Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The new blog

Well, after a bit of fiddling around with designs and ideas and this and that, the new blog is, at last, up and running. Its focus is a little different than this one, and I hope to keep this one going as well, as I continue to marvel at all the wonderful music that I discover, pretty well literally every day.

But the new blog is a bit more about music on the edge - and, in fact, that's what I would have called it had the name no already been taken. So, instead, take a look at


Saturday, August 14, 2010

The resurrection of the blog

It has been about fifty squillion years since I last posted here, and it's been kind of nice to know that I'm not the only one who has been missing my blogging. So, it seems like it might be time to find the time to get things going again.

With both time and money more limited than I would like them to be, it's probably not going to be realistic to comment on an album a day in the way I did before, so I thought maybe a blog reborn might be able to be updated a couple of times a week, and maybe with a slightly different focus - albums, of course, but also discussions about music more generally: styles, trends, ideas, the things that make music work for us, the different ways music speaks to us, the different things it means to us, the different ways we discover it and connect to it.

It'd be great if I could get a few more people contributing to the blog, too ... not just by responding to my posts, but through contributing their own stuff as well. I'm not sure quite how to do that, but I'll have a bit of a think and a look around. Maybe a new site might be a good idea - perhaps through wordpress rather than blogspot.

Anyway, keep an eye on this space, and I'll get things up and running again soon!!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Revisting the lunar ladscape - the Flaming Lips does Dark Side of the Moon

At 15 years of age I cried inconsolably for hours when I discovered, in the recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I had finally managed to buy after what seemed like an eternity of saving my pocket money, that there was a line sung by a group of Valkyries which, according to the score, was supposed to be sung by only one. You see, I just don’t like people tampering with the original. And it’s an obsession that I have never really outgrown.

So it was with some trepidation that yesterday I bought The Flaming Lips’ new reworking of the entire Pink Floyd masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. But the Flaming Lips have been such an interesting band, and they seem to have a knack of doing such wacky things with music while still retaining both the music’s, and their own, dignity, that it was really impossible to avoid seeing what they had done with this music, which even today, 37 years after it was recorded, is still fairly universally hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Taking on something as iconic as Dark Side of the Moon calls for an incredible sense of balance between, on the one hand, loyalty to the original and, on the other hand, recasting it into a new light. You have to find the right mix of flavours – the known taste of the old and familiar and trusted, and the surprise of the new and unknown. Have too much of the first, and you are really just doing a cheap and probably uncreative copy; have too much of the second, and you will have destroyed something great and people will hate you forever.

It was a balance which somehow Hans Zender miraculously managed to find, I think, when he recast Schubert’s awesomely devastating song cycle Winterreise for modern chamber ensemble and it seems that The Flaming Lips might just have managed to pull off the same thing here too.

Their version, clocking in at one minute shorter than Pink Floyd’s, follows the original pretty well note for note. But the notes are given here a 21st century makeover, troubled and harangued by a world where the descent into madness is a global phenomenon, where it is the society, rather than the individuals who inhabit it, that is sick. The music here is given a coarser, more jagged edge, an electronic intensity that cuts into veins that the original flowed through.

So here the old alarm clock that ushers in ‘Time’ has become a harsh, grating siren; the passionate howls of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ have become tortured, anguished screams; there’s an extra urgency to ‘On the Run’ where, as in so many places on this album, it seems that the private suffering of the original has been taken up by a whole world of crazed souls, spiralling downwards in a black hole of torment.

And yet in all of this, there’s always a certain tongue-in-cheekness about it all, and you are never entirely sure how seriously you are meant to be taking it. Listen, for example, to their quirky, almost jaunty version of ‘Money’, which, both confronting and humorous, somehow manages to just fall short of parody. You can’t help but feeling that the Flaming Lips, with their expanded ensemble including Star Death and White Dwarfs and Henry Rollins and Peaches, are having oodles of fun making this recording, even in its darkest moments.

‘Us and Them’ sounds perhaps even lonelier and creepier here than when Pink Floyd did it, the saxophone of the original now replaced by freaky electric plucked noise; ‘Brain Damage’ brings tears to the eyes, just as it always has done, the background choir now transformed into an electronic, space-age sort of whirring sound, almost like something from a B-grade science fiction movie, but haunting in a way that only The Flaming Lips could really manage to make it.

By time the cast come to the footlights with the anthemic final words of ‘Eclipse’, you feel that the journey you’ve been on has, once again, been an epic one. The landmarks that you remember so well from 1973 are all still there – transformed, painted in new and sometimes garish colours – and, while you will still want to go back and look at your mementos of the original trip, seeing it again as it has become today, is still a wonderful, and disturbing, thing.

I might never know why all those extra Valkyries sang that line in my first ever recording of The Ring – but I can certainly see why The Flaming Lips chose to do what they did the Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe this is what I needed to enable me to move on.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A bit of an update ...

Well I know it's been a long time between drinks as far as posting onto the blog has been concerned - but it has by no means been a drought when it comes to music discoveries over the past few weeks.

With time colluding against me as it has been of late (albeit for happy reasons) I have nothing even vaguely approaching the time to write about the music I've been listening to in anything like the detail it deserves; and yet some of it has been so extraordinary that, even in the busiest of schedules, it would be criminal not to at least mention it.

Probably the first of these is the most recent - a trio of bands that played at Melbourne's Evelyn Hotel in Brunswick Street Fitzroy last Saturday night. They were the Brothers Grim & the Blue Murders; Kira Puru & the Very Geordie Marones; and Mojo Juju & the Snake Oil Merchants. I was at the gig because I had heard the last of these on the ever-reliable PBS Breakfast Spread a few days earlier and so was already ready for what a stunning act they were going to be, with their gutsy, punky, brooding cabaret music - the sort of thing that Brecht and Weill might have written had they lived now rather than seventy odd years ago.

But what I wasn't ready for was the sensational acts that supported them - raw and rugged blues-roots from Brothers Grim and then some shady, wine-soaked soul from Kira Puru - a voice with that shivers-down-your-spine sort of dark, archetypal beauty that lures men and women to their doom.

All of these artists had new CDs on sale at the door and, needless to say, I bought them all. You can read a little more about the night, and my thoughts on it, at the PBS website ( in the reviews section.

The other big discovery over the past few weeks, again thanks to the PBS Breakfast Spread, was a fantastic Melbourne-based music performance project called The Escalators. Their debut CD Wrapped in Plastic is the sort of music you put on when you have been able to hit the pause button on everything else that's happening around you, and you can let yourself just be swept away in its flow: a flow that, carried along by the tides of abstract, improvised jazz, follows no pre-mapped course, takes you along routes and through places that no GPS could pinpoint, but that, in its seamless, organic way, seems to reach into something deep and secret within you, touching the quiet places, like in 'Log Lady', or the chaotic places, like in 'James: Boy on a Motorcycle'. It is music inspired by the filmwork of David Lynch and shares the dark abstraction that is so much his trademark. It's music that creates itself from its own seed and grows by the rules set out in its own DNA and, as such, seems to bring order and disorder together. It's like the sort of jazz you might expect to hear in a space where your senses are let go for a while, leaving you feeling kind of unsettled in places, kind of haunted even, and yet you can't escape the feeling that this is music that grows out of things that you yourself are part of - music that alienates you and embraces you in the one breath. Drug-induced jazz, perhaps.

And so far, I've only been able to touch on the locals. There was the wonderful discovery of Joanna Newsom, too, with that remarkable voice of hers, half child-like, half wraith-like, and her stream-of-consciousness music in her 2006 album Ys and her 2010 epic Have One On Me; there was the expansive metal of My Dying Bride, the lush lounge of the new release from U.N.K.L.E, Where Did the Night Fall, and heaps of amazing stuff from 1980s experimentalists Nurse With Wound, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Cabaret Voltaire and, more recently, Current 93.

And then there was the unspeakably moving blues of Eric Bibb's Booker's Guitar and, of course, lots and lots of Diamanda Galas who, I am convinced, can take any music, hold it by the throat, and make it do exactly what she wants it to do - which is always something staggeringly powerful: music that thrusts four octavs of nightmares into your head and makes you actually want to confront them.

So, all in all, not a bad way to spend a few blog-free weeks!!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Where have all the flowers .... er, I mean blog posts ... gone?

Well, I'm the first to admit that my attendance to this blog (although not to music) has been a bit slack of late. Which is a shame, really, because writing about music is something that I enjoy almost as much as I enjoying listening to music. But the reality is, of late, time just seems to have been mitigating even my most robust attempts to put aside enough time each day to write this blog, to the point where, every now and then, I have approached the blog in much the same spirit that I approach washing the dishes, which was the last thing that either I wanted or that the music I write about deserves.

So, for that reason, I've decided to take a step back from this blog for the moment - not to abandon it, but just to visit it a little less regularly. The fact is, though, that I keep continuing to discover so much fantastic new music, almost daily, that there are still going to be plenty of times, I'm sure, where I'm just not going to be able stop myself from jumping on here and babbling on about it.

I'm sorry and kind of sad to be shying away from my initial aim, several months ago now, to write about music every day but it's been a lod of fun so far, and I know it will continue to be so in the future too. Just not so often.

I'm not at all sure how many people are continuing to read the posts here - but even sporadic responses to my posts here have been a great thrill for me: a bit, I imagine, like the way late night radio broadcasters feel when someone rings them up and lets them know they're listening.

So a billion thanks to everyone who has popped on here over the past few months and had their bit to say - especially some of my "regulars": Marty R, Patrick, Greg and Matt and Jenny at PBS.

Mind you, there's no reason for my lack of posting to be an excuse for anyone else to follow suit - just put in a reply to this post whenever you feel like it, and especially when you're listening to some music that you think the rest of the world should know about, even in a hundred years if you want to, and we'll see if we can get the ball rolling again!

