Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Phyte Club: Metal and Nature

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Once again, Invisible Oranges speaks to me. I would love one day to have the
opportunity to meet a certain Cosmo Lee to thank him for the daily doses of insight
from within a metal matrix. Since we may never meet, my only recourse is to write and
hopefully do so well.
Gardening was a balm which soothed my soul. Digging in the earth, inhaling
the scent of flowers, carefully planting seeds, tying up, tying down, pruning,
transplanting all taught me about the paradoxical, simultaneity of life’s fragility and
robustness. Sometimes it is due care that leads to vigour and success and other times
it is neglect and abuse. Much like how kids from good families go bad and vice versa,
plants do well often because of our efforts but frequently do so in spite of them.
True success in gardening cannot really be measured by the abundance of a
certain crop, the size of a tree or the sweetness of fruit alone. These are all worthy
indicators of success but their value corresponds to the aims of the gardener alone.
Instead, I would argue in consonance with Masanobu Fukuoka that observation and
reflection lie at the very heart of what we might call success for the gardener. In other
words where the cash crop farmer may measure his/her success by yield, the reflective
gardener measures his/her success as an ongoing relationship with an ego dwarfing
whole.
When Phyte Club’s Katie was asked about metal plants, she gave some great
examples. From the rotting flesh scented raffelsia to carnivorous plants she painted a
brilliant if somewhat limited image. If asked about the metal-ity of plants I, however,
would borrow from both Fukuoka and Lovelocke and utilize a version of the Gaia
hypothesis. This is where we take the world as a living organism. While for purposes of
culture and survival we have categorized various plants the reality is that they are a
part of a massive living organism. Everything we do to them, every destruction, they
come back. Watch as weeds and grasses take over unused dirt, witness moss inflicting
its slow revenge upon concrete, marvel at the way roots twist, pull down and push up
buildings. Plants live for the purpose of being alive. No matter what, no matter the
poisons and labour expended to tame them, they spring back, evolve harder and faster
than we do they prosper under the most extreme conditions. Plants as a whole are
totally fucking metal!
Katie brings up another very interesting point when it comes to metal and
plants. This is around paradox. After all, most metal requires an extraordinary amount
of energy to be performed. A metal concert is fueled by juice, dirt and stones of dead
plants and animals (strictly speaking, so is virtually all of modern life but metal in
particular in a primary sense is a musical innovation dependent on electricity… or is it?
). Katie’s take on this is eloquent: we live in a time of conceptual war where we are told
that certain consumption choices via branding are better than other choices. Even
though certain items are marketed as ecologically friendly or ethical or organic the reality behind their production, distribution and ownership may be in stark opposition to
what they are supposed to represent. She goes so far as to say that consumer choice
results more in the individual feeling better about a purchase more than that purchase
having some positive effect on an already catastrophic ecological situation. I would add
to this that observation and reflection on our actions are the only ways in which our
consumer choices can have any meaning beyond the superficial. Simply buying a
branded product means little. But reflecting on why such a product exists, questioning
the necessity for such and item and observing how and why we use what we do, we
start to bring about real lasting transformation in our own communities.

So what does this have to do with metal? I would risk heresy, but since that
model of religiosity holds no quarter with me and also since orthodoxy and its opposite
are essentially of the same mold, I will simply say it: metal no longer needs electricity.
Pick up your shot out eyeballs and gather up your senses, I am not saying metal needs
to go “unplugged”. I am saying that after forty odd years of existence, metal has
transcended its technological origins. Metal is something felt, articulated, experienced
it is reflexive, robust and passionate. It exists as a spirit a force of motivation within its
practitioners and whether screamed, sung or whispered it imbues us with strength,
confidence and courage. Indeed, if my recent revisit of Sepultura and Soulfly has
taught me anything it is that sometimes when the guitars drop out that things are both
simultaneously heavy and uplifting. Stand as an aural witness to the twisted, loping,
lumbering forward march of the post-solo “Endangered Species” or the booming
percussion of “Bumba”. In fact, while sometimes overcooked, it is the pathos of groups
such as Sepultura and Soulfly which demonstrates the metal spirit more so than riffs
and tempo.

