Friday, September 30, 2011

Amplifier - The Octopus

The last 2011 album I'm reviewing this week, Amplifier's The Octopus is as vulnerable or more to cries of "hype" as Matana Roberts' Coin Coin, already drawing extreme plaudits (my CD copy had a sticker on it declaring The Octopus to be "the grand standard against which all prog albums will be judged" or some such hyperbole) as well as some rather focused ire from music fans.  Similarly to my experience with Coin Coin, I had read some glowing reviews for this album (the mainstream music press has been quite kind to it) so I was really excited to check it out--how often do you hear music critics putting progressive rock albums in their top albums of the year in 2011?  After investing considerable time in this album  (it's two hours long with an average song length of 7:30) I regret to say that I'm disappointed enough with it that this review will be the second installment of my Know Your Enemy series.

Let's start with the good things about The Octopus, and let's be clear that there are plenty of good things.  Firstly, I want to praise the band's pop instincts--probably the best thing about this album is its melodicism and the amount of catchiness to be found in pretty much every song.  The major/minor shift on "Minion's Song" results in an instantly catchy vocal melody, while songs like "Trading Dark Matter on the Stock Exchange," "The Sick Rose" and "The Wave" are all based on melodic guitar hooks, with plenty more to be found elsewhere.  Similarly, the band is capable of impressive musicianship--the drumming is pretty solid throughout the album, and there are moments where it's obvious the guitarist has got chops (about four minutes before the end of "Trading Dark Matter on the Stock Exchange" is a good one).  The songs here "rock" to the extent that that band's chemistry and energy are evident even though the album's a studio production.  Finally, I think the band's ambition has to be applauded--they're clearly trying to create something epic with The Octopus, managing at times to create an atmosphere of grand proportions and tying the album with an intractably esoteric concept, not to mention the fact that they wrote and recorded the album without label support.  On paper, there's a lot to admire about this effort.

Unfortunately, there is so much about this music that goes against what I stand for musically that the two hours required to listen to it drag by in slow motion, the minutes blending together into a dull aching throb.  To start with, the album is billed as progressive rock.  While a discussion about whether or not this music categorically is or isn't progressive is neither interesting nor productive, it might be illuminating to point out some of the characteristics of progressive music in relation to The Octopus.  If long song lengths, spacey synth sound effects and song introductions, science fiction lyrics and a complicated concept define a music as progressive, then so be it--this album exhibits all of those components.  If "progressive" implies some sort of innovation, surprising content, attempt to move music forward, or at the very least an impressive display of erudite musicianship in composition or playing, then this album falls far short of the mark.  As professionally executed as it is, I hear virtually nothing in The Octopus that we haven't already heard before.  The really disappointing thing is, most of it we've heard from non-progressive music; these guys aren't even plundering classic prog!  In spite of the long song lengths, the band presents us with standardized verse/chorus songwriting, straight-ahead 4/4 time signatures and an ultra-orthodox sense of harmony and melody.  I also have to take issue with those who compliment the band's "intricate" arrangements--despite the guitarist's frustrating display of ability, most of the parts played here are based on achingly simple riffs or clean arpeggios that repeat over and over without embellishment or development across minutes and minutes of track length.  Similarly, the band's interplay pretty much never rises above predictable rock unison riffs and "dramatic" breaks, failing heavily when it comes to subverting the formula.  Combine these structural weaknesses with production that reeks alternately of the heavily processed guitar tone that innumerable bands like Tool have been implementing since the 90's, and synth sounds, effects and samples that sound like they've been excreted by a computer, and most of the music here comes across as the hollow, sterile type of alternative rock that--again--innumerable bands have been producing since the 90's.

If the band marketed itself as a straight-ahead alternative rock band, these commonplace creative choices would at least fit the bill.  Instead, they wrap pedestrian substance with a stylistic sheen that implies "this is gonna blow your mind."  And how is this mind-blowing achieved?  Mostly through the fact that nearly every song is bookended by at least a minute of spacey intro and outro sound effects with no connection whatsoever to the music that eventually appears, not to mention how poorly-integrated and gimmicky they are when they actually appear within the songs.  It's like the band wants to recreate "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" without realizing that the song's atmospheric segues actually contain their own melodic framework and act as commentary on the core song's elements; just because you're playing notes doesn't mean you're producing meaningful musical content.  The album could have easily saved at least a half hour by removing these interludes without even touching the primary content of the songs (which also could stand to have some fat trimmed).  If I'd known how unimaginatively "contemporary alternative" this was going to be, I probably would have been happy to say "that's not really my thing" and leave it alone.  Instead, I'm told it's a great new version of something I love only to find out that it's something else in disguise.

Speaking of disguises, let's get to the lyrics, which probably bother me more than anything else here.  In support of their labyrinthine concept, the band has chosen to present the narrative with an indecipherable stream of pseudo-trippy clichés and embarrassingly cheesy metaphors and images, including (but not limited to): "ice age cometh;" "we're livin' on borrowed time;" "let empires fall;" "cross your heart and hope to die/don't take it personal" (two in a row there!); "don't you know that we belong somewhere over a rainbow/in the wreckage of the UFO;" "faster than a laser beam [beowwww; immediate laser beam sound effect];" "I know that you set the controls for the heart of the sun" (one of the most obvious Pink Floyd references imaginable); "this could be your lucky day;" "well ha fucking ha" (maybe my most hated lyric of the whole album); "divided and conquering;" "ignorance is bliss;" and "reach for the stars, you might grab one."  Rather than attempting to convey the cosmic trip to which they so desperately aspire by using words to disorient and give life to an alien experience, Amplifier is content to undescriptively state their purpose with bland lines like "step inside/take a ride to another dimension," repeated ad nauseum.  Don't forget--these words are sung by a voice that at times sounds eerily similar to Chris Martin's and has the grating habit of pronouncing long "i" sounds as "iiiiii-eeeee-iiiiii."

