1998-2009: Angels of Light
The only downside I see about the monumental revival of Swans is that some will forget the genius of Angels of Light. At first listen, the band sounds nothing like the bleak pummeling dirges of Michael Gira’s former band’s early years. And it doesn’t resemble the deep melancholic songs of the later part of their career, either.
But Angels of Light made beautiful music. Not beautifully drenched in sorrow, at least not exclusively. On their last album (to date), We Are Him, some songs, like “Sunflower’s Here to Stay,” are relatively “bright” and comparatively “happy.” However, they use repetitive structures characteristic of Swans albums like Filth or Cop, and there’s also a bit of country influence present, adding some Southern gothic flavor.
Angels of Light remind me a bit of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Both are more conventional projects formed after their nihilistic bands imploded. Both embraced warmer tones. The difference is that Nick remained wallowing in darkness while Gira preferred to widen his scope, to explore feelings that could be both noble and sad, sometimes in the same song, as in the case of “Untitled Love Song.”
In this sense, Angels of Light exist in a gray area, expressing something neither black nor white. It’s as complex and as gradated as human emotion, something Gira needed in order to achieve the transcendent spirit that can be heard in Swans’ The Seer. That’s why one can’t listen to something like “Untitled Love Song” and not feel drenched in total brightness while tragedy unfolds right in front of us.
1972: Dark - Round the Edges
The world of psychedelic rock is littered with enough scarce “holy grails,” at least in eBay/collector parlance, that the phrase often seems to lose its impact. But a true, excellent rarity exists in the prog-influenced fuzz of Dark, a band from Northampton, UK, whose sole LP Round the Edges was privately released in an edition of 60 copies in 1972. Curiously, of the 60 pressed a few different cover variations exist, but only two LPs and one jacket have come up on the collectors’ market in the past several years. Naturally, it’s a coveted item and a few reissues have appeared, both legitimately (long out-of-print) and on the grey market. Now, Portland, Oregon’s Machu Picchu has stepped to the plate with a gorgeous and fully authorized vinyl and CD reissue with an expanded booklet and additional photographs. As with most reissues, the point in redoing it is to make sure that it’s been done right, and if Machu Picchu’s recent take on the Midwestern soft-psych Anonymous LP is any indication, Round the Edges will be treated properly.
The original LP consisted of six tracks performed by the quartet of guitarist/vocalist Steve Giles, guitarist Martin Weaver (ex-Wicked Lady), bassist Ron Johnson, and drummer Clive Thorneycroft. A few extra tracks and studio jams have also surfaced on subsequent CD editions. One can certainly hear the influence of Cream, especially in Giles’ Jack Bruce-like pipes, as well as in the clipped choogle of “Maypole,” though in that instance murky fuzz-guitar and reductionist symphonic moves quickly emerge. Lyrically, the group are often more wry than oblique, though the most compelling aspect is often the head-nodding instrumental stretches that follow, which are economical and flinty rather than ornately tangential. “Live For Today” combines this gritty electric stew with handsome drum breaks and sharp wails, while “The Cat” mixes bluesy skiffle with wiry hard rock — calm before the knotty storm of “Zero Time.” To be sure, other groups may have taken the formulas further or assembled a heavier, freer slab of psychedelic boogie, but concision and melody count for a lot in the lysergic world that Dark inhabited. although Dark disbanded soon after the LP was published, cultish interest inspired a brief and well-received reunion in 1996. More than four decades after their lone LP was waxed, Round the Edges deserves to be visited anew.
2006: Boris with Merzbow - Rock Dream
Live albums have it hard sometimes. There are many that get as much recognition as their studio counterparts (The Who’s Live at Leeds is the first example that comes to mind) but generally they seem to be kept at arm’s length by music fans. Often it’s because they exist in the awkward middle ground between sounding not as good as a studio effort and not fully capturing the feeling of being at the show. It’s an understandable argument and arguably true for many live albums, but occasionally something can come along that can actually deliver both the amazing live experience and do it with superb recording quality. That’s pretty much why Rock Dream is not just the best album Boris ever made, but also one of the finest live albums I’ve ever heard.
