Saturday, August 28, 2010
Agony & Opium
20 Buck Spin
Deep in the heart of indie rock Mecca Olympia, Washington, lurks, oddly enough, a heavy metal band. Like most street metal outfits, Christian Mistress takes its inspiration from the rough, dirty side of Judas Priest, all hardcharging rhythms, minor-key anthems and dueling guitar solos. Frontchick Christine Davis’ gritty howl – she’s almost a dead ringer for Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano – can sound strident, as if she never smiles when there’s serious rocking to be done. She arguably works at odds with the big, dumb fun proffered by the band, but, then again, she’s probably appropriate for a line like Have I seen the catalyst/The rising corpse of tragic love (Home in the Sun). Still, Black Vigil and Riding On the Edges kick up the proper amount of dust behind the blazing Harley, and the just-set-up-and-go! production keeps even the gothic thrash of Omega Stone grounded in the dirt (road). Agony & Opium likely won’t go down in history as the flashpoint of a new Pacific Northwest metal movement, but it’s a promising start.
- Michael Toland
Sunday School Massacre
The occasionally dead guitarist for infamous shock rockers the Dwarves, HeWhoCannotBeNamed apparently harbors a sensitive soul under his Mexican wrestling mask. Sunday School Massacre, his debut solo album, has plenty of irreverence, as evidenced by psychocomic songs like Duct Tape Love, Daddy is Dead and Happy Suicide. But He also puts his sizzling licks to the service of tunes like Superhero, which expresses a hopeful, even uplifting point of view, and Toxine, which takes a sympathetic look at an addict who’s just looking for love. Particularly notable is Machine Boy, a brilliant track inspired by a patient in the facility for troubled youth at which He works when not splintering bones or flashing club crowds. Requiring body braces and a breathing apparatus due to enough physical disabilities to make even Rush Limbaugh feel a sympathetic pang, the poor kid spends his days reading superhero comics. Machine Boy is He’s tribute to the kind of superhero the boy might imagine himself to be, with lyrical assistance from the young man himself. If that’s not enough to tug at your heartstrings, you’re one cold motherfucker. Wielding melodic punk/hard rock tuneage that’s reminiscent of the Adolescents circa Balboa Fun*Zone and backed by his Dwarvian cohorts, He puts his heart on his sleeve right next to his dick on Sunday School Massacre.
- Michael Toland
"Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space"
Arista/ BMG, 1997
I love albums that are titled well, as a mission statement. T-Rex's "Electric Warrior", with Marc standing in front of a stack of amps. The Stooges' "Raw Power". Chuck Berry's "The Great 28". All that. You know what you're in for. Similarly, in the canon of albums that describe exactly what you're getting into, Spiritualized's "Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space" stands as one of the best titled, and when you listen to it, it's apparent that you're in for exactly what the album describes. Not only that, but way more. I'm getting chills listening to it again for the 50 zillionth time, right as I type this.
I think that as the main genius of Spiritualized, one Jason "Spaceman" Pierce, this whole review is better suited to start describing how he ended up at a landmark masterpiece like "Ladies And Gentlemen...." in the first place. He was far from being a rookie, and by the time that 1997 rolled around, he was in about--depending on when you consider the criminally underrated Spacemen 3 to have formed--about 13, 14, 15 years into a vision of minimalist, drugged out narcoleptic sonic soundscapes. In Spacemen 3, he had honed--in tandem with Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember as co visionary--a sound that wasn't so much about specific songs as it was about overall mood and sound. Their songs often used no more than one chord progression, or in some cases, no more than two chords per song. I remember that when I when I started with Spiritualized with "Ladies And Gentlemen....", I still had no clue as to what Spacemen 3 were trying to do. Love 'em love 'em now, but yeah, you could say that I was bewildered at that time. Anyways, Jason had paid his dues with that whole minimalist thing, but not before releasing Spiritualized's first two albums, 1991's "Lazer Guided Melodies" (which was a more serene trip, stripping off the angry, fuzzed/ wah'd out Stooges protostomp....ie: "DD Catastrophe" is "TV Eye"...), and 1995's more built up transitional record with a separately different mix in each speaker, "Pure Phase".
