Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best of 2013: index, etc.

To recap, here are:

My 10 favorite albums of 2013, all genres in play.

My 10 favorite jazz albums of 2013, plus one honorable mention and a list of fave live shows.

My 10 favorite metal albums of 2013, plus three honorable mentions and a list of fave live shows.

Here, via Pitchfork, is a Year in Music post, which puts a personal spin on some of the above, and also includes a list of my 10 favorite tracks of 2013, plus a shout-out re: a new-to-me old album that blew my mind this year. Originally, I had more Haim, RVIVR and Diarrhea Planet on the songs countdown, but I decided to limit myself to one track per band so as to yield a broader assortment and rep for some names I didn't include on the albums list. My No. 11, incidentally, would undoubtedly be Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home." Just heard that for the umpteenth time while out and about earlier this week, and found its smoothness newly undeniable.


There was one band not featured in any of the above reckonings that was nevertheless a big part of my musical year, and that band is Pearl Jam. I think Lightning Bolt is a very good album. If the second half were as good as the first half, and did not—in my opinion—nosedive into tepid meandering, it would be a great album and very likely would've made my overall top 10. As I wrote in TONY, this LP is not going to change anyone's mind about Pearl Jam, but for lapsed fans such as myself—I love albums 1 through 5 pretty much unequivocally but have only heard bits and pieces of the four full-lengths in between those and Lightning Bolt—this is a great place to get back on board. I'd say that at least four of the songs in the playlist below are insta-canonical PJ, with the other two lagging only slightly behind. My favorites are probably "My Father's Son" and "Sirens." If the latter doesn't move you, even just a little, we probably have pretty different tastes. Eddie Vedder is in roaring form on all these. Again, if you can't at least admit to that—well, you know the rest.


One other thing: The Fleetwood Mac show at MSG in April was excellent. Anyone who cares about the coexistence of raw performance intensity and widely accessible songs needs to see Lindsey Buckingham live. The 2011 solo show I saw was outstanding; it was totally different, and equally spellbinding, to hear him in the company of what he's dubbed the Big Machine.

2013 metal top 10

My 2013 metal-only top 10 is live now, appended to Brandon Stosuy's year-end Show No Mercy countdown at Pitchfork. Several of these records overlap with my overall top 10 and a 2013 death-metal round-up I recently put together for Noisey, so I'll link inward/outward where applicable.

Here's a Spotify playlist including all the records below, including the honorable mentions, aside from the Pentagram Chile and the Six Feet Under.

1. Carcass Surgical Steel

See 2013 top 10.

2. Suffocation Pinnacle of Bedlam
See 2013 top 10.

3. Black Sabbath 13 
See 2013 top 10.

4. Gorguts Colored Sands
See 2013 top 10. Incidentally, seeing Gorguts perform this entire album live at Saint Vitus—see here or here—was thrilling. What an incredible group of songs, and… this.

5. Sorcery Arrival at Six
See 2013: A Year in Death Metal.

6. In Solitude Sister
I have been a huge Danzig fan for the majority of my life. There's not a lot of other music that gets me anywhere close to that place—that lair, more like it—that is the Danzig soundworld. That place where rock is shirtless, sensual, musty, musky, snarling, evil, shamelessly bountiful. This record goes there, folks. The term "gothic" is just a genre tag these days, but this record is dripping with the atmosphere of the occult—red candle wax, black robes, pallid skin. This is rock at once mournful and beefy, forlorn and savage. If all of Sister were as stupefyingly great as the first half, this would've been a serious contender for my all-genres-in-play top 10. I dig the whole thing, but I do feel there's a bit of a drop-off after track 4. That said, I think this record is very nearly a masterpiece, the kind of album you plunge into, anoint yourself with. Such crafty, manly music, like Danzig III infused with Thin Lizzy and the Cult. Terrifying and awesome, and a great companion to my No. 1 album of 2012, Christian Mistress's Possession, another record so earthy, it sounds like it has moss growing on it.

7. Voivod Target Earth
As I've suggested before, Voivod is all about total aesthetic immersion. It takes a while to get on this band's weird, flamboyantly proggy wavelength. But while some past Voivod records only make sense in context, this one seems to stand unusually strong on its own merits. It almost seems like blasphemy to say so, given that Target Earth is the first Voivod record not to include any contributions from the band's late guitarist and co-mastermind, Denis "Piggy" D'Amour, but this record really oozes that weird Voivodian flavor, summed up perfectly by the garish color scheme of the album cover. As he did with Gorguts on the way-underrated From Wisdom to Hate album, Daniel Mongrain, Piggy's replacement, really takes charge on Target Earth. As Mongrain discusses here, this is one of those situations of being so steeped in a band's musical grammar as a fan and disciple that one is able to join up with their heroes and actually compose fluently in that style. (For more on this phenomenon, see Justina Villanueva's crucial "Join Your Idols" interview series.) It's a pretty impressive feat, and it's resulted in a total re-energization of this deservedly legendary band. Voivod is still an acquired taste, and may they always be so, but I can think of few of their records that distill their appeal so potently as Target Earth does. Fun and weird and epic and quirky and shredding and geeky as hell, just like Voivod should be.

8. Immolation Kingdom of Conspiracy 
See 2013: A Year in Death Metal. See also my Pitchfork review.

9. Pentagram Chile The Malefice
See 2013: A Year in Death Metal. I strongly suggest getting your hands on the 2-CD version of this if at all possible. The bonus disc, containing re-recorded versions of Pentagram's early cult-favorite demo tracks, is an excellent addition to the package. Heck, there's even a great extra track on disc 1, "King Pest."

10. Six Feet Under Unborn
See 2013: A Year in Death Metal.


A trio of honorable mentions:

Convulse Evil Prevails
Evil Prevails was on the main list above until a late-inning rally from In Solitude unseated it. Was bummed not to be able to find a place for this record, because I love it. But I was happy to be able to throw a bit of ink Convulse's way via 2013: A Year in Death Metal, not to mention my Maryland Deathfest recap and subsequent post on the brilliance of World Without God (which also touches on the Sorcery record cited above). Evil Prevails isn't quite as gruff and relentless as WWG, but it's a super-satisfying return to that general ballpark, with some nifty enhancements here and there.

Vista Chino Peace
You'll recall …Like Clockwork, the latest Queens of the Stone Age disc, ranking among my general ’13 top 10. Well, this is what some of Josh Homme's old Kyuss bandmates have been up to. They were originally operating under the name Kyuss Lives! but had to drop that moniker following a lawsuit from Homme. Honestly, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to them. They got down to business and wrote a great set of songs in the old Kyuss mode, which should satisfy longtime fans while at the same time vaulting the band out of the nostalgia bracket. Such grit and soul in this music, thanks mainly to vocalist John Garcia and godly drummer Brant Bjork. A very worthy addition to a killer body of work that also includes Blues for the Red Sun and Sky Valley, both adolescent faves of mine that have held up well. This is one to crank and savor.

Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals Walk Through Exits Only
Another old friend, listening-wise. Haven't been so into the various Anselmo projects—most prominently Down, but also Superjoint Ritual and a bunch of others—that have come down the pike since the demise of Pantera, whom I consider to be one of the greatest metal bands of all time. But Jesus, this is a hell of a corrective. This music is super nasty and caustic but also blackly funny and bizarrely introspective, almost like Anselmo had gone Woody Allen, or something. I really admire what an extreme statement this project represents—this is exactly the kind of thing you'd hope to hear from a lifer who can basically do whatever he wants at this point. Anselmo is indulging his sickest musical fantasies with the Illegals, and it sounds fucking great. His constant repping for metal's cult underground is no mere lip service; he actually goes there with this band. See also my TONY preview and Ben Ratliff's excellent live review. I missed that show, but I really hope to see them live soon. I should also add that the band's follow-up Scion single is every bit as good as the LP, with "Pigs Kissing Pigs" maybe even topping anything on that release. Can't wait to see what happens next with this project.


Metal shows of the year:

Incantation at Saint Vitus
I previewed the mighty -tion trio for TONY back in March and was very happy to see all three of these bands live in 2013. John McEntee and Co. were the rawest and nastiest. Was great to hear a few of the Vanquish in Vengeance songs live. Video.

Suffocation at Saint Vitus
See also the aforementioned -tion preview. They completely owned, of course. Amazing to see them in a small room. Frank Mullen was in a particularly goofy mood. Dug the Exhumed opening set, but not as much as I've been digging the badass, bar-raising Necrocracy. Video.

5.24, 5.25
Maryland Deathfest
See my recap.

Cannibal Corpse + Napalm Death + Immolation at Music Hall of Williamsburg
The Corpse seemed a hair less ferocious / more perfunctory than at previous shows I've caught. Napalm Death were their usual mayhem-sowing selves, and it was great to finally see Immolation bring it (-tion preview). Love that they're leaning hard on Kingdom of Conspiracy in the current live set.

Black Sabbath at PNC Bank Arts Center
Don't listen to anyone who tells you that the current Sabbath incarnation is an embarrassment, either  on record or onstage. Seeing Ozzy, Geezer and Tony live was an amazing experience, period. I loved hearing 13 tracks like "Age of Reason" interspersed with the old warhorses. Do I wish I had seen Bill? Of course I do. But to sit out on this would've been a really bad idea.

Carcass + Immolation at Saint Vitus 
As discussed in the Deathfest lineup, Carcass circa now are scarily pro. So insanely crisp and powerful, and again, seeing them in a room this size isn't an experience I'll soon forget. Another raging Immolation set was the icing. Video.

Deicide + Broken Hope + Disgorge at Gramercy Theatre
I've been a Deicide fan for roughly 20 years but had never seen them live until this show. Their live sound is super-weighty and punishing, and man, do those songs from the first couple albums hold up. As with Carcass, very, very pro. Broken Hope didn't impress me here *quite as much as they did at Deathfest, but I still consider myself an overnight fan thanks to the D-fest set and the awesome Omen of Disease. Disgorge, meanwhile, were downright scary.

10.9, 10.10
Obituary at Saint Vitus
The stompingest, most rifftastic show I saw this year, so much so that I went back for seconds the next night. Video.

Morbid Angel at Irving Plaza
Morbid Angel is friendlier and campier now than they were two decades ago, when they were my chief musical obsession. (Or at least, that's how I imagine their early-’90s incarnation stacking up against their present selves, since I didn't see the band live till after their mid-aughts reunion with David Vincent.) But the playing is still dead-on, and my God, those songs! Covenant in its entirety + one song apiece from every other album, including the non-Vincent ones + typical Azagthoth insanity = a very satisfied fan. Again, the drummer issue: Wish it had been Pete, but what can you do?

Eyehategod at Saint Vitus
And yet again, drummers: Rest in peace, Joey LaCaze. I felt weird about seeing an EHG show so soon after his passing, but Mike Williams and the rest gave him a very loving tribute at this gig, complete with "Jo-ey! Jo-ey!" chant. I was skeptical about anyone ably filling LaCaze's shoes, but Aaron Hill is the right man for this job. The sludge is intact. Video.

Kvelertak at Irving Plaza
There were two other bands on this bill, but the boys from Norway towered above them, making rubble out of the stage.

Revenge + Mausoleum at Saint Vitus
The closest I've ever been to one of the most unhinged musicians on the planet. Seeing Revenge at Deathfest was cool, but this was total lunacy. Had no idea I'd be seeing the masterful Jim Roe live as well, with Mausoleum.

Gorguts at Saint Vitus
See Colored Sands entry in albums list above.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 jazz top 10

My 2013 jazz top 10 is live now at the Jazz Journalists Association site. My 2012 year-end jazz list was pretty extensive; this one is more concise, simply because I didn't spend as much time with new jazz, either on disc or out and about, as I did last year. That wasn't by design, or any indication of a large-scale shift in my tastes; jazz just wasn't as much where my listening brain was at during these past 12 months. That said: plenty of great records heard, and a handful of great shows witnessed, so let's talk about ’em.

(The Lloyd/Moran, Parks and Lonnie Smith albums aren't on Spotify; you can stream the other seven selections here.)

1. Black Host Life in the Sugar Candle Mines [Northern Spy]

I had high expectations for this record. I'd heard this band live two years back and was mightily intrigued. Life absolutely measures up. The Cleaver-as-a-leader discography is one of my favorite in contemporary jazz, and this is at least as strong a statement as Be It as I See It (discussed here). Probably stronger, because the personnel—Darius Jones, Brandon Seabrook, Cooper-Moore, Pascal Niggenkemper—is just so damn impressive. Serious kudos to Cleaver for figuring out a way to re-present the perennially underrated Cooper-Moore to the world. C-M's understated star turn on Life's concluding track, "May Be Home," is one of my favorite musical moments of the year. There's plenty of electrifying skronk on this record—some of which drags on a bit long for my tastes, that being the main reason this didn't crack my all-genres-in-play top 10—but the almost gospel-ish, soul-stirring element is what really draws me in. The quieter moments, such as the dreamy breakdown around 4:00 in "Hover," the heartbreakingly fragile "Citizen Rose" or the aforementioned "May Be Home" are pure bliss. For more on Life, see my Pitchfork review.

2. Charles Lloyd / Jason Moran Hagar's Song [ECM]

What a warm and sumptuous album this is. These two are just hanging out and playing great songs together. I'm a big fan of the Bandwagon, but I prefer Moran in a more unadorned setting, like this. There's no hook, no concept, just full engagement with the material. I'm currently revisiting one of my favorite tracks, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and Moran takes the most loving, unflashy solo, laying out the red carpet for Lloyd, whose presence throughout is, at the risk of sounding cliché, totally Zen-ed out. The epitome of a nothing-to-prove session. There's a little bit of modernist scrambling, but mostly this album is just songs (pop standards such as "God Only Knows" are treated as reverently as the jazz ones), with a bias toward luminous ballads. Absolutely fine by me. This is jazz you can really live with.

3. Aaron Parks Arborescence [ECM]

I would say the same of this album. I say, without shame, that both have served as cooking-dinner soundtracks for me. Is it doing a disservice to the deep beauty of Arborescence to say that it's ideal mood-setting music? I shy away from the idea of background music, but I wonder if the pianist himself would even take offense to that? He seems to really want to reach his audience here. These are mostly improvised pieces; to my ear, they're unrepentantly pretty and more classical-ish than jazzy. It's strange, but in a way, my experience of Arborescence is what I imagine the experience of The Köln Concert to be. I've never spent good time with that legendary record—no bias; I just haven't gotten around to the Jarrett solo repertoire in general—but judging by everything I've heard about Köln, Arborescence is, at least niche-wise if not style-wise, the same kind of piano record. One that, in theory, anyone could enjoy, and one that a purist might see fit to frown upon. Sometimes Arborescence is so wispy and drawn out that it almost seems to disappear, but there's real power in that ephemerality. You sit with this and you marvel at Parks's ability to simply make music, and to do so selflessly enough to make it so universal. It's hard to imagine an ear that doesn't crane toward this music as to soft morning sunlight, as mine is doing right now as I revisit it.

