Various Artists – Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volumes 8-11 (1997)

  Amphetamine Reptile Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released April 22, 1997

Technical Credits Unknown, Likely Varied

Side One (Vol. 8 & 9): Side Two (Vol 10 & 11):
  1. Superchunk – “Basement Life”
  2. Guzzard – “Bites”
  3. Jawbox – “Low Strung”
  4. godheadSilo – “Lotion Pocket”
  5. Bordeoms – “Pukuri”
  6. Supernova – “Sugar Coated Stucco”
  7. Chokebore – “Brittle & Depressing”
  8. Love 666 – “You Sold Me Out #2”
  1. Bailter Space – “Glimmer Dot”
  2. Steelpolebathtub – “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo”
  3. Chrome Cranks – “Dead Man’s Suit”
  4. Brainiac – “Cookie Doesn’t Sing”
  5. Today Is the Day – “Execution Style”
  6. Rocket from the Crypt – “Tiger Mask”
  7. Calvin Krime – “Fight Song”
  8. Gaunt – “Kiss Destroyer”
  9. Servotron – “Matrix of Perfection”

I’m often wary, wandering into any record store for the first time. There’s no real guarantee of what anyone has or will carry, and in a used store it becomes even more complicated, as they can only carry what records they’ve acquired to sell. And that, then, depends on the locals. The first time I walked into Dead Wax Records, I wasn’t sure what to think. Between the place I now live and the places I work, there’s not a lot of music to be found. Even the oft-ignored (for financially justifiable reasons) FYE and similar “TWEC” (TransWorld Entertainment Company, who owns FYE, Coconuts, etc) stores make no appearances. There’s a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, a Target–certainly nowhere you’d find vinyl (beyond the semi-kitschy ‘7″ with a t-shirt’ thing Target is doing–but I owned most of the ones that looked interesting to me, or saw no reason to get the 7″), and nowhere you’d find a good chunk of my music collection, vinyl or otherwise.

I found a small used record and used/new CD store about fifteen miles away and had a very strange experience there, locating both upstate New York’s Immolation’s third album and some Split Enz albums I was looking for on CD. I found some Throbbing Gristle material, too, which is only appropriate for this particular entry–well, parts of it. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the place, though I’ve intended to go back a few times (never managing). When I started my current job just a bit further out, though, someone there mentioned a local record store, which piqued my interest immediately. I swung by after work that day, only to find it was closed on Mondays, deciding to come back the next. That next day, I wandered in and found it comfortably cozy and close, as you’d expect from a fledgling (only a few months old!) record store. However, its walls were papered with posters and fliers for bands I knew well–but knew well from my forays into music in the last few odd years more than anything else. Snapcase. Gluecifer. The Murder City Devils. The Supersuckers. Turbonegro. Mudhoney. All the sorts of things I’d tried (sometimes successfully) to push on a very picky person I know.

When I started flipping through the records there, I found I was in a store I could definitely see myself returning to. I brought a stack of 7 12″s up to the counter and was told I had really good taste. I was buying Prince, Black Flag, Alice Donut, The Church, Leon Russell, and The Fall albums–and this one. I later went back for a single volume that was hanging out there, Vol. 6 in the “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” series, too. But that set–including my favourite Church album, Heyday–basically informed me this was a worthwhile stop. And, along the same lines, it was confirming that this set included Jawbox’s “Low Strung” that sealed that purchase and left me shrugging and stacking everything else in (Heyday was a no-brainer, mind you, and was the “gateway” to accepting that I would purchase more that day).

I knew the series, vaguely, because tracks from it will often appear on compilations now, such as the Sub Pop reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, or, most pertinently, Jawbox’s My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. My habit of relentlessly parsing out the bonus tracks on CD releases was fruitful, as it often is: it informed me both of the series’ existence, and its particular approach to art, meaning I recognized them as soon as I saw them–and it was that that sealed the store as worth digging in for me. Many bands have appeared there, the ones familiar to me including the above, Rocket from the Crypt, the Melvins, Helmet, Lubricated Goat, Tar (who did a split with Jawbox, which I own), Superchunk, and the Jesus Lizard. The last is a stretch insofar as familiarity, but those were the names I knew–in most cases, bands I owned full-fledged releases from (Lubricated Goat quite by–hilarious–accident).

If any of those names mean anything to you, then this is probably an interesting-sounding compilation. If they don’t, this is probably a scary-sounding compilation. And that’s probably fair–while Superchunk and Jawbox are by no means known for anything ultra-noisy, abrasive, raucous or otherwise “difficult” and largely any bands “known” for that aren’t known in the first place, unless you’re asking people who like that kind of thing (or they know the more popular and largely more accessible works of those groups–like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”, for instance). But this isn’t a noise compilation–at least, not completely. It’s a mix of alternative, noisy, post-, and various other kinds of independent music, though it largely eschews the “indie” variety, if you’ll allow that rather expansively-narrowed definition.¹

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eight
(Superchunk, Guzzard, Jawbox, godheadSilo)Originally released in April, 1994

Naturally, Volume 8 was of supreme interest to me. Most of the Dope-Guns series is 4 tracks on a 7″, two per side, but there are variances throughout. Volume 8 was not an exception to this layout, though–even as it does have seemingly the strangest appearance that could be managed, starting from my own experiences.

Despite living in Durham and working in Chapel Hill for the majority of my adult life (no longer, in case the “there are no record stores here” wasn’t a tip-off), I never really listened to Superchunk. I kind of filed them with Guided by Voices and Pavement and a bunch of other bands I heard spoken of in awed tones with respect to indie rock in the 1990s. I tried a few out about ten years ago and nothing caught my ears, but the newfound love for Pavement in the past some-odd years and growing love for GBV has led me to soften my disinterests and try things. I picked up a few Superchunk singles in my last wanderings through used CDs, and liked what I heard. “Basement Life” is a bit more buzz-y than the singles (“Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”) I’ve picked up, which didn’t bother me and seemed quite fitting for a release on a label that has “NOISE” built into their logo. It’s a stomping roll through a rumble-bass-focused track of fuzzy, catchy fun. What strains it has of indie rock–the only instance on this compilation of compilations–is the full-on Pavement kind (I’m betting also the Superchunk kind) that still carries the genetic trace of punk in its semi-sneering vocals and snarky tone–less “Revolution”, more “whatever”.

Guzzard apparently didn’t last much past this compilation’s original release (indeed, not long enough to see the release of the three volumes combined), but sounds more like you might expect from a label associating itself with noise, though it’s still pretty accessible. “Bites” grinds and buzzes a little more, and has a forward-leaning aggressive tone to it than “Basement Life” by far. Nice, strong, clear drumming that wasn’t always present or as well-produced in hardcore acts appears and backs a strained yell of a voice, as well as very clear hardcore origins for the group. It’s a nice, tight, buzzsaw follow up to Superchunk.

Jawbox’s contribution is a nice bridge between the work on their first two full-lengths (Grippe and Novelty) and the works for which they’d become best known and loved (For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox). Original drummer Adam Wade had left to join Shudder to Think (labelmates of Jawbox on Dischord–interestingly, both being the Dischord bands to hit major labels in ’94) and now the great Zach Barocas had joined and added a ton of spice to the group with his unique drumming style. He’s not quite in the front seat he’d be in the albums that would follow this recording, but his “voice” is clearly present. J. Robbins’ voice is “punkier” than it would be on most of those next two albums (with the possible exception of Sweetheart opener “FF=66”). It’s a smart contribution to the release, as it, too, is like the noisier edge of their range.

godheadSilo were a peculiar group, being one of few to work with the “bass and drums” set-up, lacking a guitar, keys, or other ‘focal” instrument. The track sounds like a strange amalgamation of the low-end droning of bands like SunnO))) and some of the (knowingly) sloppier garage rock of the last two decades. It’s the first clear sign of “noise” on the album, though it’s a clearly defined song, built on a(n admittedly repetitive) bass riff and simple drumming, with vocals shredded by distortion themselves. It’s a catchy number despite that–maybe the years of metal and rapidly increasing years of noise rock have inured me to those things and let me hear the underlying guts of a song, I’m not sure. Still, it works well, and feels like a nice comfortable medium stance between “noise” and the kinds of genres that didn’t quite cross that line, but sat snugly against it.

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Nine
(The Boredoms, Supernova, Chokebore, Love 666, Bailter Space)Originally released (later) in 1994

Spacial concerns obviously pushed the fifth track on this one onto the second side, but I can’t complain too much, as it’s still 4 of these put together, and each was a wild mix of artists, anyway.

I can’t say I’ve heard of a single one of these bands–maybe Chokebore, but that could just be the fact that my research around this has taught me that they, like many of the others, were Amphetamine Reptile “natives”, and would release their singles and albums through AmRep, too. Indeed, they did a split release with Guzzard and Today Is the Day the same year as these first two Dope-Guns. Still, otherwise? Completely new.

The Boredoms’ appearance with “Pukuri” immediately gave me a better impression of what AmRep was interested in including. Kazoo-like sounds and a tromping beat bring to mind the kinds of weird melodies and instrumentation that would sometimes meander through early Zappa/Mothers records (particularly “Mothers” ones), especially the brief “interludes” that appear between songs. It devolves into screaming, dissonant and semi-random guitar distortion and even more distorted recordings of drums–but seems to inevitably circle back to the same marching melody that it started with in spite of that. The drumming gets “tribalistic” at some point, and sort of takes on a kind of focus, though the track wanders through a variety of “movements” and sounds, wah-wahed guitar, strange wails–this is not the kind of track most people throw on for a good time, but it’s appreciably intentional, despite its chaos. I’m gaining a bit of a taste for this kind of controlled insanity, I have to say, though it still comes out a bit weird sandwiched in with “normal” songs, even if from punk-related bands.

“Sugar Coated Stucco”‘s intro makes it sound, at first, like it’s going to be even weirder than “Pukuri”, but breaks off into extra-nasal pop punk of the kind I’ve grown to like a lot (think Screeching Weasel, not Blink 182, if that helps at all–though I realize it probably won’t for most I know to read this). The vocals are so nasal, though, that they almost disappear into themselves. It’s catchy like all that stuff should be, though, simple and built on guitars and drums that are perfunctory–they’re there to build the beat and melody and nothing more, really, and that’s what they should do here. Interestingly, they were responsible for “Chewbacca”, the song in Clerks (which isn’t nasal at all–go figure). Hayden Thais ended up joining Man or Astro-man? though–and later Servotron, who appear on volume 11 here.

While their name implies something aggressive, speedy, and thought-to-be headache inducing, or perhaps the inappropriately aggressive name for a pop punk band (that sound just doesn’t seem to work as intimidating, despite the occasional name implying it ought), they’re more in the Mudhoney vein than anything else–sludgy, just-above-plodding and fuzzy as hell, with a vocal totally uninterested in sounding “pretty”, but staying firmly where it is placed, it might even bring to mind that of Alice Donut’s Tom Antona, too.² “Brittle and Depressing” doesn’t sound much like either musically, though–it’s strong, and has a nicely cranked out, unobtrusive lead guitar.

Love 666 contribute “You Sold Me Out #2”–it’s a great little track, that seems to somehow wind its way between hints of shoegaze conventions and sludge-rock ones. I’m not sure what, exactly, that adds it up to–but it’s interesting. Drums thump and guitars buzz loosely, while the vocals are clean, clear, near-spoken and very upfront. There’s a clear chorus, where the voices reach a kind of weird, amateur harmony that is endearing and lovely in its strange little way. The way the thumpy fuzz of guitar hammers down after it is really great, though–confusing what the track actually is without ever losing sight of itself in the process.

