Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"His work was play": Celebrating Ornette, then, now, always

I wrote about it at the time, the poignancy of this image of Ornette Coleman sitting onstage at his own tribute show — the epic Denardo-directed Prospect Park hang of June 12, 2014 — simply listening as all these wondrous sounds took shape around him. Thanks to the new Celebrate Ornette box set, which documents, audiovisually, the entirety of both that gig and his memorial service at Riverside Church the following June, we can relive the night, really get back inside it and see not only what it meant then but what it means now.

One thing that going back to the Prospect Park show confirms is that it was a pretty loose night overall, an Ornette-themed jam session, really, with some beautiful moments of communion but also a charming by-the-seat-of-its-pants quality. As Rolling Stone's David Fricke pointed out in his review of the new box set, as rich as it is, and despite Ornette's own presence on a few of the pieces, this is not so much a definitive summation of Ornette's legacy but more, as the title suggests, a celebratory coda to an extraordinary life, an invitation to witness the beginnings of a post-Ornette, but still Ornette-suffused, musical and creative reality.

Back to the image of the seated Ornette, and how we get to that point in the proceedings. The Prospect Park event begins with a remarkable Sonny Rollins benediction (I don't think I'll ever forget his Ornette paraphrase of "It's all good!" as long as I live), followed by a teary-eyed blessing from the honoree himself, spreading as he always did a message of unity and kindness that feels, now, in this bleak, chaotic 2017, like a dispatch from some sort of long-bygone utopia. Ornette exits the stage for the first piece or two, leaving players like Henry Threadgill and Flea to jam with the effervescent house band, Denardo Vibe (such a pleasure, throughout the show, to just kind of swim in their odd flow, sprightly yet turbulent), then makes a surprise cameo at his own party, blowing lines of sublime fragility, paper-thin but dripping with that swooping, blues-saturated feeling we knew then and always will know as Ornette-ness. (In in a subtly brilliant bit of producer's sleight-of-hand, Denardo places the pieces where Ornette himself played first in the running order on the CD and LP documents in Celebrate Ornette, even though they actually came a bit later as we see on the DVD, so that the first sound we hear on the audio-only versions is Ornette's horn.)

In some ways those first few minutes of "Ramblin'," more or less a Coleman a cappella moment, with some slight accompaniment from guitarist Charlie Ellerbee (a Prime Time member and longtime Ornette loyalist, who tells a beautiful story on the DVD about Ornette sitting his band members down, asking each of them where in the world they would most like to play, and then fulfilling those travel dreams one by one), are the most precious, like fragments of garments worn by a saint. These versions of "Ramblin'" and "OC Turnaround" are the last of Ornette's sound that we have, really, and what his playing here lacks in his old command and swagger, it more than makes up for in feeling. The band comes in behind him on "OC Turnaround"; tapdancer Savion Glover is sitting in. There's not much of an arrangement to speak of — the proceedings are loose. Coleman and tenor players David Murray and Antoine Roney blow simultaneously; the band sings the classic Ellington-esque theme. There's such a happy casual-ness to it all. "Ornette is here, and he wants to play, and we've got these tunes, and all these amazing guests, and we're just going to go for it." Sometimes these tribute events get stiff, overly manicured, but what this concert was, in some of its best moments, was simply a hang, a last chance for Ornette to just exist within this vibrant community, this unique musical and social circumstance — an environment where Geri Allen and Thurston Moore, Patti Smith and James Blood Ulmer, and Jack DeJohnette and John Zorn and Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane and so many others could all come together — that his music and presence nurtured for almost six decades.

So after two pieces on which he performs, he remains onstage, seated, listening. (I remember seeing him mouth "I want to stay" to an assistant who had come to lead him offstage, a phrase that I borrowed for my write-up.) The horn rests across his lap. At times he smiles at a musical event — he's clearly delighted by the presence of Wallace Roney Jr., for example, seen in the photo above — but often he's just sitting there, his hands clasped. We can't know what he was thinking, but I like to think it was something like what the audience (at least the one member I can speak for), the musicians and everyone there was thinking that night: Isn't this something. "This" being a joyous occasion for pilgrimage, with so many diverse expressions of whatever this or that artist felt they wanted to bring, from Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's intense, exacting guitar duet to the no-frills jamming of Denardo Vibe and ace soloists like Threadgill and Lovano, to the sort of Lou Reed feedback seance of Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Bill Laswell and Stewart Hurwood, to the big "Song X" jam with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, James Blood Ulmer and others.

There's one powerful moment when Patti Smith, during a break from her powerful recitation piece "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)," in which she also plays clarinet, asks Ornette to join in with her. Coleman, still seated there onstage, as dusk has given way to night, one of those magical summer nights in Prospect Park that are so emblematic of the Brooklyn Experience, and here we have two legends on the stage, and one is inviting the other to jam, essentially. And Coleman, clearly done playing for the night, for whatever reason, graciously declines. And there's something about that moment that scans for me as a passing of the torch, as a "this is all going to go on without me" or an "I'm here with you even when I'm not here," a foreshadowing of a time, not so far in the future, when his fans, admirers, collaborators, family, everyone whom his music and humanity touched, would continue on without him literally beside them but always with this sort of ever-proliferating Ornette spirit (that fragile ghost of an OC sound that we hear on "Ramblin'") hanging in the air. I know that his sound, and not just that of his own saxophone, but of the happily shaggy funk that, say, Denardo Vibe lays down, as well as the coiled-spring mirth/mania evident in his best small groups from throughout the years, will persist in our minds. Like with the output of any true icon, you never forget the sensation of Ornette's work, and that night in Prospect Park, even after he fell silent, the feeling and spirit of the Ornette-o-verse was still dancing in all our heads, a state of bliss we can now happily relive.

