The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

Saddle Creek Records ■ LBJ 180
(Originally LBJ-37 on same label)
Released August 21, 2001
(This compilation released November 1, 2012)
Engineered and Produced by Mike Mogis and The Faint




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Agenda Suicide
  2. Glass Danse
  3. Total Job
  4. Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat
  5. Violent
  1. Your Retro Career Melted
  2. Posed to Death
  3. The Conductor
  4. Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen

Though it ended up one of the most brief hiatuses I’ve taken, early June’s was instigated by a work-related trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which happens to be right next door to Omaha, Nebraska. I currently live in an area where there are barely handfuls of record stores for a good 60+ miles, so hitting a larger college town (like I myself used to live in) was a blessing and a curse: I flew back with a shoulder bag filled with vinyl, and a suitcase veritably lined with CDs. While there, I took occasion to visit the store that the Saddle Creek label operates there in their hometown, inspired more than anything by the associations it has with Cursive, a fellow fan of whom I discovered I was working with (who also shared a love for The Format and a handful of others–and ended up passing me a copy of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ on green vinyl!). While I was in there, I did walk out with a copy of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, having failed to pick it up already, and (rather amusingly) did finally get a copy of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an album by a band from the area I last lived in, but thought I should really pick up a record the label itself put out (I Am Gemini being on CD). The Ugly Organ wasn’t there (and, as mentioned, I serendipitously acquired it later in the same trip anyway!), so I wandered about until I ran into this.

I remember around the time this album came out, the band was pretty darn hot around the internet, though I was still in my formative musical explorations. I did glance at them, but moved on before anything took hold, eventually picking a copy of the album up on CD many years later. When this edition was released, I first stumbled into the CD/DVD version last year, and suddenly realized I’d really missed something. That was what pushed me to add to it this vinyl version–it’s actually the “deluxe edition” which contains not only a second 12″ of bonus tracks (remixes and b-sides) but also that self-same 2xCD+DVD set I already have, albeit in far more inconvenient format for a portable medium.

When it originally came out, the record used a different cover, but the rights to use it were thoroughly rejected–even more than a decade later, which is why it continues to use the cover above. Though this new cover was used for the later pressings, for this deluxe reissue it was re-tinted in neon pink instead of its original blood red. It’s a weird colour, very eye-catching, and actually feels more appropriate in a strange sort of way–though the red, black, and white colour scheme of the original issue fit nicely with the cynical overtones of the record and its goth-y vibe, the pink hits on the fact that those are not the whole, and it’s a ridiculously danceable record (or so I would guess, being as I lack the skill at such activities, personally).

“Agenda Suicide” was the lead single, and in keeping with old habits (though maybe not The Faint’s or Saddle Creek’s), it leads the album. A low-end loop introduces the track with a kind of eye-wink darkness, rumbling along electronically through its set of notes, a palm-muted rattle of guitar from Dapose and then a pulsing four-on-the-floor drum machine beat are layered on top, finalized with actual drums, alternating snare and bass with regular hi-hat. Flavouring it all is a knowingly “off” set of notes from keys that seem to be poking at the outer edges of the sound, bouncing from one edge or corner to the next and then repeating. Todd Fink (née Baechle, though he was still Baechle at the time) pulls his voice out of the playbook from the goth-inflected post punk–think early Robert Smith, nervous, half-bored, very cynical–his verses are split by the sizzling keys that mark one of the track’s great hooks, leaning menacingly forward and more confidently spread across the track than the pulses and scatter of notes that precede them. The last time these chords strike down, the keys spiral downward to make room for the chorus: “Our work makes pretty little homes”, which is followed by the cold sound of drum machine thumping and even more mechanical guitar rattling. This leads to the full realization of those menacing chords, harmonized with a higher set of keys. The nihilistic, cynical, depressed description of modern societal monotony–“Agenda suicide, drones work hard before they die/And give up on pretty little homes”–is realized by the track, but it’s matched to an absurdly insistent, danceable beat that just makes you want to move and have fun, perhaps in spite of the repellent nature of the cubicle life described. The musical “interstitials” that split the chorus are later slowed down to a breakdown-like pounding that somehow turns the track into one that almost recommends headbanging, without ever losing that edge of life-sucking darkness it’s there to describe. Don’t mistake this of course–the track is descriptive and musically appropriate, but it’s finagled into the shape of a ridiculously enjoyable one, despite all of that.

In contrast to the building, hinting, and layering of “Agenda Suicide”, “Glass Danse” gives only a few beats warning before it launches full bore into its brash, loud dancey beat. It moves constantly and puts Todd’s voice behind an electronic device–something in the vein of a megaphone–that distances it from that straight up oomp-tss of the verse’s instruments. The lead-up to the chorus loses the filter between him and listener, doubles the beat’s speed, but closes camp around both, close to the ground and ready to spring, a launch that is fueled by the sputtering of metallic keys, which finally ignite and take off. Coming after “Agenda Suicide” it functions as a refusal to let the beat slow or drop in any way, while maintaining enough variety to keep things really very interesting.

“Total Job” takes that boiling heat and drags it down to a simmer, but a persistent one. The tempo is down, but the energy behind it is untouched. Todd and Jacob Thiele use the doubled tones of the metallic key sound to give the track the most clear and focal melody the album has in its first three tracks, while Joel Petersen’s bass makes itself more known than before. A chopped female vocal sample is sprinkled across the track, while Todd’s voice is given a vaguely demonic filter toward the end of the track–but only on a background double track of them. It functions mostly as connective tissue between the burst of “Glass Danse” and its nearby neighbor, “Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat”.

That follow up track is introduced with a frog-croak like keyboard hook and a clatter of drum machine that suggests a thin, demo-ish sound, except that it’s the lead in to live drumming from Todd’s brother Clark, and the croaking keys are now joined by a high-pitched whine of companion keys, which shift upward and tighten at their peak to drop the tempo back down. Stereo-pan right-left hopping drum machine and keys are the canvas across Clark’s frame of restrained drumming. Todd’s filtered, vaguely sarcastic voice drops to a whisper to lead in the chorus: “Just let the poison spill/Spurt from your throat/Hiss like steam–” and that anticipatory drop of everything gives the song back its initial roar of energy: “‘Cause the pressure’s unreal/I’m not saying that it’s not/You’re causing a scene/You’re wearing out that note/You scream until it’s gone, gone, gone…” It’s an apt lyric for the music–or apt music for the lyric. Like much darker electronic-focused music, it has tinges of the machine and the song is like a machine hissing out steam, until the pressure is released in the chorus. Fascinatingly, the song features a more raw bassline from Joel, and moments where Clark drums in isolation, while Todd’s voice is at its most distorted and altered. The downward strokes of that hook are, it seems, more unreal than the pressure to which the lyrics refer–yow, but they are catchy!

Unlike the CD release, the vinyl (both the original and this deluxe edition) place “Violent” at the end of side one as track 5 instead of penultimate track 8. “Violent” is actually the longest song on the album, the only one clocking past five minutes. Instrumentally, it’s semi-unique–while Gretta Cohn’s cello appears on “Total Job”, too, it’s most apparent here when it is alone with Todd’s voice and a drum machine. More keys and electronic sounds–cracking rhythms, shuffling hiss and rattle–hide in the corners, but even when the song shifts gears and Todd’s voice goes “Transformer”, Dapose, Clark, and Joel remain rather silent–Dapose’s guitar does appear briefly as a short lead after this, but disappears after a few bars again. Clark’s hi-hat playing does come in a bit before the song attempts to tear itself apart, stuttering, starting, stopping and shuddering before returning as a skronking low-end key line. It’s joined by a fuzzy industrial metal beat and hi-hats that all skitter like a skipping CD until they become a single repeated beat. Then it all comes back together as a song centered around that grungy, bassy keyboard lick, with sustained horror-esque high-pitched keys carry a haunting melody in the background in keeping with the slow, low strains of cello. It only makes sense, I suppose, that the longest song be, in effect, a pair of songs smashed and converted into a single one.

Side Two opens with another scorcher, “Your Retro Career Melted”. An odd choice, in a way, for a band that is openly and obviously drawing from the past–but sung with enough venomous sarcasm that it manages itself quite well. The horror and sci-fi inflections continue with a squealing hook of keys around the pounding beat that blends so well into the primary keyboard melodies. The catchiest chorus and use of electronic voice filters by far, “Your retro career m-m-m-melted” is repeated over a tireless beat. Squealing and stabbing keyboards get to back Todd and Clark for a moment, just before the chorus returns for its last run, before stretching out over the last few minutes, ending with the electronic filtration of a bell-curved singing of “Melt-e-e-ed…” closes it all.

“Posed to Death” is rather strange, coming on like a vaguely tribalistic set of non-verbal vocalizations over a  2-and-4 beat, but Clark’s entrance turns the thumping keyboards Todd’s voice is mimicking into a back-and-fourth full four beats, until Todd steps back for Joel’s bassline. Now the beat is a body-moving of a 1-a2-a3-a4 swing. Distorted keys crunch away and leave a wash of disttortion in their wake, a wall of static behind the song’s hypnotic beat. It closes with Dapose harmonizing his guitar with the keyboards, a new sound for the record.

“The Conductor” has a fantastic intro: keyboards attuned to the slight fuzz of distortion on a sound somewhere between xylophone and piano, let ring just long enough to mimic an echo, hints of harpsichord-like twang making it almost like a moment of suspense in a mid-period horror flick, before a funereal beat backs an expansion of this marching melody, flattening with the weight of the louder, fuller chords of ominous, 80s-horror threat. Percussion backs this and turns it–without changing the melodic portions–into a dance movement. The song is haunting and dark in a new way, shadows and the kind of darkness that could be a room, a large room, or even open space. When Todd takes over the verse completely and his voice takes the fore–takes control, if you will (as he himself sings)–it becomes something closer to the merely dark-edged crunch of the Faint’s usual sound. It’s fuzzed by Joel’s bass, spiced by blistering Dapose leads, and propelled by keyboards–the chorus fades it away to keys, drum machine and Todd’s voice repeating “Control, control, control, control, control…” The bell-like xylopiano of the intro lingers over it all, keeping it haunting and mysterious, even more so as the beat drops out from under it to let it play alone and fade off.

Gretta Cohn’s cello opens “Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen” almost alone, and where it’s flavoured by keys, it is only that–flavour on her strong draws of bow. Then the jittering of a pounding beet against a sheet of metallic noise carves out a mechanized chunk of the track, tailed by a wobbling fuzz of grungey keys. It’s the most downtempo and downbeat track on the record. The beat is the strongest, clearest part of the primary band’s sound (Cohn acting in a secondary role, after all), with Todd’s voice again hiding at a distance, and even the keys burbling around Clark’s drums. For all the interesting layers of sound, it’s a sparse-sounding track in contrast to the uncontrolled burst of movement that composes the rest of the record. Certainly, this makes it rather fitting as a final track, though instead of the misleading final fade of piano and cello, distorted keys take the final moments for their own.



Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Take Me to the Hospital
  2. Mote
  3. Dust (featuring Bright Eyes)
  4. Falling Out of Love at This Volume
  1. The Conductor [Thin White Duke Remix]
  2. Glass Danse [Out Hud Remix]


Sides 3 and 4 are a collection of tracks from various places (a Saddle Creek compilation, the Mote/Dust non-album single, the remix album, the German version of the “Agenda Suicide” single, and the original German limited edition 2CD release of the album). “Mote” is a Sonic Youth cover, while “Dust” features “Bright Eyes”–aka Conor Oberst, a former member of the Faint, and Mike Mogis, who co-produced Danse Macabre. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is indeed a Bright Eyes cover, and “Take Me to the Hospital” is the only “completely Faint” track (the other two obviously being remixes).


Sadly, “Take Me to the Hospital” is not a misnamed cover of the Replacements’ “Take Me Down to the Hospital” (which I’d still like to hear them cover, just for curiosity’s sake). It is actually an interesting, stuttery track, that doesn’t quite have the slick goth-inflections of Danse Macabre, but has a stammering dance of a chorus that spells out the final word of the title. It’s a bit more intimate as a track, and points a bit more toward the group’s other work.

“Mote” is fuzz-loaded, with squeaky-tape rewind noises and pounding beats, perhaps the closest relative of the album proper to appear amongst the bonus tracks, barring the remixes of tracks actually from the album, despite being a cover.

“Dust” is a little more akin to a Depeche Mode-style dance music, with the kind of chunky synths that are so recognizable, but built on live drums. There are Faint touches for sure, but it’s mostly more readily accessible and cleaner than Danse Macabre.

“Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is odd, as, despite his former membership in the band, Oberst’s music is not in keeping with the rest of the Faint’s sound, but the band predictably “remedies” this (as would be almost inevitable in a band that is more keyboards than guitars). Interestingly, the over-echoed, watery effect on Todd’s voice does bring it closer to the demo-style recording they’re covering.

Thin White Duke’s remix of “The Conductor” is a severely re-designed version of the track. It moves to a more standard dance beat, and Todd’s electronically manipulated recitation of “Control” forms the central hook of essentially the entire song, even being layered over itself in various iterations, almost to the exclusion of the rest of his words. It’s something like the expectations of remixes, but it’s very much well done, even with its humourously stereotypical inclusion of strings.

Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse”, in contrast, is only subtly different from the original track, functioning closer to a remix in the “remixed and remastered” sense than the “make it their own” one. Of course, I cannot help but mention that I know Out Hud primarily for the fact that they did an early split with !!!, a band that actually shared three members with Out Hud at the time. Heck, that split was released on Gold Standard Labs (GSL) who released not only !!!’s first album (the self-titled !!!), but also the Mote/Dust Faint single, and a few records that will appear later in my collection–as a label that was co-owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s still a solid remix and they do make it somewhat more their own as it progresses, and in doing so actually keep it more like a Faint song than Thin White Duke did with his remix.

I bought this album very deliberately–it’s insanely catchy, particularly in its first half, but spread (and paced) nicely across both sides, or its full (CD) length. Finding the right space to suggest this, as a goth-tinged, crunchy dance album–I don’t know. It was pretty big in its time if I’m not mistaken, but to whom I would recommend it unwaveringly, I’m not sure. I mean, I’d recommend anything I like to anyone, because it’s all good music, but the taste that would make me say, “Ah, listen to the Faint!”? I don’t know.

Perhaps you should go and check it out (you should), and maybe return data so that I can assemble knowledge of what that taste is.

Or just check them out regardless (yep).

Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

Back Porch/Manhattan Records ■ 50999 5 824111 1 9

Released June 10, 2008

Produced and Mixed by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario McNulty
Assistant Engineering by Tim Price
Mastered by George Marino


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Always a Friend
  2. Chelsea Hotel ’78
  3. Sister Lost Soul
  4. Smoke
  1. Sensitive Boys
  2. People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
  3. Golden Bear
  4. Nuns Song
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Real as an Animal
  2. Hollywood Hills
  3. Swallows of San Juan
  4. Chip n’ Tony
  1. Slow Down
  2. Falling in Love Again
  3. I Got a Right

I could completely obscure how I know the name Alejandro Escovedo, but that would really just be disingenuous, wouldn’t it? Truth be told, he does a duet with one Ryan Adams on Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac–one of my favourite records in the world–on a track called “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. A snide reviewer once noted that Adams’s music was inferior and a listener might be better off with Escovedo’s, seemingly unaware of this connection or, I later found out, a bit of a friendship between the two. That interview was what really pushed me to check Escovedo out for himself: in it, Adams said Escovedo shared an “outsider’s” perspective on love, being less defined by it than most and thus able to record it that much more acutely, in a strange way. He mentioned a song (“She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), referencing it as astonishingly sad and evocative emotionally–which was something that appealed to me a lot in Adams’s stuff, particularly that which he did with Whiskeytown.¹

I was out on a business trip in Iowa and Nebraska, which meant a lot of trips to the record stores in Omaha, where I found quite a few things of interest (to the point that I started to stress the space I’d quite deliberately left in my luggage for music to come back with me). One of those “things” was Real Animal: Escovedo’s third-to-last album at the time (back in June this year), on sale and predating the CD I’d picked up just previously but not much listened to (2010’s Street Songs of Love).
Between his appearance in Whiskeytown and his solo-named recordings (though he apparently also works in and “as” a few bands like Buick Mackane and Rank and File, as well as being in other bands over the years), I already had an itchy feeling this was an artist who would appeal to my father (who provided me with my first Whiskeytown album), and the fact that he’s from Texas–like my father–just furthers the notion. Even if he is associated most with Austin, the most atypical of Texas cities. Listening to the record (and being pushed by it into finally giving Street Songs of Love some spins), I’m still left pretty strongly with that impression–though there’s plenty of chance that he already knows him.
Anyway, the record starts with a nice rocker of a track, and possibly (maybe) my favourite on the whole record: “Always a Friend”. It’s a stuttering, staccato, jerky but warmly toned lone guitar that is suddenly embraced by the much softer tones (but voluminous and bright) of a string section and the rest of Escovedo’s band. “Wasn’t I always a friend to you?” Escovedo asks, then repeats it, his voice rising on the last two words this time. It’s a some what self-deprecating character: “I don’t care if I’m not your only one/What I see in you, you see in me/But if I do you wrong/Smoke my smokes/Drink my wine/Bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find”–the list comes out a capella and half-spoken, before the punchline comes, emphatic and frank: “Still be your lover, baby!” It’s not that he seems to shrug at these things, or plead, or anything so much as state the facts of his case: she can do wrong, so can he, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s the two of them, no matter what. A bit more realistic, perhaps, than most works that operate on that notion, and a damn fine song for that fact.
Escovedo begins to touch on his punk history (he was in the Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show) with “Chelsea Hotel ’78”–in which he indeed lived at the time. He ties it, of course, to fellow occupants of that hotel, most especially the most famous of the time: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Throbbing riffs sit uneasily beneath his descriptions of a near-mythological time and place, until they culiminate in a half-shouted chorus shot through with the sound of hands thrown into the air–“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense…” He has probably tied bits and pieces of that time together in ways that don’t match reality, but that is only that much more sense (ahem) considering the song’s overall tenor.

Finally dropping the mood if not the tempo, “Sister Lost Soul” is another excellent run: a very 60’s intro of pounding drums punctuated with an emphatic and loud snare hit that is let ring and echo for just a moment gives way to a much less dramatic and loud set of verses. Escovedo’s voice is calm and easy, describing the world in dark but fatalistic terms: “Nobody left unbroken/Nobody left unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are.” He manages to sneak in one of my favourite images ever, too: “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk,” before closing it with the line that defines the need for the song’s pleading chorus: “Only reminds me you’re not coming home.” In contrast to the raw confusion and chaos of the prior track, the pleas of the chorus stretch and wave across Escovedo’s voice: “Sister lost soul/Brother lost soul/I need you…” the economy of syllables letting that much more emphasis rest on each.

Apparently uninterested in letting an album that references his past slow down too much, “Smoke” is another chunk of rawness, riffing, and steady up-tempo drums. A blazing guitar lead winds its way across the top, riding high on bends and little twists and turns of the primary riffs and melody that are cool and familiar in that purely “rock” sort of sense. Susan Voelz contributes her violin to the track in a way that seems to glue the guitar to the rest of the track that much more perfectly, be it the lead or rhythm. They blend and blur around each other, following in such a way that uncareful listening can easily lead to the conclusion the violin is just a strange sound of playing from the guitar.

The second side of the record finally drops not just the mood but the tempo–perhaps logically, with a title like “Sensitive Boys”. Hector Munoz’s drumming doesn’t really shift into light playing, just lighter–there’s no betrayal of the record’s rock leanings here. The tenor of the song is fascinating: it’s a mix of poking fun at the excesses of the “sensitive boys”, pining for their return, and just a touch of nostalgia given away when “they” becomes “we”. There’s a nice, appropriately quiet wash of noise when he sings, “Turn your amps up loud”, conveying the idea without overtaking the song, and managing to weave it in correctly. One of the most full instrumental sections on the record, the arranged strings dart in lightly here and there, and an organ-styled keyboard underpins it all with sustained chords. Brad Grable contributes his only sax tracks, with both a baritone and a tenor, taking on a solo to follow the relaxed but confident guitar one. It’s breezy, reminiscent of both rock balladry usage and the romantic kind–but not in that uncomfortably saccharine style, which may be where the song most benefits from its unusual tone.

“People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)” has a great swinging gait: Munoz’s drums groove and rock back and forth, while Voelz’s violin draws the low-slung lines connecting the beats, guitars traveling in jagged zigs along that same line. The whole track nearly stops for the chorus’s final repetition of “We’re only gonna live…” to let Alejandro clarify: “We’ve still got time…/But never quite as much as we think”. It’s not a warning, though, so much as paean to people in general, which he finally states at the end, giving a small list of types of people that the track fades out on, mentioning that he loves them.

Producer Visconti brings back the synthetic strings he previously used in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” in “Golden Bear”–that slight warble of high-pitched faux-strings, though with a much less central place in the track. Where in that track it established itself immediately as an auditory focal point, here it is just an accent on the more “standard band” framework of the track, though guitars are split between palm-muted and tightly played notes and sweeping pedal-reverbed open chords allowed to ring. The tightened corners of the verse are let slip completely for a cavernous unanswered question of a chorus: in the background, the rest of the group sings “Golden bear is burning down” in a crowded muddle that doesn’t emphasize the words and instead forms a bed for Escovedo’s drawn out rhetorical question: “Oh…why me?”

If you’ve been paying attention, the reason “Nuns Song” is titled what it is should be no surprise–and no, it does not have to do with the kind of habits that go on heads. The intro is spare and sharpened: pounding, barely restrained drums and tightly wound guitar repeating as Escovedo sings in his past: “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great…” A few more lines and that great call: “Kill it!” Alejandro yells, not to be heard enunciating by listeners, but to kick the band into gear–hey, even if the vocals were recorded last, doesn’t matter–and the restraints drop, Munoz pounding and then running across the toms to open the band, guitars wailing, background vocals more literally doing the same as they rip into the chorus. Now coiled again, the band is still more complete with strong violin laid across the top, lightly tapping keyboard lines (from Visconti, this time) and more present bass. When the chorus opens up again, it doesn’t have that great kick into gear, but a different kind, as it gives way to a buzzing and wild guitar solo. Much like “Chelsea Hotel 78”, the final portion of the track is chaotic lyrically, vaguely bizarre, but evocative–and backed by a searing, seemingly uncontrolled guitar solo that is eerie, unexpected, and yet entirely right.

