2009: V/A - Electric Holyland
Would Jesus jot band names like Wild Olive Branch Band and Earthen Vessel on his Trapper Keeper? Or, more interestingly, is it fundamentally wrong to write, release, and promote music about God? EVEN MORE FASCINATINGLY, is it logical to expect missionary-style rock from members of the Christian flock?
Hell, if I knew the answers I wouldn’t be here right now, knowhat’msayin’? But the Electric Holyland compilation, released in 2009 by Lysergic Sound Distributors, goes a ways toward lessening the stigmas associated with music with religious connotations while also absolutely justifying them in a few cases (even the true hand of god couldn’t save some of these tunes). It’s not an album I expect rookies will be craving; you only need this if you’re already schooled in Nuggets and its many (of varying quality) offspring to the point of utter exhaustion.
Jesus hears our every need / This you’ve got to knoooooow
The mind goes through a couple of stages upon absorbing statements such as the above over and over. The first stage is humorous appreciation for the abject devotion the participants display. They talk ‘bout talkin’ with the lord, walkin’ with the lord, calkin’ with the lord (sorry, had to complete that rhyme scheme), and their preachiness is so much more natural than the weird bullying religious presence we seem to all be resigned to today. The second stage is to recoil a bit; aren’t these bands the precursors to seed-poisoners like Scott Stapp and Jars Of Clay? This ain’t COOL man… This ain’t COOL man.
The third and final stage is acceptance, as Electric Holyland is, in the end, a fun listen that insists legitimate music can be found absolutely anywhere, and while I’m not ready to laugh about Creed just yet, they never rocked as hard as the wonderfully vexing Shekina Glory’s “Ask” (which glues Sabbath fuzz to a goddamn flute solo and insists Jesus has come to “claim us as his own;” to me that’s creepy) or perfected a Mamma/Papa/Spanky/Gang melody as complex as those found within the godlike fiber of The Jesus Band’s “Jesus Is Mighty to Save.” They certainly never snarled like Britt Warren, who half-raps over a strange riff that starts out sounding like that fucking Tonic song then morphs into a 1970s stomper. Weird, brody; weird.
It’s one thing to worship our god the savior; it’s another to suck unholy ass while you’re doing it like, say, Petra. A good portion of these bands don’t suck, even as they’re beseeching you to get involved in something that most definitely does, and the strange ins and outs of the situation make for an interesting listening experience. That a lot of these ditties are direct copies of radio hits of the time only helps, as the oooh-ahhh factor of hearing your favorites of the era sets in nicely alongside the odder cuts. Maybe living in mega-church hell has something to do with it, but I find Electric Holyland a lot more authentic than most god-based offerings.
1985: Exodus - Bonded By Blood
We live in an age of privilege. If you know how to play your cards on the internet, you can listen to anything. The only limit is whether you want to listen to something or not. Because of this, stigmas about what you are “allowed” to like have perished.
This wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
Metal was the music of burnouts, fuck-ups and losers looking to a) get laid and b) nerd out on exciting guitar music. Any self respecting music fan felt embarrassed by the look, sound, and attitude that headbangers manifested. For their part, metal fans thought people who listened to other music were morons who couldn’t handle their genre. They were close knitted elitists.
Exodus were the Tomás de Torquemada of heavy music. It seemed like their whole point of existing was to yell “Death to posers!” Legend has it that original vocalist Paul Baloff used to cut people’s Mötley Crüe t-shirts and wear the rags on his wrists as trophies. And, just recently, I came across a comic book where they imagined themselves as serial killers cleansing the scene from “pussies.”
This adolescent attitude is surely to cause anyone not committed to metal to roll their eyes. It would be pretty easy to dismiss the band given this proof. Musically speaking, Exodus (at least on their first album) were untouchable.
It is said that the Big 4 – that is, the best and most recognizable bands to come out of the thrash metal scene – were Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. None of these bands would have gotten anywhere without Exodus. They were amazing songwriters with ambitious yet grounded arrangements and memorable riffs. What made them truly great was that their music possessed an urgency and heaviness unmatched by most of their contemporaries. Tracks like “A Lesson in Violence” churn like Minor Threat if they had guitar lessons, while “And Then There Were None” showed they could display power without resorting to speed.
Bonded By Bloodis not considered a groundbreaking album because it was shelved for a year and, in that lapse of time, the Big 4 and others released stuff that sounded groundbreaking. Whatever the case, the album is one of the most intense records ever put out and, despite the risk of being called a poser by the surviving Exodus members, I hope it’ll get more recognition outside the metal gates.
