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Ground and Sky » 2007 » July
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for July, 2007.
Sad news: the slightly overdue July issue of Paris Transatlantic includes a lead-in indicating that it will likely not be publishing regularly anymore. It seems Dan Warburton has run into that problem that so many dedicated music lovers encounter sooner or later, which can be oversimplified as “too much music, not enough time.” At almost 20 years younger than Dan — sans wife and son — and boasting a music collection of 30% the size, I already feel the weight of this problem coming on to me. Turns out you don’t need 8,000 albums and a family to have too much music and not enough time. Two thousand albums and a full-time job (and some friends) is enough.
I keep telling myself that at some point I’m going to stop buying new music, or even sell off a big portion of my collection, and just spend a solid chunk of time just listening to what I already have (or decide to keep), getting to know it better, and writing about it more. The idea of reviewing every single album I own (well, maybe not quite every one — I’ll spare you my thoughts on, you know, the old ska albums I have left over from middle school) on this website has a certain appeal, but I’ve already failed on a much smaller-scale experiment of that sort, when I tried writing just a paragraph on each of my CDs and got bogged down less than halfway through. But at some point I have to draw a line in the sand, to borrow a quote from Dan borrowed from The Big Lebowski. Whether that line comes at 2,500 CDs and an intensified workload at my job, or further down the road at 4,000 albums and a family or something, remains to be seen.
But all that is beside the point. While Paris Transatlantic has always been a little too esoteric for me, mining the outer edges of an avant-garde that I am only a year or two into exploring, I always appreciated its mind-expanding interviews and reviews, like a more accessible and content-rich version of I Hate Music or a free (and often more thoughtful) version of The Wire. It will be missed.
Last Thursday, I saw Richard Pinhas at the Velvet Lounge here in DC, a tiny venue into which 40-50 people packed in to see this semi-legend of electronic music. This concert was promoted pretty well, and got coverage in a ton of places around here, from the weekly Washington City Paper to the daily metro paper Washington Post Express to the hipster DCist blog, and the turnout was pretty impressive.
DC’s Insect Factory opened — I saw them opening for Zs a few months back and wasn’t especially impressed, but I really enjoyed the very short set that they played this time around. This is an ambient project involving a guitarist and drummer, whose style is very soothing and mostly consonant. I’ve started coming around to really enjoying ambient music in a live setting (something I never really thought would happen, as when I listen to ambient music on record I almost always listen while doing something else), and Insect Factory was generally pushing the right buttons for me.
After a short break, Pinhas and his laptop sidekick, Jerome Schmidt, took the stage and wordlessly began their set. Their concert would consist of one very long (40+ minute) piece as a duo, and then a much shorter (less than 15 minutes, I’d imagine) piece with Scott Verrastro, the drummer from Insect Factory and the guy for whom we all had to thank for the show happening in the first place. I found this a fascinating show to watch: the nature of this sort of electronic music is it’s often very difficult to match sounds with the musicians’ actions, thanks to all kinds of looping, processing and delaying techniques, to say nothing of Schmidt’s laptop work (I never did figure out exactly what sounds he was contributing, except when there was something obvious like a programmed drum beat or a spoken word voiceover). Occasionally Pinhas would let loose with a blistering “solo,” but more often than not it would be buried intentionally in the mix, with his squalls of electric guitar work merely adding a certain edge to the louder, more amorphous wall of ambient electronic sound. This reminded me a lot of some of his solos on Fossil Culture, the collaboration with Peter Frohmader that, curiously, Pinhas doesn’t seem to think too much of these days (on the contrary, it’s one of my favorite pieces of his work).
The YouTube clip in the previous post is much more indicative of what this show sounded like than anything I could possibly write (especially since I think I lack the vocabulary to describe this sort of music adequately), but the layers and layers of seemingly formless sound, punctuated by the occasional burst of melody, were pretty enticing. I was sitting on the floor in front of the stage for the whole show, and I was surprised at how these two guys held my attention for 40 minutes straight during their first improv. I actually think I like the music in the YouTube clip better than what I saw in person, but it was fun to watch Schmidt and Pinhas interact — most of the time it actually seemed like Pinhas was taking his cues from Schmidt and not the other way around. I had a hard time telling how much of the show was improvised, but I’d guess a fair bit.
