Archive for April, 2008

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Portishead – Third

April 29, 2008

I am extremely impressed with Portishead’s willingness to return to their trade after a ten year hiatus. It can’t be easy to get back into the swing of things, but with all of their live performances running back to their curation of last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties to the release of this album, Portishead have proved that they haven’t lost their steam and they are still a staple of their genre.

On the first listen, two songs stood out to me especially, The Rip and Deep Water. Both songs have major tonalities and feature acoustic guitars. What this immediately reminded me of was the tenderness of It Could Be Sweet from the bands debut album, Dummy, although lyrically these songs are still dismal enough to be characteristic of Beth Gibbons’ style while It Could Be Sweet was a unique departure. The Rip showcases simple acoustic arpeggios before it transitions smoothly into a steady rhythm, with the same arpeggios played with a synthesizer. Deep Water is equally as tender and lovely. The song is a simple ukulele strum played over some of Gibbons’ most touching lyrics to date. There is no rhythm, just a fleeting minute and a half of grace and joy.

And then, those dirty little rascals, they use the innocence of Deep Water to highlight the deep contrast of emotions that this album showcases by exploding into its polar opposite. Right when you closed your eyes and fall asleep on the island surrounded by deep water, a B-52 with a giant “P” painted on the side nukes it. Machine Gun is as rhythmically catchy as the band has ever been. It is horny and bass heavy to the point that it is disturbing. Machine Gun is excellent, as it goes back to the vibe of Dummy by succeeding in being tragic as well as sexy, yet this time bare in comparison to the intricate dressings that might be found on the self titled album. A juggernaut of a single, with one hell of a scope.

If that self titled album could be considered a pinpointed rifle shot, Third is a spread from a sawed off shotgun. The years of preparation pay off with a slew of ideas that are successfully pursued throughout. A brutal waltz, gentle elegies, and disorganized shards of emotion are spread throughout the album, yet have several unifying elements. One of them is that they are designed to surprise with various extremes of different musical dimensions. Another is that most have booming bass tones.

The most important element, however, is Beth Gibbons’ vocals. Beth has always been the centerpiece of the music. Make no mistake, the group would be nothing without any one of its members. Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley have crafted music that is exciting and effective, but Beth is half of the puzzle. She has progressed stylistically as well. The self titled featured quite violent, wicked vocal performances. Those on Third are instead fragile, withering, and wispy. A defining moment on the album is near the end of the final track, Threads, where her voice seems to meld with the music. It is hard to say whether the sound is actually her, a synthesizer, a horn, or a guitar, so much as a pulsating body of sound. Then, percussion takes over just as the vocals reach their most expressive projection. We hear her fade out and periodic violent geysers of sound take over, separated by silence. Communication is clearly not an issue with the members of Portishead.

Portishead’s sense of danger and sexual tension finds new ground on Third. Some songs are left deceptively simple and bare, and others are haunted by instruments the band has never used before. In general, Third is dressed down compared to s/t’s dense soundscapes, making the pieces less detailed but more poignant. There are many surprises to be found here. Songs unravel themselves slowly, like on the previous two albums, but it becomes obvious that this album is much less lackluster than it seems at first listen, and it is really more organized, complex, and engaging than either of the preceding albums. Third is, like the other two Portishead albums, a sexy, hip, dark masterpiece, and it completes a triad of excellence.

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Bjork – Medulla

April 17, 2008

In 2005, Bjork Guomundsdottir (I’m not spelling that again.) continued her streak of relatively organic albums with Medulla. The preceding Vespertine was a huge success, an achingly beautiful album with more individual style than even the vastly successful Homogenic. The concept for Medulla was to make an album comprised completely of vocals and vocal samples. These voices are not bare, and are given electronic lifts and touchups throughout, but still, the vast majority of the album is spent exploring the human voice, the world’s oldest and most direct musical instrument.

Bjork said in an interview for the making of the album that she has passed the point where she can make music by herself, unaccompanied. Although she has featured other artists in the past, Medulla features more other artists than any other Bjork album. It feels like a joint effort, a sort of carnival of tricks and surprises of which Bjork is the ringleader. She herself has not changed her vocal style much for the album. Or maybe her vocal style was fluid enough in the first place to attend to the concepts that Medulla has to offer.

The guest singers are, however, the interesting and compelling parts of the album. Not that Bjork can’t deliver a nice song on her own. Desired Constellations, for example, is a brilliant little gem dotted with electronic blips that may or may not be highly distorted vocal samples, and comes from Bjork and Bjork alone. But the finest songs on here are accompanied. The high point of the album, Who Is It (Carry My Joy On The Left, Carry My Pain On The Right), features both champion beatboxer Rahzel and Mike Patton of Faith No More. As Bjork presents her slyly articulate voice in one of her most emotional performances, Rahzel cranks out intricate snaps and growls with his singular voice, and Patton produces waves of low bass tones like a singing humpback whale.

