It’s strange that some music, played just right, can stop your heart cold. When all the instruments and recording and listening experience are in total alignment, something really exciting and sublime happens. When John Bonham suddenly shifts to double-time it’s like an enormous hole has been punched right through the song, like someone’s reaching out from the speaker to grab you by the arms and shake you. When Mastodon locks into some circular descending lead, it sucks the air right out of your lungs. When Harvey Milk leaves a bent chord hanging, punctuates a phrase with some twisting howl, time has totally stopped, and music has completely removed you completely from the moment.
It’s hard to describe exactly what makes these moments for me. The best way to describe it, perhaps, would be as an element in a song that surprises you no matter how many times you hear it, maybe even shocks you. It’s the distillation of pure energy, excitement captured in the music; when a part like this hits, I’ll often realize I’d completely stopped whatever I was doing and am sitting or standing with some moronic grin on my face and glazed-over eyes. But that’s the power of music – to completely dissociate you from time, to propel you in some unexpected direction.*
The point is, some music seems to contain some kind of electricity in its sound. Songs can be fast without being driving, and songs can be loud without being intense – actual intensity is something harder to come by. It’s the difference between a toaster and a blowtorch: both are controlled heat, one is just a little more dangerous.** Wetnurse’s Invisible City, thankfully, is a blowtorch.
Guitars are ragged and fiercely aggressive. They roar and growl, and leads are piercing and bright – everything on this record has some kind of rawness to it, a live element. Drums are manic, switching beats rapidly and fitting in some frenetic fills – though there often seems to be no time. They clank and rattle and pound, each instrument seeming to struggle to keep up with the others. Vocals are disarming and abrasive, favoring sloppy mush-mouthed yells coupled with a discordant falsetto.***
The record is expertly paced, with solitary acoustic guitars forming bookends to the exploration of pretty much any sound Wetnurse would like to make. Their signature is their ability to take any variety of riff and make it their own, fitting the guitars parts into cohesive songs. It’s not a perfect album – some turns in the music don’t quite click, some leads could be improved – but despite it’s flaws… it’s awesome.
*I think this moment is one of the reasons the whole Guitar Hero Rock Band movement has become so popular. It’s really cathartic to feel like you’re contributing to these moments, to settle into those epic rhythms or connect yourself to those guitar tones. Yeah, it feels pretty awesome to completely nail a Slash solo on your plastic guitar. Obviously, you could do the same thing with couple thousands of dollars in musical equipment and years of solitary practice, followed by assembling a band who’s willing to obsessively rehearse “Sweet Child o’ Mine” a hundreds of times and… geeze, why does anyone form a band, ever?
**Dumb metaphor alert? These should all have warnings on them, if possible.
***One of the later tracks features a female guest singer, who does her best classic rock impression to great effect.
Though nothing will ever take the place of a solid blood-curdling scream, muscular roar or even a well-placed growl, I usually enjoy hearing actual singing in metal. No, not the kind of singing with easily definable notes or melodies, but singing where the vocalist strains awkwardly to hit every note, or at least makes an effort to change their inflection once in a while. So basically, Lemmy has the voice of an angel. The vocals that High on Fire or Harvey Milk squeeze out are generally what I’m attracted to, where it seems to physically pain the singer to create any semblance of melody; the vocals are gritty and abrasive but a more versatile that traditional yells, which adds a whole different dimension to the music.
Of course, there’s also an opposite, more talented wing of metal singers who take the operatic, punched-in-the-balls approach to vocals. Those upper-register notes tend to cut through the music rather than trying to muscle through it, and while they’re probably much more talented singers than the growling, rasping group, they still don’t necessarily have what would be regarded as a ‘good’ voice.*
That said, when I hear vocals in metal that don’t fit into either of those two categories – ruggedly inept or falsetto – it’s generally a turnoff for me. That’s a gut reaction I should probably shake, but solidly constructed, melodic vocals usually signal something’s going to be boring, flacid rock.** Part of this is probably an issue with the music production. If rock vocals are forefront, they’re most likely layered, auto-tuned and polished until they’ve lost any kind of emotion or nuance.
ASG sings just like that: lots of harmonies, layering and super-clean vocals. Many of the hooks sound radio ready. Win Us Over is a record of concise, melodic songs with catchy riffs. If that sound like condemnations of the record – it’s not. It’s a solid album, each song unique, with powerful guitars forefront and a parade of interesting riffs and interlocking guitar parts. Think the last Torche album taken a step closer to mainstream.
