1996: Herbert - 100 Lbs.
“With techno, breakbeat, and the beginnings of jungle, there was a lot of very male, macho, aggressive music. My work was meant to be an alternative to that.” - Matthew Herbert
I’m no math whiz, but from what I’ve heard, at a certain point, mathematics becomes much less regimented and much more playful than the algebra and trig I grappled with in high school. Numbers and equalities start giving way to curves and alphabets novices have no hope of breaking back down into simple digits. Appropriate, then, that techno -- a particularly mathematical music, with its reliance on machines and computers and rhythm -- has a natural stage in the club, where people are perhaps at their most playful, thanks to that music (and the chemicals, themselves products of no small amount of math). In this sense, Matthew Herbert is perhaps the ideal producer; his music has always struck me as particularly ludic: even the most aggressive Herbert tracks don’t jack -- they scoot.
The wily Brit started his career trying to recast house as a less muscular and more frisky genre. His first record, 100 Lbs., came out in 1996, and K7 has now re-released it with a sweet disc of bonus material. It’s a choice moment for a retrospective: a decade-plus into his career, Herbert last year released Scale, his most confident and charismatic work to date. The man has become a bona fide chronicler of pop history via his sprightly, conscientious compositions. Albeit a bit wonky at times, his albums pack both attentive political messages and ample dancefloor impetus.
With his recent accomplishments in mind, listening to 100 Lbs. now is a bit like seeing a clip of a master mathematician as a seven-year-old, furrowing his brow as he tries to carry the remainder in an arithmetic exercise. The songs are skillfully, if somewhat overtly, constructed, and Herbert is largely successful in taking some of the piss out of aggro house and replacing it with suave perfume. Be it a patient vibraphone melody or those quirky rhythms scattered around the obligatory 4/4 bassbeat, you can hear snatches of the Herbert to come here, despite the conspicuous absence of some of his later sonic trademarks. 100 Lbs. provides a satisfying listen, offering pleasures both present and nostalgic.
If the first disc shows Herbert in the rather artificial mask of straight-up house producer, the bonus disc presents the listener the variety of original guises the man has worn since then (although many of them still bear traces of 1990s cosmetics). The tracks span work from 1996-2000. “Back to the Start Back Back Back Back” bounces playfully like any number of Herbert tracks from yesteryear, and the sadness of the vocal sample creates the chipper-melancholy juxtaposition he continues to exploit in contemporary releases. It’s a good representative track, and it comfortably introduces the listener to the disc’s ensuing eccentricities. “Fischcoteque” crackles and squelches through five minutes that would be right at home on an Autechre record; immediately following is “I Hadn’t Known (I Only Heard),” which evinces Herbert’s knack for compiling sundry pop influences in a track whose generous funk momentum belies its latent glumness.
Altogether, it adds up to a characteristically sporting and very worthwhile release. Can serve as a nice addition to the collection of longtime fans and a competent introduction for newcomers.
1973: John Cale - Paris 1919
As The Velvet Underground seemed to be reaching the zenith of its artistic potential in 1968, there was unfortunately another type of escalation that the band was experiencing; the rift between frontman Lou Reed and the overlooked, yet essential architect of the more experimental and daring aspects of VU's unique sound, John Cale. The chasm between the two grew until Reed threatened to leave the band, thus resulting in the remaining members' begrudging decision to cast Cale out of the band.
After Reed himself eventually left The Velvet Underground in 1970, the contrast in the burgeoning solo careers of both men at this early stage reveals a curious dichotomy between Lou Reed's 1972 hit Transformer and John Cale's Paris 1919, which followed only one year later. For as timely and glossy as Lou Reed's walk on the wild side of the glam movement was, Cale's Paris 1919 was diametrically opposed in its sweetly anachronistic flavor and earnestness, taking its cues from the mellow warmth of soft rock and chamber pop. Given Cale's avant-garde pedigree, having worked with artists such as John Cage and LaMonte Young's Dream Syndicate, this album was certainly a jarring shift, especially for listeners who might have been expecting that his previous effort with minimalist Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, would have been a return to form for him and a comfortable niche to settle into.
Instead, we find John Cale abandoning the mesmerizing rigidity of his former projects, adopting a sound with a softer, more refined focus. Cale's ethereal Welsh lilt is framed by the leisurely, pastoral sprawl of guitars and pianos and, on several songs, orchestral accompaniments that masterfully pirouette between being baroque and sprightly. The atmosphere of Paris 1919 is one of curious opposites, as one can hear the echoes of naked folksy earnestness so prevalent in his early '70s contemporaries, such as Cat Stevens, Neil Young, and James Taylor, yearning to break the tense surface of gentlemanly restraint. The understated sway of "Hanky Panky Nohow," with its surehanded fingerpick twinkle and sleepy strings, evokes Nick Drake being channeled through the warm glow of a golden AM radio, while "Graham Greene"'s buoyant horn stabs, off-kilter piano, and jaunty vocal phrasing come off as one of the best songs Belle and Sebastian never wrote.
