2001: Zen Guerrilla - Shadows On the Sun
In the early 00’s several bands wanted to take back rock n’ roll from fusions and modern studio technology. It became a simple throwback instead of a renaissance, recreating the old looks and sounds, all done professionally. It was nice, melodic and well done but, to me, lacked the uniqueness and vividness that the original stuff had. It lacked what made it stand out in the 60s – what made people want to start the revolution in the first place.
Then again, if you turned off the radio around that time, looking for “real” rock n’ roll in terms of heat and excitement, you might have stumbled upon Zen Guerrilla’s masterful album Shadows On the Sun. This record not only brought back garage and R&B from the 60s but did so with such swagger, spark, and circumstance that you couldn’t help but getting up, shouting and dancing and popping someone in the eye. It’s the spirit of music repossessed by young musicians sounding like the pioneers did in between fistfights and sneaking a toke at the sock hop. Zen Guerrilla were not newcomers, they were on their fifth album and second for Sub Pop. They also shared their sense of desperation and fire with New Bomb Turks, but the way they played the notes and violently let their spirit loose is what gave bands like Zen their place. This makes them more than just music or – worse – product, they become a sense, a drug, an emotional state.
There’s nothing overtly original about their songs, except they are well executed, well written, and played like meteors that are falling from the sky – it seems that not only will there be no tomorrow, but we might not even see the end of today either. Others might have the radio hits and critical approval; Zen Guerrilla have the spirit of getting it on.
2011: Iceage - New Brigade
Somehow TMT managed to turn a blind eye last year on one of the most exciting/ass-kicking punk bands of 2011. Without a review or a spot on our year end list (a travesty, I know), Iceage has been painfully absent from our site and now it’s time to remedy that. Hailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Iceage is composed of four angry dudes that are hardly out of their teens but already know their way around a mean hook and a fuzz petal or two or three. Inheriting quite a bit from the godfathers of furious sub-two-minute post-punk, Wire, their debut album New Brigade packs as much anger and ruptured eardrums into 25 minutes as any piece of music I’ve ever heard.
Most of their tunes are merely short bursts, maybe one or two riffs repeated a couple times, but a mix of scathingly raw production and an embrace of some gnarly guitar noise adds layers to otherwise stark songs. The Steve Albini-ish production leaves almost all the bands energy intact, and whatever loss of fidelity is suffered is more than made up for by how immediate and large all the instruments sound – especially the guitar and drums. “Broken Bone” opens with a guitar that is hammered out until the strings sound like they’re about to break, a typical moment of highly wound tension where the band thrives somewhere between a new level of intensity and falling apart completely.
But sheer noise wouldn’t mean shit (or a spot as my favorite of the year) without something more to grasp onto – something that worms its way into your head. Surprisingly, many of New Brigade’s memorable hooks are found in the vocals and Iceage’s choruses can be downright anthemic. “You’re Blessed,” “White Rune,” and more or less all their songs forgo screams for whats best described as a deep below, carrying as much anger as pure shouts would but with loads more expression and melody. With these guys and Lower releasing debuts from Denmark in the past year, the post-punk scene has gotten a bit angrier and much much more exciting.
1992: Current 93 - Thunder Perfect Mind
When I was a young kid in Catholic school, everybody knew if you were ever bored and looking for a good laugh you could always grab your Bible and flip to the back to find the weird-as-shit Book of Revelation. It was pretty entertaining for a young atheist, reading this book that has informed centuries of decisions and beliefs. I’ve gotten older though and really grown to appreciate the mythology found there. Try to put yourself in the time when this stuff was written. It is genuinely frightening, yet beautifully imaginative. They are such aesthetically conflicted stories entrenched in both sides of a spectrum; a sense of horror and rapturous bliss pervade all the characters regardless of whether they are good or evil. God does monstrously horrible things, while Satan is described as the most beautiful of all the angels. It envisions the End Times, the purging of the world, and one of the earliest definitions of catharsis.
