Soapboxin: The Year of Ariel Pink

December 17, 2009

So I’ve started writing for the kickass psych blog The Decibel Tolls. My first post for them is about how everyone is jocking Ariel Rosenberg’s style.

“Who could have ever imagined that three of the most buzzed about bands of the year – Ducktails, Washed Out, and Neon Indian – would sound like Ariel Pink? Pink, who has been a critical lightning rod ever since the release of his first official album, The Doldrums, on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, was surely never any blogger’s idea of the “next big thing.”

Since the dudes from TDT want 2-3 posts a week (slavemasters!), I’m not sure if I’ll be able to update The Party’s Crashing Us every week. I’m definitely writing up my best of 2009 lists soon.


I Actually Like: Phantom Family Halo’s “Monoliths and These Flowers Never Die”

November 24, 2009

When I first started getting into psych-rock via newer bands like Six Organs of Admittance and Comets on Fire, I asked an acquaintance of mine who I knew to be an experts on all things psychedelic what her five or six favorite records were. The records she listed: Amon Duul’s Yeti, Flower Travelin’ Band’s Sartori, Hapdash and the Coloured Coat’s The Human Host and the Heavy Metal Kids, Faust’s IV, and the Thirteenth Floor Elevator’s Easter Everywhere.  What struck me when I listened to all those different records was how deep (as in large, not profound, but sometimes that too) and strange and exciting the history of psych rock is and how the relative obscurity of so many of the most creative bands has allowed their influence to be so much more powerful than it would have been had they been more popular. Finding someone who likes Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow is easy (just attend one of your parent’s dinner parties), but meeting someone who digs Amon Duul’s Yeti almost merits immediately making that person your friend.

I mention all this because Phantom Family Halo’s new record Monoliths and These Flowers Never Die has clearly been made by people who bonded over a shared love of Yeti (I know Dominic from PFH likes it because he shouted it out here) and/or other lost psychedelic classics. Of course the problem with bands who come together over a shared love of obscure records is that they so often make records that sound like every song was supposed to be a tribute to a different band. Thankfully, PFH don’t have that problem. With roots in some of Louisville, KY’s most popular bands (Dominic Cipolla was in Sapat and Michael McMahan, brother of founding Slint member Brian McMahan, was in The For Carnation), the band has had years of experience making music and it shows.

Using what, in 2009, consists of a barebones set-up (guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards), the Phantom Family Halo manage to stay engaging over 60+ minutes of music. Highlights include  “Child of Love” and “Dec. 2012,” which sound like Donovan soundtracking a post-apocalyptic wasteland; the fuzz pedal fury of “Third World War”(which begins with a minute of what sounds like an Oval track) and “These Flowers Never Die”; the drone music of “Monoliths,” and the gorgeous instrumental “Waited All Day for the Rain,” with its dub drums and blissful organs.

With the exception of “Monoliths” and the sound collage “4 Minute Land,” Monoliths and These Flowers Never Die is highly accessible to non-psych fans as well, because it’s anchored by strong songwriting. Maybe if the members of Phantom Family Halo ran a label like the members of Woods do, they could score the kind of buzz that band has, because both bands are skilled at the sort of classic rock formats most of the bands they play with simply flounder at. Being well versed in older psych rock, the band does their best to keep things strange and trippy and difficult (which I wholeheartedly endorse), but their talent for writing catchy songs fights its way to the surface nearly every time.

Phantom Family Halo – Child Of Love

Phantom Family Halo – Alive and Well

Let Us Remember: Project Pat’s “Powder”

November 19, 2009

Project Pat’s “Powder” is in a league of its own when it comes to coke rap because it’s actually about doing coke. Most rappers who rhyme about coke do so from the standpoint of businessmen, serving a product to customers with a mixture of contempt and disinterest. Very little respect is paid to the power of the drugs being sold, even though it’s that very power that has created the market. Bricks and keys are always going to be abstract items to most listeners, but powerful highs are something far easier to relate to.

