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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Animal Collective: Live At 9:30

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: LIVE AT 9:30 (2015)

1) Amanita; 2) Did You See The Words; 3) Honeycomb; 4) My Girls; 5) Moonjock; 6) New Town Burnout; 7) I Think I Can; 8) Pulleys; 9) What Would I Want?; 10) Peacebone; 11) Monkey Riches; 12) Brother Sport; 13) The Purple Bottle.

Technically, this is Animal Collective's third live album, but in a sense, it could just as well be the first, because Hollinndagain consisted exclusively of original material (and shit material at that), while the limited edition Animal Crack Box from 2009 was restricted to just a few vinyl copies. Continuing this trend, Live At 9:30 also comes specifically for collectors, pressed on six sides of bright-colored psychovinyl, but at least it is also distributed as digital files, making it more widely available — and it is also officially released on the band's main label (Domino), whereas Animal Crack Box was more of a homebrewn affair.

Anyway, the big question is: are these «post-fame» Animal Collective actually worthy of a live album, or is this just a quick (but colorful) money grab at the expense of collectors? Well, I am hardly the band's biggest fan, but my answer is a definitive yes to the first half of this question (although it is also a slightly more doubtful yes to the second half — I mean, high art and money-grabbing are not necessarily mutually exclusive, are they?). The thing is, once they get on stage, these guys do not care so much for an exact reproduction of the spritely pandemonium of their studio recordings as they do for creating spritely pandemonium, period. And the longer it lasts, the better — look at these track lengths: even though most of the songs are taken from officially released records, the collective runtime is almost twice as long as it takes to listen to the studio equivalents of the live record. Time stretches out to indefinite limits at Animal Collective shows, that one's for sure.

At this point, the band clearly refuses to rest upon past successes: the largest number of tracks come from the most recent Centipede Hz, with only two coming from Merryweather Post Pavilion (still arguably the centerpiece of the band's modern day legend) and the rest scattered evenly all the way up to Feels (but no earlier). However, track selection really does not matter that much, because when they're up on stage, Animal Collective present themselves as a «jam band», setting up one mind-boggling groove after another (and accompanying them with an equally mind-boggling light show that, unfortunately, stays out of the audio experience) and animating, aggrandizing and accelerating them to ecstatic heights. In this setting, anything can serve as a working theme, upon which they pile up their arrays of keyboard effects, tribal drum patterns, and vocal harmonies that ignite, shoot up, and burst apart like sets of fireworks.

The original compositions are not changed to the point of being unrecognizable — no, the melo­dies and even the arrangement details tend to be preserved, but the music gets longer expositions and the repetitive ritualistic grooves get to become truly gigantic (an extreme example is ʽPul­leysʼ, stretched out almost Cream-style from an original three and a half minute length to about 15 minutes). If you put all six sides of vinyl together, there are definite signs of overkill; but if you take it slow, about half an hour at a time, for instance, the result is a strong psychedelic punch that really sounds like nothing else. This is not «electronica» with its formulaic rigidity: these are your past-and-future-merging 21st century SMiLing Beach Boys, where vocals matter as much as instruments (sometimes more) and electronic sound production is no more distant and alienating to the mind as, say, any special production effects on Sgt. Pepper.

The usual complaint is that behind all the kaleidoscopic richness of this approach lies a certain monotonousness — that the entire 2-hour long show is just one huge celebration of an alternate psychedelic reality, populated with bizarre, but generally friendly alternate lifeforms that seem, however, all to belong to the same infraclass: not just an «Animal Collective», that is, but rather a «Psychomarsupial Community» or something like that, where each member is slightly different but common enough so that eventually you just get lost in the all-too-similar diversity. With em­phasis on the «jam» parts, this inevitably downplays the memorable main themes of the tunes and concentrates on the vibe, and the vibe is pretty much the same throughout. If they happened to have their own idiosyncratic equivalent of a ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ or at least a ʽWillie The Pimpʼ on here for diversity's sake, their status would have seriously increased at least in this reviewer's eyes — then again, they probably know better than to sacrilegiously break up the spiritual ritual and annihilate the mesmerizing effect on the audience, so forget it.

