Friday, July 10, 2009

Looking for a Bit of Harmony

The last two years of law school and the birth of kids #2 and #3 have pulled me away from my previously scheduled programming. But a little observation begs me to jot down this post on a crisp, feel-good Friday evening.

The observation is this: at this particular moment, it might be the Beach Boys, not the Beatles, that are the preeminent, overriding influence in the best indie pop/rock of-the-moment (I admit that I have deliberately cut-out the entire realm of Sonic Youth/Replacements/Pavement-influenced indie rock). For the Beatles, it was about endless imagination with pop song structure and melodic inventiveness that wove through anyone making "pop" music. And that's still there, but the most innovative music I've been hearing for the last year or two has been a little less concerned with pop structure and melody and more concerned with HARMONY--the intricate, complex, layered and gorgeous kind. That's not to say structure and melody have been jettisoned as much as the emphasis has shifted in a way I have not heard before. And, other than "post-rock," I also haven't heard much formal inventiveness in the pop field (underground or mainstream) in a long time (no, rehashing post-punk or dressing in kooky fashions (or going naked) is not inventive). And when I think of layered arrangements and harmonies, I think of the Beach Boys.

But the recent artists I'm thinking of are not merely pilfering a sound as an excuse to then market themselves with "image" and "attitude." Instead, the recent artists are succeeding in adding new layers of depth and complexity that have built upon the tradition that Wilson and the Boys so wonderfully elevated.

The Beach Boys influence is, surprisingly, most explicit in the most out-there of these albums: Panda Bear's Person Pitch, from 2007. The harmonies are sometimes almost identical to those conjured by Brian Wilson, but modern technology has allowed Panda Bear add track upon track of vocal overlays, turning up the density and richness, while also injecting just a dose or two of post-modern weirdness and trance-iness. The result is the feeling of a dizzying swoon of vocal motion, swirling while standing in place. Some of the indulgences do not help the album, but the layering is awe-inspiring and clearly drawn from the Beach Boys' well.

Check out "Bros" here.

Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear's Brooklyn neighbor and ursine cousin, also exalts its layering and harmonies. After 2007's breakthrough, Yellow House, the band has attained a new pinnacle with their 2009 album, Veckatimest. Most of the deliberately askew elements of the Panda Bear album were barred entry to this affair. The focus is almost entirely on beautiful harmonies that come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Spare the noize, thank you very much. The tracks sometimes swell and expand, while sometimes they simply glow and emanate a pale fire, but they don't "move" much. If you're looking for propulsion, this ain't it. But if you're not trying to get anywhere, except to dwell in a small space of radiance, this works delightfully.

Check out "Fine for Now" here.

The Fleet Foxes are the band that has come closest to matching their Beach Boys-gone-woodsy harmonies to accessible songs. Even then, I know several people who tell me that they don't hear "the tunes" in the Fleet foxes work. Those people are some of my friends, but they are wrong. I suspect the band's classic rock-era, Southern California influences conjure expectations of Fleetwood Mac/Crosby Still & Nash catchiness. If so, then, fine, the FFs "fail" (though the cathartic end section of their brilliant "Mykonos" follows a similar melodic line to the one CSN sing in "Ohio", "Gotta get down to it/soldiers are gunning us down/shoulda been done long ago..."). But the truth is that the tunes are there; they just don't always appear at the expected times and places. Stunning melodic hooks emerge throughout the album, often serendipitously 37% of the way through a song. The verses and chorus don't always follow standard format, but it makes the melodic and harmonic gems that much more magical when they emerge. The joy of following the twists in the snowy road till you find the magic valleys only gets stronger with more listens. Just as importantly, both the band's EP and full-length flow effortlessly through their sunshine, deep woods, wide skies, and cozy hearths, really riding their atmospherics and graceful dynamics. For a bunch of dudes in their early 20s, this is a spectacular accomplishment. A group with the potential to make it for the long haul and well worth keeping an eye on.

Check out "Ragged Wood" here and "Mykonos" here.

If we keep moving on our scale of increasing structure, we eventually arrive at the Dirty Projectors. On their dazzling Bitte Orca, the harmonies are not set on spiral, as with Panda Bear, nor on perma-glow, as with Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, but on flash-and-cut. While the feel on the other three albums is loose, sometimes sprawling, the sound here is more tightly wound, with quicker, sharper edits. But around each rhythmic corner a will o' wisp mini-firework of female vocals lies waiting, to delicately explode and then disappear before you blinked. There is an effervescent sparkle to the harmonies, rather than the langurous glow, and even a vaguely African-esque vibe, at times. It's a different feeling, not as Beach Boys-based, but every bit as intoxicating.

Check out "Cannibal Resource" here.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

If You Like Jeff Buckley, Then...

Jeff Buckley probably gets more deep swoons from more people than any 90s artist. More than Radiohead, more than Nirvana, more than Pavement (thank God). Guys, girls, teenagers, elder Boomers, passive radio listeners, hard core music fans, whatever, Jeff Buckley is that kind of artist. His was the kind of talent that was not just extravagant, but was also very open about its extravagance, wailing that you be fully aware of its brilliance. In a world in which everyone wants so desperately to be the star of their own movie and spends most of their waking hours constructing virtual personnae for themselves, it is only more awesome when you witness a true talent, a true star. That was Jeff.

But this type of magnificence presents a difficulty for recommendation purposes. If Jeff Buckley was truly so spectacular, who are you going to recommend that can possibly stand within his radiance without being burned to a cinder?

It's a tough trick (isn't it always?). Assume, for now, that we can't match the raw talent. Can we find something in Jeff's essence that is more attainable to the rest of the mortal world? That depends, since he has several essences. On a purely aesthetic/expressive level, his range flows from the worldly romanticism of Edith Piaf, to the poetic mysticism of Van Morrison, to the honey & vinegar soul of Nina Simone, and many others. So far, so good. He has that superhuman falsetto, not merely clear, but soaring and tearing at the same time. Still, so far so good. Other people have falsettos, too. If we count the artists that came in Jeff's wake and add in the artists that piled on after Radiohead's OK Computer, we could easily fill an entire book with emotive, male vocalists that feature aching falsettos. What most do not have that Jeff did have is a counterbalance to the fey fragility that the falsetto conveys. In Jeff's case, that counterbalance came from many hours with Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin. What it amounts to is rock star balls & bombast, melodrama backed by force. This is crucial. Most male vocalists who lay claim to "sounding like Jeff" have the sincerity, the emotion, the falsetto, but are completely devoid of ROCK. And that is the difference between a vulnerable young man and a neutered wuss.

I'm not above recommending some of these types of male singers to Jeff fans because I know that the surface appeal has some common factor, but I also know they fall short. Considering the masculinity issues at stake here, I think certain female vocalists probably get closer to the heart of Jeff's deep, yet narcissistic and virtuosic soulfulness than most males do. I'd say Tori Amos is the closest thing Jeff ever had to a true artistic peer during his lifetime. Although not devoid of her own flightiness, when it comes to laying it down behind the piano and microphone (especially live), she, like Jeff could, really lets it wail with a full force gale. That kind of power is essential to the Jeff Buckley core. That's what still gets the back of the neck hairs standing on end. Sadly, that kind of power is truly rare.

Still, giving it my best shot, here's what I have in Pockit Rockit and why:

Essence: intense, sensitive, narcissistic, emotive, soaring, wailing vocals. Range and dynamics are key: hushed love songs to howling songs of loss. A little melodrama, but a lot of passion.

Means: range and technique, but also depth of musical foundation, from soul to qawwali to chanson to pop to jazz to heavy rock.

Special Sauce: Rock power, to transcend the puppy dog softness and teenage melodrama.

