Archive for June, 2008
Wednesday, June 25th, 2008
So we’re almost halfway through 2008 and the message boards are abuzz over what could be the first great prog-related release of 2008, DFA’s creatively titled 4th. I haven’t heard it yet but I’m definitely excited to do so, especially after reading Mike McLatchey’s review. I thought I’d quickly comment on some 2008 releases I’ve heard so far — noting that I’ve taken a step back this year in terms of purchasing and digesting new music, so I’m not hearing all that much brand-new stuff as compared to the past couple years. Also, these are not necessarily my favorite albums of 2008, just things that I have things to say about:
- Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull — I’ve got a review in the works; in the meantime, my review of their live show suffices. This is a great album.
- Magenta - Metamorphosis — I like it! I will face up to the usual Ground & Sky readership who will laugh at me for enjoying such proggarific nonsense, but I can’t help it. Somehow these folks just push the right buttons for me.
- Meshuggah - Obzen — I have a hard time with this group; the music and vocals are always bone-crushingly heavy and complex, but somehow they come off as a little to sterile for me most of the time. That said, Obzen is probably my favorite of any of theirs that I’ve heard.
- Scorch Trio - Brolt! — Got a review coming up of this one. It’s good.
- John Zorn - The Dreamers — Major disappointment. With that lineup (very similar to Electric Masada) I was hoping for something much more than this middle-of-the-road snoozer.
- Bar Kokhba - Lucifer — Another mild disappointment. Their 3CD live album in the 50th Birthday series is one of my favorite recordings ever, but they seem to have lost a lot of their edge on this album. Sigh.
- Los Dorados & Cuong Vu - Incendio — Energetic, melodic jazz with a pretty significant rock edge, a pretty inspired collaboration.
- Portishead - Third — So far I don’t like it as much as Dummy despite lots of people saying they think this one is their best so far. Beth Gibbons’ voice seems just a little too wispy to me this time around.
Things I’m excited about that just came out or are coming out in 2008 or early 2009 (in addition to the aforementioned new DFA record):
- Asva - What You Don’t Know is Frontier
- Deus Ex Machina - Imparis (CD/DVD)
- One Shot - Dark Shot (CD/DVD)
- Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling
- Original Silence - The Second Original Silence
- The Thing - Now & Forever (box set)
- Richard Pinhas & Merzbow - Keio Line
- Univers Zero - Archives 1984/85/86 (working title)
- Within Temptation - Black Symphony (DVD)
- Despised Icon - Live in Montreal (DVD; not the real title)
- Fred Frith - To Sail, To Sail
What am I missing…?
Monday, June 23rd, 2008
La Otracina is a psychedelic/space-rock group from Brooklyn that played a show a few blocks from my house last Friday night, at a church/community center known as “La Casa.” It’s a fitting name for the space as this turned out to be pretty much a glorified house show, with very much a living-room feel. (The band brought their own PA because there wasn’t one onsite, and they brought their own lights as well, as the only house lights were plain incandescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling fan.)
While I am familiar with this band based solely on their recent release on Holy Mountain, Tonal Ellipse of the One, it appears that the band’s lineup has changed considerably since that recording, with new members on both bass and guitar; and their style has changed noticeably as well. Tonal Ellipse of the One is all long, sprawling, improv-heavy space rock; what the band played at this show (and what is present on their tour CD-R, The Risk of Gravitation), is more straightforward stoner-rock. It still rocked and there was definitely plenty of heavy instrumental psychedelic bliss, but there were also some vocal-heavy tunes with more traditional song structures.
For a house show that got basically zero local publicity (none that I saw, and I live a couple blocks from the venue and read all the local listings religiously), the crowd was actually pretty decent. There were a few titters when Adam, the drummer, very earnestly introduced one song as “Crystal Wizards of the Cosmic Weird,” but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Also, if I recall correctly, that song kicked ass, with a straightforward vocal intro leading into one of the wilder jams they did all evening. All in all, a pretty excellent show; I enjoy La Otracina’s long-form spacey instrumental explorations more than their vocal tunes, but there was enough of the former to keep me happy.
