Thursday, September 23, 2010

Music Review: Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky

Swans rose out of the No Wave scene that produced Sonic Youth, Suicide, and DNA, among others. Their first album appeared in 1983, and was titled Filth. The name was a fitting description of the music, as the record just sounded nasty. Steeped in abrasive sounds, textures, and lyrics, their debut made you feel like you were listening in a sewer. The onslaught continued with Cop the following year. Swans had perfected a stance that would prove to be a blueprint for industrial music a few years later. But their dark vision and plodding rhythms became almost suffocating, and the future of the band seemed uncertain.

That was when leader Michael Gira did something that would become customary in the years to come. When the music began to show any signs of stagnation, he threw out the old rules and changed everything. By opening up to all sorts of new influences, the group was able to move forward in several different directions. Classic Swans albums like Children Of God and Holy Money followed, confirming their status as fearless trailblazers.

The original incarnation of Swans ran from 1982 to 1997, when Gira decided to retire the name. In reconvening the group, he is emphatic that it is not a reunion; in fact he is almost obsessive about it in the press releases. But the new CD, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky sounds very much like the Swans I have always known.. In fact, it sounds exactly like what I would have expected from them in 2010, whether the name had been dormant for the previous 13 years or not.

The name Swans has meant something to fans for a long time now, and their latest more than lives up to the legacy. The nine-minute opening track “No Words/ No Thoughts” sets the tone. The cut begins with a clanging, tribal din that slowly gives way to sounds that are epic in dimension. All of this sets the stage for the remarkably hypnotic musical voyage that comprises the bulk of the song.

Swans are using a lot of folk music influences this time out, which adds an interesting element to the proceedings. When I say folk music, I am talking about the real hardscrabble old stuff of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of Folk Music, not the Kingston Trio. “Jim” seems to bring up the ghost of Leadbelly‘s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” while “Reeling The Liars In” is a deceptively simple protest lament a la Woody Guthrie.

The latter half of My Father reminds me a lot of the latest by Current 93, Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain. The music and the lyrical content both convey a tone of searching, and ultimately of redemption. “Eden Prison” is an especially notable example. The sheer aggressive power that Swans are noted for is never far from the surface, at times appearing in short bursts to punctuate things. On “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” the group just lets it rip, using everything they have to build a song of nightmarish intensity.

There are a number of guests appearances, but the oddest one has to be from Devandra Banhart. This is a guy who I never would have expected to find on a Swans record, although he did do a great job.

My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky is a tour de force, as all good Swans albums have been. The many different musical styles the group incorporate give it something of a travelogue feel, a tour of their collective musical tastes in a way. It is one I will certainly be listening to again, and one that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in music that exists a little outside of the mainstream.

Article first published as Music Review: Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky on Blogcritics.

Music DVD Review: Pearl Jam: Under Review

Pearl Jam’s place in the great Grunge Explosion of 1991 remains a subject of debate in some quarters. How they got together, previous bands, and the fact that the singer was from out of town were all considered major strikes against them. To a vociferous few they were seen as serious strikes that is. The rest of us were too busy enjoying the music. 20 years later PJ are still going strong, while nearly all the others from that memorable year have sadly come and gone.

The new DVD Pearl Jam: Under Review tells the group’s story from the beginning right up to today. Like all of the DVDs in the Under Review series, it is an unauthorized documentary. That means there was no cooperation or involvement from anyone in the PJ camp. Instead, we get a collection of music critics talking about them, live footage from various sources, and some older interview segments.

While I understand the complaints about this format, particularly the inclusion of the critics, I found this 90 minute DVD to be very engaging. There are no enormous new revelations, or any groundbreaking new footage, but somehow the Pearl Jam story is presented in a consistently interesting and entertaining way regardless.

To the surprise of nearly everyone, Pearl Jam’s debut Ten was a smash hit. It won rave reviews both from the public and the critics. They followed Ten up with VS a year later, which sold a staggering one million CDs the first week. A battle with Ticketmaster came next, which had the net effect of stopping PJ from touring the US for three solid years. Vitalogy became their third hit album in a row in 1994., And Pearl Jam served as Neil Young’s back up band for his Mirror Ball album in 1995. Then they decided to scale it all back..

