Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recklessness and refinement: In praise of Dismember

I've been doing that thing again, that immersion thing that has spawned so many posts on this blog. It's become the way music happens to me, a framework for how I (ideally) engage with this infinite, and infinitely pleasurable, sea of sonic information we look out on every day.

For me, it's pretty simple: You get ahold of a large discography by a given band or artist, and you just run it down. Backwards, forwards, randomly. Take as long as you want. For me, the less "relevant" the band/artist is to the current "conversation," the better. Because of my job, I live daily within the stream of the news firehose; what a pleasure it is — maybe something like the quiet life of an academic, which seems so far removed from what I do, so appealing, in some ways, but also maybe somewhat foreign to my nature — to just get away from all that. It's like taking a weekend trip to the woods. I think what I crave more than anything as a listener-for-pleasure is just peace and quiet.

Often, somewhat ironically, I guess, via loud and aggressive sounds. Metal works so well for the above "run it down" practice. And death metal works particularly well, because you run across these gloriously lengthy, rich discographies, often largely unswayed by trends. Hence the obsessions with Obituary, Bolt Thrower, Immolation, Incantation and the rest. And now, Dismember.

I've developed such affection for this band during the past few weeks that I feel like I've known them my whole life, so to speak, but unlike with Obituary, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and a few others, Dismember are a relatively new discovery for me. I first heard their classic 1991 debut, Like an Everflowing Stream, a few years back. I loved it but didn't go deeper, and it appears that many have similarly short-changed this truly phenomenal band. It's a trend that often frustrates me in the discourse that surrounds metal — i.e., the forsaking of works, usually later ones, that fall outside the acknowledged canon. You see so many bands where 10, 20, 30 years of work gets reduced to a single iconic record that came out during the glory years of said band's subgenre. First-four-albums Metallica worship (and, conversely, instant dismissal of their more recent output) would be the most visible example here, but this kind of thinking extends vastly outward. You don't run into many folks who want to sit around and talk about why A Skeletal Domain, in its own way, rules just as much as The Bleeding, or why Back From the Dead is actually a more enjoyable record in many ways than Cause of Death. (At work, I've become known as Late Album Hank, a mocking tribute to my affection for such supposedly past-their-prime records.)

But the question for me is, if a band you love keeps making records and doesn't totally jump the shark à la Morbid on Illud Divinum Insanus (being the Morbid die-hard that I am, I have even found a few things to love in that deeply flawed, probably justly vilified album), why wouldn't you want to relish every last one?

I digress. What I mean to say, really, is that Dismember's eight-album run, from Everflowing Stream through 2008's self-titled — and, to date, final — LP is a frankly shocking achievement of consistency and quality. Let's compare their body of work to that of Bolt Thrower, the subject of my last immersion-listening program. Like most metal bands, "extreme" or otherwise, BT took a few albums to really fine-tune and get down to the business that would ultimately prove to be their calling card. Again, I know the metal community at large wants to brand an album like War Master an untouchable classic, but to me, it's just a warm-up for the truly mature Bolt Thrower that emerges on The IVth Crusade, or even …For Victory, and from that point on, we only get a precious three albums before the band's breakup.

Dismember, on the other hand, emerged with an essentially perfect statement. Not just a first album, but a first song on that first album, that sums up everything they do well. If you're a more casual listener than me, this might be all the Dismember you need, and if so, well get ready to fucking rock:

I'm only about a quarter of the way into Daniel Ekeroth's essential Swedish Death Metal tome, so I don't have all the deep background on that country's storied scene that I'd like to in order to truly reckon with Dismember's place in the lineage. But one fact that was pretty much obvious to me before I dove in to this catalog was that Entombed tend to overshadow all of Swedish death metal, and the common notion is that everyone else's records are a sort of consolation prize when compared to theirs.

All respect to Entombed. They're an outstanding, justly legendary band. But their discography is not the monolithic monster that Dismember's is. I've been working my way through their records recently too, in a less feverish and systematic way, and it's a bit of a rockier path. You have these two early masterpieces, Left Hand Path and Clandestine, which, as fully realized as they are, still sound formative to me, and then you have this whole other thing on Wolverine Blues, a phenomenally heavy, enjoyable record that sends the band in a very different direction that, honestly, I greatly prefer. (In the end, as much as I love underground and "extreme" music, I'm often after the more polished, pro-sounding statement from a given band, hence my love of major-label post-hardcore.) I'm still working my way through, but from there, things get weird: Labels change, key members start dropping out, etc. I will have to report back to you, but I already felt my interest waning ever so slightly when checking out the fourth, relatively obscure Entombed record, 1997's DCLXVI: To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, the last one to date to include all the key players from Left Hand Path.

