Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Before the Dawn Heals Us:" A Rift Amid Real and Imagined

I was blown away by the songs I knew at M83’s recent concert, but there was also a lot of unfamiliar material that caught my attention. I walked away with a new appreciation for Saturdays=Youth and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, as well as an intense and perhaps financially dangerous curiosity about M83’s back catalog. The next day, I took a stack of unwanted CDs to Waterloo and traded them in for Before the Dawn Heals Us. This has turned out to be a good move, because it sows seeds that come to fruition in M83’s current work.

I'd like to elaborate on some of my previous observations about the ways that disparate influences uniquely converge in M83's music.  Especially after getting to know Before the Dawn Heals Us, I think that Jean-Michel Jarre's ubiquitous influence on French synthesizer music is a factor. Despite his sometimes melodramatic stage presence, he did have a unique gift for thematic, ethereal composition that harnessed the limits of 70s synthesizer technology. He had his moments of intensity, but Jarre’s style was mostly ambient, which, at the time, defied categorization.

When you turn the volume up on ethereal, however, it evolves into the cosmic, which aptly describes the splendor of Before the Dawn Heals Us.  I think that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, an album that just recently clicked for me, is the inspiration for this radiating intensity.  Before the Dawn Heals Us is a similarly beautiful work of sonic sculpture, but, in addition to its predecessor’s use of detuned and distorted guitars, it’s also carved from massive walls of organ and synths.

Before the Dawn Heals Us isn't really music to dance to, and it’s not music to sing along with, but it is music to take refuge in. This “synth-gaze” approach heads straight for that liminal space between the real and the imagined, where the listener can be empowered by a romanticized notion of the world, and also be justifiably disappointed and perhaps angry when the world doesn’t fit that ideal. This dissonance makes Before the Dawn Heals Us seem intensely personal, allowing it to translate particularly well to the inherently sullen isolation of IPod culture.

In retrospect, I’m sure fans of Before the Dawn Heals Us had difficulty accepting Saturdays=Youth. It is overall less concerned with songwriting and 80s nostalgia than its immediate successor. Its immense grandeur, however, lays the groundwork for Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and in some ways it might even be more successful as a unified listening experience. It certainly provides perspective on a larger arc in M83’s creative path. Coupled with the concert, Before the Dawn Heals Us has clinched the deal on one issue - M83’s creativity and vision has moved them up in ranks amongst my all-time favorite groups, which, at this stage in the game, is a difficult echelon to break into.

Monday, May 28, 2012

May Roundup: The House on the Hill

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
After an evening of karaoke at The Highball, we found ourselves stranded at our friend’s house by a violent thunderstorm. Somehow, our children all slept through the maelstrom while we watched the storm roll in over the hill country with respectful awe, an awe that gave way to intimidation as the lightning struck the cell towers around us. It was another one of those unexpected bonding experiences that strengthened our long friendship with this couple.

We slept in their guest bed that night, and when we woke up in the morning I rolled over to my wife and said, quite matter-of-factly, "let's move out here." As the Little One grows increasingly active, it is becoming more and more obvious that she is going to need her own space before we decide on our PhD research agendas. In addition to getting into a nice community with reasonably sized lots, this seemingly straightforward decision also offered the opportunity to be close to our friends and their own little one, who is less than a month older than ours.

Of course, things got real complicated real quick, and the simple idea turned into an achingly difficult two-week decision process. In about six months, however, we will be moving into our house at the top of the hill. Not only will friends be around the corner, our daughter will grow up with a friend around the corner as well.

On tap this month:

Frank Zappa - Hot Rats: Zappa released several albums in the 70s that were mostly instrumental, but on Hot Rats his prowess as a guitarist was on equal footing with his constantly evolving compositional approach. A unique, perhaps even definitive entry in Zappa's ridiculously varied catalog.

The Beastie Boys - Check Your Head: Although many fans of the Beasties will cite Paul's Boutique as their artistic coming of age, for me it was Check Your Head. When they started playing their real instruments, they had me hooked.

Kraftwerk - Man-Machine: The synergistic influence of British synth-pop and Kraftwerk's innovation is difficult to disentangle. In any case, Man-Machine is certainly a move towards a more commercially viable Kraftwerk, but is in essence a powerful social commentary on late 70s Europe.

Junius - Reports from the Threshold of Death: I really want to like this album, but I remain suspiciously ambivalent. It checks a lot of boxes, but there is still something about that has not clicked for me.