Rock Dream was recorded in Tokyo in 2006, one year after the band had just reached its peak in popularity with Pink. The near perfect set list reflects that, as a majority of Pink’s best tracks show up. Boris has such a diverse collection of songs that it’s not uncommon for them to split their shows into different themes. One night they may advertise as being their metal show or a jam show. Look at the tour coming this spring, you know in advance that if you go to the Flood show, you’re hearing just hearing Flood. The diversity makes them unpredictable, but could also be disappointing. Instead of them not playing your favorite song, you might go to a show and hear a completely different band than you were expecting. (Of course I would argue that is part of the fun.) You don’t get that on Rock Dream. Instead you get almost a complete encapsulation of what Boris does, in all of their forms. The album opens with a shortened version of “Feedbacker,” the band’s third attempt at creating a single song album. Though it’s certainly a bold statement to open with a 35 minute long song, it works in a way that it would have if this were just a compilation of studio tracks. “Feedbacker” is the dramatic opening to the show, it’s a part of the whole and when coupled with the doomy Pink cut, “Black Out,” and the previously unreleased noise jam “Evil Stack,” it creates the perfect amount of tension as Boris moves into their more direct material like “Rainbow” (sadly without that album’s collaborator Michio Kurihara present.) The middle of the show (and beginning of the second CD) lines up four songs of pure heavy metal, ending with the best of the batch, “Ibitsu.”
I haven’t noted the other name on this record yet, but Masami Akita (Merzbow) adapts to the environment perfectly. For this one night he’s just the fourth member of Boris. Merzbow’s material has such an incredible presence on his records, but in a collaborative setting he consistently proves to be keenly aware in his supportive roles. Akita never makes a collaboration about him and works his waves of noise and scree to fit his partners. He adds layers of extra haze to the heavy openers “Feedbacker” and “Black Out,” but then focuses his instrument to make the razor edged rush of “Pink” and “Woman on the Screen” sound better than they do in the studio. His versatility becomes clear on Boris’ gentler and prettier tracks, “Rainbow,” and “Flower Sun Rain” (a PYG cover and later a highlight off of 2008’s uneven Smile). “Rainbow” is like a breath of fresh air after the three opening tracks. The song is built on its bass line and Wata’s gentle vocals, which were a rare treat back when “Rainbow” came out. Akita recognizes this and pulls back to allow the spaciousness to develop, creating subtle menacing textures and briefly swooping in with noise. When he adds his spacey laser sounds (trust me there’s not a better way to describe it) into the PYG cover it perfectly blends with the acid soaked bliss, and wisely stays in a supporting role even as the rest of the band builds the song into a massive climax.
I’ve held back from describing the last two tracks on Rock Dream so far. The first (“Farewell”) and last (“Just Abandoned My-self”) tracks of Pink close the album, but in reverse order. That little switch is one of the things that makes this work so well as a live album. A band has the chance to rearrange the music on their set list and make songs work together in unexpected ways. When you heard Pink for the first time, “Farewell” was the ultimate album opener, and “Just…” in its 18 minute glory was like the second coming of Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea,” or My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realise.” There wasn’t a better way to end the album. I still think that those songs are exactly where they need to be on Pink. But by the end of “Just,” when the show is coming to its expected end, the guitar riff for “Farewell” quietly begins. It’s perfectly masked by Akita’s noise solo (his only true moment of full-on Merzbow assault), so you don’t quite realize that another song is coming until he stops. And Merzbow provides the foundation of noise which Boris soar over as the song reaches its crushingly heavy and beautiful peak. I still think it’s the definitive version of one of their very best songs.
I listened to Rock Dream for the first time in years recently when I decided I wanted to write this, and the best part was it still sounds as vital and powerful as it did when I heard it back in high school. I mean, some of the songs on this record are a decade old now. But that’s what’s really great about live albums, if you’re lucky you can record something that captures the energy of a band at that moment in time. It’s incredible then that someone recorded Boris and Merzbow that night, because for two hours they got to be the best band on the planet.
