Saturday, October 31, 2009

End of the month music question - what makes music great?

I thought of introducing just a little bit of variety into this blog – partly for the sake of introducing a little bit of variety, and partly because I thought it might encourage a few comments, a bit of interaction, all in the interests of giving the masses a say.

And so I’ve decided, at least for the moment, to break with the usual album-a-day routine and, on the last day of each month, to pose a question and hopefully generate some thoughts from you … if only to reassure me that someone is actually reading this blog!! No, really, I am interested in what you have to say too.

Anyway, so today’s question is “what makes music great for you?” I’m actually always fascinated listening to people talk about music – and especially listening to what they like and why they like it. Sometimes people talk about how the music grabs them, creates goose-bumps. Others talk about the way this melody or theme combines with something else, and how cleverly it’s done. Still others talk about the way a piece of music brings together different influences. For some, it’s the complexity of the music that makes it great; for other’s it’s the simplicity. For some it’s what the music says to them that matters, for others it’s the ieas behind it, or, for others, it's simply how much fun it is to listen to. For others it’s the memories that music conjures up.

I guess mostly, though, it’s a mixture of these and any number of the million and one other ways that music has of being good, and of connecting with us.

I couldn’t begin to say what it is for me – I couldn’t even really tell you if it changes form one piece to another, and whether I listen differently to the noise rock of Melt-Banana than I do to the mathematical beauty of a Bach Prelude and Fugue.

In discovering over the past few months so much music that I had previously discarded as not my cup of tea (not that I particularly like tea anyway, really, but that's beside the point), I have come to the position where I am inclined to think that there really is no such thing as "bad music" – just music that I have not yet learned to enjoy. Maybe that’s taking it too far – I’m not sure. But, at very least, the enjoyment of music is a much bigger thing than even I, a long time passionate lover of music, ever thought possible.

So then ... what do YOU think?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Brünnhilde meets R2D2 - Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi is, by any standards, a bit unconventional. He sings mostly 80s danceish popish music, usually in a high dramatic falsetto, mostly in staccato, giving him the sound of some sort of cross between a diva and a robot. He is usually backed by synths and electronic beats, but sometimes there’s a classical backing thrown in, like a harpsichord tingling away with the chords of a sad, funereal song by Purcell, or maybe all of that is discarded and he sings an operatic aria as if he was really singing, well, an aria in an opera.

And that is how I would describe his debut 1981 self-titled album in one paragraph, if I had to. But, fortunately, I don’t have to do it one paragraph and certainly Klaus Nomi needs and deserves much, much more than that.

Klaus Nomi had a tragically short artistic career – dying far, far too soon, in 1983, only two years after releasing this, his first album. Have a little wander through YouTube and you will see what an amazing performer he was – pushing the boundaries of theatre, music and, not least, gender, but doing it in a way that showed brilliant artistry even more than an urge to challenge or provoke.

When he puts all those skills together onto an album you end up with something pretty amazing. It’s not quite pop turned into opera, and it’s not quite opera turned into pop, and it’s definitely not something in the middle. It’s something completely unique, sounding like all of that, and none of it, at once. It’s as if someone has taken the best bits of both music worlds, thrown them up in the air, captured the bits that fly the highest, and has put it all through the wacky, batty blender of Klaus Nomi.

He includes some clever little takes on his own name – like in his version of ‘You don’t own me’, where the title line sometimes transforms to “You don’t know me (Nomi)”. Everything is just a little bit naughty, a little bit silly, and a big bit bizarre – but, if you don’t mind things that sound zany, chances are you will just love the loopy kooky originality of these songs – full of electric energy that transports you to another world, where the sky is green and the sea is purple and clouds are crimson and everything is just different.

And it’s that electric energy, along with that striking operatic/robotic sound of Klaus Nomi’s singing, and the incredible theatre of his performance, that makes this album such a captivating one, rather than just an interesting one or just a fun one, even though it is all of that as well. So, after hearing his versions of things like Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ or Kristian Hoffman’s ‘Total Eclipse’, or anything else for that matter, you always want to hear just one track more, and just one more after that, just to see what he’ll do next. And inevitably you find yourself thinking of this or that song from your past and wondering, “I wonder what he would do with THAT!!

But you ultimately only get to hear ten, and the last starts out as a relatively straightforward take on 'Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix' from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns (the same aria, incidentally, that also appears on Muse’s latest album Resistance (3rd October)), but ends up in some strange orchestral implosion, turning all that grandeur to rubble.

It’s all very camp, of course – but it’s also very German and I suspect it was because of the latter, rather than the former, that Marty R recommended it to me. But, in any event, I’m glad he did, because Klaus Nomi, the love child of Wagner's Brünnhilde and Star Wars' R2D2, is just bursting with fun and flair.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Taking you through the streets of London - Editors "In this Light and on this Evening"

As with most of the music I have been talking about on this blog, I hadn’t heard of Editors until today, when I bought their recently released album In this Light and on this Evening and so have not been particularly swept up in the discussions, which I have been reading a bit today (in my lunch break, of course) about how this band is constantly reinventing and transforming itself, winning new recruits to its fan base, and losing old ones, along the way.

But what I have been swept up in is the music itself – an amazing album that pretty well took my breath away from the moment it started to the moment it finished. That, by the way, was only just under 45 minutes, which isn’t that long for an album – but it’s a decent amount of time to be breathless.

It starts with its title track, and with dark, ominous chuggings, like the sounds of a city in the night, raw and harsh but somehow enticing, waking you from an unsettled sleep.

“I swear to God/I heard the Earth inhale moments before it spat its rain down on me” we hear. And the rain certainly does come down – in torrents: a thunderstorm of electronic synthesisers and beats, dark and big, creating a kind of apocalyptic beauty. It’s an explosive track to open an album with – and feels like a night city springing to life.

The rest of the album takes you through that city, rushing you through its glaring streets, its clubs, its faces, its loves, its politics, its wars. The music blazes with a light that threatens as much as it allures. Everything moves fast here: love is aflame one minute and is being buried the next and, while you let yourself go, pumped with the music’s energy, you can’t help the feeling that there’s something more ominous watching you from the shadows.

Listen, for example, to ‘Papillon’, where you are immersed in both the thrill and the claustrophobia of modern life, with words like “when it kicks like a sleep twitch/you will choke, choke on the air you try to breath” to whirring dance-floor electronica.

At times you almost feel that the world this album shows you has already had its apocalypse, where you feel a dark, unsettled adrenalin rush through your veins, as you run “… with the dead today/through the cemeteries where ghosts still play” in ‘You don’t know love’, or as you watch as ‘A bruised full moon play fights with the stars’ in “The Boxer”.

All throughout, the music maintains its incredibly intoxicating mix of dark savagery, through a driving, chugging bass line, and a breathless excitement, though amphetamine-charged snyths – perhaps nowhere better than in the unstoppable build up of tension in ‘The Big Exit’.

The music is always rich and shadowy, and the vocals of Tom Smith add to the colour – a dark, even creepy, but strangely smooth, almost velvety, voice. It’s a voice that in another time and place might even sound tender but has now been through too much for that. Listen to the long floating notes in ‘Like Treasure’, his voice flying high through the night air, full of heart-torn passion, above the dark and relentless drive of the music, bemoaning a world where clichés have become the only way of saying anything.

The album closes with ‘Walk the Fleet Road’ which, even with the ominous darkness still there, has an almost lullaby-like sway to it, as if it is rocking you back into the unsettled sleep from which the opening track awoke you.

In this Light and on this Evening is pretty convincing evidence that there is still a lot that can be done with electronica – still a lot of colours for it to create, a lot of things for it to say, and that, even when the pictures it paints are dark and foreboding, it can still get you up on the floor and make you dance.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The sound of dolphins - Merzbow

After writing over the past several days about so many albums that delve into this or that nook or cranny of the human psyche, I thought it was time for a little bit of a gear change today and so decided to focus on an album about dolphins. Something with the sounds of the sea, the song of those gorgeous marine animals with all their grace and beauty and amazing intellect, and the way that humans interact with it all.

But, of course, that idyllic picture is not what the world is really like for a lot of dolphins, especially on the coasts of Japan, where the water is red with dolphin blood, the song is the screech of excruciating pain and fear and the interaction with humans is brutal, mercenary and deadly.

This is the picture that is portrayed in Merzbow’s 2008 album, Dolphin Sonar, just over an hour of grating, piercing, electronic noise that conjures up horrifying images of slaughter, and of a species and an ocean violated.

Merzbow is Japanese avant-garde music/noise artist Masami Akita. There is absolutely nothing on Dolphin Sonar that sounds even remotely like what you are accustomed to thinking of as music. The sounds are dense, harsh electronic distortions and the most musical things get is when every now and then you can vaguely detect a beat bashing away beneath the violent hissing and foam. But even the beat is not so much the sound of drums but of sea bed rumbling and bubbling in uneasy protest to the horrors that are happening above it.

Here the ocean is an angry, ugly thing. It hurts your ears to listen to it, but its anger and strength is too great for you to be able to turn it off. It sounds in some ways like a radio being tuned, distorted indecipherable noise, sometimes with the sounds of sirens whirring like air raid signals, sometimes with indistinct bashings and clangings that sound like bashings on massive rubbish bins, but always with a vehemence and a violence that only nature, displaced and angry, could muster.

Dolphin Sonar is in three parts, but none of them provide relief or contrast from the unrelenting turmoil and brutality. The last ends with what sounds like forlorn plucking on some electronically distorted string instrument – a stabbed, strangled sound against a sea that slowly, reluctantly, gurgles into silence.

This is not an album that you listen to for enjoyment – it is meant to confront you, disturb you and challenge you. And it does. But it also captivates you, and shakes you, if you allow it to. And while, at the end, you may well want to stick on a recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for a bit of comfort, and a more sanguine view of nature (not to mention the opportunity of a tune to hum along to), Dolphin Sonar is the album you need to listen to if you want to really know what nature, and humanity's interaction with it, is about these days.

And you need to hear it, what’s more, if only to see how music can move in such utterly unconventional directions to get its point across.

