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Flesh Against Steel

Carcass’s Surgical Steel is one of the best metal records of the century.

Man, it feels good to say that. So good, in fact, that I fret I am being too conservative. Instead, I should go the whole hog, and proclaim Surgical Steel one of the great metal albums of all time … ignoring the inconvenient fact that metal has only been around for the tiniest sliver of recorded time, let alone all time. In fact, were the entire history of the human species, represented by a hair’s breadth at the end of the 360-foot-long Cosmic Pathway at the American Museum of Natural History, expanded to cover the distance of the entire Cosmic Pathway, the history of rock music would amount to just ten times that—the breadth of ten hairs!*

Of course, this should hardly make rock feel small, or metal smaller, since Beethoven, Petrarch, and even Homer don’t do noticeably better measured against deep time. So let’s drop all time and get back to the quasi-human scale.

Once upon a time, in the latter days of the twentieth century, you were only allowed to speak in the arbitrary shorthand of decades—“the greatest albums of the nineties,” “the indispensible records of the seventies,” and so on. And in the first decade of the twenty-first, you couldn’t claim anything was the “best of the century” without tongue firmly in cheek. You could, of course, more circumspectly call something “the first great record of the twenty-first century,” as though you were starting a collection of the New Century’s Great Things, and you had just gotten to put your first shiny new Great Thing in your Great Things Box, while simultaneously jettisoning everything that came before.

We are, however, living in the latter half of the second decade of this new century. Why shrink back under the flaccid umbrella of decades, and, using the much-too-silly rubrics of the “oughties” or “teenies,” pick yet another list of best albums to match yours for the nineties et al.? Why, when you have a whole new century at your disposal, and sixteen years of it behind you? Indeed, what could be more sublimely brash, more brilliantly arrogant, than sweeping judgments about a century whose second half you will never even “see,” except maybe as a pickled head, or a microchip onto which your “brain” has been downloaded?

This is a golden window, my friends. An opportunity not to be missed. Think about it: in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Black Sabbath will poison any best-of-new-century claims regarding metal, because everything will have to be considered in terms of metal’s hemi-centennial. By 2030, everyone will have forgotten about Y2K (huh?) and how it felt when the millennial odometer switched from 1-9-9-9 to 2-0-0-0. Then, as the century rolls forward toward 2050 (gasp!), and we approach rock’s first centenary, all new records of whatever genre will be measured against Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Stones and Who—not Judas Priest, not Metallica; certainly not Cradle of Filth.

Ergo. It’s of the utmost importance to squeeze in the most grandiose claims you can about your favorite new metal records in the next two years or so, before the inexorable march of generic time renders them obsolete.

*

Having placed Surgical Steel in one corner of my Great Things of the New Century box, the time has come to admire it. Go ahead, pick it up. Turn it in the light; run your thumb along its edge.

Ah, but Carcass is anything but a new band, or any sort of flagship for a rising genre in a new century. They’re old hat. Vintage. Okay, putrescent.§ We should talk about this.

Where metal is concerned, a few spots in my Great Things box must be reserved for so-called “comeback” records. Metal, after all, is a comeback genre. 1995, as Carcass frontman Jeff Walker declared at the band’s Gramercy Theater show last August, was “the year metal died.” (An exaggeration; but then such a tendency to mythologize is the very stuff of metal.) While emerging genres fed on its rejuvenating remains, metal was recouping its un-dead energies by feeding on the blood of those genres (how insidious, pilfering the necrophage graverobber!), as well as the flesh and bones of dead ones … including its own (how repulsive, this necrophagy-as-autophagy, this masturbatory cannibalism!). If Simon Reynolds is correct that popular culture in the new century has been played entirely in “the key of re-” (to use my old lit theory prof Henry Staten’s mnemonic for the postmodern), the re-surgence of metal was inevitable—not simply because everything comes back, but because the conservatism and tradition-worship for which the genre has been both lauded and criticized would, in the context of today’s cultural retro-faddism, suddenly seem dorkily avant-garde (or arriere-garde, as Reynolds quips).

Of course, valorizing the intrageneric past is only one part of the equation; the other parts—a scissors-and-paste attitude toward the past-as-text, and the ironic distance that accompanies it—have traditionally sat less easily with the genre. But then metal is a different genre today than it was twenty years ago, and the past is a different past: less a series of begats than an amorphous blob which, Reynolds cautions us, threatens to gobble up the present … and future.

Regardless, as a new generation of fans has taken advantage of the opportunity to explore metal’s back catalogs, so they have provided the opportunity for a number of older bands to reboot their careers. Metalographer Ian Christe traces metal’s return to the Black Sabbath reunion at the end of last century. The reappearance of some of the more successful extreme metal acts from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, however, probably owes more to the galvanic shock provided by the thrash revival that peaked in the mid-to-late oughts. That the window of the revival appears to be mostly closed† (occasional drafts notwithstanding) has hardly deterred a resurgent old guard from continuing to release records and tour with a relentlessness reminiscent of their peak years.

Among comeback records, Surgical Steel is something of an anomaly, and not only because it arrived so late in the game, after much hemming and hawing on the band’s part. With few exceptions (e.g., Anthrax’s Worship Music), comeback records tend to carry a whiff of formaldehyde, some faint, some strong enough to knock you down. And the revival stuff, good as it sometimes gets (Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation and Art of Partying are probably the most lasting), still can’t help smelling a bit like something just taken out of the shrinkwrap. But Steel is all fresh maggotry: evidence of flesh well-ripened, as though the band were waiting, like forensic entomologists, to see what exactly would crawl out of their putrid hearts and jellied brains after almost two decades of delicious decay.

As much a mystery is why it landed in my lap, because this old-fart metalhead/one-time Fangoria intern never listened to Carcass in their gorelicious heyday. Even though my interest in underground metal peaked just as Carcass were appearing, they never made it onto my radar. Then, when Metallica shat themselves and the genre blew itself into shrapnel, I—like so many of the faithless in that apostate time—moved on: greedily lapping up Pantera and the occasional strong offering from Slayer and Testament, but otherwise listening to grunge and Tool and other Lollapalooza-sanctioned alt-musics, when I was listening to new rock at all. The deathiest I ever got was “cusp” bands like Demolition Hammer, and a few Deicide songs on a mix.

“What is the sword compared to the hand that wields it?” James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom.

But such is the logic of the retro-century that Carcass and I would cross paths in our respective middle ages. I bought Steel on a whim, mostly because I saw it on somebody’s year-end best-of list (year, as opposed to decade, century, or planetary lifespan): somebody with more time, energy, new-music ADD, and/or record-industry freebies than I’ve ever had or wanted. And it was the great strength of Steel that hurtled me headlong into the flesh of early Carcass, as though to test Thulsa Doom’s great axiom, “Steel is strong; but flesh is stronger.” And if such a counter-temporal history feels twisted, I wonder how twisted it really is, in this age when so much old music is so readily available, when crowds at metal shows tend to run the gamut of generations, and when chronology, history, and to a certain extent community have been replaced by business-dominated algorithms of marketing and consumption. What follows, then, is partly about Carcass, yes; but it is as much about this Borgesian encounter with a parallel musical past, and what such retroactive discoveries mean for the way we hear and value music.

*

Seeing Carcass at the Gramercy last August was anything but a typical clubgoing experience for me. In general, for the much-loved older bands I go see in their various reunited and resurrected guises, I can put on the thousand-yard stare and talk with other old fans about having been in The Shit (= the pit at the old L’amours) back in The Eighties (= the decade which is to metal what the ‘60s is to rock as a whole; in the terms of the old Scholastic Aptitude Test, rock:’60s::metal:’80s). This is true even when part of the bill is occupied, as it so often is, and was, by a band or bands whose music I know/knew only tangentially—songs on a mixed tape someone made for me, or songs that got radio play on the college metal station WSOU (Jer-sey!), or even a video.

Given my age, then, I should have been the old Carcass fan getting his new live Carcass fix. This would have been the assumption made by most people seeing me, bald and Voivod-T’d. But by actual knowledge of the band, I was much closer to the people there half my age, whose contact with the older material would more likely be mediated by the “comeback” record. But then again, I would not hear Carcass like they did, since my formative experiences with the genre would have been much closer to those of the people there twice their age. A weird, twinned position to occupy, like I’d been split it two, but belonged nowhere: to both “halves” of the crowd, I was a fraud, a … poseur.

And yet. Still and all? It’s nice to see the good people of the kingdom of metal, even when you feel like something of an exile.

The Gramercy show was at least Carcass’s third time in the U.S. since Steel’s release. St. Vitus had sold out, as usual, and the second time around they had skipped New York. This tour, dubbed “One Foot in the Grave,” was supported by younger’uns Ghoul and Night Demon, and old-schoolers Crowbar. Jesus, Crowbar! Even they were closer to me than Carcass, if barely; I remembered a few sludgy tunes from back in the day, and pictures of an enormously girthy man in big shorts and high-tops. And there he was! the girthy man of my youth, just greyer and maybe balder, with a second girthy man right beside him, as though from meiosis, both of them sporting Duck Dynasty beards (I know, too easy) and stomping around the stage like Japanese movie monsters. They played exactly the sort of plodding, pummeling, tuned-down music for which I vaguely remembered them; a sort of literalization of their name, so that name, look, performance, and music all cohere and flatten around the same blunt-force ethos.

Inspecting the crowd while Crowbar leveled imaginary skyscrapers, I saw chins up and eyes closed, people basking in that heavy low-end distortion of endlessly sustained fourths like clients at a tanning salon. I’ll say it again: the therapeutic use of distortion, particularly of the infrasonic, Crowbarian variety, begs study. Who knows but, some day, a future Dr. McCoy will run his tricorder over somebody’s thorax, but, instead of chirping, what will come out is … Crowbar? (Or perhaps the opposite is true, and we’ll find that we’re all being concussed into idiocy.)

At the merch tables after the set—what with four bands, there was merch spillover into the lounge—I noticed that Crowbar’s frontman (Kirk Windstein) actually had a Crowbar tattoo on the back of his neck. The placement suggests he understands the connection between the back of his neck and mortality; for it is true that I could have told his age by counting the rolls there, like tree-rings. But then on a tour of fogeys dubbed One Foot in the Grave, headlined by a dis- and (fondly) re-membered band named Carcass, mortality is by default a central theme. All those stale jokes about getting old, for example: as metal ages, and the retro-generation gives more and more old bands the opportunity to re-enter the circle, such comments are bound to become as much part of a show as headbanging. Of course, this being metal, bands tend to dramatize aging’s effects on the body in a way I just can’t imagine, say, the Stones do. Windstein, for example, bitched about (a) baldness and (b) shitting himself (not that he had shit himself, but he figured it was coming down the pike). Later, Carcass’s Walker, to goad the crowd louder, used the old saw that his hearing wasn’t so good anymore. And when, after steaming through a raft of great new material, he announced that they were going back to the early ‘90s, he dubbed it “granddad music.”Ω Again, such feints to the vicissitudes of the flesh are of a piece not just with Carcass’s music, but the genre as a whole: since bones are reverenced and tradition venerated in metal in a way that always set it apart from many other rock genres (at least, used to)—since “dinosaur” means not “passe” but “awesome”—all such comments, while apparently self-deprecating, serve as backhanded appeals to authority, just as much as Crowbar’s announcement that they had been on the road for thirty-six years.

For all the digestive angst and inverse-ironic nods to aging, Carcass were pure presence. A convincing metal act has to appear larger than life—to find a language of the body consummate with the sublimity the music aspires to—and Carcass does this with an effortlessness few bands can match. While the Crowbars stomped around, each member of Carcass stayed rooted in his particular quadrant; rather than moving, he expanded to fill it. Walker, front and center, encircled his mic in classic bassist/vocalist horse-stance (think Lemmy, or Ron Royce of the old Swedish thrashers Coroner), pointing his axe at us now and again in emulation of Father (Steve) Harris. He even turned it upside-down, like a pistol in a Tarrantino movie. I only wondered at the fan that blew on him for the duration of the show, occasionally turning him into a travesty of Fabio, or a transvestite Pippy Longstocking. From the sublime to …

I spent as much or more time watching Steer (Steer! what choice did he have but to become the guitarist in a band that fetishizes the horror of the abattoir?), Carcass’s other founding half, thrashing away to Walker’s left. A Perpetual Thrashing Machine, he was the antithesis of Walker’s colossal pyramid. It wasn’t regulation headbanging, but rather that horse-head-swinging that even better communicates the abandon of the music: face obscured by his blond hair, shirt half-open, skinny arms working away … it is older and deeper than thrash, older even than metal, though for me it finds its iconic representation in my memory of Ozzy’s Jake E. Lee.

At one point during the show, Walker informed security that it was okay for people to take pictures. “We don’t wear corpse paint or make-up,” he said. On the one hand, the typical metal appeal to authenticity. And yet, what was Walker saying but we look our age? He might as well have quoted that old quatrain, “Remember me now …” for those younger fans looking into the mirror of the music.‡ There was neither the urge to cheat death nor to represent it as a mask.

To be death: that is a different thing. That is Carcass.

*

But art defeats death, time’s handmaiden, does it not? I could, and probably should, write about Carcass’s career backwards, beginning with Steel, which, in my inverted listening history, acts as a template for everything that came before it, with every other Carcass record refracted through it. After all, a comeback record is only a comeback record if one comes to it with the expectations created by earlier fandom. Perhaps this helps explains why Carcass felt so present to me at the Gramercy, beyond, that is, simply the mechanics of putting on a great show, and despite the plethora of icons through which I was helpless but to see them.

With the exception of Steel, though, my impression of each individual Carcass record is contaminated as much by the ones that followed as the ones previous. Versus the one-to-two year wait between records that generally characterizes a band’s output in their historical moment, I heard Carcass’s entire early ouevre for the first time almost concurrently, and without consideration as to their historical order. To me, though they are differently dated, they are all contemporary with each other, embedded together in a spatial matrix, like adjacent coffins in a graveyard. Or, to use a better (if less Carcassian) figure: a wheel, with Steel at the hub, and the earlier records at the ends of the spokes. As such, while acknowledging that Steel acts as a hidden lens, I could, like a good historian, re-impose chronology, try to trace causes and effects, untangle threads of development, and so on. Thus:

Listening to Carcass’s early records in chronological order is a little like watching silt settle in a pool. At first you can barely make out the objects beneath the surface; little by little they resolve themselves, until, by Heartwork (1993), they have achieved a pristine clarity. No, wait: I’ve fallen out of genre again. What on the early records sounds like a mess of undifferentiated organs—a sound that finds its visual analog in the collage that adorns Symphonies of Sickness’s (1989) record sleeve (the collage, that staple of metal record sleeves, which usually features pix of the band on stage, hanging out with friends, etc., shows instead mangled flesh and body parts: flesh-as-collage), becomes, with Necrotism (1991), autopsy and anatomy lesson. By Heartwork, the technologies of the body and of death, the body-as-machine and machine-as-body, have replaced gore as the band’s overarching metaphor, a shift captured in both tighter music and scrubbed production. From charnel house and churchyard to the dis-assembly lines of the pathology lab and abattoir, Carcass’s breakneck evolution reads like a history of Western attitudes toward death and the body. This is also evident in the albums’ cover art: from the cartoonish flesh-orgies of Reek and Sickness to Heartwork’s eerily bloodless conflation of the surgical, prosthetic, and anatomical. In this regard, Steel’s abandonment of the body for an aesthetic of the instrument, captured in its disturbingly devotional cover (pic above left), completes the trajectory begun in the late ‘80s—one reason, perhaps, that Steel is sometimes regarded as the long-deferred “true” follow-up to Heartwork, with Swansong (1995) indicative of the band’s—and the genre’s—demise.

How to define Carcass’s early sound? On Reek through Necrotism, gruelly and tinny on the high end, sludgy on the low; more grate than crunch, more Exodus or Megadeth than Metallica, yet much more tuned-down and unpolished than American thrash had deigned to be. Reek stands on the cusp of impenetrability, and even Sickness is in constant danger of slipping into its own murk. These first two records actually sound filthy, like the aural equivalent of trying to look at something through dirty glass. The vocals, which split thrash’s mid-range into the extremes of high-end hiss and incantatory guttural accompaniment, sound unnervingly close to an imagined black liturgy; at other times, like somebody retching—an absolutely nauseating sound. But to lump the two together is a disservice to Sickness, which expands Reek’s one-to-two minute blurts into three-to-five minute statements—and highly unpredictable statements at that, with shifting tempos and riffs metastasizing from riffs. The overall murkiness of production probably abets Sickness’s unstructured, chaotic feel, like the effect of poor light on a pattern: part bleeds into part, and recapitulations become difficult to recognize.

The miasmic chaos, eeriness, and brutality of Sickness remain largely intact on Necrotism—vocally, in the guttural voice that shadows Walker’s, and in the ranting of Walker’s own, which obeys less a song’s rhythms than its own rabid logic; musically, in an even greater reliance on riff-metastasis and rhythmic instability. But Necrotism is a much more musical album than Sickness, balancing excess with greater precision (both instrumental and in terms of production), and expanding song structures into rambling suites that sometimes top the seven minute mark. They are full of false doors and non-endings; songs seem to be rising to a conclusion, with the (unexpected) re-introduction of an earlier theme, say—and then another riff will appear, another lead—the rhythm will shift a few times under said riff—and then, boom, the whole thing abruptly collapses. Thematic inventiveness and quasi una fantasia (oscura!) organization are not the only ways Necrotism broadens Sickness’s palette; there is also greater attention to texture and color: (brief) passages of undistorted guitar and effects-massaged production, and guitar harmonies redolent of the NWOBHM that Carcass had written off in the late ‘80s.

The shift from Necrotism to Heartwork is generally regarded as the most dramatic in the band’s history: a reversal of aesthetic priorities, a right-angle turn from the linear development of the first three records. Many of the songs are whittled to traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure, with introductory themes returning to fill one or another role. They also have more (and more obvious) hooks; this is a Carcass album you walk around humming. The tendrils reaching back to NWOBHM and thrash are more obvious; the sound is crunchier; and the guttural vocal accompaniment has disappeared. But as the words “more” and “many” in much of the above signal, the difference is—like the difference between Sickness and Necrotism—more one of degree than of kind. While overall slower and more controlled, Heartwork shares with its predecessor rhythmic flux (less intense, but present), athletic musicianship, and melodic inventiveness. Conversely, it is possible to see in Necrotism (if perhaps only through the lens of Heartwork) the beginnings of both a tighter melodic imagination and a more disciplined compositional style, the latter directed toward the development of a central theme rather than the willy-nilly appearance of new ones. Lesser bands have been undone in the attempt, and some greater ones as well: many of the bridges on an album as canonical as And Justice For All, for example—like Heartwork, a fourth effort—are dull precisely because Metallica seemed unable to vary or extend their central riffs imaginatively.