Secret Chiefs 3 - Book M: This was a killer reader suggestion from early last year that sort of got lost in the shuffle like Great Civilizations. Listening to it now, I don't see how I could have overlooked its amazing "Mr. Bungle goes to Persia" feel.

The Mars Volta - Noctourniquet: This frenetic and sometimes downright noisy album is their most accessible, which says a whole lot about how frenetic and noisy they have been in the past. Still, it has some very sweet, contemplative moments.

The Sound of Siam - Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz And Molam From Thailand 1964 - 1975: The most interesting ethno-pop compilations are the ones in which you can really hear the global and the local rub against each other. There is a very Asian veneer to these tracks that is appealing, but in at least one case, I can’t convince myself that the out-of-tune bass is intentionally microtonal – its just out-of-tune.

Brendan Benson - What Kind of World: Benson's newest album is perhaps his most dark and melancholic. Still, his characteristic ease with songcraft permeates even the moodiest tracks.

M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us: The cosmic grandeur of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has its roots on this 2005 release.  M83’s music heads straight for that liminal space between reality and imagination, and makes it OK to be angry when the two don't match.

Skysaw - Great Civilizations: There are several killer tunes on Great Civilizations, but more importantly, the album captures the enthusiasm that Skysaw has for complex pop music. It is an excellent listen worth returning to.

Beach HouseBloom: A critically lauded dream-pop album that, based on first impressions, is actually pretty good. I would like to make a request to all bands, however: please stop adding bonus tracks at the end of your albums after “x” minutes of silence – after two decades, its officially annoying.

Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery: I think that Beal's best work is still ahead of him. If he plays into his strengths, I think that it could evolve into something truly unique.

The Year in Rush Sub-Roundup (and yes, I am speeding things up – the new album comes out next month!)

Grace Under Pressure: Perhaps not Rush’s most technologically advanced album, but certainly their most cybernetic. I remember sitting in the back of my parent’s minivan listening to this with awe in the church parking lot.

Power Windows: When other bands were reinforcing my idealized teenage worldview, Power Windows caused me to consider what it was that made me get up in the morning. There was a book of piano reductions that I used as a study guide when I was learning the album on bass, and yes, I still have it.

Hold Your Fire: I waited every day in my car outside of an HEB for two weeks waiting for tickets to come out for this tour. Getting third row floor tickets was one of the high points of my Johnston days - and made me incredibly popular for about a month.

Presto: I can’t help but recall being a wide-eyed freshman at UNT and seeing the Dallas skyline at night as Available Light played on the tape deck in my prized blue Subaru. It’s a lasting impression that I will always associate with this greatly underrated gem from Presto.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 7: Focus on the Song

I took the first few steps in my music education degree while living in the ad hoc “music dormitory” at UNT, Bruce Hall. Although I was a pretty active musician for a high school kid, this was an entirely different environment with a ridiculously high level of musicianship. There was also an unfortunate bouquet of jazz snobbery that, as an insecure freshman, was hard to ignore. With a world-class 18 year-old bassist across the hall warming up on Portrait of Tracy every day, it felt a bit bourgeois to examine Presto too closely.  A self-taught garage band bassist like me seemed to have no place, so my playing relationship with Lee abruptly ended late in 1989. The last passage in Rush's catalog I learned was the bass break at 3:15 in Show Don't Tell.

Rush generally conceived their work was as "instrumentals with words,” but in the 90s, they made a concerted effort to hone their effectiveness as songwriters,  This had a noticeable effect on the energy of their music. Show Don’t Tell notwithstanding, if you look at Presto in terms of the flash and bang of their previous work, overall, it doesn't seem to add up. For example, Rush consistently cites The Pass as one of their favorite songs. Certainly, I loved it when it came out, but I found its relatively laid-back energy and circumspect melancholy perplexing. Seeing it performed live on the Presto tour, however, was revealing for both the song and the album as a whole.

I eventually became a staunch advocate of Presto, although I admit that I was confused by some of Rush's musical choices on the album. The title track from next album, Roll the Bones, was also controversial amongst their fan base for its infamous spoken-word “rap” section. Time has allowed me to appreciate this experiment, but the mohawk-endowed skull from the video is still a bit cringe-worthy.

Rush's endeavors to become songwriters in the 90s did not transform  them into a power pop group, but on Roll the Bones, it did result in a more radio-friendly sound. Although their intention to simplify for the sake of accessibility sometimes felt a little forced, there are tracks when Rush’s cleverness lends itself incredibly well to pop songwriting.

