1993: U2 - Zooropa
As the rest of the music world chooses to heave a collective middle finger at U2 over the release of their latest record, Songs of Innocence, I decided to engage with a record of theirs that I really care about and to also, in some ways, come to terms with the fact that a band I really like pretty much sucks now. 1993’s Zooropa is worth revisiting because it serves as the last time U2 delivered a consistently good record before they devolved into the earnest, boring stadium rockers they’ve become over the course of the 2000s.
Released after the game-changing Achtung Baby, Zooropa finds U2 further embracing electronics, hip-hop, and industrial music. It’s arguably much more daring than its predecessor, because when listened to today, Achtung Baby sounds a lot like your standard U2 album, albeit with programmed beats and spacey guitar textures. Where that album and the resulting ZooTV tour took on media overload mixed with post-Wall European culture, Zooropa encapsulates the feelings of hope and anxiety that accompanied the reunification of Germany and the beginnings of the Internet Age. “And I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what, and I don’t know the limit, the limit of what we’ve got,” Bono sings on the title track, echoing the theme of identity and place present throughout this album and a good portion of their work. The way it’s expressed here feels more in-the-moment and intimate than the wide-reaching, give-me-a-hug vibe present in so many of their hits (“Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” etc.). That feeling carries over into “Babyface,” and by the time you reach “Numb” (where the Edge gets the chance to “rap”), you start to absorb that information-overload theme that permeated so much of their work in the 90s.
The highlight of the album — and in my opinion, one of U2’s best songs — is “Lemon,” a low-key, synth-driven tune that features one of Bono’s strongest vocal performances. Apparently inspired by seeing old home movies of his mother, the song tackles our reliance on technology to relive and hold on to the past. “Man makes a picture,” the Edge sings in the closest thing to a chorus, “man captures color, man likes to stare, and turns his money into light to look for her.” This track always gives me goosebumps, even after hearing it dozens of times.
The rest of the album balances personal lyrics (drugs, love, death, and faith) and broader themes (politics, our relationship to technology). If you listen to the whole album (which you can do here), there’s a coherence to the many styles they draw from (techno, Krautrock, blue-eyed soul) that makes this one of their last enjoyable records from start to finish. Lyrically, they were way ahead of their time, as it took about 20 years for information overload and impersonal digital communication to become common talking points.
While 1997’s Pop and 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind had their moments, Zooropa was the last time that U2 justified their status as ostensibly the most popular band in the world. From then on, it became more about U2 the brand rather than U2 the band. It’s ironic, then, that an album all about technology’s ability to dissociate us from the real world has become their final great statement.
All the Wu like to bask in gansta rap’s infatuation with urban machismo, but Ghostface Killah embraces it with a rare gusto. Borrowing an alter ego from one of the Marvel Universe’s wealthiest denizens, Ghost often depicts himself as a powerful, ruthless drug kingpin and, most recently, has upped the ante by affording himself a comic book backstory and supernatural powers, to boot. But if the majority of Ghost’s street-hardened tales exist primarily in the realm of wish-fulfillment, “Walk Around,” from Big Doe Rehab is something else entirely.
In the song, Ghost plays the part of a would-be gangster who finds his entire life turned upside-down after he kills a man over an altercation with Ghost’s girlfriend. The body count of a GFK album often rivals that of a latter-day Tarantino film; enemies are dispatched ruthlessly and often with devilish creativity. Yet this time, after shooting his adversary three times at close range — two in the stomach and a coup de grace to the dome — Ghostface says “Everything got real slow, I ain’t hear shit, my word/ At least 40 seconds I stay dead stiff.” It’s entirely possible that the cops could have found him frozen in that grisly tableaux, but a friend takes the gun out of his hand and whisks him away in a car. In subsequent verses, the consequences of this rash and bloody deed will begin to seek him out, but seemingly more than anything else, it’s the sheer enormity of his actions that haunt Ghostface. He pukes in his friend’s car and later tries fruitlessly to wash the blood out of his clothing, all the while the memory of what he’s done plays over and over in his mind.
