Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 2

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Special Friday Edition!

Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music.  Ha.  Ha ha.  Well, they try, that’s the important thing.

If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist:  I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is.  In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right.  Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above:  it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.

Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.

Anyway…

June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”

Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton.  Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before.  In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.

A

#2:  Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”

Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song.  Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set.  Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.

B+

#3:  Beck – “Wow”

Ah, the new Beck track.  The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album.  Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness.  Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion.  Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.

B

#4:  The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”

The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead.  My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick.  Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.

C

#5:  A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”

Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names?  Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging?  Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth?  Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?

Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.

F

#6:  The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”

Okay, show of hands.  Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback?  Anyone?  Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ.  Wait, this is actually sort of good.  I…I kind of like this.  Noel Gallagher co-wrote it?  I suppose that explains some things.

B+

#7:  Portugal.  The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”

Who gave the indie kids access to the internet?  They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great.  It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act.  You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up.  Good work, Reddit.

C+

#8:  Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”

The rest of the post title literally reads:  “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.

Who are you trying to fool, anyway?  We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.

Decent tune though.

B

#9:  Link Wray – “Rumble”

Link Wray  poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino.  At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .

B+

#10:  Joywave – “Nice House”

Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden.  The outro is rather nice though.

C+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  B- (Not bad, Reddit!)

 

Tortoise – The Catastrophist

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Tortoise – The Catastrophist

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Thrill Jockey Records

Once upon a time Tortoise were one of the most important bands in popular music.  Let’s put scare quotes around “popular”, because let’s face it:  post-rock has never, aside from brief Godspeed-induced moments, been popular.  Still, arguments about popularity aside, Tortoise gave us two albums – Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT – that helped to shape and define the concept of post-rock as it now exists.  That was nearly two decades ago, though; Tortoise circa 2016 is on the tail end of three increasingly mediocre albums, and their major conceits – creaky drum machines, jazz splashes, Krautrock rhythms and trance-inducing funk grooves – are all things that their descendants have spun into cliche.  Recognizing this, perhaps, the band has chosen to widen their sound a little, to the point of adding vocals (very few vocals, of course, but something is more than nothing).  Unfortunately, the overall effect is one that is too little, too late; the world has passed Tortoise by, and releasing an incrementally different album in January is not going to change that.  It’s a decent enough album – stumbling wide-eyed into classic rock tropes to spruce up the surroundings as it does – but it’s not one that will be remembered by the time December rolls around.

Ulver -ATGCLVLSSCAP

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Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP

Released January 22nd, 2016 on House of Mythology

The Norwegian black metal band turned art-house experimental collective Ulver has gone even more out-there for their twelfth album.  Bored of the usual way in which they made albums, they embarked on an experimental series of live concerts that they branded “free rock”, in which they got up on various stages throughout Europe and jammed on whatever motifs came into their heads that night.  These live recordings were then culled and cut into shape by the band, further enhanced with noise and, on “Moody Stix”, samples of their older work.  The outcome is the ultimate ambient jam, not so much a collection of songs as a roadmap of their trip through Europe and the noise that came into their heads on any given night.  There is a freeing quality to the recordings that is remarkably free of the sort of formality one comes to expect from studio jams; the off-the-cuff nature makes for a series of aural hallucinations that move in and out of grooves as the group chooses.  “Cromagnosis” and “Om Hanumate Namah” are the best examples of the trance-like groove state the band would find themselves in, although the lysergic ambiance of “England’s Hidden” and “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” evoke the same feeling without locking themselves into an outright beat.

Forget Explosions In The Sky:  ATGCLVLSSCAP is post-rock, in that it clears the space of anchors like structure and studio formality and sets the stage for something potentially new and exciting.

(And if you’re wondering, the title is an acronym referencing the twelve signs of the zodiac).

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress

The concept of the post-modern is one that dominates certain philosophies surrounding the cultural discourse.  It is a measure of the forward-thinking nature of disciplines that postmodernism exists; one of the few generalized statements about the concept that can be made is that it looks both behind and beyond what stands for the modern.  The problem with examining the concept beyond this statement, of course, is that the modern is always shifting, and that the modern means different things from discipline to discipline.  What is postmodern in literature is not the same postmodern in music, or sculpture, or political theory.  Furthermore, what is postmodern today will become the modern of tomorrow; postmodernism exists in a constant cycle of renewal in terms of the concepts that it aims to challenge.  This can become particularly problematic when an entire artistic subdiscipline claims the “post” designation for its very own.  This review aims to examine what the “post” designation signifies, and then to examine whether the musical subgenre of “post-rock” uses the “post” signifier in an appropriate way.  It is the position of this review that the recently released album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress by the Montreal “post-rock” collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a subjectively pleasing album, but one that stands in for the failure of the overall “post-rock” genre to appropriately use the “post-” signifier in a meaningful way.

