Sunday, 30 September 2018

When The Kite String Pops - Acid Bath

Provenance: A recommendation from the music message board I used to contribute to. I was subsequently bought this as a Christmas present by my parents.

Review: My default position on 'long' albums is to bitch about them for either unspooling the same goddamn idea for an hour or jumping about the place stylistically so as to justify the run time. The former tend to be boring and the latter can be an exercise in frustration as a band or artist, in an attempt to demonstrate versatility, fail to land a knockout punch.

At one hour and nine minutes, When The Kite String Pops is a long album. It is also a rara avis in the sense that it is diverse - even sprawling - but never dull. A bubbling stew of Sabbath-inspired doom, hardcore, groove metal and skeletal balladry, its disparate textures are shot through with a grim, unrelenting focus on the darker side of the human condition. Curiously, the length of WTKSP might actually be one of its most powerful tools.

It's perfectly normal for musicians to use dynamics, tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony to all convey certain moods - so why not time? Taking a considered approach to the actual amount of time allotted to a work is common in ambient and avant-garde composition, and probably in some of the more oblique ends of the extreme metal spectrum. Of course, concept albums and live compositions frequently stretch out, often to provide space for narrative to unfold or to provide a degree of verisimilitude to a performance, but here it's something a bit more nuanced. On WTKSP the sensation is like that of a journey through the bleaker reaches and shades of a netherworld.

Of course, all this could've been disastrous if Acid Bath couldn't whistle a tune, but even at their thrashiest there's still a powerful subtlety at work in their songwriting. Inevitably this comes to the fore when they turn down the amps a bit - 'Scream of the Butterfly' is astonishing, even if Dax Riggs' clean vocals sound ever so slightly like a cross between Chris Cornell and the actor Tony Curtis. Riggs' abilities to deliver convincing performances with both clean and screamed vocals - an ability he shares with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt - means that songs like 'Dope Fiend', where he switches between the two, are suffused with a deliriously split personality.

It's a queasy, push-pull ride to the bottom - and it never lets up. I know I said exactly the same about Judas Priest's Painkiller but whilst Halford and co. exist in a shiny, technicolour comic book universe, WTKSP is a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape rendered in monochrome. I'm also well aware that straining hard on the pathos can lead to bathos, but on this cut Acid Bath never come close to lapsing into unintentional comedy. There is a deadly seriousness - emphasis on the deadly - to tracks like 'Tranquilized' and 'God Machine' that allows for no chink of hope.

Finally, a word on the musicianship. It's as tasteful as you're going to experience in the genre. These guys know when to step on the gas, and when to ease up. Too often in metal I think that bands confuse busy drumming - especially the flavour of skinsmanship that relies on the double bass pedal - with aggression. It is to Acid Bath's credit that they know exactly how to create a sense of controlled tension, and then how to release it in a furious gale of punches to the ears and gut. Head-snapping guitar is paired with big, washy swathes of feedback much in the same way as, per my earlier mention, clean and distorted vocals combine, all to stunning effect. You can't really call it 'light and dark' though, just different shades of black (not to get too Spinal Tap about things).

For those who would seek to mock metal, WTKSP is a serious rejoinder. It is both a showcase for fine musicianship and as a primal howl of despair, but furthermore it makes demands on the listener to step wholly into an uncomfortable and disconcerting place. It's strong medicine, and repeat listening is an exercise in masochism, but all the better for it. One for the ages. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Dance Of Death - Iron Maiden

Provenance: Along with a few others I could mention, Iron Maiden belongs in that category of bands that any self-respecting metalhead should like. All my friends at school that I played rock and metal with were avid Maiden fans, and I even wound up performing an entire set of Irons covers at a school band bash.

However, I have a confession; if my compatriots in denim 'n' leather hadn't guessed it at the time, I will openly state for the record that I don't love Iron Maiden.

I don't revere Iron Maiden.

I just kinda-sorta-sometimes like Iron Maiden. And that's fine, right?

Anyway, this album dropped when I was working weekends at a well-known high-street purveyor of trinkets and tchotchkes, including compact discs. For many a moon I, along with my still-friend Emily, would be first in the store to sort out all that day's magazines and newspapers. I often used this hour or so before opening to crank the CD player and submit the long-suffering (as I said, still my friend!) Emily to the depredations of whatever metal album I could rustle up. One of them was Dance of Death.