ASG works within traditional song structures, and what makes it different than probably most music on this blog is that each track could stand on its own with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. That’s not a good or bad thing in itself – it just means that the different instrumental parts were written around the songs, and not vice-versa, which I think is an interesting distinction.*** Anyways, there are sweet guitar lines, driving yet unobtrusive drums and hook-laden vocals. It’s good to hear a band who had interest in writing catchy songs, yet still has some real chops.
*Once again, Christ Cornell is probably an exception to this, but he’s using his voice for evil now. So, yeah.
**Not always – for example, I think Josh Homme has some solid pipes and has really mastered the art of creating worthwhile rock songs. Queens of the Stone Age are sort of the anti-Nickelback, or something like that.
***I want to see some kind of graphical chart with song-oriented bands on one side and instrumental-oriented bands on the other. ASG would be near the midpoint though.
Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that I like lots of boring music. Sometimes the most tuneless, meandering drivel can really suck me in, like the last Stars of the Lid album, which is probably not too different from being completely engaged by a new-age ambient noise machine.* There’s something fascinating about wringing music down to its absolute core, examining each identifiable sound in an absolute vacuum. For some reason, that’s not boring to me.
But on the other hand, what I haven’t been able to get very into – perhaps because it is incredible boring – is most instrumental post-hardcore. All the elements for cool music are there: technical prowess, a strong focus on composition, the appearance of taste and intelligence. But, for whatever reason, the music becomes too clean, too sanitary and distant for me to get into. There’s something about indecipherable screaming that gives music so much more depth.
On the other hand, I really do like Russian Circles and their newest record Station. Not that they wouldn’t benefit from tossing in the occasional scream, but their sound generally stands on its own. Songs start off whisper-quiet with circular delay-pedal guitar parts, slowly building segment by segment until they’re ready to burst open with some pounding drums and sharp-toothed riffs. Then, they slowly decrescendo, the pace slackens, and the song dies out – only to start the whole cycle over again with the next track. This whole process takes a little while, so the average song stands at about seven minutes, though for some reason you never get the rude urge to look at your watch, and you know well enough not to clap between movements.
The driving core of this record, though, are the drums. There aren’t any heart-stopping fills or mind-boggling beats, but the drums remain dynamic and muscular through the album. When the drums are hit hard, you can feel it, and perhaps even more than the guitar part they dictate the pace and feel of each song. The drums know when it’s time to tap on the cymbal quietly or simmer beneath the music with rumbling tom-work. It’s bootiful.**
The songs in Station are generally tense affairs, incrementally ratcheting up the tension until they explode. That makes it a great album for working on deadline-related stuff – filling out your taxes, working on a paper, whatever. By the time you get halfway through this album, you’ll be working frenetically and sweating bullets. Also, it’s a great album to just kick back on the porch with some ice tea and take in a sunset. Either way, Russian Circles have put together another great instrumental record that won’t bore you to disinterest, and contains some real depth and aggression.
*Speaking of new-age ambient noise, Sounds of the Ocean Volume IV is a great record. When those seagulls kick in around 17:42, it’s pure heaven.
**Being, personally, a really terrible drummer, I’m always looking for albums to play along with, and this is a great one for that. There are rest periods for when your arms get all tired, beats almost always last long enough for you to figure out what’s going on, and, there are plenty of interesting rhythms and fills to work on and build up to speed. Most importantly, there are rock-out parts where you just seem to be running on all cylinders, and you can close your eyes and imagine you’re actually playing a Russian Circles song on Rock Band.
There’s something enormous and secure about a concept album. In a way, it’s a refutation of the whole modern, digital consumption of music. It is constructed as a singular experience, and I sometimes get the feeling that I’m doing an album a disservice by not sitting down and giving it my complete, undivided attention. There’s a depth to most music that can’t be teased out without that kind of concentration. Even within a single instrument, a thousand different minute details are required to add up to the whole: scattered rhythms that careen off the ride cymbal, almost out-of-control, the tendon-tight bass kicks, that tortuously delayed snare hit.
Maybe that’s an obsessive way to look at music, but for me, that’s what makes it interesting. Albums contain an incredible wealth of information, and I can’t understand an album until I’ve really learned it, absorbed it over multiple listens, absorbed the twists and turns, the odd time signatures and pauses and hooks and riffs. I’m not sure how long it takes to reach this point – a dozen listens? twenty? – but obviously that’s only going to happen if a record really resonates with me.
The Ocean’s Precambian isn’t there yet, but it’s close. Recorded by a German collective with over forty contributors, Precambrian follows the various stages of earth’s creation in musical form, being broken up into specific eons* within this time period. Since the actual Precambrian era lasted 4 billion years, the album describing it spans two discs.
