Monday, November 30, 2009

Dread the Night

Listening to Gallow's Grey Britain while writing on my laptop, sitting in a coffee shop is like listening to the Rolling Stones in an office cubicle or like listening to Wagner at the beach or like listening to JET without slamming my head in a car door. It just feels wrong. Honestly, I think any listening experience short of bleeding from the nose in the center of a sweaty mosh pit in a London Rock club is probably not in keeping with the spirit of this music.

While the familial relation to British Punk pioneers The Clash and The Sex Pistols is definitely perceptible, Gallows' approach is from the more Metal end of the spectrum and while they may not be objectively more angry than their ancestors, the members of Gallows collectively embrace their fury and let it shine through in every aspect of the music from the aggressive, dissonant guitar work to lead singer's vocals. Lacking any vestige of the archetypal whiny Punk sneer, vocalist Frank Carter belts his songs through undoubtedly raw vocal chords with a masculine, guttural force more reminiscent of Metal, but his aggro style and cockney accent are still unmistakably true to the genre. The same can be said of the lyrics which, while being a touch darker than your typical Punk fare, have that familiar grounded disillusionment of the resentful lower class London Rocker.

The imagery conjured up on Grey Britain is super violent but the musical context of the individual tracks is important in how they each come across. The more traditional Punk sound of “London is the Reason” lends it a relatively light-hearted tone which, in combination with the rally cry “We are the rats and we run this town,” sounds like a veritable party anthem for anyone with some surplus anger and a bunch of anti-social mates in tow. “I Dread the Night” is another tune which is improbably fun, due in part to the fact that it's sung from the ironic perspective of someone who went out looking for a fight, and lost. In addition, the rousing Punk chorus and driving guitars infuse the listener with adrenaline and though I'm a lover not a fighter, I'll admit that the song does make me imagine what it would feel like to fracture my knuckles on another man's head.

At the CD's halfway point we get an uncharacteristically slow and somber departure from an album that is otherwise a consistently fast and brutal affair. “The Vulture (act I)” gives Frank Carter a chance to reveal his tender side, singing softly and sweetly over an acoustic guitar and a string ensemble arrangement that borders on cheesiness. It's a clever move on the band's part; they play it so that right about when you might ask yourself if Gallows has gone soft, they rip into the second act of “The Vulture” and thoroughly disintegrate any misguided sense of serenity you may have been harboring. We are led across this Rubicon to a notably darker, more aggressive B side where any Punk playfulness has been cast aside in favor of a merciless attack on The United Kingdom and its status quo. An air raid siren wails away ominously in the background as if to say “You ain't seen nothing yet.”

On songs like “The Great Forgiver” and “Graves” Gallows kicks into another gear riding a pulse of thrashing dissonance while hammering home their anti-social, anarchistic themes. The downer of the album may be “Misery,” whose beautiful but foreboding intro leads into a perverse love note to suffering itself.

“Misery fucking loves me, but I love her more

she is the last light, the dark nights

the noose round my neck and the hole in the floor

there is nothing left for me, I want to kill myself just for relief

the black cloud, the death shroud

the weight of the world dragging me down.”

Delivered at full force, “Misery” is hard and ugly but as over the top as it is, its sincerity remains intact and this is the true success of Grey Britain. With such aggressively angry music, if its underlying sentiments were to be perceived as contrived or manufactured it would trigger any listener's internal BS detector and it wouldn't work on any level. To my ears, Gallows achieves an air of authenticity and that makes their interesting mix of Hardcore Punk and Metal all the more enjoyable.

The band leaves us with dark parting words screamed over a military drum beat; a bleak vision for the future of the U.K. The sound of Carter fighting for breath as the music fades away conveys his anger and intensity as well as anything else on the album.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Further Evolution of the Jazz Underground -or- Jazz Isn't Dead, It Just Smells Funny

In the tiny corner of the internet known as “The Free Bin” rule numero uno so far has been to write only about obscure music that I wouldn't have otherwise heard of had I not found it in The Free Bin, i.e. obscure stuff sent in by starving, independent artists who have been largely ignored by virtually all press and mainstream audiences. However, since I made the rule I can certainly bend it a little and review my new favorite disc, Tiny Resistors by the still independent, but decreasingly obscure, Brooklyn-based bassist/composer Todd Sickafoose. I promise I will resist blogging about the new Lil' Bow Wow album I found in the pile.