“Powder” begins with that familiar Three Six Mafia staple: synthesized choirs. Heavily influenced by John Carpenter soundtracks and Italian horror movies, Three Six’s use of keyboard choirs and lush, minor key string arrangements transfers the impossibly tense atmosphere of an 80s slasher movie into the homes and streets of Memphis drug dealers. “Powder gets you hyper–gets you hyper” Pat intones in a low voice. The second time he repeats this, the word “gets” is stuttered three times, like he’s so high he’s losing motor control.

The song’s first verse is full of images that don’t totally cohere. First we find Pat (or the character in the song) in a mall parking lot about to shoot someone, taking a “pause for a minute” because his heart is “beating through his chest.” He warns “A simple robbery can turn into a bloody mess,” but lines like “Gots that one hit quitta/Them stars all you saw” add to the sense that he’s committing a hit. The first line in the verse that truly jumps out as different is “Pay me money for my services? Nah, I want cocaine.”

The second verse starts out “See the madness in me drained out the ‘caine/What I came for/Having mood swings/Kind of coo-coo for the cocoa,” and in true Three Six fashion, they’ve switched out the original melody and replaced in with some simple major piano chords. The effect is slightly bizarre, because the music signifies poignancy, like a heart to heart between a father and son on a sitcom, but the lyrics are those of unrepentant cokehead cavalier enough to make Cocoa Puff jokes. But there’s something about this flippant tone that completely rings true. Despite “mood swings” and “madness,” this dude is also having the time of his life. For me, “Powder” perfectly captures the potent mix of euphoria, tension, and exhilaration that comes with doing any kind of upper, whether caffeine, speed, or coke.

There is something refreshing about the total lack of moralizing in “Powder”; it makes you realize so many rap songs about dealing coke, whether Young Jeezy’s “Dreaming” or Raekwon’s “Knowledge God” (remember the “fiends hugging your seed up”?), make most of their moral judgments about drug use and not drug dealing. When Pat says you’ll need “40 Xanax pills” to come down from the coke he’s got, there’s no shame or look-at-how-far-I’ve-fallen tropes–it’s just a matter of fact thing.

The rest of the second verse has probably the best line in the song (“Eyeballs big and glossy, wide like on Coffy [awesome Pam Grier reference]/Up all night snortin’ can’t sleep like on coffee”) and moves into a sex scene, with Pat in the bedroom with a “snow bunny” and a schoolteacher who “just started ho-ing.” It’s this last detail that’s obviously meant to shock, but why? A schoolteacher is meant to represent goodness and straight living, but if the high is as good as its portrayed, what’s to stop someone with an honest job from giving up everything and dedicating their life to it? The impressive thing about “Powder” for me is that when that line pops up, I think “Yeah, I get how that could happen,” because the song is so cinematic that I can picture this schoolteacher’s dramatic arc, from trying it once at a party all the way to prostituting to fund her habit.

I wish there more rap songs like “Powder.” If anyone knows of similar songs by other artists, let me know in the comments, because rap songs about drug use that don’t use “White Lines” moralizing are a fascinating sub-genre that need to be talked about more.

Project Pat – Powder

Off Walkin Bank Roll

I Actually Like: Ducktails (Or, a Defense of New Age)

November 7, 2009


What the hell happened this past summer? Within a period of two weeks in June, lo-fi beach pop became the “it” genre in indie rock, usurping the previous buzz genre, the lo-fi/shitgaze/Jesus and Mary Chain rip off artists nexus, quicker than you can say “That shit’s too depressing to listen to in the summer.” What seemed inherently silly about the beach pop stuff was that the people making it had to have known that their music would be obsolete within months of its making. Once fall came, songs about beaches and tropical climates would sound ridiculous, and maybe even like they were taunting us with what we’d just lost.

Being the contrarian that I am, my first reaction to the wave of beach pop bands was “Fuck off.” Then I heard Ducktails. A revolving cast of players centered around guitarist Matt Mondanile, Ducktails sounds like a third generation copy of a keyboard heavy soundtrack to a local children’s show. Or an 80’s porno. They have a nostalgia heavy, VHS-fetishizing aesthetic that’s sort of maybe all the rage lately (but probably not, right? I’m sure at least 70% of “indie rock” fans are still listening to Grizzly Bear and still not fucking with any close to 80s nostalgia/fetishism), but I think their appeal stems from two things that are far simpler and less reducible to this small pocket of time where we’re all willing to “cheesy” 80s music we would have snickered at a year ago.

