The Winter of Our Content XIX: Alcest, Kodama

Alcest pioneered blackgaze (so I’m told¹), and black metal certainly does seem to be the point of departure for Kodama. Alcest mix tremolo picking, blast beats and snarled vocals with push and pull, echo and delay, space, instrumental sections and clean singing. And crucially, in the context of this being an album for winter–stricken times and climes, black metal’s defacto misanthropy is exchanged for melancholy. Alcest are a French band, and my French is très mauvais, but going by interviews and translations of lyrics², this is sad, not angry, music. Kodama draws from Princess Mononoke, an anime about Japanese folklore which thematically addresses being caught between two worlds. Lyrically, this adds up to themes of vulnerability, alienation and loss of ability and freedom running through the album, with third number Je Suis D’Ailleurs (I Am From Elsewhere) closing with ‘Je me sens étranger’ – ‘I feel foreign’.

Alcest could join Agalloch as spiritual playlist companions, but they could just as equally be played next to The Cure. Kodama sounds cold and feels cold, but even when frontman Neige is snarling, the tone has a lightness to it. It is illogical to describe a piece of music as simultaneously dark, melancholic and uplifting, but this duality is what defines Kodama.

  1. https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/yvpydk/alcest-kodama-interview-premiere
  2. http://www.darklyrics.com/lyrics/alcest/kodama.html#1

 

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Best of 2017

In keeping with that noble tradition of trying not to repeat myself so much that I bore everyone into stabbing themselves in the thigh with a biro just to feel alive again, all previous entrants have been excluded. However, there are a couple of albums which gave the REPEAT button good use this year. Joining Wolfmother’s first album in the Hall of Fame will be Hang The Bastard’s entire discography and Oceanic by Isis (please, please see link for clarification of ‘Isis’).

2017 releases

I managed to buy five albums which came out this year, which is something I suppose.

PallbearerHeartless (Nuclear Blast)

‘Want to mellow the mood in this post–Black Sabbath age? Think that doom metal needs to get real? Want to get worked up about 60 plus minutes of intense sadness? Put on Heartless and turn that smile upside down.’

Julian MarchalInsight III (Whale Records)

‘Marchal takes this concept of each song being each listener’s own insight and really makes it it work. Like the best instrumental music, the 10 pieces on Insight III tell stories without using words. The removal of the human voice gives these pieces an enigmatic quality, and with his songwriting and playing laid bare with only a piano at hand there is a poignancy and contemplative quality that are endlessly attractive.’

Left BehindBlessed By The Burn (Unbeaten Records)

‘Someone, somewhere, just got pushed into a moshpit listening to this album.’

BosskI II (Holy Roar re–release)

“Gaze into night sky
see riffs shimmer on star flight
as they pass us by.”

Bossk’s re–released I II is deep, light, and inspires questionable poetry about stargazing.

ConvergeThe Dusk In Us (Epitaph) 

The Dusk In Us can be about politics if you want it to be. What is more definitive is that this album supports the premise that it’s best to work backwards with Converge, and that the gradual shift to a more melodic approach has led to increasingly rewarding listens.

Older releases

Neva mind tha’ dreck from 2017, back  i’ 2016 we uz um some ‘ad real music, aye.

Parisos/t (Holy Roar)

Proper finger–pointing, give–me–that–microphone hardcore, but with riffs. Osmium Claw is like a hardcore version of Iron Man.

Employed To ServeGreyer Than You Remember (Holy Roar)

Also give–me–that–microphone hardcore, jammed packed with everything, in a good, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, bone–breaking way.

Bruce SpringsteenNebraska (Columbia)

‘Everything dies baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies
someday comes back’

Nine Inch NailsThe Downward Spiral (Island)

Similar to how I thought Unknown Pleasures would be fun on at least one level, I thought Downward Spiral would be straightforwardly energetic – Nine Inch Nails are half–techno, after all. Well, it ain’t. Downward Spiral clangs and scrapes and by the end it hurts.

GojiraMagma (Roadrunner)

‘[T]here were also several points on this album that started a one man moshpit in front of my stereo.’