In any case, kudos to what it is they actually manage to do on stage — it's one thing to generate all these multi-layered arrangements in the cozy spacetime of the recording studio, and quite another one to generate all the layers simultaneously in a live environment: with a little help from the same digital technologies, no doubt, but the singing (with all those intertwining harmonies), the drumming, and much of the keyboard work are really live, and display consummate profes­sionalism (to be expected, perhaps, after 15 years of gelling together, but nonetheless amazing). Love 'em or hate 'em, they are pretty much one of the most obvious symbols of innovative musical culture in our little «impoverished through too much enrichment» 21st century, so a guaranteed thumbs up here in any situation.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Carbon Based Lifeforms: VLA

CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS: VLA (2011)

1) VLA.

Short for Very Large Array, apparently, a radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico, known for important observations on black holes, protoplanetary discs, and other stuff that makes great fodder for young aspiring artists of the «sci-bient» variety. There's not much to describe — it's just one hour-long track consisting of a steady hum, recurrently shifting pitch back and forth. If you listen very closely, you will hear occasional additional sounds: some distant cling-clanging, a few lines of faraway electronic pulses, faint echoes of what may or may not have been voices... basically, you will find yourself in the role of a SETI specialist desperately searching for anything that might pass for a sign of extraterrestrial life. And failing, of course.

It would be too easy to call the experiment CBL's Thursday Afternoon — no matter how mini­malistic, Eno's hour-long static panorama could still qualify as music, whereas this here is just sound, with no melodic component whatsoever. Nevertheless, both are similar in that (a) you can basically play them starting at any point and shut them off whenever you like to and (b) the parts are actually very subtly different, but the difference is purely formal unless you agree to study the data under a microscope, and who'd want that? Also, strange enough, VLA actually works as a background setting — that hum certainly isn't «emotionally rewarding» in any sense, but I have listened to it all the way through while being busy with other matters, and it never got on my nerves, which might just be the point of the album. See, the whole thing represents the Vastness of Space, and if the Vastness of Space gets on your nerves, you probably don't belong in it.

I am certainly not going to go head over heels about it and spew nonsense about how listening to this record should expand our mind and enhance our conception of space and perceive our own limited, minuscule, and totally insignificant existence in this universe as merely a random blip in the overall immanent texture. (I mean, it's all true, but why not read a good book on cosmology instead?). But if you have an hour-long important job to do and you want to get a little bit of that «me so importantly locked up in my ivory tower with a telescope and stars for companionship» feel to help you get the job done, VLA might just be the perfect recipe for such an occasion. At the very least, it will make the time pass quicker... or slower, depending on the circumstances.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Carcass: Swansong

CARCASS: SWANSONG (1995)

1) Keep On Rotting In The Free World; 2) Tomorrow Belongs To Nobody; 3) Black Star; 4) Cross My Heart; 5) Childs Play; 6) Room 101; 7) Polarized; 8) Generation Hexed; 9) Firm Hand; 10) R**k The Vote; 11) Don't Believe A Word; 12) Go To Hell.

Well, I totally agree with the fans that Swansong can hardly even begin to be considered a proper Carcass album. Where are the insane tempos? Where's the guitar/bass/drum madness? Where are the gory lyrics? Pretty much the only thing that somehow ties this record to everything that was before are the growling vocals, and even these are constantly in danger of becoming comprehen­sible — this is arguably the first Carcass album where you can generally make out what the songs are about, and many of them are about... social protest and disillusionment... oh wait... are these guys turning into Bad Religion or what???

Not surprisingly, the album often gets negative marks from metalhead fans and critics alike, be­cause, well, those who want their Bad Religion can have it, and those who want their kick-ass melodic heavy metal à la Accept can have it, but this is like a total frickin' sellout — and, in fact, it was almost going to be official, since after the success of Heartwork Carcass, with new guitar player Carlo Regadas replacing Michael Amott (who went off to start Arch Enemy), were all set to go big, signing up with Columbia. Eventually, much to the relief of the indie metal crowd, the deal fell through, and they returned to Earache records; but in the meantime, the band members managed to spoil their mutual relationship, Bill Steer kind of got bored with the whole metal business, and by the time they mopped up the sessions, the group was pretty much finished.

