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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.

Ex Nihilo

OrnetteColemanI try to play a musical idea that is not being influenced by any previous thing I have played before […] The theme that you play at the start of the number is the territory, and what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure. (Ornette Coleman, qtd. in Balliett 407).

 

More than the music of any other jazz artist, Ornette Coleman’s gives me the feeling of creation out of nothing. His is an art of relentless unspooling newness, endlessly self-generating. Structures crop up from moment to moment, stretch out, morph into something else, disappear. Melodies without memories, or only the barest traces of them; even when they repeat—because they repeat—each iteration seems unconscious of the last. Each idea asserts its separateness, its uniqueness, preening and beautiful—only to be abandoned, bumped out of the spotlight by the next, the next. They are wrought from nothing, or next to nothing, are next to nothing themselves, and create nothing except, perhaps, a notch, a space, for the idea that follows, just as perfectly ephemeral. Vignettes, they balk at larger wholes; they do not believe such things exist. They hardly believe in each other.

Gunther Schuller once described Coleman’s music as “uncluttered” by convention (qtd. in Williams 216), and it is this lack of clutter one feels in the deepest sense: an abundance of discardable melody, fostered but never owned; a principle of dispossession, or perhaps unpossession. Hence the other adjectives often associated with Coleman: pure, liberated, egalitarian, transparent, Zenlike.

*

In the literature on Coleman, one finds an interesting counter-tendency to the above: a desire to find some hidden coherence in the apparent unruliness, to assign him to one or another tradition, folk or elite. Trumpeter John Snyder, for example: Coleman’s music, “which is supposed to be so free, is closely organized” (qtd. in Balliett 405). Or Gary Giddins, who commends “the specificity with which [Coleman’s] improvisations elaborate his compositions … the solo eventually works through every facet of the theme, modifying colors and tempos and dynamics” (470-1). Ted Gioia roots Coleman in bebop, standard harmony, modal improvisation, and 32-bar structure (43). And Schuller himself lauds Coleman’s intuitive sense of structure: he “is fully aware of his place in the overall formal design at any given moment” (“Compositions” 83).

Of course, Coleman’s earliest boosters (like Schuller and Martin Williams) had to find a way to defend him against the vitriol that greeted his emergence. Though Gioia’s writing is from a time well after Coleman’s canonization, his goal is not so different: to rescue Coleman—and with him, all of jazz—from the debilitating myth of the primitive.α And Giddins, arguing for the lasting importance of Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, reminds us that “musical patterns will assert themselves no matter how unbridled the situation” (471). It is a point Coleman himself has echoed, though in a typically ex post facto way: “From realizing that I can make mistakes, I have come to realize there is an order in what I do” (qtd. in Williams 213).

For the sympathetic critic, what sounds like madness must be revealed as method—a method different from what had been heard up to that point, true, but method nonetheless. Regardless of whether Coleman is intuitive genius or harmolodic intellectual, regardless of whether his work is a neurotic symptom or the product of a conscious intention, close listening and careful analysis will reveal precedent, coherence, logic, unity.β

Asserting that Coleman’s solos are closely tied to his themes, or that he always knows just where he is, denies him—and us—the pleasure of getting lost. Considered in terms of the epigraph I’ve chosen for this post—Coleman’s binary between territory and adventure—it might be said that the job of the critic—with music as with any art—is to show how the adventure arises from, and is subservient to, the territory. This desire to tranquilize Coleman and drag him back to the territory—to assert that, after all, there is no adventure, or only very little, and that tightly circumscribed—is perhaps the best proof that he was, maybe even is, a dangerous artist. For to admit the existence of the adventure is to scandalize the critic: to undermine some of his most cherished myths, and as such, the role of criticism in relation to art and the artist; to force us to find some other way to speak the adventure without making of it the territory.

*

For my money, Ekkehard Jost has come the closest to synthesizing these opposing tendencies of freedom and constraint, to respecting the autonomy of the adventure without entirely severing it from the territory. In his 1974 book Free Jazz, he coined the term “motivic chain-association” to describe the stream-of-consciousness movement of a typical Coleman solo: “one idea grows from another, is reformulated, and leads to yet another new idea” (48). Schuller had come to a similar conclusion some years earlier. But notice how Schuller works to recuperate this idea in the name of wholeness: “Short motives tried in different ways … [act as a] motivic springboard for a new and contrasting idea … only to yield yet another link in the chain of musical thought, until the entire statement has been made” (Ornette!; my emphasis). Jost resists this impulse, highlighting instead the unfinishedness and non-teleology of Coleman’s soloing; it is precisely each idea’s lack of conclusion that allows it to serve as a link to the next—a feature of Coleman’s playing that Jost nicely metaphorizes as a dash instead of an exclamation mark.γ

This “cohesion,” such as it is, is purely horizontal, formed moment to moment; each footstep along the adventure takes us—potentially—further from the territory. Coleman, it might be said, doesn’t know the woods or quite where he is … but he has left himself a trail of breadcrumbs, and has even brought along a compass, or two; sometimes he even crosses over his own trail, but that doesn’t mean he’ll follow it back.