As noted, Swansong, while another step in Carcass’s evolution, is mostly a step backwards: the sound of a band in retreat. The lyrical subjects, so much outside Carcass’s typical obsession, sound weirdly incongruous with Walker’s vocal style; and some of the titles, at least, suggest, rather than the reckless fun of children rioting in an open cadaver (intestinal sandbox?), a tired ironizing of their earlier themes (e.g., “Keep On Rotting in the Free World”). Right from the opening arena-rock drum break, and, a few minutes later, the interjection of a cowbell—yes, cowbell—one gets the impression that this is Carcass fiddling while the genre burns. (It’s true that drum breaks are no stranger to Carcass; they go all the way back to Sickness. Perhaps, by analyzing each in turn, they might serve as a microcosm of the band’s development? Some other time, perhaps.) And while the tracks that bookend this record sound most like capitulations to the major-label powers-that-be courting some of the more successful extreme metal acts at that time, it is difficult not to generalize this feeling to the whole. With few exceptions, the record ambles along at a genial mid-tempo clip; little remains of the rhythmic variety or structural openness that gave the early records so much of their punch; songwriting and arrangements suggest a bit less the ‘80s influences that had crept into the band’s music beginning with Necrotism, a bit more ‘90s parallel afterlives (such as Rob Halford’s Fight) and ‘70s hard rock (and, in one happy instance, Sabbath). Even Steer’s solos sound watered-down, though perhaps only because he is attempting to infuse a blues-rock feel that was muted on the previous albums, to go, I presume, with the more streamlined sound.

That Swansong is sometimes regarded as a bloodless version of Heartwork points, once again, to the general consistency of Carcass’s oeuvre amid the differences. The album is certainly not without the occasional inventive bridge, strong melody, or heavy break. I want to be able to say that, if Carcass’s decadent phase is symbolized by Swansong’s cowbell, Surgical Steel doesn’t just get rid of the cowbell: it dismembers the very steer that rung it. But such a baby-and-bathwater approach to Steel is simply incorrect. If it is indeed the album that redeems Swansong, and so Carcass’s recording history, it does so, at least partly, through inspired imitation. Particularly for the listener time-warping back from the future, some of the best material on Swansong is highly “reminiscent” of Surgical Steel, as though drafts for ideas that would come to fruition on that record. Walker has noted that Swansong represents only part of the original seventeen tracks written at the time (seventeen tracks, seventeen years: numerologists, take note!), and has claimed that some of the material not recorded for Swansong was stronger than what ended up on that record. Given the clear parallels, I can’t help but wonder to what extent Steel represents a reworking of unrecorded material from that time … and so even more that true, missing fifth album that 1995, “the year metal died,” left Carcass fans craving.

*

Considered thus summarily, the pace at which Carcass evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) over their original seven-year run is startling. They are generally credited with helping found two sub-subgenres: goregrind (a subset of grindcore featuring gory lyrics, often replete with medical terminology; see my “Thesaurus Metal,” 9.4.10) with their debut and sophomore efforts, and the seemingly oxymoronic melodic death metal (an offshoot of death metal with more pared-back song structures and hookier themes reminiscent of the NWOBHM) with Heartwork. As such, for some goregrind purists, true Carcass ends with Sickness, while Necrotism represents the sort of bloated excess more appropriate to prog and classic metal. More commonly, Necrotism is regarded as the peak of the band’s discography—not just an early-career capstone or transitional record, but their magnum opus. According to this narrative, Heartwork is sometimes regarded as a “sell-out” record, an about-face into the more melodic, traditionally-structured, and slickly-produced music that would bottom out on Swansong. Conversely, for fans of melodic death metal, something like Sickness (let alone Reek) is beyond the pale: Heartwork is the masterpiece, the moment when Carcass managed to fuse death metal excess with tighter, grabbier songwriting. And for those fans who appreciate all phases of the band’s brief career, there is always the relatively disappointing Swansong to signal decline. Since it is partly posthumous—the band had broken up by the time it was released—it can be fairly easily dismissed from the “authentic” discography. Once again, this creates a wound that it is all the more necessary for thrusting, stabbing Steel to retroactively fill.

A certain factionalism about Carcass’s fanbase is only logical: since founding new subgenres is generally perceived as an act of violence by adherents of the parent genre (involving, as it does, the importation of elements foreign to said genre, whether instruments, rhythms, themes, etc.; hence my preoccupation with the cowbell above), at least Reek and Heartwork would have been a sort of coup d’genre in their day. And yet, browsing through fan reviews on the web (on Amazon.com and the Encyclopedia Metallum), what stands out is the general high regard in which the band’s whole catalog is held. This is also logical, once the dates of the reviews are taken into account: the earliest ones on Amazon only go back to the late ‘90s; in the Encyclopedia, the early ‘00s. What would have appeared as a rupture in its historical moment is, once the subgenre has established itself and the new sound has found its niche in broader generic history, reabsorbed into a narrative of development; hindsight blurs what was disruptive, or at least balances it with what remains constant—as should be apparent from my own rearview sketches above. On Amazon, for example, all of Carcass’s records rate above four stars (out of five); with the exception of Reek, more than 90% of reviewers give the albums four stars and above; and scathing reviews are very infrequent. The Encyclopedia’s reviews are a bit more fractious: out of a possible 100, Sickness and Necrotism rate in the 90th percentile, Heartwork eighty, and Swansong and Reek in the mid-seventies. I will consider this difference presently. For the moment, suffice to say that, in hindsight, all pre-Steel Carcass is canonical.

In some ways, the weird new-old hybrids called “comeback” albums are even more freighted with conflicting expectations than new ones—and all the more when a band’s aesthetic is as protean and pioneering as Carcass’s. The reception of Steel bears this out; perhaps it even suggests the fractiousness with which the band’s earlier records were once received, the ruptures we can no longer fully hear. In the Encyclopedia, while by and large the album receives high marks, a significant minority respond with visceral dislike, pulling the overall rating down equivalent to Swansong and Reek. The key word here is visceral. Browsing reviews of all three poorer-polling Carcass records, one finds about a third of the ratings at 50% and below. But only Steel’s reviews dip down into the single digits; one person even gives it a 0%. At least today, then, Steel is the band’s most contentious album. Perhaps this is (once again) logical: just as time would have muted and smoothed over the dislike of the other records as fans reconciled themselves to generic shifts, Steel is fresh, is now. It is almost as though one function of the “comeback” record was to give an opportunity for the earlier factionalism, so long suppressed, to rear its head again.

Interestingly, this is not true on Amazon, where Steel’s overall rating is the highest of any Carcass record for which a statistically significant number of reviews exist. Obviously, there is an enormous margin of error: rating systems are without a standard rubric, and on Amazon it is hard to disentangle different editions and packagings, so that negative reviews sometimes wind up being about consumer expectations rather than the music. But they are suggestive. To explain the disparity, I would guess that the reviews on Amazon include more first-time, young, and casual listeners than the Encyclopedia, many of whom would be hearing Carcass’s oeuvre from a certain distance, and perhaps (like me) mediated through a first-time encounter with Steel.

The fan-reviewers on a site like the Encyclopedia, on the other hand, clearly position themselves as connoisseurs, a metal critical elite. (This is surely also true of a subset of Amazon reviewers; they are just more diluted. Put differently: there are no blurbs in the Encyclopedia, only more or less exhaustive analyses.) And the negative reviews of Steel published there are admittedly among the best-written and most thoughtful, while the strongly positive reviews occasionally tend toward the geysering one associates with amassed teenyboppers and/or severed major arteries.

So, what are the naysayers’ chief arguments against Steel? Lack of authenticity is the big one: they accuse Carcass of pandering to fans. Why, that is, didn’t Carcass surprise us with their new record, put out something entirely unpalatable, something we were going to respect but not love, at least for the next few years? Why didn’t they once again rewrite the generic playbook? Rather than trying so hard to sound like themselves—and the point of the critique is all contained in that word like—the most authentic Carcass would sound like anything but the Carcass of old. Of course, as some of the reviews also note, the entire genre of the comeback record is compromised in this regard. As usual, Simon Reynolds captures the dilemma brilliantly: “When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys might have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style”: they want them, that is, “to cover themselves” (Retromania, p. 39).

Ironically, then, what made early Carcass good is precisely what makes new Carcass bad. Well, sort of. Because if the answer is not simply that comeback records per se are a priori crap, then one must make distinctions, judgments that show the new material at a disadvantage compared to the old. In other words: Sure, it sounds like Heartwork, BUT … it’s unmemorable, unimaginative, clichéd, you can tell they’re just phoning it in, etc., etc. It lacks, that is, those three great intangibles: a heart, a brain, the nerve.**

It’s quite possible that the way the band marketed Steel influenced how both its proponents and detractors heard it. In an interview published on Invisible Oranges the day of Steel’s release, Walker was quite candid about their approach to both the new record and their fans. Deliberating about whether to record, they had decided to see if they would come up with something that “sounded like Carcass.” Walker goes on: “We know what people want […]. We’re not stupid. We went into the rehearsal room and the studio well aware that people would have been quick to put the boot in if we didn’t deliver, you know? And at the same time we don’t want to shit on the Carcass legacy. So it’s not a cash cow. We went in using our own money. So if we weren’t confident that we could deliver on that, we wouldn’t have bothered. We weren’t going to gamble all that money away.” And, regarding how to deliver: “Play to your strengths”; “try to avoid the dumb shit and clichés”; and “give a nod [to their early career] without plagiarizing.”

Plenty of ammunition there for the aspiring cynic, to be sure. To me, though, Walker sounds more pragmatic than pandering. No matter how many powers to which the “sub” in “subgenre” is raised, it’s naïve to think that a band’s aesthetic choices are innocent of their audience’s expectations. Why would Walker divide “giving people what they want” from “avoiding the dumb shit and clichés” when, as he suggests, Carcass fans are thoughtful and discerning? Or is this flattering of the audience’s powers of discernment meta-pandering? It’s hard to tell, so much of what Walker says is generic and vague, like an athlete cornered post-game (e.g., “We just played our hardest and tried to keep a positive attitude,” etc.). As for “sounding like Carcass”: it’s true, as Reynolds says, that (most) fans want their favorite old bands to “create ‘new’ songs in their vintage style.” I am just not sure this means the comeback record as a genre is innately depraved. Clearly, Carcass took the challenge of sounding like themselves seriously: the emphasis on distinguishing self-plagiarism, for example, from the overall style and sound which, regardless of the band members’ “individual journeys,” their collective identity (in this case, Walker and Steel) gave rise to. Perhaps the comeback record should be considered a genre unto itself, one that cuts across the standard popular music genres, and is judged according to its own rules of self-performance and pastiche.

Of course, part of the point of dismissing Steel as “inauthentic” is to create a sense of the reviewer’s authenticity (hence authority), and the inauthenticity (hence ignorance) of the album’s proponents: I knew and loved the band pre-Steel; all of you who actually like this record can’t hear that the true Carcass has been replaced by a brainless, heartless, nerveless forgery. Note the implied ethics: Steel isn’t just bad music; it is cynical, manipulative, ultimately dishonest.§§

I don’t fault Steel’s detractors for dealing in intangibles. Feel, swing, inspiration: words like these pepper this post, and other posts on this blog. Anyone who writes about art is damned to deal in intangibles all the time, while desperately trying to ground intuitive judgments about such things in sensory data and paratextual materials. That said, judging Steel comes back, if I may beat the horse carcass a bit more, not to questions of taste, but of time, personal history, and perspective. Were I an old Carcass fan, maybe I, too, would smell the formaldehyde I’ve smelled on many another comeback. I might even find myself joining the small chorus of naysayers on my blog: “Ah, it’s just warmed-over Heartwork! How disappointing! How cynical of them! And look at the sheer number of times Walker mentions money!” That I am, alas, only old; that, for me, Steel is not a comeback record; that I cannot hear Necrotism or Heartwork the way they sounded when they were released—and yet, paradoxically, cannot hear them the way someone half my age does, given my experience of the milieu from which Carcass emerged: all these elements converge to influence the way I hear Steel. As is likely obvious, to these old-new ears the riffs are just as memorable (and as copious), the songwriting as snare-tight, and the technical excursions at least as impressive as the best of Carcass’s early work.†† And if it sounds like Carcass “covering themselves,” this might be because Steel, more than any other Carcass album, reminds us that early ‘90s Carcass was forging ahead in part by forging together elements from generic history: from the open letters to NWOBHM stalwarts Priest and Maiden (“1985,” which opens the record, should have been called “1982,” after Judas Priest’s “The Hellion,” the opening instrumental on Screaming for Vengeance, which it mirrors, right down to the ending gong), to the heavy, structuring, dolefully beautiful harmonies of Testament and Megadeth.

One is never without reservations. The propensity to break for a new riff on one guitar, then harmonize it in thirds, for example: it’s the sort of thing that would get old fast, if the raw material wasn’t so strong. The album isn’t perfect. So what is? When it hits its stride—as it does on the middle five tracks, with additional high-points on the earlier and later tunes—I can’t think of any metal I’d rather be listening to. And that’s saying a lot.

*

In Retromania, Reynolds blames today’s instantaneous, unlimited access to recorded music for stunting listening habits and creativity, both of which which have tended more and more toward the archival and ironic. A confessed “futurist zealot,” Reynolds despairs for the pop-music future, a future which seems to have become “unimaginable”— though he does end the book on a note of wistful hope. There is much in Retromania with which I deeply sympathize (gushing review forthcoming, someday). And yet, for those of us whose ears are relatively conservative, whose processing speeds are stuck somewhere in the dial-up era, whose adaptability to changing trends is challenged at best, and whose habit of listening recursively is deeply engrained—in fact, is affirmed to be the very stuff of what it means to listen at all … for those of us, having easy access to the plenitude of recording history is an important part of how we make sense of a recent history that seems to go by in an always-accelerating whirlybird blur.ΩΩ

I lost touch with metal as a young adult, just as it began toward the noisiest of extremes on the one hand, and toward pop musics that mostly bored me on the other. Re-discovering said genre it in my mid-thirties as a dynamic new form was thrilling. But just as thrilling was the ability to go back to that lost decade and try to connect the dots with the contemporary. Mastodon’s first few records, for example, at least one of which would most certainly go in my Great Things of the New Century box, are inconceivable without Carcass’s early ‘90s records. (N.B.: Having grown up in a household where everyone we listened to was dead, I am comfortable with the idea of listening as an act of exhumation.)

Just as thrilling, however, is finding retroactive merit in things I was not prepared for at the time they appeared. I never could have enjoyed Sickness, and perhaps even Necrotism, back when those albums were released. I probably couldn’t listen to them now, were it not for the decade-long sojourn I took through free jazz, modernist classical, the postwar avant-grade, and other things often labeled non- or anti-music. (And then there was salsa, which helped break down the barriers to at least some of the pop I had once dismissed as merely frivolous.) Even Metallica had initially been a tough sell for my classically-formed ear, more comfortable with the complexity, virtuosity, and melodicism of prog rock and classic metal. My taste would have been much too orthodox, and likely too America-centric, to be able to digest the noisy assaults of the early death & grind bands from Britain. Still today I find a good deal of it unpalatable. Which is to say that the aesthetic breach dividing me from other people my age at the Gramercy show was as real as the generational one dividing me from those who could have been my kids. I want to believe that I somehow “missed out” on hearing Carcass in their prime, and mine. The truth is I was not the person that I sometimes want to imagine myself to have been (cf. “Vinyl Pasts,” 2.6.11).‡‡

So: flesh or steel? Were the person I am today to travel back in time, flesh: Necrotism, the hand that wields. But how can I, who was born into Steel, see Necrotism but as it is reflected in Steel? And yet, to give Steel absolute primacy and stability—the hub of the wheel—that isn’t entirely correct, either, because my impression of it necessarily changed after my contact with the earlier records. I can’t simply impose the logic of history onto autobiography, and by doing so efface my initial emotional response to the music. Desire and understanding are never entirely congruent. I can superimpose one upon the other, as I have tried to do here … but I cannot join them into a single, cohesive image. I know, or think I know, that Steel is closer to Heartwork, and to Swansong, than to Necrotism. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting Steel to be what Walker says it is: a union of Heartwork’s tightness and Necrotism’s riff-mill; what Gary Giddins so beautifully called the “elusive grail” of music, a form that is at once open-ended and contained; the dialectic between chaos and order, spontaneity and composition, wildness and civilization, that gives music so much of its power.***

 

* De rigeur exclamation point for scientific fact meant to provoke awe and wonder. Italics optional. This thought experiment brought to you by the AMNH’s Powers of Ten exhibit.

§ Since this is an extended consideration of Carcass, it will be swollen, even to bursting, with analogies to/puns about violent death, decay, and exhumation. It is the chief rule of the microgenre (practically an idiogenre) to which Carcass commentary belongs: a sort of spinoff of the band’s lyrics, as though all comments about the band were already sewn up inside the band. It is not just that I have no intention of breaking said rules; I do not think it is possible to write about Carcass in any other way. I may believe I am being clever when I say Carcass is “putrescent”; but it is actually the inexorable tendency of the discourse to search out images of and language about evisceration, laceration, contusion, etc. as soon as one begins writing about Carcass.

† Invisible Oranges dates its end to 2012. See their excellent “Re-Thrash: a Postmortem.” Regarding the 1987-or-so fetish: “At its peak, thrash was not just crossing over [with hardcore punk], it was also producing arena rock ballads and progressive rock epics while mutating into death and black metal. Thrash moves forward, literally and figuratively. It was foolhardy to try and trap that lightning in a bottle by going backwards in time.” (See my “Glee Metal,” 3.17.12, as well as “Burnt-over,” 8.3.11, for some echoes.) And this, which I blathered about in “Two Quixotes” (5.11.14): “The re-thrashers dealt in escapism, not history. If everyone in Black Tide was 20 in 2007, there is no way the members themselves remember the ’80s. Their music recalls the ’80s the way those boys have been exposed to it: through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SOD records. It cannot authentically recall the cultural zeitgeist of that time.” Then again: “Fantasy’s been a part of metal since the beginning—I see no objective difference between romanticizing previous lives in the viking age or in the 1980s.”

Ω This comment recalled for me one of the most endearing moments at 2013’s Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference. One participant, who had taught a class on heavy metal to undergraduates, said that one of his students had taken the class because he wanted to understand his father better! (Is one function of the growing number of geriatric rock acts that the window of time suggested by the adage “Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young to die” shrinks to the merest crack, until it is only at the moment of recognition (“My God, I am too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Am I—”) that death strikes?)

‡ “Remember me as you pass by / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you must be / Prepare for death and follow me.” This quatrain, which is not uncommon to see on old gravestones, is quoted by Megadeth in “Mary Jane” (on 1988’s So Far, So Good … So What?).