The film of the Ornette memorial, a lengthy document that I'm still digesting, is another welcome gift of Celebrate Ornette, with copious speeches that are as enlightening as the brief musical episodes by fellow travelers such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor — both just getting up and being themselves in the most no-nonsense of ways, Sanders with a solo tenor piece, Taylor with a bewitching few minutes of poetry and piano, paying no kind of explicit tribute in terms of repertoire but expressing a kind of tough solidarity with the late master. I loved hearing New York Amsterdam News writer Herb Boyd recall seeing Ornette's gamechanging early quartet in Detroit in 1960 as part of a meager crowd — after the show, he spoke to Ornette and lamented the turnout, and Coleman simply told him, "It's about quality, not quantity."

In a beautiful speech about all his years covering and conversing with Ornette — I again direct you to the essential Miles Ornette Cecil — Howard Mandel captures the sense of inspiration felt by so many of us whose lives have been touched by Ornette. Wonder in his presence and art, and a feeling that whatever it is that we do, we know more about how to do it well, and humanely, and in a deep lifelong way, because of Ornette's example. Near the end of his speech, Howard says of Ornette, offhandedly, that "his work was play," a simple phrase that sums it all up.

What that night in Prospect Park was, was a night of pure play, inclusive and infectious — like so much of Ornette's greatest work, fun but not frivolous. I like to think that, seated there onstage after he was done actually playing the horn, Ornette was perhaps meditating on this concept, how fun and full of wonder a creative life can be, how it can turn a stage filled with some of the world's greatest musicians from, essentially, a workplace into a playground. And how anyone who takes that principle to heart — call it harmolodics, or what you will — can carry it with them always, not just through art but through life, thus celebrating the great Ornette Coleman long into the future.


*Learn more about the Celebrate Ornette box here and read Denardo's essential essay.

*Read Seth Colter Walls' excellent Pitchfork review of the box, which has much to say, in particular, re: the preciousness and fragility of these final moments of Ornette-on-alto that we have to savor.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Join us

Wednesday, February 15, 2017
@ Saint Vitus

/Blind Idiot God

8pm, $12

Hell of a bill here. I've sung the praises of BIG and Husbandry (they show up near the end of this long-ish best-of-2016 list) before. Second STATS show with Nick Podgurski on full-time lead vox  — couldn't be happier with that arrangement. Join us?

FYI, the show will run early and on time: Husbandry will start by 8:30 sharp, and we'll be on shortly after 9.

FB event page
STATS on Bandcamp

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Prog's pop soul: Goodbye, John Wetton

King Crimson often seemed to want to be faceless: a forbidding, shadowy, even superhuman factory of what would later be termed sheer Discipline. But almost despite the group's inscrutable facade, John Wetton, during his justly legendary early-'70s tenure with the band, gave them not only a voice, but a soul. Even when singing words that weren't his:

The swagger of "Easy Money," the reverie of "Starless," the abandon of "One More Red Nightmare" — his husky crooning, refined in that English way but still brimming with palpable pathos, added warm feeling to match the band's sharp angles, their thunder and noise and muscle.

Not surprising that later, he was the one who helped transmute prog into pop. I'm always happy to rock out to Asia, but for me, who loves songs as much as musical math, the short-lived U.K. was some kind of holy happy medium.

As a bass player too — and, yes, improviser on par with the more widely celebrated Bill Bruford — he was filthy and ruthless.

His bands' names will likely always outshine his own, but they should never be mentioned henceforth without a moment of silence for this great and inimitable talent.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Man of (more than) words: Thank you, Nat Hentoff

"'Man of Words' is, I'm told by Booker [Little], dedicated to this writer. Whether the dedication is pejorative or not, the piece may indicate. Actually, it is Booker's description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop, and after rereading what he's already done, he's spurred — sometimes — to go forward. Eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer know he's solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music, such as Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, this work to my knowledge is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker's performance is an impressive display of sustained invention — and sustained clarity of line and feelings." —Nat Hentoff, from the liner notes to Booker Little's Out Front
I'm not a Nat Hentoff expert. Outside of his extensive liner-notes catalog, which any jazz fan knows well, I can't say I'm that familiar with his body of work. But I have to put down a quick note of gratitude for the series of recordings he produced in the early '60s for the Candid label — and more specifically for Out Front, which is simply my favorite jazz album of all time. It's very possible that this masterpiece would not have existed without Hentoff.  Also from the liner notes:

"I had been impressed by Little's playing, first on records and then in a series of night club appearances with Max Roach, because of his strong-lined lyricism and highly individual, thoughtful conception. His originals and arrangements for Roach were also uniquely free of ornamentation and were directly emotional. Finally, I asked Booker to write and organize an album of his own with complete choice of side men. The result is the fullest realization so far on records of Booker's scope as a writer and a player."
And, as Little would die only six months after sessions for this album concluded, at the shockingly young age of 23, Out Front would stand for all time as that fullest realization of what he was capable of. (Booker Little and Friend, a.k.a. Victory and Sorrow, the one post–Out Front studio LP Little made under his own name, is a strong record but not, to my ears, the immortal classic that Out Front is.)

To me, it says a lot that Little would dedicate a piece to Hentoff. Let alone a piece of such profound emotional depth. "Man of Words" is, simply, a complete and utter killer, a dirge-paced shot of pure pathos. (Any experienced writer will know well that feeling of facing, as Hentoff puts it, "an appallingly blank page," and though I can't say that a writer's private anguish is the first thing I think of when I hear the piece, I find it pretty damn fascinating that Little felt so moved as to musically illustrate that sensation!)

Phil Schaap once told me that Little learned he had terminal illness between the two sessions that produced Out Front (on March 17 and April 4, respectively, of '61). "Man of Words" was, perhaps unsurprisingly, recorded at the latter of the two. Is that terrifying moment at 3:45, where the band rests and Little fills the resulting abyss with two searing yelps — absolutely one of the handful of most intense musical events I've ever beheld on a record — really an embodiment of what the trumpeter perceived to be the writer's fear and uncertainty? Or is it a cry for help in the face of his own impending mortality? A little of both? Either way, I mean, Jesus... you don't hear that kind of crushingly naked emotion captured on tape that often.