As the distance between territory and adventure increases, the connections between the two become ever-more tenuous; and the critic, ambivalent about what has been set in motion, must suggest ever-more-tenuous links between the two. Balliett, for example, lists scales, rhythmic clusters, pitch areas, and mood (406). Then he throws up his hands: Coleman’s solos “move melodically with such freedom and originality and surprise that they form an independent music” (407). In another representative ambivalence, Jost asserts emotional unity between theme and solo, territory and adventure … and then goes on to note that Coleman’s compositions are characterized by emotional ambiguity (58). The “thematic framework” is “non-obligatory” (Jost 57)—meaning Coleman can do whatever the hell he likes … and generally does. Making a garden of these woods, it seems, will be more difficult than anyone had anticipated.

Coleman’s “unclutteredness” extends well beyond his freedom from the vertical demands of harmony (the sort which, to use Williams’s memorable analogy, turns the soloist into a “rat in the harmonic maze” (213)), or the relationship (or lack thereof) between theme and solo, or the syntax of the solos themselves. Take, for example, his compositions, which, like his melodies, he “has a tendency to abandon” (Giddins 470). If composition does not dominate improvisation, is brother rather than father, then why should “standards,” personal or historical, dominate a career? Why should any theme command more attention than the time it takes to be played? True to form, Coleman’s compositions are often as whimsical and bizarrely un-cadenced as his solos.

Then there is the matter of temperament. Pitch, as Jost emphasizes, is subjective, and more important, historically and culturally relative.δ To extend Coleman’s analogy: the tempered scale, the tempered ear, the tempered man, are just other figures for the territory; the adventure is the place where the notes squeal and waggle and bend out of their culturally-sanctioned frequencies, get lost in the wild blue spaces between. As for rhythm, Schuller and other have called attention to the absence of a clear downbeat, the absence of clear bar lines supposed to guide us like regularly-spaced blazes on trees (Giddins’s “willy-nilly toe tapping”). And so the adventure is not just out there, not just the ever-extending line of the solo away from the theme, the composition away from the standard, but in the interstices of the every facet of the music.

Spend long enough with Coleman, and the territory disappears: it all starts to sound like adventure.

*

The horizontality of Coleman’s approach to improvisation, composition, and the relationship between the two, and to the jazz tradition, manifests itself in another interesting way: a flattening of the aural space, troubling (if never quite eradicating) the hierarchy between solo and accompaniment, lead and rhythm. As with any of the above, it is possible to overstate the case; just as Coleman can choose to be more or less thematic in his solos—and they run the gamut from enamored to indifferent—and just as he can choose whether to solo at all, so some tunes and recordings fit more squarely into the traditional hierarchies of small-group jazz recording than others. (The very fact that it is Coleman who is the subject of this post suggests the limits of this argument.) As Williams and others have noted, the ensemble of Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Blackwell (or Higgins), and later Izenzon and Moffat, moved the music in a more purely collaborative direction, although some of the old hierarchical markers remain (e.g., pitch ranges, dynamic levels, tune organization). The double ensemble recording Free Jazz is widely regarded as the ne plus ultra of collaborative music-making: here, all of the musicians are listening and responding to each other, complementing and contrasting with each other, “soloing” together—hence Williams’s well-known comparison to abstract painting.