4. David Ake Bridges [Posi-Tone]

For me, the jazz writer of the year was Phil Freeman. He covered more of the music, in a more genuinely useful way—i.e., a way that made you want to seek out the sounds—than anyone else I read in 2013. Phil's year-end jazz round-up is essential; among the records he cited there, I got particularly into David Ake's Bridges, which I checked out a while back after reading this Burning Ambulance post. Bridges is one of those somewhat rare sessions where, going in, I'd never heard of the leader but I knew most of the other players well. The lineup is stellar—trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxists Peter Epstein and Ravi Coltrane, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Mark Ferber—but it's what Ake, a pianist, does with the personnel that makes this album work. The compositions are maybe the tightest, most intricate and most memorable that I've heard on a jazz album this year. Ake leaves space for his sidemen to speak up—I'm listening to a great Colley solo, with commentary from Alessi, on the track "Sonomads"—but what you'll remember are these beautifully arranged, little-big-band themes, executed in a modern postbop style. Phil cited a minimalism influence, and I can definitely hear that, combined with the lusher, more meticulous end of the mid-’60s Blue Note sound—maybe a little bit of Dimensions and Extensions or The All-Seeing Eye, though Bridges is lighter in tone, funkier and more approachable, in a way that sometimes reminds me of Ravi Coltrane's own 2012 date Spirit Fiction (discussed here), which also features Alessi. Sometimes the mood gets greasier, slurrier, such as on the raucous and bluesy "Year in Review," where—as often happens on the album—the horns solo in unison. Even there, though, there's such a wonderful sense of order to this record, of a leader taking the time not only to assemble a great band but also to put together a compelling context for them to work within. I'd recommend this to any fan of well-made, composer-centric but also player-friendly small-group jazz.

5. Aaron Diehl The Bespoke Man's Narrative [Mack Avenue]

Same deal here, but in a more consciously retro idiom. As with the Aaron Parks above, I can think back to a time when I might have found a session like this—one that, God forbid, dares to hark back to that age-old connection between jazz and snappy dressing—distasteful. Now I find it to be the opposite. Anyone who writes this off due to the cover art is going to be missing on a gorgeous record. Steve Smith likened the concept here to the Modern Jazz Quartet, and he's right: That similarity is inescapable, given the piano-vibes-bass-drums instrumentation and almost obsessive polish and elegance on display in the playing and composition. But if there's retro-ness at play here, it's the most lived-in, un-gimmicky kind. There is such a nothing-to-prove quality about a piece like "Blue Nude" here; as with the Lloyd/Moran above—note that Bespoke also includes a marvelous version of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"—Diehl just wants to play songs, to swing crisply, muse tastefully, give you a good feeling while at the same time presenting a striking portrait of who he is as a bandleader. You could hear, say, this group's reading of "Moonlight in Vermont" in passing and think it was merely "right," in the not-a-hair-out-of-place sense, but as with the MJQ, you listen closely and you're blown away by the unassuming skill, shrewdness, loving care of it all. Diehl's solo version of Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose," burrows a little deeper; the ballads on Hagar's Song are astonishing in their unhurried composure, but this might even be more so. This record radiates love and care, for the material, yes, but also for the listener. Diehl wants to make you comfortable, not as an end in itself, but so that he can move you. The Bespoke Man's Narrative is radical in its sheer composure.

6. Matthew Shipp Piano Sutras [Thirsty Ear]

We think of Matthew Shipp as an avant-garde guy, someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from an immaculately groomed, Juilliard-trained, J@LC–anointed (complete with Wynton co-sign and Crouch liner notes) prodigy such as Diehl. And, to judge by Shipp's pugilistic stance toward the jazz maintream, he thinks of himself that way. But strip away the rhetoric and you're left with an aesthetic that's plenty approachable, plenty jazzy and, as heard on Piano Sutras, really, really satisfying. For one thing, Shipp takes the trouble to make records, as such. He's no Cecil Taylor, who for roughly the past 35 years has released almost exclusively live records, or rather others have released them. Taylor seems to have very little regard for how his music is consumed after it's made; Shipp, on the other hand, seems to only be getting better at plotting out programs that his listeners can genuinely engage with. Piano Sutras is a collection of 13 short-ish pieces. Aside from the standards, I'm not sure which are based on preconceived ideas and which were improvised on the spot, but each one seems to have a strong center and purpose—we're not just listening to Shipp jam. There are some tracks on this record that set a killer mood, that make essentially abstract, solo, sort-of-jazz piano seem like the same thing as songwriting: "Space Bubble" captures that crystalline sense of mystery that I associate with my favorite Shipp recordings (New Orbit, e.g.); "Blue Orbit" does sound like a blues, but refracted beautifully through the Shipp prism; "Cosmic Dust" comes off like a tug-of-war between Taylor and Andrew Hill. And then there are the standards, which strike me as deeply generous. I know that's a weird word to use, but the 71-second "Giant Steps" is just pure nourishing gorgeousness. "Nefertiti" is little more diffuse, but again, this is no deconstruction of, no attack on a chestnut; like the "Giant Steps," and like all great interpretations of standards, it's a celebration of the raw material. Overall, Piano Sutras is as warmly swinging as it is mad-scientist demented (see esp. "Cosmic Shuffle," which perfectly illustrates the tension between those two currents in Shipp's playing); it can be difficult, but generally, it meets you halfway. In that sense, I think Shipp has more in common with Hill than with Taylor. Thinking of Shipp as merely an iconoclast, whose output is as forbidding as his verbal critiques, does him a disservice. I like Piano Sutras because it's a record of weird solo piano that nevertheless invites you in.

7. Dr. Lonnie Smith Octet In the Beginning, Vols. 1 and 2 [Pilgrimage]

The second release from this veteran organist's own label, Pilgrimage, and the follow-up to a highly enjoyable trio set that made my jazz honorable-mentions list for 2012. Frequently, this record is the epitome of what you might estimate it to be: an exemplary soul-jazz set in the mode that Smith helped to perfect. Then, suddenly, when the leader goes off on one of his skipping-record excursions, wiggling his fingers relentlessly between two notes, or holding down a chord so long that it starts to feel like a laser beam of joy aimed at your skull, you start to realize that you're glimpsing the infinite. The band is pure fire and focus, whether the mode on display is crackling hardbop ("Turning Point"), strutting funk ("Move Your Hand," which features a beautiful Smith lead vocal) or pensive balladry ("In the Beginning"). The other soloists are generally strong; the arrangements, by saxist-flutist Ian Hendrickson-Smith; and the rhythm section—with guitarist Ed Cherry and drummer Jonathan Blake—kicks a great deal of ass. But the glory of this set is the leader himself, how hard he pushes, how, with each solo, he erases the line between music for your body and music for your spirit. You rarely hear a man so clearly convinced that his chosen instrument is a vehicle for transcendence, even salvation. Let's let Smith have the last word, via a quote from Ted Panken's informative liner notes: "I always say that the Hammond has all the elements in the world to me—the thunder and the lightning and the rainbow, the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water."

