Saturday, December 21, 2013

I still can't bring myself to do a "Best of" list

I really can't. It would be like saying "Bananas are the best of all fruits"- utterly insane.
What I can say is that there was some fine stuff to enjoy this year. I can say that I had some real joys this year. I know that it's unique to each of us, so what brought me joy might be a real head scratcher for you. For example, while watching Baroness play at Ram's Head in May, it was almost life-changing to see just how happy and inspired they were to play music. It was palpable that, while they were grateful to have an audience, these guys would've played every note the same if they were alone in somebody's garage- and that conviction of doing exactly what you were meant to do, following your muse no matter what- that's why any of us is a fan of anything. We enjoy Art because it has a purity of intent and purpose. From time to time, I get asked what I think the point of everything is- what is the meaning of life? I always kind of hem and haw about it, because I don't believe that life, in and of itself, has meaning. What meaning can there be to simply breathing, and eating and sleeping? However, we each find a meaning. Each of us try to write a narrative over our experiences- even if the point of that narrative is "It's all absurd". So, I think the meaning of life is in the search for meaning. So, it brought me joy to see it so starkly as it is with Baroness- these are guys who literally are validating their choices for the meaning of life right before your eyes. See, if I explain it out, even if you disagree with me, you can see why I'd call it a highlight in my year. That's why I cannot do a top ten list, or a best of 2013; all bullet points and proper nouns. It closes off the beauty in Art to reduce it to that consumer transaction of "I bought this LP, and I love it more than the last LP I bought". I prefer finding those moments of transcendence - I might hear a song a dozen times, but then, that right combination of experiences and reception clicks into place, and for just that moment, I get a glimpse of some deeper truth, some beautiful construction of shared ideas. That would be my top pick.
All that having said, if you do read the blog, I hope I can turn you on to something that does that for you. I don't write about crap ( much) so I really do think you might be able to find that, too.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Just because

Ok, so I got a little bit of positive feedback, and a deafening amount of silence on my last few "hobby" posts, I'll keep this extremely short- my ventures back into my guitar stuff has brought out the engineer in me, again. I've been feeling the itch to tweak, mod, and generally screw with stuff, again. So, I revived my Entropy Pedal ( a super tweaked out Ross stereo flanger that I've  changed around so it does an extreme  chorus detune on the edge of the sweep- we're talking a little over a full step detuning, and it also can do a less musically pleasing, more harsh and industrial version of the "Tin drum" sound that Dave Navarro explored with delay pedals and chorus) which needed some work, and I replaced some capacitors in my compression pedal so it sounds a bit less harsh on the attack, but the sustain is now a bit muddy.You get the idea. This has bred a few more ambitious ideas, which I will report if I actually do them.

Beastmilk- Climax

So, I finally caught up with Beastmilk. Let me start with this- it's some of the finest blackened Goth music I have heard. Take Leeds-based psychedelic dark music, a la Sisters of Mercy and  RLYL, then, add a touch of Ladbroke grove ( Killing Joke, Hawkwind, Michael Moorcock), now coat the whole thing in a dust of Finnish gothic Love Metal ( you know, HIM?) and you have the general sound. Now add in an incongruous visual style the owes something to Dischord style opaqueness ( Nation of Ulysses)  but has something of a Ken Russell disturbing occult twist. Sound interesting? Yeah, it is to me. Of course,  Kurt Ballou produced it.