And yet, saying that something has no background is no different from saying it is all background, or as easily background as foreground. Each term loses its meaning without the other; it depends on where you are sitting, where you position your ear in relation to the music … and perhaps, where the music positions itself in relation to you. And here is where I would quibble with Giddins—though it is a quibble that gets to the heart of my own perception of Coleman. Far from “mak[ing] terrible background music” or “commanding full attention” (Giddins 469), Coleman makes music that is just as lovely in the background as in the foreground. Often, I cannot tell which—how far away I am sitting. The “immense pleasure” Giddins cites comes at no “price,” for Coleman does not finally demand anything of us. It is part of the non-hierarchical nature of this music that it does not place such demands; for the musician-listener hierarchy must fall, or at least be troubled, with the rest of them, in order to for Coleman’s revolution to achieve its ultimate aim. The fact that I can listen to Coleman or not listen to Coleman; that I can soak in Coleman as in a warm bath as easily as ignore him, knowing that, when I start listening again, he will be there—the same there, a different there—because I am as good in this place as I would have been thirty seconds earlier, or later—that I don’t feel like I “missed” something—that I can start the record over again, and often do—is the “immense pleasure” of his music. Paradoxically, despite this music’s relentless forward drive, the combination of lack of teleology, freedom of movement, and near-total absence of benchmarks creates a feeling of stasis, like the water in a wave, which only appears to move forward, when what we are really witnessing is a transfer of energy. A sense of timelessness and there-ness—what Santoro calls Zen; perhaps what Jost calls relaxation, the balance of an achieved simplicity.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve used Giddins’s line on Coleman plenty of times. To call something background music is to relegate it to the dentist’s office and the supermarket aisle. Except it’s one thing to reward close attention and another to solicit it. That Coleman does the former without the latter is, I think, the nature of his genius.

Just think what a supermarket it would be, anyway. I would spend hours and hours wandering up and down the aisles, and then come to the register with only a few items in my cart. Instead of purchasing them, I would throw them on the floor. There would be no express line.

*

Is it scandalous to suggest that the pleasure of listening to Ornette Coleman derives as much from not listening, from dipping in and out, skidding along the surface, from distraction as much as concentration, or from the oscillation between the two? In The Pleasure of the Text, exploring what Richard Howard calls “an erotics of reading” (viii; emphasis in original), Roland Barthes made a similarly scandalous case for the pleasure of reading—and not reading—classic novels. “A rhythm is established,” Barthes writes: “casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text: our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skip or skim certain passages (anticipated as ‘boring’) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote […] we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual (like a priest gulping down his Mass). […] The author cannot predict tmesis; he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages). […] Thus, what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I look up, I skip, I dip in again” (10-11; emphases in original).

There may be something perverse about suggesting a Balzacian pleasure in listening to avant garde saxophone. With the classic novel, the edges—always the source of pleasure in Barthes—arise out of the conscious parsing of useless from useful; the text takes on a granulated surface whose “abrasion” gives us pleasure. With Coleman, such a distinction is meaningless; since the solos do not build toward a revelation or climax, since every idea is as useless or useful as every other, we don’t “gulp down” Coleman to get closer to some anticipated end. My distraction is not calculated; my body—which, as Barthes coyly notes, “pursues its own ideas” (17)—makes its own distinctions. And yet, the pleasureful friction created by this “rhythm” of listening/ not-listening is identical.

In other ways, listening to Coleman is more reminiscent of Barthes’s description of reading the text of bliss: one “grazes” “aristocratically” rather than skipping ahead. We can listen to Coleman in either direction, in pieces, here and there, without having to observe ritual. (The libertine listener escapes them; there may be as much pleasure in flaunting once-culturally-sanctioned listening practices—unidirectional, undistracted, complete—as in observing them.) Whether Coleman’s music can be equated to the “lacerating of language” Barthes attributes to the text of bliss is another matter. It strikes me that Coleman’s solos and compositions, like Barthes’s modern texts, are doubled: “dismantled” yet still readable; the sort of text that puts the listener between comfort and crisis (Barthes’s terms). It would help explain the ambivalence in the writing about him. Regardless, is there not also a rhythm—halting, measureless—to the way we encounter the text of bliss?ε

One of the pleasures of reading The Pleasure of the Text—a text with its own peculiar rhythm, riddled with tantalizing gaps and ruptures—is the way the pleasure-bliss binary is itself confused, dismantled, re-erected, and dissolved over the course of Barthes’s performance. In fact, one gets a good sense of this troubled boundary in the passage quoted, from the clear indication that one re-reads classical narratives. I suppose that, like the gentleman who jumps onstage to hurry the striptease, there is no reason not to watch the same thing night after night: the end may be known, but its revelation, as well as (once again) his participation—even more, his sudden assertion of agency—is pleasurable. At the same time, the source of pleasure for Barthes is never revelation. There must be a pleasure in re-reading that is distinct from (though never entirely separate from) ends; if one reads passages one had skipped the last time, clearly the use-value of what is read shifts on each reading, and can be only tangentially related to “finding out what happens.” Given the sort of listening Coleman provokes in me, there is a similar pleasure in re-listening: I hear the passages I “missed” (“heard,” but with half an ear; let slip by; forgot as soon as I heard them), skip others that I heard before. Ironically, our ability to listen recursively to this most spontaneous of musicians reminds us that listening itself is improvisatory: spontaneous, different from one act and the next. What Coleman calls our attention to is this un-finishedness of all listening.