Slowly, Ghost’s world closes in around him. The police start raiding his spots, making life a living hell for his family. He’s pursued by his own connects who, sensing weakness, try to shake him down for more money. Ghost is bounced from safehouse to safehouse; his friends try to convince him to flee to Tennessee, but he clings to his increasingly transparent gangster facade, saying “No, I got these two snow-bunnies in Venice Beach.” By the end of the song, Ghost is a caged animal, asphyxiating from his cloistered existence and raving about his intentions to go out in a violent standoff with the police.
Ghostface is famous for his frenetic delivery, and there’s no more perfect vehicle to showcase it than “Walk Around.” It features a tense, claustrophobic narrative, and Ghost invests it with kilowatts of paranoid energy, his lyrics practically tripping over one another. The jitteryness of Ghost’s verses strikes a sharp contrast to Anthony Acid’s smooth soul beat, sampled liberally from Little Milton’s “Packed up and Took my Mind.” Severed from its original context, the song’s opening lines evoke Ghost’s sense of dislocation and help to complete the picture of a man who has suddenly and unexpectedly reached the end of his tether. This is one of Ghost’s most vivid tracks, the work of a master storyteller operating at the top of his game.
When Southern Records announced their reissue of Nomeansno’s Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie earlier this year, they made no secret of how divisive the record was upon its release in 1998. Between the ballooning song lengths and the band’s increasingly melodic sensibilities, maybe a lot of longtime listeners were feeling left out in the cold, with even the album’s supporters dubbing it “inaccessible.” In the rosy glare of critical hindsight, though, it’s harder to see what got everyone’s knickers all bunchy. While the Victoria prog punks’ 10th album captures the Wright brothers at their most expansive, it sacrifices nothing in the way of immediacy, and the snicker-snack shifts in rhythm and tempo all fit naturally into the songs’ natural trajectory.
Besides, expansiveness really seems to agree with them; the two best songs are the longest ones. The title track might clock in at eight minutes, but it’s as pure an example of Nomeansno’s particular brand of damage as you could ask for. A nice spare arrangement puts the Wrights’ sinister rhythm front and center, with Tom Holliston’s guitar adding accents to the verses and a righteous sense of fury to the thrashy post-chorus instrumental passages. Each verse is framed as a ransom note written to a rich man whose wife, son, and daughter have been kidnapped, one after another, and bound with “ten sticks of dynamite/stuck together with duct tape” around their heads. It all culminates with the kidnappers coming after the rich man himself, admitting:
“We have no political beliefs.
We don’t want your fucking money.
There’s just one thing that motivates us.
We hate your fucking guts.”
The menace of Tom Wright’s delivery elevates these pronouncements to a level of genuine hilarity while maintaining a sense of paranoia and danger.
On the other side of the coin sits “The World Wasn’t Built in a Day.” While “Dance” resonates with the black-hearted comedy of their college radio hit “Dad,” “World” reminds us that, on his best days, Tom Wright could be one hell of a lyricist. The sprawling, surreal narrative follows a man who dreams that everyone he ever knew died simultaneously in a series of random accidents. The prospect initially fills him with elation that soon cools into a lonely desperation, only to end with an oblique moment of epiphany. There’s an almost hardboiled quality to the language, with the protagonist driving down darkened streets where “Streetlamps cast their mockery of light” and enjoying a chance encounter with a woman who lets her hand fall on his leg and “there she let it stray.” All this is set against a portentous bass line that remains constant and almost completely unchanging throughout the song’s nine and a half minutes.
Other songs explore themes of mental illness (“I Can’t Stop Talking”), boorish behavior (“I’m an Asshole”), and sexual abuse, one in the form of horror-story reversal (“The Story Must Be Told”) and the other in a far more unsettling look inside the mind of a violent misogynist (“The Rape”). The album snaps back and forth between moments of silliness and introspection as easily as it switches gears in time signatures. If you’re not willing to keep up, the radical shifts in tone might put you off, but for those who revel equally in the gallows humor of Big Black and the introspection of Richard Hell, Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie should provide plenty to love.
2001: Fugazi - The Argument
I’m sick of reading the same things about Fugazi, characterizing them as a one-dimensional. Yes, we all know they have never “sold out,” that they changed the face of hardcore, that one in every five persons thinks Ian MacKaye is a hypocrite.