That dichotomy is at the heart of what many call David Tibet’s best album. Thunder Perfect Mind sits at the top of Tibet’s catalogue despite, or perhaps because of, that conflicting nature that hearkens all the way back to the Bible. The gorgeous medieval sounding folk melodies always carry a creeping sense of ancient doom. It explains how Tibet can open his album with a song of tremendous beauty and faith even though it focuses primarily on Satan. The depth and complexity of his writing feels authentic and true to Gnostic tradition while countless Christian pop acts sound shallow and redundant in (an admittedly inappropriate) comparison.
Current 93 albums often grow from a seed of inspiration. It’s usually a theme, or even just a phrase, Tibet explained in a 2006 interview with Brandon Sosuy. The title “Thunder Perfect Mind” acts as that seed. A Gnostic poem filled with paradoxical statements that define the ancient Christian spirit at the heart of Tibet’s songwriting. The recitation and heavenly instrumental that make up the two sections of the title track make Tibet’s message clear even long after he’s implied it through the song cycle in the first of two LPs that make up the album.
Steve Stapleton (in addition to creating his own Thunder Perfect Mind the same year under his Nurse with Wound moniker) co-produced the album and added a wonderful assortment of studio touches under Tibet without ever overpowering him. The liner notes credit Stapleton with providing “corrugations,” or folds and ridges, and while that sounds abstract there’s not a better way to describe his contributions; his unsettling industrial touches and electronically manipulated vocals that sound like demonic children, and many of the otherwise traditional moments on the album. The centerpiece of TPM, “The Stars are all Dead Now,” remains one of Current 93’s most ambitious moments. After beginning with a Caretaker-esque intro and a looping foundation singing “Jesus heals with love,” Tibet spends the next nine minutes re-imagining the apocalypse through the spirit of William Blake. His terrifying chanting of “DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD” punctuates everything from Jerusalem to God to himself (the late John Balance ironically is one of the only characters in the song spared), yet he sounds downright ecstatic in his tone. The dirge-like beauty of the song is juxtaposed against Stapleton’s best manipulations of sound on the record. As Tibet shows the world ending the song cracks and breaks apart in a climax the whole record has been leading up to.
Thunder Perfect Mind digs deeper than most Current 93 albums. Though it sounds ancient in many of the sounds and obscure references Tibet makes, the bits of electronic trickery that Stapleton includes make it intensely Modernist. It brings to mind works like Eliot’s “Waste Land” and Ginsbreg’s “Howl” while maintaining Tibet’s mystic doom to create an album that doesn’t lean on its inspirations. I still remember being that kid snickering at the dragons, and 666s, and seas of blood found in the conclusion of the Bible, yet when I heard Thunder Perfect Mind all those years ago it shook me to the core; it still does.
1966: Jackie Wilson and LaVern Baker - “Think Twice (X-Rated Version)”
I recently saw the dirtiest grandfather of rap, Blowfly. Brian McKnight’s been releasing songs for porn websites. R. Kelly has a new album coming out. Sex jams have been on my mind. After hearing the (awful and sad) Brian McKnight pussy-eating ode, I kept thinking back to this Jackie Wilson/LaVern Baker remix that never saw release.
The original (also called “Think Twice”) was a minor hit. When you think long and hard about the type of content that was considered explicit in the mid-60’s (especially within the context of soul music), this song has got to be one of the dirtiest songs recorded during that whole decade. For that alone, I really appreciate its value.
I also think there’s something to be enjoyed in the fact that Jackie Wilson’s higher-pitched quieter voice is dwarfed by LaVern Baker’s deep and booming voice. It changes the dynamic of this outright fun and dirty gospel-soul song. It’s odd to me how so many female soul singers really avoided the notion of sexuality, especially when they had the pipes to really send their message with power and grace.
“Now listen to me honey/ I give you all the reefer/ All the cocaine/ And you still fucked up” might be one of the first instances in music where a woman calls out a man for being bad at sex, right? I mean it’s a common enough thing to bring up in our world today, but it certainly wasn’t something that was widely accepted in Jackie and LaVern’s culture.
Anyway, I’m going to try suffering through the Usher album and then wind up listening to R. Kelly remixes. Please keep this song on a playlist for when you need a soul song that’s as fun as all the others but aggressively filthy.
