Wednesday, May 18, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week 4

WEEK 4 (May 12-18th)

Total Albums Revsited: 23

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 3
  • Pelt For Michael Hannahs (VHF) A much more scattershot release than I remembered, and given how much consistency there generally is across a given Pelt release it seems even more disappointing. [6.5]
  • Les Joyaux de la Princesse Exposition Internationale Paris 1937 (Les Joyaux de la Princesse)  On first pass it toed the atmosphere-tedium boundary gracefully. One revisit it seems to not even realize that there is a line. [6.3]
  • Wunder Wunder (Karaoke Kalk) Downtempo, jazzy electronica that falls into the slightly boring category all too quickly after a great start. [6.7]
Albums Remaining at 3.5 Stars: 13
  • Southpacific 33 (Turnbuckle) The ideal midpoint between Blind Idiot God and Tortoise. A bit hesitant but worthwhile all told. [7.5]
  • Tiere der Nacht Sleepless (Captain Trip)
    When Archetti and Neumeier re-interpret big beat through the lens of krautrock it's a damn good album. When they just settle into second rate krautrock things get sketchier. [7.3]
  • Home 13: Netherregions (Arena Rock) Every Home album comes close to making that leap to the other level that i look for, but it never seems to happen enough to merit a higher rating. [7.6]
  • Gate The Lavender Head (Hell's Half Halo) Gone are the aimless feedback excursions, and in their place we have proto-dubstep. Seriously, tell me that "Mary and Mars" wouldn't fit in perfectly on a Burial LP. [7.8]
  • Taku Sugimoto Opposite (Hat Hut) Subtle music that no matter how near to silence it is always beckons far you to listen more closely. [7.4]
  • Six Organs of Admittance Six Organs of Admittance (Pavillion) The noisier atmosphere really suits these tracks, and Chasny's playing is great, as always. [7.5]
  • Hannah Marcus Faith Burns (Normal) Often hints at being something more than half-good, but just as often makes me wonder whether I'm being overly generous. [7.1]
  • Dissecting Table Life (Release) Really not my thing as a rule, but the weird Merzbow meets Godflesh territory that this inhabits is fascinating even if it's not essential. [7.2]
  • Dave Douglas Charms of the Night Sky (Winter and Winter) Figures that the first thing that came to mind when re-listening to this was that it was very Masada-y, but the violin and accordion added a much more mournful texture to the proceedings. [7.4]
  • Terry Bozzio Drawing the Circle (Self-Released) Bozzio's drumming is enough to maintain a whole release on its own. That's praiseworthy in and of itself, but there's also the fact that the pieces are actually catchy, variable and memorable. [7.7]
  • The Jazz June The Boom, the Motion and the Music (Workshop) I like to think of this as what Cap'n Jazz might have sounded like if they were around for long enough to get epic and vaguely experimental on their second or third LP. [7.4]
  • High Rise Desperado (PSF) Straightforward psych-rock'n noise, like Fushitsusha focusing on riffs n solos instead of bludgeoning. [7.4]
  • Knapsack This Conversation Is Ending...Starting Right Now (Alias) The fact that it's formulaic and kinda same-y only slightly detracts from just how good of a formula it is and how consistency is a nice by-product of the saminess. [7.8]
Albums Being Elevated to 4 Stars: 3
  • The Hangovers Slow Dirty Tears (Kill Rock Stars)
  • Species Being Yonilicious (Grauspace)
  • Duotang The Cons and the Pros (Mint)
More on these in the next section.

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area:

Angry Johnny and The Killbillies What's So Funny? (Tar Hut)
It's hard to justify this opinion, but the biggest thing that I find this album has in its favor is its sense of humor. Keep in mind that I'm saying this about an album whose first track details the willful sexual exploitation of an underage girl who ends up HIV positive and where every other song features as much bloodshed, implied or explicit, as a classic Peckinpah western. But underneath all that seeming shock value lies more than enough cleverness and actual wit to counteract the wanton unpleasantness of the proceedings. It's in Angry Johnny's lyrics, sometimes overtly ("Daisies," "My Ghoul Maggie") and in its more lasting moments in simple word choice at key moments. It even bleeds into the arrangements and the backing vocals which are more than up to providing jaunty harmonies to grim stuff like the blood feud of "Jonses." It's just a very darkly funny album at its core, and that's what gives it a great deal of its replay value

Of course that would all be for naught if the music itself wasn't as arresting as the lyrics. While there's a definite quality gradient to the songs depending on their pace - the band in shit-kicking hoe down mode is truly spectacular while their less upbeat material is much less special - there's still a high base-level quality to the band's playing that would elevate the material even without the added kick of the lyrics. What's most impressive is that they manage to do so much more than your average underground country act in terms of tone, mostly thanks to the addition of a truly badass sounding saxophone to their arsenal. Even without that though, they seem to touch on every type of country song you can imagine, from the straight up tear in your beerisms of "Shitty Day" to the funeral march of "A Love More True" on the slower side and from the lighthearted playfulness of "Daisies" and "My Ghoul Maggie" to the hellishly dark atmosphere of "Kill Again" on the faster tip. This sub-genre hoping may rob the album of coherent flow, but it shows a band that's extremely comfortable in just about any style of their chosen genre, which is appreciated in a genre where monotony tends to reign supreme far too often. [8.0/10]

The Grassy Knoll III (Antilles)
Nu Free Jazz?
Free Nu Jazz?
Jazz Nu Free?