1981: Crass - Penis Envy
The story of “Our Wedding” by Creative Recording and Sound Services is a good one that bears repeating. Included in a 1981 issue of UK teen romance magazine Loving was a “Fabulous Record Offer,” a write-in coupon for a free copy of this “Wedding Day Single” sung by one Joy De Vivre. Little did the Loving staff and readers realize that Creative Recording and Sound Services were actually the anarcho-punk band Crass and Joy De Vivre one of their two female singers. Once word got out, Loving editor Pam Lyons called the hoax “a sick joke,” and told NME, “It was just a pathetic ploy by Crass to get publicity.”
A sick joke? Definitely. A ploy to get publicity? In a sense.
But pathetic? Not at all on Crass’ part. The only thing pathetic about the ordeal is the fact that a successful mainstream publication failed to recognize “Our Wedding” for what it was: a blatant regurgitation of the magazine’s own fear mongering and propaganda. Consider that whichever dimwit passed for a music or entertainment editor at Loving really might’ve listened to the desperately pleading lyrics “Never look at anyone, anyone but me/ Never look at anyone, I must be all you see/ Listen to those wedding bells/ Say goodbye to other girls/ I’ll never be untrue my love/ Don’t be untrue to me,” and actually thought them romantic, or at least passable as such.
Crass founder Penny Rimbaud had this to say: “These are the same authorities that made Chinese women into festering hooks, that made Victorian women gasp for breath beneath their whalebone binding, that make women today distort themselves with high heels and chemical additives … They offer you cheap products that exploit you and the emptiness that we all feel; their obscene and mindless intrusions into the emptiness are tragic insults to our intelligence. It is because of their poverty of thought that they off[er] ‘Our Wedding,’ pure unadulterated shit. THEY SELL IT TO YOU WITHOUT A CARE.”
Looking back, one mainstream magazine’s embarrassing failure and perhaps more embarrassing reaction to said fail created a perfect moment in countercultural history; an instance in which the day’s tastemakers were so brazenly heartless and out of touch they mistook satire for the real thing and advertised it accordingly. A contemporary analogy might come in the form of vaporwave artists successfully pushing their hellish Muzak distortions on banks and department stores. This, of course, hasn’t happened… yet.
While “Our Wedding” parodies pre-packaged romance and the commodification of love with a voice of innocent naïveté, Penis Envy’s first cut, “Bata Motel,” offers a searing send-up of the psychosexual nightmare patriarchal society attaches to the female gender, spelling out the “she was asking for it” mentality in terms none too abstract. Man’s prototypical female is embodied by the willfully submissive sex object (rape victim?) played here by Eve Libertine, who like Joy De Vivre in “Our Wedding,” addresses her mate directly: “Burn me out, twist my wrists/ I promise not to shout, beat me with your fists/ Squeeze me, squeeze me, make me feel/ In my red high-heels I’m an easy kill/ Tease me, tease me, make me see/ You’re the only one I need to be me/ Thank you, will you take me?/ Thank you, will you make me?/ Thank you, will you break me?/ Use me, don’t lose me/ Taste me, don’t waste me.” How one reads such requests and demands in light of modern pop’s sexual identity crisis (see: domestic violence victim Rihanna singing “I want you to be my sex slave”) is another matter altogether.
One laste note: if you’re looking for more information on Crass or at all interested in anarcho-punk music or anarchistic living in general, I cannot recommend the full-length documentary There Is No Authority But Yourself highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and take 65 minutes out of your day to check it out.
2006: Natural Snow Buildings - The Dance of the Sun and the Moon
It’s been a bitterly cold winter up in New England so far. There are far colder regions, but nonetheless it’s been pretty brutal. On the (more frequent than I’d like to admit) occasions that I step outside for a cigarette it’s always an endurance test. It’s not even an “I feel cold” feeling really; it skips that and goes straight to the “unbearable burning pain” level of temperature recognition. The 20 mph winds this week have added a wind chill below zero. Despite all that, winter is my favorite time of the year.
It has nothing to do with holidays or birthdays (I’m born in July) or anything like that. It’s because even in blistering cold, when those winds are so strong they seem to pin your front door shut, falling snow has a way of making everything seem so beautiful. Watching snow fall is like watching rain in slow motion. It makes me not mind the cold as much; in fact I kind of enjoy it then. Since this isn’t a weather blog, I should get to my point. Natural Snow Buildings is a band that sounds like how a snowstorm looks. Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte’s output as NSB is very prolific, and you may have seen some of their albums covered here before. Honestly, I’ve always found them to be frustratingly hit or miss, but that might just be because I got spoiled by their masterpiece long ago.
