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.
1999: Amps For Christ - Circuits
Back when I was starting out as a music scribe doing the Skyscraper Magazine thing around the turn of the century I first heard Amps For Christ, and I can say with surety I was not-not-NOT ready for it. At all. There was something creepy about the project that caught my ear, but it was too diverse, too seemingly contradictory, too perverse. Had I known AFC (my favorite NFL conference too) arose from the liquid-black death of Man Is The Bastard and Bastard Noise I might have given them more time to stretch out in my brain’s womb. As it stood, I moved on without a thought to whatever I was deep-diggin’ at the time (Pinback, Kingsbury Manx, Interpol; basically all-indie-rock, all-the-time) and tossed Amps For Christ into the ‘loser’ bin with Gulcher releases and Gay Tastee (that Xiu Xiu EP with the naked Asian dude on the cover might have been in there too; oh, the embarrassment).
Now that Circuits, originally released on Vermiform in 1999, is finally available on a bulbous 2xLP mainframe, I can absorb what I missed the first time around and hopefully make up for the mistakes of the past (which of course, considering my track record, would take three lifetimes to compensate for) in some small way by giving the all-important, sought-after, gold-encrusted Gumshoe stamp of approval and perhaps pointing the stragglers in the right direction. You need this music, is what I’m trying to say. Not because you’re a sad sap, in particular, but because successful, art-damaged takes on folk are hunted to extinction these days, drowned in overly serious Pentangle/Fairport Convention apery, somber drudgery, and an all-too-common refusal to do anything new with the medium.
Amps For Christ dash any folk expectations the listener might have almost immediately, dabbling in pseudo-fuzz-metal slamma-bamma a few times on Side A and busting out the occasional drum-machine beat and/or noise freakout. Apparently sketched out from songs AFC leader Henry Barnes remembers hearing his ‘mum’ sing, or some such thing, the only hint of nursery-rhyme melody comes from the vocals; other than that, it’s often tough to parse what’s going on. One thing I do know for sure is the troop have little use for acoustic guitars and delicately plucked folkpeggios. They’re all about washed-out fuzz that floods the compositions like an oceanside apartment, dirty synths (or noisemakers; not sure where a lot of these squiggles originate), high-pitched squeals, feedback in any and all forms, and rumbling, tumbling bass that likely exudes from anything but a bass guitar, though I could be wrong.
When AFC are at their best, they’re pushing the limits of Song to the breaking point. “Wishful Thinking” is basically looped vocals atop a gnarly-ass riff of some sort, but it sounds so utterly foreign you wonder how it was all chopped up and assembled together, yet the track holds together perfectly, bound by the glue of the gods rather than chewing gum and bailing wire. It’s like Ariel Pink’s old stuff, Frusciante’s heroin dreams, Aaron Dilloway’s viciousness, and a bittersweet folk rumination packed into the same dusty duffelbag, yet I’ve completely failed to capture its beauty; these are roadsigns in a blizzard, not any kind of basis for what’s actually happening on this record.
Such a tough-to-pin-down record is exactly what the doctor ordered amid the often-dismal hordes of drone-dwellers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Get your brain fried by Circuits again, for the first time.
1976: Grover Washington Jr. - A Secret Place
Your girl would love this album, trust me. I’d play it for her on March 14. Oooh yeah, right Thur. Of course, she might giggle a little at first. “What’s this, porno groove?” she’d ask, because she’s cute like that. You should see her now, her hair and nails looking right, and that dress… You know the one: she wore it out with you that one time, but hasn’t since because it makes her butt look fat or because life got in the way or whatever it was she said.
Our dinner destination’s “A Secret Place”1 about eight minutes uptown, just far enough for her to take in what’s about to happen, nay, what is happening. Cruising ‘round wooded bends, cracking windows so winter’s waning breaths can cool us down to equilibrium, grooving so naturally no one would ever notice.
I’d expected her to order something light like a salad, so my eyes widen when she tells me, “I think I’ll have the New York strip” — sarcastic, of course.
“Yeah, you will,” I’d tease back. Then comes that wink I love, and her hand disappears from the wine stem to scale my inner thigh, her digits doing a “Dolphin Dance” (Hancock).2 Her eyes aglow in flickering candlelight, she leans in and squeezes. I return the gesture and feel her whole leg quiver. What can I say? The girl’s hungry.