Another bonus of the show was that I picked up the 3CD Heldon live set recently put out by the Japanese label Captain Trip. This set consists of two concerts, one from 1975 and one from 1979; I have a bootleg of the 1979 show and it’s just blistering. Haven’t had too much of a chance to listen to this, but I couldn’t resist picking it up, as they were selling it for $30, far less than the $40-$70 (!) I’ve seen it going for online.
It’s been a slow summer for live music, but tonight I’m going to see Richard Pinhas, playing a rather inexplicable show here in DC (he cancelled all the rest of his dates in the eastern U.S., but not this one — not that I’m complaining!). After seeing the YouTube clip below, which Steve has been pimping in various places, I’m really stoked. This was taken at one of his shows in California in June and I really dig it. Also, how did this guy manage to upload a 27-minute video onto YouTube when the cap for video length is 10 minutes??
Over at 17 Dots, the eMusic staff blog, there is just about the awesomest concert review ever, a recounting of this weekend’s ridiculous 77-drummer stunt pulled off in New York City by the Boredoms. Wish I could have been there.
For the active DC music fan, the Washington City Paper recently launched Black Plastic Bag, a music blog that appears to aspire to being more than just another indie-rocker’s blog. They’ve just gotten off the ground, but already there is a big post about Transparent Productions‘ 10th anniversary, so this seems promising. Could be a great addition to the lackluster DC music blog “scene” (is there a scene at all? I guess I only really follow DCist, whose popular music coverage is somewhat limited to generic indie-rock and indie-pop and a smattering of rather straightforward jazz).
Sheer musical ability is one of the traits that die-hard prog fans often lord over other genres: for many, a defining element of prog is consummate musicianship. These prog fans in particular, then, will find Mike Borella’s latest opinion piece at Avant Music News rather, er, provocative, as he makes the case that musicianship is becoming obsolete in the face of advancing technology. I’m not sure this is entirely true, it seems to me that it’s more a case of the definitions and parameters of musical talent changing than said talent becoming irrelevant. Still, a very interesting little essay on a topic that’s well-worn in some circles (say, EAI) but definitely not in prog or even rock circles more generally.
The promised NEARfest post, one week late. Although I’m sure anyone who has been reading any US-centric prog rock forum is probably sick and tired of these things, here are my few cents.
I drove up Saturday morning from DC, a not entirely pleasant trip up I-95 that involves $10+ in tolls one way even though it really isn’t that far (around three hours or so). I skipped Izz’s set in the morning, got to Zoellner in time to pop into the vendor rooms and buy a copy of the new Magma DVD and pick up my ticket from John Reagan (whose Big Balloon Music is having a going-out-of-business blowout sale you should really pick through, there are good deals to be found still). Then it was time for NeBeLNeST.
I am a big fan of this band’s last couple albums, Nova Express and ZePTO, so I came in with pretty high expectations, having heard also that they pretty much tear it up live. They did, but I was a little disappointed nevertheless: the sound was pretty lousy, and in particular the guitars were kind of buried in the mix. So what should have been a jaw-droppingly powerful show came up a little lame, though it was still intense and quite enjoyable. They closed their set with “Nova Express,” which was a joy, although they fucked around with the ending a bit, which threw me off — I think the studio cut of that song has one of the most perfect endings of any 15-minute spacy epic out there, and what they did instead wasn’t nearly as cathartic.
After a short break, Bob Drake treated a few of us to a highly entertaining set that was clearly not meant to be taken very seriously. Of his albums, I only have The Skull Mailbox and was never really able to get into it very much. I had a similar problem with his live set, just wasn’t quite sure how to approach it to get maximum enjoyment, so I ended up just laughing my way through it. Enjoyed it a lot but it wasn’t the most memorable concert I’ve ever seen. Still, I’d guess I took away what Bob intended the audience to take away: that is, I had fun.
Then came the real surprise of the festival for me, which was the fact that I really enjoyed Magenta’s set. If ever there was a subset of prog that really doesn’t do it for me, it’s modern UK prog-by-numbers. Magenta has that style down pat, with lots of melodic guitar lines, fat keyboard leads, straightforward, sunny lyrics and a fair amount of bombast. These guys confound me, because I inexplicably like their music — and not only that, but I like their stuff that’s most bombastic and traditionally “proggy.” I really can’t explain this one. Their new album, Home, is much less “pretentious” in the prog style, more down-to-earth, and I find it dreadfully dull; whereas their proggy stuff with all the keyboard cheese, soaring guitar solos and cliches I somehow really dig.