 

In his 1991 paper Is The Post- In Post-Modernism The Post- In Post-Colonial?, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the concept of being post-something, and whether it means the same thing across academic and artistic disciplines.  The term “postmodern”, is, as Appiah points out, “shark-infested waters around a semantic island”[1] and can be difficult to pin down as an exact, discipline-spanning concept.  His general definition of the term requires there to be an antecedent tradition in the discipline that “laid claim to a certain exclusivity of insight.”[2] Postmodernism, then, is a “name for the rejection of that claim to exclusivity, a rejection that is almost always more playful, though not necessarily less serious, than the practice it aims to replace.”[3]  There is no specific, one-size-fits-all definition because in each discipline this antecedent tradition is different, specific to the prevailing eccentricities of the individual discipline.  Thus, for Appiah, the post- concept involves a “clearing of space” with which to separate oneself from the traditional ‘products’ of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that one finds oneself in[4].  A place to stand, as it were, or, if we may retreat to the literary modernism of Virginia Woolf for a moment, ‘ a room of one’s own’.

Appiah develops this concept further by examining the work of Max Weber; Modernism, he declares, involves a certain triumph of instrument rationality and the accompanying consideration of the universal[5].  Rationality can be seen as the central feature of modernist movements:  “Modernism in literature, architecture, and philosophy – the account of modernity that, on my model, postmodernism in these domains seeks to subvert – may be for reason or against it, but in each domain rationalization, the pervasion of reason, is seen as the distinctive dynamic of contemporary history.”[6]  Appiah questions whether this is even the case; indeed, he states that “the beginning of postmodern wisdom is to ask whether Weberian rationalization is in fact what has occurred historically.”[7]  He uses the example of religion to note that, where Weberian rationalization would see a growth of secularization, what we have seen instead is a rise in commodified fundamentalism:  television evangelists, megachurches, sweeping Islamic movements, and huckster religions built upon parting fools from their money.  Modernism, then, has more to do with economization and compartmentalization of disciplines than it does with the ascendancy of instrumental measurement of disciplines in a scientific manner.  Postmodernism, then, is necessarily a rejection of this economization and compartmentalization.

Having set upon a construction of the concept of post- that will work for this review, we’ll drill down further into the post-modern conceptualization of music in general.  In The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism, American theorist and composer Jonathan Kramer sets out to find where the postmodern concept of music lies, and finds that it is less of a matter of pinpointing a historical moment or movement and more of a conceptualization of an attitude – “a current attitude that influences not only today’s compositional practices but also how we listen to and use music of other eras.”[8]  He points out that, when it comes to ‘art music’, many critics (and the press) seem to feel that postmodernism is a movement towards what The Audience – that vast, presumably unwashed mass of popular listeners – would want to hear:  “diatonicism, singable melodies, metric regularity, foot-tapping rhythms, tonality, and/or constant harmonies.”  This description would seem to fall more in line with what Appiah fingered as a much more modernist – that is, commercialized, compartmentalized – view of music.  Kramer, by contrast, enumerates several composers (one, tellingly, being Henryk Gorecki) who “do not so much conserve as radically transform the past, as – each in their own way – they simultaneously embrace and repudiate history.”  Postmodern music, for Kramer, accepts what has come before but transforms it into something radically different than the accepted practices of modernism.  Importantly (for the purposes of this review) he quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard in saying “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern.  Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”[9]