(N.B. Little's own words from Hentoff's liners: "My own feelings about the direction in which jazz should be are that there should be much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all you want." A-fucking-men, sir.)

The rest of the album is, of course, a masterpiece. "Moods in Free Time" is staggering and, in my mind, basically unparalleled as an example of episodic small-group composition and arrangement. Another mega-dirge section in this piece inspiring a volcanic Eric Dolphy eruption, one of his most violent on record. And Roach's monumentally badass drum break leading back into the head. Just a phenomenally assured and personal sound oozing out of every pore of this recording. I thank Hentoff from the bottom of my heart for clearing a path by which this creative act could occur and be documented for all time.

And of course the rest: Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger's New York City R and B, Jaki Byard's Blues for Smoke, the fascinating Newport Rebels comp. Nat Hentoff was right there in the mix at this crucial jazz moment. I'm not trying to elevate his role above that of the musicians; I'm just saying that his behind-the-scenes role was pivotal. He clearly believed in what was going down in jazz, specifically in the mecca of NYC, at that time, and he wasn't going to let potential masterworks slip through the cracks. (I doubt very much that many others were lining up to arrange carte blanche record dates for, say, Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy in 19-freakin'-60.)

So, yes, critic, columnist, commentator, "man of words," call Nat Hentoff what you will. But it's clear that he was a guy who made serious real-world moves on behalf of the art that he so dearly loved. And for that, we all owe him big time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Best of 2016

So many records! So many lists...

This year, I have voted (or will vote) in at least three different year-end polls, Rolling Stone's metal survey; Francis Davis' esteemed annual Jazz Critics Poll; and the Village Voice's annual everything-in-play poll, which is apparently no longer called Pazz and Jop. I may share each of those lists (my jazz ballot is here), but honestly they seem to matter less to me than a more intuitive survey, an honest recap of what new music has entered my bloodstream, so to speak, which is a very different thing than me, either at the time I cast my ballot or at some earlier date, deeming a certain record worth of mention in some "official" regard.

Just as an example: I really enjoyed Beyoncé's Lemonade, both the film and the music. It's clearly a consensus album-of-the-year favorite, as it damn well should be. It's an intensely provocative, passionate, just all-around striking statement from pop's most dominant star. But aside from the incredible "Don't Hurt Yourself" — I'm still thinking about that ferocious VMAs performance — this is not a record that I've spent a lot of recurring personal time with since its release. That's no knock on the record; it's just the truth. There's a difference, in other words, between an album being "in the air" and in heavy rotation on my iPod.

In these list situations, you can call out the in-the-air picks, either because that's honestly what you spent all year listening to or because you feel obligated to aim at some kind of (false) universality. Yes, a record may have owned "the" year, but did it own yours? These kinds of lists too often read like mere checklists of Albums That People Were Talking About. If we're going to do this at all, we might as well get honest and idiosyncratic.

Some of the pertinent questions for me are: What new music did you listen to when you had the luxury of free choice? What did you go back to, sometimes again and again? Will those albums mean anything to you in a year, or five, or 10? That last part is, I believe, truly impossible to reckon with — there are really only like five new records from the past 10 years or so that have entered my personal canon in that way, Propagandhi's Supporting Caste probably being at the top of that list — but the other questions are fairly easily answered, maybe with the help of some notes.

Here are 15 new releases that have mattered a lot to me this year, in the ways outlined above, with a bunch more "bonus track" picks afterward. There's no ranking here: I picked the records I wanted to focus on and then, over a few days, wrote the below entries in an intuitive order, blurbing each as I felt like it.

40 Watt Sun, Wider Than the Sky (Radiance)
Singer-songwriter and 40 Watt Sun leader Patrick Walker started out playing doom metal and has slowly shed the trappings of genre like a wandering hermit gradually phasing out of society at large. His music stands alone and stands firm at this point, a kind of epic, transportive dirge-rock, methodical, entirely resistant to anything less than a complete kind of engagement. I feel a deep and almost dangerous sense of surrender when I really let this music in, so strong is its emotional pull, so raw and true is the feeling at its center, so ancient-seeming and wisdom-filled is Walker's gift for writing and singing melody. No other music I heard this year came anywhere close to this record in terms of this kind of gravity, potency, just realness. The most direct way I can put it is that Wider Than the Sky is unspeakably beautiful, a true gift. At this point, I basically can't put it on and not feel instantly transported and awed. Take 16 minutes and listen to "Stages," or more accurately, let it happen to you, and then take the time to savor each of the other songs on its own. They're each almost too much to reckon with any other way.

Deftones, Gore (Reprise)
A totally different sound, but I would place this album on a similar plane as the 40 Watt Sun. I'm awed by how completely this band commits to a mood on Gore and sustains it throughout the course of the album. Deftones, a band that came of age in the '90s, are working with fairly simple, time-tested, quintessentially of-that-era concepts here — the juxtaposition of swimming, swooning atmosphere and torrential crunch-rock climax, explored by everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Slint. That said, I completely buy both this album's sense of dreamy entreaty and and its fearsome payoffs; it all feels true to me. Like Wider Than the Sky, Gore is a joy to surrender to, to swim in, in large part because the great majority of these songs boast gorgeous, instantly indelible Chino Moreno vocal hooks. I should note that I'm not a Deftones lifer — for whatever reason, I wasn't paying attention in the '90s, when this band was really on the ascent — and it almost makes me respect them even more that I could step into albums like Gore and its predecessor, 2012's Koi No Yokan, with little prior knowledge and be completely blown away. How many other bands are still operating at this level of conviction and excellence more than 20 years after their debut album?

