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Friday, September 30, 2011

Agnostic Front: Warriors


1) Addiction; 2) Dead To Me; 3) Outraged; 4) Warriors; 5) Black And Blue; 6) Change Your Ways; 7) For My Fa­mi­ly; 8) No Regrets; 9) Revenge; 10) We Want The Truth; 11) By My Side; 12) Come Alive; 13) All These Years; 14) Forgive Me Mother; 15) Break The Chains.

Matt Henderson is out again, but the «metalcore» stuff is still in, nurtured by new guitarist Joseph James, whose playing is able to keep the band at a respectable level, but does not bring in any in­teresting individuality. They may have earned the right to call themselves «warriors», but, the way my ears perceive them, they still keep fighting in the 3rd Clone Division.

But this time around, they are also nostalgic clones. The single 'For My Family' does nothing if not tug at the feelings of the hardcore crowds around 1982, targeted at those few survivors who are still able to recall those days of hard drink, heavy sweat, grizzly tattoos, and pulsating hatred for The Oppressors with fondness rather than embarrassment. Musically, it is every bit as forget­table as everything else on here, but at least its silliness is somewhat touching — in a way, almost sentimental, with the appropriate correction as to what may constitute «sentiment» when we're talking Roger Miret and Vinnie Stigma.

Other than that, Miret's vocals are a little less rough this time. For Another Voice, he had made every effort to sing like a retarded piece of scum with serious larynx problems; on Warriors, he sounds like a retarded piece of scum who has just undergone successful clinical treatment for la­ryngitis. (To prevent libel suits, I am not insinuating or implying anything, merely laying out sub­jective impressions in the exact particular order that they are overflowing my mind). Unfortunate­ly, he still is not singing, screaming, or spitting out anything I'd ever like to hear again.

No change in musical values, either. No solos, no unexpected musical trickery, just textbook me­tallic riffage that may only sound enticing to those who believe that thrash metal was invented by Municipal Waste — or to those who piss their pants from happiness every time they hear a metal line, no matter how old, simple, or «hollow», flash past their senses at jet plane speed. Thumbs down for all that — and for the stupid album sleeve in particular. (I'm not saying I feel any hap­pier about all those Nazi-themed covers from yesteryears, though, but at least they were direct and intentional offenses against taste — Warriors-style imagery is simply cheap).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ashra: Correlations


1) Ice Train; 2) Club Cannibal; 3) Oasis; 4) Bamboo Sands; 5) Morgana Da Capo; 6) Pas De Trois; 7) Phantasus.

Although this is hardly a «masterpiece» of the jaw-dropping variety, it is still one of the most un­usual records of its era. Recruiting keyboardist Lutz Ulbrich and drummer Harald Grosskopf, Göttsching goes back to band format — for a good reason. Blackouts showed that he was quite capable of producing a multi-layered art-rock record on his own, but the idea of Correlations re­quired extra people, and he got himself some good ones.

From the most obvious point of view, Correlations is a hands-down sellout. Its rhythmic base is «generic» 1970s funk, frequently rolling on to disco; and, normally, if you were an art-rocker, re­cording of even one disco number around 1977-79 could mean brutally sodomizing your credibility. (The only thing that could be worse was putting a photo of your hairy chest on the front sleeve). Clearly, it did matter to Manuel how many copies his albums would sell. Or did it? Because, in reality, he was running a serious risk here — he could have easily alienated Ashra's veteran fans without recruiting any new ones: after all, what would motivate lovers of Boney M to spread their adoration onto something as odd as this?

Regardless of Göttsching's original purpose, though, Correlations is a delight. Art rocker going disco? Why not, if he does not cease to be an art rocker? What Göttsching does here is simply transpose his usual schtick («cosmic rock») onto a bedrock of popular rhythms. If anything, it can pass off for subtle irony: using a generic, lightweight foundation to support complex sonic land­scapes. A «dance album» poking fun at the dance generation — or, at the same time, an «art al­bum» poking fun at the snobby art-rock crowds. Whichever way you want to turn it, it all works.

Actually, while listening to the last track, 'Phantasus', I realized that the closest analogy would, of course, be Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick In The Wall' — a much better known attempt at merging «artsiness» and «disco» that managed to become a critical and commercial success without sabo­taging the band's reputation. Ashra, unlike Pink Floyd, make no simplistic social statements (to make a statement, they'd at least need to hire a vocalist), but in terms of sheer tenseness and po­wer, the guitar playing on 'Phantasus' is not significantly below Gilmour's solo on 'Brick'. Not as tightly focused, perhaps, preferring to weave loops and coils around your brain rather than bull­doze it like mad, but this only means that, someday, you might get tired of 'Brick', and that'll be the day when you might be happy to pick up 'Phantasus' instead.