The concepts of post-modernism thus introduced here are important when we turn our consideration to the musical subdiscipline that has been termed ‘post-rock’.  To begin, we should first unpack the baggage that comes along with naming a genre as such.  Rock, as it is commonly understood, is a style of popular music stemming from the immediate post-war American cultural era.  It was a hybridization of several regional styles, most notably jump blues and country-and-western.  Considered from a strictly disciplinary light, the modern form of “rock music” bears little resemblance to its origins (said origins now being relegated to the subgenre ghetto of “rockabilly”).  From a broader angle, we can make some general definitions of “rock music”:  it is generally a style characterized by the use of electric guitars, bass guitars, a drum kit with a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats, and cymbals, and a vocalist.  The songs generally follow one of a few forms of songwriting formula, most popularly the “verse-chorus-verse” format, and do not typically extend beyond the five minute mark, with some exceptions.  Regardless of the subgenre that is popular at the time – punk rock, pop-metal, college rock, grunge, emo, indie, and on into singularity – these are characteristics that cross over and define the overarching discipline as a whole.  They are the factors in the ‘modernism’ that can be defined for rock – the factors of economization and commodification that define its ‘modernity’ in Weberian terms. It allows the discipline to be easily consumed.

Post-rock, then, would necessarily reject those factors.  One would imagine that post-rock would encompass a rejection of traditional songcraft, go beyond the traditional array of instrumentation, and create pieces that are not beholden to the traditional commodification effects of radio play, ie track length.  As Kramer pointed out, this is more of an attitude than a strict historically-based checklist; many less commercially popular artists have transcended one or more of those boundaries, such as The United States of America, Throbbing Gristle, and The Residents.  Indeed, the entirety of progressive rock could be seen as a postmodern movement beyond rock music in the 1970s (although I might argue that Kramer would classify it under an anti-modern movement of classical music than as a post-modern movement of rock music).  Post-rock as a feature of the discourse surrounding rock, however, did not come into being until the 1980s, although the work of the Velvet Underground could – and has – be considered as the first activity in the post-rock movement.  The term itself was first written down in a review by Simon Reynolds, in his review of Bark Psychosis’ Hex.  Much like the term post-modernism itself, post-rock came to encompass a number of disparate styles:  the dub and krautrock sounds of John Lydon’s PiL project, the sprawling expanses of Talk Talk, the churning math of Slint’s Spiderland, the jazz-exploration of Tortoise, the stark minimalism of Stars Of The Lid.  Despite this confusion of styles under the banner of ‘post-rock’, the term has come to be most strongly associated with the work of Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is the most post- of the acts typically associated with post-rock.  Given the criteria I outlined above, they:  eschew traditional songcraft, replacing verses and choruses with much longer, more classical-oriented movements; go outside the traditional array of rock instrumentation to include stringed instruments, waves of noise, and “found sound” type field recordings; and craft pieces that typically run over fifteen minutes.  Their earlier work – F#A#ooLift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and the “single” Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada – fit into a number of aspects that Kramer uses to define postmodern music. Their work was “not simply a repudiation of modernism or its continuation, but has aspects of both a break and an extension.”[10] This is true especially of F#A#oo, which featured both cinematic catharsis and, on “East Hastings”, a culmination of the headbanging rock aesthetic.  They “challenged the barriers of ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles”[11], given the blend they presented between the high-art, postmodern classical stylings of composers (especially Gorecki) and the ‘low-brow’ world of popular culture inherent in rock music.  They showed “disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity”[12] – preferring to break apart songwriting forms and expand them into movements – and “avoided totalizing forms”[13], spending their early recordings forging a style that was, between 1998 and 2001, the antithesis of having a style; they especially “considered music not as autonomous but as relevant to cultural, social, and political contexts”[14], given their propensity for anarchic politics, including the anti-corporate stance that, in the liner notes to Yanqui U.X.O., connected major record labels to major weapons manufacturers.  They embraced contradiction, distrusted binary oppositions, and were inclusive of fragmentation and discontinuity.  As Kramer points out, it is nearly impossible to cover all of the aspects that he considers for post-modern music, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor tends to touch on nearly all of them.  They represented a break with the discipline of rock and a deconstruction of its traditional forms into something that represented a challenge to the established aesthetic.

