Sunday, March 27, 2011

98 The Hard Way: EPs, Days 24-25

Isis: The Mosquito Control EP (Escape Artist)
At this point in time, Isis weren't quite as comfortable with the 'post' half of the post-metal tag. The calmer moments don't necessarily feel out of place, but they aren't a fully integrated part of the band's sound yet. As such, what Mosquito Control amounts to is about a half-hour of crushing,abrasive sludge metal, like peak period Neurosis' heaviest moments, that rarely lets up but never gets stagnant. Really, that last part alone makes this the highlight of the band's early years - as they started integrating electronics and ambient sounds into their overall aesthetic, they overdid it to a certain extent before things fell into place almost perfectly on Celestial, so this EP, which just bludgeons the shit out of you for 28 minutes, comes off smelling like roses even if it's the least 'progressive' of the bunch.

Yes, I'm saying that their concept EP is their least progressive material. Besides that little wrinkle, this is very much a straight ahead sludge metal album. That doesn't stop it from being a very good one though, I mean just listen to the confluence of elements near the end of "Life Under the Swatter" where the tribal drums collide with the chunky rhythm riff as a wash of treated, dissonant guitar descends on the track, that sort of thing doesn't happen on lesser albums for sure. There's also the fact that, as a concept record, it really does get the feeling of a giant insect invasion across through sound alone, even without Aaron Turner's rasped lyrics. Once again, not exactly the hallmark of a lesser release. The only real criticism I could level at it is that it's a bit too derivative of Neurosis at times - "Hive Destruction" could pass for a "Locust Star" sequel if not for the vocal style - but that's not exactly a bad thing when you get down to it. All in all, while this doesn't go as far into the post-metal realm as the band's best known material, it provides a solid foundation of balls out rocking that grounds even the band's most experimental material from here on out. [8.3/10[

Arab Strap: Here We Go / Trippy (Chemikal Underground)
I've never had a very bad drug experience, truth be told. Probably owes a lot to the fact that even in the wildest days of my youth I never went further than alcohol, pot and mushrooms when it came to drugs - no prescription drugs, nothing inhaled or injected, not even ecstasy - but nevertheless, I have no 'bad times on drugs' stories like a lot of my friends did. Worst I got was a few mildly disturbing hallucinations the first time I did 'shrooms, but after that nothing stands out besides being able to actually come out of my shell a bit more at parties when I had a little more chemical courage in me. This really just a long-winded way of saying that if "Trippy," both on a lyrical and sonic level, is anything like a bad drug trip I'm very, very glad that I kept it pretty vanilla in my partying days.

"Trippy" adds a new layer to Arab Strap's sound, one that I don't think they ever re-discovered thereafter and definitely not one that has any precedent on their previous outings: menacing. Malcolm Middleton's guitar, even before it gets distorted towards the middle of the track, sounds much more threatening, Aidan Moffat's vocals are frantically ranted in a way that even his most desperate moments couldn't approach, and the addition of what sounds like an actual live rhythm section - there aren't credits on the EP itself to confirm or deny that speculation, but it sounds very live in comparison to the obviously synthetic rhythm section on "Here We Go" - adds a lot more depth to the proceedings. That's all before you get to the song itself, the way it progresses from a normal, albeit darker tinged, Strap track and slowly, but surely evolves into something far removed from that. First, it gets vaguely mathy as Middleton's basic arpeggio starts to slip into 5/4 occasionally, then the straight 'chorus' pattern slides into 7/4 giving the track an unbalanced quality. Then the second guitar, relegated to moderately creepy marginalia for the first bit, becomes more and more present encroaching on the song until it merges with the main riff. Then the song goes into overdrive, becoming increasingly frantic as the bad trip at its center reaches its breaking point, eventually breaking into a much more 'modern rock' styled palm-muted power chord section that I don't think anyone would have thought would fit in an Arab Strap song, never mind fit in logically. All the while Moffat's describing the recipient of the drug fairy's menace as he becomes more and more paranoid - the first time the second vocalist jumps into the mix screaming 'GET AWAY!' is frightening beyond compare - until things get even weirder.