Inter ArmaCavern (Relapse)

If you can write a song that opens with a riff constructed like a series of pillars, and then finish that song 45 minutes later by reintroducing that riff, I like you.

SamothraceLife’s Trade (20 Buck Spin)

Elemental forces meandering along the river of doom.

Cult of Luna & Julie ChristmasMariner (Indie Recordings)

We’re going on a roadtrip to space and the soundtrack’s going to be awesome.

Townes van ZandtOur Mother the Mountain (Fat Possum Records)

My previous appreciation of country music was limited to The Blues Brother (‘we got both kinds’), but van Zandt wrote some dark, haunting material evocative of being left asunder.

Bert JanschRosemary Lane (Transatlantic Records)

Rosemary Lane makes me think of corners of England that seem to have been happily forgotten and where folk music is the only kind of music (‘we don’t got both kinds’).

BurstLazarus Bird (Relapse Records)

The opening line of first track I Hold Vertigo is ‘What is the nature of this?’ It took me a while to figure out that what Lazarus Bird is, with its many facets, is progressive. This is philosophical music about and for philosophical ideas.

DeafheavenNew Bermuda (Anti–)

As I have remarked elsewhere, I’m generally not a fan of black metal. The black metal bands who I do like have invariably mixed it up with something else; Kvelertak with hardcore, Alcest with shoegaze (‘Shoefookinwhat?’), Agalloch with folk and post–rock. Here, Deafheaven have also mixed up black metal with post–rock and shoegaze (‘Shoegaze? Wha’ t’ fook is shoegaze?’). Interestingly, for 47 minutes of music which draws from two genres which are generally lighter on riffs compared to other styles of metal, New Bermuda is full of massive hooks; Gifts For The Earth sounds like something Kirk Windstein or Pepper Keenan (‘Pepperfookinwho?’) would be proud of.

Rough HandsNothing’s Changed (Holy Roar)

…talking of riffs…

Third World96° In The Shade (Island)

Roots reggae of the most uplifting order.

MastodonBlood Mountain (Relapse)

Mastodon have changed with each album ; if you want prog stylistics and duelling guitars, Blood Mountain is the album to go to.

Yoblots of everything (and then some).

MetallicaRide The Lightning

I have reached that stage with this album where I am discovering new favourite songs. The gift that keeps on giving.

Kate TempestLet Them Eat Chaos (Fiction Records)

Poet Tempest tells the story of seven unrealising neighbours over Let Them Eat Chaos’ 13 tracks, which along the way grows into a state of the nation address and story of human connections over electronic/electronica(?) beats that evoke an urbanised disaffection.

Marvin GayeWhat’s Going On (Motown)

It took a while to grow on me, what with it being a bit smoother than the d–beat I usually like to play out of my windows at the neighbours, but the soul of Gaye’s voice, and creativity of James Jamerson’s basslines, transcends this kind of behaviour.

The Duke St WorkshopTales of H.P. Lovecraft (Static Caravan)

The Duke St Workshop have recorded H.P. Lovcraft’s short horror stories From Beyond and The Hound with soundtracks, which involves a lot of synths. Don’t listen to after lights out.

Review ‘Em All: Converge, The Dusk In Us

Given that part of Converge’s DNA is punk and most likely ever will be, and that their last album, All We Love We Leave Behind, came out in 2012, I wondered whether The Dusk In Us would draw directly from changes in their home nation of the U.S. They’ve never been a political band (at least, not ostensibly; can you think of a facet of Converge that proves otherwise?), but, as little Bobbie Z once said, the times they are a changin’.

So have Converge gone political? Across its 13 tracks and 44 minutes, on a cursory listen, the answer is no. Converge’s go–to subject area for lyrics continues to be human connections; vocalist Jacob Bannon is still screaming about having heart, and there a lot of lyrics like

the little lies, the distorted truths
smeared the perspective and made me love you
queen of the garbage, prince of the weeds (Under Duress)

However, a couple of listens in, the abstract nature of this language makes The Dusk In Us is a lot more ambiguous than the first listen suggests; Year of The Quarrel contains the lines ‘the little lies, distorted truths/smeared the perspective and made me love you’, Under Duress states ‘compassion bends under duress/wouldn’t need a gun if you didn’t have one/don’t need you to serve or protect’, and closing track Reptilian starts with ‘futile wars for fruitless words/written by shadow kings’. This could all mean something, but just as equally could be but what my ears behold. The advantage of this lyrical style, common in hardcore and its derivatives, is that it lends itself to a very precise definition and feeling for its adherents (it’s about me; I can relate to this) whilst being abstract enough to be open to interpretation (be strong; be united; it’s us against them).

