Archive for February, 2009

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Dark Was The Night (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on February 28, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Various Artists - Dark Was The Night As a rule, I tend to avoid purchasing music compilations, because more often than not, the compilations don’t offer anything that I haven’t already heard, or if they are offering new material, it tends to be, shall we say, uninspiring. I’m generalizing here, of course. There are exceptions. But Dark Was The Night (the first compilation from the Red Hot Organization in seven years) is so remarkably packed with deftly rendered reinterpretations, wonderful (and occasionally odd, but nonetheless successful collaborations – yes, I’m referring to you, Buck 65, Serengeti and Sufjan Stevens) and new material that it exceeds all the previously alluded to exceptions in recent memory.

Listening to Dark Was The Night is a bit of an unusual experience – with each song, you inevitably try to fit it into the oeuvre of the artist(s) who created it. So each song here, in its own way, is a revelation in one way or another. Sometimes, you’re simply reaffirming what you’ve known (Sufjan Stevens needs to make more music in the vein of Enjoy Your Rabbit). I maintain that the best song he’s ever written is from that album, the too beautiful for words Year of the Dragon, and here, his ten minute rendition of Castanets’ You Are The Blood is emotionally arresting; it’s a union between the haunted folk of the original version and a Wisp song. It’s holy paranoia incarnate. I never thought I’d be writing that to describe a Sufjan Stevens song, although it does actually fit better than you might think (you could apply the same phrase to the title track from Seven Swans, and it still works).

Of course sometimes, Dark Was The Night reveals something to you that you didn’t know. For example, consider the title track: originally written by Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, is a soulfully eerie song about the crucifixion of Christ. It walks the line between a blues dirge and solemn hymn, and here, it’s performed with surprising effectiveness by the Kronos Quartet. Never would I have guessed that they’d be able to tap into the raw spirit of the original as well as they do – even though their version is wordless, it still captures the unease and the sadness of the song by using a violin to emulate Blind Willie’s moans and wails.

I could go on. Dark Was The Night is two discs and 26 songs, and I’ve only barely touched on the myriad of treasures that it contains: Riceboy Sleeps’ Happiness is like a shimmering convergence of Eluvium and Amiina. Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch turn Lua into a warm duet. Ben Gibbard proves again that he’s better outside of Death Cab For Cutie with his cover of Train Song (performed with sometimes Broken Social Scene-stress Feist). And this is why I’m going to stop now. The last thing I’d want to do is impart so many of my musical thoughts that it’d ruin someone else’s own free-association process with it.

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BLUT AUS NORD – Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue With The Stars (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on February 26, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta II: Dialogue With The Stars If, years ago, I were to make a list of words which describe what Blut Aus Nord’s sound would be like in the future, I can safely say that “clean” (and all synonyms) would be at the bottom of the list. But the band have been steadily refining the murky rawness of their sound (best exemplified on the 2003 album The Work Which Transforms God), and now, with Memoria Vetusta II, the list has been subverted, and “clean” (and all synonyms) now reside near the top.

There is no better proof of this than listening to Memoria Vetusta I (which was released ten years ago) and Memoria Vetusta II back to back. The first Memoria Vetusta is marred by the typical uber lo-fi black metal production. Whether or not an album can work with a lo-fi production like this depends entirely on the energy and aims of the music. If, as is the case with Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, the production exists merely to facilitate an atmosphere that the music does not effectively conjure, well, then you’ve got yourselves a crappy album. If the opposite is true, and the production augments or enhances the atmosphere in some way (as is the case with Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal), then the album can actually be damn good. Now, with this polarity established, Memoria Vetusta I falls somewhere near the middle: not bad, but not entirely memorable either.

Memoria Vetusta II, with its emphasis on clarity and detail (rather than a lack thereof), calls to mind not Darkthrone, but instead, latter-era Enslaved or Nachtmystium (both of whom released excellent albums last year). But Memoria Vetusta II is, at times, both more ferocious and more placid than either of the aforementioned bands. And no, that’s not as paradoxical a statement as you’d think; anyone familiar with the early Opeth albums will know exactly what I’m talking about.

