Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I'm always amazed when I come across underground music that is full of cheer and grace. It's not that it's all dark, but we live in a time when so much of the sound from the margins is glum to the point of parody, or else awash on so much noise as to create only a kind of hypnotic nervousness in the listener. Those moments of hope or optimism become even more powerful when only with the most intense concentration on the music can they be heard. But what happens when it's the moments of melancholic reflection that are the exceptions in a field of joy and wonder?
Balmorhea, a six-piece instrumental outfit from Austin, Texas who share a label with Here We Go Magic and Dirty Projectors among others, embrace a kind of two steps forward, one step back view of the world. (I am reminded of the idea that we should "not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.") It's about making plans even though you have no idea how it will turn out, planting despite the forecast, loving with no guarantee of love being returned. It's about realism that is fed by dreams, and light that can only be seen when it makes shadows.
In almost all the great myths, there is a story of descent, of walking into the underworld before the real transformation can begin. But this idea has become corrupted by the idea of a hell without end, of eternal damnation. In the stories before, the hero always returns, sometimes a little bit worse for the wear, but never without knowledge, and never without the stuff one needs to keep going. Orpheus descends into Hades playing music.
It's hard to pretend to some kind of muscial criticism when something like Balmorhea touches me so deeply. Even during those moments when I'm waiting for something more, I'm rewarded with a whole catalogue of musical touchstones. Even the plucking on the neck of a fiddle changes everything. They mean it. Every strum, every slide of the bow, every ghostlike voice in the background. There is nothing contrived here, although it must take quite a bit of arranging and intent to do what they are doing. I would love to see them live, to see how they take to improvising. There is a sense that individually each musician lets go in their way, but only long enough to stretch out the possible.
This is a group of people I imagine one would be blessed to call their friends.
--Balmorhea: Harm and Boon
Sunday, March 29, 2009
The rational, and quite reasonable, skepticism regarding religious belief is also in its way discouraging. As we try to imagine a human culture that is devoid of religion, we are also envisioning a human culture that is devoid of something essential to the preservation of the very culture we hope to prolong. That essential something is the irrational.As a skeptic and rationalist myself, I am often embarrassed to have to admit that I spend considerable time cultivating those irrational aspects of myself, aspects that might look on the outside very much like religion... [read more]
Monday, March 23, 2009
There is lots of heavy right now in underground music with varying labels attached to all the different kinds of heaviness--- sludge, doom, stoner, etc--- but these are starting to feel a little inhibiting. Many of the musicians playing within whatever mode these words try and conjure are themselves stepping beyond them. I've always had a place in my musical consciousness that can only turn on with heaviness. As a child, I would steal into my older brother's room and listen to Alice Cooper, David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, and even the heavier prog stuff of that era. Later this preoccupation would find years of release with hardcore punk. But the one kind of music that never opened up this particular third eye was heavy metal. Maybe it was because in the 80s it all seemed so polished. There was heaviness, but there wasn't any noise. There was feedback, but even this felt contrived and somehow neutered. And even those metal bands that could match the speed and ferocity of hardcore were too articulate to sound authentic.
Lately I have been missing the heaviness. It's not just about rock, it's about something else, about the kind of heaviness that can open up that particular portal for me, the aspect of awareness that requires volcanic shifts, the cracking of seismic plates, the creaking of icebergs. But while there is certainly some very good heavy heavy music nowadays their main point of reference is still the growling, crushing metal that never lit my pilot. I certainly can groove to Mastadon, I appreciate Earth and SunnO))) in the best philosophical terms, and I love me some Growing and Boris (although Boris's live show in RI last year was kind of bummer), but I have been patiently hunting for some heaviness that could get me really excited again.
So begins my love affair with Grails.
The first song I heard by the them was "Reincarnation Blues" from their new album Doomsdayer's Holiday, (but I was pleased to see they already have a decent catalog of recordings). "Reincarnation Blues" opens with a call to prayer of sorts, a lone horn in the distance setting up the terms of the incantation, and then wham! Never mind the middle chamber, these guys take you right into the holy of holies.