That said, if you look at the general evolution of Carcass music, Swansong seems like a perfectly logical conclusion. Arguable as it is, I'd still say that it contains their most «naturally-sounding» and memorable set of tunes, even if it comes at the expense of downplaying the shock factor al­most to zero level and dropping the search for innovative production techniques and melodic layerings. A single example may suffice — the main riff of ʽBlack Starʼ, sounding like a nasty shrapnel run from a low-cruisin' airplane, seems far more evocative to me than anything on Heartwork, let alone all those earlier and messier tunes. It may be a minus, yes, that the track quickly begins to sound like a solid, but derivative imitation of Iron Maiden; but this will only lead us into the uncomfortable depths of discussing what matters more — quality/memorability or innovation/individuality — and I'd like to avoid that discussion in a set of Carcass reviews.

Anyway, at least they do not lose their sense of punny humor (ʽKeep On Rotting In The Free Worldʼ, ʽGeneration Hexedʼ), and at least these good riffs and melodic solos keep coming, even if I could totally see ʽGeneration Hexedʼ sung cleanly by Accept's Udo Dirkschneider and its riffs cracked out by Wolf Hoffmann — and most other songs are like a mish-mash of various metal substyles, from Metallica-Megadeth thrash to the British New Wave (the band themselves men­tioned Thin Lizzy as one of the influences at the time, although this is certainly not the first asso­ciation that is going to jump into your head). Actually, at this point the growling vocals in general are an unfortunate atavistic compromise —  songs like ʽRoom 101ʼ, with its mad prophet tale, were made to be sung cleanly: I close my eyes and try to imagine what would Ronnie James Dio have done with it, and once I do, the actual version begins to sound like a death metal parody of an unpreserved Dio track.

In fact, with a cleaner approach, Swansong would have made for a very impressive collection of «protest-metal» tunes — the melodies of songs like ʽTomorrow Belongs To Nobodyʼ have enough thunder and snap to them to sound convincing, and I cannot for the life of me regard Steer's and Walker's songwriting here as throwaway songwriting (well, apparently while they were writing the tunes and making the original recordings, nobody thought as of yet that this would be the band's last album). Blame it on the general narrowness of the metal formula that the record, stripped of the band's traditional grossness, sounds monotonous and devoid of individu­ality — a flaw that would have been more forgivable on an old school pop record, perhaps. But as long as you're cool with that general formula, Swansong should be a thumbs up all the way, and a perfect way to switch off one's career: now that the band has «matured» to the state of complete adulthood, there's no way further but down, and disbanding was the most natural thing to do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Camel: Rajaz

CAMEL: RAJAZ (1999)

1) Three Wishes; 2) Lost And Found; 3) The Final Encore; 4) Rajaz; 5) Shout; 6) Straight To My Heart; 7) Sahara; 8) Lawrence.

Rajaz is an Arabic poetry meter that has traditionally been associated with the slow, regular pace of camel hooves across the desert — meaning that, all of a sudden, Latimer must have woken up from a prolonged dreaming period and thought, «Hey! Last time we actually justified the band's name was on the album cover for Mirage! Why do I keep calling this outfit Camel if all I do is sing about the Berlin Wall, the Dust Bowl, and Irish immigration?» And there you have it — after years, if not decades, of detours, Rajaz is a conscious attempt to (a) explain why the band was originally named Camel after all and (b) get back to its (Camel's) original roots, or at least pro­vide some reasonable facsimile.

Of course, this is not really a nostalgic revisit of the styles and sounds of Mirage or any of those early records. Once the initial positive reaction of the «wow! finally something different and attention-grabbing!» is over, you begin to realize that this is still very much a solo Latimer album, and that he is still relying on the same chords and moods, and that Ton Scherpenzeel is back on keyboards, and that Latimer's wife is still writing the lyrics, and that the best tracks are all grouped in the record's first half, and that it still tends to slip back into moody, draggy, Harbour Of Tears-like inoffensiveness every now and then, and...

