Monday, April 24, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2003

The trials of 2002 left me somewhat adrift, but by 2003, I started making some long-term goals for myself. The biggest one of these was the acquisition of a Chapman Stick, which I began relentlessly shedding on as a form of therapy. I felt like I had an intensely clear vision for the instrument, and I was determined to become its master.

I moved into a one bedroom apartment off the Denton square with a new, more secure sense of self. I experimented with bachelorhood and dated around a little while. When I stopped trying so hard, I found myself in a positive relationship that continues to evolve to this day (love ya, dear!).

In retrospect, however, my attitude had a selfish undercurrent that would later manifest into some negative behaviors. Regardless, it is fair to say that I was in a much better place than I had been in a long time.  As a result, the 2003 best-of list is generally more upbeat in tone than the one from 2002.

10. Magma - Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh:  But first, nothing acknowledges that sinister, self-indulgent side more than Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, which sounds like what would happen if Frank Zappa was commissioned to write a Klingon Opera. Clearly not the most lighthearted entry for 2003, but its virtuosity and electrifying performances kept it in rotation for a good part of the year.

9. The Darkness - Permission to Land: I realize The Darkness was a one-trick pony, but the trick was really, really good.  Permission to Land was both a reverent commentary on what was great about 80’s hair metal and an irresistible collection of fun, crunchy songs.

8. O.S.I. - The Office of Strategic Influence: One of Mike Portnoy's many side projects, this one with ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore and Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos. O.S.I. captured a broader spectrum of moods and textures than the prog-metal pedigree of its lineup might suggest.

7. Owsley - Owsley: William Owsley only recorded a couple of albums before his apparent suicide in 2010. A look as his resume shows him to be an incredibly talented songwriter and session musician, but a listen to his album reveals him to also be tragically overlooked as an artist in his own right.

6. Radiohead - Hail to the Thief:  Radiohead had been toying with a more electronic sound for awhile by the time Hail to the Thief came out, so I found its more prominent use of guitar alluring.  It certainly did not recapture the magic of OK Computer or The Bends, but it felt more like Radiohead “the band” than Radiohead “the project.”

5. Tsar - Tsar:  I ran across several inspiring power pop albums in 2003, and Tsar was among the best.  It, along with Sugarbomb’s Bully, rekindled my belief that the style was still alive, well, and surprisingly affordable through the Amazon Marketplace.

4. The Mars Volta - De-Loused in the Comatorium:  This little piece of nu-prog chaos came out of nowhere and, in any other year, probably would have taken album of the year.  In any case, the success of this album would propel my interest in The Mars Volta throughout the rest of their career.

3. Kevin Gilbert - Thud:  If there was any question as to the incredible depth of Kevin Gilbert’s unique genius after his posthumous rock opera The Shaming of the True, Thud lays it to rest.  While his unique progressive pop style obviously resonated with me, I found Gilbert’s lyrics refreshingly genuine and, at times, devastatingly honest.

2. Sugarbomb - Bully:  I often perceived Tsar as the B-side to this amazing and overlooked gem.  Bully, with its ebullient energy, bittersweet lyrics, and excellent production, was in constant play throughout this year and well into the next.

Album of the Year: 2003
1. King Crimson - The Power to Believe: King Crimson’s final studio album is, I feel, still one of their best.  Where The ConstruKCtion of Light was a bit obvious in the way it aligned itself with the band’s back catalog, I would argue that The Power to Believe captured the essence of the band’s past successes and forged an entirely new interpolation of the group.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2002

Music often connects to experience in strange, sometimes unpredictable ways, and its capacity to become vividly associated with times and places is, I feel, a given. In this blog, I have recently referred to these flashes of recollection that arise when listening to music from one’s past as “memory episodes,” but I don’t know that I have ever clearly defined what that means or why I think that it happens. As an organizing principle of this series in particular, it seems like that is an oversight worth addressing.

One could argue that recorded music is a phenomenological abomination. A recording tears music from the musical act and flattens it, which results in only half of a full experience for the listener. I theorize that when we listen to recorded music, the untethered aspects of the musical experience latch on to the things we are feeling, thinking, and doing as we listen. Later, if this tethering is strong enough, listening to music can trigger recollections through this association.  As I reconstructed 2002 for this best-of list, my memory episodes were somewhat painful to travel through.

This was the year that I experienced the end of a marriage and desperately sought out a new path for myself.  As a result, my recollections are a jumbled mess of crushing sorrow, indulgent escapism, and, later in the year, self-discovery tinted with desperation.

