In this month’s episode of the BDWPS Podcast, we take a look at some of my favorite albums of the year so far, including Alex G, Juana Molina, Aimee Mann, Blanck Mass, Fazerdaze, At the Drive-In, and Pissed Jeans. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or GooglePlay.
Check it out HERE, or better yet, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or GooglePlay (search: BDWPS).
Technology can give people false encouragement. Whether it be the Xbox Kinect giving kids (and adults) everywhere the belief that they can actually dance or Instagram inspiring users to seek out their inner Ansel Adams. The same can be said about the world of music. With a couple simple, user-friendly Apps and editing programs, anyone can now claim to be DJ. A recent episode of “Portlandia” captured it best in a skit where everyone is spinning – the bank teller, the garbage man, and even your mom.
In the past decade, jazz has been sitting in neutral. There are still talented artists thriving, whether it be in elevators or on The Weather Channel, but the journey within the genre has become sedentary. You can’t blame the musicians. It seems that all avenues have been explored, ranging from bebop, hard bop, blues, big band, free jazz, latin jazz, modal jazz, swing, afrobeat, jazz fusion, and acid jazz. There’s a reason why Ken Burn’s documentary “Jazz” is over 18 hours long. The free-flowing form has come a long way. When “jass music” was conceived in the cultural jambalaya of New Orleans, it was considered to be “the music of the devil” due to its popularity in the black night clubs and whore houses (the self-proclaimed creator of “jass”, Jelly Roll Martin, got his start playing in brothels, improvising based on the action in the bed next to his piano).
These days, jazz is the furthest thing from “music of the devil”. That title would have to go to metal, another music form that has evolved and branched out over the years (heavy metal, death metal, doom metal, black metal, speed metal, gothic metal, thrash metal, glam metal, post-metal, power metal, industrial metal, prog-metal, rap metal, stoner metal, and so on). Although young in comparison to jazz, metal seems in need of a fresh new take on the genre. Step in Shining, the experimental metal band from Norway who got their start as an acoustic jazz band.
On their latest release, “Blackjazz”, the doom-heads decided to try combining the two devilish music forms from the past 100 years, resulting in a black metal album of hellacious proportions. Upon first listen, “Blackjazz” seems to be simply a polished black metal album, but beyond the familiar machine gun drums and crunching guitar riffs, this is more than simply black metal. Shining rely heavily on the synth, but instead of providing simply an ominous cloak, the keyboard is twinkled sporadically like a possessed Duke Ellington, venturing through scales and chord progressions more familiar to jazz night clubs than church burnings. At times the album doesn’t even resemble music, rather a Jackson Pollock of sound, splattering up and down the malicious jazz scale in search of melody.
The jazz meanderings are more obvious when Jørgen Munkeb picks up the saxophone and honks out notes like a line of tumbling dominos, notes rising and falling at will as the horn meshes with the chaos surrounding it. On “Fish Eye”, not only does Jørgen’s sax give the black metal venture fresh blood, but the synths vaguely resemble the four trumpeters of the apocalypse, blaring in the arrival of the Black Masque of Death. Although the sax can only be found on a few tracks, the spirit of the fiery horn section remains a constant within the wall of noise.
“Fish Eye” live from Norwegian TV:
The technical aptitude of these former jazz musicians is audible throughout the album, but it is most evident on “Healter Skelter.” Somehow they are able to provide the chaotic free jazz style of Ornette Coleman while still successfully scaring the shit out of you. It flows between the two musical forms naturally like a tornado in the sky, gaining speed and fury as it moves along.