Repetition, Appreciation… Nostalgia?

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Over at Invisible Oranges, Cosmo wrote about the phenomenon of friends who “don’t
keep up with music anymore
”. So did I. And I keep thinking about it.
Yesterday I listened to Sepultura’s “Roots” for the first time in several months.
Compared to what I have been listening to lately and with said band’s own back
catalog, “Roots” is only scarcely metal. What I mean is, that in spite there being an
abundance of loud, distorted guitars, shouted vocals and heavy drumming, the tempo
is actually quite slow overall and the emphasis seems to be on rhythmic diversity,
complexity and subtlety and emotional atmosphere than pummeling. As I listened I
discerned, to my ears a number of nuances I had not yet heard, out of phase vocal and
guitar overdubs, the way the high toms floated on top of the miasma of distortion and
thick torpor beneath and how Max Cavalera’s vocals strained, cracked and broke.
Some albums we exhaust and continue to like (Faith No More’s “The Real
Thing”), others we exhaust and acknowledge their significance and move on
(everything by Nirvana). Then there are others that rightly should have been already
exhausted but for some reason they possess a magnetism, an allure that beckons us
back time and time again. As we age and accumulate greater responsibilities, finding
the time to deeply appreciate music becomes increasingly difficult. For those of us who
found refuge in the mainstream, this listening can happen everyday, in supermarkets,
taxis, as muzak and in cafes and restaurants. For metal heads though, appreciation is
a deliberate, active process, an event.
Every time I listen to an album such as “Roots” I listen for a number of reasons:
familiarity, affinity, curiosity and sometimes when trying to remember something,
nostalgia. I can never forget the context of listening to “Roots” when I first heard it in
1996. It gelled with my adolescent frustration, awoke my awareness of the third world
and switched on my ethics. But what does it do now? I am now 32 years old. My age
has almost doubled since that album came out so of what use could “Roots” possibly
be to me now?
I have listened to a lot of metal since then. I have discovered innumerable
connections between bands, albums, people, places, songs and concepts. And
yet, “Roots” still speaks to me. Whereas previously the rhythmic flourishes and timbres
were new and vaguely “tribal” or “ethnic” in my mind, now they are everything. I
struggle to grasp their eloquence, their composition, their instrumentation and also the
tension between effortless integration and genre contradiction. I try to hear the Brazil in
the music and reconcile it with popular imagery and with the reality of Brazilians here in
Japan. Thanks to Melvin Gibbs, I am also mindful to listen to how this album swings.
All of that from a single album released fifteen years ago. An album I have
heard at least a hundred times and an album I am not done with yet. Which leads to a
single, simple thought: if I am new with each listen and can hear my newness and
increased worldliness in each listen, then can I ever be done with an album?
If there are albums that we are never fully “done” with, then what role does
new music play? Personally, feel as though I have just scratched the surface of
Omnivium’s “Cosmogenesis” yet the thin spine of my “Omnivium” LP frequently
whispers - a la C.S. Lewis - “play me”. Then there is the new Weedeater album. A
dense, blues inflected sludge cloud clocking in at just over thirty minutes it should be
easy enough to absorb and yet, I still feel as though I am only just starting to “get” the
flow of the album.
And maybe this is the core of the phenomenon. I love music, like the sky,
like reading, it is integral to my life. It is a simple thing, a divine thing that informs

my every movement. I refer you to an earlier conversation on Deleuze. If music is
rhythm, repetition and variation, then life is music. The daily habits, from waking to
eating, working to sleeping, loving to breathing, we do it all again and again. Life has
frequency, articulation, accents, composition, improvisation. The world to me is music
and so is the semantic reversal. Therefore I am always interested in learning how to
incorporate more music, deeply into my explicitly musical lived life. The fact is that
for many, music is mere adornment, a superfluous decoration, a set of coordinates to
orient memory and nostalgia. That “friends” give up on music should not be a surprise.
That people remain interested should be.