The album doesn’t quite have a title track, but “Real as an Animal” is pretty damned close. A Stooge-like pounding, rocking intro doesn’t really lose its energy when the chorus hits, Munoz pounding on skins like an animal (perhaps even like Animal, now that I think about it…). Were it not for the more Americana-inflections of the chorus, this could easily have been a well-produced proto-punk style track. The chunky riffs and melodic rises are highly reminisicent, but that chorus (“La la la la yeah, animal…”) and its backed vocals give away the secret. Escovedo wrestles even the chorus back almost, though: he sidles the melodic vocals most of it uses into shouts of the song’s title, punctuated and clearly delineated words–“Real. As. An. A-ni-mal,” repeated as if a mantra to let his punk past restake its claim on the song.

Quite unexpectedly, “Hollywood Hills” has an intro of nothing but arranged strings that contrast fully with that previous track’s sonic struggle. When Escovedo enters, it’s only with clean guitars, and mostly solo strings. More strings join these sounds and make way for the chorus, which seems designed to fill out the song with grand declarations and the movement of a moment a chorus of voices would join: “Happiness can’t be bought or sold/You shared what you had/But you gave me your love…” It’s the kind of (rather mild, to be fair) crescendo that doesn’t betray the acoustic inflections of the track, but builds it up despite that. Somewhat naturally, it closes with just Alejandro and guitar again, fading naturally with quieter singing and playing, with a thoughtfully placed keyboard chord lightly dropped at the end as punctuation.

“Swallows of San Juan” opens with its chorus, and neatly defines not only the lyrical content but the song’s own feeling with its final lines: “Like the swallows of San Juan/I’m gonna get back…someday.” That present nostalgia, the kind of distant declaration that has only emotional weight behind it, no plans or clear intentions to arrive at it. While “Hollywood Hills” is more delicate, “Swallows” may be lighter, with its sustained keyboards and strings, an easy, tired gait–that wistful look backward that is backed by the conviction of nostalgia and real desire to return.

Semi-rockabilly drum pounding gives away the feel of “Chip n’ Tony”, which saws back and forth across the 1&2 3&4 thumps of Munoz’s drums. Even where the guitars fade back to make room for Escovedo’s voice, Munoz is relentless, giving the tracks just a little tinge of that Bo Diddley gait without really quite reaching it. It’s the kind of track that calls out for hand claps in its way, but smartly avoids them in this particular recording–it would have cut through the aggression of the track inappropriately, as the approach of this band and Alejandro’s voice already slices off just the right sliver of aggression to keep it friendly, and anything more would drop it into the wrong place.

“Slow Down” does exactly that: one of the handful of downtempo tracks, it’s quavering guitars and languorous pacing. Plucked strings tinge it with something brighter than the down-trodden tone of Escovedo’s singing. It’s the culmination of everything from before: “”Slow down, slow down/It’s moving much too fast/I can’t live in this moment/When I’m tangled in the past”. All the recitations of memories past, of life lessons and influences we’ve been played on the prior three sides are all the tangles of life Escovedo himself is reliving and reciting, trying to find his way to the present–a present that, in fact, was something new, in its way, to him. Not long before this, after all, he’d been ill enough hepatitis-C (incurring even a tribute album to cover medical expenses) to leave the present and future a question. All of this makes it the perfectly logical conclusion to the album–which it is, on compact disc and most digital formats.

However, exclusive to the vinyl, we have “Falling in Love Again”, a quietly romantic song, with flecks of passion infused into it. It’s an interesting and appropriate coda to the record, as if it is the epilogue announcing and explaining the search for the present and finding a place in it, maybe even a momentary cause for sifting through the past for the moments that are held and retained. It’s one of the more unique vinyl bonus tracks, in that it is simply not to be found in any other format I’ve ever seen–no compilations, singles, promos, digital releases [unfortunately for more portable formats, there’s not even a digital download included with this record] or anything, it’s only here.

More appropriate as “bonus” and “exclusive”, we close out side four with a cover of Iggy/The Stooges’ “I Got a Right”. It’s one of those historically muddled tracks, as the career of Iggy goes–the Stooges were recently dissolved, his drug addictions were short-circuiting his career, and he hadn’t yet left with Bowie to record his breakout solo records (most famously, I suppose, Lust for Life) when it was released, but it had been recorded years earlier anyway, and was one of many stop-gap releases attempting to keep his reputation (and sales…) alive. It was originally credited to “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”, the latter being the latter-day Stooges guitarist who entered after 1970’s Fun House, pushing former guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and who then came to define much of 1973’s Raw Power guitar sound (the record being originally produced by David Bowie). As such, it may be the perfect choice to follow discussions of the past and their interminglings with the future, by revisiting the time more completely in covering a song from the early 70s, though one released near the end of that decade. Escovedo and crew do it serious credit, with Alejandro straining his voice to reach the snarling sneer of Pop while not giving up his own identity, and Visconti’s strings (!) enhancing the track in an unexpected way for such a raucous classic.

Other than my brief “cameo” introduction, this was my first experience of Escovedo–certainly, then, my first experience of him as solo artist. I’ve begun to gather many more releases in the time since then, including Bloodshot Records’ release of A Man Under the Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition, which has a number of compilation and EP tracks attached in a similar fashion to those attached here, but does make them available for download (or at least, four years after release, did so for me after a quick e-mail–a service that renders me grateful and interested in dropping that little plug!). I’ve found myself revisiting a number of tracks from this release in the near-month since I first started writing this entry, before being delayed and distracted by work and the social attachments that come with it. I am definitely glad to have made this trip, and for the number of re-listens that drawn out writing time has given it. This is a damn fine rock record, which I heartily recommend checking out.

¹That interview, which is with both artists, is here on No Depression’s site (of course), from right around the release of Strangers Almanac, which, incidentally, I gushed over at my old blog. It has gotten interesting attention–the author of a DRA biography commented on it and has linked to it (!), and Caitlin Cary herself found it apparently rather flattering and invigorating, it seems (if, apparently, deceptive in its impression that they had carefully plotted the album or anything like that).

Day Fifty-Four: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

Earache/Wicked World ■ WICK011LP


Released April 11, 2000

Produced by Piotr Wiwczarek (aka “Peter (VADER)”)




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Winds of Creation
  2. Blessed
  3. The First Damned
  4. Way to Salvation
  1. The Eye of Horus
  2. Human’s Dust
  3. Nine Steps
  4. Danse Macabre
  5. Mandatory Suicide

In discussing metal, I typically refer clearly–at some point, anyway–to my first ever “real” metal band, which was Morbid Angel.¹ Indeed, it was their second album, Blessed Are the Sick that really “clicked” with me finally, once I was able to get used to David Vincent’s vocals (and thus, forever after, the “cookie monster” growling that typifies death metal at large). I actually ordered the album direct from their label, Earache, at the time, back when I was still in high school. Coupled with it were a handful of stickers for other bands, like December Wolves and, well, Decapitated. Because I still knew so little about metal, I took those two names as inspiration for further exploration–and, hey, I was an eMusic Unlimited member at the time (when there still was such a thing), which meant their partnership with Earache opened the door for me to try just about anything I felt like that they recommended.