** Critics of Steel also point to some “cringe-worthy” lyrics, with the chorus of “Thrasher’s Abattoir” held up for particular contempt: “Hipsters and poseurs I abhor / Welcome to the thrasher’s abattoir.” Yep, bad. But I am trying to decide how this is more cringe-worthy than any of the nonsensical (but often hilarious) gibberish (replete with misspellings) that makes up the grotesquerie of early Carcass lyrics. In his defense, Walker claims said lyrics were intended to be “lighthearted”: a Pythonesque playing with gore. I’m with it. But then the same could be said about the risible couplet from “Thrasher’s Abattoir”—Steel being (according to Walker) a return to the early lyrical style that was partly abandoned on Heartwork, and entirely on Swansong. At other times, however, Walker can’t seem to decide whether he wants his lyrics to be taken seriously or not. Too much, he claims, has been made of the band’s vegetarianism; they are not trying to proselytize anyone (for which he condemns Barney Greenway of Napalm Death, Carcass’s Oedipal rival). Then what precisely is “serious” about the lyrics of Heartwork or Swansong? It doesn’t help that he is utterly disinclined (at least, within limits) to stop anyone from reading their own meanings into the lyrics—such as the I.O. interviewer’s suggestion that Surgical Steel’s lyrics are “sad,” rather than horrifically “celebratory.” It goes back to metal’s fraught relationship with politics: most, like Walker, try to stay out of it (most grindcore and a few individual bands excepted), while politically-charged lyrics tend toward the ambivalent (see Robert Walser’s excellent analysis of Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye,” Running With the Devil (Wesleyan UP, 1993), ps. 163-4). Walker’s caginess is thus par for the course. And yet, sometimes that caginess can sound like irresponsibility. Perhaps better not to read interviews. Perhaps better to ignore lyrics altogether.

§§ For more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in judging popular music, see Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard UP, 1996) ps. 70-74. Perhaps most germaine is his discussion of authenticity, which he defines as “a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” (71). Judging sincerity, Frith notes, “is a human as well as a musical judgment. And it also reflects our extra-musical beliefs.”

†† A few picks, so as not to clutter the text. Memorable riffs: “Noncompliance to ASTM F 899-12 Standard,” “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills,” “Unfit for Human Consumption.” Copious riffage: the outro to “Mount of Execution”: we added this on at the end, the band seems to say, because we could. Technical brilliance: the intro to “Noncompliance” and bridge of “Captive Bolt Pistol.”

ΩΩ I am not being quite square with Reynolds here. He is most concerned (as am I) with the sort of shallow and one-dimensional toggle-listening encouraged by the web, and so would likely second my call for recursive listening and slowed-down processing. (Hilariously, with the exception of Reek, all my back-catalog listening to Carcass was on compact disc!)

‡‡ There is something about metal that aligns it with extreme sports and horror movies, fight clubs and jackass movies, drug culture, and other boy-heavy endeavors: the question “how much can you take?” looms over them all. The metal devotee is expected to push himself to listen to less and less palatable music; the less palatable, the more “heavy,” the more authentic, and the more authentic an acolyte one proves oneself to be, with the genre ideal measured against a vanishing point of volume, speed, and/or weight. And so it has always been difficult, for the metal devotee, to admit to not liking extreme metal. As per food writer Michael Pollan, it is like a French person saying, “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t like really stinky cheese …” (And as long as I’m footnoting, here is Greil Marcus’s perfectly apropos definition of nostalgia: “the desire to reach back and touch the person you never were” (qtd. in John Street, Music and Politics, p. 156).)

*** The tendency away from the spontaneous in metal finds its expression in the overly processed, mechanically synchronized sound of too much of the music today. Against it, the metal of thirty years ago must sound either disappointing or exhilirating, depending upon one’s age, listening background, and orientation within the genre. To this older pair of ears, the relative looseness of much early metal—not the self-conscious amateurism of punk, but the desire to push tempo and musicianship to a breaking point, and to capture rather than correct that on recordings—is where much of the power of metal derives from. I think of Lombardo’s double-bass in early Slayer (e.g., the break in “Angel of Death”); the bouncing stick on Perry Strickland’s (of Vio-lence) ride, leaping a fraction ahead just to keep tempo, and so creating an inadvertent swing; the extra beat given to Away’s fill in the reprise introduction of Voivod’s “This Is Not an Exercise.” I wonder if the virtuoso double-bass/guitar synchronization that ends Slayer’s “Mind Control” in 1994 (on which you can hear veteran drummer Paul Bostaph and the rest of the band slip out of time with each other) marks one of the last such instances where failure-as-power was allowed to remain intact. In all of the above examples, it is as though trying to run the machine full-throttle overloads it. The ultimate demonstration of power, after all, is not decibels achieved, but amplification blown: pure overload, total distortion.

Elastic

milesSome years ago, while I was trawling YouTube for vids to show my Writing About Music class, I dug up a clip from one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from the early ’60s. These were educational programs presented and televised with the purpose of introducing the youth of the day to classical music. The youth could have asked for no better guide than the charismatic Bernstein. Somehow, though, whenever the camera deigns to look at the crowd, it finds the faces of sullen, pimpled preteens slouching dutifully next to their parents. Watching, all I could think was, “In a few years, these kids are going to be dropping acid and screwing in the mud at Woodstock.” In my mind, the black-and-white of TV’s childhood morphed into the meridianal colors of the summer of love. If you want to see an image of the end of an era in embryo, you can’t do better than these youthful faces in the crowd.

Alternatively, if you want to listen to the end of an era, put on Miles Davis’s near-concurrent (1964) concert recorded at New York’s Philharmonic (Avery Fisher) Hall. Originally released as two separate records that divided ballads (My Funny Valentine) from “burners” (Four & More) in 1965 and ’66, respectively, jazz yin and yang were eventually re-bundled, if not re-ordered—the integrity of recordings commanding a respect that the integrity of performance apparently does not—as The Complete Concert. It is something of an irony that the Concert is regarded as a good “gateway” record for budding jazzophiles. True that, unlike Kind of Blue, the Concert is not the jazz record everybody buys, and then never buys (or even hears) another. Also true that, like what Robinson Crusoe salvages for his lonely island, the Concert could serve as the cornerstone on which to build, if not a society, then at least a collection. (That it is a double album makes it even more like Crusoeian; a box set, or better yet an iPod, would really capture the spirit of that text.) It is, in fact, the first jazz recording I ever owned. The irony is that I—and apparently so many others—would begin at the end: with a record that was tearing up and rewriting the old rules, laying the foundation not just for a new phase in Miles’s protean career, but for jazz.

Of course, I didn’t hear that at the time. I couldn’t have. I’m sure what I admired was the energy and brilliance of the playing. Even if Collin Fleming’s characterization of the burners as “speed-metal, punk, thrash-jazz” (on NPR) is more than a bit of an overstatement, it’s probably a good indicator of why this record grabbed me so hard at the time. But without context, it would have been impossible for me to hear what makes it at once culmination and transition. What I have elsewhere called archaeologies of listening—the ways in which we access and interact with the sedimentary layers where a genre, work, or recorded artifact fits into our overall listening history—determines much, if not all, of what we are able to hear. In the same way I could not hear Paco de Lucia as a flamenco guitarist until I was familiar with the forms and history of that music—when I was a teenager, he was just another fusion monster—so there was no way I could hear the boldness of this record until the jazz firmament was clearer to me, the other stars in this and neighboring constellations visible. Even more, albums that we hear at certain times in our lives, particularly influential ones, become mired in the moment, trapped in the amber of emotional memory, so that it is difficult to hear our way outside of our original contact with them. And then, even after we have acquired the adequate contexts for listening, our own ossified associations discourage us from hearing them in these contexts. Whereas a Miles album that is new to me is fairly easily “placeable,” this one resists being tugged from the shell that nostalgia has secreted around it.

But then a few months ago, after a number of years without hearing it, I put this album on, and those old tunes suddenly sounded new to me. My ear unsettled them, and I heard it, for the first time: the cuspiness, the intimation of a break. It is in fact right there, always has been, in the brilliance and energy of the playing I originally admired. The Complete Concert is still a desert island disc for me, insofar as that old fantasy still has meaning in the age of Pandora and Spotify (asks Crusoe, “Can I get a signal here?”). It’s just a different island.*

Perhaps it was the particular nostalgia that developed around this record, a “first,” that made it so difficult to hear it as one of the most anti-nostalgic albums ever recorded. Listening to it now, it couldn’t be more obvious the way the playing is bursting at the seams, taking all the pillows from Miles’s career—his standard repertoire, his approach and his sound throughout the ‘50s—and pullin’ the stuffin’ out of them. The musicians, with the partial exception of George Coleman, play around and with the tunes rather than in them. There is so much room in the sound they create. It is as though, with the revolutions of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, whatever Miles might have thought of them—and he didn’t think much—the artificiality of the old language had been revealed. But what to the free jazz player appeared solid and breakable became, in the hands of this quintet, fluid, elastic. And so, everyone holding an end, they stretch, and pull, their impulse not to dismantle, but—standing from points beyond, outside—to speak in a new way. In this respect, I suppose the Concert could be called a dialogic record, as much as it is a prophetic one: the replacement of George Coleman by Wayne Shorter,§ the move (as Gary Giddins notes) to more open compositional forms, and to new instrumentation, including electronic keyboards, and then electronics more broadly, funk, and fusion.

*

The first thing you hear from Miles, after a brief piano introduction by Herbie Hancock, is the breathy 1-2-minor 3 figure announcing the melody of “My Funny Valentine.” It repeats, the notes pushed out, like the horn is a bellows; then it ascends, crescendo, to a peak that hangs wavering for what seems an impossibly long time, before disappearing. If you know the version of “Valentine” on Cookin’ from a little under a decade before, all you can think of is the difference in scale: how much thinner is the (muted) tone on the earlier recording, how much more spacious the horn here; the resolve, the confidence on which such a brazen, unaccompanied climb must be founded. It is an unforgettable entrance. And it tells us a few things: that melodies are to be pontificated, sidled into, pilfered; that dynamics are key. Timbre and ornamentation soon take their place beside dynamics: notes are crushed and bitten off, inflated until they explode, or deflated until they vanish. They are pushed off cliffs, or slid into oblivion. And it isn’t just his horn Miles controls this way, but his band. They can swing as hard at a whisper as at a shout; and when they all arrive together, as they do—once again, unforgettably, a few minutes into “My Funny Valentine”—and Miles peals that split note, man, they’re all there. Part of it, of course, is that they take their sweet time. Over the song’s thirteen minutes, the rhythm section will fall in and out, swing will turn to bossa and back to swing, but without ever losing their sense of center or direction, their Ariadnian thread.

As with the melodies, so with the solos. On “Valentine,” drunken guffawing; pokes and scoops that again emphasize dynamics; repeated bleats, sometimes even shrieks; hooked-down notes. On “All of You,” a bird-call will to play the same riffs a few times before tagging some note and moving forward; on “Stella by Starlight,” flight-of-the-bumblebee trills, clips and whines. Those forever-sustained notes, like Miles is balancing something on his nose—and then a popping staccato. It’s this oscillation between the sustained notes and the dropped ones, piercing runs and flat, deflated-sounding tones like a tuned-down guitar, that gives Miles’s solos their intense vibrancy. Through them, he asserts that one needn’t be thematic, or even melodic, but rather that variety of gesture and tone can (and should) carry the brunt of the musical expression.

“My Funny Valentine” is also the tune with what is perhaps Miles’s most famous gaffe, or “fluff,” as the jazz critics graciously call them. As Giddins reminds us, where Miles is concerned, these mistakes were generally taken as a sign that something greater than virtuosity was at stake in his playing. (Giddins calls him a “confessional poet,” Fleming an “emotional virtuoso.”) What strikes me is where this particular fluff appears: right after the tune plateaus on a tranquil bossa. It’s hard not to hear Miles and his horn recoiling from the sudden influx of schmaltz—as though he had laid a trap for himself, and barely made it out alive. If this is an unintentionally humorous moment, there are others that seem more deliberate: on “All of You,” for example, and again on “There Is No Greater Love” (this on Four), he wears his mute like a child’s party hat, bleating away more shrilly than Don Quixote’s wounded sheep. Sometimes, the mute sounds less like an expressive tool—ironic or no—than a blade for cutting. At such moments, I imagine that what I am hearing is the sound of Miles flaying his old skin, before hanging it on a pike for the audience to politely applaud. This is artistic self-remaking at its most brash and merciless.

George Coleman (Blue Note)

George Coleman (Blue Note)

The difference between Miles and George Coleman on this record has been much remarked, and is evident from the moment the latter first appears some five minutes into “My Funny Valentine.” With Coleman, you immediately want to sing his lines; Miles’s you don’t dare to (you’d hurt yourself trying). The same schmaltzy “Girl from Ipanema” moment that Miles falls apart on, Coleman hops through, or falls dreamily into. Coleman plays patterns, Miles shards. When Coleman trills, it is in clear places of resolution or climax; Miles no. When Coleman harps a single note, it has a melodic purpose in that place in his solo; when Miles does, it is pure effect. He can be more abstract—in parts of his solo on “Walkin’” and “Four,” for example, he seems infected by Miles’s playing. But overall, Coleman tends to fall back on the same sorts of figures that are either conventionally spectacular, tuneful, or bluesy. Indeed, his touchstone is the blues; his solos tend to move from lovely minor melodies, quadruplets a la Freddie Hubbard, and modal nods to Coltrane, to riffs with a bit more dirt under their nails, an effect like the epigram at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. Not to say that Miles doesn’t play the blues here; it could even be argued that the gestural, effect-heavy sound that Miles was consolidating around this time is more blues-inspired than Coleman’s melodic flights. But only Coleman returns to the blues and its stock figures with a regularity that suggests retreat.

The burners on Four & More are as revolutionary as Valentine’s ballads, but they shred the old tunes/old language differently. If the ballads are inflated into behemoths that ramble their way into odd, beautiful corners, the burners are played at Ben Hur chariot-race velocity. At these tempos, melodies begins to disintegrate,† and the resulting roughness of the unisons between Miles and (George) Coleman recalls Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry—which, as Ekkhard Jost writes in Free Jazz, are themselves appropriately “reminiscent of early Parker-Davis records.” Nor is it possible to sustain the syncopated pulses that Miles favored on “So Near, So Far” and “Joshua” (on Seven Steps to Heaven), and now attempts to add to “Walkin’,” one horn leapfrogging the other at the tail of the head, only for them to tumble down together. Needless to say, there is no time for the yawning strut of the 1954 original, no room for the lovely blurps and hiccups and stuttering around the beat that gave that version its preternatural swing. Here, the melody comes in gasps. (Better to call it sprintin’ … even if the down-home apostrophe-n of hard bop no longer applies.) The upshot is that the band is so tight, their sense of time and each other’s place is so intuitive, that they don’t need to be unified to stay together. Time has to be intuited more than heard if they hope to be able to ride the curling edge of time in the almost impossibly nimble way that they do here.

As on the ballads, the burners’ melodies are expressively disarticulated and circumlocuted. (Is that a verb? It is now.) Listen, for example, to the way Miles walks backwards into the head of “So What,” or, for that matter, the way he runs around Coleman on “All Blues,” the closest thing to a burner on Valentine. The overall effect, however, is different. If the ballads can be described as pushing rubato to the point that the melodies collapse into a timelessness, the burners are whatever rubato’s opposite is: not trying to humanize a theme by making it beat with heart instead of the metronome, but dismembering it, detaching it from its frame of reference. Solos break into the themes in odd places and at unfamiliar angles. Miles cultivates shorter, harsher, more angular phrases: snorting arpeggios, piercing shrieks, long, strident trills, slurs and brays, bumblebee chromatic runs that zigzag into the upper register. Even when the lines are not short, the melodicism of a few years earlier has begun to come apart. His attack is sometimes reminiscent of Django’s guitar; his timbre tends toward the hyperbright, like a wah-wah pedal pushed all the way down. The wailing flamenco style of this “Walkin’” would not have been imaginable a decade earlier, nor is it the same wail as on 1959’s Sketches of Spain. On “Joshua,” notes crowd out other notes; riffs start to go somewhere, then collapse back on themselves. We are left not craving the forward movement or the shape of a solo, but the rhythmic lilt around some unclear center and the plastic shapes of consecutively-clustered notes. Sometimes, Miles just rides one note for all it’s worth; he plays like he’s leaning into a wind.

There is an interesting paradox here in the way Miles and Coleman play with the rhythm section. As noted, the general perception of this album is that Coleman is distanced from the rest of the band—the “young lions” and Miles—by his more classic style, as though he were standing on shore playing his horn alone while the rest of the band rowed out to sea. The paradox is that, of the two, only Coleman mixes it up with the rhythm section, engaging in the sort of back-and-forth we expect of small-group jazz. You can hear Hancock’s left hand goading him forward, and clear call-and-response between the two on “All of You”; on “Seven Steps to Heaven,” Hancock selects the shuffle breakdown in Coleman’s solo for the introduction to his own. In some ways, it is actually Miles who sounds distant, treating the band more as a platform for his leaps than partners in conversation (they are invariably there for him—they better be!), and jumping them through hoops like trained fleas (they are just as quick—they better be!). On the melodies, Coleman, too, is often the stable base Miles jumps off from (again, “All Blues”). It may be typical of bandleaders in general, not just Miles, that they call and you respond; listen to Tony Williams’s bass drum answer Miles on “Walkin’,” or the stuttered notes on “I Thought About You”. On the other hand, perhaps it’s the very transparency of the dialogue between Coleman and the rhythm section that suggests the distance we hear: they have to hail each other to hear each other. Miles is integrated with them without his having to say anything, to do anything but play what he plays. And yet … sometimes Miles sounds like he’s in danger of floating away—“in the sky,” as his last recording with the Second Great Quintet (sans Coleman) put it, or just ready to walk out …

… which is, in fact, how he often ends his solos. Subdued, to say the least; with a shrug, or a stutter, or a chromatic leap to nowhere. His “Joshua” solo has the perfect walk-out end: it’s all body, all attitude—anything but harmony. The audience almost forgets to applaud; they don’t quite realize it’s over. Following Miles, the band sometimes ends tunes that way: letting them run out of steam, depressing the swing, draining the sound away.