1) Tori Amos: Like I said, she's the closest peer--closest in essence, talent, and power--to Jeff. Truly awesome talent and expressive artistry as a vocalist and instrumentalist. Both soaring and hushed, and extremely intense with her own material while also passionate and sensitive with her many, usually remarkable, cover songs (her one misstep was the cover of Slayer's "Raining Blood"). My favorite is still her first album, Little Earthquakes, with "Mother," "Winter," and "Precious Things" really showing what she's all about.

2) Ours: New Jersey band who had a brief moment of possibility with a Columbia Records contract. Never happened. Too bad, since the vocalist, Jimmy Gnecco, probably came closer to matching Jeff's raw vocals than any other vocalist I've heard. He has all the sensitivity and all the power. There's even a touch of Bono in his tone. And the band also had a suitably big sound to nearly match the vocals. Sadly, the songs weren't always there, especially when they went for more modest-sounding tracks. But they really should have made a bigger impact. Their first album, Distorted Lullabies, is easily well worth getting at Amazon for $0.99.

3) Sunny Day Real Estate: Another rare band with an emotive, falsetto male vocalist that is capable of amazing force, as well as vulnerability. When they first burst onto the scene, they were touted as a possible successor to Nirvana. Didn't happen, though their smaller fanbase may have been more passionately devoted than Nirvana's. It wasn't until after some intra-band turmoil that they produced their controversial swan song, The Rising Tide. Some fans saw it as a heavy rock betrayal; I hear it as their finest, an album of oceanic strength and dew drop delicacy. Not dissimilar qualities to what made Jeff Buckley so affecting.

4) Martin Sexton: Here's where things start getting a little difficult. Sexton is really roots-based, folk-blues-rock dude. Far earthier than Jeff ever was. Connecting him to Jeff is based on two specious, though not necessarily erroneous, elements. First, and it always has to start here, is the voice. Sexton sounds much more like a grown man than Jeff. With that, there is a greater modesty and everyday quality to Sexton's voice, compared to Jeff's supernova light. But out of the jeans and cowboy boots, Sexton lets loose a startling falsetto of his own, letting his usually hidden feathers spread out behind him. This leads to the second, deep similarity between Martin and Jeff: they both make the ladies swoon. Check out his song "Glory Bound" or his cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" to get an idea of what he does.

5) David Sylvian: Speaking of swooning, Sylvian was one of the masters. Girls would swoon, boys would swoon...his voice was so breathily entrancing that it seemed he would likely swoon, as well, if he weren't so elegantly removed. In many ways, his emotionless rapture, European artiness and ethereal (even cold) glory are the antithesis to Jeff's outward, expressionistic, scene-stealing dazzle. Jeff burns red, while David glows a pale blue. But male beauty and its artistic display could resonate through many fans, not necessarily sexually as much as the realization of an idealized state. Dead Bees on a Cake is probably the best place to start, with "I Surrender" "Midnight Sun" and "Thalhiem" being among his best.

6) Rufus Wainwright: So much for my Led Zeppelin, heavy rock claims. Rufus is a proud friend of Dorothy and, in fact, performed a massive Judy Garland program in New York last year. His voice can soar, but it tends to come out of his upper throat and nose, rather than the screaming wail that was often Jeff's stock in trade. Rufus is too refined for screaming. But much of Jeff was not about screaming, either. Much of Jeff was refined and elegant, as well. Elegance and refinement aside, both are/were sophisticated artists capable of generating deep emotional responses in their listeners. Both are deeply passionate and soulful, with brilliant grasp of melody and dynamics. So they're approaches are a bit different, both are dazzling talents with narcissistic streaks and I'm willing to make the leap that many Jeff fans would be, if they're not already, huge fans of Rufus'.

7, 8, 9, 10) Arid, Autumns, Prayer Boat, Starsailor: Four decent, but flawed, bands that have their own appeals without knocking the ball out of the park. These are some of the better of the bands I mentioned above that get that falsetto thing right, but either miss the power or the dynamics that made Jeff special. Arid, nice vocalist of course. But he is by far the best part of the band's fairly bland, mainstream "alternative" sound. Best tracks: "Little Things of Venom." Autumns, probably the most original of this quartet. Their albums have atmosphere and flow due to their big washes of "shoegaze" style guitar. The vocals reach some nice crescendos, but I'm still left wanting more in the way of memorable melody. Their self-titled album, Autumns, is worth checking out. Prayer Boat sound good on their first song: soaring vocals, rising swells and all. But song after song, you hear the band's limits in vocal delivery, compositional variety, and all-around impact. Starsailor got some attention, along with peers such as Keane, in the wake of Coldplay's initial success. Again, pleasant band, some good melodies, but just not remarkable enough to demand space in your CD player or iTunes. They did name themselves after the most experimental album of.......

11) Tim Buckley: Jeff's dad. It's all-too-obvious, but it must be said again that Tim was the most dazzling vocalist of the late 60s, US folk scene. The most spectacular technique, the widest range, coupled with probably the greatest willingness to push his talent into the realms of the unexplored. To say there is likely some familial influence does nothing to diminish the richness of Jeff's personal influences and his successes with synthesizing them into his own vision. Still, if you like Jeff, you must check out Tim's work, not just because he was Jeff's father and similarly died early, but because he was a jaw-dropping vocalist, in his own right (even if you still like Jeff better). Start with Happy Sad or Blue Afternoon or the live Dream Letter.

Artists I left out but maybe shouldn't have:

Here's where I could have put some of Jeff's influences/artists he has covered: Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Van Morrison, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Leonard Cohen. They are all immortal--among the greatest artists ever recorded. Everyone should at least check them out. However, between the radical stylistic differences between these artists and Jeff Buckley and the fact that I feel each artists represents only a facet or two of Jeff's essence, I opted not to include them in the "If you like Jeff..." list. As with every list, maybe I was wrong. But that's why this blog's here and that's why the website is dynamic. I'm more than happy to hear all arguments!

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

If You Like the Doors, Then.....

I don't think about the Doors very often. But when I finished Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again, chronicling the various "post-punk" scenes that emerged from the scorched earth of the Sex Pistols necessary implosion, the Doors came back onto the radar screen. A recurring and interesting detail in the book was how frequently the Doors (specifically, Jim Morrison) were cited as an influence by post-punk bands. The fact that most post-punk bands were virulently anti-Classic Rock makes their fandom only more fascinating.

Some, if not most, of that influence/allure surely stems from the charisma of Morrison and the power he held over his audience. This plays into the tendency many post-punk bands had to work laboriously to construct conceptual foundations for their bands. One preoccupation that often found nearby these foundations was fascism. Sometimes, this was a fascination/repulsion thing, sometimes it was closer to a fascination/fascination thing. Either way, the charismatic leader (or "shaman," as Doors' keyboardist, Ray Manzarek, refers to Morrison) was inescapably alluring to post-punk bands, either for its conceptual ties to fascism or for its more ego-driven appeal to the leaders of certain groups.

Musically, the thing with the Doors is that they are particularly hard to peg. What is it about the Doors that a Doors fan most connects to? It could be any number of things since the band can be romantic and even sappy one moment, possessed and malevolent the next. I've mentioned the child/dark-side schizm of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett. The Doors had something similar, but less fantasy-based, something more worldly and sexual. They were sometimes a blues-rock band, led by a keyboard player and lacking a bassist entirely. They were sometimes a commercial pop band for teen girls. And they were sometimes flat-out psychedelic as they went on improvised trips while Morrison went off into his primal/Freudian/existential black hole. Blues-rock, jazz, psychedelia, pop, hard rock, pretty/ugly, seductive/destructive, accessible/experimental. As with many classic bands that have been able to maintain an audience for forty years, there are many different facets about the Doors, each of which radiates at a different strength to each fan. Then again, it may just come back to Morrison.