All in all, I applaud Amplifier's work ethic as an independent group and don't begrudge them their success--it's rare that independent artists can generate so much heat without the aegis of a label (though, to be fair, much the groundwork for their notoriety was laid when they were signed to a label, which I'm sure doesn't hurt).  What upsets me most is the complacency evident on the part of the band and listeners' willingness to assert that this album is a real trip, mind-bending, and weird, when on some pretty objective levels it's far more regressive than it is forward-looking.  I hope that if Amplifier continues to build on their success they'll decide to use their increased means to strive for something a little more outside the box--as of right now, they're about as far in there as you can get.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres

As unfortunate as it may sound, it's unusual in 2011 to have a challenging new jazz release to get excited about, but New York (via Chicago) alto saxophonist Matana Roberts has undeniably produced one.  Though she's been publicly active since the early 2000's, the first "chapter" of her ambitious planned 12-part Coin Coin series seems to have been Roberts' biggest break to date, getting her a lot of exposure in print and online.  People have already been talking about this album enough that the word "hype" is getting tossed around, which usually results in heavy skepticism and considerably less interesting conversations.  After getting to know this album I don't feel any need to declare it the "best" anything of 2011, but I do agree with the growing number of people out there that it's an uncommon album in the contemporary jazz landscape and well worth checking out.

Coin Coin Chapter One is probably best described as a conceptual piece of performance art, which covers the wide variety of musical styles it incorporates as well as the use of poetry and narrative that are central to its purpose.  The core themes of the work are memory, history and shared human experience, focusing primarily on subject matter relating to historical African Americans in slavery and positions of adversity, drawing from Roberts' own explorations of her family history and ancestry.  This subject matter is presented over and together with a diverse backdrop of different jazz styles, including avant-garde jazz, free jazz, dixieland, blues, and more.  While I think it's a valid point that the subject of the African American slavery is arguably not immediately relevant to most people's present-day lives and that it can be "too easy" of a choice (for obvious reasons relating to the horrors that countless African Americans have experienced throughout history) when it comes to eliciting a strong emotional response, I think these objections are a little too dualistic.  When confronted with Roberts' vision, it's clear that her exploration of the historical black American experience remains a living, vital part of her (and I'm sure innumerable others') identity, and the authenticity and emotion of her presentation soon dispels any attempt at dismissing the subject matter as purely contrived.

The most powerful pieces on Coin Coin Chapter One are undoubtedly those that feature Roberts' voice either singing or reciting spoken word.  In the Coin Coin world, Coin Coin is a sort of "every person" spirit who repeatedly appears in different people's lives across history, reinforcing the concept of shared experience that seems central to Roberts' project.  In "Pov Piti," "Kersaia" and "I Am," Roberts introduces Coin Coin's different manifestations with anguished cries, powerfully conveying the spirit's rebirth through another African American's existence.  Each song continues, describing each character's experience through Roberts' spoken word.  It's hard not to admit that these pieces are crushingly compelling in their emotional message, as Roberts' lilting spoken word describes episodes of yellow fever, slave rape, and redemption through freedom and the jaw-dropping concept of buying back children who were taken and sold as slaves.  I really love her poetic delivery; the meter is flowing, organic, and wholly reminiscent of instrumental improvisation--she stops, starts and repeats lines as if she's blowing a horn, imbuing the words with rhythm and often downplaying the force of the ideas, casually dropping blood-freezing lines like "I have seen so much but yet have experienced less than most dogs" and "I am twenty-five; there will never be any pictures of me."  Her lyrical concerns also come to fruition through sung vocals, as on the bitterly sarcastic auction block vocal blues parody "Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid 'Em In," and more contemporarily on the dedication "How Much Would You Cost?"

Musically, Roberts' vision is as sweeping and all-inclusive of African American history as her narrative is, drawing together a smattering of all of the historical jazz developments imaginable and weaving them together into a smoothly-flowing collage.  The opener, "Rise" recalls Coltrane's A Love Supreme in both title and its incantatory feeling, though its cacophony eventually marries modern electric instrumentation with more of a Pharoah Sanders-like free jazz sound.  The mercurial, progressively shifting main theme that introduces the album's spoken word pieces possesses the album's most memorable instrumental melody, effectively aurally tying the recurring themes together, and including a vocal arrangement that recalls 40's film scores.  "Song for Eulalie" blends ominous piano riffing with some nice free duet playing between Roberts (whose alto saxophone tone variously recalls both Coltrane and Sanders as well as the keening gospel sounds of Albert Ayler), while the album closing waltz ends on an uplifting note with the disc's most unassuming and most compelling vocal melody.

Though there are numerous brief kernels of vibrant and effective composition, I think one of Coin Coin Chapter One's weakest aspects is that it often plays like an all-inclusive pastiche; its eclecticism is only occasionally displayed in fully-formed songs and more often occurs willy-nilly across songs that seem to have little in the way of structure.  While the mood and playing of "Rise," for example, display a slight modern twist on free jazz, the track presents little in the way of recognizable melody or memorable elements.  Consequently, when the album ends the actual compositional elements seem rather slight and repetitive--the repeating theme, a couple of traditional songs, and a whole lot of episodic genre sampling spanning over 60 minutes, with a number of ideas taking up a bit more time than they probably justify.  Since Roberts has already announced that Coin Coin will be a 12-part series, it's hard not to start wondering if the musical approach will be the same for the entire work, which I fear could result in some artistic stagnation.  Though, as far as I know, this album is strikingly original in the jazz world (the closest thing I'm aware of is Max Roach's We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite), it's arguably only original in its performance art/narrative approach and wide-reaching inclusion of different styles.  Without Roberts' concept, words and voice, I think the music would come off as a bit unremarkable and unfocused in its scope.  I sympathize with Roberts' ambitions, since creating something simultaneously eclectic, developed, and original requires a sort of unidentifiable magic touch.  I hope that later installments in the series retain her obvious passion with a stronger focus on composition and hopefully her emergence as a truly original musical voice, neither of which I think have happened quite yet on this release.  Either way, I'll be first in line to pick up chapter two whenever it's released, and I hope those jazz artists listening to Matana Roberts achieve a little bit of inspiration to stretch past the hard bop regurgitation that so much contemporary jazz seems to cling to.  Whether or not it "lives up to the hype" (probably the most boring discussion imaginable when confronted with an album like this), I think Coin Coin Chapter One is unarguably an uncommon work and worthy of the interest it's received.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fred Frith - Clearing Customs

