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A Diversion About the Loss of Magic

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Forgive this, it’s going to get rambly.

I’m listening to Beck’s Modern Guilt right now. For maybe the fourth time since I bought it, a month after it came out. Modern Guilt was one of those albums that made music geeks’ brains explode because it paired OMG BECK with OMG DANGER MOUSE, who I’d only just heard about because of that one song that you couldn’t fucking get rid of during the summer of 2006 that I’d only just paid attention to in early 2008. (For the people that don’t feel like trying to parse that sentence over and over til it makes sense: Gnarls Barkley recorded “Crazy” and released it in 2006 and I hated it because I couldn’t avoid it. Then I actually listened to it later, and I kinda liked it.)

But aside from what I’m listening to, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Gillen/Mckelvie’s Phonogram Vol.2: The Singles Club, and my brain’s been shoved into a tangent. First, I get into things way, way too late. It’s like my life is a constant running Jim Gaffigan gag (“Heat? That came out six years ago.” “Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now.”) Second, and this is the important bit, I don’t seem to enjoy things I used to nearly as much… especially in the music world.

The thing about Phonogram is that it uses magic as a very interesting metaphor for the sheer love of music. I mean, other people have drawn the music = magic parallel before, but Phonogram does it in a really interesting way by tying it to ritual magic. But the magic bit is a device to run that same bit of pop culture dissection that Hornby and Klosterman (terrible as he may be) and any other music critic has done in a different way. Instead of running through the same shitty buzzwords that print journalists use, Gillen and Mckelvie can show their readers what they mean. Such is the strength of comics.

But what does all that have to do with me liking music less? Well, not much, I guess, aside from maybe enlightening me to the fact that used to do the same dissection of minutia. I used to consume music by the metric tonne. I used to absorb it and internalize it and make it who I was. Maybe part of this came from the desire to be a professional musician myself. But I think most of it comes from that period in your life when you define yourself by what you consume. When I was seventeen, all I listened to was Metallica. (“No shit?” you’re probably saying sarcastically. “No shit,” I reply, while glaring at you with the eyes of somebody that actually liked Load because it was good, even if it wasn’t what people expected from Metallica.) By the time I hit college, I had expanded to nu-metal. And you know what? I still like the old Drowning Pool records, and Limp Bizkit’s first two albums were listenable for being misogynistic frat-boy shit. I’m even slowly coming to terms with the fact that I might actually like Deftones.

But somewhere in the past few years, I stopped really devouring new stuff, while at the same time somehow broadening my horizons. I like music now that varies wildly, from The Smiths to Amanda Palmer[*] to Mastodon[**] to Gary Numan. But the thing is, my music stopped identifying and shaping me, rather, I shaped my music. I can’t say “I love Nine Inch Nails” with the same vigor as the goth kids in 1995 did.

So my question in all of this is “When does our culture stop defining us, and when do we start defining our culture?” And, as a corollary, “Is it a bad thing when that tradeoff occurs?”

I made a point the other day on a different internet forum that I haven’t read a book that’s really rewired my brain in a long time. The same goes for music, and to a much, much more obvious extent, movies. I’ve simply stopped consuming the massive quantities of brain drippings that I used to. Now, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel guilty, but it makes me feel like there’s something amiss. I used to eat and breathe music. Now it’s just… something I have on in the car. Something that drowns out the sound of traffic outside my house. And on the same side of the quarter, playing music is something that I derive much less joy from. Writing a song is more like work than it ever has been.

I’m loathe to say that it’s because I’m not listening to enough stuff; I hardly think that’s the case. I think it’s more that I’m just no impacted by it as much as I used to be… and I’m trying to figure out why I don’t obsess about the gear Johnny Greenwood used on Kid A to get Sound X like I used to.

I’d like to say it’s because I’m growing up or maturing or some shit like that, but I refuse to accept that. I’m only 28. If anything, I feel like it’s because all the other bullshit life has to offer[***] is getting in the way. I’m now pulled in so many directions that it seems like sometimes the best plan is to just wait the whole thing out and let the valuable stuff come to me through time. And while it’s a good strategy for getting “safe” stuff, it’s not particularly fulfilling.

Going back to Phonogram (sort of), the main goal of magic is affecting the world around you. But at the same time, part of most magical traditions is understanding the world around you and how it affects you. So maybe that’s the problem? Maybe I’ve let the world affect me for too long? Maybe it’s time to start internalizing my surroundings so I can bend them to my will. Or maybe it’s all just twentysomethings-from-the-1990s wankery. Because sometimes I feel like my whole generation is a generation of wankers.

In any case, it still doesn’t answer why something that used to mean so much to me doesn’t anymore. At least, it’s not the same. Have I built up a tolerance to the things I used to enjoy? Do I just keep needing more and stronger music injections?

I mean, I don’t want to sound all middle-age crisis-y (again, the 28 years old argument), but I kinda miss the person I was ten years ago. Or at least, the one aspect of me that wasn’t an asshole. Back when it felt like I meant something, when the world around me felt like it meant something.

