils a new album/movie/etc., especially now, in the post-Twitter age. Some or all of these things happen, within days and even hours of the new work being made available:

1) Many line up on one side to breathlessly praise the new work, inevitably hailing it as said artist's "best since [insert title of canonical work by said artist]" or otherwise implying that is on some level a return to bygone glory.

2) An opposite faction stands skeptically aloof, refusing to engage with a new statement from a once-great artist who, they feel, is now past his/her/its prime.

3) One whose job it is to engage with the medium in question — and who, thus, exists within the online-centric micro-community of fellow commentators — feels compelled to form a more or less immediate, handily expressible opinion on the new work, and to gravitate almost inevitably toward the attitude of either of the aforementioned stances.

If all this sounds a bit absurd, and absurdly beside the point when it comes to the basic function of art, which is some combination of enrichment, enjoyment and escape, that's because it is. And it bums me out each time. Sometimes I get swept up in the rush and succumb to the temptation to Weigh In in some definitive way, and almost inevitably end up feeling stupid.

What I'm always looking for is a way to enjoy music and to respond to it without getting caught up in the Right and Wrong binary, or the compulsion — now that everyone's so continually distracted that only extreme, even reactionary opinions make an impression online — to frame it in some grand or provocative terms. Maybe that's why I favor the fundamentally casual, essentially first-person medium of blogging. There's no implication of Correctness here, just thinking out loud.

In that spirit, here are some things I think about the new Metallica album. (And/or that I think about when I think about the new Metallica album.)



(Note: I would strongly discourage you from watching this terrible, terrible music video. Just listen to the song.)

1) My basic opinion about Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct is that it is pretty good. Not exactly a headline-maker there! But that's where I'm at with it right now, after about two full, attentive listens and a few piecemeal spins. I think the album contains two truly great songs ("Moth Into Flame," "Spit Out the Bone") that anyone who has ever had even a remote interest in this band, or heavy metal in general, ought to hear immediately if they haven't already; a few more good, effective, enjoyable songs that I, as a serious Metallica fan of going on 25 years, find myself cranking up and submitting to with relish (a.k.a. rocking the fuck out to) ("Hardwired," "Atlas, Rise!" and one or two others such as "Now That We're Dead" that are steadily growing on me); and a fair amount of lesser tracks ("Am I Savage," "ManUNkind," "Murder One," etc.), which I either find boring, meandering or just sort of awkward and unmemorable.

Update, 11/20/16: Only digging this record more the more I play it. Little details and hidden moments coming to the fore, e.g. the amazing, epic bridge riff at around 5:10 in "Halo on Fire." "Confusion" also joining ranks of standout Hardwired songs.

2) I've heard a fair amount of that aforementioned "return to form" talk going around re: this album, and I'll admit that it's been bugging me a bit, for a few reasons. First is that I feel like much of the commentary I've read on Hardwired thus far seems to simply ignore 2008's Death Magnetic, Metallica's very good prior album. I revisited that album yesterday, and though I still can't overlook its obvious weak points (namely the ponderous ballads "The Day That Never Comes" and "The Unforgiven III"), I think that it's a more consistent record than Hardwired. It's also heavy, raw and, in spots, crazily complex. It's a fascinatingly dense album that I'm still finding new wonder in. (With time, of course, maybe it will be the same with Hardwired.) What I mean to say is that if you're the type to go in for the "return to form" narrative, and you're positioning Hardwired as Metallica's return to thrash glory after the wilderness years of Load/Reload (or even the Black Album, depending on your viewpoint), St. Anger, Lulu, etc., you might want to go back and take stock of what Death Magnetic had/has to offer. (Pardon the formatting when you follow this link, but here's my review of that album from back in '08.)

3) A related issue is this whole idea that a legacy band's mature/late work is only measurable in terms of its resemblance to its "classic"/canonical work. This is not only a reductive and myopic way to look at art; it's also a blatant sort of killjoy rubric, often inflicted upon one's self. Yes, Metallica made a series of titanically great, era- and genre-defining albums in the '80s. Records like Master of Puppets, ...And Justice for All and in a different way the Black Album (which was my gateway drug into this whole thing we call metal) helped me establish my personal paradigm for what a certain kind of epic, transportive "heavy" music ought to strive for. They set, in other words, an extremely high bar.

By the time of, say, Death Magnetic, Metallica was no longer, clearly, a band at the vanguard of metal, or of anything, really. The year 2008 was no longer Metallica's Time; in fact, many would've argued that that Time had been up since 2003 or 1997 or even 1991. And when I say Time, I mean that shining era in the lifespan of any truly great band where their abilities and ambitions line up exactly with fan enthusiasm, general stylistic trends and (maybe, though not at all essentially) critical tastes. This is obviously a much smaller-scale example, but I'm thinking about something like the Jesus Lizard circa Liar, when a band is doing its best work, and they know it and everyone else does too and they're sort of just indisputably ruling whatever it is their sphere is at that particular moment. (Seeing the mighty Sheer Mag live last night, I felt that they were in the midst of just such a glorious moment.)

Metallica, as we all know, ruled long and strong. I don't need to quote sales figures or other stats to make that point. In 2016, Metallica still rules among its millions of fans, but the band's pop cultural footprint is greatly reduced. They're not a big part of the mainstream musical conversation (almost entirely dominated by hip-hop and related styles) — they're not, in other words, particularly Relevant — and they probably never will be again. Sure, they're still making the high-profile promo rounds, from Howard Stern to Jimmy Fallon, but what I mean to say is that it is clearly not, at this historical moment, Metallica's Time. And to compare this phase of Not Metallica's Time Metallica to Metallica's Time Metallica is just sort of pointless, like saying that the mature, well-rounded adult is somehow lacking in comparison to the brash, nothing-to-lose teenager.

So we have this concept of Late Work, of artists continuing to release long past the expiration date of Their Time. As a fan, I happen to love Late Work, because I think that what often happens is that a band, during this career phase, if they last that long, simply gets down to the business of making itself happy, and in turn making its fans happy, while dispensing entirely with tedious ideas of legacy, that part of "music appreciation" that bleeds into the critical practices of canonizing and list-making and all that ultimately irrelevant machinery.

To me, Metallica on Hardwired sounds like a happy band. They sound vigorous and engaged with the process of writing and executing Metallica songs. Although I like parts of the much-maligned St. Anger, I'm not sure if I could say the same of that album, which sounds like the work of a band trying so hard to be different, to embrace spontaneity at all costs, that they're sort of losing their collective mind. Hardwired is confident and proud even in its less thrilling moments, and when that confidence and pride align with the band's true strengths, virtuosity and innate genius (I'm thinking of the triumphant, Classic Heavy Metal leads that punctuate "Moth Into Flame" or the ferocious, headlong verses of "Spit Out the Bone"), magic happens. To be honest, I don't give a fuck how that magic compares to Master of Puppets. It's great music in the moment, and what else really matters?

The same is true of a lot of other comeback-ish albums that have emerged in recent years, from Carcass' Surgical Steel to Black Sabbath's 13 and even Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth or simply strong late-career statements like AC/DC's Rock or Bust, Iron Maiden's Book of Souls or Rush's Clockwork Angels. I of course can't speak for any other fans of these bands, but my feeling is that if you're a Carcass, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, AC/DC, Iron Maiden or Rush fan, respectively, in the sense that you simply love these bands being themselves and sounding happy and energized doing what they do and sounding like what they sound like, then you like these albums.

You also, maybe, appreciate that new chapters are being written in a given legacy. One of the reasons I'm so into Death Magnetic is that it's a very different Metallica than the one I grew up with — as opposed to this monolithic force, they sound almost, to borrow a term from the St. Anger lexicon, frantic on that album, like they're tripping over their own ideas and cramming their songs full of as much stuff as possible just for the sheer maximal joy of it. (In other words, as time goes by, they shed certain qualities, maybe even ones that contributed to their greatness in a given period, but they also gain new ones: One way to look at it is, I really love Death Magnetic, and the 1986 Metallica couldn't have made it.) And because: they're Metallica, so why the fuck not?

So what I think about Hardwired at this moment is maybe not all that relevant. Because in the end, for a Metallica fan, there's absolutely no downside to this album existing, and I think it's that principle that's too often forgotten. If you wished they'd stopped after Cliff Burton died, then so be it: Just listen to the first three albums and be happy with it, or choose whatever demarcation point you wish and stop there. All I mean to say is that for me, it's more fun to stay current when possible, to see how these legacies evolve, to see how bands shed certain core qualities while taking on new ones.