1980: Martin Rev - Martin Rev
While a number of recent recordings have spotlighted the way in which contemporary electronic musicians effortlessly move between “serious” and “rock” impulses – and the contemporariness of that work certainly needs no validating – sometimes it is worth another look at the architects. Following in the path of Krautrock explorers on the other side of the pond as well as “protopunk” peers in Detroit and New York, electronic artist and composer Martin Rev formed Suicide with vocalist Alan Vega in 1970, though it wasn’t until 1977 that they waxed their first LP of confrontational, absurdist, and gloom-laden NYC proto-punk. Three years later, Rev and Vega released their respective solo debuts, with Rev’s both reflecting and expanding on ideas formulated over a decade of work in Suicide. Released by the Lust/Unlust imprint Infidelity (which also unleashed on the world the Mars self-titled EP and recordings by Dark Day, Z’EV and Robert Quine), Martin Rev contains six varied and almost entirely instrumental soli. Reissued on CD by ROIR a decade ago, it is now seeing its first vinyl reissue, remastered from the original tapes by Superior Viaduct (Noh Mercy, 100 Flowers, Henry Flynt) and with new liner notes courtesy Alan Licht.
The set starts with a sunny, almost bubblegum ode to his wife, “Mari” (a percussionist, the late Mari Reverby also performed in an early Suicide incarnation). Rev’s lyrical declaration of love is hazy and ecstatic psych-pop with a gritty bass line, an incisive yet ambling opener reminiscent of the Silver Apples’ most attractive work. In any “side one track one” canon, this tune should hold an estimable place. The influence of Suicide creeps into the following piece, the obsessive “Baby oh Baby,” which is the only vocal track, and while it is crashing and diffuse the piece evinces a strangely gooey optimism. “Temptation” opens the second side and blends the layered washes and pulsing landscape of Cluster and pre-disco Kraftwerk with accents and rhythmic drive pulled from Afro-Latin music, including the electronic palimpsests of a guiro – one would imagine that Latin rhythmic choruses were as prevalent in Rev’s 1970s New York listening as the gritty art-rock of his peers. Crashing and overdriven, the following “Jomo” is an intense about-face into the territory of IV-era Faust, and its fluttering overlays retain a motorik groove. The closing “Asia” holds shape with a terse piano-drum machine beat against massed organs and electronic ricochets. Cut in an era when 12” EPs were the norm, Martin Rev is lengthier than most Lust/Unlust releases at a solid thirty minutes, but the ideas and compositions are certainly good enough to warrant more. And despite that economy – or maybe because of it – Rev’s solo debut is also full of stunningly beautiful passages. One of 2013’s strongest reissues, it shouldn’t be overlooked in any study of punk-era electronics or the Madagascan array of art that permeated Koch-era New York.
1977-1978: Steve Lacy, Joe McPhee and Evan Parker: Soprano Soli and Duets
In jazz and improvised music, free/creative playing is just as much about liberating instrumental possibilities as opening up rhythm, melody, chord structure, and form. It was in the 1960s that instruments like the bass clarinet and cello found their way into progressive jazz environments under the direction of artists like Eric Dolphy and Joel Freedman. While the favored instrument of traditional jazz players like Sidney Bechet and the well-regarded bebop saxophonist Lucky Thompson (a favored tenorman on Thelonious Monk’s early sides), under the watch of John Coltrane, the soprano saxophone became associated with high, wailing, and dervish-like cycles emerging from modal-jazz frameworks. Those who followed in Coltrane’s footsteps similarly employed the higher-register axe, which, to paraphrase bassist Kent Carter on his association with Steve Lacy, can “cut through an ensemble like gold.”
Lacy (1934-2004) was a Dixieland soprano player who jumped into the deep end of creative music with both feet, quickly becoming known with pianist-composer Cecil Taylor in 1956 and leading his own groups exploring the music of Monk shortly thereafter. His esteemed quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd devoted itself to the search for something harmonically and structurally “beyond” in Monk’s music, leading to the saxophonist’s embrace of free music in the early 1960s. Based in Europe from 1966 until shortly before his death, Lacy began to create a significant solo saxophone repertoire in the early 1970s, which resulted in numerous concerts and recordings, one of the finest being 1977’s Clinkers (Hat Hut). Like most of Lacy’s records from the close of the 1960s onward, Clinkers presented pieces — Lacy’s headlong leap into freedom resulted in a unique and painstakingly detailed compositional approach (almost as though the other side of “freedom” was structure). Recorded in concert in Basel on June 9, 1977, Clinkers was a little less than three-quarters of a storied performance, and the remaining 20 minutes consisted of a rare improvised duet with another saxophonist, Joe McPhee. McPhee, an acolyte of Lacy as much as Albert Ayler, had opened the concert with his varied solo palette including tenor, soprano, and pocket trumpet, and Lacy invited him to play duets on the straight horn. This was intimidating for McPhee, who had been playing saxophones for less than a decade (he started on trumpet and added reeds in 1968). Titled The Rest, its issue on a one-sided Roaratorio LP is the music’s first appearance anywhere. Despite a bit of print-through, dropouts, and hiss on the tape — McPhee’s cassette was the only known copy — their duo is rousing, moving through fragments of Lacy’s tune cycle “The Way” and singsong vortices, ending up in breathy clambers and pinpricks mirrored by ghostly tape flutter. Both players are jovial in conversation and carve out spaces for one another, but their differences in approach are stark — melodic abstractionists and pure-sound improvisers whose understanding of a comparable field results in an obliquely parallel relationship, in togetherness and opposites. The Rest is a fascinating view into the working process of two improvisational architects in their only recorded meeting.