When Bailter Space’s “Glimmer Dot” drops, it’s totally unexpected. Unabashed shoegaze (!), it warbles along in the shoegaze vein of My Bloody Valentine, washes of guitar and production that seems to blur everything into a single stream of sound, despite the still recognizable variation in instruments. Vocals are in the half-lidded, drugged-out style that marks most shoegaze, and the whole track is great, but wildly unexpected. It’s entirely possible this track would be worth the whole compilation to someone who couldn’t stand the rest, if they liked shoegaze enough. 

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Ten
(Steel Pole Bath Tub, Chrome Cranks, Brainiac, Today Is the Day)Originally released (later) in 1994

I guess these records were coming fast and thick in ’94, which makes sense as the whole series of 11 came out between ’91 and ’94, but, dang, that’s three, and I know 11 came out years later…I figured they were spaced out more than that.

The name Steel Pole Bath Tub rings only the faintest of bells–nothing helpful, but something that insists I’ve heard the name before in the context of a band. I’m not sure how, why, or what context it came in, but I don’t think I would’ve gone with their actual sound if I was asked point blank before I’d heard this what they sound like. “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo” at least is a track I’d be inclined to call instrumental even if it isn’t–a nice fat bassline opens the track and carries it a long under semi-unnerving guitars and over a steady drumbeat. Vocals are seeming babbles, distorted and distant, acting as a layer of sound more than a perfectly clear expression of thoughts as words. It sounds a bit like a story, but it’s hard to peel out of the music, seemingly on purpose.

The Chrome Cranks ride a rather rockabilly beat in “Dead Man’s Suit”, with the scattered slide of many of the more twisted modern interpretations of that genre. The vocals are like the more frantic and unhinged Nick Cave vocals–but with layered echo and even more punk influence. It’s like a rockabilly band through a carnival mirror and the spinning room of chemical influence. For all that it does seem ramshackle, the guitar finally takes off on a solo that is sharp and pointed in its quick run, deflating the song for a moment, before it takes off again. A fun track, and rather in contrast to what has come before on both of the previous records.

Brainiac has the frenetic drumming of a punk band, but the proximity-distorted (is he eating the microphone, perhaps?) vocals and the elliptical swing of the guitars makes the placement of “Cookie Doesn’t Sing” next to “Dead Man’s Suit” terribly appropriate. It’s a wonderfully weird track, in more the Birthday Party (I don’t know why Nick Cave’s on the brain right now) than the Butthole Surfers sense. It’s not an effect I haven’t heard before, but it’s exactly the right one in context, like a spitting flurry, slurred into a deceptively steady swing.

 It’s no surprise that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher floated through Today Is the Day at some point, even if “Execution Style” isn’t an example of their time there. I’m reminded most immediately of the peculiar choices of time signature and stylistic variation in bands like Coalesce and Botch–the most aggressive, abrasive, and heavy ends of hardcore, but filtered through tight musicanship. The guitar here is beautiful in its knowingly unsteady vibrations–I cannot think of what it reminds me of (despite hearing it for the third time now) but it’s a sound I know, not derivative enough to feel obvious, though. It’s an odd track here, but aren’t they all?

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eleven
(Rocket from the Crypt, Calvin Krime, Gaunt, Servotron)Originally released in 1997
 Man, where did time go?

Now this band, while I’m still only just getting a good feel for them, is the other that I felt assured in purchasing this record for–Rocket from the Crypt. I picked up Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime on recommendation a few years back, and quite liked it. DLJ’s John Reis would of course become “Speedo” of Rocket from the Crypt (as well as plain ol’ John Reis in Hot Snakes) and there we have the connection for me. “Tiger Mask” is a fantastic example of RFTC for sure, the semi-dramatic rumbling rock and roll that defines much of their work, under Reis’s affectedly rocking vocals, which turns more melodic and shaky for that great and catchy chorus. It’s probably the most fun song on this whole record–and I mean 8-11, not just 11.

Calvin Krime is apparently the band Har Mar Superstar was in before being Har Mar, and it’s actually a kind of cool song they contributed–“Fight Song”. It’s a series of layered “conflicting” tracks: multiple vocalists and a stop-start drumbeat, guitars gluing the two together. It’s actually very tight and solidly played and interesting. Unexpected and interesting, but fitting with the RFTC track, stylistically, in many ways.

Perhaps AmRep had abandoned a lot of their noisier strains by 1997–I don’t know. Gaunt continues the heavily rock/punk feeling of both RFTC and Calvin Krime, with the rapid patter of pop-punk drumming but a rather windmill-chord style rocking guitar. Vocals cross somewhere between the sneer of pop-punk and the sandpaper edging of a vocalist like RFTC’s Reis. The guitar is great, its lead loose and bendy, never showy, just pointy enough to make itself known. There’s a brief interlude for some cool tom drumming, and then a perfect ending.

Servotron may be the most interesting find, band-wise–even if not necessarily sound-wise–for me. One of those groups (actually like Supernova above) that decided to go whole-hog, naming themselves all with robot names and dressing up in costumes to emphasize their chosen subject matter and mythology, they sound like they listened to a lot of the B-52s, down to the choked-down male-female alternating vocals, but with hints of rather more Devo-style weirdness slathered over the whole thing. There’s a deliberate monotone to their vocals that is even given the “robo-voice” treatment here and there. Of course, the whole song is about robotic genocide of humans (so long as robots remain as limited as they do, we can find this weird and amusing instead of terrifying–but really weird for such devoted lyrics writing, I’d say anyway). The song actually ends up breaking down into something smoother and less stilted toward the end, with a rather warm and soft synth coating it, their vocals finally reaching the title: “Initiate! The matrix of perfection!” repeated until the song ends in a cleverly placed sudden stop.

When you find someone talking about the Dope-Guns series, they usually speak rather highly of it–and now I can see why. I’m going to have to resist the temptation to explore a number of these bands in greater depth now, but I doubt that resistance will last long. It’s a great mix of styles, never seeming like it wants anything more than to showcase interesting sounds from interesting bands–not force you to buy other records (indeed, these tracks are exclusive to the series, in most if not all cases, barring modern compilations and reissues), nor to give you that record to make you seem “cool” by annoying the hell out of anyone else with weird noises. The weird noises, instead, seem like just another iteration of interesting sounds.

Give this thing a spin, actually. You’ll probably find something you like in here somewhere!

  • Next Up: Guest Writers!

¹There are at least three largely useless genres I know of–not useless for content, but useless as labels, they’ve been stretched and abused so significantly that little if any clear thread is left to connect them. “Indie”/”indie rock” is one of those. It means way too many things, yet there’s a vague, nebulous idea there, of some kind. And it’s not on this record. Mostly. 

²I’ve been accused of writing things that require too much music knowledge to make sense to the unfamiliar on my last blog, but it’s hard to think of appropriate voices. Mudhoney was relatively popular during the early grunge surge, though never as popular as they were hoped/expected to be. Alice Donut have never left the underground, not really, so I’m sorry for that one. But it’s what I hear! And if you know those bands, cool–I’m talking to the lots-of-people-I-know don’t, and operating on statistical probabilities. Besides, it’s a footnote.


Day Fifty-Two – Needle Scratch: The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt

Yep Roc Records ■ YEP-2015

Released October 26, 1999
(Vinyl released December 11, 2012)

Produced by Byron Mckay and John Howie, Jr.
Engineered by Byron McKay
Mastered by Tim Harper

Side One: Side Two:
  1. If Only You Were Mine
  2. Just Someone I Used to Know
  3. We Had It All
  4. Suppose Tonight Could Be Our Last
  1. Counting the Hours
  2. (I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again
  3. One Paper Kid

This will mark the second time I’ve fiddled with the alphabet in writing here, but I think my reasons have been solid in their non-arbitrary nature at both times–last time, I was covering an album on its release, and this time, well, I’d just been hoping to see a Two Dollar Pistols vinyl release to put up here anyway, and within days of stating this “aloud” this appeared before me for order, which I proceeded to place immediately (of course!). In and of itself, that would be a bit of a cheat as there are other albums I’ve deliberately looked up to keep my end-of-letter lists short, but this one is a release by someone who has been open and supportive of both of my attempts at writing, including this very blog. That, too, wouldn’t necessarily dictate shifting the order of writing, but the fact that it’s his birthday? That, I can make an exception for.

In my time back at Borders, one of the mangers I worked under was a guy named Gerald, whose name will crop up here and there throughout this particular set of writings (as it often did at my prior blog). He was largely responsible for the musical guests we occasionally had in the store, the curation of our rather extensive local music section, and records himself. As a result, in the early days of my time there, I managed to see Lost in the Trees before they apparently got indie-big (I still have a signed copy of their first EP, which makes reference, as many signatures I have do, to my hat and their appreciation of it–don’t ask me why that happens. It just does.), and scattered other bits from a local scene that has had nationwide fame (or at least heavy regional) at various times over the years.

One of the first bands to tromp across the total-absence-of-a-stage while I was there was, of course, the Two Dollar Pistols. At the time, they were promoting the release of 2007’s Here Tomorrow, Gone Today and my scheduling for the day meant I only ended up catching half the set myself (though I spent a good deal of my lunch break listening to them when I heard them). I picked that album up, blissfully unaware of anything older, newer, or otherwise–I was not yet too deep into my music collecting phase (the difference then to now is admittedly astonishing), and beginning my lengthy movie-focused phase of life.

As time went on, I began to see Pistols vocalist/guitarist John Howie, Jr. in the store regularly just picking things up the way everyone else did–a few CDs here, a few books there, and we spoke a handful of times as time went on. But it was around the time the store was closing that we probably had our first most direct conversation, as I mentioned appreciating his presence and performances in the store, and he responded with what might have been the only sincere and sympathetic comment I heard in all those few frantic weeks. Most wouldn’t even consider the approaching unemployment, while others would act as if it had no relation to their ensuing demands for better discounts (which were nothing new anyway)–but he actually turned it around and thanked us as a store for being good to him.

I last ran into him (in person, at least!) when he was playing with his new band, The Rosewood Bluff, at Schoolkids in Raleigh for Record Store Day last year, not too long before I ended up moving out of the area. We caught up a bit on what had gone on since the store closing (briefly, mind you), and I got to catch the performance they put on that day (which I strongly recommend as an experience, if you have the chance).

It’s an odd thing, really–I grew up riding a bus to school, and on it was unable to avoid the music that played on country radio for most of those years, all of it the middle phase of modern country in the sense it is most commonly employed. It rarely did much for me, though I never forgot the words of a music teacher when I was youngest–almost anything becomes familiar and earwormy after you hear it enough, and a song here or there would appeal, but largely I was not too big on it. As someone who, especially in those years, did not much do exploratory listening, it was all I understood country to be. Sure, my dad had no taste for that sound, but did (and does) have a taste for country all the same–it’s just the kind you’d hear in the decades prior, largely, and in the nascent (eventually growing, now rather large) “alternative country” scene. It was probably dabbling in Lyle Lovett (thanks to my father, as well as the further endorsement of a guy I used to work with who swung more to the Robert Earl Keen side of that former roommate pairing) that opened me up most distinctly to hearing country outside what I understood it to be.

The Two Dollar Pistols were probably what broke me most completely out of that mindset, as I detected none of the glaring exceptions that would come with Lovett (by his third album no less– Lyle Lovett and His Large Band), just something that sounded purely like country. Now, perhaps–perhaps where we have “country-fried rock”, they were “rock-seared country”, but lyrically, musically, tonally–there was no question about where the Two Dollar Pistols came from. Indeed, when I pulled out a copy of You Ruined Everything, I was accused of listening to music that was not “me” but my father’s. Some have learned by now that it’s best not to think one has a handle on my tastes (especially their breadth), but once in a while someone is still surprised to find I like something.