Their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was produced by a more traditionalist rock guru, noise-nik Steve Albini, and was considered a stumbling point for the group.  Where their previous albums were considered triumphs of form and sound, Yanqui U.X.O. was much less diverse in terms of dynamics; where their previous albums were studded with field recordings that added a diversity of forms into their postmodern aesthetic, Yanqui U.X.O. featured only the sort of crescendo-and-release dynamics that ended up producing a much blander effect than had been previously heard from them.  The band went on hiatus following it, a hiatus that would continue for ten years.  During this time, the group’s de facto leader Efrim Menuck developed his compositions further with his Thee Silver Mt Zion And Memorial Orchestra project.  When Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned to making albums in 2012, it was ostensibly to make recordings of songs they had been playing live since their return to playing live in 2010.  Allejujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend! was a return to type, featuring the kind of sound that they had originally perfected on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven.  2015 brings Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, which fits into the same mould as Allejujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend! in that it follows the same path – crescendos of noise that build and release, buoyed by strings, guitar noise, drums, and pure volume.  It is also the same formula that the acts that came up after the 2002 hiatus pioneered – acts like Explosions In The Sky, Russian Circles, *shels, and God Is An Astronaut – have made their careers on.  It is this particular style of sound – “crescendo-core”, as some have alternatively labelled it – that bears the modern label of post-rock.  There is nothing post- about it.

 

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is a perfect microcosm for why Godspeed You! Black Emperor – and a great deal of the “post-rock” canon – no longer qualify for the title of post-anything.  Harkening back to our criteria for what would logically constitute post-rock, there were three factors:  non-linear songwriting, non-traditional instrumentation, and non-standard track lengths.  With regards to songwriting, the tracks are still not in the traditional “verse-chorus-verse” style that marks the modern conception of the overarching rock discipline, but neither are they a break with the modern.  The first track, “Peasantry, or ‘Light! Inside of Light!'”, is structurally a dead ringer for the first movement on Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas Like Heaven, “Storm”, and for the “standard” song form of the ‘crescendo-core’ bands:  a build-up into a repeating motif, a peak, and then a denouement that is drawn out over the rest of the piece.  The entire movement can be likened to the tide going in and then drawing out.  The motif present on the track seems to be a retreat into conservatism as well; the riff on display hearkens more to a more rock traditionalist style like doom or stoner metal (the difference between the two, admittedly, is splitting hairs).  In addition to being a rework of past Godspeed You! Black Emperor movements, it strongly resembles the songcraft present on other ‘crescendo-core’ pillars, most notably Explosions In The Sky’s The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place.  The final piece, “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”, is fashioned in a similar way; sandwiched between the two movements are drone pieces that strongly resemble (and are more aesthetically pleasing versions of) the drone tracks that formed the middle of Allejujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  The format present here is, after a fashion, formalized:  it’s a commodified presence, built to be instantly recognizable in its niche as “Godspeed You! Black Emperor”.  In the Weberian sense, it is decidedly modern.

 

The instrumentation follows a similar path.  When F#A#oo was initially released in 1998, very few traditional rock bands were using violins and volume-boosted noise as main instrumentation.  By 2015, every ‘crescendo-core’ band is playing music like early Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and they are all using the same sort of instrumentation.  As noted above, the main motif of “Peasantry”, much like the main motif of 2012’s “Mladic”, is built around gain-fueled violin and guitar, underwritten by strongly traditional drumming.  Bands like Russian Circles have taken this sort of neo-traditionalism even further, using the traditional guitar-bass-drum setup to create pieces that are, in effect, longer versions of traditional heavy rock songs.  The motifs of “Peasantry” and “Piss Crowns Are Trebled” could comfortably fit into the work of an artist who modeled themselves after Black Sabbath (a core artist in the subgenre of ‘heavy’ rock music) with very little truncation and nothing in the way of instrumentation change.

 

Song length – commodification to fit onto radio playlists between blocks of commercials – remains, at first glance, still unchanged.  This is, after all, an album of four tracks, where two of them exceed ten minutes in length.  Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, however, is, when taken as a whole, a very conventional forty minutes in length.  When taken in consideration with previous efforts, where the group often put out albums of well over an hour and even the “single”, Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada, was nearly thirty minutes in length, this is a much more commodifiable length for an album.  While there is little chance of any of these pieces ending up on traditional rock radio, a forty-minute album is much easier to commodify as a ‘post-rock’ genre album alongside similarly-timed albums by other artists existing within the genre.  The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, for example, runs 45 minutes in length; Russian Circle’s Station is 43 minutes; This Will Destroy You’s Another Language runs to 47 minutes.  These are constructed as easily-digestible slices of instrumental music sold as ‘post-rock’.

