Friday, May 29, 2009

ISIS: Wavering Radiant

Isis - Wavering Radiant
The music on Wavering Radiant, the fifth album from Isis, uproots the traditionally earthbound sonics of Metal, deploying genre tokens (cookie-monster growls, distorted guitars) for purposes far from that forehead-punching we all love so much. This isn't the studded-leather of an Iron Maiden B-movie or the booze-and-blood pummel-chug of a Slayer melee. This stuff is weirdly ethereal.

Like Sleep, Isis tug at your ear with texture over virtuosity, shifting moods with negative space and gradual thematic development instead of sudden good-cop/bad-cop dynamics and glittering guitar shred. Where Sleep's distortion-pedal texture is a lead giant, however, Isis use their fancy stomp boxes to craft a a warm stratosphere of misty guitar sound that drowns listeners instead of crushing them.

This abrasive/ethereal sound (downy-soft blankets on beds of nails) and the mixed-low vocals put me in the same woozy headspace as My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and it gets even less Metal than that, fist-clenchers and teeth-grinders: The opening of "Hand of the Host" actually recalls Disintegration by The Cure. You might say that this is the sensitive art-kid metal that gets beat up by Slayer and Death but doesn't want to play Final Fantasy VII with Dragonforce. It wouldn't be terribly surprising to see Isis swapping mascara and Carl Jung essays with Tool. (Tool's Adam Jones was even nice enough to take time out from his band's latest Epic Hiatus to play guitar on Wavering Radiant. And all the Metalheads hug each other and knit scarves and swap tofu recipes.)

I've got no Metal credentials, and I'm pretty much a weepy pantywaist, but lest you think my endorsement of the new Isis record is an indie-kid dressing up to play headbanger, let me assure you that my Thrash-threshold is up to snuff. (Emperor isn't so scary once you've heard Throbbing Gristle.) I know it sounds like my affinity for this music is based on how un-Metal it is, and maybe that's partially true, but I'm not so attached to any genre that I require a test of authenticity. Who needs that black t-shirt albatross when you've got creativity like these guys? Isis are not farting around. They aren't watering down the music you love so your mom and Simon Cowell will buy, buy, buy at the iTunes machine. They just don't need to puff up their chests in a more-satanic-than-thou pissing contest. This band has written the best set of American Metal tunes since at least Lateralus, if not Master of Puppets, and they play them like it's no big deal, interacting with confident, sturdy musicianship, actually listening to each other instead of trying to outplay each other. Who needs Metal Ethos? Give us Isis.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

SLEEP: Dopesmoker

Sleep - Dopesmoker
The image of Godzilla, plastic buildings at his foam-suit feet, is as iconic as anything in 20th Century pop culture. In the 1998 Hollywood remake the creature was redesigned into obscurity, the lumbering icon replaced with a reptilian special effect that failed to leave a single footprint on our collective memory. This version was scarier and faster, and a greater threat to the puny protagonists, but it missed the point. Nuclear allegories aside, what audiences love about Godzilla isn't terror. We love watching this chubby harbinger of destruction on his molasses rampages because he looks so COOL. It's not complicated. It appeals to our simplest tastes. Godzilla is just plain cool.

In the same way, what many of us love about Metal isn't understood by the prog-technicians of technical metal. Why is Black Sabbath's legacy so unassailable while only a few guitar store aficionados sing the praises of Dream Theater? Maybe Metal's most durable contribution to culture isn't a penchant for certain malevolent modalities, but an uncomplicated (and incredibly cool) sonic palette of oozing sludge. Maybe the rightful heirs to Black Sabbath are SunnO))) and Merzbow, not Tool and Opeth.

Sleep's Dopesmoker demonstrates that music can thrill with pure heaviness as its only virtue. They have mined Metal and chipped away everything superfluous, leaving nothing but a down-tuned 4/4, plodding incessantly with no interest in flash or pomp. This is a triumph of timbre over pitch, compositional ambitions restrained to conjure a simple, foam-suit behemoth that lumbers for about an hour. And just so we're clear, that hour is ONE SONG.

Before hearing this album, I had heard it described several times. "These guys play one song for an hour! Etc." I couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in this, but , but the fact the the descriptions were always followed by an ecstatic recommendation stuck with me, and on one of those hungry but budget-constrained hunts through Ann Arbor's Wazoo records, a used copy of Dopesmoker was enough to make me put back whatever else was in my hands. I've always been uncontrollably curious about music that strains the limits of credulity. Good or bad, anything that will make me say "I can't belive this exists" is a must-hear.

The existence of Dopesmoker isn't nearly as hard to swallow as the record's immense entertainment value. Given the pot-numbed reaction time for which Doom metal musicians are famous, an album like this is inevitable. That this album is so listenable is a testament not to the music-geek reverence for "uncompromising" music, but to the power of a sludge guitar to pummel the brain's pleasure centers. Kinda like a drug.

The chant-growl vocals, narrating a Biblical stoner fantasy with just two notes, are welcome diversions from the distortion storm, and the guitar solo at the 15-minute mark and the part just past the 40-minute mark where they turn off the distortion pedal are also highlights, but the core appeal of the album is the Earth-sized monolith of turgid guitar tone. The way Brian Eno, Flying Lotus, Tim Hecker and Krzysztof Penderecki create sound worlds, settings instead of narratives, maps rather than comic books, Sleep have made a monument, a six-stringed Marshall stack mountain.