But for now .... ciao for niao!!


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sailing across the Styx with Swans, 'Soundtracks for the Blind'

I have already written here about Michael Gira (see 26th March) and was so intrigued by the way he managed to get so many twists and turns into his music that it was pretty well inevitable that before long I would plunge into the band for which, I gather, he is most famous – the New York experimental art rock band of the 80s and early 90s, Swans.

Like so many experimental musicians, Swans was a band that never stayed in the one place for long and, in some ways, their musical development was not unlike that of Einstürzende Neubauten, beginning with extremely harsh, industrial-peppered noise and, in time, mellowing their sound into something rather more acoustic and ambient, but still just as disturbing and confronting.

With just over two hours of music, their final album Soundtracks for the Blind, is a pretty mammoth listen. But it covers so much territory, sampling and building on pretty well every phase of this fascinating band’s musical lifespan, that even after 26 tracks, you feel not a moment of it has been wasted.

And yet it would be doing this album an enormous disservice to simply describe it as some sort of cobbled-together compilation of their earlier work. It’s an album which, even with its incredible diversity of music and styles, still has an amazing – epic, even – unity to it, as if to show us that all those strange bits and pieces that the band had been accumulating over the past fifteen or so years really did belong together after all. Soundtracks for the Blind is not just a survey of Swans’ work, but the consummation of it.

The music’s unity is characterised by a few things: its daringness, the enormous spaces it seems to invoke, the vastness of its sound, its cosmic darkness, the slowed-down grandeur of its beat – music that is no longer just rock, but now granite. It’s music that shows that there’s more than just one way to explore the shadows.

But, within all of that, there’s incredible diversity as well. There are soft moments, like the gently undulating opener, 'Red Velvet Corridor', sounding vast and shadowy, but in a way that makes you feel that this journey into the night is going to be a peaceful one. Which, of course, it’s not. It’s journey that is, at best, unnerving – at worst, downright terrifying.

There are the big epic tracks like ‘Helpless Child’ and ‘The Sound’, where Michael Gira’s dark voice, full of foreboding, alternates with long passages of monolithic instrumentals. There are creepy child-like vocals weaving their way through rich, thick oceans of sound in ‘The Beautiful Days’, while ‘I Love You This Much’ blasts out electronic clamour, turning feedback into a sinister flurry of sound, pounded with piercing spurts of noise. There are unusual, and unusually disturbing snippets of recorded messages in tracks like ‘I Was a Prisoner in your Skull’ and ‘Minus Something’; and there’s the grim and aptly titled closing track, ‘Surrogate Drone’ There are wonderful contributions from Jarboe, like her gruff and gritty voice against military drums and heavy bass guitars in the live ‘Yum-Yab Killers’.

Soundtracks for the Blind creates its vast and varied images through an incredibly powerful use of sound – sound where melody and rhythm have been pared down to their skeletal minimum, and where the bones that are left have instead been draped in thick, rich garments of sound, that grow and loom way, way above you casting shadows, frightening and awful.

It is an aptly titled album because the thing you most need to do to really appreciate Soundtracks for the Blind is to shut out everything around you, so that there is nothing left other than the music to weave its way into those dark, rarely touched, recesses of your mind, where even your eyes don’t let the light in.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Classic rock rediscovered and repackaged: 'Love' by The Cult

With the irresistibly lavish packaging of the British recording company Beggars Banquet’s Omnibus Editions, and the man at Heartland Records telling me that this is one of the greatest and yet most inexplicably underrated of all rock albums, I really had little choice the other day but to buy The Cult’s 1985 album Love.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t know much about The Cult until I bought this album, but it’s solid, tightly beaten rock, with just the right tinge of darkness to draw me in at the album’s opening ‘Nirvana’, certainly conjures up much of the almost gothic feel of Britain’s mid 80’s post punk period, shunning the keyboard-driven excesses of prog rock and instead creating its big, full, engulfing sounds with fantastically strong playing of the tried and trusted staples of rock – some guitars, some drums and some vocals. There are some keyboards there, too, but Love is an album that seems more intent on doing a lot with a little, creating its effects by the tautness of its playing, tense, tight guitar work over hard drums, and Ian Astbury’s vocals with their understated gloom, maybe nowhere more powerful than in ‘Brother Wolf, Sister Moon’, where his voice sings and cries above the simple, darkened arpeggios of William H Duffy’s electric guitars.

There’s discipline in this music that, were it not for the conviction and talent of the musicians, could almost make the album sound restrained – but, instead, it just makes it sound all the more potent, like a volcano on the edge of eruption.

There’s the fantastic way notes and chords slide up and back down to one another throughout ‘Rain’, with drums and guitars pelting down in their own storm of hail and sleet, music that revels in the cold, chilled world it creates around you; there’s the awesomely good rock of ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, literally aflame with energy, while a heavy, solid bass line keeps your feet on the ground, so you can’t really escape the sparks that fly in all directions around you, singeing you; there’s the elegiac ‘Black Angel’, music that takes the album, and you with it, into a dark, mysterious emptiness, sailing into a black and barren, far-away horizon.

The sound, especially the vocals, has a dark, cavernous acoustic, giving the music a feeling of some sort of looming doom or, where there’s not doom, of post-apocalypse, like in ‘Phoenix’, where human desire rises from the ashes of destruction and chaos, amidst wild, passionate guitars, burning with primal lust.

Love is one of those albums that people like me listen to and wonder why we neglected the rock genre for so long; but it’s also an album that even those who lived the genre for decades could, it seems, easily have missed – for no reason, it seems, other than it never really got into the limelight of the American market, which only goes to show yet again how fickle and unreliable the marketplace can be.

Love is not an album that smashes down the walls of convention – but, in capturing the dark side of British post-punk so well, so expertly, it leaves its own unique footprints on a musical territory that even now many of us are too easily taking for granted, musical territory that even now, decades after its discovery, is still showing up new little nooks and crannies that many of us didn’t know were there.

This would be classic album, even without the packaging.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The gutsy voice of Ute Lemper and the Weill/Brecht masterpiece 'Die Sieben Todsünden'

In keeping with the religious themes of the past few days’ blogging, and of the season, it seemed appropriate today to turn back to a piece of music that I wrote about here some months ago, the Kurt Weill/Betolt Brecht collaboration Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) (see 9th December 2009). The version I focussed on back then was the English translation, sung so effectively by Marianne Faithfull, but today I thought I’d go back to the German original, albeit in a version transcribed for low voice, sung by the woman who, after Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya, must surely be one of the leading exponents of his music – Ute Lemper.

As great and all as Marianne Faithfull’s version is, there is something about the music of Kurt Weill, not to mention the words by Bertolt Brecht, that never sounds so inherently right as when it is sung in German. It is music that conjures up images of the Berlin cabarets of the 1930s, even when it is performed with a full orchestra, like it is here and the gutsy, musky voice of Ute Lemper fits in just perfectly.

The music of Kurt Weill straddles the classical and low-brow stage genres and, when it’s peppered with the satirical genius of Bertolt Brecht, as it often is, the results can be amongst the most plucky, powerful stuff ever to come from the 20th century.

But the challenge is to get the right voice for it. A lot of people savagely maligned the singing of Lotte Lenya who, they argued, really couldn’t sing at all. Personally, I’ve always thought she was just right for those strident, demimonde characters that Weill and Brecht so cleverly created, characters which both composer and librettist intended to be singing actors, rather than acting singers.

Ute Lemper arguably tips the scales slightly in the opposite direction. Hers is a much more musical voice than Lenya’s, but by no means operatic or classical and still very much the voice of the stages of nightclubs rather than of operas. But she can capture the whimsical jazz-like lilt of the prologue as convincingly as she captures the raucous gutsiness of ‘Neid’ (Envy). She bellows when she needs to, like in ‘Zorn’ (Anger), while still managing to catch just the right level of detachment and emptiness needed for ‘Unzucht’ (Lust).

Die Sieben Todsünden is, of course, a parable about capitalism. It should never sound sentimental, despite the sad, sorrowful thread that weaves through its story. Its edges should be rough and uneven, and even the passages written for the operatic quartet of the two Annas’ family (two tenors and a baritone for their brothers and father, a bass for their mother), should sound grotesque rather than cultivated and refined.

All of that is achieved wonderfully on this recording, even if some of the speeds are a little slower than I am used to. The family is sung by a pretty honourable quartet of German opera singers, the orchestra is conducted by John Mauceri, one of Leonard Bernstein’s most successful protégés, but the show really belongs to Ute Lemper who seems here to be able to mix all seven of the deadly sins into one awesomely entrancing melting pot of music – sexy, intrepid, indomitable.

Die Sieben Todsünden is, I think, even counting Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s best collaboration – short and snappy but incredibly powerful and, of course, great music. And if you can only ever have one recording of it, you could do much worse than picking this one, with Ute Lemper.

Thanks to Lucas for prodding me to listen to it today!

Friday, April 2, 2010

The universal message and heresy of Easter - Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass

If there is a message that all of us can do well to hear on Easter Friday, regardless of what we believe, it’s that suffering and persecution in the name of religion and bigotry seems to have always been a part of the human experience. And perhaps the conventional church’s condemnation of Diamanda Galás comes not so much from its reaction to her alleged heresy, as from its uneasiness with her accusations of its own hypocrisy and with her powerful message that it was not just the carpenter from Nazareth who suffered unjustly in the name of the established Church of the day.

Her Plague Mass is one of her most catastrophic works, written and performed in the name of people who have lived and died with HIV/AIDS. It’s a work that evolved over several years and is available on CD in a few different incarnations. The last of these is her live recording from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, where she performed the Mass in October 1990, presumably without the church really knowing what they were in for or what they had consented to. This performance brings together excerpts from the earlier Masque of the Red Death, also available on CD, as well as adding some new material.