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

A few words about the rhythm section, or at least about Hancock and Tony Williams—I’ll reserve my comments about Carter for some loquacious eternity. In a way, Hancock’s playing splits the difference between Miles and Coleman. While his figures are closer to Coleman’s, their organization, progression and rhythmic features are more arresting. Rolling chromatic figures recall Monk, when he is not outright quoting (e.g., “So What”); his percussive drive is sometimes reminiscent of Mal Waldron. Listening to Hancock on “My Funny Valentine” yields some sense of the variety and beauty of his playing, and particularly the way he takes Coleman’s figures and turns them on their head. The solo begins as a duet between he and Carter that becomes more steadily rhythmic over its first couple of minutes. From a series of beautiful, Debussy-inspired chords (at 11’40”), Hancock moves into a three-note figure that he develops, crescendo, and (in appropriately modern response to the chords) against dissonant, contrary-motion figures in the left hand. A few bars later, six staccato notes played on the upbeat, and Carter swings in after him. The blues appear, as they do throughout Hancock’s playing, here in a group of rolling slurred/doubled notes. Then an ascending figure in triplets, with a heavy accent on the downbeat. What happens next is (to my ear) remarkable: descending quadruplets in the same time, but against a swung rhythm that puts a downbeat on every third note, so that he falls in and out of phase with the beat. Since the triplets were accented on their last notes, and the quadruplets on their first notes, the last note of the triplets becomes the first of the quadruplets, and the two motions are welded together. It’s not just me who’s enamored of this riff: Hancock repeats it in a yet-more rhythmically oblique way on “All of You,” and even feints a third time, on “Stella,” before a fast run that rather abruptly concludes his solo. Attractive as it is, it is really just one in a constantly-varying array of rhythmic invention. On “All of You,” for example: from hard-swinging half notes into rising sextuplets (around 10’), then a double-time descent, then quadruplets (briefly), then 2-note figures that work against the grain of the beat, ascending, descending, one note for every two in the left hand—and then the quadruplet idea from “Valentine” reappears, but inflected differently. This is Williams’s doing: after failing to comment on “Valentine,” here he accents the first two notes of each descent, mimicking Hancock’s pattern. Who knows but that the manic on/off-time of his drumming was its original inspiration?

Of course, it’s possible that Hancock got the idea from Williams—God only knows what are the true genealogies of these riffs, the back-and-forth pre-history of jamming and gigging that results in what we hear on any particular recording. As for Williams, that oft-cited ride cymbal on the wide-open burners, always changing, never losing the moment, is a recording unto itself. The feeling it creates is night-and-day different from the hi-hat of the ‘50s: from fast shuffle to pace-clock, the 1’s and 0’s of an endless stream of code. His breaks are actually more spare, less spectacular, than his accompaniment (a little like Monk in this regard: the best fireworks happen in the corners of our ears, when he is comping). But then Williams is well aware of that night and day. On “Seven Steps,” in the very last break, he inserts three traditional swing beats on the hi-hat, followed by two light taps on the snare—and then the rest of the band leaps back into the melody (6’32”-4”). It is the opposite of everything else he does on this record—it sounds like a sample from the 1954 “Walkin’”—and so, like Miles and his mute, hard not to hear as parody, as cutting—in this case, of the hip-cat, square-glasses Mort Fega introductions that serve as both bookends and intermission: “Wet your whistle in the lounge, stretch your legs a bit … Take five, boys!”

*

There is a backstory to this record that is as irresistible as the music, and that has helped vault the concert into the realm of myth. The quintet was still pretty new, the venue prestigious; the occasion—voter registration efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as an homage to JFK—noble … the stakes, high. Miles, who was rich and famous, had decided the quintet would waive their fee; the rest of the quintet, who were not, balked. Tickets were expensive; for a still-emerging musician, there was a fair bit to be lost in such a venture. By the time they got out on stage, everybody was pissed off. Afterwards, they figured the concert was a botch. But producer Teo Macero knew different, and when the band heard the tapes, they did, too. In Miles’s terms: “We just blew the top off the place that night. It was a motherfucker the way everybody played—and I mean everybody. […] That anger created a fire, a tension that got into everybody’s playing.” “Fire” is in fact the most oft-repeated term in the story of that night, the wine-dark sea of this particular legend, the spur of the Ben Hur burners and the sinker for the expressive depths of the ballads. With this, the idea of the Philharmonic concert as a singular event took off: a kiss good-bye to the standard repertoire (Giddins notes that Miles would not record a standard again until the ‘80s); “a summing up,” as the liner notes have it—what are liner notes for, but to create myths?—“of all Miles Davis had learned to this point.” The CD packaging, which includes the staid Philharmonic program for that night’s concert, only further sediments the idea of the concert-as-classic. And when you put on the disc, before you hear any music at all, there’s Mort Fega, talking about “young Tony Williams” and “Miles … Miles Davis.” This is the concert everybody wants, myself included; the voice that you hear at the end of every installment of Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary, intoning: Nothing would ever be the same again. No one had ever heard anything like it before.

In the end, it all has a bit of a tendency to obscure the fact that the tensions that might have moved the quintet to such a brilliant performance that evening were not always creative—in particular, Miles’s unhappiness with Coleman, the odd-man-out and likely subject of that “and I mean everybody” in the quote above. Clearly, the record catches the quintet on a stellar night, and does a fine job of representing an important transition in Miles’s career. But it also seems essential to deflate the notion that this concert, this night, was anything more than representative of what Miles was doing more generally at the time. Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, recorded about five months earlier, is as astonishing as Philharmonic ’64 … but in ways that are less comfortable for the myth. Much of what has been said about the ’64 concert could be said about Monterey: the “blistering” tempos; the shrill pulses, shouts, and Bronx cheers that were coming to define Miles’s style; the jazz-morphing tugging-at-time of his new rhythm section. They were even there, though to a much lesser degree, on Seven Steps to Heaven, the album for which Miles re-recorded half of the tunes with his new band. “So Near So Far,” which features only Carter of the new quintet, has the dramatically sustained notes and pulsing ostinatos that are simply exaggerated within the space afforded by the concert stage. The band has a tendency to stretch out more for Monterey‘s crowd, too—Bob Belden’s liner notes to the CD do a superb job discussing the role of Monterey and California culture in jazz’s burgeoning, forward-looking respectability—than at the stuffier, cause-heavy Philharmonic show.

But that’s just the point: in ’63, one gets the impression Miles was still finding his way out of the box, and the Quintet as a whole was still trying to find their sweet spot. The performance of “Stella By Starlight” on that recording is weak, particularly compared to the majesty of the ‘64 version. Perhaps they hadn’t quite figured out how to inflate a ballad to the size they wanted without losing its coherence, or Miles didn’t yet know how to channel his young rhythm-mates to approach a ballad as confidently as a burner—they had, after all, only been playing together for a few months. But it isn’t just the band; Miles himself is simply not on on this record the way he is in the ’64 concert (compare, for example, his solos on “Walkin’”).

If there is an exception here, ironically enough, it’s George Coleman. He steals the show. Not only does he sound more integrated than Miles, he sounds more willing to step outside himself, to enter the fray with the rhythm section, to meet them head-on. What a change, five months later. Thus, between ’63 and ’64 we’re hearing not just the consolidation of Miles with his new rhythm section, but the progressive distancing of Coleman. Comparing Coleman to Miles here, I can’t help but wonder if the “and I mean everybody” comment was directed not at Coleman, but at Miles himself.

All this acknowledged—myth debunked, center shifted, degree-versus-kind difference invoked—there is still an edge to this recording, the ’64 recording, a sharp, cutting edge you don’t hear at Monterey. Maybe it was the political context that had tilted in those five months, past the point of no return; the “fire” in the playing is the one James Baldwin mentioned in the title of his jeremiad, published the previous year, now licking at the country’s heels; that, while Miles was waiving his fee to register voters for Civil Rights, Tony Williams’s generation was listening to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, as black militancy in the face of white intransigence morphed the movement inexorably toward Black Power. Maybe the aesthetic boredom with the old repertoire was not just about how to make a rote program exciting again, but the husk of a political kernel: the way those old tunes, not just the romances but all those tunes, masked something of the disharmony and violence of the country. Turning them upsidedown, shaking them, even gutting them—there’s a violence done here, the violence of violence unmasked. It is not, then, just the aesthetics of the music that is unmasked as artificial, but the entire political framework which made their creation and expression possible. It is the anger at the polite applause that appears when “All Blues” begins, ah, listen honey, this is a standard, a classic, before the band shreds it, almost in doubletime. An audience member’s shout, captured at one of Miles’s more inspired moments at the beginning of “Stella,” is its antithesis, a harbinger of the days of rage. Maybe it is not that ruptures happen so cleanly, in a single night, but that certain recordings more clearly and fully reveal the general tenor of the shift.

Hell, maybe it was about the money. But it was the young guys standing up for their money, refusing to be martyrs for a cause. You don’t sit down for the firehoses. You go get a gun.

 

* The “desert island disc” fantasy is the dystopia of an immutable taste and immutable identity. It strands us at a particular phase in our listening history. Although the idea is that these are albums we can’t grow tired of because they grow with us, the truth is that separating them from the surrounding ocean of music would cause them, and us, to stagnate. They become a static structure, only understandable in terms of each other, rather than dynamic points in our development.

§ Miles’s choice of tenor sidemen always tells us much about what he wants to achieve with a particular band, and what direction he is headed. Coleman’s situation in ’64 is a bit like Lucky Thompson’s, who, at least on the ’54 recordings with Miles, sometimes sounds like he stepped out of a ‘40s big band; I can almost see him stand up to take his solos. (A grain of salt, please; it’s the only Thompson I know.) Miles clearly drew energy and ideas from tenors who pushed him in new directions, like Coltrane and Shorter. Shorter seems to have had a particularly pronounced impact on composition, as can be heard as early as E.S.P., which sounds more like a mid-‘60s Shorter record than anything Miles had done up to that point. (N.B.: each of the band members composed a tune for that record.) In a lovely piece comparing Shorter to Coleman, the saxophonist Bob Mintz places Shorter in the ‘60s turn to greater abstraction, which Miles picked up on: Shorter’s is “an almost free jazz approach to grooves” where “harmony and melody were very fluid, and secondary to rhythm,” an approach he refers to as “time-no changes.”

† It’s interesting to consider the place of tempo in musical identity. In the hierarchy of musical elements that put us nearer to or further from the idea of composition, tempo would be at the bottom. Whether a musician plays a tune fast or slow is an interpretative choice that would hardly be labeled creative. What is remarkable about the burners on Four and More is that tempo is accelerated to the point that the compositions begin to come apart. These are tunes that seem to assert that tempo, humble tempo, if pushed to extremes, can yield a new identity. Speeded up, they are all but made new.

Big Ditty

john-scofield     John Scofield has recorded so much and so eclectically over the last few decades that making grand claims about his sound based on the music of a single album might seem suspect. And it would be, were that sound, that musical personality, that Sco-accent, not so immediately recognizable, whether he’s playing funk, roots, fusion or bop. If I choose 1993’s What We Do as my microcosm, it is not because I think it particularly representative, or even particularly transparent. It is simply the Scofield album I know best: the first one I owned—one of the first jazz records I ever bought, in fact—and an album I have listened to with a relentlessness almost worthy of the canonical rock records of my teenage years.

As a composer, Scofield is a master of creating a feeling of spontaneous gravity, of deep but momentary commitment. On first listening, the tunes on What We Do likely seem slight. Even many of the titles announce them as barely-sketched springboards for improvisation: “Little Walk,” “Camp Out,” “Why Nogales?” I’m just going out for a minute. Let’s sing around the fire. Why NOT Nogales? Somehow, these ditties tossed out for the musicians to bobble hint at bigger, weightier things, suggest much more than they say. At once playful and serious, they dance along a surface, dipping a toe in here and there. By meditating on trivial things, they hang on the cusp of revelations. It is hard to think of many jazz composers who have been so successful at wedding the flippant and profound. Monk was another.

This feeling is created partly by Scofield’s approach to melody: sometimes they seem to grow organically under the listener’s ear, notes accreting on notes, as though they were records of the composing process, of the stumbles and turns and cul-de-sacs of the composing imagination. But it is partly the way he plays his melodies, too—or rather, the way he plays, period. These are not paper melodies, sequences of pitches abstractly imagined. Rather, they are a by-product of his approach to the guitar—his touch, his phrasing, his physical relationship to the instrument—in a word, his sound: the almost-timid palpating of notes as he feels his way forward; the sudden, strong accents; the phrasing that keeps him always a little behind, smelling the flowers, while the rhythm section tugs him forward; the discreet use of flange and gain. Simply put, if Scofield didn’t play the guitar the way he does, he would not write the sort of music he does. And if this is pretty much true of all musician-composers, it is profoundly, uncommonly, confessionally true of John Scofield. So many of the melodic kernels on What We Do sound like what comes out of the guitar when he straps it on, when he’s not thinking of anything particularly important, when he’s just passing the time, when his mind is wandering one way and his hands another. The art is in the capture: when those paths cross, unexpectedly—there is the moment of composition. (“Hey, man,” Hendrix mocks the blues, “it’s rainin’ outside, man.” Like Jimi, Scofield watches those raindrops scooting down his window and turns them into music.)

Listen, for example, to the melody of “Little Walk,” the three-note motive that introduces both song and album, transposed down a step, repeated, and then varied more in rhythm and phrasing than in the notes used to form a bare-bones resolution. The melody doesn’t fully appear until the second time through, when the rest of the quartet joins in, with Joe Lovano out ahead on alto.* The first time, guitar alone, each of the notes that form the outline of the melody is shadowed by a low note on the off-beat: brushed, barely audible, coloring the main line with that hint of gain, creating a deep, easy swing that paces the rest of the song. These subtle accents are a hallmark of Scofield’s sound: whispered parentheticals, half-formed thoughts flitting on the margins, ghostly choruses floating around the melody. Or think of them as the consonants or syllables swallowed in spoken language that we hear more with our minds than our ears. There is just such an oral quality to Scofield’s playing, of someone speaking with you—not to you, but with you—about matters apparently insignificant—how to mow the grass, the shape of a dragonfly’s wing—but so intimately and with such subtle emphasis as to touch on things unreckoned. There is a breathiness, too, almost a bowed quality to the dynamics of his playing—again, in “Little Walk,” the unhurried rise and fall of the wedges of melody. It is not cantabile we hear, but conversation: interjections, asides, laughter.

“Little Walk” can serve as a template for the other medium-to-slow cuts on the record. Scofield generally precedes Lovano; when the latter enters, the brunt of the melody is ceded to the alto, the guitar harmonizing with and commenting on the melody rather than simply doubling it, something between a second horn and the traditional comping of a rhythm-section guitar. The gain is always there, shadowing the notes rather than throttling them; but harmonizing like this really brings it out, coloring each moment with the distinct resonances of different intervals, making gain a tool for expression rather than a mere element of the overall sound. Examples abound, but perhaps the most spectacular is when Scofield allows a dissonant, four-note arpeggio to ring together at the climax of the melody of “Easy for You.” (There is more than a little of the blues in this, except that Scofield’s harmonies are more rarified and equivocal than those preferred by blues players.) The melody of “Why Nogales?” is played freely around rather than with the leisurely corrido rhythm (ride-hihat-hihat, 1-2-3), Lovano shadowing Scofield, Scofield Lovano, giving it an almost tipsy feel, as if the two players were each expecting the other to lead through the steps of a slightly unfamiliar dance. It is not a difficult song to narrativize: the slightly drunken haze through which the girl on the other side of the room is cautiously approached; the two inebriated dancers left alone on the floor after everyone else has passed out or gone on home. But like so many of the tunes on this record, there is a triumphant moment when that hesitation (almost) melts away: here a sort of fanfare, elsewhere a boogie, some fiercer than others, some saucier, sometimes with a wink at the listener. While the other slow tunes keep an easy strut through the solos, in “Why Nogales?” the corrido falls in and out; the rhythmic freedom giving Scofield an even bigger sky than usual under which to improvise, and bassist Dennis Irwin after him. When the melody finally finds its way back into the song, it is on less stable footing, at least in its first iteration: the bass plays a new rhythm in seven, drumer Bill Stewart following on bells and rims while Lovano and Scofield stubbornly weave the old melody over the top. Of all the songs on the record, “Why Nogales?” is the most thrown-open, unstoppered; and in its tone of reluctant festiveness, it perhaps best expresses that quotidian through which larger things—beauty, truth—are unexpectedly, unbelievingly glimpsed. Its position one track from the end of the album makes of it a suitably understated climax.

What We Do does have several more assertive songs played at a faster clip: good-natured, straight-ahead, long-lined romps like “Call 911” and “Say the Word” and “What They Did.” But tempo aside, the “Nogales” feel remains. The burner “Camp Out” extrapolates on “Hello Mother, Hello Father (A Letter from Camp)”: inches upward, fails … then tries again, with a bit more decoration, before arriving at a sort of bugle call, harmonized in major thirds, and then plummeting octave-five-one to begin the climb anew. It is all here, again: the hesitant step; the unanticipated, perhaps mock-epic triumph; the unassuming (even goofy) fragments that add up to more than their sum; the wide open sky for improvisation. In other tunes, it is the variability of the length of the pieces of the melody that creates this feeling, each bit pushing a little further or stopping a little shorter, and in the oddest places, making them difficult to follow or play along to.

All these hallmarks of Scofield the composer translate into his soloing as well. The songs on What We Do all have traditional two-part heads and traded solos, but the way he riffs on the melodies, parodying or worrying them, changing one note out of three or phrasing them differently, furthers the improvised feel of the whole. The preponderance of short phrases, and the gaps between, make the extended runs that much more satisfying when he gets to them: you want to see how long he can surf the wave before he runs out of ideas, or frets. And then he’ll tie off these long, often very symmetrical but harmonically screwy runs with a bluesy tail, or a pinky trill—a sort of punch line to bring himself back into the harmonic fold. There are coloring notes aplenty here, too, with a penchant for seconds and sevenths, Scofield savoring the way his mild distortion resonates in these dissonant intervals. Sometimes, he will build from smaller to larger intervals with descending and ascending lines on adjacent strings, another example of gain serving an expressive moment. Nor is gain the only effect employed with artful infrequency. The flange rears up now and again as well: the disintegrating clang (amp coils?) while he comps Lovano’s solo in “Little Walk”; the trailing off at the conclusion of “Easy for You”; the Hammond B3 sound as he hoists a chord up the neck while trading fours with Stewart on “What They Did.”

*

In hindsight, I wonder if there’s something a little selfish in my attraction to John Scofield. He is one of a handful of guitarists who play in a style I aspire to, who make something lasting out of the sort of noodling I do whenever I pick up the guitar. Not the melodies I sing in my head but cannot quite realize, the sort of thing Hendrix cherished. No: my hands. This is an important distinction. My connection to Scofield is more physical, muscular; a sense of touch and phrasing unites our sensibilities. Those major sevenths with all that beautiful gain, pointer and ringfinger, strumming with the intervening string muted; the simultaneous descending and ascending lines on adjacent strings; the scoops upon scoops—did I play them first, and then hear Sco do it better? or was it him who started me on that trail? I can’t remember. And it doesn’t really matter. Scofield is the groove I’ve always wanted to fall into. His hands speak something about me I can’t; listening to him sets me more clearly on the path to myself.

 

* Lovano has a similarly light touch, scudding over notes on the slower tracks—listen to the way he enters on “Little Walk” or “Big Sky,” the way his notes mist in over the ground Scofield has ceded—or, on the more ribald “Camp Out,” how he comes tripping in over a ricocheting snare, as though a door were flung open at the top of a stairwell inside a listing vessel, and here comes Lovano, stumbling opposite Scofield’s exit, wearing his tap shoes. I probably shouldn’t bring in Monk so gratuitously, but in Lovano Scofield finds his Charlie Rouse, his perfect complement.