Because most people I know come from similar backgrounds in understanding what “country music” is, or even know the older stuff and automatically run from the twang (to be fair, if you don’t stop and listen, it does leave a mind stuck in the modern precept instead–the recent stuff did, of course, come out of those sounds), I know that, like all of my metal, this is going to be a hard sell for some people I know. Probably a lot of them. That, I suppose, is why the volume of background I include here–to really establish a human being in this (something I always find helpful in grasping a foreign sound), as well as clarify how I came to a place of appreciation that many wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) expect of me, and so might not otherwise expect of themselves.

The EP (it’s just shy of 25 minutes overall) opens with one of the two songs John wrote with Tift, “If Only You Were Mine”. It’s a deliberately paced track, sawed in on the fiddle of Pistols alum Jon Kemppainen, with a bit of a waltz to the beat’s alternation of Ellen Gray’s bass and guitars (handled in acoustic form by our two vocalists), though it’s remains in 4/4. Howie’s is the first voice we hear, a confident and and fluid baritone, singing lyrics of the oppressive lost-love melodrama that country is most known for (and often fits the bill for Howie’s solo lyrics, as well). Greg Readling of Chatham County Line’s (more locals!) pedal steel wafts across the track, more subdued than the accents of Kemppainen’s more plaintive draws on his fiddle. At the halting chords of the chorus, Merritt’s voice joins John’s for a fantastic duet that balances his low-end rumble to her gentle and classic–in the Emmylou sense–vocals, which she uses fully alongside him as match rather than highlight or shadow. As you might expect, Tift takes on the second verse, but her voice takes on its own timbre and quality, not quite so high as she sings for the chorus’s blend, instead using those heights for emphasis.

Jack Clement’s “Just Someone I Used to Know” follows, driven by Readling’s pedal steel, and it’s more “complete” as a duet, Tift and John singing alongside each other, rendering the brave-faced sadness of un-admitted heartache with just the right tinge of regret and distant remembrance in their voices. John pulls at the pain as if straight from the gut, while Tift’s voice falters ever-so-slightly in its confident expression regularly, as if the proud declaration that she does not tell those looking at the photo of someone she “used to know” about how much that hurts is itself a reminder of the very pain she isn’t admitting. Michael Krause shines on a finger-picked out electric guitar solo that rolls around itself and tumbles downward at its end to make room for a more eased feature of Kemppainen’s fiddle. Maybe it’s having so many performances to draw from–George Jones, for whom John has opened, Emmylou Harris, to whom Tift has been compared, and even the duet from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton (who had a country-charts hit with it)–or maybe it’s because a cover allows for pure interpretation within a pre-defined space, some combination of the two, or plain old serendipity (maybe synchronicity?), but this might be their best vocals on the release.

An unidentified (but excellent, whoever it is!) harmonica and a sad set of fret-slides from Krause bring us into Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals’s “We Had It All” (perhaps most famously rendered by Waylon Jennings, but recorded by a slew of country stars, much like the prior track), which allows Tift the vocal spotlight, singing sadly of happy memories lost, full of, not regret or hurt so much as accepted blues. John joining for the phrase, “You and me we had it all”, and transitioning the next lines into his voice instead, his voice gentle and controlled but broken by that same loss, yet most confident as he sings, “You were the best thing in my life that I recall”. Their voices stay united after they again name what was lost, both voices reaching up to cry out for what is lost and can’t be regained, but is seen briefly in dreams. Their voices begin to soften and stumble–not in pitch, not in tempo, but in their strength–as they are lost to the remembrance of just how good times were. Krause’s following solo is not blazing, but moves a a greater clip, burning through it’s time with a different kind of fire. Do not miss out on their voices hesitating and indecisive at their last note, unsure whether to be peaceful in memory or sad at present, turning up and down and only briefly meeting.

George Jones’s actual songwriting (co-written by Melba Montgomery) appears in the next track, as Merritt and Howie tackle “Suppose Tonight Would Be Our Last”, a much more uptempo number after the rolling sadness that fills the middle of Side One. The more upbeat fiddle of Kemppainen defines the musical tone, even as the lyrics are not quite so upbeat. John and Tift match Kemppainen in this instead, performing more as musical duet than acting as those expressing the feelings personally–the kind of duet you’d expect to see two country stars turn and look at each other to sing onstage, thoughtful lyrics carrying themselves and unconcerned with the tune that carries them, which is more interested in being cheerful. David Newton’s drumming really shines here–almost brush-like restraint on the snares, and a momentary turn to a near-martial approach at the traded voices of the bridge. Our two vocalists also get a chance to show off their voices less as emotively determined than as instruments.

The second side starts with the second (and last) original the two put together for this release, Krause’s electric introducing us to “Counting the Hours”, which is largely a John Howie, Jr. performance as it starts, Tift mostly using her voice to accent his, which seems appropriate for the song’s construction–“It just seems to get harder to smile”, John sings alone, and the isolation of his voice in an album where it’s usually not alone underlines that difficulty perfectly, which means we’re completely ready for Tift to join him again for the chorus–and take over for the second verse. Unlike on his voice, she remains alone, vocally, for it–and this works because of something to do with how we hear female voices–whether it’s expectation, tradition, or some actual difference in the way we hear pitches, it functions as somewhat fragile, but fully realized in its isolation.

Charley Pride’s hit “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again” (written by Dallas Frazier and A.L. Owens) is the penultimate track on the release, and starts with harmonized guitar and fiddle, both of which disappear for Howie’s voice to ride alone with Gray’s bass and Newton’s drums. Readling weaves pedal steel in intermittently, but it is largely sparse until Tift’s subdued and quiet voice slips in beneath John’s for the song’s title, sounding even more as if she feels truth in “And I’m so afraid of losing you again”, his voice full and soaring through the chorus, while hers has the edge of fear in it, even as she, too, expands hers for those moments. When she takes on the second verse, her voice straddles the line between fragility and power, projecting and broad, but tinged with caution and that same fear in her harmonies. There’s a brilliant moment at the end, as they repeat that title, and it seems that Howie loses his confidence and Merritt regains hers.

The EP closes with a stunner–the Walter Martin Cowart-penned former Emmylou Harris/Willie Nelson duet, “One Paper Kid”. Largely acoustic guitars at a greater volume and fuller sound, Tift sings alone with the wisdom, confidence, and maturity of a life lived and a story told. Readling’s pedal steel is a gilding on the acoustics, John’s voice the supporting low-end to Tift’s dusty, advisory vocals. He bolsters the chorus, as she relents in her own performance to almost allow for a trade in emphasis, though they gradually grow together into a single voice, the song sad in a way that’s not quite that of the lost loves of the earlier ones, so much as one that elicits past memories, rather than describing them, fearing the loss of them, or reveling miserably within them. And then their voice just–hang, drifting off into solitude, rather than isolation or desolation, just a chosen moment away from everyone, not for relief, but out of necessity.

It’s difficult to impress upon anyone not interested in country how good this release is. These are excellent performances all around, but the taste in covers should indicate that already to the familiar, and continue the relative meaningless nature of it all to those who aren’t. I can’t claim to be a close friend of Mr. Howie’s, so I should hope this won’t be taken as any attempt to push for work on some level of extreme bias–I’m proudly open-minded, rather egalitarian in my tastes, but that doesn’t ever reflect a denial of poor quality, except insofar as the subjective stances that often stem from notions about particular kinds of vocal styling or instrumentation.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the three genres that suffer this most often have no time for each other, but can be boiled down to difficulties people experience with those three things? Whether it’s a growl, a twang, or a rhythmic orientation instead of a tonal one–sampling and electronic reproduction, aggression and speed, or distinctive and stylistically inseparable instruments and play-styles, metal, country, and rap inspire the most passionate defense, denials, refusals, and embraces?

I think that there’s a good chance this release could bridge the gap for some, though I know that pedal steel and fiddle can be Pavlovian stimuli for some, as they once were for me. But if you give the record time, sit and listen and find the threads of emotion and performance, particularly in that instrument we are almost all most readily drawn to (as we almost all have experience using our voice in some way, but have not all even touched guitars, drums, basses or othe instruments)–listen to John and Tift, and gather that there’s that sense of emotional gravitas infused with respect for tradition, a bit of a nudge or wink to the lyrical melodrama of country (which I don’t mean as unique–most stars of the past, at the least, also seemed to be aware of the depths and heights they aimed for, and embraced that happily).

Still, all else aside: Happy birthday, John!

Day Forty-One: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP

Numero Group ■ 201.1
(Originally released on Sub Pop)
Released August, 1990
This compilation released June 19, 2012
Produced by Mike McMackin and Codeine

Side One: Side Two:
  1. D
  2. Gravel Bed
  3. Pickup Song
  4. 3 Angels
  5. New Year’s
  1. Second Chance
  2. Cave-In
  3. Cigarette Machine
  4. Old Things
  5. Pea

Around the time I moved out of my last home, I realized that I was moving somewhere that record stores were not going to be anything like convenient (and so they aren’t–it’s at least an hour’s drive to find new records). So, with a measure of money in hand (that which I thought I could spare), I decided to “clean house” on my desired purchases at the then-local stores. While I was, in majority, picking up CDs I’d been eyeing for sometime, I also decided that the temptation of the Codeine reissues was just too great. I asked the owner of CD Alley in Chapel Hill (whose band may show up here later, if I continue intermittent reviews of 7″s) if he had a stance, and he said unfortunately he had not personally gone in the direction of Codeine, and had never heard one singled out. I’ve worked enough retail that, considering they were five or ten minutes from closing, I decided to just grit my teeth and grab one. Frigid Stars LP was the first album, so it seemed like a logical starting point for me as well.

If you pick any of these Codeine reissues up, in the literal sense, you immediately notice how thick they are: about that of a triple LP of decent weight vinyl. You can actually see the vertical fold on the front cover where it opens, rather than simply folding directly at the spine. Alongside that, an expanded CD is included with them that assembles demos and assorted other tracks not originally included. Add in the fact that it’s also an expanded LP (with a whole second platter that is composed of the bonus material on the CD), and it’s just too darn tempting. Inside you even find full, 12×12″ stapled booklets of liner notes: history, essays, recording and personnel notes–all the stuff I’d want, or close enough to it. I have a longtime policy of thinking there must be something to an album that receives treatment like this but doesn’t have the kind of visibility that tells you that maybe it’s just something they think a whole ton of people will re-buy because a whole ton cubed bought it in the first place. So far, this has been an extremely successful approach to take. 

I’m not sure what told me to check out Codeine, though. Maybe there was a comment about how good they were in something I read, or maybe their name came up in connection with Galaxie 500, who I was rather into the last year or so. Maybe it was my intrigued object-lust for the records when I saw how they were put together (I’m not above being suckered in by a well-made record package or sleeve art or the like). Whatever it was, I knew nothing of them at all, other than genre designations that had only vague meaning at most, which was in no way a method of understanding what they were or sounded like.

I do have to add that I find it frustrating when bands name albums things like Frigid Stars LP. Is that a designator, because this is an LP? Is it part of the actual title? If it is, is there some particular need for it to be? I’ve settled on the same thing as everyone else, I guess: the art says “LP” at the end, so we treat it as part of the title. 