Photography was challenging since, as mentioned, the band brought their own lights and the main light on the guitarist and bassist was your basic red-gelled flood. So, lots of black & white conversions for me. I managed to isolate the performers in some shots so you can’t tell they’re basically playing in a living room, but in others I didn’t try, and I actually kind of like the look, what with the long shadows on the walls and ceiling. Depending on my lens choice, I was at ISO 1600-3200 and generally keeping shutter speeds above 1/100.
Full set (10 photos) at Flickr.
Friday, June 20th, 2008
On Tuesday night, I went to the Velvet Lounge to see a pretty great quadruple bill of avant/experimental-minded groups: New York-based Zs, who have been one of my favorite avant-rock groups for a couple years now; DC’s Caution Curves, El Paso’s zeuhl-heads Corima; and DC’s FFFFs.
FFFFs opened things up, at a typically (for Velvet Lounge) late hour of around 10pm. This is a solo act of a dude named Sean Peoples (pictured above); when I saw him last year opening for Zs, he played very calm, pretty ambient stuff - which is also what’s found on the one recording I have of his, Tree Epic. This time around, though, things were very different; Sean crouched behind his laptop for his brief set and bombarded the audience with some thumping beats and a much more aggressive brand of electronic music. The ambient stuff is more up my alley, I have to say, but perhaps this more bombastic material was more in line with the bands to come.
Corima were one of the reasons I was excited about the show; any band that lists Magma and Koenjihyakkei as prime influences has my attention. Additionally, I was forwarded an email about them from one of the bands that they had played with earlier on their tour, in which the words “fucking amazing” appeared prominently. And, to be sure, these guys were all fucking amazing musicians. They are a very young trio - drums, keys, and bass - whose music is almost a straight-up homage to the aforementioned zeuhl bands. Seriously, it was like if Ruins or Koenjihyakkei wrote 20-minute-long songs. It was the most bombastic, over-the-top performance I’ve seen since… well, Dream Theater, but let’s not go there.
If that description sounds exhausting, well, that’s what it was. Corima definitely had some awesome, jaw-dropping moments - the lightning-fast, dissonant keyboard solos in particular tickled my aural pleasure centers, and drummer Sergio Sanchez did a pretty credible Yoshida/Vander act - but the compositions were so long and disjointed that they lost me within minutes. They played three pieces and by the end I was fried. Really, really enjoyed parts of the set, and I hope they tighten up their writing - this is a group with pretty huge potential. Did I mention the musicianship was pretty jaw-dropping?
Now, if Corima were wild and exhausting, at least I had all the right reference points to understand what they were trying to do. When The Caution Curves came on, it was immediately clear to me that this wasn’t the case for this band. They are a duo, one member on drums and percussion, the other on laptop and reeds, and both are vocalists. But not vocalists in any traditional sense; rather, their voices were used in a kind of babbling, speaking-in-tongues style, or just to make random noises. The overall feeling was one of total discombobulation. There isn’t much out there these days that makes me think, am I really listening to music or just noise? But this did, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not sure I enjoyed the set, but it was provocative to say the least.
And then it was finally time for the headliners. Zs lost a member recently and are down to a trio of guitar, sax and drums, with the drummer also triggering some electronics that are new since I last saw them. Ben, the guitarist, responded in the affirmative when I asked him if their material had changed substantially as a result, saying, “I think you’ll like it.”
The band ended up playing a single lengthy piece. Zs have always made some of the most bracingly ugly music I’ve ever heard, and that certainly hadn’t changed. The saxophonist spent most of the composition blowing long, extremely high notes, and if there was melody there it was stretched out over such a long period of time that it was imperceptible to me. The piece was fairly slow-moving and deliberate, with thematic and rhythmic changes coming at unpredictable intervals, using generous amounts of repetition as a compositional element. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to digest without having a recording of it and settling in with it for some time - it lacked the visceral thrill of some of the older, fast-paced, Discipline-era-King-Crimson-on-steroids (sorry, that’s overly glib) stuff.