Something less open to interpretation is TDIU’s continuation of the more melodic nature of All We Leave Behind. A Single Tear opens with a squiggly guitar line and big band–style drumming (I wonder if drummer Ben Koller likes jazz) and the gang shout in chorus is absolutely propulsive. Under Duress has a shovelling bass intro and a verse riff that sways around, and eponymous sixth track The Dusk In Us is a mellow, midpoint break. Even the feral Wildlife is approachable in that it serves as a kind of an entry point into Converge; the imperative tone, the busy drumming, the tremolo picking, the structure – this is the verse, this is the chorus, this is the interlude. Bannon’s vocals are still quite squawky, but I can tell which songs are which. That said, fans of skronk don’t freak out; there are still numbers that sound like Taz just spun into a guitar and a mic; Year of The Quarrel is relentless, Broken By Light absolutely flies through riffs in its one minute and 45 seconds, and after the queasy hammer–on–pull–off bass intro of Trigger, it turns out guitarist Kurt Ballou is still finding those left–over Slayer riffs. There are also the curve balls; the fast, snappy breaks of Arkhibov Calm (reminiscent of AWLWLB’s Sadness Comes Home), the weirdness of Murk & Marrow (strange structure, strange noises, strangely compelling), and I Can Tell You About Pain, AKA I can tell you about weird time signatures.

The Dusk In Us can be about politics if you want it to be. What is more definitive is that this album supports the premise that it’s best to work backwards with Converge, and that the gradual shift to a more melodic approach has led to increasingly rewarding listens.

Review ‘Em All: Left Behind and Burning Up

I’m not too fussed about your threads. Not everyone is a down-for-life hesher. But goddamn, there is something satisfying about knowing without a trace of a doubt that you are looking at what could only be a metal band.

Someone, somewhere, just got pushed into a moshpit listening to this album.

Like Hang The Bastard, Speedwolf, or variations upon Percy The Pig sweets (Penny The Pig? Come on), Left Behind aren’t ploughing their own furrow with second album Blessed By The Burn. What they do, and do very well, is weapons–grade metallic hardcore. They know that riffs are the order of the day, and that songwriting will make these riffs last. They mix up tempos (opening track West By God), chuck down barrelling riffs (er, whole album), swing like King Kong (Scarred Soul), strip back layers, give the vocals some space to get to work, add layers back (Sweetness of Nothing), every now and then bust out a breakdown (Tough Love), then suddenly woah–up–there into sludge and make me want to stomp around in big circles squashing things with size 14 steel toes (again, whole album).

Furthermore, as Left Behind are happy to describe themselves on their Facebook page as ‘Five dumb motherfuckers from West Virginia’, in turn I am happy to imagine that at some point their lead guitarist (with the the exception of vocalist Zach, they don’t specify which members play what) said something along the lines of ‘I LOVE ME A PINCH HARMONIC’, because it sure sounds like it; my favourite example is Early Mourning.

Left Behind also know y’all best tell a good yarn. I get the impression that life has been hard on these five dumb motherfuckers from West Virginia; Zach, who, going by his roar, sounds like a big dude, covers suicide, mental breakdowns, addiction, and in Tough Love domestic abuse in some detail;

It’s like casting a curse
You loved making the hurting worse
Your biggest regret since the birth
Now she isn’t on the Earth

Despite the imperative feel to the lyrics and vocals, the stereotype of the tuff–talkin’ hardcore guy is sidestepped by the absence of cliches and Zach’s ability to express pain convincingly;

It’s so hard to feel anything but numb
When all I can think about is how I wanna smoke it away
Til I sway and I hurt and I ache and I burn and I taste (Sweetness of Nothing)

or, my favourite line,

Cover shit up like a bad tattoo (Burn Out)

Feel the burn for yourself and buy Blessed By The Burn from Unbeaten Records here.