Another great discovery by rummaging through the racks at Missing Link in Melbourne.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mixing the unmixable - Regina Spektor's "Soviet Kitsch"

Given my love of all things Russian, of many things Soviet, and of quite a few things kitsch, I was naturally thrilled to discover, when Fiona recommended to me some time ago that I listen to some Regina Spektor, that she not only had Russian roots but that he first album was in fact called Soviet Kitsch. I bought it straight away, listened to it within the hour, but for some reason am only getting around to writing about it now, some months later.

'Kitsch' is perhaps a bit of a tongue-in-cheek word for an album like this, full of anti-folk songs that in different ways turn up their nose at the shallow world of the comfortable classes and instead show more raw portraits of rougher lives.

Songs like ‘Ode to divorce’ and ‘Carbon monoxide’ set the mood for the album pretty early – showing Spektor’s ability to move from the soft to the gutsy, the slow to the fast, the smooth to the rough, without hardly taking a breath, often against bare piano accompaniment and in songs that have rough and ready melody lines that are turned into music, more than any thing else, simply by the way she sings them in her beautiful, but no-nonsense, voice.

But nothing does what you expect it to. Like the ‘The Flowers’ – an anguished song about holding onto a past that has already gone, with an intensely wailing voice, with a stunning Schubertesque piano accompaniment that somehow changes, unexpectedly near the end, into a jaunty Russian dance.

The album is full of strange juxtapositions like this – between songs and within them. There’s the almost punk screaming and screeching of ‘Your Honor’, with its sudden little childlike interlude to the words, “Gargle with peroxide a steak for your eye/but I’m a vegetarian so it’s a frozen pizza pie”. Everywhere things seem to go off in weird directions, just when you think a song has settled into its own (already quirky) groove. The last person who I knew to mix the unmixable so well was Gustav Mahler.

There’s an almost stream-of-consciousness feel to these songs – their music as much as their lyrics – and that can always jar a bit when we have become so used to music capturing a mood, or an idea, and holding onto it. But here nothing stays in the one place for long, and nothing is comfortable.

It takes a bit of getting used to – but if you don’t approach Soviet Kitsch expecting it to sound easy and straightforward, but more like the music of a woman who was classically trained in Russia and then spent the rest of her life amongst America’s underground music scene, you’ll find an album that takes you deep into the mind of someone who knows that nothing is really here to stay and who looks at it all with more than just a hint of scorn.

But even when there’s a cello there as in ‘Ode to Divorce’, or a string quartet as in ‘Us’, or, for that matter, a stick banging on a bit of wood, as in ‘Poor little rich boy’, these songs all somehow have the feel of the cabaret about them – someone sitting at the piano, singing to you their most intimate observations of the world, while you sip your brandy (or, of course, your vodka).

And at times the utterly unaffected unfiltered frankness of these songs makes you think that maybe, when all is said and done, you’re the one who is just a little bit kitsch. I guess the Soviets had a knack of turning things around like that – and maybe sometimes that wasn’t an entirely bad thing to do.

Belated thanks to Fiona for introducing me to Regina Spektor.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Stomp and clap but sigh no more - Mumford & Sons

Sigh No More, the debut album of English folk-rock quartet, Mumford & Sons, is something that I actually discovered myself after having seen, and been pretty blown away by, one of its songs ‘Little Lion Man’ on ABC TV’s rage a couple of weeks ago. So today, totally unable to find any of the albums that my usual partners in crime had recommended to me, I bought this one instead. And I am encouraged by just how good my judgement has turned out to be.

Sigh No More sets its cards on the table in the very first track – the album’s title track – with a song that starts off almost bare, and with slow, soft harmonies against a minimalist guitar accompaniment. But then it detonates in an explosion country folk rock that is simply bubbling over with energy and life.

It’s how most of the songs on this album go, building big things out of little things. It’s a formula that works well and that certainly bears repeating and, before long, you find you are waiting for those explosions of music just to see how the little simple, hesitant, almost naïve tunes and rhythms will be transformed this time.

And the transformation always seems to work miracles, turning the simple into the grand, the hesitant into the sure, the naïve into the wise, and you find you’re stomping your feet and clapping your hands, and everything is off and running to great eruptions of banjo, acoustic guitars, dobro, double bass, keyboards and drums.

There really is some fantastic playing here – full of earthy bass drum beats, plucking on banjo and guitar that bursts with vigour, keyboards clanging and dancing, and all of it integrating into music that sounds like the ground, the trees, the grass and the fresh country air have all been turned into a massive rustic choir.

And while it’s true that most of the songs on Sigh No More are kind of similar in their structure and sound, with the almost constant exchange between the quiet, simple bits and the big, noisy bits, it works – probably largely because it just sounds so irresistibly good.

But it also works because the subtle things that give each song its own character really are more significant than you might at first notice them to be – like the way ‘I Gave You All’ builds from its sad beginnings into a raging lament of almost cosmic proportions; or the way the guitars keep bubbling beneath the surface, aching to break through the song of gentle consolation with all their passion and fire in ‘Timshel’; or the way that wonderful quartet tangles and jangles downwards to “Rain down, rain down on me” in ‘Thistle and Weeds’; or the way everything just builds up into a wild, grim whirlwind of music in ‘Dust Bowl Dance’.

Sigh No More is a very spiritual album, with lines about grace and about connection to the maker and kneeling before the king – but its music stops it from being a narrow spirituality, turning it instead into something that feels more about that dimension in all of us that seeks solace and redemption in times of loss and despair.

The album closes with ‘After the Storm’ where, at the words “Night has always pushed up the day”, the music turns magically into dappled sunshine. And its parting words (“But there’ll come a time you’ll see/With no more tears/And love will not break your heart/But dismiss your fears/Get over the hill and see, what you find there/With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair”) are sung with such down-to-earth beauty that you can’t help believing in them.

And then you notice that the album has finished, and your foot has stopped stomping, your hands have stopped clapping and you are left with a warm feeling in your heart and perhaps just the slightest hint of a tear in your eye.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Take whenever necessary - Spiritualized, "Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space"

When you push the play button on Spiritualized’s 1997 album, Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, you actually hear the album’s title coming to you over a PA system – and floating in space is exactly what you feel you’re doing, with a gentle, swaying, floating melody that promises to take your pain away.

It’s a fitting beginning for an album with liner notes that read like a pharmaceutical product information leaflet. And it certainly is druggy music – as much about spiritual drugs as chemical ones. There’s even the London Community Gospel Choir there. But if there’s anything of a revivalist gathering here, it’s one that you would only ever find yourself at after doing a few tabs of LSD.

Vocals, guitars, keyboards, organs, percussion and a whole orchestra, it seems, of electronica all mix and meld together, whether in swinging rock, like in ‘Come together’, or in slow, spaced-out shoegaze, like in ‘Stay with me’, becoming rich and thick and organic – noise with a tune.

There’s an intense unity of purpose in this music, no matter what it’s doing. Listen to the way that slow, solemn, calming passages alternate with loud, wild chaos in ‘All my thoughts’, while holding everything together like two sides of the one coin, sparking you up and calming you down like a day and night analgesic.

It’s the whole, much more than the parts, that you notice on this album. Even the fantastic guitar riffs on ‘Electricity’ are woven in as part of the fabric rather than stepping forward, making a spectacle of themselves, in the footlights. Simple lines that start to tell you a bare and unadorned story soon get drowned in floods of sound, like in ‘Home of the brave’, as if nothing is allowed to hog the limelight here. It’s the forest, not the trees, that matters.

This album takes you through so many paths as all rich, dense forests do - climbing up into the sunlight here, descending down into the shadows there. You'll love the vastness of 'No God ony religion', with more tunes and things going on than you can poke a stick at; but if you have ever been deeply sad you are surely going to feel the pain, and the pain relief, all over again when you listen to ‘Broken heart’ – music that seems to tell you that, in times of sadness, consolation is only a drink away.

Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space is an album of big music. Its music washes over you, sometimes sweeping you up, like in the gospel-infused ‘Cool waves’, sometimes throwing you back down, like in the bleak drugworld blues of 'Cop shoot cop ... ' a fantastic 16 minute track with an awesome anguished instrumental interlude and a grim love song at the end, where lines like “The desert is any place without you my friend/And I will love you even if I’m in it til the end” make you think that the lover is not a person, but the next shot of heroin.

Rightly or wrongly, this album helps you forget for an hour or so that there's a plain and mundane world out there. The liner notes’ suggested dose for Spiritualized is “once, twice daily or as recommended by your doctor or pharmacist”, but I’m inclined to suggest that you take it as often as needed. It might become a bit addictive but, as the leaflet says, it’s to treat your heart and soul – and you can never get too much of that.

Thanks again to Lucas for the introduction.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Not quite sibling rivalry - The White Stripes and "Elephant"

Today, several weeks after Scott recommended I buy it and Patrick recommended I listen to it, I have finally sat down and given a proper hearing to The White Stripes album Elephant.

Before getting into the music itself, I thought I’d just spend a few lines on the gossip. I constantly read stuff about The White Stripes as a sibling duo – Jack and Meg White – which does lend a kind of rebellious young person’s cuteness to their music. But I have in fact discovered through a little bit more research that they are actually not siblings at all, but ex-husband-and-wife. Jack White used to be John Gillis, but married Megan White and took her name. They divorced in 2000, but continued to work together, more than happy to be promoted as a sibling duo rather than as a divorced duo.

I guess it’s a bit of a whacky story – but who cares, when they come up with such great bluesy rock, always with a slightly irreverent, mischievous edge to it, laced with bits of acidic anger here, bits of juvenile humour there, and always doused in music that is gutsy, fun and clever all at once. It’s music that comes to you from the garage – but a well-equipped garage that only admits people who have got talent and who know how to have fun expressing it.

You get the first taste of what The White Stripes can do on the very first line of the very first song, ‘Seven Nation Army’, with its funky bluesy bass line (actually played on an semi-acoustic guitar, through an octave pedal), riffing away through the whole track, giving a base and a shape to everything else.

It’s a song that is fed up with everyone and everything – a song that tears itself away from people’s indulgence in themselves (“Don’t want to hear about it/Every single one’s got a story to tell/Everyone knows about it/From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell”).