You Bet Your Life (Remastered LP Version) by Rush on Grooveshark

Roll the Bones also recaptured some of the vigor that characterized Rush's streamlined trio sound, which I missed on their previous releases. When the album came out in 1991, I had moved downstairs and around the corner into a room at the base of a stairwell, and I was much more confident, perhaps even a bit brash, about my identity in our little community. I vividly remember bringing he album home from the Sound Warehouse store on Fry Street and, putting my oversized stereo speakers in the doorway, defiantly flooding the halls with the crackling energy of Dreamline.

Dreamline by R U S H on Grooveshark

It’s important to note that from here on out, things seem to change for Rush quickly in retrospect because the pace of their output began to slow. Up until the mid-80s, they released an album virtually every year. In the 90s, they averaged two or three years between albums. The inspiration behind the changes in their sound became more difficult to track, and I think that the gap between their studio-influenced compositions and their live persona resulted in some inconsistencies. The albums from this period may not have won Rush any new fans, but they are still stronger releases than the best albums of the majority of early 90s bands.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Kraftwerk, Robots, and Conformity

Although I have known about Kraftwerk for decades, I finally began to really check them out earlier this year. After recently watching a BBC documentary on British synth-pop, I was beset by a craving for more of their stuff. My budget for CD purchases, however, was pretty tight at the time. Very rarely do I trade in CDs, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

The next disc on my list was Trans-Europe Express, but after I had already done the deed I went to the racks to find that the single copy that Waterloo had in stock had sold, so I picked up Man-Machine instead. As I was checking out, a gentleman in the line behind me, who had  a stack of vinyl under his right arm, commented on the influence of Kraftwerk and of Man-Machine in particular.  Encouraging!

Kraftwerk’s exploration of new music technologies made them innovators within the emerging electronic music scene in Europe, but they were not working in a vacuum. Kraftwerk had several contemporaries, not the least of which was French synthesist Jean-Michel Jarre, whose fantastic sci-fi tinged soundscapes have been relatively marginalized by history. Kraftwerk, conversely, were inspired by the very real surroundings of post World War II Europe, and because they were grounded in the real, they became one of Germany's leading cultural exports, laying the foundation for a whole genre of music to come.

I immediately liked Man Machine, but the video for The Robots profoundly affected my perception of the album as a whole. As they pantomime the mechanized nature of their own music, their descriptively impressionistic approach spills beyond music into performance art. The song is not really for dancing, and I don’t think that the listener expected to sing along with the thick German accents buried in its vocoder-altered and reversed lyrics. Instead, like the entirety of Man-Machine, The Robots is a futuristic commentary on the present that explores some of the possible street- level outcomes of technology.

A counterculture of working class post-punks armed with Moog synthesizers found a kindred spirit with Kraftwerk when they began to appear on British soul in the mid 70s. Like Kraftwerk, they weren't interested so much as the synth as the replacement for the symphony, but were instead exploring the potentials of emerging synthesizer technology on its own terms to describe their condition. The difference was that they successfully shaped it into a commercially accessible form.

Cars by Gary Numan on Grooveshark

At least in comparison to Autobahn, Man-Machine is a movement toward a more commercially viable Kraftwerk. It’s difficult to discern if songs like The Model are an intentional effort to capitalize on the commercial success of synth pop or an ironic extension of the statement that Man-Machine is making about conformity. In either case, this song made a lasting impression on the synth-pop scene.

Although Man Machine is still relevant today, I’m not sure that I, as a 21st century American, can ever really understand the complex sociocultural environment in which it was situated. As post-war Germans, Kraftwerk was part of a generation that was struggling to make amends for the transgressions of generations past while doggedly pursuing a unique and globally acceptable cultural identity. From this perspective,Man-Machine takes on a much more complex and, I think, satisfying meaning about the cultural tone in Europe during the late 70s.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

M83 Live: Floating Above Stubb's

All of the video footage that I have ever seen of M83 indicated that their live performances matched their epic recordings, earning them a place on my bucket list of “bands to see.” M83 has come to town three times since Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming came out last year, though, and each time, tickets were snatched up within hours. Since I have a profound issue with supporting the ticket scalping industry, I missed them. As this pattern repeated, I was becoming increasingly concerned that I would miss out on this tour. Fortunately, my wife’s principles are not nearly so limiting, so I was pleasantly surprised when she told me that she had gotten us some tickets. I was ecstatic.  Let the date night commence!