If this does not move you, we have very different tastes:

Meshuggah, The Violent Sleep of Reason (Nuclear Blast)

Another legacy band that I only came around to fairly recently. It's hard for me to tell whether this album was really that much better than the Meshuggah albums that came before it, or if I'm just indulging in latecomer's bias, but having worked my way through their full discography just a couple months back, I truly believe that Meshuggah hasn't released a better — i.e., more ferocious, overwhelming, sheerly gigantic — album than Violent Sleep. A definitive album from a justly legendary band. Further thoughts here and on the RS metal list.

Crying, Beyond the Fleeting Gales (Run for Cover)
No 2016 album surprised or delighted me more than this. Like Gore, Beyond thrives on juxtaposition — between the delicate and the bombastic — but instead of Gore's shimmering dreamstate, this album achieves a kind of manic, candy-colored immediacy. Some sort of wild fusion of indie-pop delicacy and Big '80s Rock flash. A sound that can at first seem borderline absurd but makes more and more harmonious sense the more time you spend with the album. Elaiza Santos' gorgeously precise vocal melodies and disarmingly plainspoken lyrics bring what could be a relentlessly loopy album down to earth, adding a crucial sincerity to the band's weird stylistic mash-up. This is an absolutely insane, ecstatic, wonderful album that I've had on repeat for weeks and weeks. Absolutely, without question the best "new band discovery" I've made this year.

Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D+Evolution (Concord)
I see an affinity between this and the Crying LP just in the sense of aesthetic precision: both that band and Esperanza Spalding are aiming at something very specific, idiosyncratic and ambitious. Every time I put this on, I'm shocked by how many ideas are just spilling out of this thing. I paid less attention that I should've to Spalding's prior records, but this one just grabbed me right away. The extremely ballsy "Good Lava," easily one of the year's most audacious tracks, comes off as a fusion of Fishbone and Shudder to Think (in other words, it's basically heaven-sent to my ears). And then that sort of prog-alt-rock madness mingling with '70s-Joni prog-jazz-folk on tracks like "Earth to Heaven." (If it's not abundantly clear, I'm determined to make "prog" mean something again, way beyond genre — what I really mean is music that strives, reaches, and isn't afraid to show it.) Heartbursting hooks spilling out on "One," delivered with shocking vocal poise and command. You (or at least I!) simply do not hear this kind of virtuosity and vision in any kind of contemporary pop very often. There's a huge difference between the sort of "promising talent" that Spalding was portrayed as in the media just a few years ago and the awe-inspiring aesthetic dynamo she has grown into. This is an album that challenges you to forget genre entirely and just listen. What you're rewarded with is something shockingly advanced, absolutely singular and profoundly engaging.

The Hotelier, Goodness (Tiny Engines)

This album is a new obsession for me; I barely feel like I've scratched its surface. But I feel comfortable calling Goodness a major achievement on the order of the Spalding, a triumph of young musical vision in its boundless prime. People call it emo, or punk, or what have you. All those things make sense but I'm no taxonomist. What I hear here is extremely thoughtful, deeply felt rock music, made by a band that's clearly invested in putting it all in there: emotions, intellect, words, sensations. A deep kind of personal truth. I can see why these "emo" bands (another one that comes to mind is La Dispute, an incredible band, also currently in its aesthetic prime, with a somewhat similar stylistic approach) inspire such fierce devotion in their fans. They're working incredibly hard to capture ideas and feelings, crafting these sort of album-length audio movies, complete with spoken-word passages, acoustic interludes, an overwhelming sense of elegiac beauty and almost scarily liberated catharsis. I'd guess I'd call it something like sophisto-punk, what I hear on Goodness, an illustration of how a DIY aesthetic can grow up to a kind of glorious young-adulthood, retaining its wonder and its desperation but marrying those elements to unflashy virtuosity, dynamic command and real literary clout. (See: the astonishing "Soft Animal" with its unforgettable shouted refrain, pitched between triumph and desperation: "Make me feel alive/Make me believe that I don't have to die.") Honestly, what this record, again after limited exposure, really reminds me of is Bruce Springsteen, at the peak of his visionary-American-rock phase (Darkness on the Edge of Town, say). The Hotelier is after something vast and magical and their abilities seem absolutely up to the task. As someone with a bone-deep connection tp this kind of emo/indie-rock/what-have-you (shout-out to Boys Life, Giants Chair and other '90s KC legends), I feel with a pretty fierce certainty that there's genius all over this album.

Asphyx, Incoming Death (Century Media)
There's a lot above about artists with major scope of vision, and the flipside of that is this kind of arresting myopia. Asphyx want exactly one thing, to blow you out of the water, and even after the departure of their drummer/co-founder, the esteemed Bob Bagchus, they're still managing to further that mission. I put this record on and feel nothing but white-hot conviction and mastery. The voice of Martin Van Drunen is not the expression of something so small and puny as "death metal"; it's the sound of a true life's purpose, amplified and and projected and vomited forth. Metal, like any other style, can basically be about anything (shout-out to Gorguts' outstanding, proudly enlightened Pleiades' Dust), but for Asphyx, it's about colossal girth, steamrolling momentum, overwhelming disgust. Real destroyer-of-worlds shit — whether that's in the form of a tidal-wave-in-slo-mo dirge like "The Grand Denial" or a rotten-rawk rager like "It Came From the Skies" — and no one does this better than they do. Every album is better than the last, ergo Incoming Death is my favorite Asphyx album right now.

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM)

Lots of talk about lifers above, and the now 75-year-old WLS of course qualifies. He shows off new facets of his genius on this record, a fact that's sort of staggering given how much music he's been releasing during the past decade or so. A Cosmic Rhythm is about hush and communion and coexistence — in the macro sense, the record is essentially an album-length ballad — with Iyer (mostly) playing the role of master texturalist, laying out these sorts of sparkling sonic environments for Smith to explore. Smith's breath and vulnerability and imperfection contrast movingly with Iyer's subtle, carefully wrought creations. To me, the most fascinating moments here are when Iyer either augments the acoustic piano with electronics — as on "All Becomes Alive," where he layers lyrical keyboard work over a dubbed-out bass throb — or switches over altogether — as on "Notes on Water," where he achieves a wonderfully murky, pealing sound on Rhodes. A Cosmic Rhythm is not an album you (or at least I) dip into casually, but when I've put it on and really had the time to submerge in it, I've been totally fascinated and enthralled. Long live the WLS renaissance. (Awesome to see this duo live on Monday at Harlem Stage, by the way; I loved how they reprised motifs from the album but took many of these pieces somewhere entirely new. The Iyer/Smith duo, spun off from  their outstanding work together in Smith's Golden Quartet, now feels to me like a true and proper band.)