It is a shame that the rest of the album cannot live up to this brilliance, save maybe the last song, Triumph of a Heart, with Japanese vocal effect wizard Dokaka. The song is a full out dance track, although one you probably wouldn’t hear in even the most liberal dance club. There are some other good songs that take a long time to unwrap themselves and become enjoyable. However, this is a standard process for Bjork albums. Vokuro, for example, is a reserved choral piece that succeeds by keeping things simple. The more of these gems one can uncover for themselves, the better.

Despite these moments of purity, Bjork still overplays her cards, moreso than on any of her other albums. Most songs feel like mixed bags, with singular great ideas that are marred by the artists desire to push her boundaries. Where Is The Line is the perfect example of botched excellence. It also features Rahzel’s beatboxing for its foundation. His sequenced vocal samples seem to rhythmically play around Bjork’s vocals. The song is broad in scope, which is perhaps it’s problem. Although potentially excellent, it refuses to settle into its finest segments. Rahzel’s ancient swagger is wasted when Bjork decides to turn the song into a production experiment. Another such song, Oceania, was composed for the 2004 Olympic Games. It is a nice song, but musically and lyrically inappropriate for any prestigious event.

The reason that Medulla does not shine as bright as the other albums, and the reason that most of her lesser songs are unmemorable, are because Bjork tries too hard to push her boundaries and do something different or experimental. She is a pop artist, who has produced such defining melodies as Venus As A Boy, Isobel, Bachelorette, and Aurora. Her gift of talent to write simple, flowing melodies, is sacrificed for the majority of Medulla. Her treatment of the vocalists is also a mixed bag. Rahzel was a great idea, and so was Mike Patton. Dokaka and Rahzel work the last song like magic…sweet, dance candy. These three artists could have helped shape the album into a fun, rhythmic showcase for vocal talent, particularly Bjork’s. And really, isn’t Bjork’s voice the main reason we love her, and how she made her break in the first place?

While Rahzel and Patton’s performances are great, Bjork botches them on a few occasions, such as the Where Is The Line mishap and the awkward performance of Submarine. The song Ancestors probably should have never happened. While I am sure Tanya Tagaq Gillis is a fine throat singer, no one really wants to hear throat singing. Brave? Yes. Necessary? No.

While Medulla is hardly a bad album, it is easily the least accomplished of Bjork’s studio albums, mostly because her wonderful pop sensibilities are underutilized. The listener naturally clings to what is catchy and vocally impressive. These are the cornerstones of the album, and much of the rest is extraneous meat that could have been shaved off. It is obvious that Bjork’s creative masturbation will never end, but this is alright, because we like a lot of it. The difference is that Medulla seems made to please the mind more than the ear.

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Zoät·Aon – Star Autopsy

April 12, 2008

Star Autopsy

Star Autopsy is a cave.

It is probably the most interesting cave you have ever heard. It has many winding passages and a large, open atrium. Throughout the course of the album, the cave is invaded by millions of bats. It is abducted by aliens. Then, it is dropped into the middle of a jungle. After this, it is exposed to a great deal of ritualistic degredation. It sees heaven, and it sees hell.

But nonetheless, it is a cave, and you don’t really want to listen to a cave.

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The Ludvico Treatment – Romanticism

April 6, 2008

It has been established that there is such thing as new, original shoegaze, although it is rare and usually disposable. And then there is the majority of the genre, the stuff that sticks close to the roots and does not really bring anything new to the table. I could fill pages of albums from bands that have no originality whatsoever and are nothing more than a pack of cigarettes to be smoked through, and the carton thrown away. The Ludvico Treatment are probably just another band of this type, but something about them is compelling.

It baffles me that this is the first shoegaze album entitled Romanticism. The word might as well be the unflappable thesis of the genre. That said, Romanticism doesn’t just stay in one place like most ripoff shoegaze bands do. It explores the nooks and crannies of the genre better than any other shoegaze album I have ever encountered, and I have encountered many. Each song seems to come from a different direction. Of course, there has to be My Bloody Valentine influence, and the opening track 16:22 makes a not so underhanded throwback to Only Shallow. But it is likeable, in any case. The gentle Affectations is more attuned to The Catherine Wheel. Olivia My Love screams Ride. And perhaps the most interesting influence, and I’m pretty sure about this one, is the obscure My Bloody Valentine rarity, 2, which surfaces through the second to last song on Romanticism, (Everything.). Amazing.