Photographically, it was a nightmare. The Velvet Lounge, while my favorite local venue in terms of the acts that they book, is one of my least favorite places to photograph. The lights are always static and generally dim (and most problematically, the front spotlights are blocked by big speakers mounted from the ceiling). Tonight was worse than it’s ever been, with the lights turned lower than I’ve ever seen them. I probably should have gone back and asked the guy controlling the lights to turn them up a little, but, er, I didn’t. In any case, my resulting settings looked like this: ISO HI 1.0 (6400), f/1.8, 1/40 to 1/80 second. Ouch. Definitely pushing the limits of my D300 there.
Needless to say, these are not my best photos ever, and the noise is distracting in some of them. That’s what I get for liking all this obscure music, I suppose; it’s not like I’m ever likely to get the chance to shoot Zs with a huge light show or anything. These are the challenges that come with the territory.
Full set at Flickr, of course.
Monday, June 16th, 2008
Nordic Jazz 08 was a classy affair held on the roof of the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, last Thursday and Friday. The House of Sweden is a beautifully modernist structure right on the Potomac River, between the Kennedy Center and the Georgetown waterfront; an idyllic location for a concert, as long as the volume levels are loud enough to drown out the planes flying overhead on landing patterns for National Airport further down the river. I was only able to attend Thursday evening, which featured two bands whose music could be considered “jazz” only in a fringe manner: Wildbirds and Peacedrums and Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil.
The former played first, treating the debatably attentive audience to a brief set of highly rhythmic, swooping, dramatic folk. The band consisted only of a vocalist and a drummer, with the vocalist doubling on kalimba, percussion and some interesting kind of stringed instrument played in the same manner that a pianist might pluck strings inside a grand piano (pictured below). I’d seen offhand comparisons to Björk, but I’m way out of my element here in terms of finding comparisons or a way to describe this stuff. Suffice to say that it was surprisingly captivating, and I’d recommend a visit to their Myspace page for a listen. (That’s the ultimate reviewer cop-out right there.)
Second was Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil, with whom I am familiar through their album Yggdrasil. That album features the considerable vocal talents of Eivør Palsdóttír, but sadly she was not in attendance at this show (and in fact I have no idea if her collaboration with this band on that album was simply a one-shot deal). This was, then, with one notable exception a purely instrumental journey. What this band played — 1982’s eight-movement, album-length piece Ravnating — could hardly be termed jazz; in fact, I’d imagine it has more in common with modern classical composition. Each movement had a unique feel, often led by a different instrument, but always evoking imagery of the oceans and the sky (the field recordings of bird calls towards the end obviously had something to do with this). Given the context of this show, I was pleasantly surprised to find some considerable edge to the composition in places, with a splintered guitar melody in the second or third movement providing some real teeth. For the most part, though, this piece ebbed and flowed peacefully, with long stretches of minimalist quietude punctuated by beautiful melodies elaborated on the lead instruments (sax, flute, guitar, occasionally Blak’s piano). After this lengthy, subtle piece, which succeeded in losing the attention of a dismaying portion of the audience, Blak’s band launched into some more accessible, folk-oriented songs that were enjoyable but somewhat less provocative. The one exception was an interpretation of what sounded like some sort of Native American tune, in which Blak sang with a surprisingly soulful lilt.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this show, purchased a copy of Ravnating, and wish I purchased a copy of Wildbirds and Peacedrums‘ latest recording. The setting was beautiful and the weather perfect, although my sense is that at least half the audience was there for the scene as much as the music; everyone was snappily dressed (cocktail dresses and button-down shirts all around; this is Georgetown after all) and a substantial portion of people were hanging out far from the stage, talking throughout the performances. Thankfully, they were separated enough from the more attentive, seated audience that they were not generally too distracting.
Photographically, not much about this was ideal. The stage was full of clutter, making it difficult (even with a long lens) to isolate performers in a simple, compelling image. The light was great for Wildbirds and Peacedrums, illuminated as they were in the warm tones of the setting sun. For Kristian Blak & Yggdrasil it was a completely different story; the sun was down and the stage was lit solely by a few white spotlights that provided splotchy lighting: brightest on the drummer, who was so far back that I couldn’t get a clean shot of him anyway, dim on Blak and the reedist, and almost nonexistent on the bassist and guitarist. For a setting like this I certainly wouldn’t expect fancy lighting, but this was very challenging indeed. I got some usable shots but nothing particularly compelling.
