Sunday, 30 November 2014

Hang on, what?

Yeah, seems like no one noticed. Or cared. Anyway, the Abysmal record isn't. It's great. The other one? Not my thing but it does the job.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Gaijin Myths About Japan: The Salaryman

No one type in Japan earns as much discombobulated Gaijin ire as the Salaryman (sarariman). Salarymen are frequently referred to as uncreative, mindless, drones, grunts, alcoholic, misogynist and all that is wrong with Japan. Perhaps there is some measure of truth to these observations. But before we go there, let us shine a light on social-cultural context of the gaijin casting such aspersion in an attempt to understand the behind-the-scenes "how" and "why".

First though, let me be clear about my terminology. I use gaijin as a mildly offensive insult. As you likely know, gaijin is an abbreviation of gaikokujin, "foreigner". Most urban Japanese understand that the contracted version is somewhat abrasive but still use it. In every day conversation, the word is not quite a "nigger", "gringo" or "beaner" but nor is it completely inoffensive. In the right/wrong hands, however, it does become a derogatory term.

My usage is somewhat more specific. In my context, gaijin refers to a stereotypical, willfully ignorant, Anglo-colonial steeped in internet lore on Japan, lacking Japanese language skills, Japanese peers, friends or community and who feels a strong sense of "us versus them". The gaijin is a type of cultural chauvanist, primarily though not exclusively in his early to mid twenties, s/he is always right, Japan is always wrong, his/her country is the epitome of democracy, human rights and social justice and Japan is a racist hotbed of extremism, thought control and repression.

Sigh. This would not be so depressing if it were not so common.

So gaijin hate salarymen. But why? To me, the salaryman represents everything that the gaijin cannot and will not ever be. As an outsider, suddenly injected into Japanese society the gaijin lacks the educational and social context that his same age peers share. Certainly that is a disadvantage but it is not unique. While the sane viewpoint might be for one to work hard at integrating into the community, establishing friendships and other meaningful relationships, the gaijin scorns these connections as merely obligatory, lacking the organic roots of his/her own experience of community building... 

Which took place in another country and to which s/he is no longer a part...

Irony much?

But for what other reasons does the gaijin hate those besuited office workers? The gaijin, frequently resentful as a result of ongoing culture shock, a lack of language and social skills and limited employment prospects finds him/herself positioned in a field with little prestige or vertical movement. This is not inherently negative, everyone has to earn a living and not everyone is ambitious. Some people just want to pay the rent, have enough food and have something to do everyday. But for the gaijin the salaryman's world is so foreign, governed by obscure sempai/kouhai (senior/junior) rules, mandatory parties, inefficiency, subservience and... sometimes... good pay and twice yearly bonuses. Politics of envy, perhaps?

Next comes the gaijin assertion that salarymen are uniform drones, they all dress the same, have the same haircut and abide by corporate dress policies. There are two problems with this: first, have you ever seen how gaijin dress?

Yeah, that's right, fish out of water, often over-sized, no-currency foreign brand names two years, too late. Have you seen the shoulder pads, mis-matched shirts and ties... have you seen the "hilarious" gag ties, tank tops in late Autumn and sunglasses on subways? I have. And so have the salarymen. Be careful to notice that the object of laughter may well be capable of subjecthood, in spite of being Japanese...

The second problem is that gaijin aside from lack of linguistic proficiency also tend to be context blind. A black suited salaryman is a black suited salaryman, right? Look again. Did you notice the angle of the cuts, the fabric type, thickness, durability? Did you have a close look at the stitching on the shirt, the weave, the pattern? Did you notice that all check is not created equal. Can you distinguish between this and last year's check? See overstated the entry level brand name watch on that guy? New to money. See the well made, understated, subtle elegance of the smart phone cover that guy is using? He has been at this a while. 