Stubb’s outdoor amphitheater was packed, and with all the people in the street asking about tickets, it seemed that M83 might consider booking a larger venue. I get that the club and amphitheater setting is more personal, but at some point an artist kind of owes it to their fans to play at an appropriately sized space. M83’s music would certainly translate well into an arena, but that type of venue is far too unhip, aloof, and 1985 for today’s indie-conscious music consumer to accept.

Regardless, as I looked out onto the crowd, I noticed the anticipation brewing among the groups of young people who had obviously come to the show together. M83 has the same potential, I think, to appeal to both intellect and aesthetic that Rush had in the 80s. I bonded with many of my friends through our common musical interests, and despite the inherent isolation of IPod culture, these young people seemed to share a similar bond. I wondered what they might be doing when they reach my age, and what they might be listening to as they look back on this evening at Stubb’s.

After the opening band I Break Horses, the lights finally dimmed and the inexplicable purple-furred alien that graces the liner notes of Hurry Up, We're Dreaming appeared out of the darkness, raising his hand to bless the crowd. M83 launched into their now-iconic opening track Intro. The guest vocals of Zola Jesus are integral in the original, so I would not have been surprised if they were reproduced in playback. I appreciated seeing regular band member Morgan Kibby take the vocals and make them her own.

In fact, since the production of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is so profoundly epic in scope, I would not have been surprised if M83 had significant “play-along” component in their live show, where the sequencing bears the burden of performance and the band just follows along. I was pleasantly impressed to find that they were much more live than I expected. Although there is certainly a component of automation it doesn’t hold the band back in any way. In fact, these often simple ostinato riffs that lead man Anthony Gonzalez manipulates from his mysteriously wired black and neon box seem to act as a tether during the performance, keeping the band from being swept off the stage by their own impassioned delivery.

I thought that their set would focus primarily on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, but they played a wide variety of songs from their entire catalog. Although they have had some changes towards more direct songwriting on their more recent works, listening to them jump around in their catalog made me notice just how cohesive Gonzalez’s oeuvre actually is. 

My wife asked me if anyone else had made music like M83 before, and I said that what makes M83 so compelling is that they recombine familiar things in a new way. I pondered this question for awhile as their expansive sound indescribably floated, up, out, and over above the crowd before I realized: although M83 has a wall of sound that is similar in structure to the one erected by My Bloody Valentine in 1990, this wall is constructed by the explorations of French synthesist Jean-Michel Jarre – a palpable connection that I felt dumb for overlooking. Neither of these obvious influences emphasized songcraft too strongly, however, so with M83’s increasing interest in composition and songwriting, they are emerging as a unique entity.

M83 has, in the last three years, clawed their way up in my personal ranks.  Saturdays=Youth has become a latter-day classic, and the further artistic success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming last year was pushing M83 into the ranks of my all-time favorites.  Their transcendental performance at Stubb's last night has clinched the deal: with Gonzalez’s strength of vision, I consider them to be the best musical find that I have encountered since Mew in 2005, as well as a show worth attending if you have the interest and opportunity. Just don’t wait, though, because the tickets will sell out – I guarantee it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 6: Wake Up and Look Around

Because we were all bussed across town, there was a well-established tradition of carpooling among my fellow high school band members.  By the first week of summer band my freshman year I was already catching a ride with several other band students from my neighborhood. The driver and her boyfriend were unrelenting Rush fans, so when Power Windows was released later that year, it was a daily listen for several months. This was where I was first exposed to Rush, and although it wasn't the kind of teenage epiphany that is usually associated with the backs of cars, it was no less life-changing

Still today, nearly thirty years since its release, I insist that Power Windows is Rush’s finest artistic moment. In my eyes, it is where their musical intensity, atmospheric awareness, compositional strength, conceptual clarity, production value, and technical skill all peaked. The presence of synthesizers and sequencers is admittedly pronounced, but Lifeson's guitar cuts through like a surgeon's scalpel. To me, one of the most sublime and moving instrumental moments in the entirety of Rush's career is when his guitar roars out of the percussively agitated stillness during The Big Money's instrumental excursion.

I am fully aware that the album is shot though with sedimented layers of nostalgia, but Power Windows still brings a tear to my eye. I can accept that from some perspectives, there are more musically impressive albums in my collection, but none are more influential on me personally. It was a jarring wake-up call that illuminated a worldview beyond my immature middle school experience, bringing to light profound issues that I had only passively considered.