8. Kirk Knuffke Chorale [SteepleChase]

I've dug cornetist's Kirk Knuffke's playing whenever I've heard him live, with bands like Ideal Bread or Merger (discussed here), as well as on recent records like Federico Ughi's self-titled quartet album, Max Johnson's Elevated Vegetation and the collaborative trio Sifter. I think Chorale is the first record I'd heard under Knuffke's own name. He's been making a bunch of cool CDs for the venerable SteepleChase label—including various collaborations with pianist Jesse Stacken—that I really need to take a closer look at, but Chorale grabbed me instantly, largely because I'm a complete sucker for anything with Billy Hart on it. Because of the unmistakable presence of Hart's drumming, its authority and weight—even when he's barely playing—he's going to be more or less a co-leader in any band in which he appears. That's definitely the case here, but Hart isn't dominating. The great thing is, no one is. Knuffke is a wonderfully patient, lyrical player, who's seemingly obsessed with the simple beauty of the line. You'll sometimes hear him going for slight timbral distortions, but mostly he's just singing, softly yet forcefully. He's not coming to the table on Chorale with a huge amount of compositional baggage. He seems to want to simply mix it up with the wonderful band he's assembled, which also includes pianist Russ Lossing and bassist Michael Formanek. What they're playing is a kind of cool-toned free jazz. In pieces like "Made," the musicians are jumping from one lily pad to the next, unbound by meter, but the interplay is so right-on—each player seeming so willing to help the others, as well as the overall sound, along. Sometimes the sound is more traditional, like on the gentle postbop dance "Standing," but the band maintains its wonderfully plush feel. Listening back now, I'm starting to hear the whole group concept of this record as an extension of Knuffke's songful cornet style, a style so self-assured that he doesn't have to raise his voice. There's not a lot of overt heat on Chorale, but the mojo bubbling beneath the surface is formidable. Like Hart, the rest of the players here know how to make their mark on a session simply by speaking clearly as themselves.

9. Harris Eisenstadt September Trio The Destructive Element [Clean Feed]

The Destructive Element is slightly heavier on the compositional emphasis than Chorale, i.e., the specific pieces here stand out as much as the overall feel, where on the Knuffke I tend to come away savoring the latter. As I indicated on last year's jazz recap, which featured a pair of new Harris Eisenstadt records (I think these were the third and fourth Eisenstadt albums that have turned up in my year-end coverage in recent years), I'm consistently impressed by this drummer-composer's ability to build bands that matter, that have something to say. A lot of jazz musicians are really fond of hatching projects, period. It's not always clear why a given composer/conceptualist feels the constant need to found their various ventures. But with Eisenstadt, I always feel like I understand why this group needs to be playing this music. That's really the case in the repertoire of the September Trio, which features two extraordinary players: pianist Angelica Sanchez and saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. I remember liking this band's self-titled 2011 debut, but I think this is better. The compositions on The Destructive Element seem to me to be Eisenstadt's love letters to his collaborators. He really seems to be working hard to give them what they need compositionally to be themselves as players. There are few things I've heard on record this year as beautiful as the ballad "Back and Forth"—Sanchez and Eisenstadt marching steadily forward as Eskelin emotes in that passion-packed yet anti-histrionic style of his. "Swimming, Then Rained Out"—an almost gospel-ish slow-burner—is another piece with the same kind of unassuming authority. All three of these players are known for venturing into various sorts of free-jazz territory, and there is a bit of hectic scramble on this record (e.g., the brief improv episodes that fall between the signpost theme statements in "Additives"). But gorgeousness is, I'd say, the chief imperative. There is so much pleasure and care and warmth and soul in these pieces—Eisenstadt working hard for Sanchez and Eskelin, and them working hard for him in turn. This isn't an all-ballads program, like they used to make back in the day, but it's definitely oriented that way, and it has the same spirit, i.e., "This is the vibe we're going to be working with, so get on board with it." I really admire that commitment, and I find myself wishing that this band would go even further in that direction on their next effort. Few working jazz groups I can think of have a more affecting, unpretentious way of singing a song together.

10. Kris Davis Massive Threads [Thirsty Ear]

This was a serious year for solo piano. In addition to Massive Threads, you've got the Parks and Shipp albums above, and a few other acclaimed discs—by Myra Melford, Bobby Avey, Geri Allen (hers was mostly solo, some duo)—that sounded intriguing to me on a first spin but that I didn't get a chance to put in good time with. This might be the most challenging of the whole crop. What I like about Massive Threads is that it sounds genuinely experimental, i.e., like a document of fresh ideas being road-tested, without coming off as ponderous. The first piece, "Ten Exorcists," is a study in what sounds like prepared-piano minimalism; I'm not sure if Davis is actually placing objects inside the piano, or simply muting the hammers with her fingers, but the net effect is something like a mini tuned-percussion orchestra. It's technically impressive, but why it works is that it sounds genuinely curious—like Davis is excited to share what she's found, rather than austerely demonstrating some rarefied technique. I feel the same of "Dancing Marlins," where she seems to really be getting down to basics with the piano, reveling in it as a sound generator, rather than an instrument with all this heavy tradition behind it. On a piece like this, she sounds almost playful, but there's clearly a heavy thought going into these exursions, as though she'd spent days and weeks homing in on a specific area of inquiry before tossing away the blueprints and hitting record. Like Craig Taborn—and I think of Massive Threads as a cousin to his Avenging Angel (discussed here), in a way—Davis is clearly a player of frighteningly advanced technique who often seems utterly ambivalent about showing it off. The idea is primary, the sense of chasing down some weird sound zone—cornering it, dissecting it, finally inhabiting it. These players are poker-faced; they can verge on Cecil Taylor's density and destabilization, but the torrential outbursts he's famous for aren't their style. With Taborn and Davis, there's more the sense that, yes, they could slay you at any moment, but they'd rather keep you, and themselves, in infinite suspense. You get on their wavelength or you turn the record off; it's that simple. As intimidating as that sounds, there's a deep, human pleasure in listening to Davis live with these ideas. "Desolation and Despair" (what a title!)—just crawling, limping along, but not maudlin or emotionally showy. She's seeking stillness on Massive Threads, just as much as she's seeking herky-jerky mobility on some of the other pieces. As with Taborn, whatever the area of inquiry, Davis is going to get to the very bottom of it, at her own pace. And that's a thrilling thing to witness.


There are a bunch of other 2013 jazz records that I dug and hope to be able to spend more time with. These include the two Ethan Iverson–plus-contemporaries-and-veteran sessions (Tootie's Tempo, Costumes Are Mandatory), Tarbaby's Ballad of Sam Langford, Hush Point's self-titled debut, Dan Tepfer and Ben Wendel's Small Constructions and Dave Holland's Prism.