*

The word “scandal,” repeated throughout this post; the idea that Coleman “frees” us from certain culturally-sanctioned behaviors: I have been writing around another element of listening to Coleman that I think gets at the heart of the pleasure—one pleasure—of listening to his music. It appears in the Barthes passage as the parenthetical “no one is looking.” For the implication of having to say as much—and to say it in parentheses—is that someone is looking. We feel guilty about skipping passages, at least in canonical works of literature. The whole of Western culture is reading over our shoulders; it must be, for it is what has given us the tools to decode the text.

A better musical analogy to War and Peace would be a Brahms symphony: expansive, dramatic, with a clear narrative thrust and clear peaks and troughs, “important” and “unimportant” parts. It’s during the latter that we reach for the cough drop. We can—we do—fall in and out of an hour-long symphony. Yet, there is the expectation of immersion. If, as Milan Kundera pejoratively concluded (in Immortality), the Romantics “raised feeling to the level of a value,” then when we fail to fully immerse ourselves, fail to feel, we feel guilty. Clearly, the failure cannot be Brahms’s (he listens over our shoulder); it must be our own. Sustained attention is the pledge we make; catharsis is the reward if and only if we give ourselves away to the musical godhead. The Romantic symphony makes terrible background music. It must have all of our attention or none of it.

Now that jazz has become “America’s classical music,” it’s easy to treat, say, a solo by Keith Jarrett like a Brahms symphony.ζ The wonder of Coleman is that, even as his work has entered the jazz canon, its every element resists the cult of guilt. It is what Giddins hears, I think, when he writes that Coleman’s solos “incarnate an eternal innocence” (469). In this sense, the territory is more than the musical strictures of convention and tradition; it is the whole past. When Coleman solos, every previous melodic fragment becomes the territory; the adventure is that state of continuous becoming that characterizes his improvising.

In a word, I don’t need to feel responsible to Coleman’s music, and he does not need to feel responsible to me. The ultimate freedom of Ornette Coleman is to write music that frees itself from the tyranny of the listener and frees the listener from the tyranny of the music. Didn’t you feel it as soon as the piano was jettisoned, that weightiest of instruments, and with it its geometrically-ordered harmony, leaving Coleman and us to float together? To be ex nihilo is above all to be guilt-free. A perfectly American music and musician, then, performing on the blank slate of an always-evolving present. How can he have committed parricide when he has managed to convince me that he has no father at all?

 

α I don’t want to be misunderstood as making a bid for Coleman as the intuitive, unconscious genius without a past, or for an art that is entirely without structure. The title of this post, which I settled on a year or so ago when I first thought to write about the way Coleman’s playing makes me feel, has an unhappy correspondence with the “primitivist myth” that greeted Coleman’s arrival; i.e., the pervasive idea that Coleman came out of nowhere, entirely untutored, with a simple, “natural” feel for the music (cf. Gioia, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth”). Several of Coleman’s early supporters drew on this myth (e.g., Coleman was “spared a conventional music education”; his compositions are “intuitive creations whose genuineness is for this reason alone unassailable” (Schuller, “Coleman,” 80, 82)), as did Coleman himself, perhaps recognizing the myth’s potential (e.g., “I was so in tune to music that I picked it up as soon as I assembled it [the horn] and played the same thing I’m playing today—only I didn’t know music. I was just hearing music” (qtd. in Santoro 93)). (N.B.: the language of the epigraph I have chosen for this post does not sound like self-mythologizing to me; it is too tentative, too qualified: “I try”; “may have very little to do.”) Coleman also consistently links his playing to emotion and the body, using organic metaphors that tend to discount musical influences in favor of natural, experiential ones … although this, too, has a long history in the annals of artists’ mythmaking. Anyway, in using the term “ex nihilo” I am not referring to Coleman’s musical roots (in bebop, Afro American folk tradition, or what have you) or lack thereof, nor am I denying the activity of the intellect in what Gioia rightly calls “spontaneous composition.” As Jost argues, the “simple” elements of Coleman’s playing (absence of changes, structure, bar lines, etc.) are not an argument for primitivity; rather, Coleman achieves “complexity […] by simple means” (53). And this: “Simplicity does not mean a reduced creative capacity, and has nothing to do with primitivism or banality. It is the expression of an inner balance, a poise, which brings an element of relaxation to even the most hectic musical content” (Jost 64).