But the gaijin sees none of this. Even within salarymen there is more diversity than the black suit. Many smaller companies or specific branches of larger companies encourage more creative dress styles as they try to create an image of desirability a means of attracting new recruits. Gaijin frequently do not know how to intperpret such data and assume such salarymen are freaks, hosts or something else other than what they are.

Foreigners in Japan don't have to be gaijin. The first step to giving up gaijin sensibility starts with questioning not only stereotypes but the propensity toward adopting them as valid knowledges. Stay tuned, more on the way.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Gaijin Myths About Japan: An Introduction

A long time ago, scholars and students in “the West” studied East Asia and the Orient. Large quantities of important knowledge were produced by dedicated researchers well before the existence of the internet. The greatest blow to this body of knowledge - ironic since it was steeped in liberal tradition - was its democratization. This occurred in two steps.

First, rising levels of wealth in the west resulted in greater numbers of people began to travel, for pleasure, for new experiences, for commerce and further research. Newly made travelers began to write new narratives freed from the constraints of academia and more in tune with the self discovery spirit of the age. Autobiographical accounts trickled into mainstream media and began to shape the West’s image of “the East” with a speed and reach far exceeding that of traditional academe.

Next came two phases of what we call the internet. The first phase - still relatively obscure, its content limited to those with the money, infrastructure and skills to produce and publish content – developed into a fusion of scholarly knowledge and autobiography as an increasing volume of information became available. These early internet pioneers had a profound impact on the not only the quality of real and useful information but also in developing pseudo-legitimate mythologies.

Without peers, without a community to immediately be challenged by and answer to, such early virtual locales were invested with a weight of authenticity at times somewhat disproportionate to their veracity.

This phase (the Geocities Daze) gave way a common experience of the internet built on social networking technologies and eventually liberated from the desktop by smartphones. This new phase distributed information at a rate and breadth completely outstripping its now rather archaic ancestor. In the first phase, the creation of knowledges, however (im)perfect required a significant investment of time. So too did their acquisition and utilization. However, in the second phase (the Smartphone Daze) as a result of converging technologies (improved search engines, twitter, facebook, aggregate readers etc) new information can be widely disseminated in moments.

Given the capacity for instant feedback/critique it is possible to assume that quality of information may be guaranteed through crowd control. Not unlike Wikipedia. However, as is repeatedly seen, in multiple locations on a daily basis, the sheer volume and variety of information, coupled with an increased tendency toward laziness has resulted in a form of critical blindness. In other words, because of information overload, because of homogenized social communities built on superficial connections, confirmation bias is an all too common feature of contemporary public knowledge production processes.

So what does this have to do with Asia? And what does it have to do with Japan?

I recently read an article in the trash known as Japan Today. A news re-publisher with an extremely toxic and immature comment feature. The article in question can be found here: JT Trash About Teaching English.

A location in which commentators with little to no local language ability or formal/trained educational education experience reheated dated arguments about why “they can’t learn English”.

So why do I care?

I have been living in Japan for over ten years. I have said, read, heard and seen the same trash stereotypes over and over. And the thing is, with so many foreigners orking and living in Japan, you might think that these out of date, at times verging on unbelievable knowledges would have been thoroughly disproved. But as I wrote above, confirmation bias, lack of depth and failure to engage with local communities has seen not only the continuation of these knowledges but their amplification through contemporary internet technologies.

This little feature series is an attempt to address some of them from a long term resident’s perspective. Brace yourself because it is not going to be nice, feelings might be hurt and fantasies popped. Part One: The Salaryman coming soon.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Corrosion of Conformity - Deliverance

This review started out quite different to its current form. But it
read like something on Metal Archives or Angry Metal Guy so I had to
kill and reincarnate.

Take two...

It must have been the end of a southern-hemisphere, sub-tropical
winter in an insignificant rural town. I say "must have" because I
remember it being cool and comfortable as I lay on my bed, listening
to Deliverance. I know I was "comfortable" because I fell asleep and
had one of those precious dream sleeps influenced by music seeping in
without me being conscious.

