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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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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?

Metallica’s Death Magnetic – A Review

September 29, 2008 Leave a comment

Well, here it is. I’ve been waiting patiently for this album to come out. And now here it is. I’ve been thinking about how I’d do this review for a while, and I think I’ll do a track-by-track review, because frankly, too many reviews don’t actually review the music on an album. Before I get to that though, I’d like to address the album as a whole. That way those of you who are to impatient to actually read the whole thing will get the “typical” album review. (Note: I have been a Metallica fan since I was in junior high. I attempt to take the positive bias out of this review and call it for what it is. Let’s face it: some parts of the album are just bad.)

This album is not the second-coming of Master of Puppets. If anything, I think it’s a combination of …And Justice for All and ReLoad. Which leaves it living in an interesting place in the Metallica catalog, and certainly in metal in general. Metallica have never really been victims of trends. Say what you will about Load and ReLoad being attempts to go alternative. Say what you will about St. Anger trying to be nu-metal and gritty. But really, nothing out there sounds like a Metallica album. So with Death Magnetic, Metallica take on something they haven’t attempted since about 1988: themselves.

Let’s face it: every metal band out there owes something,–directly or indirectl–to Metallica, just as they owe Black Sabbath, Diamond Head, and Motorhead before them. So when you have what can be regarded as the Bible of Metal in the first four albums, a breakthrough rock record in the black album, and a few assorted groove/blues rock albums, what do you really do? Eventually you just throw it all together. This album is Now Metallica trying to coexist with Then Metallica. They bring the Then in with the general riffage, and to a point, the song structures. They bring the Now with a few of the riffs, bassist Rob Trujillo’s funkier bass style, James Hetfield’s newer, more personal and spontaneous lyrics, and the production values. If you like the old stuff but want it to sound fresher, this is probably the album.

However, it definitely has some low spots. The production is definitely better than St. Anger, but the mix is painful to listen to after a while. Hetfield’s vocals and the snare drum are too loud. There is too much midrange in the guitars. The mix is way, way too hot, giving the album a very ugly digital clipping, noticeable even at low levels. And there’s still a couple Bob Rock-inspired vocal deliveries, especially on “All Nightmare Long” (i.e., “OU-TAAAAAAAAH”). James’ grammar seems to have descended to a level of pre-high school junior high kids. (“What don’t kill ya make ya more strong”? Please.)

I don’t think any of these are deal-breakers. People on Blabbermouth.net seem to be raising a stink about the production quality, but to me it’s just a nuisance. But the return of Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos, speed riffing, and even the occasional tasteful double kick drum is a great thing in my opinion. I highly recommend this album if you’re a fan that felt betrayed by the 1990s-era Metallica. While not an exact “return to form,” Death Magnetic is definitely a step in the right direction. I think if they keep on Rick Rubin as a producer they could definitely go on to make some more classic metal albums.

Track by Track

“That Was Just Your Life”
Am I the only one that thinks the intro to this song was cribbed from some lost Type O Negative demo? Other than that, this song is a typical Metallica album starter, in the vein of “Battery” and “Blackend”. The chorus riff sounds akin to the chunkier riffs of the black album, while the verse riff is very Puppets-era. The lyrics, unfortunately, are the soft spot. Since the initial spawning of St. Anger, a lot of sub-par lyrics have crept into James Hetfield’s songwriting. And the delivery is equally bad. James is not Tom Araya from Slayer.

“The End of the Line”
I think this is the most forgettable song on the album. Sounds like a St. Anger reject. It takes a ReLoad-type riff and goes too far with it. The speedier riffing during the verse would sound much better as more of a scooped sound, with less midrange. The solo is okay, though, and there’s a really unusual sound at the end of it. I think it’s from the string fretting on the pickup, but I might be wrong. The harmonized guitar parts are similar to those on Ride the Lightning. The breakdown is probably the best part of the song. Reminded me of “Astronomy” on Garage, Inc.

“Broken, Beat & Scarred”
I have a theory that this song started with a Lars Ulrich/Rob Trujillo bass-n-drum groove. I think the message of this song is good. The grammer, however, is AWFUL. Solo, again, is good. Lots of whammy bar antics. The key and meter changes really evoke memories of …And Justice for All (the album, not the song.)