β That Coleman happened when he did is particularly interesting considered in jazz historical context. In his seminal essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” Gunther Schuller credits Rollins, and particularly the track “Blue 7” on Saxophone Colossus (1957), for bringing a sense of large-scale structure and “unifying force” to the jazz solo: “What Sonny Rollins has added conclusively to the scope of jazz improvisation is the idea of developing and varying a main theme, and not just a secondary motive or phrase which the player happens to hit upon in the course of his improvisation and which in itself is unrelated to the ‘head’ of the composition” (96). That Coleman appears to have arrived at the opposite conclusion at virtually the same moment—how to pry the jazz solo away from a sense of large-scale structure, based on a purely forward imperative and the privileging of melody over harmony—suggests the ideas of the literary critic M.M. Bakhtin.

γ Not to give the impression that Jost completely abandons the idea of harmonic organization: Gioia’s modal “flavor” (which is not the same thing as being modal) is replaced by a tonal center, “an imaginary pedal point” (48), itself sometimes replaced by secondary tonal centers. The regularity of where Coleman moves to secondary tonal centers suggests that he “knows just where he is,” as Schuller puts it, though he has abandoned the hierarchies of blues harmony. Nor do I want to overstate Giddins’s desire to hear deep structure in Coleman; his is rather a typical ambivalence, that edge between admiring the beauty of the adventure and claiming it for the territory.

δ When Coleman appeared on the scene (in L.A.), he was competing with a “sterilized” West Coast/“cool” sound, which certainly would have impacted the way he was heard (Jost 53; Santoro 94). To the contemporary ear, raised among a heterogeneity of timbres and musics, perceptions of pitch may be a little more forgiving. To me, Coleman always just sounded a little raucous, a little squawky, like Perry Farrell with a horn.

ε Coleman’s violin and trumpet playing, beautifully described by Jost (65), are another matter. Perhaps what distinguishes Coleman, to consider another concept out of Barthes, is the particular grain of his “voice.” Grain, more broadly applied, seems like it might be a useful concept for thinking about music—particularly a music like Coleman’s, whose horn has so often been compared to the human voice, and who claimed he wanted to do what words do with his horn—this all with an eye toward Scott Burnham’s call for an approach to music that tries to take account of its materiality. A third point, somewhere off the evocation-analysis axis … perhaps one that occupies the vaunted space of The Real as against the Imaginary (evocation) and Subjecthood (analysis)? If analysis and evocation form a binary, then materiality, the impossible dream of language, dismantles it. Interestingly, timbre is the one aspect of Coleman’s music that is hardly ever mentioned, except insofar as it folds into our perception of pitch. In what ways does it contribute to the “grain,” and to the listening sensation I am trying to explain? Another aspect this post cannot really consider are the vertical aspects of Coleman’s music, i.e., the “serendipitous harmonies” (Giddins) and occasional atonal complexes (Schuller) of particularly Free Jazz’s Dixieland mutations, the dissonant unisons, resting places (but never ends) created by collective, largely unscripted improvisation. In what way is this “vertical din” (Giddins again) related to grain? In what way related to the multilayering (Barthes) of the text of bliss? (Sorry, this is the trash-heap footnote for dumping all half-developed ideas, undeveloped ideas, and ideas-to-be!)

ζ Gioia, who himself invokes Barthes to argue for a pleasure-based approach to listening to jazz, reminds us that it is possible—even probable—that art will bore us: “Let us not neglect the pleasures of the text, but neither let us forget the pleasures of not finishing the text” (131). While I would tend to agree with Gioia’s concerns about the sacralization of jazz, I have a few issues with his argument. First, rather than understanding listening and taste formation as products of culture, Gioia seems to posit a mythological common or naïve listener, one who “knows what he likes,” so to speak. Ironically, even as Gioia rejects the primitive in the jazz musician, he erects the primitive in the audience, and so denies the audience the very things he argued for in the musician: the role of education and the intellect, in this case in hearing and processing music. Second, Gioia ignores the text of bliss—the text that risks everything—or perhaps disparages it, if one is to take his comments about post-Coleman free jazz this way. We can be bored or harried into bliss as much as brought there by excess of pleasure. Finally, Gioia seems to assume that the listening process is closed, rather than open and evolving. As I suggest above, there are many different ways of not “finishing” a text. Gioia’s comments suggest turning off a CD or leaving a concert halfway through because the music has “bored” us. What about coming in halfway through, or starting in the middle? Skipping places, zoning out, coming back, staying for another set of the “same,” putting on the record again? The unfinished text is not necessarily the text of boredom, but rather the grain of a particular pleasure.