I remember very well when I was trying to put together POCKIT ROCKIT, how surprised I was that I found these guys to be one of the very hardest bands to match effectively. The best approach I could devise was to approach one or two elements in the Doors make-up, such as the vocals or the instrumentation, and try to match those, rather than match the entire essence. In fact, I still scratch my head about trying to come up with better recommendations for the Doors. So, while I'm not necessarily the biggest fan, I have a great deal of respect for the Doors for being, in retrospect, one of the more idiosyncratic and original bands of their day.

ESSENCE: Like I said, this is tough. The best I could come up with is sort of kaleidoscopic, trying to capture the tightrope walk between the mainstream, the Dionysian-decadent and the insane, the possibility of pop pleasure or a slip through the rabbit hole. Or is it all a put-on?

MEANS: Different vibes on different tracks, Manzerak's organ, jazzy jamming skills, Morrison.

SPECIAL SAUCE: Does it have to be repeated? Morrison held it all together. I'll add that the de-emphasis on the guitar perhaps enabled the space for Morrison's presence and for the more atmospheric feel of some of the band's best material ("Riders on the Storm," "The End" etc).

Who I have in POCKIT ROCKIT and why:

1) Phantom's Divine Comedy: closest to the Doors actual "sound," if a bit more melodramatic.

Although their one-off album is from around 1974, these guys come the closest to actually nailing the Doors sound, the jazzy, trippy pop/rock with a hint of malevolence on the horizon, almost to the point of vaudeville. Getting the vocals right, or even close, is not easy, and this group hits it.

2) Nick Cave: The closest modern embodiment of the Morrison ethos: ragingly intense, movingly tender, always passionate.

Here's where we start leaving the Doors time period and try to translate their essence in new ways. Cave is probably my first choice in this regard. For one, he has that rich baritone that always holds the possibility of flying unhinged with Old Testament passion. Sexy, commanding. He can do lush, romantic, poetic ballads of love...or of murder. Or he and his crack band can release the bats, bellowing with hellfire and brimstone. Start with Live Seeds or Henry's Dream since both show Nick's range magnificently. Then move on to Tender Prey, probably my favorite.

3) Jefferson Airplane: some similar dark/light dynamics, but from a more folk--rather than blues-based--background.

Airplane had that peace, love, flowers...blood in the streets dichotomy, at times. Hippies, for sure, the acid was sometimes bad and it came it out in the music, from folk pop to heavy psychedelia. Grace Slick was also a suitably charismatic/sexy frontperson for a while.

4) Joy Division: Radically different sound, but some core, essential similarities of dancing around the void and the baritone vocals. Raw and doomy but rewarding.

This requires a little bit of a leap, since the bands are of clearly different times and places. However, JD's searingly intense vocalist, Ian Curtis, was one of those post-punk Jim Morrison fans I mentioned earlier. He also sang in a low, monotone, baritone, which had some connection to Morrison, but far starker, more harrowing, more suffocating, just as Joy Division's music is to the Doors'. But between the singers related neuroses/obsessions/demons and the bands' abilities to wake the razor of song and oblivion, JD may truly resonate with certain Doors fans, though I'm under no delusions that it will work will all of them. Start with Closer.

5) High Tide: A Morrison-type vocalist fronting a band more like Black Sabbath or King Crimson, around 1970.

At least the vocals have Morrison's deep, moody vibe, though the band is clearly heavier, doomier, and more prog rock-inclined than the Doors. Top quality band. Whether Doors fans or Black Sabbath fans will be more inclined to like their two great albums, Sea Shanties and High Tide, is anyone's guess.

6) Love: Great band, some existential issues, pop/experimental, but the actual sound is significantly different.

Wonderful band, but I have a few reservations. Yeah, they were in the same LA psych scene. Yeah, they could be baroque one moment and grungy the next. Yeah, hope and despair intermingled in some of their music. Yeah, Arthur Lee was a major personality. But I can't help but feel that more Beatles fans than Doors fans would turn on brightest to Love, considering the band's expertise with composition and arrangement, more than Dionysian expressionism.

7) Spirit: Many moods/textures, rock/jazz/blues/folk/psych. But also significantly different sound.

Another excellent band from the late-60s LA psych scene. But again, not exactly an accurate match for the Doors. The leader was the guitarist while the vocals were not remarkable. There was plenty of eclecticism, but I'm not sure the same tension, the same possibility of falling through the rabbit hole, is there in the way it is in essence for the Doors.

8) Danzig: Don't take this one too seriously, but if Morrison-like vocal power is what you want, Danzig's bellowing might hit the spot.

Kind of a lark, this one, but maybe not. Danzig is a campy blues-metal performer who uses Satanic and dark magic imagery in his schtick. However, if anyone in music of the last 20 years was actually influenced by Morrison's vocals, it was Danzig and his amazingly powerful vocal pipes. Throw in some Elvis and Vampira and you're set.

9) Agents of Oblivion: A genuinely passionate and soulful elegy by a band for their fallen bassist. Intense range of emotions and an astonishing vocal performance.

An outsider/dark horse pick and a possible result of my personal affection for this record. The side project of New Orleans metal band, Acid Bath, following the death of their bassist, this was kind of an elegy to him. As such, it has the range of moods I imagine a Doors fan would appreciate: wailing sorrow, red-eyed anger, tenderness, brutality. What holds the album together is what holds the Doors material together: a preternaturally powerful vocalist. Dax Riggs is really a wonder on this recording, from fallen angel falsetto to raving bluesman. A rare performance, Doors connection or not. Even better that the connection might be there, as well.

10*) Velvet Underground: This was a major omission. Though there are substantial differences, the core similarities are closely parallel.

I actually did not include them in the Doors list although, in retrospect, perhaps I should have. If one of the essences of the Doors is decadence and transgression, the VU were every bit their match. Given, the VU's decadence was a more NY/European, artsy/literary world of deSade, Masoch, Burroughs, Artaud, etc while the Doors had a more Californian, primal vibe with the two schools meeting half-way with Brecht/Weill. But either way, the drive was towards breaking taboos, crossing boundaries of sexuality and drug intake. The surface manifestations might have been different, but the underlying drives were relatively similar.

11*) Iggy Pop/Stooges: This was also a major omission, although more justified than the VU. Simply, the Stooges' raw-as-hell, blitzingly minimal, bestial rock attack sounds nothing like the Doors more elegant and refined organ-based sound. Also, Iggy's talk of working class aimlessness and limited horizons was a far cry from Morrison's mystic, rock god invocations. However, when it comes to raw, physical force, animalistic sexuality, on-stage abandon, off-stage hedonism, the whole nine, there are perhaps no two artists more aligned than Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison. Their essences are nearly identical, with substance ingestion to kill the largest land mammals in North America to sexual encounters with any and everyone from 13-year-old girls to transvestite dudes, to physical endurance that should have left them in traction for decades, factoring in the differences due to geography (L.A. via Texas vs. suburban Detroit). So, if you're keying in on the sound of two bands, the Doors and Stooges don't match. If you're keying in on the life-forces of the driving artists of these two bands, you probably couldn't do much better than linking these two madmen.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

If You Like Black Sabbath, You'll Like...

There are only a handful of archetypes: Elvis as the "Rock Star," the Beatles as "The Standard," Led Zeppelin as "The Gods," Dylan as "The Bard," the Rolling Stones as "The Bad Boys," Joni Mitchell as "The Woman," the Velvet Underground as "Alternative," Big Star as the "Should Have Been Huge," Nick Drake as the "The Fallen Angel," and a few others. And then there's Black Sabbath, "The Lords of Doom."