For the first of three 2011 releases I'm reviewing this week I've chosen a new album by an old hand--Fred Frith, an artist who's already popped up here in numerous places as a solo artist, band member and producer.  I can think of few artists more prolific than Frith, who continues to improvise and compose with unabated verve at the age of 62.  This album is a collaboration between Frith and six other musicians--Wu Fei on guzheng (zither) and vocals, Anantha Krishnan on Indian hand drum and tabla, Marque Gilmore on drums and electronics, Tilman Müller on trumpet, and Patrice Scanlon and Daniela Cattivelli, both on electronics.  The disc contains one track--the 68 minute-long title track, which is based on a graphical score written by Frith and with a stated purpose of bringing together artists of diverse and unrelated backgrounds into a functioning, communicating performing unit.

Unsurprisingly, Clearing Customs unites Frith's modern classical compositional approach with not only free improvisation but also his predilection for rock and folk.  As a large, extended composition, it's also unsurprisingly opaque on the first few listens, though the compositional elements and structure is evident and unfolds more and more with each revisitation.  Overall, I think the atmosphere is best described as moody; the most dominant aspects to my ears are the sounds of the zither and the computer elements, both of which account for a large part of the album's spacious feel.  The proceedings begin promisingly, with gently pulsing synth sounds and a (real or sampled?) ping pong ball bouncing.  Fractured beats soon enter the picture along with some typically Frithian clusters of guitar squeals and atonal cries from the other instruments.  After six minutes or so, a somewhat odd pace becomes apparent and persists for the duration of the piece.  Generally speaking, things flow viscously between spurting free improvisation, solo showcases for each instruments, and a gently throbbing returning minor motif.

While the idea of a graphical score is a thought-provoking one, my first thoughts are "Will it actually sound audibly different from a conventional score, and will it make a difference?"  After getting to know the album, it's difficult for me to say that there's anything inherently distinctive (audibly) about Frith's graphic score, but I don't mind--if the unconventional scoring method provides the musicians with enough direction and inspires their playing, I don't see why it shouldn't be employed as a tool.  That said, it's safe to say that this particular graphical score didn't create some unheard-of new kind of music for the first time ever.  Aside from the sultry mood, the music this album most reminds me of is Frith's own Traffic Continues orchestral collaboration, though his ensemble here would be more considered a "chamber" group.  In fact, it's rather reminiscent of a lot I've heard from later-period Frith, inasmuch as it's organized longform and sandwiches frantic blurts along with quieter sections, utilizes repetitive ostinati figures quite a bit, and includes fragmented but undeniable melodicism.  While this approach seems to reliably produce some great ideas from Frith and his collaborators, I think it almost always shows the demonstrable weakness of coming across as too inclusive--like the kind of painting that has piles and piles of paint, albums like this seem to always have a scattershot feel, with compelling ideas and textures juxtaposed starkly against less effective occupation of time and less strong ideas or ones that don't gain traction in the context provided.  For that reason, these kinds of pieces can be a frustrating hybrid between improvised and scored music that offers less in the way of free improvisation's pure intuitive musicianship and elemental sound presentation as well as less in the way of the focus provided by careful composition.

There is, however, a lot to like about this--Frith's guitar is in fine form, both percussively and in his signature distorted lead, the zither and percussion add distinctively ethnic timbres to the mix, and some of the beats add a lot of richness and energy to what would otherwise remain more of a chill-out set.  The main melodic theme is an attractive one, making use of a descending minor scale and spreading the line across multiple instruments--later in the album (I think in general things get strongest about 3/4 of the way in, especially right around the hour mark with some sweet grooves) it really flowers into full development.  I'm not completely sold on all of the electronics; they sometimes verge on cheesy with bursting, blaring samples and obviously computer-generated beat loops (some of the settings are clearly recognizable from groups like Radiohead, while others much more satisfyingly conjure Keith Rowe-like electroacoustic signal manipulation).  In all, I think my unease is due to their tendency to create a sterile, tinny and unorganic atmosphere that clashes with the very organic principles behind free improvisation; it seems like the more actual instrument-playing there is, the more alive and breathing the music seems.  At best, though, the electronics (and especially their combination with the trumpet playing) conjure the sort of twitchy mystery that Supersilent has progressively explored more and more.

Clearing Customs might not be the most satisfying or efficient experience, nor is it Fred Frith's finest hour as a composer or performer, but it does provide enough substance to be worth the purchase and time spent listening.  The album's mission statement is rather lofty, but the results are never really as transcendent or culturally gulf-bridging as the CD text would have you believe.  Though Frith has succeeded at incorporating musicians of diverse backgrounds into a functioning ensemble, the "diverse" characters seem to come together anticlimactically--only to produce sounds under the banner of Frith's already-established musical vocabulary and palette of ideas, demonstrating the unfortunate reality that disciplined and capable musicianship doesn't always come hand-in-hand with interesting ideas and vision.  Luckily Frith's got both, and so his quirks and idiosyncrasies (most of which he's already developed best and stated elsewhere in his prolificacy) creatively dominate the proceedings.  Though some of the longer twiddly passages may, on close familiarity and examination, ultimately prove vacant of any special ideas (which perhaps has to do with that ineffable quality that separates the best free improvisers with those who are simply valiantly attempting), giving this album space, attention and more and more plays has only improved my listening experience and I hope to view it with increasingly (if incrementally) higher regard as an agreeable, if small and inessential, pleasure.