But Fugazi were in constant motion, growing both artistically and philosophically throughout their career. One of the cornerstones of the band was their supposed austerity, exemplified by both their ability to express different moods and sounds without changing or augmenting their basic instrumentation, and their ever-present “question everything/no violence/anti-consumerism” stance. But if their first two EPs and Repeater were propaganda to some — releases that commanded the listener to do or not do certain things — then The Argument was a question mark to all, inviting listeners to hear the band’s point of view and get them to think for themselves.
On the album’s inner sleeve, there’s a picture of a memorial plaque for Sandra Scheuer, victim of the Kent State massacre. The picture reminds us of the price of speaking out against war. Released a mere month after 9/11, the band asks big questions about freedom, protest, and multinational corporations, with the ghost of war lingering throughout, much like it does on the video of them playing “Turnover” on an anti-Iraq demonstration more than 10 years before. But the greatest lesson Fugazi imparted was that punk meant anything was possible, as long as you stay true to your convictions while remaining independently critical. In fact, they taught us by example to the point of ridicule, but one thing no one can deny is that have thus far lived by their own sword.
Mr. Anus and Mr. Horribly Charred Infant — Happy Flowers, that is — were responsible for a whole series of disturbing and demented songs enacting childhood misadventure, fear, and ill intent, all set to the noisy backing of creatively mistreated instrumentation (and occasional riffs). And for a band operating almost entirely on the basis of this one joke/concept — as far I’m concerned the two are pretty much interchangeable here — they certainly managed to cover a broad spectrum of the misery and foolishness of children, from misplaced curiosity and frustrated desire, to powerlessness and unexpected victimhood (some sample song titles, for illustration: “Bobby Made Me Eat a Frog,” “I’m the Stupid One,” “Why Didn’t You Tell Me You Were Bringing Home a Baby,” etc.). They had a particular talent for capturing precisely those moments when reality starts to fall cruelly short of childish demands in a highly entertaining fashion. But even though Happy Flowers’ output might have almost always been amusingly grotesque and exaggerated, it was strangely sympathetic too — there’s always something to identify with, no matter how surreal the situation. We’ve all been children at some point, I suppose (and some of us still are, despite our advancing years).
“I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons,” off 1989’s Oof, is a perfect example. Some of their songs might have been a bit more noisily deranged, others perhaps kinda more “sophisticated” in their bizarre storytelling. But none captured the moral deprivation of childhood, none expressed the child’s sheer uninhibited, undeveloped bundle of desires and the terrifying confusion of want and need — so easily transfigured into rage — with such a perfect combination of menace and recognizability. (Also noteworthy: voices are pitched up to heighten the demonic child factor; Mr. Horribly Charred Infant apparently “played” a guitar lying on the ground with his foot, in addition playing to bass the usual way.)
So are children by nature good, pure, innocent? Doesn’t seem much like it if “I Said I Wanna Watch Cartoons” is the least bit accurate. But then again, there’s no TV (or mittens, or lawnmowers, etc. etc. — corrupting influences all, I’m sure) in nature. I’m certain, though, that according to Happy Flowers’ comically dark vision of infancy, “innocence” really means not understanding consequences, to horrible and funny effect (some more song titles: “Mom, I Gave the Cat some Acid,” “There’s A Soft Spot On The Baby’s Head”). They know not what they do, but damn, what they do really can be pretty fucked up.
1989/1993: Helmet - “Born Annoying”
Helmet occupies a crucial, if somewhat controversial place in rock history. Signing to Amphetamine Reptile in 1989, they represented a new level of punk penetration into heavy metal. By merging crushing riffs with scalding waves of feedback and packaging it all in an everyman presentation that eschewed some of the genre’s more bombastic trappings, they patched into an audience that might have had trouble relating to a Slayer or Obituary album. The buzz that surrounded their debut Strap It On was such that Interscope (allegedly) wound up signing them for a million-dollar contract in the wake of a massive bidding war. Despite moving a boatload of units with Meantime, they never achieved the superstar status that had been projected upon them, and they gradually faded from view before disbanding (temporarily) in 1999.