Coltrane’s music on both tenor and soprano was a guiding force for English saxophonist Evan Parker, who, along with such figures as guitarist Derek Bailey, percussionists Tony Oxley and John Stevens, trombonist Paul Rutherford, and bassist Barry Guy, is a certifiable architect of English free music (not to mention European free-improvisation). Though free improvisation is certainly group music, like many of his compatriots (save Stevens) from the 1970s onward, Parker has also been heavily invested in solo playing. Following two solo LPs on Incus (the label he co-ran with Bailey and Oxley), Parker embarked on a solo tour of North America, which up until now had only resulted in two rare LPs for pianist Greg Goodman’s Beak Doctor label, both recorded in Berkeley, California. Another piece of that tour has now emerged in Vaincu.Va!, recorded at the Western Front art gallery in Vancouver and recently unearthed as a celebration of their 40th anniversary in a handsome LP-only release. Crisply recorded and yielding one piece over two sides, Vaincu.Va! fits right into Parker’s 1978 release slot, which also includes the fantastic direct-cut solo LP Monoceros, and, if not quite as alien and overpowering as that set, it’s a staunchly immediate presentation of Parker at work. As tenorist Ivo Perelman astutely observed in conversation with this writer, “Parker hypnotizes himself so that there is a sort of dialogue between his rational mind and his hypnotized mind. He gets lost in the process and establishes a binary approach, I think.” The intensity of Parker’s auto-dialogue (if we’re to call it that) is formidable, overlaying cycle upon cycle in real time so that multiple interconnected strands emerge. It would be unfair to call this music “minimalist” because it’s so detailed and massive, yet repetition and nuanced variation are endemic to Parker’s solo art. There are restive pauses and warped phrasal nattering, as well as elegant curlicues and astounding progressions, but it is the complexity of his closely valued multiphonic shapes that make his solo work unlike that of any other saxophonist.
1990s: Neutral Milk Hotel - “My Dreamgirl Don’t Exist”
When you Google this song, you find an entry at the Neutral Milk Hotel archive that explicitly states that it has the same chord progression as Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” It’s a curious thing, I guess, but somehow it feels irrelevant. Having said that, I understand the importance of the mention; the almost cliche progression plays a role in the sentiment within this song, and it’s something that defines Neutral Milk Hotel.
Perhaps it really is the familiarity of the chord change that makes “My Dreamgirl Don’t Exist” click, or maybe it’s the theme Jeff Mangum touches on (about being in love with a girl he found in a history book) or the lines he uses in later Milk songs (more notably “Ghost”), but I can’t think of something sadder. Maybe it’s just the song title, though I refuse to believe that.
Jeff Mangum is an exposed nerve, an acne covered high school student who can’t stop reading his poetry out loud to the cheerleader he fell in love with. His voice often cracks, he screams and misses the note, howling in despair. It’s a vulnerability that can’t be faked, paired with beautiful, tragic poetry with biblical and historical images that evoke feelings in our brain that we can’t escape. Of course, this is not for everybody, but if it’s for you, if the chemicals in your brain respond to everything Mangum gives us, then there’s little as powerful as his music. Which is why most fans are so vocal about their love. However, if you’re wired differently, you can’t help but being annoyed by it.
It’s three chords, an easy to remember melody, lyrics that reach back in time and ask very big questions, and you’ll have something to yell about. The pain caused by sorrows past that fuel the feelings summoned here are supplied by the listener who gets involved, whether he or she likes it or not.