By the time we make it back to the other side of town, the ride’s a fucking mess. I’m jockeying to peer through a fully fogged windshield against which the defroster stands no chance. Honey’s already soaked through the upholstery of the passenger seat and demanding in between slurps for me to pull over.
I’m like Banderas before the shit hits the fan: “Not Yet.”3
Whispering sweet nothings to honeysuckle lips humming affection, I’d let her in on something special: she deserves no less than tonight every night forever. A purred whimper overcomes her inflection, and it’s on from there: claps, pants, rumbles, heaves — the works.
Approaching this, her fourth climactic event of the evening, she seethes with long-unfulfilled desires now bubbling cutaneously in drips of sweat and lust. Much is said in the heated throes of passion, but one indisputable truth need not the slightest utterance: “Love Makes It Better.”4
1 Recorded in October 1976 at Van Gelder Studios, A Secret Place is saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s sixth studio album and his last for CTI Records’ subsidiary/sister label Kudu Records. Produced by label owner Creed Taylor, the album features Washington on tenor and soprano sax accompanied by Dave Grusin on piano, Anthony Jackson on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, Eric Gale on guitar, John Gatchell on trumpet, and Gerry Niewood on alto sax, with horn arrangements by David Matthews (no, not that David Matthews, douchebag). Richard Alcorn is the man responsible for the moose-knuckle-showcase photographs displayed on the front and back covers.
2 Recognized today as a jazz standard, “Dolphin Dance” was originally written and recorded by pianist Herbie Hancock for his 1965 album Maiden Voyage. Washington’s rendition features George Mraz on bass as well as Steve Kahn on guitar.
3 Watch this.
4 Some skirts in Switzerland confirmed as much. Read this.
1982: King Crimson - “Waiting Man”
Most people know “21th Century Schizoid Man” and most music fans are at least a little familiar with King Crimson’s sound from the 70s. It is broadly defined as “progressive rock,” but touches upon many sounds, structures, and has enough good ol’ fashioned ambition to make for some of the most exciting music of the era. Having said this, few people nowadays mention their output from the 80s (except, of course, for dedicated fans of prog).
It is said that King Crimson came into their own for a seconds time when Robert Fripp and Bill Brufford welcomed Adrian Belew and Tony Levin to their ranks. Discipline, the first album from this new lineup, is considered a return to form for the band, yet remains an album few people talk about. Either that or we remain too astonished by their first seven albums to move on.
Yesterday, my boss at work came across this video and (Miami Vice outfits aside) it sounds like the future. It’s layered with new elements added slowly, with loop upon loop building a clockwork organic realm. The band uses (admittedly) crude sequencing and electronic drum pads along with their traditional instruments, which themselves are heavily effected (hello, Frippertronics!). You can hear the sounds of Gamelan and subtle African percussive music in it. You can hear the era itself (guitar synthesizers, Simmons pads) but also something else to come in its core.
This is Don Caballero before Don Caballero, Battles before any of them knew about two-finger guitar tappings in a rhythmic way. This is Foals before their members were born. “Waiting Man,” from their album Beat, could be inserted in a 2013 album and no one would notice. This is the sound of richly layering instruments to make pop music before the 21th century demanded it.
1986 - 1987: Big Black - Atomizer / Songs About Fucking
Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
The hills are high; the horn’s voice loud and long;
They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
The king declares, “Our men are in a battle.”
– The Song of Roland, Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753 (circa 1140 C.E.)
It’s only a coincidence that the drum machine that helped unite electronic music with traditional masculinity shares its name with an 8th century Frankish war hero. Though according to his literary depiction — poems limn him as a broad-shouldered he-man with a deafening horn — the Roland of legend makes a fitting namesake for the Roland TR-606, the drum machine of choice of Steve Albini and Big Black.
Big Black wasn’t the first band to use a drum machine, or even a Roland. However, in the early 80s, Albini’s aggressive noise-rock outfit was one of the few bands that could rely on a little whirring gadget and still come off as unquestionably (if slightly satirically) macho. It was a stunt decades in the making.