Surprisingly enough, this huge cast of musicians, toiling under a weighty, abstract concept, managed to create an incredible album. The first disc is a powerful, raging behemoth, erupting with all the force and natural violence of a bleak world battered by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Enormous riffs plow forward with titanic inevitability, and vocals tear through the mix with primal ferocity.
The second disk is where the band really creates room to breath, making full use of orchestration, yet often relying on a single piano or violin to accentuate dynamics or build to a breaking point. Not to say the second act isn’t powerful, just that all the rage and fury have been pushed underground, where they rage and stew just beneath the surface of the record, occasionally bursting forth into monstrous dirges.** In a way the record presents itself as separate but equal, parts, the whole it creates is as monstrously deep and imposing as an actual ocean, possibly the Atlantic.
The Ocean – Eoarchaeon
*Such as the Hadean, Eoarchaeon Paleoarchaeon, and so on. Also, are there any good albums about dinosaurs? Or by dinosaurs? Also, maybe I should note, I’m just writing about this album because I had an almost overwhelming urge to listen to it today.
**Also, one of the tracks is framed by a Kevin Spacey monologue. I still dig the song, but were the rights to Will Smith monologues too expensive?
***Still doing the 0 – 555 rating system, which may still be explained with benchmarks and such eventually. For example, Cave In’s Antenna is a 275 and Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones is a 301.
When I’m cruising the town in my enormous, silver Grand Marquis, I generally listen to the radio. Yeah, the car has a compact disk player, but it’s generally not worth the effort to dig through the enormous pile of CDs on my floor in order to pull out a scratched and battered copy of Superunkown.* Plus I like to keep tabs on what kind of music all the kids are listening to these days, which is something most people who drive a Grand Marquis puzzle over, I suppose.
I was lucky enough to catch some interesting new music today: Beyonce’s “Put a Ring On It,” Kanye’s “Love Lockdown,” and some other track where TI offers to buy me Petron. And, just in case I haven’t started to sound out-of-touch, there was some absolute crap playing after that: music compressed to the limits of human listenability, with vocals that conjured up an entire demented choir of emotionless R&B songstresses. Pop music is always eager to synthesize these glassy-eyed figures, package them up with music videos and insist they’re the next big thing. This music, sadly, has no depth, no pacing, no dynamics – and absolutely no relief. It’s been steamrolled flat, until it has all the authenticity and nuance of the artist’s Photoshopped poster on your wall.**
But just because music is synthetic doesn’t mean it can’t have depth. Genghis Tron’s Board Up the House, for example, is absolutely loaded with different textures and layers, dynamic shifts and throat-ravaging screams. From the first track, Genghis Tron demonstrates just how much room they have in which to experiment. Programmed drums swing from ferocious blastbeats to tom-driven rhythms, eventually settling into patient electronic grooves. Signature keyboard tones add pop hooks, duel with other instruments or shadow the guitar to create powerful, epic riffs. The introduction of more melodic vocals adds a whole new weapon for Genghis Tron to employ; or, more in tune to their style, they add another gear to violently shift to and from without warning.
Though Board Up the House has countless stylistic shifts, the record is paced expertly. Each sound, as well, is unique but still a critical component of the whole: Boards of Canada electronic grooves can give way to segments of fierce electronic grindcore, stuttered robotic riffing or even spaced-out melodic chants. Often these elements build off each other, and just as often the listener is ratcheted between them like some pinball, violently rebounding off flashing walls and at sharp angles, triggering bells and bursts of percussive sound, given only slight relief when upon escape from the frantic arms of the flippers.***
Genghis Tron have taken their unique mix of electronic and metal, their dynamic rhythmic and melodic attack, and figured out how to fit all the pieces together. They’ve managed to significantly hone their songwriting without surrendering the edge and exploring new ground. Just like their ancient forbearer, Genghis Tron have conquered with unyielding violence; they’ve ripped the still-beating heart from their prostrate victim and can now taste the salty sting of victory – sweet, sweet victory.
Genghis Tron – Endless Teeth
*And once a CD is in that changer, it roosts there for months. That’s how I end up listening to Mars Volta’s Scab Dates fourteen times consecutively. Not surprisingly, I don’t drive much anymore.
**In pop music, the surface is often flattened intentionally to obscure the substance, but this happens in metal too. Listen to Hetfield’s robo-voice on the new record, something I will doubtless discuss soon. Or you can find it in hardcore records that are glossy and maxed-out – if the record’s supposed to be loud, then I can turn it up myself.