Billy Mintz, Ugly Beautiful (Thirteenth Note)

It's hard for me not to get a little ax-grind-y when I talk about Billy Mintz, once of my favorite living drummers and bandleaders and a good candidate for the title of most underrated jazz musician on the planet. Ugly Beautiful should be a critically adored Jazz Event Album, on the order of Iyer/WLS above; instead, it's practically invisible. At this moment, I can't turn up a single Google result for it, which is actually pretty depressing. As with most Thirteenth Note discs, no press push on this one, just a quiet roll-out. I ordered it after spotting it buried deep in a Downtown Music Gallery newsletter a couple months back. (If you're interested, and you should be, I'd suggest e-mailing or calling DMG, or dropping a line to Thirteenth Note, whose website hasn't been updated in a while.)

Simply put, Ugly Beautiful is an opus — more than two hours of music, spread across two discs. And it takes about that long to show off every worthy facet of Mintz's extremely broad, subtle and idiosyncratic talent. I wrote a while back about Mintz's "jazz infinity," as expressed on this disc's 2013 predecessor, simply called Mintz Quartet, the way he unfussily embraces the full spectrum of the so often pointlessly factionalized genre. Ugly Beautiful, featuring the incredible cast of John Gross and Tony Malaby on saxes, Roberta Piket (Mintz's wife and frequent collaborator) on piano and various keyboards, and Hilliard Greene on bass, is an even more potent illustration of this principle. There is just so much going on here: smeary, free-time, Paul Motian–y dirge ("Angels"), raging/rollicking inside/outside postbop ("Dit," "Relent"), stunningly precise yet beautifully laid-back neo-Tristano-ism ("Flight"), arrestingly somber ballad miniatures ("Vietnam," "Dirge"), borderline psychedelic groove pieces driven by Piket's expressive keys ("Umba," "Tumba"). And all powered by Mintz's phenomenally deep, drum sound. This man, who will turn 70 next year, has a groove that rumbles up from the earth, the way Elvin Jones' did; that bends time, the way Motian's did. I just get such an earthy, elemental feeling of authority from the way he interacts with the instrument and drives a band. And the fact that he wrote all this music (some pieces are reprised from earlier releases) makes this whole package even more stunning. I would like nothing more than to be able to embed a track here, but that's not possible, so I will just say: seek this out. And for God's sake, get hip to Billy Mintz; this great Shaun Brady Jazz Times profile from 2015 is a great place to start.

[Note: I've heard from Robert Piket that Ugly Beautiful only got a soft release this year via Downtown Music Gallery — stay tuned for a proper roll-out in 2017!]

Darkthrone, Arctic Thunder (Peaceville)
Speaking of earthy, elemental authority. I have not rocked out harder to any album this year. I love super-technical, nerd-out metal, but on the flip side, as ought to be clear from my short-listing of the Asphyx record, I also adore the raw, turn-off-your-brain-and-let-loose shit. I spent a good deal of time a few months back immersed in the Celtic Frost discography, and Arctic Thunder was a great follow-up to that phase. Lifers' mastery combined with a deeply ingrained don't-give-a-fuck-ness. This record is just so nasty and single-minded and, on the sly, intelligent in its composition. You don't just land by accident on this many profoundly awesome riffs. More on this one at RS.

Metallica, Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct (Blackened)

If I have an Album of the Year, it's probably this one. As predicted here, whatever reservations I may have had about this one at the outset have basically melted away — I've found something to love about every track here, even "Murder One" and "Am I Savage?," both of which sounded like duds at first but now work just fine for me in context. There's just so much great writing and convincing execution here. I don't think there's another album listed above where I could sing a part from every track on command, and for a song-focused listener such as myself, that's a very attractive feature. For all their niche "thrash" affiliation, Metallica's chief objective is the composition and delivery of Sturdy, Memorable Mainstream Rock Music. In this pursuit, they have succeeded handsomely on Hardwired. This album is not going to change the world the way the Black Album did, but if my reaction is any indication, this album has warmed the heart of a many a longtime fan — no small achievement for a band of Metallica's stature. I mean, goddamn, these songs! "Atlas, Rise!," "Moth Into Flame," "Confusion," "Here Comes Revenge" and, sweet Jesus, the utterly phenomenal "Spit Out the Bone," which I'd rank with their true classics. This album just fucking rules.

[Warning: The music video below is, sadly, horrendous. I recommend ignoring all visual content and focusing solely on the song.]

The Snails, Songs From the Shoebox (self-released)
The costumed, unassuming alter ego of the mighty Future Islands (who made my fave album of 2014) — sort of: the bands share two members, singer Samuel T. Herring and bassist William Cashion, both of whom perform under aliases here. But Herring's voice and conviction are unmistakable, even on a song called, accurately, "Barnacle on a Surfboard (Barnacle Boogie)." This is ostensibly a party album, driven by boogie-friendly lead-sax lines and taut, dance-punky rhythms. But as the album progresses, the songs just keep getting better: the hooks sharper, the emotional content more urgent. "Streets Walkin'" gives me more of classic-Fugazi feeling than anything I've heard since that band broke up, and soon after comes the driving, ecstatic twofer of "Tea Leaves" and "Flames," songs that, taken together, illustrate why Herring is one of the great frontmen on earth right now. (The chorus of the latter is utterly feral and insane.) And then the band winds things down with another sweet party jam in "Snails Christmas (I Want a New Shell)." A deceptively casual album with surprising punch, affect and staying power. (See also: Rolling Stone review.)