The Winter of Our Content XVIII: Getting (Type O) Negative with October (Rust)

That’s right, a feature piece on an album called October Rust just in time for late November.

In an irritatingly recurring trend, Type O Negative are one of those bands I dismissed a while ago for being just a bit too goth, for looking like they were trying just a bit too hard to be gloomy. I was made aware of my ignorance by an excellent piece on their landmark fourth album October Rust at the now sadly defunct That’s How Kid Die blog, and I’m here to tell you sometimes it’s OK to be a bit of a goth.

As with several other albums I’ve harped on about for their sonic depictions of winter, if you’ve heard anything by Type O Negative, or from October Rust, you know this is an obvious choice. Despite (allegedly) having been nicknamed ‘The Drab Four’, comparatively speaking they aren’t really that dour a band next to some of the other bands I have written about in the same terms (Joy DivisionA Storm of LightRamesses, all those good–time guys). It’s more that they revel in darkness; they are one of the few metal albums to have lyrics about love that aren’t plain fuckin’ deranged (…maybe with the exception of Wolf Moon), typically focusing on loss, regeneration and vulnerability. October Rust is a lush and atmospheric–sounding album, combining Vol. 4 riffs (Burnt Flowers Fallen), ambitious songwriting (Wolf Moon) and Peter Steele’s clean baritone singing (Be My Druidess). It’s also generally quite a slow album, which, matched with Steele’s baritone, lends it a solemnity and a brooding quality.

Sleeve notes full of autumnal and winter forest scenes. I told you this was goth didn’t I?

Lyrically, the distinction between the pastoral concerns of October Rust and a band like Agalloch is that Type O Negative are focused on nature’s impact on humans;

Spring won’t come, the need of strife
To struggle to be free from hard ground
the evening mists that creep and crawl
will drench me in dew and so drown (Haunted)

Where some metal bands are all about taking the rough with the rougher, with Type O Negative it’s more that they revel in darkness. Not too goth, not too gloomy; just right.

Four String Thunder: Dennis Dunaway

IMG_0292[1]

Alice Cooper, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, Glen Buxton and our man Dennis Dunaway.

Dennis Dunaway was the bass guitarist in Alice Cooper from 1969 to 1974, before the split between the band and the vocalist who would go on to assume that name as a solo act. He was part of a rhythm section which helped to create four consecutive genre–defining albums through a singular chemistry¹. In these traits Dunaway shares a similarity with Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones and Duff McKagen, but comparatively little has been written about his playing². Like Butler, Paul Jones, McKagen, and even Motown session bassist James Jameson, Dunaway’s lines are clever and assertive without necessarily being the focal point of the song. Reputedly picking up the bass due to that classic rock’n’roll scenario of wanting to join a band and bass being the only instrument left, Dunaway played a Gibson EB0 short scale bass – four inches shorter than most basses – modified with a P Bass split coil (and mirrors), and with a plectrum exclusively for Alice Cooper’s first three albums. He switched to a Fender Jazz bass (also covered in mirrors) by 1971’s Love It To Death. Alice Cooper’s first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action, are generally forgotten, generally because they’re forgettable; they present a snapshot of an Alice Cooper that was still evolving, one that had not yet reached the sound that best represents them, and a Dunaway that was yet to make his mark on bass playing. As such, third album Killer, released in 1971, is the best place to start.

Under My Wheels, Killer’s lively opening number, is matched with an agile bass line, using the major pentatonic scale, particularly the major 6th, but the first real sign of what Dunaway can do surfaces on the bass intro of Halo of Flies. He stays off the root note of A, starting from the minor third (three semitones, or three frets, up – think of the second and fourth notes of Whole Lotta Love) and plays around the natural minor scale, with the result of it sounding more like a vocal line. He also likes to bounce between roots and 5ths (in music theory, a 5th, due to the number of soundwave oscillations, is harmonically very compatible with root notes – it’s like peri peri sauce, it goes with (nearly) everything) and octaves (think of the ‘where’ in Somewhere Over The Rainbow). In Halo of Flies Dunaway uses the momentum of this movement over the fretboard as propulsion to play the chord changes.

