Archive for December, 2007

My favorite shows of 2007

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Well, so this was my year in shows.

If you count NEARfest as two concerts (which seems fair, since it was two days and I saw five shows), then I hit my goal of seeing 52 shows in 2007. There were tons more I wanted to see, but between playing a competitive sport, spending many spring and fall weekends backpacking, and maintaining a long-distance relationship, it was particularly difficult for me to make weekend shows this year. So all in all I think I did pretty well. Here are some of the highlights — I’m just putting these in chronological order, and not necessarily limiting myself to 10 or anything like that.

  • Atomic at Twins Jazz, February 8 (blog entry) — What a great surprise! This quintet plays a very accessible brand of free jazz; it’s really fun to hear Paal Nilssen-Love in particular playing a more straight-ahead style. Twins Jazz was packed with about 80 people who gave Atomic an ecstatic reception. Fantastic, high-energy jazz, a great way to kick off the year.
  • The Vandermark 5 at Jammin’ Java, February 16, $12 (blog entry) — Actually this was along the same lines as Atomic: great, explosive energy jazz, also very accessible (I even took three friends to this show). They were a hundred times better than when I saw them in 2006; Fred Lonberg-Holm went from being an interesting addition to a core part of the group’s sound, pushing them further and further “out.” The crowd was kind of lame but the band nevertheless played two very hot sets.
  • Zs at The Hosiery, February 26, $5 (blog entry) — This show cemented Zs as one of my favorite current avant-rock groups; before, I liked them a lot, but seeing them live really made their brilliance unmistakably clear. The image of four musicians staring intently at each other and their sheet music, while cranking out some of the loudest and most intricate (yet still aggressively rocking) sound imaginable, is permanently burned into my brain.
  • Dälek at Rock and Roll Hotel, March 2, $10 (blog entry) — Speaking of loud… Dälek on record is an intense experience, but Dälek live is something else altogether. This was my second time seeing them, and if anything they were better than the first, if a little less overtly in-your-face.
  • Do Make Say Think at The Black Cat, April 1, $10 (blog entry) — The best rock show I saw all year. DMST played a transcendently beautiful set, and I don’t use those words lightly. I love their take on post-rock, which involves a cacophony of instruments making coherent noise, often with one single instrument (an acoustic guitar, or most often electric violin) rising to the surface with a gorgeous, straightforward melody. One of the most purely joyous concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
  • Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller at The Red Room (Baltimore), April 13, $12 (blog entry) — A legendary free-jazz skronker teamed up with an extreme metal rhythm section? Yeah, this was probably the most unrelentingly intense show I’ve ever seen. Once I managed to figure out how to parse it, though, I found it enthralling, especially Wertmüller’s drumming, which alone could have given me nightmares if I’d been having a bad day.
  • The Dismemberment Plan at The Black Cat, April 28, $15 (blog entry) — DC’s biggest phenomenon since Fugazi reuniting for two shows, four years after their breakup, guaranteed a crazy event, something bigger than just a mere concert. Sure enough, this was something to behold, especially since the band was, bizarrely, at their peak, better than they ever were when they were actually together. I saw better concerts in 2007, I think, but maybe none as memorable.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at The Black Cat, June 5, $12 (blog entry) — The third time was the charm: the first two times I saw SGM I was actually kind of underwhelmed for some reason, but this time they really brought their A game. Maybe it was just my newfound familiarity with the In Glorious Times material, but it just seemed like the band had really mastered their peculiar meshing of theatricality, creepy beauty, and crushing heaviness.
  • Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress, October 30, free (blog entry) — A very intellectual concert that I also found quite viscerally effective, which is a good combination indeed. This 20-piece ensemble played a series of pieces chosen specifically for their rhythmic complexity, and they pulled it off with gusto. There were some avant-rock type moments here, but the real fun was seeing them play live renditions of a couple IDM songs, music that was never meant to be played by humans.
  • Om at Rock and Roll Hotel, November 13, $10 (blog entry) — I guess I must just like really, really intense concerts. This one had it all: incredible feats of tension-building, wonderfully effective individual performances, high-wire drama, and above all, a sense of spiritual searching of the sort that I like to think listeners must have experienced at late-60s Coltrane shows.