...and none of it really matters when the album opens with ʽThree Wishesʼ, a multi-part instru­mental that employs complex and frequent tempo changes, for once, and even incorporates ele­ments of jazz fusion — first time in how many years? Even the keyboards, which had been Camel's weakest link ever since Bardens' departure, have been diversified, with Scherpenzeel using a whole array of organs and synthesizers instead of stubbornly sticking to the plastic string-imitating tones of yesterday. The track has a nice buildup, gradually evolving from a desert-like atmosphere of solitary blueswailing lines over a dusty synth horizon to a pretty art-pop gallop through said desert and then to bits of tricky jazzy time signatures and, eventually, even a mysti­cally-magically distorted pseudo-Eastern guitar solo which is probably the closest Latimer ever came close to sounding like Steve Vai in his entire career.

That is just to give you the general idea that things are on the move — like I said, do not expect too much change, but expect just enough to feel a new surge of life after the seemingly endless rut of the past fifteen years. When the vocals enter the picture on ʽLost And Foundʼ, the impres­sion is disappointing — the same kind of tender hookless ballad that we already know so well — but once they go away, it's back to jerky-jazzy signatures and tonal diversity, with no less than three different approaches to guitar soloing, the last of which, heavy on sustained notes, seems to be taking a serious (and efficient) lesson from Robert Fripp. More stellar guitar work awaits on ʽThe Final Encoreʼ, and then, of course, there is the title track — yes, the one allegedly composed «on the camel meter», and while it does not exactly conjure visions of camels all by itself (pro­bably because it shows no Eastern influence whatsoever in the melody), it's still a good example of «sick and tired blues», culminating in a drawn-out slide solo that helps make the accompany­ing four-note «camel riff» even more hypnotic.

As we get to the second half, things begin to get less and less exciting, with more languid ballad­ry like ʽStraight To My Heartʼ and fewer of these exciting jazzy interludes. Still, ʽSaharaʼ is largely similar in structure to ʽThree Wishesʼ (same mish-mash of New Agey ambience, happy art-pop, and Eastern overtones), and if only the grand finale of ʽLawrenceʼ weren't so stretched out — Andy, come back to your senses, you're no David Lean! — it would have made for a more convincing conceptual conclusion; but it's a little too slow, too repetitive, and too scarce on ideas that weren't already musicalized on the first three tracks. In other words, sixty minutes of music is overkill: by all means, Latimer should have restricted himself to the usual running length of the LP era. We know he's a first-rate guitar player already.

Still, there is no denying it: Rajaz is the best Camel record since Nude, and although I am sure it could have been even better (if, for instance, Latimer had bothered bringing in a more refined keyboard player, or if he'd made it completely instrumental), it's one of those reassuring moments when you know that you have not waited around for nothing — the moment when cobwebs are shaken off, the sleeping giant awakens (or at least bats an eye), and suddenly you distinctly re­member why you used to single out the band in the first place. A definite thumbs up.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Can: Rite Time

CAN: RITE TIME (1989)

1) On The Beautiful Side Of A Romance; 2) The Withoutlaw Man; 3) Below This Level (Patient's Song); 4) Movin' Right Along; 5) Like A New Child; 6) Hoolah Hoolah; 7) Give The Drummer Some; 8) In The Distance Lies The Future.

Maybe the best thing about this record is its title — while we could certainly question the idea of 1989 really being the right time for a reunion of the original Mooney-era Can, there is no ques­tion whatsoever that most of Can's music always represented a musical rite, and unless you take it as such, you probably lack the full potential of getting into the groove. The good news, then, is that this reunion, which really took place in 1986 somewhere in the southern side of France (where, as ʽHoolah Hoolahʼ tells us, they don't wear pants), fully complies with the «rite» thing and largely consists of danceable grooves presided over by a mad shaman (Mooney) who is, at least formalistically, still capable of sounding in deep communication with the spirits.

