Archive for May, 2008

Chaos to Order to Chaos Again

May 23, 2008

Mayhem get a bad rap (dear God, pardon the paradox). Truth be told, that’s mostly their own fault, considering that they spent the early part of their career burning churches along with killing themselves and eachother. And during that burnin’ and killin’ phase, unsurprisingly, their music was rather lackluster. Actually, to pretty much anyone outside the scene, the music was terrible.  Like with most “true” black metal, I consider it a had-to-be-there kind of thing.

Of course, having your bass player stab your guitarist (who also wrote most of your music) is something that would sink most bands, as it did Mayhem… for a while. The band returned in the late ’90s to put out by far the best and most diverse music of its career, which of course was overshadowed by the music made by the God-deflin’, stabbin’ incarnation of the band. This is a shame too, as the band’s latter work shows a lot of forward-thinking, something almost universally absent in black metal.

The main reason why they got so significantly better was due to Blasphemer (who along with former bandmates Maniac and Necrobutcher easily have the worst pseudonyms in black metal), the man who would replace Euronymous (actually, add him to the worst pseudonym list as well) on guitar. While Euronymous’ work has probably suffered due to 14 years of being regurgitated by every Johnny Necro in the black metal biz, Blasphemer’s writing seems to go above on beyond not only black metal standards but metal standards as well, probably coming closest to evoking Wagner without getting an orchestra or synthesizer involved (and, in fact, even closer than them, as metal and orchestras have yet to yield any decent result, as far as I’m concerned). His riffs manage to be both stately and raw, the precise middle point that all things heavy should aspire to. Add to that that Blasphemer took the reins as head songwriter as well transformed Mayhem from a bunch of guys in face paint worshiping Satan and occasionally killing eachother to a dare I say mature black metal band trying to push the genre past its inherent silliness and genuinely try to make it a force of fucking nature.

Ordo ad Chao, Mayhem’s latest album, is the best representation of this era of the band, as the band’s former vocalist (the one that was kicked out of the band for drinking and getting thrown down a flight of stairs, not the one that killed himself and had bits of his skull worn as jewelery by the other band members) Maniac sounded a little like a chain smoking ally cat being gang raped. The music and production on the last album he appeared on, 2004’s Chimera, was astounding enough to make the listener not as focused on that (well, after a few listens). But Ordo ad Chao hearkens the return of Attila Csihar, the vocalist on Mayhem’s first full length De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. But while Attila’s vocals on that album are certainly atypical for black metal– certainly a considerable feat, at the time– they were also laughably bad. And while one got the sense that they were meant to be that way– more performance art than botched sepulchral emoting– it hindered the experience of listening to the album. The Attila Csihar of Ordo ad Chao is the fully realized version of his De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas predecessor, using his vocal quirks to go along with the music instead of separating itself from it. He jumps back and forth between postapocalyptic carnival barker to weeping asylum inmate to seemingly typical black metal rasping and death metal growling to finger-wagging prophet, often in the course of one song, as Ordo ad Chao‘s near 10 minute epic “Illuminate Eliminate” would suggest. Csihar managed to bring enough avant garde to black metal to keep it interesting, yet still manages to work within Mayhem’s savage heaviness. That in itself makes the album worth it.

Of course, what makes Ordo ad Chao such an exceptional record is that all the elements are there. Hellhammer’s drumming has also matured, seemingly taking a page from the “throw some mind-blowing fills in there whenever the riffs are at risk of becoming stale” chapter of Mastodon’s How-To book, keeping the album at an almost constant forward momentum. Blasphemer’s playing is both metal-heavy and punk rock sloppy, yet never at a point where it doesn’t sound like the man doesn’t know what he’s doing. And as far as his composing goes, Ordo ad Chao seems to be a direct response to the relative-accessibility of Chimera, creating a thick wall of blackened apocalyptic madness that seems almost impenetrable on the first few listens. Part of this wall is the production, which is terrible. But terrible production is the norm in black metal; that being said, I don’t think a band has ever used grimy production to its favor as well as Mayhem has on this album. The music is easily the most elevated, technical, and intense in all of Mayhem’s catalog, but one never gets the sense that it’s not being created by any more than a few Norwegian guys (well, and one Hungarian, as Attila Csihar is literally from Transylvania. I hear they have a great Quizno’s there) in a room together: the drums are unequalized, meaning they sound as drums usually sound when you’re standing right in front of them (also meaning the ride symbol is often the loudest thing you’ll hear, which is something I’m used to associating with Songs in the Key of Life more than anything); the guitar’s a fuzzy mess and ripples with reverb  every time the full band comes to a halt, something that’s usually shaved off in post-production. At first, it sounds like the band rushed this into existence, not bothering to take the extra week to master the album. But further listens make the band’s intent clear: the album just sounds fucking RAW without proper production values, hearkening back more to hardcore than their basement kvlt black metal brethren. It’s music that doesn’t need gloss to make it appealing, something the likes of their contemporaries in Darkthrone have been striving for for years and yet have never actually achieved.