Get it here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts

Though Robert Fripp and King Crimson are probably most widely-known as the dark lords of 70's progressive rock, I think Peter Hammill (who I've already introduced with Over) and Van der Graaf Generator do a better job of combining an ominous sound with focused lyrics that actually conceptually match that dark sound.  I won't go into the group's needlessly convoluted history, but suffice to say that this was the last of the first four of their albums recorded before the band went on effective hiatus until their other masterpiece, 1975's Godbluff.  Amongst the landscape of 70's prog bands, Van der Graaf Generator are known for being one of the best bands to largely avoid guitar in favor of a sound that combines unusually aggressive-sounding keyboards (Hugh Banton) and saxophone (David Jackson).  The group additionally distinguished itself by being much more successful in Italy than in its native Britain, and by having a few of the worst-realized album covers in all of the progressive boom (and that's really saying something).

In my view, Pawn Hearts makes good on the promise of its predecessors, especially H to He Am the Only One, insofar as the band manages to flesh Hammill's lyrical and songwriting vision more cohesively and provide some of the most interesting, intense and engaging music they'd so far committed to tape.  As I've kind of already mentioned, Peter Hammill is the deal-breaker for Van der Graaf Generator--you either like his balls-to-the-wall, theatrical, choirboy-cum-chainsaw vocals and find his perpetual interest in the blurry borders between psychology, metaphysics and science fiction compelling, or you simply don't.  For me, his style is so original and varied that I'd probably like it even if I didn't find it aesthetically appealing, though I do occasionally feel he treads familiar lyrical thematic pathways a little too often (isolation being one).  So, the Van der Graaf Generator sound is often expressed using Hammill's vocals as the prime melodic device, placing especial emphasis on his words and the drama of his delivery.

Like so many hallmark 70's prog albums, Pawn Hearts consists of only three tracks.  The first two, "Lemmings" and "Man-Erg" could accurately be described as refined summations of where the band had already been.  "Lemmings" is a sweeping expression of the album's concepts, describing mankind as lemmings rushing toward a clifftop.  After a brief atmospheric introduction featuring Hammill's understated acoustic guitar strumming, the band launches into an odd-meter unison riff (one of their most distinctive devices) that powerfully joins Hammill's voice with the organ and saxophone.  I'll readily admit that most everything Hammill writes is dark to the point of dourness and humorlessness, but I'll be damned if the hairs on the back of my neck don't stand up on end every single time I hear him sing "There is no escape except to go forward!"  Though the subject matter is bleak, I think there's far too few lyricists willing to face up and address the particulars of humankind's ultimate destination and looming self-destruction.  Not that they need necessarily be addressed so grandiosely or even darkly at all, but for me it's a refreshing change of pace from the blithe escapism offered by most pop music.  Across the song's mottled landscape (there are all kinds of great singular moments built into the composition) Hammill's desperation grows to the point that he pleads, "What choice is there left to die/in search of something we're not quite sure of?"  The song's rousing middle section combines an interlocking riff based on Jackson's dual saxophone (he'd play two at once) and Banton's juicily-overdriven organ.  By the time the song winds back around to its recapitulation and climax, it's apparent that Hammill's outlook isn't quite as pessimistic as it originally appeared--in the face of an indifferent universe, he decides, "What choice is there left but to live/In the hope of saving our children's children's little ones?"  The humanistic message rings in the air over one of my favorite parts of the song in which two of the melodic themes overlap and repeat, warping each time into an uncertain haze, musically complicating Hammill's conclusion.

"Man-Erg," perhaps best described as a power ballad, weaves a well-trod style for the band with the Pawn Hearts concept (which I interpret to generally encompass the unsure and unstoppable motion of the human race and each human's seemingly insignificant role in it--both externally and metaphysically).  As the lyrics quote from the band's earlier works (both "Killer" and "Refugees"), Hammill passionately treads the floorboards over his dual nature as a killer and an angel, eventually realizing that he encompasses all aspects of human nature.  The song's deliberate but anthemic pacing as well as another aggressive and dissonant middle section with some frenetic vocals set the track apart from some very similar earlier ballads in the group's history, and some jazz harmony in the second half adds a welcome dimension to the relatively straightforward ballad style.

"A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers," the album's 23 minute-long second half, is predictably less focused.  The epic track trades straightforwardness for some of the album's most spacious atmosphere, though, and it's also got some of the most musically progressive composition of the band's entire output.  I've heard a number of listeners write the song off as directionless, which I think is easy to do when a song is over 20 minutes long--personally, I think it takes quite a few plays and some close attention before songs like this really open up and I try to withhold judgment until I've at least listened enough to recall from memory the song's general structure and some of the melodic elements.  If I'd written this review six months ago (even after having heard it many times over the course of two years), I'd be far less kind to this song, but I've come to appreciate its many nooks and crannies, wealth of melodic ideas and repeated brazenness much more in the interim.  I still don't feel like I've got a strong grip on the lyrical subject matter (the beauty of forming a long term relationship with good albums), but I think the song's strengths certainly outweigh its weaknesses, with some breathtaking unison arpeggios, some of the most searing dissonance on the album, and some genuine scariness.  I would say, though, that the 70's progressive period did produce a few more cohesive epics; "Lighthouse Keepers" at times plays like several nearly-a-song sections interspersed with musically interesting but somewhat unrelated vignettes.  For an epic of this length, I'd hope for a little more unified purpose, but the parts are of high enough quality that it's still pretty engaging. 