Honorable mentions go to Magma, Richard Pinhas, Wilco, Aussie Floyd, Nelly Furtado, Epica, Cowboy Junkies, and Dhafer Youssef, all really great shows but perhaps a tiny step down from the above. The most disappointing show I saw was probably John McLaughlin, but then again I think I just don’t like fusion very much, so maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Isis and Mastodon were also pretty terrible, the former being particularly disappointing as I saw them put on a great show in 2006.

I’m not sure I’m going to try quite as hard to see every concert I possibly can in 2008, for financial reasons if nothing else — but 2006 and 2007 definitely have awakened a certain passion for live music in me that I don’t think is just going to go away. I’ve already started making a list of interesting 2008 shows

eMusic is great, except when it’s not

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

I am having an absolutely infuriating eMusic customer service experience that has been dragging on for about three weeks now. I’ll tell the full story when it gets resolved, but right now my advice to potential eMusic users is: find a subscription plan you want, go with it, and stick with it. Trying to upgrade or change is a dicey proposition, and the customer service reps are slow to respond to e-mails (there is no phone number) and frustrating dense when they do.

End of year jazz

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

So I was on a much-needed vacation last week, but still managed to squeeze in a couple last concerts in DC: Frode Gjerstad Trio and Circus of Saints, two groups that were sort-of jazz but not really, although in completely (and I do mean completely) different ways.

The former show was a tough decision, because that same night, a very appealing group was playing at An Die Musik in Baltimore, including Marc Ducret on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums. Luckily I made the right call, as that show turned out to be cancelled due to weather. Gjerstad’s trio consisted of the titular member on saxophones and clarinet, Øyvind Storesund on bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I’ve seen the latter three times now this year, with three different bands, and I think I have something like eight CDs from this year alone on which he plays. Does the man ever rest? Who knows, but what I do know is that he’s a damned entertaining drummer, and the main reason I decided to go to this show, dragging my girlfriend along with me.

This trio played a little less than an hour of pure free improv, with few gestures towards traditional melody, harmony, or rhythm. Definitely not free jazz, just freeform improvisation. Gjerstad had a tendency to explore the upper registers of his instruments, particularly clarinet, something that I don’t particularly enjoy, but otherwise this was still a pretty fun show. Nilssen-Love is always a blast to watch, in any case. Without any real musical reference points, I’m a bit at a loss to describe this stuff except that it was very challenging.

Three days later, seeing Circus of Saints was a bit of a jarring transition. This is some kind of collective of local musicians playing what could be categorized as accessible, melodic jazz-rock, with plenty of room for soloing but also lots of catchy, composed melodies. The show was at one of my favorite venues, Jammin’ Java (though sadly they were out of their amazing spicy pork chili when we got there), and I had a good time. Although it wasn’t the kind of music I would ever listen to on record, they were fun to watch live, particularly a guy on low brass (trombones and tuba) who was a bit show-offy but had the chops to match — at one point my girlfriend thought he was reading off of the saxophonist’s music and transposing the lines on the fly in is head!

So the vacation was the reason for the lack of recent posting, but I’ll have some good stuff coming up — maybe some notes on new acquisitions, thoughts on an MP3 player I bought a friend for Christmas, recounting an eMusic customer service experience, and an end-of-year concert recap. Til then… happy holidays!

What’s spinning, December 23 edition

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

Apparently all the stuff I’ve been listening to lately, with just a few exceptions, is by bands whose names begin with the letters A-E exclusively. Wonder what that means? Anyway, here are some quick impressions.