10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven: My introduction to the problematic sub-genre “post-rock” also served as the soundtrack to my inner struggle with a friend’s suicide. Its melancholic mood swings still bring back sadness and rage.

9. Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head: Before they became pigeonholed as the darlings of the new adult contemporary, Coldplay resonated with me as a reinterpretation of what was once good about U2. A Rush of Blood to the Head is brimming over with well-crafted melodies and arrangements.

8. Oysterhead - The Grand Pecking Order: Although the material on the album felt a little slipshot at times, listening to Stewart Copeland lock into a groove with Les Claypool made the whole thing worthwhile. Thanks to the influence to Trey Anastasio, The Grand Pecking Order also marks the beginnings of Claypool’s interest in the jam band format, and laid the seeds for his current work with Sean Lennon.

7. Brendan Benson - Lapalco: Benson followed up his criminally good One Mississippi debut with the merely excellent Lapalco. Jason Falkner’s co-writing presence firmly adjoins Benson to the Jellyfish Family Tree.

6. Glass Hammer - Chronometree: A self-aware and somewhat satirical concept album about the pitfalls of reading too much into concept albums. Glass Hammer has made many recordings since this cautionary tale, but it remains my favorite.

5. Happy the Man - Crafty Hands: For a time this year, I was so emotionally devastated that I could barely listen to music with lyrics without twisting their meaning to suit my addiction to self-pity. This mostly instrumental release was in rotation a lot during that time, and actually served to later inspire me to play the Stick, even though there is no Stick on the album.

4. Rush - Vapor Trails: After a significant hiatus, Rush returned to the studio and produced Vapor Trails, which was a great improvement upon its predecessor Test for Echo. Although the album was slightly uneven as a whole, the band’s playing and concept was stronger than ever.

3. Spock’s Beard - Snow: Neal Morse’s final album with Spock’s Beard ended up being a career-defining rock opera with no small amount of religious overtones. Like any rock opera, Snow has its share of filler, but by and large the material is so amazing and is executed with such exhilarating chemistry that this shortcoming can be easily overlooked.

2. Peter Gabriel - Up: In retrospect, there is the nagging sense that parts of this album seemed geared toward radio airplay. These moments are fleeting, however, revealing Gabriel to be at a creative zenith in terms of orchestration and arrangement.

Album of the Year 2002
1. Porcupine Tree - In Absentia: After the relatively polished songwriting approach that Porcupine Tree had been operating with since Stupid Dream, In Absentia represented the first step in a heavier direction. While the guitar riffs were thicker than before, there was no loss of the nuanced melody and texture that had come to be the band’s trademark.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2001

As I started to wade into the possibility of curating “best-of” playlists retroactively an even more dangerous idea came into my head: should I commit to posting a series on the project?

I have done a couple of series on the blog, and in retrospect they have been a mixed bag.  I completed a good series on Rush’s studio catalog leading up to the release of Clockwork Angels, but I also have a series on Jellyfish’s ties to other power pop groups that, unfortunately, remains unfinished to this day (although I do have an idea as to how it ends). More recently, The Superhero Theme Project documented my efforts to convince my eldest daughter P that a set of carefully selected orchestral pieces were actually superhero themes.  That was a very satisfying run that stretched out over a couple of years, but due to the nature of the project/experiment it had no clear conclusion and fizzled out towards the end.

In retrospect, a deciding factor for the success of a series is clear boundaries, which Flashback to the Oughts will have: ten posts each with ten outstanding selections to represent every year between 2000 and ending in 2011, the year that the blog began.  Like my annual “best-of” lists, selections will be made primarily based on the albums relevance to my experiences that year, rather than release date.  This provides continuity with the parameters that already exist on the blog.

It also makes things significantly more difficult to reconstruct because experiences don’t necessarily line up with the calendar year.  In 2001 I had a home situation that was to get worse before it got better, causing a move under duress that make my memory episodes particularly disjunct.  The list that follows, however, lines up well with both my recollections and what little actual documentation exists from that year.

10. Gorillaz - Gorillaz:  I admit that this entry is problematic because I did not (and still do not) think that it holds together well as a cohesive album.  Clint Eastwood, however, became so ubiquitous in 2001 that I cannot think about that year without it coming to mind.

9. Yes - Magnification: This album’s grandiose orchestral approach promised an interesting direction for the group, and at times it captures the best aspects of Yes.  It was not without its flaws, however, and would also sadly be the last time that Jon Anderson would record with the group.