Though Jerusalem, an earlier and apparently compromised version of this album, was arbitrarily divided into movements, Dopesmoker is one marathon track. This makes it hard to listen to in increments, (though if you approach this album as sonic wallpaper, the first twenty minutes over and over are as good as anything else here) but it also means that listening to Dopesmoker is an event. There are plenty of albums that I listen to more often than I listen to this one, but there are few albums for which I carefully set aside a predetermined amount of time. Dopesmoker is a captivating trip (and I mean that in an honest spirit of sobriety) into a blinding void of heaviness. Make sure your CD shelf is damn sturdy before you buy this.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

ZOMBY: Where Were U in '92?

Zomby - Where Were U in '92?
Somehow, Zomby got it into his head that his first full-length shouldn’t continue in the direction of the fantastic string of dubstep singles that put him square in the sights of subgenre-naming vinyl-only headz worldwide, but should be a 39-minutes-and-change fireball that affectionately recreates the sound of early 1990s jungle, with slight forays into the house and techno sounds of the day. If he had asked me, I would have said “In 92? I was in elementary school, learning to write in cursive, where were you, Zomby?” and then I would have told him to just make a whole album that sounds like “Liquid Dancehall”. Zomby, being a gentleman of sound mind and impeccable taste, would no doubt have had the wisdom to ignore my advice and make this album instead.

Most of these fourteen tracks have short running times and no real beginning or end, slamming into each other in an end-to-end brick wall of beats. This may inspire fantasies about delicious full-length versions of these tracks hiding on DATs in Zomby’s closet, but the album doesn’t quite play out like the DJ mix you might expect. The lack of smooth transitions echoes track one’s title (“Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance”) and emphasizes Zomby’s preference for straight-banging dance music over careful sonic (or vinyl) manipulation. In this music’s delirious ecstasy (pardon the pun,) you can hear a bright-eyed nostalgia for a dance music culture before LTJ Bukem and the like “elevated” jungle into the polite terrain of smoother (and more arrogantly named) “intelligent drum and bass". This is not the refined sound of soundtracks and car commercials, and the aerobics-class cheese melted into much of this music bolsters its unpretentious, raving sincerity. Sincerity; not reverence. This album never feels like devotion so much as celebration.

Plenty of artists have traded in received nostalgia for a bygone slice of pop (The Poets of Rhythm, The Darkness, The Pipettes) often with enjoyable, if not durable, results. Sometimes this is ironic pastiche and sometimes it is affectionate imitation, but either way, it smells suspiciously like an admission of defeat, as if we have reached a cultural dead end and our record-buying future holds nothing for us except reissues and star-studded tribute albums. Will there be no John Cage or Grandmaster Flash of tomorrow? Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe Zomby IS the next John Cage (although I like him better as the first Zomby.) Maybe Zomby is making one last nostalgic stop before launching into the wide unknown. When the liner notes proudly proclaim that this record was made using only early 1990s gear, it’s a big flashing clue that Zomby is... not crossing, but flirting with the line between an art and a discipline.

Approaching music as a discipline is rarely a good way to get me running to the record store with my hard-earned substitute-teaching money in hand. This kind of approach gives birth to many breeds of mutant snobbery, from the theory-head sanctimony of too-smart-to-like-the-Ramones music majors to the arch-conservative, Wynton Marsalis attitude that continues to turn jazz into a dusty wax museum instead of a thriving art form. Rebel! Reject! Renounce! Be a cultural heretic, a pop-apostate! Musicians obsessed with the past are doomed to repeat it. Or imitate it. Or cover it. The lecture blurted out to kids in Pink Floyd t-shirts: “Don’t let the Keepers of Taste stagnate the airwaves! Find your own heroes!” That being said, if you’ll pardon this dispatch from the Village Green Preservation Society, maybe there is something to be said for glancing back over our shoulders, even turning around for a moment or two…

Bob Dylan’s debut album was a precedent for Zomby's. Dylan began his career with a troubadour-repertoire of traditional folk songs and one original, the Guthrie tribute “Song to Woody”. Famous as an innovative, forward-thinking pioneer (although I might dispute that reputation), Dylan started out with a record as backwards-looking as possible. His conection with this tradition grounded him, and gave him a foundation on which he could build his ragged, thin-mercury folk rock. Charles Mingus is also admired for keeping alive embers of the jazz tradition, but his other foot was always placed firmly in the avant-garde. Traditions change, and an artist can inherit them without being enslaved by them. A great musician can expose the tradition’s un-mined facets, or use that tradition as a jumping-off point or a warm-up as their unique identity is developing. Sticking close to a tradition can also be a sneering (and probably deserved) finger-in-the-face to staunch demagogues like me who think music has to innovate in order to have value.

The music on Where Were U in '92? is too much reckless fun to be judged simply as craft, but the imitation is too exact for it to not be judged as a discipline. I am sure that this album will be listened to and discussed very differently in light of Zomby's work in the future. For now, though, I can enjoy it without the burden of any context other than possibility. I’m not sure what Zomby’s intentions are, but I think he might tell us “Fuck Criticism, Let’s Dance.”