  • Anti-Pop Consortium - Shopping Carts Crashing — My favorite avant-hip-hop group aside from Dälek, this is their 2001 album that for some absolutely inexplicable reason was only released in Japan. I’ve been hunting for it for years and finally scored a copy for a reasonable price (around $20) on eBay. It’s great; I’d say a notch below their two U.S. released albums, Tragic Epilogue and Arrhythmia, but only a small notch.
  • Aranis - II — I’ll be reviewing this soon, but it’s one of my favorite albums of 2007 so far. Wonderfully composed chamber-rock, full of rich counterpoint, tricky time signatures and beautiful melodies. One of the best records I’ve heard in this little niche.
  • Meg Baird - Dear Companion — The female half of Espers‘ solo album is a very straightforward recording of mostly traditional songs; not the most exciting listen, but some of the songs are pretty memorable. Baird’s wispy voice isn’t particularly well-suited to some of the songs that have her singing more aggressively, but when she’s more laid back, the effect is often beautiful.
  • Baroness - Red Album — Nice but maybe overhyped metal album that’s like a slightly more metal Isis. Still digesting, I think this could grow on me in a big way.
  • Between the Buried and Me - Colors — I just bought this at a Borders in my hometown in North Carolina, and the cashier looked at it and said, “oh cool, bee-tee-bam!” Apparently they are pretty popular among the younger set here in their home state; she had seen them live a couple times. This is off-the-wall extreme metal, kind of reminds me of Unexpect except a little less crazy and a lot less schizoid.
  • Burial - Untrue — I never quite understood the hype around last year’s self-titled debut, not being a follower of the UK electronica scene, but this sophomore effort makes a lot more sense to me. Someone said this is what Massive Attack would sound like in the year 2020, but I think Burial’s sound is perfect for modern-day post-industrial cities. More accessible than last year’s effort, I’m really digging this one.
  • Demilich - Nespithe — This is strange death metal with vocals so low they sound like the singer is belching. No, seriously. When I was on my Gorguts kick a few weeks ago, I went looking for similarly bizarre metal, and this name came up a lot; turns out the album is free to download. I’m getting a kick of out this but I can’t say I’ve really processed it yet.
  • Dillinger Escape Plan - Ire Works — This one’s getting rave reviews at all the metal websites, and I can see why; it combines some of the brutality and complexity of classic DEP material with more of the melodicism seen on Miss Machine. There’s one track that’s a dead ringer for “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II” if it had been written in 2007.
  • Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles Wieder Offen — I’m beginning to think that these guys will never top Silence is Sexy; I was a bit disappointed by Perpetuum Mobile and this one is another small step down. It’s very melodic and accessible, and I was expecting something much harder-hitting.
  • Carla Kihlstedt & Satoko Fujii - Minamo — Two of my favorite improv musicians teaming up: a dream duo for me, and this recording doesn’t disappoint. Naturally, its charms are revealed only after repeated listens, and I’m justing getting started with it, but I can already tell I’m really going to like this one.
  • Scorch Trio - Live in Finland — A limited edition CD-R (400 copies) with no distribution whatsoever, I picked this up from Paal Nilssen-Love at the Frode Gjerstad Trio show I wrote about below. For much of its duration it’s surprisingly spacious, but when the musicians kick it into high gear, wow! Exhilirating, and the recording quality is beyond reproach, surprising for a limited release like this.
  • David Sylvian & Holger Czukay - Flux + Mutability — This is an old one that I stumbled across at Paul’s CDs in Pittsburgh; it was $10 new so I picked it up on a whim. It’s not what I expected; Sylvian doesn’t sing, and the music is two very long tracks of relaxing, unintrusive ambient music. Nothing particularly innovative or even memorable, but certainly pleasant enough for this kind of thing.

Here it is! Best of 2006

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

This best of 2006 list was extremely challenging to come up with, if only because I’ve begun listening to new music at an even greater rate, and I just had a lot more to choose from this time around. The list below is one that, perhaps more than any other best-of-year list I’ve done, I feel could be significantly different a year, a month, or even a week from now. That said, I am definitely glad I waited a year to do this one, as I hadn’t even heard 40% of these albums by the end of 2006.

Before we get started, if you’re curious, my best-of lists for 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 are also available on this blog. Now for the main attraction:

  1. Newsom, Joanna - Ys
    Head and shoulders above the rest, Ys could be my favorite album of the decade, not just the year. Newsom’s voice, lyrics, compositions and harp playing are bewitching, and I’ve been listening to Ys regularly for the past year and never get tired of it. I expect this to be a long-lasting classic, and unlike many critics, I don’t use that word lightly.
  2. Tanakh - Ardent Fevers
    I’ve become fairly indifferent to most new indie-rock out there, but this group plays an endlessly interesting meshing of styles that transcends genres. There’s post-rock and ambient music influences as well as straight-ahead melodic songwriting, and there are some wicked scorched-earth guitar solos to boot. Music that’s difficult to describe and pigeonhole is often very appealing to me, and Ardent Fevers is a perfect example.
  3. Zs - Buck
    Perhaps the most interesting avant-rock band operating today, this live album shows the power that a telepathically tight ensemble playing formally composed, wickedly difficult music can have. A must for anyone interested in dissonant, rhythmically complex modern music.
  4. Decapitated - Organic Hallucinosis
    Speaking of rhythmically difficult, this band’s nerdy death metal is occasionally jaw-dropping in its technicality, which makes the recent death of their drummer in a car crash all the more tragic. I was all stoked to see these guys live, but the death of their drummer and hospitalization of their guitarist was too much for the band to handle and they promptly disbanded. One of the saddest stories in music all year (2007, to be clear). RIP Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka.
  5. NeBeLNeST - ZePTO
    I guess I do still like prog. ZePTO is the only original prog album on this top 10 list, though admittedly it’s no namby-pamby symphonic fairy tale. This album sees the French quartet dip into avant-garde waters; their music has always been dark, dissonant and amorphous, but never quite to this extent.
  6. Univers Zero - Live
    Notable for many reasons, not least that it’s the first official live release for this 30-year-old band, but also because the performances are simply top-notch. “Xenantaya” especially absolutely comes alive compared to the studio version, and the inclusion of older pieces like the classic “Toujours Plus à l’Est” is a wonderful surprise.
  7. Om - Conference of the Birds
    There’s only one transcendent song on this album, but then there are only two songs total. The 16-minute “At Giza” is an absolute triumph of repetitive, trancey, spiritual metal, still the best thing this band has ever done. In concert, three separate people exclaimed after this song that it was a “religious experience.” They may be overstating the case, but not by too much.
  8. Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
    Everyone’s favorite noisy indie-rock band gets back to the noise! The opening and closing epics on this album are the classic feedback-drenched workouts that, as much as their poppy vocal numbers, helped give this band their reputation. The best thing they’ve recorded since the glory days in the mid-90s.
  9. Espers - II
    I was a latecomer to this acid-folk group, and this was my introduction to their music. Greg Weeks, formerly of New Sonic Architecture fame, and Meg Baird combine to make some of the most evocatively edgy folk music I’ve heard. Mellow Candle comes to mind; these guys possess an equally formidable melodic sense (and their vocal duets are equally as wonderful), but their vision is way darker.
  10. Satoko Fujii & Natsuki Tamura - In Krakow In November
    I love Fujii’s quartet albums and like her orchestra works, but it’s in a solo and duo setting that, in my opinion, she really shines. Her melodic sensibility is simply beautiful, and that really comes through in this recording with trumpeter/husband Tamura. “Morning Mist” is pure distilled beauty, but the whole record is a delight.

I seem to say this every year, but 2006 was a pretty damn good year. I suspect this will be true for every year as long as I continue keeping up with a wide depth and breadth of new music. Certainly 2007 — in which I bought more albums released this year than ever before — is shaping up to be fantastic. It’s certainly a good time to be a fan of underground, experimental music.

Just to prove the point — and this is probably a bit excessive — here are a bunch of other albums from 2006 that I really liked. Four or five of these could easily have been in the top 10 if I’d been in a slightly different mood.

  • AghoraFormless
  • Christina AguileraBack to Basics
  • Amon AmarthWith Oden On Our Side
  • AtomicHappy New Ears!
  • Michaël AttiasCredo
  • Tim BerneLivein Cognito
  • Iva BittováSuperchameleon (DVD)
  • BorisPink
  • Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas & Michael WertmüllerFull Blast
  • BurialBurial
  • Nels ClineNew Monastery
  • The CoreBlue Sky
  • The CoupPick a Bigger Weapon
  • DamselDistressed
  • The DecemberistsThe Crane Wife
  • EnslavedRuun
  • From a Second Story WindowDelenda
  • Nelly FurtadoLoose
  • Genghis TronDead Mountain Mouth
  • IsisIn the Absence of Truth
  • IsisClearing the Eye (DVD)
  • Isis & AereogrammeIn the Fishtank 14
  • Glenn KotcheMobile
  • MagmaEpok II (DVD)
  • Loreena McKennittAn Ancient Muse
  • MogwaiMr. Beast
  • Simon Nabotov & Tom RaineySteady Now
  • NightwishEnd of an Era (DVD)
  • NIMBYSongs For Adults
  • One ShotEwaz Vader
  • Peeping TomPeeping Tom
  • Radio Massacre InternationalSeptentrional
  • Sunn O))) & BorisAltar
  • Justin TimberlakeFutureSex/LoveSounds
  • UnexpectIn a Flesh Aquarium
  • UzvaUoma
  • The Vandermark 5A Discontinuous Line
  • YakuzaSamsara
  • Dhafer YoussefDivine Shadows
  • ZaarZaar

