Day Forty-Three: Communist Daughter – Soundtrack to the End

Grain Belt Records ■ GBR013

Released June 7, 2011

Mixed by Brad Kern
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Oceans
  2. Soundtrack to the End
  3. Not the Kid
  4. Speed of Sound
  5. Northern Lights
  1. Fortunate Son
  2. Coal Miner
  3. In the Park
  4. Tumbleweed
  5. The Lady Is an Arsonist
  6. Minnesota Girls

Since I moved a few months ago, there has been a serious decline in my concert attendance. Of course, that’s the inevitable difference between living twenty minutes from a venue where you can see independent artists to your heart’s content, eventually catching a small French band that was told repeatedly that they would have a great time playing there–and a place where an hour’s drive would risk reckless driving-level speeding tickets to manage for any kind of established show. As a result, I’ve been to two shows since moving, one at the suggestion of my father (to see Tom Russell in a tiny bar), and one of my own accord, intended to put my foot down on seeing an artist I’d let slip by a number of times. The latter was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, touring on the back of a live album that will work its way in here eventually.

But we’re in alphabetical order here, and “I” is a ways off. “C”, however, is right where I sit, and Communist Daughter starts with that very letter. As you might have guessed, they opened for Mr. Isbell that night, and made a very solid impression on me. I wandered over to their merch table a number of times over the course of the night, pondering how it was that I would acquire the items I was curious about from Jason’s as well as theirs, and how I would deal with carrying it all as the night went on. I found myself thoroughly enamoured of a number of their t-shirt designs, especially the generic female silhouette with its head replaced by hammer and sickle (especially in yellow on a pink t-shirt) and the “I [Hammer and Sickle] MPLS” ones. I’d not come in intending to spend a lot of money–I always keep in mind that any show will encourage it, either via tour-only music, interesting shirt designs, or something wildly unexpected, and usually plan to have some money set aside for opening acts, but I walked out of there with three shirts, a record, three posters and two CDs. To be fair, they were down to the last shirt sizes, and worked with me there and on posters.

When I mentioned the MPLS design, and that it was funny I was actually at the show in my Doomtree hoodie (their homebase is in Minneapolis, too), vocalist Molly Moore lit up and mentioned that songwriter/vocalist/guitarist for the band Johnny Solomon actually knows them, and he and I had a brief chat about P.O.S.’s recent kidney issues (he’s getting one replaced out of dire need). The two of them, and the rest of the band as they sidled up after the show (I was wandering around that table throughout the night) were extremely warm and friendly, incredibly appreciative and humble. I turned around after leaving and mentioned it was a smart idea to put a band member at the merch table, even if it was mostly for reasons of financial efficiency. Their music had enough of an effect to get me over there, and the fully human nature of the lot of them made me want to show as much support as I could manage–if I were to shake my fist at my unexpected spending, it would be with a broad wink, to say the least.

As is often the case with opening acts, I hadn’t heard a note of their music. Sometimes I do go out “scouting ahead” to be prepared and have a clean studio sound to wrap a live experience in (varying sound levels at live shows can have unfair effects on how a band sounds in that environment), but it was a show I’d left up to the last minute to finally go to, even as I was determined to see Isbell at some point.

While there’s a distant, low sound of picked strings before “Oceans” starts properly, it’s the steady muted guitar, the handclaps, and the tambourine that establish their sound immediately, the stride of it seeming to turn at the speed of a 33 1/3 12″ (which is, of course, exactly what I was just listening to it on), which is a favourite feel of mine. As an opening, it places us right into their sound, less like a fade in, but achieving a similar effect: it’s spare and light, loose in feel, but clean and tightly played; it’s not a cold open, yet it strikes the balance of an effective one kept quiet enough to maintain the ease of a fade in. Johnny and Molly come in harmonized, with keys and more guitars that act to fill the gaps left in the opening. “Or maybe now we’ve lost it all this time…” they sing, and splash cymbal adds a full drumbeat, and the song finds its full voice. Gone are the handclaps, the guitars now fully-voiced and supported at the bottom by bass, and a hazy guitar lead hides behind it all. The song is now right in front of us aurally, emotionally, and with the full weight of conviction behind it, even if there’s some doubt lingering in the words.

The title track follows it, and at first it’s a downbeat, bass-laden, muted guitar chug that reminds of the sort of things that define my less determinate youth’s radio listening (rendering me incapable of greater specificity, unfortunately), that is spiked by the addition of a much warmer set of notes from an organ. Johnny sings this one low, softened, so when Moore’s voice joins his, it’s an unfiltered beam of light along the top of his voice. As he describes a past that fell into a listless and inescapable state, seeming to ruminate quietly, she is like a subtle force moving from behind to suggest that action is still possible. Yet, they reach a bridge and their voices remain harmonized but fall out of step with each other–which, might I add, is a beautiful sound at this moment–but reunite as Johnny finishes the thought: “It’s not right to carry on/It might be over but she isn’t gone/And you never listened anyway”. It’s a kind of shrug; there’s not explicit anger at the situation, nor even self-pitying resignation, just acceptance of a strangely bright and nonchalant kind.

There are hints of the Kinks in their late 60’s heyday in “Not the Kid”, with an opening rollicking bass expanded on by the rhythmic circling of an acoustic guitar. Johnny breathes heavily for effect, singing in a voice that’s almost a morose Ray Davies, until “and spin around in circles” unexpectedly dips downward and the song is suddenly outside any sense of clear inspiration and finds its own melodic progressions. The chorus is the work of his voice kept at its restrained low end, yet moves an admirable space within the clear intention to keep things from going too far from the soft curves it inhabits. Hints of other artists from the 60s float in–especially with an echo-heavy tambourine–but are again subverted when the guitars shift into a more modern melodic approach, shakers added, but the bass and guitar most prominent and sitting in a range that would feel unusual in that time. When the guitars go electric and bells ring out in the background, all sense of the past is lost–and it makes sense. The verses are about the past, and the chorus is about that past being distant and different from the present: “I’m not the kid you/I’m not the kid you remember”.

Having been used in places people may actually have heard it without trying, “Speed of Sound” is reminiscent more of a variety of contemporary artists, though feeling more like unintended synchronicity than direct inspiration. Ethereal and beautifully harmonized vocalizations from Moore and Solomon drift gently over the  nearly-insubstantial acoustic’s rhythm, the bass subtly modifying the underlying melody as your ear is drawn instead to their voices. When Solomon starts the verse with the words, “Man I hate this town…” you would expect the words to ring out with some anger or bitterness, some sense of the hatred, but instead they come with a sort of tiredness, as if the fire of the hatred has been snuffed out by the weight of time, instead become tired and too expected to snap or flare with passion. “So I’m looking for the way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe not the life I should have found”, he continues and you hear now that maybe it’s so tired because there’s no fight, no search left, because no exit has been found, and none seems likely to appear. And then there’s the inevitable contradiction of the chorus, high, ghostly and passionate: “All those nights wasted on the speed of sound/I still think that I just might come around for one more…” And after it, Solomon’s voice sharpens its edge, and more is added to the thought of this inescapable life: “I’m afraid I’ll stay/It’s not because of all the things that you would say/It’s ’cause every time I fall in love is another time I watch you walk away”, and so his voice is drained again, having admitted part of the cause. The chorus, which is almost a chorus in the other sense–the voices of other entities, besides our “protagonist”, then returns and carries the song off into the ether on the waves of the first vocals we heard, the harmonized “Oohs” of Molly and Johnny.

“Northern Lights” seems to be a gentle piece, wavering hums that seem to be growing into something else, but are suddenly cut into by the full volume of heavily strummed guitars, a driving drum beat, and the lead of a bass that almost hides the guitar following it. It’s the sound of recollections as someone speeds away from the past, probably futilely–maybe physically escaping the locations of the past as described, maybe just trying to accelerate life itself past it all. The chorus is a ray of hope in this: “The northern lights through the windshield”, Moore’s voice appearing only here, both of them rising and full of hope, or at least possibility: “How I wish you could come too/For a better life, maybe another life or two”. But each verse makes itself clear, as it starts with “Down about as far as I can go…” Despite that, it’s overriding feeling is that chorus’s sense of possible futures that may not reflect that past, even if the instrumental passage that follows the chorus seems to take things back down a bit. But it’s followed by a full-fledged display of the chorus: Solomon sings with the backing flavours of Moore’s voice over the acoustic guitar alone, a lovely drum fill bringing the rest of the band back, the emphasis now established by that break.  When it all ends at a splash and leaves us with nothing but those initial humming waves, it’s a framing of the past, maybe rendering it exactly that, or maybe solidifying it.