But the one formal honorable mention I feel like I need to make is of Ben Allison's The Stars Look Very Different Today, an album that came out recently and only made its greatest impact on me once I'd already filed my 2013 jazz ballot. I'm not sure that this one would've ended up displacing anything listed above, but I still probably would've given the matter serious thought if I'd had another couple weeks. Like Eisenstadt, Ben Allison has shown up on my end-of-year jazz list before; I loved Action-Refraction from 2011. I think Stars might be better. Allison is the kind of composer-bandleader that always seems to be heading further from jazz, per se, and nearer to his own personal soundworld. On The Stars, he's firmly in his own space. The instrumentation—Brandon Seabrook (it's great to compare his work here with that on the Black Host record, btw) and Steve Cardenas on wonderfully complementary guitars, and Allison Miller on drums—helps to give the record its individualized feel, but it's also the writing and the thrust of the performances. I've placed so much emphasis above on the idea of song. I have no problem repeating myself, because it so pleases me to hear a band zeroing in on that notion and getting it right. The songs here are magical—"Neutron Star," a sort of psychedelic roots-rock theme, is one of my favorite pieces of music of the year. There's great soloing on The Stars, but when I reflect on it, I think of a band laboring intensely in the pursuit of Allison's beautiful writing. Such that when they improvise, it's more like embellishment rather than departure. The thing is the singing of these wordless reveries, and the little mini idiom Allison has created here, this sort of folksy, funky, emotive, spacey-textured wordless pop that he's focusing on. He seems to want the instrumentation and the material to exist in perfect balance, so that you don't hear jazz, you hear these themes, and underlying them, the personal signatures of himself and his collaborators. I wish all "jazz" felt this personal, this generous, this simultaneously unfamiliar and inviting.


My favorite historical releases (reissues/unearthings) of 2013 were:

Miles Davis The Bootleg Series, Volume 2: Live in Europe 1969 [Columbia/Legacy] 
Pitchfork review here.

New York Art Quartet call it art [Triple Point]
Thoughts here.

Woody Shaw The Complete Muse Sessions [Mosaic]
I'm slowly making my way through this set, and it's sounding excellent—an important document of a period (mostly ’74–’87) that's a blank spot on many jazz maps, and was on mine until not that long ago. One session that blows my mind is the December ’65 date Shaw originally recorded for Blue Note—Wikipedia says it was a demo tape; the Mosaic liners say that Alfred Lion intended to release it but backed out after he sold the company. Anyway, those five tracks are as good as you'd hope/expect given the vintage and the personnel: Joe Henderson and Joe Chambers, along with either Larry Young (on piano rather than organ, a month after the great Unity, which features Shaw and Henderson) and Ron Carter, or Herbie Hancock and Paul Chambers. I'm curious to know how Woody Shaw's general stature in jazz would look if this album had come out on Blue Note at the time it was made. Anyway, point is, it's great, and I can't wait to spend more time with this set as a whole. (Speaking of Mosaic, I really want to get my hands on that Clifford Jordan box, as well.)


On the live front, my favorite jazz performances of the year were:

Eric Revis, Kris Davis and Andrew Cyrille at Winter Jazzfest
Thoughts here.

A Tribute to Paul Motian at Symphony Space
Thoughts here.

McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz and Co. at the Blue Note
Thoughts here.

Milford Graves with, respectively, Evan Parker, John Zorn and Joe Lovano, at, respectively, the Stone, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Stone.
Thoughts here.

I also loved seeing Black Host at Seeds (May 29) and Roy Haynes at the Blue Note (June 27).


P.S. Aside from Phil Freeman's excellent jazz round-up, linked above, I've really enjoyed perusing the latest installment of Francis Davis's annual Jazz Critics Poll (plus the always-fascinating data breakdown by Tom Hull), as well as Seth Colter Walls's Rhapsody list, and Ben Ratliff and Nate Chinen's jazz-heavy NYT top 10s.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Top 10

TONY's "Best albums of 2013" feature is now live. That link will take you to a composite top 10 list, assembled via mathematics and compromise out of the individual top 10s chosen by myself and my colleagues Steve Smith and Sophie Harris. We all had totally different takes on the year in music, but there was enough overlap that we arrived at a decently representative selection.

My personal top 10 list, briefly annotated, is here. Some further thoughts:

More and more, my listening is compulsive, instinctual. I gravitate to records made up of songs I love. It's a simple process. The records I've singled out here are ones that I lived with, played in all sorts of different settings: at my desk at work, walking to/from the train or across town, in the car, at home. Alone, or with my wife, friends and family. They're records that may have at one point been objects of formal consideration—i.e., I wrote about them. But over time, that arm's-length engagement gave way to a happy, voluntary invitation—me choosing them and them choosing me. It's not until the end of the year that one goes about assembling a list like this, but the list is assembling itself throughout the year. Sometimes you've got that in mind—you have a moment with a record and you think, "This might be a top 10 candidate" and you make a note of it—but in retrospect, a list like this is, for me, more about transcribing than about calculation. It's just what happened to me. Since my immersion in music is so constant, I don't even have to qualify that. Of course, there was a soundtrack at all times, and these records were it, or a big part of it.

In terms of the statistics, the breakdown, what's here and what's not, I'd like to cite something Drew Millard—a fine writer with whom I briefly crossed paths at TONY; he's now kicking ass at Noisey—wrote in his own excellent and very funny best of 2013 round-up the other day: "I mostly put rap albums on this list because I like rap music the most…" I like the tautology, the self-justification of that. For me, the center of gravity this year wasn't rap but metal. Therefore, there's a lot of it on my list. There's no jazz. There was one near-miss on that front, which I chose as my No. 1 pick in the two jazz-only polls in which I participate. (My jazz-only list is here; I hope to annotate it on DFSBP soon.) As implied above, that's not meant as a slight; there simply weren't any 2013 jazz albums that captivated me, imprinted themselves on my world, as much as the 10 records I chose for my all-genres-in-play list. I will say, though, that some of favorite live-music experiences of the year were jazz/improv-oriented; I cited two of them on TONY's Best NYC concerts of 2013 list, assembled by myself, Steve, Sophie and various other colleagues. DFSBP readers probably won't be too surprised that my choices were the Paul Motian tribute (3.22.13) and the Graves/Lovano duet (12.6.13).

Re: what did make the cut:

1. RVIVR The Beauty Between
This is one of those "I feel like I've known you all my life" records. I don't know what it is about these consummately sincere, tough, vulnerable, searing punk albums—well, actually, I sort of do, since this style was a big part of my musical upbringing—but when they get me, they really get me. (See also: my 2009 No. 1, Propagandhi's Supporting Caste.) I fell hard for RVIVR this year. I saw them live three times, including two sets in one day back in April. I wrote about them a good deal. In terms of summing up what they mean to me, I'm happy with this TONY preview, which I expanded upon here. And then there's this quick, ecstatic follow-up. My 2013 is inextricable from this band, and the reasons are all right here in this record, which I think is basically perfect. My friend Joe summed it up best in a Tweet from one of the two RVIVR shows we attended together:

"RVIVR at Union Pool: this is a punk rock utopia. Every song an anthem, everyone here completely in the moment. This band will be famous"
Re: the "famous" part, who knows? I certainly do hope so. Re: the "punk rock utopia" part—hell, yes. There is such magic and idealism in these songs, such loving craft and raw sentiment. The Beauty Between is the sound of a brilliant young band exploding into its Moment. And whether RVIVR's politics/scene (reductively: radical, pro-queer punk in the hallowed Olympia, WA tradition) or their chosen idiom resonate with you, I'm confident that you'll hear what I mean if you give this record a chance.

Note 1: For some reason, the RVIVR Bandcamp player defaults to track 2. I highly recommend clicking back to track 1 and taking the full ride.

Note 2: Unlike the RVIVR, albums 2 through 10 are all on Spotify. To hear a sample track from each of these records, check out my TONY list above. In case you want to dive all the way in, here's a playlist featuring these nine LPs in full.]