The reason I have braved this slippery slope is that Tiny Resistors is A) too good not to share with you and B) is perfect supporting evidence to contradict one of my least favorite popular misconceptions, to wit: “Jazz is Dead.” The truth of course is that Jazz is thriving and genius pervades the scene just as much as it ever has. Whether anyone currently appreciates this point is perhaps a separate topic entirely but Jazz's reputation as a dead music or even an ambiguous, undead entity doomed to wander the spooky outskirts of artistic relevance is inextricably linked to its dwindling audience. How did it come to this?

Somewhere along the way, whether it was the absence of good taste during the 70's fusion movement, or the staunch traditionalism of some of the more visible artists of the 90's and 00's, Jazz went from being a form of popular music to a sub genre of classical music or an intellectual novelty that smacks of self indulgence. A certain book of rules pertaining to style or instrumentation had come to define an art form that had previously been defined by spontaneity and constant re-invention from within as well as from without. An over-reliance and dogmatic reverence to tradition has produced a Jazz scene the mainstream of which predominantly consists of an aging set of fans go to see an aging set of artists rehashing the same music that originally made them popular three or four decades ago. [ranting]

With the release of Tiny Resistors Sickafoose and his contemporaries have authoritatively marked their place as integral players in a movement that may very well reverse these current stigmas and bring innovative, creative music back to the spotlight. Worn out idioms are pushed aside as the band explores fresh textures and timbres. The obligatory Jazz solo is eschewed in favor of a more collective improvisatory approach which brings the listener rewarding and unexpected developments all within a tightly through-composed structure.

The overarching backbone to this structure is clearly groove. No matter how off kilter the pulse or how subtle the rhythmic interplay, dance-ability trumps complication. Tunes like “Invisible Ink” or “Warm Stone” groove hard, pulling at your bones with an irresistible kinetic energy. The warm, organic tone from Sickafoose's upright bass lends a grounded, folksy feel to “Everyone is Going” the 11/8 time signature of which is usually reserved for nerdy Prog Rock fare. Even the head bobbing opening track, “Future Flora,” seems simple enough until you realize that your head is only bobbing to the down beat every other meter, on account of the 10/8.

And as the booty shakes, the mind reels at the matrix of poly-rhythms Sickafoose and his cohorts weave over the foundational grooves. Beautiful in its breadth of imagination and intriguing in its dense complexity, the interplay between the instruments exists far outside the constraints of genre as a limitless exploration rather than a new mix of old sounds. In the epic adventure that is “Bye Bye Bees” Afro-Cuban beats and Flamenco hand claps bounce over rock drums while insistent horns and guitar cut through voices, whistles and touches of electronica floating in the ether. Rather than merely adding a separate flavor to the proceedings, each of these parts' harmonic and rhythmic space relates uniquely with the others, fitting together in a 3-D sonic jigsaw puzzle of textural potential.

One of this music's greatest strengths is that while it innovates, it also exhibits an undeniable reverence for the musical history on which it builds. The horn arrangements of “Pianos of the 9th Ward,” an elegy for a post-Katrina New Orleans, are a lovingly crafted tribute to the days of the Big Band and if you isolated the horn tracks you easily might think you were listening to a recording from a different era. The beauty of Tiny Resistors is that it shows that influences can be referenced and nods can be given in appropriate directions but within a progressive context the sound remains fresh, just like Jazz was intended to be.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Nintendo 20-Something Riot

In an increasingly litigious society such as ours, Math the Band would be wise to include some sort of legal disclaimer with their recent release Don't Worry. Not like the ones you see warning you that you may contract lupus or suffer “itchy retina” should you be daring enough to take Lipitor, but something more akin to the phrase “Please Enjoy 'Miller High Life' Responsibly.”

I say this because each of the CD's nine tracks of casio-keyboard-heavy, post punk, dance pop come at you hard and fast and you will get you psyched. Very very psyched. Naturally, after a few of those “Miller High Lives,” mere slam dancing and punching air begin to lose their luster. You may ask yourself “How can I further disregard my personal safety and have a REAL party?” At this point I downright challenge you to resist playing air guitar on the roof of your buddy's van doing 20mph in a mall parking lot while you're listening to the chorus of Don't Worry's opening track “Hang Out/ Hang Ten.”

The music of Don't Worry is... how to put this... sonically inelegant. It's reminiscent of a soundtrack to an 8-bit video game but truthfully, the end result seems perfectly tailored to those of us who can actually sing said soundtracks on cue. Keyboard lines played at a breakneck pace conjure up campy images of a time traveling Ludvig Von Beethoven clad head to toe in neon green and pink and jamming out on a red “keytar.” Raw exuberance is personified in the fuzzy guitar, purposefully cheesy synths and programmed drum tracks all of which provide a lo-fi launchpad for the simultaneously wonderful and ridiculous vocal stylings of Math the Band's two members Kevin Steinhauser and Justine Mainville who literally scream their devil-may-care anthems such as the afore-mentioned “Hang Out/Hang Ten” at the top of their lungs:













etc..” [Trust me, it makes sense with the music.]