Twenty years later, I am still listening.

I used to think I owned this album, however, truth be told,
Deliverance owns me. First on CD, later on cassette, mp3, CD again and
soon, in the trail of crackling energy of its just passed twentieth
anniversary of release... at long last... on deluxe vinyl reissue.

I have in quiet moments, fantasised about which albums crucial to the
development of my musical personality I would do a special vinyl
release for, should I ever win the lottery. Deliverance has been at
the top of that list.

More than almost any other album, I have puzzled over the lyrics,
unpicked the riffs, replayed the solos in my mind while riding through
dusty dusks. I simply can't wait to start doing it again.

Deliverance is available for pre-order at Prosthetic Records.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The! Projuis-arrrghz!

Dunn gaht sumfin stuck in mah craw.

One day the metal internet woke up and discovered production. The next day it learned about mastering. Someone used the word "dynamics" and with an unnaturally intimate connection with wikipedia the modern armchair producer was born.

Make no mistake, I am appreciative of the technological leaps that occur year on year, the kind that make the prohibitvely expensive studio tools of yesterday, today's plugins and freeware. Cockos' Reaper DAW changed my life in all the right ways.

However, just as these innovations brought me joy, so too did they turn somewhat annoying audio-nerds into opinion belching internet annoyances. Their knowledge is kind of like a fart in an elevator or a sexist remark by a "friend" in the wrong/worst possible context - inappropriate and unwanted.

That is correct, dear reader - they hear a hard mastered album and scream "brick walled". They run it through their favourite audio editor to proove for once and for all that they are objectively right! They proclaim judgements of value, complain loudly and say how it should (have) been...

Yet languish at home without a single audio production credit to their names...

All the while listening to low-bitrate streams through cheap/laptop/smartphone speakers... somebody better be collecting my sighs because they could be making a lot of money.

A Southern Paradox.

I am from the south. Not that South, but a south. And not the "south of the world"that Sepultura sang about. Further south than The South but by fluke of geography and the British Empire, merely an oversized outpost in view of the Southern Cross. Though if that's not south enough, then being born in the year of the horse, the corresponding year of said annum being south (look it up - or check out the diagram below) surely qualifies me to some extent.

So where does all this come from? It is not about authenticity but it also is in part.

Ever since I played the Civil War computer game, North South at my friend's house as a child, I was enamoured of The South. As a child, I always cheered for the baddies. Not necessarily because I believed in their "causes" but because they always had the better colours, better uniforms, better tech and more interesting characters. In North South the south were the baddies but the game let you play as them.

It was not and is not the case that I am a proponent of slavery and other parochial, exploitative and unjust traditions embedded in the society and geography of the time. Rather it is that I am a country boy myself. I grew up surrounded by agriculture, I remember a time when rivers were not just dirty, polluted drains for industry. I remember a time before franchises and pride taken in local production.

It is the deeply felt connection with nature so critical to constructing images of the south that still resonates with me. The smell of warm mud after rain in the summer, cicadas, willow trees and endlessly blooming oleandar, crepe myrtle and local flora, the humidity... just as an agrarian lifestyle was wrenched away from the south at the conclusion of the civil war, so too was the torpid pace of my own historic homelands.

What most people tend to think about the American Civil War is that it was all about slavery. In reality, slavery as a condition of unification and motivation for the Union was a late (yet rational and necessary) addition to the cause. The American Civil war was first and foremost political and economic. It was a war over the right of secession and a war of (futile) resistance against the march of industrialisation as the new economic standard.

Of course, it would be ignorant to say that slavery as a custom and socio-economic system was somehow separate to secession and "way of life". It was not. Nevertheless, it was the last gasp, the rallying of resources on an American scale, the gall to resist that rings true with me.