Sheer Mag, III and Compilation (Wilsuns)
Oh, what to do with you, Sheer Mag? They keep putting out these perfect four-song EPs that hit me harder than any full-length in sight. Their 2015 release, II, contained my favorite music of that year, and the same is true of III. I don't even want to think about how intense my obsession will become once they finally put out a proper LP (supposedly next year). Several times this year, sometimes in an attempt to get friends to accompany me to the two incredible Sheer Mag shows I saw in 2016, I've called them the best band in America. They make what is, for me, perfect rock/pop/soul music without an ounce of filler. Their songs are shrines to the enduring power of crunching, soaring, fiercely harnessed guitar, yearning vocals, cruising beats and a sort of elusive quality of toughness, authenticity, pathos. I weep thinking about the riffs in "Can't Stop Fighting," "Worth the Tears" and ... deep breath ... the mind-meltingly great "Nobody's Baby." I am always on the lookout for rock and roll that feels right and true to me, and though I often have to turn back the clock for that (Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath and, lately, .38 Special), with Sheer Mag, I can have it all right here, right now. The EP is four tracks of grooving, snarling perfection that I can't not dance and sing to whenever they come on. This music does what I want all music, really of any kind, to do: (to paraphrase Ween) takes me away to some other land. (For the record, the Compilation LP reissues III, II and those EPs' only slightly less-incredible 2014 counterpart, I, on a single 12-inch — a must-buy for those, like me, who simply cannot stop playing this shit and are tired of flipping the 7-inches on the turntable.)

Bob Mould, Patch the Sky (Merge)
This guy, the 56-year-old master of the defiant three-minute pop-punk-before-it-had-a-name anthem, just won't stop pushing. So much passionate, authentic, driving, furiuosly hooky rock here. The style of Patch the Sky is similar to that of his last two, the equally excellent Silver Age and Beauty and Ruin, but Patch the Sky has a sort of weird, bold production sheen to it, with the vocals sitting oddly in the mix. The overall sonic picture perplexed me a little at first, but my hang-ups disintegrated as I played this thing over and over — and then bought it on vinyl and played it still more. I don't have anything deep to say here: Bob Mould just fucking rocks, OK? Especially with his current trio — feat. Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster — which, let's face it, is probably the best band he's ever been a part of. I'm absolutely a Hüsker Dü fan, but for me, this new stuff is where it's at. This music has a single-minded purpose, a rugged, sturdy excellence, that I find extremely appealing. No real surprises here, just wall-to-wall Mouldian quality, baby.

Jack DeJohnette / Ravi Coltrane / Matthew Garrison, In Movement (ECM)

This trio, with Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, has been playing NYC sporadically for the past few years, and I've been meaning to go check them out. After hearing this, their debut album, I'm kicking myself, because they really and truly slay, and in ways I wouldn't have expected. The opening version of "Alabama" here, which builds gradually from poetic wash to steely churn — dig Garrison's nasty fuzz bass — is one of the only John Coltrane covers I've ever heard that comes close to honoring the gravity of the original. And everything the band plays feels similarly unexpected yet right-on: from the lyrical, almost electronica-like dance of "In Movement" and "Two Jimmys" (which seem like a continuation of the sort of trance-jazz-drift aesthetic heard on '70s DeJohnette albums like New Directions) to the nasty, atmospheric funk of "Serpentine Fire" and the pristine palate cleanser "Soulful Ballad (2)." A veteran drummer in his prime, jamming out on some loose but stimulating and compellingly varied material with two strong-voiced younger players. This is every bit as good as last year's more high-profile Made in Chicago, and I hope this renewed DeJohnette/ECM hot streak continues.


Here are a bunch of others (27 28 29 30 31 32 33 selections plus three archival bonus cuts) that I really dug. On any given day, many of these could've ranked in the upper tier above, or vice versa. Bandcamp links only b/c you know where to look otherwise.

Jason Moran, The Armory Concert (Yes)
A great, wide sweep of virtuosity and invention, with clearly delineated moods and, for all its experimentalism, a showman's versatility and verve. (In light of those qualities, the whole album strikes me as a clear hat-tip to Jaki Byard and, just maybe, to the perennially underrated genius Dave Burrell.) Shockingly accomplished yet warmly approachable.

Mitski, Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)
This record hasn't yet completely stolen my heart the way Bury Me at Makeout Creek did in 2014, but harsh, true, white-hot — in other words, quintessentially Mitskian — songs abound here ("My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars" — wow...). I sense her work will only get better and more fearsome from here...

Gorguts, Pleiades' Dust (Season of Mist)
The Luc Lemay renaissance continues. Another singular work of passion and thinkin'-person's-metal genius from this international treasure. (See also: Rolling Stone metal list.)

Descendents, Hypercaffium Spazzinate (Epitaph)
Not the best Descendents album, but a very good, worthy one, with some songs (classic Bill Stevenson heart-renders like "Without Love" and "Spineless and Scarlet Red") that I just could not shake. (See also: Rolling Stone feature, these awesome live-in-studio versions.)

Ethan Iverson, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross)
The ever-exemplary Iversonian project of showcasing his jazz heroes in new and flattering-but-not-fawning lights continues. (Here, the honoree / guest star is Ron Carter, with the magisterial Nasheet Waits on drums.) A scrappy, engaging, idiosyncratic trio record that's every bit as good as the ones he's made with Albert "Tootie" Heath.

Wakrat, Wakrat (Earache)
A batshit yet surprisingly sturdy first effort from a killer new math/prog/punk band fronted by Rage Against the Machine bass lord Tim Commerford. Some admirably frenetic energy at work here, as well as some honest-to-God killer, hook-filled songwriting. This album was majorly slept-on and deserved way more attention than it got. (See also: RS interview — it was a blast to talk to Tim and to see him play earlier this year with Prophets of Rage.)