Even in terms of ‘attitude’, which Kramer identified as a, if not the key factor in determining postmodernism in music, this album fails to pass as a post- work.  This is the second album in three years constructed as a studio recording of pieces that have been played live for half a decade; the intent here is that they can be recorded, packaged, and sold to the consumer who is looking for further releases under the label and aesthetic construction of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” in specific and “post-rock” in general.  The space, as it were, has been cleared, and the market is in motion.  Coming back around to Lyotard’s quote on the cycle of the postmodern and the modern, we can see that a truly post-modern act – Godspeed You! Black Emperor circa 1998 – has shed its nascent postmodernism and has become part of the modern – “post-rock” circa 2015.

 

When taken in the consideration of being a neatly labeled, tightly compartmentalized release of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” music, Asuder, Sweet and Other Distress is, from my subjective standpoint, aesthetically pleasing.  It hits all of the right notes that a fan of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor” expects from a release by the group – the build-up, the release, the drifting denouement – and hits them with the precision and grace that one would expect from such a long-running outfit.  To consider the album – and any so-called ‘crescendo-core’ release – to be “post-rock”, however, is to miss the target so badly that one’s shot lands the next town over.  There is nothing ‘post-‘ about Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress; it is a quantifiable and measurable unit of a very modern subdiscipline, one that bears a strong misnomer for a name.  The cycle noted by Lyotard has brought the group into its period of modernism, it’s moment of compartmentalized Weberian rationality.  Appiah’s space-clearing gesture of the post- has long since been cleared, and the time has perhaps come to clear a new space once again.

Endnotes
[1] Appiah, Kwame Anthony.  "Is The Post- In Postmodernism The Post- In Postcolonial", Critical Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter 1991), 341
[2] Appiah, 342
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Appiah, 343
[6] Ibid
[7] Appiah, 344
[8] Kramer, Jonathan.  "The Nature And Origins Of Musical Postmodernism", Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, Lochhead, Judy and Joseph Auner Ed., 13
[9] Kramer, 14
[10] Kramer, 16
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid

Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

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Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

Public Service Broadcasting are a couple of London musicians who craft instrumentals studded with excerpts from the BBC archives – think Explosions In The Sky-esque post-rock, but with an aim to educate as well as entertain.  The Race For Space focuses on the key moments of the space race, from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 to the near-disaster on Apollo XIII.  Each piece is made to fit the context of the field recordings:  “Sputnik”‘s soaring string work evokes the wonder of sending an object into space for the first time, “E.V.A.” brings out the science-fiction futurism of the spacewalk, “Fire In The Cockpit” is dense and sounds like the personification of dread itself.  “Gagarin” is a fittingly funky tribute to the first man in space, but “Valentina”, ostensibly about the first woman in space, doesn’t seem to have the same effort put into it.  “Valentina” is the only real disappointment here, however.  As far as educational music goes, this is among the very best.

Mogwai – “Rave Tapes”

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Mogwai have nothing left to prove, and it shows.

This is the band that released Young Team, Come On Die Young, and Rock Action – they have already shown that they are legends of post-rock who will be brought up in any discussion concerning essential listens of the genre.  Young Team is especially close to my heart as it served as my rough introduction to the power and majesty that rock music could achieve once it was unhinged from the pop continuum.  Tracks like “Like Herod” or “Mogwai Fear Satan” were thrilling, hyperdynamic suites using the comfortable voices of traditional rock ‘n’ roll.

By contrast, the band’s eighth album, Rave Tapes, feels closer to the soundtracks they’ve been carving out for the last few years:  less dynamically adventrous, more even-handed and, ultimately, boring.  There’s no intensity here, nothing to pick up your nervous system and throw it across the room in a fit of brittle imperiousness.  The only major difference here is that the band has begun to sprinkle synths here and there through their sound.  You would think they would have learned from the Nineties they were born out of:  adding electronic elements for their own sake just makes an album even more awkward.  Kudos to them for trying to add something new, even in a half-hearted way, but they don’t seem to have figured out exactly how to make them work in the context of Mogwai.

It’s an album by pros, and that’s maybe the biggest strike against it.  Rave Tapes is like listening to Mogwai run through scales, or multiplication tables.  There’s nothing that stretches their boundaries, nothing that proves anything to anyone else because, again, they have nothing to prove anymore.  To paraphrase Nolan-era Batman, you either die an innovator, or you live long enough to release Rod Stewart Sings The Great American Songbook.  This is Mogwai’s jazz-standards moment.