Get (back) into.

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A good friend, and it would appear my only reader, recently asked me about getting
back into metal. Aside from being rather pleasurably shocked from a request for advice
on a topic so dear to my heart I could not help but to think about the timeliness of
this question (see: Repetition, appreciation, nostalgia). Invisible Orange’s ongoing
series, “Heavy Metal Be-Bop” recently featured an interview with Melvin Gibbs (most
known for his role as bass player on Rollins Band’s “Weight”) who spoke on (among
other things) coming to metal from different perspectives and traditions as well as
swing.

Gibbs rightly pointed out that in his context as a youth, metal heads were racist losers
and so he found it difficult to engage with Black Sabbath. He also never really “got”
Zepplin. So when he came to metal, he came via funk, Sly and the Family Stone and
jazz. He said what I have been saying for years after reading Stearns’ “The Story of
Jazz”: that metal is all about tracing a certain lineage of blues and that lineage can
be traced from the US, from Brazil, from Cuba and so on. In other words although
contemporary metal is a predominantly “white” phenomenon (though it is changing,
the internet has opened up whole new vistas of metal from India and the Middle-East
as well as increasingly successful stoner and psyche movements from Chile and
Argentina) its forebears are inextricably African. The minor third, the fifth, non-standard
intervals perceived as dissonance, tonal slurring and total rhythmic devastation – all
African. Metal frequently moves away from the blues, indeed many cite Judas Priest as
the first metal band to explicitly move away from blues based song-writing. Metal also
moves away from Western harmonic and melodic conventions, using said conventions
as a base again to create dissonance and mysterious new harmonies suitable for
complex rhythmic explorations.

As a youth I was sold on metal’s image of aggression and anger. I have written about
that elsewhere. It took a long time for me to loosen and eventually discard the shackles
of the listening habits of others, to move beyond popular lingua franca and listen to
metal from my own place. This of course produces a conundrum to the question at the
top of this entry, “how to get (back) into metal”.

Metal in its extreme forms, not unlike jazz can be an exercise in stamina. It
takes time to build up a level of aural strength capable of adequately appreciating the
rhythmic intensity that can be found in metal. Many new listeners may be initially
turned away because of this intensity, I know I have. But as friends and family will
attest, I am stubborn and when it comes to music, especially so. One listen is never
enough but I am not daft enough to go and recommend Napalm Death to the virginal
metal head. To paraphrase Gill and Beez (may he find happiness elsewhere) on the
Metal Hammer podcast, any metal head who claims his entry point was Napalm Death
or Deicide or similar is a liar who probably has to convince him/herself every night
before going to bed that Mustaine-era Metallica was the tr00est they will ever be. In
other words, they are just big fat liars.

The point is that starting in the deep end may not always be the best place.
After all we are conditioned from birth to focus on and internalize certain melodic and
harmonic conventions, our entire musical world is streamlined into a limited number of
sounds for a limited number of circumstances. Starting with melody, with something
familiar then is probably best.

Nader Sadek – In the Flesh (Review)

It can be too easy to write about the internet. Negativity, over-inflated egos and self-
importance are in abundance, truly shooting fish in a barrel. I try to steer clear of snark
and inject a degree of positivity into my writing (Morbid Angel review aside) to make
this blog a site of interest, engagement and maybe even insight.
This is a story about being wrong. I recently read over at Invisible Oranges an
entry on the obsolescence of the music review
. As you might have seen, writing about music is whatI do here.