2. Haim Days Are Gone
Unstoppable. You know that priceless line in Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" that goes "Their A-and-R man said, 'I don't hear a single'"? Well, out of 11 tracks here, I hear roughly nine singles. Days Are Gone is a resurrection of the ’70s/’80s pop ideal: airtight, hook-hungry compositions matched with shit-hot playing. Except instead of a calculating producer, a stable of faceless songwriters and a bunch of cocky, well-powdered session cats, the responsible parties are a trio of badass L.A. sisters who grew up playing covers and studying popcraft with their parents' loving encouragement.

3. Carcass Surgical Steel
Stunning, and for any Carcass fan, so much fucking fun. Here's my full take.

4. Diarrhea Planet I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Like the Haim record, this is a deliriously pleasurable LP. At first I found myself wishing that it were only that—I couldn't get with the obvious care that DP took in pacing the album. But I'm Rich really bloomed for me over time. There is the rock, yes, drenching you with its maximal awesomeness ("Lite Dream," "Babyhead"), but there is also the reflection ("Kids," "Skeleton Head") and this sort of soulful dopeyness ("White Girls [Student of the Blues, Pt. 1]": "I may not write a symphony but / I will always save the last slice just 4 U") that socks me right in the heart. This record is maybe a smidge long; I think it'd be a stronger statement without "Togano," for one thing. That said, I still think it's a triumph worthy of the joybomb that is the Diarrhea Planet live experience, which I experienced on two consecutive nights this past August. More on DP via TONY.

5. Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork
This album is slow-burning and seductive as hell. I saw QOTSA perform a long, frequently thrilling show at Barclays Center last Saturday, and I've been re-immersing in …Like Clockwork ever since. If I were settling on a final order for my 2013 top 10 today, this could've been as high as No. 3. As with I'm Rich, there's some delayed gratification going on here: It's not as mercilessly ripping as Songs for the Deaf or as lean and impossibly cool as the self-titled debut, but I'm still comfortable pegging it as my favorite Queens album. …Like Clockwork isn't a particularly long record, but boy, does it take you on a journey. Further thoughts via TONY.

6. Suffocation Pinnacle of Bedlam
The Long Island enforcers return. If the production on this record were a hair punchier and less synthetic-sounding, I'd say it was one of the, say, five best death-metal records I'd ever heard. Hell, I might say that anyway. I cannot believe what a great set of songs this is, genre aside. So commanding, so memorable, so fucking pro. I already loved this band, but I think that with Pinnacle, they've made their definitive statement. More on the mighty Suffo here.

7. Black Sabbath 13
Speaking as serious Sabbath fan, I can say that despite its flaws—and its admittedly tragic Bill Ward–lessness—this record feels to me like a real gift. The generalized slagging it received in the press bummed me out. Kudos to Steve Smith, Phil Freeman and Rhys Williams for refusing to take this bit of heavy-metal manna for granted. Here's my review of 13 and some follow-up thoughts. (I should say that while I dig the bonus tracks, I think this record works best in its stripped-down eight-song incarnation.)

8. Daft Punk Random Access Memories
Until I heard this record, I felt like there was nothing in the realm of impossibly hip dance-pop that was really for me. I've never warmed up to, say, LCD Soundsystem, and I'm not even sure that pre–R.A.M, I could've even named a Daft Punk song. But the ultra-polished geekery of this record spoke to me immediately, probably because it recasts disco as an offshoot of prog. The supporting cast (Julian C., Panda Bear, Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, etc.), and the integration thereof, are extraordinary. "Get Lucky" is, of course, a perfect single, but "Instant Crush"—with its mechanized melancholy that instantly puts me in a Drive or ’80s Michael Mann or "Eye in the Sky" mindset—is the track that best sums up why I'm so taken with this record.

9. The Men New Moon
I wrote about songs up above. This record has so many good ones. The Men throw a lot at you, stylistically. There are some strummy heartbreakers here ("I Saw Her Face," "Half Angel Half Light"), some raw, driving, unfettered rockers ("The Brass," "Without a Face") and plenty of ambling folkishness. At the same time, like the last, equally great Men record, Open Your Heart, New Moon isn't haphazard—all these tunes feel like they're coming from the same hive heart/mind. It all feels very free and elemental to me, i.e., exactly what you'd want from a band with such a balls-ily monolithic name. More on the Men, via TONY.

(I should say here that while my friend Ben Greenberg joined the Men a couple years back and made significant contributions to this record, I don't feel like I'm playing favorites in citing New Moon; I loved the band before he was a member, and I'm confident that I'd love what he brings to the band even if I didn't know him. Speaking of which, the new Hubble record is a killer as well.)

10. Gorguts Colored Sands
A majestic roar from the perennial phoenix that is Luc Lemay. A tech-metal opus filled with peaks and valleys that do justice to its (literally) lofty Himalayan subject matter. Also: an intergenerational bear-hug of the highest order. Here's my review.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Milford Graves and J. Read: blacksmiths of now

Sometimes appreciation takes the form of disbelief. You know a musical phenomenon from recordings, and you seek it out in person, assuming that you'll be able to better process it. But somehow, it makes even less sense live, and you come away loving and appreciating it—and the musician behind it—all the more.

Over the past two nights, I've seen shows featuring, respectively, two of my favorite living drummers. Friday: Milford Graves, in duo with Joe Lovano at the Stone; Saturday: James "J." Read, with the Alberta metal band Revenge at Saint Vitus. In each case, I felt like I was witnessing the end point of a certain methodology of percussion, the ultimate expression of what a human being interacting with the instrument can accomplish—not just physically, but spiritually. Both performances employed what Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth has referred to as "engulfingness," the fact of overwhelming the listener in an attempt to project/engender a feeling in an unusually deep way, almost as if the musician casting spells on the listener.

Friday's show was my third Milford Graves performance this year, and my second in the intimate confines of the Stone. Each of these gigs has been a duo show with a saxophonist: Evan Parker, John Zorn (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art takeover) and Lovano. This last one was by far the best, in terms of rapport and, I guess I'd say, sheer amount of ground covered. Graves and Lovano dug deep almost immediately; as soon as the performance began, you sensed that each one was delighted by the other, wanted to give his partner all his heart and might, and to help him along to a place he hadn't yet been. To be fair, this sense of spiritual conveyance was stronger in one of the two directions, namely from Graves to Lovano, and I think Lovano would've fully admitted that. At the end of one of what I believe was the first piece, the saxophonist said, to the audience but just as much to himself, "Milford Graves, the greatest musician alive." (It may have been "…the greatest musician on the planet," but it was something with that kind of certainty to it.) I think everyone in the Stone would've agreed with him. I've rarely witnessed such obvious gratitude and reverence—manifested as gleeful ecstasy—as what was radiating from Joe Lovano on Friday night.

After seeing the Evan Parker duo a couple months back, I compared the phenomenon of Milford Graves performing in a small room to a weather event. His technique has the effect of changing the climate of the room, conjuring otherworldly states with sound and vibration. I'm frustrated with my language here, with the way I'm falling back on lofty, abstract description to convey a very tangible sensation. But in a way, that shortcoming on my part is the best tribute I could pay this musician and his art—an admittance that you can't know it any other way than to make a pilgrimage to it, to be in its presence. When watching Graves on Friday, when taking in that worship of wood and metal and hide—I don't want to misquote Professor Graves, but after one piece, he made reference to the negative effect the weather was having on his drum heads ("animal skin" was the phrase he used, I believe)—I found myself thinking of the enormous gulf between knowing a musician's signature sound from recordings and knowing it live, what a chasm there is between those two understandings. I thought about how the divine rumbles of, say, John Bonham and Elvin Jones would only ever be, for me, shadows of their real selves. (I saw Jones live one time, but I wasn't prepared then to really absorb what I was witnessing.) But I know the Milford Graves sound—or at least I can say that I have known it during those moments when I've been in its presence. I don't think it's possible to take an experience like that with you.