In the end, I keep coming back to the I'm Happy It Exists principle when considering an album like Hardwired. The album has already provided a week or so of listening enjoyment or, at the very least engagement, has already sparked many interesting conversations with colleagues and friends. Has already soundtracked a couple refreshing morning runs. Has already inspired a number of private "Fuck yeah" moments from me as I listen on the train. Maybe the album will grow on me; maybe it won't. But it's fucking Metallica. Now. And I'd rather focus on and relish that fact rather than spend my time measuring it against the band's back catalog like some joyless fact-checker.

Yeah, the old Metallica albums rule. No, Hardwired is not as much a part of my DNA as those albums — yet, at least. But in taking it for what it is I don't in some way turn my back on those older albums. In a way, I simply say: This band means a lot to me. They're probably always going to. I'm always going to be curious about what they're up to, and moreover, in the ways in which their inherent greatness (because whatever you want to say about a given period of their work, I think it's indisputable that they have been and still are, in some general way, a truly great band) manifests itself over time, interacts with the aging process, reflecting it honestly or defying it. Metallica have changed, a lot, but they're still here, and to me there's more reward in celebrating that fact overall than in dwelling on why what they're doing now or have done recently does or doesn't measure up. The fact is, it's different. And without saying I love every second of Hardwired, or going overboard in expressing why it's their best album since X or, on the other hand, why Metallica is dead to me now, since they put out X, I'm trying to focus on that I'm Glad It Exists principle.

As I've tried to convey on this blog many times and in many different ways, I'm not a Critic, or at least I don't think of myself that way. I'm really just trying to find a way to record my experience of music in a way that feeds back into my enjoyment of music, not puts up walls for others or for myself. Yes, I've recorded what I think of Hardwired now, just because why not, but beyond that, I'm curious what I'm going to think about Hardwired in a week, month or year, and I'm curious what other Metallica fans (and non-fans) think and will think. I'm curious what these songs will sound like live. I'm curious which of them will become new set-list staples and which will be left behind. I'm curious to read other reviews of this record. I'm curious to go back to other Metallica records, both ones I know well and ones I don't, and see how the general arc of their discography and career looks now, taking everything into account. I want to get outside this compulsion to express some Immediate Definitive Opinion about something I just heard and just let the music sink in and see how it goes.

Because, as I said before, I'm a Metallica fan. One who has experienced an ongoing lifelong musical awakening in large part because of this band, who remembers giving a speech on them in eighth-grade English class complete with hand-drawn visual aid, who remembers marveling at an early screening of Some Kind of Monster, obsessing over …And Justice for All riffs with bandmates during practice, going to their management office to hear Death Magnetic before its release, seeing them play an incredible show at Yankee Stadium (again, pardon the formatting, but the piece is there if you scroll down) as part of the Big 4. A lot of memories, a lot of time and attention and passion invested. And so what else to say about Hardwired other than "Bring it on." Just a day after its release I can't possibly say I know what it means to me yet and the great thing is that I don't have to. I'm just glad it exists.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Stygian soul: Goodbye, Leonard Cohen


















As a die-hard adolescent metalhead always searching out the next musical extreme, I'd occasionally been frightened by music before I heard Songs of Leonard Cohen (my first glimpse of this, for example). But Songs is the first album I remember having to turn off because it creeped me out so much. I believe the song that did it was "Teachers":

Morning came and then came noon
Dinnertime —a scalpel blade lay beside my silver spoon

Some girls wander by mistake
Into the mess that scalpels make
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to break

But I kept returning, willingly, into that dark dimension. I'd learned "singer-songwriter" music backward, first coming to indie-rock-affiliated bards like Will Oldham and then gradually working my way toward the true grandaddies. Dylan was an easy habit to develop, the appeal obvious and cocky and blithe. With Cohen, there was something heavier, slower, more sinister, more ancient. He had a knack for seeing visions, and for implanting them in your head, that in my opinion is unmatched by any other songwriter.

"Stranger Song," one of the best, a chilling portrait of the ultimate hustler who might just be nearing the end of the line:

You've seen that man before
His golden arm dispatching cards
But now it's rusted from the elbow to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes, he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter

...

And while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
Yes, it's curling just like smoke above his shoulder

Songs From a Room stunned me, especially the stark "Story of Isaac," but when I got ahold of Songs of Love and Hate, it stopped me cold. I sensed that at that point, Cohen's work had gone beyond mere brooding and entered the realm of actual depravity. I wanted to live within, say, "Avalanche" (more on that that here), but I simply could not bear to listen to a song like "Dress Rehearsal Rag" more than once. Even his visage on the album cover made me shudder.

And what I knew of the later work — "Everybody Knows," for example — turned me off. As a fan who treasured the hushed, archaic sound of those early records, it bummed me out that he seemed to be surrendering to a kind of '80s-ized caricature of himself.

But of course as I grew up, and eventually saw him perform an exquisite concert on his now-legendary 2009 comeback tour, full of old-school gentlemanly showmanship, I came to see that Leonard Cohen's world was much broader than I'd thought. I still hear "Dress Rehearsal Rag" as a profoundly fucked-up song, but I can embrace the strung-out comedy of something like "Diamonds in the Mine" (or the taunting, sleazy playfulness of "Is This What You Wanted?") more readily, and hear how Cohen's poet-out-of-time quality can coexist beautifully with his reality as a witty pop songwriter living in the modern world.

David Bowie is not an artist I have yet connected with on a deep level, so the idea of Blackstar-as-final-statement didn't hit home for me as it did for some. But with Cohen, the feeling of finality and summation of his new album You Want It Darker (all captured brilliantly in this recent New Yorker profile) sprawled out before me, feeling so heavy and also in some way so light. Whatever this is, some sort of stygian soul music, it must set a new record for end-of-life badassery:



That seen-(and endured)-it-all voice — an emanation, really. Grave and prophetic but also sly and fallible. A holy man rife with earthly flaws. In all his complexity, one of the greatest poets I know. Thank you, Leonard Cohen for opening up your infinite worlds, for revealing your layered, indelible imagery and, yes, very often, for scaring the living shit out of me.

/////

*Sylvie Simmons' I'm Your Man is as good a musician biography as I've read.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Coroner's essential 'Autopsy': How Swiss trio wrote their own thrash-metal narrative




Rewind
, a feature-length documentary on the band Coroner included in their new DVD/CD box set, Autopsy, ends on a note of hopeful uncertainty. "I wonder how we will sound today," bassist/vocalist Ron "Royce" Broder says.

I do too. There are many reasons to be curious. Coroner's in-progress sixth album, apparently due in 2017, will be the Swiss metal trio's first full-length since 1993, and the first non-archival release from the band since they reunited five years ago. It will also be their first album without drummer and co-founder "Marquis" Marky Edelmann, who played a few years' worth of Coroner comeback gigs — which I'm kicking myself for not having seen — starting in 2011 but bowed out in 2014 when he split with the other members on the question of writing and recording new music.

Rewind captures footage from the original Coroner lineup's final gig in early 2014, in the band's hometown of Zurich, and there's a real poignancy to the night. No hard feelings evident among the members here, just brotherhood. Royce gives Edelmann a warm send-off from the stage, and we see the two and guitarist Tommy "T. Baron" Vetterli celebrating backstage after the show. Royce admits to getting choked up the night before when thinking about the inevitable farewell announcement at the end of the gig. The three embrace, agreeing seemingly without the slightest resentment that Edelmann's departure is the right move for everyone.

"I wish them luck," the drummer says with a laugh in a candid interview near the end of the film. "I hope they don't screw it up. But I'm very positive they won't – they don't want [a new album] to ruin things, either. I think everything will be fine."

Rewind has some interesting points to make re: that question of just what's at stake on a reunion album, especially on one by a band like Coroner. They were and are very much a cult band, for whom writing and recording new music so many years later seems about 98 percent a question of art, not commerce. (The festival crowds they've been playing to for the past five years are by and large showing up to hear the old stuff, and that will likely continue to be the case even after the new music arrives.)

The question is really one of legacy. Various metal luminaries weigh in on the topic in Rewind. Celtic Frost leader Tom G. Warrior — a fellow Swiss metal veteran and a longtime friend of Coroner — argues strongly that Coroner ought to follow in his own band's footsteps and record a new album after reuniting. "Tell those bands half your age, 'Fuck you, we can still do this!'" he asserts. "That's how you do a reunion."

"Now [creating] new music, that's a sensitive area," ex-Sepultura frontman Max Cavalera says in the doc with a kind of half-sigh, half-wince. "'Cause how can you get that magic back? I very often ask myself the same: If I do a reunion with Sepultura, would we do another record? I don't know if I want to take that responsibility to try to re-create that magic."