That, in one way or another, is what most of this album is about – people losing touch with one another, forgetting the innocent splendour of love and then finding, in its place, resentment, things that niggle, and loneliness, like in the grumpy lines of ‘There’s no home for you here’: “Waking up for breakfast/burning matches/Talking quickly/Breaking baubles/Throwing garbage/Drinking soda/Looking happy/Taking pictures/So completely stupid/Just go away”.

But the bitterness is mixed in with reminders of what has been lost, too, like Meg White’s bluesy and seductive ‘In the cold, cold Night’; and with yearnings to find it, like Jack’s sadly cute plea to be accepted in ‘I want to be the boy to warm your mother’s heart’.

There’s a fantastic cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’, giving the song an intestinal fortitude it has always needed, full of the sort of bile that anyone would surely feel in the circumstances.

'Ball and biscuit' is probably the grungiest song on the album, a song about quick and hard sex, with awesome blues guitar riffs adding to the sleaze.

There’s the tongue-in-cheek cuteness of ‘Little Acorns’, where Jack’s sweet little squirrel Ow-ows are howled back at him by a blood and sweat drenched electric guitar. There’s the rough sarcasm of ‘Girl, you have no faith in medicine’, to rough blues guitar, Jack’s rough vocals and Meg’s rough drums.

It’d be a great finish, but Elephant in fact finishes with ‘Well it’s true that we love one another’ – a happy poke-fun-at-love duet with Jack White and Holly Golightly and with Meg throwing in a line of cynical commentary here and there, managing somehow to sum up the flavour of the whole album just as charmingly as the open track did aggressively.

While there is probably something a bit affected about the White Stripes’ pretence of being siblings, there is nothing in the least bit affected about their music. Elephant takes everything that is good from blues, garage rock and punk, puts it into the blender and produces a fantastically original cocktail that will be sure to get you drunk – not just because its alcohol content is, I suspect, dangerously high, but because you just won’t be able to stop lapping it up.

Friday, October 23, 2009

... and getting gorgeous with The Crayon Fields' "Animal Bells"

After such a dark and dingy voyage into home-grown music yesterday, with Rowland S Howard, it just had to be a sign from god today that Marty W mentioned another local band for me to listen to – one which, as fate would have it, is filled with sunshine and light. And so what else could I possibly do but head out during my lunch break and buy The Crayon Fields’ 2006 album Animal Bells? I did buy some more drone noise, and the latest album of the Fuck Buttons, for a bit of balance, but that’s totally beside the point.

I had never heard of the Melbourne-based Crayon Fields before today, but a quick internet search showed me that pretty well everyone draws comparisons with The Zombies (who I had also never heard of) and with The Beach Boys (even I have heard of them).

Animal Bells is certainly very beachy, very boysy, and very Beach Boysy – but all in the best possible way. It is cruisy music, filled with soft, whispered harmonies, mellow, laid-back melodies, and rich but unobtrusive instrumentation that makes you just long for summer, a gin and tonic, and a deck chair by the beach.

The songs on Animal Bells are unashamedly dreamy, flagrantly happy. Toy bells add their bit of sparkle to each track, turning wine into champagne. Melodies and rhythms blend like ice-cream and chocolate topping.

The music is gorgeously unpretentious – but don’t think for a moment that that means it’s unskilled or simplistic. Everything here is so exposed – from the ravishing harmonies of the vocals to the clean and unadorned pluckings on the acoustic guitar and the glittering dance of the percussion. Every note has to be perfectly placed and perfectly played – and it is.

Each track has its own special use of colour, its own subtly unique way of shining the sun on you: the jaunty, jumping rhythms of the vocal line in ‘Living So Well’; the way ‘Back, Front, Side, Low, High’ slips so easily from major to minor and back, making darkness no more threatening than a walk in the shade on a hot day; the pulsating, whirring electronics of ‘Helicopters’; the way that ‘Lovely Time’ strolls merrily along one minute, skips along the next; the handclaps the push things along in ‘Impossible Things’; the jangling pentatonic percussion that gives ‘Do It First’ an almost oriental feel; the way that ‘Drains’ seems to wave farewell to you, with a smile on its face, a tear in its eye and, just when you think it’s gone, it turns around and waves to you again.

Animal Bells has a real childlike innocence to it – the sort of innocence that you never really totally outgrow: the sort that makes you realise that you can still smile, no matter how bad and mean people like Rowland S Howard tell you the world is.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting ugly with Rowland S Howard's "Pop Crimes"

One of the dangers for me in walking into Melbourne’s Polyester Records, is that, no matter what I have gone in there to buy, they always seem to be playing something else which I end up buying as well.

Yesterday, it was Rowland S Howard’s recent release, Pop Crimes. I was kind of conscious of the overall Nick Cave-esque feel to it all – the dark, gritty voice; the backings that seem to be coming from dingy back lanes at night – and so, when I learned that Rowland S Howard was originally from Birthday Party, I was kind of pleased with myself for noticing the Cave connection.

The music here takes you into a shadowy world, where things are kind of slow and hazy, and where love is sleazy, seedy, sexy and, for the most part, short-lived.

Pop Crimes opens with the perfect song to usher you right into the pit of this world, a shady duet that Howard sings with Jonnine Standish, ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ with such great lines as “She’s my narcotic lollipop”.

Most of the songs on this album are pretty much filled with bitterness, like the self-loathing that slithers through ‘Shut You Down’, the tale of a man who seems to have somehow descended into life’s gutters, “Standing in a suit as ragged as my nerves”; and yet your heart breaks for him as he sings those lines “I miss you so much” which such raw, unadorned loneliness.

The instrumentation throughout Pop Crimes is mostly just bare guitar, bass and drums but is garnished here and there with violin or organ or odd percussion, giving it shady, shadowy colours, like the clanging, lumbering beat in ‘Life’s What You Make It’, the track, incidentally, that convinced me I just had to buy this album.

The title track is the sort of song that would sing to you in a cheap late night bar, over a glass of whisky, where people reminisce about love gone wrong, and about how bad and mean and mighty unclean the world is, but to a wonderful funky beat and electric guitar riffs.

There’s the swaggering beat of ‘Nothin’’; the rough and bluesy guts of ‘Wayward Man’, with lines like “I do all my best thinking unconscious on the floor” and “I’m the fly in the ointment, Your constant disappointment”; the tender sadness of ‘Ave Maria’, and the black hymn, rocking along to everything that’s ugly and dirty, in ‘The Golden Age of Bloodshed’.

It’s music that is always rough and raw, music that lets itself wallow and that feels like it might actually be proud to be bitter and twisted.

I gather Rowland S Howard doesn’t do a lot of recording in his own right, but Pop Crimes certainly mounts a pretty irrefutable case that he should do more. Listen to it alone, late at night, with a bottle of whisky at your side, and take comfort in the fact that sometimes it’s good to get ugly.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Forever young - Sonic Youth's "The Eternal"

After so much of the weird and the whacky over the past few days, I thought something marginally more mainstream was called for today and, having been inspired by Lee Ranaldo's work on yesterday's album by The Melvins, decided today to go out and buy Sonic Youth's latest album.

The Eternal brings us some good solid rock, but dressed in the unique and interesting garb of sounds that Sonic Youth are famous for creating – keeping the music world of underground rock very much young and alive. Listen, for example, the feeling of tolling bells that ushers in the opening track, ‘Sacred Trickster’, or to the symphony of sounds, the thick electronic soundwaves and the metallic clangs, that punctuate ‘Antenna’ – none of it is exactly new sounds, but it’s all sounds being used in new ways, giving this hard, even heavy, music a feeling of light and life, as if it is waking up in the morning younger than when it went to sleep the night before.

There’s so much on this album that gives you a new take on the old and trusted elements of rock, like the terrific steady pounding beats on ‘Anti-Orgasm’, driven down semitone by semitone, creating a wonderful sense of seediness before eventually giving way to something more gentle and chilled-out. The whole effect leaves you feeling that you’ve just walked down a dark and dingy stairwell into some incredibly cool, and slightly spaced-out, nightclub.

‘What We Know’ is fast and fuming – hard rock with a dash of the tribe mixed in, its pulse so powerful that I think even my two little dogs were nodding their heads along with the beat.

‘Malibu Gas Station’ starts with some lonely, sad almost sentimental pickings on electric guitar, which is unexpectedly swept aside by a solid rock beat, but then is later transformed into its own rock lament, mounting in rage and energy, while you are dragged down by the force of the beat’s undertow.

These are incredibly cleverly structured songs. Even when the music is at its most wild, like in the frenzied bits of ‘Thunderclap For Bobby Pyn’ everything seems balanced and planned and yet it never loses its spontaneity. Listen to the way that song suddenly stops, with one abrupt, perfectly placed, bash that sounds like they all only thought of it all together, all at once.

There’s the swinging groove of ‘Walkin Blue’, relaxed in its own way, and with so many layers of sound that I wouldn’t even begin to try to count them, but then turning your swagger into a brisk walk and then into a furious run, before you even know it has happened. It’s a great way to get fit.

The Eternal finishes with ‘Massage The Storm’, almost ten minutes long, but creating a sense of the epic even more by the vastness of its sounds than by its running time. It does feel strangely like a storm being massaged – something wild and untamed getting lulled, if not exactly to rest, at least into a sense of its own kind of peace. It’s still a storm, and it still has all the force and power of nature rumbling within it. But you feel it’s not going to just blow itself out anymore – it’ll be there, for a long, long time, ready to put on its awesome show for you whenever you need to feel exhilarated. In some ways it’s an apt metaphor for what Sonic Youth seems to have achieved for rock music on this album. It has massaged rock and, in doing that, has kept it eternal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mixed Melvins - Chicken Switch

When Marty R first introduced me to The Melvins a few months ago, he promised me that they do some whacky stuff. And they do – but possibly nothing quite as whacky as their latest album, Chicken Switch.

The basic concept behind Chicken Switch is that fifteen different remix artists were given a full album (or a few full albums) of The Melvins’ music to do whatever remixers do, and to each produce their own contribution of a track to the album.