No Code was a record very few bands ever get to make. Pearl Jam’s fourth album consciously avoided the big anthems and ballads they had become so famous for. Although they would never admit it to the record company, No Code was specifically designed to appeal to only the hardcore PJ audience. They basically set out to jettison the mainstream crowd that had been with them since Ten.

It took the album Yield, with its cover art fully telegraphing the group’s intentions, for Pearl Jam to move on. Yielding to the realities of their lost battle against Ticketmaster, and itching to get out on the road again, the band have never really looked back. Their main focus has become playing live, as the dozens of concert CDs and DVDs that have been released confirm.

The video clips in the first part of the DVD will likely be the most appealing aspect for many fans. There is some great footage of the bands that spawned members of PJ, such as Green River and Mother Love Bone. The interview with the late Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone is particularly fascinating. As for extras on the DVD, the most notable is an interview with Eddie Vedder and Matt Cameron, recorded in Berlin, 2009.

In the overheated frenzy of 1991, Pearl Jam were unfairly dismissed as interlopers on the Seattle scene, as well as being nothing more than a “classic rock” group. How ironic is it that in 2010, the music of of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam is the de facto classic rock of Gen X? What goes around comes around, yet of all these great bands, only Pearl Jam remain intact.

While Pearl Jam: Under Review offers nothing really new, or earth-shattering, it is a solid overview of their history. As such, I think it is definitely worth watching.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Pearl Jam: Under Review on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Classic Albums: Rush - 2112 & Moving Pictures

2010 is turning out to be a very good year for Rush fans. So far we have been treated to the first in-depth documentary film about the band, Beyond The Lighted Stage, and a sold-out tour that is receiving rave reviews. And now the great VH1 series Classic Albums has stepped in to honor them. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the two albums spotlighted here, because 2112 and Moving Pictures are two undeniable classics.

When it came time to record album number four, Rush were really feeling the pressure from their label. In fact, they were almost dropped, until the managers stepped in and promised that the new music would be much more commercial this time around. One of the things Rush fans like so much about the band was their response to all of this. Since they knew there was no way they could compete for Fleetwood Mac or Doobie Bros. listeners, they went all the way the other way, with the side-long suite “2112.”

During the new interviews that were conducted for the program, it is fun to watch the three of them talk about the time. Neil Peart in particular mentions how angry the whole commercialization business made them, and how they were able to channel that into what became 2112.

2112 was a huge turning point for Rush, they went from perennial openers to headliners, and started selling records in large quantities for the first time. But their 1981 LP Moving Pictures was the one that broke them wide open. It remains their biggest seller to date, and contains their anthem “Tom Sawyer.“ They even played the album in its entirety on this year's tour. As long time manager Ray Daniels put it, “After Moving Pictures, we knew we were never going back to where we came from.“

Released just five years after 2112, Moving Pictures was a quantum leap forward for the band. Now they were writing songs that were being played (and still being played) on radio. In fact, it is almost wall-to-wall hits, including the aforementioned “Tom Sawyer,” plus others such as “Limelight,” “Red Barchetta,” and the show-stopping “YYZ.”

The extras on the DVD add up to an additional 54 minutes of interviews with the band that were not included in the broadcast. In these segments, the three talk about a variety of subjects including discussions of their influences, Neil’s reasons for writing “Red Barchetta,” and how the “2112 Overture” came about.

While Classic Albums: 2112 & Moving Pictures is nowhere near as ambitious as Beyond The Lighted Stage, it provides some fascinating insights into how each of the records came together. It goes without saying that the hardcore fans will want it, but I think the DVD will appeal to the casual listener as well. The Classic Albums people have done another superlative job with this one.

Article first published as DVD Review: Classic Albums: Rush - 2112 & Moving Pictures on Blogcritics

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Music DVD Review: Barclay James Harvest - Berlin: A Concert For The People

They were called “The poor man’s Moody Blues” by some critics back in the early seventies, an appellation not without merit at the time. But Barclay James Harvest managed to tough it out through various lineup changes, label changes, and musical changes over the course of the decade. In doing so they managed to become a big enough deal to headline this massive open-air Berlin festival in 1980.

They never really caught on in the United States, which is why the appearance of this DVD is such a treat for some of us. BJH were what you might call an “acquired taste,” for many, as their music was never played on radio, and the magazines had very little to say about them. I actually bought my first BJH album in the local cut-out bin, knowing nothing about them except that I liked the cover.