In the next three years, with my Reganomics-era minimum wage capital and the freedom of a 10 speed bike, I bought Rush’s entire back catalog. By 1987, I could perform a reasonable facsimile of most of their songs on bass. When Hold Your Fire came out late in that year, however, it challenged my idea of what Rush was. As a diligent fan that yearned to reproduce their songs with my garage band compatriots, its synth-laden and relatively mellow soundscape was somewhat hard to swallow.

I came to appreciate its nearly symphonic expansiveness, but even in retrospect, I think that Hold Your Fire was when Rush’s synth interests threatened to overtake their identity. Still, the distinctive instrumental voice that Rush began to cultivate on the 2112 Overture is evident. Anyone who has seen Rush play Mission in a live setting will attest that its inspired lyrics, orchestral texture, virtuosic musicianship, integrated use of technology, and brilliant instrumental bridge retread all of Rush's various musical paths in a familiar yet novel way.

Looking back, these albums served as bookends to my high school years, and bound me to a group of people that were equally attracted to the way that Rush spoke to them like adults rather than children. As this time drew to a close for me in 1989, I knew that life was about to change forever, and Time Stand Still served as a frame around my senior year. Admittedly, nostalgic feelings about a song about nostalgia may subvert any argument about the song's strength, but in any case, this track holds a special meaning for me.

Regardless, as inspirational as it was at the time, I secretly took exception to Aimee Mann’s backup.  Today, of course, I see it integral to the song, but back then her appearance was confusing. Was she in the band? Would she go on tour with them? It seemed that Rush was beginning to change, which was nothing new, but this time it was “my” Rush that was changing.  As devoted as I was to the band, I was a bit conflicted as to how that made me feel.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Willis Earl Beal and the Frying Tenor Sax

Although the crowded gallery was buzzing with anticipation, I was standing with my arms resolutely folded in defiant objection. The visiting artist was going to deep-fry a saxophone, arguably to reveal to the crowd the unique beauty of the sounds it made as it met a distinctively Texan demise. It was a bust. The like-new tenor sizzled in pretty much the same way that anything does when coated in batter and lamb casings and immersed in boiling oil.  Sticking a microphone in the pot didn’t really make the experience any more interesting. The general tone of the crowd was one of confused disappointment.  I am not above destructive musical practices, but I was offended.  I couldn't tell if we had been suckered or if we had witnessed an overintellectualized delusion, but in any case I felt that the whole event was vacuous as an aesthetic experience.

Now, before I continue, let me be clear - Willis Earl Beal was not the artist who fried the saxophone, and I do not in any way think that his debut is as artistically vapid as that spectacle. Not even close - Acousmatic Sorcery is impressively creative in a multitude of ways, but I also think it is flawed.  Beal talks a big game, however, and his indie rags-to-riches tale of isolation, catharsis, and perseverance has set expectations around the album incredibly high.  After quite a bit of simmering, I can attest that Acousmatic Sorcery is good, but also I feel a little confused - perhaps even a little disappointed.  So now I wonder: is Beal an undiscovered genius in the rough, as his tale might suggest, or have I been bamboozled by a clever performance artist who has created more interest through his social context than his musical content?  Methinks it is the former.

On disc, Beal is a passable songwriter. There are moments of fine storytelling on Acousmatic Sorcery, and some strong melodies. Several tracks, however, seem like the spontaneous inventions of a clever wordsmith, and recordings unfortunately favor the craftsman over the performer. Beal's true creativity, at least on record, lies in his ability to create mood and texture. His Tom Waits – inspired “junkyard techno” approach to found percussion and guitar technique is so lo-fi that it borders on the industrial, and it casts a shroud of pallor isolation across his surreal and sometimes haunting narratives.

Swing On Low by Willis Earl Beal on Grooveshark

Live footage of Beal reveals an entirely different artist. He seems to thrive in the spontaneous nuance of live audience/artist interaction. Additionally, he explicitly understands that people will forgive a lot if you have style, so, using sharpie markers, white t-shirts, and the power of nothingness, he has constructed an identity that teeters on a fine line between charisma and eccentricity.