There are some pretty awesome names here – like Eye Yamatsuka, who leads The Boredoms, and sets things going on Chicken Switch with the first track, ‘Washmachine Sk8tronics’, giving us a pretty impressive indication of what’s to come – heavy pounding primordal beats and thick clouds of electronic sound with bolts of lightning scratching their way through. I have no idea what this music was before Eye got to it, but it has certainly become something of epic size now, sweeping you up like a tornado, and then throwing you mercilessly back down to the ground.

But then the second track, Christoph Heeman’s ‘Emperor Twaddle Remix’ gives you, at first, a few moments to catch your breath, and to admire the dark beauty of soft, swirling sounds. But only at first, and just as you begin to sit up and think you're in a harmless if still pretty dark place, it knocks you down again with a sudden onslaught of monolithic noise. It’s great stuff.

But even that is pretty tame next to the third track, V/VM’s ‘She Chokes Her Dying Breath and Does It In My Face’ – massively intense noise, progressing from powerful to overpowering and then eventually making way for some darkly, haunting organ sounds, like something from the apocalypse.

Other tracks are the work of artists such as John Duncan (hard, dark rock, with fast, driving beats and deep, droning riffs), Matmos (who produces something close to a dance track, with ‘Linkshänder’, but a pretty creepy dance nonetheless), Lee Renaldo (from Sonic Youth), Merzbow (producing what even I can now recognise as classic Merzbow, with fierce and hypnotic metal drone noise that seems to whip you along, marching with terrified hordes, through an endless night), David Scott Stone (sounding like demon possessed monk chanting in ‘Prick Concrète/Revolution M’), Panacea (who produce something even closer to a dance track, with ‘Queen (Electroclash Remix)’ – but, even there, it’s a dance track that you play to distract the heavy metal gatecrashers, not for dirty dancing with your newest love interest), Sunroof! (a spacey computer mix called ‘The Silly Butter Apple of Youth’), Kawabata Makoto (more awesome, droning Japanoise, with a bass powerful enough to register on the Richter scale), farmersmanual (really weird noises that sound, well, just weird, a bit like the sounds your computer might make if it was really loud and really sick), Void Manes (drumbeats, and haunted bass lines, drowned in hellish, cavernous sirens and vocals in ‘Overgoat’) RLW (more drone, but now with ear-piercing trebles, and occasional stabs of bass lines twisting and descending) and $peedranch (more noise, sounding like you’re trying to tune into earth from a spaceship – random but disturbingly haunting, too, as if this is what our planet might really sound like to someone listening from afar, aggressive, frightened and chaotic, with harsh bass lines driving home the unease).

The whole thing is pretty weird, but it is incredibly effective and an amazing example of what you end up with when you get great artists to play around with great art. You really should go out and buy Chicken Switch because, even if you ultimately don’t like it or even listen to it, I reckon it’s something which, like Joyce’s Ulysses and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, should be in everyone’s collection. And, anyway, something tells me you’re not going to be hearing much of it on the radio.

Thanks Marty - I'm not sure this is The Melvins you had in mind, but it certainly is whacky.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The four freaky octaves of Diamanda Galás

I first discovered Diamanda Galás some months ago when I was looking for a really, really gloomy recording of “Gloomy Sunday” – the notorious Hungarian Suicide song, perhaps made most famous by Billie Holiday, but covered since then by everyone from Björk to Ray Charles to Sarah Brightman. But no one seemed to invest the song with unbridled freaky horror as much as Diamanda Galás, pounding black chords out of the piano, and declaiming the song with her unmistakeable scary voice, growling away somewhere in the depths of the bass baritone register.

Today I bought her most recent album Guilty Guilty Guilty – a collection of seven songs, performed live with piano, with her massive four octave voice singing and snarling its way through some of the most powerfully dark blues you will ever hear. Her singing makes Nick Cave sound like Julie Andrews.

While everything on Guilty Guilty Guilty is unmistakeably the work of Diamanda Galás, we still see the incredible versatility of her craft here – the almost psychotic wailing that brings the audience to involuntarily shout its ecstatic approval in the middle of “8 Men and 4 Women”; the brooding blues of “Long Black Veil”; the way her voice screeches to ridiculous heights, after crawling through ridiculous depths, in “Down So Low”; a chilling, haunting lyricism in “Interlude (Time)”; the jazz like piano rhythms underpinning “Autumn Leaves” which, at Diamanda Galás’s fingers sound like skeleton bones dancing; the eerie, haunted, spooked out pleas of “Heaven Have Mercy”.

But the album’s greatest track, where we see the enormous range of mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, nerve-jangling things that Diamanda Galás’s voice can do, is surely the utterly nightmarish journey of “O Death”. Here her voice sometimes roams through long phrases of dark, hellish moans that seem to be coming to you, amplified, from the grave itself; sometimes it creeps through gruesome, ghoulish passageways of dark blues; sometimes it lets fly with manic blood-chilling screeches; and yet always, while it pushes music into regions to which it has never dared venture before, it never, ever loses its music.

Diamanda Galás looks and sounds pretty scary and even on this, one of her more accessible albums, she pushes music to some of its darkest limits – squeezing the soul out of every note, sells it to the devil, and turns everything into night. But the experience is incredible – and you are riveted, every bit as much as you horrified, by the sheer force and brilliance of her artistry.

Guilty Guilty Guilty is certainly not jolly music but, in its own macabre way, it is invigourating. I wouldn’t like to meet Diamanda Galás in a dark alley at night, but I would definitely like to have her music with me, just in case some thug should be there. I reckon it’d be a helluva lot better protection than a gun.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Warning! Warning! Contains language that might offend!

When I saw a review in a Melbourne newspaper the other day for a band called “The F- Buttons”, I thought it was a bit of an odd name for a band – but then odd band names are not that odd, so I didn’t give it a great deal of thought until I heard them again on PBS last night and realised that they are actually called The Fuck Buttons. It did leave me wondering a little about why there still seems to be a need to protect us from some “coarse” words, and yet we never seemed to get forewarned about the much more offensive (in my opinion) language in a speech by someone like George W Bush, let alone have the words presented to us with most of their letters missing.

But, be that as it may, the Fuck Buttons sounded fantastic, so today I decided to buy their debut album, Street Horrrsing. With a name like Fuck Buttons, you’d expect a surge of Sex Pistolesque punk but, in fact, Street Horrrsing begins with gentle little tingling sounds that almost sound like snowflakes falling to the ground. It’s the beginning of a fantastic journey into all the wonderful things that sound can do.

The tracks all make inventive, creative use of little units of sound – a little tinkering melody here, a primal rhythmic motif there, some electronic howls of noise somewhere else – and, bit by bit, each builds on the other to a huge inferno of sound, ablaze with energy and colour. As the music builds, it also thickens, and becomes an intense mass, rolling along with the force of a behemoth.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as ‘psychedelic drone’ but, if there is, this music would be it, with its large and long sustained lines, multicoloured, unrelenting.

The album's six tracks merge into each other, as if this is one story that is being told here, such as where the thick fog of sound that has gathered throughout “Sweet Love for Planet Earth” suddenly parts to reveal the tribal drums and distorted animal-like screams that kick off “Ribs Out”.

The music ultimately creates vast, and sometimes frightening, vistas – a planet on fire, or suffocating, perhaps. It uses the endlessly rich store of possibilities of electronica, building sounds upon sounds upon sounds and then, just when you think nothing else could possibly fit in, a new sound slips in through the cracks and announces itself as if everything else had only been waiting for its arrival, as with the entry of electronic guitar-like sounds about two thirds of the way into “Okay, Let’s Talk About Magic”.

Street Horrrsing is always surprising you in the way it transforms and builds its elements – sometimes starting with deceptively simply beginnings, like the square beat at the start of “Bright Tomorrow”. But then, with every new layer of sound, each more striking than the one before it, these simple beginnings have become gigantic foundations to a titanic sound edifice that leaves you awestruck.

A dramatic change of key takes us into the album’s final track “Colours Move” where all the bits and pieces that we have heard so far seem to come back on stage in one colossal choir – the tribal drumbeats, the multi-storey electronic drone, the distorted screams, the electronic guitar-like screeches until it all eventually gives way to the soft tingling sounds of snowflakes falling to the ground.

So, when you’re next walking past your local respectable CD store, make sure you leave your inhibitions at the doorway, and walk up to the counter, asking loudly and proudly for your copy of whatever they have in stock of The Fuck Buttons!!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

From Russia with hard love - VulgarGrad

After yesterday’s journey through the grit and grime, moulded by the Gutter Twins into music of astonishing beauty, it seemed like a good idea today to listen to gutter music, raw and unadorned. And so, from the underbelly of Russia, via the dark and dodgy drinking holes of Melbourne, we are greeted with a sleazy smile that you just can’t quite trust, by the self-proclaimed “Kings of Russian criminal sound” from Melbourne, VulgarGrad.

VulgarGrad are six blokes and one woman, bringing us coarse, gritty music from different parts and times of Russia’s more seedy history – the bits that you didn’t get to see beneath the elegance of the Bolshoi Ballet, the spectacle of the Tsars, and the alleged liberation of Perestroika. It’s the life of street crime, home-made tattoos, jails, and things in unmarked paper bags.

And VulgarGrad perfectly capture the rough energy of this shadowy world in their latest album King of Crooks – a wonderful mix of traditional and modern songs, sung by Jacek Koman in a voice that sounds like it has been rubbed down to the bone by too much vodka and too many cigarettes, and backed by a great mix of sounds from bass balalaika, guitar, trombone, trumpet, drums and piano accordion – so raw that you can still smell the blood.

Other instruments and other voices (including, on one track, the beautiful voice of Melbourne-based Tatar singer Zulya Kamalova, of Zulya and the Children of the Underground) join in the mix from time to time, widening the circle of this motley crew but always allowing it to remain true to its rough and ragged roots.

Some of these songs are pretty old, some are pretty new – but they all have the same gutsy spirit, and the new music is very much the sibling, not the child, of the old. Jaunty rhythms, rough and ready melodies, sordid, squalid songs sung by unshaven, dirty men to women who don’t blush, all conjure up a rugged world that sweats and burps through every phrase. But it’s a world where its unholy inhabitants, and its audience, find something that feels surprisingly welcoming and homelike, from the promise to break into heaven and steal God's stuff in "Гоп-со-смыком" ("Natural born thief") to the bawdy "Жопа" (with its chorus line that is best translated as "She's got such a gorgeous arse"), or "Пьянка начинается с бутылки" ("A piss-up begins with a bottle"): a wonderful paradoy of a 70s children's song about making friends with a smile.