While the title suggests Creedence, the sound is more reminiscent of the Kinks again with “Fortunate Son”: pounding drums, and Solomon’s voice suggesting Ray’s at songs like “Johnny Thunders”, rising and cracking into a less rounded, more uncontrolled crescendo. A huge slash of distorted guitar carrying a wonderfully full-throated organ line drops this association away again, and Molly’s voice furthers the distance, and it’s almost completely lost by that next slash and its drummed echo. When Johnny and Molly are left singing to the organ and bass alone, the song has become entirely its own, in perfect time for the chorus: they are left to their own devices for it, acoustic rapidly strumming behind only their voices. Interestingly, there are hints that this is not too far off in thought from the Creedence, but completely reframed, not as sneering indictment of the “fortunate sons”, but told from the view of a son who is fortunate for escaping the same call in another time, not by social placement but simply by not being the one who chose it. Guilt and a certain shame plague this, but tempered slightly by the thought that there is more to gain by others–family who still have him–despite this. It’s by far the most uptempo, biggest song on the album, and it makes heavy use of an organ, which always makes me happy when done properly (as here). We even get a few more quiet handclaps that emphasize, in a more new wave fashion, the uptempo and upbeat music contrasted with lyrics that can manage only a mild final balance of positivity.

Following in an altogether different sense, “Coal Miner” might be the most somber, quiet, and downbeat of songs. The first lines make clear that this will not be a rollicking joy as the last track–“Another day in the hole/I feel my lungs fill up with coal”. It’s the sound of a man lost in a coal mine collapse, who is trying to stay awake and alive, to hope to be found, though he seems unsure that he will be. He explains that he’s here to feed his family, that this is his home, and that the life’s blood of this home is this mine. He wants it to be understood, “Know that I did all I could/To save the others like Christians should”, but follows it with the notion that maybe this is the end anyway: “So maybe it’s just my time/Walk tall hold your head up high”, and a wash of distortion follows it, to return the internal mantra of the chorus: “All I need is to wake up…”, fading off with the thought that the repetitions of it may be failing in their aim as the song fades. There’s the clever but not hamfisted or clumsy thought of adding just the right kind of echo to the track to sound as if it is coming from the cavernous rock walls of a mine that perhaps has only had its entrance closed, rather than the entirety filled. Or maybe it’s the echo of solitude: thoughts sent out to others that actually just bounce off that rock and back to our fallen miner. Sad, but, beyond the mantra, his last words are telling those behind him to hold their heads up high–if this is it, then so it is.

Johnny’s voice alone with easy finger-picked guitar opens “In the Park”, the two instruments unified in melody and rhythm, calm, but stretching out with a kind of subdued nostalgic glaze. Only bass and Moore’s voice join him on the chorus, his guitar moving to chords from its prior plucked rhythms. It’s one of the most beautiful and aching choruses: “Nothing has gone wrong/It’s just gone on way too long/You and I are bound to make a better way”. The pull of two fingers on two acoustic strings is beautifully sad but tinged with the momentary echoes of happiness as it comes in alone after that chorus, keyboards adding the lightest notes of firm comfort to this. Like the verses of “Speed of Sound” this song benefits strongly from the limited instrumentation it employs for much of it, and makes the slide guitar’s sudden lead and the rising pound of drums and splash cymbal that much more heart-pounding in its hope. But the final notes are Johnny and Molly with that guitar’s plucked strings again, and they stop with an abruptness that’s only accentuated by the  amplifier hum that follows it.

A song that stood out at the show because it is somewhat unusual, “Tumbleweed” follows next and appears in many respects to be quite “normal”, the sound of a guitar played with barre chords way up the neck (giving it a ukelele sound, but broader and deeper), a shaker and Johnny and Molly in one of their best harmonies. A fantastic keyboard line, warping and phasing along a more normal organesque sound adds just the right alien tinge to the song to keep the weight of the lyrics from bearing too far down. The chorus seems like it shouldn’t work, like it should feel like a ridiculous choice to sing “Tumble, tumble, tumble, tumbleweed”, but it manages to work perfectly because it’s followed so appropriately by “Drift on the highway”, a few muted strums of the guitar, “and move on”, sung with a downed finality. The drums make their appearance now, the keyboard carrying the song inexplicably upward with the bright, uke-ified guitar, and managing a sort of nodding understanding of the needs of another: “If you’ve got that feeling/Feelings won’t be found/Go ahead and leave me/Just let me let you down”, and the “Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sorry/Woah-oh-oh/Don’t be sad/Woah-oh-oh/You should leave me/Woah-oh-oh/And everything we had”. The slide guitar lead that begins to wail along in the background accelerates the drama of a feeling that is manifestly subdued, peaking and then exploding into an electronic echo. Exiting on the whirling keyboards and the isolated voice of Moore lets the song drift just as its singer hopes the one it is sung to will do. Knowing this very desire from either side, this is a fantastic representation of it, and a tumbleweed is perfectly appropriate, as is the tumbling the repetition implies.

The insistent picking and brush drums that start “The Lady Is an Arsonist” makes for an off-kilter upbeat song. The upstrokes of a smooth-toned electric guitar add to this sense, the patter of those brushes on snare moving the song at a nice clip, Molly and Johnny stopping suddenly for a half-amusing yet pleasantly fitting aside of a repeated line: “Cause I’m a Southern boy with a can of gasoline”. How in the world that could be an answer for anything is beyond me, yet even live and hearing it for the first time, it made perfect sense. The bridge’s call and harmonized response is similarly off-kilter and fitting for someone who would describe himself in this sense, too: “I’ve never been in love (Oh no)/I’ve never been ashamed (Oh no)”, and gives just the right hint of lopsidedness to the track’s varying inclusions of fire as a theme–gasoline, a liar’s “flaming” pants, the titles arsonist implications, and the inevitable result of receiving “all your flame”.

An acoustic recorded with the sound of fingers moving along strings, played at a deliberate pace, followed by the addition of Johnny’s relaxed and tired voice suggests “Minnesota Girls” is going to be the kind of closer that drops the band in favour of the drifting simplicity of a solo performance. But then the chorus swings its way in, and Molly and the bass, “So get down, you Minnesota girls/Get down to the bottom of the world/And I don’t owe you nothin’/No I don’t owe you nothin’ but blue skies”. The drums quietly make their entrance, a plaintive lap steel sound rising in the background. Now joined by single-picked electric as well as the other instruments, Johnny launches into a second verse, one that explains the tone here: “I dig it in Southtown/Where the music was my life/And the bathroom’s the place where I found it/I lost my friends/I turned off all my lights/It’s never quite as fun as it sounded”, hinting at a life that was just that: better as described than experienced. After the second chorus, roiling timpani (!), deep, echoing bass, electric guitar lead, and splash cymbals, all over a buzzing saw of guitar finally ends with a roll on a cymbal and then strings released to amplifier reverberations.

I’ve had a lot of luck over the years with opening acts. Sometimes they end up eclipsing the headliners in my listening, sometimes they float alongside, sometimes they are quite good but end relegated to a backburner unintentionally. This was an extremely worthwhile reminder that Communist Daughter deserves nothing of the kind. This album is incredibly good–professional, catchy, thoughtful, and all in keeping with a distinct, unique kind of tone. There are senses of bands I mentioned, as well as the vague impression of a Nick Drake-like detachment vocally, but none of them ever coalesce into the thought of even lazily obvious inspiration, let alone direct lifting of any kind. It’s just a sort of timeless, or perhaps temporally multiple, music. It’s largely at ease and warm, and feels like sitting in comfort and warmth, but looking out into a window at the snow. It’s pleasant, and looks lovely, and softens the edges of everything, removes responsibilities for many people briefly, but it’s a cold thing, and uncomfortable to be in after a time. It has the joy of memory for the kind of awe and enjoyment of a past where snow meant something good, as it often does to children–even if that isn’t the age of past being recalled. But it has that same distance that memory implies, of a half-smile and distant eyes, a time that’s gone, clearly out of reach but still there to be remembered.

There are a number of people–like my father–who would truly enjoy this band, and plenty more that I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, because this is just a very well constructed set of songs. None of the choices, whether “obvious” like a harmonized married couple (I’m not sure they were married at the time, but they are now), or strange like electronic noises or even handclaps inserted into otherwise acoustic and drifting melodies–they always seem utterly appropriate and right, measured and chosen for their effect on the song, not to create a niche or gimmick. It helps, of course, that the two of them have fantastic voices–though I have to say I had no idea that was the sound that would come out of a rather big looking guy like Johnny–bearded, in worn jacket and “trucker hat”, but so soft and completely of a tone that suggests that kind of detached weariness. It’s not exhaustion, though exhaustion may inspire it, it’s not even completely cynical resignation, though there’s some of that as well. It’s a sort of acceptance of the negative, with a subtle hope for the better.