Arab Strap have thrown caution to the wind before and allowed their songs to devolve into techno interludes before - think of legendary b-side "Drug Song for Paula" - but the one they go into on "Trippy" is something much, much better than they usually get to. It's not just that it flows so logically out of the previous song, or that it really does approximate a faceless rave DJ to a frighteningly accurate degree, but that as it happens the song never goes out of focus; The bass riff never lets up, and eventually the guitar adds a modified version of one of the main riffs to the margins of the mix. It's a little thing, but it makes the track that much more engrossing to me; here was the left turn of the track, the moment that the build up turned into instead of exploding like the Mogwai song this seemed to be aiming towards, and yet instead of it sounding like that it remains grounded in the basics of the track up to the point. It also helps that it lasts long enough that it's actually a tangible episode of the saga as opposed to a minor detour.

"Trippy" might be the one song I remember Arab Strap for if I limit myself that way in the future. It may not be their quintessential moment, if anything it's the antithesis to their normal style, but at the same time it brings the two core elements of the band to the fore: Middleton's ease with naturalistic, seemingly unpracticed playing and Moffat's storytelling ability. It highlights both in a way that's at once unexpected and yet perfect, allowing the darker tone of the track - I think I saw a review that referred to it as a lost chapter of Trainspotting and that's as accurate a description as exists - to let the core duo indulge in a variation of their normal schtick without it sounding too out of place in their oeuvre. It's the ideal fodder for a b-side, as this definitely would not have fit on Philophobia tonally yet is as high quality as any of the band's best moments.

I suppose I should mention the actual A side at some point, so here it is: "Here We Go," one of the better tracks off Philophobia though not a highlight. Your basic Arab Strap tune. The drum machine makes me want to kill myself. Gets slaughtered by the flip side. Almost wish that this was a single sided addendum to Philophobia, but any vehicle for giving "Trippy" to the general public is a good one in my estimation. [9.3/10]

Samael: Exodus (Century Media)
Blame/Thank the rise in prominence of keyboardist Xytras, I guess. After a few albums of solid if not exactly noteworthy death metal the direction of the band seemed to be driven by giving Xytras more input. Passage was the first step, fully integrating electronics into the band's sound where they'd been a shading before. Exodus is the next logical step in that direction, testing just how much the two sides of the band - the synthesized, industrial textures that were coming to the fore and the mid-paced black metal roots that they were pushing aside - could peacefully coexist without ruining the band's sound. You can hear that duality quite clearly on the title track, and more importantly you can hear why the industrial edges were to the band's advantage at this point. Really, any track here would be a mid-level black metal track without the extra layers added by the synthesizers, whether they be overt ("Exodus" and especially "From Malkuth to Kether") or more subtle ("Mark of Caïn.") It's the synthesis that manages to elevate the material to a slightly higher level, and while there's nothing as great as "Rain" or the forthcoming "Infra Galaxia" to be found here, the EP is probably the band's most consistent release on the whole, never really knocking any of the tracks out of the park, but also never faltering too badly the way that its surrounding albums did. [7.6/10]

Coil: Summer Solstice (Bee Stings) (Eskaton)
The issue I have with this release, easily the weakest of the Equinox/Solstice series, is that it feels more like patchwork than like a real album. It's a weird case where the individual songs are fairly good, "Summer Substructures" in particular, but they don't connect in the way the vast majority of Coil's releases do. You've got a proto-MtPitD number, a throwback Love's Secret Domain-style track, a full on organic ballad that bears more in common with the resurgent Throbbing Gristle material than anything and a weird sound collage, all great entries into that particular mode of Coil's output but they feel very out of place next to each other. Unlike the rest of the series there's no through line, no unifying concept that draws the disparate parts into a tighter whole. I mean, I don't expect them all to be as unified as the Equinox EPs were, but I do expect a certain attempt at tying the songs together - this is Coil after all, and even their least essential releases are made of material that feels like its of a piece with its surroundings. This feels far too disjointed even if the material is more than adequate. [7.7/10]

American Football: American Football EP (Polyvinyl)
Something happened between the recording of this and the recording of the American Football LP a year or so later: the band got really, really good. There's hints of that here, particularly in the vaguely mathy guitar patterns that Steve Holmes lays out during the bookending tracks, but even the best stuff here feels so slight and ill-conceived next to even the lesser tracks on the LP. I really hate to trash this retroactively, but in light of the easy grace that the band conjured up on their next releases, the stuff here feels awkward and unrealized. In short, there's no ease to the proceedings, everything feels forced from Mke Kinsella's overly high-pitched wails to the instrumentals' attempts at something more complex. It's he band finding its feet basically, nothing to be ashamed of but definitely not something I'd hold as highly as the LP either. [7.2/10]

Download link and image courtesy of A Wolf at the Door.