I snagged Winds of Creation readily back then, and found myself pleased (December Wolves did not go over so well, but that’s largely because they were not and are not strictly death metal, which is what I was looking for at that time–in fact, they were triggered-drum-heavy black metal, which was still a very foreign thing to me). I picked up 2002’s Nihility as well, eventually even ordering it on the massive 220g vinyl that I also ordered Slaughter of the Soul on, at the same time. Winds of Creation ended up on one of my “I want to blast this metal” CDs (most of them paired with other albums) I burnt in those days, but Nihility eventually took over for me, largely on the back of the album’s single “Spheres of Madness”–which, let me emphasize, has an absolutely killer main riff. Of course, if you wander around and compare ratings (such as those at the stupendously comprehensive Encyclopædia Metallum²) you will find Winds consistently receives the highest ratings out of all of their albums (and note that The Negation slips significantly after Nihility, and that the last two albums get passable scores at best).
Truth be told, Winds of Creation is a superior album overall. I still have a soft spot for Nihility and will often claim it as favoured personally, but I have to admit that the production, in particular, gives Winds the edge (Nihility is comparatively “dry” in production–intensely so, in fact). It was with this in mind–as well as a personal desire for ownership–that I ended up snagging Winds of Creation only a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to give the album more spins, simply because it doesn’t have a song that completely breaks up the feel like “Spheres of Madness”, so there’s not as distinct a hook. Throw in the fact that it was actually issued on vinyl (this happened in 2010) and on coloured vinyl at that, and it was a given.
While I’ve never noticed as strong a hook as the riff in “Spheres of Madness”, the opening of Winds of Creation, the title track, is a fantastic opener which doesn’t rely on the studio-based radio fuzz that opens Nihility. Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka’s drums are absurdly precise, and create a distinct and rigid backing for his older brother Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka’s guitar riffs, before he unleashes his frighteningly rapid double-kick, which eventually launches the album into the stratosphere and makes room for the lean, muscular riffs of Vogg to streak up the sides of the song. Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz has a wonderful growl: his vocal rhythms are strange and hard to follow, and masked somewhat by his rather distinct Polish accent (when you can match his words to the written lyrics, you can hear it easily, and it became more clear in Nihility where his voice was more clear in general). The song is pummeling and serves as a fantastic introduction to the band, who had previously recorded only demos, some of which were released on the compilation Polish Assault previously, but otherwise unreleased publicly. The finale of the song returns it all to the breakneck pacing it saw only briefly earlier, and allows Marcin “Martin” Rygiel’s bass to appear for one of the only times it is audible on the record (an unfortunately common truth particular to extreme metal subgenres), that gives the song some very clear punctuation.
“Blessed” almost eases into place after the title track, with the actual playing speed undiminished, but the feel of the tempo seeming to connote a lesser emphasis on it–which does actually make Vogg’s riffs all the more blinding for their solitary choice of speed. Vitek and his brother blurr into a chaotic whirlwind as the first verse is introduced, Sauron’s voice blurring into the low end of the song fantastically. Vogg is given the briefest of spotlights, alone in the left channel, to which Vitek responds with deep thudding finality. After a low-end focus in the second verse portion, Vogg’s riffs seem to flash alongside as if they are the flames licking the sides of a rumbling engine–be they painted or real. There’s a wonderful breakdown of riffs that seem to stretch instead of chugging independently, buoyed by Martin’s matching bassline. Shifting tempos and movements are defined by a variety of riffs and drum beats. The ending speeds the song through a clearly locked snare and then charging riffs. Vogg drops a brilliant solo composed almost entirely of bends, that finally claims to an apex of bends. The way Vitek lays splash, ride, and snare over his rumbling engine of double-kick is something to behold, as if you could see him speeding beyond his bandmates, utterly unaware as they would seemingly need to struggle to ever catch up.
Also given as the name of the compilation of their demo recordings (which also contained a version of the song, as well as numerous others later re-recorded for this album), “The First Damned” washes in like a thickened tide, building from Vogg’s isolated guitar to a full-stereo sound from him and Vitek. The main riff comes along and it’s a long stretch of tremolo picking that gives that wonderful “appearance” of a single strike being held (almost). The pacing is actually reduced in large part for this one–Vitek does not actually drop to simple blast beats, but his beats are less dominated by double-kick then they have been to this point. The second riff is lovely and bendy, seeming to pose itself as a question in response to Sauron’s vocals. The track has the most “normal” solo on the album, in that it is not defined primarily by the “tap” method of playing (wherein the player taps his or her fingers on the strings of the guitar using the picking hand, rather than picking them with plectrum or fingers). It’s a delightful solo, which seems to act as a sudden spike in the established riffing, increasing speed and range, even as it, too, seems a bit “slow” as compared to the rest. The leads are also a bit more melodic in the track, though they give way to another isolated, left-channel riff that acts as herald to the forward rush of the song’s full return. It’s also unusual in its ending, allowing a sustained hold to ring, rather than fading or stopping abruptly.
Somewhat inexplicably, the lyrics to “Way to Salvation” are not printed in my vinyl or CD copy of this album, but that doesn’t reflect on the song itself. A nice balance of hand and foot drumming is marked by a scrabbling of riffs from Vogg. His guitar is practically unleashed as Sauron’s voice enters the track, seeming to splay and rush in all directions. The lead is one of the best full leads on the album, climbing to higher pitches than Vogg normally favours, and being possibly even double-tracked for a semi-harmonized stereo effect that is exaggerated by the guitar track’s absence in one channel prior to this effect. Vitek gets to throw in a fill that shows off his skill without breaking up the song, even as it does bring the song to a slowed tempo as if pulling at the reins–Vitek’s drumming is slowed for what might be the only time on the album, as is Vogg’s solo, which seems to be throwing in the exertion of a very steep climb as it makes its way along, occasionally stopping at a “plateau” for a seeming aside to listeners, sounding just slightly like the “Egyptian” tones of Nile for a moment, but regaining its own spirit, which has the slight pinches and squeals of Azagthoth-style³ soloing hidden in it. A semi-hypnotic, still slowed ending follows from this and is allowed to simply fade out, which seems only appropriate for the turn it has taken.
“The Eye of Horus” follows a similar path to the title track, with Vitek’s drums acting as a very strict skeleton for Vogg’s riffs at open, but filling in tendon and sinew as his double-kicks enter the fray. It’s one of the thrashiest tracks on the album, Sauron struggling to spit out his words in time. The haltingly descending riffs Vogg lays down after the first verse are absolutely fantastic, and hint at the usage a similar one will see later on in “Nine Steps”. There’s a peculiar and spiralling, chunky mid-section that ends each of Sauron’s following lines, seeming to circle itself to avoid tripping, eventually finding its gait and slinking along on the smooth tremolo we heard in “The First Damned”. Vogg’s solo is distorted and strange–perhaps even more Azagthoth-y, for its vague dissonance and experimental nature, though as is true of most, it maintains just a bit more melodicism than Trey’s usual blasts of “lava”. The outro is another fade, but it manages to include some flashes of lead we don’t hear a lot of in a single-guitarist band.
“Human’s Dust” seems to be designed to prove that the band has been holding weapons in reserve–the song drops out of the sky fully formed and thick with riff and drum, but breaks itself apart to a bare bones snare-based interlude that turns it to a near black-metal blastbeat-styled passage. Never ones to make their time signature changes and tempo shifts obvious or clumsy, the song seems to shift and change them more readily and constantly than the entire rest of the album, allowing for a solo that combines elements of all the previous ones–perhaps an apex in style, if not flavour. It bends, taps, squeals, and slides along into airy blasts of tremolo arm modulated gusts. 
Ah, “Nine Steps”. The only rest we’re given before it is the pummeling pounding of Vitek on toms and snare, which lead into a similarly isolated riff from Vogg that is dragged into the maelstrom by Vitek’s slide in on the ride cymbal. The song takes off, Vogg racing over the top of it with his amalgamated lead and rhythm riffing, a few hints of Slayer-esque riffage that are then buried into a more Decapitated-signature sound. There’s a sort of skating riff over an unusual drum beat composed of tight hi-hat rhythmic hissing, which is completely unexpected at this point, yet utterly fitting. But in all of this, the lead is to the best riff on the album: at about two minutes in, the song climbs ever upward and then zooms off, building intense energy that isn’t clearly anticipatory, seemingly resolved by the booming of Vitek’s drums announces the high end tremolo riffing of Vogg. He lays out a stupendously blurred solo that seems to slow the song down to a chugging riff that repeats to only the hiss of ride before the briefest of pauses, hovering on the brink, then leaping off to zig-zag from channel to channel as it descends. The riff is a sudden change in feel and that brilliant moment before it drops down only serves to make the drop that much more delicious, ending the song on its third repetition, quite abruptly.
As is often the case with metal bands, “Dance Macabre” appears at the end, not unlike “The Flames of the End” appearing at the end of Slaughter of the Soul, though this more closely resembles the booming, ominous synthetic inclusions of black metal bands, such as the earliest moments of Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. It functions best as an outro, of course–it would come off strangely, at best, in the middle of the album. It is a nice vent for the heat the album has built to this point though–moody, spooky, like a cult horror soundtrack (hence the association with “The Flames of the End”).
The vinyl includes the previously international-only (don’t ask me which international–maybe their home Polish version lacked it, or Earache’s home UK, or the U.S. version, or maybe none of them–it’s not a genre prone to meticulous record-keeping, to be honest) cover of Slayer’s 1988 South of Heaven track “Mandatory Suicide”. Our Polish boys speed it up only slightly, and give it the more full crunch of death metal–somewhat “thicker” than the mid-high orientation of late 80s metal production and thrash metal in general. Sauron’s voice continues to be an interesting surprise, especially when compared to the already somewhat higher pitches of Tom Araya–nevermind when compared to the booming rumble of our young Polish lad. As “bonus tracks” go with covers–there’s not much to say beyond the quality: it’s a nimble and appropriate cover, that manages to blur their style in with the original, neither laying an overt kind of mutated claim to it, nor merely servicing it.
Decapitated’s biggest claim to fame I have thankfully left out until now: At the time of recording, Sauron was 17 years old, as was Vogg. Martin was 15. And Vogg’s little brother? Vitek had just turned 15 himself. As if that wasn’t “bad” enough, they recorded and released their first–very professionally performed–demo two years earlier.
This is a ridiculously professional, well-played, well-recorded, and well-written album–it can easily stand next to seasoned professionals, and clobber almost any starters. It doesn’t make a big deal out of its technicalities, nor fail to achieve them in the first place. If, indeed, it’s not so complicated as it sounds to my unprofessional ears (though that is one thing I’ve never heard contested about the band, even by the snobs), it’s still well done enough that it sure as hell sounds like it. And that’s an unbelievable strength, especially in a sub-sub-genre like “technical death metal”. And no, I didn’t make that up. It’s occasionally crossed with (indeed, sometimes synonymous with) “brutal death metal”, a designator that generally indicates the unfamiliar should be wary, as much of what I’m still wont to call “wankery” is likely to be present–that is, the masturbatory self-indulgences of proving technical skill. While Decapitated may prove they have exactly that, they don’t do so at the expense of songwriting at any moment on the album.
I may have softened to the idea of “brutal” or “technical” death metal in general–or, perhaps, Decapitated helped it to grow on me in the first place. Certainly, it was because of Sauron’s constant appearances in Immolation shirts that I eventually picked up that incredibly excellent band that occupies the same genre-space–even rendering my favourite “tech-death” album of all: Close to a World Below. They also helped to refine my taste in death metal, to direct me somewhat toward what I would like later, and away from the sinking notion that, in my limited ability to explore (as well as the handful of recommendations I had to receive then), I was stuck with the “gore-porn” lyrics that once defined death metal (I’m not a Cannibal Corpse fan, though I do love the heck out of Carcass). Despite the name, Decapitated effectively never touched on this–their album titles as well as their song titles seem to make that clear, but I’ll state it openly here as well. They’re lyrics that reflect–well, misanthropy and nihilism, perhaps most explicitly stated in the title track from their second album: “Nihility (Anti-Human Manifesto)”–there’s no sense of elitist dismissal of others, so much as full-on, general misanthropy, and blame laid at the feet of an all-too-deserving human race.
I also can’t say enough about Sauron’s voice: it defines much of what I want out of a death metal vocalist, as he sounds somewhat inhuman, but not as if it’s a strain so much as a shift in gears for him. Some vocalists grate, others are ho-hum, but Sauron’s perfect blend–sometimes criticized for this–manages to insinuate itself more completely into the band’s music and function perfectly on that level.
I know, as always, my endorsement of a metal album is meaningless to metal fans and worse to those who hate the genre, but this album receives my highest recommendations all the same. The band wandered into entirely different territory that was hinted at with The Negation and fully realized after Sauron was replaced by Adrian “Covan” Kowanek for Organic Hallucinosis, furthered yet by the exit of all but Vogg for 2011’s Carnival Is Forever. Of course, the interceding years were distinctly unkind to the band: in 2007, a bus accident left then-vocalist Covan in a coma, and killed the 23-year old Vitek. Sadly, this is now the new face of the band’s immediate introductions. Would that we were still just talking about how young they all are.
In any case, if you are willing to look into a full-fledged metal album and its aggression, give this one a spin–if you’re open to the idea, there’s no way it could disappoint.
¹Interestingly, Vogg auditioned to be the second guitarist for Morbid Angel, after Erik Rutan left to take on Hate Eternal full time. Funny, these “full circle” things.
²If you stop and peruse those reviews: welcome to the online metal community. Never will you find more harsh critics determined to convince others of the quality of their taste, and their superiority to almost any offering. Strict personal rules are applied vindictively, and no leeway is given to…anything. I didn’t last long, taste-wise, in such communities. I never do. Still, you will find that, barring the absurdly negative reviews of Nihility, it ends up just below Winds of Creation. Their (adjusted) scores are approximately 86% and 93% respectively, which also lines up with anecdotal experience of opinions. But, seriously, I don’t recommend dealing with the self-important nonsense that bleeds into that community endlessly. It’s tiresome posturing and pissing contests in almost every internet incarnation. When I saw Decapitated live, however, it was the most polite show I’ve ever been to, despite them playing along with Suffocation–unlike the more popular forms of aggressive music, everyone was given space and allowed to go about things in their own way. 
³Trey Azagthoth (aka George Emmanuelle III, no I’m not kidding) is the guitarist for Morbid Angel. He refers to his solos as “lava”, at least with respect to the compilation of them entitled Love of Lava.