Really, really special thing this–for all that it sounds like the kind of music that would be absconded with by advertisers and television drama (the latter I’ve read has even occurred), there should be no thought that that’s any more an indication of the music itself than the fact that, for instance, Nick Drake’s songs have been used in this way. It’s representative more of the broad appeal of music played and written well.

  • Next Up: Converge – Axe to Fall
    (Yeah, this one’s a big jump in style)

Day Forty-Two: Coheed and Cambria – Year of the Black Rainbow

Columbia Records ■ 88697 52995 1

Released April 13, 2010

Produced by Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi
Recorded and Mixed by Joe Barresi and Atticus Ross
“Here We Are Juggernaut” Mixed by Alan Moulder

“If Man should decide to dabble in my affairs, then guardians must intervene. But, should I come forth to change the face of Man with you there to challenge me, then I shall return with the stars to destroy all I have made. Whether Man or I present that danger will not be told in the coming.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. One
  2. The Broken
  3. Guns of Summer
  4. Here We Are Juggernaut
  1. Far
  2. This Shattered Symphony
  3. World of Lines
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)
  2. Pearl of the Stars
  1. In the Flame of Error
  2. When Skeletons Live
  3. The Black Rainbow

I intended, in my previous blog, to cover a lot of things over the course of time. It was ambitious in one sense, and completely directionless in another; I had a slew of ideas, a mess of bands, albums, genres, and thoughts to address, and no order to them, no way to encourage readership as I hoped. I suppose anyone writing publicly in this fashion wants someone to read it, but the idea for me was to try and convey and express the passion I feel for music as a listener first, and my writing was only the means to that end. A large part of the inspiration for that drive is the fact that it’s difficult for me to quickly or easily express anything so broad as my taste in music, and because there are so many factors that affect the process of evangelizing almost anything–particularly the preconceptions of intended audiences. I’ve always made an attempt–however rough, however futilely–to frame my own notions under the overarching guidelines of acclimation to the tastes, thoughts and feelings of others. But that requires both a willing ear and a sense of trust, and it’s difficult for the less devoted to concern themselves with a willing ear for something like this, and easy to lose a sense of trust with those who share any musical devotion.
In this respect, Coheed and Cambria are a great difficulty for me. I intended to write about them on that blog at some point because, quite simply, they are my favourite band. And that’s a loaded statement to make in a variety of ways, first and most obvious, because it defines a boundary of a kind: it says “I don’t like any other group more than this”. That’s actually a limited way of describing my feelings, as it’s really more indicative of a spike in a continuum, rather than a distinct slope or curved defined by points along their path. In some contexts, Coheed are not the appropriate choice, even for me. Certainly, they cover enough territory–moments of aggression, sadness, hope, so on–that they can fit most situations, but any sound cannot eclipse the spectrum it doesn’t include, and no one includes the entire spectrum of sound.
Secondly, and, in some ways most importantly, the reaction to the statement “Coheed and Cambria are my favourite band” tends to be immediate and visceral. Despite the size of their fanbase (somewhere, it seems, in the middle overall, or perhaps upper middle, maybe adjusted for age of the band–relatively large, in any case), they tend to remain somewhat cult-ish. This album and the one and a half (one was licensed and re-released) preceding it are on a very major label, and they’ve received radio airplay, won an MTV contest of popularity (there’s something to be said for the effort and will behind the fanbase on that one–it was an online poll many of us somewhat tirelessly assaulted with votes, and yes: “us”), so on and so forth. But they manage to occupy a territory that keeps some from paying attention and others from sticking around, as they manage to straddle progressive rock and the more “simple” and catchy elements of pop, dashed with a huge splash of geekery, and elder associations with “emo” in the most derisive of senses (though largely nonsensical ones).
When I make that statement, I can often see a light go out in eyes, as people struggle to not lose respect for my taste in music–hell, one of my (numerous) Coheed and Cambria shirts was the only one that ever inspired a total and complete stranger to yell out that the band “sucks” as they passed me. Other people feel they have an idea of my taste, see it as respectable for this reason or that (appreciation of the classics, varied taste in genres, appreciation of pet favourites, or semi-sung/unsung artists–whatever), or see me as knowledegable musically (my friend John said my previous blog was enjoyable to him, but did tend to require “a priori musical knowledge, and a lot of people told me it was overwhelming and difficult to follow without that kind of knowledge). But when I say “Coheed and Cambria”, there’s this sudden sense that it doesn’t jive; the choice is too obvious, or too popular, or too strongly associated with perceived commercial contrivance, or too “immature”, or not “metal” enough (obviously that’s a selective issue), or anything else. Indeed, those who have a very solid foundation for their opinion on my taste in music seem less taken aback and more lost in the need to find a way to politely decline to agree.
The object here, then, is to make some attempt–no promises at success–in explaining why someone who likes the kind of music I do, many things that would earn nods of approval from musical elitists of a variety of stripes would place this band first in his collection, to earn the band a sense of respect, even if not appreciation: to explain why this isn’t as incongruous as it seems, why that kind of snap judgment isn’t useful in the first place, and to throw the weight of the things I do appreciate in behind a band that’s stuck with a reputation (in some circles) of being purely the taste of those who have “terrible taste”. I understand the feeling, as anyone who converses with anyone else about music will almost inevitably be struck both by the feeling that someone else has judged their intelligence and full range of taste by something they like (or fail to like), as well as the instinctive desire to do the same in return (or even first). I simply want to try and at least stand them on their own two (eight; about twelve if we count past and current members) feet and purge the questioning of taste from someone who mentions them in a positive light.
While my introduction here is already rambling on a bit, a little background on the band as well as my experience of them feels entirely appropriate with regard to the object of this blog as is in crystalline focus with this particular entry. I was first introduced to them around the end of high school and the beginning of college, Second Stage Turbine Blade and In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 having both been relatively recently released at the time. The truth of it is, they fell into the crowd of bands I couldn’t tolerate at the time–Claudio Sanchez’s notoriously high voice grated on me, as it does many (which apparently he himself knows, as he mentioned this being a barrier for some people in a recent interview), and it came from a community that edged on elitism, riding the crest of an underground current that sometimes seemed partly aimed to define quality via those particular factors. I semi-graciously declined my interest, and relegated them to the place I kept Thursday and Atreyu–possibly interesting musically, difficult to accept vocally.¹
It was six years before they really crossed paths with me again. I’d been working at Borders for some time, and had begun to experiment musically with things I’d resisted. I’d started hanging out with the person who became my best friend after work, who was not a huge music person, but was an enormous Coheed and Cambria fan. She insisted I should try them anyway, nudging the comic books (we’ll get to that) at me, telling me I should at least read those. I relented, to some extent, because it was an alternate media that drew me in–bizarrely–to Harry Potter as well, which I’d initially also discarded as “boring” from the context in which it was initially presented to me. I enjoyed the story well enough, but still could not deal with them musically. However, being in the state of willingness I was in, I took it upon myself to keep an eye out as I began to peruse the now-closing-forever Circuit Citys. At the local one, I found a copy of Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 2: No World For Tomorrow–externally labeled as just No World for Tomorrow–and by the fourth track–“Feathers”–I found myself catching on. By the end of the first playthrough, it was done. Within a month, I had all four then-released albums. I pre-ordered the then-upcoming limited live boxset. I bought the album released by Claudio’s side-project, The Prize Fighter Inferno,  My Brother’s Blood Machine. I saw them live once, twice, three times, four times–number five is in a few weeks.
For some, “The Concept” (as it’s most commonly known, though often also “The Story”) is what drives interest in the band. This isn’t a necessity by any means–I had no clue what was “going on” when I first listened to No World for Tomorrow. To this day, it’s not as if the albums are internally chronological, even as they are placed in order as whole works. The way Claudio writes the lyrics, too, does not always make it apparent who or what is being addressed–there’s a feeling and a tone, the real-life events that inspired the parts of the story usually being conveyed directly, as are the emotions. It’s more like a sort of emotionally-inflected slice of the story, a feeling for what its mood is at that point, for what the characters are thinking or feeling at that time, even if you don’t always know what that time actually is.