As always, a full selection of photos are contained in a photoset over at Flickr.
Sunday, June 15th, 2008
I saw Battles, those math-rock sensations, last night at the 9:30 Club. (Random note: for some reason, saying “math rock” to people not familiar with the genre makes them snicker. Try it, it’s fun.) I didn’t even bother to bring my camera — that’s two shows in a row (saw Robert Plant & Alison Krauss on Friday night, and never got a photo pass confirmed for that one). Left me plenty of headspace to focus on the music. I have Mirrored and, honestly, it doesn’t do much for me, which is disappointing because so many people who like the same kind of stuff I do have been raving about it. But I’ve heard great things about their concerts, and there have been many a band that turned me into a fan through their live performances, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
There was no mistaking what this band is all about, based on their stage setup: the drummer was placed front and center, flanked by three guys playing guitar or bass, each of them doubling on keyboards or electronics. Said drummer was definitely the center physically as well as visually — this guy has the most inefficient drumming style ever, with each stroke preceded by a backswing akin to a golfer’s. It was indicative of his lack of compactness of movement that he had a massive cymbal raised three feet above his head, for no good reason other than it looked cool whenever he had to raise his arm all the way up to strike it. With all that flailing, it was amazing that he could play as fast and as precisely as he did.
And no doubt, these guys are tight, and precise, and mathy. Oddly, they reminded me of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin more than anything else, in that the entire ensemble was basically one giant rhythm section, with the occasional jagged melody almost an afterthought. My complaint with Mirrored is that the melodies that do exist are kind of silly (which I realize is not an accident, and is probably the intent) and nothing to really get excited about, and that the band often get stuck in the same groove for way too long. Live, I hoped that their intensity would mitigate these things, but it didn’t really happen. They only played a 45 minute set, but by then I’d already pretty much had my fill. (If I’d been a real fan I would have been pretty pissed though.)
Guess this is one highly regarded band I’ll just have to let pass me by.
Sunday, June 8th, 2008
“You’re all very strange people” — that was Nels Cline’s introductory statement before his trio, the Nels Cline Singers, launched into the first of two blistering sets at The Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday, June 6. East Coast appearances by Cryptogramophone groups are few and far between, so even though Charlottesville is a bit of a hike from DC, I made the trek down through three and a half hours of rush hour hell.
I’ve seen Cline a few times with Wilco, where his guitar work is always the highlight of the show for me; and I also saw him last year in a solo/duo show with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. But this show may have been my favorite of any of the above. The Singers are a trio of Cline, Devin Hoff on bass, and Scott Amendola on drums (note to Scott: please bring your own eponymous band to the East Coast!). What they play is fairly indescribable; like much of the stuff that Cryptogramophone puts out, it’s easiest to lazily call it “jazz,” but while there are certainly elements of jazz and improv, there are also substantial nods to rock and noise and blues.
Many of the group’s pieces are long-form structured compositions with plenty of space for raucous improv in the middle. The first set that the trio played seemed to draw from their more abstract material, stuff that would build extremely quietly before exploding into unpredictable, manic noise from all corners. The second set, by contrast, was relatively accessible: they opened with two pieces from Cline’s (excellent) tribute to Andrew Hill, New Monastery - if I recall, these were “Dedication” and “Reconciliation.” I was hoping for the aggressively noisy “Compulsion,” but the lyrical melodicism of the two selections they played instead was a welcome change from the more “out” material from the first set. Following this were a couple of pieces that were almost straight-up rock, except with a generous helping of Cline’s trademark excursions into pure noise.
Random aside: oddly, some of my favorite moments of this show, as well as the solo/duo show last year, were when Cline wildly strummed or picked his guitar, then frantically reached over to twiddle some switches - which clicked audibly in the spaces between sheets of abrasive sound, like the electronic musician’s analogue to fingers squeaking along a fretboard.
The final piece of the show was “Something About David H.” from The Giant Pin, which is probably my favorite of the three Nels Cline Singers recordings. It summed up the evening nicely, beginning and ending with quiet ambience and Cline’s delicate, sensitive picking, bookending a thrilling middle section that could have been taken straight from a breakdown in a metalcore song. All in all, this was exactly the kind of stuff that gets my heart pumping, and I think it was easily among the best of the 30 or so shows I’ve seen so far this year.