Dunaway also likes to play arpeggios going down in pitch, often when guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, no slouches themselves, are playing ascending lines. Although not something that requires a great deal of technical ability, it’s unusual for an arpeggio to begin on a descent and not to come back up in pitch soon afterwards (Flea of Red Hot Chili Pepper fame does this a lot too). Check out Halo of Flies or I’m Eighteen for some good examples.

Dunaway’s tone was always killer, and fittingly the intro of Killer is where this is first evident; the amount of space in the production keeps each instrument audible throughout, and with the amount of space given over to the bass in these recordings it’s easy to hear that Dunaway played with a plectrum. With this space at his disposal he plays a great ascending run during the second verse, and laid back arpeggios during the harmonised guitar solo. At 3.30 the song goes full–on doomed, with a funereal bass line entering at 4.30. By 6.30, having been reminded of how good all of the musicians in this line up of Alice Cooper were (‘were’ = past tense = Glen Buxton died in 1997, I don’t rate Vincent Furnier’s recent material, and I have no idea what the rest of the band are up to), I had also been reminded, at this particular moment, of how fucked up some of their music was.

There are also lines that are simpler, such as the line that mimics the guitar line in Dead Babies (…talking of fucked up music) two octaves lower. Likewise, on succeeding album Love It To Death, sixth track Hallowed Be My Name, through to the ninth and closing track, Sun Arise, are accompanied by bass lines that are more workman–like, based on root and whole notes. In comparison the preceding five tracks are more lively; opening track Caught In A Dream shows Dunaway embellishing on the chord changes, and  Long Way To Go has a lively line and a great descending fill beginning at 0.48 which flows into a burst of lead bass at 0.55. Extended fills recur throughout the verses, and the post–solo verse has a different, more spacious line. Dunaway also has three writing credits on this album, including I’m Eighteen, Black Juju and Is It My Body. Given the lack of traditional drums on Black Juju the playing is very tight, and the bass plays a great counter–melody to the guitar intro in Is It My Body.

With all this said, had Dunaway’s only musical contribution to this universe been his playing and writing on Alice Cooper’s fifth album/third proper album School’s Out, on which he is listed as a writer on five of the nine tracks, I would still be writing all of these nice things. Some of the best bass playing ever is to be found on School’s Out. After matching the intro of the eponymous opening track, Dunaway throws in arpeggios using the 5th and octave at the interlude at 1.12 and a driving, independent line during the first guitar solo, and then a slight variation on those first arpeggios in the second, post–chorus interlude.

Dunaway chooses his shots well on this album; Luney Tune is driven by a sinister, prowling bass line with swift slides thrown in, and in sixth track My Stars, the bass, except for brilliant moments when it follows the descending vocal lick, hands it over to the piano. The bass intro of Gutter Cats Vs. The Jets, on which Dunaway is listed as a co–writer, makes his use of a plectrum very clear, and the resultant tone is to die for, being equally sharp–edged, gritty and thick. The intro consists of a descending melody, speeding up at the completion of the chord sequence, chucking into triplets as the whole band begins to swing at 0.38. The space in the production really makes it clear how the bass is the bridge between the drums and guitars, and although it’s not as though Dunaway invented the role of the bass, this is why he is one of the best. I don’t like The Beatles³, but when it comes to Paul McCartney it’s a case of game recognising game, and Dunaway’s counter–melody playing is comparable to Macca’s.

A filthy bass riff drives the ‘field recording’ Street Fight, with chromatics played with up and down strokes on the plectrum (which creates on/off/on/off accenting – think of the intro to Metallica’s Whiplash) low on the fretboard on the E and A strings. It fades out into the descending chromatics of Blue Turk, then a call and response with a piano. This is Dunaway at his best here. At 2.10 under a sax solo he starts to walk, leading in from chromatics, through to the end of the solo at 3.50. Momentarily stripped of all other instruments, the tone at 4.00 is to die for, sharp–edged and gritty yet still thick. At 4.50 the bass line begins to descend through chromatics in a leisurely manner, until it feels as though he has fallen off the fretboard and will keep on going forever.