The world of Coheed and Cambria is one that takes some explaining, but centers primarily on Heaven’s Fence, a set of 78 planets arranged into a triangle, held there by the Keywork, a visible energy that binds and holds them in place, originating on the Stars of Sirius, 9 heavenly bodies that manifest, process, and push out the energy of the Keywork. It’s a world that has three tiers of entities: the humans we all know, love, and happen to be; the Prise, a sapphire-skinned race of blonde angelic entities, believed to be tasked with upholding the divine order of things; and the Mages, 12 powerful beings who each rule one of the 12 sectors of Heaven’s Fence. The universe’s holy book, the Ghansgraad, sets forth the prophetic orders I quoted at the beginning of this entry, above the tracklist. It was the Prise tasked with understanding this statement, and of acting at the right moment to prevent unintended challenges to God, whose hand was attributed to the pen that set it down.
The details are all set out in The Amory Wars, the comic book Claudio wrote (and later co-wrote with comic book great Peter David) to tell the story of their debut album, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, and recently In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (as well as a planned-to-be-replaced version of Good Apollo, Vol. 1: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness). The story of this album, though, is set before those, which end completely with No World for Tomorrow, an as-yet unclarified story that ends everything (in what is generally accepted to be all senses). It is told not in comic book form, but in a novel Sanchez co-wrote again with David, and which was included in the limited deluxe edition of the album in CD form (which I have signed by both of them and the rest of the band as it existed at the time).
This is the story of how Coheed and Cambria–they are a pair, a man and a woman, of a sort–came to be, and of how Wilhelm Ryan, who became the Supreme Tri-Mage and malevolent antagonist of the story, rose to the power he used to deliberately challenge God in His seeming absence, of the way these two stories are interwoven, of the fallout from them, and of how we found ourselves where we did in The Second Stage Turbine Blade. Many of the simplistic facts about this story were already known: obviously, Ryan had done away with the other Mages, and we knew that Leonard Hohenberger was responsible for KBI–Knowledge, Beast, Inferno–the IRObots also known as Cambria, Coheed, and Jesse Kilgannon respectively. How he created them, why (beyond “to stop Ryan”), and who he was were a mystery, as was the way in which Ryan consolidated the immense power and totalitarian rule he enacted.
Without further ado, then, I present: Year of the Black Rainbow.
As with their previous albums, Coheed opens with a brief instrumental introduction, though a more nebulous one than the others, in “One”: howling winds, creaking strings, haunting piano, thunderous rumbles, electronic reverberations and a sense of desolation, the extended and darkened calm after a storm, or perhaps hinting at its advent.
“The Broken” was the first track they released before the album, and it builds directly from “One”, a sort of whine turning to heavy riffs, ones that spiral off into leads from the second guitar–neither is distinctly lead, as both have thorough chops–of Travis Stever, the momentary venting of an inexorable tide of crushing destruction manifested in the riffs that precede them. Rising tremolo announces and backs the chorus’s rise: “The world looks better when you’re falling/Grace to comfort enough to crawling/Divided we must/Pray for the broken no one can fix us/We are, we’ll always be, the wronged”. The coiled tension of the lead that snakes through the entire song burning away into a clever, furious, high solo after the second chorus, turning to a bridge that features Chris Pennie’s drumming, which had not yet been heard in the studio with the band–a style more technical than original drummer Josh Eppard’s primal feel. “We are, we are…” Claudio sings as the song builds into a repeatedly collapsing version of the initial riff that finally falls flat to a small squeal of distortion.
When I first saw the band play “Guns of Summer” live, I had confirmed for myself something that apparently the people next to me had also noticed: this riff is ridiculous. Claudio’s fingers do not sit still for a moment as a nimble patter of a riff that looks and sounds like someone flexing each of their fingers rapidly and independently. The song is very dense as a result, a sound something like bubbling liquid and rapid machinery–to think, and indeed know, that he sings over this is absurd. Pennie’s drums set this pace, restless but consistent, and heavily syncopated. When the chorus hits and their guitars turn from what you could be forgiven for thinking is a sound produced by the album’s keyboards, it’s not for the force of aggression, but the clear movement and power of them–drama, not anger. At an aural “distance”, the verses are not easily recognizable as normal instruments, but the chorus makes clear the drums, bass, and guitars present, not simplifying to overly basic beat or chunky riffs, but separating enough that the beat has distinct emphasis. It’s an unusual sound–at first more impressive than anything else, as the strange pace and sound doesn’t feel at all like the kind of riff you’d build from as a primary one, but eventually works itself into a kind of sense, emphasized by the chorus’s clarity. Let me just reaffirm, though: Pennie’s performance and part is beastly, and the solos Travis and Claudio squeal, squawk and torture out of their guitars are interesting for their modification into fittingly inhuman sounds. Perhaps oddly, this is the song of the loss that inspires everything that was to come in the story.
The first major single from the album so far as the rest of the world was concerned (ie, not those of us paying extremely close attention), “Here We Are Juggernaut” rumbles in on electronic bleeps and a distant windy buzz. Almost unnoticeable, Travis actually plays through a talkbox for creative and interesting sounds through the verses, a catchy riff that splashes down with his talkboxed yowl and a slide up the strings. Claudio sings the verse close and low, but the lead to the chorus brings in his voice as it is best known: “Bodies breaking/Drive me crazy/This is not your place/No this is not your playground/It’s my heart”, and on the last word his voice soars, as does the rest of the song, entering the chorus, maintaining the energy and passion pushed in already: “We were stupid/We got caught/But nothing matters anymore/So what/Here we are, juggernaut”, the guitars digging in their hooks with a more upbeat, higher-pitched variation on their original riff, dancing all around it and keeping the energy up at its peak. A pause follows the chorus’s second repetition, guitars slowed and methodical, Claudio’s voice calming its power and turning to the kind of peculiar emphases he often employs, morphing many vowel sounds into unexpected shapes. He drops even this, though, and sings as an aside, before they blast off again into the heights of the chorus, the final words repeated, the song held at its greatest height all the way to the end, with a last not left to ring out and fade of its own accord.
Often looked at strangely by fans–either as a peculiar love, or a failed experiment–“Far” is quite unusual: it’s a rhythmic, pounding track with a scatter of atmospheric, vaguely fuzzed distorted guitar. The beat is more complicated than a heartbeat yet still resembles one in the way it seems to pump larger then smaller valves. Stever and Sanchez just dance across the top, guitar-wise, even at the chorus: “Please/This is what I can give/What else do you need from me?/I might be sick, broken, torn to pieces so/Whatever this is, this thing that now I’ve become/You hate it so much/You keep on running from it/No matter the distance/Oh/No matter how far”. Here we get to hear one of the things that turned me from loathing to love when it comes to Claudio’s voice: when he sings “it”, he employs not only his unusual vowel sounds to make the word fit musically (as opposed to doing it to force a rhyme, for instance), he also makes it almost undulate, a touch that tells you he’s thinking about what he’s doing with his voice beyond how to sing the words as they are. And the effect is almost always (probably always, but just in case) not just interesting but appealing and catchy. The bridge for the song is odd, as it is saw-like in sound, lower than all the other guitars in the song, less about spikes and peaks or burst of emotion than an appropriately rhythmic emphasis that matches the song. The solo that follows it is sheets, sprays of sound, sparking lines instead of the flickering points that normally mark the idea of sparking. 
Seemingly played from a good distance away, the beginning of “This Shattered Symphony” is a single guitar riffing furiously along to one of the more simply played drum beats, but a wailing second guitar slowly turns the volume up, until the instruments are quite suddenly right in their expected aural place. This time Travis and Claudio are playing tonally contradictory parts to a single mood’s effect: at the high end, one hits chords in mostly monotonic repetition, the other plays a smoothed out, slightly calmed form of the riff that started things: despite this, there’s the feeling of forward movement of events outpacing the ability to think and act, or keeping them at the bleeding edge–events beyond control. When Claudio starts singing, though, it’s with dark acceptance–“Oh, I’m giving up the one I love/I’ll conduct the great disaster”, his riff relentlessly forward moving, but Travis’ higher part now slowed and tinged with the resignation of Leonard Hohenberger’s relenting. They come together as guitars to build to the chorus: “Go on and give me the gun/Nevermind what I’ve done/They left me no choice/Oh, they left me no choice”. The call to “go on and give me the gun” noticeably distressed–no doubt reflecting the moment that Leonard’s wife Pearl has leveled one at him, indeed over what he has allegedly done. The song ends with backing calls to “Give me the gun”, accelerating toward a break in the tension that ends with electronic noise.
“World of Lines” was a later single, matched to footage from Metropolis in video form, Pennie’s drums the closest they ever sound to Josh Eppard’s, a thumping response to the upward slopes of the frenetic riffing, the only sound that continues below as Claudio’s voice enters. Despite the steady beat, the song seems to speed, then gain power as he works into the clashing sounds that mark the chorus’s entry, which expands with a more repetitious riff, elaborated on with a second guitar’s melodic touches, but is stretched by the held notes of Claudio’s voice: “Just leave us alone/If it’s not worth the letting go/It’s trouble/Woah, woah”, a complete shift following this, the tempo changing entirely, the rhythm hitting a completely different emphasis. In many ways, the most “normal” song present here.