Anyway, all I mean to say is that Dismember tend to get this sort of second-place treatment (or worse) when the topic of Swedish death metal is discussed. (And I ought to clarify here that I'm talking about the so-called Stockholm / Sunlight Studio sound, not the Gothenburg "melodic death metal" one, as exemplified by At the Gates et al.) But if you really lay out the evidence, regardless of who came first (and we're talking about a matter of roughly a year here between the releases of Left Hand Path and Everflowing Stream), Dismember are the band that really lived and breathed what I hear as the essence of this music for way longer. Their consistency, both in terms of aesthetic and quality level, is honestly insane.

Compare "Override of the Overture" above to this, from the self-titled album, which came out 17 years later:

Some things have changed, of course. Drummer Fred Estby, one of the three true core members of Dismember who where there from the Everflowing Stream period on (the others being guitarist David Blomqvist and frontman Matti Kärki), left before this final album. His indefatigable, punishing-yet-groove-drenched, reckless-yet-relaxed style is so absolutely essential to the band's classic sound that I was at first inclined to "asterisk" Dismember slightly. But after spending some good time with it, I realized it was just as essential as all the others. Yes, Dismember belong to the No Bad Albums Club, a distinction I'm not yet prepared to bestow on Entombed.

"The Hills Have Eyes" may not have every Dismember hallmark, may not sum up their strengths as insanely well as "Override of the Overture." But what gets me is how intact the spirit of what they do remains here. Dismember's core principle is this kind of glorious turbulence, a primal and punky heave, wherein you feel constantly threshed and swept along by the sharpness and momentum of the riffs. The music just moves, and moves you, in such a thrilling way. I've rarely encountered metal that's so ruthlessly devoted to the art of making you bang your fucking head. Hearing this music over and over, I'm more and more bummed I never got to see this band live. (I'm praying that, as Estby said in a 2016 interview, they might get back together in the future for more shows.) I can only imagine the monster rush that this stuff would provide in person.

And of course there's that absolutely disgusting guitar tone, the classic Stockholm hallmark — the Swedish Chainsaw — again largely associated with Entombed, or more specifically Nihilist, that band's prior incarnation, and even more specifically, that band's late guitarist Leif "Leffe" Cuzner, who didn't graduate to Entombed along with his comrades. Listening to so much Dismember, I have to ask: Did any band revel in the crunch and filth that the Boss HM-2 pedal spewed forth to a greater degree than Dismember?

That sensation of thin, serrated nastiness. That unrepentantly gross, brittle, hacking texture that has become world-famous to the point that it practically signifies an entire genre. Has it ever been so extensively and skillfully and, I would argue, profoundly applied as in the work of Dismember? This band made a nasty sound and a breakneck, punk-indebted feel into something like a religion, driving further and further into the center of that holy combination — wherein each stop-time clench and righteously unspooling riff seems to send your teeth rattling around in your skull and your eyes rolling back in your head — and never wavering from the attack mission.

And yet there's also this element of grand refinement. Something Bolt Thrower brings in as well, and that obviously Carcass incorporated as well as anybody ever has. That classic British sound of elegy and victory and valor and, well, honestly, fucking Iron Maiden. I've gotten wind of a sort of controversial aspect of Dismember's Massive Killing Capacity album, and even the band itself seems iffy on it. ("On Indecent and Massive Killing Capacity we tried different approaches to making the music, but it didn't really work out," Kärki said in 2000.) But I frankly adore this side of the band — I think albums like MKC do an incredible job of marrying that awesomely raw quality you hear on a track like "The Hills Have Eyes" with the grandeur of classic, pre-"extreme" metal. (Check out the gorgeous and entirely convincing melodic instrumental "Nenia," Dismember's own "Orion.")

A lot of that has to do with Kärki. Like John Tardy or Karl Willetts or Martin Van Drunen or any of these truly great death-metal vocalists, his is a shamanic presence, one that takes a rough instrument and makes it feel so true and focused and essential and spiritually potent. Even on a track like "Collection by Blood," where he sounds a little out of his element in terms of the intensely melodic quality of the music around him, Kärki brings this sense of total engagement and authority. The act of bellowing and growling over loud metal music is a fundamentally weird one — though I guess when you get down to it, maybe it's less weird than refined singing, which requires a willful refinement of the natural sound an uncivilized human animal makes when it opens its mouth — but a frontman like Kärki just seems so immersed and so at home in the practice. His is the bellow, the ever-Hulking-out voice of arrrrrggggghh that powered every single Dismember full-length. (Until I really spent time with Dismember, I never quite understood how indebted fellow Swedes Sorcery were to them, and specifically to the combo of Blomkvist's merciless riffs and Kärki's booming roar.)