The whole of Public Animal # 9 (the best song name ever) rolls along with the bass riff, eschewing fills to just stick to the action. In contrast, the bass line of following number Alma Mater partially mimics the vocals, throwing fills in with tight slides and at 2.40 goes higher, punching out the strong beats. Closing track Grande Finale has a bass intro (that tone!) that screams excitement, throwing in non–root notes when it changes to West Side Story.

By and large the bass playing is far more fundamental on 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies, and with the exception of a few moments, there isn’t much of note until fifth track Unfinished Sweet. The bass riff zigzags downwards through chromatics during the guitar solo at 2.40 in opening track Hello Hooray, there are a few arpeggios in the questionably titled Raped And Freezing, there is an interesting little run up and down in Elected at 1.30 and lots of quavers and a prominent descending line at 3.00, and a fast ascending riff, which then becomes a motif, at 2.28 in Billion Dollar Babies.

On Unfinished Sweet the tone of the bass suggests heavy palm muting with a plectrum, and at 1.55 there is a turn on the penny change led by a smoking bass riff. There are lots of tempo changes across these four albums, and Dunaway shows his skill in staying tight with the drums to execute these changes, such as the tempo and time signature changing from 4/4 and 128 bpm to 6/4 at 156bpm, which then, inexplicably, rolls into the James Bond theme tune. There is an excellent independent bass riff in the introduction of No More Mr Nice Guy, some nice fills pre–chorus, and between the first two choruses there is an extended high–register fill. And on the last four tracks, there isn’t a great deal of note. It feels as though Dunaway had less creative input and freedom on this album, especially compared to School’s Out; he has writing credits on two tracks (Elected and Generation Landslide), compared to four on Killer, three on Love It To Death and five on School’s Out.

Following album Muscle of Love (another questionable title) has some good tracks – namely, Never Been Sold BeforeHard Hearted Alice, which has some walking bass, and Working Up a Sweat, but there is little bass playing to really talk about. This album is more about the story–telling, cabaret element of Alice Cooper, and less about awesome bass lines. While Muscle of Love has it’s charms (let’s be blunt, some of the tracks aren’t great), it misses the interaction and chemistry of the preceding four albums. This was the last Alice Cooper album with the classic line up, with Alice Cooper becoming a man, rather than a band, so to speak, by the time next album Welcome To My Nightmare was released in 1975.

Sabbath had Geezer. Zep had Jonesy. Guns’n’Roses had Duff. Motown had Jameson. And for four consecutive, genre–defining, perfect–chemistry albums, Alice Cooper had Dennis Dunaway.

  1. Battle Axe, the album released by the post–Alice Cooper band Billion Dollar Babies in 1977, misses all of this magic.
  2. Nor, it should be said, has there been about original Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce.
  3. That’s right, I said it.

Yob Song by Song: Grasping Air

Grasping Air makes me think of being a cave with no light. Everything about this song is on edge, pervaded with unspeakable dread. The reverberating guitar intro sets teeth on edge before leading into a deadly, crawling riff. Alongside Travis Foster’s skillful drumming maintaining a sense of momentum even at this consistently slow pace, it is also one of my favourite performances by Scheidt. He has described himself as ‘[…] not the most polished guitar player’¹, but in terms of feel he is one of the best. (His statement should be taken with a pinch of salt anyway). Case in point; listening to this song, I had a smart ass theory about what he was playing, but when it actually came up to picking up a (bass) guitar and playing along, it turned out most of the time he’s just playing one chord, a dirty ol’ A tritone. He plays it in such an expressive way that it creates the aforementioned motion and tension, rather than it turning into Another Stoner Odyssey Based On One Chord.