If you’re a metal fan of any capacity, you need to get this album. It’s a hypnotically powerful recording, and one that I’m sure will wind up on the year-end lists for 2009. And speaking of which, 2009 is shaping up to be a fucking great year for metal, and it’s only the beginning. We’ve already got a wonderful EP from Wolves In The Throne Room (with a full length follow-up due in May), as well as a totally unexpected masterpiece from Iceland’s Solstafir, and now Memoria Vetusta II from Blut Aus Nord. I can barely contain my excitement for what might await the community in the coming months.

STEVEN WILSON – Insurgentes (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on February 25, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Steven Wilson - Insurgentes Steven Wilson announced Insurgentes last July (although we weren’t exactly sure what it was when he did), and released it in October…well, sort of. With a limited number of copies available (3,000 CD and 1,000 vinyl), the album quickly sold out and became unavailable to most (myself included) almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Thankfully, KScope stepped up and re-released it this past Tuesday, so now anyone with $15 can get their hands on a copy.

The most important thing Insurgentes needs to do is somewhat metaphysical: it needs to justify its own existence. This is, after all, Steven Wilson’s first solo album, and when last I checked, he not only is the prog titan Porcupine Tree, but also half of No-Man, Continuum and Blackfield, as well as (presumably) most of Bass Communion and Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. Does he really need a solo album, or is Insurgentes just the guy from Porcupine Tree playing what are essentially the same songs under yet another moniker? The answer to that last question is a resounding “no.” Insurgentes (all two discs and 80 minutes of it) is dark and aurally hazy; as far as Wilson’s other works go, it bears the most resemblance to early Porcupine Tree albums like Up The Downstair, assuming they were first crossbred with Antimatter and early King Crimson.

So yes, Insurgentes is self-validating, so as a solo album, that automatically makes it a success. But there’s more to it than that. The album also serves to illustrate that Steven Wilson may in fact be that rarest of all musical beasts: one who is as talented as he is prolific.

THE BLACK LIPS – 200 Million Thousand (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on February 24, 2009 by monopolyphonic

The Black Lips - 200 Million Thousand As far as the garage rock resurgence goes, The White Stripes have the edge over most everyone else – hell, they were the final musical guest on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (I know, I know, everyone knows this, and it’s been discussed repeatedly, but it still speaks volumes, no?). But for every one-note concert The White Stripes might make, The Black Lips are ready to counter with some warped stage assault like this.

So maybe the White Stripes have more competition than I thought. Both bands released albums in 2007 that could stand shoulder to shoulder against each other (these being The White Stripes’ Icky Thump and The Black Lips’ Good Bad Not Evil). But whereas The White Stripes have been progressing since Elephant, experimenting with bass marimba melodies, weird organ solos and slew of other things, The Black Lips seem to be doing the opposite. Good Bad Not Evil had that classically indescribable garage rock sound, but it wasn’t overdone; it was just warm enough to feel lived in, and that’s all it needed to be. 200 Million Thousand, on the other hand, sounds like it was recorded in a storage locker in Hell. It’s cramped, sepulchral and hazy, like someone took the album masters and rolled them around in 50 year old varnish and sawdust. It almost makes Titus Andronicus’ The Airing of Grievances sound clean (almost).

I can’t help but wonder, “Is this really necessary?” Yes, it’s oddly charming (to a point, anyways) but necessary? I just don’t know. The songs aren’t bad here – that I do know. But 200 Million Thousand, in it’s eagerness to sound like some recently unearthed 1960’s gem, ends up feeling kind of flat when compared to Good Bad Not Evil; it lacks the dexterity that made that album great; there’s nothing on here that’s got the energy of Navajo or Off The Block (though Drugs almost rises to that level). I think that what 200 Million Thousand does best is raise a question: is a step into the garage a step forward? Answer: we’ll see.

VETIVER – Tight Knit (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on February 23, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Vetiver - Tight Knit Despite collaborating frequently with revered freak-folk beard shaman Devendra Banhart, Vetiver have, unfortunately, gone largely unnoticed in their career so far. Here’s hoping that’ll change with Tight Knit, their third album and first for indie heavyweight label Sub Pop. As far as labels go, Sub Pop makes more sense than you’d think – currently on the roster are Iron and Wine, as well as folk newcomers Fleet Foxes; in the midst of such high-profile company, Vetiver will fit right in.

