Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ground Zero – Revolutionary Pekinese Opera Ver.1.28

1996 • RēR Megacorp

I hated this album the first time around. I think I was justified, though—it's unlike just about anything I'd heard before (I was, and still am, pretty new to the whole "sound collage" thing). To my unsuspecting ears, Revolutionary Pekinese Opera ver.1.28 was a complete mess of seemingly-random, disjointed, repulsive samples and utterly chaotic live instrumentation that simply made me want to stop listening. I perservered, though, and as it turns out, underneath the impenetrable layers of bizarreness and confusion lies a really solid work of art.

Sure, on the surface it seems like random samples thrown together, but what I didn't realize was that the reason this album works is the way they are juxtaposed to create cohesive pieces. On each track, the samples (or the theme of particular samples) is repeated throughout, acting like instruments, often becoming recognizable (yet still bastardized) genres like industrial ("Opening - Flying Across the J. P. Yen"), heavy rock ("Crossing Frankfurt Four Times"), cool jazz ("Grand Pink Junction Ballad"), or ambient art pop ("Paraiso 1"), while others remain extremely chaotic and noisy ("The Glory of Hong Kong - Kabukicho Conference"). It's a very surreal and somewhat cerebral experience; it's blink-and-you'll-miss-it music. But concentrated and repeated listening is very rewarding as the album is so incredibly dense with an enormous variety of sounds.

While sometimes I claim that too much diversity in an album is a bad thing, here it is probably one of the album's greatest strengths. Despite each track being quite different in sound and instrumentation, somehow—I'm still not sure how—it is never a turn-off for me. I think that the fact that the album is always keeping you on the edge of your seat, always surprised by what's next, makes it a really interesting experience. One minute it's noisy and abrasive; the next it's subdued and peaceful, but you never know when it might change one way or the other.

The individual tracks themselves aren't consistently good, but overall they're good. There are a couple that I really don't enjoy (mostly the ones with the most random, rapid-fire sampling) but since most of them are so short it's tough to even get the time to become too irritated with a particular piece. Besides, I don't think listening to the tracks individually is even possible if you tried; each track is very dependent on the album as a whole. If it doesn't make much sense put together, it'll make less taken apart.

This album is not for the faint of heart, or for the beginner to experimental music. Even the calmer tracks can still be an assault on the senses. But when really given the time to digest this album, it had an impact on the way I perceive music (not many albums can claim that). It may disgust the listener, or change them; it's as unpredictable as the music itself. Regardless, it's a great trip.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Minor Threat – Live

1988 • Dischord Records

I often wish I'd been around in the early '80s to have experienced the hardcore punk scene as it flourished. Alas, I was born too late, and all I have is the albums and videos documenting what happened then. In 1988, Minor Threat put out one video of their concert at the 9:30 Club on June 23, 1983, followed by a DVD version in 2003 with a bit of extra footage. The video isn't mind-blowing or anything but it's definitely a fun and interesting look at punk days of yore.

The tape starts off with a very early show from 1980, with very grainy and muddled footage of only one track, "Minor Threat". It's an interesting thing to see (Ian MacKaye has hair!) but it's a poor rendition of the song, so nothing special to see here.

The real good stuff is in the second show from 1983, after the band had acquired a good fanbase in D.C.; yet the concert still has a real intimate feeling. MacKaye is very talkative and seems to know most of the audience by name, so his banter is pretty entertaining, like showing off how he lost weight or talking about a friend's car accident or giving out lost shoes. (It's more interesting than it sounds.) Despite all the craziness going on onstage—people jumping on and off, mostly—the guitarist and bassist keep themselves together and play really well (as does the drummer, but he doesn't have people jumping on him, it looks like). One of my favorite moments from this show is when MacKaye invites a random girl from the audience to sing the chorus of "Filler", it's oddly heartwarming.

The sound quality definitely isn't bad for the time and place; the guitar is a bit hard to hear sometimes but the rest of it is mixed well considering it definitely wasn't a very professional job (there are times when one of the cameras cuts out and we only get footage of the audience and worse audio). They play most of their best songs (although considering their small discography, they probably play most of their songs in general) so it's basically like a best-of runthrough. I also liked hearing some of their less-known ones that I don't listen to as often.