The recklessness and the refinement, the snarls and the soaring melody. The wrath and sickness of hardcore and the pride and drama of the NWOBHM bands. Over eight incredible albums, Dismember somehow managed to build these bridges and keep all the foundations sturdy, combining the rawness of drunk teenagers spilling vomit into the street after, or during, Friday night rehearsal (a spirit clearly gleaned from the members' Autopsy obsession; I love Kärki's characterization of that band's Chris Reifert as the "Midas of death metal"; and on a similar note Blomkvist's matter-of-fact this-ain't-rocket-science viewpoint: "We try not to be in the studio too long [laughs]. I mean, we play death metal.") with an epic, theatrical sweep that suggests an ancient amphitheater as much as a sweaty club.

I feel so goddamned enriched and energized by this catalog. If any of the above resonates and you haven't taken the full plunge, by all means, get to it. No Bad Albums!

Here are a bunch of other awesome Dismember tracks (sadly sans several gems from 2006's The God That Never Was, the band's final album to date with Fred Estby, which isn't on Spotify):

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Slipping into the past: The eerie pull of 'I Called Him Morgan'

Note: Some of what follows could be considered spoiler material. If you haven't seen I Called Him Morgan and plan to, it might be a good idea to steer clear of this post until afterward.

Everyone interviewed in I Called Him Morgan exhibits an almost eerie recall of the events they're looking back on. Though the two main characters in the story, trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen, who shot and killed him after an argument at East Village jazz mecca Slug's Saloon in February 1972, have been dead for decades, it's as if they're both suspended in some weird gray area in the minds of these survivors. Late in the film, as the lengthy 1996 audio interview with Helen by teacher Larry Reni Thomas that forms the backbone of the story winds to a close, Helen describes the disbelief she felt in immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying something to the effect of, "I couldn't have done this." She recalls wondering if the event was all a dream that she'd soon wake from. A similar sensation hangs over the whole documentary, a feeling that a sort of daze settled over the survivors of this tragedy, Morgan's friends and fellow musicians, upon his death, and that for them, he's still close enough to touch.

There is some footage in this documentary that felt so intimate and affecting I almost couldn't believe I was watching it. You see a snippet of one of these moments in the trailer, when Wayne Shorter, holding a photo of him and Morgan, the trumpeter's head bandaged in the wake of an injury he suffered when he was high on heroin, begins to actually address Morgan. "What are you doing, man?" he says, in an approximation of what he might have been thinking at the time, watching his friend slip into addiction. Morgan died more than 45 years ago, but Shorter says later that he still thinks of him frequently.

Everyone here seems to, or at least when they do, their recollections are extremely vivid. We hear the most evocative and transportive accounts I've ever heard of what it was actually like to make records for Blue Note, musicians recalling the party-like atmosphere that accompanied those classic sessions, with Alfred Lion providing food and drinks and Francis Wolff snapping those later-to-become-legendary images The photo of Morgan and some others standing outside what I'm guessing is the Van Gelder Studio, Morgan making a goofy face at the camera — something he apparently did often; one friend says he used to call himself Howdy Doody as a nod to his large ears — and drinking a Pepsi, is the lighthearted flip side to those mythic, smoke-filled Wolff portraits.

Drummers Charli Persip, who played with Morgan in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and Albert "Tootie" Heath recall living the high life with Morgan, seeking out the best clothes, the coolest cars, driving fast through Central Park at night. Friend Judith Johnson also remembers drives with Morgan: They'd cruise the West Side Highway on the way to or from New Jersey, checking out jazz on Johnson's car 8-track player.

The specter of heroin does of course eventually creep in and overtake the narrative, setting the stage for the greater tragedy to come. And there is a certain hush or gloom that hangs over the entire film. This is a documentary bathed in shadow and snow, with scene-setting footage evoking dark NYC streets at night and the blizzard that struck the city the night Morgan died. Even the interviews — Shorter's, filmed in a sunny living room, is an exception — seem to be cast in a kind of ominously fading light, though in a way that feels natural and unaffected.