The Dance of the Moon and the Sun is a monolithic piece of work. Two discs, 25 tracks, and nearly three hours; it is a lot to take in to say the least, and NSB doesn’t make it easy. They pull you in with the gorgeous brief folk song, “Carved Heart,” and then “Cut Joint and Sinews” follows at over 15 minutes. For the first hour of the album NSB pepper heartbreakingly direct folk songs in between their massive drones in a way that might turn off a lot of listeners.
People who really love TDotMatS often praise it while kind of glossing over this fact. It’s an album that you can get completely lost in, but that fact can also make it an overwhelming listen. NSB create a tremendous tension from the start by slipping moments of clarity like the brief, beautiful “Rain Seranade” or “Breaking Waters” and placing them around the epic 25 minute drone “Felt Presence, Ghostly Humming.” It is an album that challenges you to take it all in one listen, yet it is deeply rewarding when these moments of beauty open up in the dense storm of other tracks.
As you grow used to the structure and pattern of the first disc, NSB completely abandon it on disc two from the moment you hear the uneasy drones of “Tupilak” grow over faint howling wind. On this disc they make a gradual descent to the darkest their music has ever been, and then gently float back to the bright surface. “Wandering Souls” is gentle and vocal driven but there is a darkness to it that was only hinted at before. They maintain that tone on the feverish “Ten Guardian-Spirits Motherfucker,” and while “Gary Webb” teases that the earlier beauty may return it is followed by the Vietnam inspired horror of “Whose Eyes Are Flowers,” where the vocals become frighteningly clear as Gularte delivers the apocalyptic and gory lyrics. Yet in this case it is darkest before the dawn, as NSB begin creating some of their most beautiful songs, both melodic and ambient. “Cursed Bell,” “Search For Me,” and especially “Away, My Ghosts,” bring things full circle to the tracks like “Carved Heart” that began the album. “John Carpenter” is surprisingly unlike its horror movie master namesake, and closer “Remains in the Ditch of the Dead” is a sleepy drone that drifts off to silence midway through before waking up for a brief beautifully sung finale. Though “Ditch” is the final track, everything reaches its big cathartic peak right before on “Tunneling into the Structure until it Falls,” a stunning multi-sectioned song which perfectly marries the two struggling forms throughout the album.
Dense, long, and at times brutally cold and dark The Dance of the Sun and the Moon is an intensely powerful listen. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
1981: Hal Russell - NRG Ensemble
Contemporary improvised music in Chicago owes much of its development to two sets of people – the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the scene around multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell (1926-1992). Now split between Chicago and New York chapters, from its beginnings the AACM was primarily based in the South Side, and provided education and self-reliance to young, black, economically disadvantaged artists. It has birthed and encouraged the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, reedist-composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, and many others since its founding in 1965. Hal Russell’s work was less formalized in the sense of a specific musicians’/artists’ organization, but nevertheless he surrounded himself with fascinating young players and helped give rise to an equally eclectic scene in North and Northwest Chicago neighborhoods from the mid-1970s until (and after) his death. While little cross-pollination seemed to exist between the two environments, at least on the surface (keeping in mind that the AACM was founded in the midst of the Black Power movement and Russell’s cohort was white), their aesthetic goals likely shared more than they diverged in spite of Chicago’s highly segregated urban landscape.
In some ways, Russell was as much “ancient to the future” as the AACM-ers; he worked as a big-band drummer before adding tenor, trumpet, and vibes to his arsenal and embracing free improvisation, yet retained “swing” and even “entertainment” in light of taking the music “out.” Though somewhat known in Windy City jazz circles, Russell’s name hadn’t made it that far outside when the eponymous NRG Ensemble LP was waxed for Nessa Records in 1981 (also an early documenter of the AACM). His only other commercial release at the time was with the even more obscure tenorman Joe Daley for the latter’s The Joe Daley Trio At Newport ’63 (RCA-Victor), featuring bassist Russell Thorne, a strange hybrid of the jazz/classical “Third Stream” and open improvisation. Russell formed the NRG Ensemble in the late 1970s and it continued even beyond his death, though the group’s most vital work naturally featured his voice. Russell’s conscripts and associates over the years included reedmen Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark, bassists Kent Kessler and Brian Sandstrom, and percussionist Steve Hunt. On this particular date, Russell is heard on drums, vibes, cornet, zither, shenai and c-melody saxophone, joined by Sandstrom, Hunt, reedman Chuck Burdelik, and bassist Curt Bley for a program of six originals (two of which have been added to this CD reissue).