As for the title. If Grasping Air is the action of someone trying and failing not to fall, an instinctive act produced by terror, it means trying to take hold of something that’s not there. In light of the lyrics, and Yob’s general shtick, I read this title as a metaphor for the misconception of reality. And now you’re probably thinking, does organised religion make an appearance? You betcha. Cue chorus:

Ancient wounds fester and bleed
Empty food from which they feed
Sustain the wealth
Subliminate the self
Create the suffering we need

In particular, this song approaches this subject matter from the angle of the cycle of dependency, the first line being ‘Entwine with despair like a lover’. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad description for doom. Is doom metal an organised religion? Either way, we are left in the dark. Dot dot dot.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYuFFhE10TE

The Winter of Our Content XVII: Nebraska

Saying Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is an album for winter is saying nothing new. If you’ve not heard of this album, just look at that artwork. I can feel the slushy brown snow soaking its way up my socks now.

If like me, you went from the excitement of Born To Run and the romanticism of Darkness on the Edge of Town to the restrained, dour Nebraska, and thought holy shit where the fuck is everything and everyone (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and that’s it really – just The Boss by this point, no E Street Band), and then had to put Born in The U.S.A. on to cheer yourself up, give Nebraska another listen now while you wait for your socks to dry on the stove.

Whilst not out–and–out misery, with an ambiguity to the lyrics, Nebraska remains stark, bleak, solitary–listening music. The lyrics are about working class characters (generally men) at a moment of crisis; two brothers on opposite sides of the law (Highway Patrolman), an out of work man who gets 99 years for shooting someone during a robbery (Johnny 99) and streams of consciousness from men driving through the night with a lot on their mind (State Trooper and Open All Night). While sometimes this approach has resulted in Springsteen’s lyrics being favoured to the point of the music barely being there (I found this to be a recurring issue on later album The Ghost of Tom Joad), on Nebraska there’s a balance between this starkness with melodies and rhythms that feel more solid. That said, even livelier tracks like Johnny 99, Open All Night and Reason To Believe become a lot more downbeat upon closer listening. It’s this balance, paired with the lyrical search for hope in the gloom, that makes for a good winter listen; something to go on when it’s always dark, cold, miserable and the world seems against you. Even if it’s just in the form of wet socks.

Everything dies baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies
someday comes back

– Atlantic City.

Review ‘Em All: Julian Marchal, Insight III

Like most people (I think), I don’t like 90% of music, and like even more people (back me up here), I don’t like 99.9% of classical music (‘classical music’ in the common sense of the phrase, not the phase from 1750 to 1820 or whatever. You square). Apparently it’s full of great ideas, but apparently so is Oblomov, and sure as fuck that was a painful 586 pages. This is because I find it (‘it’ being classical music. Forget about satirical 19th Century Russian literature now) to be uninteresting, which is a shame for such a large body of work that, as stated, is purported to contain such a wealth of information. Bach gets mentioned by a lot of metal musicians, how he was the master of harmonies or something, but I’ll take the intro of Damage Inc. over O Jesu So Meek any day, so what the fuck do I know really.

Anyway, it’s nice when someone lives up to the bluster. Julian Marchal is a pianist who composes his own pieces, each of which is titled Insight and suffixed by a number. Insight III (the albums are titled along the same principle) takes us from Insight XXIV up to Insight XXXIII, with the liner notes stating

The Insight’s pieces are conceived […] to put the listener into the piano. The numeral numbers replace titles in order not to create mental images before listening to the music.

Marchal takes this concept of each song being each listener’s own insight and really makes it it work. Like the best instrumental music, the 10 pieces on Insight III tell stories without using words. The removal of the human voice gives these pieces an enigmatic quality, and with his songwriting and playing laid bare with only a piano at hand there is a poignancy and contemplative quality that are endlessly attractive.

As you make have guessed by my opening jeremiad, I’ve never gotten into classical music, so I don’t know who Marchal could be compared to, if anyone. However, the universal appeal in Marchal’s playing is in his melodies. His playing is mainly comprised of homophonic (one note at at time) melodies (think of the intro to Sweet Child O’Mine) rather than chord progressions (think of, say, Knees Up Mother Brown). This isn’t necessarily the better way of doing things, but it does allow Marchal’s knack for a melody to shine through. The highlight of album is fifth track Insight XVIII, with its rolling and dark lines, fading into silence without resolution before returning muted and ambiguous. The recording doesn’t have as much of a close–up feel compared to Insight II – there’s no creaking of the piano – but there is still a tactile quality to the piano underneath a natural reverb.