I've maintained for a while now that, though it may not accurately be described as the way "forward," atonality in both melody and harmony seems to be the most shamefully underutilized 20th century music advancement of all when it comes to pop music.  Instead of passing the last 100 years retraining our ears to appreciate the innumerable combinations and "millions of colors" possible through the varied application of atonality, we've clung to practically the same conservative, inflexibly traditionalist, oh-so-Western, "16 colors" conception of harmony we've been fearfully clutching more or less since Beethoven.  It's with great pleasure that I welcome this group's experimentation with atonality in "Lighthouse Keepers'" more violent sections as well as the depth it adds to some of the more ethereal passages.  Though 70's progressive rock eventually became hated by some for its less attractive aspects and exponents, to the point that the word "progressive" almost exclusively conjures sounds of Hammond organs, Moog synthesizers, romantic composition and 20 minute songs, I long for a future in which the word "progressive" returns to its literal meaning and can be used to describe music whose intent is to continue music's progress and (ideally) perpetual journey to become something it wasn't already before.  Sadly, we've instead got "Art Rock," "Experimental," "Post-Rock," "Post-Punk" and "Noise" all using increasingly vague synonyms to distance themselves from the period flavor of 70's progressive music when in reality they're often attempting to achieve similar goals.  That said, I think Van der Graaf Generator (though obviously of the 70's in sound) puts a distinctive spin on the period's common tropes and provides enough interesting experimentation that they're still worth checking out and deserve their cult status as one of the best of the original waves of progressive bands.  While I don't think any of their albums are flawless, I do think the uncommon number of risks they take more than adequately justifies the flaws.

In celebration of the horrible album art, here's the back cover.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Andrew Hill - Black Fire

The path that's led me from dispassionate appreciation to real enjoyment of jazz has been a serpentine one, coming to like the genre not from its more accessible and well-known forms but backward from things like jazz-rock, the Canterbury scene and from experimental and free improvisation music to the more "out" forms of jazz like free jazz and avant-garde jazz.  I'm not sure if it was repeated exposure to jazz harmony (whose distinctive sound sometimes lacks the pointed directness of the more simplistic harmony employed by most pop music) or just the fact that I found jazz that's more up my alley, but after years of unsuccessfully trying to enjoy the genre, something finally clicked a few months ago and I'm pretty happy about it--there is a whole lot of great jazz out there, even within short 10 year spans (most of the jazz I've taken to seems to come from the 60's).  With jazz's current cultural dominance in an extremely attenuated form and many young people coming to jazz as outsiders, there's potential for jazz to sound samey; extended solo breaks, walking bass lines and a lot of commonality between different players' vocabulary can make it tough to distinguish between songs, styles and players, but repeated acquaintance with a couple of albums and the tenets of the style (most basic jazz compositions feature a melody or "head" that's stated a couple of times, embellished through one or more solos, and repeated again at the end of the song) make it a little easier to view jazz as something decipherable and not just a bunch of honking, noodling, or uncool music fit only for background at a restaurant.  In a suitably backward way, I've already introduced free jazz and jazz fusion on the blog, but have yet to share an album from the post-bop or avant-garde jazz styles.  It's fair to say that in the early 60's the dominant form of jazz was probably hard bop, known for its liveliness, dance-ability and connection to R&B, gospel and blues.  As early as the late 50's, though, there were jazz artists starting to stretch the somewhat conservative boundaries of bop both in their playing and compositions to such an extent that some jazz became different enough that new labels were needed to describe it.  In my understanding, at the time, jazz musicians referred to this trend using the adjective "out," and when free jazz started emerging there were enough people doing it that it was being referred to as "the new thing."  Nowadays we have varying descriptive shades from the mild alterations and expansions on the formula found in post-bop (probably the only time I'm comfortable using "post" as part of a genre title, as it represents changes in the music that really were unprecedented and couldn't be described by existing vocabulary) to the nebulous but definitely more acute abandonment of bop's rules found in avant-garde jazz, to the very "out" and least structured form that would become known as free jazz.  The terms usually aren't mutually exclusive and often don't describe in a hard-and-fast way what the music will sound like, only that it will be different and probably more adventurous than the bop, modal jazz, and cool jazz that preceded it--sounds like the jazz for me! 

On to the actual disc at hand, pianist Andrew Hill's debut for avant-garde and post-bop watershed label Blue Note, 1964's Black Fire.  Though he's best known for his star-studded 1965 album Point of Departure, Hill's career as both a sideman and band leader is  prolific, varied and vibrant--at this point in my fledgling jazz fandom, he might be my favorite jazz artist.  I think it has something to do with his ability to ride the line between edgy and accessible, the wide variety of styles his compositions cover, and the fact that he's got a million great albums.  Black Fire is a perfect example to introduce both avant-garde jazz and post-bop, and I'd venture to say it's a great gateway album through which the uninitiated can get into jazz.

What distinguishes this album most as avant-garde and post bop is definitely Hill's compositions, which are at times irreverent to jazz custom and obviously sound beyond the boundaries of bop.  "Pumpkin" opens the album with an uptempo and edgy bang, teetering between a dark minor theme stated by Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and a rapid sax/piano run that gives way to a dissonant and playful counterpoint riff between the piano and sax.  Hill takes the first solo, ranging between flitting runs, rapid interval two-note chords, and a lot of inventive and acrobatic maintenance and embellishment of the repeating quarter note triplet riff that punctuates the song every several bars.  As with any good jazz album, the interplay between the players is top notch--in addition to Henderson and Hill, journeymen Roy Haynes and Richard Davis ably hold down the drum stool and double bass, respectively.  Even this early in his band leader discography, Hill's piano style and compositions are heavily rhythmic; his repeating riffs often form poly-rhythmic counterpoint with Haynes' aggressive drum style, leaving Davis to keep the steady pulse uninterrupted.

"Subterfuge" is another driving minor number, with Hill's percussive left hand riffing and two-hand unison riffs stating the melody.  The saxophone-less track leaves lots of room for unexpected turns in texture and mood in Hill's solos and makes space for a great drum solo from Haynes.  The title track lightens the mood with a lithe and cheerfully knotty saxophone melody and a lot more rhythmic juxtaposition between the low keys and the drums.  "Cantarnos" has more wonky rhythmic interplay, this time around a Latin-inflected riff and long-note legato melody from Henderson.  Things get slightly less driving on the bluesy and again horn-less "Tired Trade" and the album's only brief ballad, "McNeil Island."  The dizzying, stuttery and awesomely-titled "Land of Nod" closes the album with an excellent summation of the album's strengths and points the direction to Hill's later, even stranger compositions.