While we may wonder and mourn what could have been if the wills of Reed and Cale had not forced them apart all the way until the short-lived "reunion" in the '90s, we are left with two artists whose respective approaches to reinvention were unsurprisingly different. While Lou Reed became a professional chameleon of sorts, overtly signaling any marked shifts in his sound, John Cale seemed to enjoy a more subtle method. If being avant-garde is the act of subverting common expectations, then Cale slyly crafted a brilliant achievement in Paris 1919 by utilizing a mournful gentility to catch his original target audience unaware and hiding in plain sight.
1972: Lou Reed - Transformer
In 1972, just two years after abandoning The Velvet Underground, frontman extraordinaire Lou Reed decided to embark on a solo odyssey just as the sleazy slither of the glam-rock movement had begun to win over the hearts, minds, and grinding hips of a generation when bands such as Mott The Hoople, David Bowie, and T-Rex became painted, androgynous deities.
After his adequate but unspectacular eponymous debut, Reed was savvy enough to sense the growing popularity of glam and its potential to be the vehicle for his musical rebirth. He also utilized the immense talents of David Bowie and Mick Ronson as the figurative midwives for the delivery of his first masterpiece, Transformer. While listeners will no doubt hear the more overt trappings of glam throughout the album, it becomes apparent that Reed's intentions are far more interesting than simply aping the horny frills and ass-shaking grooves of his contemporaries, instead simultaneously embracing and subverting the conventions of what some might have considered a fun, yet frivolous, sound.
Within the tightly wound genre of glam-rock lies a core of showy exuberance, and while Bowie and Ronson's tutelage may have led him to embrace their sound, Reed's natural personality and drowsy, dispassionate delivery gently mock listeners' expectations by defying our predetermined notions of sexy excitement with a familiar backdrop blended with elements of winking irony and anti-theatrics. Opening track "Vicious," for example, finds Lou monotonally drawling verses about suffering absurd cruelties: "You hit me with a flower/ You do it every hour/ Oh baby, you're so vicious," as the periodic punch of Mick Ronson's guitar lines throw up showers of golden sparks between lines, finally culminating in a wah-wah-fueled solo that dances and contorts like a serpentine livewire, playing up the disparity between the song's lyrical content and its title and music. Reed's brand of irony is not completely relegated to the humorous or offbeat, as evidenced by the morose piano ballad, "Perfect Day," which juxtaposes the seemingly pleasant and sedate activities of a couple in love with a melancholic dirge steeped in a black cup of ennui and defeat stirred by the swelling of bittersweet strings.
Despite all of that, Reed is just as adept at playing the genre straight for the eyeliner set. He churns out a couple of gems replete with fuzzy riffs and soulful background singers on "Andy's Chest" and "Wagon Wheel." Most impressive, however, is “Satellite of Love,” a dreamy cabaret-flavored piano ballad whose Hunky Dory-esque tone eventually dissolves into a sublime melange of subtle finger snaps, insistent horns, and spacey background vocals that sound like a handful of helium-filled Bolans being released into orbit.
Looking back on the diverse body of Lou Reed's work, it turns out that not only was the title Transformer the name of the record that put him back on the map, but may also have been a prescient wink from a man who always knew that his greatest strength would be that of fearless adaptability.
2004: The Intelligence - Boredom and Terror
Seattleite Lars Finberg might be better known as the drummer of the A-Frames. Or, if you're from Seattle but don't pay attention to quality music, you might know him as "that guy who used to work at Cellophane Square." Hopefully you know him for the first reason and not the latter. The Intelligence always seemed like the area's best-kept secret, even as the A-Frames were garnering more attention, but that was fine -- it just made the rest of us who knew of them seem cooler by comparison. Now? No one's cool anymore; sorry.
2005's In The Red-backed Icky Baby did a lot to get The Intelligence’s name out there. It also saw Finberg’s 'solo' project flesh out into a fully realized band as he was joined by Factums' drummer Matthew Ford and two members, Lee Reader and Nicholas Brawley, of the recently (at the time) broken-up Popular Shapes. While The Intelligence have been hanging around since 2000 with more changes in line-up than you might think, we get the stripped-down version on this release, which is Finberg, a guitar, drums, keyboards and a drum machine.
Over Boredom and Terror's brief 26 minutes there is enough variation to keep things fresh. But who really needs variation when you're doing something so perfectly? The drum machine and keyboard tandem of "Spellers and Counters" is an absolute gem. There's also the outright pop of the lively "Weekends in Jail," which features the most fleshed-out sound, and all without keyboards. "Telephone Wires" is the other more conventional sounding rocker, with more catchy guitar chords and a memorable chorus. Matter of fact, nearly every song on here has a great hook. They're great without being saccharine or trying too hard, and the weight of that success is mostly attributed to Finberg's delivery. For example, who knows what he’s saying on the driving "Guys"? It doesn't matter; it's how he's saying it that does. That might sound like a page from Pinback's playbook, but it's a safe bet that these lyrics aren't quite so oblique. They're just random.