What that means in musical terms is non-cliche reverb drenched anthemic post punk with guitars that throb, and feedback, and sweep in an epic fashion over near conveyor belt dance beats. It's really good, it's recognizable as goth, but beyond that, it's hard to pin down which intrigues me more. People have mentioned Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Morrisey, but I hear just as much of the stuff I mentioned before. The spirit of Joy Division also looms, here and there. Lyrically, it's like Black metal, but made more specific, and thus more real- there's a lot of despair and menace, but, unlike Black Metal, the focus is more on a particularly occult view of real life. So, if you think the dark, gothy, psychedelic post punk of early to mid 1980's industrial England is a sound that could use some more life, I've got your undead fix, right here.  Seriously, excellent stuff!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ready in Minutes

So, Conan Neutron turned me on to a pretty good New Wave band from Kalamazoo- Minutes. Now, I'll admit, I prefer the first record to the new one, which isn't the best sign, but their overall vibe is excellent. They do that uptight, lo-fi sound of that first moment when Punk Rock turned into "New Wave" ( Claude Bessy be damned, we all know what New Wave means) . Now, people are throwing around Jawbox and Minutemen, but I wouldn't go there exactly. I think Alley Cats, Superchunk,  Suburban Lawns, maybe a little James Chance  but it's all good- I think people are hearing Minutemen due to the trebley, overdriven ( not distorted) guitars, and Jawbox from the emphasis on close harmonies, but I think you could even make a case of Sonic Youth , Pavement and Unrest- the point isn't what other band they sound like- the point is that they have punk urgency, DIY rough edges, midwestern meat and potatoes melodies, and above all a tight-wound sense of economy and the nervous energy that brings.  It's too damn bad that Night Flight, Channel 18, and most specifically New Wave Theatre is gone- because they'd have a national audience if it were still around. I bet they'd even get a Sire Records contract. As it stands, I hope they get a lot of sales on Bandcamp...

Back to the Known

(WARNING: This is a very long one . Very long)
Ok, so I know how things work. I'm a genius if I agree with you, and an idiot if I don't. I'm a great guy if I do something for you, and a jerk if I don't. I'm trustworthy if I work in your interests, and I'm a crook if I work for somebody else. Relax, I'm not judging you- and I know there are exceptions, and I know that plenty of other people know how that particular game works, so I'm not giving you a manifesto, here, just stating the ground rule that informs my reasoning. See, there's a lot of reasons for why I do what I do. I'm nothing if not a reasoning machine. I have an engineering degree, and I work in logistics, after all- this is just part of how my mind works. I'm a socialist because of it, and a libertarian because of it, and yes, I see the inherent contradiction in that. See, if we can convince enough people that their interests are mutual, then, the best method of procedure is social. If people feel the psychological need to individuate, then the best method of procedure is individual. So, just as an example- while our healthcare system is something that is pretty easy to argue as mutual, certain decisions, like how to alter or not alter consciousness usually feels pretty personal. We'd like to believe that we're alone inside our skulls. Of course, I could argue that, but it's a small enough point that I'd prefer to approach the whole thing this way- I'm totally fine with legalizing all drugs, and I'm totally fine with the notion of socialized medicine. See, while it is a bit of a contradiction, it's pretty easily justified by an application of Game Theory.
Such thinking permeates me to the degree that it even determines my blogging habits. So, rather than waste time bemoaning how often there's just plain crap to listen to, or watch, or read, I'd prefer to talk about something else, because that keeps up the equilibrium of me keeping my opinions, you keeping yours, and both of us wasting as little time as possible on the lost cause of trying to determine who has better taste ( short answer- you have better taste than me- for your tastes).
So, I took a week or so detour. Get the idea?
However I've got several other things to talk about, and I bet they're   more interesting than my rationalizations, yeah?
