The Roundup: May 2017
Normally I’d make some commentary about the days getting longer and warmer, but I live in Texas now. It never got cold. It is a blazing hell-scape with no shelter. Please send help. For the moment I am also skipping on writing about the classical, jazz, and folk music I listened to until I can get better at writing about those genres. Currently I write the same garbage for each over and over. It is not a great read for all 10 of you. I will also be trying some slightly different writing this month. Hopefully its not too terrible.
Qurious – Void Vanishing
I was recommended this group a while ago, under the allure that they were an alternative approach to the increasingly saturated world of “electronic” music. I must admit that I am less adept to the billion sub-genres that do actually make up this realm of music, so when the idea of “alternative electronic” music came up I was definitely curious (see what I did there) to find out what it was about. Void Vanishing is intensely mellow, but rich. Movements are slow and melodic like musical molasses. The music never really builds, it is vulnerable from the get go, absent of trick punches or pitfalls that would offset a casual listener. The vocals add a haunted layer, inquisitive and in despair. I am eager to learn more about Qurious and their discography as this album proves electronic music has so many realms to explore yet.
Mono – Live In Melbourne
When it comes to Post-Rock, and the world of slow build marathon songs, Mono is one of the few bands I can really stand behind. Recently seeing This Will Destroy You live put me into deep speculation about seeing or hearing this type of group in a live format as it felt like I was listening to a CD with a few actors moving slowly onstage. There was no slow build, but only meticulous crafting of dreary drone. Live In Melbourne was a dangerous gamble indeed then, what could Mono provide the listener in a live context? Answer: a purely monstrous experience, full of savage build, dense climax, and experimental walls of sound. Mono apparently runs wild in the live. The twin guitarists take the time to take their dreamy guitar work and convert it into the torch that leads to the depths of hell. Distortion runs high, the drums are more pointed, less dull and muted, and the bass work is like a jackhammer, a pulsating drive that keeps the chaos on the rails. And it does stay on the rails beautifully, yes sometimes that train may look like it is on fire, but it always arrives at the station in a composed manner. It is a strange mix of focused attention to detail, and Frankensteinesque madness. Mono fans need to listen, and non-fans should give it a try in order to understand how a live act should take their music to another level.
Mono – Requiem For Hell
The previous live album was recorded in support of Requiem For Hell, one of most energetic of Mono‘s deep catalog. Although to be fair, for Mono that is not saying much, as if to say this person in the coma ward is the most lively. That is not a ding on Mono, but their expertise is in the slow devastating build-up of melodic beauty and dissonant horror. Requiem For Hell has genuine moments where one could groove and shake to the music, a moment I never anticipated, but in typical Mono fashion it comes with the caveat of despair. The bouncing drums may have a jovial nature to them, but they are paired with anxiety induced guitars, tense and uneasy about their purpose in the mixture of this music. While previous albums have demanded attention for the immensely deep musical textures, Requiem is a bit more to the point sonically, with thinner (by Mono standards), more tension filled work. That is until you hit the wall of sound interludes that remind you that these guys, and gal, are not in the mood for a fun time. Not only is Requiem For Hell a great follow-up for a stellar discography it is also a great entry point from a band that has not always been listener friendly. A safe starting point for a deeply underappreciated band that is as emotionally charged as they are sharp about their musical choices.
Big Walnuts Yonder – Big Walnuts Yonder
Big Walnuts Yonder is a project announced long ago, teased for ages, and now finally being delivered to eager listeners. There is good reason for the strong appetite for this album, as it features freak-guitarist prodigy Nick Reinhart as well the indie legend Mike Watt, Wilco alum Nel Cline, and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof. With a line-up like that what is not to love? A patchwork of ideas being passed around, Big Walnuts, is a Lego project where everyone received different instructions as to how the end result would look. That is worrisome in concept, as the end result surely should be a complete train wreck of well-intended disasters, but something beautifully disturbed has bloomed from Big Walnuts. The music is indeed disjointed, jagged, and unwelcoming. There are not a lot of soft touches, but those who dare journey beyond the tangled barbs this album throws at you will be rewarded with a disturbed dystopia of rock music, one where mainstream radio has been destroyed and has been replaced with something akin to Fury Road. Reinhart, ever the sonic-wizard does a fantastic job of balancing pure chaos and softer touches, ensuring he is not the records only star. Everyone has a moment in this jumbled surfer-acid-freak-math rock journey. Those starving for more Tera Melos, Hella, or similarly chaotic music with a boyish charm will adore it, others may find it repugnant, but may be hard-pressed to discount it for its efforts.
