Archive for October, 2008

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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

October 17, 2008

What a pleasant surprise that two of 2008s best releases are somewhat stylistically similar. Both Gregor Samsa’s Rest and Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are introspective melancholy masterworks that deserve great praise and attention, but the latter might be both more difficult and rewarding.

Grouper is actually the work of a single individual, Portland Oregon’s folk/noise aficionado Liz Harris. There is very little information available on the artist. But this album will surely spark interest and cause a greater population of listeners to continue searching, in vain, for more information. But until the inevitable day when she hits it big, pretty much all that listeners will have to go on is her distinctive style which she articulates quite extensively on her studio albums, the latest of which is Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

As far as style goes on prior releases, Grouper’s genre is hard to pin down, perhaps most appropriately described as creepy atmospheric music, but on Dead Deer, Harris’s style is reduced to a singular approach. Almost every song consists solely of Harris on guitar and vocals, but the trick is that both of these instruments are multiplied. A very thick layer of distortion covers both like a blanket, causing them to resonate out into the atmosphere, and the vocals are occasionally doubled for harmonic effect, although their lyrical content is almost completely indecipherable.

This is probably the album’s most frustrating quality; the vast majority of Liz Harris’s vocals here are impossible to understand, too muddled under the thick distortion to decipher. What little is understandable is not passively heard. One has to concentrate on the vocals of the songs to realize their content, which mostly involves sleep, water, and dissociation from reality. However, the effect the distortion has on the lyrics is outweighed by what the production does for the music, which in turn matches these lyrical preoccupations quite well. From the opening chords of Disengaged, the production ruminates of stormy waters, the sparse melodies threaten to lull the listener into a deep sleep, and lonely, sad, and yearning chord progressions carry along.

All of these qualities, especially strung out over an entire release with little stylistic diversion, would presumably come together to make a very cold, unwelcoming album, but in fact the opposite is true. The production actually does the album’s atmosphere good, causing chords to echo out into the darkness like a flickering candle. In theory this should be a very creepy sounding album, but it is instead both startlingly melancholic and warmly emotional.

Perhaps what makes it so affecting are its subtle intricacies. Songs often times match their titles, namely the aforementioned excellent opener Disengaged, but even more recognizably the longest piece on the album, Stuck, whose progression is in constant conflict with itself and cannot seem to move on. Also very atmospherically distinctive and appropriately named are the barren Wind And Snow, and the following Tidal Wave, the album’s two most important songs, and opposite sides of the same coin.

These more texture based pieces work in good conjunction with the album’s more memorable melodies, namely the easy pick for best song Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping, the faster paced Fishing Bird, and the fractured title track. But the highlights don’t stop there. At first glance Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill seems like an awfully samesy album, but upon repeated listens the subtle differences between tracks flesh themselves out and each song becomes its own entity. Perhaps the most startling piece on the album is the quiet Invisible. Harris lightly sings, once again barely interpretable, “Invisible/I’ve become invisible” over her most simplistic, almost childlike melody on the album.

It is here that we realize that Dragging A Dead Deer up a hill is an album filled with secrets that will most likely never be fully understood. Even the title and art seem to be extremely important to the overall product, and yet there is no evidence as to what they mean. It is hard to say whether this was intended to simply be a collection of songs or a sort of narrative either literally or symbolically based off of the album’s creepy title, but in any case Dead Deer has an eerie, unexplainable cohesion. In this way the album’s form matches the style of its songs. It is easy to feel the presence of what is there behind the music when considering all of its subtle intricacies and almost tantalizing questions that are constantly asked but never quite answered, and for this reason, the music itself is that much easier to cling onto and appreciate. Because of all of these elements, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill proves to be one of the most complex and rewarding albums of the year.