Firstly, the music of Ducktails reminds us of our childhoods, at least if we born in the 80s. Awhile back, Pitchfork writer Nate Patrin shared on his blog his proposal to Continuum to write a 33 1/3 book about Daft Punk’s Discovery. A large part of his pitch concerned the idea that the album was trying to “replicate how fresh and full of possibility the radio sounded to children in the early ‘80s, before they learned the parameters that separated high meaning from superficial bubblegum..” This is a brilliant point, and it equally applies to the music of Ducktails. An 8 year old watching TV or listening to the radio doesn’t care if the music they’re listening to is made by a 35 year old studio musician using keyboard presets (basically this guy) or an ultra stylish German dude building his own synthesizers, all they know is that it makes them feel exhilarated. Now whether the music of Ducktails is tapping directly into our childhood love of cool sounding keyboards and shameless guitar solos or is instead a more adult abstraction of that same feeling that’s wrapped up with melancholy memories of being a kid and an unavoidable amount of ironic distance, well, that’s up for debate. But you can’t deny that being an “80s baby,” with all that entails, is a huge reason why you might like Ducktails.

Secondly, Ducktails are basically making new age music (shout out to Brandon Soderberg for his continued defense of that term). But I’m not supposed to say that, right? I’m supposed to say that the group’s use of lo-fi production techniques helps the music escape that dreaded tag, as if all that tape hiss was there to help you reconcile the fact that, as David Bevan points out, you’re listening to music that’s “more fit for a Chinese restaurant or Walgreens” than cool people’s stereos or iPods. Well, screw that noise (no pun intended). New age music is supposed to move you in ways that aren’t cool to talk about. It’s supposed to make you content to just stare out the window and think. It’s supposed to chill you out, to make you calm enough to zone out an entire bus ride and then feel a powerful feeling of catharsis when you take your headphones off at home. All kinds of new age music can do this, whether Ducktails or Tangerine Dream or Wyndham Hill compilations. Using the term new age as an insult is a form of bad faith. The feeling you get from listening to Sigor Ros or Godspeed You Black Emperor! or Ducktails is not somehow more refined or tasteful because those bands are considered cool; you’re feeling all that same gooey, sincere, precious stuff that a clerk at Wal-Mart feels when she falls asleep listening to Yanni.

When it comes time to put together top ten or top twenty lists of the best records of the year, I hope those choosing Ducktails’ Landscapes (pictured above) or Acres of Shade don’t treat the albums as some kind of artifacts of that crazy weird time this year where they listened to stuff that sounded like low fidelity Muzak from the 80s. Just admit, y’all: You like new age music.

Ducktails – Roses

Ducktails – Landrunner

Buy it! (If you have a record player..)

Let Us Remember: The Vulcan’s “Star Trek”

October 28, 2009


In 1972, Ken Elliott, formerly of prog-rockers Second Hand, recorded some crazy cool ARP-2600 synthesizer over various Trojan reggae instrumentals, in a bid by both Elliott and Trojan to cash in on the 7os easy listening market. The result was The Vulcan’s Star Trek. Like all those fusion records full of disco instrumentation or electro funk basslines, Star Trek is one of those albums that, though it may have sounded ridiculous at the time, can now be fully appreciated without all that “keyboards/progressive rock will ruin music forever” baggage it was saddled with at the time.

While the mix of the ARP-2600 and the reggae instrumentals is far from seamless (Elliott’s keyboard dueting with a saxophone on opener “Asibiso Jungle” was probably a bad idea), it’s often this very incongruity that creates such wonderful moments, transforming the music from a electronic/reggae pastiche (which is still really great) to something stranger and more exciting. “Journey Into Space”  has a horn driven instrumental as its foundation, but it’s smothered under cavernous, “Doctor Who” sound effect synths, creating a stoner’s wet dream combo of heavy reggae bass and tingly analog synthesizers. On the title track (which is featured on Madlib’s Trojan catalog looting Blunted In The Bomb Shelter mixtape) the synthesizer so dominates its funky reggae backing that you could swear you were listening to the soundtrack to an 80s Charles Bronson movie instead of something released by Trojan in 1972.