So, with what could very well be Mayhem’s best album yet, Blasphemer has quit the band, citing that he doesn’t think the band has a future. Seeing as both Attila and Hellhammer play in dozens (no really, actually dozens) of other bands and Necrobutcher (yes, I take the bass stylings of Necrobutcher to task!) didn’t even play on Ordo ad Chao, he may have a point. A Mayhem without Blasphemer really signals the end for the band, as third incarnations tend to take advantage of the good will of the band’s fanbase as opposed to resulting in anything remotely good (see: Genesis, Van Halen, Chicago– Jesus Christ, who the hell is even in Chicago anymore?). And that’s a damn shame, as Mayhem had just made an album that harnesses the kind of evil and endtimes chaos that black metal has been meandering around for the last twenty or so years.

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The Fine Line Between Brilliant and Sleepy

May 17, 2008

If you know me and I enjoy your company, I’ve probably tried to push Jesu on you in the last year. Most of my friends can attest to this, probably with a little eye rolling in the middle of that attestment. In a way, I understand the main criticisms of Jesu: the music is too slow and plodding, boring, and already been done by way of the Cure’s Disintegration. And obviously if you have a low tolerance for drone music/drone metal/shoegaze/ whatever the fuck they’re throwing around, you’re not going to get into Jesu. But even if there’s the slightest itch in you to look past almost intentionally slow and melancholy trudging of almost all of Jesu’s work, you’ll be likely to discover the rich melodicism and beauty that lie underneath the majority of Jesu songs. While the music has gone above a snail’s pace to a snail’s brisk walk only once (Silver‘s “Star”), the music creates a gorgeous landscape every time; in fact, the longer the song, the broader the strokes on said landscape. In many ways, Jesu are admittedly a hard sell. But it drives me crazy still that more people aren’t buying into them. Jesu’s fanbase, from my experience, is me and 8 rock critics.

As with Justin K. Broadrick’s (Jesu’s mastermind/master of dirges) previous project and most well-known one up to this point, industrial metal kingpins Godflesh (kingpin being used due to the fact that Godflesh were the rare occasion where an industrial metal band didn’t suck), he is remarkably prolific, so much so that the other day I was wondering, “Jesus, when the hell are Jesu going to put something else out?” when it had been only 3 or 4 months. But if you dig what the man does, you can easily get lost in this prolificness. With the slew of releases and albums that aren’t technically Jesu albums but are just cut with a different singer (this year’s J2, with former Swans vocalist Jarboe), there’s no shortage of Jesu. And,  interestingly enough,  each release is exceptional in its own right. While it’s impossible to release perfect album after perfect album (lest I remind you of Magical Mystery Tour, people? Nobody’s perfect.), Jesu’s 4 EPs, 2 full lengths and 1 split since 2005 all seem to have their own personality. While nothing he’s done thus far has been so drastic as to step out from under the Jesu umbrella, the Jesu of Heart Ache and the Jesu of Lifeline, the band’s first and latest release respectively, are two very different very sad bands.

Since his days in Godflesh, Broadrick has been touting his love of post-punk and new and no wave, despite being in one of the most influential thinking man’s metal bands of all time (that being said, Godflesh’s Streetcleaner is essentially Swans’ Cop, except chock full of beefy man-riffs instead of an impenetrable wall of abstraction). Jesu seems to be his way of breaking away from his metallic roots and slowly shifting into the Young Indiana Jones to shoegaze icons My Bloody Valentine’s Indiana Jones. Or at least it would seem this way if you stumbled onto Jesu during the Silver and/or Conqueror album cycles (much like yours truly). But truth be told, Jesu’s evolution has been very deliberate and interesting, churning out a release slightly different from the last, with Lifeline looking back toward its starting point: a very sad, angry chimp still breaking armadillo shells open with a bone. But before I get too far into my own metaphor (which I’m certain I already have), it’s worth noting that all of Jesu’s releases have been enjoyable in their own right, or as enjoyable as vast melancholy can be.