That said, the purpose is not about star-ify and run. The purpose has been
and is to engage with music, to show the music from a different angle, specifically, my
angle. So while I agree that in essence the review is dead, it is only a certain kind of
review rendered cadaver. Indeed as I said over at IO, the thing I like about reading
reviews is that after I have read a certain number I feel as though I have got to know
the writer, his/her preferences, favoured adjectives, comparison references and so on.
In spite of this literary love affair, it is easy to find oneself feeling jaded or just
over-saturated with the endless content. It can take a week, a day or an hour but the
ceaseless march of useful information can trample one into a blubbering mess of
blunted ignorance. This is all a round about way of saying: I read the reviews, I saw in
comments sections, everyone said it – the Nader Sadek album is not only what the
new Morbid Angel album should have been, it is plain excellent. I dragged my feet for
too long on this album and am not too prideful to admit: I got it wrong.
Back in high school when I first listened to Brujeria, I felt disturbed. The
Mexican gangster photo on the back cover of Raza Odiada, the low-tuned riffs, the
gruff unhinged Spanish language vocals were pure menace. Let me sound a familiar
toll: before-the-internet, just how OG these gangsters were was essentially
unknowable. When I finally got my hands on it, the severed head, the Satanism and
gore of the previous album, Matando Gueros was almost too much. I was unable to
look at the cover or even listen to the music without feeling complicit in occult flavoured
Mexican drug murders. But Brujeria was only the second time that I had been so
deeply menaced by music. The first time was on one of my earliest owned albums,
Faith No More’s “The Real Thing”.

Everything about Faith No More at that time, the juxtaposition of ugliness and
beauty, the gonzo-esque, grotesque visual aesthetic left over from their early eighties
context and Patton’s mysterious, ambiguous lyrics. I spent hours thinking about
what “Underwater love” was about and trying to reconcile the post-hangover wake up
of “The Morning After” with the movie of the same name. The most troubling song for
me, however, was their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”. From the opening air raid
siren to the sincere and non-ironic, expertly inflected lyrics to Jim Martin’s authentic
tribute to Iommi balanced by Gould’s improvised bass soloing, this song caused
goosebumps on every listen. The generals, their war, Satan laughing, spreading his
wings. Terrifying.

Nader Sadek’s “In the Flesh” is the first album in a long while to open up the
doors of darkness, to show the horror and not have to spell it out in zeitgeist memes.
Rather, darkness is allowed to breathe, encoded alchemically with relentless
drumming, razor sharp riffing and monstrous vocals. The riffing, soloing, drumming and
singing is exactly what you would expect from former Morbid Angel frontman Steve
Tucker, Ava Inferi/former Mayhem riff-machine Rune Eriksen, session bassist Nicholas
McMaster (Krallice/Gorguts), Cryptopsy drummer Flo Mounier. It smashes. Riffs are
piled on top of each other, inventive percussion abounds and the vocals sound as
though spawned from hell itself. The soloing is technically astounding but more than
that it is melodic, dynamic and exciting.

“In the Flesh” is an album in dire need of a vinyl release!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Machine Head – “Locust” (Review)


One of the key difficulties faced by any writer reviewing music during the zeitgeist is the abundance of jargon at the time. By the mid-point of the first decade of the twenty-first century what came to known as “metalcore” become a defining stream in heavy music. Essentially a hybrid of melodic metal riffing and hard core’s breakdowns and sentiments it also combined the theatricality of metal’s melodicism with hard core’s motivational pathos. Naturally, purists from either camp opposed and derided the innovation, metal heads jaded by new metal found something to put their faith in and by natural consequence this new sound occupied public metal perception as the successor to nu-metal. Countless copy cat bands arose and aided by the speed of social networking this new sound permeated every last bastion of metal genre geography. So much so that it possibly represents one of the earliest articulations of a new idea burning itself out via rapid achievement of fame: the sound spread so far and wide across the community, so prominently that it verged on non-ironic self parody. That said, metalcore - much like the ailing deathcore of the present - injected a substantial amount of inspirational energy into middle ground metal. Gone were the techno and hip hop pretensions, the bandwagoners and pretenders and welcomed back were the double kicks, guitar solos and progressive risk taking.