Normally chugging riffs imply a certain genre of music, or at least a sound that resembles it, but here the word is appropriate more because it’s like the steady chugging of a machine, an engine of some kind that is driving “Made Out of Nothing (All That I Am)”, the riff cycling around steadily, even the higher lead from Travis like another part of the machinery that simply runs less constantly. The chorus turns into a lengthy, high hallway though, each syllable stretched away from the previous and into the next: “Someone please come shelter me from”, the stretch lost and the vocal pacing more than doubled for the catchy end: “All that I am/Never again will I believe/Same old story”. It’s a solidly forward-moving song that ends with a reverberation that braces us for the quiet track to follow.
The only song title to explicitly reference a character on the album, “Pearl of the Stars” is Leonard’s paean to his grieving wife, a declaration of love and empathy, devotion and attempts to understand. Clean and gentle guitars let Claudio enter with his voice quieted and unusually low until Pennie’s light and simple drum pattern and Mic Todd’s thumping bassline puts his voice in another pitch, moving from describing his sympathetic pain at his wife’s current emotions, to the much warmer description of how he feels about her in general. When the chorus spreads the song out, a toy piano, sustained bass from Todd, and viola from guest Brian Dembow underwrites the sincerity of it all. The chorus shifts again, from singing about Pearl to singing to her: “When you go, I will know/Follow you to the stars/And when the world burns apart/There’ll be a place for your car/I’d give you everything, if only I’d’ve known you’d take it/But you don’t/Cause you’re you/That’s why I’ll always love you/My Pearl of the stars”…impassioned, pleading for anything he can do to relieve her grief. Perhaps the most normal of solos follows the chorus, the tone similar to that of Jerry Cantrell, the sounds extended and firey, resembling more the chorus’s emotions than any others. After it, he sings the chorus quietly, in the voice the song opened with, as if telling himself instead of her, but reconsiders, and repeats it again at full volume, Pennie’s drums now more constant, all pounding toms and drama.
While I always imagine I don’t like the last half of the album as much, “In the Flame of Error” is always the song that reminds me my memory when it comes to those things is terrible. It comes in as descending, tension-filled introduction, the curling, densely constructed riff and drums all bound into a knot of sound under Claudio’s voice. But it’s the chorus–oh this chorus: “I’ll be no good this time defines/I’ll put my touch around the grip of this knife/These dirty hands just won’t come clean/I’m a murderer/The worst these worlds will see”. His voice seems to stick to one note at first, but the rhythm chokes up when “good” comes after “no” a moment faster than you would expect, then “time” leaps upward, and “defines” steps back to zero and then slings itself just slightly upward from there. Like a zig-zagging line, he works the lines into rigid shapes that are extremely appealing and strangely rhythmic despite working outside the lines of the basic beat. When he says “I’m a murderer”, it’s spat out rapidly, crammed in where it won’t fit, but with enough space after it to know this was a deliberate choice: Hohenberger is aware of hist mistakes and the inability to change them, but has no sense of forgiveness for himself–hardly a surprise, considering his crime–only self-loathing and anger. When it comes around the second time, a second line extends the chorus: “Oh save me from defeat again/This is war”–mimicking but modifying the sound of the original chorus’s lines, then ending with a slow vibrato on the last word. Stabbing guitars  push at a bridge that works on pummeling drums, the title of the song appearing, each word punctuated by rapid bass kicks. Breaking for pained howls from a guitar, the song launches back into the chorus two final times and then burns out on feedback,
The sound of “When Skeletons Live” is the guitar sound that is most identifiably “Coheed and Cambria”: a sort of crazy-eyed mid-range, slanted guitar riff. There’s an unusual slowing worked in as the song turns to chugging (this time in the more popular sense) guitars, Claudio’s vocals following them after a few beats in an unexpected way, a sort of delayed punch, before the steady beat and riffs of the chorus, which let’s his vocal choices really come out: “When skeletons live inside your closets, thick and thin/You’ll fear that no one will hear us sing our songs/The truth is relevant but not for long/’Cause love is our downfall”, particularly in the wild scaling of “fear”, which hits at least five different notes and makes for an excellent little hook. Muscular guitar follows this, a whispered backing vocal that hides underneath the layer of instruments from his normal singing voice.
Year of the Black Rainbow is the fifth Coheed and Cambria album, but the Roman Numeral “I” is displayed upon it, as it functions as the prequel to all preceding albums. It makes “The Black Rainbow” rather strange and appropriate for what it is to the album and to the story. A strip of sky stripped of all atmospheric interference to leave a gaping “wound” in the heavens about the residents of Heaven’s Fence, it is unclear to everyone what this means–many take it as a sign from God, Ryan taking it as a failed challenge to the power he is grabbing, Ambellina of the Prise taking it as a sign that they are to act against Ryan, despite the doubts of the rest of the Prise. Claudio breathily sings the opening verse over lightly churning synthetic percussion and quiet guitar, Pennie joining with the boom of large toms and gentle splash cymbals, turning to a steadily advancing snare beat. A roar of guitar predicts the monolithic, mournful but piercing and powerful lick that jabs it’s slightly wobbly way through the song, “It’s over, it’s over/It’s all coming apart” Claudio sings, the song building not in a distinct verse-chorus sense, but just arcing upward continuously, turning chaotic with electronic distortions, warping and washing sou–and then it stops. Dead. The churning of machinery from “One” returns, ominous murmurings and ponderous, horn-like melodies hidden and brief, leaving it all with a sense of fallen structures and failure, a distant laugh that would be best guessed as that of Ryan.
■ ■ ■ 
I’m not even going to get into the story of how this album was chosen, but I will say that it surprises me, as it was finally chosen by fellow fans. Admittedly, the two favourites (In Keeping Secrets and Good Apollo Vol. 1) are out of print/absurdly expensive and never-on-vinyl respectively, but the changes that occurred with this album put off a lot of people. No World for Tomorrow had drum parts assembled by Chris Pennie, but contractual obligations prevented him from appearing on the recording, and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins played in his place. Whether it was that fact, the change in producers (Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner produced all three of their first albums), the wandering tensions of a band dropping and gaining members back and forth over the course of time since their third album, the internal suspicions that they might break up–any number of factors, these two are the most maligned albums, by far.
Year of the Black Rainbow, despite this, could well be the most accessible album they’ve produced, with a possible exception for one of the two halves of The Afterman that have been released in the last few months (one only a week ago). It has always struck me that the shift in drummers and producers (I should also mention Year changed producers from NWFT as well, it being produced by Rick Rubin and Nick Raskulinecz) was also accompanied by a shift in sound. Not sound in the sense of how the three standing members played, but in the sense of an overall feeling. Year is a comparatively cold album, “One” and the end of “The Black Rainbow” really emphasizing this, the sounds resembling nothing so much as slow-moving behemoths, large, ponderous–and also somewhat threatening, drifting through an empty, shattered place (perhaps it’s The Howling Earth–the place where Coheed and Cambria stumble into an operation of Wilhelm Ryan’s and are faced with something surprising about the Keywork’s energy). I’m inclined to think the more technical drumming of Pennie emphasizes that shift distinctly, but that might not be fair.
For all that it does sound different, it is, in many ways, appropriately different: this is the fresh, clean, sharp, polished beginning, before Wilhelm Ryan asserts control, before Coheed and Cambria are created by the catalyst that starts to tear Heaven’s Fence to pieces–and eventually completes this as well. It’s more heavily electronic, more straight lines and sharp corners, up to and including the actual cover art, which is geometric and colourful, in contrast to the darkened and minimal palettes of previous albums. Maybe, indeed, the sense of slow-moving threat is that of darkening clouds gathering and drifting over Heaven’s Fence, there to sit and stay over the lives of everyone in them as the story progresses through the next (previously released) events.
I should also mention, for those who think of it: there’s a partial chronology to the album’s structure, story-wise, but largely it is muddled, and the way Claudio has written whole stories and the snippets that appear in the art for The Afterman implies that they function very much like I feel they do: impressions of events, the story molded to them, and them molded to the story, and some overlap inevitably left in the process, in service, generally, of the music, as the rest of the band is involved in that writing process.
In any case, the album gets a bad rap. I’m more prone to being disappointed with the first new album after I get into a band, and I was not with this one. I admit, there is some personal attachment to “Pearl of the Stars” that I felt, especially around the time it was newly released and for sometime thereafter, but it was largely the other songs that kept the album close to my listening in the year that followed its release.
  • Next Up: Communist Daughter – Soundtrack to the End
¹For a laugh, the first thing I have myself recorded saying about them is telling someone who now politely tells me they don’t do anything for him, “they suck, period”. In context, it might have been about another band (one I was extremely vehement about at the time), but I believe it was them. The next comment was “I despise their vocalist’s voice” to someone else, so, still.

