Monday, April 9, 2012

Danava - "Where Beauty & Terror Dance"

A couple of years ago, I decided to concentrate my musical exploratory efforts on genres that I appreciated on the whole but otherwise didn't have any deep knowledge of. At first, I went through 12 months of trying to train myself in the ways of classical music to some degree of success. And the next year I dove into the wild world of heavy rock and metal.

I got more out of that year since I had a working knowledge of the foundation of most modern metal acts, and it is a genre I keep returning to a full year and a half after "quitting" my little personal experiment. The reason for that is because I live in a town that is experiencing a full-blown metal renaissance. You may read about the wispy folk bands in NY Times and Newsweek, but in the trenches, people are banging their heads.

As I got deeper into it, I did see that this movement was growing stronger throughout the U.S. Ryan Adams was touting his black metal bona fides. Mastodon got major league airtime on late night talk shows. And in the metal magazines, blogs, and Twitter feeds, people were talking warmly about Portland's wellspring of talent.

This led me, as it often does, to pitch a trend piece out to a few publications, including Rupert Murdoch's baby The Daily. Shockingly, they accepted my idea and I set to work. I talked with members of several metal bands, big and small - Red Fang, YOB, Mongoloid Village, Nether Regions, and Gaytheist, among them, two bookers that have been instrumental in keep the scene thriving (Carly Henry and Nathan Carson), Brandon Stosuy who writes about metal for Pitchfork, and the heads of a couple of metal record labels that relocated their offices to Portland (Relapse and Seventh Rule).

And as what happens with these sorts of things, I turned in the article and nothing has happened with it. The editor there spoke to me a while ago about it not being a timely piece so it could go up whenever. But to date, it hasn't seen the light of day at all.

That is until now...

Submitted for your approval is the draft of the Portland metal scene article I submitted a few months ago. I hope you enjoy it.

As if to prove correct the writers who have dubbed their hometown the "hotbed of all things hipster," promoters in Portland, Oregon pulled out all the stops for New Year's Eve, calling on some of Stumptown's heaviest musical hitters—Talkdemonic, Nurses, Laura Veirs—to bring 2011 to a close.

Yet for all the indie rock options at hand, the prevailing choice was the triple bill of heavy metal bands at the newly renovated Star Theater in downtown Portland.

And it wasn't just the metal lifers having their copious hair blown back by the meaty, hard-charging attack of Red Fang, Lord Dying's blacker than black murk, and the punk-infused fury of Rabbits. Young women in tiny party dresses clutched tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand while throwing up devil horns with the other, and clean cut floppy haired men clamored towards the stage shouting along with every gruffly shouted lyric. 

Shows like this New Year's Eve event are quickly becoming the norm in Portland, where a metal and heavy rock scene that has been kicking up sparks for the past few years is finally starting to catch fire.

"It has happened organically and it's happened fast," said Nathan Carson, a booking agent and promoter for metal acts and drummer for the doom band Witch Mountain. "Even five years ago, I would have told you that Portland doesn't have a lot of metal bands, but they have a lot of metal fans."

The scales finally seem to be in balance now with the musical landscape studded with some impressive heavy rock talent. And news of this sonic renaissance is starting to spread beyond Portland's borders.

Red Fang was featured prominently on NPR's music blog in early 2011 (they hosted a pre-release stream of the band's second album Murder The Mountains) and were invited on the road with Grammy-nominated titans Mastodon.

As well, the challenging and sludgy trio YOB, currently on tour as the handpicked opener for enigmatic space metal outfit Tool, was recently anointed as "one of the best bands in North America" by New York Times writer Ben Ratliff.

The wellspring has also attracted the attention of record labels like Relapse and Seventh Rule, both of which have moved their operations to Portland and have begun to snap up the best of the city's current rock crop, such as Rabbits and Wizard Rifle.

Another benefit for the bands is that music fans in the city that weren't already listening are also starting to wake up to the rumbling happening beneath their feet.

"We're starting to attract people that aren't stereotypical metal fans," said Joe Wickstrom, bassist and vocalist for Nether Regions, one of Portland's thrashier rock groups. "You won't see a bunch of people in bullet belts or dressed in all black. And I love that."

Of course, like any style of music, heavy rock didn't just appear out of nowhere in Portland. The city has a long history of iconic forebears like '70s proto-punkers The Wipers and garage mavens Dead Moon. And most of the folks playing in the much-talked-about bands of today are all nearly or well past 40 years of age.

But even as recently as the early part of the '00s, concerts featuring local bands were attended by only a handful of diehards. "It would be me and the same other 12 guys," said Wickstrom. "Heavy music has always had a pretty strong underground here, but it seems stronger now than I've ever seen it."

So, why is it catching on now?

"To a degree, it has to do with the Portlandia phenomenon," said Carson, referring to the popular IFC comedy series that celebrates and mocks Portland in equal measure. "There are so many more young people moving here that are interested in alternative cultures and are now willing to embrace the fact that there's artful metal out there and that it's important, viable music. I think it has to do with women embracing metal and participating in it a lot more. And I think it also helps that national media is taking metal more seriously."