The two tracks I’m including for download, “Dr. Spock” and “Shang-Haied” are the two catchiest. “Dr. Spock” sounds like a reggae cover of an R & B standard with the ARP-2600 standing in for the horn section, while “Shang-Haied” uses the keyboard to imitate both the sound of whistling and of ancient Chinese instruments.

The Vulcans – Dr. Spock

The Vulcans- Shang-Haied


The Right Track(s): Z-Ro’s “Raw” and More

October 19, 2009


Z-Ro – Raw

In his bizarre and frustrating review of Z-Ro’s Crack (calling Z-Ro a “noncommittal grump”? WTF?), Evan McGarvey blames a lot of the album’s failure on the absence of in house Rap-A-Lot producer Mike Dean. Despite the fact that Z-Ro sounds awesome over all kinds of producer’s beats, it’s hard to deny he has a special chemistry with Mike D. On “Raw,” off Z-Ro’s new mixtape Cocaine, Dean gives Ro a bluesy, swaggering beat with swampy guitar and a buzzing keyboard line. Over five minutes without a hook, “Raw” harkens back to those days when rap didn’t need conventional choruses, just an interlude between sixteen bar verses. Lines like “Making money is what I love to do, but my freedom is pending/So if I get caught slipping, my freedom is ending, so I’m playing it safe” pop out, infused with rage, frustration, and resignation, a cold reminder of the fact that, despite being one of Houston’s biggest rap stars, Joseph McVey is also an ex-con in a potentially ugly battle with one of the sketchiest rap labels in America.

DJ Pierre – Let Me Get That

“Let Me Get That,” off of DJ Pierre’s new mix CD Vol. 7 (which is available here), is one weird song. Built around a couple of pitch-shifted keyboard chords, a ping-ponging sample of what sounds to me like sheep bleating, and one of those classic double time drum patterns that Baltimore Club music is famous for, the song at first sounds kind of minimal. But close listening reveals even more elements, like a robotic vocal sample hidden in the drums. With the title like “Let Me Get That,” you assume the song is about sex, but there’s very little sexy about it. Its cycle of tension and release feels wired and druggy, again putting the lie to the retrograde notion that Club music is just Baltimore’s version of booty music.

La Roux – Bulletproof

La Roux is huge in the U.K. and for good reason. “Bulletproof” is a legitimate dance pop anthem, the kind of song that gets stuck in the heads of people who claim to hate this kind of music with a passion. Singer Elly Jackson’s voice is loud and brash, and with her bright red, perfectly coiffed asymmetrical hairdo, she looks like a video game character come to life. Songs like this get called derivative, but often it’s by the same people who drool over Neon Indian and Washed Out, which makes no sense at all. Would this song be considered genius if it had a layer of tape hiss on it? The vodocered chorus on the middle eight is perfect, and if enjoying it makes you feel guilty or lame, then, buddy, that’s your problem.

All Screwed Up: ESG and Slim Thug’s “Grippin’ Grain”

October 5, 2009


“Grippin’ Grain” has one of those beats that sounds amazing screwed up. If you listen to the original song, the beat sounds like the sort of thing regional rappers in the 90s used all the time, an amalgam of G-funk and 80s electro music that’s supposed to sound sleek and expensive. Screwed up, it sounds older and languid, like something off a late 70s or early 80s Isley Brothers or Earth, Wind, and Fire album.

For most of the first minute and a half, the song’s nothing but bass, drums, and some funky electric piano parts, with some synthesized strings creeping in around the :40 mark. If it was just this repeated for the song’s ten plus minutes, it’d be fine with me, because this is vintage Screw. He takes a laid back beat with a subtle, often airy melody, like ESG’s “Smoke On” or 4 Deep’s “Rollin 4 Deep” or Slick Rick’s “Sittin In My Car,” and he stretches it and stretches it, finding that transcendent sweet spot and just making a home there. He’s just like Eno on Music for Airports or the trippier Krautrock bands or any of my current favorite ambient drone artists like Emeralds or Skaters or Dolphins Into the Future.

