Music: Liberation and Ecstasy (Vasilisk)

Japan's underground tribal unit didn't record much, but the best of its moments are here in one convenient place.

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After Dead Can Dance burst onto the music scene in the early Eighties, with their mix of tribal, classical, and popular sounds, it was tempting to draw connections back to them from just about everyone else, no matter how remote, who seemed like they belonged on the same shelf. Vasilisk was, and is, one such unit, even if the group itself hailed from a completely different direction: they didn't have anywhere nearly the consistency of output of DCD, and consequently their work tended to be far more fragmented and fleeting. But what they did produce is worthy of attention, and Liberation and Ecstasy makes it easier to find out what the band was about than hunting and pecking for the various bits of vinyl released by them.

Formed in Japan after the collapse of the noisy, SPK-ish White Hospital — the other half of which, Jun Konagaya, went on to continue as Grim — Vasilisk consisted of Tomo Kuwabara and Yukio Nagoshi, with other members (including longtime fixture of the Japanese underground, drummer Tatsuya Yoshida) joining in from time to time. Liberation and Ecstasy was compiled from various EPs and full-length discs recorded from 1987 through 1990, and the results were released through the Italian Musica Maxima Magnetica label (which also put out their album Acqua).

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Tags: industrial Japan music review Vasilisk

Music: As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade (Mark Stewart)

The best bad-sounding record you'll ever hear.

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The more polished and capable our artistic tools become, the harder it becomes to go for the gut — or the throat. A black-and-white movie from the black-and-white era has a grit that isn't possible today, a grit that only comes from having no choice but to use black-and-white. Likewise, many of the albums from the early years of electronics in popular music somehow hit harder and cut deeper than their present-day contemporaries, by dint of being the most made from the least. Bit-depth-reduction plugins and analog-synth recreation modules are one kind of sound, but they always bulk tiny next to the epic hiss and rumble of a Farfisa organ and a low-end drum machine fed through a plate echo. (See: the first Suicide album.)

As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade might well be the absolute first and last word in the power of low-fi as an artistic statement. It's not low-fi because it sounds cool; it's low-fi because that was all they could get their hands on, and also because any record whose mission is to tell you that the earth has been sold out from under your own feet can't afford to sound like a studio confection. The second attribute may be no more than a by-product of the first, but such by-products are part of how art becomes more than a technical affair. Tape hiss, leakage, overloaded vocals, overloaded keyboards — overloaded everything, really; the meters probably all got stuck in the red the minute they hit PLAY — it's one of the best bad-sounding records you'll ever hear.

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Tags: Adrian Sherwood Doug Wimbush industrial Mark Stewart music On-U Sound review Skip Mcdonald Tackhead

Music: Samuraiera (Various Artists / Kaoru Inoue)

A fistful of "lost grooves from the land of the Rising Sun."

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The term samurai has unfortunately suffered much of the same kind of denaturing in English (and maybe in Japanese as well) as genius, or rock'n'roll. The root of the word samurai was a verb that meant "to serve", but even in its native Japan the implications of the word have drifted. It's since become a connotation for the kind of dogged-but-proud loner whose closest analogue in the West has been the noir detective. Decades of noir-influenced chanbara cinema — everything from Yojimbo to Zatoichi — have only cemented that drift all the more.

Small wonder Samuraiera feels like a "soungs from the motion picture soundtrack" album for just such a 1970s-era film, with the blue-tinted cover shot of a hand gripping a katana hilt serving as its poster. The fifteen tracks on this disc, collected and programmed by DJ Kaoru Inoue (a/k/a "Chari Chari", one half of the duo Aurora Acoustic), survey a whole range of jazz, funk, and Latin grooves from Japan's byways. With a few marked exceptions, most of the artists are apt to be total unknowns to Western ears, but that only magnifies the pleasures inherent in stumbling across all the little gems found here.

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Tags: Isao Suzuki Japan jazz Kaoru Inoue music review Terumasa Hino Zerosen

Music: 06:21:03:11 UP EVIL (Front 242)

The first ("male") half of Front 242's crowning moment.