Nevertheless, the record was largely either ignored or reviled upon release, and critical opinion has not warmed up to it in recent decades — maybe because nobody really bothered: «reunion» albums are typically looked upon with suspicion, and, unlike «forgotten masterpieces» from a band's long-gone golden age, once condemned to oblivion, they can never be redeemed. The thing is, Rite Time is thoroughly retro-oriented: most of it sounds like the idea was really to make Monster Movie Vol. 2, and the very approach, for a band known for its relentless explo­ration of pathways into the future, must have seemed like heresy. When people heard it, and it sounded like Monster Movie without being as good as Monster Movie, well... people had plenty of far more relevant stuff to listen to in 1989.

Listening to Rite Time in retrospect, though, with the fields of time now compressed and flat­tened so that the chronological gaps of the 20th century are no longer as huge as they once seemed — the album is mighty pleasant. It does sound like classic Can a lot: same wild and complex work from the rhythm section, same bizarre mix of electronic and acoustic keyboards from Schmidt, same array of psychedelic guitar tones from Karoli, and not a single teeny-tiny indication that this was recorded in a completely new decade: apparently, the guys never placed much trust in either the digital synthesizer epidemics or the pop-metal guitar tone (for which, now that we look back at it, they really should be commended). Nor are there any signs of continuing passion for their late Seventies' excesses: Rosko and Rebop were not invited (well, Rebop could not even if they wanted to, having been dead since 1983), and neither disco grooves nor Carib­bean dance rhythms are any longer part of the masterplan.

The actual grooves range from decent to occasionally excellent: ʽOn The Beautiful Side Of A Romanceʼ, for instance, is built upon a convincingly grim interaction between Czukay's «earth­quake» bass rumbles and Karoli's responses, with further keyboard and guitar overdubs like sets of dark clouds gliding across the sky, periodically ruptured by bass thunderbolts. ʽLike A New Childʼ uses the guitar only sparsely, for thin supportive lead lines and occasional gentle pings, as life largely takes place at the intersection of the steady rollin' bass and (this time the white rather than dark) clouds of Schmidt's keyboards; the result is almost an ambient soundscape that kind of gives an idea of what Future Days may have sounded like had they thought of doing something like that in 1969. And while I cannot say that the title of ʽGive The Drummer Someʼ is complete­ly justified (Liebezeit is really no more active there than everywhere else on the album), the groove, completely devoid of any memorable theme as such, still creates magical tension — Czukay's overdubs of isolated guitar lines and keyboard bits, where anything might jump out at you at any given moment of time, show the old master's hand as efficiently as anything.

Mooney's contributions remain the most questionable elements — I do not mind the aging or weakening of his voice, since he almost never used it for conventional «singing» in the first place, but it does occasionally come across as grating, particularly on ʽRomanceʼ, where the stereo­typically «Jamaican» lamentation bits do not mesh well with the music. Something like ʽThe Withoutlaw Manʼ will produce different impressions depending on how much you are ready to not take this deconstructed tale of a well-known gun seriously — Mooney sounds more like a babbling village idiot on that one than a diplomated shaman, but ignore him or come to terms with him, and behind that there's still a cool groove and a great «twirling» guitar line from Karoli that's got some of that «bluesy slyness» to it, for no particular reason but still feeling good.

Perhaps the critics were mostly appalled at the idea of such an obvious musical joke as ʽHoolah Hoolahʼ, whose music and lyrics really fit in better with the likes of Weird Al than one of the world's most revolutionary musical bands. But even as a musical joke, it still got a hell of a poi­sonous guitar tone and a hilariously «Near Eastern» dance melody executed on Schmidt's organ, and besides, musical jokes had been in Can's repertoire for quite some time now; did ʽCan-Canʼ fail to already prepare you for this? Plus... it's catchy. Sort of.