Year of the Oh

linda oh      I came out to hear somebody else, I can’t remember who. This was November of 2011, at Smalls. There were two bands on deck, two sets apiece. Somebody must’ve called in sick, or maybe the second band just asked the bassist to stick around, because she ended up playing all four sets. The old jazzhead sitting next to me wondered aloud if she was the house bass player. That’s all I remember—that, and the last-set bass solo. When it was over, and we got done clapping, we looked at each other as if to say, OK, and where the hell did she come from?

*

Where indeed? Born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese descent, raised in Perth, but that’s hardly an answer. In a global era, for a global music, Perth may just be the new Kansas City, Kuala Lumpur the West Coast. Still and all, rivers always reach New York. And so did she.

I think the pianist Vijay Iyer put it best: “I love the way she just blew into town and took over.” A year and a half ago I’d never heard of her; now, Linda Oh is hard to miss.

*

As so often happens, I lost touch with Oh for a few months after the Smalls show. She became just that amazing female Asian bass player, not to be confused with the other great female Asian bass player who gigs at Pisticci on Sunday nights (really, how many can there be?). And then, twice in March of ‘12, two very different trios: Fabian Almazan’s at the Vanguard, and Oh’s own  at the Rubin museum. Almazan is easily my favorite of the four young pianists spotlighted by Ben Ratliff in his Times article last year. Here, though, I wanted to focus on the Rubin set, and Oh’s first record, Entry, both of which feature Ambrose Akinmusare on trumpet.

From the opening bass strums and trumpet mewls of “Morning Sunset” to the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover for a closer, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the bass-led power trios I whetted my young ears on before coming to jazz. Today, it’s as easy to hear Roy Campbell’s Pyramid Trio, or the early electric Miles. Entry is a raw, heavy, tough, spare record, riff-based and rhythmically-driven, with a feel of bleak avenues and endless rooftops: music for a traveling cityscape, mournful but not without humor, homeless but never rootless, graspingly beautiful. Oh plays with a calculated heaviness, bellyflopping on low notes, slapping those fat strings, letting them hum and buzz. She doesn’t do much walking; when she finally does, at the end of “201,” just a track shy of the end, it’s more swagger than swing. There’s a gangly quality about the playing, too, a rough-and-tumbleness, as if we were waiting for the musicians all to collapse together in a heap.

The songs offer a pretty open terrain to improvise on, and at the Rubin set, as on the record, Akinmusire took full advantage, playing against the grain of the bass, missing high-note climbs by a note before careening back down, skittering into a solo and then backing off with a whine. He liked to fiddle with dynamics—bright, sharp cries and bugle calls followed by long, breathy interludes—his horn less an extension than a purer embodiment of his voice. As for Oh, it’s hard to know where to begin. Watching her play is half the fun; she’s so physically in tune with the music she’s creating that the instrument transforms her. Such a wealth of ideas, such a mastery of the bass’s rich vocabulary of harmonics, taps, strums and slides, and such a happy gift for melody and phrasing—each is rare enough in itself; to find them all together, and in a player so young, seems almost unjust.

Like the album, the set ended with “Soul to Squeeze,” the Chili Peppers ballad, actually a B-side from Blood Sugar Sex Magic. A friend of mine, a great writer, once said that the most affecting moments in fiction are the sort that take the reader by surprise—and very often, the writer as well. Something like this happened at the Rubin set with the Chili Peppers song. I’m not accustomed to being moved in this way by jazz. Exalted, excited, intellectually stimulated, sure. Once, though, I saw George Benson sit in as a vocalist during a Ron Affif set at the Zinc bar, this back in the ‘90s when the Zinc was on Houston and those Monday night jams had become a magnet for New York’s jazz Illuminati. He sang just one song, “All of Me,” and before I knew it there were tears in my eyes. It had nothing to do with the words, or the melody, or emotion per se, as it would with, say, a pop ballad, or a folk song, or a Chopin nocturne. It was rather a sense of presence, of contact, or the momentary revelation of the ideal in the guise of the real, like an avatar. True, “Soul to Squeeze” is a pop ballad; but I think the feeling on this night arose from something closer to the Benson experience. Oh started out with a pensive solo, really embellished statements of the melody, although this only became clear as the solo drew to a close. Then the horn, gently rising. It was like Oh’s bass had opened a door, and Akinmusire’s horn stepped through. An ease of walking, a lightness of step, as if answering some unheard call in the opening couple of bars of bass. They could have stopped there; nothing else needed to be said. You hear this, and the title of Akinmusire’s Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, seems anything but corny. You want every band to do what they did.

When the set ended, someone from the museum came up and hung white stoles around each of the musicians’ necks, which was itself weirdly moving, and so fitting after the last song, blessing them for the blessing they’d brought us.

While I was waiting to pick up a copy of Oh’s new album Initial Here, a couple of music students, probably high school age, were noting to each other (in tones of disapproval) that all the tunes were modal, with none of those tricky bop changes to keep the musicians on their toes, and dissuade amateurs from the bandstand. They were wondering aloud whether she could really play changes—dare I say “keep up with the boys”? I wanted to turn to them and say they should have heard her at Smalls. (In Miles Davis’s gruff whisper: “She can play those changes like a motherfucker.”) A decade from now, after she’s won a Grammy and has a dozen albums under her belt, they’ll be talking about how they saw her when they were eighteen, when they used to have that Friday night music series at the Rubin, before anyone really knew who she was, and with Akinmusire, too, no, dude, I’m not shitting you, really, they used to play together, I’ll burn you her first album. And the younger musicians will regard them with awe and reverence.

It turned out she was hawking her own records. I had to ask her three times what the title of that ending song was; I’d only listened to Entry once at that point, and would only make the connection between the tune and the record later on. Either I couldn’t hear her, or it was the Perth accent; but the third time I asked, she signed it for me: “Soul,” she said, and made some sort of gesture I can’t remember—maybe put her hand on her heart?—“to squeeze”—and she hugged herself, briefly. Now, I have spoken to a fair number of musicians, and the majority have warm personalities, and seem like the sort of people you’d have over for dinner, open a bottle of wine with, maybe even let the conversation wander into politics. They might squeeze your shoulder, as Bob Stewart did mine the other day, big hands of a tuba player, if not your soul. But this exchange was special. She could have said it louder the third time, with that edge of annoyance that greets the tourist who doesn’t know when to stop asking and just smile. Instead, she treated me with the cheerful patience due an elderly ward. I’m not sure what this says, but I know it’s the opposite of bad.

*

By the time I caught Oh again, with her quartet at the Jazz Standard in June, I’d had a few chances to listen to Entry, a few less to Initial Here, the record she was supporting this night. They are as different as the show at the Standard would prove to be from the Rubin, and as both were from Smalls. If Entry is a fledgling, fusiony romp, weighty and starkly beautiful, Initial Here is remarkable at once for the deftness with which it captures the contemporary jazz idiom—Dave Douglas’s quintet comes to mind, as does Dafnis Prieto’s—and for the breadth of styles, rhythms and cadences it exhibits—from the bluesy Ellington spiritual “Come Sunday” to the Sturm-und-Drang drama of “Deeper Than Sad,” the jaunty Caribbeanisms of “Desert Island Dream” and the seemingly cadenceless and deeply moving “Thicker Than Water,” featuring the preternatural vocals of Jen Shyu. In fact, Shyu serves to remind us how much this record, as much as Entry, bears the mark of all the players in the band—and the collective musicianship here is pretty phenomenal. Each track is a surprise; the riches stretch end to end, like pearls on a string.*

What was most remarkable about the Standard set, though, was not just the opportunity to hear Oh in yet another creative format, but to hear the growth of one tune in particular. Called “Ten Minutes to Closing,” the title reflects the commission that comes as part of the invitation to perform at the Rubin: the musician composes one tune about a piece of art at the museum. As Oh told it at the Rubin, she only found one at the eleventh hour, so to speak—necessity being the mother of invention; and so the tune is less about the piece itself than about the artist’s struggle to create on demand. Perhaps the tune was trying capture that feeling of contingency and indecision. If so, it tried too hard; the changes felt forced, the structure ungainly. It was the only tune in the Rubin set that fell flat, leaving me wondering if it was still under construction, an inspiration arrived at too late.

At the Standard set, “Ten Minutes” came second, right after the hoppy opener “No. 1 Hit.” It had obviously been worked over since the Rubin: very recognizably the same tune, with the same flippant tone and quirky changes … but in every other way, different. Somehow, the arrangement for quartet had welded it into a whole. I’m looking forward to hearing how it sounds recorded.

It was nice to see the electric bass come out for an extended cooker, certainly the jam of the evening, a side of Oh that appears on Initial Here, but which I had not had a chance to witness live: that elixir of Riot Grrrl, Jaco and Flea that couldn’t but push the already-bursting energy of the night another notch higher. And yet, “10 Minutes” was the tune I remember best, because it presented the opportunity to watch the music grow, and the musicians with it. I’ve somehow gotten to the age—it’s definitely snuck up on me, like those tears—where a lot of the musicians I go hear are younger than I am. They’ve become like the kids in some fantastic musical neighborhood, all moved out and making good, and my seat at the club, or maybe the virtual one in the Pit, the porch swing from which I watch history go by. Remember Linda from down the street? Yeah, she’s all grown up and playing music in New York. Making quite a name for herself, too. And Ambrose! Remember Ambrose? Well …

*

I guess I’ve been writing a jazz Horatio Alger story of sorts, or maybe a David Levinsky (remember, he’s the one who wanted to be Irving Berlin), tracing this young immigrant musician’s rise from the good company of her similarly-emerging peers to Soundprints, the supergroup featuring Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano and Joey Baron, at the Vanguard almost exactly a year from that night I first caught Oh at Smalls. By now I was a certified Oh junkie, waiting out in the cold an hour for my fix, for the proverbial man. I stood in front of that red door so long people started thinking I worked there, and I even came to enjoy playing the part, holding the door, answering questions—why I wasn’t taking money is anyone’s guess. About twenty minutes into the queue, a couple of music students from NYU joined me—they always seem to come in pairs, like missionaries—good people to shoot the breeze with while the wind cut through our coats and all those who’d thought far enough ahead to make reservations glided past. At 9 o’clock, the VV staff grudgingly found us seats, me at the absolute and utter rear of the club, back against the wall, band visible over a sea of heads, waiters milling in and out of my vision, assholes at the table next to me unable to shut up, even after being asked politely, and then asked again. But the music: the music that night could have cut through an acre of lead, like neutrinos from a star gone nova, so what could a few assholes, waiters and extra feet of space do? Afterwards I ran into the music students again, their faces all alight, and they asked me if I was staying for the second set, all I had to do was buy a drink, how could I think of leaving? Ah, I had to go upstate tonight, there was no hope for me; but wasn’t it nice to see their faces, hear their voices again. It confirmed to me what I was feeling.

It’s always great to hear Douglas and Lovano together—it had been too long—and Douglas and Baron, of course, half of Masada in a club where Masada maybe never played. (You can cut Masada six ways and you’re always left with the better half, how’s that for a paradox?) The pianist, one Lawrence Fields, was the find of the evening; in a year he’ll be the hub of yet another wheel, just like Oh, just like Douglas and Lovano and Baron before her. And Oh? What does it say that, on a bandstand with Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano and Joey Baron and yet some other genius in the making, you proceed to play a bass solo that puts in the phone call to God, throws everyone else in shadow, and becomes, like at that gig a year ago at Smalls, the thing I remember best? And what does it matter if the words I might have used to describe it to you have long since disappeared, if they were ever there at all? I can still hear the gasp and sigh that came up from the audience when the rest of the band started back in—how could I not, sitting where I was, with all that audience between us. It was a register of the collective emotion, there on the cusp of the sound, sound made a moment of exalted flesh, which is always easier to describe. I can tell you about that gasp and sigh, and I can swear to what I remember; the solo itself goads me with its unspeakability, an unspeakability that fills me with the urgency of words.

*

Initial Here made one of the three top ten lists in the New York City Jazz Record for 2012—not bad for a sophomore album. It’s on Greenleaf, Douglas’s label; he just tapped Oh for his last album, Be Still. Douglas is like a trampoline for fresh talent—look at Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin. Meanwhile, Fabian Almazan’s trio is back at the Vanguard this month, Oh still on bass. I’ll be there, on my porch swing. Have I told you about Fabian? Well, I will say, with a bit of old Miss Havisham and a bit of John Jarndyce, let me tell you about Fabian …

 

* While it’s true they’re very different records, I’m loathe to construct them as absolute opposites, which language and logic sometimes compel me to do. Entry has its fair share of rhythmic and other playfulness, its Jaco inflections even without the electric bass (check out “Fourth Hand”), its moments of textured harmony (the intro to “Numero Uno”), and the full range of the bass’s vocabulary on display. Still, Initial Here is nimbler, works with a broader palette, and is consistently richer and more surprising in its arrangements and compositions.

Glee Metal

In the summer of 1994 my girlfriend and I went to see Metallica at Wolf Mountain, a ski resort-cum-concert venue near Park City, Utah. The Suicidal Tendencies were on the bill as well, along with overnight grunge superstars Candlebox; our plan was to catch the former and miss the latter. Would that we had read the tea leaves, or at least looked at Billboard, because we ended up doing the reverse—missing the venerable Tendencies, that is, and suffering through a Candlebox set that slouched its livelong way to the one-hit vanishing point “You.”

I was still smarting from being denied the “How Will I Laugh Tomorrow” pit—there’s nothing like an outdoor mosh pit on a hot summer day—when Metallica came on a little after dusk. By the time the sound of machine gun fire rippled over the PA, signaling the beginning of the Johnny Got His Gun-inspired ballad/suite “One,” it was full dark. The lighters came out, the crowd held its breath. Then, high up on a riser, James Hetfield appeared and played the opening minor arpeggio: ding-ding-ding-dang. A collective exhale.

Well … “appeared” isn’t quite the right word. He sort of swung around like he was mounting an invisible horse, assumed a cock-legged pose, backlit and frozen. And my girlfriend and I, we just burst out laughing. How could we help it? That pose—it didn’t signify Metallica anymore, or even metal; it signified rock star. Mind you, at that point I was still going to the mat for the so-called Black Album, and if you give me more than thirty seconds I’ll regale you with what I believe to be that album’s many merits. But this? Load, Some Kind of Monster, “Nothing Else Matters” with strings—in that moment, I saw it all, the whole ugly coast into ignominy.

Could we have been the only ones who laughed? I doubt it. Maybe the crowd roared with laughter.

Almost twenty years later, I’ve stopped blaming Metallica. I’m blaming Anthrax instead. That’s right—Anthrax! I blame Anthrax. Why, you ask, would I blame such a fun-loving bunch of guys, the band that epitomized the warm-and-fuzzy machismo of thrash metal in its heyday? A willful contentiousness? Partly, yes. But you see, I fell out with Anthrax back in ‘88, years before Metallica’s apostasy, at the very noon of thrash’s day. In hindsight, I think my quarrel with Anthrax—a premature quarrel, I admit, but a quarrel nonetheless—sheds more light on thrash’s then-incipient demise than the oft-cited narrative of Metallica’s starstruck fall on the one hand, and the rise of grunge, hip hop, and other heavy alternatives on the other. But don’t despair: my counternarrative has a happy ending. It’s called Worship Music, and it’s really what brought me to want to write something about Anthrax in the first place.

*

     1987 was a banner year for Anthrax. It was the year of their seminal Among the Living, the band’s second album with singer Joey Belladonna, their third overall, and the gold-selling metal-rap crossover “I’m the Man.” With Living, Anthrax’s sound had crystallized into something immediately recognizable: “buzzsaw” guitars, furiously-pedaled double bass licks, groovy mosh parts, and catchy, melodic choruses. The lyrics, which Belladonna delivered with a mix of opera aria and Bronx sneer, were as likely to adapt Stephen King as to address social issues—“Star Wars,” racism, drugs. And yet, despite their penchant for horror and social commentary, Anthrax were a good deal less bleak than their thrash counterparts. You could hear it in those chipper choruses, so unusual for the genre, and in the words that tended to look past problems, to solutions: flags of many colors, fighting for peace.

“Imitation of Life,” the last song on Living, is a genre-appropriate paean to authenticity, a great “be yourself” underground anthem against the “plastic” world of media-driven image-making that Anthrax was likely just beginning to encounter. The chorus is indicative of the tenor of the song: “There’s nothing I hate more than all these plastic people/ With all their plastic promises, and all their plastic deals/ They just can’t be themselves, and live their own lives out/ They’re just an imitation of what life’s all about.” Once it revs up, “Life” is easily the fastest cut on the album, as if the breakneck tempo were necessary to assure both band and listener of each other’s authenticity, their underground pedigree.

If you can see past the homophobia*—I won’t blame you if you can’t, but I’m going to—one verse is a nutshell response to the more lucrative, radio-friendly glam or “hair” metal that dominated the charts during the same era: “Bands dress like women, with hairspray and lace/ I’d pass an image law, stick it in their face/ Let’s see how long they keep dressing this way/ Wearing their image twenty-four hours a day.” Image versus reality; pop versus underground; poseurs versus “true metal.” One can’t help but wonder whether these lines are directed at the “friend” mentioned in the first verse: “Whatever happened to the guy I knew?/ A media creation, a monster grew.”

Now, replace “guy” with “band,” and by 1988 you could have asked Anthrax the same question.

“Monster” is maybe too strong a word, but “media creation” nonetheless … and one that the band, the whole scene, participated in creating: instead of “hairspray and lace,” high-top sneakers, jock socks, baseball jerseys or concert T’s, Bermuda shorts or cut-off jeans.** And here’s the really insidious part: the band that wears hairspray and lace might, if they so choose, remove it after a performance. But by ‘88, I have the impression that Anthrax was wearing their image 24 hours a day, trapped in the mirror they held up to themselves, and to the scene. Anthrax, that is, became “Anthrax,” a parody of themselves, an image they fell in love with and, like Narcissus, died trying to embrace (well … almost).

Is that your fist I hear, beating on the computer screen? You’re saying, They didn’t sell out. Metallica did—put on the eyeshadow and the furry vests, grew the Beatnik goatees and started listening to indie rock, went all Billboard on our asses. Anthrax always dressed that way. Yes, yes, all true … but isn’t this precisely how it happened? Anthrax were so preoccupied with authenticity—with the idea of thrash (“true”) metal being no-image music, and the scene a big family—that as they achieved greater success, they had no choice but to create an image of authenticity to project for their fans.