Black Fire is a great example of jazz that's simultaneously very listenable, extremely melodic (I can think of few jazz albums with melodies so instantly memorable), yet still strange and outside the bounds of what most jazz composers were doing in 1963.  Andrew Hill is as able a sideman as he is a composer and soloist; he never hogs the stage and displays impeccable taste when it comes to showing off his chops or supplementing the other players; such is the mercurial quality of truly great jazz musicians.  To speak in terms of my last two reviews, other than the risky compositions there isn't a lot formally to differentiate this music from the standard jazz formula, and yet there's no shortage of ideas regularly flowing out of all four players--the beauty of jazz is its liquidity.  All four are accomplished enough that they comp inventively and unpredictably around the chord changes and each others' solos, making for music that is founded on fixed elements but avoids repetition through in-the-moment and unrepeatable imagination.  Ideas are tossed out, perhaps repeated and slightly mutated a few times, then the player alters the idea enough that it's become something completely different, heading off into another direction like a feather in the wind.  Of course, it helps that Hill's compositions are so subtly unusual--I'm sure the weirdness lends itself to great idea-making in the minds of the sidemen.  There is much more great material to come from Andrew Hill and avant-garde jazz in general, but Black Fire is as good a place as any to get your first taste.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quicksilver Messenger Service - Happy Trails

While I write reviews for this blog mainly to share music I think is great in some way (or at least had potential to be great), sometimes it can be just as illuminating to focus on examples of music that represent the opposite of great.  I know I can come across as a snob here, but please believe me when I say that most of this music isn't really "bad" at all.  Instead, it's more a feeling of disappointment that this kind of music is part of the problem, not the solution--it's a deliberately missed opportunity in the continuing battle to in some way evolve music into something it wasn't already before.  So, I present to you the first installment of what's intended to be a recurring series entitled "Know Your Enemy."  This album's the perfect opposite of the impressive breadth and depth of ideas in last review's album--an album that takes about 4 minutes of clichés and stretches them thinly over an entire 50 minute album.

The popular and critical party line seems to be that this album is a classic of US West Coast psychedelic rock--a live album of unbridled trippiness and unheard-of musicianship and a landmark in its field.  Instead, all I hear is a worst-case-scenario and a band using its audience's indulgence as an excuse for some really lazy decisions.  There's a good chance you're familiar with "Who Do You Love," written by blues legend Bo Diddley and made even more famous by the likes of George Thorogood, Ronnie Hawkins and The Band, and Townes Van Zandt.  Well you're in luck--here you'll get to hear the song's verse/chorus vocal sections twice and you'll get to hear the song's riff for a total of over 25 minutes.  The first side of this album is literally a jam on "Who Do You Love" split into such "cleverly"-titled sections as "When You Love" and "Which Do You Love."  In reality it's an excuse for an extended solo from (mostly) guitarist John Cipollina which ranges from bluesy licks to...almost nothing else.  "Where You Love" gets a little quieter and I guess you could say "spacey," but the underlying 5-second chord progression is the same.  In addition to serving mainly as a vehicle for Cipollina's technically-proficient but unimaginative guitar work (he'll play the kind of repeating arpeggios or repeating string bend licks so incessantly it's easy to understand why punk rock by-and-large eschewed and abhorred the guitar solo), the song's head features unimaginably dull vocals; the arrangement pretty much stinks of white imposter blues with none of Diddley's authenticity, Thorogood's guitar muscle, Hawkins' weirdness or Van Zandt's country flair.

The cherry on top of the A-side's shit sundae is Side B's 7-minute opener, "Mona," another guitar solo vehicle centered around a blues riff that's almost identical to "Who Do You Love."  I'm not saying guitar solos are bad or that extended jamming is always a sin, but for the sake of everything good about music, institute some variety in the songs you're jamming over, or transform the blues standard into something unrecognizable before you recapitulate the head, or play something other than stock lead guitar that everyone's already heard (even in 1969)--do anything to distinguish this music, just a little bit.

It confuses me greatly that this music is labeled "psychedelic," when to me it sounds mostly like generic blues jams and is a clear antecedent to jam band music.  At least the good jam bands of the 90's had the sense to write some interesting compositions, come close to mastering their craft, or acquaint themselves with the more sophisticated improvisational tradition of jazz.  Nothing here resembles the mind-expanding epiphany associated with psychedelic drugs other than the mind's ability to become overly impressed with simplistic repetition and lose track of time during 20-minute jam.  Just because you're high on psychedelics when you're listening to a band does not make their music psychedelic.  The album rounds out with a shorter song, a more interesting Ennio Morricone-flavored Spanish instrumental called "Calvary" and an actually fun, cheesy country cover in "Happy Trails," but it's far too late--we've already been insulted by 40 minutes of repetition, aimless laziness and self-satisfied cliché regurgitation.  It's embarrassing to me that this band couldn't rise above their audience's rudimentary demands and give them something with mind-expanding jams and a collection of compositions and inventiveness that everyone could be proud of, even when they weren't stoned out of their gourds.  You, Quicksilver Messenger Service, are the enemy, and I'll do everything in my power to stop you.

If you want to catch a much more satisfying glimpse of hippie culture, check out Dino Valente's eponymous 1968 solo album--he was the Quicksilver Messenger Service vocalist but was incarcerated at the time of Happy Trails' recording.  His pop instincts probably could have elevated this coaster in the songwriting department and at least given us something to enjoy sober on repeated listens.  Music can be better!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wire - Pink Flag

It's pretty heartening to see that, even in the heyday of British punk rock's emphasis on simplicity and aggressive emotions, there were still a few bands willing to marry those ideals with intelligence, experimentalism and a high level of attention to creativity.  While I freely admit it's not my most-explored area of interest or expertise, I can easily say that of all of the "post-punk" outfits I've heard, Wire--at least on this album--bears the strongest aural relationship to actual punk.  The genius of Wire's debut is how the band manages to fashion punk's back-to-basics aesthetic and vitriol into a new incarnation without turning to elements of the psychedelic, experimental and progressive music against which punk was supposedly a reaction, which is more than can be said for most of the other post-punk bands I've heard.