For an obsessive compulsive completist such as myself, it’s pretty disappointing that this recording omits some of the original 95 minute performance in order to fit the whole thing onto one CD, and I have little doubt that anyone who is prepared to immerse themselves in this music would have been more than happy to have paid a little extra for a double CD.

But, even so, it is a phenomenal recording and, cut though it may be, represents that last version of this seminal work, and the only recording to capture it at its most powerful - as a performance piece.

After the opening ‘Were You a Witness’, where declaimed and violent speech weaves in amongst a frightening rendition of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’, a pounding drum beat ushers in ‘This is the Law of the Plague’, dragging the music along with haunted chanting from male voices while Diamanda’s wild and bilious voice spits out its venom, its screechingly high notes, its accusations and its madness, music that takes you right into the very heart of unholy rage, crazed with hysterical terror, spewed out in the texts of Old Testament venom and pleas for deliverance.

These wild, unbridled dialogues between rage and horror, Diamanda shifting her voice from register to register, moving between ferocity and ferocity, from screeches to wails to mad babble, are what dominate the whole of this overwhelmingly powerful performance. The texts are taken from some of the Bible’s most gruesome passages, like the horrific visions of apocalypse from the Book of Revelations in ‘How Shall Our Judgement Be Carried Out On The Wicked’, as well as from Diamanda’s own texts, just as brutal and confronting, like the way her wild crazed frenzy gives way suddenly to her guttural cry, “Give me sodomy or give me death”.

You will be shattered by the intensity of it all, like the chorus of screams against the pounding drumbeat in which ‘Let Us Praise the Masters of Slow Death’ climaxes; you will shudder at the solemn horror of ‘Consecration’; you will be confronted by the indictments of moral pomposity and human indifference, staggered by the things that she does with her voice, arrested by the way she turns unrelenting ugliness into art that holds you, aghast, in its grip from beginning to end.

This is music that totally consumes you and everything around you. There is no way to listen to it other than to give it your undivided attention, to let yourself be carried away in its iron grip, to let it shake you and shackle you, to let its cavernous sounds, as they bounce off the cathedral walls, swarm around you and enshroud you, to let yourself march along to the sombre funeral march of ‘Sono l’Antichristo’, to add your plaintive moans to hers in the devastating ‘Cris d’Aveugle: Blind Man’s Cry’ or in her crushing version of ‘Let My People Go’ and her words “O Lord Jesus, do you think I’ve served my time … The eight legs of the Devil will not let my people go”.

As you might expect with Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass is utterly uncompromising. It is frightening, fierce and freaky and it would be impossible to listen to it without being deeply affected by its untamed ferocity. It is music from the heart of horror, minimalist and yet boundless, and you need to be ready for it to give you nightmares.

But when human horrors are committed in the name of holiness, when evil parades as virtue, we are meant to feel unsettled.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music for Easter? Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, 'Shut Up and Bleed'

At this time of year, where Jesus gets so much press, I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to be listening to something vaguely on topic and, while Lydia Lunch’s first and shortly lived band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and their compilation album Shut Up and Bleed, is probably not what most of the Christian community would be listening to today, there was enough of a link to make it feel appropriate for me.

Lydia Lunch (see 25th March) formed Teenage Jesus & the Jerks when she was only 17 years old and the band lasted only for a couple of years. But it was enough time for to encapsulate the essence of the New York underground no wave movement – the short-lived but nevertheless influential reaction to punk, deliberately unmusical, harsh and uncomfortable, using guitars and drums and vocals as weapons against, rather than as instruments for, the expression of rock and punk.

There’s an unabashed pride from Lydia Lunch, and her musical comrades, in their inability to play their instruments properly or to be able to sing in key. But there is surely a certain deliberate irony in that because these musicians don’t for a moment play their music badly. But what they do do, arguably, is play bad music very, very well.

Bad music? Yes – bad in the sense of totally unruly, misbehaved, disrespectful. Something that would be expelled from any half reputable school of music. Music that sticks sharp things in your ears; music that hasn’t been toilet-trained; music with psycho-socio-pathological tendencies that even enlightened governments create special laws for, to keep it off the streets.

Shut Up and Bleed is a collection of pretty well all the music recorded by Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. And even though most of the tracks are pretty short, and some of them (‘Red Alert’, ‘Freud in Flop’, ‘Crown of Thorns’ and ‘Eliminate by Night’) are very short, and even though there are several versions of many of them, at 29 tracks this is a pretty generous recording.

Most of the music here is marked by its raucous, bashed-out slabs of notes – not exactly chords – dragging along one minute, pounding away the next, always with a sense much more of place than of direction. This is not music that seems to want to go anywhere, but rather to just let itself loose from where it is. Lydia herself screams out her half-spoken, half-shouted vocals, often in unison with drums and guitars, which, like in ‘The Closet’ or ‘Less of Me’, have their own dialogue with her, screeching rather than riffing, music that feels physical pain as much as it inflicts it.

Then there are tracks like ‘I Woke Up Dreaming’ and ‘See Pretty’, weighed down and heavy, with a bass line and a beat that trudges along, thumping to a pulp everything in its path, with vocals, dislocated and alien, beating out the words, more a percussion instrument than something to sing with. And then there are tracks like ‘Tornado Warnings’ and ‘Sidewalk’ where noise is the protagonist and music, its shadow.

Teenage Jesus & the Jerks may only have been around for a short time, and today there are a lot, lot more people who have not heard of them than there are those who have – but, even so, their influence on music was pretty important. Their music, created in the late 1970s, might not have been the major inspiration for movements such as industrial and noise, but it certainly helped to influence them, and the way it was not content just to pull music apart, but had to go the full hog and smash it to pieces, set the stage for many of its followers to rebuild it anew.

Shut Up and Bleed is hard, gritty stuff – but, as the Christians keep telling us this time of year, suffering is a vital stop along the path to redemption. But what they don’t tell you is that Teenage Jesus & the Jerks is one helluva good way to suffer.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Age, adventure and accessibility in music ... what direction are we going?

Well, once again, it's good to be back and, while I have been listening to some great music over the past few days, I thought that instead of writing about that at the moment I would rather talk about an issue that has been playing on my mind a little for some time - the question of how musicans seem to change the style and flavour of their music over time.

In classical music it is pretty well axiomatic that composers' later music is more adventurous, less conventional, than their early music. The early music of people like Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, even Mozart, is much, much simpler, easier to understand, even easier to listen to, than their later work, which generally breaks more rules, explores more uncharted territory, and is more innovative and daring.

And yet in non-classical music, it seems, more often than not, to be the other way around. Bands start out breaking all the rules, creating and playing music that respects few if any boundaries and then slowly, over time, their music becomes more mellow, more accessible, more 'popular'.

Of course, my own knowledge of the whole vast non-classical domain is still very scanty and it's likely that for every example I could cite of musicians moving in one direction, someone could cite examples of others moving in the other. And yet it's a trend that seems to be prevalent enough and wide enough, at least in much of the music I have been listening to, to have made a impression on me. I look at bands like my beloved Einstürzende Neubauten, the music of Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, Hunters & Collectors, Swans, Muse, Tori Amos, Diamanda Galás - and, for the most part, their earlier music seems more uncompromising, more "out there", than their later work.

Obviously, there are exceptions - musicians like David Sylvian and Scott Walker, for example, and even to some extent Björk, who have done some incredibly daring stuff in their later albums. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

I'm not sure why this is and, while it would be tempting to ascribe it all to the pressures of commercialism, and the need to produce music that sells, I'm not sure that that explains it totally. A band like Einstürzende Neubauten, for example, never seem to have been particularly fussed about commercial success and, at any rate, great artists - which many of today's musicians clearly are - can never really stem the flow of their creative juices, no matter how strong the pressure to make a buck might be.

Even Wagner, who was as easily seduced by the lure of a few extra Deutsch Marks as anyone could possibly be, and who decided to temporarily abandon his massive, epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and to instead put his energies into something that would bring in some money and to therefore write a popular romantic opera ended up in fact writing Tristan und Isolde, a work that has been credited with revolutionising modern harmony, and turning music into an entirely new direction forever.

So, what is it that drives these changes in style and appoach in today's musicians? How big a part does the demands of an increasingly commercialised music industry really play, or is it just that we now live in times where we become more mellow, rather than more daring, in our old age? Or to people just run out of new ideas?

Or have I got it all wrong anyway and is the real story that today's musicians, every bit as much as yesterday's, still do become more adventurous as they develop and mature, and I have just been listening to the wrong stuff, or listening in the wrong way?

Thoughts would be very welcome ... !!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Feelin' good in The Promised Land with Lil' Band O' Gold

I will freely admit that I have been focussing on some pretty hard and heavy music over the past little while and so it seemed only right that today, just as I am about to vacate my blogging responsibilities yet again for another few days, that I at least leave you with something a little sunnier. And, as usual when I am trying to think of something new to turn my attention to, the 3 PBS FM Breakfast Spread has again come to the rescue with an album they have been playing quite a bit over the past few weeks – The Promised Land, a brand new release from Louisiana based swamp pop supergroup, The Lil’ Band O’ Gold – who, incidentally, are playing in Melbourne today at yet another gig that I failed to organise myself for.

I gather, from what I have heard and read, that every member of this band is famous for something or other in their different musical histories, with names like David Egan, Richard Comeaux, Dickie Landry, Warren Storm, CC Adrock, Steve Riley, Pat Breaux, Dave Ranson, Kenny Bill Stinson, Tommy McLain and Lil’ Buck Sinegal. But, needless to say, I haven’t heard of any of them and so have been in the rather delightful position today of being able to just sit back and listen to their music without having much of an idea of what to expect. Which made what I discovered only all the more wonderful.