Based on the nine songs performed here, the group were at a real high point in 1980. While their music is considered prog, by this time they had tightened things up considerably. In fact it is a little surprising that they were unable to pull off any crossover success in this period.. Their music reminds me a lot of what contemporaries such as The Alan Parsons Project and Genesis were charting with that year.

Besides the nine songs recorded live in concert, there is also an interesting item included from 1975 titled “Time Honored Ghosts.” This five-song sequence of promotional clips (early videos) is from the album of the same name, and has never been previously released. There is plenty to chuckle at regarding to the band’s fashion sense, and the dated effects don‘t help. But this was arguably their best album, and getting to see these vintage clips is something fans like myself will certainly appreciate. The five songs are: “Jonathan,” “Titles,” “Moongirl,” “One Night,” and “Beyond The Grave.”

The video quality is average, reflecting the state of the technology at the time, but it is acceptable. There is a very nice booklet included, which illuminates the events that led up to this appearance, along with photos of the huge crowd. The show captured on Berlin: A Concert For The People turned out to be their biggest ever, so it is nice that the cameras were there that day.

Including “Time Honored Ghosts” the DVD runs 79 minutes. While Berlin is clearly meant for BJH fans, I think it could appeal to anyone who enjoyed the mellower prog sounds of the era. And the outfits they sport really are to die for

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Barclay James Harvest - Berlin: A Concert For The People on Blogcritics

DVD Review: Legends Of The Canyon

In the late sixties, the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles was one of those mythical places that sprouted a whole new musical genre, that of the singer-songwriter. The neighborhood’s famous residents at the time included members of The Byrds, The Mamas And The Papas, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carol King, and the various member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

The new documentary DVD Legends Of The Canyon sets out to tell the story of the various Canyon musicians, who they are and how they got together. Somewhere along the way the script must have been hijacked by a member of CSN though, because Legends Of The Canyon focuses almost exclusively on them. This is most likely due to the involvement of photographer Henry Diltz, who has published numerous books on the band, and seems to be something of a confidant to them.

I am a pretty big fan of CSN, and actually quite enjoyed the two hour DVD. But as a fan of so many of the other groups mentioned, I was a little disappointed that there was so little actual material about them in the film. As a young musician turned photographer at the time, Diltz did have incredible access to a wealth of material. So there are some very rare photos and footage from the time included. There are also a number of rare, vintage interview segments which help to balance things out.

The Legends Of The Canyon DVD comes with a nice booklet filled with old, rare photos of the different groups, with a cover featuring (guess who?) Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The DVD extras include a wealth of material from Henry Diltz’s archives. These again focus almost exclusively on CSN, and feature some silent footage of them with Joni Mitchell and in England. There are also interviews with the trio, plus one with the great songwriter Van Dyke Parks, which was a real highlight for me.

All in all I enjoyed Legends Of The Canyon for the rare footage and the story of this short-lived musical paradise. My only complaint is that my expectations based on the title were of a much more inclusive story about the scene. If this had been called something like CSN & Other Legends Of The Canyon, it would have been better because at least you would have known what to expect. So with that caveat in mind, I do recommend it, but mainly for CSN (and sometimes) Y fans.

Article first published as DVD Review: Legends Of The Canyon on Blogcritics

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Concert Review: Slayer, Megadeth, Testament, Wamu Theatre, Seattle, WA 9/3/10

It was loud, it was sweaty, and it was brutal. It was also one of the best thrash shows Seattle has seen in years. The American Carnage tour is a triple-bill knockout featuring Slayer, Megadeth, and Testament. Their stop at the Wamu Theatre last night was an all-out assault, and the fans wouldn’t have had it any other way.

It is amazing to realize that headliners Slayer have been doing this for nearly 30 years now. The audience certainly reflected their wide-ranging impact. I saw everything from classic long-haired metalheads to punks, emo kids, and even a few parents with pre-teen children in the crowd. Of course only the most macho young males braved the mosh pit, which got completely out of control during Slayer’s set.

They opened with the title song of their instant-classic new album, World Painted Blood. In a live setting, the power of this band is incredible, almost overwhelming. Drummer Dave Lombardo is the rat-a-tat engine behind them, setting a pace that is unforgiving. Playing from the top tier of their two-platform stage, whenever the rest of the band stopped to let him briefly solo, the fans went nuts.