Or almost any other one of these tracks, for that matter. 'Ice Train' honestly does sound like an ice train, moving through fields of snow at a steady set rate as grim synthesized choruses and robotic funky solos swoop around it: danceable and evocative at the same time (or at different times if you cannot combine body and mind activity). The rhythm section of 'Club Cannibal' would be greatly appreciated by any sleazy Eurodisco act — but I am not sure whether they would have ta­ken all the accompanying sonic noise, ranging from astral bleeps to jazz-fusion soloing.

Speaking of fusion, I would actually take Correlations, disco rhythms and all, over a great deal of «classic» instrumental fusion albums, all of which it easily beats in terms of direct entertain­ment, diversity, and a certain «sense of purpose». (It doesn't beat them in terms of «flash», but that's actually a good one for the critic — nobody would accuse Göttsching of «pretentiousness» or «self-indulgence» corrupting the rock'n'roll spirit, etc.). A few of the grooves are overcooked (the 8-9 minute length for 'Ice Train' and 'Pas De Trois' is a bit too much; everything works fine when centered around the 5 minute mark), but, in compensation, each of the grooves is different: the moods they create are notoriously hard to describe, but they never repeat each other.

Keep in mind that already the next album would be significantly divergent in style, too. It may not be the best sound in the world, but nothing really sounds like Correlations — the «Tony Ma­nero In Outer Space» album. Thumbs up, of course. Even if the record's historical significance is thoroughly undermined by the fact of no one remembering about its existence, that does not stop it from being an exotic aural delight for ages to come.

Check "Correlations" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Correlations" (MP3) on Amazon

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amon Düül II: Tanz Der Lemminge


1) Syntelman's March Of The Roaring Seventies; 2) Restless Skylight Transistor Child; 3) The Marilyn Monroe Me­mo­rial Church; 4) Chewinggum Telegram; 5) Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight; 6) Toxicological Whispering.

Not even the murky jungleland of Yeti can prepare the listener for the «shoot down all barriers» marathon that is The Dance Of The Lemmings, Amon Düül II's crowning masterpiece that earned them the right to resign in dignity (although I do not blame them for preferring to fizzle out in dis­grace — there are still plenty of goodies in the subsequent catalog). If there was an album in 1971 on which the universe of music was stretched out to a higher extreme, I have yet to hear it; and, as we all know, 1971 was no slouch when it came to stretching out.

Technically, each of the first three sides of this double LP contains one lengthy suite, whereas side four consists of three shorter tracks; in reality, this information is irrelevant — the «suites» themselves are created from snippets that have little to do with each other. The best choice one could make, I think, is to simply accept the album as one sprawling seventy-minute long sonic fantasy, an Alice In Wonderland filtered through the drug-fueled, but playful conscience of Ger­man «non-academic avantgardism». As all such things go, it may work better if the listener's con­science is drug-fueled, too, but you're on your own with that one (this site is strictly adhering to the «just say no» policy, no matter how hard it may get).

Actually, Tanz Der Lemminge becomes most delightful only in comparison. As 'Syntelman's March' starts us off on our psychedelic voyage, one can easily see the links to the acid rock sce­nes in the US and the UK — the backbone sounds like acoustic folk crossed with Eastern music and going crazy in the process. But the more it goes on, the more and more different other ingre­dients are thrown in, in radical contrast to Friscan psycho jams, usually very poor on fantasy. Any­one accustomed to dismissing psychedelic music as «hippie crap», a.k.a. interminable wan­king based on single-string drones or limited bluesy improvising techniques, will have to waive that opinion after sitting through the first ten minutes of 'Syntelman'. Spooky cosmic Mellotrons, gypsy violins, tablas, flamenco guitar, Beatlesque electric pop riffs, barrelhouse piano, and I have not listed even half of what's on there, I think — and it's just the first side.

The second side ('Restless Skylight'), if at all possible, is even more inventive, complementing the diversity with sitars and hard-rocking parts (the riff that bursts through your speakers at 7:08 is every rocker's dream — lower the tone a little and Tony Iommi would have paid good money to appropriate it for Master Of Reality). And then, on side three, 'The Marilyn Monroe Memorial Church' goes for a complete change of scene, dropping melody and rhythm in favor of mood and atmosphere: eighteen minutes of creepy soundtrackish «muzak», during which the intrepid jungle traveler of Yeti has finally given up his machete and, from an active breaker of new ground, has turned into a frightened passive observer, as the amicable, but deadly dangerous friends of the fo­rest hurry past him about their daily (or, rather, nightly) tasks.