Look at the photo on the sleeve of 1988’s State of Euphoria: the band members shine like wax effigies of themselves, cutouts against a postcard New York. Quite a switch from the leather-clad Anthrax in the 34th Street subway station on the back of Living: from the underground to the top of the world. But it’s not the backdrop that really matters here, or the clothes. As for the music, what’s notable about Euphoria is not how different it sounds from Living—the sort of about-face we would expect from a “sell-out”—but how similar. It sounds, properly enough, like the zombie- or pod-version of Living (as in the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

I’m pinning a year on it, but in hindsight it’s clear the tendency was there all along: the progressive ossification of their sound between ‘85’s Spreading the Disease and Euphoria; the line-drawn caricatures of the band on the sleeve of Disease; the proliferation of their little Mario Bros.-style mascot; the increasingly tedious use of “mosh” and “not,” which by ‘87 had begun to creep their way into titles, choruses, and verses. This is how it happens: Anthrax lingo, Anthrax gear, Anthrax themes. The music becomes the logo, the image grows legs; the songwriting gets stilted, the lyrics predictable. At the time, though, it seemed to happen almost overnight, a crash landing off the peak of Living into the stale slough of Euphoria. (“His meridian is at once the darkening and evening of his day,” says the Judge about the human species in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Would that Anthrax had put down the King for a while and picked up McCarthy. Not that I dislike Stephen King, but I’m still waiting for the metal band that will tackle Blood Meridian with the combination of aplomb and naïve faith Mastodon did Moby-Dick.)

You’ll say I’m not giving them enough credit. There’s not a metal band with a better sense of humor, or one more adept at self-parody, and this should imply a certain level of consciousness about image-making: the tongue-in-cheek side project S.O.D. (Stormtroopers of Death), with their LP Speak English or Die; the tracksuit-and-Anthrax-bling cover photo on the puerile but well-intentioned “I’m the Man.” And yet, like the very “un-thrash” upbeat optimism of much of the music, humor was just part of who they were—part, that is, of the fun-loving bunch of down-to-earth Bronxites that coalesced into the master-image “Anthrax.”

In fact, it’s hard to think of a band that better embodied the goofy camaraderie of the scene: punk with the edges sanded off; a sort of feel-good hardcore, if such a thing is possible. Maybe this is why it was so easy for them to become an image not just of themselves, but of the scene. After Anthrax became “Anthrax,” it wasn’t long before thrash became “thrash.” Images live forever, but the scenes (and bands) that produce them, like the hapless characters in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s La invención de Morel, rot to death.

I have the feeling that if any devout thrasher were going to blame Anthrax for killing the scene, it would be for a reason opposite the one I’m arguing. Anthrax were one of the few bands—thrash metal so incestuously devoted to maintaining the bulwark of its authenticity against the dreaded pop Other—audacious enough to reach outside the genre for inspiration: into rap (“I’m the Man,” and later the cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”) and British pop (Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time”).*** Anthrax, my imaginary devotee might argue, were too open to rival musics, so that, even as they remained one of the lead proponents of genre, they were simultaneously breaking down the very musical barriers that defined it. They let the wrong ones in. (It should be noted that this openness to musical innovation was of a piece with their politics—a schmaltzy one-world liberalism they espoused when they weren’t singing about Judge Dredd, Randall Flagg, or poseurs. The band’s anti-racist tracks on 1990’s Persistence of Time could be read as responses to thrash’s genre jingoism.)

I don’t disagree with this argument, just with the sentiment that often accompanies it (i.e., “letting the wrong ones in”). I think the scene needed to die. The music needed to move on; the death-in-life of Euphoria needed to be transcended. I think that if you did a survey of metal albums in 1988, you’d find a lot of bands either stalling out or beginning to move in new directions. Anyway, that Metallica did what they did, as they did it, is hardly Anthrax’s fault; they just happened to arrive first, or maybe just most transparently, at that combination of ossification and innovation that happens in all scenes once they begin to become successful. Anthrax had to kill the scene in order to escape it; Anthrax had to help create the ‘90s in order to escape themselves.

There are some fine moments on Euphoria, of course, and even more on 1990’s Time, an album that was just beginning to break free of what had become Anthrax clichés (e.g., “Misery Loves Company” and “Who Cares Wins”), in part by digging in a more organic way into hip hop (listen to “Blood” and “Discharge”), helping forge a style that would explode as groove metal. By 1993, everything had changed: music had moved on; Sound of White Noise, with new frontman John Bush has little in it to identify the old Anthrax; it sounds more like Alice in Chains. The album would turn out to be their last hurrah, and the fact that it went gold probably allowed Anthrax to store up their proverbial acorns for the long, bitter winter to come. For the next eighteen years would be a limbo of delayed and squelched releases, remixes, remasters, reunions, best-ofs, rotating singers and lead guitarists, and guest appearances—a time, for all but the most observant and least jaded, of white noise and silence.

*

Before Worship Music finally arrived in record stores (metaphorically speaking) last September, turning the hometown tour-ending “Big Four” show at Yankee Stadium into a giant release party, Anthrax were probably the only of the better-known thrash bands that hadn’t yet put out a new album. Not for want of trying—I won’t go into the reasons for all the delays—or for lack of new material. Or, for that matter, for lack of energy: they had already been on the road with the Big 4 for a year, and were about to jump into another tour, supporting the new album, with Testament and Death Angel sharing the bill. But then a band with a day named after them (last year, Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. declared September 14th “Anthrax Day in the Bronx”) has certain responsibilities—ribbon cuttings, ship christenings, and relentless touring being just a few of them.

The tour wrapped up early last month at Times Square’s Best Buy Theater—the Venue Formerly Known As Nokia, and before that, something else; its “original” name, if it ever had one, has been buried under the rubble of a thousand brands. Part celebration, part history lesson, part nostalgia trip, the Best Buy show presented a perfect opportunity to gauge the health of a music enjoying a sort of second teen-hood … or, perhaps, suffering a mid-life crisis.

The Best Buy crowd was the typical mix of geriatric metal fans from the ‘80s and high school- and college-aged kids, and the bands’ song selections tended to mirror that generation gap, straddling old and new material and mostly ignoring anything in between. Death Angel’s set was an extreme example: they only played stuff off their debut The Ultraviolence and the new record, Relentless Retribution. It reflects both the arc of their career—at this point, DA’s revival has lasted twice as long as their first run, and has been equally prolific—and, I guess, the limitations of a thirty-minute set. Testament’s choices were a bit more varied, albeit very much first-songs-and-title-tracks fare. There were a few pleasant surprises—opening the set with “The Preacher” (from 1988’s The New Order) was a nice touch, and I was happy to see them still pushing full-throttle renditions of “D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate)” and “Three Days in Darkness” from their middle-years masterpiece The Gathering (1998).

While all the bands were clearly old hands at playing on the expectations of a mixed-age audience, Anthrax had it down to a science. “How many of you here are seeing Anthrax for the first time?” (Cheer!) “How many of you crazy fuckers have seen us before?” (ROAR!!!) You know, that sort of thing. They certainly hit the peaks of their early career, spending the most time on the Everest of Living, and ignoring the ‘90s completely (if there was a token song from White Noise, I missed it). Somehow, the fact that they only played the covers off Euphoria and Time—regardless of the fact that these were singles—felt like an even bigger post-‘87 smackdown. No “In My World”? No “Now It’s Dark”?

All of the above suggests that the Worship Music tour was something of a continuation of the Big 4: after all, Testament and Death Angel are children of 1987, both born at the watershed moment the Big 4 was meant to commemorate. And yet, the fact that both these bands chose to close their sets with new material should not be lost on us—or on Anthrax, who went for the old, safe standbys “I’m the Man,” “Madhouse,” and “I Am the Law.”‡ I know they’re the quintessential NYC metal band—the blue-and-white jerseys, Joey’s Yankees cap pulled low on his head, Frankie and Charlie playing their first (and last) show after attending somebody’s grandmother’s funeral. This is metal concert as sporting event: you come to root for Anthrax like they’re the home team, and they give back that tough New York love (and buckets of popcorn nostalgia). But then I think of Testament playing “D.N.R.” Maybe that should be the injunction to all these comeback bands: We love to hear your old shit, sure. But 1987 is dead and gone, never to be revived. What have you done lately?

For what else can you say to a band that releases one of the finest metal albums of the last who-knows-how-many years, and then only plays four songs off it live—the same number they played off Living? Not that the choices weren’t good: the opener “Earth Is On Hell,” the pump-you-up zombie-killing anthem “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t,” the Dio-worthy “Devil You Know,” and the metal mass “In the End.” But with an hour and a half to burn, I expected at least a couple more. There’s more than enough depth on the record to warrant it. Proportionally, Anthrax played less new material than either of their warm-ups, and Testament wasn’t even pushing a new album. Even before their set had ended, the shadow of the Big 4 growing ever longer, I started to wonder whether the band fully understood what a gem they had in Worship Music: not so much an album as an exercise in imitative magic, perhaps the only thing capable of breaking the thrall of the image of 1987 that threatens to pull the genre back under.

*

Death Angel’s frontman Mark Osegueda has always struck me as a bit of a prophet. He has the godlike ability to go from a growl to a shriek and back to a growl again in a breath, a hyperpitch jump across five octaves. (Eat your heart out, Captain Beefheart!) And the things the man says. No matter how tough you think you are, you’re never too tough to let yourself go. Yes. Despite his claims to have never quite fit thrash’s vibe—a little too flamboyant, a little too interested in Tom Waits and The Velvet Underground—I think his combination of waist-length dreads and tight black jeans/leather vest for the Best Buy show beautifully articulated the divided ethos of the Bay Area scene: part ganja-smoking hippie, part brassknuckled Hell’s Angel. Anyway, he didn’t let his reservations get in the way of being the genre’s oracle that night, with a pronouncement that disciples like myself would spend the next hour pondering for ever-deeper layers of meaning: We’re Death Angel from San Francisco, and we play thrash metal.

Inspirational, no? Rather sums the whole thing up. Very much the sound of the new Death Angel, too. In fact, the new Death Angel sounds more like they did in ’87 than in ’90, when, like Anthrax, they had begun to chafe at the boundaries of the genre. (The result was their masterpiece, Act III; there never was a IV or V.) The stuff they played live, at least—that endless gritty chugga-chugga-chugga on the low E string—suggests they have made it their mission to epitomize the genre-as-it-was.

This desire to thaw the frozen image of 1987 and breathe life into it, or at least nuke it, is sadly typical. The back-to-back nostalgia tours and reunion with Belladonna would suggest that Anthrax, too, have embraced the revivalist spirit. But Worship Music suggests something different, or at least something more vital and interesting. For even as that record looks backwards, reaching all the way down into the choral-melodic elements of the band’s power metal roots and the heavy riffage of their thrash metal coming-of-age, it manages to draw these sounds together with ‘90s grunge into an impressively syncretic whole. It is free of the late-‘80s clichés that hamstrung so much of Euphoria, and to a lesser extent, Time—yet it is still recognizably, inimitably Anthrax. In looking back neither from a desire to “relive” the ‘80s, nor to show they have “outgrown” the ‘80s—to cheapen it with an ironic sneer—but rather to work with and attempt to reinvigorate that musical tradition, Worship Music evinces a rare maturity of vision. This isn’t maturity in the sense that people said Anthrax “matured” after Euphoria—the meaner, darker Anthrax of Time and White Noise. They’re as full of humor and hope as they ever were, and as melodic, too—even moreso.

In some ways, the album seems to want to be heard as what the band would have put out after Persistence of Time had Belladonna stuck around. The ticking clock on the breaks in “Earth is on Hell” recalls the opening of Time; the solo cello of “Hymn 1,” which is really the introduction to “In the End,” is an instrumental quote from “Be All End All” on Euphoria. But in a transformation that is characteristic of the new record, following “End”’s break for chimes, as Belladonna comes back in to chant the hymn, he is accompanied by the guitars, which, buzzing with sustain and sweeping up and down the low strings, themselves sound bowed. Rather than a follow-up, then, Worship Music sounds like it’s having a conversation with the Anthrax of 1988-90 … but a conversation that could only be had at two decades’ distance.

As I noted earlier, Anthrax’s music was always more cantabile than that of their riff-centric comrades, and on Worship Music this element of their songwriting definitely comes into its own. Call it glee metal: upbeat, chorus-driven, effortlessly melodic. I can’t think of a metal band that writes choruses like this anymore, and it’s not like nobody’s trying: all those dreadful emo-death bands put a lot of stock in melodic choruses, the obligatory counterpart the growled verses. These desperate attempts to sound both heavy and emotional … as if they were mutually exclusive! I sound mean, but I’m really just hurt. Ugh. Anthrax could teach these bands a thing or two, and not just about attitude (metal! no wallowing!), but about composition: the call-and-response formats, the clear melodic climaxes, the canny uses of repetition in rhythm and phrasing.

I could go on about the unreasonably good songwriting here—pretty much everything on Worship Music is lean and harmonically seamless—but I’d rather focus for a moment on the use of breaks, of silence, to create a sense of space—always a gamble in a style of music defined by relentless noise. “The Devil You Know” is the most obvious in this respect: the two-measure-long riff is followed by two measures of silence, as if the band had stopped to listen to their own echo. With each break the sense of expectation grows; the breaks changes the way we hear the verse when the spaces have been filled and the song settles into a groove. This use of silence in the intro is mirrored later by the way the riff disappears at the choruses, then edges its way in at the ends of the choruses, and then finally overwhelms them, before a coda of (almost) fully-silent breaks in the “false endings” outro. “Devil” isn’t the only song that uses silence to build and release tension and to create space and contrast. There are well-placed (if briefer) pauses before the choruses of “Fight ‘Em,” dividing the pre-chorus football-squad riot vocals from the rise-up singalong that follows; the bridges of “Earth is on Hell,” “I’m Alive,” and “In the End” use pauses and silence to similar effect. I wonder if it’s this sense of space that allows Charlie Benante, always ranked among the genre’s top  drummers, to shine even more than usual, from the opening blast-beat of “Earth is on Hell,” through the tight, straightahead groove of “Devil,” all the way to the brick-throwing storm at the end of “Revolution Screams.”

     Which brings me, somehow, to “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t.” It’s not just the soundtrack for a zombie movie-to-be (a few people have already made zombie-killing videos for the song; rhythm guitarist and founding member Scott Ian has posted one of them on his Facebook page). It’s also the Rocky theme of the band’s comeback … though the title’s reference to defeat suggests, once again, a more mature perspective. On the CD gatefold, together with all those photoshopped action-shots of the band in mid-shout or mid-leap, there is a cartoon (of course!) of the bandmembers fighting zombies. It takes a moment to notice that the zombies are actually deathly versions of themselves—that is, Scott Ian fights a skull-Ian, Frank Bello a decomposing Bello, and so on. A loaded image for sure, and one that speaks very much to the themes of this post. Is it the dark side of themselves the band is fighting, a spiritual message to accompany the praying hands on the cover? Is it the Anthrax of middle age, fighting back the image of their own death, recognizing that life is short, health not a given, time precious? Or is it not the future, but the past, the 1987 that refuses to die, that the band cannot quite manage to shoot in the head, even as they try to make themselves anew?

Like the cartoon, both the beauty and the problem of “Fight ‘Em” is that it can be taken so many different ways. Who are the zombies? Well, that’s just it: we don’t know. But it doesn’t matter—just fight ‘em. That’s the key; the vaguer the signifier, the more people who can sing along. The zombies are your parents, your teachers, the bully down the street, your two-year-old, your mother-in-law, the cops, the criminals, the government, the corporation, the terrorists, The Man. This is the strength and weakness of the comic-book approach, at once clear-sighted and myopic, deeply felt and shallowly conceived. The two lyrical faces of Anthrax have always posed this problem: they shift so easily between comic strip and protest that the one tends to bleed into the other: Marx (or at least Mill) is neutered by Judge Dredd; Reagan is still and always the Hollywood cowboy, just wearing a black hat instead of a white one; Indians become Injuns. Of course, it was just this ease at crossing over that made a peacenik protest song like “One World” palatable to the metal crowd. But at least there, when they sang “America, stop singing hail to the chief/ Instead of thinking SDI he should be thinking of peace” back in ‘87, their target was clear. Worship Music’s target, if it has one, is muddled. The lyrics are chock full of lines suggesting something more radical than the safely liberal Anthrax of the late ‘80s: “If you look for a monster you’ll find one”; “Find the monster, start the war”; “Heaven lives in every gun”; “One nation under me”; etc. It seems to be an album that celebrates the “beautiful violence” of revolution (cf. the major key chorus of “Revolution Screams”); we’re just not sure whose revolution it is—whose empire is falling, for what cause. All that matters is action: you have your back to the wall. Are you ready to fight? That’s cartoon politics: whatever you’re saying, just make sure you say it emphatically. Maybe that’s the problem of revolution itself.

Then again, this sort of ambiguity has always been part and parcel of metal, a genre perennially caught between fetishizing the power of authority and the glamour of rebellion. Hence the love for the righteous outlaw: Judge Dredd, Dirty Harry, The Gunslinger on “Lone Justice.” To be punk because it’s the only way to be straight; to choose, with Huck Finn, to go to hell; to embrace the noble monster and the outlaw with the heart of gold—these are the myths of America as much as metal. It’s just these tensions that make the music so fascinating, and certainly the reason it has lasted: metal might have swallowed punk’s rage, but it was never able to stomach its nihilism.

All this leaves me wondering where Anthrax’s politics are today.‡‡ Honestly, though, I’m not wondering too hard. There’s more than a little Phil Ochs in me (“I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation than a bad song on the side of integration”). And so, with Worship Music, I’m content to worship, to marvel at the musical achievement, at the unlikely and contradictory rebirth of one of the better metal bands on the planet. On “The Giant,” they sing, “Drowning in an ocean to find my soul.” And so they have—not drowned (note the gerund), but dipped deep into the water to take hold of an image that has been rotting since State of Euphoria—their image, the genre’s image—wrestled with it, and come back with something worthy of the fight. It’s not an about-face, or a pastiche, or a nostalgia trip. It’s an unapologetic affirmation of who they are: melodic, comic, hopeful, and heavy as hell. And if I’ve been happy to point the finger at Anthrax for mercy-killing thrash, I’m more than happy to credit them for ushering in a new, tradition-savvy, roots-conscious way forward. I just wonder if there are any new bands out there with the ears to listen.


* For a good discussion of homophobia in metal, see Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City (Scribner, 2001), pages 79-81. For a more theoretical take on the same, see Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil. (You find the pages; it’s got an index.)

** Scott Ian, who has always been quite the genre spokesman, seems fully aware of thrash’s own fashion-consciousness, at least in hindsight. In his liner notes to the remastered Megadeth debut Killing Is My Business … and Business is Good, he describes the mid-‘80s metal underground, with a nostalgic sigh, as a time of “long hair, tight jeans, and big sneakers.” (That’s actually a paraphrase from memory; I don’t own the disc.)

*** By 1990 the strictures on what thrash bands could cover had begun to loosen, and anyway, those bands would soon have the choice of clinging to the life rafts of hip hop and grunge, or going (back) under. (Megadeth’s wonderfully vulgar “These Boots” cover (1985) isn’t really an exception.) Still, as late as 1994 Pantera was putting a ridiculous disclaimer next to their cover of “Planet Caravan,” assuring fans (probably still rending their garments over the Black album) that they were not “selling out” … by covering Black Sabbath!? Today it’s almost de rigeur to metalize something non-metal: Christmas songs, jazz standards, etc.