Day Twenty-Three: BK-One with Benzilla – Rádio do Canibal

Rhymesayers Entertainment ■ RSE0114-1

Released: October 6, 2009


Produced by BK-One and Benzilla [“Mega” co-produced by Brother Ali]


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Ivan Tiririca (Intro)
  2. Gittit
  3. Mega
  4. Caetano Veloso (Interlude)
  5. The True & The Living
  1. Here I Am
  2. Tema do Canibal
  3. Ivan Tiririca (Interlude)
  4. Philly Boy
  5. Blood Drive
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. A Day’s Work
  2. Face It
  3. Love Like That
  4. Hyldon (Interlude)
  5. Blue Balls
  1. Eighteen to Twenty-One
  2. Call to Arms
  3. American Nightmare
  4. Tom Zé (Outro)

This is the kind of album that’s the reason for doing this blog in its entirety, in more than one way. To the left: I’ve left this album alone a lot. Being “required” to sit and devote some time to it lets me really give it the attention it deserves for me to form any opinion on it. It also stops me from skipping to a favourite track automatically (which I’ve tended to do both with this copy and my CD copy). And, to the right: it is something new to expose most people to, as it is far from a famed work of any kind, but deserves more attention than it gets (at the very least).

In hip-hop music, a producer or DJ album is a curious thing if that producer is not also a rapper, or does not choose to release instrumental albums, which some, like Madlib, do. Of course, pairings develop and become synonymous with emcees, or are even considered a part of their name. Atmosphere was generally considered to be Slug, emcee, and Ant, producer, for a large chunk of their career. Brother Ali had Ant as his producer on most of his earlier releases. Eric B. & Rakim split their name credit, with Eric B. as producer even getting “top billing”. Of course, it can get muddier, when you have a separate DJ (usually included as part of the group) from your producer (such as Public Enemy, with Terminator X as the former and The Bomb Squad as the latter). Atmosphere toured with Mr. Dibbs for years, and Brother Ali with BK-One. But the studio recordings were light of either, or even devoid.

BK-One was Brother Ali’s touring DJ until very recently when he started a family and, as he told Ali, decided to quit the road. However, when they were out–as I saw them more than once–BK-One first dropped Set in Motion on CD, a 3-track set of constant cuts and blends with various guests and to-the-point packaging. It was a mixtape more than an album, which is why the next time he showed up, it was with this, and it had a sticker that said “debut album”. Because it’s credited to BK-One and fellow beat producer Benzilla, it doesn’t have an automatic emcee line up, and did not choose the purely instrumental route either. As such, guests litter the album in various forms, and give the impression–at a glance, anyway–of a compilation, and a possibly messy one at that. That was a large part of why I didn’t give the record too many spins after getting it.

Interspersed through the album are beats overlaid with quotes (in Portuguese) from Brazilian musicians Ivan Tiririca, Caetano Veloso, Hyldon (speaking about Tim Maia), and Tom Zé. They are treated as interludes, intros and outros, but also as independent tracks, each named for the musician in question. The album opens with a quote from Tiririca:

“It started more with DJs than with live shows with bands. Our music owes a lot to the DJs here in Brazil in terms of black music. It was after the DJs. It was the DJs who first launched soul music in Brazil.”

This helps to establish the origin and the object of  BK’s project: on a trip to Brazil that included record shopping (a necessity for the DJ interested in scratching or really digging out interesting sounds to make beats from–their shelves are often an amazing thing to behold, as I’ve seen Ant’s, Benzilla’s, Madlibs, and a few others), BK fell in love with the sound of Brazilian music. There was a movement he mentions in the 1960s called tropicália, which married traditional music to the avant garde, as well as non-domestic sources. He discovered the term “cultural cannibalism” for this marriage of varying sources, and named the album for it: “Cannibal radio”.

The first emcees to appear are the givens: Brother Ali, BK’s longtime partner, and Slug, of Atmosphere, who is part owner of the label on which Ali appears, and the label on which this very album appears. It’s not nepotism of course–Ali and Slug have worked together many, many times throughout the releases from either of them. Ali has traded verses and even beatboxed for Slug before, while Slug has contributed verses to many of Ali’s tracks over the years. “Gittit” opens with horns, which, in and of itself is not surprising–Ali, at least, has had horns behind him before (and these days, actually has live horns behind him). But the beat is not exclusively rock-based instrumentation (snare, bass, kick, guitar), as the horns make for the hooks, and there are hand-played drums worked in to. The horns and the hand drumming are a strong hint of the album’s intention to work Brazilian sounds into a hip-hop album.

“Mega” is the one track that has guest production–Brother Ali assists BK-One on this one, though the raps are left to Aceyalone, Myka 9, and Abstract Rude, collectively known as Haiku D’Etat. As is often the case with rappers in the underground, these are dense, rapid raps with a good flow. The beat is a little more standard itself, but is built on a looped flute hook, as well as a vocal sample that sounds as if it’s more likely to be singing either another word that sounds like “Mega” (but is probably a Portuguese one), or at least that word/prefix appearing in a Brazilian track of some kind in the way that it’s pronounced and emphasized (“MAY-gah”). I’m not overly familiar with Haiku D’Etat, though they are one of the many names I see float around a lot. All three of them give great performances, ones that strongly encourage me to look further into their own material, both solo and as a group.

“Our movement was a big scandal here in Brazil. It mixed different kinds of styles which frightened and scandalized people. And we had let our hair grow! It was a typical movement of the ’60s with a flavor of counter-culture and pop art.” 
– Caetano Veloso

 Famous and established Raekwon (yes, from the Wu Tang Clan) is paired with I Self Devine, another Rhymesayers (RSE) artist on “The True and the Living,” joining fellow RSE alumni Abstract Rude, Slug, and Brother Ali. A slightly fuzzed bassline defines another song that happily includes hand-drumming behind Raekwon hitting on territory that BK-One did not restrict but has expressed awareness of being exceptional in context–selling cocaine and pursuit of money therein. Horn hooks appear again, keeping the theme of the albums merge of Brazilian music with hip-hop alive.

The crackle and pop (which, I have to say, is confusing on a record) of the samples used on “Here I Am” is the kind that you feel was knowing. It’s a clever construction: the bassline and the melodic hook seem to be in the same signature but playing a different kind of rhythm from each other that has them seeming to crash into each other for just a moment before the bass decides to take its time anyway. Phonte, Brother Ali, and The Grouch share lyrical duties and carve out one of the most varied sets of rapstyles. There’s a vocal hook that isn’t a sample this time, and it is part of the braggadocio that is a hallmark of a lot of rap, but is offset by Ali’s ever-present appreciation for another (name-checking Phonte more than once). Phonte was in Little Brother (one of the bigger North Carolina indie rap groups in recent years, though now, as they say, “defunct”), while The Grouch used to be in the Living Legends collective with RSE alumnus Murs, who makes an appearance later in the album.

And then we get the one instrumental track on the album: “Tema do Canibal”:

The track features the horns and arrangement of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who took a heavily multi-layered, Brazilian-inflected beat of clanging, clattering rhythmic intensity from BK-One and put an amazing set of hooks and playing over it. This thing is absolutely the highlight of an album of great beats and excellent raps. It’s the track that made me pick this LP up the second time I saw Brother Ali with BK-One (though a few of the guests sealed the deal when I turned it over). Even if you don’t like rap, do not miss this track. There is no rapping, just rhythmic, brassy, musical brilliance.

“The influence of James Brown was to help the self-esteem of black Brazilians. Everything began with James Brown. That was the influence and we would play everything on top of that music. James Brown was an icon to Black Brazilians who had adopted soul music.”