Masabumi Kikuchi, Black Orpheus (ECM)
Slo-mo solo sorcery from the late master/enigma. I didn't throw this record on often, but when I gave myself time/space to immerse, I fell in deep.

Warfather, The Grey Eminence (Greyhaze)
Another completely and sadly slept-on record. Familiar style (intricate but accessible Morbid Angel–esque death metal from Steve Tucker, that band's former and current frontman/bassist/songwriter); near-flawless execution.

Joyce Manor, Cody (Epitaph)
I wish I'd loved this whole thing as much as I adore opening track "Fake ID," but there's a plainspoken poetry, and no shortage of hooks, running throughout this brief, scrappy album — the high-school-essay counterpart to the Hotelier's emo master's thesis? — that keeps me coming back. Joyce Manor come off like slackers, but they're pros at this emo/punk/pop shit.

Peter Evans Quintet, Genesis (More Is More)
Just fucking wild and inspired.

Crowbar, The Serpent Only Lies (eOne)
Not necessarily the gold-standard Crowbar record — I have to say: the aggressively Pro Tools–ed drum production on this and their other recent albums really bums me out, esp. in contrast to the raw, enormous sound they achieved on albums like Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form and Lifesblood for the Downtrodden — but the majority of these songs are great (let's hear it for the incredible "Embrace the Light") and very much up to the Kirk Windstein Standard, a statement I don't make lightly. (See also: Rolling Stone feature, DFSBP thoughts.)

Battle Trance, Blade of Love (New Amsterdam)
Seeing this monumental work live is a non-negotiable musical must. This keepsake is the next best thing.

Andrew Cyrille, The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
Delicacy and idiosyncrasy by the pound from another (i.e., like Mintz, DeJohnette) elder drum master, who has found inspiration and refuge on ECM, a label that's really been outdoing itself in recent years. What a weird band Cyrille assembled here — Bill Frisell, Ben Street and the wild card Richard Teitelbaum on piano and electronics— but everyone commits fully and it all works beautifully, yielding a patient, wispy, tactile sound. I'll be going back to this one, for sure. (For the record, I dug the Cyrille / Bill McHenry duo on Sunnyside plenty, but this one lingered longer.)

Husbandry, Fera (Aqualamb)
Bold, progressive, melodic heaviness of a sort you just don't hear a lot of these days. (Shout-out to my youth.) Exceedingly rare blend of virtuoso band and vocal dynamo who can really and truly sing. If bands like Shudder to Think, Into Another and Quicksand get you going, you have to hear this. (PSA: I'm thrilled to report that my band STATS will share a killer bill with Husbandry and the esteemed Blind Idiot God at Saint Vitus on 2/15/17.)

Todrick Hall, Straight Outta Oz (Self-released)
A DIY Lemonade response that, while it didn't aim at the imposing gravity and depth of the original, still told a poignant autobiographical tale via a diverse set of instantly memorable pop songs (with full visual accompaniment to boot). I would love to see this thing onstage. Probably the capital-P Pop album I went back to most this year. (See also: Stephen Daw's great Rolling Stone feature.)

Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies, Yellow Red Blue (Self-released)
Outside-the-box jazz that's tuneful and melodic and accessible — doesn't seem like an outlandish concept, but it's pretty rare these days. A tremendously assured band (their last one was great too) that wears its authority lightly: bright, joyful, handsomely orchestrated chamber-bop that anyone could dig.

Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit, Ana (PNL)
Free jazz meets Brazilian music for a raucous, rollicking avant-blowout. It's awesome to see this improv heavyweight putting forth such a strong, coherent vision as a big-bandleader/composer.

Aluk Todolo, Voix (The Ajna Offensive)
Darkly psychedelic instrumental jam rock. Wild-eyed guitar/bass/drums music that writhes, sprawls, throbs, convulses and hurtles ever-forward. Metal/prog/fusion/whocaresjustlisten.

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Sony)
As much as I dig what I know of Bowie's work, I don't (yet) have a strong personal relationship with his canon, Blackstar included. But Cohen's death hit me hard. You can't hear this and not feel the gravity of the End, and hear the resounding echo of a life really and truly lived to the last.

Virus, Memento Collider (Karisma)
More noir-ish "what in the living fuck..." goth-prog-rock from Czral and his band of Norwegian lunatics. So far out in left field, and yet sounding so relaxed, confident and complete within itself. Step into the black flux.

Bobby Kapp and Matthew Shipp, Cactus (Northern Spy)
A blessed intergenerational jazz meeting. Call it "free" if you must — something like "organic" sounds more right to me. Recording quality/presence are beyond A+; performances are curious and ever-engaged.

Mary Halvorson, Away With You (Firehouse 12)
Vanguard improvising, visionary composition — often strikingly weird but as with the Lovell-Smith above, never willfully obscure — and serious group unity. A hell of a working band captured in peak form.

Defeated Sanity, Disposal of the Dead // Dharmata (Willowtip)
An utterly demented band challenging itself to a friendly game of split-personality disorder. Half resolutely vomitous caveman-death; half hyperactive, dorked-out extreme prog. This album (or these two mini albums) brim with wild-eyed, for-the-love-of-the-craft glee. Can't wait to see what these maniacs do next.

Mannequin Pussy, Romantic (Tiny Engines)
Loud, raw, heart-spilling grunge that often reaches cataclysmically confessional peaks. These high-order punk tantrums are frequently unhinged but never sloppy or haphazard.

Sorcery, Garden of Bones (Xtreem)
Pure serrated-edge riff-barf from old-schoolers who eat this style (1991-y Swedish death metal) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Think of them as Asphyx's keg-party counterpart: equally single-minded, but with more rawk abandon and diabolical mirth. I loooooved their 2013 comeback album, Arrival at Six, and though I haven't spent as much time with Garden of Bones, I can attest to the fact that it's another shaggily hulking bruiser. Why can't every metal album sound this nasty?