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Murray Roman once made an album entitled A Blind Man's Movie, which was shipped in an all-black sleeve long before Spinal Tap twigged to the idea. I laughed, but like all jokes the gag had a serious undertone: isn't the radio play that comes out of the speakers more vivid for the fact that it takes place inside our minds, and not up there on a screen somewhere?

There has always been something, for lack of a better word, cinematic about the albums I came to treasure. They aren't just collections of songs but stories, or at least the soundtracks for stories. The story may not be something spelled out in the lyrics or even in the liner notes, and it may not even have been placed there consciously by the creators — but it announces itself all the same. Peter Gabriel's Melt album was like that; Skinny Puppy's Last Rights was like that.

06:21:03:11 UP EVIL is, no surprise, very much like that, and one of the signs of its staying power is how it has been telling me different stories in the twenty-odd years since its release. It didn't feel like an album of its moment when it came out, and in the intervening time it has proceeded straight into a kind of timelessness. The story UP EVIL has told me has waxed and waned in the specificity of its details over these past two decades, its emotions have not. They were there before the beginning and they'll be there after the end.

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Tags: Front 242 industrial music review

Music: One + One By One (Minimal Compact)

Israel's best-known contribution to "post-punk" takes the bad taste out of my mouth left by the term.

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It didn’t take long for me to develop a severe allergy to the term post-punk. For the most part it ended up meaning “bands just good enough to attract attention from critics in a period of general musical malaise while not actually being all that good”. It meant, all too often, the worst of punk — musical incompetence and rejection for rejection’s sake — fused with the crass commercialism of mainstream rock.

It took Minimal Compact to take the bad taste of post-punk out of my mouth. If a big part of that is simply the fact that Minimal Compact is a great band, so be it: like all great bands, they sound pleasantly dissimilar to the music that surrounds them and which they draw on. They built a new sound on the foundations of a few other basic ones, and it's a sound I would dearly like to have heard serve as an inspiration to a broader number of bands.

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Tags: Minimal Compact music review

Music: Improvisation (Derek Bailey)

One of free music's cornerstones, an album of heedless challenges and curious pleasures.

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Even for the most stalwartly adventurous ears, music is largely anchored in how it refers back to everything that's not music. Most of us hear a love song and don't pay attention to the music itself, but rather the emotional connotations we've built around it: didn't I hear that song back when I was in that crummy little diner, right when we held hands and almost spilled our coffees all over each other? And isn't that, by and large, what we want from it?

Like John Cage, Derek Bailey made music that wasn't about anything but itself, and over the years I've had a difficult relationship to both Bailey's work and everything else like it. I admire the adventure, but I also question my emotional responses to it: how can my feelings about it be communicated to others without seeming like I'm asking them to swallow scrap metal? Most people hear a record like Improvisation and wince: to them it doesn't sound like anything but the kind of skronk you'd get if you dropped a guitar down a flight of stairs.

But then I remembered Cage talking with Richard Kostelanetz about how most conventional music sounded to him: like the notes were a bunch of little children that had been forced to dress up in school uniforms and line up, all neat and orderly and dull. The emotional reactions we have to music are as much social as they are personal — hence the way African natives responded with almost total indifference to Beethoven (as Philip Ball described in The Music Instinct). Derek Bailey's music — and Cage's before him, and so on — is only possible to create, and take seriously, in a society where we have developed some idea of music as a social construct in the first place. Just as there is music for romance as well as dance, this is music for those who have an emotional involvement in the very idea of music. If that's too many steps removed from what you're comfortable with, no fault lies with you.

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Tags: Derek Bailey experimentation improvisation jazz music review

Music: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (Aphex Twin)

An electronic pearl, an album for every home and every pair of ears.

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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 Pearlwith Philip Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, with Miles Davis's Kind of Blueand 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.

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Tags: Aphex Twin electronic music music review

Music: Keith Jarrett: Hymns / Spheres

The full version of Keith Jarrett's highly experimental organ album, finally restored to life on CD.

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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.

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Tags: jazz Keith Jarrett music review

Music: Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh (Magma)

The greatest moment from one of prog-rock's most maverick acts.

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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.

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Tags: France Magma music progressive rock review

Music: Last Rights (Skinny Puppy)

How many soundtracks are needed for the end of the world? One ought to suffice.

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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.

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Tags: industrial music review Skinny Puppy

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