The lively dancing rhythm and blues of the opening ‘Spoonbread’ take you right into the dance halls of rural Louisiana and that’s where you stay for the whole of The Promised Land, having a whale of a time, even when you are shedding a tear or two to ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’, or to ‘Hard Enough’, or even sobbing out loud to ‘Memories’(despite its unashamed sentimentality), made just that little bit sadder by the way the saxophone sings so inconsolably in the middle.

But the feeling that sticks with you most of all through this album is the unbridled joy that The Lil’ Band O’ Gold seem to have in performing it, adorning those earthy, rustic zydeco textures with the extra little bit of richness that comes when you add in a couple of saxophones and some keys, breathing new life and colour into old faded sepia photographs so that, even when it’s bopping and pounding to a rock beat, like it is in ‘Runaway’s Life’, it feels like it has transported you back right into the midst of times that you only know about from stories that your grandparents told you.

This is the music that you listen to when you’re having a bad day, and it will turn it into a good day; music that makes you feel all warm and good inside, like you do after eating macaroni cheese; music that makes you want to dance the old fashioned way and to dress up to listen to it; music that makes you feel all warm and nostalgic, like it does in ‘Dreamer’ with its old and friendly piano.

But don’t for a moment think that this is just a modern copy of old music, because it’s not. It captures a spirit, a time, a place, and delivers it to you, resurrected and amplified for the 21st century – like in the big and booming sounds of ‘The Last Hayride’ – from the hands of a team of musicians who clearly love what they do, and who love the roots from which they have sprung enough to keep them alive by allowing them to continue to bloom anew.

Wherever you are, wherever you’ve been, and wherever you thought you wanted to go, The Promised Land is a place in which you need to spend some time. It will do you good.

Thanks, as always, to Matt and Jenny on the PBS Breakfast Spread for their unerringly great choices of music to kick off the day and to fuel yet another little spurt of economy stimulating possibilities for me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A big comfy bed with bumps – Angels of Light and ‘We Are Him’

I don’t know if there is such a thing a country post-punk but, if there is, I think I have been listening to a cracking good example of it today. I stumbled across today’s music only a couple of days ago, when I was, not surprisingly, browsing through an Einstürzende Neubauten forum, seeing what other EN fans were listening to, and discovered a clip of a bloke called Michael Gira singing a song called ‘My Brother’s Man’, and was fascinated by its gritty originality. I did some research and pretty soon learned that Michael Gira had been dubbed the Nick Cave of America, that he had led an interesting experimental rock band called Swans, and then a somewhat mellower, but no less interesting, one called Angels of Light and that the song I had just listened to was part of their 2007 album, We Are Him.

So I went out and bought it and, while it doesn’t sound really anything like Einstürzende Neubauten, I can see why a follower would want to listen to this, too.

The comparisons with Nick Cave are perhaps a bit misleading, but not entirely. Listen to the way the vocals howl to command in ‘Promise of Water’, for example, against an unrelenting, slow, steady beat, or to the disgruntled grunginess of ‘My Brother’s Man’, the song that got me here in the first place, with its rich yet ruthless layers of sound, electronic noise whirring against heavy pounding guitars, or to the sick, hypnotic lure of Gira’s dark, gravel-worn vocals in ‘Not Here/Not Now’, and you feel some of that same animalistic grotesquery that Nick Cave is so famous for.

But there are quieter moments here, too – moments that almost border on being tender, like in the first half of ‘Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You’ – and, even though you feel it’s with poisoned lips that the music is kissing you, and even though the gentle moments always give way to the harsh ones, it has a subtlety that, for me at least, Nick Cave never really seems (nor wants) to capture.

Within songs, even more than between them, the music alternates between passages of full, strapping sound, like in ‘The Man We Left Behind’, elaborately orchestrated with electrics and acoustics blending like family, and moments that are more sparse and empty, a voice singing an almost conventional country ballad against an acoustic guitar strumming a few almost conventional chords.

But nothing’s conventional here and the originality of this music lies in the “almost”. ‘The Man We Left Behind’ is, after all, a song about addictions that still hold you and its overstated simplicity is really just a deception to make you think that its message is benign.

What you notice all throughout this album are the ways – the little ways as much as the big ways – in which things divert from music’s more well-trodden paths. Listen, for example, to the way the title song gives a droning, haunted hue to what would otherwise sound almost like gospel music, or to the twisted sarcasm given to the jaunty, jolly banjo of ‘Good Bye Mary Lou’, partly by the heavy thud of the beat beneath it, partly by the uncompromising bitterness of the lyrics above it (“Paint your face and sharpen your teeth. Choke yourself on ancient meat. Mary Lou – Fuck you”).

‘Star Chaser’ closes the album, sad and elegiac for something that is lost but that leaves demons not yet fully exorcised, as Gira’s final words “You live on in me …” are sung over and over in music that builds and builds, searching for a climax that it never finds and instead dies suddenly away, its unresolved passion left lingering in you, long after Gira and his Angels of Light have moved on.

The music of We Are Him is not difficult to like but that doesn’t mean that it’s straightforward. If anything, it’s its accessibility that makes it so interesting, so unique – music that gives a new twist on the familiar; music that looks like a big comfy bed but turns out to have a whole lot of sharp and bumpy bits in it that never allow you to really rest.

It’s all told in the album’s cover – a cute, brightly coloured painting of a cuddly doggy in a shirt and tie, and of pussy cat in a police uniform, surrounded by little birds and cakes and a teddy bear: it’d all be sweet and adorable, were it not for the bones, the gravestones and the ominous black raven that are there, too.

This music is a great way of discovering that the cosiness of country and the punchiness of post-punk are not really that far apart after all and, just as you discover dark things hidden in the uneasy quiet of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Silence is Sexy (see 17th February) so, too, do you discover them here in the shifting changing moodiness of Angels of Light’s We Are Him.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The sultry, surly sexiness of Lydia Lunch, 'Queen of Siam'.

As I go through this phase in my life where, it seems, all musical roads lead to (or, more often, from) Einstürzende Neubauten, it is perhaps not surprising that it was while listening to Kalte Stern, their compilation album of early recordings, that I first discovered Lydia Lunch, providing the weird and wacky declamatory vocals for ‘Thirsty Animal’.

It was an interesting enough voice, yelling and tottering on the edge between music and speech, to inspire me to seek out her debut solo album, Queen of Siam, released in 1980, amidst the New York aftershocks of underground no wave post-punk.

It’s hard to describe this music – identifiable perhaps more by what it isn’t than by what it is. In some ways it’s a kind of anti-music: slightly off-key, spoken more than sung, flirting with jazz and blues without actually really embracing them, let alone committing to them, while still holding onto its love/hate affair with punk, pretending to be its subservient, compliant slave, while all the time cheating behind its back.

You get the best sense of where this album is taking you in its opening track, ‘Mechanical Flattery’, sultry and steamy, where a kind of drug-fuzzed sexuality stretches itself out in front of you, seducing you and repelling you at the same time.

She whispers her way through ‘Gloomy Sunday’, making it sound utterly freaky, as if she is already halfway dead, leaving ‘Tied and Twist’, with its dirge-like pace and a melody that always falls off the note, to play at the funeral.

Things become a little more upbeat with ‘Spooky’, seductive and playful, but you can’t entirely escape the feeling that you’re playing with the devil and, by ‘Los Banditos’, you get the sense that the music is feeding you poison while it's swinging its hips in front of you.

So even when the music is lazing along in the doldrums, like in the menacing, strolling, omni-hating ‘Knives in the Drain’, it has a sordid sexiness to it, but it’s a sexiness that, even in its most energetic moments, like in the purely instrumental, jazz-tinged ‘A Cruise to the Moon’, is always more than just a little surly or, like in ‘Carnival Fat Man’, jaunty and grotesque, even downright rude.

The album closes with ‘Blood of Tin’, a short, crazed stream of (un)musical consciousness that goes nowhere, leaving the music, and you, hanging, wondering where you’ve been and where you are, unsettled and yet strangely lured into this weird, glazed-over world.

Queen of Siam is music that deliberately doesn’t fit in. It’s music that stands on dark street corners, on its own, homeless, half-dressed, half-naked. But don’t dare assume that it’s for sale or it’s likely to sock you in the mouth.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Armenian lament - Diamanda Galás and Defixiones, Will and Testament

Well, it’s nice to be back. And if there’s one good thing about neglecting this blog for nearly a week, it’s that it has at least given me time to find something that I really didn’t expect to find – an appropriate segue for last weeks Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (see 18th March).

As I mentioned at the time, the highlight of that album was, for me, the devastatingly powerful ‘Armenia’. Blixa Bargeld himself once noted that Einstürzende Neubauten’s song titles often have nothing to do with the content of the song, and so I have really no idea whether ‘Armenia’ is about Armenia or not, but it was nevertheless enough to get me listening to Diamanda Galás’s Defixiones, Will and Testament, her utterly shattering elegy to the victims of the early 20th century genocide of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek people.

There are only a couple of degrees of musical separation between Einstürzende Neubauten and Diamanda Galás, both pulling traditional music to pieces and putting it back together again in ways that confront you, in ways that are meant to sound hard and unpleasant, both creating music by taking sound and voice to their most unmusical extremes.

While Diamanda Galás can certainly produce an awesomely good album of conventional(ish) songs (albeit it in a totally unconventional way) (see 19th October, 2009) she is surely at her best when she produces her single-vision works that take an idea, bash it and smash it and drench it of everything it has to give, and mould it all into a solid monolith of artistic brilliance. She did it in Plague Mass, her lament for the religious, political and social slaughter committed in world’s response to HIV/AIDS, and she has achieved it again in this, her indictment not just of the atrocities of one war, but of all the wars that raged then and now and that will rage into the future, where, be it by bullets or bombs or indifference, humans mutilate and massacre each other.