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Mudhoney – The Lucky Ones

October 11, 2008

The Lucky Ones is Mudhoney’s third album in three years, following 2006’s Under A Billion Suns and 2007’s live album Live Mud. The godfathers of grunge have not been this prolific since at least fifteen years ago, although their attitude seems not to have changed much since their heyday. This works both to their advantage and disadvantage, but mostly the former. The band’s previous studio album, Under A Billion Suns, was arguably the most dramatic departure in style of Mudhoney’s entire career to that point; politically charged lyrics, slow grooves, noisy horn sections and a crystal clear production made the album one of Mudhoney’s most distinct. It was promptly dismissed as one of their worst. Fans and critics alike seemed to find the new sound uncharacteristic of Mudhoney’s typical shamelessly testosterone fueled punk, and thus undesirable. Undesirable, despite the fact that the album was the band’s best album since My Brother The Cow. Perhaps what turned people off about Under A Billion Suns was the change. What fans love about Mudhoney albums are Mark Arm’s snarling vocals, Steve Turner’s dirty riffing, Dan Peters’ booming percussion, and the distinctively grungy production values that have always supported all of these, qualities that have not diminished in power in twenty years. What Mudhoney fans really love are the occasional noisy, obnoxious, samesy punk releases that the band put out every couple years. But appreciating Under A Billion Suns is a rewarding task that is parallel to more current band issues, namely The Lucky Ones, the loud punk record that fans definitely wanted instead. And the album is probably the band’s most balls out album in over a decade. One might relate the color scheme of the album cover to that of Fun House by The Stooges, and the comparison would be quite valid. Even from the opening number I’m Now, the ass swinging influence of The Stooges is apparent. And continuing throughout, The Lucky Ones is a loud, beat driven, horny album that goes back to Mudhoney’s roots. In fact, many songs here show Mudhoney louder, faster, and more cutting than ever heard before. The album also has momentum that Under A Billion Suns never quite had, saving some of its hardest hitters for close to last. The Open Mind is particularly rocking, maybe even danceable with its off beat accents. But the album’s finest moment, or perhaps second finest only to the scalding title track, is Tales of Terror, a fierce punk dirty bomb that shows every member at possibly the most rocking in their entire careers, particularly Mark Arm, whose legendary screaming vocals aren’t even a tiny step down from what they were in the 80s. If a lack of change is Mudhoney’s minor weakness, it is also their greatest strength. Mudhoney are still kicking ass and taking names, now more vicious than ever before, and although most Seattle grunge bands have fizzled out, these guys are still screwing your daughter and making a ruckus just like they were two decades ago.

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Space Monkeyz vs. Gorillaz: Laika Come Home

October 7, 2008

In some ways, releasing Laika Come Home, a remix album consisting entirely of dub remixes of songs from the first Gorillaz album, was a good idea, because dub remixes very well might have appealed to the same market that the first Gorillaz album did. However, Laika Come Home was both peripheral and unnecessary. The intention was to make chilled out versions of the songs from the self titled album, but whoever made the executive decision to make Laika somehow forgot that Gorillaz was already a chilled out album, and the cutting edge of modern hip hop. So making a reggae remix album for it was both redundant and pointless. However, it seems apparent that the Spacemonkeyz have some kind of talent. Laika at the very least is quite well produced, and they write some fairly good hooks to accompany Damon Albarn’s work here. However, the album feels like less of a remix album so much as a dub album of its own that samples the Gorillaz every once in a while (and pretty poorly at that). Song selection is also rather scattered. Hard rockers M1A1 and Punk are chosen for the mix, the former simply a bad decision to remix and the latter having virtually no resemblance to the original whatsoever. Also, songs with obvious dub potential are ignored, Latin Simone and Dracula. Beyond these objective facts, Laika Come Home simply is not a fun listen. During a continuous play, the listener will likely either get bored, develop a strong desire to smoke a joint, or simply fall asleep. For that reason, this album will mostly only appeal to reggae fans, and mostly bore the rest of us. But despite these fundamental flaws, there are a few scattered treasures to be found here. Strictly Rubbadub and Crooked Dub are the obvious winners, and a couple other songs can be enjoyable if the listener is in the mood for this kind of thing