In Coroner's case "that magic" seems almost alchemical. Especially considering where they began and where they ended up during their initial run. Coroner started out in the mid-to-late Eighties playing densely technical thrash metal — best captured on the excellent albums Punishment for Decadence and No More Color — driven by an odd but brilliant juxtaposition of florid composition and steely attitude, qualities embodied respectively by Vetterli and Broder's finger-busting virtuosity and the latter's snarling, venemous vocal delivery. (Excellent, darkly evocative lyrics — e.g., "I see you smile it's like a punch in my face / Can't you feel my bleeding heart" — written, fascinatingly, not by Broder but by Edelmann, round out the strange blend.) During this period, Coroner come off like prog geeks holding switchblades behind their backs.

But Coroner's third album, 1991's Mental Vortex, was where they crossed over into a kind of glorious genre-transcendent weirdness. They began writing longer, stronger songs that sacrificed some of the frantic energy of their earlier material for a kind of trancelike focus, a tendency toward eerie mood-setting and almost robotically driving groove. There's a section in Rewind — several sections, actually — where fellow musicians and fans express their awe at Coroner's collective virtuosity. Some pinpoint a "coldness" at the heart of their aesthetic, and I'd agree with that characterization while stressing that I don't at all see it as a downside. Mental Vortex is a deeply insular album, one that "rocks" conventionally in many places but that seems more like an obsessive art project than a mere "heavy metal" album. There's a proud perfectionism at work here, evidence of a band answering the call of "Just how far can we take this?"

On the band's next and final (so far) album, they answered that question in a fascinating way. To hear them tell it, it wasn't easy. Rewind features a fascinating section where Edelmann and Vetterli talk through the tensions that plagued Coroner during the recording of 1993's Grin, when the guitarist's perfectionism, already causing tensions with the band's label, drove a wedge during him and the drummer. At one point, Edelmann recalls, "It got physical." Broder adds that he broke up a fight between the two, and there's a priceless tidbit about a pizza being thrown against the wall. (I should note that this particular interview, excerpted throughout the film, features the full band sitting in a dark room in front of a fireplace, talking candidly, and there's something mesmerizing about the footage, as though the three old friends — Edelmann, Coroner's blunt, charismatic leader, with the rugged good looks of a Bond actor; Vetterli, the softspoken but almost cocky virtuoso; and Broder, an easygoing but mysterious presence, who spends much of the film staring thoughtfully into the fire — are staying up all night and really hashing out the highs and lows of their almost three-decade adventure together.)

The account of this tension is odd considering that Grin is in some ways a profoundly relaxed album. The steely heaviness is still there, along with traces of uptempo thrash, but the album gravitates toward expansive and hypnotic groove, yielding a strangely serene sound. It's interesting to think about what else was going on in metal at this time, as some of Grin reminds me of Helmet but with that band's harsh industrial bark replaced by a kind of noir-ish, unhurried cool.

Listening to the members unpack the highs and the lows of their journey — from their early days as leather-pants-wearing '80s rockers to Edelmann and Vetterli's glorious, eye-opening tour of the States as Celtic Frost roadies and, finally, Coroner's big "arrival" moment, when they stepped onstage at their favorite big hometown venue and went on to tour the U.S. themselves — you really feel the arc of a life devoted to underground music, especially music as eccentric and personal as Coroner's. We hear an account of Vetterli's post-Coroner stint touring with Swiss pop/rock singer Stephan Eicher — who, like so many others interviewed in the film, stands in awe of the guitarist's abilities, not to mention the whole band's — and Edelmann's embracing of electronic music and DJ culture. And we hear from longtime fans such as Celtic Frost's Martin Eric Ain how once Coroner returned, they sounded better than ever. (It's true: The extensive post-reunion footage on the second disc of Autopsy is in some ways more satisfying than the also-terrific classic stuff, such as a beautifully shot East Berlin show from 1990.)

Watching the film, you really feel the strength of Coroner's focus, their hunger for a true sonic signature, which they achieved early on and honed to an admirable extent over the course of five albums together. "Your kind of music is rarely played on the radio," we see an interviewer saying to Edelmann in a 1991 TV clip in Rewind. "You don't sell that many records either. Doesn't that kill your motivation to play even harder music?" (I'm pretty sure he means "heavier," but he might as well be asking about Coroner's fearsome, uncompromising technicality as well.) "No, not really, "Edelmann responds in almost blasé fashion, as though the idea of playing music for commercial gain had never even crossed his mind. "We still enjoy it. You're right, we get rather ignored by the media. You don't sell loads of records either. But it's great fun."

That's really all that needs to be said. Coroner thrived, simply, on a love for what they were making, and you feel the same sort of enthusiasm during the more recent Rewind interview footage when Broder and Vetterli ponder what a new Coroner album might sound like. "For me, it's just not over yet," Vetterli says, while acknowledging as Broder does just what a daunting task the pair have ahead of them, not just in writing great, worthy music but in replacing a core member, who not only brought a unique rhythmic feel to the band but also memorable, evocative lyrics and even took charge of the band's stark and haunting graphic design. Coroner's classic lineup consisted of three very different personalities and talents whose affinities and — especially, I think  — tensions fostered something singular and beautiful and fascinatingly other. I believe in Vetterli and Broder, but I do wonder, as Broder does, "how [Coroner] will sound today."

What I'm certain of is that, when it comes to music, these guys don't make tentative moves. There's no halfway with a band this unusual, this meticulous, this trend-proof, this driven. Again I come back to this notion of Coroner's supposed coldness, cited by a few fans and associates in the doc. I can see where the assessment comes from but on the whole, I don't agree. There may be a certain emotional reserve to this band, but for them, passion seems inextricable from diligence and devotion, from a kind of all-or-nothing aesthetic, the shared sense that their music has to sound this way. You have to really live music like this; you have to care that much. And I'm thankful that Coroner did, and still do.

/////

One great track apiece from each of Coroner's five full-lengths:

"Reborn Through Hate" (R.I.P., 1987)


Already, on the first proper song on their debut LP, Coroner begin to earn their eventual (unofficial) designation as the "Rush of thrash metal." Key Coroner features such as relentlessly intricate, note-y riffs and disorienting rhythmic hiccups coexist with classic, fist-pumping '80s thrash tropes.

"Masked Jackal" (Punishment for Decadence, 1988)


A completely raging track that moves ingeniously through a cycle of intricate, increasingly badass riffs. The chorus perfectly illustrates that harsh, sneering, almost sardonic quality that's integral to this band's greatness. I love the way Broder's venemous delivery aligns with Edelmann's lyrical portrait of a two-faced politician: "Darling of the TV screen/Manipulator of the purse strings/Master of the spoken words/Jackal with connections."

"Die by My Hand" (No More Color, 1989)


Sitting at the midpoint of the band's discography, No More Color is in some ways the quintessential Coroner album, delivering all the aggression of their earlier work with plenty of the eccentricity that grows increasingly prominent on the later LPs. A beautiful production job, raw yet clear, highlights the nasty, relentlessly driving quality of this opening track. "Die by My Hand" is simply thrash metal perfection: a must for anyone who knows their Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood cold and wants to venture deeper into the '80s underground.

"Metamorphosis" (Mental Vortex, 1991)


The unstoppable riffs remain but this is a more confident, mature, at times borderline-laid-back Coroner. The sound is not so frenetic; the groove is more prominent, the song structure more smartly assembled. And the Broder/Edelmann team of vocalist and lyricist, respectively, sound even more viciously dialed-in here: "See me become a snake / Wrapped around your neck / See me become a spike / Pushed deep in your flesh." As with a lot of Coroner tracks, the words can scan as flat on the page, but spat out of Broder's mouth, they take on a real sinister gravity.

"Grin (Nails Hurt)" (Grin, 1993)


Sinister gravity is what Grin is all about, from that riveting, stomach-turning cover image on down.  So many excellent tracks on this thing, but this penultimate song just kills me. A writhing, almost-hardcore-ish breakdown to start and then into that absolutely unstoppable hypnotic verse at :40. The riff has its ornamental features, but mostly we're in groove-engaged/head-down territory, leading up to that gloriously crunchy chorus breakdown at 1:50. I just love the way they're letting the riffs breathe here: No fat whatsoever, just a sort of sustained, cruising sneer of a song — I can't escape that word when writing about these guys — leading up to a drifting, quasi-psychedelic relaxed-blast-beat outro. When I hear "Grin," I hear crushing heaviness but also zen-like serenity. I hear a kind of defiant confidence, the sound of a band fully inhabiting its own zone, standing apart from scene and genre, and just getting down to the business of becoming more and more itself.

Here's hoping that this process continues on the next LP. I'm bummed that Edelmann has left the fold, but like him, I, as a devoted fan of all of Coroner's prior work, think that everything will in fact be just fine.