I have no gilded view of the south in the United States. This little essay is not an attempt to mask or otherwise obscure the real and pernicious, ongoing legacy of deep racism, the psychological and intellectual mauling of people's hearts and minds by peculiar American interpretations of Christianity as well the crippling and far too common blight of poverty on numerous communities.

However, this troubling little writing is about the loss of connection between metropolitan, always connected human lives and nature. It is about generations of children born into a world in which the subjugation of nature is simply given. It is a lament (to follow a previous tearless lament) to an economy that existed before unsustainable, neurotic scales of economy. The civil war was won by the industrialists. The industrialists went on to rule the world.

Yet, a little version of the confederate flag waves within me. Sure, it is dirtied by wrong deeds and injustice, it is bloodied and often wrong headed. But it dares to stand proud and remember a past that for only concepts remains tangibly close.

I got both head and heart, both North and South.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Done got taken: a distant, tearless lament.

Before hope and desire could congeal around digital (semi) immortality there were quiet, inarticulable dream spaces. Nascent revelations, explorations clung to the extreme peripheries of consciousness. A kind of reverse nostalgia, a premonition of deja vu, a familiar echo from the futures. Bound concepts, so familiar yet too subtle, too fragile to be teased into the concrete.

When on past occasions, when extracted from cognitive-mystic space, a concept's initial reach was less than today but the price of restricted distance was balanced with an increase in depth relative to time in rumination.

Before the tools for forgery, for forging, exceptional will was required for the process of extraction and so many facets, possibilities received gentle nourishment in daydreams and in the spaces created by forgetfulness and the misremembered.

In-betweens and never-weres, such sad yet beautiful non-existences. Their form, their cling to the unique contours of inexpression, given passion through elision. Just when apprehension appears certain, they retreat, millions of filaments realigning with myriad other ideas.

So I am left with an explicable red man, cyberpunks who lost the war and friends who cannot but still return to familiar paths. We meet at these intersections and glimpse, just close enough to recognise? Question and cherish the tender squeeze on my heart.

Slight return but not to the same. Each and every flight and fancy, seeds both immature and premature are carelessly broadcast. Each one, on its own insignificant but with the grim weight of repetition become not monstrous in the sense of chaos but monstrous in its ordinariness.

So that which should have been left in dreams, left between cognitive interruptions, eruptions is born as a forever-incomplete chimera hardened into permancy through high frequency oscillating electric signals.

And so I lament what never was, and shed not a tear.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Skrew - Universal Immolation

When I was sixteen years old, I saw the video clip to "Picasso Trigger" on a video cassette recording of ABC TV's rage music video program. That song zietgeisted hard, three guitars, beefy electronically supported beats, strobing and distorted vocals.

I got to hear all of Dusted. several years later (don't laugh, Napster was just getting born) and never really recovered from my disappointment.Over the weekend, I got to hear Universal Immolation. Somewhere along the line (unlike the djentlemen from three years ago), Skrew picked up on the best bits of Meshuggah (hypnotic, tribal, repetition), started programming better beats and soundscapes and actually became good.

Universal Immolation won't blow your mind but it is a rather good representation of what industrial metal can and should be in the Twenty-first century.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Corrosion of Conformity - IX

Didn't see this one coming.

I sighed, I listened, I sighed. The first few tracks off COC's latest, IX left me rather unimpressed. Their previous album and first post-Pepper was rough around the edges, punky and jammy. On first listen, so was IX. But deeper into this new country, better jams, more obscene solos and in fact, new ideas were unearthed by me.

Minus one sigh.

Plus one, woah.

Some of these grooves cry out for a bit of Pepper manipulation, a melodic spit here and a harmonic polish there with actual vocals in place of Dean's scratch tracks would make this album a five star winner.

As it stands though IX is another Southern winner. What makes this sound fresher and better than the current naked emperor, Down? It is hungry and vital - as though it is seeking something, trying something. It's a rickety ride in a rickety ride but a hell of a lot more fun than it ought to be.