Screw staggers his tricks throughout the song, leaving ESG’s first verse basically unchopped, but then, right before the first chorus, he randomly plays the song’s original intro twice. I get such a kick out of this technique, because it so throughly denaturalizes the listening experience. On the classic 3 in tha Mornin tape, Screw scratches the first couple of lines of RBX’s verse on “High Powered” what feels like eight or nine times, until the line “Haven’t you ever heard of a killer?/I drop bombs like Hiroshima” sounds simultaneously psychotic and absurd, like something you’d hear a homeless schizophrenic man repeating to himself over and over in an angry voice.

After Slim Thug’s verse, the song gets really trippy, with two phased choruses and ESG and Slim’s voices sounding almost like dying robots (I’m serious!) as they trade lines back and forth. This is all miles away from those screwed and chopped versions of albums that used to be everywhere–it’s gritty, it’s druggy, and seems to be more about what the sound of music does to your synapses than any sort of normal form of listening. For the last two minutes, Screw plays the instrumental part from the beginning of the song again, like he couldn’t wait for the rapping to end so he could get back to pure music.

ESG ft. Slim Thug – Grippin Grain (from the Screwed Up Texas tape)

The Debate Team: Does Metal Need Melody?

September 26, 2009


Does truly great heavy metal require some sort of melody? I’m sure the knee jerk response from many metalheads will be a hearty “Hell no!” But melody doesn’t have to mean playing a grand piano over guitar riffs. In this Debate Team post, Joseph Ohegyi of the great Geek Down blog and I debate the necessity of melody in metal. For me, metal requires some sort of melody, whether major or minor key, to harness its full power, while for Joseph, it’s the very lack of melody that excites him, creating a thrilling sense of detachment from all previous musical forms. At the end of the debate, I’ve included mp3s of many of the bands mentioned.

Daniel: When I was fifteen, I was obsessed with listening to the hardest and craziest music out there, whether punk or metal. Having a spent two years listening to various strains of punk, from anarcho punk to Oi! to hardcore, I was bored and looking for something new, something that was more than just minor variations on three chord punk.

On a whim, I bought an LP copy of Necropolis, by the Minneapolis crust punk band Destroy!, and my mind was blown, and not entirely in a good way. The band played impossibly fast, heavily tuned down hardcore punk that borrowed far more from death metal than it did from, say, 7 Seconds or Minor Threat. The vocals were unintelligible without a lyric sheet and the singers alternated screaming their lyrics in high pitched squeals and barking them in exaggerated, Cookie Monster sounding baritones.

Listening to the album with my friend Brian, who at the time played in a hardcore punk band with me, I felt confused as to how to react to such harsh and abrasive music. It was clear that this was a new extreme and I could either reject it as too noisy and ugly, which my ears were telling me to do, or I could seize onto it as the hardest, most fucked up music I’d ever heard, a new standard for all music to be judged by, as in “Ah, dude, this is nothing compared to Destroy!”

Of course, I did the latter. High on the exhilaration of listening to music too corrosive for most ears, I declared myself a fan of only the most extreme of genres, like power violence and grindcore. The former, owner of perhaps one the most self-explanatory genre names this side of sadcore, was represented by bands like Capitalist Casualties, Spazz, Man Is the Bastard, and Crossed Out, and was characterized by constant, violent shifts in tempo, with two minute songs featuring two or three cycles of ungodly slow dirges hurtling forward into blast-beat explosions of noise. Grindcore, represented by bands like Napalm Death (who pretty much invented the genre), Brutal Truth, Carcass, and Agoraphobic Nosebleed,  was more influenced by death and thrash metal and sounded like the blast beat mayhem of power violence, only with more technically skilled musicians and higher production values.