 

Citations in the post pertain to the following texts/editions: Balliett, Whitney, “Ornette,” in American Musicians (Oxford, 1986); Giddins, Gary, “Ornette Coleman (This Is Our Music),” in Visions of Jazz (Oxford, 2000); Gioia, Ted, “Jazz and the Primivist Myth” and “Boredom and Jazz,” in The Imperfect Art (Stanford UP, 1988); Jost, Ekkehard, “Ornette Coleman,” in Free Jazz (Da Capo, 1974); Williams, Martin, “Early Ornette” and “Free Jazz,” in Jazz in its Time (Oxford, 1991); Santoro, Gene, “Harmolodic Philosopher,” in Stir It Up (Oxford, 1997); Schuller, Gunther, “Ornette Coleman,” “Ornette Coleman’s Compositions,” and “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” in Musings (Oxford, 1986). The Williams and Schuller books are compilations of earlier writings, some of which are liner notes to Coleman’s early albums, which I also consulted, and which feature other texts by Schuller, Nat Hentoff, Ludvig Rasmusson, and John Litweiler. My discussion of Coleman’s music is shaped by (and limited to) his work as a saxophonist and composer on the following recordings: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959); This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1960); Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960); Ornette! (Atlantic, 1961); Town Hall, 1962 (ESP, 1965); and Live at the Golden Circle, Volume One (Blue Note, 1965). Personnel on the first four discs include Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden or Scott LeFaro, bass; and Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, drums. On Free Jazz, add Eric Dolphy (sax) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet). The last two discs feature Coleman with the trio of David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffat on drums.

I Heart Goatwhore

 

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Photograph by Stephanie Cabral (www.stephaniecabral.com)

Dear Goatwhore,

I love you.

I’ve loved you since I first clapped eyes and ears on you more than a year ago, at St. Vitus. Remember? Of course you do. You followed Three Inches of Blood. I was at the back of the club, watching Louis B., waist-length hair matted to his back and shoulders, harvest the unfortunate souls lined up in front of the stage. The venom, oh God! the absolute fucking venom that came out of that man’s mouth. Sammy’s, too, when it was his turn, holding his axe like the reaper his scythe.

I could have written you then. Or after that trip across Jersey a few months later, when I popped Carving Out the Eyes of God into the disc-changer, and my Toyota Corolla became a chariot of bones drawn by War-Death-Famine-Pestilence, razor hoofs all aflame, hurtling the bodies of the dead, and me behind the wheel screaming, “Eat your heart out, Judah Ben-Hur!”

But it was only after seeing you again this spring, on Easter, that I worked up the nerve to write you. I love that you came north for Easter, like a plague. (Never mind that you didn’t know it from Christmas, birth from resurrection, the nativity from the zombie-Christ.) And who was I to go a-courtin’ Satan, on Easter, of all days? But there I was, at St. Vitus, writing my St. Valentine’s to you in my head. I have made a habit of such trysts on the days of saints and martyrs, call me perverse! There wasn’t a spot of white in the whole club but that which made a word, a skull, an inverted cross, yes, St. Vitus himself was attired in black, and I just another spot—so how could you have noticed me? I was sick as a dog, too, of body, mind you, not of heart. But there I was, listening, watching.

Writing. Hence this missive, this confession.

Are you as promiscuous as your name, Goatwhore? I hope I’m not being too forward. I think you are. Just listen to that guitar! Rutting away, utterly abandoned to the flesh. I can’t think of a raunchier guitar sound in metal. (And that gatefold-cum-centerfold of you on A Haunting Curse: pin-up goat-girl, exquisite corpse!)

But raunchy’s not the half of it. No, you open it up, too—and not just those minor thirds in strummed tremolo, no, I’m talking about the way you let minor seconds in your riffs yang against each other (e.g., “Alchemy of the Black Sun Cult”), and even more, the way you’re not afraid to arpeggiate with heavy distortion, sometimes against a double-bass kick (yes, I’m thinking of “Carving,” and also “In Legions, I Am Wars of Wrath”). So many of your brothers and sisters forget what distortion imperfect can do. When you let those neighboring notes grate, those unhappy intervals sing, those filthy colors show—when you open up your blacken’d heart in this way—you impose upon me an eerie seduction.