“D” starts the album and is kind of jarring in its way: one big beat allowed to hang around followed by a slowly single-picked guitar, repeated, then lethargic movement forward into Stephen Immerwahr’s rather somber and morose vocals, listing what “D” is for–“‘D’ for effort/’D’ for intent/’D’ because you pay the rent…” The pacing is incredibly deliberate, but for his voice, you might think this was intended to be played at 45rpm, though none of the instruments have the stretched distortion of a recording played back too slowly. The guitars in particular–as well as a splash cymbal that is allowed an unusually rapid beat for the rest of the song–begin to accelerate, their sound no longer spaced out, adding up to a wave of noise as Immerwahr sings the chorus with more need. But when we come back to the verse (“‘D’ for dishes/’F’ for floors/Can’t make the grade anymore”), it is still that palpably slowed sound, which allegedly left drummer Orestes Dellatore of Bitch Magnet (with whom they recorded their first version of “Pea”) swinging at cymbals without hitting them a few times for each hit before actually reaching them, just to keep himself from speeding up.

“Gravel Bed” does not pick up the pace, but it does shift the feel of it: at its onset, distorted guitar chords attempting to push at the boundaries of the song’s speed are sewn into place with a thumping bass’s insistent authority, those loud, separated and severely spaced drums no longer a stitch themselves, just a beacon every seven beats (!) to keep things from floating off too far. Where “D” was like a severely slowed curiosity, “Gravel Bed” acts more as a hanging weight, or a weary but determined trudge onward under such a weight. It crescendos in a fashion not unlike “D”, but it actually continues to build upward, and when it clarifies out to the verse’s sound again, it’s less like the aftermath of a crashed down wave whose power dissipates into a more tranquil sensibility, and more like the destructive aftermath of one, shifting the focus from the fact that it is gone to the fact that it indeed was there in the first place and left a skeleton of whatever stood beneath it. 

The beginning of “Pickup Song” is a rapid (for this album, at least) descending set of notes that ends on a high note, turned to clean and minor but chorded guitar. “Don’t remember/Your kiss/Can’t remember/What I miss” is all Immerwahr gets out before a sliding, monolithic bassline from Immerwahr himself carries in the full band and a huge mountain of sound. Now drowned in reverberating bass, constantly splashing cymbal, and a louder, more constant sort of variation on the initial chords, he manages to sing only “Thought you were blind I held your hand/Guess I still don’t understand”, before he lets the bass do the talking for him, playing what amounts to the lead on it. “Wish I’d never seen your face” he sings, and a soured, downward sliding note drops it all off to a final chord. The way that last line comes in isolation, the way the note sours after it, and the final chord–one of the best song endings I can think of.

Originally a B-Side to “Pickup Song”, but included in the U.S. issues of the album,¹ “3 Angels” is a percussive extension of the sound they established on the previous sides: without being so distinct a force, the bass is present but more monotone and rhythmic, the enormous, cold and spacious snare hits are more constant, and even the intro is composed of drums pulling the sound into place. Ever-droning vocally, Immerwahr momentarily escapes that, with a chorus that is knowingly melodic, and somewhat strangely emphasized: “Take a wa-alk…” he sings a good bit higher than normal, but “’round the block” starts at an off-beta, as if the absent “a” from “around” was, itself, an omitted vocal beat, giving a peculiar shape to the whole thing, like two different tunes Frankensteined together. It’s an appealing effect, though it may not sound like it, as it fits brilliantly with the sensibilities of the music Codeine assembled.

“New Year’s” is the written work of Sooyoung Park and Lexi Mitchell of Codeine associates and contemporaries Seam, and, while they work it into their style–particularly pace, of course–it is clearly the work of different writers. Clean guitar and bass with a sort of meager line of hope are accented by all-tom drumming on the verse, light ride-to-splash cymbal on the chorus’s more pop-developed bassline. The thump of the drums returns with the verse, the guitars almost fragile, fragments of the song that the bass, drums and Stephen’s voice all have a complete grasp on. It’s certainly one of the cheerier songs on the album–in tone, at least, as the lyrics are not overly cheerful, certainly not much more than most of the album. It’s particularly worth hearing Stephen’s lead on the bass after the second chorus, working with the guitars to sound like the culmination of an extended song’s emotional journey, despite the 3:34 runtime.

Oceanic rumblings and squalls of distortion mark the opening of Side Two and “Second Chance”: “I miss your smile/It’s been a while” Stephen begins to repeat, as the distortion creeps around the edges of everything, Immerwahr adds a pounding low-end piano note to the end of his vocal lines that often matches his bass, until he begins to repeat “It’s been a while” in isolation, which he follows with a pleasingly piano melody that is still low, but higher than previous notes. The way the distortion–likely the work of Chris Brokaw’s overdubbed second guitar, as opposed to Jeremy Engle’s initial one–floats around everything without ever fading is like a suspension that Immerwahr’s parts sit in, which are only expanded by the return to the initial two lines, repeated again together three times and then just the latter through to the end, as his bass gets a chance to slide momentarily again.

Inspiring the name of hardcore-turned-space-rock-turned-back-into-hardcore band of the same name, “Cave-In” is probably the most “pop” song Codeine turns in for the album from their own pens. Sounds that would later feel completely appropriate in the guitar-laden sounds of Cerberus Shoal-style post rock bands² a couple of years later. Completely in contrast to this, Immerwahr sings quietly: “Last night I dreamt your face/The skin was falling off/The flesh was turning grey…” And then a wall of guitar, bass and drums crashes down thunderously, but now Immerwahr’s voice now turns high and melodic: “This is a cave-in/I said I’d stay/Cave-in…/Said I’d stay”. The loud-quiet-loud approach is also not foreign to the advent of post rock in the latter half of the same decade (though of course Slint had their own hand in that); the verses return to the hushed, isolated guitar and voice sound, while the chorus continues its dramatic and loud sound–a perfectly little squeak coming at its second occurrence, just a little peep of feedback after Stephen sings “This is a cave-in” again. It’s fascinating how the verses are instrumentally most pretty and light despite his voice, while his voice hits the same ground over the crushing fall of the chorus’s instrumental power.

There’s a certain guitar sound that works best when played with the hesitant slowing of single notes picked at a gradually decreasing speed, that, in my mind, always implies a sort of warning of what is to come, and it opens “Cigarette Machine”, bass notes ringing from each first beat, hinting and hinting that an explosion or a fire will follow, there’s a pause as  they ring–and then the guitars are hushed and clean, hi-hat-based beat and spoken words from Immerwahr. It’s a fantastic anticlimax that is both surprising and completely appropriate. There’s a moment of confusion that quickly becomes, “Ah, of course.” When the pounding bass, drums, and distorted guitar burst out of it, filled with the weight of tension built then held, it’s entirely appropriate for it to peter out with the tension of that opening–which again leads instead to quiet and pleasant sounds.

“Old Things” sounds almost like exactly that; the guitars fade in on a wave of feedback, but have the slightest twinge of twang, a patina that ages the sound before it is even heard. There is the echo of the past in them–not some distinct period of rock history, though it’s certainly a musical echo–the sound of a sound bottled and corked and released at the right time. “Walk, just walk away”, Immerwahr sings melodiously, but with lazed acceptance, and his rumbling distorted bass follows, not suddenly infusing the song with aggression, but furthering the feel of the song’s tone in the low end it has previously neglected. It dissolves into splinters of feedback and distortion, one guitar–Engle’s–questioningly pokes in, tired, drifting, deliberate but wispy, and lays the ground out for the song to pick itself back up, as if it fell and only mechanically needed to rise: not shamed, not hurt, just shrugging and walking forward.

With the multitude of recordings of “Pea” that wandered around–Sooyoung Park’s first band, Bitch Magnet, who played a part in getting Codeine signed, actually recorded one of the first commercially released versions with Immerwahr and Engle singing and playing on it, leading to the aforementioned image of Orestes Dellatore’s feinting hits–the version that appears here is the one that was tacked onto the end of the U.S. CD release of Frigid Stars LP. At first glance, it sounds as though it is the acoustic version that appeared on the European CD: Immerwahr sings to his own guitar, of people as peas, small, hard, and mean, in that Princess and the Pea sense of discomfort. There’s a long, pregnant pause after he sings “Just to get you back” for the last time, and then he returns to the opening line: “When I see the sun”, and now Brokaw and Engle weigh in with distorted guitars. Oddly, they don’t change the song’s tone; in one sense, they bring power to Immerwahr’s internal sentiment, and in another they actually manage to surround and almost drown it out, emphasizing the isolated, failing hope that his defiant attempts to make a tiny difference imply.

This release actually contains, as I mentioned, a second LP of “bonus material”, largely composed of demos recorded to encourage signing, some of the demos Immerwahr recorded alone while living with Engle, before they’d actually congealed into a band. It also contains the acoustic recording of “Pea” that graced the European CD, and even their Neil Young-inflected (?!) track “Corner Store”. Because this is bonus material, I am going to give a tracklist and only a general sense of it with highlights, as anything more would be silly and excessive.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Castle [Demo]
  2. Skeletons [Demo]
  3. 3 Angels [Demo]
  4. Corner Store [Demo]
  5. Summer Dresses
  1. Pea [Acoustic]
  2. Second Chance [Demo]
  3. Pickup Song [Demo]
  4. Cave-In [Demo]
  5. Kitchen

“Castle” and “Skeletons”, recorded as part of the sessions that contained most of these tracks (all of Side Three, and the last track of Side Four) are a bit out of character: the first riff of “Castle” and the entire pace of “Skeletons” belie the hardcore musical relatives of the band (Brokaw was in a hardcore band called Pay the Man prior to Codeine, played for G.G. Allin [!], Bitch Magnet were more distinctly post-hardcore and on the hardcore end of that genre, etc). Heck, “Skeletons” would not sound too out of place in the early alternative rock descendants of hardcore like Hüsker Dü. The demos of songs later included on Frigid Stars LP are interesting primarily for those who are enamoured of the album itself, and, in this context, don’t encourage much further comment. As with most demos, they are rougher, less clear, and vary slightly as alternate recordings are wont to do. “Corner Store” is an interesting marriage of Immerwahr’s Neil Young vocal impression and the languorous segment of his output as filtered through the sensibilities of Codeine, or, due to pace, maybe a band more like Galaxie 500 (whose sound it is just a tad closer to, vocals notwithstanding). Many of these were actually released under various other names as a tiny home-dubbed cassette (of which there is no internet record at all, shockingly). “Summer Dresses” allows Sooyoung Park to actually make a “visible” appearance, with a beautifully smooth bassline and dreamy vocals from Immerwahr. The guitars (provided by Immerwahr) are clean, simple, but bright and summery, with all the nostalgic yearnings of Galaxie 500. “Kitchen” is an all guitar/voice track, simple track that is the complicated fluff of a clever songwriter fiddling around with ideas and working them out by recording–the lyrics are all descriptions of the immediate: his current activities, the boredom, the state of his life in general.

I don’t mean to ride too heavily on Galaxie, as the comparisons are largely not apt or appropriate (except “Summer Dresses”, which, beyond Park’s bass style, could be mistaken by an incautious ear quite easily). Codeine are more associated with starting the “genre” of slowcore, which inevitably annoys almost every band allegedly responsible for “starting” subgenres that end in “core”, with the possible exception of “hardcore”. No one wants credit for emo, even when it wasn’t just a derogatory term, no one wants to be called “nu metal”, and no one wants to be called “slowcore”, because the names are good for what spawned them–an attempt to condense the sound to a tiny description–but not as a term for an entire “wave” of anything. Other than bands that would deliberately follow the sound and fail to break any new ground, it’s not easy to so cleanly encompass a group of artists.

But the odd thing is, “slowcore” is ridiculously apt for Codeine. It codifies the two most exemplary elements of their music: the deliberate pacing, and the resultant force of that pace, as implied by the hardcore-derived suffix. Whether it’s the “right” term is another issue, but as a functional shorthand for this album (and quite probably their other output), it works–an adjective, rather than a trademarked line drawn around them and other groups, a box to definitively toss them in.