I remember buying Carcass’ Reek of Putrefaction at Wherehouse Music and listening to it twice in one sitting, pushing myself towards the second listen just so I could condition my body not to tense up in reaction to the music. It’s a painful record to listen to, and I mean that partly as a compliment. Full of song after song of short, merciless grindcore and with lyrics cribbed right out of the grossest sections of medical textbooks, the album is an undisputed classic, and in my opinion, the closest thing ever to pure grindcore. But it was never something I enjoyed, only something I endured for the thrill of having endured it, like a gang initiation or a dangerous stunt.

Now that I’m older and slowly getting back into metal, I realize that I can’t listen to bands like Carcass because their music eschews the one thing I require of almost everything I listen to: melody. Not melody in the sense of pretty notes and chords, but melody in the pure sense of notes that can be registered by the human ear. This requirement can’t be met by shrieking, blast beat-addict grindcore bands nor death metal bands whose guitars are tuned so low you can’t hear chord progressions.


Joseph: I’m glad you highlighted the boundary-pushing sensory experience that the harshest styles of metal create. That’s a huge part of its appeal for me, but there’s another related aspect that plays a part in my favorite grindcore and death metal: rhythm. Metal’s rhythm is what inspires the headbang.

The “chug” guitar sound is what comes to mind when I try to think of a rhythmic example that’s unique to metal. It’s almost definitive. A chugging riff can contain melody, like in classic and thrash metal, but it doesn’t have to. When death and grind dropped the recognizable melody in the mid-’80s, the bands relied on an a-melodic chug for their main structural basis. With the downtuned guitars you mentioned and dissonant, chromatic riffs, chugged guitar lines transform into just another rhythmic element of the music alongside the drums. For me, this transformation just brings the music closer to metal’s primal, headbanging essence. It’s less about creating relatable, recognizable melody than disorienting your logical brain enough to hit those hedonistic caveman pleasure zones with sheer rhythm.

The harsh vocal style that started in metal around the same time as the tuneless guitar riffs is less rhythmic so its appeal is harder for me to pinpoint. I think maybe I’m still at the point you describe as being “high on the exhilaration” of all this corrosive music. It’s still absurd and amazing whenever I hear someone shredding their throat to pieces. My favorite example to point to is this live video of Pig Destroyer’s vocalist JR Hayes continuing to perform even after the microphone breaks. It’s approaching the same primal headspace that the instruments are, but by assaulting your instincts rather than your sense of rhythm. Hearing a person scream is inherently unsettling. To follow this line of thinking, I’m now ready to say that this kind of a-melodic music provides me with a more thrilling, visceral experience than any melodic music can provide.

With that said, of course, I’m ignoring the potential emotional aspects of music in my argument. I don’t think I could sustain listening to only extreme metal, because that type of visceral experience starts to wear me down and I eventually need respite. That’s when I break out the melodies. However, it usually isn’t melodic metal, but some other style of music that I turn to. I’d like to know, when you were most entrenched in extreme metal did you listen to it exclusively?


To answer your question “When you were most entrenched in extreme metal, did you listen to it exclusively” the answer, of course, is no. But I’m curious why you choose to skip over “melodic metal” and go straight to non-metal when searching for melodic music. Do you find metal with melody lacking in some way?

I’m interested that you bring up rhythm as one of the appeals of extreme metal. If the purpose is to, in your words, “hit those hedonistic caveman pleasure zones with sheer rhythm,” why use the blast beat? For me, blast beat can barely be considered rhythm. A 4/4 beat played insanely fast creates almost zero rhythmic tension. Also, playing such a simplistic rhythm that fast creates the opposite effect of what’s intended; it actually slows the music down as opposed to speeding it up. Since the ear can’t possibly hear every single separate beat, what it does hear sounds more like a dirge than a burst of speed.

And while that clip of the dude from Pig Destroyer is interesting and an amazing example of the dedication and intensity of so many extreme metal vocalists, it also reveals the limitations of that kind of vocal style. Sure, many metal fans will argue that there are countless different variations of screaming and yelling vocals, but in my opinion, it’s inherently limiting. For me, those kind of vocals discard so much of what I appreciate about a singer’s voice. It’s things like timbre, accent, diction, and range that define singers and their personalities, and when those are dropped in favor of what sounds like primal scream therapy, it frustrates me as a listener.