I’m sure you’re wondering, “why all this talk about labels?” Well, I’m going to do some ruminating on the subject, so please be patient. Ready? Okay, good…now, whenever a band switches from a smaller label to a bigger one (in this case, from FatCat to Sub Pop), there is an incredible temptation from someone who has been following the band from the beginning (in this case, me) to examine the new recording with an unusually high degree of scrutiny, and to ascribe any changes in the band’s sound or artistic direction, no matter how minute, to the change in labels. The end results of this scrutiny can vary greatly, from feelings of negligibility (The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife being released by Capitol Records is inconsequential) to outrage (Roadrunner single-handedly ruined Opeth, presumably forever).

Granted, the change from FatCat to Sub Pop is much smaller than from Kill Rock Stars to Capitol, so in this case, the change barely registers in the listener’s brain at all. Still, it’s a hard thing to ignore, and I bring it up because near the end of Tight Knit are a pair of songs that made me raise my eyebrows – the unusually upbeat More of This and the unusually jazzy Another Reason To Go. They provoked this reaction from me not because they were bad, but rather, because they were different. Does it really matter that Vetiver, instead of dependably giving us another fine folk/alt-country album, give us instead another fine folk/alt-country album with these two songs? I think not.

I’m sorry. I got lost somewhere in there. For anyone still reading this, yes, I did enjoy Tight Knit – I actually prefer it over M. Ward’s Hold Time, and would recommend it as such. *sigh* – was that really that hard?

THE APPLESEED CAST – Sagarmatha (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on February 22, 2009 by monopolyphonic

The Appleseed Cast - Sagarmatha The Time: 2001 – my junior year of high school. I am enrolled, indifferently, in the honors English 3 class. We have been assigned to read several books over the course of the year. One of them is Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s personal account of the 1996 Everest Disaster. I don’t remember much from the book, but one thing that did stick with me was the reverence that the Nepalese people had for Sagarmatha (Sagarmatha is the Nepali word for Mt. Everest – loosely translated, it means “Head of the Sky). To them, it was not a commodity, waiting to be conquered (often by men from the West with cash to burn); it was a goddess – sacred, terrible and everlasting.

The Appleseed Cast occasionally manage to inspire such lofty feelings of awe on Sagarmatha (their sixth album), particularly in the opening trio of songs (As The Little Things Go, The Bright Light and The Road West). Here, the band’s newfound post-rock sound blossoms into something wonderous. Sadly, the rest of the album is comparatively tame and ordinary, although there are a few exceptions – the brief pop-reverie of The Summer Before, as well as Like A Locus (Shake Hands With The Dead), which would fit in wonderfully on an Air album.

At this point, I can safely say that Sagarmatha is not as consistent as the band’s last album, Peregrine was. But I can’t yet say for sure which album is better. Suffice it to say, if you dug Peregrine (or are a fan of guitar-centric post-rock like Russian Circles or Explosions In The Sky), you’ll probably enjoy Sagarmatha.

NAPALM DEATH – Time Waits For No Slave (2009)

Posted in 2009 Music, Reviews on February 21, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Napalm Death - Time Waits For No Slave Napalm Death released Scum in 1987, and have managed to remain steadily prolific since then. Sure, there have been some changes: the band haven’t played actual grindcore (the genre that they themselves pioneered) in years. Their lineup fluctuated heavily before finally stabilizing in 1998. Now, some 22 years after Scum, we have Time Waits For No Slave, the band’s fourteenth (!!) studio album.

I’m sure there are those out there who will balk at that fact, and I can see the seeds of their reasoning: does Napalm Death really need to have fourteen studio albums? I’m not 100% sure, but if you look over their post-2000 catalogue, it’s been more hit than miss (Order of the Leech was particularly excellent, as was the supremely-titled The Code Is Red, Long Live The Code).

So what is there to say about Time Waits For No Slave that hasn’t already been said about Napalm Death at any point in their nearly 30 year history? Not much. Aside from the occasional melodic death metal production tic (listen to the layered vocals in Fallacy Domain), not much. The music is still as pulverizing as ever. Barney Greenway still hangs vigilantly onto his rung of the death metal vocalist ladder, right below former Cryptopsy vocalist Martin Lacrouix and right above whoever does the mic-vomiting in Dying Fetus. And band’s politics certainly haven’t been toned down (as the lyrics to the album’s title track will attest to).

So, if the idea of Napalm Death having fourteen studio albums (while simultaneously being on track to double that) doesn’t alarm you, it might be worth checking out Time Waits For No Slave. Even if you do end up forgetting it somewhere down the line.