1983: Metallica - “Phantom Lord”
Like many youngsters, one of my first serious brushes with music was with Metallica, becoming obsessed with their heavy, melodic, and ambitious (for mainstream standards) music. Tracing their history back from their humble beginnings as a garage outfit to the biggest band in the world, I got to know their desire to unite their love for NWOBHM bands like Angel Witch and Diamond Head with punk and hardcore of the day, an approach that soon put them ahead of the metal curve and influenced a generation of loud and fast aspiring musicians to make the sickest, most blistering music they could. I also learned about their volatile guitarist Dave Mustaine who got kicked out, became bitter about it, formed Megadeth, and fueled a war that lasted for much of both band’s careers. One of their most brilliant moments together that exemplifies their fusion of styles is “Phantom Lord,” an early song that eventually turned up on their debut album Kill ‘Em All with Mustaine’s replacement, Kirk Hammett, handling the lead guitar work.
Just a couple of months ago, Metallica celebrated their 30th anniversary with a series of concerts, inviting many artists to play with them – everyone from King Diamond to Lou Reed – and, sure enough, the long awaited reunion with Dave Mustaine happened on the last night. After the insults, the drugs, the fights, and difficult personalities, the band finally played together and that little part of me that remains 11 years old – the one who was in complete awe discovering a world of sound away from the bland and typical and craving something loud and crazy – couldn’t pick his jaw from the floor or keep his eyes from watering; I really couldn’t believe my sight. There they were, playing “Phantom Lord” together, with all the frenetic riffs, shouts, and fast rhythms that still sound dark, violent, amazing, and vital, the way it was supposed to happen in a different world where Mustaine, Hetfield, and Ulrich remained together. A world of “if” that’s not real but showed its face for one brief moment in time.
1997: Jim O’Rourke - Bad Timing
Jim O’Rourke’s first solo album after parting ways with his Gastr del Sol partner David Grubbs works like a stylistic palette cleanser. After constantly pushing their ambitions forward with every Gastr release, O’Rourke took a chance to indulge in something simultaneously simpler and more complex with Bad Timing. It’s a contradiction because these songs are generally more musically complicated than anything Gastr did, yet their main focus is always on melody. A track like “94 the Long Way” grows ever denser as it piles on instrumentation over its 13-minute run time, but sounds simpler in the wake of the acoustic-ambient creepiness of songs like “Work from Smoke” or the electronic noise of “Hello Spiral” from the older albums.
This album sets a very good trajectory of where O’Rourke would be going with future albums like Eureka and Insignificance, but while those albums focused on pop and rock respectively Bad Timing shows O’Rourke taking his John Fahey worship to a majestic extreme. And much like Fahey’s best work, this entirely instrumental album never makes you miss vocals; O’Rourke’s guitar playing is so emotive he practically makes it sing.
Certain moments grab you more and more upon repeated listens. The opener “There’s Hell in Hello but More in Goodbye” manages to jump from a bouncy lighthearted melody to intricately rhythmic guitar to a darker sequence of low pulses punctuated by harmonics so beautiful that you don’t even notice the growing piano chords in the background. The song goes from sounding off the cuff and silly to sincere and tragic in only a couple minutes. Meanwhile the title track sounds downright magical as it builds a hypnotic guitar groove that eventually leads into mournful horns. Nothing, though, feels more satisfying than the feedback soaked finale “Happy Trails” which starts sounding like Fahey being backed by Earth and inexplicably ends by exploding into the jolliest possible combination of strings, trombones, and a ukulele solo… because why the hell not.
Describing elements of these songs can get across the inventiveness O’Rourke is playing with, but there’s no way to describe the genuine sense of fun when you hear this album, or the way the songs (ranging from 10 to 13 minutes) make you wish they went on forever. Though this solo record marked the end of one of the most creative musical collaborations of the 90s, O’Rourke sounds so full of ideas and life that it’s hard not to find it cathartic. Plus, I’ve tried and it is impossible to hear that ukulele solo without getting a great big grin on your face.
[Illustration: Mat Pringle]