Just do it, align the stars, agents, managers and contracts. Dudes need to re-Pepper pronto.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Allure of Jojo and Different Masculinities

New academic year and a new job. Well, same job, better pay, different route.

The funny thing is that due to the current internet situation without a smartphone or portable wifi modem, I am essentially stranded in a an internet free zone. The world of my everyday has been blocked, filtered and sanitised into something which is , quite frankly, quaint and very retro. It is not exactly 56K days again but due to imposed limits on access, it sure feels like it.

The upside is that it means less distraction and more time for concentrating on things that matter - such as my current study. Unfortunately it also means the premature end of a project I had hoped to sink my teeth into: contributing to a definitive, high quality (unofficial, fan) translation of Part 6 of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure.

For those unfamiliar with this title, let me explain. Jojo's is a Japanese manga, Part 1 of which was originally published in the late 1980s. At present, Jojo's is in its eighth part. However, the only part of the story that has received an official translation and publication in English is the now out of print Part 3: Stardust Crusaders by Viz in the US. Why is this the case? Apparently, author Hirohiko Araki (first name, family name) although approached by publishers in the past, has refused to compromise or change certain aspects of his manga which currently prevent its release in the West.

While this might sound potentially scandalous, it is not. Its relevance here, however, requires some exposition.

Jojo's is originally the story of two young Englishmen thrown together as a result of tragic circumstances. Over the years they become fierce rivals and eventually enemies. Over time they learn to utilise "ripple" energy, a kind of force not unlike that found in kung fu legend which allows users to perform feats normally humanly impossible. From Stardust Crusaders, Araki abandons the "ripple" concept and replaces it with "stands". A stand is an external manifestation of a person's psyche and can take human as well as other forms. In fact, the conceptual looseness around what constitutes a stand is one of the key elements that makes Jojo's plots so exciting and unpredictable.

Where as characters in the first to parts were named after Western music artists (Cars, ACDC, Wham) in the third part stands, their owners and frequently their "powers" as well are also named according to this convention (from Terence Trent D'arby to Purple Haze, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Boyz2Men).

The use of such names is antagonistic to US copyright law which forbids other parties profiting from the names of existing artists. What's interesting to me though is that there has been no prosecution of this issue even though it has been occurring for over thirty years. Is this just a demonstration of the inability of US law to police copyright outside of its sovereign borders? Or is it the result of linguistic ignorance? Given the state of knowledge availability in the world today, I would say it is the former.

Why does this matter? It does to the extent that it explains despite its ongoing popularity why Jojo's remains largely unknown outside of Japan.

While this might appear cut and dry, closer inspection reveals a number of interesting issues. First, is linguistic - if we are to transcribe the names of certain characters into English as they are then AC/DC becomes Eishidishi, Wham is Wamu and Cars is Kaazu. Clearly while phonetically similar in appearance, as written words they appear significantly different to the brand/band names they are supposed to signify.

Second, it appears that the use of these names often only ever bears a superficial resemblance to the original. Stardust Crusaders' Boyz2Men is a disturbing monsterlike creature who grants twisted versions of its enemies' wishes. Purple Haze from Diamonds are Unbreakable is a golden spitfire shot from a guitar of a golden haired guitar god. It seems then that Araki is more interested in the evocative power of names and he frequently uses them in ways which are so oblique as to suggest that any connection to the original is either entirely random or else otherwise known only to the author himself.

Third and critically are the intertwined issues of masculinity and sexuality. While not particularly overt or explicit, the style of the artwork is frequently, implicitly homo-erotic in ways that would likely disturb or otherwise unsettle a casual Western reader unfamiliar with Araki's work.

In Jojo, bodies contort, attack, defend, are destroyed and healed in quite graphic fashion, however, regardless of what is done to them, faces and bodies remain beautiful. Readers familiar with Western style comic bodies are likely accustomed to depictions of strength, rigidity and implied (yet almost always neutered) potency. Jaws are square, brows prominent, eyes angry. Costumes, even when skin tight and revealing are frequently adorned with technology, weaponry and implied strength.