And there is an immense power to what they play: the decisive, measured approach necessary to playing like this is apparent at every moment. Almost every band has a bad habit (or good, depending on your point of view–but usually it’s described as unintentional, even if appreciated) of speeding songs up when played live, but live footage of Codeine proves that, because the pace is so incredibly deliberate, it’s part of the performed version as well. When there’s so much space around the sounds, it lends unbelievable weight to every beat, every note, every chord, every word.

They sound as if they are playing in an empty concert hall–not because they have no one attending, not as some indication of solipsistic isolation or moody claims to isolation, but because it sounds alone. The albums are described as relentlessly depressing by many, but I didn’t necessarily get that impression, even as the lyrics do emphasize it. There’s a closeness, a natural element to the playing that isn’t something just anyone could do, and proves that “Well they play slowly” isn’t enough to describe it. These aren’t “normal” songs slowed to a crawl, they are songs constructed explicitly for this speed. Immerwahr described his inspiration for the idea of a band paced this way as hearing speed metal on the radio and finding it impossible to believe as human in origin. Strangely, that, too, is incredibly relevant: the weight behind Codeine is the purity of humanity, the feeling of being all-too-human, even in the dead moments of boredom and inactivity, of lethargy and drug-induced haze. In the way that fiction inevitably (with exceptions, such as Jarmusch’s occasionally–but, I think, deliberately–painful Stranger Than Paradise) chops time up and feeds back only the important bits, the pace of Codeine is emblematic of the pace of actual life. Not necessarily some deliberate “metaphor”, so much as just the abstracted, objective, observational fact of it. Even when we say time is crawling, it’s rare to feel each and every moment–instead, one looks up and sees less time has past than previously expected. Even when the chords or drum hits are played in sonic isolation, huge gaping chasms left between them, they feel connected enough that it is like that same slowness.

This was a really cool record to pull out of nowhere: I’d even listened to Low (discovered by Galaxie 500 producer Kramer) who also play at a deliberate pace, but nothing really prepared me for the way Codeine so professionally maintains themselves as both huge in sound and calm and deliberate. I suppose, being as the album is over twenty years old, that you might have heard some derivative (or a relative like Low), but none I’ve heard have quite this mastery of pace, where you feel the slowness and hear it, but never feel like it should be any faster, either, other than the fact that it’s so unusual for it not to be.

  • Next Up: Coheed and Cambria – ?

¹The album was first released in Germany, to the confusion of many. Sub Pop’s signing of the band let to its release here, which changed the tracklist somewhat in hopes of encouraging domestic purchase. “Pickup Song”‘s B-Side was included, and a new version of the song “Pea” was attached to the end–which also meant removing the German bonus track: an acoustic version of “Pea”. Confusing enough, but “Pea” was also recorded another time, but before either of those, where it acted as B-Side to the “D” single.

²While I can’t easily reference a popular post rock band (unless you know the genre, your best chance to have heard it outside friends who like it is the soundtrack to 28 Days Later, which contains a track by Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the famous opening moments of an abandoned London)

Day Thirty-Six: Caustic Window – Compilation

Rephlex Records ■ CAT009LP
Released June 1, 1998
(EP release dates below)
Produced by Richard D. James

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m cheating. While the credited artist for this release is “Caustic Window”, that is, in fact, one of the (many) pseudonyms of one Richard D. James, whose most famous monikers are AFX and, of course, The Aphex Twin. If you’ve been reading here a while, or if you just click that link, you’ll see that this is not the first of his releases for me to cover here. However, because I feel it’s legitimate to treat this as a “C” release (alphabetically speaking), it avoids the issue of clustering multiple days around a single artist and allows me to cover more of my collection while not (strictly) violating the alphabet. It’s not the only time this will occur, but this is the time they’ll come closest together (the other I can think of off the top of my head is Leon Russell, who will obviously appear much later, but who released two albums with Marc Benno, at least the first of which was credited originally to The Asylum Choir).

In any case, this is a compilation of the 3 EPs James released as Caustic Window, which were put out by the label he co-founded, Rephlex. The original releases of each EP were actually a bit larger, some tracks being shaved off with the CD release of this as Compilation as well as the original vinyl issue of it as a 3xLP in three conjoined clear plastic sleeves. Each EP loses one track in the process, those being: “Popcorn” (a version of the Gershon Kingsley track made famous by Hot Butter) from Joyrex J4, an untitled track from Joyrex J5 typically nicknamed “R2-D2”, and “H.M.N.E.” (“Humanoid Must Not Escape”) from Joyrex J9i.

Despite the compilation’s release date above, the EPs were released much earlier, and I’ve included those release dates below each EP’s title.

Joyrex J4

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT004)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Joyrex J4
  2. AFX II
  3. Cordialotron
  1. Italic Eyeball
  2. Pigeon Street

The title track from Joyrex J4 is built from the sound of a wobbling piece of cardstock (unlikely this is actually what was used, but it tells you what it sounds like), but quickly eschews this by turning into the acid house that makes up all of these EPs. The beat is pounding and rapid, not necessarily designed for actual dancing (allegedly, James created his early track “Digeridoo” and its 140bpm beat to wear dancers out at DJ gigs). Layered into the beat are more wobbling–though the later instances are more electronic, an angular rise-and-fall melody, a distant, phasing buzz and a difficult to describe sound that skips as if being halted from high speeds.

“AFX II” (while there are some instances in which James obscures his identity, to the point that speculation still marks releases from that artist insofar as who it actually is, often he makes no attempt to hide it, and does so only as a matter of distinguishing styles and labels they are released on) is one of the hardest beats in the set, sounding as if it’s a second generation recording, and maybe, just maybe, built on ambient sampling of some banal piece of machinery. It’s a short track, but an appreciably aggressive one.
“Cordialotron” is one of the tracks that most recalls his only-slightly-earlier work on things like Selected Ambient Works 85-92. It’s not a very hard beat, though it’s definitely strong enough to fit in its place in these releases. It’s strongly melodic, via its use of a looped melody that emulates a keyboard, and a warping sort of “lead” that rides over it. If you liked SAW8-92, this will feel way more familiar and comfortable, with the production approach also resembling that, with that echoing spaciousness and a minimal drum section (for this release, anyway).
The haunting (reversed) Julie Andrews (!) sample that opens “Italic Eyeball” implies we’re in for more ambient techno, and doesn’t really let down. It’s still very strong on rhythm, even as compared to “Cordialotron”, but it the woodwind-esque ethereal melody has a semi-central role, and the percussive section does actually deal in varying pitches, even using a bass-like loop to help glue the track together.
“Pigeon Street” is a wonderfully cheerful slice of fun, at only 0:23 running time, sounding as if it might have been taken from a children’s program from the late 70s or the 80s, cheerful and melodic, using plunking melody for rhythm, and “nasal”  bounces for the “lead” melody. Unsurprisingly, there was a children’s program on the BBC in ’81, that actually did use a partly synthesized theme song (it doesn’t sound at all alike though, especially as it is primarily an actual acoustically played theme).

Joyrex J5

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT005)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Astroblaster
  2. On the Romance Tip
  1. Joyrex J5

Unsurprisingly, “Astroblaster” returns us to the more hardcore side of James’ Caustic Windows material, pulling out a truly stomping beat, and keeping its melodic variations somewhat abrasive and metallic, as many of the sounds are on these EPs. A harsh buzzing hum is the primary melodic “instrument”, one that in some ways hints at the sounds that would work their way into his less repetitive (ie, not acid house) releases in the coming years. Hints of the sounds of “On” can actually be heard here, though used in entirely different ways.

“On the Romance Tip”, at open, almost sounds as though it could turn out to be truly ambient: the opening segment wouldn’t have been out of place on Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, but an actual percussive track does worm its way in after a few measures, placing it more in the vein of the original Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and its “ambient techno” designation. As such, this is still the kind of track most people will find more pleasant and more palatable. The sustained notes that make the melody are cold, distant and expansive, but quite pretty. The fidgety secondary rhythm track keeps it all moving and from being too somber, too. It actually ends with the sounds you’d expect more from the earliest electronic artists, who recorded in the early 70s, sort of like really badly synthesized strings–a sound I happen to enjoy, actually.
Because the emphasis of these EPs is on primarily acid house tracks, the title track for Joyrex J5 ends this version of the EP (it does end the original version as well) on that note. It is a less harsh track than “Astroblaster”, though, even if it is the longest track in the entire series. The beat is rapid and not overly focused on bass, which keeps the track centered more in the midrange and helps its comfort level for listeners a lot (barring those who are really big on the harsh sounds, anyway). The completely unrelated rhythm and melody that comes in about a third of the way through is not an unusual technique at this point for James, and the way it comes in and ignores everything else, just hovering in the background with a sense of mysticism is part of what tends to make his work better for sitting and listening, or listening more than just feeling in a rave-y context (that’s why he suggested that his work be called “Braindance”–which appears on the only liner notes for this album, apparently actually trademarked–instead of the pretentious and snobby “intelligent dance music”). Oddly, that melody, despite its completely disjointed placement, manages to make the song quite pleasant indeed, even as the sped-up-saw sound of the primary hook cuts at your ear.

Joyrex J9

Originally released September, 1993 (J9i); December, 1993 (J9ii)
(Originally CAT009i and CAT009ii)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Fantasia
  2. Clayhill Dub
  1. The Garden of Linmiri
  2. We Are the Music Makers [Hardcore Mix]

If you don’t like the harsh noises, “Fantasia”, at least its opening, are not going to be your friend. Something like a machine starting up, or failing, or a locked groove of the same, it drops quickly both in pitch and even existence for the squeaking alarm-like centrepiece of the song, which is backed by a pounding, bass-heavy rhythm track, and a jagged, distorted lead “melodic” line. That line is aggressive, but actually quite cool. It’s actually hard for me to really say “harsh” here except in comparative terms. This shouldn’t really be “ear-bleed” kinds of harsh at all, just not something that makes you sigh contentedly. Of course, amusingly, a few minutes in (another of the longer tracks here), we hear a sample from a (purported) porn film–“Oooh, ooh!” from a female voice, which is eventually given a moment in isolation to play fully: “Oooh, ooh! That’s great, yeah!” says an, ah, excited female voice. While James has done this kind of thing before (and would again later), it doesn’t seem at all like it’s really “connecting” to porn or making the track actually sleazy: instead, it feels like James is wryly referencing the quality of his music (which he would also later do without the orgasmic association, via tracks like (despite what the title might imply to you) “Cock/Ver10”. 