It could be argued that Sabbath had an effect on every artist that followed them. They were the first to define an aesthetic based around darkness and heaviness. This had only happened in flashes from Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, Cream, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Zeppelin. Those artists each took turns skimming the Void; Sabbath went into it. Sabbath were one of the first artists to break as a huge success with minimal support from their label, suggesting to future labels and artists that massive marketing expenditures were not as essential for success as resonance with "the people." And then there was the sound: downtuned, tritoned, and stacked. The downtuning was a semi-result of a freak factory injury that severed the tips of guitarist, Tony Iommi's, fingers. Downtuning, or loosening, the guitar strings helped him to reduce the pain of playing. The "tritone" was a chord or note sequence that, in Medieval times, was thought to be evil and to conjure the devil. What was nifty was that the tritone could be incorporated so smoothly into the blues scales that were already prevalent throughout the rock scene and in the band's music when they performed as Earth, prior to rechristening themselves Black Sabbath. And the stacking refers only partially to the crushing volume and "warm" sound amplification provided by their distinctive Orange amplifiers. The stacking I'm talking about is better discussed by Joe Carducci and refers to having the bass and guitar play the same line on top of each other, essentially doubling-up and filling out the riff to ever more massive effect. For solos and vocal parts, the bass and guitar could separate again, leaving space for atmosphere, building tension, and setting the stage for the cathartic rush of when the stacked riff would drop yet again, igniting some primal, chemical surge, often best expressed physically in head banging.

Compared to Pink Floyd and some of the artists I will look at in the future, it is easy to find bands who sound influenced by, similar to, or connected by essence to Sabbath. Basically, Sabbath's core sound is really simple: downtuned, minor-key, blues-derived riffs, with tons of tritone progressions, wailing vocals, and a hard-hitting, swinging rhythm section. The songs are usually composed as rough suites of one or two riff sections, a jam/solo section, and out.

As simple as the formula is, very few bands get it right, even when they're consciously trying to imitate Sabbath. The most frequent fault is not realizing how loose, swinging, and groovy the Sabbath rhythm section is. Without that, the sound can become stiff, leaden, stultifying and, ultimately, boring. Truly, no one doing the Sabbath style is ever going to do it "better" than Sabbath. So, rather than exclusively recommend bands that sound most like Sabbath, I generally lean to recommending bands who are steeped in one or elements of Sabbath's essence and then take it to unexplored regions.

[Just a quick side-note that I should have brought this up in the Pink Floyd piece because it is so crucial to the guidance/discovery game: do you recommend based on who sounds most similar to the core artist or do you try to lead a reader to take the "next step"? With several slots to work with, I can do a little bit of both]:

So, before we dive into the recs, let's break Sabbath down to its essentials, its core, defining traits.

Essence: As with all of what we call "Metal," it's about conjuring strength and power through the heroic and/or the foreboding. In Sabbath's case, the emphasis is clearly on the foreboding part. The thinking behind the love of the foreboding, or "doom," is that the acknowledgement of impending doom feels better than being hit by it unexpectedly or than trying to deny it. Negative x negative = positive. Then again, it might just be an awesome chemical reaction that the riffs set off.

Means: Downtuned guitars, minor-key riffs, recurring "tritones," stacked guitar/bass playing, high, wailing vocals, swinging rhythm section.

Special Sauce: They did the riffs first and freshest--and most melodic. Great chemistry. Underrated grooviness.

Who I have in Pockit Rockit and why:

Budgie: Second tier, but beloved in the UK and covered by Metallica.

A Welsh band and one of the surprisingly few bands to play close to the actual Sabbath style in the early 70s (most hard/heavy bands at the time sounded more like Led Zeppelin or Grand Funk Railroad). They had minor-key guitar riffs and the high wailing vocals. But when you actually listen to them next to Sabbath, it's clear that the bands are in different leagues: Sabbath had thicker guitar sound, more swing, and better musicianship. However, Budgie are widely beloved in the UK and one of their songs, an uptempo number called "Breadfan," was covered by Metallica, so I felt I would be remiss if I didn't give them their place on the Sabbath list. Squawk is probably their most enduring, and most Sabbath-like, piece.

Candlemass: Took doomy Sabbath sound into neo-classical and operatic realms.

Here's one of those "next step" bands I was talking about. The Sabbath doominess is all over the place, downtuned guitar, minor-keys, tritones, the whole nine. However, these Swedes also add some neo-classical guitar mastery, giving a sound that moves Sabbath's earthiness closer to the grandeur of Mussorgsky. But Candlemass' true trademarks are the bellowing, magisterial, bombastic, operatic vocals of Messiah Marcolin. If there were any questions about the separation from the blues, the vocals obliterate them. As Priest and Maiden did with traditional Metal, Candlemass were probably the first to separate Doom Metal from the blues. Nightfall is their best.

Cathedral: 90s Sabbath flag-bearers, label builders and scene stalwarts.

Often cited as the major flag-bearer of the Sabbath sound in the 90s, especially in the UK. I don't want to diss Cathedral since they have been consummate professionals, really working to build a scene and support many artists. Tons of respect. However, their music has always fallen flat to me. The riffs sound generic, their vaunted groove feels more pedestrian than swinging, and the gruff vocals are limited an unappealing. But that could just be me. They're huge and respected in the scene so check 'em out.

Electric Wizard: Rawer, heavier, screamier, and much more wasted take on Sabbath.

Widely touted for a while in the doom underground for their gargantuan, drug wasted, post-Sabbath sound, I started having my doubts after seeing them in a dreadfully pathetic live show. Still, much of their recorded output is impressive, if you want the Sabbath rawness, but even rawer, heavier, thicker, screamier, more drugged-out. Dopethrone is yours. If you still want the Sabbath melodicism, look elsewhere.

Eyehategod: Nasty, heroin-fueled vibe but with heavy, melodic riffs and great swing.

Every bit as wasted as Electric Wizard, and probably on worse drugs. Despite the New Orleans scum and needle vibe, what Eyehategod really get right (especially on their best album, Take As Needed For Pain) is the melodicism and the deep grooviness of their riffs. Yes, the vocals are wretched, anguished screaming (not a completely bad thing in this band's context) and the production (not to mention the lyrics) is nasty as a crack addict squatter's bunghole, they know what makes riffs kick and what makes them move. Hugely revered and influential in the early 90s underground.

Melvins: An idiosyncratic amalgam of the history of hard/heavy rock.

They synthesized so many different strains of heavy rock history into their sound that they could be placed almost everywhere and nowhere. In truth, they're much screwier than Sabbath, with unpredictable song structures, some consisting of one riff (or digital silence), others bouncing around several. Some are glacial and massive, some are tight and peppy. But they love heavy rock profoundly, as do most fans of Sabbath. That love cuts through the perceived differences and should result in many fans of both bands. Bullhead shows them at their heavy, idiosyncratic, best, with no screwing around.

Penance: Straight-forward, classy doom with excellent musicianship, strong vocals and melodic riffs.

A good example of idolatry done well. All that you could want in the Sabbath sound, with a bit of 90s updating: lowered, yet still clean, vocals, stronger musicianship, and melodic influences that draw from classic, traditional metal. Consistently solid, but Parallel Corners was their breakthrough.

Pentagram: The closest thing there was to a second Black Sabbath in the early 70s.