It’s not particularly difficult to hear aesthetic allegiances with the AEC in the NRG Ensemble’s music at this stage; the lengthy “Linda Jazz Princess” has a jaunty swing, crackling with Hunt’s fluid time and Bley’s robust, plastic pizzicato. Following Burdelik’s throaty and economical free-bop tenor, Russell is banshee-like and virile on c-melody saxophone, roguish squeals and harried elisions recalling the young Albert Ayler’s wailing against a more reigned-in rhythmic structure. Wild oom-pah fanfare arises, recalling the early-jazz nods of the Art Ensemble, or perhaps woollier instances of the William Breuker Kollektief, before fragmenting into frenetic collective improvisation, Sandstrom doubling on trumpet and soon emitting a condensed and utterly weird unaccompanied solo. The musicians’ improvisations are clearly directed and arrived at with a sense of rigorous arrangement, as much as they sonically seem to come from left field – witness Russell’s glassine vibes exposition, abruptly yielding to a power trio fronted by Burdelik’s alto. The tendency to switch between a variety of instruments does seem AACM-like, but rather than using diversity as a coloring device, the musicians in the NRG Ensemble are at a continually propulsive back-and-forth, doing the work of parallel small-groups at an orchestrated cutting-contest. “Seven Spheres” closes the initial LP tracks, and is by comparison a tone poem that utilizes pocket trumpet, vibes, and clarinet to augment the more “bent” sounds of Russell’s zither and shenai.
The album’s opener, “Uncontrollable Rages,” seems almost schizoid at the outset as it volleys between violent tenor/drum duets (Burdelik and Russell) and measured vibes/bass interplay (Hunt and Sandstrom). It’s clear that Russell’s loose, delicate drumming is that of “teacher” and Hunt’s ragtime to no-time swirls are those of “student” – all one has to do is compare the former behind his mates’ heel-digging onslaught on “Uncontrollable Rages” with the latter on “Linda Jazz Princess.” Russell’s touch/concept is very light but certainly pushes the music with a master’s brushstrokes. And if titles invoking a frothy rage reminds one of a certain Weasel Walter, well, that’s not entirely baseless: Walter’s longtime outfit The Flying Luttenbachers initially included Russell on tenor, and the group’s moniker was in homage to Russell’s family name. The bulk of the piece is actually quite spare and open, given to Hunt’s gloriously effervescent vibraphone runs, and when the ensemble is in furious motion it’s with a joyous air of fluidity. Following NRG Ensemble, Russell made two more records for Nessa: Eftsoons (1981), a series of duets with Mars Williams, and the Charles Tyler-abetted Generations (1982/1989, released via the UK imprint Chief). He went on to record a series of excellent dates for ECM at the turn of the 1990s, leading to a bit of international recognition in the autumn of his life. But this wonderfully remastered and augmented early set is indispensable for fans of contemporary improvisation and those who want to hear more of Chicago’s creative music roots.
1992: Skullflower - IIIrd Gatekeeper
Swans’ grand triumph in year-end lists and polls seems nothing less than heroic, and it’s well deserved. Their approach is defined by violence with the artistic vision of a rottweiler. Even at their most subtle, there’s always a suggestion of blood engorging veins and curdling around vocal cord; its implications whispered to chilling effect.
They also represent a strain of music that influenced miscreants the world over. The Swans diaspora has one of its best prophets incarnated in Matthew Bower, whose Skullflower project pummels and grinds in a way all its own. Of course, he acknowledges the root of their sound.
Bower came from a much more severe musical background than Swans. Some of the Broken Flag label releases housed some of the most hateful and depraved words this side of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet, Skullflower weren’t offensive or repulsive. Its aggression is a means to develop a psychedelic sort of art; tribal drums punch the soundscape throughout, guitars pummel with feedback and beat the crap out of the listener with dissonant chords, but it’s aggression is never directed at him/her. The feeling is that the violence is stopped within.
Most of their music sounds improvised but seems to have a direction and craft, something not entirely present in records of this kind. IIIrd Gatekeeper feels like an abstract painting in the way it unfolds and splatters sound in a chaotic but magnificent way. While songs have always been the cornerstone of Swans, Skullflower take the approach and atmosphere of their main influence to make something sprawling, pointing another direction in which Gira and company might go had they taken Bower’s route.
Matthew Bower has had a share of brilliant bands (Total, Pure, Hototogisu, Sunroof!), but Skullflower, like a gang beatdown in the middle of an alley late at night, remains undeniably memorable.