Death Grips – Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber Megamix)
When Death Grips plunged into memedom in around 2014 their initial credibility as the villains of music, the anonymous force of violence in hip-hop was eradicated by the cheap remixes, photoshops, and inane theories postulated by redditors, youtubers, and the internet in general. Death Grips as an art installment, as it appears they wished to be perceived as, was a failure, lost in the ether of a fanbase that had no qualms exploiting others with inflated record prices and the lauding of Anthony Fantano as being their de facto promoter. Reality is, Death Grips the art exhibit existed long before, the brainchild of some seriously creative, and far-out, west coast experimental musicians. The image they wished to project was lost in the fan-base they never knew they would attract. They became their own worst nightmare, and despite numerous attempts at shocking, offending, and pissing off their lovers they never could shake them, as every move they made, despite its intention, was considering genius or hilarious. The group made the wise decision to lean into it, to ditch their early career persona and accept they were part of a grand meme that was printing money despite all logic dictating otherwise. Steroids is a celebration of this, a completely over the top 20 some minute thrill ride of pure nonsense and studio butchery. Songs cut-out randomly, smash together with completely different sounding musical ideas, and then collide again with others. The music is erratic and unfocused, the title being fitting, as it bounces around in an unfocused destructive manner. MC Ride, less interested in pointed and venomous flow of his earlier work, has resorted to chanting like PCP incarnate, exploding with thought in a possessed manner. His restrain is lost, and his id is completely unhinged. The whole one track EP is an eruption of ideas, seemingly without a focal point, until you realize this is a thesis on carnage itself. Most listeners will find it as another cute side-idea for the band, but others may find the fury intriguing, and another attempt to shake off their childish fanbase, a chance at a potential fresh start.
Various Artists – The Rough Guide To Latin Psychedelia
I included this on the list, less because I wanted to actually review the music, but more because these releases are becoming more and more prevalent in record store bins and therefore I feel they have to be addressed. Go into any decent size record store and you will stumble upon “rough guides to psychedelia” from all over the globe. I was really skeptical as they seemed like clever ways to make a buck on some music a record label had rights to, but was not sure what to do with. There is a level of skepticism I find in just reading the title and looking at the album cover. Vinyl has become a corporate venture, a way to exploit music lovers due to its growing resurgence. Everyone it seems is out to make a quick buck. Fortunately, my cynicism was put to the test as this two album collection truly is a strange odyssey of phaser heavy Latin music from a lost era. You have to be ready for those dance-inducing 6/8 rhythms before you get into it, but if you do invest some energy you will be treated to a strange universe of artists who were melding ideas that never made it too far from their origin point. Although I still feel mostly uncertain about vinyl’s big boom, on the plus side, the unknowns are finally getting a chance to have a moment in the sun, even if it is just fleeting.
Tobacco – Maniac Meat
Tobacco has been on my hit list for a while, a promising experimental electronic artist who combines a lot of crazy ideas into one mischievous melting pot. Experimental indeed as Tobacco, like an atom smasher, takes loads of unpleasant ideas and sounds and crashes them together. Organic synthesizers are twisted beyond recognition, tortured into contorted shapes and patterns. There is an appeal to Tobacco‘s electronic torture chamber, it is unsettling, and generates tension internally. All that unpleasant feeling, however, leaves a critical issue with the album, it is hard to enjoy. I admire Tobacco, I admire his attention to detail, his finesse in creating a complete nightmare, but his hard work has left an album that is so gross and so unpleasant that I can not find myself coming back to it. Even the album cover has me wincing in fear and the prospect of having to listen to those haunted Beta Max tapes spewing their viscera into my ear canals. As a random aside, Stretch Your Face, the second to last track, is the opening song from Silicon Valley.
Renaissance – Ashes Are Burning
On Ashes Are Burning there is a track called Carpet On The Sun, which triggered how I truly felt about the album, what if The Carpenters did a prog album? Songs sprawl and flex their prog muscles, but it all feels a bit toothless. Everything is pleasant and clean, written well enough, but it feels like it is trying to move a mountain with polite suggestions. Even in its strongest moments nothing ever feels strongly spoken, or truly passionate. I do not know anything about Renaissance as a band, so you will have to pardon the speculation, but there is a feeling of clever marketing gone awry here. Either a pop band wanted to hop on the fading prog fad in 1973, or a prog band wanted to hop off the train as the heyday for prog bands had begun to vanish. Either way there is this feeling of insincerity throughout, a mixture of ideas that felt good on paper, but come across too toothless for a genre known for being comically over the top and “epic” and too meandering for adult-contemporary fans. It leaves me wondering how this idea could work, how the marrying of mellow piano work and long meandering epics about dragons could ever be successful, and if you are finding that thinking about the music is more enjoyable than listening to it you may already have your answer.
PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me
I am currently in the process of going through a few “Best of 90’s” music lists. The 90’s are interesting era of music, a complete rejection of catchy hooks and technical expertise in exchange for expression of mood through tone and minimalism. For some listeners this creates a lush if not dreary world of pain and suffering through heavy distortion and amplifier manipulation. Albums like Loveless are less about the verse and chorus and more about the weight they carry through their dense layers of tone. I give respect to this notion as it often took months if not years of experimenting to create these sounds, but the counter-point is that for someone not so well-versed in this type of song writing it can come off very vapid and redundant. One wall of sound can easily blend into the next without a trained set of ears, much like one IPA tastes just like the next unless you are the kind of person who really is into that type of taste-bud abuse. Rid Of Me starts on very treacherous grounds. The first four tracks are roughly mixed drone heavy alt-rock that is iconic of the 90’s era, unforgiving waves of distorted guitars and bass that may enthrall some, but leave me bored and desperate for anything to take over. Salvation does come though, as PJ Harvey takes a quick shift in direction as around track 5 things begin to erupt in colorful displays of musicality. Her emotions and pain begin to be expressed in more than just shrieks barely rising above the wall of sound. Songs like Yuri G prove that the 90’s can do more than just an audio assault and craft fast moving, witty songs that offer bold dynamic choices. I was won over by the end of the album, but to imagine going through the first few songs again is to imagine having to listen to a lecture of paint drying in order to attend an orgy.
Manu Chao – Proxima Estacion… Esperanza
Rare does a non-English album rise to the top of the heap in America, which should be considered criminal as so many great pieces of music are flat out ignored simply because they are not in a familiar language. In the early 2000’s Manu Chao was one of those rare exceptions of a foreign artist being given a nod despite his non-English lyrics. So what is it that gives an album that opportunity? What is it about this album specifically that allowed this album to flourish while many other brilliant foreign artists floundered in their US efforts. I feel there are two factors. First, obviously, this is simply brilliant music. Manu Chao’s Latin inspired playing is melded with a multitude of different styles including reggae, alternative rock, and even a dash of hip-hop. He strives to keep himself genuine to his roots while paying respect to a wide variety of different styles and having this executed in a multitude of languages with Arabic, English, French, Galician, Portuguese and Spanish all being represented on this album. Second, there is a universality to this album. Some of that is noted prior, but it bears repeating. Manu shows how his music can represent cultural heritage, but also pay homage to genres more familiar to the broader world. Suddenly the sounds make the listener forget, even if only for a moment, that the words are not in a language they understand. An album that can do that is a gem and should be considered as such.
Frank Zappa – Live In El Paso 05.23.1975
I had ventured away from discussing bootlegs on The Roundup for a while, not for any specific reason, but the fewer times any readers read another gushing love letter to The Mars Volta or their associated acts the better. I have been apprehensive about the topic for a while, but Line In El Paso changed my mind for one core reason, Captain Beefheart. For a brief period, Captain Beefheart joined the Mothers Of Invention due to his need for money and due to his inability to tour or put out a record because he signed so many conflicting contracts. There is only one official account of this joint venture in Bongo Fury, a brilliant album which does acknowledge the highlights of Beefheart’s contributions to The Mothers, but what is lost is the rest of the music that was being performed at the time by the group. The tour was not purely Beefheart, and the bootleg here helps confirm and celebrate this fact. This was near the end of the formal The Mothers‘ existence. Zappa would kill the group in short time and instead simply sell his live carnival as a solo effort. It is a shame there was never an official release of this era as the band is on point, executing songs with exact precision, and with that uncanny Zappa humor which is loved and hated. Songs like Apostrophe and Pound For A Brown are massive in presence and force, putting in the spotlight a band that had no peers. In El Paso, The Mothers and Beefheart are on display as a mutant joint venture, but what was lost in Bongo Fury but presented here, is how each separate entity shined on its own.
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