If I had to name one band that sounds most similar to prime-era Sabbath, it would be Pentagram. Coming up with a similar sound at almost the exact same time, but in Baltimore rather than Birmingham, this is your band if you are looking for the Sabbath sound. Go with the excellent comp of early stuff, First Daze Here. With consistently high quality riffs, songs, and doomy vocals from Bobby Liebling, the major place Pentagram comes up short next to Sabbath is with their comparatively stiff rhythm section.

Saint Vitus: Unpolished, with a touch of punk amateurishness that many find endearing.

Ozzy had been officially out of Sabbath for six years (eight, unofficially) when Saint Vitus released its first album in LA in 1984. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal had done its thing, Def Leppard and Motley Crue had started doing their thing, Metallica and Slayer had started doing theirs. Sabbath was as ancient history as the Druids. Except Saint Vitus wasn't going to accept that, as their album title, Born Too Late, laid bare. They, as well as Chicago's Trouble, still worshipped the old gods throughout the 80s, despite the radical unfashionability of that stance. Personally, a lot of their stuff sounds like underproduced, slightly amateurish Sabbath, but those qualities can be very endearing to the right ears.

Sleep: Made the Sabbath sound even more monolithic and psychedelic.

Building off of some of the momentum built by Eyehategod, Sleep probably did more to bring Sabbath into the 90s than any other band, short of Sabbath's reunion, itself. Despite not selling particularly well during their career (probably due to limited touring and drug-related issues), their stature has only become more legendary as time has gone on. Sleep somehow managed to make Sabbath even heavier and more monolithic than it ever was, while also blowing out the psychedelic elements that were sometimes more suggested than truly explored in Sabbath. All this, while still maintaining that ever-elusive, swinging groove. Of course, as things got heavier and heavier and more and more psychedelic (by the time of their swan song, Jerusalem), melody tended to disappear into the cannabis haze, but this may deepen the trance. Start with Holy Mountain.

Solitude Aeturnus: Brought elements of progressive rock to post-Sabbath doom.

If Candlemass brought neo-classical elements to Sabbath, Solitude Aeturnus brought progressive rock elements to the doom sound. Featuring some of the best musicianship and strongest vocals in doom metal, SA were able to stay doomy while also attaining a level of dynamics and complexity that few others in the style could match. Some might say that you don't need chops in doom. Maybe not, but it makes for highly engaging listening. For those coming from a more Maiden/Fates Warning direction, this would be a doom band to check out. Beyond the Crimson Horizon shows them at their prog-doom best.

Trouble: Very melodic doom, with psychedelic pop and thrash touches.

Of the very few 80s bands carrying the Sabbath flag, Trouble is probably my favorite. They were easily Saint Vitus' equal in the heaviness department, but because of their better skills, they could gallop as well as crawl. Trouble's songs were consistently well put-together, highly melodic and memorable, as their influences ranged from straight doom to psychedelic pop to thrash. A great, important, and underappreciated band in the history of metal. Start with the Rick Rubin-produced, self-titled, Trouble.

Some bands I deliberately did not choose:

Blue Oyster Cult: despite the black magic imagery and occasional heaviness, their music was really not particularly heavy. Solid classic rock with some heavy moments, but not nearly enough to be a relevent comparison to Sabbath.

Obsessed: Important band in 80s doom scene, but I see them as kind of a more straight-forward, biker Saint Vitus. That, plus the common presence of Wino would have made their inclusion redundant.

Sir Lord Baltimore: Early entry to the US heavy rock pantheon. Some genuinely heavy moments, but also a lot of weak tracks. Lastly, their heaviness probably has more in common with, say, Mountain, than with Sabbath.

Bang: Another frequently-cited, early heavy rock band. The vocals are not dissimilar to Ozzy's but, as with Sir Lord Baltimore, I think consistent quality is lacking. Also, the drums are mixed very weakly, diminishing much of the potential power of their first (and best) album.

Orange Goblin/Alabama Thunderpussy: Both are high quality bands, especially live. Both could have been chosen for the list. However, both bands' reliance on boogie rhythms (which, admitedly, Sabbath used on occasion) gives them a feel that deviates just enough from any kind of doom to put them in a slightly different category. Taking this application to an extreme would be someone like Fu Manchu who, despite having many heavy riffs (some even semi-Sabbath-derived), give off a totally different vibe due to their rhythms, vocals, song structures, etc.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

REINTRODUCING POCKIT ROCKIT: How We Discover Music, Part 1--Pink Floyd

What I'd like to start doing with this blog is to examine how we turn-on to music. How do we go from where we are with music to points unknown? Is using what we already know our primary guide to exploring the unknown or do we use other means? What issues impact musical taste? How much of taste is musically based versus socially based? How big of an impact do things such as personal associations play or what about the impact of repetition? What about the effects of subculture and style? I think we know that these things all have an impact. I just don't know how much. Can we ever just experience music "as music"? Do we even want to? Are all of those externalities, such as subculture, style, associations, etc an essential element that enhances the experience? Or, are those externalities a way in which we reduce music to mere fashion? I have my thoughts, but I really don't know.

I evaluate and categorize music for a living. It is of deep concern to me and a source of never-ending fascination to try to figure out connections between artists. For example, what would somebody who likes Jane's Addiction also like? It can be a difficult task, especially with this kind of band with such an idiosyncratic style (the Doors are another difficult band to match really well). There are numerous cues that a Jane's fan could attach to: is it Perry's voice that most signifies Jane's sound? Or is it Stephen Perkins' drumming? Is it the hardness of the music or the quasi-psychedelia of it? Or is it something totally different: the decadent ambi-sexual vibes, Perry's corsets, the fact that you were a sophomore in high school and your first tape was the beat up copy of Nothing's Shocking that your older brother's hot girlfriend gave you. Or did a friend drag you to a show and it was your Birkenstock that landed on stage and was picked up by Perry. Trying to factor all of that into a system is massively (impossibly?) complex. But I do think the underlying music, in and of itself, whether formally (the notes and structures), sonically (production), or perhaps even spiritually (essence) can be realistically explored and compared. So that's what I try to focus on.

Specifically, I'm trying to figure out how people connect from what they currently know and love to what they have yet to discover and yet to start getting into. It's the most tried-and-true, classic means of reference I know. By tracing that path, I'm trying to see if it's possible to get at "the essence" of a given artist's music and to see if it's possible to experiencing "pure music"-- music, as itself. Personal associations are burned deeply into everyone and are pretty much impossible to remove from the evaluation process. But removing the packaging, promotion, social pressures, political agendas, social theories, and other extra-musical distractions could go a long way towards building our ability to evaluate music in a rational, passionate, and musical way.

Most of this questioning is going to be fairly welcoming and open-ended: I'm simply going to pick an artist of the day and try to figure out what that artist's essence is: what forms the core that makes that artist what it is. Then, I'm going to look at a bunch of other artists to try to figure out who, in essence, is most like the given artist. This is basically what I've been trying to do in the Pockit Rockit book and website, but now opening up the windows to its process, while also inviting critique and oversight.

I want to kick things off with Pink Floyd, a colossus of Classic Rock to most, a symbolic object of revulsion to some, and highly personal to me as they were my first concert (Brendan Byrne Arena, 1987, Momentary Lapse of Reason tour) and still one of my favorite bands. Better yet, for all their renown, they are a tricky band to match and to provide discovery recommendations for, as we'll see in a minute. But they ultimately do a great job of showing how this process works, for better or worse. Hopefully, we'll be able to improve the process as we open it up.