The Paramount Theater was somewhat of an odd place for an avant-jazzish band like this to play: it’s a cavernous but still fairly intimate space, capacity almost 3000, all seated. The sound was pristine - really, just absolutely phenomenal; the tone of Cline’s guitar and Hoff’s electric upright bass were amazing. Cline seemed openly bemused by the fact that he was playing in such a venue (I wonder if he knew that two days later, none other than Kenny G was scheduled to play there) - not that he doesn’t have experience with huge venues given that he’s been touring with Wilco for several years now, but the fact that he was playing this music in a big theater was no doubt a novelty.
Not surprisingly, the venue wasn’t anywhere close to capacity. Cline joked towards the end of the first set, “We have another set coming up - please don’t leave because then this place would really be empty.” A number of folks walked out during the first set, even in the middle of songs - I have to wonder if these were folks expecting Wilco minus Jeff Tweedy or something. I try not to judge by looks alone, but the frat-boy looking dudes with disgruntled expressions on their faces as they quietly left in the middle of a song probably didn’t get what they came for.
As the trio closed out the show, Cline said something like, “Thank you for having us here; it’s bizarre and strange and wonderful.” Indeed it was.
Photographically, the Paramount was a joy to shoot in; my only regret is that I didn’t have a wide-angle zoom with me (gotta get that 17-55/2.8 so I don’t have to keep renting it). The light wasn’t fantastic - strong blue backlighting with weaker blue frontlighting and a hint of red mixed in, such that the musicians tended to be haloed without enough light illuminating their faces. But the space was excellent; I was free to move all around the theater. The front row of seats was left empty (as at DAR Constitution Hall for the Progressive Nation show) so despite the lack of a real photo pit, I had free reign along the front of the stage, which was raised 4-5 feet above floor level. I could also move out to the wings and shoot from the sides. Because I was the only photographer and the theater was probably something like 15% full, I never felt like I was in anyone’s way.
Because the stage was large and the musicians planted themselves fairly far back on it, I mostly used my 80-200/2.8 (this is becoming a recurring theme - that telephoto is fast becoming my most-used lens for concert photography in any medium- to large-sized venue). The light was just a bit too dim, though; I was at ISO 3200, wide open and shooting at speeds ranging from 1/125 to 1/200, supporting the lens on the edge of the stage to minimize camera shake. And I was still underexposing by a stop or so (adding an extra couple steps to my post-processing workflow and bringing out a bit of noise in the images as well). I did have some success shooting with my 50/1.8 from the front of the stage as well, at ISO 2000 or so and without the underexposure.
Because the musicians were all pretty static - no jumping around or posturing, though they certainly had some great facial expressions - I really wished I had a wide-angle zoom to get some more dynamic shots, especially since I could literally lean over the edge of the stage to get as close as possible. I’m going to have to make some extra cash to get myself that 17-55 soon. Still, I’d consider this a pretty successful shoot all things considered.
Big thanks to Ben Levin, who helped get me set up with permission to photograph this show. The venue staff were also extremely helpful and accommodating. The usual three songs, no flash rule applied, but I think I actually just did two songs because their pieces are so damn long. Also thanks to Todd Tweedy, who tried to set me up with an interview with the band after the show, but that idea was nixed because they had some pretty grueling-sounding travel plans involving a very early morning flight the next day out of Richmond (over an hour from Charlottesville).
As always, more photos can be found at the full Flickr photoset.
Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008
Just off the top of my head I can think of three very good live music performances that I’ve seen in DC in the past few years thanks to the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s arts program: Charming Hostess, Hasidic New Wave, and Rashanim (performing rock interpretations of John Zorn’s Masada songbook). I missed the Washington Jewish Music Festival last year, but this year there looked to be a bunch of interesting artists, and so even though I haven’t heard of most of them, I decided to attend as much shows as I could. This is helped by the fact that I landed a photography gig allowing me to document the shows I go to — per usual, the results are up at Flickr. Photography notes are at my photography blog; this is a condensed version with just discussions of the music I’ve seen so far.