/////

*If you're even remotely a Coroner fan, you need to own Autopsy. If not, check out the discography first and then take the plunge (the set is also available as a signed vinyl/Blu-ray combo).

*Read Phil Freeman's insightful recent overview of the Coroner catalog here.

*Lots of other Coroner goodies on the YouTube channel of the band's touring keyboardist and backing vocalist, Daniel Stössel.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Warm blood: Why Meshuggah are better than ever on 'The Violent Sleep of Reason'



















The riff that opens "Ivory Tower," the sixth song on Meshuggah's new album, The Violent Sleep of Reason, unfolds for 25 seconds before repeating. That doesn't sound like a lot, but listening, it feels like a small eternity. The band — I was about to type "the rhythm section," but in Meshuggah, that's pretty much everyone aside from vocalist Jens Kidman, and in some ways, he's a part of that mix as well — sort of half-stumbles, half-trudges through this section, as the notes emerge, relentlessly, up and down and down and up, and the syncopations intrude with stubborn constancy. It's a bumpy but strangely soothing ride. The band is, in their strange, singular mecha-prog way, cruising.

Meshuggah has, for some time, been a canonical band. I mean this more or less objectively. During the past, say, 10 years, the band has attained a certain elite status that's difficult to come by these days: a large and devoted "civilian" fan base, a decent amount of critical respect and that hard-to-pin down quality that I might define as street cred, wherein discerning musicians of many different persuasions regularly offer props, not just accepting Meshuggah as one of their own but designating them as one for the ages, a genuinely, deservedly legendary band. (Among jazz musicians, especially, they've "broken through" much in the way that Radiohead or Björk once did.) Meshuggah in 2016 are nominally a metal band, recording for a metal label, touring with metal bands, but they've attained something like the Ellingtonian designation of "beyond category."

Sometimes this process of saturation, canonization, etc., wherein a band's value to the larger world of music and the consistent integrity of their product becomes a fixed, almost objective truth can create a sort of tedious kind of consensus. Such and such an artist becomes Important, rendering moot the question of whether or not they're actually Any Good or still producing work that's worthy of the formative material that won them this reputation in the first place. (I'll admit that the suffocatingly ominpresent and often pompous assertions of Radiohead's Importance have probably gotten in the way of me really engaging with their more recent music, though I did enjoy The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A in their time.)

So Meshuggah is, I'll admit, a band I've had a little trouble really embracing in the past. I'd heard a decent amount of their music; favorably reviewed their 2008 album, obZen; and seen a live show in 2012 that I enjoyed. But I felt myself standing apart from the cult, my hard-to-pin-down skepticism about the band maybe intensified by the fact that I felt that this was a band that I, as a drummer and an avowed fan of progressive/aggressive/"mathy" music, was supposed, even obligated to blindly worship. I could quibble with this or that feature — for a long time, I found that Kidman's vocals, "harsh" but monochromatically so, with very little sense of any emotional toll being taken, kept me at arm's length — but I think that, I'm not all that proud to admit, my deep-seated contrarian impulses may have had something to do with it.

I have this tic, and at this point I'm not sure if it's a handicap or an asset, wherein I don't simply discard but sometimes actively resist received wisdom. The more ironclad the Consensus surrounding an artist becomes, the more ubiquitously they're praised, the more taken-for-granted their objective Relevance becomes, the more I shut down, turn away. I'm all for discernment, but honestly, this is a pretty childish characteristic in a lover of music, art, etc. You need to get to the thing itself, not the commentary or the culture surrounding the thing. (Hear the Dead, for example; don't get hung up critiquing/ridiculing Deadheads.) Moreover, it's important to note that Consensus is often pretty accurate. Bruce Springsteen really is as good as They say he is, a fact that I woke up to some years back after a long period of pointless resistance.

But we hold on to these ideas because we feel that our concerted dislikes are somehow an asset. And maybe in certain cases they are. Maybe Good Taste is really about not just what you embrace but what you exclude. But I'm wary of clinging too tightly to my prejudices; I often feel a kind of giddiness when I find that one is evaporating before my eyes. I was not in any sense anti-Meshuggah before, more just somewhat indifferent. I took them for granted as That Swedish Metal Band That Does That One Thing That Everyone Loves. (This response, skeptical and pompous, is perfectly parodied at 1:35 in this incredible Professor Brothers short by Brad Neely: "It's one of those ones — one of those [weary laugh] — [with whoop-dee-doo sarcasm] one of those fucking animated movies that everybody goes and sees and fuckin' eats their shit and loves.")

Which is all a protracted way of saying, I'm not really sure what changed recently, whether it was Meshuggah or me, but The Violent Sleep of Reason has jarred something loose. Hark, the wall has come down, and I'm all in. During the past few weeks, following my blissful Crowbar saturation, which has barely waned, I've listened to little else other than this band, trying to piece together how they got to a place, on Violent Sleep, where they are functioning at a level of excellence that seems, honestly, hard to fathom.

As it turns out, Meshuggah has been really good for a really long time. (I'm sure any pro-Meshuggah reader more reasonable than me is probably sitting here saying, "Duh" to themselves over and over, same as when I went public with the shocking (!) revelation that AC/DC were, in fact, a great band; yes, I realize how ridiculous I sound, and I'm doing my best to own it.) Once their mature sound crystallized around the time of 2002's Nothing, they've been marching pretty steadily toward true, top-of-their game command. And I fully see the appeal of their ante-up statements such as Destroy Erase Improve and Chaosphere too, though to me, these now sound like the work of an extraordinarily hungry, talented band still growing into greatness, putting all their insane, frantic ideas on the table at once rather than embracing the idea that occasional restraint or dynamic tension might actually make their full-on moments that much more scarily intense.

The obZen album is, in context of their larger discography, a standout. The vicious, churning turbulence of their early work is still there, but the band has come around to the idea that songs matter, not just Awesome Parts, that space and variety are needed to realize an album that's really worth savoring all the way through. (For the record, I think obZen's suitelike, mostly continuous predecessor, Catch Thirtythree, earns the same designation, but I find the obZen material much stickier and more memorable.) Koloss, from 2012, maintains obZen's high standard but seems in some ways like the sound of a band in a holding pattern. The great benefit of the band's epic 2014 live album, The Ophidian Trek, is that it culls together many of the best songs from this later period of the band with gems from throughout the prior 15-plus years, shuffling them together in a beautifully paced, gritty-sounding mixtape.

That "gritty-sounding" part is key to what would come next. If you care about Meshuggah in the slightest and have read anything about The Violent Sleep of Reason, you know that it's the first album they've recorded live — i.e., as a band setting up and playing simultaneously in the studio — since Chaosphere. In the almost two decades that separate that album from the new one, Meshuggah has, in some ways, operated like the world's heaviest electronica project, with each member writing full songs individually on computers, recording occurring piecemeal and non-digital instruments seeming almost incidental to the band's working method. In an interview in the November of Decibel, drummer Tomas Haake notes of Koloss that "If we didn't play it good enough, we would make it sound good enough." Meshuggah was never a band that concealed its allegiance to the Pro Tools era: programmed drums, digitally re-amped guitars, sound replacement. Listen to most of Meshuggah's catalog, in other words, and you're hearing something that's more synthetic than not.

That's not a value judgment. OK, maybe it is a little. I'll admit that I love warm, raw, live sounds. But on the other hand, I don't view Meshuggah's decision to go full-on high-tech with their process as some kind of compromise. For quite some time, they've been writing some of the more demanding, painstaking music on the planet, and I can completely understand why they've wanted their recordings to be as precise a representation of what that music is meant to sound like as possible. There's nothing punk about Meshuggah; in keeping with their overall sci-fi aesthetic, they really are after a certain kind of futuristic perfection.

Again, I return to that question of whether it was Meshuggah that changed or me. Having spent a good deal of time with Violent Sleep, I'd have to say that the former, namely their decision to go "real time" on this one, to let a little bit of natural grit in, has a lot to do with it. I think all the Meshuggah albums I've heard are worthwhile and that some of them achieve true greatness. But Violent Sleep really feels like a bar-raiser to me.

The band has always been after a kind of shock and awe, a sensation of protracted intensity and insanity and precision and just utter, overwhelming, iron-fisted control over the listener. But, for me, at least, the idea that I'm looking at a somehow synthetic sonic picture — whether that's super-apparent, on an album like Nothing, or subtler but still detectable, on an album like Koloss — stands in the way of me really feeling those earlier albums the way I think I'm supposed to feel them — or at least the way that I want to feel them.