Ugh. This is getting entirely too emo. I’m going to stop before I actually say “I hope I die before I get old.” Because I think that’s when I jump the shark in my own brain.

Oh, and if you’re actually interested in what I’m listening to these days, I’m listening to a lot of She. Combine chiptunes and traditional dance hall electronic, and you get She. It’s really fucking good. But I’m not going to go learn Japanese to understand the (occasional) lyrics.

[*]Amusing Amanda Palmer anecdote: I can distinctly remember finding a Dresden Dolls CD in my friend’s binder in 2003 or so, when he was buying, without question, everything Roadrunner put out. I asked what it was like, and he said something to the effect of “It’s okay, but not metal at all,” at which point I completely disregarded it. Just last week, I bought the Dresden Dolls DVD Paradise because I’ve fallen entirely in love with all things Amanda Palmer. Oh, how times change.

[**]Amusing Mastodon anecdote: My first exposure to Mastodon was a few years back on a trip to (I think) Wheaton, MN, to run sound for some friends of mine. I came back from that trip and immediately bought Remission, and have purchased everything they’ve released since. “March of the Fire Ants” is still their best song.

[***]Cliff Burton: “When I started, I decided to devote my life to it and not get sidetracked by all the other bullshit life has to offer.” Also possibly relevant: “You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and getting bored.”

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Review – Melissa Auf der Maur’s Out of Our Minds

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Note: Last year, when the “This Would Be Paradise” EP was released, I reviewed that as well.

In 2004, Melissa Auf der Maur released her first solo album. While being fantastic on a musical front, it was a little… well, we’ll say immature. The lyrics, in particular, have a certain art-school pretension to them. “Surely,” I thought, “someone with as much education and talent as Melissa Auf der Maur can come up with things that don’t sound like they came out of a middle school girl’s diary. If she moved past that, this album would be amazing.” Considering Auf der Maur’s massive bass chops, fantastic voice (her harmonies were the best part of Hole’s Celebrity Skin album), and knack for surrounding herself with other talented musicians, I still stand by that opinion.

Yet now, six years later, I have much the same feeling. Though, thankfully, most of it has filtered out of the music, and into other projects in the same orbit as Out of Our Minds, Auf der Maur’s newest release. The album itself is a mild concept album that fits into a full array of media, including a full-length feature film (which is where most of my feeling that things haven’t changed much comes from) and a graphic novel.

The irony is that since most of that artsy stuff has leeched out into other media, the music that is left is much more focused. The songs are definitely there, and the more questionable lyrics simply seem cryptic here than on the last record, where they just seemed bloated and heavy-handed. Now, that’s not to say that Auf der Maur doesn’t lay it on thick now and then, but overall it’s a much less infuriating experience than the 2004 release, and that’s a great development.

Musically, there’s a lot to be happy about on this album. Melissa’s melodic and rhythmic sensibilities are still as pleasing as on the last album. While this leads to a feeling of familiarity, it’s not boring by any stretch. While the last album was a fairly straightforward rock record, this has more of a prog feel, and there are some other incorporations like electronic drum loops in a few songs, and some pretty interesting instrumentation. There’s some interesting harpsichord-like sounds on “Meet Me on the Dark Side,” and the instrumental “This Would Be Paradise” features what I think is a glockenspiel, or at least a sampled, processed one. The latter also features some tape loops of late Saskatchewan politician Tommy Douglas, who spearheaded the national health care movement in Canada in the 1960s. The inclusion is an obvious reference to the US health care reform, which Auf der Maur wrote in support of several times on her blog. While this is the obvious reference, it’s also a great plea for equality and basic human rights in general.

The album also seems a bit heavier than the last album, and I expect a lot of it comes from playing in her Black Sabbath tribute band Hand of Doom. I wouldn’t say Out of Our Minds sounds particularly doomy, or even sludgy, but it definitely has more weight than its predecessor. Part of that is because Auf der Maur’s bass tones play a much larger part of the mix than previously, but some of it is composition, as well. The title track, for instance, has some rather Mastodon-like moments (not the chorus so much, but most of the rest of it. If Brann Dailor was drumming. Instead, it’s “only” Josh Freese on most songs.)

While a few of the cuts, including the title track, are damn good, the duet with Glenn Danzig(!) is far and away the best song on the record. “Father’s Grave” is a brooding, expansive song, with Danzing singing the part of a gravedigger with whom Auf der Maur seems to build a relationship with. I’m still not sure exactly what the implication is from the story of the song, but honestly, the thing I’m most enthralled by is the performance. Both Danzig (who I don’t follow terribly closely) and Auf der Maur are riffing off each other, and this is well and truly a duet. The chemistry they have is quite evident, the song just builds and builds on itself, and I recommend getting this album even if this is the only song you listen to. It’s that good.