As stated, classical music, much like certain metal sub–subgenres (from France or otherwise), has a niche audience, but trust me on this one; roll over Beethoven, back up Bach, cease transmissions Classic FM, Marchal’s the man with the insight.

Insight III is out now on Whale Records.

Yob Song by Song: Quantum Mystic

Image result for quantum mystic pedal

The Black Arts Tonework effects pedal. Is this the only song that’s been honoured with an effects pedal? Image© 2017 Black Arts Toneworks.

As with (nearly) all Yob albums, 2005’s The Unreal Never Lived takes its time to start, but when it does get going, it doesn’t fuck around. A nuke explodes, a guitar starts swinging a slow motion NWOBHM¹ riff around, and just like that time your idiot cousin Earl put the tractor through the barn door, the rhythm section slams in out of nowhere and off Quantum Mystic ploughs on a trail of destruction.

I first heard this song when Yob played it at the Camden Underworld in September 2014, and, going on far longer than I expected, I assumed that they were jamming it out and extending the slow gallop of that NWOBHM riff. In retrospect, I doubt that they did start doing extra laps just for fun, but this gives an idea of how long this intro feels. I say ‘feels’ rather than ‘is’, as it’s actually only two minutes, which doesn’t sound like much when compared to Ball of Molten Lead (3 minutes 40 seconds), or Revolution (5 and a half minutes), but with both of those tracks it quickly becomes apparent you’ve left Kansas and are now in Long Intro Territory, so god help you Marine. On Quantum Mystic, with the guitar panned hard to left and with stabs from the rhythm section, for a long time it feels as though the rest of the band’s about to enter at any moment and someone’s going to start singing in a falsetto about how much they love tequila, rock’n’roll and their souped–up Chevy or whatever car they were flipping into ditches during the summer of ’79.

That all said, I stand by my earlier statement that this song doesn’t fuck around; it knows what it’s doing, where it’s going, and when it picks up it’s as fast as Ether or Doom #2. When it does enter it swings a lot harder than either of these tracks, and doesn’t sound as though its needs to resolve almost continually.

So does this song, and album, mark the start of a new direction for Yob, a distinct turning point in the body of their material? No. The notable difference is that the vocals aren’t run through an EQ gate, or at least far more subtly than on their earlier recordings. The lyrics are still preoccupied with theological concerns; who is the quantum mystic? What is his message, which ‘still resounds for all time’? Sure as fuck it’s not your idiot cousin Earl. Actually, the lyrics are quite specific:

Born in India
A modest shopkeeper living in the seat of Bombay
He raised a family, a common, simple life
Until he met his master and through grace opened eternal eyes.

Quantum mysticism, as far as I have managed to figure out, is a set of beliefs in which consciousness, in the spiritual sense of the word, is related to the idea of quantum mechanics, and generally seems to be regarded as a pseudoscience. Last time I checked, quantum mechanics is/was a scientific theory that explains parallel universes and that Michael Crichton was using to write stories about time travel. Although I can’t speak for Yob’s collective belief in parallel universes and appreciation of Crichton’s fiction (Timeline is good, give it a read), given their spiritual leanings these lyrics could be understood as a willingness to understand that the world and universe exist beyond our physical means of perception;

Beyond all birth and death
The real is timeless
Open the shutter of the mind
And it will be flooded with light

Although this is not new ground for Yob to be covering – song for song, they’re one of the most explicitly philosophical bands going – this song is different in that these kinds of lyrics are matched with that marching riff. It feels more imperative than most other Yob riffs do, and whilst this juxtaposition doesn’t make the song, it certainly doesn’t hurt it, to the point of Quantum Mystic being a fan favourite and regularly appearing on their sets. Even your idiot cousin Earl likes it.

  1. NWOBHM = New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Check Riot’s Swords and Tequila