I’ll give you props for making a bold statement like “a-melodic music provides me with a more thrilling, visceral experience than any melodic music can provide,” but I definitely have to disagree. For me, it’s the mixture of melody and heaviness that makes great metal, whether it be Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave,” Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” At the Gates’ “Blinded By Fear,” or Sleep’s “Dragonaut,” just to cite a few examples. In these songs, the melody acts as an anchor for the huge riffs, giving them the perfect form to release their power. Too often I hear metal bands whose riffs sound unfinished, because they’re content with almost any combination of chords as long as they’re played fast and loud.


I find melodic metal lacking in terms of what I go to extreme metal for, which is that animalistic thrill I mentioned, where I can barely hold myself back from punching the sky when a sick part hits. I mean, that’s not to say melodic metal doesn’t have sick parts (all the songs you mentioned do), but I’ve never heard a melodic metal song that makes me lose my shit like, say, Suicide Silence’s “Wake Up”. Funny though, listening to the song right now, the part that wrecks is the chorus, which is the second-most melodic part of the song. Maybe a healthy juxtaposition/contrast can do it for me.

I agree with you about both blastbeats and vocals. I usually don’t prefer blastbeat-exclusive death or grind. You’re right to say there’s no tension there. To bring up juxtaposition/contrast again, my favorite metal bands balance the blastbeats with groovier parts or breakdowns, either throughout the album or within the song. Some albums that do this well are Pig Destroyer’s Phantom Limb, Assück’s Misery Index and Ion Dissonance’s Solace. There’s a distinct tension resolving when those bands hit the more rhythmic parts after a minute of blasts. I should say the amount of extreme metal bands I enjoy is a small minority; I can’t defend the genre as a whole because like with every genre of music, there’s a ton of crap.

With harsh vocals, you’re right again to say that there is little room for expression that more traditional vocal styles can provide, but I’m not really looking for expression or nuance in metal. The easier it is for me to appreciate the sound as-is on the surface without applying too much intellect or interpretation, the harder it hits me. I prefer to detach, which music so alien-sounding allows for. When I can hear the blues or classical influence behind a more melodic metal song, there’s an attachment to the past and real-world shit that brings me down to earth and kills the primal escapism that I’m looking for. Two recent black metal bands have approached similar ideas in interviews. I’ll end with a quote from each.

Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: “The album art is supposed to represent transcendence, which for us means an ecstatic encounter with the present; a violent, apocalyptic, cosmic joy. And a shattering of ego. But then there’s also a certain impossibility of that encounter, like a withdrawing horizon.”

Wolves in the Throne Room’s Aaron Weaver: “For us the physical act of playing the music, the wrenching physicality of it is the method that allows the transformation of consciousness. I think it’s not just me. I think that both the guitar players are just as physically involved as I am on the drums just through the intense movement and the intensity of the vocals and that sort of thing.”

Carcass – Carbonized Eye Sockets

Buy Carcass’ Reek of Putrefaction

Pig Destroyer – Deathtripper

Buy Pig Destroyer’s Phantom Limb

Black Sabbath – Children of the Grave

Buy Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality

Why I Don’t Like: Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx pt.2

September 17, 2009


First things first, I have to admit that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is a far better album than I thought it would have been. Having fallen out of hardcore Wu-fandom around the release of Ghostface Killah’s The Big Doe Rehab (an album that has a lot of the same problems as OB4CL2), I had zero expectations for its release and greeted pretty much every leak with varying degrees of contempt and indifference. I couldn’t conceive of a way for the album to be as good as, say, The Pretty Toney Album, let alone as good as the original. Each time I heard Raekwon spit sixteen over some random Pete Rock or Dilla beat, I thought “This guy is just treading water. The flow is still sharp and the lyricism vivid, but it just sounds so empty.”