Mogwai: No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew) (Chemikal Underground)

Every change that Mogwai made between "Xmas Steps" here and "Christmas Steps" on Come On Die Young was for the better. That's not to say that as it was presented here it's bad per se - I mean, if this was the only remnant of the song ever recorded I'd be perfectly fine with it. But being confronted with it after already having "Christmas Steps" stamped onto my cerebellum it's easier to view it as a rough draft of one of Mogwai's best compositions. Hell, it's not even like the differences are all that drastic bar the big change in the second climax, where the lurching, feedback-punctuated sludge of this version is replaced with an actual discernible chord progression that's more distorted than the preceding guitars. In the end it's nice to have an embryonic version of the song, if only to demonstrate how pieces evolve in Mogwai's world; minor changes that result in a much better final product than even the fairly good demo versions could provide.

Outside of that, the EP contains a pair of shorter pieces that show the evolution that the band was going through at this point, between the more aggressive tone of Young Team and the tighter, more extravagant sound of Come on Die Young. More specifically, they showcase how vital pianist Barry Burns was becoming to their overall sound as they moved forward. Both "Rollerball" and "Small Children in the Background" feel like the band took stuff in the vein his solo pieces from Young Team and arranged it for the whole band this time around. The results still have Burns front and center, but feel much more complete and inclusive than their obvious predecessors. While neither is top shelf 'gwai material, they're damned good for what could just be written off as 'transitional' pieces. [8.4/10]

Dirty Three: Ufkuko (Bella Union)

Oddly enough, the two pieces here that feel the most like they were meant to go with Ocean Songs are the two that weren't actually on the bonus disc that came with that particular album. The three that were - the rollicking "To Aster!," the more jagged "Mihelkos Arm" and the accordion assisted "Cast Adrift" - all sound like the sort of thing you'd hear on Sad and Dangerous or the band's self-titled album; much harder and more upbeat than the meditative edge that took over on Ocean Songs. "Wish I Could" and "Three Wheels" on the other hand feel much more of a piece with the material that Dirty Three were pushing out at this point in their career. They're the sort of drawn out, evocative pieces that the band made its specialty after Horse Stories, not quite on the same level as Ocean Songs' stuff but certainly much more in line with it than the previous tracks. The oddity of what ended up where aside though, this actually feels like it's own release, much more so than the concurrently released Sharks EP. The gradual easing up that occurs as the EP progresses works very much in its favor, moving from the much more energetic and fiery "To Aster!" through to the much more languid and ethereal "Wish I Could" with a gradual decrease in energy that lets the whole EP hang together as a unit. [8.4/10]

The Seatbelts: Cowboy Bebop - Vitaminless (Victor)
  Disclaimer: I have never seen Cowboy Bebop. At all. It's one of those things that lingers on my mental 'Oh I should really watch that...' list, which is very much like my mental 'Oh I should really listen to that...' list in that there about five items I add for every one that I watch. So it's not something I will sit down with any time soon...but the music that I'm hearing from it has my interest even more piqued.

Specifically here we're talking about "The Real Folk Blues," which is equal parts pastiche of cheesy action show theme song and legitimately entertaining and layered song in its own right. It's and endlessly listenable song, one that seems to encompass all the other aspects brought in at various points on this EP - jazz, rock, humor - in one barnstormer of a 6 minute track. The rest of the material here isn't anywhere near that good, but it still paints enough of a picture - one confirmed by the full lengths that came out around the same time - of a composer and a set of musicians that are able to handle all manor of moods, styles and tones without any sense of strain. You want straight up jazz? Here's "Odd Ones" and "Cat on Mars." You want lounge music? "Piano Bar 1" coming right up. In the mood for some trip-hoppy French music? "Fantaisie Sign" looms on the horizon. It's an impressive array to cover in such a relatively short release, but unlike "Real Folk Blues," none of them reach that other level - OK, "Fantaisie Sign" comes damn close - that makes them classic material. [7.9/10]

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