So no, it's not exactly Bob Dylan but at the same time, these songs aren't simply party-hard mantras and ironic non-sequiturs but are often sincere expressions of angst and reckless abandon. Balancing out Sk8er anthems like “It's Gonna Be Awesome” are tunes like “Why Didn't You Get a Haircut” and “Introducing the Magic Eye” which are sung from the perspective of the young artist struggling to find his or her place in an adult world. Fortunately Math the Band seems to take any serious issues in good stride giving us the impression that even if they are unemployed and living in a basement, they are going to make the best of it. At the closing of the recording, the duo hits us with the borrowed chorus, “It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” and I think they mean it.

So, go ahead and listen to “Tour de Friends” at full volume but before you jump your skateboard off a roof and onto an inflatable alligator floating in an above-ground swimming pool, remember: You've been warned and Math the Band does not condone your wicked stunt and therefore is not legally responsible for the injuries you're almost positively going to sustain. On a happier note: the rest of the album will make fantastic driving music for your buddies as they shuttle your busted face to the nearest emergency room.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Music To Feel Sorry For Yourself To

A large chunk of the music in The Free Bin unsurprisingly falls into the category of “indie rock” so I feel as if I've been bit remiss for skipping the genre thus far. In an effort to make amends, this week I plucked out what I deemed to be one of the more indie-hipster looking CDs in the bunch, “Sun Valley” by Los Angeles/Brooklyn outfit Soulo. “Sun Valley's” cover and packaging feature photos of sun bleached urban/desert landscapes (presumably in Sun Valley, CA) in a kind of ironic celebration of the American mundane so I figured I was dealing with some disenfranchised artsy guys rocking out and railing against The Man and the creeping boundaries of our mindless mainstream society.

On paper, I like Soulo's approach on “Sun Valley” which boils down to taking simple melodic and harmonic phrases and stretching them out into full tracks, investigating textural possibilities in a mellow electronica-slash-folk setting. Strings and horns, spacey reverb and multi-layered vocal overdubs are among the techniques the band employs to fill out the sound. In the right hands, this recipe could yield fascinating results both intellectually and aesthetically but for such a project to succeed, the ideas being explored would have to have at least some sort of hook or intrinsically pleasing qualities. This is where “Sun Valley” falters.

It turns out the contents within are just about as un-rocking and uninspiring as the dusty abandoned construction sites on the packaging as the underlying thematic material they've been built upon proves to be a weak foundation for interesting music. Sleepy melodies come off as annoyingly sparse, almost comical in their lack of musical meat. Style is substituted for substance as more and more vanilla vocal overdubs embellish aggravatingly repetitive verses. For a band embracing such minimal melodic ideas, they're not really into the “less is more” philosophy when it comes to production techniques.

The resulting atmosphere that pervades the recording is one of lazy-sounding indifference making “Sun Valley” perhaps the perfect theme music for the bored teenager who wants nothing more than to sit inside and feel alienated. I knew plenty of kids like that back in the day but even they would have seen through the veneer of this exercise in superficiality and would have switched back to Punk Rock or the Grateful Dead.

The opening track, “Up Where the Clouds Come Down” develops patiently, voices echo as if in a church or a canyon until the band kicks in and the music morphs from a Gregorian Chant into a blandly rocking 6/8 that floats along while super-reverbed voices moan on and on about clouds. As more layers are added and strings lend some sonic oomph to the proceedings, a relatively entertaining climax is achieved though one could forgive the listener for having already bailed and hit the track-forward button.

Subsequent tunes plod ahead at roughly the same dirge-y pace, as extra sound effects or additional layers of vocal overdub continue to take the place of worthwhile compositional ideas. Some interesting musical nuggets can be heard here or there but they tend to, frustratingly, end as soon as they've begun. In fact, it seems there is an inverse relationship between the aesthetic appeal of a motif and the prominence it is given on “Sun Valley.” On one of the few mildly entertaining tracks, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps,” (a Bob Dylan cover) there is a chord sustained by a horn section (or synthesized horns) for literally three seconds which reminds me how much fun I could be having if only I was listening to something else.

Halfway through the CD, I take pleasure where I can find it: Track number six is brilliant if only for its title,“Holding Pattern,” which is particularly apt since it is at this point that I felt like I'm completely trapped in an aluminum tube and being driven around in circles. I don't know what the musical analogy to kicking open an emergency door and jumping out at 30,000 feet is but when I think of it I'll let you know.