“Clayhill Dub” is likely so named because it is focused less on bass kicks than it is on a bassy melodic line, which throbs throughout and keeps the song centered entirely around the low end. Occasional splashes of metallic clank and rattle, echoing or just striking momentarily wander in here and there, but largely it’s just that bassy line.
“The Garden of Linmiri” uses an alarm-like noise, not unlike “Fantasia”, but more like hearing a large factory’s alarm from outside, with the kind of distortion that comes from an intentionally ridiculously loud noise as muffled by the walls of a building. Squeaky, high-pitched rhythms (a favoured sound for James in faster tracks), is the trade-in for that alarm sound’s patient repetitions, as well as another of the full-on, hard beats (think “Astroblaster” above), with four-on-the-floor, but done with the drop of a boulder on concrete. The strike of grinding on metal alternates beats, while it all eventually mutates into an aggressive, clatter of pounding on thin metal trays in a rather catchy and appealing way.
Making it only appropriate that these are the two James releases I’m going to cover, the compilation closes with the “Hardcore Mix” of “We Are the Music Makers”, from SAW85-92. Let’s be honest: while it may have been James’s sense of humour to tell us one of his big pop star remixes was an unrelated track he had laying around, passed on because he was caught offguard by the deadline (the man has also said he checks our records by “smelling the grooves”, and that he used a goat to help create Drukqs, and that it was most helpful after he got it a “hoof mod”), this would not be surprising as an approach for him. The only connection here is that of Gene Wilder’s sampled voice, speaking that same line: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams…” The beat itself is another hard one, four-on-the-floor accented with a secondary beat between the third and fourth. The focal point is a rhythmic brushing sound, as of stiff bristles taken back and forth across a floor, but clipped free of any higher pitches. A yawning, distorted buzz falls repeatedly in the background, keeping the pace of the track not quite so fast as the fully rhythmic portions would imply.
I’m normally not one for house or trance or any of the more repetitive strains of electronic music, simply because it seems like the repetition is intended to maintain danceability–a sound that can be appealing for its consistency, but that, as a focal point, doesn’t build for active listening unless done with that in mind (or because the artist in question likes to do so anyway). James’s Caustic Window material isn’t an exception to the style, really, but it does keep things interesting, as James may DJ for shows (and did then, too), but he’s also made it clear that music seems to be more of a listening interest to him than a dancing one. I think, then, that this reflects in how he puts even house-based tracks together. It is more repetitive, to be sure, and is not my favourite of his material, but that’s honestly not saying much when this is the artist in question. It is a bit odd that my collection of his work on vinyl is exclusively his analogue-produced material (this, SAW85-92, Analogue Bubblebath 3, and the Analord series of releases he did in 2005 on a return to that kind of equipment from his computer-based work in the preceding decade or so). Still, his work in electronics (I think we can believe that one, as well as his claims to modifying the equipment himself)  makes the material unique within the framework of the genres and styles the material falls into.
Just don’t go into this expecting free, easy, happy kinds of stuff. There are better releases from him for that kind of thing–but getting this kind of hard, harsh, rough stuff from him, this is probably the top.
  • Next Up: Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood

Day Twelve: At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul

Earache Records ■  MOSH 143

Released November 14, 1995

Produced by Fredrik Nordstrom, Co-Produced by At the Gates

“We are blind to the worlds within us, waiting to be born…”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Blinded by Fear
  2. Slaughter of the Soul
  3. Cold
  4. Under a Serpent Sun
  5. Into the Dead Sky
  1. Suicide Nation
  2. World of Lies
  3. Unto Others
  4. Nausea
  5. Need
  6. The Flames of the End

This is actually an interesting title to discuss, as it actually also puts me in the awkward place of talking about a classic album, which was something I intended to somewhat avoid by going through my own record collection instead of a set of albums pre-determined by history or anything of the kind. Naturally, I’m not defiant about classics and do own plenty (and far more if we look at my CD collection), but I’m occasionally peculiar about how I purchase vinyl in particular. 

However, this is a classic extreme metal album, which means that its reputation tends to hold up only in that particular “scene”. If you aren’t into death metal, you’ve probably never heard of this album. Indeed, the indirect inspiration for this, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, is, like many similar collections, very light on metal in general: there’s a single Judas Priest album, a Sepultura album, a Pantera album, two Megadeth albums [?!], 1 Slayer album, 1 Iron Maiden album, 1 Anthrax album, 3 Metallica albums [!], and 1 Venom album–and, the one concession to extreme metal, Napalm Death’s Scum, which receives the hilarious (but ultimately quite useless) review at the blog to which my own is also a response to (wherein the aforementioned 1001 albums are reviewed). This does indicate the one flaw in my approach: the genres I remain only hazily familiar with–jazz, though I own a reasonable amount, I’m an absolute novice with; classical, which I barely own any of, but do own on vinyl in a few instances; country, which resembles jazz as my collection goes; the music of other countries that is not heavily Western in nature; so on–as I approach music on the whole as something to understand as well as just appreciate and enjoy. Alas, I won’t have much in the way of revelation for myself to pass on to you, but this does allow me to attempt something else: conveying to the unfamiliar the value of genres and releases you may not be familiar with.

While it took me a while to get into death metal at all, I started from the more formative variety, leapt to from the metal inflected/influenced sound of “nu metal” in the late 1990s–Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are the Sick, which was released in 1991. Depending on who you are and how your tastes run, this is not the album I would suggest first, most likely. Slaughter of the Soul, on the other hand, leapt out at me immediately: it was recommended to me by a friend in college who acted as “mentor” to me on the subject of metal, having been involved with listening to it for a much longer time than I had. He unequivocally recommended this album, and I listened to it repeatedly on my first acquisition of it.

I bought this copy, on <a href="”&gt;heavyweight vinyl (220g!), as the first physical copy I owned, ordered directly from Earache (the label, in case you do not understand the notation I use at the beginning of each of these entries!) alongside Decapitated’s Nihility (which was also pressed on 220g vinyl at the time). It was my first experience with the whole idea of heavyweight, and is an exceptional example, as 180g is usually the ideal. I actually had some issues with the order–Earache is originally a British album, and I was ordering from the US store that, as I recall, insisted the album was out of stock. I actually ended up getting an e-mail from the label’s head, Digby Pearson, who is the first person thanked by the band on this album–who sorted things out and got me the albums.

The band and the album are some of the icons of a particular strain of death metal: melodic death metal, aka “melodeath”, aka “Swedish melodic death metal”, so named because the sound originates primarily in Sweden (if not exclusively). It’s actually interesting, as the pillars of this sound are Slaughter itself, In Flames’ The Jester Race, and Dark Tranquility’s The Gallery, all of which were recorded at Studio Fredman with Fredrik Nordstrom in Gothenburg (Göteborg), Sweden. Even more amazing, Slaughter and The Gallery were both released in November, 1995, separated by only two weeks. The Jester Race was recorded in that same month, too, though it was released three months later. The sound is easily identified, as it is recognizably death metal in terms of the distortion, aggression, volume, and growled vocals, but it is defined by guitars that carry clear and obvious melody. All three albums–and many successors and predecessors, both from those bands and others–also carry moments of folk-inflected acoustic passages and tracks. These elements tend to make the subgenre the most immediately accessible works of extreme metal.

Slaughter of the Soul opens with “Blinded by Fear”, which the band wrote as a deliberate opener for the album, and was the last track the band recorded a promotional music video for. It begins with the hum and buzz of amplifiers with nothing being played through them, cutting away to phased, metallic sounds that vocalist Tomas Lindberg speaks over: “We are blind to the worlds within us, waiting to be born”. And then the guitars of Anders Björler and Martin Larsson drop in and the album takes off at–if you’ll pardon me–blinding speed. The video, though, is illustrative of Adrian Erlandsson’s, drummer, role in the album: he is an absolute machine in this recording(which Nordstrom confirmed as being defined by absolute perfectionism–exhausting on an analog recording!), and the video shows what that looks like: while the rest of the band bears the long hair that is so indicative of the look of metal–Lindberg with long locks of braided red hair and a full beard, Anders, Martin and Anders’ twin Jonas with the more standard straight hair swirling through the rhythmic headbanging the drive of the sound tends to induce–Adrian is both shaven and shirtless, his muscles coiled and tight, aggressive and loud hits forced by short distance from stick to drumhead to maintain absolute control over an extremely precise rhythm, one that is defined by the blast beats I mentioned in discussing Aborym’s Kali Yuga Bizarre: alternating bass drum and snare hits accented with matched cymbal hits. The signature double-kick bass drum sound (wherein two pedals are operated on the same or paired bass drums–in Erlandsson’s case, the same drum) of much of death metal–as well as thrash metal–appears only briefly as a fill (an exception to the basic rhythmic pattern of the song that adds more flavour to a drum performance). The apex is a twin-guitar solo that reminds us that the sound has strong roots in the work of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The song ends on one emphatic beat, leaving only the original amplifier buzz to bring us into the title track.