There you have it. I’m planning a couple other posts, coming towards the end of the month, recapping my 2007 without actually doing a top 10 albums list, since, of course, that’ll be coming in a year. But I do want to talk about my favorite concerts of the year, as well as discuss the continuing evolution of my music tastes (in this case, this year saw me listening to more extreme metal and free improv than ever).

Gorguts’ Obscura continues to melt my face

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

And speaking of albums that are long-lasting classics, I’m currently turning my brain to mush by listening to GorgutsObscura. I’m continually amazed by two things about this album: one, that it still sounds so fresh to me after years of listening; and two, that it seems like no metal album released ever since has come close to matching it in terms of the combination of absolute brutality and sheer complexity. And this thing came out almost ten years ago. Sure there are some fiendishly complex tech-death and grindcore bands out there, but I don’t think any of them compare to Gorguts in brutality, and my uneducated ear also wants to believe for some reason that Obscura is more complex — maybe not rhythmically, but harmonically and compositionally.

This review at Rate Your Music is pretty amusing and describes the extreme-ness of the album pretty well. I think it’s by the same “asmox” as inhabits ProgArchives.

ADDENDUM: Also, I think the following image is funny.

On guilty pleasures

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Two things today. One, another review of interest at PopMatters, in which Will Layman takes a sledgehammer to prog rock indulgence and bashes ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery. While normally I’m in support of anyone ridiculing this ridiculous band, Layman’s review, which comes on the occasion of the latest reissue of this “classic” album, isn’t exactly praiseworthy. He basically admits to liking this in his youth, still kind of liking it now, but he’s completely caught up in the “guilty pleasure” concept and his tone is all, “I can’t believe I actually enjoy this crap — it might be fun, but it’s still crap.” And then he gives it a rating of 3 out of 10.

Who the fuck cares how silly or stupid something is if you enjoy it? I mean, I understand the whole “guilty pleasure” thing. But I’ve been trying to actively rid myself of the notion (this is still very much a work in progress). That’s why I give positive reviews to cheesy symphonic power metal bands like Within Temptation, and it’s why I write about seeing Christina Aguilera and Nelly Furtado on this blog. If you enjoy something, it deserves a positive review, regardless of whether or not you’re ashamed of your feelings.

That said, I think Brain Salad Surgery is about as appealing as a steaming dog turd. So I could have written a much better 3-stars-out-of-ten review than Layman.

Item #2: OffOnOff, a new trio of Paal Nilssen-Love, Terrie Ex, and Massimo Pupillo (of Zu). With that lineup you know there are going to be fireworks. There’s an eight-minute song on their Myspace page that reminds me of Scorch Trio with a much heavier bass presence, which makes sense — Pupillo’s fuzzed-out bass playing is way more aggressive than Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten’s style, while there are similarities between Terrie Ex and Raoul Bjorkenheim’s post-Sharrock guitar pyrotechnics. I cannot wait to get my hands on this stuff.

Things to read

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Not that this is particularly useful since I don’t do it regularly, but a few links of interest today…

PopMatters has a couple reviews of interest — namely a glowingly positive writeup of AhleuchatistasEven In the Midst… and a nearly as good one of Uz Jsme Doma’s Cod-Liver Oil. I have both of these and neither has really sunk in with me yet despite a few listens to each.

And on an end-of-year list note, check out Adrien Begrand’s site (it’s sort of a blog but not really) for his ongoing best of 2007 project, in which he will apparently be adding stuff for the next several days. He lost a little credibility with me when he named Mastodon’s atrocious Blood Mountain his favorite of 2006, but I still enjoy his writing and respect his opinions. So far he’s done a best-of of compilations and live albums and an “honorable mentions” list. On the latter are two albums that, if I did my top 10 of 2007 now, would make it onto the list: Om’s Pilgrimage and Dälek’s Abandoned Language.

Also, I’m pulling some chains over at ProgressiveEars by coming to the defense of Justin Timberlake. This could be a fun show.