The only rumble strip in this ride that actually might wake the listener up is “Monkey,” a Pixies-lite instrumental groove that builds an intensity palpable enough to actually care about but even this gesture is empty as it immediately followed by the excruciatingly dull “Send My Face” which seems like a further distillation of Soulo's vacuous compositional style.

Unsurprisingly “Sun Valley” ends with a whimper not a bang and I'm left with a feeling of someone who has been left out of an inside joke. If the point of the recording was to simulate a completely joyless listening experience then congratulations to Soulo on an unequivocal success! Note: I still resent having sat through it multiple times. Of course, not being one for conspiracy theories, I can't bring myself to believe that “Sun Valley” was crafted as a cynical gag. The much more plausible explanation that the music sucks.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Worldly Ska Hop

Jaqee, the latest foot soldier in the righteous war against vapid pop vixens, comes to us from Uganda by way of Sweden. Her July release, “Kokoo Girl,” is a reverent but playful blend of Ska, Reggae and Soul music with some bubblegummy tricks thrown into the mix for extra addictability and I can’t stop listening to it.

On the surface, the cover of “Kokoo Girl” belies the frequently serious tone of the music within (Jaqee's style incorporates just as much socially-conscious roots reggae as it does “Kokoo” pop) but after repeated listens, I recognized this goofy image as a very clever complement to its contents. Simultaneously self-effacing and empowering, the image depicts a coy Jaqee in antiquated garb smashing a cake into the face of a stiff-looking honky symbolizing her ability to avoid being pigeonholed, to use and subvert stereotype and, in the end, score a judo-esque deflection of the listener's preconception of what Jaqee should sound like.

That is to say, I expected “Kokoo Girl” to be not much more than a shallow romp and I was surprised by its worldly, impassioned perspective and delighted by its connection to roots Reggae and Ska. Not that there aren’t moments of pure bubblegum abandon- the titular track alone has enough for the whole album- but the real allure of this music is Jaqee's ability to maintain musical and idealistic gravity while infusing the proceedings with her bouncy, “Kokoo”style.

The balancing act is in full swing right from the get go with the opening track “Natty Dread” (not a Bob Marley cover) as gritty sounding horns blare minor key harmonies over a fat rhythm section driving a heavy Ska groove. Jaqee sings of a “taste of bitterness” pervading her existence as if she's stuck in a Concrete Jungle but then we experience the uplifting chorus of “Dance to the Music and I'll shake it with you” and it's happy times in the dance hall.

Of course in the end, it doesn't matter if the music is a clever mix of styles or showcase of Jaqee's worldly perspective as one who has lived across continents all her life. The most important aspect of “Kokoo Girl” is that the songs are just a gas to listen to. You know you're listening to a truly good album when your favorite track keeps changing from day to day. I've had at least five different favorites and I see no end in sight. I'm still not sick of this album. What's surprising to me is that this is Jaqee's fourth album but only her first foray into the genre of Reggae and Ska. The vibe created here seems to be so genuinely tapped into the spirit of the genre that I had just assumed that she had been playing this music for her entire career. It makes me very curious to hear what she has up her sleeve in the future. All around just a great find in The Free Bin.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Soundtrack to Your Upcoming Murder/Suicide.

The next CD to be rescued from The Free Bin and showered with attention is “Nightwing” by the Swedish Black Metal outfit, Marduk. My curiosity in such a recording was driven primarily by my love of Adult Swim’s outrageously funny, Metalocalypse, a cartoon that follows the wacky hijinx of a fictitious metal band known as Dethklok. Having only been exposed to the parody, I was eager to see just how awesomely horrible Marduk could be. And horrible they are.

In Dante’s Inferno the deepest level of hell is described as a dark, frozen wasteland where souls are locked into an icy eternity of nothingness rather than being consumed by flame. Here, we have a similar contrast: instead of the blazing blast beats and red hot guitar solos of Dethklok, “Nightwing” is cold, unchanging and unyielding in its wave of negativity. The individual instruments indistinguishable in the mix, the songs too similar in tempo and tone to tell where they begin and end, this album is more disturbing in its homogenously bleak atmosphere than its misanthropic thematic material.

Having said that, its thematic material could be this recording’s only redeeming quality. Sure, the opening tracks, “BloodtideXXX,” “Of Hell’s Fire,” “Slay the Nazarene” are fairly un-clever attempts to scare my grandma, but then “Nightwing” takes a legitimately interesting turn. The following tracks are a collection of historically inspired odes to Vlad III Prince of Wallachia, (aka Vlad the Impaler, likely the basis for the legend of Dracula) celebrating his legendary ruthlessness.