 – Ivan Tiririca

“Philly Boy” uses the lyrical talents of Black Thought, possibly the only emcee on the album I knew nothing of at all going in–which really just reflects my experience of rap, as he’s from The Roots, to whom I’ve never really listened, mostly because I tend to know little or nothing about major label rap, especially from the late 1990s or 2000s. The essential beat is very to the point, but seems to focus on a very low, lazy guitar line, like that of someone casually playing with a lead over the easygoing beat. The song has an extremely relaxed feel overall, though Black Thought brings a lot of energy to his delivery–it works in a fun way to seemingly suggest the ease with which he can dismiss other emcees, as the song just sort of breezes along as he ends a his last verse with “Do it.” It actually ends up a lot closer to instrumental than most of the other tracks (barring the obvious one), going on for a full minute after that, with a little accompanying guitars of Nate Collis (who now plays with Atmosphere on the same instrument), bringing a little more speed and higher pitches, as well as a much more improvisational feel to the outro.
Slug makes his only solo appearance on “Blood Drive”, which has a very curious production to it: it opens with flutes, then goes to a seemingly pastoral string that turns just slightly sour, but is answered with an insistent bassline–there is almost neither end nor beginning to the loop. This is one of the less wry deliveries from Slug, giving him a chance to seem less like he’s trying to smack your face into his point (sometimes because you, or the person he’s rapping to at least, need that). It’s one of the best deliveries I’ve ever heard from him, feeling way more in the “groove” than usual.
And on “A Day’s Work” we get one of my favourite emcees, certainly the one for whom I evangelize most: P.O.S., he of Doomtree, about whom I’ve written before. He’s usually paired with producers like DTR’s own Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, Paper Tiger–or perhaps himself, or MK Larada once upon a time. The more “normal” beat (driven by piano, but backed by the bass of Sean “Twinkie Jiggles” McPherson–seriously) brings out something of a shock in him. He’s not been a slouch at rap, but his roots in punk often gave him an interesting approach to delivery. And, of course, he has always liked asides–from the first time I saw him in concert, at least. He throws one in here, but holy cow, that verse he spits is twisting and turning in all the best possible ways–“Making this shit my own”, he says, and he’s right.
For a lot of the early (primarily RSE) rap shows I went to, I’d almost always see Toki Wright there, acting primarily as hype man for the headlining acts. He got to open a few shows later, and he got a record released at a point that made me feel like he had to work way harder for it than anyone else–which was weird, as he was never lacking in talent at all. And “Face It” emphasizes how strange it was that it seemed to take some time before he could release a record. He puts in his own vocal hook into a beat that already has a nice pinched guitar hook, and has a relaxed tone to his rap, about his comfort and ease, and, yes, pride in being black. I’d like to think this could click even with people who get really defensive about black pride, as there’s no sense of superiority, just comfort–and encouragement for everyone to have the same attitude.
There’s a kind of sound to fuzzy, crackley samples that appears a lot, regardless of the kind of music it appears in (there’s a distinct example in alt/indie rock band Eels, actually). It uses a loop that ends with a light  pop at the very end, one that signifies the end and beginning of the loop simultaneously. It’s often given just enough space after the musical sample itself that you know it’s deliberately included, even making for part of the beat. Here it’s a quiet acoustic sample that goes from muttering itself to talking to listeners, but gets no further–it immediately cycles backward. Strings and other instruments back the one exception to the rapping tracks that compost the majority of the album: singer-songwriter Aby Wolf is double-tracked (and more, a few times) and sings beautifully for a very relaxed song called “Love Like That”. She actually works with Dessa (of Doomtree) on occasion, too.

“The first landmark soul album in Brazil was the first LP of Tim Maia. In his style of playing, I could hear Harlem materializing. I heard black American music. Tim lived five years in the United States and he wasn’t just listening. He lived the life of a black American Musician.”

–Hyldon

Another rapper I know from opening, Blueprint appeared between P.O.S. and Atmosphere at the first rap show I ever attended. Not an enviable position, really–following what was becoming my new favourite, and then preceding the one I came to see in the first place. He gets to rap “Blue Balls”, which is more metaphorical than the next track–it’s about musical “blue balls”, with the constant pressure to finish a new album plaguing him from all sides. It’s a great performance, and a fun conceit to rap about a kind of inability to finalize a rap album–a theme Ali actually hit on a few years later. He also gets the backing of Erick Anderson, who plays keys for Atmosphere and gives a lot more power to his backing, and makes it sound almost like a church song for Blueprint to preach his desire to be left to his work from.
Murs for President shirts tend to litter RSE shows. He raps with Slug as part of a group named Felt, which has been backed by a different producer for each of three albums (one was actually The Grouch, which is why I knew him already). His track is “Eighteen to Twenty-One”, and if you’re getting a worrisome vibe here, you’re not alone. Murs is shameless in explaining why he looks for women in that age range–it’s an aversion to settling down, and a disinterest in anything but having sex. An interesting guitar loop is the basis for it, with some interesting pinched and muted sounds built into it. BK has mentioned that he knew this would cause some trouble for some people, but rather than endorsing (or even tacitly accepting) the track, he has said it was just part of a refusal to direct or control the lyrical directions of the rappers who performed (citing Raekwon’s drug selling rap and the varying uses of the “n-word” by more than one emcee). If you can deal with the subject matter, this is a great performance–you can hear Murs shrugging, and hear him saying, “Wait, wait, hold on, let me explain, though…”
Having appeared earlier with Raekwon, I Self Devine gets a chance to perform alone on “Call to Arms”, and does so admirably. There’s a brief instrumental introduction, which he raps in a distorted fashion over for about a minute, before the song even gets to start and his vocals come back clearly. The beat itself also comes into a much clearer quality, based around a female vocal sample that doesn’t appear to form any full words (but then, I don’t know Portuguese!). McPherson gets to throw in some more bass, and there’s a great hi-hat usage toward the end, before it turns to McPherson’s bassline and the handclaps of BK-One, I Self Devine, Benzilla, and King Karnov.
Rounding out the appearances of Brother Ali and pairing him with Scarface of the Geto Boys (who comes from Houston, TX apparently, which is kind of weird and cool for a rapper). A rolling, Latin beat stands behind “American Nightmare” and the brief choral vocal from Ali. It seems from Ali’s opinion, BK’s and that of many, Scarface is commercially neglected but unbelievably skilled emcee. This song is not exactly going to dissuade anyone from that notion, and it’s very possible it will sway many toward it. Wow.

“I could have made popular but sophisticated music, as I had studied music for 6 years. I could have added a more sophisticated touch to samba. But I had taken another stand, an apocalyptic one, and made something more radical. I was crazy, but I was right.”

–Tom Zé

I’ve sort of given the fact away, but I tend to expect it beforehand anyway: getting to sit down with this album left it a heck of a lot more cohesive than I had ever guessed. The leaps in styles from emcee to emcee seemed like a risky proposition to me (much like the confused and uninformed claims that all of any genre or voice sound the same, that claim does not hold true for rap at all), but turned out perfectly reasonable. If treated as emcee-focused, it feels like a solid and varied but unified beat that just allows for numerous spotlights on emcees. But, of course, it’s actually a producer’s album: BK-One is putting hip-hop into Brazil, or Brazil into hip-hop, not because it hasn’t been done, but because he loves both and wants to bring them together. And so he does. There’s a great admiration for the styles and sounds of Brazil, but not stripped away and raps forced over them, nor broken down into the unrecognizable and reconfigured as expected hip-hop beats. 
There’s actually a great “track-by-track” rundown of the album by BK-One himself, over at this link, via the blog Potholes in My Blog.
I don’t have any illusions–I know most people I know with no time for rap in specific or hip-hop in general are going to give this much time. I know there’s not much I can do to sway those minds–though I sometimes have success by simply choosing the right rapper or rap group for a person’s taste. I write this, however, in the hopes that a person here or there might see something in this that they wouldn’t have otherwise, that they might at least take away from it “Tema Do Canibal”, which I maintain should appeal to most anyone.
You can actually pick up an EP of just that song, if you like from Amazon in digital form, or even on vinyl. Rhymesayers also sells it directly, as well as the full album.
Next Up: Blakroc – Blakroc

Day Nineteen Bonus Track(s): Bad Veins – "Falling Tide" b/w "The Lie"

Dovecote Records ■ DCR 0012/DCR 0011


Released: ??, 2007


Produced by Bad Veins, Justin Baily, Daron Hollowell and Jonathan Fuller
Engineered by Justin Bailey and Johnathan Fuller
Mastered by Steve Girton

A-Side:

  • Falling Tide
B-Side:

  • The Lie

On my previous blog, I had a single poll, really, and it was to narrow the direction of my planned listening, in a more general and randomized sense than the ones I kept here. I matched Wire, the Skids, Dinosaur Jr, Slade and Bad Veins–a pretty weird blend overall, even if all of them are or were rock in some form or other. Dinosaur Jr ended up winning, probably indicative of the people I know. Bad Veins did reasonably well, and I knew at least one person who put in a bote there. I knew the same for Slade, for that matter. I never got around to writing about any of them but Dinosaur Jr (who won)–I just felt too overwhelmed by the volume of material, especially as compared to what I felt like I knew.