That being said, Jesu’s strength lie in their EPs. While J.K. Broadrick has proven that he can keep a listener’s attention for the span of a full length record with Conqueror, he also showed that he knows how to drag the hell out of his feet with his band’s eponymous full length debut. The shortest song on that album is still just under seven minutes long, and the rest balloon out to an average of nine and a half minutes each. And while most of those songs play pretty well on their own, next to eachother, they start to sound (ridiculously) same-y, to the point where the record goes from ruin-your-day sad to damn-I-gotta-get-back-to-my-day-already sad.

None of Jesu’s EPs have had this problem thus far, as Broadrick apparently works best when he’s working in the confines of just a few songs. On Silver and Lifeline, he churns out four stately dark pop songs at a leisurely pace, while Heart Ache and Sunrise/Sundown are both as long as most bands full lengths, but manage to stretch each of the two songs on their respective collections out to the breaking point of the listener’s attention without actually breaking it. This makes the songs quietly epic, like a camera panning across a foggy British countryside, Irish farm on an overcast day, or another pretentious metaphor.

And though the sheer length of the songs on the Heart Ache EP and the overall pace and stateliness of the releases that followed hint at pretension, Jesu don’t insist on your knowledge of literature or history like the Decemberists or Arcade Fire, and though they don’t rely heavily on contemporary song structures, they aren’t the non-conformist circle jerk of Battles. And even though they plod along with downtuned distorted guitars, they aren’t the every-once-and-a-while-when-you’re-in-the-mood-for-it drone metal of Sunn 0))) (despite the fact that Broadrick was once a touring member) or Earth. Like the slow version of Disintegration that it is, Jesu is much more about lushness than sadness, evoking mood instead of emotion, esoteric but not for snobby reasons. Justin Broadrick just likes things at a melancholy pace, even if he isn’t particularly sad. And, most likely, adores weed. And though it is an acquired taste, dammit people, acquire it. At the rate the man’s going, it’ll soon be hard to know where to jump in.

Trent Reznor and the Thanks-,-I-Guess Award

May 15, 2008

If anything, you have to give the man points for effort: Trent Reznor’s recent decision to give his newest album away completely for free is perhaps the apex of his actions in the last year (guerilla marketing campaign, telling fans to steal his album from his label, breaking from said label, releasing an album on his own for a reasonable price and making millions). While not a new idea, Reznor is the first to do it correctly. While Radiohead were the first major band to release their album technically for free, they did it via a pay-what-you-like method, which allowed “buyers” to possibly pay nothing for the album, which used good, old fashioned Catholic/Jewish guilt to make the few suckers that paid for the album pay for it (I paid 2 and a half pounds for it, which, compared to the American dollar at the time, was probably roughly $16.50). The files were also only available in low quality mp3, which while 9 out of 10 couldn’t tell the difference, Reznor publicly took issue with this. For both The Slip and Ghosts (the latter his 4 album instrumental piece released a month and a half ago for $5, which I also bought, like a sucker) were available in a variety of formats, from high quality mp3s to audiophile-approved files that even bested CDs. While this in no way means Radiohead were ripping off their fans, they were the first to do it, and had yet to perfect. If there’s a better way to give your album away for free via the Internet, I think the general public may physically choke on gratitude.

The main problem with giving your album away for free, though, is the issue of the quality of your album. Who gives a shit, right???? Well, 47 mb of one’s hard drive does, and for me, 13 years of being a Nine Inch Nails fan does. The Radiohead album was interesting in the respect that it was a subtle return to form for them: relatively stripped down songs that were tuneful as well as pretty guitar based. It would have been an exceptional album had it been released on a major label and gone through the whole outdated cycle that the release of the album set out to destroy. Though they don’t properly rock again, it’s a step in the right direction, and In Rainbows definitely grows on you. It also doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by its method of release. The Slip, though, feels like it may be.

The first proper album by a major band to be released for free feels, well, a little slight. This, though, isn’t necessarily the fault of the marketing scheme or the hype, but the fact that Nine Inch Nails, since their ceremonious comeback in 2005, have been lacking in certain departments. One sort of feels like a dick in saying that, being that a) the big change Reznor went through in Nine Inch Nails’ haitus was kicking a nasty coke and tequila habit and b) for years, Nine Inch Nails fans have been bitching about Reznor’s complete lack of prolificness (3 full lengths and one EP in the span of the band’s first ten years while Reznor’s now released more than that in last three) and now that he’s broken that streak, I’m displeased because he’s not putting out exactly what I want to hear. That being said, if I didn’t have an opinion on things, I’d be listening to Nickelback and married to a girl in a cat sweater in suburban Delaware.