While it seems noteworthy for a band like Marduk to delve into historical material, the even more interesting twist is that history is still undecided on the chosen subject. Vlad the Impaler is remembered as an unparalleled sadist though it is uncertain how much of this demonization is due to propaganda from political adversaries. To this day, Vlad is regarded as a national hero in present day Romania for defending his homeland against invading Turks as well as a corrupt domestic noble class. No one really denies that he brutally murdered tens of thousands of prisoners and nobles and their families but what is in dispute is how much they deserved it. Historical digressions aside, Vlad’s blood thirst is where Marduk picks up adding its own Satanic slant to the Dracula myth.

Unfortunately, this fascinating premise is rendered moot by “Nightwing’s” overall flaws. Potentially compelling lyrics are all but lost as they are belched in guttural hisses from the back of lead singer “Legion’s” throat. Any substantive atmosphere degenerates into the same old unsatisfying soup of despair that we got from the first few tunes. Ultimately Marduk succeeds in making a really offensive, fairly creepy sounding album but after a short while the listener, gag reflex re-adjusted, will most likely throw this disc back in the free bin and surf Cartoon Network looking for Metalocalypse reruns.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Intelligent Party Funk

It was with tangible trepidation that I plucked Rudder’s "Matorning" ( out from my pile of rejected and neglected CDs.  A quartet of accomplished but relatively obscure “musicians’ musicians” collaborating on a chops-heavy, instrumental Jazz Funk album, I expected Rudder to be a self-serving project, more about blazing solos and impressing the diehards than about making truly enjoyable music.  Worst case scenario, these musical heavyweights may have been too impressed with their own resumes to actually rehearse together or *gasp* bring any interesting tunes to the recording session. Ugh.

Upon seeing the melting boom box graphic on the cover, color palette lifted straight from the opening credits of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” I steeled myself against the interminable noodling, disinterested comping, and over-reliance on jamming on a funk riff that was sure to ensue.  Finally, just in case my prejudgment needed a little icing on top, the cover artwork was in the style of graffiti as if to suggest the contents within may be regarded as art by the musicians and their ilk, but will be a nuisance to the majority of society. 

To my great surprise “Matorning” is not simply a showcase of the musicians’ technical abilities but a showcase of Rudder’s prowess in creating a kind of hybrid strain of intelligent party funk. Yes, they rock the hell out of these of the tunes, but there are subtler touches pervading the recording as well; seamless group improv, unexpected mood shifts, thoughtful bridges, and a malleable collective sound that deftly jumps from P-Funk jams to New Orleans boogaloo, often in the same tune. 


The opening track, “3H Club” is a powerful declaration of Rudder’s M.O.  Dripping with reverb, saxist Chris Cheek establishes a wandering melody that left in less tasteful hands could be the foundation for a Smooth Jazz hit. Luckily Henry Hey is backing with a Hammond B3 Organ, full of evil to scare away any comparison to Kenny G, and Tim Lefebvre and Keith Carlock, on bass and drums respectively, are wailing away on a deep groove that sounds less like elevator music and more like your elevator is plummeting towards the basement.  One instrument or another drops out for heightened tension, returning with a renewed fervor, all the while Cheek’s saxophone sounds an alarm in the background: “This is dirty, nasty music and you’ve been warned.” Chord progressions are explored, new melodies come into play, and “3H Club” just keeps rocking harder.


In the following tunes the energy level is not reined in but rather focused into a pointed intensity. In “Daitu” a drum and bass jam opens up and develops in a concentrated trajectory rather than weakly riffing its way towards a point. After a few minutes or so we eventually arrive somewhere in a mid-1970’s Herbie Hancock album (in a good way) with only the electronic tweaks of the following “Neppe” to bring us back to the future.


Yet another sign of “Matorning’s” willingness to stretch past the limitations of the Funk beat, “One Note Mosh” features Carlock’s precise New Orleans shuffle working hard to tether soaring sax melodies and a driving chorus to this planet as his band mates explore the outer reaches of the stratosphere with face melting solos. Intriguing group harmonies develop and morph giving the listener a fresh sonic perspective over and over again as the tune makes its way towards climax.


Sometimes the listener is caught off guard, sometimes his nodding head may have to change course in mid-bob as the band turns a groove ninety degrees on its ear.  After donning a neck-brace, one can take consolation in the fact that Rudder is an enormously gifted band and instead of hitting “record” and coasting on their collective chops, the band has put together a series of intelligent tunes that engage with the audience and provide real musical meat to sink teeth into.  I’m not sure that “Matorning” will be a great commercial success but I do hope it is indicative of a movement to create smart AND aesthetic jazz music.