Yet in Jojo, particularly post-Stardust, not only are costumes adorned with fabulous belts, boots, butterflies, hearts, ladybugs – the very bodies that inhabit these costumes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Scrawny boys, athletic heroes, boneheads, an overweight special needs kid, old men, dapper dandies... then there are the lovingly drawn faces with curves, eyelashes, land lips that do more than just scowl and sneer (though they do that too!). Araki is not afraid to draw on a wide range of masculine identities from the manga canon to the fashion world in which he was once involved.

So, after reading all this, you want to read Jojo then? What to do, where to start? Unfortunately for the most part you simply won't be able to read the series legally. A good start for resources is The JBA Community. Check out your favourite torrent site for packages of single issues and whole series. But, a warning – fan translations vary wildly in terms of quality. Some of the more recent high-resolution scanlations are stupendous, done by folk with good equipment, proper language skills, access to high quality source material and an eye for detail. Some of the older translations are so bad as to be unreadable – full of stilted dialog, incorrect translations, Times New Roman cut and paste using Microsoft Paint and squares... translated into English from Chinese (not sure what dialect) translations of the original Japanese...

Work is still ongoing and we will see a point sometime in the next year or so where the good translations have not only caught up with the Japanese release schedule but will have finally eclipsed the older, bad translations in terms of availability. Obviously, the most favourable situation would be one in which the comic receives and official translation and Araki can be proper compensated for his work and Jojo receives a level of popularity corresponding to its quality.

Don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Crowbar - Symmetry in Black

Me rub dem long time.

Kirk Windstein plus whoever have been doing Crowbar for a long time. Longer than I have been listening. That said, I'm pretty sure I know whose copies of Crowbar and Obedience Through Suffering I bought used at Music Bizarre in Lismore back in the day. Crowbar have grooved, lurched and bludgeoned over the years to great effect, subtly innovating with micro-turns toward more melody, more swing and better production.

Sonic Excess In Its Purist Form welcomed me back after a long break and made me cry with its crushing, melancholic despair. Lifesblood for the Downtrodden, steeped in melody and hinging on regret was gorgeous.

Kingdom of Sorrow (Windstein with Jamie Jasta from Hatebreed) came along, wrote a good few songs and recorded half a great second album. Crowbar followed up with the more upbeat (really?) Sever the Wicked hand which essentially sounded like Kingdom of Sorrow outtakes which sounded like punk-ed Crowbar outtakes in the first place.

So, Windstein leaves Down, Down release another patchy EP and... where is all this going, you might ask? Let me put it this way for y'all TD;DR ADHD-ers... Crowbar's Symmetry in Black mops the floor with Down's IV.ii. There are a few close calls with the past (elements of of "Planets Collide" on one track, rather familiar grooves here or there) but overall the song writing is tight and focused, the riffs are big, there are big ass guitar harmonies.

While this is all bad news for Down it bodes well for Corrosion of Conformity... Say what?

"So the questions always come up all the time [about whether I will do something with C.O.C. again]. We are getting closer to solving that. Everybody is talking. We've had offers from a lot of different promoters all over the place. It's just a matter of [finding the] time [to do it right], you know, and not doing it half-assed. It has to be real. I'm not gonna jump into it for a paycheck. We all talk and we wanna get together and start writing and see what happens."

Go here for more.

Yep, if Windstein can run away from the mediocre and hash out something awesome just think of what the always awesome Keenan can do with those always swingin' Raleigh lads.

Oh, and Symmetry in Black is an album. Not an EP. And it's excellent. Go listen.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Archspire - The Lucid Collective

God hates my wallet. One listen. That was all it took. Pre-order button hit so hard I have dead pixels on my monitor. It is not even a touch screen. Too easily excited, perhaps?