Carson points to the likes of NPR and influential music blogs Stereogum and Pitchfork, the latter of which has run Show No Mercy, Brandon Stosuy's monthly column focusing on the fringes of metal, since 2006. But publications as august as The New Yorker have also been willing to take up column inches discussing the furious black metal outfits Wolves In The Throne Room and Liturgy.

Like so many other Portland musicians, the heavy rockers are also quick to point to the uniqueness of the Northwest that, according to YOB guitarist/vocalist Mike Scheidt, "is conducive to creativity without the weird jaded quality you get in Hollywood or Nashville or Austin. There you get a lot of 'been there, heard it' attitude. There's still an unjaded quality in Portland that allows for a lot more heart to be in the music."

Or to put it more bluntly, as Wickstrom did: "Bands here just don't give a f**k. That's the most beautiful thing about the Portland music scene, it's very uncompromising. It's very much a DIY type of thing to begin with. Then when people start paying attention and start giving you money to do what you want do, even better." 

Friday, March 23, 2012

the bird & the bee - "Again and Again"

I get a lot of music these days. A lot. Upwards of 10 - 14 physical promo CDs in the mail each week. Hundreds of e-mails in my inbox offering up single track or full album downloads/streams. And all the vinyl I buy as an inveterate junkie for sounds.

And I do my level best to listen to it all. It's my job, after all, to keep up on what's going on in the music world, from bands/artists big and small. Most things get one spin; others that actually capture me in some way will get more; things that I have to review get even more spins. But everything get's listened to at least once.

That said, it's not often that something bursts through my critical skein and brings me back to it in a slightly obsessive fashion. Not since the days of my youthful cassette/CD buying when something new would live in my home and portable players for months on end.

Imagine my surprise then when a single song stuck with me for a full week, warranting repeated listens on Spotify. To the point that my son was singing the chorus to himself absentmindedly as he played with his train set. And just as quickly, my fascination completely disappeared and I moved forward.

When I was stuck on it, I didn't think about it critically at all. I just wanted to hear that amazing chorus hook spun into falsetto glory by vocalist Inara George, with the melody of that hook echoed in the electric piano intro and a bridge that sounds like it's played on wine glasses. The verses and jumpy little beat to get me to those choruses were to be tolerated and stumbled through until George could once more sing, "Again and again and again and again..."

Because what soured me on the song eventually were those idiot verses. Perhaps there's some inherent meaning to those lyrics for George and her bandmate Greg Kurstin, some inside joke or reference to a personal event that only they would get. But it is impossible for me to parse out, particularly when all George wants to do is repeat the word "creepy" 12 times over. Even they want to hurry themselves to that glorious chorus. The verses are an afterthought.

As much as I've moved on from this song, it was rather nice to be obsessed with a single piece of music again. Even the stuff I love throughout the year gets short shrift as I wade through everything else that I get sent. I keep track of the stuff that I return to throughout the year so I can make my end of year best of list, but even then I don't listen to it as egregiously as I once used to. My passion is still there, mind you, but my time with things is more and more limited.

I'm almost hoping that this dalliance with the bird & the bee will inspire more obsessive listening. I miss getting to know an album inside and out like I used to and wearing out tapes and scratching up CDs and vinyl with overuse. The value of the physical object may depreciate but not its inherent value with me, the #1 fan.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Urban Dance Squad - Life 'n Perspectives of a Genuine Crossover

One's taste in music and how it evolves over time can be a funny, funny thing. For everyone I know who has embarrassing skeletons in their closet about things that they used to marvel over (I'm thinking my friend Adam would feel much differently these days than he did back in 1989 about Jive Bunny & The Mastermixers), there are a dozen more whose musical interests simply stop cold at a certain point. They only replay the same few albums from their youth and nosh on whatever is being plunked down on commercial radio.

I'm glad that I'm still striving to hear new and interesting musics and am overwhelmed on a daily basis with the amount of new music that my weary ears has access to. An embarrassment of riches. Which is why I grabbed a hold of Spotify so firmly. Here was instant access to new records by artists whose PR companies haven't added me to their mailing lists. And I can be assuaged of a little bit of the guilt that would accompany me illegally downloading it. 

With that, though, Spotify has encouraged me to get nostalgic, dipping into the catalogs of bands that I used to adore when I was a teen whose only exposure to new music was via 120 Minutes and the amazing mix tapes my older brother would make for me. So it is that I've been revisiting the work of artists like Jesus Jones, Ned's Atomic Dustbin, The Wonder Stuff, and a rap-rock outfit from Holland called Urban Dance Squad. 

If you have any "Best of the '90s" compilations lying around, their semi-success from 1990 "Deeper Shade of Soul" is likely on there. And if that's all you know of the band, you'd start plotting out the through line that connects them to late '90s pop hits by folks like Sugar Ray and Smashmouth. Gratefully for my conscience, the band was a lot more complicated than that.