Probably the most impressive twist Wire makes on the punk formula is one that can actually be productively applied to all types of music--they make an effort to turn each song into a terse statement where the ideas are clearly stated but not smothered to death through repetition.  The result is a 21-song, 35 1/2 minute-long album with nary a wasted second and a shining wealth of ideas.  Lately, this pursuit of succinctness is one that has interested me more and more both as a musician and as a listener.  The beauty of Wire's solution is that the ideas are oftentimes stated only once--though some songs have repeating verse and chorus structure, there's also some more through-composed pieces like "Field Day for the Sundays," which subsists on about 2 riffs (one of which becomes even shorter when it returns at the end of the song) and is over in 28 seconds!

It seems the concept's successful application hinges on a delicate balance between the quality of the ideas and how often they recur.   While Wire often finds artistic success in paring down their songs to sub-1-minute lengths, I don't think short song lengths are necessarily the only way to successfully implement brevity.  It seems to me that the real enemy here is excessive repetition which, in my mind, is the not-so-silent killer of interesting ideas and the bane of a huge swath of popular music both past and present: an artist takes what once was an interesting idea and hammers it into the ground with repetition (either in the same song or across multiple songs) providing little or no variation or expansion on the original idea.  With ideas stated so sparingly, the songs never overstay their welcome; while some might argue that this approach is deficient in terms of development, I don't see an issue when so-called "development" usually just consists of to-the-note repetition.  As a kindred creative spirit, I think the grace of this type of brevity is that the development or repetition of an idea is implied and left up to the listener's imagination and previous experience.  Our ears are accustomed enough to melody and structure that, if we're paying attention, it's easy to extrapolate a brief idea and fully complete the relatively unimportant repetitive material that isn't there with the condensed pith that actually is.  Rather than heavy-handedly forcing the melodies and ideas into the listener's memory, this method alluringly waits for the listener to meet the ideas halfway, and for me this engagement is a large part of the fun; further listens reveal more and more as the ideas expand in your head.  If you want to hear more of the same riff--listen to the song again.  Meanwhile, the artist is able to focus on surprising the listener's ear with the next idea rather than providing it with ear-predictable chaff, and can potentially pack more ideas into one album than many bands manage in an entire discography.

Now, it's not that any repetition is bad or even that conciseness is the only way to pack music with ideas (compositional guidelines for development in classical music and improvisational comping in jazz are a couple of examples of traditions in long-form music that manage to keep the interesting ideas flowing).  The point is that we've gotten somewhere interesting--we're now focusing on ideas as the building blocks of good music; the interesting and infinitely-discussable issue of whether we fully agree on the method becomes more of a matter of preference, subordinate to the more important common goal--the avoidance of a zombie-like, by-the-numbers approach to music. 

Of course, short track lengths alone don't guarantee great ideas--luckily, Wire hold up the other end of the bargain.  Despite the fact that the songs are pretty much exclusively guitar-bass-drums, the band manages to squeeze what seems like a limitless number of great riffs, vocal arrangements and hooks out of such classic instrumentation.  The songs range from the juicy distortion of anthemic punk sing-alongs like "Ex Lion Tamer," "It's So Obvious" and "Mr. Suit" to some glorious, occasionally light-hearted hard pop with the likes of "Three Girl Rhumba," and especially "Fragile" and the ridiculously catchy "Mannequin."  I also really like how well they manage to meld the punk ethos with more experimental (and occasionally slower) material, like the album's dire opener, "Reuters," the detuned rage of the title track, and the simultaneously bluesy and weird "Strange"--the album's longest track at 3:59.  Special mention should be made of the sometimes impenetrable but always evocative poetry (thanks, I think, to vocalist Colin Newman) that makes up the lyrics.  While Newman's suitably untrained and raw delivery often makes understanding the words difficult, searching some lyrics on the internet gives the already engaging music even more depth and helps the songs' linear structures make even more sense. 

Like a lot of classic albums, Wire's debut will please more than just punk fans with its pop sensibility, experimental edge and timeless rock and roll spirit.  While it's sort of easy to understand that the band's creative approach guaranteed the album's initial commercial failure, today it's seen by most as a classic and probably the purest example I can think of to illustrate the type of idea-to-minute ratio that more artists should aspire to.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


For me, working at music always seems to be vexing but ultimately leads to some kind of feeling of fulfillment.  Please excuse the indulgence while I use this space as a sort of diary to process some of my recent thoughts and feelings related to music-making.

Probably the biggest thing I've realized lately--and it's taken about eight months to get there--is that my approach to live performance needs to be altered in some way.  2011 conventional wisdom tells aspiring musicians that live performance is the only way to increase your fan base, make money, and become successful.  After playing at upward of 10 shows since the new year, I've got mixed feelings.  One the one hand, rehearsing some of my more difficult material as single-guitar arrangements has incalculably benefited my instrumental skills and ability to play complex parts and sing at the same time.  I've also become somewhat less anxious and nervous about performing (if only a little bit).

On the other hand, it's hard to say that any of the shows have tangibly benefited my progress as a musician who hopes to become better-known.  In so many ways, things just haven't gelled: my type of music has little to no established market in the Seattle area, where as far as I can tell people favor a range of music including indie rock, indie pop, indie folk, Americana, "punk," and metal, few of which strongly identify with my style.  So, I'll play a bill with singer/songwriters or Americana-type acts and, even though it's just acoustic guitar and vocals, the audience usually just stares blankly, especially if some of the more eccentric songs come out.  Speaking of the audience, usually there isn't much of one--a handful of people out to see the other performers, and friends and family (you know who you are), many of whom have been extremely supportive, but I feel they've often taken more of the burden of support than they should have to.  Despite warm-and-fuzzy theories that every show is an opportunity to make new fans, after playing around 10 shows, I have yet to sell a single CD, though I've had a few compliments from audience members and more often from other musicians.  Though none of my performances have been anywhere near perfect, I feel like I've represented my music and goals fairly well--and yet, it's difficult not to interpret the overwhelming feeling that people aren't connecting with the music as evidence that they think it's not very good.