And while the guitar driven intensity of Doomsdayer's Holiday is rooted in classic rock, it's references are more Meddle than Paranoid. The difference between prog heaviness and metal heaviness is that the former absorbs more from classical music and folk, whereas metal has traditionally been buyoed by blues. I realize much metal depends on classical music, but there is little room for the improvised as it tends toward precision and direct assault. (And don't even get me started on my dislike for thrash-metal) Underground metal has certainly expanded the range, and even a band like Growing--whose album All the Way is one of my favorites from last year--keep a foot in the metal genre while sounding wholly unique.
Ok so I'm blabbering on here. Let me get to the point. Grails is defining underground music right now, and I imagine them having the same impact as Sun City Girls and even SunnO))). There is real power here, but it's not all bravado or machismo. I liken it to how it must have felt hearing Cream for the first time in the 60s, a storm of sound that had at its core something oddly familiar, but not deriviative. I know Grails are being billed as kind of avant-metal, but I just hear something else here, something that just upends all the silliness and theatrical graveness of so much metal and does it without irony, but also without taking themselves too seriously.
I went back and listened to the previous album, Take Refuge in Clean Living, where I can really hear them fulfilling the promise of Sun City Girls. SCG were almost too hermetic for their own good, and it often feels like you need the Emerald Tablet to really listen to them. (I am digging the solo Sir Richard Bishop material, however.) But Grails weave and thread a dynamic array of instruments and sounds that seems to teach you the language as you listen. The incorporation of Eastern melodies and raga is just the perfect complement to their sound.
But never mind all this all this musical blah blah blah. Grails nail it for me. I just can't get enough of this stuff.
--Grails: Reincarnation Blues
--Grails: Take Refuge in Clean Living (only a sample from the label site, but enough to know you have to get this album
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
One of the ongoing themes of this blog has been the distinction between passive and active listening. This of course is central to the idea of ambient music. It was for Eno, as he describes in the liner notes for his first true ambient album Discreet Music, an almost mis-attention to some classical music that he heard softly through only one channel while he was laid up in bed.
I would imagine a lot of ambient music is meant to be heard on the periphery of our listening, where it can introduce various kinds of unconsciouss ideas. Nevertheless, I think the challenge is to try and create ambient music that requires a mode of passive attention, or active letting-go. I am reminded of a thaumatrope, a Victorian optical toy in which a image is drawn on each side of a disk. Strings are attached to each side which are then pulled, spinning the disk and creating a miniature animation.
Matthew Cooper, who goes by Eluvium, is a composer of ambient music whose pieces require this kind of particapatory meditation, otherwise there are important moments that could easily be missed. There is a decidly Eno influence here (he even has a compostition titled "Thoughts for Jjohann Pachelbel" a nod to the second side of Eno's Discreet Music titled "Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel") but Eluvium avoids the overall pop sensibility of Eno with his own emphasis on classical music.
Eluvium uses repetition to great effect, with slight changes that seem to be generated in the actual playing, almost accidents or artifacts, rather than intent. But this only goes to capture that quailty of ambient music that is also true for the composer as well as the listener. While one imagines the musician also experiencing meditative or trance like states when performing, the making of the music is not happening on auto-pilot. There is deliberation and agency, while at the same time there is an acceptance of whatever comes.
What is also special about Eluvium is the emphasis on light rather than darkness. Even his use of minor keys are kept alight by expansive secondary themes that lift the whole compostion into authentic humanistic ideas. Some might call it elegance or even a little naive. I call it love.
--Eluvium: Miniature #3
--Eluvium: Thoughts for Johann Pachelbel
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Sorry for the long absence between posts. I have been working steadily on a book proposal and have finally turned in all the material. Hopefully I'll have some news soon.
In the meantime back to the music.
My friend Jason Patch and I share broad musical tastes and he has been grooving lately on his satellite radio and discovering some little known jewels. Recently he told me about Here We Go Magic, and I had to give them a listen.