The Lucid Collective is tight, brutal, melodic and brimming with originality.

Gorod's A Perfect Absolution was my favourite tech death album of 2012. The Lucid Collective does the job this year.

Down IV.ii

Do not mistake my sentiment in the words that follow. As a country boy myself, I have always felt a resonance with the language, music and history of the South. But have you seen this video? The South will rise again, or so they say... well, that's if they can even get out of bed or through the door frame. These Southern gentlemen could do with a little more dietary balance I feel. Seriously, Pepper has to make at least one more album with Corrosion of Conformity before heart disease and cholesterol take him down.

Again, Down are one of my favourite bands. Nola has a permanent reserved seat in my top 10 of all time. Hedgerow while not as great had some great songs in the thick of all the weed smoke lysergic murk. Nevertheless, IV.ii is the new Down EP and frankly, it is a Down EP.  Lead track "Steeple" may lead you astray with its reprise of Over the Under's "Three Suns, One Star" but do not give up. There are some fantastically doomed riffs, bluesy, melodic phrases and some classic, evocative Anselmo-isms in the lyrics (fancy an attic window). I left this party full but a little unsatisfied, I wanted more. Not quantity but innovation. IV.ii is a great listen but I feel these gents need to hit the gym for both peak physical and musical health.

Whitechapel - Our Endless War

So a deathcore band on post-zeigeist? Actually, it makes sense in this case. Whitechapel have achieved something special on this album: they have exceeded their original genre designation and come out the other side as a metal band with a fine album. I will concede one potential stumbling block - the lyrics tend toward the adolescent "fuck the system" side of the spectrum but are otherwise somewhat poetic.

What makes Our Endless War stand out? Straight up American riffing with elements of Meshuggah (in the good way: stuttering, lurching riffs that are played rather than chopped up and remade as a production technique - swing them balls!), very tight song writing and riffs that keep moving and evolving throughout the course of a song. Well done, gents.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Cynic: Kindly Bent to Free Us.

I once read that Gorguts' From Wisdom to Hate should have been the album that came out between The Erosion of Sanity and Obscura. Obscura was such a giant stylistic leap from what had come before that it hardly made sense at the time. In the space of one album they went from a quite good nineties death metal band to something otherworldly, bizarre, a sanity challenging pathos monster. Perhaps they even needed the revisionism of From Wisdom to Hate in order to comprehend the magnitude of their transformation.

Last year, they followed up on Obscura with the amazing Colored Sands. They continued to fill in the (intentional stylistic) gaps at the same time as pushing into new conceptual and musicological territory.

But this is supposed to be a Cynic album review, right?

Kindly Bent to Free Us basically should have been Cynic's first album. It is not really metal in the strict sense. It is actually more of a collision between King Crimson, Rush, Yes, Air Supply (no, really) and... Cynic. Kindly is the pared down framework of the band doing what they have always done best: rhythmically aggressive, driving basslines capable of shifting into exquisite melodies and uniquely arranged harmonic support, drumming that sounds straight ahead yet full of subtle intricacies (should the listener choose to listen for them), the lushly orchestrated guitar and vocals of Masvidal and... technological courage and originality.

Aside from the excellent prog-in-under-four-and-a-half-minute compositions and performances, it is the integration of electronic elements from vocoders to washes, swoops and atmospheric flourishes which really makes this album stand out. And in my opinion is a direct extension of the technological aesthetic of Pestilence's unfairly maligned Spheres.

The approach taken seems to be less of augmentation and layering and more of combination, integration and hybridity. There are obvious moments of glorious synthesiser excess on this album yet it is the subtleties of regular guitar sounds and vocals processed to create specific tones unique to sections within individual songs. In other words, it never sounds like a gimmick.

Cynic's metal album proper, Focus, should have come out after this. Then followed up by the astounding Traced in Air. So get this album, take a trip, time travel to the essence of Cynic, to a safe space before they embraced and were unjustly wounded by metal.