Come to think of it, 'Memorial Church', despite being largely improvised and having no firm structure to speak of, may be one of Amon Düül II's greatest contributions to humanity. Its dark mystique is not fully unprecedented — one could say that it draws its inspiration, among other things, from the mid-section of Led Zep's 'Dazed And Confused', or from the Doors' 'Horse Lati­tudes' — but it is the first time ever that someone dared to explore the limits of that mystique to such a full extent. It is essentially eighteen minutes of «dicking around», and yet it doesn't feel bo­­ring, or, at least, doesn't have to feel boring. Just think of yourself as Snow White groping around in the dark forest, and eighteen minutes will pass in a jiffy.

Strange enough, the band would never again try anything as totally far out as this record. Having blown to bits all notions of limits and borders, Karrer, Weinzierl and Co. seem to have decided that operating within certain conventions is, after all, a more challenging task for the artist than demolishing any such conventions — a notion that I generally endorse, but not necessarily in this case. Tanz Der Lemminge is a triumph of near-total freedom, but it is the kind of near-total free­dom that I love the best: one that does not forget about sheer entertainment value, diversity, and melodicity (pardon my French). It sounds like nothing else, yet still goes fairly easy on the «nor­mal» ear. Not only does it have absolutely nothing to do with the weirdness of, say, Captain Beef­heart's Trout Mask Replica (weirdness that I am not afraid to call «anti-musical»), but when you get down to dissecting all of its little bits, you find out that each one of them is fairly normal and even simple in its own rights. No crazy time signatures, no earth-shaking dissonance, not even any ultra-ugly sound effects or feedback abuse. It is only the recklessly kaleidoscopic approach that makes Tanz what it is — namely, one of the most mind-blowing experiences of the late stage of the psychedelic era. Thumbs up a-plenty; in fact, I'd like to borrow yours as well.

Check "Tanz Der Lemminge" (CD) on Amazon

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Beach Boys: Wild Honey


1) Wild Honey; 2) Aren't You Glad; 3) I Was Made To Love Her; 4) Country Air; 5) A Thing Or Two; 6) Darlin'; 7) I'd Love Just Once To See You; 8) Here Comes The Night; 9) Let The Wind Blow; 10) How She Boogalooed It; 11) Mama Says.

Wild Honey inaugurates what was probably the most bizarre and, from a historical point of view at least, the most fascinating period in Beach Boys history. Over an impressive seven years, from 1967 to 1973, the band was engulfed in a near-constant state of chaos, scandals, drugs, rushing from one half-baked idea to another, lack of leadership, lack of purpose, clashes of ambitions and interests — the only thing that might explain their staying together is brotherly ties, or, more like­ly, the insecurity of each individual member as to whether a solo career in music would be reali­zable. (In the end, Dennis and Carl only went solo after the band solidified its commercial positi­ons in 1976).

The seven studio albums they put out over that period illustrate that lack of coherence perfectly. In stark contrast to every Beach Boys record up to Pet Sounds, they do not even provide the im­pression of well-rounded collections of songs «from A to Z». None of them beat the rag-tagginess of Smiley Smile, but it is one thing to forgive one hastily concocted, rushed-out contractual obli­gation consisting of briskly re-recorded demo versions, and quite another one to sit through al­bum after album after album, completely devoid of any sense of purpose or quality control.

Fortunately for all of us, Smiley Smile had used up most of the hyper-experimental ideas that Brian came up with for the SMiLe project, and all of the subsequent records would be generally more melodic and better produced. In fact, Wild Honey does sound, from time to time, like an honest-to-goodness attempt at returning to the standard practice of recording pop music LPs. Not bizarre avantgarde experimentation; not «teenage symphonies to God»; not intentional attempts at beating the Beatles — just a stab at another good old regular pop music record, the way Mike Love had always preferred it the best. It is somewhat symbolic that the album's biggest hit, 'Darlin', was partly written as early as 1963 (the verse melody is taken from an early tune called 'Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby', donated by Brian to Sharon Marie in 1964; the chorus, however, is brand new): Wild Honey was calling us back to basics, in feeble hopes that a Sgt. Pepper and Are You Experienced-fed public could heed the call. Naturally, it didn't.

But it didn't not simply because, by late 1967, there was no more demand for shiny, optimistic surf-pop. No; it didn't because, after the SMiLe fiasco, Brian's workmanship was irrepairably da­maged. He did not lose any of his genius — what he did lose was the ability to «flesh out» that genius, the will to take his brilliant ideas and polish them up to the same degree of perfection that characterized his work from 1964 to 1966. Imagine a fabulous painter, with each of his new works causing a shockwave of sensation, who suddenly abandons the canvas and starts dealing exclusively in half-finished sketches on paper — how would his fans react to that?