It's hard to write succinctly about psychedelia these days. The term is used in so many ways, aspects of everything from certain doom/stoner metal to underground folk to house trance music. So maybe it's best to talk about a sensibility rather than a genre of music. And by sensibility I mean a kind of musical consciousness that attempts to raise, heighten, or otherwise alter the state of the listener. But there is no single end-point. There is some psychedelic music that evokes dread, some that evokes wonder and, and even some that can urge you towards movement, even if its only tapping your foot or clapping along.
I have found the best involves a little of all of these; a little hope, a little fear, and a little bit of desire to sit around the ancient fires and sway and groove along. Why all these things? I think it's because the more powerful experiences of altered consciousness, however you come by them, are ones that straddle the threshold between joy and melancholy. So when music is the path by which we can come to open ourselves up to other states of mind and being, I don't want to be taken solely down a path of blackened doom, because it's just not true that there is nothing beautiful in this world (this isn't to say some of the the blackest drone metal don't exhibit moments of beauty, but these are often artifacts of the nature of drone). And I am skeptical of music that offers only the lightness of pop devoid of noise and uncertainty.
I saw all this by way of introduction to the music of Here We Go Magic, which draws from the great well of psychedelic music by incorporating folk (by way of Simon and Garfunkel, the mountains, and the woods), noise, drone, a little Harry Nilsson and even some old-fashioned acid-damaged pop. But what they do with it is so original and earnest, so without contrivance or above-it-all irony, that it's like hearing some of these musical ideas for the first time.
There is a kind of cozy claustrophobia here, nestling in the darkness where instead of feeling afraid, you feel strangely safe. Sometimes the easiest way to fall asleep is to remember dreams.
--Here we Go Magic: Only Pieces
--Here We Go Magic: Ghost List
Friday, March 6, 2009
[This is a re-post. I was trying to fix some embarrassing typos (thanks Jim L.) and I inadvertently lost the entire post.]
Recently I was in the local vitamin store that happened to playing some new-age music. I wondered how it came to be that the sound for contemporary spirituality is devoid of feeling and complexity? What I heard in that store has more in common with Muzak than with the Krautrock and experimental music that originally inspired it.
TodayI was reading this site, which I find to be a good corrective to what I spend a lot my time thinking about. But skepticism equals atheism these days, and I was struck by something the site's author said, which I have been noticing a lot lately in this kind of discussion. There is a tendency on the part of many atheists to see belief in a higher power as a desire for easy answers to hard questions, or that to believe is to find "solace." I am sure this is true for many, and listening to the music in the vitamin store, I would say this might be true for new age believers even more. There is a kind of emphasis on serenity and peacefulness, but I find these things a very small part of what it means to believe in God or to have some semblance of a religious or spiritual life.
And so the music becomes not a reflection of the lived spiritual life, which is often frought with doubt, struggle, suffering, and yes, moments of insight, stillness, serendipity, and meaning. The music I heard seemed to offer some kind of perfect spiritual vision, not much different than the the kind of heaven promised by certain Christian groups. (It leads me to believe that even non-traditional Western religious practice that incorporates Eastern mysticm and even some occult practices is guilty of its own kind of literalism and evangelising.)
Is there music that can touch upon a spiritual vision that can take into account those moments of peace and reflectiveness without being saccharine and disingenuous? Well, there is James Blackshaw.
Blackshaw is an unnervingly young guitarist with ties to the folk underground. But rather than resting upon Fahey and American acoustic music, he seems more influenced by medieval strings. His album Cloud of Unknowing on Tompkins Square Records works over some of the ideas that can be heard in the sacred minimalism of Arvo Pärt (see earlier post) but layers it with a kind of Steve Reich-level of complexity that takes that shadow of longing and turns it into light. This is the kind of serenity I long for, a serentiy that is active, moveable, and noble.
--James Blackshaw: Returning to the Ghost