Despite its flaws, the tension between genius and insanity that Beal cultivates makes Acousmatic Sorcery more compelling than it might initially seem. If he is to be believed, his intent with this album was catharsis over accessibility.  When he recorded it in his lonely apartment on home equipment a couple of years ago, it was never intended for the masses. Strategically, this is a strong position for his blossoming career, because it deflects criticism while focusing on the potential brilliance of his future work. Potential is only worth something if it is realized, but considering the depth of his influences and the intensity of his beliefs, in my gut I sense that following Beal as he develops his artistic path will have a pay off.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Intense Atmospheres and The Mars Volta's "Noctourniquet"

I was in South Texas enjoying the buzz of mexican marimba performances at an ethnomusicology conference, but the night before, McAllen experienced an intense storm that cut a swath of destruction through parts of town. The video footage I saw was terrifying, with windows shattering under the onslaught of hail propelled by high winds and living rooms pounded by hail and rain. When I was listening to Noctourniquet, the new release from The Mars Volta, I was driving around McAllen the day after this disaster, and the streets were cast with a desolate veil. Despite being a growing city of over 100,000, parts of the city looked abandoned and decades older since last I saw them. Everywhere I looked, paint was peeled off of the north side of buildings, windows were broken and boarded up, and roofs were missing massive sections of shingles.

I picked up Noctourniquet as a memento of this academic conference, and it was an album I had been cautiously anticipating. I took notice of The Mars Volta in 2003, when several “nu-prog” bands were coming into prominence. Their aggressive melodic energy immediately appealed to me, so with very little simmering time, I decided that they were the future of progressive rock, which has been mostly true. Love them or hate them, The Mars Volta name is clearly associated with innovative, relevant prog rock that acknowledges the artistic potential of styles outside of the Yes family tree. Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, The Mars Volta’s creative core, take great satisfaction in challenging the status quo with intellect and have created a lot of amazing music under this mission statement. They have also created a lot of opaque, indulgent work that carried the subtext that if you didn’t get it, you just weren’t thinking hard enough. The Bedlam in Goliath, in particular, sent me looking for some Dramamine.

In recent years, however, The Mars Volta has been refocusing their energies towards a more accessible approach, a trend that continues on Noctourniquet. In a recent interview, Bixler-Zavala described it as their "Krautrock" album in the sense that they tried to throw out everything that they had done before and start over fresh. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the results will catapult The Mars Volta to the top of the pop charts - there are still lots of freaky things going on.

Noctrouniquet’s emphasis on melody, however, is definitely more inviting than many of their releases. Here, the band doesn’t try so hard to challenge their listeners, but use the awareness gained from their more extreme experimentalism to wrap a cosmic psychedelia around what is, inexplicably, more often a song than an assault.

Vedamalady by The Mars Volta on Grooveshark

The most volatile role in The Mars Volta Group is the drum throne. Mars Volta drummers have to maintain poise in the face of a chaotic onslaught of energy while simultaneously providing the fuel that drives the whole thing along. Still, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez- Lopez seem to find amazing musicians to play this role. Current drummer Deaontai Parks has an impressive resume that easily puts him on the same creative level as Cedric and Omar. His contributions add a subtly complex, disorienting, and somewhat hyperactive feel to Noctourniquet.

The album's singable aspects seem to follow me around, but as my familiarity with the album increases, so does the gratification I get from the listening experience. It’s easily my favorite Mars Volta album since De-Loused in the Comatorium, the album which won me over into fandom in the first place. Because its depth stands up to repeated plays, however, Noctourniquet’s focused, atmospheric intensity may even surpass my affection for their debut in the long run.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Conducting Sabotage with "Sabotage:" Remembering MCA

My main gig in the mid 90s was working as a lackey in Blockbuster Music’s flagship store in Lewisville. In a way, the store was the last step in the evolution of music consumerism before the internet made hardcopy obsolete. The store was constructed with a complicated array of directional speakers and taped video that pummeled the customer with images and sounds as they moved through its labyrinthine aisles. When in the country section, you would only hear George Strait and Garth Brooks, but as the customer moved to the rock section, they would magically move into an environment bathed in the newest hits from Soundgarden and Smashmouth.

The screens assigned for each section played music videos of taped point-of-sale items. By today’s standards, they were pretty archaic. Relatively small screens were hooked up to VCRs that had to be rewound every three hours or so. For the casual customer, it worked pretty well. For the employee stuck in this environment for forty hours a week, however, it was incredibly overstimulating.  There was also a large nine-screen display that concentrated on the top sellers in each genre.  Its contents could be heard in the entryways and listening booth areas of the store.