8. Arena - The Visitor:  I am wary of melodramatic progressive rock vocals, but Arena’s rumination on a near-death experience is “more Marillion than Marillion." I tried to follow them after singer Paul Wrightson left, but none of them resonated with me like The Visitor did.

7. Chomsky - Onward Quirky Soldiers: Chomsky’s follow-up to A Few Possible Selections to the Soundtrack of Your Life had many outstanding songs and performances.  It also seemed a little forced at times, as the band was furiously paddling out to catch the last wave of big record label support before the music industry ran still.

6. Ours - Distorted Lullabies: Bandleader Jimmy Gnecco positioned himself to fill the void left by Jeff Buckley with this release, and he was pretty convincing in the role.  I had a particularly memorable moment wandering in a German forest in 2001 with Distorted Lullabies on a Discman.

5. Transatlantic - Bridge Across Forever:  Although it did not reach the same heights as its predecessor, Transatlantic’s sophomore release was noticeably more consistent.  The band’s members seemed to have developed a better rapport both in terms of collaboration and performance.

4. Anekdoten - From Within:  With a dark gothic approach that used King Crimson’s Red as a starting point, Anekdoten had a thunderous take on progressive rock that stood apart from the clean symphonic work that I was into around this time.

3. Weezer - Weezer [green]: While many fans criticized Weezer [green] as a sellout after the relatively adventurous Pinkerton, its direct, streamlined songwriting seemed to speak directly to my inner teenager.  That insecure part of me probably needed some attention at the time due to the circumstances surrounding that year.

2. Jon Brion - Meaningless: Again, due to my fascination with the Jellyfish Family Tree, this was probably one of my most highly anticipated albums of the year, and I went to great lengths to procure a copy as soon as it was available.  It did not disappoint me in the least - it remains a unique power pop classic in my collection.

Album of the Year 2001
1. Tool - Lateralus:  I had checked out Tool in the early 90s when they released Undertow and although I liked it well enough, I did not follow them after that.  At the suggestion of a student, I gave Lateralus a shot and was blown away, and to this day I am still unraveling the complexities of the album.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

United Vibrations and The Dream of Natural Resistance

Despite evolving into an elitist media orgy, SXSW remains an important opportunity for musicians to widen their visibility in an increasingly complicated mediascape, and during Spring Break 2017 it happened as it has for years. For some, however, things did did not go as expected. The Trump administration’s influence on travel regulations caused several international artists to have visas unexpectedly revoked. This scenario, unimaginable only a year ago, caused musicians that were counting on the festival for their livelihood to be denied access.

I was outraged when I heard. In a show of support for these artists, I immediately went to their Bandcamp sites and purchased music from as many as I could afford. Surprisingly, many of these recordings are exceptional, none more so that The Myth of the Golden Ratio from United Vibrations.

United Vibrations, like many “world music” projects, owes a debt to to Fela Kuti, but navigates his influence in a relatively unique way. Afrobeat, in its original form, could be identified by its driving, deep ostinato grooves, a hypnotic aspect that allowed Fela’s songs to stretch to fit his political agenda. As enthralling as it was, it did not provide much latitude for structure and contrast. United Vibrations flawlessly captures the Afrobeat groove, but utilizes it within more complex songwriting structures.

Their songwriting approach, however, is hardly strict or standard. United Vibrations creates quite a bit of space for instrumental interplay, which infuses some passages on the album with the electricity of great jazz. This, coupled with its songwriting structures, soaring melodies, and hints of jazz harmony, makes The Myth of the Golden Ratio seem like an Afropop take on the Dream of the Blue Turtles.

As much as Sting’s classic debut was a great jazz-pop crossover, it was also a commentary on the Cold War. The Myth of the Golden Ratio is similarly unified by an explicit commentary on contemporary civilization. United Vibrations position themselves as the voice of nature, begging the human populace to realign themselves with a more essential human experience. This narrative is also an important reinterpretation of Afropop’s function as the music of resistance. While United Vibrations is hardly inflammatory in their message, their delivery is direct enough to be clearly understood. The results sometimes come off as preachy, but not so much as to inhibit its resonance.