On Violent Sleep, the beatdown is just so vivid, right from the start. Following the four hi-hat clicks that start off opening track "Clockwork," the band explodes into a signature stabbing riff as Haake human-tornadoes through the cyborg obstacle course, for the first time in his recording career seeming to focus on the idea of kicking up musical dust rather than eliminating it. You listen to Destroy Erase Improve, say, and it has no hair on it whatsoever. As I see it, aggressive music needs not just the gleaming, glossy, precision-engineered edges, but also the gristly sinew, the connective tissue, the ghost notes, so to speak. It's not that digitally scrubbed music can't achieve this sort of shading, this human complexity, but in the past, it often seemed like Meshuggah didn't want any part of it even if they knew how to reproduce it. And more power to them: They were busy remaking the spirit of metal, focusing all their energy on a maniacal degree of detail and order.

And, to be clear, that degree of detail and order hasn't lessened in the slightest on Violent Sleep. This is in some ways the most complex music Meshuggah has ever written. The band honestly sounds hungrier than ever, in a "how far can we take this thing without altering its fundamental DNA?" sort of way. The answer is, pretty goddamn far. The album contains enough peak-intensity/-density Meshuggh to satisfy any adrenaline-junkie fan. "Clockworks" alone is seven-plus minutes of glorious tech-prog hell, busy and badass enough to rival celebrated Meshuggah classics like obZen's "Bleed." The title track is another ultra-dense world-eater of a song — and, I've found, a perfect aural drill sergeant for the treadmill — featuring this almost comically awesome math-prog thresher of a centerpiece riff (it first shows up at :38 if you're playing along at home). To put it another way, this album will go harder than you every time — it's that massive, that complex, that vicious.

But there's also this other side to Violent Sleep, a sort of shadowy underbelly — and here we're back to the idea of contrast and shading that I mentioned above — that, for me, elevates this album from "mere" murderous awesomeness to something like sublimity. Describing the opening of "Ivory Tower" above, I alluded to this idea of the ever-unfolding riff, a concept the band takes even further on "By the Ton," one of the strangest and most refreshing metal songs I've ever heard. Like on "Ivory Tower," the band experiments here with a stumbling half-time feel, trudging during the verse riff through an seemingly endless series of ornaments and tangents so that the idea of any sort of "return to home base" seems increasingly remote and irrelevant. But when the band kicks into the next section around 1:01, which functions like some kind of chorus but is far too outlandish and slippery to really warrant that designation, they take this concept even further. The ensuing riff does, I think, eventually repeat, but the cycle is so lengthy and involved and relentlessly off-kilter that the only logical response seems to be to simply surrender to its slippery grandeur.

The most wondrous thing about this section for me — and about the sort of similar-in-feel-but-totally-different-in-content reprise that begins at 2:41 — is how gloriously bluesy it feels, as though by striving for the ultimate in jarring technicality the band had somehow fallen through a wormhole and ended up at the very heart and source of rock and roll, the bulbous, beating, bloody center of the thing, where music flows like quicksilver rather than clanging like steel. When I hear this section of this song, I can't help but think of Dr. Octopus's undulating arms, metal that writhes like flesh. The absolutely disgustingly deep and bass/guitar harsh tones that Meshuggah achieve on this record only intensify the sensation, common in the Meshuggah listening experience, that guitarists Mårten Hagström and Fredrik Thordendal (whose signature neon-rain leads sounds as bright and mesmerizing as ever throughout the record) and bassist Dick Lövgren are operating as a single gigantic cyber-snake.

To me, this sensation of Meshuggah's music as a living entity is a revelation. That a band could at once represent the pinnacle of technicality but find a way to inject their recorded work with warm blood, to drench it in hard-earned human sweat, is a cause for celebration for those of us who love our math but who also love our rawk. There's no substitute for that good, old human stink, and on The Violent Sleep of Reason, Meshuggah finally let us take a deep whiff.

/////

*I love this Spotify "Metal Talks" playlist, which intersperses tracks from Violent Sleep and throughout Meshuggah's career with commentary by Tomas Haake.

*For more from Haake on the album, check out my RS colleague Kory Grow's recent interview.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lately

A few recent and future happenings in my world:

*There is a new Aa album coming out in November on the Brooklyn label Fire Talk. I've been working with this band on and off for something like 11 years, and my collaboration with founding member Aron Wahl stretches back even further. In the past, I've played more of a sideman role in Aa, but this time out, I'm more creatively invested: I helped to compose and arrange the music on ZebrAa along with current ringleader John Atkinson, fellow longtime/sometime member Mike Colin and more recent recruit Julian Bennett Holmes. John and Mike are old friends, and Julian a newer one — it's been a pleasure honing this body of work live and in the practice room with these guys during the past few years. I feel that songs like first single "Trash Hits" (see below) add meaningfully to an already rich catalog. There is talk of an NYC record-release show in December, so stay tuned.



*Also out in November, via the venerable, long-running Skin Graft label, is a new deluxe reissue of Dazzling Killmen's Face of Collapse, one of my favorite albums, full stop. (As mentioned previously on DFSBP, the LP's centerpiece, "In the Face of Collapse," is the song that inspired this blog's name.) I'm proud to have contributed a new oral history of the record to the package, a document that draws on interviews I conducted with all four band members earlier this year. Both collectively and individually, these men — Blake Fleming, Tim Garrigan, Darin Gray and Nick Sakes — are musical heroes of mine. If you're not familiar with their work, Face of Collapse is the place to start. Preview and preorder the new edition at Bandcamp.

Related: I'm working with Tim in a new-ish band called Skryptor, also featuring David McClelland of craw. We've got a good amount of music written — which, I'm excited to say, sounds very little like anything any of us have done with our other projects — and I hope we'll be performing before too long. More news when I have it.

*I also contributed interview-based liner notes to two other recent releases: the Cookers' The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart on Smoke Sessions and the Jim Black Trio's The Constant on Intakt. I love both of these groups and would have been tuning in to either album as a fan even if I weren't involved behind the scenes, so these gigs were an absolute pleasure.

*It was a thrill to attend and review Cat Stevens' first NYC show in 40 years on behalf of Rolling Stone. A truly legendary artist who, I was happy to find, can still astonish in the live setting.

*Likewise, I loved speaking with Maynard James Keenan about music, comedy, family, the military and many other topics touched on in his upcoming biography, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things.

Beyond that, I've been working hard at the day gig; spending time with my wonderful girlfriend, Alex (and watching her awesome company grow); listening to tons of Crowbar (with a bit of Meshuggah, Asphyx, Immolation and Entombed breaking things up); studying music (ear training, keyboard, etc.) with my friend and bandmate Nick; reading Raymond Chandler; running regularly; and cooking more than I ever have in my life, thanks in large part to the easily recommendable Blue Apron.

As this blog nears its 10th anniversary, I'd just like to say thanks to anyone still tuning in, regularly or irregularly. Your attention and encouragement are greatly appreciated.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Exfoliant: Battle Trance's 'Blade of Love' live











I sat there last night, in a pew at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Chelsea, listening to Battle Trance, and I kept wishing more of my friends were there. It was one of those everybody-should-hear-this moments, which I find are pretty rare, even when I'm seeing music that I'm enjoying immensely. Often, there's this dual sense of both loving a show and realizing that some element of – extreme volume, say, or prolonged abstraction — might serve as superficial turn-off to some listeners.

There's something about Battle Trance, though, that feels universal, or, if no music or can truly be that, it at least feels unusually broad in its ability to hit a listener somewhere primal, accessing a part of the sound-and-spirit-receiving mechanism that would seem to be fundamental but that doesn't get engaged with all that often. The group — a four-tenor-saxophone ensemble led by Travis Laplante — dispenses with all obvious trappings of musical style, while at the same time evoking in mood and sensation the essences of many styles (gospel and noise are two I'd throw out as examples) in a way that feels intensely right and natural to me. As though the musical and experiential event that is a Battle Trance performance was waiting there all along for someone to get into the right headspace to enact it.

It doesn't surprise me that that someone is Travis Laplante, who is, incidentally, a friend of mine. Ever since Travis first came on my musical and social radar about a decade ago, as one fourth of the raw, revelatory Little Women, there's been a sense that he's been operating an unusually high-stakes enterprise, fueled by a sturdy, built-for-the-long-haul union of strict discipline and soulful poetry. I'm lucky to know a few people like this, artists whose practice not only invites but demands the As Serious as Your Life tag bestowed by the great Val Wilmer on the jazz radicals she set out to document.

But if the mood of Little Women felt sinister, even downright infernal, Battle Trance seems to concern itself with the other side of the coin. Seeing them in a church last night almost felt redundant, because they render sacred any space they perform in. Battle Trance makes records, great ones — last night's show was a release party for the new Blade of Love, which the group played in full, according to their well-established M.O. — but it says more about my life right now than it does about the contents of Blade (or of any other recording, for that matter) that I've had trouble finding the time and space to really get there with it, and by get there, I mean, I guess, really surrender to it.