However, even now an anti metalcore sentiment remains, indeed, with regard to describing one’s feelings toward particular albums or bands, metalcore has taken on connotation and function not unlike the playground epithet, “gay”.

In 2007, Machine Head released their second comeback album “The Blackening”. Filled with dueling leads, extended melodic passages and just flat out gnarly Machine Mead style post-thrash riffing, “The Blackening” is arguably the mainstream metal revival album. Thus, hopes are high for the follow up due to be released this September, metal heads the world over are collectively lurching over their computers, smart phones and other devices waiting to catch an aural glimpse of any offering from the new album. Well, we are in luck as Machine Head released a non-final mix of the album track “Locust”.

Frankly, this new track may leave more than a few Machine Head fans scratching their heads. More than a few will be screaming “metalcore”. This is not to say that the new track somehow comes to us via a Morbid Angel alternative-reality matrix where 90s industrial is cool again. Rather the sound is somewhat familiar and yet very new at the same time. Elements of “Locust” recall the widely disliked yet actually rather good left of centre “The Burning Red”. Personally, I am pleased that they have decided to revisit this sound. “The Burning Red”, while mostly definitely a zeitgeist album has a vulnerable, teeth gnashing melodic sensibility at its core, a sensibility that has been toned down somewhat and made to conform to modern metal standards. Even the twisted, slightly odd-metered main riff does not sound like the way metal should be at the moment. It is bouncy, elastic and dare I say it, loose. The rest of the track, including an excellent dueling guitars solo reminiscent of “The Blackening’s” “Aesthetics of Hate” (but I would argue, even better), slow rhythmic crushing at the end and Flynn’s impassioned vocal delivery.

What is incongruous about this new track and hopefully the whole album is that Machine Head seem to be able to read the wind of the times. In an era of perfectly, processed production, exactitude as a substitute for compositional precision and genre streamlining to the point of pointlessness, on “Locust” Flynn and co seem to have moved in a different direction, drawing on a diverse palette of sounds first hinted at on “The Burning Red”, played out on “Supercharger” and finally abandoned or otherwise reshaped on “Through the Ashes of Empires”. They have then applied this to the modern Head template. Too soon? Not a moment, I only hope that similar chances are taken throughout the rest of the album.

Sepultura – Kairos (Review).

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Extraneous. A one word definition of what school was like for me as a youth. Working now as I do in a junior high school I see that it is a definition which still fits. That feeling of painful irrelevance coupled with know-it-all perspective endemic to the age bracket results in far too many under-achievers. Those who choose to just disengage, to wing it or just do the very least required for academic survival. I was one of those students who frequently received the non-accolade “Could do better with effort” on report cards. Occasionally, interest piqued I would turn in an (almost) excellent report or get an (almost) perfect score on a test. I made it through school and I am sure that many students like me will also survive this system. It is a shame though, that the system and why not just say it, society broadly, seems incapable of the best practices for realizing the innate excellence of our youth.

Post “Roots” Sepultura is like one of the above mentioned students. After the widely under appreciated “Against” (which yours truly thinks is actually a rather excellent album), from “Nation” to “A-Lex”, these once A-list-ers produced predominantly unremarkable albums which always had a few good songs and occasionally excellent ones. The problem has never been with sound, nor musical progression. In fact, the sum of post-Max Cavalera Sepultura parts – circular riffs, Derrick Green, powerful rhythmic elements, tribal drumming, guitar solo freak-outs and sinister psychedelia – is a rather listenable brew. The problem has been that the songs have been on the whole not particularly memorable.

Enter Kairos. I held no expectations for this new platter. I have gone through the motions each time, read the reviews, battled my inner self over whether or not to drop the cash on an LP version. After listening, I can only say that this is Kisser and co.’s finest album in fourteen years. It is evocative of past eras of the band and just when it feels as though they are about to settle into a rut, they make a left turn.