The Primitive, The Primitive EP (self-released)
More supremely rawking death metal, and an immensely charming (seems like a silly descriptor for a release of this nature, but go figure — this stuff is basically like no-nonsense blues to me at this point) labor of love from unsung drum hero Jim Roe, best known for his work on early Incantation classics like 1992's utterly disgusting-in-a-good-way (thanks in large part to Roe) Onward to Golgotha. In his current project the Primitive, Roe handles vocals and every instrument, and goddamn, this man is a pro. Alternately lumbering, charging nastiness with a deep, organic feel — extreme metal that maintains its connection to the dark, rich soil of rock and fucking roll. Shades of his Incantation work here, but this stuff has its own vibe. (Note: This is one of two EPs Roe put out this year under the Primitive handle; see also Founded in Hell, as well as Legion of Gore, an impressive two-song EP by veteran Cleveland band Terror that features Roe behind the kit — anything this guy does is worth savoring.)

Incantation, XXV (self-released)
Speaking of Incantation ... No Jim Roe here, but this vinyl-only 25th-anniversary set is nonetheless essential for any fan. This band's early work is undisputed canon, but as discussed here, core members John McEntee and Kyle Severn have surged back in recent years with a series of huge-sounding, gorgeously imposing LPs. This cool comp, which looks backward in terms of repertoire but showcases the band's current lineup exclusively, features one new song, some re-recorded old stuff and one side's worth of excellent live recordings. 

Erica Freas, Patient Ones (Don Giovanni)
Coffeeshop-punk profundity from one of my favorite living songwriters. Fresh versions of some recent classics from last year's incredible Tether EP, as well as delicately devastating new songs. Freas is a movement unto herself. (See also: this Somnia record that I still need to catch up on.)

Diarrhea Planet, Turn to Gold (Infinity Cat)
As with the Mitski, this one didn't level me and own my year in quite the way I hoped it would based on my feelings for their last one. But these guys are still delivering the maximal-rock party-punk goods with serious panache.

Richard Sears Sextet feat. Albert "Tootie" Heath, Altadena (Ropeadope)
Either this one flew seriously under the radar, or I just missed it entirely. Would've been a strong contender for my jazz top 10 if I'd heard it in time. That said, I'm grateful to The New York City Jazz Record and Phil Freeman for the review in their December issue, which tipped me off. After one listen, I'm seriously impressed: a diverse, thoroughly engaging and surprisingly progressive little-big-band suite that reminds me of something Wayne Shorter might have put together in mid-'60s. A very natural blend of buoyant hardbop and a darker, freer postbop sound. Tootie is of course outstanding, and this might be the most ambitious setting I've heard him in; great follow-up to the ongoing Iverson/Street chapter of his brilliant six-decade career.

The Cookers, The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions)
The latest dispatch of pure class and fire and soul — they just keep getting better — from one of my favorite bands on the planet, in any genre. Ineligible for me jazz-poll-wise b/c I worked on the liner notes (a huge honor), but I was a die-hard fan before that and would be all over Call regardless. If you dig 'em already, you'll love this; if you aren't yet hip, get it immediately. (Check out the EPK too.)

Voivod, Post Society (Century Media)
Latest dispatch from a veteran band in the midst of an unlikely new golden age. I've had my moments with the classic stuff, but it's in the post-Piggy era, from 2013's Target Earth forward, that I've really become a Voivod fanatic. A shining example of a band carrying on and, improbably, thriving after a core member's death. Absolutely cannot wait for the next LP.

Dysrhythmia, The Veil of Control (Profound Lore)
Take the time to really engage with this band and they're never going to disappoint you. The sort of communal interband Venn-diagram flowering that continues among Dys, Gorguts (see above), Krallice (see also 2016 dispatches Hyperion and the brand-new Prelapsarian), Behold ... the Arctopus (see Cognitive Emancipation), etc. has been such a glorious thing to watch up close. Drink in the rigor and the intrigue and the muscle-prog majesty on Veil — the latest brilliant chapter in the ever-unfolding Kevin Hufnagel / Colin Marston metal-vanguard multiverse.

Plus three on the archival tip:

Peter Kuhn, No Coming, No Going — The Music of Peter Kuhn 1978–79 (NoBusiness)
Squawking, swinging, shimmy-ing '70s loft jazz at its finest, via clarinetist Kuhn and his extraordinary band of like-minded ramblers, including trumpeters Toshinori Kondo and Arthur Williams, bassist William Parker and the late marvel Denis Charles on drums. The full disc of Kuhn/Charles duos is a thing of wild beauty. Check it.

Herbie Mann, Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters (Real Gone)
Still wading through this one, but what a heady bit of Sonny Sharrock lore, to say nothing of the rest of the band. We all know about the standout jazz-gone-rock/pop/funk revolutions of the day, but Mann was a badass in his own right — playing what he wanted to play, hiring who he wanted to hire, posing with his shirt off and just getting the fuck down. Kudos to him for turning Sonny — and Linda, on a couple tracks! — loose. It's beautiful to think of this and the Mann-produced Black Woman as part of the same weird hippie-jazz idiom. Wonder what the backstage hang was like?

Miles Davis, Freedom Jazz Dance, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Sony/Legacy)
Like the Dylan Bootleg Series, the Miles one just keeps digging up more and more from the periods you long ago thought were exhausted. On paper, this almost seems like a parody of a box set — complete session reels for Miles Smiles, band chatter and all — but I mean, this is Miles fucking Smiles we're talking about. I've only given this one concerted listen, but I got serious fly-on-the-wall goosebumps hearing this legendary day in the studio unfold in real time.


Postscript: Five perfect pop (etc.) songs, 2016

Will leave you with this rawk monster from Dunsmuir. Glad tidings, and thanks as always to anyone readin'! -HS

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

, 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.