‡ Belladonna actually dedicated “I Am The Law” to the NYPD. (In fact, on my way in I had to wait for a convoy of beefy middle-aged guys holding printout tickets, one of whom I could swear was wearing a blue NYPD jacket.) All I could think was that it was a little tacky to dedicate a song to the NYPD only a week or so after officers had chased 18-year old Ramarley Graham into his home and shot him in his bathroom. I know, I know: a few bad apples. But then there’s the ticket-fixing, the spying on Muslims, the pepper-spraying of OWS protestors, Sean Bell … I’m still waiting for someone to convince me the barrel’s not spoiled. Is this the band that dared cross over back in ’87, and toured with Public Enemy in ’91? Does Chuck D still have a radio show? Chuck, can you hear me? Maybe it’s time to give Scottie a call and have a little on-air heart-to-heart.

‡‡ The one concrete reference I could find to activism on Worship Music appears on Scott Ian’s thank-you list: a call to support the PPA, Poker Players of America. The organization is apparently in a tizz about legal restrictions to online gaming. On the other hand, when I consider Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine’s recent endorsement of Rick Santorum, maybe I should be thankful for silence … those beautiful breaks again. Compared to Santorum, the PMRC—Mustaine’s favorite anti-censorship piñata—looks like a branch of the ACLU. And then I can’t help but remember Mustaine worked on MTV’s Rock the Vote drive back when he was still a junkie. (N.B.: When I lived in Utah, the state government listed “interest in politics” as one of ten warning signs your child might have a drug habit.)

Burned-over

The year is 1986. James Hetfield of Metallica is passed out in the band’s tour bus, head lolling, an empty bottle of Heineken in his left hand. Enter a roadie. He peels one scraggly blond hair from around the bottle, carries it to the man in the trenchcoat waiting in the shadows outside. “You’re sure it’s his?” The roadie nods, takes his cut, stalks away. The man puts the hair in a baggie. Cut to: a plane landing at Heathrow airport. Cut to: a lab, as echoes of the plane’s turbines fade on the soundtrack. A dozen petri dishes growing new Hetfields. Each embryo is implanted in a different womb, in a different family, in a different town in northern England: Manchester. Liverpool. Nottingham. And while the Hetfield we all know grows into the “monster” of the ‘90s, the new Hetfields grow up in obscurity—at least, to everyone but him. Their upbringings are closely monitored, carefully molded. A steady diet of old metal is piped into their cribs. Black Sabbath. Motörhead. Diamond Head. And of course, early Metallica. Their mothers taunt them with devil’s-horns-shaped rattles, spike their milk with Newcastle, goad them to scream until their vocal cords grow as calloused as their foster fathers’ hands. Flash forward to: 2004. Three of the Hetfields decide to form their own bands; the one planted in Huddersfield, under the name Drake, is perhaps the most promising. His band is a Metallica tribute called Metal Militia; the foster brother plays guitar—a perk from nurture—and is already quite the virtuoso. He encourages them from a distance, secretly exulting. For, as you have probably guessed, the hair-culprit has spent the better part of two decades consumed with bitterness about the sun setting on Britain’s metal empire, ever since the thrash and glam tsunamis crested over the British New Wave; and the Plan is nothing short of recapturing Britain’s World Domination of Heavy Metal. It isn’t long before Metal Militia begin writing their own material, and change their name to … Evile.

*

     In case you haven’t heard, we’re in the middle—or maybe toward the end—of a thrash metal revival. Open your windows one night this summer—that’s right, turn off the AC—and you might hear strains of Slayer’s “At Dawn They Sleep” wafting across your city. You might be walking down the street when some kid drives by cranking, not Kanye West, not even Avenged Sevenfold, but old Exodus … or something that sounds like old Exodus, but is not a track you can remember ever hearing. And then one day you walk into your local record store, and the incredibly hip clerk, pierced everywhere but his elbows and young enough to be your son, is playing Death Angel’s The Ultraviolence (1987). That’s when you finally put two and two together, ask yourself: What the hell is going on?

In 2007 the Village Voice did an interesting piece about a surge of unabashedly backwards-looking metal bands with names like Fueled by Fire, Violator, and Death Hunter. The Voice was less interested in the surge per se than in the idea that the majority of these bands were either Latino (Fueled by Fire) or from Latin America (Violator is from Brazil, Death Hunter from Colombia). Lest you think this is an isolated Latin American phenomenon, though, “thrash is back” (to quote Fueled by Fire) not just in the so-called periphery, but in the core as well. The website Rateyourmusic.com lists 150 neo-thrash bands worldwide—probably a fraction of the total—and the net seems to have exploded with fans’ lists of their top ten.

Nor is this metallic Great Awakening confined to the young and spry. Several bands that had been inactive since the mid-nineties, like Death Angel and Forbidden, have taken the opportunity to regroup with as many founding members as they could muster, record new albums, and pull the spiked leather bracelets down off the wall over the mantle to head out on tour. (Think of them as the old cowboys in The Wild Bunch, about to get mowed down.) And then the “big four” (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth) are in the middle of a worldwide stadium-to-stadium tour, promoted by (gasp) Rolling Stone. (They’ll be at Yankee Stadium on the 14th of September, by the way—in case any of you Bronxites run into traffic and think you’re seeing an odd number of long-haired baseball fans.) As the term “big four” is not one I can remember hearing until last year, I’m guessing that this little marketing miracle is also attributable to the revival.

While the Voice article provides a nice rundown of the new Latin/o thrash scene, they are at a loss to explain why. Nor are the bands they interview much help. Defuse anger over the generally rotten state of Latin American society? Latin America has been rife with problems for a lot longer than five years; and although I’m perfectly happy to credit the continental spike against neoliberalism for the rise of neo-thrash—or conversely, to blame neo-thrash on the continental spike in evangelical Christianity—it doesn’t much help explain similar movements in the US and Europe. The recession? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Price of cigarettes? Voice notwithstanding, Municipal Waste (US) and Gama Bomb (Ireland) seem to precede Fueled by Fire and Violator by a couple of years, and Evile (UK) released their first full-length LP the same year the Voice was touting neo-thrash as a largely Latin American phenomenon. (As long as we’re here, why are we always so anxious to pin the genesis of any form of loud, angry music on social dis-ease? Mightn’t it make more sense to talk about the thrash revival in terms of a cultural moment when the most successful popular music is composed of the cut-up and re-wedded samples of other people’s music?)

If there’s something ideologically satisfying about the idea of a Latin American neo-thrash movement, I guess it would be that the global “periphery” had come back to influence the “core.” And yet, whoever happened to come first, I don’t hear much in the way of influence going on here. Flamenco has a great name for its musical forms that were forged through colonization: “canciónes de ida y vuelta,” or round-trip songs. But the guajira and rumba grew from the cultural crossovers of the New World, and then were grafted back onto the music of the Old. In metal, the only analogy that comes to mind is Sepultura, who made a clear move in the ‘90s to think about the genre in terms of indigenous music and the legacies of colonization; one can already hear the berimbau in the main riff of “Refuse/Resist,” the first track on Chaos A.D. (1993), this two years before the band released their consciously-indigenous Roots. Whether this had any influence on later Latin American metal, or on metal in the US and Europe, I don’t know. But as far as the thrash revival goes, it sounds just like the name says. The master’s tools …

The alternating gales and tradewinds between the US and UK are another story, and probably strain even the most liberal application of the core-periphery metaphor to breaking. It was pretty much Kiss and some of the other heavy stadium rock acts, and maybe Alice Cooper, carrying the standard on this side of the Atlantic through the ‘70s. But we seem to have needed the Saxon invasion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and its consolidating effect on the genre to spur a real native American metal movement. When Metallica parodied “Run to the Hills” on the fadeout of their “Last Caress/Green Hell” Misfits cover on Garage Days Re-revisited (1987), it was more than an inside joke: they were striking at the heart of the beast, asserting the primacy of this punky new American style of metal. This is pretty ironic, given that the rest of that album and the previous Garage Days EP are largely dedicated to covering the unsung heroes of the British New Wave—covering them so well, in fact, that they rival Metallica’s best material; there is still probably a large contingent of the fan community who believe “Am I Evil?” and “Helpless” and “The Prince” are originals. Okay, maybe it was just a good-natured poke at Maiden’s popularity, as against the relative obscurity of bands like Diamond Head, Blitzkrieg and Budgie. Anyway, it’s worth remembering that the Garage Days Re-revisited EP appeared one year after Ozzy passed the torch, likening Metallica’s energy during their opening sets on the Ultimate Sin tour to the early days of Black Sabbath.

Rather than causes, maybe it’s more useful to talk about motives: why this desire to resuscitate a music that spiked and died a generation ago? According to the vocalist for Colombia’s Death Hunter, interviewed by the Voice, it is “to make the scene revive to the old days, to try and maintain the scene and strengthen it so that it doesn’t die with time.” Ah, nostalgia for a lost Eden, before the splinterings of the genre over the last two decades, when sound, scene and identity formed a coherent whole. (These bands even make fun of “net metal” fans who listen to the music online but don’t go to shows; the word “poseur” seems to be making a comeback, Fueled by Fire leading the charge.) It begs the question of whether such a scene ever existed, except in hindsight. But then revivals are always characterized by their emotional intensity about the thing revived, anger at the trespasses of the generation immediately prior, and a desire to “restore” something perceived as fallen: a religion, a society, a genre of music. Their zeal is only exacerbated by the sense of having missed the heyday, the time before the City on the Hill became a den of iniquity. That the thrash revival has been somewhat contentious among older fans is case in point: a certain distrust about those meddling kids raiding the tombs of their fathers’ fathers. Who knows to what sorts of travesties their misguided zeal might lead them?

In this light, the thrash revival appears not as an anomaly, but a necessity: a labor of reverence, a drama of devotion. At its core metal is still tribal, deeply beholden to begats, and as genealogically obsessed as the Mormon church. There are multiple ironies here—for one, that a genre that prizes itself so much on rebellion is so deeply bound by its own tradition—bound, in fact, by its very own tight-knit allegiance to a certain, specific rebellion. But it’s just these sorts of weirdnesses that led me to want to write something, however incomplete and overwrought, about this curious phenomenon called the thrash revival; and to focus on Evile for the very particular role they seem to be playing in it. How long can a genre revival last before it spirals into pure self-parody (assuming it neither started nor has already ended there) or bores itself to a dead end, even in a genre so enamored of its own past? How does a younger generation playing an older music both appease older fans and attract younger ones? And how much can a band pay tribute before they become just a tribute band?

*

Last fall a Jerseyite friend of mine suggested we go see Overkill at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville (or “Slayerville,” as he calls it), New Jersey. Overkill are one of those genre stalwarts that have been going like a rabid Energizer bunny since the early ‘80s, as consistent and loyal to the scene as Slayer, if nowhere near as well-known or influential. Overkill are metal as blue-collar punk. Their early material managed to walk the crooked line between hardcore and classic sword-and-sorcery metal; there was even a bit of hair-metal hedonism thrown in for good measure. They capture everything that is lowbrow and in-your-face about working class N.J., epitomized in their 1987 re-casting of the punk anthem “We Don’t Care What You Say (Fuck You).” Not surprisingly, they played it for an encore, the crowd turning their devil’s horns into middle fingers to deliver the “New Jersey salute” (as wizened frontman Bobby Blitz termed it), a visual echo of the larger-than-life middle finger on the cover of the “Fuck You” EP. (Larger than life on vinyl, at least. What happened to the “actual size” head on the cover of Devo’s Are We Not Men? when it was shrunken for CD, and then became the “album artwork” on your phone?)

The “Slayerville” show was the last stop on the band’s silver anniversary tour. You could actually buy a T-shirt with a fluorescent green “Overkill bat” (a skull with bat wings, the band’s mascot, like Iron Maiden’s “Eddie”) hovering over a similarly day-glo outline of the great state of New Jersey. Seldom have music and cultural geography been more perfectly matched.

My Overkill roots go pretty deep. If you’re from North Jersey and listened to metal in the ‘80s, Overkill are at least your second cousins, like Jews and Italians. Original drummer “Rat Skates” and founding and continuing bassist D.D. Verni are from the town next to the one where I grew up. Friends of friends took lessons with Skates. Overkill were the first club show I ever saw, in 1987, on a double bill with Testament, at the now-defunct Satellite Lounge. That said, I was actually more eager to see the second band on the bill that night, Forbidden, one of several great acts that percolated up out of San Francisco Bay toward the end of the watershed, just long enough to put out a couple of records before going back to mowing lawns in Berkeley. They were maybe the most successful band of that era in uniting an operatic prog-metal with thrash’s speed and aggression. Anyway, I hadn’t seen either band since the mid ‘90s, so this show was as much a homecoming for me as for Overkill.

The third band on the bill that night (of five) was Evile. I hadn’t heard of them, and what with doors opening at 6 and first band going on at 7, I didn’t expect I’d get a chance to hear them. But then my friend insisted—and since this is the same friend who routinely ensconses himself at some nearby bar and drinks his way through half the headliner, never mind the opening acts, I eagerly consented. After all, I didn’t want to miss Forbidden; who knew but that it was my last opportunity—who knew how long thrash’s Indian summer would last?

I couldn’t have known at the time that this was the perfect context in which to see Evile: warming up for the sorts of bands they had built their career paying tribute to. Truth be told, I hadn’t been paying much attention to the whole thrash revival. I had read the Voice article when it came out, bookmarked the relevant MySpace pages; I was thrilled to see some of the old bands working again; I had watched and enjoyed YouTube clips my friends had sent me of Gama Bomb and Municipal Waste. But I walked into the Starland Ballroom not knowing that Evile was even a participant, let alone the revival’s “flagship.”

The 6 p.m. doors made sense. This was almost a matinee performance; the only thing missing were the picnic blankets. There were several guys my age there with their young sons. There were actually quite a few fans in the 16-to-24 age bracket, too, including one who works at the Mailboxes store my friend manages, and who has a band of his own. Here it was, metal as a rite of passage, as much in the audience as on-stage. It was as if, by incantation, by repetition, Evile could resurrect the past, “revive the scene,” as Death Hunter put it. Sabbracadrabra … and out of the smoke stumbles Forbidden, asking what the fuck year it is, and why their heads hurt so bad.

There were the obligatory expressions of excitement and homage of a young band getting to play with some of their heroes. But then they were so down to earth, and so gracious to be there, saying “cheers” in their very British way to a bunch of Jersey metalheads. I have to admit, I preferred that “cheers” to the New Jersey salute; but then I grew up on a different side of Jersey. And maybe just hearing that accent, in that context, pushed my Maiden-Priest nostalgia and blind allegiance buttons. Here were these young Brits, playing old American thrash metal with a “new” accent … as if metal had clicked its heels three times and found its way back to Oz, away from Kansas, and from Caracas. I enjoyed them so much that I forgot to ask why they weren’t doing to Metallica what Metallica had done to Maiden back in 1987.

*

Infected Nations (2009), Evile’s second album, maybe best illuminates some of the big questions facing the thrash revival as the subgenre crests its first half-decade. With 2007’s Enter the Grave, the band was credited with “carrying the genre’s whole ‘revival’ on their shoulders.” (That they were credited thus by British rock mag Kerrang! seems significant; perhaps my fictitious hair-culprit has a shade of truth about him.) Singer Matt Drake was likened (more than he deserved to be) to Slayer’s Tom Araya, and the music to early Metallica—surely helped along by the fact that Grave was produced by Metallica’s old engineer Flemming Rasmussen. But there were some notable differences between Grave and many of the revival’s other burnt offerings. The band logo and album cover art didn’t have that cartoonish, DIY style. Nor did the music have the same self-conscious over-the-topness of, say, Fueled by Fire, which screams pastiche. For many neo-thrashers, having a band seemed like an excuse to play dress-up Exodus, like some sort of postmodern glam-rockers. Could it be that these young Brits were taking themselves and the whole revival thing seriously?

It’s common wisdom that second albums are difficult, particularly after a much-lauded first one, and the “revival” thing adds a whole other degree of difficulty. Most reviews of Infected Nations suggest the band chose to move beyond Enter the Grave and begin to establish their own sound. This narrative of maturation is echoed in the bio on the band’s website—or probably the reverse is true—which, tellingly, does not mention that Evile began as a Metallica tribute. Fan reviews take pains to either praise or damn the changes; there seems to be no middle ground. Some go so far as to suggest that it would have been better for this great quasi-tribute band to keep tribute-ing than to evolve toward original mediocrity.

I think this misses the point. Evile is certainly changing; whether they are coming into their own sound is another story. And here is where the ironies come on fast and thick. The fact that the band has produced a more ambitious, progressive, slower second album is hailed as a step forward in their self-making. Until, that is, you consider that Metallica did just that, expanding their song lengths, and varying times, tempo, and dynamics through And Justice for All (1988). And not just Metallica; many thrash acts moved toward a proggier style as the ‘80s drew on, increasing song lengths, playing with time signatures, writing multi-movement suites, and slowing down that raging tempo. More than one fan review points to Justice as a viable analogy for Nations; others compare the change to Slayer’s between Reign in Blood and South of Heaven. Evile, then, seems to be recapitulating Metallica’s career, and the trajectory of the genre as a whole (as befits the look backwards: life is lived at the pace of time, but flashbacks can condense mercilessly). The price of being part of a genre revival appears to be that every attempt to “move forward” only binds one more closely to the genre revived. What’s maybe even more interesting to consider is whether the fan community, too, is recapitulating the reception of Metallica’s music, from exaltation to contention and feelings of betrayal.