Defixiones, Will and Testament is a lament but, as you might expect from Diamanda Galás, with her terrifyingly gruesome voice, snarling at the bottom of the human register, screeching at its heights, and her pounding out of savage discords on the piano, there is not a hint of sentimentality here. The thousands upon millions of dead souls that cry out here are made strong in death, and they are relentless in their accusations not only of their killers, but of all of us who have stood by and watched them die.

The music itself is a chillingly effective mix of influences – everything from the traditional music of the lamented people through to avant-garde opera – Diamanda’s voice spanning its famous four octave range with the sort of commanding power that knocks you over from the moment you hear its wailing chant, as high as the sky one moment, as deep as the underworld the next, against a stony subterranean drone, in the opening incantation ‘Ter Vogomia’, itself the first part of the mammoth six part almost liturgical opening, ‘The Dance’, taking us into the very blackest heart of genocidal hatred and torment.

Diamanda’s voice moves from sombre chanting to half spoken recitation to mournful moans to gut-wrenching cries of anger and anguish, sometimes supported by her ferocious piano work, sometimes by that static, haunted drone, sometimes with the winds of uncounted years of unnamed deserts blowing, empty, in the distance, sometimes, like in the harrowing ‘Holokaftoma’, with the screams of what sounds like a whole race of slaughtered spirits.

There’s the sad, sorrowful song of a boys’ choir, singing excerpts of an Assyrian Mass against a recitation of martyrdom at the hands of Ottoman butchers in ‘The Eagle of Tkhuma’; the sombre drum beat of ‘Orders from the Dead’ pounding beneath Diamanda’s grim accusations from the slaughtered masses, “the man unburied who cannot sleep in forty pieces … the girl, dismembered and unblessed”. There’s the wild shifts of mood, from demented screams to listless quiet in ‘Je Rame’ (I row), and the way ‘Artémis’ seems to shift from a ghostly French torchsong, to an exotic middle-eastern lament and back again, giving way finally to a terrifying rendition of the American gospel blues 'See that my Grave is Kept Clean' – here human suffering is the same no matter where it happens, or who it happens to.

This is music which, with not all that many resources – a voice, a piano, and a handful of backing effects – sounds epic, colossal, partly because of the titanic power and range of Diamanda’s voice, partly because of the unbridled intensity of what she does with it, partly because of the way she turns the piano into an extension of the darkest depths of her soul, and partly because she has this astonishing knack of creating music that, even when it is at its most still, shakes you to the core, because you know that it is only lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce on you, like in ‘Birds of Deaths’ which howls out at you form the depths of its own despair, from its dirge-like chant, into passionate lament that grabs you by the throat, as if to ask you why you have allowed all this to happen.

Clearly, Defixiones, Will and Testament is not music to listen to if you want something to calm your nerves at the end of a stressful day. It is remorselessly brutal and grim. It is a eulogy, but it is also a lesson, a reminder that the blood of human atrocities is on all our hands when we stand by and watch them happen.

Defixiones, Will and Testament will take you into the very core of humanity’s darkest horrors, and its deepest suffering, but it is a journey you will regret taking only if you let it shake you without letting it teach you, too.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The art of madness - Einstürzende Neubauten's 'Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.'

I have been trying and trying to think of a rationale, other than that I just like them so much, for writing here about Einstürzende Neubauten for a record fourth time but, really, the best I can do is to say that I would be writing about them a whole lot more if I didn’t have to consider the strange, and for me totally incomprehensible, possibility that some people reading this might not be quite as enthused about this stunning band as I am. Truly, I could quite easily write an entire post about every track on every album, and still not feel I have said enough.

But as much and all as I have already said about Einstürzende Neubauten, it would be wrong not to at very least also focus on what is arguably their best work of all – their second full album Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (Drawings of Patient OT), released in 1983.

Not quite as stark as Kollaps (see 3rd February), its predecessor from two years earlier, Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. is nevertheless a severe, gruelling piece of music and, every time you listen to it, it seems to dig a little deeper into the darker regions of the human condition, a little deeper into the pits of your own being. There might be hints of melody, even chord progressions, here – but they're rare and you can only decipher them by peering into the shadows cast by the music’s harsh, austere percussion from the trademark bits of industrial debris – scrap metal and power tools – and its creepy snatches and loops of recorded noise, and, of course, the insanely raw and wild vocals of Blixa Bargeld.

The Patient OT of the album’s title, and its seventh track, is in fact Oswald Tschirtner an Austrian artist who developed schizophrenia after serving in WWII, and lived as a psychiatric patient for some 60 years until his death in 2007. And certainly this music plunges right into the heart of madness – a madness that really does seem here to live and to thrive in the shadows of war: and not just the wars that nations rage against each other, but the wars that rage within us, too.

Blixa’s lyrics are unrelentingly nihilistic – full of images of savagery and death – but always brilliant in the ways they grab words and pull them apart and twist them around, deconstructing and reconstructing language just as the band’s sounds deconstruct and reconstruct music.

The album opens with the violent ‘Vanadium-I-Ching’, with smashing and clanging bits of metal against a gruesomely brutal heartbeat, pulsating in some dead-sounding industrial bass drum. It leads into ‘Hospitalistische Kinder/Engel der Vernichtung’ (Hospitalised children/angel of annihilation) with absolutely freaky child-like mutterings, like a nursery rhyme being sung from a lonely pit at the heart of insanity, ushering in more apocalyptic aggression, as the words fight their own demons: “und ich will nicht länger warten/Bis Gottes unendlicher Hoden/Endlich in Flammen aufgeht/Engel der Vernichtung/Engel der Vernichtung/Eingeschlossen in Schlafsaalträume” (and I will no longer wait/until God’s eternal scrotum/finally goes up in flames/angel of annihilation/angel of annihilation/locked in dormitory dreams).

‘Abfackeln!’ (Torched!) pounds with fury, Blixa’s famously raucous, screaming anger calling out for release by the burning of human souls through self immolation, while ‘Neun Arme’ (Nine Arms), creeps along in the dark.

‘Herde’ (herds), with its weird, course horn-like moans, and ‘Merle (Die Elektrik)’, with snatches of pre-recorded speech against saws and drones, helps set the stage, partly animalistic, partly freakily clinical, for the album’s title track, which rages in a chaos of industrial noise, and violent beats, freaked out, it seems, by its own self-exterminating bedlam.

This fever of noise falls and rises over the next few tracks, but it never really stops to breathe properly and then, just as you feel yourself swept up in its pace, almost at home in its crazed and crazy world, everything suddenly turns into an ice-cold black, and you are in the midst of what is surely one of Einstürzende Neubauten’s most stunning pieces of work, ‘Armenia’, with its unrelenting, pulsating drum beat beneath a choir of ghosts humming mournful phrases of an ancient Armenian folk song, echoing in a bottomless pit of darkness, with little snippets of metal clattering and clanging, infinitely lonely, and a power tool whirring somewhere in the background, cutting your soul into a million pieces, and Blixa crying out in the most blood-curdling screams you are ever going to hear, anywhere. “Sind die Volkane noch tätig?” (Are the volcanoes still active?) he asks, in the most haunted of whispers. Whatever the volcanoes represent – the destruction of nature, of humanity, of the mind – yes, the music answers, they are still active, smouldering in the dark.

‘Armenia’ has been recorded a number of times by Einstürzende Neubauten but I think the version that we hear on this album is the one where we hear it at its most spine-chilling, frightening, best. It is an utterly devastating experience.

A track like that is a hard act to follow but, here, it is managed perfectly with ‘Die genaue Zeit’ (The exact time), the final track on the original album (although not on the CD releases which invariably include a few bonus tracks). ‘Die genaue Zeit’ has a kind of barren, empty, cold feel to it, to words that describe a flat, sanitised world that has no soul, no character, no identity. ‘Wie spät mag es sein?’ (What time could it be?) the song asks, over and over, as Patient OT himself may well have done in the aftermath of a lifetime of numbing treatment at the hands of a dehumanising mental health system.

Over the past several weeks, I have found myself so bowled over by the eternally changing, always reinventing, creativity of Einstürzende Neubauten to the point where it is pretty close to impossible for me to consider that anything they do is less than perfect – but, still, even I will admit that even they probably never did anything quite as superb, quite as outstanding, as Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.

It is severe, savage music, uncompromising, challenging your senses, your brain, your soul at every twist and turn it takes down its hard, clamorous corridors. But if you want see how music can shake you to the core, and leave you aghast at its ferocity and power, built from the carnage of a factory floor, then Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. is the place to go.

By the way - I'm going to be away for a few days and am unlikely to be able to attend to the blog ... but I'm looking forward to sharing more music with you next week, upon my return. Remember - post something here, too, at any time, and let us all know what you're listening to!!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The free and vibrant spirit of Santana's 'Abraxas'

For someone like me, who is used to listening to music written by composers who died hundreds of years ago, forty years is not a long time in music – and yet, even so, it seems an awfully long time ago for something as invigorating and fresh as Santana’s classic second album Abraxas to have been produced.

Santana’s performance at Woodstock, which I saw for the first time last year when the 40th Anniversary DVD was released, was for me perhaps the most amazing part of a festival that was literally glowing in a psychedelic blaze of amazing parts – that energy, that vibrancy, that bringing together of cultures and genres, that sheer and unbridled joy in making fantastic music; all of that that was so bouncing and bursting with life on the Woodstock stage is captured here, too, on Abraxas.

Abraxas is largely, but not totally, an instrumental album and, at least for me, it exudes a wonderful sense of spontaneity, music that seems to be exploding out of the land in which it has gestated, land that just can’t contain that much energy any longer.

