I forget who said that perfection is not when there's nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. Art is as much subtractive as it is additive: you spend at least as much time figuring out the frame of things, where things begin and end, as much as you do determining what to fill that frame with. There may only be twelve notes — at least in Western music — but look what we've been able to get out of them so far.
Every time I come across an embodiment of this sort of thing in music, I instinctively cherish it. It happened with Brian Eno's Music for Films and The Pearl, with Philip Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and it absolutely happened with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which I came to only after I had all the rest of those under my belt. And it was only out of sheer ignorance that things came to pass in that way: to me, Aphex Twin was one of the many bands I just pre-emptively brushed away, like so many crumbs off a table, because I didn't think they had anything to offer me. It was nice to be wrong.Read more
This is the first time I’ve ever written an album review twice, but I have a good reason: this was a mutilated album, restored to its proper form. When I reviewed Keith Jarrett’s Spheres in its original CD edition, it was half the album it was meant to be. The original double LP released in 1976 was cut down to a single four-track CD when it was reissued in 1985, with no clear indication of whether Jarrett himself or his label, ECM, had approved the selections within. Worse, some of the best material on the album — especially the astonishing 3rd movement, as featured in the film Sorcerer — had not made the cut, and one had to ferret out vinyl copies of the album to hear it.
All this was rectified earlier this year, when ECM finally saw fit to release the album in its full original incarnation, spread out across 2 CDs and digitally remastered. What’s striking is how the more complete version of the album is also the more problematic version. On the one hand, it means listeners can finally discern for themselves what went missing. On the other hand, it means the album now has that much more dross.Read more
If Magma had not existed, someone might well have invented them. Here was a band that sang in its own invented language (a pan-European polyglot they called "Kobaian"), that produced albums and songs about a future history of mankind in outer space, and whose sound was, in a marvelous quote from the Rolling Stone Record Guide (2nd. ed.), "combustible strains of Bartók, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Coltrane", a "dense avant-Wagnerian wall of oppressive percussion, dark jazz variations for guitar, violin, and keyboards, and hellish ... singing". Remember that episode of Star Trek when Worf started jamming to Klingon opera? They missed a bet by not simply dropping in Magma there.
But underneath and aside from the headscratching novelty value, the critical brickbats, and the tongue-in-cheek pop-culture cross-references, this is progressive rock at both its most challenging and satisfying. There are many times when Magma noodled about or got lost in the heady netherworlds of their concept-prog experience ("zeuhl", as the subgenre they spawned is now called), but there are just as many times when they made music I would be happy to list next to any of their aforementioned influences. Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh is easily the best thing they've done so far, epic and accessible in about equal measure, and even memorably melodic where so much of this sort of music (Magma's music included) isn't.Read more
There is a moment in Oliver Stone's movie The Doors, when Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) tells the rest of the band, "That's not bad for a bunch of guys who weren't even talking to each other the day the album was recorded." That might well have been the making of Last Rights, which because of everything from its very title through to the downright eschatological sound of the album seemed for a time like the last album the group would ever make.
Or the last album anyone would ever hear, given how determined the record seems to be a final will and testament to everything from its band to its listeners to the world that produced it. It makes Pink Floyd The Wall seem downright upbeat, since that was only about one man's implosion; here, the whole of human creation and experience is in the process of being wiped off the map. This wasn't just "music for the end of the world"; the band had apparently gone and recorded the act while it was in progress. Nobody Gets Out Of Here Alive, indeed.Read more
There was a time when the mere fact of an album’s existence seemed dangerous. Lester Bangs made an unnerving personal case for it with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, when he reported how it wasn’t just the sheer sneering cynicism of the record itself, but the mood it inspired in people, both at large and up close. He and his friends would put it on and feel such disgust, such negative energy accumulating within themselves thanks to that music that they became genuinely frightened at how there seemed to be nothing to do with that black aura except be roasted alive in it. Even the Pistols themselves couldn’t survive being the source of such a miasma; the whole point of the group had been to create something horrible and unstable. After them it was difficult to imagine a group, or a record, released on a mainstream label, whose very existence implied its imminent destruction: it had to be a publicity stunt, right?
Give any cultural marker ten years, and see what the people raised on it will produce. Ministry was far tamer as a cultural phenomenon than the Pistols — it never reached quite the same level of public awareness as Sid's Kids, and even at his most outré Al Jourgensen and the rest of his buddies could still be packed away as "just another rock band", instead of the most scabrous embodiment of a country's cultural souring.Read more
It was, I think, 1987. I was sitting on the floor in a friend’s room when he announced that a friend of his had passed along a tape from a band with the stupidest name he’d ever heard in his life.