Most of the music on this top-seller tape was utter crap. When the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication came out, however, Sabotage made the cut, and most of us in the store were delighted to have this track end up in rotation. We would always crank the song up when it came on. In fact, as an experiment, we slowly began testing the limits of the store's equipment on Sabotage, pushing it louder and louder each time it came up.

Eventually, the manager came up and complained about how it was so loud. We insisted, however, that the song was just louder on the tape than all of the others, and we began to take great joy in cranking the song up beyond all reason. Then, when the manager came and turned it down, we would turn the rest of the tape down to a barely audible level so that he would have to come back and turn it back up. This continued for nearly a month and a half until the next point of sale tape came in.

This is my most treasured memory of any Beastie Boys track, conducting sabotage with Sabotage, and the one that immediately came to mind when I heard about the untimely death of Adam Yauch, AKA MCA. I knew that he had been fighting cancer for awhile, and his absence in the videos attached to The Hot Sauce Committee made me concerned that the battle might not have been going so well.

Still, I was taken aback yesterday when I heard the news. Although I have many memories associated with the Beastie Boys music, I hope that this story is one that might have made Yauch smile in the way that his music often made me smile.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 5: The Advent of the Synth

In the 70s, Rush was fascinated with the conventions of progressive rock and became a defining force in the genre by sheer force of will.  In the 80s, the smart, direct style of bands like The Police and The Talking Heads exerted a similar influence. Rush's deference for the music around them did not result in obvious reinventions, but some dramatic changes in their sound were certainly generated by their interests in the artistic successes of these new wave bands.

Integrating new technologies into their music also contributed to Rush's evolution. The band had been toying with synthesizers since 2112, but Subdivisions, the lead track from 1982's Signals, clearly announced the beginning of what I call their "synth period."

This particular era was divisive amongst Rush's more conservative fanbase. Some felt convinced that the band was selling out and losing connection with their progressive roots, but I find this prejudice troubling. Rush’s skills as open-minded music listeners proved to be a benefit to their longevity, and their interest in absorbing technological and stylistic conventions in their music was, and is, progressive in the truest sense. I do concede that there was a point in their career when the synths swallowed Lifeson’s guitar voice, but Signals is not when it happened. Lifeson’s guitar coexists and compliments Lee’s synthesizer interests when they arise, but by and large the album features some truly amazing guitar (and bass) playing.  Listen to Lifeson punish his whammy bar at the beginning of this blistering solo.

The Analog Kid by Rush on Grooveshark

Although it is an amazing document of the band’s long career, the recent Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage suffers from this anti-synth bias. The filmmakers did a respectable job of organizing live footage and interviews, particularly of the band’s early days, into a cohesive narrative, but there is a feeling that as Rush’s experimentation with synthesizers grew, the filmmaker’s interest in representing the band waned, as if these albums were somehow beneath notice.

I think that’s a tragic oversight. Rush was pushing themselves into incredibly creative territory in the 80s, and not only musically. Peart began writing lyrics that were loosely organized around a concept or theme, and by Signals, a lyric style had clearly emerged into a form that would pervade Rush’s work to the present day.  Taken as a whole, Signals is a somewhat bittersweet commentary of the friction that often exists between the expectation of society and the isolation of the individual. Grace Under Pressure, on the other hand, captures the stressful zeitgeist of the late cold war in 1984, when computers began creeping into our homes and the threat of nuclear war sent people desperately scrambling for bunkers.

Grace Under Pressure is one of Rush’s most programmatic albums. The relationship between lyrics in music in Rush's past work was relatively incidental, but Grace Under Pressure, with its further inclusion of synthesizers, sequencers, and, for the first time, electric drums, reflects the band’s intent to harness technology rather than submit to it. As a result, the album leans more in favor of a more synthetic, keyboard-driven incarnation of the band, but Rush retains their energy and fervor and adds an unexplored atmospheric depth. Anyone who has seen the band in recent tours has probably gained some respect for the power of Between the Wheels.

Between the Wheels by Rush on Grooveshark

Although I can see how fans whose loyalties lie with Rush's more classically progressive albums might have had a had time accepting the work from their synth period, I am a staunch advocate of this era. The precision, intensity, and imagination of these albums won me over into Rush's camp.  Still, neither Signals or Grace Under Pressure had the distinction of opening the door in the first place.  That fortuitous event wouldn't happen until 1985....

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