First is about Television- I've replaced my Roku box with- a Roku 3! Why is this worth mentioning? Because it's that much better. Seriously, the difference in interface, and it performance is such that I really think it changes the equation. See, I would say that the Roku, in general, is equivalent to Cable TV. If you do "basic tier" ( i.e. no additional paid services like Hulu plus, or Netflix) you can get roughly the same amount of content, with about the same level of quality as a basic cable TV subscription. You add in the paid tier, and the equation becomes unbalanced- while I think HBO, Cinemax, and so on have higher quality programming, the Roku Box is cheaper, and, with paid stuff ends up being the equivalent of two basic tier cable subscriptions- you get all of the content, literally, of basic cable ( same shows) as well as an equivalent amount of equal quality programming not available on basic Cable- so, while a little bit "oranges and apples" I think Roku wins, right? The Roku 3 adds in some functionality that makes it a "cable killer" in my mind- the picture clarity, and speed, and interface is actually superior to what Cox, or Comcast offer on TV, and the sheer amount of programming ( including games) more than makes up for the loss of being able to see brand new episodes of True Blood or Eastbound and Down- yes, you can still see them, but about 6 months later, on an Amazon Prime, Vudu, Target Ticket, or Redbox account. That you can watch everything from BBC programming to Kanal to Al-Jazeera to NHK programming as easily as you can watch Comedy Central programming, in higher definition than you can with a Satellite Dish further weights the end result towards the Roku 3. Seriously, I would say I've got close to 100,000 hours of available HD programming available to me, each week. It's taking real discipline to not become a total couch potato. I can watch the entire series' worth of my all-time favorite TV shows, any time I want- E.G. I literally could turn to my right, and push three buttons to commence watching all 17 episodes of The Prisoner, followed up by both seasons of the Young Ones. Two more button mashes, and I can watch the first three seasons of Boardwalk Empire, followed up by all 5 seasons of both Rescue Me and Angel. That's what?  320 Hours of Television? Assuming that I watch the National average of 34 hours of TV per week, that's 9 and a half weeks, right there. So, yes, I think going with the Roku 3, plus a handful of paid subscriptions is better than getting a premium Cable TV subscription, just in terms of sheer quality and quantity- then when you add in that it's literally USD 1000 a year cheaper, and it's a total Cable Killer- not even close. I know that there are other ways- Apple TV, Chromecast, etc- but the Roku 3 beats them all for the combination of picture clarity, content availability and ease of use with the interface- there's just no comparison. If you add in some things that I consider shady, but are commonly done- like fudging an HBO subscription, or using a torrents, or pirate satellite broadcasts, and you could render moot any negatives about the Roku 3, at all. I really don't consider that part of the equation, in that it violates some of my basic precepts in viewing the world, but I'm worldly enough to know that it's done- so, yes, you add in the "pirate" end of the equation, and the whole contest becomes absurd- Cable TV looks like a scam, Roku simply looks quaint. Bottom line, I'm pleased with the Roku 3 in all ways that matter to me.
As for what content I've been watching, apart from re-watching classics, I've been catching up on Brooklyn 99 and The Blacklist. Probably the only 2 new series that I find worth anything at all. I got invited to be on a test group panel for Sony, and I ended up declining their offer because so many TV programs just seemed utterly worthless to me.
So, on to Music, then, yes?
Two new-ish releases caught me this week- Tidal Arms and Hollow Sunshine. Both make "trippy" music, along the Stoner end of the spectrum. Both incorporate some Metal elements, but they're very different bands.