King of Crooks is loads of fun to listen to – and, needless to say, a bottle of vodka (preferably bootleg) on the side is an absolute must.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Finding beauty in the grunge - The Gutter Twins "Saturnalia"

I have already posted here (10 September) about the wonderful contribution that Mark Lanegan’s rough and weary voice made to the Soulsavers album, Broken, and today, we meet him again as he joins his longtime buddy, Greg Dulli, as the other half of the Gutter Twins.

The songs here on Saturnalia are bleak and bleary-eyed. They tell hard, rough stories about the dark alleys of life through music that mixes together an unbelievably rich array of instruments – guitars, a mellotron, a cello, a mandolin, a violin, a viola, drums, an organ – whatever is needed to add to the gritty darkness of this music, it’s there.

These instruments come together in different combinations, with the ragged voices of Lanegan and Dulli, to paint incredible subterranean pictures of dark nights and lonely streets crawling with sordid lives of sex, addiction and transient love. It’s all told with the sort of honesty, and the refusal to apologise for its sludgy life in the gutter, which you only find on bar stools in seedy pubs, late at night.

But don’t think for a moment that this music, with all its dark harsh candour, is hard to listen to. It’s incredibly beautiful – voices finding rich harmonies even in their sandpaper roughness; layers of music where every instrument seems to have its own raw and murky story to tell.

Listen to how the lonely, restless melodies come, one by one, into “The Stations”, building a mountain of sound, but heaving and hurling so much that you are afraid to stand on it; or to the way everything cries and pleads for its voice to be heard, against brutal pounding beats, like punctuation marks trying to bring each sentence to a close, in “Circle the Fringes”; or to the dark, ominous beat that just won’t let in any light, no matter how much the melody line strives for it, in “Seven Stories Undergound”; or to the bleak, brooding simplicity of every line of music, assembling like a choir of the homeless and the outcast, and leaving you overwhelmed by the chilling eloquence of their dark but determined promise, “We’re gonna have some fun, son” in the album’s sensational closing track, “Front Street”.

Saturnalia is the star defence witness to any accusation that underground rock is all grunge and no musical creativity or richness. And it is irrefutable proof that even in the gutters, amongst all the muck and mud, the grime and the guts, there is beauty.

Another stunning PBS discovery.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In the depths of drone - Boris "Absolutego"

Given, after yesterday’s post, that I’m well and truly immersed in the darker regions of music, wandering around there with the sort of captivated horror that makes me think I might be even more freaky than I originally thought, I decided to stay on familiar ground today, however spooky it might be, and listen to some experimental drone metal.

Boris is a three piece Japanese band that moves across genres to some degree, but here, in their first album, Absolutego, is deeply immersed in the thick black sludge that is drone.

"Absolutego" is one massive track, starting with over ten minutes of droning bass guitar, and grinding feedback, until, before you realise it’s happening, drums and bits of vocal noise are added, the music cranks up, electronics add shades of grey to the black, and slowly the single line of drone grows into a huge, congealed mass of dark, doom-laden noise. Things seem to be going fast, and to be motionless, at the same time, as sounds swirl into one another, amorphous and impenetrably thick.

This is music that you have to listen to differently than most other music. It’s not about telling a story in words or sentences – it doesn’t have bits that you like better than other bits and play on repeat while you do the dishes – rather, it can only ever be heard, and absorbed, in its totality: a thing you experience not only by turning off the lights, but the clocks as well.

The foundations of this music are buried deep, deep below the surface but, if you’ve got reasonably good sound equipment, with a decent sub woofer, you’ll certainly feel, as much as hear, its rumbling drones. They’re dark and menacing, but they somehow give a kind of surety, a grounded base, to the music that pierces the eardrums from above.

But they don’t last forever and, in time, the droning bass has gone and we are left with what sounds like a huge choir of electronic alarms all blasting from a million directions, as if someone had broken in and stolen the earth itself.

In time, those sounds, too, die down – not in volume, but in pitch, descending back towards the subterranean drone that gave them birth in the first place but, before they’re even half way there, it all comes to an abrupt halt and everything is over.

This music takes you into a dark and dense region where time and space just don’t mean anything anymore – and so it comes as a bit of shock when you turn everything back on at the end of it all, and discover that it’s 65 minutes later than when you started.

The edition of Absolutego that I bought, issued by Southern Lord, also includes “Dronevil 2” – an 8 minute piece of intense, muscly drone that is powerful and impressive in its own right, with big heaving waves of sound. But, as happened when I listened to Klaus Schulze’s Virtual Outback some weeks ago (24 September) these two tracks need to be listened to separately. Both of them are too good to stand in the other’s shadow.

Absolutego shows us that even the thickest darkness radiates its own very unique type of energy. An overwhelming and sensational experience.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It just doesn't get freakier than this - Suicide by Suicide

I just can’t put off blogging about this album any longer. It’s freaky and it’s creepy, and even the bits that aren’t scary are scary; it gives me nightmares and it probably makes the neighbours think that there is some kind of ancient demonic ritual going on in here. But Suicide’s Suicide (first album) is just too, too good to ignore and, like those long, quiet scenes in horror movies, you just keep on watching even though you know something is going to go bump and that’ll be the end of you.

Just two people go to make up Suicide – Alan Vega’s vocals and Martin Rev’s electronics. While it all sounds like more than two people, it’s still a pretty bare, minimalist sound, with hypnotic spooky little turns of phrase, repeated over and over against a rumbling beat, like amplified heart palpitations, and Vega’s voice, spoken more than sung and turned into ghostlike echoes of itself, with weird little grunts and yelps instead of commas and full-stops. It’s eerie stuff.

You wouldn’t think there’d be place for love songs on an album like this – but there’s two of them, as long as you’re not too fussy with your definition of ‘love’ (or of ‘song’, for that matter): “Cheree”, with its chilling little tingling snippets of melody in the treble, its sinister, repeating organ chords; and “Girl” with its positively pornographic moans and groans from Vega. Both songs are every bit as creepy as the creepy stuff.

But, of course, the real heart of ice of this album is “Frankie Teardrop”: a ten and a half minute tale about a 20 year old factory worker who murders his wife and child, told with spine chilling detachment, Vega’s voice chanting “Frankie, Frankie”, trembling and cold, in the way the devil might call someone up from their grave. The gruesome monotone of the story is interrupted every now and then by a blood-curdling stab of a scream – the sort that makes your hair stand on end even if you don’t have any – and ultimately ends as black waves of sound wash all the screaming Frankies down to hell. I’ve never heard music as frightening, nor as frightened, as this. You will need to pay huge bucks for very intense therapy to get "Frankie Teardrop" out of your system once you have heard it.

The original version of this album featured only seven songs and, while subsequent releases seem to always add a few extras, I think the music’s power and impact is greatest when you just listen to it how it was originally made, hitting the off switch after the haunting requiem to Che Guevara, and switching every light in the house on. Bugger the greenhouse implications – this album is one that all the carbon emissions in the world can’t warm up.

Thanks, if thanks is the right word, to Lucas for introducing me to this fantastic, freaky album.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Seeing both the trees and the forest - Joe Henry's "Blood from Stars"

At my age, it’s probably not good for the heart to try to keep apace with something as wild and frenetic as Melt-Banana for too long and so, as tempting as that would have been, I decided to slow things down a notch or fifty today and immerse myself in a wonderful jazzish/bluesish album I heard a few weeks ago on PBS: Joe Henry’s Blood from Stars.

With a wonderful ensemble of piano, tenor and soprano sax, clarinet, guitars, bowed banjo (whatever that is), keyboards, bass and percussion, and other interesting bits and pieces, all mixed in with the tattered, bluesy voice of Joe Henry, this album tells a world-weary tale in little images of hopes and memories, of melancholy, of loss, and of redemption, all brought together into a darkly enticing, strangely unified, mosaic.

A sad prelude for solo piano, with hints of Chopin and the blues, makes way for the first song, the slow-swinging jazz “The Man I Keep Hid”. It creates the mood that pervades through this whole album – a kind of darkness, but not the sort in which you sit and wallow, but rather one in which you drink a good scotch and dance with your demons.

There’s some marvellous commentary from the ensemble throughout: soulful singing from the saxes and clarinet (all played with unbelievable depth and maturity, by the way, by Joe Henry’s 17 year old son, Levon); soft, whimsical tinkerings here, and jarring discords there, from the piano; simple, lonely notes picked out on the acoustic guitar; angry determined beats from the drums; haunting wails and whines from the electronics.

Everything moves at a slowish pace, but nothing ever drags. These songs take time to tell their story – but the best stories are always worth telling slowly.

In the booklet that accompanies the CD, Joe Henry tells us how the songs developed their own unruly life as he created them, like a family of brothers who finish each other’s sentences and sit up laughing and smoking cigarettes after lights out.

It’s true. As individual and unique as each of these songs is – complete with its own unique DNA – there is clearly not more than one or two degrees of separation between any of them. Listen, for example, to the dark defiance of “Death to the Storm”, the sombre musings of “All Blues Hail Mary”, the grim determination of “Bellwether”, the sad blues of the purely instrumental “Over her Shoulder”. It’s all coming to you from the same cavern of darkness, but everywhere there’s a different voice to be heard, a different tale to be told, and always in words full of bewitching imagery, like in “Stars” – “The birds have picked the blossoms/I think out of spite - /The dogs have taken to the street/Like it was theirs by right./The clouds have drawn a curtain/Where the stars have gone astray/Taking out tomorrow/Like it was yesterday”, all to the grief-stricken screams of the sax.

The music seems to be the sombre and serious, but beautiful, child of a rich parental heritage of blues, jazz and rock, and maybe even a bit of folk blood in there somewhere too. Each of the different genes from this amazing ancestry comes to the fore whenever the moment calls for it and, while this might be a grim, even morose, child, its personality is irresistibly magnetic nonetheless.