That land is, of course, a vibrantly multicultural one. There are flavours of salsa, rock, blues and jazz – the wonderfully earthy rhythms of congas and timbales, effervescent with energy; the rock driven electric guitar and the square, solid pounding beats of a rock drum kit; the cool vocals of Carlos Santana, the keyboards, taking on whatever mood or tone they need to, right from their opening flourishes, like an opening of a nineteenth century Piano Concerto, at the beginning of ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’.

There’s the sexy, seductive ‘Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen’; the jazz-infused ‘Incident at Neshabur’, with its eternally shifts and changes of beat; the fantastic fusion of North and South America in ‘Se A Cabo’.

Even in its slower moments, like it is in the smooth, serenading ‘Samba Pa Ti’, Abraxas has a kind of inner energy to it, that kind of joy and enthusiasm that you take with you into your dreams, long after you’ve gone to sleep.

Abraxas is understandably and justifiably recognised as one of the greatest albums of all time – arguably Santana’s finest moment, and certainly one of the most important contributions to what was then still an emerging new rock age. It allowed rock music to take risks and to embrace other worlds, to take its audiences to places they had probably never thought of visiting. Unfortunately, commercialism and big business stuck its nose in and, before long, this sort of free-spirited creativity, which let music breathe in new, different, open spaces, became more the exception than the rule.

If there’s a happy side to that tragedy, it is perhaps that it means that we have come to treasure Santana and Abraxas so much the more.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

... and replugged - P J Harvey 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea'

Well, we’ve now seen Thom Yorke the Radiohead frontman (28th September 2009) and Thom Yorke the soloist (yesterday), it seems only right that today I give some attention to Thom Yorke the backing vocalist. It’s kind of hard to imagine, I know, but when the person he’s backing is someone as sensational as P(olly) J(ean) Harvey then it’s hardly surprising that even someone of his stature is more than happy to be in the background.

P J Harvey’s album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released in 2000, and it’s music that goes into those dark and dirty crevices of the human experience, music that pumps with its hard headed beats, music that has had everything good and bad and ugly driven through its veins.

Her disaffected, howling good voice comes at you, gloves removed, right from the opening ‘Big Exit’ and straight away you know that this is a voice, and that this is music, not to be messed with. It’s hard, and it has lived hard but, precisely for that reason, you know it has a lot to tell you, and that there’s a lot you can learn from it.

Listen to ‘A Place Called Home’, and you will see how beaten and broken a voice can be, and yet still have guts, and even a heart, at its core. Even in its gentler moments, like those in ‘One Line’, with piano and marimba, only seem calm because they have managed to smooth over for a while the urgency and unrest that lies beneath them.

There’s ‘Beautiful Feeling’, dark and moody, P J Harvey almost chanting at times, alongside Thom Yorke, his voice respectfully mirroring hers. But it’s really only ghosts mirroring ghosts and somehow you can’t entirely escape the feeling that P J Harvey is at her best, and her most honest, when she’s angry and disaffected, like she is with a vengeance in ‘In The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore’ where she sings “speak to me of heroin and speed/just give me something I can believe”, almost as if she was coming forward to the footlights, giving you the moral of the album.

Thom Yorke comes to us full bore in ‘The Mess We’re In’, his voice sliding into his falsetto stratosphere as hers muses and reflects, hurt and bitter, around him – both of them, it seems, resigned and resolved to their forever crumbling worlds.

But this is P J Harvey’s album, not Thom Yorke’s, and her place here is in the limelight, and nowhere more so than in ‘Kamikaze’, surely the album’s wildest moment, where her voice screeches at heights almost too extreme for humans to hear, music that has become crazed and defiant only because it has been hurt just once too often.

And so, in ‘This is Love’, we don’t have a skerrick of tenderness but, instead, all the guts of the very best blues mixed with all the grit of the very best punk. This is love unromanticised, “my dirty little secret”, sordid, seductive.

The gears, if not the course, change for ‘Horse in My Dreams’ – music that is now mournful, a dirge, where a piano tolls its way through, grim and deathly, as Harvey’s voice, saturated with world weariness, drags itself from note to note, raising itself a notch only to have the gravity of its own torment yank it back down again.

Perhaps there a kind of bleak, begrudging resignation in the closing ‘We Float’ – just as there was in ‘The Mess We’re In’ – a steadiness in the beat, an almost learned helplessness in the words (“One day we’ll float/Take life as it comes”). But it’s all told to you by that stark, warn, troubled voice which, even in its bleakest, most defeated moments, you know is never really going to lay down and die.

Thom Yorke’s presence on three of this album’s 12 tracks is crucial, and adds just the right amount of ghostly chill to this harsh, harrowing music. But Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is P J Harvey’s music and, even with someone of his stature holding her hand from time to time, these streets, smeared with all the grit and grime that those stories dump upon them, belong only to her.

Belated thanks to Marty W, who told me about five months ago what a fantastic album this is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Radiohead unplugged - Thom Yorke's 'The Eraser'

While, as with so much of the music I have written about on this blog, I was an embarrassingly late bloomer in discovering Radiohead so late in my life (see 28th September 2009), it took me only five minutes from seeing what a great band they were to see, too, what a great solo performer their lead was.

Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, is in some ways a safer album than much of what Radiohead have produced, less erratic in its moods, more unified and predictable in its tones, while in other ways it takes more risks, relying much more on spacey, almost experimental, electronic sounds, where strange an unlikely musical colours are not so much juxtaposed, as blended.

But here, as with Radiohead, it’s Thom Yorke’s unique and wonderful voice that makes the music so instantly recognisable as his work – not just because of how the voice sounds, fragile and wraithlike, but also because of what he does with it, floating it in the sky, dragging it in the gravel, a voice that strays far enough away from the note to sound slightly disembodied, other worldly, but not so far as to lose its spacey musicality.

The Eraser is an album drenched in melancholia, and you feel it from opening title track, with Thom Yorke’s slightly eerie, slightly ethereal, falsetto, wafting, trying to find a home within the gentle, heartbroken beats of the piano.

The sadness of the opening track stays with you for pretty well the entire album, but with a voice and a musicianship as rich as Thom Yorke’s, it takes you through many shades, and talks to you in many tones – whispering sometimes, like it does in the pensive, self-reflective ‘Analyse’, muttering in resentment other times, like in the darkly brooding ‘Black Swan’.

The music behind the voice is every bit as interesting and, despite its first glance appearance of sameness, every bit as nuanced as the Thom’s voice. Listen to the way a piano chimes and bleeds tears into the otherwise sure, square beat of ‘The Clock’, held together by droning bass, almost medieval, and then to how that same drone returns, transformed in ‘And it Rained All Night’, like there’s a plane coming in to land, ominous, in the midst of a midnight storm where the notes, like the music’s tonality, are pelting down, splashing up for a second or two, and then hitting the hard, dark pavement again.

Or notice the way the sounds become more spaced out in ‘Skip Divded’, where the synthesized, synthetic electronic sounds bubble and burp around Thom Yorke’s voice, more disgruntled and unsettled here, until in ‘Atoms for Peace’ a kind of comfort seems to blend in with those spacey, dislocated sounds, almost bordering on, without quite crossing into, hope.

The last two tracks bring a kind of richness into the mix, with the sound of sustained strings, like twilight on the sea, mixing with the nervous electronica, and the ill at ease beats, in ‘Harrowdown Hill’ – stings that in the closing ‘Cymbal Rush’ have melted into sad, open harmonies, now more like the sea than the twilight, as if the music is now coming to you from underwater, already drowned, while Thom Yorke’s voice cries its tears from somewhere far above.

The Eraser is not just another Radiohead album – it has its own distinctive flavour, focussing, as it does, on its own patch of ground – and yet it would not have been possible without them, as Thom Yorke himself acknowledges in the album’s liner notes. As such, it is as much as a testament to the collective skill of the band as it is to the individual skill of its lead.

But, apart from all that, The Eraser is just great music – music that twangs at your heart, but, thanks to that strange, unearthly voice of Thom Yorke, still leaves you feeling that, even when you think you’re submerged in sadness, there’s something holding you, keeping you afloat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Industrial cello - Iannis Xenakis

Industrial music, with its blurring of the lines between what we traditionally call music and what we traditionally call noise, has been phenomenally important in expanding the territory on which musicians can create their art. As tempting and all as it is for me to go on and on, yet again, about the way Einstürzende Neubauten has demonstrated this in their use of unmusical things to create music of staggering power and originality (see 17th February, 10th February and 3rd February), I thought today I might instead focus on the way the same boundary has been transgressed from an entirely different direction, through the unconventional use of an utterly conventional instrument in the solo cello music of Iannis Xenakis, turning one of music’s most romanticised and softly beautiful instruments into a source of savage violence, aggression and grit.

While Xenakis, the experimental Greek composer who died in 2001, doesn’t really sound anything like Einstürzende Neubauten, it’s not at all surprising that they cite him as one of their most important influences. He, just like them, created music from scratch – breaking down all the conventional structures and rules and, like the architect that he was, and the anti-architects that they are, builds something new and different and endlessly interesting out of all the bits and pieces of rubble that are left after the demolition of everything has gone before.

Xenakis wrote two pieces for solo cello – Nomos Alpha, written in 1966, and Kottos, in 1977. For someone like me, who first really noticed the cello, and fell in love with it, through hearing the autumnal, elegiac beauty of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, these pieces by Xanakis couldn’t possibly be further removed from what the cello had come to mean. Here it no longer weeps with tender-hearted poignancy; it doesn’t sing, drenched in noble emotion; it doesn’t flow in a smooth, calm legato. Rather, it screeches, it screams, it crashes, it bashes; it is percussive and brutal; it has no regard for its own, or your, safety; it takes itself and you and music to limits where you feel that all three might break and never be able to be put back together again.