The two albums of UDS that I'm most familiar with are the band's first releases: their debut Mental Floss For The Globe and Life 'n Perspectives of a Genuine Crossover. To a young man living in a small town with little access to the underground music scene, though with a huge love of both hip-hop and indie pop, these two cassettes that I had were the height of musical brilliance. The fact that the band got a stamp of approval from Henry Rollins only helped solidify my interest.

Listening to them now with the hindsight of almost 20 years behind me, I can hear all the little things that had me patting myself on the back about being a fan. For one, no one else I knew at the time had heard or cared about these guys. And my favorite of the two albums Crossover justified my close listening of it: with humorous and knowing samples (the little Public Enemy and Musical Youth drops in "Mr Ezway" were particular favorites), stickin' to the man references to their earlier successes, and a surprisingly loamy sonic underpinning. Plus music like this made it safe for me to rebel against my otherwise pleasant family life. My parents hated these and so many of the other albums I had on repeat in my teen years.

Hindsight has also proven that this music is absolutely lightweight, especially in comparison with the heavy stuff from that same time period that I'm much more attracted to now. UDS were pop artists masking themselves as tough, borderline avant garde musicians. Even in the '90s, mixing hip-hop and other elements of the musical world was happening all over the place and in much more dangerous and brilliant ways than these cute little Dutchmen.

Hearing it now, Crossover seems completely leaden and overstuffed, the byproduct of a band with a lot of buzz and likely label money hoping for another "Deeper Shade of Soul." I admire the chutzpah of a band willing to throw that entire pop playbook out in exchange for a bluesier and at times more experimental approach. But at least eight of the songs on this disc could have been shaved off with no ill effects to the full album experience.

It is at this point that I need to remind myself, "Of course it's going to sound dated. The thing came out in 1992. Most of the tracks on here sound like RHCP demos and b-sides." So, so true. But then again I was a big Chili Peppers fan at the time, too. Listening to both groups in 2012 makes me wince. For all the little details that still work, there are dozens more that are rooted in a '90s aesthetic and production style.

I also have to admit to myself that I wouldn't have gotten here without going through that period as well. Albums like Crossover led me into an exploration of UDS's influences - hip-hop, reggae/ska/dub, electronic - that were far more rewarding. And to those groups that use those same influences in much more inventive ways.

For that, I thank you Urban Dance Squad. But it's time for us to go our separate ways. It was fun while it lasted, but we've grown apart. Maybe we'll see each other again at some point down the road.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Arrington de Dionyso - Lombok Island Improvisations (RFRC)

As my long-suffering wife will tell you, I'm an impulse buyer of the highest order. The ease with which I can purchase new/used music online is a dangerous, dangerous thing for our already strained bank account.

I've had to learn through some ridiculous trial-and-error to keep my purchases small. Not in size, necessarily, but in how much I'm spending. Because of that, though, most of the things I've been picking up of late have been smaller in stature: 7"s, flexi-discs, and cassettes.

So, when Devin Gallagher, the man behind Portland label, High Scores & Records, tweeted about a new label he was starting and that its first release was going to be a cassette of music from Arrington de Dionyso (for only $5!!)...well, I had purchased a copy before the e-ink on his tweet dried.

If you're unfamiliar with de Dionyso, here's the best summary I can provide: he came up through the ranks of the Olympia punk/K Records scene playing in the terrifying blues-skronk outfit Old Time Relijun. Along the way, he started exploring the farthest reaches of the musical universe, including throat singing, ecstatic bass clarinet workouts, and with his latest group Malaikat dan Singa, spewing out thrilling incantations sung in the Indonesian language while his band engages in swirling, sensual rhythmic adventures.

Having been a fan of his for years (and having the rare pleasure of writing about him), I revere him with a guru-like fervor. I will follow him where ever he wants to lead me. And on this cassette, he takes listeners straight into the heart of Indonesia, where, as the title suggests, he improvised a series of tracks using his trusty bass clarinet.

The whole shebang is a must-hear for fans of free jazz and avant garde drones, especially the first side of the cassette, on which de Dionyso explodes out with long spirals and spatterings of melody while Gombloh, a musician that plays a double-reeded instrument called a preret, joins in the freeform fun. The tones of the two instruments don't necessarily mesh with one another, making for an interesting juxtaposition of sounds. There were times where I thought Devin had passed me a tape that he had used a few dozen times already and the ghosts of previous recording sessions were still audible in the mix. Add to it that each player appears to keep to his own ideas with little disregard to what the other is doing. To you that may sound like chaos; to these ears, it is glorious noise.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Back Once More

Tried to stay away from the blogging world. But, as any writer should openly admit, I have too many itches that need scratching. I am again. To talk about music in either short spurts or large gushes of words. My goal, such as it is, is to publish once a week, and to talk about a song or an album that has my ear. Could be something brand new, could be something old. Could be something amazing, could be something absolutely wretched. I will be swayed only by my own interests and nothing more. I only hope that it is of interest to anyone who stumbles across this.