As time has gone on, Bad Veins has remained the most “limited”–they’ve released 2 albums and not much more. They were floating around the “legitimately” indie scene (in the sense of limited distribution, low-fame, independent in actual senses of divorce from industry clout) even when I saw them live. They opened for We Were Promised Jetpacks, who I saw completely on a lark, having forgotten the show was even occurring at the time. I ended up having hard cider for the first time (on the recommendation of a friend–via text, no less), but wandered in for the latter half of Bad Veins’ set. I normally show up at concerts at door time, or even sooner. This time, because it was so delayed (not to mention a venue I had never been to or even seen), I was a lot later though.
When I looked up at the stage, I saw two guys in pseudo-military dress with a podium and a reel-to-reel tape player, a rotary phone receiver attached to the microphone stand (leading to its base attached to the podium) and a covering of seeming wallpaper on that podium. One was manning drums, the other at the mic and playing guitar. It was an odd sight, to be sure. That this was the band opening for the post rock-inflected Scots who I knew as openers for The Twilight Sad (who I knew as openers for Mogwai) would have left me confused if the band who preceded We Were Promised Jetpacks when they opened for the Twilight Sad wasn’t Brakes, the English pop/rock band. Still, these were Americans, so I was left a bit confused all the same.
It wasn’t long before the strains of Bad Veins infected me at the show, though. It was catchy stuff, and the “gimmicks” didn’t feel gimmicky so much as creative and vaguely quirky–the telephone was used to distort Benjamin Davis’s vocals much like megaphones are used (and, indeed, he used one of those, too). Sebastien Schultz’ drumming was solid, forceful rock drumming, too, and there was a nice weight to their songs–and the reel-to-reel (nicknamed Irene, I’d later find) gave a more full sound than the pair could have otherwise produced.
I snapped up the only thing they had with them at the show–a 7″ of two songs, paired with a CD designated for the year’s tour (2012) and a download code for their first album (home-typed and printed, clearly!). I had the pair sign it (as you can see) and went on my merry way. The CD was actually composed of songs from their then-forthcoming album, The Mess We’ve Made, while the single was actually a pair of songs from their self-titled first album, released in 2009.
“Dancing on TV” was probably the catchiest song from the show, as well as the lead song on that CD, but that means, of course, it wasn’t on the single itself. The single is still in the same style the band sticks to, though: Schultz on drums and Davis on keys and guitar, singing, in a style that’s unique and somewhat difficult to describe. It’s very strongly enunciated, and quite exaggerated, and seems to carry a sort of hangdog happiness–strange though that may sound. It’s as if he’s drained of energy in a part of the sound, yet the range and modulation he puts into his voice betrays the lie of that notion. It gives them a bit of their own character, and it’s a good and enjoyable character to have.
“Falling Tide” is the louder song, a simple drum machine (tape loop, I’m guessing!) intro that very quickly turns to a real drum and a rumbling bass as Davis sings in that style of his, defining the melody. The chorus throws a spray of keys back at us and kicks in the guitar, but, most important, lets us hear the best part of Davis: his choruses. “I never would have held it back if/I thought that we’d get through”–and it’s that through, dragged through a sliding range of notes and three extra syllables. Absolute singalong in the best sense.
“The Lie” is the lighter companion. A ticking timer starts the track, and then in comes Davis’ voice, extra clear and completely up front, right in front of you in the mix, and only a calm, quiet keyboard line follows him for the entire first verse. The second verse shifts the keys up an octave or so¹, and halfway through adds a looped pizzicato violin. And then we get the chorus: “‘Cause sometimes, sometimes to get by/I believe in the lie”. Davis again is happy to give a single word multiple notes, and Schultz enters, too, as does a bass. A flute section, and the rhythm section get to follow him into the second repetition of the verses, and we get to hear that great chorus again–and Davis finally lets loose the third time through, and you hear his voice at full energy, the entire song coming upward with a faux chorus. The final, long-held instance of the chorus is perhaps the most exciting, and fades to the somewhat hesitant sound of his voice seeming to realize what he’s singing: he has just sung loudly of his habit of getting by by pretending. That little note of reality creeps in and the song falls to a stop.
You know, I’m not going to pretend that I’m in a space where there needs to be some kind of absolute ground-breaking, totally unique element–I’ve never demanded nor always appreciated that, it has to be done right. And so does a catchy song–and Bad Veins do it right, and have done. Given the right exposure they could–and should–get a lot more fans. If the engineer I know who has done sound for them (completely without my prior knowledge, mind you!) can appreciate them in his tendency toward the weirder, darker (and often more country or folk, but edged) kind of things, then that should say something, I think.
Most of the 7″s I have fit into the space one would expect a 7″ to fit in: they are catchy singles that are readily digested and immediate, great to listen to and enjoy as much as you want–not necessarily shallow, but accessible. Bad Veins is no exception, and none of that should be taken as anything but endorsement.

While we’re here, there’s actually the video of “Dancing on TV” from the very show I attended, embedded here for your enjoyment:

¹Let’s remember I’m not great at music theory, but that feels right? 

Day Fourteen, Bonus Track(s): !!! – "Heart of Hearts"

Warp Records ■ WAP 218


Released: February 19, 2007


Produced by Justin Van Volgen
Mixed by The Brothers and Justin Van Volgen

A-Side:

  • “Heart of Hearts”
B-Side:

  • [Silence]

I guess I don’t need to tell you this is a picture disc, unless the sudden shock of colour completely blinded you. I picked this beauty up when I went to see !!! in 2007. And yes, if you haven’t yet gathered, the name of this band is exactly what’s printed on the A-Side up there: !!!. The pronunciation is technically any single syllabic non-verbal noise, and is typically written as “Chk chk chk”–and remember that, it’s valuable information if you want to search for them.

In my alphabetical discovery phase, I went through eMusic’s catalogue in, well, alphabetical order for a while. Back in 2000-2002, they had a very different selection. !!! began it, though, and did so with their debut album, the self-titled !!!. Considering some suggest the band actually broke up, went on hiatus, or otherwise disappeared shortly following its release, it’s hardly a wonder they were such a pain to search for at the time. If all you know is their printed name, it’s not any different now. Punctuation is generally ignored by most search engines, except where it is used as part of their own “lexicon” for clarifying searches. Unfortunately, using quotation marks is no different with Google. Having to use song titles is no way to search for any artist, but when it’s the only way, it just makes you aware of how annoying it is. As such, while I still think of them as literally “!!!” and am disinclined to actually have a thought of them as “chk chk chk”, it has been a boon to have a search term that actually works.
But, I digress.
The band has four albums under their belt now (!!!, Louden Up Now, Myth Takes, from which this comes, and Strange Weather, Isn’t It?), and a smattering of singles and EPs. After the now-defunct Gold Standard Laboratories (responsible for releasing the early Mars Volta material, The Locust, De Facto, The Faint, and a variety of other bands that are familiar to me but only scattered few people I know) released that first album, the band jumped to Warp Records. Honestly, I found this weird. I identified Warp strongly with electronic music, as it was the label of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. In my head, I’d categorized !!! as some variety of funk thanks to songs like “Kookooka Fuk-U” and my then-favourite, “Intensify” (let me just add: single word song titles were not helpful in my searches, nor were nonsense words that might be split up or punctuated in a variety of ways. Thanks, guys.). Of course, I didn’t know much about funk, or post-punk, or the oddly titled genre “dance-punk” (aka “disco punk” and “punk funk”–so at least I wasn’t too far away).
The band has, even if they are not “funk”, always had a groove and a very funky sound–though I’m not sure how I mean “funky”, to be honest. It has that visceral element of funk (like “groove”) that encourages movement, but it’s also kind of weird.
“Heart of Hearts” comes from midway through third album Myth Takes, and starts out with two palm-muted guitars, one consistent, though high and sharpened, the other intermittent and nervous. Low end seems to try to force its way in, a drum seeming to be pounded in the background, even as the hi-hat rhythm plays along in the foreground, gathering up to a consistent beat. The bottom end drops in suddenly and the entire song lets loose. Nic Offer’s too-cool vocals (never sung without a sense of humour–he actually stopped the show I was at to question why no one was laughing at his knowingly terrible dancing, and seemingly taking it seriously instead of having fun). The bass line and the boom-bap drums are insistent and propulsive, while the guitars hide in the high end and add nervous energy, alongside the hi-hat that hisses just enough to tie them both together. Sharon Funchess appears as guest vocalist for the bridge, a touch that adds the feeling that the song is rooted in music from decades earlier. The song moves, the song grooves, the song makes you want to dance (even if, like Nic, you can’t). Sharon chants “Heartof, heartof, heartof, heartof” and her breathing becomes more impatient and rises in volume until the entire song drops–you think it’s over, but it comes right back, with the guitars now swirling and chasing each other around in the air, echoing and reverberating around, the rhythm section untouched. There’s another brief break as the song seems to be forced through a funnel, leaving only odd electronic noises over steady bass kicks. And then the hi-hat rhythm comes back, but it’s an open cymbal now, and the bass doesn’t come back. The hat tightens and then the drop back appears and–the song immediately drops to zero volume and ends.
This was a great choice for a single, no question. Myth Takes may be my favourite !!! album anyway, (not to be missed, too, is the “Brothers Mix” of the song, which originally appeared on the bonus disc included with initial presses of the album on CD–which wouldn’t have made a bad b-side here!). But the song exemplifies everything good and great about !!!, and it’s even pressed on not only a super-pretty slab of vinyl, but one that manages to exactly fit the feel and beat of the song as it spins, the way the lines splay and imply movement in multiple directions as it spins adding to the experience in an unusual way. You can actually see a bit of what I mean (the differing directions, at least–implying the record is almost turning in opposing directions or being used to scratch) in this shot:
I’m going to close with one more annoyance: I actually can’t tag this post with the band’s name. The character is excluded from tag options. Dammit.