I wrote above of Travis Laplante's high stakes, and I part of what I meant is that he's an artist who always seems to be going after the transportive experience, both for himself and for the listener. He also works in the healing arts, and the parallels between these two areas of his work are so obvious that maybe there's no distinction between them. (See Brad Cohan's excellent Observer feature on the group for more on this.) The message I get from Battle Trance, from the way the group begins and ends its concerts with sort of silent, eyes-closed meditation, is one of surrender. (See Travis's announcement re: Blade of Love on his website, which begins: "It is with joy and intense vulnerability …") Again, the experience is like entering a church: Don't just silence your cell phone — a phrase that has become ever more profound as the years go by and the task of truly shutting down one's "information addiction"/"distraction sickness", even for a moment, has become more and more of a challenge — silence the part of yourself that wants either your body or your senses, or both, to be anywhere else but exactly where you are.

Being fully acoustic and literally made from breath, Battle Trance's music feels therapeutic in the sense of a deep engagement with nature. The saxophone, the vehicle of the band's sound-and-spirit-making, seems both essential and incidental. Essential because on a basic level, the group's work is an inquiry into that instrument's vast sonic potential; incidental because Battle Trance seems to tap into an experience, a ritual that seems somehow ancient, or at least way older than the roughly 170 years the saxophone has been around.

When I say Battle Trance feels therapeutic, I mean that I consider their shows to be healing experiences, but that's not the same as saying these performances feel in some way mild. Blade of Love begins with sustained overlapping tones, staggered so that one player ceasing breath just as another player is beginning, almost like a four-person simulation of the sound of the bagpipes. Air bounces around inside metal to create this mighty sort of sonic friction. The strength of the sound is startling, abrasive — like cold water splashed on the listener's face.

Then a choral effect, notes sung softly into the horn, leading into one of the group's sonic trademarks, a lilting melody played in a kind of round, with three of the players — in this case Jeremy Viner, Matt Nelson and Patrick Breiner — setting up a musical foundation for the fourth, in this case Laplante, to testify over. This particular episode, which comes about 5:30 into the first track on the album, felt particularly righteous in the live setting last night, as though I were watching a great gospel singer belt over three expert backing singers. This section sets the stage for one of the piece's climactic moments: a series of unison staccato blasts from all four players — harking back to Little Women's relentless, stabbing noise-jazz attack — that ends the piece's first movement.

One effect of the group's openhearted, unabashedly spiritual bent is that these sounds, these textures, all points on the spectrum of so-called extremity and mildness, seem to become one. The violent passages soothe; the tender passages sear. The weight of breath, whether expressed as whistling, hissing, murmuring or shouting, becomes a steady, constant fact or truth, as the music gradually attains lift-off, escapes the mundane, and that quality of ancient-ness takes over. These bold, thematic episodes that emerge — another gradually comes into focus around 2:00 into Blade of Love's second movement — these fundamental arrangements of sturdy repeated background figure and emotive, yearning, writhing foreground melody, the feeling dripping from the music like sweat, bring to mind all kinds of anachronistic but somehow wholly logical scenarios, like Otis Redding singing his heart out at Stonehenge.

Blade of Love's third movement begins in blatantly choral fashion, the saxophones used to transmit rather than amplify breath. Building to a place of heightened energy, again that mighty friction, where I imagine the sound, the breath inside each horn as a physical mass, ricocheting ever faster against the walls, creating a prismatic blur, a shimmer of sonic activity, a steely whine and whir, a visual and tactile event as much as a sonic one, made out of metal and breath. A ritual incantation, the kind that in the live setting makes the players seem like mere vessels for a practice much older than themselves.

Great live music is escape, not just being removed from an environment, a state of mind, a set of concerns, but being ushered somewhere else, a heightened place where you can live for a while. Battle Trance seems to me like a band entirely devoted to achieving this effect, within itself, first, and then within its listeners. In his review of Blade of Love in the September edition of the The New York City Jazz Record, Phil Freeman refers to the sensation of "emerging as after a full-immersion baptism." I'd plus-one that thought, and tack on the notion of leaving a Battle Trance show feeling exfoliated, scrubbed clean — raw but renewed. Of having undergone some kind of overhaul you didn't even realize you desperately needed. The group's music sounds incredible, sure. But what struck me again last night, seeing the band for the first time in two years, is that it feels even better.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Brooklyn personified: On the genius of Type O Negative's Peter Steele


















I've never been a huge musical tourist, but certain artists bring out the pilgrim in me. A few years back, I visited Sonny Sharrock's grave (and the street named after him) in Ossining, NY, and yesterday, I made the much shorter stroll from my apartment in Brooklyn to a tree planted in honor of Peter Steele— late bassist, singer and songwriter for Type O Negative and Carnivore — at the northern tip of Prospect Park. (If you enter the park from the southwest corner of Grand Army Plaza, where the farmer's market is held on weekends, and walk through the underpass, you'll come out very close to the tree, as well as a plaque honoring Steele; there's a helpful map here.)

 Some pics:







Type O Negative's Bloody Kisses made a huge impression on me back in '93, and though my interest wavered a bit in the interim, I've always retained a certain fascination with Steele and his work. Embarking on a new phase of Steele-ology lately, via the complete Type O, Carnivore and even Fallout catalogs, and Soul on Fire, a highly readable, informative and insightful 2014 Steele biography by Mean Deviation author Jeff Wagner, I've been struck again by what a rich body of work this is.

A full traversal of the Type O Negative discography is a mindfuck: sometimes harrowing, often revelatory and never boring. The band (fittingly named Repulsion at the outset) started out as a kind of id dump for Steele, a spillage of his darkest, most uncensored thoughts concerning, as he put it in a Carnivore song title, "Sex and Violence." Slow, Deep and Hard, the band's 1991 debut, is, frankly, tough to sit through, and not just because it's an album determined to convey a depressive mindset via music that often mimics the LP's title with extreme faithfulness. The album is basically a protracted revenge fantasy, a sort of musical burning-in-effigy of a cheating lover that describes in excruciating detail the narrator's plans to "Kill You Tonight" (along with the man she's cheating with). As a teenager, I found the record, with its deadpan track titles ("Unsuccessfully Coping With the Natural Beauty of Infidelity"; "The Misinterpretation of Silence and Its Disastrous Consequences," the latter denoting a one-minute track composed of exactly zero sonic information) and perverse sing-alongs ("I know you're fucking someone else") hilarious. Listening back recently, it make my stomach turn. (I was shocked to learn, via the Wagner book, that Steele was in fact happily married during the making of this record.)

And I fully understand that this was music intended to evoke disgust, to "go there" in the most harrowing way possible. As made abundantly clear in the work of Carnivore — whose lyrics explored man's most primal (blood)lusts — and, well, yeah, that original cover of Slow, Deep and Hard's hysterical fake-live counterpart The Origin of the Feces (NSFW x 1,000) — Peter Steele was an artist obsessed with the dark side of human nature, the futility of love, the frailty of will, the way that, again to paraphrase a Type O album title, life keeps killing us, over and over.

But the remarkable thing about Peter Steele is the way he managed to sublimate the rage and vulgarity of his early work, growing into, against all odds, one of the most poignant, funny, vulnerable, heartbreakingly human songwriters of his generation. That arch-goth masterpiece Bloody Kisses was a major stylistic breakthrough — Wagner's book discusses the stunned reaction of Type O's label, Roadrunner, when they heard the demos for Slow, Deep and Hard's proper follow-up, which would feature swoonworthy masterpieces like "Christian Woman" — but the run of Type O Negative albums that kicks off with 1996's October Rust, which turned 20 last month, and ends with 2007's Dead Again — the last album Steele ever made, sadly; Wagner's chronicle of the Dead Again follow-up that never was, and the Carnivore comeback album that might have accompanied it, is heartbreaking — shows a depth and range of emotion that rivals the work of just about any other singer-songwriter I know. Here are a few tracks that floored me during my latest listening binge.

"Nettie" (Life Is Killing Me, 2003)



A true Brooklyn love song from the man I've come to regard as the borough's unofficial poet laureate. (Born in Red Hook, Peter Steele, né Ratajczyk, lived most of his life in Midwood, in the basement of the same building he grew up in with his parents and five older sisters— again, Wagner's account of him eventually losing possession of the building in his last years is profoundly sad.) Here Steele pays tribute to his saintly mother ("True, I am the son of an angel / Maternally, not one woman compares"), while showing off his frankly insane vocal range (dig those opening lines, not treated one bit according to engineer and longtime Steele comrade Mike Marciano) and adding in some evocative local color (I love "Miss Red Hook of 1922" — presumably that's true of Nettie? — and "Heaven's just southwest of Cobble Hill").