Tidal Arms straddle between Sludge/Doom and Groove/Math Metal forms. The end result reminds me of the experimental kinda heavy alt-rock that dominated Alternative Tentacles in the early 1990's- you know the Steel Pole Donut type stuff? Jazzbo bass lines amped up to saturation with solid state distortion, contrasted against punkish rock guitar put through both fuzz and distortion pedals. Lo-fi production almost by default, but sophisticated musicianship that would be recognized by the Berklee types, if it wasn't so snotty? Sophmore year philosophy class lyrics ( contrasted with the usual Freshman year lyrics) over music that references both obscuro vintage Metal and current College/Indie rock?  Then, douse the whole thing in a punk-rock urgency to fit in about 5 LP's worth of riffs because it's uncertain if/when they'll get another chance to record?  Yeah, that style of music. It's always a mixed bag for me, because when there are 12-16 motifs per song, it's a mortal lock that I'll like at least 1, and hate at least 1- so the trick, and Tidal Arms have done this, is to weigh the percentages towards "Hey, Cool" and away from "Aw, that Sucks". I think the lo-fi, slacker, relaxed vibe helps- and not just for me, personally- think about Jam bands (yuck!) would people put up with their lazy blues/folk riffs played along standard scales for waaay too long if they didn't give off the happy-go-lucky vibes of an affable stoner, like a real life Shaggy from Scooby Doo? I sincerely doubt that a band would make it very far if they played like Phish, but carried themselves like Dream Theater. See my point? I think we're all suckers for the "aw shucks" informal thing. So, the Sludgey, Stoner vibe, again, making things far more comfortable than they otherwise would be, goes a very long way towards making the sometimes awkward riffing much more palatable. I know I'm making this sound like a calculated, cynical trick- but again, I want you to remember who's reporting it, here- a guy well versed in mathematical ways of viewing sociology- so that may very well just be my take. The point that should make it through though is that there's not an uptight feel, and that definitely gives it an assist when it might have stumbled. So, my bottom line is that I like this new self-titled LP, but I can't say whether I'll like anything else...
Hollow Sunshine, on the other hand hit a sweet spot between Jesus and Mary Chain and Godflesh that absolutely works for me. No, I cannot defend that, as well, musically. Yes, that means that structurally, I know these songs are not as well-crafted as, say, an Opeth track, but certainly, on the subjective level, these hit the limbic system perfectly- sonic sugar rushes for me...
So, I've heard the music described as "Jesu.. if Torche wrote the songs", and that's somewhat accurate, but I still think the roots go back further than that- there's a pounding, industrial sense to the rhythm section that calls back to Godflesh, a lot more, but the washes of guitar literally split the differences between pop melodies and white noise/pink noise feedback. This isn't just distortion, or fuzz, like a nice, stately effect pedal- it's a sheet of noise, like an unplugged but still live cable, wrapped like a cotton candy whip made of static around classic pop melodies played at a crawling drone speed. Yes, it hits both nostalgic and idealistic notes from my subconscious, and I know that, just like a sugar rush, it'll leave me the second it's not present, but I enjoy it just the same. Hell, one of the guys in the Video looks just like I used to in the mid 1990's, and the video itself looks like a home movie from my  1993.  So, hell yes, I'm liking it. It's perfect for those of us who never got over liking that super-loud form of indie/Alternative/Post punk Rock that wasn't "grunge" but certainly informed Grunge. I know you know what I'm describing, if you're one of us. If you're not, you might still dig it, if you want something more laid back and mellow than Sludge Metal, but just as committed to loud noise. If they're fooling me, so be it, but I'm just so happy with this noise...
Haven't really made much progress in my efforts to improve my relationship with the visual Arts. When I was in the Netherlands, I enjoyed the Van Gogh museum, but mostly for technical stuff, like how he repeatedly cribbed a 60 degree angle to trees in his paintings from a Japanese print. I'll keep trying.
Food and drink wise, I've got two things, both Beer-related: One, I've been seeing the Adverts for forever, and I finally got a sixer of Third Shift Amber.  In terms of sheer taste, it's not offensive. It's basically slightly more savory Coors. But, there's the offensive problem with it- It is Coors. They repackaged it to try to appeal to the Craft community, but it's freakin' Coors, maaaan! As we used to say it, backstage in Arizona- "Kerrs"- the drink for Rodeo clowns and crypto-fascist small town Cops, everywhere. Don't be sellin' me Kerrs , an' tellin' me it's Fat Tire, Dude, 'cause I'll mess you up! ( Mostly when I vomit this stuff up....)