Day Thirty-Eight: The Church – Untitled #23

Unorthodox/Second Motion Records ■ LP-SMR-012

Released March 6, 2009
Recorded by Jorden Brebach, timEbandit Powles, David Trump, and David Skeet
Mixed by David Trump with timEbandit Powles(S1-1,2,3; S2-4), Jorden Brebach (S1-4; S2-1,2,3; S3-1,2,3,4), timEbandit Powles (S4), and Marty Willson-Piper (S3-3)


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cobalt Blue
  2. Deadman’s Hand
  3. Pangaea
  4. Anchorage
  1. Happenstance
  2. Sunken Sun
  3. LLC*
  4. Operetta
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. On Angel St
  2. Lunar
  3. Insanity*
  4. Space Saviour
  1. So Love May Find Us*
Back when I wrote about Burning Airlines’ Identikit, I decided to be a smartypants and ask J. Robbins and Peter Moffett for opinions on where to go with that entry, and got different responses from each. It did, however, help to decide which release to go with that time. When I started planning ahead for my next polls (after the onslaught around artists starting with “B”) I saw that I had the Church in the running. I actually typed up that poll (Untitled #23 vs. Starfish) and then decided that, since he had actually passed along my previous writing about the Church (now and forever the most popular post on that blog, as a result!), I would ask Steve Kilbey for input here. After doing so, I started pondering asking Marty Willson-Piper, and maybe even Peter Koppes, just to get a well-rounded set of responses, if I could, but I was surprised to get a response from Mr. Kilbey almost immediately. Without any demands, he simply told me he’d prefer I write about Untitled #23, without question (as I had asked specifically if he had a preference). When that response came in, I thought about it. I realized that, most likely, he said this because, well, if there’s a Church album people know about–it’s Starfish. It seemed, then, like it would be the right thing in all senses to follow his wishes. I took down the poll (few if any even saw it), and marked Untitled #23 for writing today.
I’ve already written about how I stumbled into the Church (the link above will take you there, if you are curious), so I’ll go ahead and leave it at the most barebones note possible. The portion of it which relates to this very entry is as follows: while I knew their biggest single, I stumbled into some of their most recent work a decade ago by chance, and this was my most expansive introduction, and informed my understanding of how the band sounds almost more emphatically than even the song that was thoroughly ingrained in my head. It was a sound appropriate for my musical tastes at the time–I was deeply into post rock, and the sounds that lay within albums like After Everything Now This were not far off from that same sensibility.
Untitled #23, as a record, is a major variation on the album as it was released on CD. The three tracks I marked with an asterisk (*) above are not present on the CD version, and were released as the B-sides on the Pangaea EP. The order is also quite significantly shifted, with former closer “Operetta” moved to the end of Side Two, and “Space Saviour” shifted forward a full seven tracks–amongst other things. This does make for a bit of a change of pace, but the tracklisting’s overall changes, compared to just dropping the extra tracks at the end, work where they lay (or lie, I’m not too sure).
Steady, clear, patient drumming begins the album in “Cobalt Blue”, a gentle electronic noise fading in, before Steve Kilbey’s voice enters, guitars¹ shortly following and chord-based, one moving higher but holding with the other. “To go and mingle in my mind”, Kilbey sings, and his voice echoes and drifts upward, pulled back down as the bass enters. Acting as counter to the guitars and giving them a brighter feel, the bass expands the range of the song itself, filling out the lower end where it had been left clear for the opening. Each time Kilbey’s voice floats off into scattering reflections, there’s a sense of a soft light spreading across the track, though after one occurrence about halfway through it takes the guitars with it, and leaves a woodwind sound that is just a bit darker, shadows falling where we just saw light. A mumble of distant voices rises up under this as a solo manifests slowly; it’s not the kind that defies the work around it, or elevates its tone or feeling to another one, it expands on the existing mood, a mix of light and softened darkness. The drums walks the track out with four easy snare hits, two pauses, and four more. Despite the snare emphasis, it’s not a march, though, it’s a normal step, one that walks us gently into “Deadman’s Hand”.
Far more uptempo, but in no way suddenly upbeat, “Deadman’s Hand” is relentlessly catchy. The riff it comes in on is distorted, but the kind that eats at the edges of the sound, rather than explicitly defining it. It’s a dark, lower-pitched kind of riff, though it doesn’t have a downward motion to it: it’s more like the kind of sound that might once have stuck the band with the label “gothic” (which has happened), but is more, perhaps, Gothic, than it is “gothic rock”–the sense of wizened or aged darkness, rather than a simple implication of deliberately depressing material. Frank Kearns adds a 12-string ring over the top of this, one that adds to this sense, despite the tendency for 12-strings to often cheer things up. When Kilbey begins singing, it’s with his normal voice, but tempered with a clever production move that changes it in spite of itself: he’s singing gently, but with the lightest “echo” that gives it an extremely ethereal quality. That “echo” is other voices here, of course, doubtless those of Marty or Peter (or both), but so subdued as to sound like shadows of Kilbey’s own. It’s a weird feeling: the drumming is uptempo, but the overall sound manages to catch itself at either end, turning it into some kind of catchy pop/rock song filtered through a drain on the most energetic elements.
The last track in its original placement, “Pangaea” begins to introduce us to the sounds that permeate the rest of the album: the first moments are a blend of mixed sounds, including touches of harp from Patti Hood and scattered notes from multiple guitars. A 12-string and bass gently bring everything together as a light cymbal wash marks the actual change. Gently strumming 12-string, thumping bassline–the song is a wash of sound, accented by backing vocals that “Oooh” gently and prettily behind Steve’s voice, which has regained its usual edge: a certain sharpness to the baritone that is incredibly distinct, that enunciates clearly, yet with a sort of catch to this that is unbelievably appropriate for their music. It all feels like a spread of sound, warm and soft, with Kilbey’s sharpened voice cutting at it, as he sings, “You’ve got your hands/’Round my throat/You’ve got your voice/In my head”, a haunting response from the others adds, “No matter what”, his threats suddenly softened by the chorus: “Pangaea…” the edge dropped and the last syllable turned to a pretty little wave. The 12-string suddenly takes over, sliding expertly through a solo that runs counter to the staid cello of Sophie Glasson.
Moved from near the end of the album, “Anchorage” is langorous compared to the preceding tracks, but the wandering, subdued keys seem to pull it upward somewhat, small points of light dotting the sliding drums, the downed guitars that blend perfectly with the keys, the lower end balanced between the mournful draw of Glasson’s cello and the almost upbeat bassline. “Just the way the dead have felt/Nothing like the way my name is spelt/But I belt it out anyway” Steve sings, the serrations emphasized, defiant, as roaring distorted electrics build the track over huge drums and splash, the wave only a small one. Scattered electronic noises are left in its wake, as the track goes on, a guitar taking off on its own to make its point, not taking it past an extended lead. The lyrics are constructed as defiant and pained, but are mostly delivered in defiance, expressing the pain with more aggression than hurt. Harmonized briefly, it’s like others carrying Steve’s defiance up when it might falter. Alongside them, a blazing guitar and then another wave, this one much larger–but it backs away, too, and this time leaves a quite chorale, the sliding tick of hi-hat emphasized drumming and a hummingbird-heart bassline. If it weren’t so eloquently sung and performed, it would be like a monologue to the absent, spoken with the openness and pride of a drunk, but the awareness, the consistency make it, instead, heartfelt admission and confession.
“Happenstance” makes for a rather curious song: at first that clean and clear biting winter wind of Kilbey’s voice and steadily strummed 12-string, tom-heavy drums and sliding bass–but then the upward curve of a higher tone turns it to something almost sunny, as Kilbey intones “Happenstance…” with just a touch of variation in each channel to give a fuller dimension to the sound. Near a whisper, Willson-Piper breathily adds a voice almost like a memory to this interruption, before that shine of lazy sun fans across it again. The trading voices of Steve and Marty, and the shining final peak of sound gives the song a feeling of relaxation almost narrated by both the present and the past.
Clanging bells and a soft buzz call “Sunken Sun” into place, though the song itself is an expansion of the sound of “Happenstance”, warm and easy resignation created with a guitar that climbs up, curious, to land on a ringing chord that is warm but expansive. As a line ends and a drum beat sounds, an operatic keyboard voice holds over empty space, ringing, echoing guitar that strikes with a sustained bass note falls across it, until it all hushes and returns to the calmness of the opening. One of the most striking solos on the album meanders in near the end of the track, never showing off at all, just growing naturally from the space it is left, often holding notes for extended periods, rather than cramming as many in as possible. It’s a beautifully organic extension of the song’s tone. The song fades off with those echoing guitar chords, clear and bright, but balanced by their companion chord into a sort of pained recollection of happy memory.
The first track to appear on the vinyl and not on the CD, “LLC” was given lyrics (and vocals) by Peter Koppes (as opposed to the usual Kilbey). A fantastic oscillating 12-string melody is the anchor of the song as a whole, and runs through all but . Much cheerier than anything previous (allegedly the cause for keeping the track off the album originally), it shifts into a predictive bridge and then a more steady chorus, before returning to that delightful 12-string run. A subtle lead holds and blends behind it, only taking real control at the very end with a rapid, twisting outro.
Originally the album’s closer, “Operetta” oddly fits in the same way as closer for Side Two and thus half the album. Strong keys and gently waving guitar eases the song into place, a seemingly endless sustain and echo on the spaced guitar chords emphasize the feeling of ends, of the music filtering out into the expanses. Overlapped, harmonized vocals and deep, low keys mark the chorus, like all preceding sounds and voices coming together by design to tie things together. This is how the song ends, too, slowly losing each layer until it is left as just a bending bass and drums, fading to nothing.
“On Angel Street” manages the neat trick of continuing without a lost beat from a track that could have ended the album. A long-held bass note accentuates a series of repeated keyboard notes and a wandering guitar. When Steve’s voice is added to this, it’s the sound of a singer alone, the keys keeping a full musicality in place, but making apparent the ambient nature of the song. The sounds are almost like blinking lights or quiet warning sirens, a backing to the voice that doesn’t imply furthered sentience or emotional presence, even as their slow shift between notes creates the emotional sense of the song. Wavering and wailing guitar leads come and enter like ghosts–beautiful but transient. That this does not end up coming off like a novelty, or an interlude, or some other kind of “fluff” is some kind of amazing.
Previously the penultimate track, “Lunar” has shifted backward only slightly (unless one counts running time). A lone woodwind starts the track as vaguely pastoral, a huge wash of ringing cymbal and the slow, resonating guitar chords setting up the slightly backed-up voice of Steve, thumping drums hinting at what is to come when a bassline filled with energy and activity absent from the other instruments comes in, churning the low end and attempting to push life into the adjacent instruments in their slowed tempos. It’s ineffective and everything falls away to a an echo-laden voice from Steve, on beat instruments, and then it seems to gain life, only to leave nothing but the woodwinds alone in its wake again.
“Insanity” is the other track that let’s Kilbey’s voice rest, as Marty Willson-Piper takes over, confident guitars stepping in ahead of the rest of the band, though when he begins singing–“It’s just insanity,” the operative word is “just”: it has a shrug to it, as if to suggest that there’s nothing to be concerned about. It works upward with each line, releasing at the end of them. It’s cheerier, even as it does not move any more rapidly. This isn’t to say it’s actually cheerful, it’s just not as…Romantic (that capital “R” is intentional). Marty’s voice goes vaguely Dylan-like, as he suggests the possibility that maybe it doesn’t make sense to ascribe the ways of the world to a divine plan, that it’s easier to see it as all random, and anything else might be, well…²
Oh, the guitar that opens “Space Saviour”; it carries just the right tone and effects, the slight watered sound and firm pull of the strings making it viscerally appealing without requiring or exhibiting the kind of feeling that a blues-inflected kind might. The steady on-beat guitar chords form a simple backing as Steve sings with the kind of voice that feels like he’s pushing it with as much power as he can–not volume, mind you, just force. The thumping four beats on drum matched with gradually opening splash are the perfect crescendo of repetition for the repeated needs of Kilbey’s words: “And I’ve gotta get up/And I’ve gotta get on/And I’ve gotta get off/And I’ve gotta get out…” When they fall away, the opening riff returns, and the drums turn to the thump and hi-hat of anticipatory restraint, as Kilbey intones calmly, gradually building back to that huge and determined parallel repetition. The song finally splinters and spreads, before leaving itself, to a watery, circling guitar that plays alone for just a moment before being left to hang.
When I noted that “Lunar” was only briefly re-arranged but with a qualifier, “So Love May Find Us” was, in essence, the entirey of that qualification. “So Love May Find Us” has a 17:48 runtime, and…I’m not sure I could, in good faith, attempt to walk anyone through it. This is not the kind of lengthy track that’s arranged around droning repetition for atmosphere, nor constant builds toward huge moments (like “Atom Heart Mother” does), nor cobbled together songs. It’s too well designed to feel like a completely improvised jam, especially with those tasty guitars in the first few minutes, shot out only every few moments, strong and clear, and hinting at a future threat. The drumming is controlled and low at the start, jazzy and interesting, burning quietly with the promise of future expanse. Eventually it begins to rumble, a solo of immense and unusual nature placing itself like a flag at the first third, marking the moment at which Glasson’s cello and Michael Bridge’s violin take precedent. For a short time, the song is more ambient than anything else, the bass drawing Steve’s voice back in with keys, before the drums finally fulfill the promise laid out earlier–not huge and aggressive, just free-wheeling and free-ranging, hi-hat traded for ride, fills and rolls eventually morphing into the standing beat. The song seems to end, hovering on ride, slowing keys, choral backing–but the bass draws it back in, the ride increasing in power, but easing off as the song shifts into a continued downtempo phrasing, ending with an excellent drum pass and a final wavering, splintering fade off.
The Church are often plagued by that comment: “Wait, the one from the 80s?” and there’s really no quality justification for it. They’ve released music with some regularity since that time, even as they’ve wobbled around the centrepoints that are Marty and Steve, Koppes taking a brief hiatus in the 90s. Their work has been generally well-regarded in all this time, even outside the fanbase. Untitled #23 was hailed as a supreme work, and justifiably so. This album is stunningly beautiful. It carries sounds you could ascribe to sources like post rock, yet when you try to pin them down, you realize it’s only a faint reminder. Neither treading their own water, nor anyone else’s, they’ve evolved steadily over the years within the very wide boundaries of their own sound. Bands with long histories often suffer obnoxious repetition of commentary–I’ve seen members of Pere Ubu incensed that their new album is not so much reviewed badly, as reviewed poorly, always referencing thirty year old albums as if that’s the only touchstone for a professional review, despite consistent releases all the way through now. They complained, too, of “Wow, they can still rock…” comments, which are similarly useless.
I suppose I could estimate how old the members of the Church were in 2009, but it doesn’t really matter. It isn’t impressive that anyone can still play at any age, nor that they can play well. It isn’t impressive that a band just isn’t releasing dreck after nearly thirty years either. What is impressive is the strength of identity in an album released almost 29 years after their first single. There’s no sense of struggling to maintain an established sound, or of flailing wildly for an entirely new one. No sense of tired, uncomfortable, should-have-retired-but-just-won’t recycling or cashing in. If a new band had released this work out of nowhere, it would be stunning. If any other long established band had released this work after a long hiatus, or even after working steadily, it would be stunning. And so this is: it’s not the sound of finally realized maturity, or of experimentation finally succeeding at re-lighting torches, it’s the sound of honed quality.
There’s no easy word for the tone that pervades this album, even with the addition of Peter and Marty’s “happier” songs (“Insanity” and “LLC”), which actually fit quite well within the whole, perhaps because of the tempering of “So Love May Find Us”. It’s the sound of the Church: not “goth”, but wise, lean, artful, and clear, with enough darkness that a casual look might relegate them (again) to goth. The album art–Marty’s photos, and the design of his significant other, Tiare Helberg and Guppy Art’s Rachel Gutek–is brilliantly perfect. It’s the kind of design and image that you can get lost in alongside the music. It’s simple and clean, all deep rust and cross-hatched off-white, but a close looks shows you thick, peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is more of the same: the way the off white left side jumps out from the dark red of the exterior, the way the thick, peeling pale red of the right moves against it–it’s nothing at all and everything at once, whatever you want, need, or feel it to be, because it doesn’t openly declare anything about the music contained. The nonchalant font, the ambiguous (or plain) title, the lack of uppercase on the exterior, it’s brilliant for preventing preconceived notions.
This isn’t an album to have a big happy dance party to, no. And, while you could take it as a possibly uneasy lullaby, it has so much energy despite the slower tempos that it remains engaging, and perhaps more engaging than much of music is. I found myself completely aware but closing my eyes throughout listening, a feeling almost like waking during a solo in “So Love May Find Us”, yet bewildered as I could recall everything I had heard up to that point in the piece, as if it has nearly hypnotized me. It’s too at ease with itself to feel overly contrived, yet too tight to feel lazy and random.
I could question the fact that this album has not made “the rounds” of the music community, but nothing is so simple as quality imbuing a work with legs. And that’s a truly unfortunate truth.
¹I am normally inclined to ascribe names to instruments, but they traded up enough on this album that I’m simply not going to bother, except where guests appear (who are specifically credit to instruments on tracks!)
²As I’m sometimes wary of misheard words, I decided to peruse lyrical transcriptions of “Insanity” and found someone who managed to completely ignore the clear moments that define these aspects: “And it’s full of holes, this Holy Bible” became “And it’s full of holes is your only rival”, and “unless it’s just a myth and” to “and let’s just admit that”. It almost looks like censoring, or willful refusal. For a moment, I thought I’d imagined things, but, no, that’s definitely what he’s singing. And, strangely–these are the only transcriptions I can find. I do sometimes wonder about people…
  • Next Up: Eric Clapton – Slowhand