Overall, the album doesn’t particularly drag, and it’s a satisfying length. Clocking in at just under an hour, it’s certainly not as jam-packed as many albums are these days, but its relative brevity does sort of make me wish there were another song or two to make up for the six-years between albums. Though, to be fair, she was also touring, performing in Hand of Doom, traveling, and shooting a movie to go with the project, so I’ll let it slide.

Finally, the full album is up for streaming and purchase at the MAdM website, and is available from most online retailers. Unfortunately I can’t seem to get it locally, and I haven’t settled on whether I want it on vinyl or not. In any case, I whole-heartedly recommend this album.

I think I might give the movie and graphic novel a miss, though.

A Stupid Top Ten List

May 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Not much this week. I don’t really feel like making any in-depth analyses, and I don’t particularly have anything percolating in my brain, so you’re getting a nice, generic Top Ten list. To accompany it, I’ve created a mix of the song at 8tracks.com.

The Ten Heaviest Songs I Have on My Computer at This Moment
a totally arbitrary list with no definition of ‘heavy’
(in no particular order)

1. “Finger Paintings of the Insane” – Acid Bath: This, actually, could be part of a quadriptych with the songs that follow it on When the Kite String Pops: “Jezebel”, “Scream of the Butterfly”, and “Dr. Seuss is Dead”. Acid Bath is, to me, the quintessential sludge metal band, with Dax Riggs’ vocals and their use of 3/4 and 6/8 time. But in “Finger Paintings…” the band creates a shifting atmosphere of horror that few bands will ever top.

2. “New Millenium Cyanaide Christ” – Meshuggah: I have no clue what time signature this song is in for the most part, but you can, in fact, headbang to it if you’re listening to the hi-hat/snare. Following the guitars or kick drums will give you a weird sort of jaunty-lope that seems natural but is still tough to reconcile with the 4/4 on the hats/snare.

3. “March of the Fire Ants” – Mastodon: This song has the best intro riff of the decade. It’s the song that got me into Mastodon back in the day, before they were all over the indie mags, before they were nominated for Grammys, before they were on Guitar Hero. It was tough to pin down one particular Mastodon song, so I just went with the first one I heard, which is still their signature song. Close runner-ups were “Blood and Thunder”, and pretty much the whole of their albums Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye, which is on my short list of Best of 2009.

4. “We Ride” – Strapping Young Lad: I am sad this band is no more. At least I have the knowledge that Devin Townsend is doing more solo work, and Byron Stroud and Gene Hoglan have gone on to help re-form Fear Factory. On each Strapping album, there’s at least two songs, if not more, that are in contention for Heaviest Song Ever. This happens to be one of the ones off of Alien.

5. “Ticks & Leeches” – Tool: Trying to find a good song by Tool is easy. Trying to find one I’d call “heavy” is a little tougher. This one won out over “Aenema” and “Jambi”. While you could argue the first two albums (well, the first EP and album) are more traditionally “heavy”, “Ticks & Leeches” has a lot more weight to it than those albums could ever hope to have. When Danny Carey’s drums come thundering in after the calm middle break, it sounds like hell on Earth. Playing a drum kit made out of stainless steel will do that, I suppose.

6. “Dead Bodies Everywhere” – Korn: It was a toss-up between this and “Freak on a Leash”, but the um… “harmony” vocals in the chorus of this one seals it. I acknowledge the breakdown in “Freak” gets ridonkulously heavy, but that’s just that one part of the song. I also have noticed that, over the years, as bad as Korn has gotten, they still have the “snare hit: HEAVY” formula down pat. Even their song “Here to Stay” has that moment, and it’s pretty alright.

7. “Harvester of Sorrow” – Metallica: Yep. Still their best song, in my opinion. Lots of people hate it, hate the record, and, thanks to a freak bus accident twenty years ago, hate the band. But this is proof that a band doesn’t have to tune down, play fast, or employ a terrible, impossible-to-understand singer to be “heavy”. Plus the solo makes exactly zero sense. This album paved the way for Meshuggah, and the 90s/early 2000s Slayer sound, whether anyone acknowledges it or not.

8. “Disciple” – Slayer: Speak of the devil. I’d probably have a different song up here, but I lost a bunch of my Slayer CDs to being poor. I plan on buying them up again eventually, and when I do, I’ll probably put “Raining Blood” in this spot.

9. “Mein Teil” – Rammstein: This is the heaviest riff ever written. It’s in drop-C, it’s mid-tempo, and it’s brutal beyond belief. Throw the ugly German on top of it, and it’s so over-the-top that it has to go on the list.

10. “Violence from Within” – Darkane: It’s, at its core, a pretty straightforward thrash metal song. It gets bonus points for drummer Peter Wildoer’s insane single-stroke hi-hat roll at the beginning.

Songs that almost made the list: Every song off Dethklok’s The Dethalbum. “Bastard Chain” by Soilwork. “Drag the Waters” and “Fucking Hostile” by Pantera. Probably lots of others.

There you go. Rick’s metal list. Maybe I’ll do Top Ten Pop Songs one day. Or most depressing songs. The possibilities are endless. But I’m not Spin here, am I?