In any case, their music aside, as performers Magenta put on a fabulous show. Their frontwoman, Christina Booth, is reasonably charismatic (and reasonably attractive) and has a great voice, but it was guitarist Chris Fry who stole the spotlight, showboating to the crowd and playing some beautiful solos with great tone and phrasing. The rest of the band were no slouches either, so basically it came down to this: if you were in the mood for neo-prog cliché, you probably really liked this show. If not, well, probably you didn’t. Shockingly I found myself in the former frame of mind. I really liked all the material they played from New York Suite and Seven; was less enthused by the Home songs and by the epic they closed out with from Revolutions.
Hawkwind was the headliner for Saturday night; I am totally unfamiliar with their music, so I went in as a completely blank slate. Unfortunately, I was never captivated by their set, which seemed like fairly anonymous space-rock riddled with totally ridiculous science-fiction/neo-hippie imagery and narration. I felt neither particularly positive nor negative about anything in the set, so I ended up leaving after a little more than an hour to get some much-needed sleep. I don’t regret this decision at all, as it seems that all but the die-hard Hawkwind fans thought the set was anywhere from laughable to mediocre.
One of the three reasons I came to NEARfest this year was Indukti, who played the Sunday morning slot that seems traditionally reserved for lesser-known bands that can rock the shit out of half-asleep progheads (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Guapo, etc). Indukti rocked the shit out of me. Their show was a little more metal than I expected, but combined with some very nice Frippish guitar atmospherics and violin accents (no harp, sadly). It did being to sound samey after a while, but that might be because I only recognized two songs from S.U.S.A.R., with the rest presumably being new material that I’m eager to hear on record. Great show, great energy.
I kind of took Sunday afternoon off. After a few songs of La Maschera di Cera, I decided I just really wasn’t feeling it. Unlike Saturday when Magenta put me in the mood for prog, LMdC did the opposite. The flamboyant vocalist and aggressive use of stock prog flourishes turned me off instead of on, so although everyone seemed to really dig this show, I don’t really regret leaving early. I also skipped Robert Rich and Pure Reason Revolution, using the afternoon to run some errands and explore the historic district of downtown Bethlehem (I am fascinated by Moravians, being from Winston-Salem, NC, the other home base of Moravians in the United States). I’m a little dismayed about skipping PRR after hearing all the reviews and discussions of their set after the fact, but I’m glad that I saved my energy for Magma.
After a very enjoyable dinner with some folks from rmp and ProgressiveEars, I felt ready. I’ve never seen Magma before, having missed all their previous appearances in the United States. Regarding Magma concerts, Greg Northrup said something like, “not to get your hopes up too high, but… well, they really can’t be too high.” Needless to say, I was excited, and from the moment Antoine Paganotti yelled, “Hamatai!” to kick off “Kohntarkosz,” I was grinning. Paganotti’s opening yelp was immediately followed by Christian Vander’s crashing drums, and let me tell you: even the various Magma DVDs do absolutely no justice to just how physically dominating a presence Vander is on his drum kit. When he’s pounding away at full blast, it’s absolutely mesmerizing, and the rest of the band might as well be his backing musicians. Even when he’s tapping out a skeletal beat on the cymbals, letting the vocalists or soloists take the spotlight, his intensity is riveting.
“Kohntarkosz” and “Emehntet-Re” made up the majority of the show (”Hhai” and “Lihns” were the other two pieces they played) and while the former was jaw-dropping all the way through, I got lost at times in the latter, not knowing the music all that well. I wished they’d played some of “K.A,” just because I know it so well and could have followed much better. Compounding the problem was that where I was sitting, the vocals were way too low, and we all know the vocals are second only to Vander’s drumming in importance for Magma music. More often than not, Emmanuel Borghi’s Rhodes totally drowned out the vocals, which kind of ruined some of the more meditative parts for me. Still, my attention never wandered, and the effect of these extremely lengthy compositions was mesmerizing. Intense yet spiritual — the word I want to use is “peaceful,” although not in any literal or obvious sense (Vander’s drumming was often rather violent, of course).
So while the poor mix combined with my unfamiliarity with “Emehntet-Re” conspired to make this, for me, somewhat short of the transcendent experience that others had, I still thought it was an excellent show, and I will never forget how Vander exerted such complete command of the stage and the music, both from behind his drumkit at up front at the mic. Hopefully this will be merely the first of many chances I get to see this band live, but if not, at least all those DVDs I own have taken on new meaning for me.