But the key to Helmet’s thorny legacy (and the reason so many people write them off) is the shadow they’ve cast over heavy music in the 90s and early 00s. Like a heavy metal Velvet Underground, Helmet was never a household name, but their records found their way into the earholes of a lot of angry kids in bands. Helmet were pioneers of drop-D tuning and staccato, groove-based riffs, both of which would become ubiquitous in the decade following their earliest releases. While there were a fair number of bands who took elements of this sound and ran with them in interesting directions (Pantera, Tool, and, hell, maybe even The Jesus Lizard), this also means that Helmet had a hand in birthing nu metal.
My first exposure to the band came in high school when my buddy John gave me a mix tape with their 1993 reprise of “Born Annoying” on it. (Still my preferred version, although the only standalone video I could find on YouTube was the original 1989 demo version, below.)
“Born Annoying” was pure Helmet, pivoting between verses built around a repetitive, frustratingly compressed riff, and a totally headbang-able hook for the chorus, and climaxing with a solo that gradually devolved into shrieks and wails. Best of all, though, are the lyrics. Paige Hamilton bellows, in his angriest, most throat-rending-ist snarl:
I open my mouth
I talk about me
I follow you around
I talk about me
The goofiness of the song’s subject matter cuts a pretty stark contrast to the ruthless construction of its melody. So much so that going on 15 years later, this sad sack narrator still elicits a chuckle from me.
“Born Annoying” is a perfect illustration of why it’s wrong to throw baby Helmet out with the nu-metal bathwater. Regardless of what they helped give birth to, Helmet wrote the kind of funny, catchy, and utterly brutalizing songs that the Korns, Limp Bizkits, and Static Xes that sprang up in their wake could only dream of. Helmet was a mutant gamete swimming around in alt-rock’s uterus, an abrasive genetic suicide bomb stuffed with a stew of punk and metal chromosomes that somehow gave rise to a new breed of commercially accessible heavy music. Check ‘em out for the history lesson. Come back to them for the riffs that’ll take the top of your goddamn head off.
What the hell is this? Seriously, have you stopped to think about what kind of a song “Cemetery Gates” is in the context of Pantera or even metal in general? It’s a weird fucking song, yet not a headbanger bats an eyelash about it. I also can’t stop thinking about the relationship between this song and “Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths (it turns out, Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo is a huge fan)
Essentially, “Cemetery Gates” starts off as a power ballad. It has the same kind of theme, structure, harmony, vibe, and rhythm expected of the style, performed by a rock band in a 4/4 rhythm. But when the main distorted riff kicks in, the track becomes something else: a half-sludge/half-traditional metal mutt that later takes a speedier route versed in the lexicon of thrash, before tumbling back into ballad territory.
On the vocal front, Anselmo does everything a good metal frontman does with a song like this: he croons emotionally, does his standard tough-guy power singing, and even throws in some harmonies in the chorus. And just when you think you’ve figured out what they’re up to, the last sequence of the song enters, which is when we bear witness to a guitar vs. voice duel. Anselmo does some Rob Halford-worthy falsettos, each answered by Dime’s guitar, egging each other to see who can go higher. (Spoiler alert: Darrell’s guitar reaches dog-whistle status before Anselmo.)
After the release of Cowboys From Hell, the album on which “Cemetery Gates” can be found, Pantera became one of the biggest and most influential bands in metal. While “Cemetery Gates” wasn’t influential like their other more well-known, identity-forming material, one can only hope that such an anomaly will at least inspire somebody out there to take a similar left-turn into writing a weird-ass metal ballad.
1997: Pentax - Das Album
Pentax was an alias — as best I can tell, now dormant — of the prolific Cologne-based producer Reinhard Voigt; Das Album should probably be considered a classic of the more uncompromising end of minimal techno. Music so pure and obdurate is hard enough to find.