Blood from Stars is like a rich, dark forest. It might look a little sinister and foreboding but each of its trees, gnarled and twisted and bent over under the weight of centuries of battering winds and rains, is so full of unexpected wonder that you cannot help but be drawn in. If ever there was wilderness worth being lost in, it’s this.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Come feel the Japanoise - Melt-Banana

I am going to slightly break with my own tradition today and talk about four albums here instead of my usual one – and, really, my only regret in that is that I can’t do more. But, unfortunately, there were only four Melt-Banana albums being sold at their ridiculously good Melbourne gig on Saturday night, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. I bought them all.

Melt-Banana, hailing from Tokyo, produce a very unique stream of music that has become know, at least in some circles, as “Japanoise” – extreme noise rock from Japan: music that knocks you over as if you’ve just been pounded by a firing squad on speed.

It’s a four piece band, but they produce more notes in ten seconds than the average symphony orchestra would produce in a life-time. The music just blasts out at you at a ferocious speed, leaving even laser beams for dead.

The band’s vocals come mostly from Yasuko Onuki, who also writes the songs. And she fires out her music at you at a phenomenal pace – usually high, screechy staccato, impeccably synchronised with the drums, all delivered with such frenetic, brute force that I would have believed the whole thing had been electronically sped up, had I not seen her do it live on stage.

And with Rika Hamamoto playing her bass like it was a lead guitar and Ichirou Agata playing his lead guitar like it was a piece of radioactive steel, and synthesised electronics swooping into the music like a kamikaze jet, the whole effect leaves you aghast – like a massive spacecraft coming towards you at warp speed and you know you have only two choices: be destroyed by its force in less than a nano-second, or hop on board and go with it.

Despite the instantly recognisable style of Melt-Banana, there is some incredible variety in what they produce, and each of these four albums has its own flavour: the heavy unrelenting noise of Charlie; the highly experimental sounds of 13 Hedgehogs, with its 56 tracks, some scarcely ten seconds long; the more electronic sci-fi world of Cell-Scape; the constant changes of pace and colour, noise and music, of Bambi’s Dilemma.

If I could only take one of these albums with me onto my desert island, it would be Charlie – mad, manic music that just never lets up and yet is amazingly tightly managed and disciplined. Passages of crazy, fast bashings of notes from drums and guitars and vocals all manage to come to a sudden stop, without falling over, to take a half of a breath, if that, and then keep going again. These are musicians whose cohesion with each other, and whose sheer musical talent is matched only by their ingenuity and willingness to push every boundary and to break every rule.

But, as great and all as Charlie is, I would still beg and barter pretty well everything to be able to take the whole four of these albums onto the island with me too (and try to negotiate a laptop so I can order the rest online).

It’s a pity that Melt-Banana did only one performance in Melbourne and a pity that neither my speakers nor my neighbours would be able to tolerate me playing this music at the volume it deserves. It's music that takes the wind out of you – and you’re left gasping for breath, but only because you're trying to summons the energy to ask for more.

Thanks a zillion times to Marty R for introducing me to Melt-Banana!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The roots of rock - The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground and Nico is an album that was, from what I have read about it, if not the trunk from which every branch of rock music later grew, at least a very significant tree that somehow seems to have managed to graft itself onto pretty well everything else in the forest.

It certainly covers a lot of territory and right from the slightly disturbingly child-like tinkerings at the beginning of “Sunday Morning”, you sense you are in for a unique journey. It’s a simple little song and perhaps, for that reason, with its cold, skeletal xylophone, seems a bit unsettling.

And sure enough, any pretence at innocence is quickly dispelled with the hard rhythmic beat that pounds through “Waiting for the Man”: tough and gritty garage music that paces the floor edgily, like thumping veins waiting for a fix.

This is followed by “Femme Fatale”, which, a little like “Sunday Morning”, has a deceptive appearance of innocence and niceness – disguising its menace behind harmonies of Beach Boy-like smoothness and Nico’s deep, silky smooth voice. And just as “Sunday Morning” led into a rawer expression of its own message, so “Femme Fatale” leads into “Venus in Furs” – full of grotesquery, a song that must surely have had a profound influence on some of Nick Cave’s more sinister songs, with scratchy, eerie, slightly out-of-tune electric viola and chilling vocals.

A kind of centre piece to the album is “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, with a wonderful majesty to it which, like so much else on this album, is only hiding deeper troubles. Its real story is told to us not only in its words of poverty and pretence, and of shallow, short-lived beauty, but also in the almost funeral procession beat of the drum, unrelenting, like a knell, through the whole song. It’s a shattering piece.

“Heroin” has all the raw brilliance that Lou Reed injects so well into this sort of music. It rises, it falls, it screeches, it screams. Listen to the droning, groaning sounds of the electric guitars, holding their ground no matter how frenzied and frenetic the rest of the music becomes, as if the darkness of addiction is the only thing that the singer can rely upon to be constant.

Some songs on this album seems to be less concerned with telling a profound story, and more with just being fantastic to listen to – like the hard rock of “Run Run Run”, the blues-like undertones of “There She Goes Again”, and the gentle, comforting swing of “I’ll be your Mirror” – the one love song on this album that doesn’t sound cynical.

“The Black Angel’s Death Song” is probably the most unconventional piece on the album – chant-like vocals form Lou Reed against an unsettling, noise-rock background, as if garage grunge from “Waiting for the Man”, with its steady if frenetic beat, has fallen apart at its own seams. It leads perfectly into “European Son”, disturbed and restless, and with a beat that builds behind the scenes, and takes everything along with it, leaving you breathless by the end.

So much has happened on this album that it is hard to believe that it is just one album. But The Velvet Underground and Nico is ultimately only the beginning of a very big future - not only for this band, but for all of rock music.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bringing indigenous Australia to the world - Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

It has often struck me as a little bit odd that here in Australia we usually find our indigenous music tucked away in the World section of our CD shops, as if this music somehow comes from and belongs to somewhere far away – which I guess in a sense it does. It is music that belongs to a world that is vanishing fast and that, even for the people who still hold onto it, can sometimes seem distant and hard to get to.

But if the bridge between that world and this can be built by music, then Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu could well be its architect. His first album, Gurrumul, brings together the worlds of indigenous and westernised Australia with incredible love and respect for both, and the result is music that makes you believe that the two have really belonged together all along – or for at least as long as they have cohabited this continent.

The opening of the album’s first song “Wiyathul”, with its soft humming vocal line, has a kind of comfort and reassurance to it, setting the tone for these songs that are, for the most part, sad but fond reminiscences childhood, and of Gurrumul’s cultural connection to land and life.

Singing in several indigenous languages, as well as in English, with a voice of easy gentleness, musical and yet somehow still rooted in the red and dusty earth, Gurrumul is accompanied by nothing other an acoustic guitar and a double bass and, occasionally, by extra vocal harmonies.

And yet, while the music is delivered with unadorned simplicity, the songs themselves are built out of an absorbing and unusual combination of Western and indigenous elements – melodies that wander and wail, but always return to rest on their tonic roots; fluid, complex rhythms in the vocals that are underpinned by square and steady strumming on the guitar. It creates a complex and beautiful tapestry of cultures, woven tenderly and seamlessly together.

These songs all tell an intimate, personal story. “I was born blind”, for example, captures so much of the essence of this artist and his music: acceptance of the cards that fate deals, but determination to play the hand well, and to show everyone else around the table that it wasn’t such a bad hand after all. “I heard my mama, and my papa/crying their hearts in confusion/how can I walk? Straight and tall/in society please hold my hand/trying to bridge and build Yolnu culture/I’ve been to New York/I’ve been to LA/I’ve been to London/narranydja Gurrumul”. These are proud words that grow out of sadness and vulnerability. I still call Australia home pales in so many senses.

But the personal intimacy of these songs does not for a moment mean that they are not political as well. If ever the dictum that "the personal is political" had resonance it is here in these songs, as it is indeed in all of Australian indigenous culture, where the personal, the individual, is always part of the bigger world, inseparable from it.

And so, when Gurrumul laments the loss of his country in “Galupa” it is a lament as much for what white development has done to aboriginal heritage as it is for his personal loss of home. Here the two are one and the same.

These songs are beautiful to listen to – but don’t expect their message to be easy. The music weeps and accuses at the same time.

Gurrumul is a wonderful and groundbreaking achievement from this erstwhile member of Australia’s powerful aboriginal band, Yothu Yindi. Thank you Neal for the introduction and the gift!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Strange harmony of contrasts - The Flaming Lips

When Marty W, with the best of intentions, suggested I listen to, without necessarily buying, The Flaming Lips' 2002 album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, because I might find it interesting how they make such musical use of sound and noise, it was pretty well an inevitability that something of this interesting and very clever American band would soon be added to my collection and so, within 24 hours, both this and Clouds Taste Metallic had put another little dent in my even littler bank balance.

And he was right - this music really does do some interesting things with the many bits and pieces that it brings together. There's an irresistable brightness in the music, mixed with innovative “out there” uses of noise and sound, producing an unusual and creative marriage of the daring and the accessible.

The songs on this album show us how unconventional uses of electronic music don’t have to be alienating – like the way whirring, sliding noises give “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt 1” its sense of warmth and hope even in a mechanical, programmed world that has lost the capacity for passion; or the way the synthetic swaying electronic sounds of “All We Have Is Now”, cold and clinical anywhere else, here manage to give the music its heartfelt, and sometimes heartbroken, humanity.

Listen, too, to the purely instrumental “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt 2”, and the way it throws screeches and screams into the mix with catchy bass riffs and drum beats and tolling bell sounds to create a new sort of pop sound that is as pleasantly surprising as one of those recipes where, when you read the ingredients, you can’t possibly believe they would combine into something that could ever taste good: but they do, and it does.

“In the Morning of the Magicians” is a great example of the way this album uses old, trusted approaches to harmony and phrasing to give the music its sense of familiarity, even against the weird noises that bubble and bang in the background.

There are some wonderfully subtle moments here, too – like the way the gentle semi-tone descent of the melody line in “It’s Summertime (Throbbing Orange Pallbearers)” take your heart down a notch or two as you hear a tale of sadness amidst a world of sunshine and birdsong.