Sadly the video does drag a bit—after all, just watching a show is a lot less exciting than being there, so forty minutes of the same thing happening tends to get a bit boring after a while even if the songs are really good. It's a minor complaint, and it happens a lot with me when I'm watching concert videos, so it's not a big deal.

Unfortunately I only have seen the footage from the VHS version for some reason (you'd think people would be putting DVD rips on the Internet and not VHS rips, but there you have it). The DVD has an entire concert on it not seen on the tape plus interview material which I would really like to see; perhaps I will finally get a copy of that one day. Still, even though it's not the best concert video I've seen, and I'd rather listen to Minor Threat's studio output over this, it's still a really cool piece of punk history and fun to watch once or twice.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Boris – Heavy Rocks

May 24, 2011 • Sargent House

After 2008's Smile was such an awesome release, I was pretty excited for three new Boris albums in 2011. This throwback to their identically-named 2002 album was an awesome addition and just what I was hoping for from Boris. Even if they are branching out into pop with the other two albums, this one shows that Boris has still got an edge to them when it comes to straight-up stoner rock and they aren't done yet.

As expected, this album shows a nice mix of songs in the style of 2002's album and their recent poppier stuff (for example, "Leak -Truth,yesnoyesnoyes-", which is decidedly poppy, especially coming after the monster rocker "Riot Sugar"). There is a lot of music in the style of Pink (such as the punky "Galaxians"), which is also nice to heard if you like that album (I do). Like Pink and Heavy Rocks, it's a very fun album when it tries to be, and the mellower long songs are also quite good; "Aileron" especially brings the doom in a really good and satisfying way—a bit reminiscent of Smile's closing track (which is one of my favorites of theirs), making it the standout song on this album.

If I had to pick something to complain about, it would be that 2002's Heavy Rocks, Pink, and Smile are all still better albums, and this album isn't really treading any new ground and as such it does sound a bit tired at times and it just makes me want to listen to their older stuff instead. (It doesn't help that a couple of these tracks can already be found on New Album.) That's not really a problem in and of itself, since I don't want to listen to those albums because this one is bad; rather it's just because it reminds me of them. The songs are still decent; they simply sometimes serve as reminders that Boris has made music like this before, and it's still there to be listened to.

But regardless of the fact Heavy Rocks is, for the most part, nothing new, it's still good. It's still the same old Boris we know and love, full of nice riffs and melodies and textures; even though it may be a bit rehashed it's still a really enjoyable album.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Robedoor – Unsummoning

2006 • Not Not Fun Records

When a band is extremely prolific like Robedoor, quality control always becomes an issue; it's practically impossible to put out a good handful albums in one year and have them all be good. Unsummoning is one of eleven albums Robedoor put out in 2006, and it's probably among the better ones (compared to what I've heard).

The album is your fairly typical noise/drone hybrid: some raw, abrasive distortion effects akin to your typical Merzbow (although comparatively lo-fi) in the first two tracks backed by some grating drones. "Hall of Skulls" features some tribal ambient on the same theme with similar vocal effects and a raw-sounding drum beat that becomes harsher as the track goes on; "Black Wasps" is a very quiet, very creepy dark ambient piece; the album closes with some subdued droning. The album reminds me a lot of Wolf Eyes' typical output as well; surprisingly diverse (as far as noise goes) but usually keeping the same aesthetics and/or themes. It's nice to hear it when this happens, as the album throws a few different things at the listener that still sound like they all belong together.

It also reminds me of Wolf Eyes because their sound is very much like Robedoor's here, which unfortunately means I'm a bit jaded by this album—after all, I've been listening to Wolf Eyes for a lot longer and generally like their stuff better, so why listen to this? It's not a particularly engaging listen, but it's still good for what it is, which as usual relegates it to "decent background music" status.

So, like most music similar to this, I'd only recommend Unsummoning for hardcore fans of occult/underground noise; otherwise, it's nothing that hasn't already been done before, so skip it.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Circle Takes the Square – Decompositions - Vol I, Chapter 1: Rites of Initiation

August 23, 2011 • Gatepost Recordings

I've never heard Circle Takes the Square until recently (and had only barely heard of them), and I had at first brushed them off as just another generic screamo/post-hardcore band. As it turns out their sound goes way beyond that, if the long track times on this EP weren't a big clue, so I was quite surprised by this release, and although it's nothing mind-blowing, it's a very interesting listen.