Das Album seems to be constructed entirely in the unfolding of its own endless undulating surface, its rhythms — sometimes with a brutal (Schaffel-ish?) swing — all but stripped of reference to any approximation of acoustic instrumentation. Especially at the right volume (loud!), the whole thing feels like it’s occupying every available space with an almost-oppressive presence, wholly opposed to the crisp precision of certain other strands of techno. As tracks progress, they are often interspersed or overlaid with sounds reminiscent of malfunctioning, decomposing machinery, introducing an unpredictability that has nothing to do with human impulsiveness and that does nothing to disperse the immediacy of it all. Even as it feels as though its lack of clear hooks, melodies, track titles, etc. might render it remote and inaccessibly abstract, Das Album is utterly concrete in its unadulterated devotion to the pulsing mechanics of its sound.
It’s slightly surprising, then, to find that, in the briefest of one-line descriptions typical of the sparseness of information available about it, Kompakt’s website suggests that Das Album is a concept album. For my part though, I’m damned if I can figure out what the concept actually is — there’s barely a concession to the cerebral or emotional life of the listener (not that this means the majority of the time it gives the impression of being geared toward dancefloor euphoria!). But maybe, rather than being in conformity with some misplaced stereotype of “Teutonic” directness, the amusingly blunt title of the album might be the best clue. Perhaps the concept is simply that it is an album at all — a coincidence of form and concept, so to speak, noteworthy in a genre that often might seem to revolve around 12-inch singles intended to be slipped into someone else’s mix. But I speculate. And, mysterious concept notwithstanding, Das Album certainly does feel like an album — if that implies the coherence of the tracks, and particularly if it implies their progression from one to the next. Das Album develops in its own peculiar and arresting way, from its leaden, almost inert beginnings, through the unremitting throb of the second untitled track — a personal highlight, the mechanistic heartbeat of the album — to the slivers of atmosphere and hints of depth and layering that breach the endless repetition later in the album.
It may be that the reason for Das Album’s relatively unsung status is its having been overshadowed by more celebrated contemporaries. It came out, after all, on Profan, a label founded by Wolfgang Voigt prior to the important Kompakt label. Reinhard Voigt is also, of course, brother of and collaborator with Wolfgang Voigt, whose work as Gas, as Studio 1, as M:1:5, among numerous others, is (rightly) acclaimed — in fact, Profan’s entire catalog is pretty much composed of releases by one of the two. Das Album shared a place with a number of projects that laid down a template for German minimal techno — a template in my view barely surpassed inside or outside the constraints of the genre. Yet Das Album strikes me as being at the very least the equal of any of these in its stark single-mindedness.
The No Alternative comp was a big deal as far as I was concerned at 14, and going back to it, I find it still resonates. The live rendition of The Breeders’ “Iris” has long been the definitive version (“just gotta start real slow”), and the experience of watching Kim sing it on the MTV special pretty much cemented her rock & roll essence into my music-junkie bloodstream. Of course, I played the Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins tracks over and over, and even enjoyed Soul Asylum’s take on “Sexual Healing.” I bawled listening to Bob Mould’s heart-wrenching “Can’t Fight It” and sang along with Buffalo Tom’s insanely catchy “For All To See.” I was a bit green yet to grasp Pavement, but it put a bug in there.
While I’ve forsaken a good deal of the “alternative” 90s music I listened to, revisiting this comp proved fortuitous, as it led me to the brisk gloom rock gem that is “Heavy 33” by a New Zealand band I know little about called The Verlaines. Not sure why this one was absorbed in the folds, ‘cause I hear it now accompanied with all the alarm bells and firecrackers associated with thrilling discovery. The chorus is not only infectious but sports some of the best lyrics I’ve ever encountered in a despondent anthem:
“I’m striving to coax or wrench you - I can’t even reach you
You’re starving for something - I’ve got nothing to feed you
And renegade good intentions turn to scorn
All the clouds keep hoarding
All their airborne oceans won’t fall”
Sung in a rich, menacing tenor by front man Graeme Downes, these lines feel like something etched in the firmament. The frustration of butting our heads against recalcitrant lifeforms in the hope that they’ll open themselves up to us is conjured with such poise as to render every other angsty 90s anthem hopelessly moot. This is a great song that should be played as a replacement every time some alterna-DJ is about to queue up “I’ll Stick Around” or “Everything’s Zen” from here till the end of radio as we know it (while there’s still time). As for my lil’ corner, I know it will be something in the rotation for many mixes to come.