There are parts of Nomos Alpha that sound more like an electric guitar than a cello, with screeching high notes, like some demented, drug-affected bird from another planet, swapping places with droning bass, sliding and skidding, hitting notes that have no name, no place on the conventional western musical scale. There are moments of frenzied chaos, where it is impossible to believe that it’s only one four string instrument making all that noise, and that there’s not an amp somewhere nearby spurting out electronic feedback.

When this was written, in 1966, no one had ever heard the cello sound like this before and, even now, it’s remarkable – fierce and frightened, music where melody and harmony are dismantled and replaced with grabs of sound and noise, each creating its own unfathomably deep chasm of darkness or its own piercingly, blisteringly, bright shaft of laser light. For some stretches the cello’s bottom string is tuned down an octave, giving it a bizarre, droning, watery sort of sound, adding to the whole creepiness and alien feel of the music.

Kottos is no less savage, opening with a fierce, angry snarl at the bottom end of the cello’s range, which builds to a harsh percussive music that dominates most of this piece, scarcely relenting its ferocity, even when the beat moves into the cello’s usually brighter upper register: here, everything is coarse and jagged, like barbed wire.

The cello music of Xenakis, like the rest of what he created, is not comfortable listening. It’s music, like that of Einstürzende Neubauten, that could not have been created other than in a time when humanity had developed an unprecedented array of technologies for making things that destroyed and needed to be destroyed. And it’s the remnants of their destruction that makes this powerful, gritty and daring music not only so good, but possible in the first place.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A welcome ghost from the past - Jimi Hendrix 'Valleys of Neptune'

A new Jimi Hendrix recording, forty years after his death, is not something that anyone can easily ignore, especially when it boasts 12 never-before-released tracks, and so it was understandably pretty difficult for me to walk past the displays of Valleys of Neptune in the local CD shop today without grabbing a copy.

Valleys of Neptune really is a new album, and its 12 tracks really are previously unreleased. They’re all studio recordings and all, with the exception of ‘Mr Bad Luck’ and ‘Crying Blue Rain’, which had their bass and drums recorded and added some twenty years later, are original recordings that have just never made it onto the commercial market until now.

There are not really a lot of surprises here but, with Hendrix, you don’t need any because what he does is just so good, and there’s just so little of it available, that even more of the same is like gold, even if it does take forty years for it to arrive.

Pretty well everyone in the world knows Hendrix a lot better than I do and so anything I say is going to be at the risk of sounding hackneyed and superfluous and yet, even so, the impression that his music has on someone discovering it for the first time is like nothing else – and so, in that sense, this album is going to be almost as big a treat for others as it was for me.

The album has some fantastic tracks on it, full of those long, intense interludes where Hendrix withdraws into his guitar and into music where the very guts of who he is are laid bare, with all their blood and blisters, far all the world to see and to share. You just can’t listen to this music without a bit of you bleeding and blistering with him.

The title track is a stunner – its easy, laid-back flow embellished with that trademark guitar work that trips and skips along, blithe despite its heaviness, through the beat of the music.

And there’s ‘Bleeding Heart’, where the guitar really does beat and bleed, as if it was made of flesh; or ‘Hear My Train a Comin’’, with that blazing blues rock that Hendrix did so well, the guitar screeching and wailing at the upper ends of its range, Hendrix playing the notes as if they are coming from somewhere inside him, which in some ways is exactly where the guitar always was for him. How else could he find those impossibly difficult notes and still make them sound so innate, so unaffected? It is, incidentally, a great track to play to anyone who thinks that Hendrix couldn’t sing.

There are the sensational syncopated rhythms of the cover of Cream’s ‘Sunshine of your Love’, first in the guitar, which in time gives way to some ostinato percussion and then returns to do its devilish dance of seduction, pouring out all its lurid, gritty sexiness.

‘Red House’ begins gently, tenderly almost, falling into a strolling, sauntering beat where the guitar almost whistles as it goes along. But it whistles through cut, charred lips, eventually building up its own momentum, its own voice, telling its own story, tragic and impassioned, as if the music has stopped strolling along and is now huddled in a corner somewhere, crying and anguished.

It’s all vintage Hendrix – whether it’s the stream of consciousness guitar line in ‘Lover Man’, the sturdier rock beat in ‘Ships Passing Through the Night’, or just that jaw-dropping way he turns a screech into a wail when he takes the note down a notch, like in ‘Fire’ – and every bit of it is worth the wait.

Valleys of Neptune might be everything you’d expect it to be – and that’s exactly why it’s so, so good.

Friday, March 12, 2010

East meets West - Japan's 'Tin Drum'

Having spent a bit of time here over the past week or so talking about experimental music in all its different shapes and sizes, I am reminded of how much I’ve neglected the work of David Sylvian on this blog. Other than talking about his beautiful if relatively conventional (relative being the operative word there) Secrets of the Beehive some months ago (see 4th September 2009), he has really not had much of a look in here at all.

It’s a pretty serious omission, really, not just from someone who claims to have a penchant for the strange and daring in music but also simply from someone who claims to enjoy good music, whatever its form.

David Sylvian has done a lot throughout his music career and, while some of his later solo work is really interesting, and certainly well worth the extra bit of effort you might need to put into it to get to understand and appreciate it properly, like his most recent album Manafon or its predecessor Blemish, both kind of art-rocky albums that use improvisation and experimentation to slowly build their fascinating worlds of sound, much of his earlier work, particularly with his band Japan, is every bit as worthy of your time.

There’s little disagreement that Japan’s greatest moment was their last: their final studio album Tin Drum, released in 1981. It uses strange sounds playing in strange tonalities, tunes jumping in strange intervals to strange rhythms, all coloured by the rich and velvety voice of Sylvian himself, to produce a wonderful musical landscape where oriental and Western worlds have been melded into one – exotic, exciting, extraordinary.

The oriental flavours in Tin Drum are created, as you might expect them to be, by drawing on some of those most instantly recognisable aspects of Japanese and Chinese music – the use of the five note pentatonic scale, the leaping melodies, the distinctive instrumentation with its characteristic reliance on tuned percussion.

Listen to the way these elements come together, and how creatively they’re developed and mixed and built upon, in ‘Canton’, for example, or how they’re pulled apart and reassembled to create a whole new sound, the future growing out of the remnants of the past, in ‘Visions of China’.

There’s the slightly tender, slightly haunted, world of ‘Ghosts’, where strange, spacey electronic sounds, still plucked, it seems, from the pentatonic scale, tip-toe along, sending weird and wonderful sparks of sound ricocheting off one another; and there’s the jaunty opener, ‘The Art of Parties’, where dance music is turned into high art, with beats playing off each other in all directions while the melody line, where notes jumps to and from each other at impossible intervals, mixes in and becomes its own layer in the rhythmic hype, just as it does again in the closing ‘Cantonese Boy’.

Tin Drum is a great example of the ways that music can do what politics, diplomacy, and bombs have never been able to do – the bringing together, the melding together, of cultures and identities into something that reflects the individuality of all its elements, while blending them into something that, in itself, is new, exciting and rich. Almost thirty years after its release, Japan’s Tin Drum still sounds new, and still has a lot to say.

My thanks, yet again, to Marty R for the recommendation.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shoegazing in the depths of a dead sea - The Besnard Lakes

If there’s one thing that can take on as many shapes and moods and nuances as music, it would surely be the sea. And just as we saw the sea yesterday, through the music of The Beachniks, bathed in sunlight, sea spray blowing onto the shore, today, in the Canadian shoegaze band The Besnard Lakes’ new release, The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, we see it submerged, dark and murky, in the shadows of a black sky.

If the album cover is anything to go by, with its image of a night set ablaze in balls of fire, this music is not meant to be giving you a sanguine, pretty view of things. And certainly its ten tracks, building rich soundscapes of dark harmonies and tones, with layers of eerie electronic sound, guitars riffing with a kind of gentle anguish, sad pianos, piercingly high falsetto vocals, create a creepy, ghostly world where everything feels it could be on the edge.

And yet the music’s dark ambience is neither depressing nor menacing. There’s a sadness, a melancholy, here, but not a fury. It’s as if the earth, and its vast oceans, turned black with the ashes of human negligence, are shedding their own tears rather than raging a fight of retaliation.

Listen, for example, to the gentle melancholy of the opening two-part ‘Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent’ where, out of a dream-like nothingness, we hear the sad echoes of something already lost, across vast, calm, but infinitely sorrowful waters; or to the sense of mystery in the dark rumblings that open ‘Land of Living Skies’, again in two parts, morphing into a haunted, caressing song with soft, tender vocals, hurt but still beautiful.

The closest the album gets to anger is perhaps in the strong, strident beat of ‘And This Is What We Call Progress’, but even that leads into ‘Light Up the Night’, soaring like a passionate elegy over massive chords, heroic even in defeat.

The album closes with ‘The Lonely Moan’ – which, still rich and spacious, really does conjure up images of a lonely, unfathomably vast sea and yet not one so much that drags you down into bleak and ominous depths, but rather one on which you sail away, sadly, alone, but somehow at rest.

There is a strange and wonderful beauty in this album’s sadness, perhaps thanks to the way it paints its pictures, dark as they are, with such love and affection. If The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night takes you on a journey, it’s a slow and pensive journey – one where you stop to look at the skies, set alight by fire rather than by sunshine but which, even so, are beautiful; one where you sail across seas that are dim and lifeless, but that still contain the memories and souls of a million years, many of them magnificent and grand.

This is intensely introspective music – it shows you a big view of the world, but through very personal eyes. It strolls along in that ambient, shoegaze sort of way, dense with sound, one thick moment blending into the next.