But Rae sounds reinvigorated on the album and his beat selection is incredibly solid, especially on “Pyrex Vision, “New Wu,” “Canal Street,” “Fat Lady Sings,” and “Mean Streets.” On the surface, the album seems to be an incredible return to form, but the deeper you dig, the emptier it all seems. On the original Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Rae and Ghost’s vivid raps felt like the fevered expressions of two dudes who had seen so much that they couldn’t possibly tell stories in a linear, straightforward way, because that would force them to leave out so many incredible details. Now it seems like they’re just screwing around, happy that listeners still want to hear them spit, but pretty far removed, both literally and figuratively, from what they’re rapping about.

In his review of the album, Brandon Soderberg criticizes the album for engaging in nostalgia for a kind of 90s rap that never existed, one that was nothing but gun talk and gory details, or, as he put it: “Because rap got kinda fruity, New York rap has been retrofitted into being nothing but hard-ass aggression and tough-talk. No knowledge. No insight. Just pithy, gritty storytelling. Timbs and 40s. ‘Cracks and weed’.” I can’t help but agree. The backbone of the best tough guy NYC rap has always been this warped kind of melodrama borrowed from ‘The Godfather” and De Palma’s “Scarface” and Scorcese gangster movies, a fascination and romance with a life of crime coupled with the realization that not only is it a deadly hustle, but that even the survivors of it are left scarred forever. That’s why even rappers who may have been lying about their past criminal exploits (like, say, Mobb Deep) still made great music. Regardless of whether the stories they told were true or not, they were always compelling, because of the way they told them, sprinkling a good dose of sadness and fear and regret amongst their gritty rhymes.

You could argue I’m generalizing about the album as a whole, and I’m sure many of its biggest proponents could cite verses that they think epitomize exactly what I claim is missing from the album, but for me, even if the words are there, the feeling is not. A potentially odd but fitting analogy for OB4CL2 is Brian Wilson’s Smile album. Passed around for years in various incarnations, the unfinished album sounded flawed but immensely vital and full of manic creativity. When Wilson finally sat down and finished the thing in 2004, the result was, apparently, exactly what he’d wanted all along, but it lacked that special spark that made the unfinished original so thrilling. Maybe as a new Raekwon album, OB4CL2 could rank as a pretty solid effort, but as a sequel to one of the greatest rap albums of all time, it’s an incredible disappointment.

(Postscript: Finally, after like the fourth listen, I’m getting into the album. I still don’t think it has the emotional center of the first one, but the beats and the incredible amount of detail in the rhymes have won me over. Listening to “House of Flying Daggers” this time around, I found myself in the same head space as when I used to listen to Wu Tang Forever on a cassette tape in middle school, totally mesmerized by how a bunch of rappers could make music so epic. It’s good to get that feeling back, because it had been gone for a long time.)

Raekwon ft. Jadakiss and Styles P – Broken Safety

Let Us Remember: Nosaj Thing’s Drift

September 15, 2009


OK, so I’m mostly joking by putting this album under the “Let Us Remember” section. It came out in June, but it seriously seems like it’s already been forgotten, or at least not written about to the extent I think it should be. Maybe that’s the fate of instrumental albums–while great pop  songs can often sustain themselves through two or three hype cycles, instrumentals get quickly relegated to background music and deleted from computers a couple months later.

Nosaj Thing’s music sounds almost exactly like I imagined Burial would sound before I actually heard him. Instead of the spare, clattering drums and pitch-shifted acapellas that Burial uses to evoke memories of late night raves and dark corners of big cities, Nosaj Thing favors sleek, icy synths, cavernous bass sounds, and horror movie sound editor’s sense of space. It’s the perfect soundtrack for nighttime drives or walks.

Like Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles, Drift has been listened to all the way through to be fully appreciated. Isolated, single tracks are going to sound cool but maybe too similar to a lot of new dubstep tracks to really stand out. It’s the cumulative effect of all the little details,whether the crystalline chopped up vocals, the rich palette of synths, or the immaculate mixing, that makes it as good as it is. Listened to as a whole, the album can transform the act of sitting at a bus stop for a half an hour (which is what I was doing when I first listened to the album) into a cinematic experience. Hell, the neon motel sign above me whose only illuminated letters were M and O seemed impossibly cool and I completely credit that to Drift.

Nosaj Thing – Voices