At the present time, I think my decision to perform solo was probably a miscalculated one.  In a hypothetical world where fans I don't personally know come out to see me play, they'd be familiar with my recordings and would appreciate the alternate perspective that stripped-down arrangements provide.  In reality, though, my sometimes unconventional songs in conjunction with the sparse arrangements often imply (melodically, structurally, rhythmically, texturally, energetically) instead of directly stating through repetition.  While this is a deliberate artistic choice that is still foundational to my approach, I totally understand how someone could come away from a performance and not remember anything about the music or feel that some of the songs were unintelligible.  One of many delightful catch-22's is the fact that people dismiss songs that are meant to be growers after one listen.  There's also something inherent in audience members' expectations when viewing a solo performer instead of a band--this won't be energetic, it will be mellow, it's not "night out" music, I like rock and this isn't rock, etc.  I've thus far avoided playing with a group because of the above miscalculation as well as out of a sort of lazy desire to keep things simple, uncluttered and efficient.

At some point in the last two weeks while practicing for my September 1 show, I felt extremely dissatisfied that I was spending so many hours rehearsing for a performance which would likely net no new fans, rather than working on the amorphous but large blob of new material I've had brewing for well over a year--all so I could sit like a fish out of water in front of an empty room.  So, I've decided that, in future performance situations, I'm much more likely to seek the help of one or more other musicians in order to more fully flesh out the songs as well as be taken more seriously by an unfamiliar audience.  Even more, a small group would allow me to enjoy the experience much more, not having as much pressure to produce all the sound, and also provide the fun dynamic of playing onstage with friends--a dynamic that will exist whether the room is empty or full.  I'm sure I'll still play solo shows but they're more likely to happen at times and places where I know there will be at least a handful of people there who I didn't have to browbeat or plead into coming.

Most importantly and in light of the above experiences, I'm ready to admit that in doing what I'm "supposed" to do (playing live in order to further my "career"), I've moved about as far away as I can from what fascinates me, drives me, and what I love most about making music (in no particular order): writing lyrics, poetry and songs, attempting to compose music for them that is dictated by the words and at the same time enhances and accentuates them but also stands on its own aesthetically, arranging the music for multiple instruments, inventing lead parts that attempt to play with convention and avoid cliché, attempting to stretch myself and grow as a songwriter and incorporate more and newer styles and ideas into every song/experiment opportunity, and especially the thrill of the magical transmutation that happens between mentally planning all of these elements and getting to hear the final product in the form of a recording.

It's with great anticipation and a certain amount of relief that I make this admission and return headlong into my chosen passion.  Yesterday I started recording demos of some of my already-determined new songs and I have to say I'm happier than a pig in shit about it.  The bizarre composite feeling of compulsion, fascination, disgust, perfectionism, elation, disappointment, surprise, fertility, derangement-verging-on-slight-madness, and restlessness that I felt over a year ago when working on In Not-Even-Anything Land returned virtually instantly and it felt like a warm bath.

Of course, there are still many frustratingly vexed dilemmas relating to the trajectory of me-the-musician as a professional endeavor.  I certainly don't reject the idea that live performance is probably the strongest opportunity for success as a musician, but in addition to deeming it not my main focus at present, I also maintain that it's not the only avenue for exposure.  This blog has been largely created as an attempt to reach potential interested music fans by writing about related music and posting my creative content in the same place.  I've had a really fun time honing my critical skills, sharing music, and watching the readership steadily increase, but the core dilemma persists--how can I best reach my potential audience (which I still believe exists, though it's probably quite diffuse) and convince them to give my music the fair chance and repeated listens that it probably needs in order to be enjoyed?  So far, despite my efforts, online CD sales have pretty much mirrored my live performance CD sales--a couple of the most frustrating catch-22's are 1) the fact that people assume that if an artist is unknown that they're not worth checking out, and 2) the fact that most of my potential online audience believes that music recordings should be free and either won't ever hear my music because they don't want to pay for it, or will listen to brief snippets of the songs online (which are intended to be listened to as an album and grow with repeated listens) and dismiss them on first encounter (more on the "music should be free" subject later).  I don't have a real answer for this problem at this time; rather, I've decided that I'm committed enough to my creative impulses that I feel like this is worth doing whether anyone supports me or not.  Thankfully, I've had a few really heartening interactions with like-minded music fans--this recent review of my album on RYM by a Portuguese music fan with whom I provided a CD confirmed my hopes that there are people out there who will understand a lot of what I'm going for, enjoy the music (even if we differ on a few aesthetic points, which is both natural and constructive), and help spread the word a little bit.  It would be really interesting to see what would happen if I could get some traction with a few more music fans like that and spread the word online a little bit more, since independent radio and most of the blogs I've contacted have met with little response.

This diary entry wasn't meant to be a self-pity party, but rather an opportunity to consolidate and process a lot of thoughts I've been having lately about my past year's successes and frustrations.  I hope in the future I can improve my reaction time and stay true to my impulses and values without wasting quite as much time between unsatisfactory experiences and keep my focus on efficient production, unfettered connection with the creative wellspring, and on attempting to spread the word and encourage some type of support from potential listeners that will help alleviate the financial burden of funding these pursuits.  I'm well on my way with my next project--there are 23 songs on my demo recording list; when I get done with those it's on to intense rehearsal and then to a professional recording studio to build on my last album's accomplishments with a product that's even closer to my vision and of a higher production standard, too!