“The Day that Never Comes”
Many have theorized that this song is an allusion to James’ childhood, where I don’t really see the connection. Sure, the lyric sheet clearly reads “the son will shine,” but I think there’s more going on than “My dad hit my mom.” I think that a lot of relationships could be described in this song: mother-son, husband-wife, couple-outsider, etc. I actually think this is a bigger song than most people let it be.

Musically, it’s one half “Fade to Black” and one half “One”. Also, I think the bridge riff is probably one of the best riffs Metallica has ever committed to tape. Straight from …And Justice for All.

“All Nightmare Long”
The clear best song on the album. Rolling Stone said that, with it’s riffs of the old Metallica and the hooks of the ’90s Metallica, it may very well be the best Metallica song ever. It’s already one of my favorites. The best part? When the full band comes in during the intro riff. It goes from being large and expansive to very narrow and confining. The only real complaint I have is the aforementioned Bob Rock-isms in the vocal performance.

“Cyanide”
This song would be 200% better without the drum-n-bass breaks. Cut out about six measures and you’ve got a much better, more cohesive song. Try that live, guys. I realize that some of it is probably a concession to prove that there’s bass on the album, but I know it’s there, guys. You don’t have to show him off.

“The Unforgiven III”
Seriously? I mean, really? Musically there’s very little allusion to the previous installments. Lyrically, the song is absolutely abysmal, with the whole “treasure hunting” allegory, and the further grammatical butchery. (“How come it’s got so cold?” Seriously, James, add a syllable or change the lyric.) Musically it’s got a few neat things going on. I like the rolling guitar bit, I like the melody. But the lyrics and the solo that reminds me of the abortion of a solo that Kirk tried putting on the original Unforgiven (ever seen A Year and a Half in the Life of…?) add up to a song whose positives don’t overcome its negatives.

“The Judas Kiss”
Number two on the album. The riff is completely …And Justice for All-era, with some serious Load/ReLoad-era lyrics going on. The chorus is catchy as hell, too. The solo is probably the best missing link between Kirk’s blues-based work on Load and the modal stuff of the earlier albums. I think there’s one too many verses.

“Suicide and Redemption”
Obviously built out of a rehearsal room jam. The riff is neat, some of the solo work is okay, but not as strong as “The Call of Ktulu” from Ride the Lightning, “Orion” from Master of Puppets, or “To Live is To Die” from …And Justice for All. I don’t even think it’s as good as “My Friend of Misery” could have been, had it been lyric-less. (Note: “My Friend of Misery” was former bassist Jason Newsted’s main contribution to the black album. He intended for it to be an instrumental.) It just doesn’t really go anywhere, although the brick-walled mix might have something to do with the lack of dynamicism.

“My Apocalypse”
Again, the thrashy closer. Not as kinetic as “Dyer’s Eve”. More melodic than “Damage, Inc.” Probably has Lars Ulrich’s best drumming on the album. But honestly, I think the best closer they’ll ever do is ReLoad‘s “Fixxxer”. “My Apocalypse” definitely doesn’t feel as final as that.

Overall album rank out of the catalog, I’d say number four, after Justice, Puppets, and Load. But I’ve got a really weird taste in Metallica, so… take that how you want.

Elder Statesmen of Shut the Hell Up

July 18, 2008 Leave a comment

Note: Part Two of the previous article will be up as soon as I get all my interview e-mails back and write the damn thing. So I present this one because it’s short and the subject annoys me.

Okay, this is for the following magazines and/or networks:

  • Rolling Stone
  • Spin
  • vh1
  • MTV
  • Blender
  • Revolver

I am sick and tired of the phrase “Elder Statesmen of Rock.” So far it has been applied to Metallica, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M., U2, Pearl Jam, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and probably dozens of others. I’m sure Conor Oberst is up for a nomination for Elder Statesman in the near future, and he’s only in his 20s.

But here’s the thing. It’s rock and roll. It’s not supposed to have elder statesmen. Is it possible to be older than 30 and successful in rock without that stupid collection of words? Can’t we think of a better turn of phrase? I submit that the aforementioned magazines and networks are being lazy (well, lazier than normal.) I realize that music journalism is essentially shoegazing at this point anyway, dying a slow death alongside the industry, but can we please, PLEASE come up with something different?