Much more “Healter Skelter” than anything The Beatles came up with:
Shining also move away from typical lo-fi black metal production, relying on producer Sean Beavan who’s worked with Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Beavan’s sleek production at times makes “Blackjazz” sound more like “IndustrialJazz”, but he also provides stability to the disorder. Singer Jørgen Munkeby’s howls often resemble that of a young Trent Reznor, screaming over the uproar of synth and drum machines. “The Madness and the Damage Done” could easily be mistaken as a b-side on any of Reznor’s multitude of “Halo” albums:
To simply categorize this as a “black jazz” album due simply to the title would be foolish. Shining are as much influenced by free jazz and black metal as they are by industrial metal and progressive rock (the band covers King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” to close the album). Whatever you want to call it, there is no doubt that these Norwegians have exorcised the true, dark spirit of jazz and unleashed itback into the world to wreak havoc. Watch out Weather Channel, there’s an apocalyptic storm on the horizon.
I confess: Mastodon had lost me. I mean, those dudes were wanking themselves completely off their fucken rockers. The first thing that turned me off was all these dooshes started loving them (bound to happen when a band hits the big time, and I am stupid for holding that against them). But then my buddy told me how he saw them live and they all had like 30 guitars and roadies tuning them (and doing everything else) for the band (huge turnoff for a DIY kinda guy). The big deal breaker was reading that James Hetfield came up to Mastodon guitarist Brett Hinds, telling him he wanted to “pass the metal torch on to you guys.” James, you pretentious fuck. First off, there is no torch that goes to the best metal band passed on by the last best metal band. And if there were a said torch, Metallica would not have had it in its possession for at least twenty years. Mastodon acting like that was a compliment pissed me off.
Then I heard about the new LP: a concept album about some paraplegic who flies too close to the sun, causing him to go through a wormhole where his spirit goes into Rasputin’s body to warn him of his planned assassination. Okay… I could handle Remission’s theme of nuclear holocaust and the drummer’s dream of the burning horses, Leviathan’s “Moby Dick” bent, even Blood Mountain’s stories of climbing mountains only to find blood thirsty ogres (and more challenges) at the top. But this was way too much, if I wanted such progtastic themed wanky meanderings I have plenty of Magma, Yes or Genesis albums to put the needle to (in fact, the theme almost sounded like a rip off of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). After a couple of quick listens to parts of the album, I realized I didn’t need it from my once favorite metal-core band (I even heard keyboards!). AND TO TOP IT OFF: gone were the throaty primal grunt growl scream vocals of past albums. The boys were now singing, even harmonizing with each other (obviously, I thought, this was what happens when the band brought Brendan O’Brien, who’s done work for Pearljam and Springsteen, in to produce). My NU-Metal radar was going off like crazy, and I could see that Mastodon were going the way of the heroes, Metallica, and were no longer relevant but completely over-dooshified.
So, last week I almost didn’t go see Mastodon even though they were playing like 5 minutes from my apartment (in fact if Baroness would not have been on the bill I probably wouldn’t have gone). Would that ever have been a mistake: the boys are so fucken technically and the songs from Crack the Skye so compositionally sick that the show was altogether mind blowing. After about twenty minutes of them playing Crack the Skye track by track, I forgave them for everything (even the somewhat harmonious vocals). I began to see it: Brett Hinds’ confined hospital stay led to the astral traveling theme of the album (kind of like a Brian Eno or Robert Wyatt story). I imagined him in a hospital bed, his only mode of travel psychic (I may be pushing this way too far, but it’s probably appropriate for such a far out album).
Crack the Skye’s seven songsclock in at just over 50 minutes, but I am lost in the maze, never do I check to see how much time is left. The proggy/jazzy time signatures (For the RIYL guys, it’s like King Crimson attempting to be Iron Maiden) have me changing my headbanging routine like every thirty seconds and the riffs crescendo and fall like the Andes Mountains. Mastodon can be as indulgent and poppy as they want, as long as the riffs keep my fist pumping and my world turned upside down, which they are able to do for most of the album. Although, I do find myself at times wishing for the harder hitting, death metal screaming band of yore, this is a more than welcome reprise. And 50 minutes for me to contemplate on what conceptual them the guys will think of next.