The other was far more of a breakthrough- I finally found a flavored Beer that doesn't taste like a granola bar- Abita Purple Haze . It's still a Pilsner, and I'm more into pilsners than IPA's ( My hierarchy is that I like ambers, then hefe-weizens , then stouts, then pilsners, then tripels, then Belgian browns, then Bock, then IPA, then porters, then red beers, them lambics, then bitters, then saisons, and below that, I'll take a white wine, please) so, yes, my palette is still more Rolling Rock than Dogfish, but I'm trying to get a little more refined. I never have been able to choke down any of the Sam Adams concoctions, and the craft variations are usually worse. I'm with Denis Leary on this one. But, I know I need to get with the times, and I keep trying- so count this as success in my grand self-improvement program. But this Abita stuff is kind of like when you put a little lime on your Corona- just a little raspberry flash on a regular beer.  I had it with a fried whitefish on yucca hash I made, and it was pretty good. I can't say I'd like it with Steak and potatoes or something, but with fish, or with greens, it's pretty good.
Finally, I still read The Big Takeover. Honestly, I disagree pretty violently with about 75% of Jack and Crews' tastes these days, and I have less than no interest in what The Black Watch, Kitchens of Distinction, or Tommy Keene is up to, this week. I don't hate Fender products, but I'm more of a Gibson guy, and I've noticed that the Fender stuff outnumbers everything else about 10 to 1, so I know that somebody, at least, on the staff is a total Fender fan-boy. I know that Jack disagrees with my tastes, as well.  As in, directly- I'm not guessing, here. However, Jack is still a better-than-decent guy. The Big Takeover still is a fanzine, coming from him- and you see the tagline from Ryan Patterson, up top? I still believe in that ethos.  Jack is valid and sincere. So, I pick up the magazine, even if I no longer read over half of it. The part that I've read included an editorial from Jack about the closing of Maxwell's in New Jersey, and the larger issue of venues closing, and I'd like to speak about that-
On the one hand, live shows are extremely important to me. I go to a fair number, and it reflects a pretty deep commitment, if you think about it: I live about 60 miles from the 930 club and the Black Cat, 62 miles from the Ottobar,  65 miles from Rams Head in Baltimore, and 66 miles from the Sidebar. These are all places I've gone to see shows, within the past 6 months. That means a minimum of 3 hours in the car, plus parking ( usually about 20 bucks) before we even talk about the show. So, let's say it's a mid-priced gig, at 20 bucks. Let's say my time is worth 10 bucks an hour ( I get paid more than that, but I'm trying to be as fair as possible) and gas is 3 bucks a gallon, and I get 30 miles to the gallon ( again, I'm low-balling everything) . So, I'm investing at least 82 bucks to see a show.Add in a beer and a T shirt ( both of which I usually do, in a small effort to support both band and venue) and we're over 100 bucks for a night, no problem. Do that just 10 nights a year- less than a show a month, and we're at over a grand a year. So, I really don't want to hear that people aren't going to live shows, even if that's true.
However, he gets into demographics, and I'm perfect for that- see, I used to be pretty damn urban. I have lived in Los Angeles ( not a suburb, Los Angeles!) and New York ( well, Brooklyn, but...) as well as smaller cities, like Tucson, Phoenix, and Washington DC. Yes, I earned more per annum in each place, than now, but still- let me do the math- I'd say I averaged about 70K a year, adjusted for inflation, in those urban environments. My housing generally cost me between 1700 and 2000 a month, again, adjusted. Other bills followed suit. Currently, I'm pulling in about 45K a year. My housing costs me 750 a month. Likewise, my grocery bills, and utilities are less, as well. So, in the city, my bills would total about 65K a year. Yes, seriously- housing was about 1/3 of my income, and most of the rest went to everything from  electricity to groceries. My current bills ( not counting my unusual medical expenses, this year) total about 29K. So, that means  my actual disposable income is up about 300% to live out in the boonies. I'd be a fool to pass that up, right? I think the same thinking happens for a lot of people as they get past their youth, and into middle age. That's why Jack is seeing less and less of his peers in the city, and at shows. I also think he underestimates how many of those creative types he laments are no longer there had secretly larger sources of income than