And yet, as with the discussions of the Blue Note sessions or the after-hours high life, director Kasper Collin (who made an Albert Ayler doc I remember loving but haven't seen in ages) takes care to show us both sides of this saga. One of the most poignant sections of the film comes when Bennie Maupin, Morgan's close friend and collaborator in his later years, recalls the glorious, sun-and-sand-filled Hermosa Beach visit that yielded Morgan's classic Live at the Lighthouse LP, a shining document of him kicking heroin — thanks, the film suggests, almost entirely to Helen's assistance — and reclaiming his position as a thriving jazz star. Billy Harper's recollection of playing alongside Morgan on the jazz TV show Soulseen here in black-and-white, though it's color in the film — conjures another moment that feels almost exalted, the footage and his description capturing that special style and power and command found in the best '70s mainstream jazz (the kind that Harper and Co. now carry on in the Cookers). I also loved hearing the account from bassist Paul West — another fellow Gillespie alum — of Morgan's happy post-addiction years mentoring young musicians through the Jazzmobile program.

The thing to remember about Morgan's shooting is that it happened in a crowded club. As with every other scene he sets, Kollin really takes us inside Slug's that night. Harper recalls hearing the shots but not immediately thinking anything was wrong. And then Morgan was down, and the ambulance didn't arrive for an hour due to the snowstorm. Bassist Jymie Merritt talks about not only never being able to walk down that street again after Morgan's death but of leaving NYC for good.

Helen, in some ways the movie's star, is also its greatest enigma. Her first-person narration is invaluable because it allows us to weigh her account as we will. We hear about her rough upbringing in the South — she was a mother by 13 — her determination to make it to NYC, her establishing of a kind of jazz-lovers' salon in her West Side apartment, her meeting of Morgan during his peak junkie years. Kollin isn't letting Helen off the hook, but he does make a point of showing us all sides of this saga, how in some ways the tragic end of her and Lee's love story seemed fated. (There's a lot of talk in the movie of portent, of how both Helen and Lee foresaw something dark on the horizon as their relationship started to unravel.) We don't get to hear much of her own account of her life after the shooting, though her son does paint a picture of a woman who found refuge and a kind of salvation in the church. And the bassist Larry Ridley recalls a cathartic encounter with her after she got out of prison.

Overall, again, I Called Him Morgan captures the strange kind of daze that settled over everyone who knew this couple after that horrible winter night in 1972. The musicians — Shorter, Merritt, Harper, Ridley, Maupin, Heath, Persip, West and others — form a survivors' brotherhood, a group of men scarred by Morgan's absence but also blessed by the time they had with him. Not just for the audience but for the participants themselves — think of Shorter, slipping into the past and speaking directly to the Lee Morgan in the photo, from probably half a century or more earlier, when the two were young and hungry, living out their dreams as members of the Jazz Messengers — I Called Him Morgan is a time machine, allowing us all inside what really has to be one of the ultimate jazz legends. It's a haunting journey, with a kind of moody magnetism that sometimes feels downright intoxicating. But it's one well worth taking.


*Here's Nate Chinen's excellent, detailed take on the film. I didn't read till after I was done with the post above, but he fixates on the same Shorter moment I called out — it really is a chilling scene.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Those once (and always) loyal: Bolt Thrower's search for perfection

CoC: I'd say there isn't a huge progression of Bolt Thrower...
Thank you. We take that as a compliment.
CoC: Will you pretty much be staying the same from here onwards?
We think so. We look for perfection. That's what we're searching for. If we ever think that we can't release an album as good as the last one, we won't. Releasing a crap or watered down album means that it's gone for us, 'cause the music is gone.
Chronicles of Chaos interview with Bolt Thrower guitarist Gavin Ward, 1999

In a sense, it is gone for Bolt Thrower. Founded in 1986, the band broke up exactly 30 years later, following the sudden 2015 death of their drummer, Martin "Kiddie" Kearns. But the evidence of their search lives on, and as bodies of work go, it's an extremely sturdy one.

For me, recently, listening-wise, it's really been a Bolt Thrower binge. This began a couple weeks ago, when I started spinning the newly released For the Fallen heavily. That album is the first full-length by Memoriam, which is a sort of a Bolt Thrower sequel band — not to mention, in some ways, a Kearns tribute band — featuring BT frontman Karl Willetts and the band's early-period drummer Andrew Whale.

FtF is a highly enjoyable record, and I wrote some further thoughts here, in Rolling Stone's weekly new-releases round-up. But even with so much history behind it — in addition to the former Bolt Thrower dudes, the band features their fellow U.K. punk/metal scene vet Frank Healy, also of the bands Benediction and Sacrilege — it still feels like a debut, a powerful statement by a band that still has a couple of kinks to work out.

