Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Music Haul of the Month, January '14

at 8:00 PM
Look! This thing came back because the other day I bought exactly five albums and that's a really appropriate number to talk about. All of these bands are new to me with one obvious exception. We got:

Brainiac - Hissing Prigs in Static Couture (1996):
Now there are some words I like to use.  You fucking couture! Go back to your goddamn prig! I'm kinda surprised spellcheck is okay with that. Spellcheck still doesn't even like franchisedmemd. This is the part of the album review feature where we learn to pay attention to the album title - there is literally a lot of hissing and static in this music. This album knows how to rock, but it also has its share of buttered rolls. It kicks off with a "straightforward rock assault" - to quote the generic music critic lexicon - that has a garagey stompin' sound that reminds me of The Damned Stooges with a funkier James Brown sensibility. Then there are some heavier emoier tracks reminding me of late Dillinger Escape Plan and a Kid A ripoff from way before Kid A (these are the buttered rolls).

The hissing/static thing sorta takes the place of normal distortion - it's not that the band has clean guitars so much as they make a different, more Digital Age noise than you're used to. Occasionally it feels like a Devo-esque gimmick, like the band is supposed to be "part-robot" (see "This Little Piggy", where a computer voice actually echoes the lyrics), most the time it's just cool. You figure with the '90s and digital telephony and all that, why not replace the scuzzy, scrungy-sounding feedback noise on guitars with something a little more lazeresque?

Also this album invented 1337 afaic (as far as I care) - all the song titles are spelled like "1nd1an Pok3r" etc. So... sw33t on that. 

Heroine Sheiks - Out of Aferica (2005): 
That's pronounced "Out of uh-fay-rick-uh" (rhymes with America) - here, just look at the cover:

You may know The Heroine Sheiks as "the band that got the singer from the Cows after they died", or maybe you don't care about that. The dark and menacing sound of later Cows records (particularly Sorry in Pig Minor) follows Selberg here but naturally takes different form - instead of a wall of angry guitars led by riffs tearing out of control, The Sheiks take similar screeching feedback and lead with haunting keyboards (even piano!), stacked and looping samples, and a more restrained vocal approach that fumes, broods, and raps! more than wails.

The album seems a little long, you know? It's about a million tracks and after about eight I'm like "I wonder what more songs could be after these ones?" and I still don't really know. But yeah length sometimes grows on you after more than five listens - it's just that the tone is pretty oppressive, even if the vocal approach does vary significantly from track to track. In fact, there were times I had to double take to believe I was even still hearing Selberg with all the wacky characters he pulls off. 

La Machine - Phases and Repetition (2000): 
This is Pay Attention to the Title Round 2: This Time It's for Real. La Macho is a sort of Six Finger Satellite side-project, and as Six Finger is basically my favorite discovered band of the last five years and I wish more than anything that they had recorded more than four albums, I couldn't help but have high hopes. Particularly because the few reviews I read of Fingers and Repetition awarded it startlingly high scores. What I wasn't expecting was a series of seven looping drone-tunes composed entirely of phasing and repetition. This is because I'm an idiot. 

Not that this is relevant, but I actually love the three or four drones on Six Finger's Law of Ruins because they're sandwiched between real songs - you get a sort of echo effect where the drones recall aspects of the rest of the album and tie it together by leaving space for the hooks to mentally replay. But when every single track is constructed from a 10-second loop as on PaR, I don't know how to react. The fact that they're drum-and-bass grooves (rather than some industrial bullshit) is definitely a plus for someone like myself who enjoys traditional instruments. That definitely adds to the toe-tapping hypnotism factor. And I have to admit that as background music (weirdly enough, at work) I was kinda grooving into this stuff. But I find it pretty hard to listen to a whole album's worth (the same way it's hard to listen to a whole album's worth of Hawkwind) at any particular time because the slight variations just leave me wanting to move on to something else. Still - for drone music, I like La Machine. And in certain states of mind it's probably got an extra edge, if you know what I'm saying. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING!!! ALL YOU "POT BROTHERS" OUT THERE!!! HAHAHA! Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Happy Family - Happy Family (1995): 
We're a Happy Family, we're a Happy Family, we're a Happy Family, me, mom and daddy! Yes, finally it's the album based on the band based on the Ramones song. Happy Family is a Japanese electro-avant-noise outfit spun off from the Heisei Godzilla series of the 1990s featuring Destoroyah on guitar, Basketball Jones on the kazoo, and Stevie Nix. Wait, that doesn't sound right. Where's my sheet? Really they're just instrumental progressive rock. Jazzy prog rock, but the only bizarre thing about this band is that anyone would think to compare them to anything but King Crimson. 