It’s the way all these diverse elements – and always so many of them – are brought together to make something that sounds so unified and intricately interwoven that makes this album so unique. It’s something you’d be happy to bop away to on the dance floor, or it’s something you might find as a set piece in a course where you’re learning the intricacies of musical structure.

Listen, for example, to “Do you Realize??” and see if, even as you revel in the fragile beauty of its melodies, you can keep track of everything that’s going on there – the layers of music, the mix of emotions, the rhythms and beats that cross and overlap each other.

To borrow a line from an aria near the beginning of Puccini's Tosca, this album produces a "strange harmony of contrasts" and, while the opera ends up with everyone stabbed, shot or jumping to their death from a castle roof, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots finishes with “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopian Planitia)”, a purely instrumental track where The Flaming Lips' now trademark unsual mix of sound takes us, gliding, off into another place which, thanks to the way those sounds have nestled their way into us so easily, feels almost like coming home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

And just when you thought you were safe - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, "Murder Ballads"

After all the grace and beauty of Bon Iver’s winter in the snow yesterday, it seemed a change of mood was called for, and who better to bring you back to the grit and grime of the real world than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and what better album to do it with than his gruesome Murder Ballads?

These songs are pretty morbid, even by Nick Cave standards; but when these grisly yarns of gratuitous killing are told with that irresistibly grungy voice and to the accompaniment of those trademark backings that reek with the smell of life’s underbelly, you can’t help being more than a little seduced.

And while Nick Cave might not exactly be the sort of person you would want to take home to meet Mum, there is little doubting his ability to capture the grotesque, to amplify it, and to make it sexy.

The grim journey of Murder Ballads starts with “Song of Joy”, a tale told to us in cold detachment by a man whose wife and three daughters are slaughtered at night by the knife of a serial killer who writes passages from John Milton in his victims’ blood on the wall. There could hardly be a better – if better is the word – way to set the scene: your blood has already gone cold, you have already checked that the doors are locked and that the lights are all on, and you’ve still got another nine tracks to go.

He’s joined in places by luminaries who even I have heard of – P J Harvey, on the calm, creepy song of unrequited love, “Henry Lee”; Kylie Minogue, on the soft and sinister duet of love and murder, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”.

For songs that all tell stories of such unrelenting ugliness, there are some amazing contrasts here – like the gruesome, jaunty jollity of “The Curse of Millhaven” against the slow, gentle but horrendous song of poor Mary Bellows in “The Kindness of Strangers”: the sort of music you would dance to with your lover in a slow warm embrace were it not about a woman being found “cuffed to her bed, a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head”.

The strength of these contrasts, between the songs and within them, is a crucial part of Nick Cave’s brilliance – and it's what makes his music so unique, so recognisable and so utterly enticing. He brings a rugged sexiness to everything that’s ugly, and a dark, hideous hue to everything that’s beautiful.

Every song is drenched in atmosphere – captured through skeletal jingles on the pianos; quietly sinister organ passages; dark, driving beats; stabs from electric guitars: all mixed in a deep, cavernous acoustic where you find yourself looking over your shoulder at every little thing that goes bump in the night.

These songs, with their resolve to show you everything that is grotesque and misshapen in life, and to turn it into music so good that you just can’t make yourself look away, are the songs that Mahler would have wished he had written if he had heard them.

Murder Ballads finishes with a cover of Dylan’s “Death is not the End” – where Cave and Kylie and P J Harvey, and others, seem to step forward, as you cower in the corner, and to provide you some words, and some music, of reassurance. It’s a nice song, but I’m not sure it really means to be as convincing as it at first seems and, in any case, I’m leaving the lights on, and the doors locked, for just a little bit longer.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A good winter - Bon Iver

“Bon Iver”, I have learned, is actually a misspelling of the French phrase for “good winter” (which, according to my Google translator should in fact be “bon hiver”). But it still sounds good, and so it became the assumed name for Justin Vernon and, at the same time, an incredibly apt name for him to use on this, his first album – For Emma, Forever Ago.

The songs on this album were all recorded by Justin Vernon while he shut himself away in his father’s hut, in the middle of the Wisconsin countryside, in the middle of the Wisconsin winter. There he wrote, sang, played, mixed and recorded nine songs that are steeped in the solitude, the sadness and, ultimately, the solace that you can imagine finding in long lonely months in a warm hut in the midst of the snow.

Vernon’s voice is infinitely tender, infinitely intimate – mostly in a high falsetto, but supported by over-dubbed harmonies with himself, sung with such delicacy, and with each note placed with such loving care, that it creates its own inner warmth, so that, even with songs as full of heartache and sadness as these are, you can almost see, and feel, the bright glow of the fireplace at your side, providing its own special, intimate comfort and company.

Each of these songs tells its own story of loss, of loneliness, taking us through all the many tinges and tints of a bruised heart but, in the long run, finding resolution and rest. It’s all done with the barest of elements – an acoustic guitar, some unobtrusive beats here and there, a few electric guitar phrases, and those wonderful soft, sensuous, sad harmonies. But each song envelops you, embraces you. And you feel that it's almost a sacred privilege to be there, listening to these simple, unadorned, but unspeakably beautiful love stories. These are sad songs, but they are songs sung in a place that is safe and beautiful, and deeply healing. And all of this comes to you by the simple power of the music.

We feel the longing for home of “Flume”, we ache with the hurt anger of “Skinny Love”, we weep quietly to the loneliness and vulnerability of “Blindsided”, we share the regret and recriminations of “Creature Fear”; we smile sadly at the nostalgic mix of love and loss of “For Emma”; but ultimately we find a kind of peace, even in the inexplicability of it all, in “re: stacks” and its final lines of acceptance, “your love will be safe with me”.

Winters, especially winters of the heart, can be cold and harsh – but For Emma, Forever Ago gives us, through the sheer beauty of its music, a warm place to shelter. And so we learn that a cold winter, a lonely winter, can still be a bon hiver.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Moving along now - Kraftwerk's "Autobahn"

Marty R’s enthusiasm for the music of Kraftwerk not only inspired me to listen again today to their classic album Autobahn, which I bought a few months ago, but also to go out and buy another three of their albums in my lunchbreak. It’s music that is incredibly addictive and, like most addictive substances, it can seem a bit freaky at first, and it can space you out a bit - but, ride with it for a while and, before you know it, you'll just want more and more.

As soon as you start playing Autobahn, with its opening 22 minute title track, you know that you are in the 70s, and you’re reminded just what a wonderfully rich and inventive period that was for music, when artists were full of the urge to experiment, often without too much regard, at least at first, for what it would mean in sales figures.

But as music, like life generally, becomes more commercialised and corporatised, it obviously becomes more and more difficult for musicians to be really creative and unconventional – and so recordings like this are always such pleasures to hear.

Autobahn makes exciting uses of electronics, mixing soft, lush harmonies with strange, electric noise, in ways that must have been pretty daring when they were first produced. Paces and metres change from chugging, minimalist rhythms to sections where it is the wave of noise, rather than the beat of percussion, that gives the music its pulse.

But always, there is a sense of movement in this music. And that, probably even more than the interesting use of electronic sound, is what gives Autobahn its sense of unity and cohesion and, ultimately, of taking you on a journey.

Nowhere, of course, is this more obvious than in the track “Autobahn” itself. A car revs up, and moves from gear to gear until, before long, you are zipping along the highway to the steady hypnotic sounds of electronic keyboards, rapid but not rushed, as you watch the scenery speeding past: sometimes fertile and drenched in sun, sometimes sparse and cold, like craggy, rocks and dead, twisted tree stumps poking here and there out of snow-laden plains. It’s a journey that is magnetic in the way it brings you into itself, and takes you along with it.

"Autobahn" is followed by two shorter, but no less mesmerising, tracks: “Kometenmelodie 1” and Kometenmelodie 2” – two “melodies of the comets”. And, certainly, there is a sense of movement in the enormity of space here: movement that we observe, and are fascinated by, rather than participate in. It’s not big sound, and yet it still manages to create a sense of bigness – through widely spaced harmonies and huge, swirling sounds in the bass and, eventually, spinning eddies of melody that shimmer in the treble – making you want to look up into the sky to see where the sound is coming from.

“Mitternacht” (midnight) is a much creepier, eerie piece of music. Now we are walking, it seems, in a dark, old house, or maybe in a huge, grim forest, with spooky organ chords; ominous, deep, slow beats, like steps on a haunted earth, and strange, spectral creatures howling and screeching in the background.

“Morgenspaziergang” (morning walk) brings us back into the sunlight, with a playful, flute melody that starts with child-like simplicity, alone and a little forlorn – but then the world around it gurgles and rumbles to life and, before long, its song is joined by first one, and then another, and then some more voices – new instruments joining in its little walk in the morning sun, which, after such a grim night, seems all the more warm and comforting.

Autobahn is an album that does a lot of things with sound that go beyond what people would typically have thought of as “music”, and the influences of that great German innovator of electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, are certainly evident. But the brilliance of Kraftwerk is the way they turn the unmusical into music and how, in taking us on their fascinating journey to far and distant places, they broaden our own horizons in the process.

Vielen Dank, Marty – ein wunderbares Erlebnis!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The haunting enigma of Bat for Lashes

I’m not entirely sure why someone would want to change their name from the perfectly respectable “Natasha Khan” to the rather enigmatic “Bat for Lashes”, other than to be enigmatic – but, be that as it may, Two Suns is a great (and, yes, enigmatic) album by this excitingly original and yet darkly beautiful English/Pakistani singer.

The music itself reminded me of a kind of fusion of the high, pure tones of Kate Bush and the daring uses of melody and instrumentation of Björk. The sound is always deceptively approachable: stunning singing; bold, blossoming backings; but all wrapped in a kind of rich darkness, like black velvet, haunting and yet still beautiful. Everywhere you look there are interesting, original uses of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre.

The songs on Two Suns have a remarkable tendency to start off as something simple and unassuming, and then turn, sometimes suddenly, sometimes so gradually that you don’t realise it’s happening, into incredibly complex melodies soaring above, and entwining with, fascinatingly original combinations of instruments - piano, harpsichord, harp, guitar - that sound like they belong to some far away time, some far away place, while still seeming to grow out of your very soul. Listen, for example, to “Peace of Mind”, with its almost ancient strings, strumming and plucking away against the sinister pleas of the vocal line – alien and indigenous at the same time.