Bolt Thrower, on the other hand, had ample time to mature. They released three increasingly confident albums from '88 to '91 — many would call 1989's Realm of Chaos – Slaves to Darkness and 1991's War Master classics, but to me, as powerful as they are, they still sound developmental in light of the glories that were to follow— and then, with '92's The IVth Crusade, attained a new level of command and authority, shedding the grindcore-style rawness evident on the earlier records in favor of what I think of as the classic BT sound, a chiseled and charging form of epic heavy metal, a sonic manifestation of endurance, struggle and triumph, music that drives so hard and so far and so consistently that it really does embody Ward's words above. If perfection was what they were searching for, I'd say they achieved it on their later releases, especially 1994's …For Victory, 1998's Mercenary and 2005's Those Once Loyal. (I set 2001's very strong Honour – Valour – Pride slightly apart because it featured Benediction vocalist Dave Ingram rather than Willetts, thus rendering it a little less-than-canonical.)

Thematically, Bolt Thrower's music dealt pretty much exclusively with war, both in the sort of fantastical role-playing-game sense and the gritty, historically rooted one. You hear both a glorification of human conflict in their work as well as a condemnation of it. But what you mainly hear is this kind of relentless heave and churn, this flattening onslaught. Whether at the pace of a steady trudge or a headlong charge, Bolt Thrower's music is always pressing forward.

Ward, fellow guitarist Barry "Baz" Thomson and bassist Jo Bench (a rare and inspiring female presence in a truly iconic old-school extreme-metal band; I highly recommend checking out Kim Kelly's roundtable-style tribute piece to learn more), the three core members that appeared on every Bolt Thrower LP, formed this kind of ironclad, immovable center. In terms of that aforementioned search for perfection, they were the true keepers of the flame, the ones who clearly understood what an invaluable property Bolt Thrower's integrity was, that to "progress" or alter their approach in some essential way would be to break the spell, to breach the underground contract, as it were.

If you've read my thoughts on Obituary, for example, this might all sound quite familiar, and certainly, the basic principle is the same here. But what I feel each time I immerse in one of these masterful, decades-spanning catalogs by an underground institution, the concept hits me anew. You can pan out and lump bands together into convenient categories, pretend that the sensation of Obituary's raw, swampy nastiness, so clearly a product of their Florida roots, really feels anything like Bolt Thrower's unmistakably British air of might and majesty — with Willetts' inimitably grand-yet-gruff oaths, like the proclamations of some Harsh Narrator of Man's Eternal Struggle, leading the charge — and that what either band does could be aptly summed up by a term as blunt as "death metal." The deeper I go into this music, though, the more I savor the depth and distinction of each truly great band's approach, and the more I resist the common practice of lumping them all together. Obituary makes Obituary Music; Bolt Thrower made Bolt Thrower Music. And that's pretty much that.

Heaviness, whatever that term can even signify at this late stage of overuse, is about sound, yes, the sense of a band's combined force weighing on top of you in a near-physical way, but it's also about this intangible quality of authority and commitment and immersion and lifer-ness, a quality analogous to the "folkloric" sensation that Ethan Iverson often invokes when discussing a certain kind of jazz-before-the-jazz-education-complex, the learned-by-doing, or passed-down-by-the-elders kind (see this Buck Hill obit, for example).

Cutting-edge extreme-metal techniques — especially, say, blast-beat drumming or Meshuggah's devilish syncopations — are now becoming catalogued and canonized the same way jazz has been over the past half-century or so. You can watch hours of tutorials on YouTube, read musician magazines, learn how it's done in the letter-of-the-law sense. But, quite simply, you don't get here by studying in the conventional sense:

As with Obituary, the Bolt Thrower experience is about the steady amassing of authority, and the goes-without-saying concepts that Gavin Ward so handily lays out above: You don't "progress," per se, but that doesn't mean you don't improve. Instead what you do is methodically shore up the sound, close off every avenue of distraction from the core mission (note the jettisoning of blast beats from the Bolt Thrower playbook after War Master) and figure out how to drench every moment of Bolt Thrower music in this signature feeling. It's a gradual becoming-of-self, the building over time of a catalog that will stand as a true metal monolith — and to my ears, Bolt Thrower never wavered once.


*Another great Gavin Ward interview, from the Honour – Valour – Pride era, in which he delves further into the band's single-minded ethos:
Maelstrom: Does this approach in terms of not progressing compromise you as an artist, and do you care?
Gavin Ward: Nah, I don't care. I've never considered myself an artist or a musician anyway. We're just a band, playing music we're into.
*And another great Kim Kelly tribute to BT, this one focusing on the way they went out on top with Those Once Loyal. As well as her new interview with Willetts about Memoriam.

*Listening-wise, it's really not about individual tracks here. I'd recommend just starting with Those Once Loyal and working backward. It's all great.