The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night is not music to dance on the beach to – you’ve got the Beachniks for that – but if you want to submerge yourself in the ocean’s darker depths, this is the album to take you there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reggae on the smell of salty air - The Beachniks

I’m sure I’ve commented here before how one of the wonderful things about music is its inexhaustible ability to surprise you. Whether it’s through musicians who do things in completely unexpected ways, and they turn out just right, or whether it’s simply by finding something wonderful that has been there for years and you just didn’t notice it, music really is a bottomless pit of riches.

Of course, for me, those discoveries and surprises are coming thick and fast with so much music - even music that everyone in the world, except me, knows - being unknown to me until now.

But one band that I discovered purely by a chance chat over drinks the other night has been one of the more delightful of those discoveries – Victorian surfcoast-based Beachniks, with their debut album from 2002, The Many Moods of the Beachniks, and their follow-up Trombone Bay, two years later.

You’d expect music from the surfcoast to be pretty breezy, to have the smell of salt air in it, the feel of sand in its toes, and the taste of a cold beer on its palate. The Beachniks has all of that, but that’s only a very small part of the experience of this band’s music, which brings a much more cosmopolitan experience to the beach. There’s the cool breeze of reggae there in Murray Walding’s rhythms, waves of jazz infused brass from Jeff Raglus’s trumpet, and an easy pop flow in his vocals; a jiving, funky undertow from bassist Evan Jones.

The debut album’s many moods are all bathed in sunlight, sometimes sheltering a little pensively in the shade, like in ‘Auntie Jean’, sometimes out there dancing in the cool glow of a summer sunset, like in ‘The Mountjoy Parade’; the lumbering laziness of ‘L.A.G.O (Late Afternoon Glass Off)’, with its laid-back rhythms, its settled, not-worried-about-anything bass, roused with a drink or two from the brass and Randall Forsyth’s guitar.

Trombone Bay takes you a bit further afield, with some more spacey, psychedelic flavoured music, like in ‘Crater 41’, and ‘The Rhyll Thing’, with electronics that take the ocean across to other galaxies; or there’s the brief but beautifully pensive ‘Gellibrand Quirk’, with its soft, sustained harmonies pulsating beneath a sad, romantic trumpet that holds you in its arms while the waves wash around you; and, of course, there’s the sensational title track, with boppy Latin beats and a trombone that laughs and sneers and sings and dances and does a whole heap of things that I never knew a trombone could do.

It’s great to see music as original and as likeable as The Many Moods of the Beachniks and Trombone Bay coming from local musicians (well, local for me, anyway) whose main aim is simply to create good music, fusing genres and then putting their own stamp on it – music that brings bits from this or that corner of the globe, and beyond, and mixes it all with some of that sea air, with that special smell to it, that blows in from the ocean, only between Queenscliff and Apollo Bay, and only when the wind is just right.

If you get a chance to catch the Beachniks sometime, it’ll be worth it – wherever you are, and however far you have to travel to get there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Crossing the line - Boulez conducts Zappa

One of the best things about experimentalism in music, like experimentalism in most things, is the disrespect for boundaries. Even if it means venturing into ugly, dangerous, or even just drab and boring, territory, the willingness to venture into unchartered places always raises that eternally exciting possibility that something new and wonderful will be discovered.

It’s refreshing that there are skilled and daring adventurers to be found in pretty well all musical genres, but what is especially interesting, and especially exciting, is when a couple of them, wandering outside their own respective home worlds, happen to bump into each other, and put their heads together, as Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa did when they collaborated on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger.

Pierre Boulez is one of the most important, and in some ways one of the most serious, of modern classical contemporary composers. He brings a whole lot of elements into his music – electronics, pre-recorded tapes, expansions and contractions of sounds and speeds, conventional instruments, unconventional instruments, mathematically ordered notes, controlled chance – all meticulously structured with the sort of pure mathematician precision that we have probably not encountered in music since the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Frank Zappa, who had absolutely no respect whatsoever for any musical boundaries, and who seemed to have left his mark on pretty well every bit of musical territory, was probably most of all at home when he was carrying bits of dirt from everywhere and building his own unique bit of land, eccentric, cynical and satirical and serious all at the same time.

Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger is the result of these two iconic musical innovators coming together and, while all of the music on this album is written by Zappa, it would be a mistake to understate Boulez’s influence on it. Boulez was obsessive about precision in music – both in what he wrote and in what he conducted and, on this album, thanks to that obsession, and the amazing meticulousness of his orchestra, the Ensemble InterContemporain, we hear a level of detail and intricacy in Zappa’s music that we may easily miss on a lot of his other recordings.

Boulez in fact commissioned the title track, which opens the album. As with all Zappa’s descriptions of his music on the album, there’s a pretty absurdist type of scenario given in the liner notes for this piece, giving you a bit of sense that maybe it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously. But, whatever story it’s meant or not meant to tell, the music itself is fascinating, with different tones and colours swapping with one another, orchestral instruments often pushed beyond their usual range, brass sliding, woodwind screeching, percussion tinkering and sparkling, strings shimmering, rhythms shifting ground every few seconds. It all would seem chaotic, were it not being created by such inspired musicians as Zappa and Boulez, who manage to weld all these strange strands into something weird, yet oddly cohesive, with its strange splashes of colour and its odd convergence of lines, like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

‘Dupree’s Paradise’ has heavier moments, along with more readily recognisable Zappa-esque rhythmic work, where the piano is brought into the fold, with jazz-like chords and syncopated rhythms pitted against a dark-toned orchestra, in a piece that pays tribute to society’s outcasts and misfits, gathering in a bar on a Sunday morning, in music that shows how, together, they can all belong and, even in the darkness, radiate their own colour.

Four of the album’s seven tracks actually don’t use Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain at all, but instead are performed on Zappa’s Synclavier, or his ‘Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort’, as he calls it. It’s probably better to get Wikipedia, rather than me, to explain exactly what a synclavier is other than to say that, as its name might suggest, it’s a kind an electronic synthesizer sort of thing.

It produces some incredible sounds, like in the dark and haunting music of ‘Outside Now Again’, part harpsichord, part marimba, part drums, part organ, a reworking of the guitar solo from ‘Outside Now’ from Zappa’s amazing opera(ish) Joe’s Garage (see 13th September 2009)

Even darker is ‘Jonestown’, a work that drones and clangs in the aftermath of global death, electronic sounds creating an eeriness and sense of doom, infinitely more apocalyptic than the religious dogma, in the name of which so many lives have been lost.

When a musician like Frank Zappa, who never seemed to take himself or anyone entirely seriously, collaborates with a musician like Pierre Boulez, who always seemed very serious indeed, the results are bound to be fascinating. And, here on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, they certainly are. It shows that the line between the serious and the cynical, just like the line between the classical and the non-classical, is never as sharp as we sometimes think it to be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Arise ye workers from your slumber - The Internationale

It is Labour Day today in Melbourne and, while it is nothing short of an outrage that I have so little proletarian music in my collection, at least there are 32 different versions of The Internationale floating around in my iPod – and what better way to mark today than to listen to that great battle hymn of the working classes in languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu?

The words of The Internationale were originally written in 1871, in French, by Paris revolutionary, Eugène Pottier, its music written in 1888 by Pierre De Geyter, a Belgian-French socialist composer.

Since then, it has been translated into the languages of pretty well every country where working people struggle against exploitation and oppression. It’s something of a testimony to the universality of music, as much as of the proletarian cause, that this fairly straightforward march-like song, rallying the masses to join its ranks and fight the last decisive battle, has been able to blend into so many different cultures, taking on something of their flavour while holding to its own instantly recognisable core.

Anyone can, and does, sing The Internationale. Folk singers can sing it with an acoustic guitar; a bunch of workers can sing it, marching along the street; a mass choir can sing it with a huge orchestra pulling out all stops. It’s interesting to see how the different versions take on these different characters. My French rendition, from Rosalie Dubois, is as gutsy and guttural as a cabaret song; Cuban workers sing it as if it’s a victory dance being played on the streets; the Russians sing it like a holy hymn, choir and orchestra massed together like only the Soviets could do it; Billy Bragg turns it into a 60s protest song, even though he actually sang it in the 90s; the Germans sing it, more than anyone else, like a march; there’s a smoothness to the Hebrew version; an avant-garde sort of jauntiness in the Japanese version; the Welsh saturate it in harmonies; the Hindi version is almost gentle, a song of passive resistance more than of revolutionary battle. The Tuvan throat singers change it completely into a sort of primal chant; there’s a cool, dance-like flow to the Greek version, while in Arabic it has a kind of exotic tint to it, in a version that you could almost see Sheherezade dancing to. The Koreans and Romanians sing it like an anthem and the Kurdish version, with its hand drum beat, really does sound like it has come from the hills; the Yiddish version is bare and unadorned, while there’s an Estonian version that is almost like symphonic metal; the Zulu version is sung a Capella, still somehow embedded with African rhythms; the Swedish version is surprisingly grand, with bass drums and brass pounding away beneath a massive choir, while the Thai version sounds like it’s coming from a lonely hill in the mist. There are others there too, of course – Turkish, Catalan, Hungarian, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Finnish, Vietnamese – but you get the drift.

Of course, some would say that The Internationale was never meant to be listened to just as music – that it’s an injunction to arise from apathy and fight for justice and equality. But then music is never really “just music”. It always inspires something in you, if it’s half decent. It might inspire emotions, thoughts, memories, hopes, ideas or, of course, action. But there’s always something in you that is somehow just a little bit different after you have listened to good music.

When you listen to all these different versions of this simple, marching anthem, and reflect on how it has found its way not only into so many nations but into the very heart of their working class cultures, stirring them to make the music their own, and respond to its call to raise the clenched fist in the name of universal humanity, then you begin to see that The Internationale really is very, very good music indeed.