Viewing The Myth of the Golden Ratio as a statement of resistance against contemporary society seems particularly appropriate considering what the band went through last month. Being shut out of SXSW due to the prejudicial direction that US policies are taking almost feels like the forces that United Vibrations rallies their audience against are trying to quell the message. Perhaps I am succumbing to my own conspiratorial paranoia, but I also noticed that when I began to promote the band I experienced some subtle pushback. My attempts to repost their music in my feed was often met with “error” messages. Still, I persisted in encouraging any music fan within earshot to purchase The Myth of the Golden Ratio, both because I hoped to turn the negative situation of this year’s SXSW into a positive and because the album is quickly evolving into one of my 2017 favorites.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Flashback to the Oughts: 2000

In my last roundup, I described how using Plex as my primary music portal in the house has subtly changed my listening habits. Most prominently, I compiled some playlists using the year-end “best of” postings on this blog - one for each year since I started posting in 2011. Although I still prefer listening to full albums, making these lists was pretty satisfying and provided me with a plan of attack for expanding the library on my computer.

Then, dangerously, I got to thinking: would it be possible for me to reconstruct my listening history and memory episodes well enough to retroactively create a top ten list for a year without a formalized "best-of" list to go by? If so, how far back could I go?

Well, the blog started in 2011 as a way to satisfy the writing addiction that I had generated during my master's thesis. Its seeds, however, were actually sown way back in the early 00’s, when I was a decently ranked Amazon reviewer. Using these prototypical postings as a starting point, I was able to assemble pretty satisfying lists that stretch all the way back to 2000.

To set the stage, it is worth mentioning that the progressive rock “supergroup” Transatlantic released their debut album SMPTe in 2000. Although it did not make the top 10, the album had a huge impact on my listening habits that year. My investigations into Transatlantic led me down a virtual prog rock rabbit hole. The list reveals that I was clearly in the throes of this “progressive rock renaissance” in 2000. There was also a smattering of power pop, local, and alternative music, which were the primary strands I was following at the turn of the century.

10. Spock’s Beard - V: By 2000, I had already ordered all of Spock’s Beard’s back catalog from progressive rock websites. In some ways, V felt like a culmination of all of their work, and served as the template for Neal Morse’s contributions to Transatlantic.

9. Radiohead - Kid A: For a good portion of 2000, I theorized that if The Bends was Radiohead’s Joshua Tree, and if OK Computer was their Achtung Baby, then Kid A could be their Zooropa, which was not intended to be a compliment. Time has shown this analogy to be foolhardy, however, and Kid A ended up launching the band on a creative trajectory that informs their path even today.

8. The Flower Kings - Flowerpower: This was one of the albums that Transatlantic led me to, and was my introduction to the group. At over two hours of music, it’s a lot to take in at once, but in terms of quality material it stands as one of my favorite Flower Kings releases.

7. King Crimson - The ConstruKCtion of Light: The detuned vocals that opened lead track “Prozac Blues” clearly announced that this would be a unique iteration of Crimson. Once the initial shock wore off, however, The ConsctruKCtion of Light proved its legitimacy in the band’s catalog.

6. Aimee Mann - Bachelor No. 2: I admit that my reception of this album was a bit lukewarm in 2000, mainly because I was disappointed that Jon Brion’s (whose work I was obsessed with thanks to The Greys) fingerprint was not as prominent as it had been on its predecessor I’m With Stupid.  Time has been incredibly kind to it, though, and although clearly being associated with the year 2000 in my mind, Bachelor No. 2 has also transcended this time, earning “classic” status.

5. Kevin Gilbert - The Shaming of the True: This is an incredibly heartfelt rock opera by one of the industry’s most tragically unrecognized musicians. Gilbert passed on before it was completed, but Nik D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard compiled and released it posthumously, allowing Gilbert’s unique genius to shine brightly one last time.

4. Porcupine Tree - Lightbulb Sun: I was gobbling up Porcupine Tree during this period, and I know that I also was into The Sky Moves Sideways, Signify, and Voyage 34 in 2000. Lightbulb Sun, the immediate successor to the pristine Stupid Dream, was the standout.

3. Dream Theater - Scenes from a Memory: This still stands in my mind as Dream Theater’s finest moment, where it seemed as if they might evolve into something beyond prog-metal. Alas, they fell into the trap of their own nostalgia and have never quite recapture the magic of this great rock opera.

2. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin: In 2000, this album was nothing short of magical. I spent a whole summer driving around Denton with this gleefully blasting out of my car windows.

2000 Album of the Year
1. Chomsky - A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life: If you were around me at all in early 2000, I guarantee that I tried to get you to listen to this album. I loved everything about it - its energy, its angularity, its quirkiness, its intelligence, and its surreal album art.