Out soon. Vinyl release scheduled, but being on a European label, be prepared to take it like a man (or just be tough or whatever) and suck up the VAT, postage and currency inflation. Currently priced at between $36-50 locally here in Japan, you would have to be hard core supporter to get this on wax (after all, the same loot could buy the new Black Dahlia Murder, Pestilence and Premonition 13 albums combined. Just sayin’). Is it worth it? Let your budget decide.

Morbid Angel - Illud Divinum Insanus (Review)

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When it comes to offense, where and when does one draw the line? Many times, retaliation is precisely the purpose of the offender. Offenders like to draw those they perceive as weaker into an unbalanced exchanged, a horrible one-sided beating with an inevitable outcome. In such a case, it often better to simply walk away. But there are other times, when an offender bites of more than s/he can chew, when they underestimate the offended where they presume an inevitable outcome but in reality are merely trapped in a self-fulfilling cycle of arrogance. Here again, it is often better to simply “turn the other cheek”.

But then there are times when offense is unjust. We might argue that all offense is harm and thus unjust. Rightly so, I believe. But the world is a complex place and most of us are rarely lucid enough during our waking hours to be aware of all the barbs and cuts we can unwittingly distribute and receive over the course of a day. Nevertheless there are times when we strongly feel that harm is not just damage from blunt, insensitive, ignorant or boorish fools, there are times when it just feels wrong. Like being called a “nigger”, or a “faggot”. Sometimes retaliation, verbal, physical, spiritual simply feels necessary.

That is how I feel about the new Morbid Angel album, “Illud Divinum Insanus”. I came late to the Morbid Angel party, for one reason or another their back catalogue eluded me, their tunes did not have the same grotesque allure as Cannibal Corpse, Autopsy or Obituary. It all seemed a bit “put on”, a little too pretentious. Years later though, I started to understand their position in the death metal hierarchy, I started to feel their “slimy riffs” and their drug addled, psycho-occultism began to take on a more legitimate and less strained vibe in an era of televised beheadings where nothing is shocking.

Everything about “Insanus” simply sounds out of place and out of time. Even in the heyday of the 1990s industro-metal such as Ministry, White Zombie and KMFDM, Morbid Angel’s new LP would have sounded as dated, clichéd and tired as the lyrics. The techno element of this album is plain embarrassing, Morbid Angel were never electronic, so to go down that road this late in their career they should have done something special. Perhaps they could have drawn on IDM, Drill and Bass, Drum and Bass, Dub Step for genre inspiration, after all even the most melodic content in these areas can be utterly crushing, if not in metal parlance: “brutal”. There is so much technological sonic brutality out there, Azagthoth and friends could have looked toward Sunn 0))) or Canadian dronseters Nadja, or even any of Justin Broadrick’s projects (Godflesh, Jesu, Final, God) for total wall of sound obliteration via guitars and computer. Instead, Morbid Angel seem to have not only willfully ignored the last fifteen years of metal and electronic musical development and just cracked the plastic on an industrial-metal sounds sample CD that arrived a decade late in the mail.

As for the metal on “Insanus”. It is not bad. Not great either. Had it been sandwiched between some truly excellent Morbid Angel it would probably sound better than it does.

Did Morbid Angel deliberately set out to offend everyone? Are they just out of touch? What were they thinking? The last word is best left to Hitler.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Nostalgia for what was not.

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It is too easy to know everything, as long as it was recorded. Rarely, I glimpse a past that never was, a past that tugs at my chest and flashes brightly from behind my eyes. And then, it is gone. An echo might remain, just long enough to be remembered and then recognised at the next occurrence. Familiarity, an unreality, and not-reality always just out of reach. Sometimes, the historians among us catalog the signs of that history. These historians are inevitably like us, the forever unfulfilled and their actions, their motivations are understandable. Yet whenever they complete their work, the results are not dissimilar to violation. Private longings, invested affections, splendid imaginings all laid bare for the purpose of objective posterity. Once rendered, they become banal, generic and even hostile. Such is nostalgia.