Day Thirty-One: Burning Airlines – Identikit

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR044

Released May 8, 2001¹
Recorded by John Agnello with Jake Mossman; J. Robbins and Burning airlines
Mixed by John Agnello with J. Robbins, Mike Harbin, and Peter Moffett
Mastered by Alan douches
¹This expanded vinyl released 11/16/2012



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Outside the Aviary
  2. Morricone Dancehall
  3. A Lexicon
  4. The Deluxe War Baby
  5. A Song with No Words
  6. All Sincerity
  7. The Surgeon’s House
  8. Everything Here Is New
  1. Paper Crowns
  2. Blind Trial
  3. Identikit
  4. Tastykake
  5. Earthbound
  6. Election-Night Special
  7. Dear Hilary
  8. Action
Track listing note: many of the tracks are shuffled from their listed order, but the above is the order in which they actually play. “The Deluxe War Baby” is shifted to its place above from being listed between “The Surgeon’s House” and “Everything Here Is New”. “Election-Night Special” is listed between “Identikit” and “Tastykake”. The lyrics are also printed in this written order, not the order in which they play.
Out of all the polls I’ve run, I had a feeling (much like I suspected March on Electric Children would be the least acknowledged entry so far) Burning Airlines would be the most “difficult” vote to squeeze out. I pushed pretty hard on the Boomtown Rats, but I sort of gave up with Burning Airlines. Most people I know are in the wrong music generation (regardless of their actual age) and/or scene to know Burning Airlines, and I know that is the one thing that really makes people reluctant to throw out a vote. I decided to get around this in a sneaky and vaguely ridiculous way: I actually asked J. Robbins (check those credits up top) and Peter Moffett if there was an album they’d prefer me to write on. Mr. Robbins’s been nothing but kind with my intermittent fawning and questions, and said very nice things about my writing on his previous band, Jawbox. On this he suggested I flip a coin to pick the album, and that he’d be happy I was writing about either, which I can understand and respect–there’s going to be plenty tied up in these for someone involved. I asked Mr. Moffett a bit more privately, and didn’t even catch the first notification that he’d actually answered. The response was just a single word: Identikit. It was a relief, in a way; a singular vote from another fan that wandered into my question to J. and voted for Mission: Control! which would have stuck me with another tie and, well, another coin toss, actually. I wanted to have something fresh and different to break this one up, though, and so Mr. Moffett gets a gracious thanks for taking the time to answer me and break the tie–even if it was before there was a tie!
As I mentioned, I wrote a lot about Jawbox on my last blog–or, at least, I wrote one really emphatic entry about them. A commenter (one of very few I ever saw!) suggested I check out J.’s other bands, and started with Burning Airlines (to be fair, they were in chronological order). Of course, in a weird way, it was actually Burning Airlines that inspired the basic level of interest anyway–this was the band that released a split with At the Drive-In after all. But their CDs seemed to be thoroughly out of print: I tried ordering one through my local record stores, and no dice (the other was more blatantly out of print). I put a word in with the record stores that new me and bought used music from customers, but it took months before I finally stumbled into one at Schoolkids in Raleigh, NC. And as my jaw dropped (really), I looked below it to find the other. They were slightly mangled, but fully playable, and I was happy as could be when I walked out of the store that day. I enjoyed the heck out of those albums, and it wasn’t more than a few more months when the release of both albums on vinyl was announced.
While J. has been in demand as a producer and released work with a few more bands, his son Callum has been a large part of where his energy has been focused, even publicly. Callum was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and the medical bills related to this are not the kind that are easy to deal with, so the vinyl release was announced as partly being another fundraiser for that reason. Between the excitement of the announcement–as well as the news that bonus tracks would be included–and the fact that part of each sale was going to help Callum, it was kind of a no-brainer to order up. Still, I was basically broke–between jobs, to some extent–so I worked out an advance Christmas present order from my parents to make sure I could get my hands on both, worried as I was about them disappearing.
I haven’t listened to them much, purely because they’re at the beginning of the alphabet, and I knew I’d get here soon (and that doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to the original CDs, my digital copies, my digital copies of related tracks, or the included expanded CDs!). I selected the colouring of this one out of the three available, much as I did with Mission: Control!, and settled on the colour I just didn’t have in my collection yet–the blue and white swirl. The availability of the two records from Arctic Rodeo themselves hints at something that surprised me in the album selection: Mission: Control! is the sold out album, was the first one I was told to listen to, and was the one voted for by a fan (outside the poll). It makes it interesting, then, that both Mr. Moffett and two people who did vote picked it in the end. It’s a happy sort of occurrence that I like for the very fact of its unexpected nature.
Arctic Rodeo packed the record in a resealable plastic sleeve, with the record in a plain white paper sleeve outside the actual cover to keep it from being split in transit–a nice bit of care that not even used sellers often bother with. They also allow for colour selection (though the red/black is all that’s left of Identikit, or with them at all from the band), which Dischord (the U.S. label that originally released the first two Jawbox albums, as well as the LPs from Channels and Office of Future Plans, both of them J. Robbins projects) does not provide, though they still have stock of both albums. Eventually, some more of their releases should be showing up in this blog, once they arrive (the label is in Germany, and has a smaller staff, but are very good about what they do).
Now, I said that Mission: Control! was the album that was singled out as good when I first picked up both Burning Airlines albums, but I picked up both of them at the same time. There was no intermediary period where I only had one to wear in before I heard the other, which I think is a decent part of what keeps that impression burning with fans. I mean, when an album opens with a song like “Outside the Aviary”, it’s difficult to see what anyone could see as lacking. J.’s voice comes in immediately, aggressive but not angry in sound, “Now clarity lost out to desire, and I married the madness in her eyes”, riffing rapidly behind himself on guitar in a way that brings melody but leaves the focus on voice and words. A wild bursting slide brings Moffett’s “membranophones and idiophones” in on a fill, with Harbin blurring into the background just a bit, until J.’s riffing slips down to a much quieter lick, one with a downward turn that puts that kick into the song that let’s you know it’s not like every other song you’ve heard, but is so completely organic as a move that it isn’t at all a gimmick just to be unique. Moffett doesn’t let up at all, though, rocksteady and pounding along on a seemingly simple beat, as Harbin rumbles up and down, taking control of the instrumental melody behind J.’s voice, which is suddenly harmonized by Moffett in a very pretty way, who suddenly takes off with a fill that launches the song into the air: J.’s voice regains an edge as Moffett adds a lovely series of “Woo-oo”s that would seem weird in a song like this–especially coming out of a drummer this emphatic–if they weren’t somehow just right anyway. There’s a fantastically rapid series of kicks from him as J. and Peter launch into an alternating repetition of the song’s title, before a halting beat and riffs end the song suddenly. 
“Morricone Dancehall” has a guitar sound at open that is bent just off clear and keyed, giving it a metallic edge, like two strings wobbling toward each other as a guitar is tuned, but stopping short of actually reaching the same note. Moffett enters underneath, with a much more peculiar beat than “Outside the Aviary”, that blends in a delightful way into Harbin’s burbling bassline, the both seeming to intertwine as they both hit their lowest pitches. “Damned!” J. suddenly interjects, “Is this the body you were last found living in? What you bury has a way of blossoming, all that bitterness in bloom on your skin,” his words furiously running into each other, but unslurred, though there’s just a hint that his voice is coming from a distance or through a muffling like a microphone. The guitar is no longer riffing and clanging metallically, but quavering in slightly dissonant waves. The original sound returns though, for a much more ominous bridge where Moffett joins Robbins: “And all the aces are wired, and all the forces conspire in this brutal bed” that suddenly turns to a sneer from them both: “Without the body there is no crime”. After running through this chorus a second time, a wandering series of notes ended with chords is backed by a wonderfully smooth, looping sort of bassline from Harbin. 
Staccato riffs that hold the same note for four beats at a time open “A Lexicon”, before Harbin hesitantly enters, the bass only marking a bit more time than the guitar. When Moffett enters, the stiffness of the song is suddenly released with a beat that almost shifts it toward a danceable sort of groove, a neat trick when it happens, made that much more impressive by the way that it plays with and against Harbin’s half-rhythmic, half-melodic bassline. J.’s riffing doubles then builds with Moffett, and then drops away to clean, clear single-picked guitar notes. But then both the stiff, nearly monotonic guitar and the dancing drum turn to a sound that feels more like the sound you’d expect from a rock band, despite never making apparent that it was going to turn “normal” for any reason.
The song the band contributed to the At the Drive-In split was “The Deluxe War Baby”, which appears next on the record, built on a partly muted guitar lick that lollops along with the bass to give it almost the sense of a Western-y, cowboy-type sound, until Moffett’s wild drumming carries them all into a more fully ranged period of the song that also sends Robbins’s voice up into its heights. The whole thing swings, but not swing like a swing band, more like a pendulum with a groove to its arc, bobbing just slightly, moving forward instead of standing in place. Not a song to sneeze at, and a perfectly reasonable selection for inclusion on a release usually intended to function as representative (as with Jawbox, the version appearing on the split is a different recording, so far as I can tell).
“A Song with No Words” is nothing of the kind, as J. even opens the song singing, “Here are some words…” but it most certainly could’ve survived even as an instrumental. A dissonantly melodic (yeah, figure that one out–it’s a Robbins specialty, though) opens the song, scrabbling along the strings but never losing a moment as it shifts in pitch. It disappears in favour of letting Moffett lay down a short, sharp rhythm that seems to keep the rhythm on the hi-hat (and the occasional “thing that goes ting-a-ling”, as well as the one that goes “plink”²) separate from the drum and kick. Mike is again playing a chopped up bassline, but this one sounds like going up and down a few stairs at a time, then pausing to consider. It’s the heartbeat of the song, as both J. and Peter are wandering in far more directions on either end of it. It’s a slower, more relaxed song as compared to the prior ones, and that opening lick is just fantastic.