Martin Larsson has said that his favourite riff on the album–an album defined by riffs–is that of “Slaughter of the Soul”, which begins with a single guitar playing a riff from the left with emphases from Erlandsson before it is cut short for a momentary pause, notoriously released with Tomas’ cry of “GO!” which brings back the riff, expands Erlandsson’s drumming to its full usage, adds the second guitar as well as the bass. While riffs define metal in general, or at least characterize much of it, the melodic element of the Swedish sound is heavy on tremolo picking and the use of bends and single strings to bring unmistakable melodies to the aggressive riffing of distorted guitars. Martin and Anders have fingers dancing from fret to fret to accent the riffs of this song, which contains the only “breakdown”–a moment where the tempo drops to a minimum and is heavily emphasized on-beat, in this case, Erlandsson giving a steady 1, 2 from bass to snare–on the album, which acts as the opening to the song’s solo. The song contains the phrase which titled their “best of” collection: “Suicidal final art”, and ends with two hits from Erlandsson to stop the song short, a technique used throughout to actually maintain the energy and forward drive of a primarily relentless album.
“Cold” was one of the songs that inspired a rather silly short story I wrote in the throes of admiration for the album, and has a distinct climbing guitar line as Lindberg calls out, “I feel my soul go cold/Only the dead are smiling”. At its second appearance, it gives way to a new riff which falls back to a clean and pretty moment of slowly ascending notes that lead in to the album’s guest guitar solo from King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque, which makes unusual and fascinating use of the tremolo arm for some wavering notes in the middle, before turning to the rapid “tapping” technique that defines the most impressive histrionics of metal soloing, but here feels less showy than appropriate. Lindberg’s vocals are let ring out clearly for just a moment as the guitars disappear, his voice intoning “22 years of pain/And I can feel it closing in/The will to rise above/Tearing my insides out”. Extended squalls of feedback carry the song outward, and bring us to “Under the Serpent Sun”.
Seeming to start almost in the middle of itself–despite the lead-in from light cymbals by Erlandsson–“Under the Serpent Sun” brings some of the meatier, bassier riffs to the album, rolling and thundering along as Tomas yells out his first appearance nonverbally, before a moment of showier druming from Erlandsson that brings the song back to the higher notes that define much of the melodic elements of the band. Rapid picking defines one of my favourite twin-guitar solos on the album, while the song is allowed to stop short for a more ominous, still distorted break that lets Tomas let loose another spoken line: “Sweetfleshed hellbent creature/Artist of the fevered soul/Heavenly, venomous rapture”, which he ends with a sudden return to his death metal stylings: “Sickened on by fear I fall!” Another sudden ending lets us reach the one full-fledged island in the album.
“Into the Dead Sky” is a beautiful, primarily acoustic piece–even the electric parts are primarily clean, the drums are left alone but for a bit of studio-phased background beat (played by Anders due to schedule conflicts). The sound of the guitar strings, especially with two of them playing together and Jonas’ bass only momentarily moving past a downtempo beat, sound as if they cannot still or move together, dancing around each other and sliding from note to note in a moment that can be appreciated, I should think, by nearly anyone.
The transition to “Suicide Nation” is brilliant: a sample of a pistol slide chambering a bullet from “Reservoir Dogs” plays in isolation, the implied violence immediately contrasting with the beauty of the prior track and allowing the guitar riff that follows to feel natural and appropriate, well-introduced. The title is at least in part a reference to the alleged status of Sweden as the country with the highest suicide rate (a fact Lindberg has later said he’s unsure of, but that helped to inspire the song nonetheless). Erlandsson is finally allowed to let loose with the double kick, much of the song already sounding like a stampede of weighty animals, but further emphasized by the more spacious moments under Tomas’ refrain of “Control, control!” that leads into the crescendo of “Suicide, suicide” that was apparently achieved by literally running at the microphone screaming the word. One of the more emotive solos leads into the most distinct rhythmic portion of the song, which finally closes with the full force of the song’s various parts.
“World of Lies” has a fantastic descending riff to open it, spiralling downward until the tribalistic drumming of the intro brings it to the second fantastic riff of the song, which seems to answer its own lower notes with higher ones. A thrashy break underscores the first verse, while the chorus is the most brightly melodic portion of the song–until the bridge. Oh, that bridge! Chunky, muted riffing brings us back to that call-and-answer riff, until Tomas begins singing: “Final psychotic eclipse/Painted in the colours of war”, and the song lets free of its restrained rhythm, Erlandsson allowing space for the guitars to waver and hang on notes, Tomas finishing the lines with the musical change emphasizing his rhythm and words: “Final psychotic eclipse/A world drenched in blood”. A quote from the book Tomas says inspired the album (The Dice Man by Luke Rhineheart–aka George Cockroft) is spoken, “And it’s his illusions about what constitutes the real world which are inhibiting him…His reality, his reason, his society…these are what must be destroyed.” The bridge returns and it is even more breath-taking, with Tomas modifying the final line to match the rhythm even more closely: “Final psychotic eclipse/A world drenched in the blood of the innocent”.
Tomas has described “Unto Others” as the song’s “inevitable” rant against organized religion. “You’ve got to have at least one, right?” he says–and it’s a common theme in much of death metal, the defining aspect, indeed, of some bands. It has one of the most peculiar moments on the album though: while an acoustic break is not entirely unexpected at this point, that it is met with Tomas’ growls of “You walk through what is me/Stare blind–cannot see/Your thoughts flee to a different land/They are free, but you are bound” and not the more “normal” spoken approach he uses previously makes for a very interesting juxtaposition. Lest you think that they operate on a notion similar to some segments of the populace regarding this, the expressed anger comes through most clearly with one pair of lines: “You mock the weak for not giving you their trust/In your world of make believe, where statues turn to dust”.
“Nausea” is defined by a buzzing guitar sound reminiscent of musical attempts to represent the flight of insects through a scattered mix of notes whirling around itself, and is probably the track I find least remarkable in all the album–which is less a knock against it and more an indicator of how good the rest of it is. 
“Need” follows it, however, and is the most explicit expression of Tomas’ misanthropic, not-even-vaguely suicidal thoughts: “Open me, with your kiss of steel/End my pain-set me free/For we are enslaved, forever enslaved”. Cascades of drum fill define transitions between riffs, and sound utterly exhausting in an album Erlandsson has described as exactly that. The climbing tremolo riffs that are a large part of the At the Gates sound appear again as well, with strong lead lines from Anders coming out more distinctly than in previous tracks. Horror movie-esque keys end the song with a light melody played on bells (the kind that resembles a xylophone, not the kind one rings), which is only appropriate as it brings us to the close: “The Flames of the End”. The second largely instrumental track, as well as the second to drop the majority of the aggression, this is actually a heavily electronic (keyboard) track that was originally part of the soundtrack to Anders’ homemade horror movie Day of Blood (which the band discusses as incredibly terrible on numerous occasions), though it is layered over with slippery, wandering distortion on guitars that whine in and eventually take over the entire track, even when simple, martial riffing is added as well, nothing can compete with those squealing sounds, which finally turn to absolute chaos.
This album holds up to repeated listens in rapid succession, at great distances, and is often thought of as the absolute apex of At the Gates’ career: indeed, when they reunited a few years ago, they emphatically said they would not record new material (though they’ve softened a bit, it’s more to avoid being to absolutist about it) as it would just be “disappointing” so long after an album that was effectively enshrined. At the Gates regularly follows At the Drive-In in any music collection I have–at least, it did before I began to split off a handful of genres, including metal. Both were bands that reached what was considered a peak, by the public, by their respective scenes, managing to bring together popularity with now audiences and recognition from their own existing audiences as a general rule–and then broke up, neither giving even a hint that, ten years later on both counts, they would reunite and play live, forswearing new studio recordings. 
Like At the Drive-In’s swansong, Relationship of Command, Slaughter of the Soul very much serves as the collective experience of an established career filtered into a single work: while original second guitarist Alf Svensson and his more artistic bent was long lost since his exit after their second album, With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness, allowing a more concise, controlled sort of sound to define Terminal Spirit Disease and Slaughter. Like Vaya, Terminal Spirit Disease was a shorter release (22 minutes and 6 tracks, though 3 lives tracks were appended to the original issue) and contained more scattered experimentation–“And the World Returned” may be At the Gates’ most beautiful acoustic piece, but it brought with it a small string section, fitting in its place there, but odd in the totality of their work. Slaughter introduced the briefest of electronic moments, but it was almost more defining: the album as a whole is lyrically misanthropic, depressed, vaguely nihilistic and socially condemnatory: violence is seen as both indication of the reckless descent of man and as inevitable in light of that. The machinistic drumming of Erlandsson, while impressive and excellent, is also thematically appropriate. Society is represented as a controlling influence and a soul-crushing one; the cover melds a subdued palette of brown, orange, and yellow to the concrete lines of the schematics of weapons, bones, and chains to the distressed, faded, ripped image of a messianic figure, most likely Jesus. And it is encapsulated in “The Flames of the End”, which technically contains lyrics, ones which close a song, an album, and a studio career: “Humanity–the living end, a walking disease/Beyond good and evil, the flesh that never rests/The flames of the end inside us rest”.

  • Next Up: Atmosphere – The Family Sign

Day Eleven: At the Drive-In – Vaya

Fearless Records ■  F040-1

Released July 13, 1999

Recorded and mixed by Mike Major [1,5,7], Alex Newport [2,4], and Justin Leah & Bobby Torres [6]. Tracks 3,6 produced by Sean Cummings

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Rascuache
  2. Proxima Centauri
  3. Ursa Minor
  4. Heliotrope
  1. Metronome Arthritis
  2. 300 MHz
  3. 198d

I originally decided, because I was starting with an artist that had the same split of releases in my collection, that I would leave EPs by the wayside for artists for whom I owned a full length LP. I decided to skip that “rule” on this occasion simply because I know a number of people who are big fans of this band–other than me, I mean. It also tends to come with a love that drives adamant opinions, and occasionally divides. When At the Drive-In broke up in 2001, it was the only time I really noticed or felt the loss of a band–I’d never seen them live (to be honest, even when they reunited ten years later, I did not rush out for the very distant and often festival-based events, either). It also led to the rise of two groups–they’d just released their Nevermind in popularity terms, or maybe just the hint toward it, and that was that–Sparta and the Mars Volta. When I last wrote about them, I was disinclined to make my rather well-known, passionate opinion on that split known. I’m still disinclined: too many times, I’ve seen expressed opinions on this front devolve rapidly into swearing, shouting matches, and insults. It has left me with a bad taste in my mouth a lot of the time as regards all three bands, which does not make me very happy. As a result, I tend to avoid discussing that as much as I can, even if I still occasionally feel the desire to talk about it.

Anyway, let’s set all that aside and look at what, along with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is one of my most-played records.

At the Drive-In were a band from El Paso, TX that shifted in shape and sound a lot over the years. They started off with a handful of EPs (more in the 7″, 3-5 song variety) like Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!, but moved on to release the full length albums Acrobatic Tenement (plagued by recording as an unintended clean-guitar release, due to confusion about rehearsal sessions) and In/Casino/Out (the full length I actually own on vinyl). Vaya followed all of these, and was the last major release before their semi-major label debut, Relationship of Command in 2000.

The wiki article on the release mentions the sentiment that seems to follow the EP regularly: “The sound of the album bridges the musical gap between In/Casino/Out and their following album, Relationship of Command.” That’s actually a relatively inappropriate declaration for Wikipedia in light of its policies (from what I can see, most of their articles on Wikipedia are actually horribly written, policy-wise, in the same way), but remains rather accurate despite that. The band was thrown various labels, from emo to punk to post-hardcore, with emo (unsurprisingly) receiving the greatest degree of vitriol. Let’s not even get into the problems with attempting to label anything emo in this day and age, and stick with the rather reasonable post-hardcore attribution, which fits well enough not to chafe.

While In/Casino/Out did see the band beginning to play more openly with possibilities beyond the basic rock band instrumentation of their prior recordings, Vaya saw a more emphatic electronic bend added to the works. This is obvious from the beginning of the album–where In/Casino/Out began with “Alpha Centauri”‘s  aggressive guitar riffs, Vaya begins with “Rascuache”, where the guitars act as echoing background flavouring and brief, intermittent strums. The focus is on a thumping electronic beat–not like a dance song, but like a pulsing set of Morse code. Tony Hajjar’s appearance is with tight, light toms, almost as if on bongos, before a quick set of taps on the rim built to by that pulsing beat increasing in speed brings us clean but more persistent guitar from Omar Rodriguez (now known as Omar Rodríguez-López), before a break in Cedric Bixler’s (now known as Cedric Bixler-Zavala) singing that lets Jim Ward¹ come in with a distorted incarnation of that same clean riff. The song eventually falls to an instrumental passage, with Rodriguez noodling about as Ward takes on a simple keyboard riff for texture, with Hajjar and bassist Pall (actually Paul, but credited “Pall” on most of their releases) Hinojos. The song ends with a veritable scream from Bixler as he sings the chorus for the final time, holding the last word until the song stops absolutely short–not cut off, but stopped–“Pacemaker pace yourself/You were slowly clawing your way out”.

“Proxima Centauri” carries things forward with drummer Tony Hajjar’s inexplicably propulsive beat, which seems to trip all over itself yet seem perfectly logical at the same time. Cedric begins to repeat the phrase, “T-Minus, 10 seconds and counting,” as Hinojos rumbles underneath him, until the guitars slide, bend and squeal in and the song builds, exploding with energy when the chorus begins, Cedric moving to his emphatic yell. The song brings back a clean, circling guitar riff reminiscent of the sound they (accidentally) carried on Acrobatic Tenement.

When “Ursa Minor” comes in, the pace is slowed, but the energy does not seem lost. It’s still a burn, but seemingly a more slow one, with partly call and response verses that move toward a tilt-a-whirl bridge that bounces low to high on the guitar, with Omar and Jim singing with Cedric at the beginning of each line until it all breaks after “They will come and get you tonight”, for Jim to whisper, “So I guess this is goodnight”, at which point the chorus itself breaks in and the riffs come along furiously and thickly, with more unified voices. There’s a momentary break, as with many songs on Vaya, that allows for distant, electronically modified voice, similar to the megaphone approach bands occasionally take but resembling more a distant, poor radio signal. The indecisive and constant movement of Omar’s approach to guitar lead into a series of drum rolls under the escalating cries of “Inertia kisses those around me” that drops back into the bridge.

Side One closes with the most frenetic track on the album, “Heliotrope”, which blasts out of the gate, not letting up for a moment, Cedric’s voice seeming to race to keep up, the monstrous riffs backing away in part to let Omar again jump from fret to fret. The bottom falls out as Paul and Tony relax, Omar lazily bending, and light chords ringing clean. A single held note and muted single string picking, rim-and-cymbal-only percussion, and a bass line that is no more than half its prior pace allows Cedric to calmly state, “It’s as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again”, all instrumentation dropping out halfway through the line. It’s a signal, though, and every instrument kicks in again at full speed as soon as he finishes, his line turned to expand: “Turn slowly for maximum vend”.