The music always has a sense of enormity about it, sometimes majestic, often ghostly – sweeping melodies that take you into an ethereal stratosphere, like they do in “Glass”; big, sumptuous sounds, like the pounding timpani in “Siren Song”; eerie metallic keyboards, like those that underpin the other-worldly, echoing melodies of “Moon and Moon”.

But, more often than not, you arrive in these enormous spaces by first taking hesitant, faltering steps – little tentative, almost nervous, grabs of melody that build in strength and confidence and end up driving titanic phrases and choruses of dark, wonderful beauty.

The album finishes with “The Big Sleep” where Bat for Lashes is joined in a haunting, apocalyptic duet, by Scott Walker – another singer who does some incredibly original and shattering stuff (see 30 August) just through the power of a beautiful voice, and through trusting it to stay beautiful even when it’s used in unusual ways. The ethereal, searing voice of Bat for Lashes; the grim, hesitant yet rich baritone whispering lines of Scott Walker; the barren, chilling, electronically distorted piano – it all creates an overwhelming ending to an album that has already overwhelmed in so many ways.

For me, the real strength of Two Suns lies in Bat for Lashes’ extraordinary knack of taking odd, even eccentric, elements and turning them into works of astonishing, if dark, musical beauty. And it is that, even more than the name of its creator, which makes this album such a wonderful, evocative enigma.

A truly creative and original work – and, once again, my thanks to Lucas for his recommendation.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

77 Drums

I realise that I have already posted about The Boredoms (8 September), and that, officially speaking, today’s album is another of theirs. But, in reality, they only make up three seventy-sevenths of the band here and, in any event, 77 Boadrum is such an astonishing piece of work, that it was impossible not to write about it.

The name 77 Boadrum is itself quite a clever play on words. It partly derives from the name of the core musicians themselves, the Boredoms; and partly from the fact that main act here is the mass off 77 drums that play, without taking a moment to catch their breath, throughout this incredible 100 minute piece; and partly from the way that the drums were arranged in a massive boa-like coil on the grass of the New York park where this was performed and recorded.

There are, I gather, some fairly famous drummers here although, not surprisingly, few of them meant anything to me, other than Number 77, who is Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt (21 September) and Numbers 5, 56 and 69 who are Jesse Lee, Lizzy Bougatsos and Tim Dewit from Gang Gang Dance (27 September).

The 77 drums are joined by the other members of the Boredoms, who add a few vocals and electronics, including a thing called a Sevena, which consists of seven lap steel guitars, mounted on a huge vertical stand, and struck by sticks and hammers.

The performance began at 7.07 PM on 07/07/2007 and, whether you believe in the significance of the number seven or not, the significance of the music is incontestable. The sound is huge, the achievement even huger.

The music is structured into large sections that fall into two main parts, all of which connects seamlessly, building in and out of each other to make a work of extraordinarily epic proportions, a huge journey of sound that covers a colossal and ever-changing terrain.

The work opens with sticks on cymbals, which are soon punctuated with massive unison beats every couple of seconds, taking us, it seems, into a world of primal ritual.

But it takes us into many other places, too – like the hair-raising noise of the whole 77 drums going hell-for-leather, or the march-like rhythms that come and go, like a sonic army claiming the earth as its own. There are moments that sound like an awesome, frightening train, chugging past, carrying all the debris of the world as its cargo. There are rousing shouts from the band’s core – sometimes, it seems, giving new cues to the driving beat, sometimes adding yet another few volts to the steamroller of sound.

There’s a small battery of electronic noise that enters and exits from time to time, sometimes in drones, sometimes in massive symphonic chords, always reinforcing and underlining the relentless beats of the drums.

There’s a long passage at the beginning of Part Two where we again hear the sound of 154 sticks on 77 cymbals, now rising, now falling, hurling like the waves of a violent sea, sometimes surging in a crescendo so big that you feel it will drown you, until it all eventually gives way to a kind of twisted lyricism on sliding, slithering electronics - boa-like.

Towards the end, the music stirs into an incredible march, pounding away with more and more determination, beneath a calling, chanting song from the vocals – summonsing you, perhaps, to join this gargantuan army as it marches on and on into ever new landscapes of sound, with exciting shifts of harmony and a relentless, uncompromising beat. It all builds into a massive chorus of noise where you feel the stars and planets themselves are marching along to the music, unable to resist its call. But then ultimately everything is pulverised by the sheer force of the drums, and transformed into a thick sludge of sound where everything merges and, at last, finishes.

The whole thing is performed with an incredible unity of purpose and an exceptional cohesion of effort and sound. Any passage of this music is remarkable, but to sit down and just listen to the whole thing in one go is unlike anything else you could ever hope to experience in music.

77 Boadrum is not easy to get. It comes in a pretty lavish presentation, with a hardcover book full of colour photos, plus a shortish DVD about the performance itself but, even so, at $133 US from Amazon, it was pretty pricy. But it’s a limited edition of a one-off performance of an absolutely amazing piece of music, and I don’t regret one cent of its cost.

Thanks to Lucas for putting me onto this. It is, quite simply, phenomenal.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Irresistably mad - Muse's latest album

Muse’s latest album Resistance is, by any measure, pretty mad.

You push the play button, the energy and the sounds cranks up as if it has just had a turbo shot of adrenalin, and you are off and running in the world of glam rock, reincarnated in the 21st century, with its message of mass uprising against the conspiratorial machine of a corporate world. There is perhaps more than a touch of irony that this message is told to us through some of the most elaborate sounds that the rock industry has ever produced – big sounds, whirring with polished electronics, organs, snyths – a big sophisticated sound that is a long way from the streets and factory floors of revolution.

But who cares? It’s great music, with sweeping blockbuster melodies, strong beats bashing on percussion as big as life, and an endless catalogue of ideas about how to take everything from the past, mix it in with everything from the present, and to end up sounding like everything that will be the future.

Listen, for example, to “United States of Eurasia”, with its massive anthem-like vocal harmonies, soaring over symphonic strings, expansive electronics, all suddenly giving way to the sad, pensive sounds of a Chopin nocturne with a kind of post-apocalyptic rumble in the background. Could it really be possible to throw anything more into one song?

The songs always take unexpected turns into unexpected corners, down unexpected troughs, like the way the steady rock of “MK Ultra” suddenly starts to go flat, as if its music is crumbling to pieces along with the minds that fall apart as “they” break through the wall.

And then there’s the way the hammering noise of “I belong to you” abruptly falls away and is taken over by an aria from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Delilah (itself eventually transformed into hard rock, too, of course).

The album ends with a three part “symphony” called Exogenis, which at times sounds almost like something Philip Glass would write if he had access to hallucinogenic drugs, at times like a piano concerto written by the love child of Tchaikovsky and Freddie Mercury, and at times like what a real rock symphony should always have been.

Resistance is over-the-top, ostentatious. Even when its subtle it’s not subtle. It probably has enough delusions of grandeur, enough paranoia and enough megalomania to be certifiable. But sometimes it’s the madness of art that makes it so sensational.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A sax supreme - John Coltrane

I am probably one of the very few people, maybe even the only one, in the whole universe who, until recently, mainly knew of the saxophone as an instrument that sometimes joins symphonic orchestras for twentieth century music. Of course, I knew it was principally a jazz instrument – I had just never really listened to it playing jazz.

So, while I have now heard quite a bit of jazz sax over the past few months, I consider myself pretty lucky that my first really serious piece of saxophone listening has been John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme is an intensely personal work. It is Coltrane’s attempt to express his deeply felt spirituality in music that, for him, he could produce only because God helped him to do it. He wrote it as a hymn to his faith, and in the hope that it would ignite in other people the joy and love that he felt so intensely himself.

Whether you share his faith or not, this music is certainly inspirational, in the very deepest and best sense. It is so intricately integrated, instruments all trading themes and ideas with one another, so that nothing belongs to anyone but, rather to everyone. When you add this to the incredible ways these musicians improvise their ideas, you end up with a work of enormous organic creativity – one where you don’t just feel you are listening to a masterpiece, but that you are actually witnessing its creation.

The spiritual core glows through this music at every point, music that radiates its gratitude, love and joy. The music pulsates with life and lifeblood. Listen to the way the saxophone is pumped to life by the bass’s heartbeat in “Acknowledgement”, with a sprightly melody that jumps from register to register, like it is welcoming everyone and everything into its midst, singing with a voice so human that when Coltrane’s actual voice enters it seems more like another layer of the instrumentation than anything else. Or to the way the sax bursts in at the beginning of “Resolution”, with a melody that bounces with joy and that is then taken up and thrown in the air by McCoy Tyner’s piano, in an amazing feat of improvisation that eventually swaps back to Coltrane’s sax, as if the whole thing is some wonderful story that two people are just bursting to tell you.

“Pursuance” opens with an amazing drum solo from Elvin Jones, once again ushering in Coltrane with a tune that starts simply enough but transforms into more incredible improvisations on the piano and some ecstatic squeals of joy from the extreme heights of the sax. Here Coltrane takes his instrument into every nook and cranny of its capabilities. Whatever sort of spirit you believe in, this is music positively leaping to the heavens with it. The drum solo returns but soon gives way to an incredible solo bass passage from Jimmy Garrison – jaunty, funky rhythms interspersed with chords of sheer beauty. I have never heard the bass played with this much agility.

The final part is “Psalm”, a piece of intense grandeur – capturing, it seems, the real essence of that “love supreme” that gave the suite its title. Here the majestic cries of the sax are underpinned by awesome timpani rolls, massive chords on the piano, and a persistent, undulating bass, the unobtrusive backbone to this incredible piece of music.

I think the thing that astounds me most in this whole suite is the incredible way the musicians work with the music Coltrane gives them, taking themes and phrases and breathing more and more life into them and, just when you think it’s gone as far as it can, it goes further.

The saxophone has been a great addition to the classical orchestra, from its wonderful contribution to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition, through to the colours it brings to the characterisations in Alban Berg’s Lulu; but surely nowhere has it ever been more alive, more expressive, more musical than here in the hands of John Coltrane in A Love Supreme.