I was sixteen at the time, but I was used to the idea that you could camouflage something great behind a terrible label. When one of the finest books I’d read up until that point had been named Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the notion that a band could be named “Skinny Puppy” didn’t exactly have me giggling, or reaching for the smelling salts. And having already experienced Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte courtesy of an LP at the library, I was no stranger to the idea that music could be about more than just mere entertainment. None of this was defense enough against what came out of those speakers and mugged me.Read more
In John Cage's essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States" (collected in Silence), Cage wrote (in the context of a discussion of composers such as Elliott Carter and Henry Cowell), "Jazz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from [jazz], the situation becomes rather silly." He made exceptions: William Russell, for instance, and Cage also had approving things to say about Harry Partch, whose train-jumping lifestyle and omnivorous ear made for compositions that still sound radical and striking today.
I know Cage was still alive and well when Intents and Purposes was first released in 1966 — eight years after the above essay was penned — but if he had any awareness of it, or reaction to it, I am unable to say. I suspect it would scarcely meet with Cage's stern standards for what constitutes "experimental", and he might well have been dismayed, if only in principle, at the way this serious music (as per the "orchestra" in the group name) derives almost entirely from jazz. It's records like this which convince me Cage, despite still being an idol of mine, held a stance was as naive and divisive as it was sophisticated (shilling for recherché).Read more
It’s a toss-up as to who has the more intimidating discography, Sun Ra or Merzbow. I suspect Merzbow has our Saturnian friend beat in terms of sheer size, though: according to Discogs, the Merz has 227 full albums and is still cranking, whilst the Ra’s Arkestra has 140 … although Sunny himself appears on some 250+ discs, and the Ark continues to sail on Sunlessly. But it isn’t the size of the back catalog that’s by itself scary, it’s the magnitude of a question that people also ask when confronted with something like the Gundam anime franchise, which sports something like 24 separate shows and movies: Where the heck do you start?
Short answer: somewhere simple. Meaning with Merzbow, you start with one of his shorter albums that bears at least some resemblance to music as we know it (I’d recommend Merzbuddha). With Sun Ra, the same rule applies — pick a record that won’t scare off most of the audience with twenty-minute freeform jams, and you should be fine. I don’t want to imply that Nuclear War would be the first such choice, but it would fit nicely into a list of ten such starter-kit records from the Ra catalog. Read more
The best description of jazz I can think of is that it’s not a genre of music, but a process, a way of making music where the end result is never quite the same but always somehow jazz. That description remained at the front of my mind all throughout listening to Inspiration Information 3, a collaboration between Ethiopian jazzman Mulatu Astatke and the U.K. musicians’ collective The Heliocentrics. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard since the last Fela Kuti record left my stereo — metaphorically speaking, anyway, since I sold off my last slabs of vinyl years ago, but an album like this is excuse enough to buy a turntable all over again.
The name Mulatu Astatke rang too few bells with me when this disc first came my way, and my penance was to go and learn more. Astatke’s career as an Ethiopian jazz maestro kicked off in the ’60s, and stints overseas in both the U.K. and U.S. allowed him to infuse that many more jazz and funk elements into a sound derived from “traditional Ethiopian folk melodies, five tone scale arrangements and elements from music of the ancient Coptic church” (as the press release on Strut Records’ website puts it). He’d perked up more than a few Western ears when his music turned up on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and via the Ethiopiques album series, so II3 didn’t come out a complete vacuum. Influences from both sides of the aisle are clear — especially in the ten-minute closer, “Anglo Ethio Suit”, the title of which is a hint at the kind of interchange going on, up there with Ginger Baker sitting in with the Africa ‘70.
Aside from being a perfectly listenable record the way Kind of Blue was, IIS3 (I hate typing that; it makes me think I’m writing about a Microsoft server product) is listenable in a wholly different way: as a specimen of the writhing, sinuous Afrobeat sound which the above-mention Kuti is usually cited as being the main example of. But it’s a deal or two more accessible than Fela — as in, no 15-minute-plus jams; all the songs are actual song-length. This makes it an easier point of entry for those new to Afrobeat or jazz, both of which can be forbidding territory for the uninitiated. It’s a party record where the partying can either be out on the dancefloor or between your ears.
I can never quite catch hold of The Pearl. I have listened to this album more times than I can safely count, and yet somehow each time I put it on I feel as if I have never heard it before. I’m not complaining; I’m in awe.
Most albums, if played enough, wear themselves into ruts in your mind the way an LP’s needle furrows out the groove it rides in. I could easy go the rest of my life without ever listening to most of the Led Zeppelin catalog, no thanks to radio airplay turning it all into a giant musical cinder. But The Pearl never seems to get old, in big part because I can never quite nail it down. I listen, I turn away, I listen again, and I feel a whole new album has emerged where the previous one was.Read more