It’s hard to get past playing riffspotting with Infected Nations. “Oh, that sounds like new Metallica/ middle-period Metallica/ old Metallica/ Slayer/ Testament/ Sepultura/ Queensryche/ etc.” Which is a bit of a shame, really, because it’s more fun to listen to than pick apart. Not that there aren’t weaknesses. The choruses in particular can be pretty drab, built around the title word/phrase groaned with either a half-step drop (Demoli-tion; Infected … Na-tions) or, in moments of near-inspiration, a full step up followed by a half-step drop (Devoid of … devoid of), buttressed by riot vocals (“Na-tions!”; “Now!”; “Thought!”; etc.) that sound like a packed football stadium. (I like a little less riot in my riot vocals; four or five guys shouting together is enough.) The funny thing is, it doesn’t take much to save a chorus—I know, I sound like one of those penny-for-the-homeless hawkers, but it’s true. “Plague to End All Plagues” is catchy because it monkey-wrenches the de rigueur half-step (Plague … to end) with a flat-fifth jump up (“ALL”), reinforcing the theme (for a regular plague, the regulation half-step in the chorus would be enough; but, goddammit, this is the plague to end ALL plagues). “Genocide” does it one better: again built on half-steps, the third line of the chorus kicks the half-step up a major third (“Visions of a future denied”), putting it squarely in the much-abused and -exalted Freygish scale. I’m actually being a little unfair with “Now Demolition,” which features a funky little key change and arpeggiated chords in the pre-chorus. In fact, were this not thrash metal, it would be totally unfair to suggest the vocalist need do anything but fart for the duration of the record.*

Where Nations excels, though, is in its sheer quantity of interesting riffage—derivative or no—and tight playing … and in the lead guitar work of Ol Drake, who turns out some of the most inspired, flamboyant and technically-sophisticated guitar solos since Dimebag went down in a hail of bullets. It makes me positively nostalgic for the days when a certain amount of self-indulgence was perceived as a virtue (he says, at word three thousand eight hundred of this post). For this reason—and contrary to what even some positive reviews of Nations suggest—the more interesting tracks here are the ones where the band give themselves space to stretch out and riff around: the aforementioned “Genocide”; “Metamorphosis”; and the 11-minute instrumental “Hundred Wrathful Deities.” Granted, “Deities” is not the masterpiece its length cries out for, and maybe because it sets the bar highest in terms of the ostensible move toward a new, more complex sound, it is the song most disparaged in reviews. But for the purpose of considering Nations in terms of the thrash revival, it’s the most remarkable track on the record: a sort of serial homage to Metallica’s three big instrumentals: “The Call of Ktulu” (1984), “Orion” (1986), and “To Live Is To Die” (1988) … with bits of Testament, Seasons-era Slayer, and even early Judas Priest thrown into the mix (see: riffspotting). A “Ktulu” opening gives way to two slow, heavy, “To Live”-like movements; the song then breaks into an “Orion”-like mid/up-tempo solo section, and then cycles back through variations on the three-movement introduction before concluding with an even stronger echo of “Ktulu”—not surprising, as this is the instrumental that closed Metallica’s own second album. And yet, I don’t want to give the impression that “Deities” is just a medley, or suffers from the rather typical metal-instrumental problem of sounding like a patchwork of unused riffs, even unused Metallica riffs. It actually has a structural integrity that many instrumentals lack. In fact, it’s more tightly welded together than “To Live Is To Die,” the Metallica instrumental to which it is probably closest in spirit, right down to the dull spots and the transcendent, full-on dirge in the middle, complete with harmonies that sound like they were laid on with a palette knife.

When it’s all over—”Deities” ends the album—the question nags: how can it be the masterpiece it wants to be when it’s still so indebted to the master? How can Evile restore the phallus and the purity of British metal when they’re as prone as Latin America to kowtowing to the US?

Maybe the better question is, Can it be a masterpiece of the revival without being indebted to the master? And maybe that’s what makes Infected Nations enjoyable, and sometimes downright good. It’s not that Evile sound most like themselves when they sound most like Metallica. It’s not even the earlier point, that by trying to grow out of being a tribute band they more firmly grow into one. It’s that the line between pastiche and inspiration is a fine one; and though Evile fall more than once, they also manage to perform some pretty amazing feats of balance. By flattering an older listener’s knowledge of the genre while managing, through sympathetic magic, to turn the stuff of rote tribute into something vital; and by refusing the security blanket of irony, and shooting so big as to try to gobble up the whole history of the subgenre, pace Metallica, in their sound. And why shouldn’t they? The City on the Hill was supposed to start the purifying fire, to be seen across the Atlantic. Even thrash metal was about restoring something, burning away the icons and brambles to find that mutable, fleeting essence underneath, maybe just called rock-n-roll.

A word about lyrics before concluding: In a genre that expends so much energy making monsters, and capitalizing on the monsters created by the more reactionary elements in our culture, it’s refreshing to hear a band that reminds us that the “demons” who commit monstrous evils “are only men”—that “they” are no different from “us” (“Genocide”). It’s particularly nice to hear this in a post-9/11 era, where a band like Testament, not unknown for occasionally spouting progressive-tilting lyrics back in the day (as was in fact intermittently true of many thrash bands), returned to the scene in 2008 with an apocalyptic “holy war” album. I don’t know what Evile’s politics are—where metal is concerned, most bands’ politics don’t bear much looking into; I’d as soon ask the Hell’s Angels to sign petitions for marriage equality. But is it too much to ask British neo-thrashers to re-import a bit of political sanity into the lyrics of post-9/11 metal? As long as they’re riffing on ‘80s thrash metal, they might as well channel that punk-inspired anger, or at minimum, apathy.

*

Evile’s third album is slated for release at the end of September. In interviews the band has suggested that they are seeking a middle ground between their first and second efforts—seeking, it seems, a compromise between “early” and “late” revival, between a much-lauded straight-ahead sound and a more contentious “progressive” one. I’m not sure how to take this. They’re a talented young band with, one hopes, a bright future. They weathered the sudden, tragic death of their bass player, Mike Alexander, in 2009. (Talk about recapitulating Metallica’s career, Jesus. At least Cliff Burton lasted three albums. Couldn’t Alexander tell his days were numbered?) It would be a shame if the very exuberance about an older style of metal that brought them into the spotlight were to become their Achilles’ heel. I’d really like to see at least a few of these neo-thrash bands chart their own course, wherever they might go, before their vessels are dashed to pieces on the rocks of a revival set to expire—history repeating or rhyming or whatever it does—before the next big evangelical apocalypse.

This all might be asking too much; the dead hand of the past may simply weigh too heavy, and the balancing acts of inspired tribute might be the best I can expect. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening,  and raising my glass to them, as they did to me in Jersey.

* Matt Drake’s voice has been a focus of ire for several reviewers, who argue that he was a good Araya impersonator, but now that the band is writing slower, more nuanced material, he’s trying to “do something” with his voice … and it’s about as effective as a comb-over. Drake belts in the gruff midrange of thrash metal, a mix of Puppets-era Hetfield—even to the vocal harmonies—and Sepultura’s Max Cavalera, though without the dopey punch of the latter at his best. But I’ll take Drake any day over the “scream the verse, croon the chorus” (probably the best 6 words of music criticism the Voice ever wrote) emo-death crap that dominates the genre today.

Breath

My first exposure to J.D. Allen was at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival, on the uptown Saturday, in the northeast corner of Marcus Garvey Park, where the concert had been relocated while the bandshell was under renovation. Allen’s trio was midway through their set by the time I showed up—which, at the Marcus Garvey half of the CP Festival, is defined by the threshold where the concert becomes louder than the drum circle always happening on its perimeter—and I regretted my lateness before I’d even found a spot to sit down. I love the raw power of a saxophone trio, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anything quite so raw or so powerful as Allen’s. It wasn’t just the horn, either; the whole band was relentless. They seemed hardly to come up for air.

The trio had third billing that day; still to come was the always-impressive Jason Moran, followed by McCoy Tyner solo. But nothing came close to Allen. It was the thrill of discovery, that moment when a musician or band or composition becomes “ours,” a sort of foundling godchild.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the following April that I happened to be in a record store, picked up a New York City Jazz Record, and found that the trio would be at Smalls mid-month, on a Monday night. Happily, this would be during spring break.

I got to Smalls a bit early, unsure of how much of a crowd to expect—I figured Allen was a rising star, but I didn’t know how much of a name he’d made for himself yet—and anyway, it was a Monday, and it was Smalls. As it turned out, the previous set had not yet ended; there were a few dozen people in the club, a few empty chairs toward the back. I sat down in the last row, signaled the waitress, and commenced eavesdropping on my neighbors. The woman to my left was on stopover from London; the woman to my right was from Los Angeles; she and her husband were visiting their son, who had relocated to New York to work in real estate (surprise), and who had dragged his parents to Smalls for (one presumes) an authentic NYC experience.

I ended up speaking to the madre angelina, and offered the padre, who was standing with the son behind the last row, to take my seat. Graciously declined. The waitress was tied up at the door, so I went to the bar for my drink, looking for the holy ghost in the mirrors, watching the club hop and bustle, and all the men with mysterious black cases, like country doctors. The musicians mulled about in the back. A few minutes after I’d sat down again they were announced, and filed down the alley between the chairs and the bar to scattered applause, ducking the waitress’s drink tray. Then the barmaid turned off the stereo, the dim lights got dimmer, and the trio started to play.

If I had to make a comparison to what I heard this night—and to a lesser extent, what I’d been hearing on Shine!, the trio’s latest effort, for the previous month—it would be to Coltrane’s quartet at the dawn of the ‘60s. On uptempo cuts, Allen tends toward permutations of short phrases, sometimes harking back to Giant Steps; on slower, more searching tracks, toward something like the “Psalm” on A Love Supreme. He seems more at home in the latter, in extended gestures played against abstract, washed-out backgrounds, cut with occasional squirted-out birdcalls. Granted, at the Smalls set the rhythm section had a tendency to set tempos Allen couldn’t quite match, sending him running after the proverbial streetcar. But Shine! avoids those audacious tempos … and yet one still notices that neither speed nor sharp rhythmic phrasing are among his gifts. Where Allen excels is in the sound he gets out of his horn, and in his ability to shape his rather open-ended lines into luminous, deeply-felt musical statements. In his liner notes to Shine!, Ben Waltzer describes that sound as “incantatory” and “hypnotic.” It is sometimes reedy, sometimes sodden in vibrato, always weighty—the paradox of a heavy thing floating in air. I honestly can’t think of another player to whom I’d rather listen sit on one note for a good ten seconds. But if this is so, it isn’t only because of his tone, but the note as well, the choice of where to drop anchor. And the power of those endnotes has to derive in part from the shape and momentum of the melodic line that delivers them.

In terms of his sound, and to a certain degree his approach, Allen is actually closer to fellow Detroiter Kenny Garrett than to Coltrane, this though Garrett is an alto player, Allen a tenor. (One could also draw a line from Coltrane to Garrett, who recorded an entire album of Coltrane’s music, called Pursuance; but then one could draw such a line to almost any post-‘60s horn player.) I’m thinking above all of Garrett’s Songbook, “Sounds of the Flying Pygmies” and the anthemic “Sing a Song of Songs” in particular, from which Allen seems to have gleaned a trove of useful ideas. In this respect, I found it interesting that Waltzer mentions a litany of Detroit players with whom Allen has worked, including Geri Allen and James Carter, but does not mention Garrett. Maybe they put something in the water out there, a sort of jazz fluoride. Call it purity of essence.

The affinity to the early ‘60s Coltrane, though, has as much to do with the function and interaction of the trio as with Allen himself. Waltzer notes that Detroit was ahead of the rest of the country in seeing no real difference between the (once-?)warring camps of mainstream and “free” jazz. Indeed, several times during the Smalls set, the music achieved and sustained a level of centrifugal beauty one is more apt to hear at venues like The Stone or Roulette. Not so much sheets of sound as walls of noise: deafening storms in the rhythm section—torrential rolls and crashes from Rudy Royston at the drum kit; bassist Gregg August strumming away at those fat strings—giving way to almost surreal moments of clarity from the horn. Rather than participating in the fray, Allen attempted to rise above it. The impression is of a powerful but human voice asserting itself against the din (of modernity, of mass culture … of what you like). Except that then you hear Allen’s voice calling out to his bandmates between breaths, and you come to realize that he, that human voice, is also orchestrating the chaos, driving it forward and holding it together, a ship’s captain calling forth and reveling in the storm.

I wondered whether the few people who scurried out mid-set were disappointed, daunted, or deafened, and whether audiences in the early ‘60s had done the same during Coltrane’s sets … particularly with that imp named Dolphy standing at Trane’s shoulder, prodding his squeaky pitchfork into Trane’s ever-bendable ear, trying to convince him that HE was the voice of God! And all this was particularly curious in a reputable little jazz venue like Smalls, where Wynton Marsalis might wander in at any moment, like the Hall Monitor demanding your pass. I felt sort of bad for having told the real estate salesman’s mom that Allen was “a revelation,” as I did in passing before the set began. But they were real stalwarts, stuck it out to the end. Hell, maybe they even liked it.

Compared to the prolixity of most newer jazz, one notices that the tracks on Shine! are brief, not a one over five minutes. But this belies the way the trio works live: rather than stopping and starting to name tunes and highlight band members’ contributions, each song blends into the next. (Shine! does this, at least with a few pairs or sets of songs.) They are similar enough in tone and style to give the impression of a single, hour-long composition—an approach that once again evokes the avant-garde. “Sonhouse”; “Teo (Ted’s Theme)”; “Se’Lah”: these are tunes with a sort of found-object beauty, like arrowheads. No wonder that the likes of Thoreau had an uncanny knack for finding them; they are just such barely-hewn stones, blurring the line between composition and improvisation, arising like forms of crystalline loveliness in tidal pools … only to be drowned again in the torrents of noise. The music only really stops when the trio is done—when they’ve run out of breath, I guess, or have crossed whatever collective mental or emotional finish line they have drawn for themselves.

I could go on with Coltrane-quartet affinities, Royston’s in particular: his demolitionist’s approach to the drum kit; those breakout rhythms, dead ringers for Jones’s. The flying sweat. But the chief affinity is broader than that, and as glaringly obvious. For the ultimate goal of this band, as it was for Coltrane’s, is grace, spirit, ascension. It is gospel enfolded into a jazz idiom. It hardly makes them derivative. On the contrary: a collective working toward spirit seems always renewable.

And yet … where would such spiritual exercises be without just the slightest hint of the charlatan? I couldn’t listen to Coltrane without distrusting him a little. Allen, too: the throwback fedora and number-runner’s suit. Just like I distrust the Bible-thumping preacher as he steps up to the pulpit, in that moment right before I take the first sip of my whiskey sour, close my eyes, and get swept up in the sermon.

Can I get a hallelujah?

Underground Man

One dusk not so long ago I was walking around the tract housing development (or “semi-custom,” as some of the locals call it, except that there are no locals there, and no such thing, when you come right down to it, as semi-custom) north of Houston where my parents live, listening to Out to Lunch. I should begin by saying that this is the sort of neighborhood that makes marijuana pointless. The combination of curving streets, dead ends, and nearly identical houses make me want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Everywhere I look are the haunted traces of suburban bliss: overturned bicycles on lawns, abandoned playgrounds with empty swings slightly rocking, single-car garages awaiting their occupants. Some days it all reminds me of a façade built on a testing range in the Nevada desert.

That evening, passing house after house in the near-dark, I was struck by a counterintuitive aesthetic kinship. For my typical feelings of disorientation were heightened almost to dizziness by the wonderfully disorienting compositions and improvisations that make up Out to Lunch … so much so that, after walking for a while, I was forced to retrace my steps in order to get back to my parents’ house, even though, as I realized later, I had made almost a complete circle. I could only blame Eric Dolphy for this: for pretzling the insipid curves of the suburban beautiful; for making me believe a man in a bowler hat stood poised with a net behind every door.

I think what Dolphy’s music did was expose the neighborhood’s essential weirdness, dis-integrating it, disassociating every element—every lonely pine tree, every shutter, every glass door—from every other, and making all of them seem like the products of an alien culture. In “Aminadab,” Sartre defines the fantastic this way: you order a coffee; the waiter brings you an inkwell; you say, “But I ordered a coffee”; the waiter says, “That’s right.” In fact, Sartre’s conception of the fantastic as “the revolt of means against ends” is a not a bad formula for describing Dolphy’s music.

Unlike in the suburbs, though, there is no retracing your steps with Dolphy, no equivalent of a trail of breadcrumbs. There is only a staggering forward motion, as of a man riddled with bullets, leading only to the most unexpected places, or to nowhere.

Out to Lunch is probably the pinnacle of Dolphy’s ensemble work. As has been noted, this is because it is the only Dolphy album where the walking rhythm section gives way to free-form improvisation by all the bandmembers. And what a band it is. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes seem to fit most perfectly into Dolphy’s idiom, forcing us to ask where the vibes were before. (Mal Waldron’s piano occasionally has that vibelike timbre on the Five Spot sets and other albums; but it makes me wish Dolphy had recorded with Earl Griffith, whom I know only from the Cecil Taylor recording Looking Ahead!) The Richard Davis-Tony Williams rhythm section acts in perfect questioning counterpoint to the rest of the band, Williams’ resounding toms and bass drum in particular. In fact, the snare is almost vestigial. Only Freddie Hubbard seems a little out of his element here, as if he occasionally realizes he’s lost his way, and by doing so makes the listener aware of it, too (rather than simply being pleasantly lost with the rest of them, and us).

One thing that needs to be stressed about Dolphy is his gift for melody. It is a paradoxical gift. His melodies are at once catchy and unsingable, groovy and jagged. The heads of “Out to Lunch,” “Gazzelloni,” and other tunes will stay stuck in my head for days after I listen to them; and yet I’m sure my memory of them is corrupted, both in terms of time (for “Out to Lunch,” for example, it’s notoriously difficult to remember where each symmetrical part of the melody ends, as well as how long are the breaks between each part) and pitch (I hear a travestied version in my head, and woe is me if I try to hum them accurately, or figure them out on my guitar). There is something magical about this combination of the seemingly-accessible but perennially-out-of-reach. They’re a long tease; the alto sax, the flute, and the bass clarinet are all laughing at me, each in its appropriate register (whoop, giggle and guffaw, respectively).

Part of what makes the tunes so catchy is their infectious rhythm, which Dolphy carries over into his soloing. I remember listening to him on the Live at the Village Vanguard recordings with Coltrane’s quartet (this while driving a rental car into San Francisco via the Bay Bridge) and realizing that he swung like crazy, yet every note—every note!—was “wrong.” The rhythmic grammar of bebop was being co-opted to speak a new language. If Scott Deveaux is correct (in his awesome Birth of Bebop) that it was the rhythmic more than the harmonic advances that made bebop bebop, then perhaps it was with Dolphy (and the other musicians forging the avant-garde at that time) that bebop rhythm began to find an appropriately crooked harmonic language.

There are other fascinating elements to his soloing, on Out to Lunch and other albums. Dolphy can play a slow, whining blues like nobody else, with a plaintiveness that borders on self-mockery. And then those trills, always too high or too low. The huge leaps across the range of the instruments. The moment on “Out to Lunch” when, after all that empty space (the whole album absolutely revels in space), the alto irrupts back into the song in a long cascade of misplaced notes. On the other hand, I also like the way Dolphy has a standard line that he plays over and over and over again, that he must have played a million times over his short life. He plays it seemingly unthinkingly as he gears up for each next musical idea, returning to it obsessively, though with slight variations. It is the musical equivalent of “ummm …” As such it is the purest expession of his musical thinking, the background radiation of his personality. I imagine it was what he was thinking from the moment he forsook the nipple for the reed.

Dostoevsky’s Underground Man raged against the tyranny of 2 + 2 = 4. Why, oh why couldn’t 2 + 2 = 5? Well, Dolphy is that happy psychotic for whom 2 + 2 is 5. He was utterly, unshakeably convinced of this. It was his great leap of faith to believe so, the law of his particular universe, to which, of course, he was perfectly well-adjusted. It’s probably why he was (reputedly) such a sweet person. And it’s no wonder so many other musicians wanted to come along.