It's an interesting combination that Bob Green works with on the third Grassy Knoll release, but the way he plays the unpredictability of free jazz against the rigid formality of nu jazz makes for some great music in the end. Green's assembled cast of contributors - everyone from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore to free jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin to future Sleepytime Gorilla Museum violinist Carla Kihlstedt - are allowed to run loose across their various tracks while the core elements remain in a strict, locked groove. The end result should by all rights be a mess, but the way it's assembled makes it more fascinating than messy.

It helps that even if you remove the free-er moments from the album, at its base III is still one of the better nu jazz releases of its time. There's something to the grooves that the album is built upon that instantly grabbed me; the dark tone of the bass and the crisp, rigid feel of the drums is basically the ideal midpoint between trip-hop and cool jazz, making it one of the few albums in this style to understand that balance. The rest of the elements may be what gives the release its true character, but without that solid base to work from it would be difficult to give them their proper due. And boy do they deserve their due, whether its for the way that they enhance the grooves as they do for the better part of album standout "The Violent Misery of All Things" or rub against them in all the right ways as they on tracks like "Paul Has an Emotional Uncle" the way that Bob Green pieces the tracks together is always interesting and at its best totally unexpected.

It's also worth noting that another thing that III excels at where so many similar releases fail is that its slower, more minimal sounding tracks rarely some off as boring. I can't imagine any other project in this genre pulling off a track like "A World Reduced to Zero" with anywhere near the aplomb that Green does, honing in on the parts of the minimal soundscape that enhance the atmosphere and ensuring that the track comes off as being just as 'crafted' as anything else on the album despite seeming to be made up of so much less. It also furthers the sort of juxtapositions that green seems so fond of on a sonic level by ensconcing i between the most darkly layered piece on the album and one of it's most chaotic and free, giving it the feel of a necessary 'breather' of sorts without shortchanging its own quality. That's also a testament to how well arranged the album's tracklist is, letting the variously toned pieces co-mingle  in a way that enhances their variety without distracting from each track's quality. [8.1/10]

Order From Chaos An Ending in Fire (Osmose)
A few things that make me feel much more fondly towards An Ending in Fire than I do towards a lot of death metal albums:

 - Brevity. I am saying this about an album whose centerpiece is almost 12 minutes long, but the fact that the album proper doesn't quite reach the 40 minute mark does it a lot of favors. Namely, it means that the things about albums like this that I tend to have the hardest time dealing with don't wind up being around for long enough to begin to actively bother me.

 - Flow. There's a sense that the band was pulling off the rare trick of composing both songs that stand in their own right and songs that work so perfectly in their intended place on the album that bringing them out of context makes them feel incomplete somehow. It's in the way that "Tenebrae" subtly twists the riff from "Dawn Bringer Invictus" into its own core riff, then twists it again to form the basis for "The Sign Draconis." Essentially, the fact that there was a modicum of thought put into the sequencing of the album.

 - Micro-Solos. I may be overstating this one a bit, but the fact that Order From Chaos guitarist Chuck Keller seems to be content with tasteful and brief solos rather than long-winded bouts of instrumental wankery does more for this album than anything else. Hell the fact that he'll occasionally let a song go by - a six minute song at that - without feeling the need to solo at all is pretty much the reason that I'm close to giving this 4 stars. My main gripe with death metal is that the guitarists seem to think its their Satan-given duty to dazzle the listener with their ability to playnotesreallyfast at every opportunity, so whenever I come across one who understands that this sort of thing works so much better when it's a) properly integrated and b) not overlong, I tend to heap on the praise.

 - Complexity over technicality. A related point here, but the fact that more often than not the times I find myself saying 'man, these Order From Chaos dudes are incredibly talented players' are when they're simply letting their riffs evolve rather than displaying how well they can play on their own. Sure, Keller's solos are impressive enough, but I'm more impressed with the way he and his bandmates can subtly alter their riffs without disturbing the flow of the songs.

 - Vocals that aren't comically overdone. This is a comfortable level of growliness for me I guess, not so polished that it's at odds with the music but not so incomprehensible that it toes its way into unintentional comedy.

All in all, this is a testament to how well a certain level of tastefulness can be used to make a somewhat great album in a genre I find it so easy to be annoyed by. Order From Chaos don't forgo the traditional death metal elements so much as they dial them in at just the right levels to work better for me, personally, than so many in their genre. The fact that they do it all without fundamentally distancing themselves from the genre the way a band like Gorguts did around this time is pretty commendable as well, proving that you don't necessarily need to go weird in order to make a compelling case for this type of music. [7.9/10]

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