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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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