Monday, September 2, 2019

Blind Willie McTell - Statesboro Blues

Just One Song - Triptykon

Altar of Deceit
Melana Chasmata (2014)

Do this. Make a list of bands that have been around for three decades and are still making new music that you might want to listen to. If it's anything like mine, it's probably pretty sparse. Of course, Triptykon is technically not the same band as Celtic Frost, but given that the driving force in each incarnation is frontman Tom Fischer, it works for me. In 2014, thirty years after Celtic Frost debuted with Morbid Tales, Triptykon released their second album, Melana Chasmata. If you allow that there's such a thing as extreme progressive metal or perhaps progressive extreme metal, this is a great example of the form.

Melana Chasmata is heavy, but it's not breakneck, unmitigated heaviness all the way through. There are bits that border on subtle and there's a track I'd nominate as the best Sisters of Mercy song the Sisters of Mercy never wrote or performed. But there's also some seriously heavy stuff on this album. There are two songs that are especially noteworthy, but since this feature is not called Just Two Songs, I narrowed it down to Altar of Deceit.

But a few words about the runner-up - Black Snow. Epic is a popular buzzword that gets tossed around (overused?) a lot these days, but it's a word that could be applied to Black Snow, a song that clocks in at over 12 minutes and includes no padding at all. Celtic Frost did some decent fast songs but for my money their most memorable ones proceeded at a more leisurely pace. Melana Chasmata has one good thrasher (Breathing) and Black Snow kicks it into high gear for a short stretch but for the most part it lumbers along, suffused with an atmosphere that drips with menace and foreboding. Combine this with the excellent production quality - nothing lo-fi or murky here - and the result is twelve minutes of music that hits like a ton of bricks.

It would easily have been the best song on the album if it weren’t for Altar of Deceit. Things get rolling with a plinky guitar that's soon joined by thunderous drums and before long a massive riff hits like a meteorite landing on your head. This gives way to another even more massive riff. It makes great use of the ponderous chugging rhythm that Celtic Frost might not have actually invented, but that they frequently made good use of. On it goes until the break, which gives way to a bunch of noodly, trippy guitar stuff that works well enough, in the context of things. Then come the final section, which takes a seriously heavier turn and features riffs that sound like they're shattering slabs of concrete. Then it's all over. If you're like me you’ll probably go right back to the start and listen again.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Just One Song - Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Let's talk about ambition, a quality some possess in greater measure than others. Much of the latter part of Karlheinz Stockhausen's lengthy career as a composer was devoted to his Licht cycle of operas. A whopping project that would consume more than a day, if they were performed back to back. Stockhausen is also likely to be the only person ever to write a string quartet where the performers flit about in a different helicopter while playing their parts.

Stockhausen started composing in the middle of the last century, beginning with the serial music that was all the rage then, if not so much with listeners, then certainly with a large contingent of academically-inclined composers. He soon began to apply those principles to electronic music, which was just coming into being, thanks to influential studios for experimental music that came into being around that time in France and Germany.

It was also the Germans who were instrumental in paving the way for electronic music with the development of magnetic tape recording, a medium which could and would be manipulated to radically alter the nature of sound and music. A shout out also goes to none other than Bing Crosby, who pioneered magnetic tape recording in the U.S. on his popular radio show and who made a substantial investment in the format when it needed it most.

Stockhausen's initial forays into electronic music were nothing special. Fair enough, given that it was the Fifties and he was one of the early explorers in a vast terra incognita. It was also a time when the rudiments of electronic music were about as rudimentary as they could be. Anyone who has ever spliced, looped or otherwise manipulated magnetic tape will understand why even very short pieces of music might have taken weeks or months to complete back in this Wild West of electronica. The piece under consideration here last for over a half hour and took years to produce.

Gesang der Junglinge, a piece that dates from the middle of the decade, was arguably the first time where Stockhausen did more than kick the tires of the new forms and make something musical - no matter how offbeat. Scored for voice and electronics, it's probably his best known work from this era. The end of the decade found Stockhausen involved with another significant piece of early electronic music. Kontakte was a longer work that was composed in two versions, one for electronic sounds and one which added piano and percussion to the mix.

Some of the composer's discussions of this piece (and his other pieces, for that matter) read like a weighty dissertation. I try to read these but my attention usually wanders. But writing about music is a far cry from listening to it and the proof is in the hearing and Kontakte is a surprisingly listenable electronic music work from this era. Mind you, there's not much here that resembles "music" as we know it, of the kind that's made by instruments and whatnot. The exception, a few brief passages where something sounding like bouncy synthesizer tones briefly rises out of the racket.

The tape version is still my favorite of the two and for a long time I avoided the tape and instrument version, opting for "pure" electronics. But over time I came to accept that it too had its merits. Electronic music from the Fifties is an acquired taste that a lot of people will probably never acquire, but if you're open to this sort of thing, Kontakte is essential listening.

The Spats on My Mother the Car

Featuring The Spats, a real-life band who hailed from Southern California.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Beagles - Indian Love Dance

Any resemblance to you know who must surely be unintentional....

Just One Song - Foghat

Slow Ride
Fool For the City (1975)

I make no apologies for including a Foghat song here. I guess you had to be there.

I'm no spring chicken. And as a white, middle-class suburban kid who grew up in a certain era, I’ve spent lots of time listening to classic rock. Lots and lots and lots of time. So much time that hearing many of those old chestnuts nowadays makes me want to hurl. But there are a few exceptions - like Slow Ride.

I was never much of a Foghat fan, mind you. They released a few classic rock staples and I might have had one of their albums, and without doing a memory check, I seem to recall that at least one member had a giant droopy mustache. But maybe that was the guy in the Doobie Brothers. Or maybe there was a guy (more than one guy?) in both bands, this being kind of a heyday for giant droopy mustaches. Another point of interest – as the story goes, Foghat apparently mistakenly thought that they were the inspiration for some of Spinal Tap's fictional misadventures.

As with so many bands of their era, Foghat formed in the Seventies to share their fondness for blues and blues-based hard rock with the world. They peaked later that decade but like so many other classic rockers, continue to beat the dead horse up until the present. Never mind that only one original member is still aboard (alive?). That's rock and roll.

Slow Ride, in all its glory, takes for its subject matter what so much other rock and roll is about. There’s a surprise. But it is a slow ride indeed, with a plodding and terribly enticing groove holding things on track until the thrilling conclusion more than eight minutes later. It's nothing fancy but sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.