***If pinball seems like a stupid metaphor, just wait till next week. I’ve got this fantastic “Big Buck Hunter” simile I’m working on.
I’d like to think I stay pretty current on world events, that I have a pretty fair perspective on what’s going on in the world. No, I’m not a news expert, but I do know how the economy is doing (badly), how that whole Israel-Palestine thing is coming along (badly), and that there’s a new President in town. If someone attractive on television is talking about news, I listen to it.* If there’s a funny editorial cartoon in the newspaper, I’ll at least look at the picture. That being said, when I watched Heavy Metal in Baghdad, it made me feel like I’d been missing out on some important information over the last eight years.
Being halfway around the world, it’s easy to become pretty distanced from the Iraqi war. The stories are horrifying, but they appear with such regularity that they fade into the background. Death tolls and civilian casualties are frightening, but they tend to be pretty abstract when they’re just a graph in a magazine. Heavy Metal in Baghdaddoesn’t exactly bring the grim reality directly to you, but it does follow the four dudes in Acrassicauda (the only metal band in Iraq) as they struggle against war, destruction and international politics to pursue their one true love: metal.
You see them perform in pre-war Iraq, when they had to write songs praising Saddam Hussein to be allowed to perform in public. You see their loyal fans risk life and limb and cross security checkpoints across Baghdad to arrive at a show, over-sized metal shirts in tow. You see Acrassicauda’s practice space get destroyed by a missile, as the condition in Baghdad gradually worsens. People can’t speak English on the streets, and there’s apparently no place in the town that’s safe from snipers, bombers and insurgents. To continue playing metal, and for their own safety, the band eventually flees the country (along with 2.5 million other refugees).**
Acrassicauda is surprisingly good – if your country’s only going to have one metal band, they’re not a bad place to start. They have, it seems, nothing to live for other than their music; it’s hard to imagine much of a future in the bombed-out husk of Baghdad. The interest, however, isn’t necessarily in the music, but in the strength it takes for these guys to stare into the void of hopelessness and destruction and yet come out alive, with drums pounding and guitars thrashing. Keep on rocking, Acrassicauda.
Go ahead and Netflix it:
**The take is a fairly non-partisan one.
When the world seems to be doing everything it can to frustrate you, throws everything at you at once, music can be a welcome release. The trained musician understands how to expresses this anger, has sympathy with your condition and knows how it feels to want to lash out in a blind rage. That is, in part, what draws people to music: the comfort in knowing that when you are blinded by an uncontrollable range, there’s always the perfect song to reflect just how you feel. Of course, music expresses more emotions than just anger. Sorrow, repulsion, despair and ambivalence are all themes that popular music tackles. When a certain mood hits, there’s always a certain album or band or song that matches it.* Metal music has the popular reputation of fueling hate and violence, but really it can be triumphant, energetic and virile; or, it can be relaxing and a release valve for stress. After all, if a type of music really stirred up only negative emotions, who but the most sadomasochistic would ever listen to it?
This is what brings me to Portal’s Outre. I’ve never had music hit me quite like this record – it’s like staring into an eternal void of absolute blackness, like being pulled slowly under the icy water without even struggling. It’s a recording of the complete abandonment of hope. And strangely enough, it’s not repulsive sound, but draws you in close and smothers you, obscures your vision with suffocating mass of smoke and slowly numbs your consciousness with a dull, pulsing pressure.
Portal plays hypnotizing, wholly encompassing pitch black death. Pounding drums are buried under massive waves of toneless, discordant guitars, and percussion occasionally abandons the music entirely, leaving you without a temporal compass in a oily black ocean of detuned, buzzing distortion. There are, surprisingly, discernible riffs: the best of which slides chromatically down the fretboard into tremolo-picked, buzzing oblivion. A voice rasps over the guitars with directionless monotony, in the same way the bass drum rumbles under it.** The album is cohesive to the point of being airtight. It evokes one massive, building inhalation and exhalation of surrender, like the final breath of some defeated giant.
So, if you’re suddenly feeling down in the dumps – if perhaps you’re a victim of the floundering economy, or just arriving at the realizing that life is never going to stop beating you down, but will only continue to do so with more force, more regularity, and less reason – cheer up, because I have some good news! Portal knows exactly where you’re at, and has created the perfect album accompany your inevitable decline into a numb, emotionless state of absolute despair.***
Portal – Abysmill
*The correct song for the moment, strangely enough, is usually Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time,” though sometimes it’s “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song).”
**As usual, I say “directionless monotony” as a compliment.
***Expect something more uplifting tomorrow. I mean, assuming there is a tomorrow.