Side two has some of the longer and more unusual songs on the album, opening with the ominous, lurching rhythm that defines “Metronome Arthritis” (the only song, prior to Relationship of Command, to receive a promotional music video). There’s something sinister about it, though it seems to float off with the hushed instrumentation that backs Cedric’s initial lines: “Strike this match and let loose the oven’s breath/Up the volume that floats with the UHF”. The pounding rhythm and the phasing hiss that opened the song return as Cedric’s volume returns, but it all leave on a suspenseful note, only Paul and Omar noodling and dancing around the chorus: “Quick to the throat in this ink cartridge funeral/Marble caps lock zip code affiliate/You’ve got a run on your pharmaceuticals/You better change it ‘fore the night grows old”. The feeling of criminal activity, paranoia and threat is confirmed and articulated after an isolated series of muted, clean chords brings a cymbal-heavy, staccato section behind Cedric’s full-throated yell: “What if forensics finds the answers/What if they stole my fingerprints/Where did I leave my book of matches/We’ll find you”. It’s the only song on the EP with a fadeout.

“300 Mhz”, like its followup, moves from juxtaposed words, star names and other seemingly impenetrable words to a pair of tracks that looks like alphanumeric soup at first, though it’s not difficult to un-cross one’s eyes and see they obviously aren’t random at all. It’s an odd song in many respects: the semi-megaphone vocals return instead as the focus, but are matched with a low-end heavy song where, like many At the Drive-In tracks, it feels as if the guitar is more a flavouring or accent than defining melodic aspect. A dub-like echo is added to some of Tony’s drumming for only brief moments, furthering the peculiar production choices for the song. The riff the song opens with is like a jagged strike from bottom to top, repeated a few times before that low-end feel to the song asserts its dominance, but it returns to back Jim Ward yelling “Malfunction!” in his strained vocal–there’s no other word, you can hear the effort when Jim does this, and you can see it if you see him perform–that does not last long, but when the song comes back around to it a second time, it does not return to the simmering beat, it turns, instead, to the title, as the jabbing guitars turn to a repeated roar, Cedric semi-ironically screaming out, “Whispered in the ear, three hundred megaherz,” making the pairing of volume and words all the more contradictory as the seemingly whispered phrase receives the greatest emphasis and volume of all. The song eventually falls to guitars let ring, slowing until it finally stops, as do most of the songs, on a dime.

“198d” is one of the handful of “ballad-esque” songs in the At the Drive-In catalogue, built around the insistent, muted keyboard loop from Jim that opens it. It sounds less like the keyboard it is than a distress call floating through space from a non-functional vessel, with a scattered ringing of guitar playing seeming to emphasize an image in this respect. “This is forgiven if the uniform fits/Postponed, at the first showing/This is the tension mold/Of frozen icicles, and it feels like it’s snowing” Cedric sings quietly, before a rising guitar riff brings us to Jim’s cry of “Walk away,” that is answered with Cedric’s plaintive, “Born in hearts, etched in cold.” Cedric whispers over the quietest moment on the record: an even lighter keyboard riff, lightly played guitar notes, all of it bringing us back around to the final words: “Tremors that hold us”, answered with “Nothing bleeds like”, before it circles back to the chorus, fading away with “Born in hearts”, and the instruments’ sounds for once allowed to just ring and fade naturally, away from the pattern of the rest of the album.

I was struck with a peculiar notion, on this, my billionth listen to this record: it’s silly and strange, but at moments it feels almost as if there’s a thematic, near-concept to the record. I don’t mean a strict story, per se, though I could almost hear one in it. Perhaps it was the influence of songs titled after stars and constellations, countdowns, and words like “malfunction”, and phrases like “spacesuit togas” and “Saturn’s rings”–perhaps I’m just ridiculous. It was as if it was about an attempt to colonize by space torn apart by human failings. I’m not one inclined to make any attempt at analyses like this, but the more I listened, the more I was struck by how consistent it seemed to remain. Of course, I’m inclined to think this is purely my justified perception, rather than the intention of the rather stream-of-consciousness lyrics involved. But the echoes of classical culture (“Proxima Centauri” references Caligula, the phrase “E Tu Brute”, togas, “Roman fracture”) that seem to imply a familiar (“space time cliché”) and inevitable betrayal and wresting of leadership, decadence and internal failure. “Ursa Minor” references “sleep apparatus” and new settlements, “permssion to land/all systems go…”–I don’t know, maybe it’s just an attempt to puzzle together things that I’m not able to puzzle together, or maybe it just reflects the kind of words that occur to Cedric. Still, there’s a sense of a mission launched, of infighting and betrayal and paranoia defining an attempt to reach out.

This kind of politics and cynicism isn’t outside the more openly declared lyrical content of At the Drive-In, but it could all be my imagination anyway.

While I have a soft spot for In/Casino/Out, I included a poll to determine the At the Drive-In release specifically because I suspected Vaya would be chosen. In/Casino/Out has varied reasons for my muddled preferences, most of them sentimental or reactionary, instead of respectful and “objective”. But that is often the classification of favourites, isn’t it? How boring would it be for all of us to always like the most well-recorded, well-played, “accurate”, successfully experimental records? Of course, for me: those are the aspects that define Vaya, which is why my opinion remains so muddled. I’ll take either over Relationship of Command, but I only find myself caught between the “best” and my “favourite” records when it comes to these two.

¹I admit to guessing, but from live video of the way they play and familiarity with the way each of them play, I’m making my best guess.

Next Up: At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul

Day Eight: Aspera Ad Astra – Peace

AudioInformationPhenomena ■ AIP 003

Released: ??, 1998

Produced and Recorded by Carmine Degennaro

“let the uplifting messages bring joy and goodness to your life and those surrounding. peace and love.”
[From the insert included with the album]
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Taking to Waking
  2. Sick N’ Sad
  3. Step Into Me
  4. [Untitled]
  5. Scannin’ Lights
  1. The Yellowed Skin
  2. This Whim Breathes
  3. Fat in the Eye
  4. Takin’ It Easy

I touched on this band on my previous/other blog, but didn’t say too much about the album proper. Of course, I’ve forgotten over the years (repeatedly, actually) that this is yet another release (see also: Provocation and Kali Yuga Bizarre)with goofed up track listings. The back of the sleeve (as well as the CD case, I’ve just confirmed) lists the tracks as “Taking to Waking”, “Sick N’ Sad”, “Step Into Me”, “This Whim Breathes”, “Fat in the Eye”, “Scannin’ Lights”, “The Yellowed Skin”, and “Take It Easy”. The label on Side Two lists them in the order above, and, as usual, the lyrics are the giveaway. It appears the listing I’ve given in my standardized form is the most correct one (“fat in the eye” is completely audible and intelligible in the third track on Side Two, rather than the fourth track on Side One). “Takin’ It Easy” could go either way, but seeing as the order appears correct on the label, I’ll go with the title that appears in the same place. I know at various times I’ve also had the first track titled “Talking to Walking,” though I’m not sure why. I think it may have been in the metadata of my initial digital copy.

So far, though it isn’t surprising considering the composition of my collection as a whole, we’ve mostly looked at titles I acquired used through various means. This is one I happily snapped up when I saw a sealed copy in a shop. It was there for the standard label price (as I have gathered from the insert I found in the record) of $8 for an LP. The label it comes from is AudioInformationPhenomena, who do not appear to have been long-lived: I can see 14 releases from them during two years and nothing past that. They did, however, release one of Cerberus Shoal’s earlier albums, though prior to my favourite (1999’s And Farewell to High Tide, which I own two CD copies of in different editions). This is worth noting mostly because both of these bands participated in the “Post Marked Stamps” split 7″ series, though not on the same release. However, because AIP was a tiny label, this isn’t a release you would see around often, even if it isn’t one that is likely to be snapped up at any point either. It has only become more rare as time goes on, with the fact that even the CD is now out of print.

I’m resistant to the notion of genres, simply because there is inevitable argument about any, but Aspera Ad Astra were partly introduced to me via the compilation Sounds from Psychedelphia, connoting an association with psychedelic sound. This is a bit tenuous depending on your definition, but does hold up under some qualifications. Peculiar found sounds and drones are scattered around the album, occasionally sounding like the real world attempting to fade into the music, but on an inappropriate timescale, with multiple clocks, alarms, busy/engaged phone signals, chimes, and falling silverware seemingly clattering in at one point late in “Scannin’ Lights”. More accurately and readily identifiable are the influences of the “shoegaze” sound, so-called because the bands allegedly spent concerts staring at their shoes (often meaning their guitar pedal effect set ups) rather than engaging other people–such as the audience. Hints of the fuzzy warbling of My Bloody Valentine can be heard, though one would never mistake Peace for Loveless, as its pacing is far more deliberate and its sound is far more spacious. Where Loveless can occasionally become a veritable wall of sound–however sweet and curvy–Peace remains open and airy throughout, even when the aforementioned sounds seem to wander by confusedly.

“Taking to Waking” starts the album with a drumbeat that isn’t absolute simplicity, but carries with it a sense of relaxedness that approaches laziness, and immediately finds itself surrounded by the light roar of that shoegaze-y guitar sound. Lyrically, the song is odd and wounded but positive, or at least optimistic: “Awake and/Go on/I’m limping with a broken soul/I’m shaking as I’m driven”. An already langorous pace is stretched further when the album moves to “Sick N’ Sad”, which has a lazy guitar line and carefully measured and controlled drums. Sleepy vocals maintain the tone, though the guitars eventually find a rising lick that gives a bit of shine to the song’s otherwise cozy but calming atmosphere. “Step Into Me” pushes itself forward as if crawling up from rest until it hits the chorus and seems to find a more comfortable stride, the guitar bending and wobbling around it. The untitled piece is an unlisted track of just under two minutes and no lyrics that is clearly separated on Side One and is marked out as a track in digital formats. It’s a solo piano piece that just bridges the gap between “Step Into Me” and “Scannin’ Lights”, the final track of Side One, which is the second longest track on the album at nearly seven minutes. Layers of sound are more delineated here than elsewhere on the album, though they are comfortable against each other as with a deep cross-section of earth.

“The Yellowed Skin” begins Side Two with Matt Werth’s bass in isolation, sliding up and down the neck as the rest of the band joins him in a song that gradually builds and then seems to stop, dropping away to only guitars and changing slowly into a more disjointed and peculiar sort of song, with reverberating and spiky  guitars. “This Whim Breathes” seems to play half backwards, with muffled dialogue sampled in behind the music before the vocals begin to make it all spacy, as if it’s drifting in and out of the sides of the audible soundscape. “Fat in the Eye” starts with a few guitar harmonics, and the darkest tone of the album until the non-verbal vocals begin to waft in over it and there’s a palpable relief as we find one of the quicker tempos of the album, with vocals to match, perhaps the most energy in all of the release.

“Takin’ It Easy” closes the album out with a sustained keyboard note that drops a guitar’s downward slide and light but emphatic keyed chords and faint “Ooh-oohs”. The relaxed atmosphere of the album is maintained as the song kicks into gear, but with another supply of energy–seeming to invert the usual approach of starting quick and heavy and slowing until the closer. But it’s certainly still a light song, with the feeling of driving happily, if quietly, off toward a lowering sun, keeping things simple with lyrics composed entirely of “Come on right in to/Set your mind at ease”. The song’s title describes the feeling you’re left with: that you should take it easy right now, enjoy the warmth of the sun and let things be.

I suppose it’s not a surprise that I love this album a lot. To be fair, though, most albums I pick up intentionally on vinyl must have a fair degree of love behind them. That’s all part of the ritual: understanding that you have to devote your listening time more fully to vinyl, as, at the least, you must flip the record over partway through to hear it all.

If you want to check the album out, it’s actually even more difficult than it used to be. It seems eMusic no longer has the rights to AIP’s catalogue, and I’ve mentioned this album is very out of print. Still, it seems that copies in either format can be found at relatively reasonable prices from Discogs, and cheap indeed on CD from Amazon’s marketplace.
Next Up: The Association – Greatest Hits