The cool thing about this here album is that the band goes through a bunch of different styles of prog from the ages, each track reminding me of a very specific influence. Whether or not it's intentional, we're talking changes of instrumentation, tempo, time signature, compositional style - there's a jazzy horn-centric song bursting with solos that sounds exactly like Hot Rats-era Zappa, a song build around fierce, distorted guitar that plods it's way up and down scales as if it were "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Pt. 3", etc. There's even a 19-minute "epic" that sounds more like a string of breakdowns - like they took all the middle parts of sidelong suites and strung them back to back! 

My biggest objection to Happy Family is that it occasionally ventures into latter-day styles of prog that have never really pleased my palette. Particular moments "shred" a little too hard or call upon squealing synths that remind me of Dream Theater, Colosseum II, or Liquid Tension Experiment. That kind of rhythmless nonsense noise that tries to up the ante on technical proficiency really just annoys the shit out of me and is embarrassing to listen to. But there are only a few snippets on this album and only one track built around it.

Rush - Vapor Trails (Remixed) (2013):
As any self-respecting American knows, Vapor Trails was originally released in 2002 to like okay reception. It's one of those albums I never really put on, but like a lot when I hear - "Secret Touch" is as great a technical showcase as Rush is known for (was a real treat to get to see it live), "Earthshine" rocks asses, and "Ghost Rider" is a real heart-toucher. "How It Is" is also one of my favorite Rush songs of all time that gets absolutely no love whatsoever despite being the catchiest song that anyone has ever heard in their life with its jangly almost REM-like guitars and carefree-go-lucky attitude. People don't care for happy poppy Rush songs (can't blame 'em after Presto) but "How It Is" is up there with Test for Echo's "Totem" for me (another that everyone loves to hate). It at least provides a nice counterpoint to the doom and gloom and provides what is one of Vapor Trails's greatest (and Rush's waningest) strength's: variety.

Vapor Trails has a lot of great variety, from speedy metal to bubble-gummy fun to slick grooves and tear-jerkers - its greatest fault, then, is that it double dips on a lot of this variety. "Ghost Rider" is a beautifully melancholy and atmospheric ride across the American countryside. So is "Vapor Trails". They're both great songs, but do they really need to be on the same album? "Ceiling Unlimited" and "Secret Touch" are funky fast-moving bass grooves that definitely weren't both needed. A LOT of the songs have a partner like this, most paired between side A and B. I know this was their first album in 6 years and maybe the boys wanted to give their fans a double dose of a Rush Lethal Injection, but I can't help but wonder if this wouldn't have been as singularly amazing as the classic Signals, Power Windows, or Moving Pictures if it'd been trimmed down to eight tracks as were those. There's no lingering with those early '80s albums - they hit you fast and they're out, each song with a distinct purpose. That's just not the case here, and while I find it impossible to complain about the quality of the songs, Vapor Trails is just not that memorable a listening experience because of the dilution. I think that's exactly why I say it's an album that doesn't pull me back, but is still a great listen.

As for the remix, I don't have a ton to say. The common complaint about everything since, uh, fucking Roll the Bones I think, is that the albums have been "ruined" by production (that's 23 years that fans have been saying that). The original mix of Vapor Trails was definitely not great, but I never felt like it significantly detracted from the album. The bass-driven tracks were still bass-driven, the heavy drum-hitters were still heavy drum-hitters. It was just kinda muddled. Then again, I've never been an audiophile. I listen to music on cheap $20 headphones, bottom-shelf computer speakers, and a single unit iPod dock. The remix honestly just sounds like they fucked around on purpose to make songs sound different - like "How It Is" got the distorted guitar turned way up and "tougher" vocals despite still having the cheesiest happiest melody in the world, "One Little Victory" has even LOUDER drums than it did before, etc. Then again, I haven't listened to the original and the remix back to back, so I might not be noticing as many changes as I could. All I can say is that it didn't change my opinion on the album, and I think that's all that matters. But it's good that it got me listening to it again.

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So go listen to all of these! They were all good! Except Phases and Repetition I guess, that was a maybe - only if you're okay with drones or looking to experiment there. Give it a go on Youtube first (if you can find it I guess). 

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