Pestilence: Obsideo

Pestilence comes in three flavours. The Martin Van Drunen Years, The Progressive Phase and Twenty-First Century Revival. I am an unabashed fan of the piggy in the middle. Testimony of the Ancients is a great album but Spheres was the game changer for me. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. Go read.

A few weeks before I got Obsideo, I was listening to Spheres in my car. It seems as though every time I listen to that album, I am able to unearth new layers of sonic complexity, subtler rhythmic shifts and splendid, original solos wrapped in the (flawed) technological innovation of the time. Spheres, quite simply is a science-fiction synthesiser soundtrack... played entirely on guitar.

As I listened through Spheres both ways to and from work it occurred to me that underneath the synth rich soundtrack to a sci-fi movie never made was some really simple, precise, well composed and executed straight ahead death metal. And I thought: I wonder what this would have sounded like without Roland's midi guitar synth?

Then Obsideo came out. A combination of Twenty-First Century Revival phase muscular production, the urgent savagery of The Martin Van Drunen Years and the melodic and compositional intelligence of The Progressive Phase. Basically a stripped back, stripped down masterpiece released just in time to be spun and forgotten or simply overlooked.

Do yourself, the band and death metal history a service. Listen to this baby.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Skindred - Fight the Power

So while the backlog of articles continues to accrue (including a follow up to “Self Medication Blues” and “State of Innovation”) along comes a new Skindred album…

Skindred’s new LP Kill the Power is the album that should put them in a higher sales bracket. It is the album that should make them a household name. In this day and age of short attention span and publicity by spam, however, it is highly likely that it will be just-anaother-amazing-album-lost-amid-the-noise-in-a-forever-changed-music-industry.

Kill the Power sees Skindred doing what they have always done. Only much, much better. What makes Skindred such an exciting and interesting band - aside from the talented and diverse vocal performances of Benji, the bevy of skillfully integrated electronic production sounds, their tightness live and their ability like Faith No More to fully inhabit genre parameters without losing their identity – is their hybridity.

At their core, Skindred are a post-Bad Brains, crossover reggae act. On their way to this identity they have assimilated the raucous cacophony approach of Public Enemy style hip hop, the bounciness of dumb funk nu-metal, the subdued and sinister crawl of trip hop (woah, blast from the past), dubstep’s mental suffocating menace, trashy garage rock leads and 1980s style arena metal “woah-ohs”. And the best part? Never once does it sound forced or contrived.

Kill the Power opens with the nu-metal lurch of the self titled track. Though familiar sounding, it is the small things, the better written melodies, the transitions between parts and even the production quality is light years ahead of the last album. Playing with the Devil is perhaps my favourite tune on Kill the Power. Starting out like a lost track from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines it warps into a snarling dubstep battery with great vocal hooks. Meanwhile “Ninja” is another aggressive, more up front metal type track that makes excellent use of samples and sample playback (including the cool throwback-primitive rhythmic triggering). “The Kids are Right Now” is a love song to Bon Jovi via reggae and a middle eight that starts out as a dubstep break down but then fires out a so-simple-it’s-cool psyche-rock fuzzed out guitar solo. There is the evocative of U2 pretty melody of ….. and even a duet featuring the tough but smooth vocals of Jenna G.

The most amazing thing about all of this diversity and complexity is that in the quieter moments, when the band employ restraint, the gleaming, well-constructed reggae songs become audible. I haven’t had my mind so twisted by reggae since the early days of Dub Trio. Truly, Skindred have adopted and adapted hybridity and reggae as their own and recalibrated them for the twenty-first century. Kill the Power is original, innovative, interesting and most importantly, it bangs. Easily set to be one of the best albums of the year. Provided it doesn’t get forgotten because of the terrible release window…

 I wonder if they will make it out to Japan… hopefully not on a festival tour.