Review: Just look at that shitty album art. It's horrific. It's the kind of thing created by a callow thirteen year-old to accompany their darksided Harry Potter slash-fic. It's like if Eyes Wide Shut were made entirely on MS Paint. It's Hieronymus Bosch filtered through the aesthetics of ReBoot. After glancing at it for two seconds I punched myself in the face; not, as per Tristan Tzara's injunction, as an artistic gesture, but as an anaesthetic for my poor, abused cerebral cortex.

Don't misunderstand me, heavy metal is the natural realm for eye-breakingly bad album art but much of that was due to having no money and getting their stoner D&D-playing mate to draw "a badass space monster" or whatever. But Maiden weren't broke then, and certainly aren't broke now. It makes my hair stand on hand when I consider the size of the organisation and management infrastructure surrounding Iron Maiden and thus the number of individuals who looked at the draft artwork and thought "yes, that's just the ticket." I think it's best I we talk about the music now!

Ah yes, the music! It's...fine? Pretty good in places? It sounds like some Iron Maiden, for the most part. Bruce Dickinson's slightly hammy wail is present and correct, and Nicko McBrain's drumming is muscular and creative; the swirling concussive vortex he conjures up on 'Montsegur' is absolutely monstrous. Here and there, the things I like about Iron Maiden are present, correct and at the forefront. Opener 'Wildest Dreams' blasts out of the traps, and it shares with 'Rainmaker' the kind of tasty fretwork curlicue that has elevated so many Maiden tracks.

But I have some misgivings - and I'm not exaggerating when I say you can cut and paste the following verbiage from this paragraph into any review of Iron Maiden from the Dickinson era onwards. Firstly, for their huge and largely-earned success, which rests upon consistently excellent live performances and a firkin-full of top-tier tracks, the ratio of filler-to-banger is pretty high. There are lesser bands without the same stature who operate(d) in the same genre such as Saxon and Diamond Head who couldn't sustain the quality but did put out individual albums that are better, front to back, than anything Maiden have managed. The second is a petty hill to die upon, but I dislike the fact that I run the risk of learning something from listening to a Maiden album. It's nerd metal. I am sure that one can pass GCSE History purely by listening to every post-Brave New World release in order.

Now, to hone in on a specific issue with Dance of Death; just like a Swinetunes review, it's far too long and often takes its sweet time getting where it's going. Almost 70 minutes, seriously? With a title track that clocks in at 8 mins 36 seconds so it can include room for passages that sound a bit like a beefier version of Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge'? And just in case that wasn't enough, skip forward a few tracks and you've got one called 'Paschendale' (sic) only nine seconds shy? Come on. I've always felt that Maiden's 'epics' are a by and large ponderous and enervating affairs, a sensibility evidently not shared by bassist / songwriter / multimillionaire Steve Harris. I'm definitely right, though.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mellow and ruminative 'Journeyman', which closes out this album, which was also rather wonderful when I caught the Dance of Death Tour at Earl's Court with my brother. To produce such a song is, I would submit, a truer test of the band's ability to flex their creative muscles than an interminable war gallop that contains the lines 'Battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb / Be reunited with my dead friends soon." But what the fuck do I actually know? Dance of Death is a good album, give it a listen, but maybe schedule in a comfort break if you do so.

PS - The album artwork for Dance of Death is a true aberration. Through the years Iron Maiden have decked their releases out in some truly iconic and very metal designs, even if the music itself sucked substantial ass.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Mothership Connection - Parliament

Provenance: Not entirely sure. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I seem to recall somebody telling me that this is the best funk album ever recorded. That's worth a punt, isn't it?

I know I definitely owned this before I went to university, because I once saw a dude on campus wearing a Mothership Connection t-shirt. I tried to engage him on the subject (viz: the best funk album ever recorded) but he nixed it, saying that he just liked the design and hadn't ever heard the album. Right there and then, my friends, I wanted to cuff some sense into that mooncalf.

Review: To the gauzy wraith of my memory who told me about Mothership Connection, I doff my cap to you. In the grand scheme of things I haven't listened to a great deal of funk (though I've enjoyed spasmodic funk flaps when a friend, colleague or acquaintance has hepped me to something, including the time where my father-in-law ran me through the Ohio Players discography) so I don't feel qualified to bestow any laurels upon on particular platter or another. That being said, I come back to Mothership Connection again and again and again, so it's doing something right.