In a perfect world, this would be popular music. Really, I can't think of many reasons why this band hasn't caught on. The music is ridiculously catchy, upbeat, clever, and you could probably dance to it if you were so inclined. Okay, there are a few f-bombs thrown in here and there, most philosophically on "The World Is A Drag," where Finberg asks the timeless question "Who gives a fuck if the world is a drag?" Certainly not I. The only track preventing Boredom and Terror from being a perfect album is “The Night Belongs to Microphones.” It's not a bad track -- not at all -- but it suffers from being surrounded by some amazing songs. This album was originally going to be released as a double CD, but someone at Omnibus convinced Lars to scale it back and stick to just one disc. The leftover material was issued as a bonus CD to be packaged along with the 12-inch version of Boredom and Terror that Narnack later put out. If only they would've switched out “Microphones” with "Darling, That Was A Lie" from that disc, then daaaaaaamn. That's all I'm sayin'.
2006: ESG - Keep On Moving
ESG get treated by journalists like a group that the right people took under their wing, somewhat condescendingly implying that everybody was charmed by these girls with rudimentary technical skills. The spirit of punk had just as much room for three sisters from the Bronx as it did four pseudo-brothers from Queens, but whereas punk and the genres it spawned represented an ideology tied to a style of music, ESG never seemed particularly rebellious, and consequently came off as kinda naive, making them outsiders to an outsider art form. Maybe the downtown scene found a bit of primitivism in them, which might have helped them placate their own intellectual insecurities.
While those early hits owe their appeal to an irresistible spunk, attempting to achieve similar sassiness 25 years later just sounds sad. It's like watching your mom try to be sexy or something, and just as embarrassing. Tracks like "Purely Physical" and "The Road" sounds like strip music for the saggy set. The music sounds dry and cheap, like they're still playing the same drum machine they've had since the '80s.
Denser numbers like "Everything Goes" and the title track come close to finding a groove, but are hampered by the sense that these ladies can still barely play their instruments. There's something far less charming about middle-aged women playing clumsy beats and simple bass-lines than teenage sisters forming a band with instruments their mom gave them. "Ex" is clearly trying to be a sensitive heartbreak song, but I don't want to hear that kind of trembly teenage stuff when I know these girls have been having relationships for 30 years. Call me sexist or ageist for saying women in their forties can't pull off what people half their age do, but the whole point of getting older is to become more mature, or at the very least more proficient.
It must be frustrating for bands to realize the hot new sound of now is what they were doing way back when. There's a weird irony that young people playing old instruments usually sound better than old people playing new instruments, so you'd better trade your nostalgia for defiance if you want to impress the kids. Then again, if you don't care about keeping your cred and just want to get paid to play music, who cares about broke hipsters.
1989: Godflesh - Streetcleaner
Streetcleaner, a work purveyed by Justin Boardrick of the current Hydra Head recording outfit, Jesu, is pure texture. Guitars surge like deep ocean swells; slow and damning. "Machine" spews out beats that toggle from tick to crash with no warning. The vocals are distilled to distorted, doom-mantras like, "You breed/ like rats," or "Don't hold me back/ This is my own hell." In the 1980s when speed and intricacy were the musical traits held in the highest esteem, Godflesh choose to reveal themselves in gradual, leveling eruptions of sound.
Inventors of the short-lived grindcore genre, Godflesh stripped death metal of its vocal barks, riffs, and gaudy drums while at the same time, besting its brutality. In so doing they polarized metal fans and gained new support in hardcore, industrial, and goth circles. The music; thick, bleak, and repetitive, somehow evokes lucid imagery like silent vampire films, scorched expanses of forest at twilight, and grey, windowless buildings seconds before implosion. This crafted atmosphere of utter devastation is masterful through the record's first side. It's only when we flip the wax that the results become a bit more sorted. Side two, recorded in a separate studio session, adds to the mix a second guitarist, Paul Neville, as well as slabs of sampling. In some cases, the broadened sound works; "Devastator/Mighty Trust Krusher" drips with urgent guitar shrills reminiscent of noise-metal heroes, the Swans, and "Life is Easy" barges out of the speakers with minimalist riffing. As we reach the title track and the closing, "Locust Furnace," however, Streetcleaner loses its sense of thick minimalism and descends back toward other death metal efforts. On these tracks, the riffing becomes prominent, and the growling-vox effects become contrived. None of this is to say that these tracks are weak, rather this more traditional approach brings the listener out of the horror and into the mosh pit. The apt noise-mongering grows that much easier to catalogue and falls into territory ventured by the likes of Meshuggah and Burzum.
Justin Boardrick would return to the magnificence explored on Streetcleaner's first side with the Godflesh follow-up, Pure and then embark toward more rhythmically-charged efforts with the Ice and God projects, before creating Jesu. Some may find it odd that the mastermind behind Godflesh could make the transition to a project such as Jesu which is lathered in melody. But, I have an inkling that to Boardrick, music is simply sheets of sound; obscuring both the good and bad, the sweet and deteriorated.