Monday, 17 October 2011

I been tryin’ to get to New Orleans (Can’t you help me?).

Part 1

Growing up beside rivers and creeks, inland water has always held a special attraction. Willows, stinging nettles, river cane and blade grass have lifted me up, stung, hidden and cut me. I have been pricked by flailing dog fish, bitten by mosquitoes and chased off by snakes. Rivers have sated my hunger and my thirst, they have dragged me and cooled me. Wherever I go in this world, wherever I meet a river, I am taken back home. And in this way, though I have never been, the Mississippi calls me.

When I was a boy, I played a computer game with my friends, North South. In this game the player chooses to be Union or Confederate and leads her side to victory. As a child I knew that the north won and that it was the side to choose. Yet the nation of factories, railroads and industry I would defend seemed so alien when compared to the agrarian south.

In high school a friend of mine played me his copy of Down’s first album, Nola. While it would be several years until I could fathom this slice of southern heavy metal, the hazy psyche-out artwork collages of mansions, rivers, swamps and trees articulated an aesthetic to me which I carry to this day. In the centre of the CD booklet is a photo of the band members walking bearded, tattooed, shirted and shirtless through a cemetery under a bright blue sky. They walked with such strength, purpose and pride. Not rednecks but proud to be from the South.

Earlier this year I watched the excellent HBO series, Treme. The story of Treme is told from multiple perspectives and successfully explains via demonstration the very kernel of New Orleans’ jazz, joy and sorrow. Scenes of flooded streets, receding floodwaters, flood damage struck a chord with me, transporting me once more to my birthplace, the frequently flooded Northern New South Wales city of Lismore.

Now it seems as though everywhere and every way I turn, parallels between the Crescent City and my own continue to multiply. And that is why I want to go, that is why I am trying to get to New Orleans. Somehow even though I have never been there, I belong there. The rivers of my childhood flowed into the ocean and surely at least an atom or two of that flow whether as rain or as the ocean made it to the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve been tryin’ to get to New Orleans… can’t you help me?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Pestilence - Spheres (Review)

In 1993 Morbid Angel, Cynic, Type O Negative, Life of Agony, Tool, Carcass, Monster Magnet, Death, Sepultura, Entombed and Coroner all released high selling, classic or else genre defining albums. Also among these releases was Pestilence’s particularly malignant ugly duckling, Spheres. Spheres is an album which is wrong in so many senses: it is a major stylistic break, there is an abundance of guitar synthesis experimentation and the highly compressed, treble heavy production is a curiosity. Yet it is also these maladies which elevate Spheres to classic status.

Spheres is not an easy listen. In addition to the problems mentioned above, song structure and dynamics are fairly uniform from first to last. Similarly, the riffs are rather repetitive and not very adventurous rhythmically. Even the solos with their nod toward atonality and modern jazz modal theory are not very easy to “get”. Repeated listens of Spheres, however, yields interesting results.

When I first heard Spheres, I knew I was listening to something different and original. The problem was that I simply could not find the “groove” on this album. After repeated listens, I began to identify the subtle rhythmic tweaks and the swinging push and pull between bass and drums. After further listening, I was able to tune my ears to the different guitar synth timbres snaking throughout the album. Every time I listened to Spheres whether in the background or with intent, I continued to find new musical elements such as the interplay between metal riffing and harmonic/atmospheric ambiance underneath the music. It was on about my tenth listen that it all knitted together for me.

Unlike other jazz informed metal bands such as Cynic where the focus is on a fluid, jazz melody informed metal or Atheist where rhythmic bombast and ferocity or even Meshuggah’s emphasis on 4/4 superimposed onto complex time signatures, Pestilence focused on modal harmonic interplay. This is not an easy aspect of music to comprehend and enjoy, after all subtle shifts in counterpoint melodies and solos which start in one key and end in another yet are modally coherent amid a thick sonic stew of diverse sounds are not as attractive as pentatonic/chromatic shredding, breakdowns and giant riffs. The songs themselves are best conceptualized as frameworks around which a deeply considered harmonic and melodic sensibility is placed.

Although almost twenty years old, Pestilence’s Spheres is one of the most engaging, interesting, confounding and exciting albums I have heard in a very long time.