So by 1997, Pierce, after having the motto of "less is more", swung the opposite way and went with the "more is more" ethos. The thing that I realized about "Ladies And Gentlemen..." is that there's almost always way too much going on in the mix--tons of things all creating this huge din of neo psych revival, damaged classic rock ("Come Together"), smacked out soul ("All Of My Thoughts"), space rock (the title track), swamp blues ("Cop Shoot Cop", with Na'wlins patron saint of boogie piano, Dr. John), avant free jazz ("The Individual", "No God, Only Religion"), proto punk ("Electricity"), gospel ("Cool Waves") and classical music ("Broken Heart"). It's a blend that--putting it in perspective and though he's tried valiantly with some top notch and certainly well crafted albums since--not even Pierce has been able to top since then, and this is 13 years since then.
Before I really knew about Spiritualized, I remember Pierce stating in an interview something to the effect of, "we aim incredibly high. So high that we take the time to get things right, we take as much time as we need. You hear about all these bands in hindsight and they say 'this was the record that we always wanted to make'. Well, why did we waste a bunch of quid spending money on something that was a warmup to you getting things right? And you're not gonna get an album as good as Al Green's by going to a studio that Al Green used". It wasn't word for word like that, but it was close.
I was instantly sold. Anyone that comes off like that had better be able to deliver the goods. And did he ever. Never were truer words spoken.
Starting off with the classical themed (it was based on a Pachelbel composition) title track, it segues into the Stones-y "Come Together", which hits it's chorus crescendos in a massive din of soul singers, harmonicas and guitar freakouts, but ironically, never loses control of it's chaos. That's tough to do. That's something that this album does well--even in the chaotic moments, it never quite careens over the edge to losing control of the overall vision. "I Think I'm In Love" takes drum loops and instrumental loops and utilizes Pierce's old method of repeating one progression into oblivion, but somehow never gets tiring or old--there's enough progression and evolution in the slow addition of horn sections and other instrumentation that keeps it interesting throughout. "All Of My Thoughts" pits mellow, calm verses versus chaotic free jazz sax skronk that wouldn't be out of place on the Stooges' "Funhouse" (likewise for the avant free jazz "The Individual" or "No God, Only Religion").
As a matter of fact, by this point if you haven't heard this album, you're probably wondering how many diverse sounds could work on one album. I often kind of wonder that, too, but when it just gels, why not run with it? I think that it's the fact that it creates so many different sounds that probably shouldn't work, that makes it so effective; the risks and genre bending that it does, as well as the pacing, the spacing and the flow of the album. There was a massive risk that Pierce took with this--he could do more of the same--relying on tremolos, vintage Farfisa organs, phasers, delays, wahs, and i'm certain that he must have truly offended and confused some long time fans--but he stepped into the oblivion and traded it for timpanis, strings, choirs, backup soul singers, autoharps, pianos, wild bluesy harmonicas, and more vocal harmonies.
What makes this record such an astounding accomplishment is that Jason can't read or write music, he plays into a dictaphone and then hands it to other musicians. He's a genius from a ground level, a fuck up like the rest of us (one of Spacemen 3's motto's was that they were "for all the fucked up children in this world"), but taking our insecurities, fears, hopes and dreams and throwing it all into music form, because he's Jason Pierce--he can do it and we can't, otherwise we'd be doing it.
As much as I have a bit of a gripe of all the post "Ladies And Gentlemen..." material almost being a little too pseudo religious or gospel at times, this album seemed to be when he got that formula right, while utilizing it to prove a point, but not overdoing it. Pierce's fight between the good and the evil, the Yin and the Yang is probably most perfectly exemplified in the album's true highlight for me: "Home Of The Brave", which starts out being peaceful, and then morphs into the evil and brooding "The Individual". There's always been that fight between god and the devil--Pierce has admittedly never been on either's side, though the gospel style at times and the mentions of God may mark it as closer to being some sort of pseudo Christian trip. Julian Cope had said in an interview once, In Guitar World (I think), that he used to like Spiritualized, but the music has since become "coffee table music for smackheads". Which is kinda funny, because it's sort of true in one way, but it's ultra ironic in Cope's case, since Cope's rock/ heavy psych side project, Brain Donor, also has two Spiritualized members in guitarist Doggen and drummer Kev Bales.