But then you tease me, Goatwhore, and most mercilessly at that, one moment hissing in my ear, the next butting me with those proud horns. I’m an Ares—not quite a Capricorn, but I do know horns. From blast beats quick as a cook’s knife on a hibachi grill (sorry, but have you ever looked into the eyes of the children of the family gathered at the other end of the hibachi, watching the knife, the flames?), to incantatory triplets, to motoring four-square, to galloping warhorse, all with nary an “ugh” between—albeit a deep, bleeding “ugh” when it appears, as if to cast off all that had come before, like the residue of the unholy syllables you let fester on your tongue  … The words, yes, above all, the words! I knew from the moment I read your titles, many five or six words apiece, some as long as eight, songs that blast by sometimes in three minutes, stuffed full of words … at last, I thought, here is one who suffers possession like I do. We are possessed, you and I, by language, the rush when the words take control, overmaster us, pour out of us like from a cut vein. Even DCLXVI is a word, and unpronounceable as the name of God. Is not language the true father of lies? It is language that controls us, and this god admits of no repentance.

Oh, I know you build your motor out of parts from old Slayer, and Vio-lence, &c.—really, what is “Apocalyptic Havoc” but a slowed-down, re-tooled “Silent Scream”—but I wouldn’t dream of holding it against you. The way you polish it, and tune it, the love you clearly put into it, it hums like new. It is new. You’re traditional, but never holier-than-thou. I don’t hear irony, or a penchant for putting riffs in quotes; you’re the furthest thing from a revival band, and hallelujah for that. You play metal because you play metal, because you &c., period.

And yet, you play American black metal, or “blackened death metal,” as the internet has it. That has a fine Cajun ring to it. I hear elements of the great Scandinavians in your sound, of course, but none of that “in my kingdom cold” shit, no, the devil’s alive and well in rank, inscrutable, pestilential Louisana. Adders and alligators and who knows what crypto-beasties; squat, atavistic trees with branches like tentacles, draped in sacerdotal vines; the sucking death of the swamps themselves; the play of masks and travesty of our only American carnival; the voodoo and bloody crosses and sacked tombs, their gates creaking in the wind … and all this not even to mention (at least directly) the tortured, howling revenants of slavery … there’s dark, dark magic down there, all of us up here are sure of it, legacy and ambience enough to provision an army of ghouls.

Dear Goatwhore: come north again. Soon. We’ll go carving out the eyes of God together. And perhaps afterwards, in the wee hours, I’ll even try curing you of that medieval hangover called religion, but without any hair of the dog this time, even as we bathe together in the charnel waters of oblivion.

Smitten,

Helldriver

Arcless; or, Pure Dirt

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Like High On Fire

Fandom is the stuff of high drama. It demands a certain emotional immaturity, or a short-lived but full-throttle regression. We bond most closely with those bands and artists we discovered in our teens, follow them until the scales fall from our eyes, or they die, or break up, sometimes in the full noon of our love. If they don’t move on, we do. In either case, they become a yardstick for our development, allowing us to think of our lives in clearly-demarcated stages (“I used to be into x, now I like y”) and providing fodder for nostalgia (“Remember how great z was?”). Sometimes we move on because we think they’ve betrayed us, sold out. Growth is supposed to be organic, authentic, and artist-driven; selling out is artificial and market-driven. In fact, a band’s or artist’s growth is often figured as a sort of pilgrimage to authenticity, to the discovery of their “voice”; and this teleology allows us, the loyal fans, to map onto our own lives a similar sense of direction, purpose, and meaning under the aegis of art consumed. That said, the line between these two ostensible opposites can be blurry: one fan’s evolving artist is another’s sellout, and the latter fan may measure his or her own integrity by refusing the change. For those of us who stick with a band through their changes—and who, in that miracle of marketing, feel that a band has “stuck with us,” too—there are the purported rewards of growing old together.

The process of change over the course of a band’s career is often referred to as their arc. Career as fired projectile: trajectory and singularity, purpose and identity. Fractures and cobbles are smoothed into a seamless history. There is an implied normativity, too: the projectile is full of energy as it leaves the cannon’s mouth, reaches a peak—a state of equipoise between its native energy and the pull of the world against which it strives—and then falls. Bands run out of ideas, sell out. That sucking sound you hear is gravity.