The first step is to figure out what Floyd's essence is--what is Floyd at its core? This is more complicated than it could be due to the fact that the band changed its approach significantly between the time of its early singles and first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), and the dawn of its mature period, beginning around the time of Meddle (1971). There are plenty of people (of which I'm not one) who contend that Piper was the most significant album Floyd recorded and their definitive statement. For now, let's assume it is. Where does that leave us? Piper is, in essence, the cataclysmic rupture between childhood innocence and the menacing vortex of the Void, perhaps the struggling expulsion from the Garden or perhaps, more simply, the musical illustration far too much hallucinogenic material. Carrying out this source of meaning is the tandem of Syd Barrett's whimsical pop-songs with psychedelic production: "Bike," "See Emily Play," "Arnold Layne," etc and the heavily distorted, ominous guitar freakouts: "Interstellar Overdrive," "Astronomy Domine." This Floyd is a schizoid soul.

And that's a tough trick to pull, because that schizoidness is what made early Floyd special. Honestly, much of that psychedelic pop/rock sound was done by a billion different (mostly English) bands that weren't particularly notable. Some relative stand-outs include Tomorrow and July, but good as they were, they didn't match Floyd at either extreme of deliberately arrested development or nuclear mental meltdown. Perhaps some more interesting choices would include the Soft Machine on their first two albums, which had some of that child-like playfulness, but combined with a kind of avant-jazz-rock sound, rather than bad trip menace. For that vibe, Hawkwind might be the best choice, especially on their Space Ritual live double-album. Many people have drawn similarities from Floyd to the Velvet Underground's folk/feedback approach, although the Velvets never had a feeling of delight or innocence. They were clearly, self-consciously "arty," with John Cale's avant-garde resume and the band's connection to Warhol, while their songs had an archly urbane, (overly?) worldly edge, full of heroin and S&M references. Maybe it was a kind of convergent evolution with two bands getting to vaguely similar places while arriving there from vastly different orientations.

With kind of halting, tentative steps the next few years yielded moments of genius ("Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," "Careful with that Axe Eugene," "Nile Song," etc) but not much in terms of a coherent aesthetic. Things only started to coalesce with 1971's Meddle, the Live in Pompeii album and then....then....of course, Dark Side, followed by Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. At risk of alienating many passionate record collectors and hard core psychedelic fans, these 70s albums are the definitive body of the Floyd essence: transportation through hope, exploration, failure, disillusionment, despair, death, truth, salvation, not always in that order and not necessarily all of them in a single album. As time went on, the lyrical messages become increasingly pessimistic, but the experience of taking a trip is always there, as strongly as with any band that I know. This was achieved through masterful pacing, texture, and dynamics , as well as spectacular recording quality. The instruments are consistently secondary to the flow of the composition: none of them are overplayed or flashy: Nick Mason's drums mostly keep time, Rick Wright's keys are mostly atmospheric (though essential), Roger Waters' bass steps out only occasionally (such as on the monstrous, walloping "One of These Days"), leaving most of the soloing space to the understated forcefulness and restrained grandeur of David Gilmour's guitar. The music is closely composed, like a symphony, so there is little room for messy edges. Most every note, progression, and sequence is there for a reason and generates a specific effect, perhaps chemical. All together, that effect is sublime transportation. The tones are controlled, disciplined, a mixture of acoustic and electric, sometimes dreamy, sometimes hard, usually with a palpable intensity and often with a hint of darkness, directed primarily by the simple, powerful, guitar lines over a bed of swirling keyboard atmospheres and softly sung/more harshly spoken songs.

Breaking it down:

Essence: Immersive and transportational listening experience through a wide emotional range in which the dominant sounds are spacey, intense, and often dark.

Means: Understatedly powerful lead guitar, omnipresent atmospheric keys, controlled drumming, disciplined bass, modest vocals, pessimistic lyrics, meticulous dynamics, spectacular production.

Special Sauce: Mastery of extended, album-length composition and immersive listening experience.

Who I Picked For Pockit Rockit and Why:

Eloy: particularly, their late 70s/early 80s work (Silent Cries..., Ocean). What they had that very few other bands of the time had, was a feel for the Floydian guitar/keyboard tones and interactive balance. The sound is crystalline, even if not quite as meaty as Floyd's. What they got wrong is that when you have a great sound, the vocals cannot be allowed to detract from it. Unfortunately, Eloy's vocals are heavily German-accented English, which can be distracting. Thankfully, their songs are largely instrumental.

House of Not: they pick up on the harder-edged, darker Floyd sound from the Wall/Final Cut. The atmosphere and musicianship is spot-on, if only their writing throughout the duration of the piece were more consistently excllent. Some stunning, memorable tracks, though ("Mainstream").

King Crimson: this begins a string of what seem to be artists more tangentially related to Pink Floyd's sound. Crimson does not really sound like Floyd, especially in their earlier incarnations. The musicianship is more rigorous, the compositions more ornate and demanding, etc. Still, Crimson (as with the best progressive rock) approaches music in a similarly transportational sense, if also in a more experimental and improvisational sense than Floyd. Still, for a certain Pink Floyd fan, I think Crimson could be a logical next step of exploration, especially due to Crimson's excellence with dynamics and Fripp's truly phenomenal guitar playing. No one writes "better" progressive rock than Floyd, just like no one writes "better" Metal than Black Sabbath, but Crimson provides a different angle on the style with a bump up in intensity that could be an exciting next step. Red strikes the best balance of song and instrumental, though Larks' Tongues in Aspic may be more intense.

Magma: similar issue here, as with Crimson. They don't sound like Floyd, but they have some essential similarities that could resonate strongly with a Floyd fan. Admittedly, there is a little element of self-indulgence as Magma is probably my favorite band and any excuse to get them more exposure is a good one, in my mind. But for all their Carmina Burana, epic-opera, jazz-rock, on Top of a totalitarian, Martian march, Magma, just like Floyd, are one of the greatest composers of the album-length, extended composition. They cover the highest highs, lowest lows, brightest brights, darkest darks, and take you on a jaw-dropping, breath taking, soul stirring trip through your emotional and spiritual being. All of life, but elevated and magnified, for forty minutes. The invented language and chorus vocals may seem bombastic to those who appreciate Floyd's more austere sensibilities. But some may find here the greatest band ever, as I did. Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh, as complete of a statement of musical and spiritual art that I know.

Mike Oldfield: Particularly Tubular Bells and perhaps Amarok (though Ommadawn is probably better). Oldfield is much more instrumentally focused and lighter than Floyd, bountiful with all sorts of "world" influences and pastoral passages. But, again, he brings a mastery of extended composition that certain Floyd fans would appreciate. His guitar work is ace, as is the fantastic production. In terms of sound, if a listener could embrace Floyd as a gentler, more ethnically vibed, all-instrumental band, while retaining the suberb guitar work and even a bit of Floyd's intensity, Oldfield will be much appreciated.

Nektar: No one sounded quite like Floyd, but Nektar came closer than most. Certainly, their light show rivaled Floyd's. Also, like Floyd, this band did a lot of evolving. Their first, Journey to the Center of the Eye, leans back to Syd, but spacier and generally rockier. One year later, A Tab in the Ocean was more in line with Meddle's sound. Things tightened up further by Recycled, with shorter songs that fit into the sharp, clear, total album. The overall sound is sometimes a little harder than Floyd's and a bit more psychedelic and more loosely structured. The trip was almost as good and the aesthetic for the time was more than sympatico.

: Again, I've taken liberties with the literal interpretation of the Floyd sound in favor of what I've gleaned to be the Floyd essence. Neurosis comes from the East Bay post-hard core scene. They are far heavier and rawer than Floyd (especially regarding the mostly barked/incanted vocals). However, starting around the time of Souls at Zero and reaching full stride by the following masterpiece, Enemy of the Sun, it became obvious to me that Neurosis was playing, in lack of a better term, "psychedelic music." Many heavy music fans (including Floyd fans) agreed with me wholeheartedly when I would suggest as much to them at concerts. The albums feel like extended works while the songs are often long, volcanically intense, yet incredibly dynamic journeys, in themselves. This ability to shift intensities is largely what gives Neurosis its cathartic, time and space-travelling power--a power very much related to Floyd's, even if the outward form is a bit different. I know that a lot of Neurosis fans are Floyd fans. I don't know how many Floyd fans could become Neurosis fans, but I'd like to at least open the door.