The whole shebang kicked off on June 1, jointly with an absolutely enormous Israel @ 60 celebration. Israel @ 60 was a free event going on all day outside on DC’s National Mall; the musical attractions were “anti-folk” singer/composer Regina Spektor and the apparently very popular Israeli rock band Mashina. Later that night, WJMF also sponsored an interesting show at Bohemian Caverns: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb/Anat Fort/Rafi Malkiel, a vocals/piano/trombone trio who recently released an album on Zorn’s Tzadik label.
I went to all of the above. Mashina was first, kicking off a little after 1:15. Their set was relatively straightforward rock-and-roll, totally accessible for the mainstream crowd but thoroughly competent and musical, enough to keep me entertained for a while. At 3:30, Regina Spektor came on, and she was a joy to watch and photograph — she has an incredibly expressive face and almost always seems to be smiling. All this despite the fact that she didn’t quite seem to be settled in for the first few songs - perhaps because she had to change some lyrics around to accommodate the children in the audience (although there were some “god damns” and reference to cocaine), or simply the fact that she was playing in front of an enormous outdoor audience. She actually forgot the words in the middle of her second song, but handled it in the most endearing way possible, laughing at herself and appealing to her fans in the audience for help. She played piano and guitar and performed one song with a beatboxer as well. It was a great (though short) set for an enthusiastic audience; her vocal talent was really what stole the show, but she was no slouch on either instrument. I think it would be really interesting to hear her perform with some of the downtown NY scene jazz musicians; she frequents some of the same venues, apparently, like Tonic (RIP) and the Knitting Factory.
Then, a couple hours after events on the Mall came to a close, a much more intimate affair took place at Bohemian Caverns, a historic jazz club in the U Street neighborhood that is actually built to look like a cavern when you’re inside. The Gottlieb/Fort/Malkiel trio played a set of “love poetry set to jazz,” which was not surprisingly mostly slow-moving, laid-back vocal jazz. I was impressed by all three musicians’ technical skill — Malkiel was amazingly effective at using the trombone as a textural instrument, Gottlieb has an impressive voice and a whimsical style, and Fort’s work on the ivory keys was what held it all together for me, melodic and beautiful but never too straightforward or obvious. Most of the songs drew from Gottlieb’s album Mayim Rabim on Tzadik, described by the label as “an evocative song cycle based on texts from the erotic Biblical love poems Song of Songs.” Gottlieb explained some of the lyrics for the monolingual folks in the room, and they were… odd. The last song, for instance, was something like a poem about how “as the apples are to the trees, so my man is among men, and his fruit is sweet in my mouth.” Um… perhaps I’m glad I couldn’t understand the lyrics. :) Regardless, after a long afternoon under the hot sun, this relaxing set of slow jazz was a nice comedown. Following the show, I’ve been investigating Anat Fort’s discography, and may pick up her latest disc on ECM, 2007’s A Long Story.
Last night, though, was the highlight of the fest so far for me, and perhaps the show of most immediate interest to readers of this website. Toronto’s Beyond the Pale is a five-piece band playing that kind of skewed “world music” that draws mainly from European folk traditions while also mixing in random bits of jazz, rock, bluegrass and other Americana. They reminded me of (and these are not close comparisons, mind you, just bands I thought of while listening) the kinds of bands on the Northside label; or an instrumental Charming Hostess; or Alamaailman Vasarat minus the drones and processed cellos; or Stórsveit Nix Noltes, who opened for Animal Collective a couple years ago and blew me away. With mandolin, clarinet, violin, accordion and acoustic bass, these guys introduced their songs with rhetorical questions like “have you ever wondered what bluegrass would sound like if it were from Romania?” The resulting fusion of ethnic styles was something that I’m a total sucker for, and the sizable audience was eating it up as well. Much of what they played were original compositions, but there were also interpretations of existing material that were brilliant — such as their encore piece, which was Mozart’s Minuet in D Minor (I think) reinterpreted through a Serbian folk lens and written in a stilted 7/8 meter (parts of this were hilarious).
I’m going to two more WJMF shows, and if they’re half as good as last night’s, I’ll be happy.
Once again, full photoset is here, and writeups with photography notes are here.