I do not wish to take you to my own nostalgia zone, after all should we meet - and we would - then we would both know where and when. And so that place that never was, will be and through being brought into existence, it will be lost. Rather, I want you to come with me so we might explore a technique for comprehending those non-places, non-times without destroying them. But let me warn you, should you learn a way to and then spend too long there, the result will and can only be one of such minor grief that it will soon be forgotten. And to reduce something so fleeting and magnificent to a something to sad and insignificant as to be forgotten is a crime against beauty itself.

Have you read Deleuze? I have. So many times in fact that I hardly know what I know about him any more, so many times that I wonder were the fetishes different, the proclivities slightly tweaked, would the writing be my own? I may be arrogant but not sufficiently so to claim his as my own. My point is that the continual resonance I experience while reading him suggests an affinity more than superficial. Undoubtedly, not being the most astute nor informed participant in philosophy there is much that I miss, mistake and simply cannot see in him. Yet, roaming upon the logic within his pages, I find that I dig up, put together, am dug up and reconstructed in ways both familiar and foreign. I trace this affinity to Zen. As a young boy, I loved the seeming paradoxes of Zen Buddhism, the way that explanation of even the simplest principle would take such a long, convoluted path leading back to the initial utterance. A thought, a moment that must be apprehended as it exists. The elegance of Deleuze and of Zen is that we are allowed moments to experience non-existence.

Deleuze’s legendary equation:

n-1

Where n is the multiple and one is the single, unified whole. In the same way, Zen urges us to consider existence without a self. To me this has never been about mediation, trances or drug taking. Rather, non-existence is a subtraction of the self. Now, while this is clearly impossible, this is also what makes it possible, for there are simply too many gaps and just too much infinity for our stubborn assemblages of culture, memory and language to categorise and cognise.

Thus, the rush toward and the flight away from our infinity realm nostalgia, the accompanying anticipation and loss is an integral part of the experience. It is an unpredictable recurring melody relying equally on the movement in space between as on the articulations themselves. The momentary fragment may not be inhabited for longer than the time taken to see it, but it may be recognised as always existing.

Skindred – Union Black (Review).

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In 1995, I went to exactly one half of the Brisbane date of the Alternative Nation festival. I would have gone to both days had I the money, but I did not and so I was forced to make a truly difficult decision. Headliner on one day was Faith No More, the other day, Nine Inch Nails. While both occupied too much of my then teenaged time, I went with the former, since they had walked with me through moving house, changing school and my father’s schizophrenia. Rather than stand in front of the stage, I found some great seats up high, since I had wanted to take it all in. Rain poured and I was soaked and freezing but it was worth it in this pre-internet age to see this band and its supposed piss drinking, shit eating maniac front-man. Faith No More came and went, on hiatus again, they will likely never release another album. I always felt that what FNM had above their peers was an excellent sense of song writing, their compositions so tight, so calculated without being calculating, their diversity within a single composition and their breadth across a whole album all felt effortless.

Although rather different in sound, Pop Will Eat Itself to me always had a similar vibe, eclecticism unified under an aesthetic known only in the minds of the key composers. PWIE offered lucid, ironic and zeitgeist relevant and transcendent lyrics across a splendid collage of sound.

Between then and now, few bands have caught my attention this way as Wales’ Skindred. Their new release “Union Black” is a complex of reggae, metal, punk, raga, drum and bass, dubstep and hip hop. All of this should not add up, and yet “Union Black” is about as coherent of a unit statement from a metal leaning rock band as is possible at this point in the Twenty First Century. Benji slides between voices as easily as the band mutate from genre to genre and back again never sounding forced. The songs are all expertly produced, repetitions always introduce something new and for every heaviness there is an abundance of melody. And while Mike Patton is irreplaceable, certainly Benji has the charisma and vocal chops to play in the same league. Someone just filled a gap in my life.

Cloud myths.