I don’t know where J. gets to find all the cool drummers, but he seems to do so anyway. I spent a lot of my writing about Jawbox talking about the mighty Zach Barocas (which I apparently was right to do, in his eyes), and Moffett shines in this band. “All Sincerity” has enough space in it to make this apparent: tiny, wonderfully varied fills litter the song, all adding just a little bit here and there, but a simple listen sounds more like it’s just a nice rock and roll beat. This is also an opportune time to point out that when J. said in his thing with Death Cab’s Chris Walla that he agonizes over lyrics for a long time, it shows: “Let’s clarify this twist/Pin this butterfly kiss/Senseless senses sweetly simplify/We twitch like marionettes in lascivious bliss/Silhouette, silhouette, how black is your heart?” Woof. It’s not the only example on here, but working in a tongue-twisting set of words and that much alliteration without sacrificing sense or simply setting up everything around it is some kind of achievement.
The burn and brush of “The Surgeon’s House” is another highlight: that lick from J. is amazing, the way it leans you back like a friend but has a devilish sort of subtext in tone–the kind that I just cannot wait to hear again every time I hear it. Mike anchors it heavily with a tightly cadenced bassline, and Peter laying down a jazzy beat that’s more cymbal and brush than powerful kick just lets that lick shine like it should. Robbins also works out a much quieter version of his voice than we’ve heard on the album so far, letting the track seem non-threatening until the lick flexes its muscle, eventually beginning to completely overtake everything else, wandering in and out and around itself, Peter backing it with the song’s most forceful drumming. 
Strange electronic noises (I’m voting for “space sounds” by Mike here, though that phrase is subject to lots of interpretation) open “Everything Here Is New”, and a reverberating guitar joins them to create a quirk that turns mysterious. There’s a mist over the track, and what’s under it is unclear–the instruments are apparent (or, at least, clear–those noises are beyond my amateur ear’s ability to place). Harbin’s bass weaves right around Robbins’s voice, which sweeps an arm out to display this world of newness, ghosts, shell games and emptiness to the listener.
I was tempted to completely deadpan the idea that “Paper Crowns” was about a birthday party at a Burger King, but the only concession I’ll make to that idea is admitting it. On the surface, the opening of the song would be normal were it not for the skronking bend that appears at the end of each repetition. Tambourines that echo ’60s pop in sound and rhythm are hiding in here (perhaps that’s what goes “ting-a-ling”?), backing a full-bodied set of vocals from Peter and J. in unison. Peter takes some control for a later bridge, which eases the tempo of the song like an ethereal connector between the beginning and end of the song–and let’s Harbin get in a few notes in the forefront. And then it all spirals off into a glitchy electronic breakdown that kicks us right into “Blind Trial”.
At open, J. is flattened ears and questioning, guitar playing a broken jangle, quiet and muted, and Peter and Mike adding a rhythm section straight out of pop punk–1-2,1-2 drums, steady quarter notes on the bass, and then all of them go somewhere else for the chorus: a tightly wound spring of guitar and a bass free of restraint, drums no longer stuck with just snare-kick-snare-kick, yet all still absolutely controlled. Interestingly, it’s the moment the vocals are most “normal”, a nice, “simple” chorus! And then it starts to breakdwon at its second appearance: “This drug was never approved” J. sings, and the signature changes entirely, stretching and dragging as if the drug in question was affecting the song itself. It finds its feet again, though, regaining its control and returning the original chorus. Then a near drum solo turns to spacey stretching and repetition from J. and Peter’s voices.
Did I say Peter got to shine earlier? Go back and forget that. The opening of the title track is something else. Where you would think to hear a simple roll across toms, there’s an alternating in pitch that means either there’s a very deep tom, or he’s alternating toms and kicks (!)³, usually more the hallmark of long-winded drum solos, but here worked directly into the song as Robbins and Harbin join on top of it. The ringing harmonic-style sound J. uses heavily in Burning Airlines is heavy here. The chorus is almost a “breakdown”–driving, rhythmic riffing and pounding drums define the beat absolutely explicitly.
“Tastykake” is interesting: Harbin’s bass is the only instrument that sounds normal. Moffett gets to open another track with a thump-skitter sort of beat that turns to a rapid, wild solo, but sounds vaguely deadened, as does the hanging distorted effect of Robbins’ guitar. Quiet and warm, J. sings an opening line that I can only suspect refers to his wife, but could just coincidentally name someone with the same first name. Still, the song seems to have a sense that that’s the sort of relationship it would be directed at in some respects. It feels as if the instruments are crushed into a small box as it opens, but opens up when Moffett adds a shaker to his rhythms, and J,’s guitar widens its own sound, his voice opening up, too. 
Often an appropriate choice for latter ends of albums, J. sings with acoustic guitar on “Earthbound”, a thumping low string creating the only audible rhythmic anchor. The guitar has a similar “crushed” sound to “Tastykake”–a deliberately off, simple, rough recording. A wobble snakes in and out of the part, but J.s vocals, especially when joined by Peter on the chorus, are clear and pretty. 
“Election-Night Special” is the low-end gravity of the album: thumping bass, kicks and even low end riffs drive the whole thing (my inexpert ear even suspects there might be some down-tuning at play here). It’s almost fragmentary in its appearance: it’s only 2 minutes, and opens with the crescendoing snare hits that a fair number of songs do, and when it cuts off, feels more abrupt than sudden, despite no cuts in the actual playing.
Another song with multiple recordings and appearances, “Dear Hilary” is a cover (of sorts) of the band Metroschifter, and also appears on the “Metroschifter” album Encapsulated (it’s actually their then-new album, only it’s recorded by bands they chose–clever idea, really). The band worked from a demo outline to create the song. It’s a smart choice for the final song (bear with me, now, if you’re looking at the tracklist), as it’s the work of the band, but is very much not the style they’ve displayed elsewhere in the album. A clean, haunting guitar finger-picking is the core of the song, eventually doubled, then later backed with almost pure-cymbal “drums”, but for a falling set of tom beats repeated intermittently. Harbin anchors, and J. and Peter’s voices join together, the closest the song comes to aggression. J. finally repeats the opening line and throws himself at it: “Dear Hilary, how many years has it been/Since you were going off to college and you wrote me a letter?” It closes with the kind of line and sound that just hangs in the air afterward: “The hardest thing about opening up to someone is putting so much power in their hands.”
However, I mentioned this album is expanded. It now closes with a cover of Sweet’s “Action”, which the band plays quite straightforwardly–and who can blame them? This kind of infectious glam rock is just fun, and I have little doubt it’s also quite fun to play. The solo J. peels off is more in line with the kind that fits the song–not that I’m going to pretend to be familiar with the original version of “Sweet”, and it’d be disingenuous to run out now and try to compare them quickly as I write. It feels like a bonus track, in the sense of a hidden one–like the kind of thing that would “hide” at the end, instead of being right out there. A delightful addition, really.
I thanked Peter Moffett earlier for nudging me into a final decision regarding albums, but I should also thank J. Robbins who was kind enough to satisfy my pedantic desires and tell me that “Action” was actually recorded for the Japanese release of this album–as well as commenting on my Jawbox entry, and answering my request for a decision on this topic, too (even if his answer was to not choose one!). If I sound overly chummy, I don’t mean to; I just send him electronic questions here and there when I can stop fidgeting and worrying over it long enough to bite the bullet and accept that I might be obnoxious in doing so. 
Regardless, when I wrote about Big Star, I mentioned that there was actually one band I’d demand people listen to before I did Big Star, and only as relates to the comparative familiarity of the world at large. Then backpedaled a bit. That’s because I don’t have Jawbox or For Your Own Special Sweetheart on vinyl, which I think I mentioned. I’ve only got a lone single (“Absenter” b/w “Chinese Fork Tie”). If pressed, though, this is the band I’d tell people they need to hear. J.’s style on a guitar manages to simultaneously cover strange, alien, atonal, dissonant, and catchy, melodic, and irresistible. Moffett and Harbin don’t leave the band’s sound anemic outside of the most established musical voice, either, and neither fail to live up to his work, nor sit flaccid in the back and pound out boring tripe, instead adding equal and interesting parts to create a still unique sound.
One of the most bizarre things I ever read was the series of negative reviews for their two albums on Amazon that complained that they sounded like new albums from Jawbox. Why this was something to complain about is entirely beyond me–and it wasn’t even, contextually, something those reviewers saw as bad. Not even repetition–actual evolution. It boggles the mind even now. I’d kill (hyperbole, of course) for new Jawbox–to find an evolution of that sound was…indescribable. There are so many bands and sounds I wish I could get more of, instead of complete disappearance or lackluster retread. Here we have a band that actually is distinctly different, even as it ties backward. Burning Airlines have a more “upbeat” sound to them than the latter half of Jawbox: wiry tension, aggression, or semi-morose tones defined a lot of that band’s latter work. Not in a bad way (if it was a bad way, Jawbox would not be one of those albums that somehow worms its way into my regular listening all the bloody time), but in a way that just felt a part of the sound.
Burning Airlines may not be quite cheerful, I suppose, but it’s almost like melding the crashes, bangs, and clatters of Jawbox back into a more pop-like format (which should never be considered or taken as an insult, for the record, which I think my collection will show increasingly). The harmonic leanings–most definitively apparent in Mission: Control!‘s “Scissoring” even give J. a different feeling in this band.
I guess the end result is: don’t complain about good things. And certainly don’t complain about amazing things that you almost never get.
²It’s a triangle. But that’s one of the things he’s credited with on the album, alongside things that go “plonk” and “plink”–the latter I decided were the claves in “A Song with No Words”, but onomatopoeia can, oddly, mean different sounds to people. Oh, yes: also membranophones and ideophones. IE, his brand-conscious “blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Yeah, I really read all of the liner notes. An amusing parallel to J. and Mike’s usage of Schecter Guitars–“blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Ha!
³I apologize profusely to drummers who know things, including Peter Moffett himself. I’m not a drummer, I can only describe the sounds I hear–I’m not going to swear if I’m not pretty darn sure, just try to associate the sounds enough that it might make sense to someone else.
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Day Two: Aborym – Kali Yuga Bizarre