Sitting squarely in the middle of an Afrofuturist musical pantheon that spans the Sun Ra Arkestra to Janelle Monae is George Clinton's outrageous Parliament-Funkadelic collective. The history is not altogether straightforward, but Clinton conceived Funkadelic to be the raw, psych-heavy outfit, bringing Eddie Hazel's swirling, hypnotic guitar work to the fore. Meanwhile, Parliament were the more R&B orientated group, a groove machine which pushed Bernie Worrell's keyboards and, on Mothership Connection, an elite horn section front and centre. In fact the personnel assembled here, pound-for-pound, possibly constitute the most dazzling array of funk musicians captured on magnetic tape.

Folks, it's a wild ride. Cold open to an imagined radio station (maybe being beamed in from outer space?) called WEFUNK, which is a device I've enjoyed in 1970s cinema (Vanishing Point, The Warriors). The putative DJs riff on the medicinal qualities of funk and jib off artists who aren't quite up to their standards (including, amusingly, David Bowie and the Doobie Brothers); this goes on for almost eight minutes, and aside from periodically busting out into a monstrous chorus it remains a nervy, tentative trip. Not at all what I had imagined - and yet it's infectious, weird, funny and absolutely addictive all at once.

However, one 'P Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)' is done, we're into a world - no, a galaxy - of groove. It's difficult to tag a true MVP when everybody is absolutely cooking with gas, but Bootsy Collins certainly earned his fucking corn on this bad boy. It's hard to describe exactly what he's doing, but it's some of the most rubbery, audaciously groovy bass you're likely to hear. Even at low volumes it seems to punch you in the chest, and in my car's souped-up sound system it turns my humble Peugeot 207 into a veritable low-rider. And just as I once claimed that Judas Priest's Painkiller doesn't let up with the metal madness, by the same token it could be claimed that Mothership Connection couldn't stop being funky even if it tried. Even the start of 'Unfunky UFO', which is merely a finicky little syncopated guitar and bass drum, is sublime. People talk about John Bonham's right foot, but this is (perhaps quite literally) a kick from another galaxy.

None of this should suggest to you that Mothership Connection doesn't shift around in terms of mood or style at all. The coda to 'Mothership Connection (Star Child)' is built around 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', which is strangely poignant; a spiritual about liberation from earthly pains transmogrified into the context of an imagined African-American-extraterrestrial realm. Then there's the most old-school R&B track of the bunch, 'Handcuffs', an absurd and humorous meditation on male possessiveness. Parliament actually had its roots in doo-wop (as The Parliaments), and it's on 'Handcuffs' where this is most obvious, with all five(?) vocalists stepping up to deliver featured spots. For the finale, the general lightness of the album is nudged out in favour of a laser-focused intensity on the largely instrumental 'Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples'. This track rides atop the most outrageous groove on the whole album, and it is sticky - hell, Worrell's scuzzy synthesizers sound as if they're on the verge of collapsing in on themselves, and you the listener feel almost as if you're about to be sucked into this dark star of pure rhythm.

One thing about Mothership Connection that is abundantly clear to even the most casual enjoyer of hip-hop is how very alive the music is to the present day. To suggest it's an influence on the genre would be gross understatement; just have a look at how many times it is estimated that Parliament have been sampled. Stick 'em up there with James Brown, Kraftwerk and the 'Amen Break'. Parliament, and Mothership Connection in particular, pumps through the arteries of so much b(B)lack music, from Kool and the Gang to Charles Hamilton to Dr Dre and beyond. It's the single coolest, slickest, catchiest and unruliest goddamn funk album I've ever heard, and I'll probably spin it again once I'm done listening. Plus, who wouldn't want an album that contains a track called 'Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication'? It almost puts Isaac Hayes to shame!

My own personal coda: thanks to being turned on to Parliament at a young age, once ensconced at university I was one of a few students who knew the name Maceo Parker (saxophone; also played with James Brown and Prince, which isn't too shabby). So when his band rolled into town I was THERE and - goodness me - it was transformative. I dance like Theresa May but, just like the Prime Minister whenever she steps foot on African soil, the pull was irresistible. He's still out there touring - catch him if you can.