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If you are reading this, you are aware of the cloud. The cloud, that nebulous assemblage of interconnected servers, massive volumes of storage space and high bandwidth data transfer promises to make our world better by allowing us to “consume” our preferred media, however, whenever and wherever we want, provided we possess the required equipment and the financial/technological contracts required to operate this equipment. Of interest to me is the realm of music in this densely visible yet intangible cloud. Music lovers, metal heads like myself, reside on generational, technological, economic, philosophic and ethical lines fault lines, scrambling to get a sense of the whole, attempting to predict the future and rationalizing the disappearance of a culture of music appreciation being smothered by the cloud.

The battle lines are drawn thus: those who favour physical media as a tangible representation of their connection to and support for various artists are balanced by those who believe physical media is ostensibly obsolete in our present high volume, high bandwidth era. Naturally, reality is less polarized and there is a wide diversity of grey between either end. Indeed, perhaps it is my age, nostalgia or my own philosophical preference for the object, whatever the case, my preferred medium is the vinyl record

I simply adore vinyl. The sixty square centimetres of art both front and back, the visible, mechanical reproduction of the sound, the fact that it ages with me and that age can be heard, even the smell of vinyl, the cardboard, paper sleeves, plastic sleeves… and then there is the side a/side b factor, suites of music and not just a giant “blob” of music or a random collection. Sure, you can drop the needle at any point, but the linear nature of the record is so elegant in that it urges us to listen from start to finish, since a single side of even an awful record cannot overstay its welcome.

That said, there are downsides to vinyl, these are partly the reasons that led to the development of new media such as the cassette tape and the compact disc. Records are fragile, a little heat, a little mishandling, a dusty room with a blowing fan can all impair a session of musical appreciation. Moreover, some albums just don’t work as well with the record format, either because their logic of production excludes the record (and they ended up on the medium only by accident and not design) or because of the way a label has seen to distribute the compositions across the medium. In other words, Death’s “Individual Thought Patterns” works well, it has two sides. However, Schuldiner’s follow-up, “The Sound of Perseverance” is spread across two discs meaning it has four sides which makes listening to it in its entirety (well worth the effort) somewhat of a chore. This is what happened with Pantera’s “Cowboys from Hell” and “Vulgar Display of Power”, awesome metal albums whose sequence and flow is shattered and re-distributed, they are just not fun anymore.

Sometimes, in cases like the above, compact disc or digital media are preferable at the level of pleasurable experience. Meanwhile, there is another myth, gaining currency as a result of its incessant iteration in message boards and comment sections across cyber-space: that vinyl sounds better. I wonder who is saying this, since the mean age of the internet seems a lot younger than I am and since the preferred methods of music consumption presently favour mobility over fixed context. If it is children, then when exactly are they listening to music on vinyl, since records force the listener to be in a particular space for a particular time, are not portable and require some (if not a lot of) effort to obtain in comparison to CDs and digital media files.

Does vinyl actually sound better? It depends on what better means. Do not let anyone fool you, digital media creation and playback technology has improved so much that in the end it is only a matter or personal opinion or preference when the playing field is level. Obviously a low bitrate compressed file will not sound as “good” as CD or vinyl, but that same song, encoded in a lossless format played back on a system designed for its use will be able to provide objectively verifiable sonic experience. There are also other factors for control: vinyl may well sound better because a turntable is usually paired with a stereo designed for a rapidly disappearing musical experience paradigm, so if you were to pair a high bitrate or lossless file with a high end stereo, you may not know the difference. Listening to the same song through ear-bud or in-ear ear-phones, on PC speakers, through a cell-phone speaker will result in different perceptions of quality.

The only reservations I have about the cloud when it comes to music are the same reservations I have with my non-ICT enabled ipod “classic”. So much music, so little time compressed into one tiny device. Ultimately, I end up grazing but never savouring, gulping but not feeding. Until they become unavailable, I will continue to buy records and the occasional CD where necessary. They might take up space, they may gather dust, but I can hold them, look at them and appreciate them and be disconnected from the ever increasing neurosis of full penetration communications technology.