Scarlet Records ■ SC005-1

Release April 1, 1999

Produced by Christian Ice and Malfeitor Fabban

Engineered by Christian Ice



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Wehrmacht Kali Ma
  2. Horrenda Peccata Christi
  3. Hellraiser
  4. Roma Divina Urbs
  1. Darka Mysteria
  2. Tantra Bizarre
  3. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
  4. Metal Striken Terror Action
  5. The First Four Trumpets
  6. Tantra Bizarre [C30 Version] – Exclusive to vinyl
I originally debated inclusion of this record in my collection for a few reasons. Some may be surprised to see a photo of a non-standard record in my collection that they have not seen before, but this is for the same essential reasons. Some years ago, I purchased a used copy of Diabolical Masquerade’s Death’s Design (more on that in a few months, I suppose!) and brought it back to my then-dorm room only to find that, crammed inside, was this picture disc, for no apparent reason. I’d never heard of Aborym, and had no earthly idea what this was, but figured it couldn’t hurt to have. The first time I played it, I realized it was absolutely trashed with surface noise–crackles, pops, and constant noise coated an already noisy band. It didn’t make for easy listening–not in the sense that I was put off, but that it was literally difficult to hear the music itself. I stuck it in a simple plastic sleeve and left it at that, often forgetting I even owned it. Sadly enough, it’s one of 1,000 in existence and remains in pretty terrible condition, as I can’t exactly repair a bunch of scratches and dings that were in it long before I ever had it. I am left wondering (not for the first time) why someone would buy a limited record that had no idea how to care for a record, yet would take it out and fiddle with it enough to do this to it. Especially in an age where records are nowhere near the dominant format. Still, onward and upward!

Aborym are an Italian (in origin, at least) black metal band who have achieved some measure of fame over the course of their decade of life by playing a variant on black metal that is distinctly different from other bands, as well as occasionally taking on members of founding black metal bands either as guests or standing members. The center of the project is Malfeitor Fabban, though, who formed and has remained in the band since its inception.

Now, I suppose before I go any further, as brief an explanation of black metal as I can manage is in order for those who are not familiar. Black metal is a variant of heavy metal, at least a few generations descended, that originates in late 80s and early 90s Norway. There’s a whole slew of history to the scene there (including a string of murders and arson, which you can read about almost anywhere, and I’m simply not in the mood to repeat for the umpteenth time, as it does not directly address the music of a band hundreds of miles away and a decade later), but suffice it to say, it comes in name from the release of British thrash metal band Venom’s Black Metal. It’s difficult to describe without hearing, and usually my phrasing to neophytes–if other websites and books are any indication–would be some humourously half-hyperbolic description of ear-splitting devil music. Alternatively, a really pretentious description of how much it is high art. Instead, let me make my best attempt to tell you what it actually sounds like.

Black metal is typified by the early 1990’s releases of Mayhem, Emperor, Darkthrone, Enslaved, Satyricon, Immortal and others in Norway, though Mayhem existed in a few incarnations for a few years prior, releasing more death metal-esque material in those days. The backbone is usually extremely proficient and speedy drumming, typified by an emphasis on what is called a “blast beat,” being a rapid alternation of snare drum and bass drum in most cases, but generally consisting of very intense and quick, albeit simple, drum patterns. Over this, guitars are typically played at similar speeds, with chords strummed rapidly enough to come off as sheets of noise in their riff form, heavily distorted, often changing notes far less often than the chords themselves are strummed. The bass guitar, typically, is nearly unnoticeable in the morass of sound. Backing with electronic organ or sampled choral notes is very common as an accent to what comes to be a “wall of sound” in a far more oppressive way than Phil Spector ever used. Lyrically, you can bet anti-religious (typically anti-Christian) sentiment forms the core of the message, though it can vary and emphasize more “cold” or “dark” elements intended to convey a certain type of masculinity.

Let me just qualify all this with a few things: I’m not a musician myself, though I have some familiarity with the very basics of instruments enough to recognize elements, but can easily be mistaken about a variety of these things. Similarly, as with all genres, there is inevitable variation, from beginning to end of a genre’s life, and few genres truly die.


Aborym, however, build from this base of oppressive, rapid, blistering sheets and work in a peculiar variety of electronic and industrial sounds–occasionally even approaching sound collage in intercessory portions. “Wehrmacht Kali Ma” opens with the expected sounds of black metal, though with a variety of vocals from then-vocalist Yorga SM (aka “The Venerable Yorga”), some of which are unusually deep for black metal, which often has a high-pitched sort of “shrieking yell” buried in the mix for its vocals. “Horrenda Peccata Christi” begins to hint at changes to come, with filtered and modified vocals, but still relatively normal black metal instrumentation and songwriting. The next track is actually a cover of industrial band Coil’s original theme for Clive Barker’s film Hellraiser (the band’s score was rejected by the studio and replaced with Christopher Young’s rather haunting one, but stands on its own as a quality set of music), which is a rather spare, somber, if appropriately dark, band for a black metal band to include a cover of. It doesn’t come off as out of place, but it is a peculiar track to be sure, for such a release, moving at the much slower tempo of the original track. “Tantra Bizarre” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” only make it that much stranger: the former begins with instrumentation reminiscent of the  Middle East and eventually turns to a dance beat, and roboticized voices, while the latter opens with an actual choral rendition of the hymn in question before being overtaken by a rant in Italian over it.

No doubt to some people, this album is an insult and wrong–but there’s a slavish devotion in some parts of the black metal circle to “true” black metal that borders on (and sometimes crosses into) self-parody, with a refusal to experiment or stretch beyond the expected for fear of reprisal–either from self or audience. Despite that, the album succeeds quite well for what it does, bringing an industrial and drum machine-oriented element into black metal both jarringly for its surprise, but comfortably for its placement and usage. It’s a strange, strange thing that it works, but it actually does. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of Mayhem alumnus Attila Csihar on guest vocals (he later apparently joined the band, albeit briefly, as primary vocalist) that lends it credence enough to stand as black metal despite the oft-considered repellent inclusion of these unusual elements. Ex-Emperor drummer (due to a murder conviction) Bård “Faust” Eithun is given a “hail,” and later joined the band, too.

NOTE: I apologize for the delay on this one. There is a very large measure of confusion over tracklisting here, which I cannot confirm explicitly in terms of song titles. I don’t know Italian, so matching lyrics to songs (as I had to do with Provocation) is a less-than-simple task. Still, I know the sounds well enough that I can do some–but when it’s shrieked or growled, it becomes entirely more difficult. The image above is the first side I played on my turntable–which, it turns out, is Side B. To add more confusion, while the disc is limited, it appears there may have been variances in pressing, which confuse which tracks begin Side B, as it appears I have six, while the Discogs page for the release shows 5 tracks on the actual photo, as well as listing a 5/5 split. In the end, I have successfully matched the track titles I’ve mentioned, but can’t swear to much more. A lot of research and muddling with digital copies only confused things further (a quick spin around YouTube’s inevitable track uploads finds things like two different songs labeled “Darka Mysteria” that are both from the album but are definitely different songs), and I finally threw my hands up. Be warned if you do decide to download–I can’t swear your track titles will be correct.

If you want to pick up a copy, there are a few CD editions (with different art) as well as some copies of the picture disc still floating around (often for a good $40US or more):

And at Amazon: Version 1 and Version 2


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