Of the eleven songs on Wild Honey, nine, in good old fashion, are credited to «Brian Wilson / Mike Love». But, as Robert Christgau, in his original review, correctly (surprise surprise) stated, «each of the 11 tunes ends before you wish it would». Indeed, most of the fade-outs arrive just as you start feeling that the song has finally picked up some steam — almost as if some deranged in­ner voice was telling Brian, Mike, and the others, «okay guys, time to wind it up, you know a pop song is not supposed to last more than 2:20», forgetting that the year was 1967, not 1963, and that even the conservative American standard had already been revolutionized.

The craziest thing about it, however, is that the songs themselves do not sound very nineteen-six­ty-three themselves. I mean, 'Darlin' might have been all that old, but its re-recording, with a very much «post-Beatles» rhythmic base, a steady brass accompaniment that shows serious influence on the part of mid-1960s Atlantic/Motown sound, and a raw, creaky, shaky (and, because of that, quite beautiful) vocal delivery from Carl, was quite modern for 1967, nothing specifically «retro» about it except for the melodic moves, which are, indeed, quite typical of early Phil Spector.

Then there is all the sexuality. Pre-Pet Sounds, Brian's songs were innocence exemplified (so much so that even certain salacious hints inside the lyrics could easily pass unnoticed), and on Pet Sounds itself, not much difference was made between boy-girl and man-God relations (in all fairness, it is Pet Sounds that the Christian fundamentalists should have been a-goin' after in 1966, not Beatles records because of John's silly throwaway remark). Wild Honey, first time ever in Beach Boys history, explicitly puts the body next to spirit.

Obviously, Mike Love can spend the rest of his life explaining how the title of the album was due to the «health food craze» going on around town at the time, but there's no way anyone in his right mind could interpret a line like "My love's coming down since I got a taste of wild honey" as an expression of the protagonist's sincere gratitude to his partner because of her dedication to wholesome eating practices. It's a classy white-boy R'n'B number, for sure, but Carl's ecstatic vo­cal delivery transparently spells out orgiastic, as do the siren-imitating theremin blasts. Clearly, from the moment that the first copy of Carl Wilson screaming out "gonna take my life eating up her wild honey!" descended on the open market, his fate was sealed. On that fateful day, the man had no choice left but to start growing himself... a beard.

And that is just the beginning. We also have 'A Thing Or Two', which starts out as a lightweight enough bop-de-pop music hall number... then, with a series of "do it right baby"-s and suggestive moans and wails, lets all of us know that the days of not talking, putting your hands on my shoul­der and listening to my heart beat are long gone — today it takes something more, uh, active than that to get life a-goin'. And, uh, 'I'd Love Just Once To See You'? It takes an endless one minute and fifty seconds for us to get to the real end of that statement, but we do get to see the boys overcome the «shyness» and make their true point. And 'Here Comes The Night'? Can you ima­gine that one next to, say, 'Surfer Girl'? The "Oooohh..." at the end of each chorus is about as close as the band ever came to creating a porn movie soundtrack.

Much of this heavy-breathing raunchiness seems «forced» — by now, we all know that the Beach Boys were no prudes when it came to relations with the opposite sex (with Dennis at the progres­sive forefront of the sexual revolution), but on Wild Honey, it is almost as if they were fulfilling some sort of contractual obligation, one that openly urged them to place «more flesh, less spirit» on their subsequent albums. Fortunately, it is more often funny than annoying, more frequently «silly» than «stupid», and as much as I'd like to dub this the band's «cock pop» album, the fact is that, after all, it took me several years of listening to it to get that idea, so it cannot be blatantly and obviously correct.

Besides, all this sexuality merely adds extra spice to the already bizarre, confused atmos­phere of the album. We have not yet mentioned the Stevie Wonder cover — why? no particular reason — or 'Mama Says', a one-minute accappella ode to the art of teethbrushing that was cut out of the ori­ginal 'Vega-Tables' to close the album — why? because, mama, we're still crazy after all these years. Each subsequent song on Wild Honey is utterly unpredictable: it can end up «normal», like the tender balladry of 'Aren't You Glad' or 'Let The Wind Blow', or it can fall apart into free form atmospherics, like 'A Thing Or Two' or 'Country Air'.

However, where the tunes that fell apart on Smiley Smile would just fall apart, because nobody gave a damn about how they would hold together, the free-form approach on Wild Honey is, on the whole, more motivated. This «sketch-style» approach to recording seems more thought out and intentional, and, from that point of view, far more similar to the «lo-fi» movement in indie pop/rock than the hazy daze of Smiley Smile. The songs share the same the craziness and artistic despe­ration, but the final result is more easily enjoyable — making Wild Honey, in fact, the real starting point of the last and most mysterious stage of the Beach Boys' greatness. So, clearly, a thumbs up — for God only knows what.

Check "Wild Honey" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Wild Honey" (MP3) on Amazon