You watch the movements—the strange inverted grip Graves favors with his left hand; the way he rests the butt of the stick that strikes the ride cymbal on the floor tom; the way he mutes that cymbal with the shaft of the stick, creating these weird phasing effects—and it doesn't really bring you any closer to assimilating the benevolent barrage you're hearing and, just as importantly, feeling. When Graves plays, you're being, in a sense, battered by sound, but it's a restorative battering—like a particularly forceful, bracing massage. You feel like you're being swooped up in a cyclone, almost discerning its cycles, its near-regularity, but never grasping it—you're chasing after a meter, but as my friend Ben Young likes to put it, you can never quite pinpoint where "1" is. You knew Lovano was right in this place with the audience; the moments when he was playing seemed almost secondary to the moments during which he was silent, simply dancing, almost convulsing along with Graves's torrent. He was caught in that Milford Graves tractor beam, held in that grip of that enormous, polyvalent sound and vibration, soaking up its energy. We know that Graves is really a healer by trade, and when you hear him live, that fact is unimistakable. It's drumming as a gesture of spiritual restoration. We also know of Graves's fondness for hoisting fellow musicians on his back; this is what he does, figuratively, for the audience each time he plays: "I've got this. Let me carry you. Let me take you somewhere."

James Read wants to take you somewhere as well. With Graves, it's waves of love radiating from the kit; with Read it's beams of pure hate. Like pretty much all the projects he's been involved with, his current main outlet, Revenge, revolves around that idea that metal ought to be, first and foremost, an expression of filth, violence, seething rage. All of Revenge's songs sound exactly the same. You listen to them on record, and it's a malicious blurt. I've loved Read in that setting—specifically Revenge's Victory.Intolerance.Mastery LP, and various releases by Axis of Advance and Blood Revolt—but as with Graves, what he projects on the kit isn't something you can really take with you.

At Saint Vitus, Read played a beat-up old double-bass kit, borrowed for the night from the great Jim Roe (a veteran death-metal drummer best known for his work on the classic early Incantation LPs and performing last night with Mausoleum). From the first quick blast of his soundcheck, I knew that I was right to be in the front row. There was something extraordinary emanating from the kit and I wanted to soak it up fully.

Extreme-metal drumming often seems like an entirely different discipline than rock drumming—in a weird way, it can be a much less powerful, less full-body-engagement activity, especially where constant blastbeats are in play. (The classic phenomenon is that you'll see players barely tapping the snare drum in an attempt to reach absurd b.p.m. levels.) This is not the case with Read. You can't see him play and not think of a beast or a whirlwind, some superhuman exertion/expression. You hear his signature style on record—a glorious slopfest marked by supremely hectic blasts; thudding, caveman-style midtempo breakdowns; and these absurdly blurred, audacious tom rolls, which sound like a drum-machine malfunctioning—and you wonder if its bestial power is the result of some trick of production. You don't understand how any human could play that way, could interact with a drum kit to produce such disorientation, such savagery.

But Read is 100% the real thing. At Saint Vitus, between songs, I heard one guy in the front row go, "Fuck Neil Peart; he's the guy," or somesuch, pointing at Read. A comment like that is obviously a pointless apples vs. oranges non-comparison, but I knew exactly what the dude meant. Seeing Read is, like seeing Graves, an experience of disbelief. And as with Graves, Read is most definitely playing lead drums; in Revenge, there are two other musicians onstage—players stage-named Vermin on guitar-vocals and Haasiophis on bass-vocals—and what they do is impressive. (Vermin's rabidly trilling solos are a frequent perverse delight.) But you're at a Revenge show to see and feel the fury of James Read. Few players ride the line of chaos and control like this guy. Sometimes, his barrage, the insane jumble of toms and double-kicks, sounds completely arrhythmic—not to make too tidy a comparison, but at the speeds and density levels Read favors, what he does can sound strangely similar to what we think of as the free-jazz percussion tradition that Graves epitomizes.

Whereas Graves wants to buoy his audience, though, Read wants to flatten them. His projects all have this heavy militaristic bent; the man performs wearing camo pants, after all. The intent could not be any more obvious, but as anyone who's ever sat behind a kit can tell you, sheer aggression isn't going to get you very far. J. Read likes to frame what he does as anti-technique—see this amazing interview: "Ive [sic] been attacking the drum kit for over 10 years because drums are the most crushing instrument," etc.—but like Graves, this musician has obviously figured out a way to break through some sort of physical and sonic barrier when it comes to playing the instrument. The feeling I get from his playing is similar to the one that Zach Hill's drumming on the early Hella recordings gives me, that of a player who's almost angry at the idea that four-limb percussion has a threshold, this sense of "Why can't I just make more sound come out of this thing we call a drum set," and willing that more-ness to be so.

Revenge frames itself as anti-fun, anti-exhilaration, anti-uplift, and that's all good and well, but to me, great drumming is always a celebratory event. I'm sure J. Read would hate to hear me say this, but I find what he does just as inspiring as Graves's healing barrage. There is such ghoulish theater to Read's performance style—the way he headbangs violently as he plays, or fixes his eerie, unblinking stare on the audience during the slow parts—but he is, in the end, a part of the great tradition of percussive artists who take us elsewhere when they play, who heal us through extreme devotion and will to this primal art. Like Graves's, Read's technique is absolutely his own—I was struck, for one, by how close by he positions the ride cymbal, so that his entire arm is basically covering its surface and he's striking the outer edge. I would absolutely love to sit behind him as he plays, to really see what's going on with those vomitous rolls of his. But I sense that, even if I could closely monitor everything that was going on visually, I'd still come away baffled.

With players like this, the quantifiable fact of their performances is only ever a small portion of the story. You've been in the presence of this elemental phenomenon, the fact of these musicians interacting with their instrument, and for that time, maybe, you understood, you felt the totality of their expression and made some tenuous connection between what they were doing and how it made you feel. But you can't bottle that sensation. You come away with this sort of dumbfounded reverence, almost as if you were leaving a magic show. But unlike with magic, where you know there's some fundamental illusion at play, there's something comforting about the fact that yes, that drumming was in fact real—those performers are using the same humble materials you have access to.

I'm tempted to call these experiences in the presences of masters like Graves and Read transportive, but really, while they are happening, they do not take you elsewhere. Rather they make you feel more there, right in that place where you are, than you ever have. It's not a sensation of escaping one's immediate circumstance; it's a sensation of knowing it completely, and being blissfully happy that you're in the presence of an artist who could help you achieve that knowingness. I envy those that got to hear my late drumming heroes live—the Bonhams, the Jones and Williamses—but on the flip side, I'm so grateful for these audiences with the ones who still walk the earth. These poets of the go-for-broke now moment. These madmen who, like a blacksmith heating metal, supercharge the present so that they can make it malleable, bend it to their will. Whatever the emotional objective—be it love in Graves's case or hate in Read's—the point is the drive behind it. Take the now; make it yours.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Good for You: the *real new Black Flag?