Ozric Tentacles: Here, it comes back to the powerful, lead guitar/spacey, atmospheric keys interaction. The Ozrics essentially reinvented psychedelic jam music in the late 80s with their futuristic, space rave-influenced sound. They're entirely instrumental and bring in influences from dub, Middle Eastern, Indian, and trance musics, so they're not a Floyd carbon copy by any stretch. But the playing, with its polished and streamlined prog approach to psychedelia and its seamless instrumental interplay show Floyd to clearly be one of their biggest influences. And they definitely know how take you on a trip: Erpland does it all.

Porcupine Tree: Probably the first band I would recommend to Floyd fans seeking the next torchbearer. One of the most important prog bands of the 90s, PT's Stephen Wilson almost perfectly matched Gilmour's fantatic lead guitar and tasteful vocals while gracefully incorporating more modern elements, such as trance rhythms and electronics. You want Floyd, but newer, more updated? This is your band. Start with the live greatest hits Coma Divine and work backwards.

Radiohead: To the extent that prog translated into the post-alternative/post-Nirvana world, I would say that Tool is the modern King Crimson, Mars Volta is the modern Yes, and Radiohead is the modern Pink Floyd. Their best work, as with Floyd's, is both progressive and song-oriented, challenging and accessible. They can generate a powerful emotional reaction with everyone in the band playing their heads off or with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. Vocals, in fact, are closer to the lead instrument here, as opposed to the guitar, so the overall feeling is a bit more emotive than grand, but they achieve both in spades. Lastly, few bands are good at connecting songs into a organic album-length experience than Radiohead, especially on OK Computer.

Tangerine Dream: This band kind of inverts the tangents I went on with King Crimson and Neurosis. Those bands have little tonal connection to Floyd but may, for certain listeners, have similar effective goals as Floyd. Tangerine Dream, on the other hand, has a lot in common with Floyd, tonally, but their goals are divergent. An insightful reviewer once called TD "Pink Floyd without the rock" and that's about right. All the atmosphere, the spaciness, the intensity and vague ominousness are absolutely there, largely through the expert use of analog synthesizers. However, the atmospheres exist largely to be lived in, without the tightly composed dynamics and production embellishments that make for a typical Pink Floyd song cycle. They occasionally bring in rhythmic elements but the real impact comes from the powerful, moving clouds of keyboards. Phaedra is probably the most definitive, though Riccochet and Force Majeure add some drums for a more rock-ish feel.

VanDerGraaf Generator: Another in my stream of take-the-next-step recommendations, rather than being a this-is-totally-like-that recommendation. It should be getting clear by now that this recommendation game is not a slam dunk affair with obvious, no brainers at every turn. There are usually a few of those, and certain bands lend themselves to myriad copycats more than others. However, at least with a group like Pink Floyd, the feeling I'm following is who carries any, some, or many of those essential, core, Floydian elements I mentioned earlier: "Immersive and transportational listening experience through a wide emotional range in which the dominant sounds are spacey, intense, and often dark." VDGG has all that, perhaps even too much. Vocalist, Peter Hammill, is unreservedly intense and dramatic--a far cry from Floyd's stateliness. But the dark trips, saxophone accents, and poetically pessimistic take on the human condition could resonate very strongly with certain Floyd fans, as Magma and King Crimson might do with others. Little question: Pawn Hearts.

The lack of obviousness is a major reason why I wanted to start this new blogging approach with Pink Floyd. Each artist demands a different approach to discovery guidance, based largely on the originality of the artist, the number of followers it has, the quality and variety of those followers, and the ultimate, artistic and emotional impact of the artist. For Floyd, there are few truly direct comparisons (Porcupine Tree, House of Not, maybe Radiohead) but the artistic approach (extended, album length works) and the ultimate goal (emotional/spiritual transportation) is immortal and aimed for by many artists. The trick is recognizing and balancing those elements through artists that create their work without necessarily having any thought how it fit into my equation. For some listeners, the balance of my recommendations will fall to the left; for others, to the right; for others, hopefully, a third eye will open. After addressing the basics, I think offering the possibility of revelation is the greatest service I can hope to offer.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

POCKIT ROCKIT PICKS FOR 2006: Good Ideas For You, Distilling The Deluge For Me

The first thing I gotta get out of my fingers is that the main melodic theme from the first track of the recent (and quite amazing) JOANNA NEWSOM album sounds almost exactly like Springsteen's "Spirits in the Night." Next, this is the first time I've ever done a year-end wrap-up. As I'm going through it, it seems to serve a bunch of purposes, some for your benefit, some for mine. There is the obvious reason: to provide listening/shopping guidance. But isn't that kind of what I've been doing all along? And why only include stuff from this year? I mean, we all find out about stuff from throughout history all the time. The post-modern cultural phenomenon of "perpetual retro" only compounds things further.

The answer is that year-end wrap-ups are a good way for anyone who listens to a lot of music to get straight what came out in a given year. It's about fighting the inevitable onslaught of feeling "lost in music" (although I suppose it also gives sociologists the opportunity to situate a song or album in a historical context). There are virtues to getting lost, as there are with many aimless endeavors, but it can get tedious, leading to a music experience equivalent of high school ennui: "What do you wanna do tonight?" "I dunno. What do YOU wanna do?" And then doing nothing.

So, in the interests of distilling the accelerating onslaught of music and making sense of some of the amazing albums of 2006 and isolating them so I don't confuse them with the amazing albums of 2005 or 1975, here are some discs to remember. Exciting Saturday night possibilities are right around the corner. I just hope I don't forget about all the other albums that I didn't put on the list.

The best prog debut since MARS VOLTA's. Seamless flow for 70 minutes as it rides through PINK FLOYD and PORCUPINE TREE spaciness and non-stop memorable songs.

PROTEST THE HERO -- Kezia (Vagrant)
If the this is the kind of metal the emo scene can produce, I say give us more. Excellent chops, melody, crunch, complexity, and strong, traditional metal vocals. And they look like they're fifteen.

HOLD STEADY -- Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)
I've never been more than a tepid Springsteen fan, but I'll be damned if these guys knocked that E Street sound out of the park with this one. I have not been able to get it off my play button.

DEAR HUNTER -- Lake South River North (Triple Crown)
Ambitious, nearly-one-man-project of brilliantly written and played progressive post-emo. Superb dynamics, subtle and tasty guitar lines, varied styles yet still very coherent.

JOANNA NEWSOM -- Ys (Drag City)
Speaking of Springsteen with the Hold Steady, here Newsom pulls out the melody for "Spirits in the Night" on the opening track. In fact, she conjures so many nifty melodies throughout each track and the arrangements are mostly so well conceived that I find there's always something interesting going on, despite it being an hour of Yes-length tracks of infant-granny-intoned folk-poetry and harp accompaniment.

DANAVA -- Danava (Kemado)
Unusual hard rock debut influenced by HAWKWIND at their proggiest, with a little boogie and glam. I think the album was underproduced, considering the instrumental prowess of the band, but they are certainly one to watch.

SAVIOURS -- Crucifire (Level Plane)
I don't know why these guys haven't gotten more attention in our retro daze, but they really understand their core material on a level that few of their peers approach. Rarely do they ape any single band. Instead, they expertly balance SABBATH-era doominess, NWOBHM/punk rawness, and MAIDEN-esque, elegant, harmonized lead guitar lines. Underrated.