Rites of Initiation fuses a surprising different styles together during its short run: atmospheric sludge and post-rock at the start, math rock, perhaps some metalcore, and a weird sound that I can only describe as "progressive screamo" which is the bulk of the EP. Lots of jagged riffs, unusual time signatures, layered vocals, very complex drumming; it sounds messy but it's definitely very focused and the band has a good handle on what they are doing. However this genre-hopping and chaotic riffing gets to be a bit jumpy for my tastes and it's hard to follow what's going on most of the time since there's so much chaos; by the time the third track rolls around it has just gotten to be overwhelming overall. Things calm down a tiny bit for the fourth track as far as the thrashing goes; it's still a pretty intense piece but easier to follow.

The four songs here are supposedly a teaser of sorts for their next full-length album, but interestingly here they all flow together into one long piece (there's that progressive thing again). I don't think it works particularly well for the reasons described above; it's just too much going on and too much to take in all at once. Fortunately, it's an EP so it doesn't last long enough to get fatiguing, but if the full-length is going to be like this EP I will have some doubts about its quality.

Regardless, it's not a bad little EP if this style is something you're familiar with and interested in. It's pretty alien to me so I'm having a tough time getting into it and finding it enjoyable, but I can't say it's bad.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

White Guilt – White Guilt

December 2010 • Video Disease Records

The fact that a hardcore punk revival movement exists in the 21st century is one of my favorite things about modern music. And many of these bands take the traditional hardcore sound and add various spins on it to create some really fresh and original-sounding music while keeping the hardcore sound alive. White Guilt's eponymous album is a good example of this kind of fusion that happens.

Specifically, they put on a very noisy style—lots of distortion, feedback, and extra reverb, creating a very dense yet raw sound, which reminds me of the sound of old-school black metal bands, which is very cool. They also employ a lot of powerviolence's dissonance and alternating blastbeats and slow doomy parts. The latter bit is explored quite a bit with the longer tracks (mostly in "Human Flood II"), which sometimes employ an almost-sludgy sound but don't sound out-of-place among the other tracks. The beginning of closing track "Comatose" is very stoner-influenced, which is a pretty neat element.

Sometimes it gets to be a little too noisy for their own good, though (e.g. the beginning of "Refine", which is a total mess), resulting in some sections that simply don't sound very good. Since the songs are often indiscernable from each other, sometimes it sounds like the band is repeating themselves with some songs. Fortunately, the appropriately-short songs help keep things moving so it doesn't stick to one particular riff or section very long. Additionally there are plenty of exceptions where a memorable or unique riff or section crops up (again, the longer tracks, and some shorter ones like "The Fetus"). Also, at only 22 minutes (and a quarter of that is the last track) the album never gets much of a chance to become stale or overstay its welcome before it's finished, which is always a good thing.

I'll admit that I've heard plenty of modern hardcore and powerviolence that is better than White Guilt but for what it's worth this album is probably deserving of a couple listens. It's fairly unique and doesn't tend to fall victim to a lot of the problems that often plague this style of music, although admittedly it's pretty extreme and isn't for everyone. Still, though, it's another solid addition to my collection.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Robert Rich – Illumination

May 2007 • Soundscape Productions

I make it no secret that I'm a sucker for dark ambient. Supposedly, Robert Rich is some sort of "master of the form"; Illumination is the first thing by him I've ever heard and I admit it's not too bad, although it's definitely not anything brilliant.

Granted, the atmosphere is great; it's a pretty creepy album with lots of droning, what sounds like stretched-out scare chords, washes of rumbling noise, and some subtle whispering. It could probably be used effectively as a soundtrack for a psychological horror film or something like that. It's very effective and definitely well-done.

However the album does have some problems, and I'm still not terribly impressed by it. It gets repetitive and samey over the long run, especially the longer tracks. I suppose that is to be expected on this sort of release, but there's almost no way to tell the tracks apart, which is something I know can be avoided in ambient music. Consequently it's easy to get bored listening to it as the repeating sounds tend to get less unique and interesting the longer one listens.

There really isn't much else to say about the album; like I said it's definitely not bad but it doesn't break any new ground as far as dark ambient goes (and it's a bit silly to have an album like this coming out in 2007). It's still decent, it makes great mood music (like a good ambient album ought to), but I'd say it's probably best for beginner audiences as any fan of dark ambient has certainly heard plenty of albums like this that are much better.