Then there is the astonishing guitar playing of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. They never let up for a second. The way these two are constantly bouncing off of each other is riveting. The otherworldly sounds Hanneman produces play off the expert solos of King in ways that nobody else can touch. Vocalist Tom Araya was is fine form also, although he understandably moved a little stiffer than usual, due to recent neck surgery.

The idea of playing an older album all the way through in concert is one that works well for Slayer, and they devoted the majority of their set to Seasons In The Abyss from 1990. It was a good choice, as there is not a bad cut on it, and the crowd obviously knew it well. They closed out with another classic, the always controversial “Angel Of Death,” which brought the house down.

Megadeth’s decision to play the classic Rust In Peace album from front to back was brilliant. For many fans, the 1991 record was the first that fully delivered on all the promise that Megadeth had shown. Judging by the crowd reaction, they could not have come up with a better choice. The band were incredibly tight, and Dave Mustaine’s lightning fast playing was as amazing as ever.

To round out the set they played a mix of old and new tunes. The first of these was the title cut from their latest album, Endgame. Although much of the audience seemed unfamiliar with the tune, it went down well. The one that really blew the place up though was the closer, a medley of “Killing Is My Business, And Business Is Good,” and “Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?” The solo Mustaine played to bridge the gap between the songs was his most manic of the night, and prompted a spontaneous ovation from the crowd.

Opening band Testament are all about the twin guitar attack of Alex Skolnik and Eric Peterson. The two got into some fantastic duels at times, and had singer Chuck Billy playing air guitar next to them with his mike stand. Their 40-minute set showed the limitations of being the opening act on a triple bill, as it was way too short for the crowd. When the fans wouldn’t let them leave, Billy finally had to say, “Sorry, it’s all the time they gave us.”

If anything, time seems to be on all three of these band’s side though. When thrash first reared its ugly head in the early eighties, it seemed more of a live fast, die young culture than anything else. Old dogs Slayer, Megadeth, and Testament put the lie to that idea in the most forceful terms possible last night.

Article first published as Concert Review: Slayer, Megadeth, Testament, Wamu Theatre, Seattle, WA 9/3/10 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: James Blackshaw - All Is Falling

The young 12-string guitar master James Blackshaw is back, and his latest album, All Is Falling, exhibits another tremendous leap forward for him. For starters, he uses an electric 12-string for the first time on record, rather than his traditional acoustic. He has also brought in a host of other instruments including violin cello, flute and alto saxophone. These are all used as accents on his playing, which remains at the forefront.

Each of the individual tracks on All Is Falling stand alone as instrumental pieces. But the disc is clearly meant to be listened to as a whole as they are numbered parts one through eight. It certainly makes the most sense to play the disc straight through, as it was designed to represent a journey of some sort.

“Part 1” begins with an understated piano melody, which gives way to some roiling instrumentation, foreshadowing turbulence ahead. Although Blackshaw seems to be consciously working to distance himself from the John Fahey style of playing he originally favored, it is still very much a part of him. “2” and “3” bear this out, although the prominent use of violin and cello certainly distance him from Fahey’s trademark style.

Blackshaw has other influences also, and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett seems to be one of them. From the midpoint of “4” on, he plays in a style not unlike that of Hackett on Nursery Cryme or Foxtrot. Things begin to veer off the safe path noticeably on “6.” A voice is heard for the first time, and the music becomes ever more discordant.

The record veers off for unexplored regions permanently on the twelve-minute “Part 7.” Commencing with some minimalist guitar, cello, and violin, the melody slowly begins to unravel, and eventually breaks down into total anarchy. It is a tour de force of a song, and one not easily forgotten. The final track, “Part 8” is something of a requiem for this perilous trip. The heavy drone sound heard throughout suggests the very worst.

All Is Falling
is a significant achievement for James Blackshaw, revealing his talent as a serious composer in addition to being such a tremendous player. I recommend it for fans of instrumental guitar music such as that of Fahey, or Bert Jansch. He is also someone to keep an eye on, because I think we will be hearing great things from James Blackshaw for a long time to come.

Article first published as Music Review: James Blackshaw - All Is Falling on Blogcritics.