"Todd's Ship Gods (Above All Things)" (Life Is Killing Me, 2003)



More local lore. A gorgeous evocation of lost youth via a remembrance of Steele's father (also named Peter Ratajczyk), who died in 1995. (Wagner recounts Steele rushing home from the midst of Type O's landmark tour with Pantera to be by his side.) The elder Peter had worked at Red Hook's Todd Shipyards, and Steele remembers him as a sort of paternal deity (while shouting out his "giant" stature, which Steele would famously inherit):

Grease, sweat, coffee, faded shipyard pictures
Giant living there I used to know
Author of the testosterone scriptures
Where did you go?


The lushness of the song's verses, studded with what Steele, Marciano and Type O's co-mastermind, keyboardist and producer Josh Silver, used to call sonic "fur," illustrates just how far the band had come from their early depressive-hardcore misery-scapes. Special props here to guitarist Kenny Hickey, a master wielder/weaver of dreamy post-psychedelic texture.

"I Like Goils" (Life Is Killing Me, 2003)

 

Steele's punkish response to the would-be male suitors that started to crop up in droves once he posed for Playgirl in '95, and the rare joke song I actually find myself grinning along with. (See also "How Could She?," with its impressively comprehensive catalog of female TV characters.) The track is sophomoric, but, I'd argue, all in good fun. Peter Steele was, among many other things, an expert comedian, and surfing the line of good/bad taste came with that territory:

So now, to make it clear that you can't bone me
My tattooed ass reads "EXIT ONLY"


And then, just so the message isn't mistaken for homophobia: "I hate all men including you."

"Everything Dies" (World Coming Down, 1999)



Little bit of a heavy-handed video clip there, but Steele and Co. were never above playing up the drama. We see him here at the Todd Shipyards themselves, ruminating on the fragility of life in endearingly plainspoken Brooklyn fashion:

Well I loved my aunt
But she died
And my uncle Lou
Then he died


The song is almost comically blunt, but the artful writing and arrangement make it into classy/classic  grown-up pop. Love how the dark, crunchy intro gives way to the sparse, melancholy keyboard-driven verse at around :30. Again, Hickey's leads help to crank up the song's pathos.

Die With Me (October Rust, 1996)


Love and death mingle once again (see also "Love You to Death" below and countless other Steele songs). Supposedly a goodbye to a woman named Elizabeth, one of a handful of serious partners Steele had throughout his life. Maybe the most moving, epic ballad Steele ever wrote, which is saying something.

"September Sun" (Dead Again, 2007) 



Type O Negative's very own "November Rain," again tinged with Brooklyn flavor ("rotted Flatbush porch"). A gorgeous, thoroughly adult song in the grand piano-pop tradition. Love those Hickey vocals on the bridge.

"Who Will Save the Sane?" (World Coming Down, 1999)

 

Speaking of adult pop, this one, with its bluesy bass lines, offbeat, pun-filled lyrics and world-weary tone, almost sounds like a Type O take on the Steely Dan vibe.

"Halloween in Heaven" (Dead Again, 2007)



Steele, at the tail end of his recording career, was seemingly having more fun than ever.  Dead Again is a special album for many reasons — not least because it's a set of extremely high-quality and deeply felt songs, rare for a band more than 25 years into its career — but one aspect of the record I keep coming back to is that it was the first Type O album to feature live drums since Bloody Kisses. After spending a lot of time with the interim albums (October Rust, World Coming Down and Life Is Killing Me), I can see the wisdom of opting for programmed drums on those records, where the band went to great lengths to evoke an ultra-dense post-Floyd aesthetic, but I'm really glad that for this final LP, they re-embraced the raucous energy of their hardcore roots and opted to record as a live band (marking Johnny Kelly's first appearance on live drums on a full Type O album after more than 20 years of membership in the group). "Halloween in Heaven" was Steele's tribute to his late friend "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott of Pantera. No time for downcast grief here; This is a party song. Gotta love Steele's riff on the classic "jamming in the afterlife" theme:

Bonham on drums, Entwistle on bass as guest morticians
Bon Scott on vox, Rhoads just for kicks, on guitar Hendrix
Lennon sits in with his friend George but where is Morrison?


Note shiver-inducing vocal cameo on the bridge from Tara Vanflower, singer of Lycia, one of Steele's favorite bands.

"Green Man" (October Rust, 1996)



Back to the Brooklyn theme (it never really leaves when you're talking about Peter Steele and Type O). Steele was the rare future rock star who actually had qualms about quitting his day job, a gig with the NYC Parks Department, to embrace a full-time touring life. By all accounts, he loved the work. Roadrunner Records employee Kathie Merritt, quoted in Soul on Fire:

"He really liked the organization. He liked everything to be regimented and planned and scheduled. He liked his job. He was the 'green man,' he drove around and cleaned parks, and I know he was really proud once he got into the union, because for him that was pension, it was retirement, it was security, it was everything that every guy from Brooklyn wanted to have."
Leave it to Steele to turn his green-uniformed park-worker gig into a kind of pagan fantasy, a pastoral meditation on the art of humble, day-in, day-out service, in which he imagines himself as a benevolent agent of nature. I've heard few songs that are more utterly transportive, and where the cliché of Overdubbed Nature Sounds feels more natural or poetic.

"Love You to Death" (October Rust, 1996)



In some ways the ultimate Peter Steele song, the musical moment in which he stepped up and owned his image of Vampiric Sex God more fully than he ever had before or ever would again. What a transformation: the man who more than once had barbarically addressed his lover as prey is now sublimating that aggression into selfless erotic service (as he intones on later October Rust track "Be My Druidess," "I'll do anything to make you cum"). There's a certain hamminess at play here, which Steele seems fully aware of ("Her hips move, and I can feel what they're saying, swaying"; "black lipstick stains a glass of red wine"). He never breaks character, though, opting instead for a full immersion in the mythology he pioneered on Bloody Kisses: the strings, the cavernous atmosphere, Silver's bluesy, stylized piano, the dreamy tempo, that impossibly supple croon. (And on the visual front, don't forget the fangs, actual modifications to his incisors, crafted by the Ratajczyk family dentist.) The video is basically superfluous: all of the imagery is right there in the song itself. "Her perfume smells like burning leaves," Steele had sung on the band's classic '93 anthem "Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All). "Every day is Halloween." And so it can be, when you play this song.

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Reflecting on Steele, his work and legacy, I've been thinking of the idea of persona, that special kind of superhero or heightened self that all great rock stars create. Steele's persona was one of the richest and most resonant that I know. Backed up by so many great songs, shot through with so much emotional heat, expressing everything from searing rage to simmering passion. There is a thing we call charisma, which really, I think, means fully embracing one's natural personality, flaunting it a little when necessary. And as an artist, Steele took that process a step further. Was there an element of theater there? Certainly. But reading Soul on Fire, I got the sense that all those many sides of himself, the anger, the sadness, the sarcasm, were constantly at war within him. And rarely do we get such an honest, potently distilled full-spectrum inventory of an artist's brain, heart and, yes, hometown pride as we did in his work. For the too-short time that he was here, Peter Steele, in true Brooklyn fashion, laid it all out there.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Goodbye, Lewis Merenstein
















I'm hearing word that Lewis Merenstein has died. Merenstein was the producer of Van Morrison's holy Astral Weeks and the man responsible for bringing Richard Davis (pictured with Merenstein above) and other jazz musicians onto the date. If you've heard the album, you know that the seemingly simple act of assembling the group lies at the heart of its genius.

Here is my detailed 2009 interview with Mr. Merenstein on the making of the album. I only spent a couple hours with him, at a little restaurant on the Upper West Side, but I remember him as an exceedingly warm and gracious man. Four decades after the album's release, he still seemed to stand in awe of what Morrison and the musicians had achieved that day.

Fitting, since, to my knowledge, there is nothing else like this music anywhere:



The producer's art is a humble one, but in some special cases such as this, the handling of logistics, the calling of the shots, as it were, becomes a kind of spellcasting, and something new happens within the music that wouldn't have happened before. An idea — "What would happen if we brought this person into the mix?" — becomes the key that unlocks some untapped potential within the artist. In this case, it happened exactly once. Morrison and Merenstein would go on to make Moondance together, an excellent album that exists on a whole different plane: a pop masterpiece rather than some kind of heavenly avant-folk-jazz soundbath.