The Slip suffers from the same things With Teeth did: instead of a rousing return to form, it feels a little more like aggro-Nine Inch Nails by numbers (words Trent Reznor is not allowed to use anymore: “myself”, “knees” and a combination of “nothing” and “matters). And while Reznor’s fuzzy wall of guitars, synthesized noise, and barking tenor can sometimes feel like a fond trip back to the angry days of your youth, the anger in the first five proper songs feels canned, and much like a can of ravioli, it tastes fine and even hits the spot every now and again, but a steady diet of it will soon result in not being hungry for it anymore. And while some tweaks work (latter Nine Inch Nails records have the best fucking live drum sound put to record this side of a Steve Albini-engineered record), the rest don’t. Fortunately, this only plagues half the record.

The ironic thing is that Ghost I-IV was an impenetrable work overall due to the fact that it was 2+ hours of instrumental noodling, and the best tracks on its straightforward followup are “Corona Radiata” and “The Four of Us are Dying”, The Slip‘s two instrumental tracks. That being said, Ghosts‘ problem was a lack of focus, and “Corona” and “Four of Us” are both very focused and pleasing, managing to be more evocative than two hours of same-y ambient space. The other strange thing about The Slip is its critical response: it seems to be focused on the rock half of the record, when the most interesting part of it is its more experimental tracks. “Lights in the Sky” is the best Nine Inch Nails ballad yet, mainly due to the fact that it’s not drowning in its own histrionics, as Nine Inch Nails ballads tend to do. “Demon Seed” is built around an insistent beat and a droning synthesizer, loose and slippery bass line, and sporadic bursts of static-y guitar, bringing the record to a lively close after a few tracks of ambient goodness. It sounds like Nine Inch Nails moving beyond returning to form and forming into something else altogether, much like quiet half of With Teeth and most of last year’s Year Zero.

Of course, this is all overshadowed by the fact that we didn’t pay a damn dime for this record. And who knows, maybe like In Rainbows, this record will grow on me as well. Perhaps we’re expecting too much instant gratification from these records due to the instantaneous fashion in which we procured them. But the idea of a band or a band’s piece of work growing on the listener is exactly what major labels have been rejecting for the last 7 or 8 years, and exactly what Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are railing against. So we’d be stupid not to expect the most challenging work of the bands’ careers in this, and hopefully, their most rewarding.

A History in Weezer

May 13, 2008

Weezer are a strange band, indeed. I’m not talking about Rivers Cuomo’s psychosexual allusions all the way through Pinkerton or the Blue Album’s heart-firmly-on-sleeve odes to dorky teenagers playing Dungeons and Dragons in their prospective garages while worshiping Kiss (to massively oversimplify it). I’m talking about how they have such a rabid following, especially with people my age. Their inspiring comeback 7 or 8 years ago was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen– the band wedged themselves back into the public’s consciousness by simply reminding us of how good they made us felt when we were teenagers. And it wasn’t necessarily unwarranted, as those two albums perfectly encompass the skinned-knee rawness of what it was to be a teenager in the 90s. The band were part Cheap Trick, part Pixies, part Nirvana, part Beach Boys, a sliver of Ramones simpleness, and of course, (actual) emo’s confessionalism, back when it made something more personal instead of whiny. Their following albums range from dull (the Green album), to better than you think (Maladroit), to soul-mutilatingly awful (Make Believe). But the good will from those first two albums made them the most likable among the quirkier-than-thou bands that ruled modern rock radio back then, mostly because their quirkiness felt authentic when everyone else was either steeped in irony or faux-quirkiness to sell records.

Everyone that likes Weezer has a Weezer story. Mine’s mostly rooted in Pinkerton, as Pinkerton was the album that tanked initially that I liked despite that, therefore it was more mine. That and it was the album that brought me and my ex-girlfriend together. Then we broke up and I didn’t listen to it for a year. The album is perfect for nursing heartache and fostering awkward, rosy-cheeked love, as it is both raw and tuneful at once, like the Pixies filtered through an OG-emo lens. The Blue album, while I did enjoy it at 14, really came to be for me when linked arm and arm while hammered with 45 other people at some random party my freshman year of college, when Weezer were still reemerging and not making new music to be co-opted by the OC crowd.