In a word, this is an album that shoegaze entrepreneurs (if there is such a thing) will oogle over for longer than usual, because it tries more than one style. Which means they don’t really have any particular style or sound to distinguish them. We weren’t expecting them to. The flipside is that The Ludvico treatment can write some pretty nice pop melodies, and we love shoegaze, so it is a winning combo. Highlights are not few. Olivia My Love is the bittersweet aural sonnet. Affectations is a reminder that acoustic guitars do work in shoegaze if handled well enough. I was particularly impressed with Let Love Come in Through the Window. It surprised me. It sounded like it was going to be trite jock rock, or nu-metal, or something, up until the chorus, which turns everything inside out. Shoegaze doesn’t usually have screaming. It works here.

Romanticism has a couple sinkers, though. …And He Is Trapped in Ever After has a very tired melody. The closer, 11.22.63, is mostly angry Crossfade-esque guitar work played over a recording of the famous news report covering the Kennedy assassination as it happened on said date. It feels like wasted time that this cliche ends up being the album’s closing statement.

It should also be said that for a self released album, the production values here are impeccable. They almost sound too good for me to believe they aren’t professional. If they aren’t, they were probably slaved over. The moody, acoustic pieces are quite well treated, and the walls of noise sound refined. Whoever did this job gets mad props.

Romanticism is fun, more fun than most disposable shoegaze albums I have heard. It is still wishy washy, and the band has not developed a style here. I would expect a second album to steer itself more in one direction. Guesses? Maybe either mostly gentle acoustic based pieces, or a loud noisefest that might cater more to the punk influences that are buried in the annals of the genre. But how the hell should I know? I wanted a quick fix of shoegaze. That’s what I got, no more, no less. I’ll remember this one for being fun. And the fact that I will remember it says something.

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Meshuggah – obZen

April 2, 2008

In a nutshell, Meshuggah are the heaviest metal band I have ever heard, and arguably the most sophisticated. Each of their albums has something to be said for it individually, but their style of being reliably unpredictable has kept up without being much different. It sounds strange, I know. It is a bizarre contradiction. In that way, stylistic differences between obZen and Meshuggah’s previous records are subtle. The album shreds with tonal spikes, crushes with breakneck beats, and booms with growling vocals in the same way that the previous albums did. But now, they occasionally pull a hint of mysticism out of their bag of tricks. The difference is almost negligible.

But it doesn’t tire me out. ObZen is the culmination of Meshuggah’s style thus far. All of the band’s good aspects are rolled into a single, compact album that doesn’t waste much time. In terms of production, the guitars still sound very heavy, and are still as far as I know the same type of guitars used on I and the Nothing re-release, that is, downtuned eight strings. Fredrik Thordendal has created some of his most instantly memorable riffs here. Tomas Haake is back on live drums after a break during the recording of Catch Thirty Three, which used a drum machine. Haake is the centerpiece of the band. His rhythms are considerable at the very least because they are complex and take an unfathomable degree of talent to produce, and the drum production is heated and inward. Thordendal’s guitar parts seem to ride along Haake’s heavy low-toned rhythms like a menacing crow resting on the head of a rhinoceros, except both animals are on crack and are charging forward at full speed.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped trying to count rhythms. I mean, in general. When listening to music. I did not think about them. When playing a song, it would come naturally to me, and I became more at ease with music that features complex rhythms and syncopation. Breakbeats from Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, for example, are one of the numerous hurdles I cleared to reach the point where my rhythmic comfort zone exploded. When I first listened to Meshuggah, I had not reached this point.

I have clearly become comfortable with Meshuggah’s rhythms by now, by realizing that there is no way I could possibly keep up with them. That said, the signposts for any Meshuggah songs are difficult to pinpoint. The drums and guitars are too huge and complex to be signposts, and all of the vocals sound the same. It isn’t easy getting acquainted and comfortable with Meshuggah, but it is a battle worth winning. The opening Combustion is one of the band’s most memorable and adrenaline charged songs. It is followed up by comparably moody Electric Red, and then the sonic firestorm of Bleed. Although obZen pulls its best cards first, it rarely slips up. Pineal Gland Optics is also a standout, and Dancers To A Discordant System rounds everything off quite nicely.

ObZen differentiates itself by simply being of high quality. Although there isn’t a hell of a lot new going on for the band, they have at the very least constructed their tightest collection of songs to date. ObZen ties the experimental EP I for the most representative Meshuggah release, and in full album form. All of Meshuggah’s trademarks are here. Crushing, geometric storms of drums and guitars are periodically interrupted by guitar solos, some of which are fast with complex modes, others that are slow, unaccompanied, dissonant noises which contrast impending doom.

Although it seems as if Meshuggah have reached their stylistic boundaries, that did not stop them from making an awfully good album to kick off 2008. Fans will find familiar excellence, and new listeners would be encouraged to start here.