"Broken Heart" follows it up, and it's just Pierce, lyrics, and wind and string ensembles; it's stark, melancholy vibe pitted against our hero trying to find some peace and some solace and answers here on this messed up Earth. "No God, Only Religion" continues more in the free avant jazz territory, letting horn and trumpet and sax appeal dominate it, "Cool Waves" is a gospel song with gigantic choirs and worthy of it's own hymn.
But it's the conclusion that makes this so great. "Cop Shoot Cop", a 17+ minute swamp blues epic that really only uses one chord progression, as well as the aforementioned Dr. John delta piano playing to excellent effect. Using actual space and breathing room in the song, somehow this song manages to make sense and verify everything that Pierce has done, no matter how big nor stripped down it's been. When I didn't "get" the Spacemen 3 stuff, it was like, when the chaotic wah and piano and jazz bass finally kicks into the noisy chorus part, and THEN the chaotic free jazz middle part before it finally floats back down to reality with the slightly different piano/ bass part and pedal steel guitar, i'd finally figured it out. You know, it's like the Burning Bush right there. It's like it was all somehow a warmup to this, like he had this trump card in his hand that he was cleverly playing all along to lay down when we least expected it....and this late and far into his career. Like a great poker player, it's about knowing when to hold out to capitalize when people least expect you to, a steady but unrevealing hand, a stoic face (come to think of it, i've never seen Pierce smiling in photos...). All of that. I'm sure that when Pierce put this out, if he was playing a metaphorical game of poker, he'd win the big stakes hand and pull in everyone's chips and give a slight wink of the eye and a slight smile, and then be off to nail us again when we least expect it. Professional and business-like, too--you could easily hate him because he's so damn good, but then you have to admit that the guy IS good, and if you can't beat 'em, you'd better join 'em.
As a matter of fact, "Cop Shoot Cop" sounds exactly like the soundtrack to some card game in a backwoods New Orleans delta juke joint--dirty, run down, but playing to win. And then the chorus--the high card holder--nails you when you just thought that you knew what was around the bend, card-wise. Those gambles could also mirror the gamble that I had previously mentioned with Pierce's own audience, who definetely didn't expect this album of this type of magnitude; it's a Phil Spector wall of different variations of noise and texture, loud to soft, good to evil, light to dark.
And it's not like the phasers or tremolos or delays or wahs or Farfisas aren't there....they're just used a bit more sparingly, instead allowing the other musicians on this record to work their magic around Jason's relatively simple and straightforward arrangements. If you look at the liner notes (which read like a prescription to take drugs to, with the instructions and "ingredients"...a very neat touch in itself), there's 20 musicians if you factor in the 4 piece band, probably way more if you factor in whoever was actually in the London Community Choir. And to be quite honest, that brings me to my next point: Spiritualized have never made a better album than this, simply because in my own opinion, Pierce allowed more people to shine in his band. Because let's face it, it's HIS band. And he's a genius and doesn't need a whole pile of help, but I miss the days where a whole bunch of musicians and sounds and personalities added to a bigger greater whole.
When Spacemen 3 disintegrated amidst the "Recurring" album, wherein Sonic and Pierce recorded their songs separately as they were that sick of each other, Jason had formed Spiritualized with the premise that it wasn't to be like Sonic's dictatorship--a democracy instead of a totalitarian grip. Unfortunately, Spiritualized ended up reverting to the Spacemen 3 way-- he fired his band after this record, and although they went on to Lupine Howl and it was decent--coupled with the "freedom" that Pierce may have had with band members wanting more writing credits or contributions and maybe whatever shackles fans may have thought that those members had on him, it wasn't the revolution that fans of both parties were looking for, myself included.
In the end, though, in this current world of music that's just meant to be as accessible as possible, it's refreshing to know that music, at one time, aimed for end to end albums by those who sought out more from their records, and that guys like Jason Pierce truly get what the experience means to the listener, as well.