Now despite being a total Maladroit apologist (which I will no doubt touch upon at some point in the near future in its own post), Weezer have yet to recapture the initial spark that kept their fanbase hungry through five inactive years. This is due almost completely to the fact that after the resounding rejection of Pinkerton‘s unabashed emotional purging, Rivers tucked himself back into his shell songwriting-wise, even though the world was ready for him to be a sappy, uber-personal bastard. And it wouldn’t be out of line to think that Weezer may never re-strike that sweet spot, as their massive, embarrassing failure Make Believe was the middle point of their latter period’s uninspired songwriting and the sort of faux-quirkiness they didn’t align themselves with in the post-Cobain wasteland of modern rock radio. The most one could seemingly hope for would be a few good songs every now and again (I’ll still stick up for “Beverly Hills” as a damn fine pop song among a bunch of vomit-encrusted ones) to be cherry picked into a boss iTunes playlist.

Or so I thought. Upon hearing “Pork and Beans”, the first single off of Weezer’s forthcoming album, the chorus hit me like seeing your best friend from middle school after 13 years. The interesting thing about growing up with a band like Weezer is that, when Rivers gets personal again, he’s getting personal about being a lame old man among the vapid, uber-hip mongoloids that currently populate pop culture, something anyone over the age of 25 that isn’t trying too hard can relate to. This is precisely what “Pork and Beans” is about; even despite cries of “I ain’t gonna wear the clothes that you like.”, the rebellion isn’t rooted in youth, but wearing Hager slacks because they’re damn comfortable instead of whatever zebra print is sprawled across the emaciated bodies of American Apparel models. Add this to a simple chord progression straight off of the Blue album, and this marks the first time I’ve been excited about hearing a Weezer song since 2001, and this time, I’m not ambivalent about it.

The rest of the album, which leaked today, is incredibly scattershot, but most certainly not without its best-since-Pinkerton (or definitely since Maladroit) goodness. The one thing that can be said about it is that Rivers is being unapologetically personal for the first time since Pinkerton, and while it’s failed miserably for some after the age of 30 (ahem Jay-Z ahem), Rivers’ new self– lame old guy that still writes catchy songs– is certainly entertaining, if not extremely likable. The problem with Weezer’s generic phase was that, without the personal edge of their early work, it was hard to determine whether or not they truly gave a shit about what they were writing or doing. Their intentions were questionable, and with a video featuring Elisha Cuthbert, it was hard to tell whose side they were on– yours or MTV’s. If anything good can be said about the Red album, it’s that its heart is back on its sleeve, and it’s charming, if anything.

The album isn’t perfect… at all. In fact, there are some cringeworthy songs on there (Weezer have an uncanny knack for giving their extra-terrible songs extra-terrible names, with Make Believe‘s “We Are All on Drugs” and the Red Album’s “Everybody Get Dangerous” as great examples). But almost every song is packed with the passion that made me and many others love Weezer. “Troublemaker”, the opener, and “Dreamin'” are seemingly “Now That’s What I Call Music 36” contenders on first listen, but after a few more, they sound like an evolved version of the 1994 model. This is a hybrid version of Weezer running on the same confessional gas as before with a jolt from Generation iPhone. And “Heart Songs”, after 2 1/2 minutes of abysmal name-checking, recalls the sort of brilliant specificity that made “In the Garage” what it was.

The song everyone will talk about, though, will be the band’s sloppiest masterpiece since the sloppy masterpiece that was Pinkerton: “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”. The song is the worst song I’ve ever heard and the best song I’ve heard in a while all in one, which makes it a great song. In the span of almost six minutes, you’re transported from a rapping Rivers Cuomo (which, yes, is just about as awful as you think it would be), to some chugga-chugga rap metal that smacks of Sum 41, to some crooning, to some falsetto brilliance, to some multi-part harmonies, to some pop-punk trudging to… it doesn’t matter. The song is all over the place, which is something that Weezer have never done before. The spirit behind the song is what makes it so wonderful– the song is charmingly ambitious, which makes the worst parts (almost, as a rapping Rivers Cuomo is still pretty deplorable) forgivable, and more subject to repeat listens than any other song on the album. Plus, the entire song is based upon the Quaker hymn “‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple”, which makes this the best re-imagining of this song that I’ve heard since neo-classicist Aaron Copland got his mits on it back in the first half of the 20th century.

“The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” recalls the best of Weezer in one ideology: if you loathe this, you have to be a really cynical bastard. I can’t think of anything Weezer have done since the oft-mentioned Pinkerton that has warranted that kind response. So, for real this time, welcome back, boys. Now can you take this energy and write a solid album from beginning to end?