It's probably just as well that there isn't another record like this. It's the sound of a convergence, a moment, of various aesthetic currents crossing just that once. Thank you, Lewis Merenstein, for making it happen.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The invisible man: Goodbye, Rudy Van Gelder



















When I heard the news about Rudy Van Gelder, I thought about this track, with its almost surreally present-sounding Roy Haynes drum intro...




...and I started thinking about how when I hear Roy Haynes in my head, or Sam Rivers or Jackie McLean or Tony Williams or Andrew Hill or Richard Davis or Eric Dolphy or Bobby Hutcherson or Don Cherry or Ed Blackwell or John Coltrane or Elvin Jones or so many of my other jazz heroes, what I'm hearing is actually a collaboration between the artist in question and this greatest of jazz recording engineers.

JazzWax: What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?

Rudy Van Gelder:
Some people think I'm a producer. I'm not. I'm a recording engineer. I don't hire the musicians nor do I come up with concepts for albums or how well musicians are playing. I'm there to capture the music at the time it's being created. This requires me to concentrate on the technical aspects of the recordings, which means the equipment and how the finished product is going to sound.
No dispute there, but didn't there also have to be some spiritual dimension to his art, some reason why so much magic happened there in that room in Englewood Cliffs? I think of those gorgeous Francis Wolff Blue Note photos, so many of them taken at Van Gelder's — the visual equivalent of the RVG sound: unadorned yet full. Clear, wholesome, true.

If you learn about the discographical history of jazz through RVG recordings, which, to me, seems like just about the best way to do it, you come to expect a certain integrity and rightness in your jazz records, a circumstance in which the temporal and spatial veil between you and the artist(s) is all but invisible. So many jazz records of the '70s and '80s sound so strange, so bad, so awkward, warped, hollow. So much so that for years, I dismissed those years aesthetically as well. Now, without really thinking about it, I tend to listen past a record's sonic quality whenever I feel like I have to. But you never have to do that with an RVG record. The word "timeless" is suspect, but I think it's basically an indisputable fact that the majority of the recordings Rudy Van Gelder made for, say, Blue Note and Impulse in the '60s — which only comprise a small sliver of his discography, in the end — sound pure and true and, somehow (spatially, spiritually) correct.

We all know that every recording is an act of interpretation. Cue Werner Herzog:

"...for me the boundary between fiction and 'documentary' simply does not exist, they are all just films. Both take 'facts,' characters, stories and play with them in the same kind of way."
I'm all for that idea. But I think there is a certain way of documenting sound which conveys, second-to-second, the engineer's deep drive to relay that sound's true voice, not simply "how it really sounded," but how it ideally would sound were your hearing perfectly acute, your engagement perfectly complete, your environment perfectly calibrated, your filter perfectly clean. This is an elusive and problematic idea, but it really boils down to the oft-repeated adage that "art is the concealment of art."

So Rudy Van Gelder is, in a sense, in between us and some great percentage of the jazz we hold in our heads and hearts. He's there, but he's invisible. Invisible, that is, until we hear recorded music that he did not take part in documenting (a fact that can often seem like an aesthetic tragedy). Then we know how much this invisible man really did for us, and for the artists, and for the art form. Without question, he lives on and on, further than any of us can see or know.

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*Peter Keepnews' NYT obituary.

*Ben Sidran's interview. This is just awesome.

RVG:

"I'm on the wrong side of this microphone. This is very strange for me. I just feel very uncomfortable. I'd rather be on the opposite side..."

Also love this:

"If you wanted to think of a way to inhibit creativity in jazz music in the studio, I would come up with a multi-track machine.... It's a machine of mass destruction."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Pulling their weight: Why Couch Slut is heavier than metal

Couch Slut at Aviv, 8/19/16



















As a fan of metal and related styles, you become pretty accustomed to music that ostensibly deals with pain, suffering, even violence but that doesn't sound particularly painful. Cannibal Corpse, for example, a band I love, actually evokes an idea of extreme achievement, of musical drive and athleticism, much more than a sense of horror and trauma. It's funny, given that they've built an entire career out of portraying actual murder, that their music takes no real human toll. It doesn't hurt to listen to it; personally, it makes me want to get up and run around and live.

I'm working through this concept because I'm trying to find a way to describe the sensation of seeing Couch Slut live. I'm far from an expert on what's going on musically day-to-day in NYC at this moment, but I would have no problem labeling them as the best band in the city right now. It's a title I would have formerly bestowed on the mighty Vaz, before they left town. These two bands share very little in common, but the area in which they do overlap is crucial: When I watch either band play, I feel, underneath a sense of exhilaration at the aggression, the command, the extremity, a sense of unease, of alarm, of "How far exactly are they going to take this?"

Couch Slut's music can take the form of frenzied, rhythmically jagged hardcore, or of leaden, thudding noise-rock, with hints of punkish black metal and swaggering riff rock poking through, but their strength as a band is not about style; it's about sensation. Whatever tempo they're playing at, their music gives me a Sisyphean feeling, a sense of grinding, methodical labor — a sense of relentless effort without payoff. A sense of "This is going to hurt us as much as it hurts you." A sense of the assumption of a great burden. A sense of extreme resignation coupled with extreme determination. Of music that asks a lot, that takes a real emotional toll rather than just alluding to that concept.

Couch Slut, in their current lineup, are operating in a very classic "three machines and a wild card' configuration. I'm talking about Led Zeppelin, the Jesus Lizard, etc., where you have an absolutely deadly, precision-engineered guitar-bass-drums band set against the presence of a singer whose job it is — and obviously the Lizard are the more apt comparison here — to essentially unravel, to flail, to purge.

Try "Little Girl Things" here (it's the first track, so you'll have to click backward) to get a sense of what I mean:



Music that is both ever-advancing and never-progressing, tension that is ever-heightening. And on the flip side, vocals that are ever-exorcising but never getting to the relief at the end of catharsis, pitched at the harrowing intersection of a scream and a sob. I don't pretend to know exactly what Megan Osztrosits is giving voice to via her performance of this music, but the song titles alone — which, on My Life as a Woman, the band's sole release so far, include "Lust Chamber," "Rape Kit" and Split Urethra Castle" — go a long way toward situating the listener in a place of degradation, despair and sexual trauma. As with the music, there is a quality of alarm inherent in paying witness to her performances. I'm a drummer more than a vocalist, but I've done my share of cathartic screaming, and the sense I have is that you don't tap into anguish as profound as that which Osztrosits summons without revisiting some kind of private hell.

As at last night's outstanding show at Aviv, an intimate, great-sounding venue on the Greenpoint/Bushwick border, Osztrosits tends to spend most of Couch Slut's live sets standing on the floor in front of the stage, getting right down into the mix, breaking the fourth wall in a purposeful way. Each line she howls is another mini mission of despair, sometimes accompanied by a hoisted, spewing beer can. She slams the microphone into her face or legs. She leans into each sentiment with the force of involuntary convulsion.

Meanwhile, the musicians behind her — I know their names, but they seem to favor quasi-anonymity online, so I'll respect that — operate with grim determination. The cliché of "It's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it" seems to apply here. A sense of repetitive, churning labor, yes, but coupled with — and this element seems to have increased in prominence in the year or so, and this makes the Lizard and Zeppelin comparisons seem even more apt to me — a quality of true old-school rawk nastiness. If you took AC/DC and re-deployed their supple groove and hip-shaking swing in the service of harrowing pain rather than easy pleasure, you might have something like Couch Slut. Their music moves with a rare kind of looseness, even as it's advancing toward you like a tank — or, maybe, considering the aura of sordid, noxious nastiness that envelops this band and its listener, like projectile vomit in slo-mo.

The takeaway here — for me, at least — is that "metal," or what have you, is no guarantee of anything, in terms of actual affect. What I seem to be looking for these days — and have been looking for ever since I can remember, really — is music that antes up emotionally, Crowbar being an almost comically extreme example. Couch Slut doesn't just co-opt or shallowly depict pain, they convey it. And I mean that in the sense of "to express," but also of "to carry." A great burden (aesthetic, emotional, physical) is being shouldered, by all four members, when this band takes the stage. And if you value so-called extreme music, of whatever flavor, you owe it to yourself to be there next time to pay witness – as it were, to pull your weight.

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*Here's a fairly recent live video. (Disclaimer: As with all truly great bands, any recording or representation of Couch Slut is almost an insult to their overwhelming power as an in-the-flesh performing entity.)



*Bbigpigg — proudly carrying on the legacy of the late, lamented Drayton Sawyer Gang, two of whose former members play in this band — and Multicult — whose sound resembles a tightened, sped-up Shellac with all conceivable musical excess trimmed out — also played last night. Both were pulverizing and great.