what it may have appeared. I know of a lot of musicians who had a day job that was completely off the books- dealing drugs, black market sales, theft, and prostitution. That's not even getting into how many trust-fund babies were around. The myth of the starving Artist is mostly a myth. I love that Jack is a romantic, and it is very charming, but I don't think he understands just how much crime and deception supports that myth. Don't get me wrong- I know a lot of musicians are really pretty poor, and loads of them are working soul-crushing legitimate day jobs- hell, ask me about hiring Punk rock stars as construction workers, I can verify it, no problem, but let's be very honest, here- Jack is talking about the lower East side, the Punk Rock world of Max's Kansas City, CBGB's, etc. Now think about those people. Yes, they made some great Art, but if you subtract that ( I know it's a lot) how many of them would you classify as petty criminals? I'm not saying they were all on the level of Ian Watkins, or even GG Allin, but a guy like Stiv Bators definitely wasn't exactly reporting his income. Start to see my point? These weren't "beautiful losers' in the Jack Kerouac/Rimbaud romantic sense- they were just the usual cast of broken neighborhoods operating in a system d economy. This is part of the reason, by the way, that I've always been much more admiring of the American Midwestern underground scene- it was filled with a lot more blue collar types who rose up from their day jobs working HVAC or maintenance at the local elementary school to make art. Think about Chicago- whether you're talking about Naked Raygun, or Screeching Weasel, or even a good percentage of the Waxtrax crew- the only real career criminal I can think of, off the top of my head, is Al Jourgensen. Most of them either were Blue collar, or middle class college students- and think about what they'd do for a show? Much like me, they'd drive 50, 75 even 100 miles one way for a good show- So, I'm saying that part of what Jack is lamenting simply boils down to self-delusion. Poverty, like misery, disease, and deprivation doesn't create creativity. I don't believe in the notion that you have to be tortured to be an Artist. Even Van Gogh was 90% hard work, and his illness, and poverty mostly took away opportunities to be creative. There are plenty of Creative types who suffer, yes. But I'm arguing that the suffering doesn't create anything- even the suffering of living in a bad neighborhood. So, CBGB's closed because Hilly Kristal got into a rent dispute, not because he was broke. The notion of starving artists kind of dies when you consider that his daughter ended up a millionaire after Hilly died- and that's after the legal bills, and unpaid rents, and false starts in Las Vegas. Patti Smith is 40 years away from working in the Piss Factory. Lou Reed died in the Hamptons, not the Lower East side. Even Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were fighting over a substantial estate in Upper middle income Northampton, Ma.
However, I do know that he's right- the "club tour" is mostly a thing of the past. When I saw Agent Orange a few years back, and I was talking with Mike Palm, he was saying, not complaining, but just saying that he couldn't justify the tour he was on- gas at 3 bucks a gallon, driving a Van that gets maybe 10 miles to the gallon meant that if the shows were 200 miles apart, that 60 bucks came directly out of the evening's take- so if the evening made them 600 bucks ( a really good evening) that was 10 % of the take- which with a 5 person band/crew entourage meant they'd walk away with about 100 bucks a head- for a 12-14 hour day- his actual words were- it works out to a little over minimum wage. So, when a real road dog like Mike Palm ( Agent Orange used to do over 100 shows a year) says he can't justify touring anymore, you know change is underfoot.
So, I'm not saying "Give up and move to the Exurbs"- I'm arguing, just as always, that you use your head. Sit down with the wife and kids, and really try to work out where the best standard of living really is. Then, if that means you go to 10 shows instead of 50, a year, you can be content with your decision. I'm also not trying to make a straw man out of Jack. He isn't telling people to move to squats in the city.  My rejoinder to Jack, and others who are lauding this dreamscape of the exciting, impoverished Arts capitol is that if you really think about it- between the opportunities for communication, and edification that the Internet allows, and some shrewd maneuvers, you can actually live that exciting, Arts-filled life, regardless of whether you're in New York, Madison, Helena, or even Brunswick, MD.