In the early 20th century electricity in general was perceived as threat to masculinity. Electric current, and the chic urban modernity that came with it, was expected to wash away strength and virility in a wave of comfort and soft living. In his 1901 novel Labor, Emile Zola shows electricity pushing humanity toward an Eloi-like existence defined by unending leisure. Others, significantly less optimistic, saw power’s shocking influence as a factor in speeding all of civilization into a Spenglerian decline. While these fears of castration-by-a-thousand-amps did fade, it was decades before electronic music got it’s cultural bar mitzvah and was welcomed into the world of masculine pursuits.
From its early days, music primarily produced through circuit boards did not put hair on chests — it was largely the realm of sweater-clad academics (see this incriminating photo of Stockhausen). Even its first foray into the mainstream was headed by androgynous goths like Gary Numan and the faux-andriod neuters of Kraftwerk. Partially, this is a holdover from those old concerns: Twiddling the knobs on a synthesizer did not hold the same masculine allure as pounding out a beat on a drum kit. It wasn’t until the advent of industrial music that electronics started to beef up their effete image. And here the semantics are decidedly not a coincidence. Early practitioners of industrial music self-labeled, consciously attempting to associate their sounds with the gritty, blue-collar world of machine shops, blast furnaces, and steel mills.
With their two mid-80s albums, Atomizer and Songs About Fucking, Big Black drove away any remaining vestiges of electronic music’s frou-frou reputation. Both these albums present a raw, angry, and distinctly male ethos — and they do it using a Roland TR-606 (later, using the less evocatively named EMU Drumulator). In fact, the drum machine was as crucial to the band’s work as its hyper-masculine affectations. The machine was even credited in liner notes as “Roland,” as if the menacing beats on “L Dopa” were created in-studio by a burly Frankish percussionist and not an 18-volt appliance.
Roland isn’t undeserving of the credit, either. The persistent rhythms it provides on “Kerosene” give the song a taut, suspenseful energy. The device’s mechanic precision and cold textures help color all of the band’s work, providing a rigid backbone for Albini to build his bellicose tracks around. The combination of Roland with Albini’s dissonant guitar and transgressive lyrics created a novel effect. Big Black’s songs are rooted in electronic and mechanical sounds but use the direct, aggressive nature of traditional rock and punk. The songs often traffic in dark and ugly tropes that present a critical view of masculinity (sample: “feel my fist/my fist of love”), but Albini’s complex relationship with gender politics aside, the music is not twee. Listen to “Strange Things” and you can hear how masterfully the two realms are blended — Roland’s percussion sounds right in line with the thumping bass and guttural yells of its human counterparts.
Big Black’s catalog is a stunning combination of electric power with animal magnetism. Where Kraftwerk used drum machines to transcend the physical to a Computer World, Big Black put them to work creating brutish, visceral Songs About Fucking. Electronics plugged into pure atavism. Where the machine may have seemed more in place in dance music or a karaoke bar, it was now a tool fit for anger-fueled aural destruction. Like the Roland of legend blowing his horn, the drum machine could now signal chaos and violence.
1994: Neptune Towers - “Caravans To Empire Agol”
Back in the early 90s Darkthrone was releasing their best material in the form of black metal classics such as A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger. Things were going just fine, but Darkthrone half, Fenriz, wanted to experiment with synthesizers. Black metal is all well and good (err…bad and evil?), but it’s not the kind of genre where you’ll be able to experiment with Tangerine Dream-style kosmiche. Fenriz explained in an interview that he made some synthesizer music intended for Darkthrone albums, but decided against it because it wouldn’t fit right. Enter Neptune Towers, a project Fenriz described as, “Avant Garde Astral/Alien Synth.” Pretty fitting.
So, yeah, you can sum it up pretty easily as “black metal guy jams out to some Tangerine Dream,” but who wouldn’t want to hear that? The first album, Caravans to Empire Agol, is the better of the two in my opinion. Consisting of two tracks, “Caravans to Empire Agol” and “The Arrival at Empire Agol,” the album is concerned with soundtracking the journey through this strange alien world. While Empire Agol seems like a place you would never want to go near, I don’t mind vacationing there while this dark little album plays.