Anyway, by the time we get to the somewhat ambiguous conclusion of ʽIn The Distance Lies The Futureʼ (a musically and vocally confused track that pretty much indicates nobody has any real clue as to what that future might be, and I concur), I feel convinced that there was a point behind the reunion. I'm not sure what that point was, exactly (other than the obvious «we still Can»), but the album never feels like a bunch of washed-up has-beens desperately trying to rekindle the old unrekindlable magic. It never feels like a totally self-assured and contemporarily relevant bold musical statement, either, but it... well, in the overall context it also gives this feeling of well-roundedness, where the band has come full circle, and its long, strange trip eventually brings them back on the same platform from where they skyrocketed twenty years back. Now they can really pack it up and go home with one last reassuring thumbs up — and, indeed, there's never been any attempt at another reunion ever since (not that it would have been even technically possible since Karoli's demise in 2001, but that's actually a different matter).

Monday, May 23, 2016

Alan Price: Alan Price

ALAN PRICE: ALAN PRICE (1977)

1) Rainbow's End; 2) I've Been Hurt; 3) I Wanna Dance; 4) Let Yourself Go; 5) Just For You; 6) I'm A Gambler; 7) Poor Boy; 8) The Same Love; 9) Is It Right; 10) Life Is Good; 11) The Thrill.

I am not quite sure if this was recorded and released before or immediately after the first attempt at the original Animals' reunion... but who cares? It's not as if you can see any faint echoes of «Animalisms» in this album, which seems to be continuing in the same direction as its prede­cessor — glossing Alan's image as that of a clean-cut entertainer with equal respect to vintage and modern forms of said entertainment. For sure, this «between today and yesterday» angle makes for a mildly interesting listen, but in fact the album's only saving grace is Price's humble charisma that even a bowtie cannot totally melt away.

The record is a stylistic hodge-podge — there's gospel soul (ʽRainbow's Endʼ), discofied pop rock (ʽI've Been Hurtʼ), sugary folk pop (ʽI Wanna Danceʼ), funk-pop (ʽLet Yourself Goʼ), Billy Joel-esque balladry (ʽJust For Youʼ), glossed-over rock'n'roll (ʽI'm A Gamblerʼ), and later on, there'll be some blues, some country, some vaudeville... no two songs really sound alike, which would have probably made the album a masterpiece if all the tunes had something new and stunning to say in their respective genres. Which they do not; but Price sings them all in his usual lovable voice, and oversees arrangements that avoid contemporary gimmicks and concentrate on quite traditional and well-constructed guitar and organ solos. (The screechy guitar solo on ʽLife Is Goodʼ is particularly well rounded — I have no idea who Rod Hendry, the officially credited guitar player, is, but if he's alive and well, please tell him that somebody still cares).

Most importantly, the «new» elements, such as the very well noticeable disco bassline on ʽI've Been Hurtʼ, are quite harmlessly integrated with old stylistics — really, that song sounds just like good old time barroom entertainment, just with an extra «hop quotient» thrown in for the sake of modernity. And I suppose that on ʽI'm A Gamblerʼ, Alan delivers a solo on the newly manufac­tured Polymoog synth, because you just don't get that sound from him or anybody else prior to those times, but it just adds a slightly «technophile» aspect to take away the generic flavor of this otherwise completely run-of-the-mill boogie number.

The only real standout on the album is ʽRainbow's Endʼ, which could have easily fit on any of Alan's conceptual records — a soulful, self-questioning epic with great interaction between the almost operatic lead vocal part (terrific falsetto flourishes at the end of each line) and the gospel-style backing vocals. Unfortunately, it sets the wrong tone for the record: had it been placed at the end, it might have mildly stunned us as a sort of ʽDay In The Lifeʼ conclusion to the overall «whimsy» of the album — as it is, it serves as an inadequately grand introduction to lots of plea­sant, but simplistic entertainment (although ʽLife Is Goodʼ, near the end of the record, tries to somewhat remedy the situation and bring back the epic vibe — especially with that guitar solo — but it is not as originally written as ʽRainbow's Endʼ).

Still a thumbs up, though: the overall combination of diversity, modest energy, occasional hooks, and personal charisma ensure that this is one of those «high-mediocre» albums where nothing specifically stands out, but the collective humor, emotionality, and taste produces a positive vibe all the same. Generic entertainment, yes, and, again, a far cry from the man's lucky streak of 1973-75, but «if all generic entertainment were like this»... and you can finish this one up in any way you personally prefer.