COLOUR HAZE -- Tempel (Elektrohasch)
Kyuss-inspired trio that has done magic with their musical heritage by stretching it waaay out, turning their massive riffs into jazz heads from which to launch their skillful, heavy-but-loose jams.

STARKWEATHER -- Croatoan (Candlelight)
Nudging out a respectable CELTIC FROST album (and the impressive Confessor album from late 2005) for "Heavy Music Comeback Album Of The Year," this disc is a jaw-dropper. Heavier, more intricate, and more emotionally bloodletting than ever, Croatoan features the mid-tempo, center of the earth intensity of NEUROSIS, the freaked-out, reptilian nastiness of TODAY IS THE DAY and the soul abjection/exorcism of the SWANS. Tough to make it through in one sitting, but revelatory.

CRIME IN CHOIR -- Frumpery Metier (Gold Standard Labs)
It's a pretty good time to be a prog fan. Between all the post-hard core, post-metal, and post-rock out there, prog has essentially inundated much of the indie world. It really comes down to many ways of saying "prog." With CinC, no subterfuge is necessary: this is pure prog. Instrumental, even. Some of the riffs and beats feel vaguely early-80s, but we're talking melodic, technical tracks, with walls of keys and some guitar for counter-balance. Kind of like a more prog & keys, less metal & guitar F***ING CHAMPS.

CITAY -- Citay (Important)
Strumming away on a sun-dappled summer day and then ROBERT FRIPP shows up from the next-door lawn, lays down in the hammock next to yours, sips some lemonade, and starts soloing over your strumming.

J DILLA -- Donuts (Stones Throw)
I have no pretensions of passing as a hip hop fan, but I know a great album of music when I hear it. Rarely have 31 tracks of near-snippets and beat sketches worked so well into a coherent, flowing album. Tons of funk, jazz, soul, and beats galore. And not a rapper within earshot. RIP.

AGALLOCH -- Ashes Against the Grain (The End)
Brilliant new one from one of the most original voices in American metal. Taking a page from OPETH's grimoire, Agalloch are able to meld the dreamlike and nightmarish, the romantic and the bleak in their doomy, gothy, folky, proggy vision. Pretty close to their watershed album, The Mantle.

ROGER JOSEPH MANNING -- Land Of Pure Imagination (Cordless)
Flawed and inconsistent yet fantastic and beautiful set of home recordings by this ex-JELLYFISH dude. Average voice and some mawkish lyrics but also a sense of pop/rock beauty that perfectly melds the greats, such as TODD RUNDGREN, PAUL MCCARTNEY, BEACH BOYS, ELO, and more.

WARHAMMER 48k -- Uber Om (Emergency Umbrella)
Left-field, outsider metal running all over the place with no-wave/post-rock noise, doom, thrash, and stoner styles. Completely bonkers but mostly musical and compelling.

EARL GREYHOUND -- Soft Targets (Some)
Exciting New York-based trio that rocks hard when they swing their Bonham-beats with bigg riffs and wailing vocals. The energy and interest drop a bit with their fairly basic, straight rock tunes. If they could hone what it is they do best, they'll knock skulls.

P.S. 2006 also featured releases by four of the most exciting bands in contemporary rock: 1) Tool, by a vast expanse, the best metal band to chart in over a decade, 2) Mastodon, perhaps the best metal band straddling the extreme and accessible, 3) Mars Volta, the first band to truly recreate prog rock in a post-alternative world, and 4) Isis, whose massive, trance-inducing pieces essential redefined hard-core. Unfortunately, none of these great bands' releases came close to representing their finest achievements. While their 2006 albums deserve notice, I would refer anyone interested to prior releases.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

KAI KLN & SOULHAT: Extinct Regional Heroes

Kai Kln - Seven - 5/8/93, UC Davis
Kai Kln - For What & What For - 10/30/98, The Boardwalk
Kai Kln - Blur - 10/30/98, The Boardwalk

Soulhat - Bonecrusher - 7/30/94, Floodzone
Soulhat - Wiggin' (with quote to Jeff Beck's "You Know What I Mean") - 7/30/94 Floodzone

My 23-year old brother-in-law told me about around two weeks ago. "Thousands of free live shows," he said. He's there mostly for the Disco Biscuits and related bands but it definitely sounded intriguing. As expected, 90% had to be jam bands of various sorts, with small allowances for random bands with open recording policies, such as the post-rock Red Sparrowes. I didn't recognize most of the bands, but as I was flying through the index, I was stunned to run into a band name that I had hubristically assumed only I (and the 90s residents of the Sacramento area) was familiar with: Kai Kln.

A record store owner in Brooklyn, who was formerly from Cali, hooked me up after we'd been talking a while and I told him how into progressive hard rock I am. I since found their other two albums in blow-out bins for around $1 each ("Please, take these off of my hands. Hell, I'll pay you," the stores seem to say). You got a deal. Especially cause these guy ripped in ways that no one else did. They updated the Zeppelin school by getting a little funky and polishing up the rhythm section a bit while loosening up the songs and guitars to give the impression of a band who was simultanously hard rockin' and laid-back (though this comes through more in their studio material, especially the essential Matter Of Things). The occasional banjo jams did nothing to dispell this impression. This was a band who clearly liked not only the Dead and Zeppelin, but also the mutated guitar mastery of the Meat Puppets and loosely funky post-hard-core of the Minutemen. This was a sound that could have really resonated with the jam band kids who were also into heavier stuff like Zep and Sabbath, as well as with the nascent stoner rock kids who were just starting to get into Kyuss and Monster Magnet. Somehow, despite seeming to have appeal to a wide swathe of people, Kai Kln ended up resonating with pretty much no one outside of the Sacramento area. A friend of mine from Sacramento played on a few of the same gigs as Kai Kln and said they would often draw over a thousand people, unheard of for an unsigned band. If a tree falls in the forest...

Similar story with Soulhat. Super-talented band from Austin that would generate some smoking shows and draw some decent crowds in the early-mid 90s. Their mix was predominantly hard, blues-based Southern rock with a nifty funk cut. Yes, they would get a little folky here, a little country there, a little surreal some place else. But tight, funky, classic, jamming hard rock with some ripping lead guitar was what this band was about. Two problems: first, it wasn't clear where on radio to put them (too off-center, funky, and jamming for post-grunge "rock" formats, too hard and traditionally "rock" for alternative radio). Second, they were really a live band. The studio efforts never did them justice. They still do the occasional gig in Austin.

Thank heaven for regional vitality. That's what allowed bands like Kai Kln and Soulhat to go for as long as they did, despite being unsigned or ignored by their label. Bands that get get hot in one area tend to have word-of-mouth spread farther and wider these days, often faster than the band's heat warrants. But that's still a generally good thing. Hopefully, current Kai Klns won't fall through the cracks as easily as they did in the 90s. Then again, as the ability to be heard nationwide, instantly, increases does that demand the increasing formation of a "national" sound? If so, what determines that sound? Could it be the fashions of the biggest media centers, such as New York and San Francisco? To an extent. There will always be fashion, but we've already been seeing dizzying niche-ification, too. Only the niches are not really arranged by geography as they are by interest groups. This might strip some of the unique flavor that can ferment in a certain place at a certain time with the right people and the right fans (early 80s NYC, late 80s Seattle/Minneapolis, etc). This might incent musicians to write for broader, blander audiences. Then again, musicians don't get paid by selling records nationwide; they still gotta play live. And that means playing where their friends and family are. That means home. That means gigs like the gigs on That means a great resource for the rest of us.