GRADE:  C+

Standouts:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ5nEuG-CRc]

-“Remurdered”

 

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – “Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything”

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“We live on the island called Montreal, and we make a lot of noise because we love each other”.  This is how the album starts, a declaration of purpose voiced by the young son of bandleader Efrim Menuck and violinist Jessica Moss, and it fits exactly.  There is a lot of noise, and there is a lot of love.

Silver Mt Zion began as a sort of diet version of Menuck’s better-known band, post-rock’s 800 lb gorilla Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  The pieces that Silver Mt Zion dealt in were shorter, more (!) experimental, but equally as apocalyptic in their tone.  As the band continued they deviated from this.  They gave interviews and did the odd hamster-wheel industry event, something Godspeed would never do (as the 2013 Polaris Prize ceremony proved).  Sometime around 2005’s Horses In The Sky Efrim began to put his shaky, quavering voice to a purpose, and actual singing became a part of their repertoire.  Nearly ten years and three albums later he’s grown into that voice; Fuck Off Get Free is the first Silver Mt Zion album where his vocals seem to work with the other instruments rather than buck against them in an odd way – there’s a lot of PiL-era John Lydon in it. Part of this is likely due to the downplay of the kitchen-sink approach to music-making; 2010’s Kollaps Traditionale debuted a leaner, more focused Silver Mt Zion and Fuck Off Get Free continues in this tradition.  There are only six of them but they make a maelstrom of noise that would befit a band three times that size.  The effect comes off as a sort of dark, political post-hardcore group using the themes and motifs of post-rock to make their impact – as though Fucked Up dropped the growl and made the violin more prominent, if you like.

Anyone who’s ever followed Menuck’s work for a while will be unsurprised by the lyrical topics (the Godspeed family are avowed socialists and can usually be found railing against the state, late period capitalism, austerity measures, and the like) but the content and delivery is also refined now.  Far from 2008, when Menuck was bellowing “Your band is bland!” over near-metallic guitars, we get images of dreams on fire, pale men with boots on our collective necks, and the Occupy-ready chant of “all we want is what we’re owed, we’ve all of us carried this load”.  Silver Mt Zion is, as per usual, the experimental band of choice for an uncertain world of struggle and possible collapse.

GRADE:  A-

Standouts:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfPXY6mtq4U]

-“Fuck Off Get Free (For The Island Of Montreal)”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-6Rf7C8Kd8]

-“Austerity Blues”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bp1aP_CEq44]

-“What We Loved Was Not Enough”

Deafheaven – “Sunbather”

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It’s funny how things work.  Take black metal for instance.  Emerging from the bleak, permanent-winter vibe of the Scandanavian metal scene in the early 1990s, it was simultaneously praised for it’s new, lo-fi, nearly shoegazer take on death metal and derided for it’s cheesy, immature Satanic imagery and for it’s nationalistic ideals that approached National Socialism (indeed, there is a distant branch of the genre literally named “national socialist black metal”).  Then, six or seven years ago the Americans took the genre by force, and acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Liturgy breathed new life into the instrumental hallmarks while generally abandoning the lame imagery.  At the same time, the post-rock movement has, in recent years, developed a harder-edge strain through acts like *shels and Russian Circles, using heavy guitar passages and bludgeoning arrangements to inject metal into the sprawling suite-structure made popular by Explosions In The Sky and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.

Sunbather, then, represents a junction between the two disparate movements:  they use the brutal, blastbeat-ridden instrumentation and howling-demon vocals of black metal and use it in the sprawling, dynamically-exciting structures of post-rock.  The album hovers between the two worlds with sure-handed expertise; there are moments, such as on the stellar closer “The Pecan Tree”, where the band shifts from a blur of heaviness into droplets of pure, calm beauty without even batting an eye.  Hunter Hunt-Hendrix may have developed the ideal of “transcendental black metal” but Deafheaven has crafted something that is actually Zen; it shows the chaotic futility of modern existence and then proceeds to show us that even in those seemingly bleak days there is sunshine, colour, love.  It is a meditation on life circa 2013, a perfect representation of the unpronounceable feelings that rule us beneath the surface of consciousness.  It may not be, strictly speaking, the best album of 2013 (I mean, we still have Kanye and Arcade Fire to get to), but it is, to this music nerd, probably going to stand up in December as the most important.

FINAL MARK: A+