Good for You: Greg Ginn, left, with Mike Vallely

DFSBP is not a news blog, but at the moment I feel the need to write a quasi-servicey bulletin. Yesterday, I linked to my review of the new Black Flag record. In that piece, I discussed the record in the context of Greg Ginn's hyperprolific bent, his habit of flooding the market (and I use "market" loosely, since it's unclear how many people are actually even aware this stuff is for sale) with an endless stream of new music, without much regard for how, or even whether, it will be received/consumed.

In the review, I made a brief mention of another new Ginn project, Good for You, which he launched earlier this year, and pointed out that this band's latest album, Life Is Too Short To Not Hold a Grudge—which came out on SST last February—sounds more like a sequel to the final stage of the original Black Flag's output than What The… does. I spent yesterday with Full Serving, SST's brand-new, enormously expanded reissue (yes, strangely, the label has already reissued an album that came out only nine months ago) of Life Is, and I want to make a few points about it. [Note: It turns out that I was mistaken re: exactly what Full Serving is; please read the helpful anonymous comment at the bottom of this post for details.]

I think Full Serving is a much better record than What The… So many of the qualities I dislike in What The… are absent from Full Serving. My main problem with the new Black Flag record is its rushed, tossed-off quality—the sense of a flood of indistinguishable songs arriving at a merciless pace, as though the band only had one day in the studio not only to track a new record, but to compose it as well. Full Serving, on the other hand, feels deeply lived in. The tempos are varied, the music has room to breathe; Ginn and vocalist Mike Vallely (mainly known prior to this venture as a pro skateboarder) consistently sound like they're challenging each other and themselves. Whereas What The… homes in on a kind of relentless, vapid drive, a seemingly willful obnoxiousness, Full Serving takes its time, plays with dynamic tension, coils up and reserves its energy, wallows in its own gross churn, practically dares the listener to tune out or cry foul at some perceived betrayal of a stock "punk" aesthetic, much in the way that my favorite Black Flag lineup of Ginn, Rollins, Roessler and Stevenson learned to. The rhythm-section shortcomings of What The… are still somewhat in evidence here; Ginn's still handling bass himself (as Dale Nixon). But there's a different drummer on board (Matthew Cortez rather than Gregory Moore), and there's generally more of a live-band feel to the bass/drums on this record, rather than the sense of rudimentary backing tracks laid down with haste.

I haven't made it all the way through Full Serving yet—there are, after all, 40 songs on this record: 11 from the original issue of Life Is, plus a whopping 29 new ones—but I can honestly say that, as a Greg Ginn fan, I'm excited to spend more time with this record. There's an enormous amount of cool, languid, fucked-up guitar playing on this album, and whereas on What The…, I feel like I'm listening around everything the rest of the band is doing, here I feel as though, while Ginn might be the star, he's not carrying all the weight of the music himself. Vallely is an obvious devotee of Rollins's vocal style, but his delivery transcends imitation. He genuinely sounds like the downtrodden hardass he's portraying on many of these songs; his state of fed-up-ness seems completely real. Whereas Reyes, in keeping with the bouncing-off-the-walls quality of the music on What The…, takes his performance completely over the top, Vallely paces himself, holds back and sculpts a dynamic arc, relishing the slow burn, the perverse anticlimax of many of these songs.

I'm not saying that I'm prepared to label Full Serving a classic album just yet. But I will say that it intrigues me and holds my attention. I'll also say that it sounds a whole lot worthier of the "Black Flag" designation than What The… If Ginn had issued this album as the Black Flag comeback, I'm sure many in the peanut gallery would've found their own reasons to hate it—Ginn is, for reasons I don't need to regurgitate here, a controversial figure in the American rock underground, and will remain so—but I really don't think you'd be witnessing the same levels of snark and vitriol that What The… has incited. Good for You has a ways to go before it's a truly great band, one worthy of the standard of excellence set by the original Black Flag. Some of the songs have the grating, stunted quality of much of What The…, and the lyrics are at times as cringe-inducing as the already-infamous ones on that LP. But as a debut (or, technically, a reissue of a debut), Full Serving is a great start. It's a record that any fan of Greg Ginn, and by extension, Black Flag, really needs to hear. As I did my best to suggest in the Black Flag review, you might not be able to make sense of Ginn's decisions, be they creative, financial or what have you, but it's a bad idea to dismiss an artist like this. You're inevitably going to miss out on some hidden gem, and in my opinion, Full Serving is one.

The strange P.S. to all this is that, according to the Ron Reyes farewell letter, Vallely is the likely candidate to become his successor in Black Flag. (See this video, which, features Vallely and which, according to the annotation, was taken mere minutes after Reyes's onstage ejection). Vallely has obviously been a key player in this whole saga—whereas Ginn hasn't gone on the record once that I know of during this whole mess, Vallely spoke to Rolling Stone a while back. The Reyes letter alludes to some kind of nefarious master plan—"I would not be surprised if Mike V becomes the new singer for Black Flag. It is my opinion that they have been planing this for some time." The signs are certainly there: For one thing, Good for You has opened pretty much every show the rebooted Black Flag has performed; at the Brooklyn gig I saw, Vallely was even acting as a sort of onstage bouncer for Reyes, keeping an eye out for stagedivers and mopping up beer spills. Was he simply scouting out his future territory, going through some Ginn-mandated apprenticeship?

If what Reyes suggest is true, though, why was What The… and the whole Reyes reunion necessary? Maybe Ginn felt that fans wouldn't accept a new Black Flag that had no other connection to the good, old days aside from himself, hence the recruitment of the former Chavo Pederast. Whatever the reasoning, the simultaneous launch of these two new projects—Good for You and Black Flag 2.0—hasn't gone particularly well. And by that I mean, it seems as though the project that Ginn's really pouring his heart and soul into (Good for You) is the very one that's practically guaranteed to be ignored by everyone but his most die-hard fans. Whereas the new Black Flag record has attracted enormous attention, nearly all of it negative.

I can't explain Ginn's reasoning, and it's doubtful he'll make any official comment on the matter anytime soon. All I can do is to implore you to give Good for You a chance before you close the book on the sad, sordid mess of Black Flag 2013. I'm not saying this record is the answer to every Black Flag fan's prayers, but I am saying that it's at least worthy of consideration alongside the back-catalog classics—in contrast to What The…, I'd definitely say it's in the right ballpark. If you're a fan of Greg Ginn as a guitarist and conceptualist, I strongly encourage you to hear this. (It's streaming for free on Spotify, so there's no risk whatsoever; see below.) Like a good amount of what Greg Ginn has done outside of Black Flag, Full Serving—which could be the best album he's made since In My Head—is in serious danger of being overlooked completely. Even in light of What The…, let's not let that happen.

P.S. I know it's a long record. If you're looking for a quick primer, some of my favorite songs so far are "Free," "Coal Town Blues," "Shit Show," "Knife in the Face," "People I Don't Like Blues" and "While the City Sleeps." My God—even just skimming back through this stuff to refresh my memory, I'm reminded of how incredibly much it diverges from What The… in terms of quality, intrigue and variety. This record fascinates me; What The… just frustrates me.

P.P.S. I loved this Vallely interview re: Good for You, which documents his and Ginn's apparently very real musical bond, and their shared love for great classic rock—Springsteen, AC/DC, Black Oak Arkansas, etc. Such a great glimpse into Ginn's famously broad tastes.