(Turns out the fine S.F. Seals cover is also a Verlaines tune and it is not too shabby either.)
1981: Weekend - The ‘81 Demos
I think everyone spends about 90% of their time at the age of 15 being an insufferable holier-than-thou prick. It just comes with the territory of being in that stage of life where at once you discover that some day you’re gonna be a wholly (sorta) self-sufficient (sorta) person, but at the same time, you’re having to vigorously figure out all the who/what/when/where/how etc. of that actually coming to pass. (The less you think on the “why,” the better.) I tend to consider myself lucky, because I did a pretty good job of forgetting everything that happened to me between 13 and 17; not that capital b Bad things happened, it’s just more like I was bad and annoying and weird, and it was constantly happening. One thing I cringe about a lot now is thinking about how I related to other people in terms of music; I steadily d/evolved from being a kid who bought Coldplay CDs in 2004 to someone sternum deep in the overpowering thrall of my own smug, lookin’ down my acne-embossed nose at the gherkins around me clutching thrice-microwaved sub-Strokes posters from Smash Hits (Remember The Bravery? That was an interesting fortnight). I was insuffrerably superior about just about everything. Led Zeppelin? Buncha cocks I tell you (though the only song I knew was “Stairway to Heaven,” and I got it confused with “Tales of Brave Ulysses” on at least one occasion — don’t ask). Asshat misogynists! Look, I could dwell on this (don’t ask me about the time someone asked me if I knew who The Smiths were when I was 15), but in any/every case, I was roundly, solidly a jerk.
Yet, if you caught me at a time when I found Young Marble Giants or the family tree thereof you’d find me completely without a smart-ass answer — completely silent — and the frosty solitude of Colossal Youth still reduces me when I am listening to it to whatever is essential about me, and nothing else. There’s something path-breakingly singular about Alison Stratton’s voice; a strange snowglobe, the coldest little warm pocket in the world; I’d come up against something beguiling, in that it made exactly enough space for you, just as you were underneath whatever bluster you wore and allowed nothing more — no ego, no pretension. If you were going to talk about it, you had to lower your voice, get yourself on its terms. There was no other way to experience it, and the same magic persisted with Alison Stratton’s post-YMG band Weekend.
Sorry I took the long way around, but The ‘81 Demos were and are catnip for anyone, and the new reissue on Blackest Ever Black gives these tracks the full ceremony they’re overdue for.
Based on the familiar elements that Colossal Youth was built from, ‘81 is a snapshot of a band yet to explore their more jazzy tendencies, but already excelling at the art of writing songs as heartbreaking as they are simple. “Nostalgia” is astonishing, in the way it bridges Harmonia and the moments of Here Come the Warm Jets when you think Eno doesn’t have his tongue in cheek in a way that’s almost futuristically plain, in a fashion that people are still somehow throwing $15 at Real Estate to streamline into pure bore. If Beach House ever write a line as effective as “And the thoughts will make you pray for old friends/ Some of them you see sometimes/ Some of them are dead,” buy me a Coke; if there’s one that hides a lyrical throatpunch like “Nostalgia” does, I’ll buy you coke. “Red Planes,” with its twisting progression, is like “Skank Bloc Bologna” for people who know there are much wider and larger things than living in a squat, which makes it probably the best thing I’ve heard all year.
“Summerdays Instrumental” might scan on sight as maybe the least essential thing here if you’re a trainspotter, but it throws into even sharper relief the absolute gorgeousness of what Weekend’s sound was prior to their detours into the more Parisian cafe elements of themselves, mapping out a territory between Lawrence and Maurice Eubanks sitting on a spring porch before their working relationship (and Felt) went south. Do you have porches in England? Fax me. The guitar break that sings out of the main melody is too good for words. I’ve hung up on Skype calls to listen to it. I’m sorry, Mum. In any case, the brilliance of everything and everyone associated with Young Marble Giants was the creation of a music that was both too small to be listened to with any degree of attention lower than complete and too deep not to fall into completely. It’s a lesson in art that bears endless repeating, and this is some of the richest evidence on the family tree.