But must the falling side of the arc be imagined as decay, as the projectile analogy implies? Let’s consider another career narrative, the traditional evolutionary model; perhaps it will give our projectile a little more life. Artists and bands—at least, first bands—often do begin full of naïve energy and unreflective passion, and follow with a period of expansion and experimentation, an adolescence full of straining and angst. The music becomes more and more complex, convoluted, self-conscious. In time, this reaches a breaking point, and from the break a new, simpler sound emerges: a sound, a voice that declares, finally, who this artist or band is. Simple, but no longer naïve or unreflective; the dynamic of complexity, gained from that period of experimentation, that journey to the self, is folded up inside it, like those extra dimensions in the string-theory universe. What appears simple is, for the careful—loyal, initiated?—listener, profound.

It’s probably no surprise to a habitual reader of this blog (?) that Rush is my template here. Consider the first decade or so of their 40-year career: from their beginning in the early ‘70s as a “Canadian Zeppelin” or Bad Company, to the Genesis/Yes-influenced period of 1975-78, to the British electro-pop/“world” music period between 1979 and the early ‘80s, at which point they (as the band tells it) “found their voice” and “became Rush.” For the purpose of illustration, the period from 1978 to 1981 is key. 1978’s Hemispheres was the most complex and Yes-ish in the band’s oeuvre. The first side is a six-part sci-fi rock-opera that actually continues a story begun on the previous album, A Farewell to Kings. There, the protagonist flew his rocket ship the Rocinante into the black hole Cygnus X-1. Here, he discovers the city of Olympus, and a society divided between mind (represented by the god Apollo) and heart (Dionysus). In the story’s climax, he brings balance to the world, figured in the sphere, and is re-christened Cygnus, god of balance. Now, a lot of people see Rush’s music as a whole as too much Apollo and too little Dionysus; Hemispheres is certainly their most Apollonian record, the peak of their Apollonian phase. It was, in fact, a breaking point, an odyssey of underworldly recording sessions. The Apollo-Dionysus conflict is a nice image for the band’s trajectory, and it might be said that their task post-1978 was to find that “perfect sphere” where the two impulses would be held in balance. Hemispheres is thus a prophetic record, charting a course for Permanent Waves (1980) and “The Spirit of Radio,” as these overly-regenerate Who fans found a way to bring the unregenerate three-chord brilliance of “Baba O’Riley” back into what was, after all, only rock ‘n’ roll.

One difficulty with using Rush as a template is separating pattern from history. Rush have always been a most protean and omnivorous band, and the shrinking and re-packaging of their sound at the turn of the ‘80s has as much to do with a response to the currents of the time as to their own maturing artistry. Other major progressive bands, like Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis, similarly attempted to re-create themselves. But with the possible exception of Genesis, these bands’ heydays had come and gone—and Genesis did such an about-face by consolidating a poppier sound under the leadership of soon-to-be pop superstar Phil Collins that they seem only nominally equivalent, like Gilmour’s Floyd to Waters’. Yes split in two, one half combining with ELP to create something called Asia, a mildly embarrassing superproject, and very much the embalmed corpse of ‘70s prog rock. Then there was 90215: genial, radio-friendly, and about as much the Yes of Relayer as Asia. Only Waters’ Floyd succeeded in marrying the art-rock concept record to the radio single … then put out one more fraught record and promptly blew themselves to pieces. In sum, voices long-since discovered, these bands were on the falling sides of their arcs, pulled hither and thither by changing lineups, and working out of the crucible of punk reactionism. Rush, hidden away in the Great White North, listening to the signals of distant revolutions over their radios, the younger band by a little under a decade, were still on the restless upper climb when the ‘80s landed.

If we look after 1983 or so, to the parallel progressivism of underground ‘80s metal, for whom the classic and progressive rock bands of the ‘70s were as influential as NWOBHM, I think the evolutionary arc emerges more clearly from its historical circumstances. It is as though, once woven by history, a pattern becomes detachable, and able to be worn as a garment by future artists.* When Metallica moved from their magnum opus … And Justice for All (1988) to the more pared-back metal of the suggestively eponymous Metallica (1991), Lars Ulrich justified the change—which enraged so many loyal fans—with the words, “More than any other band, we are like Rush.” In fact, Ulrich described a breaking point not so different from the one Rush described with Hemispheres, in his case after playing the nine-minute title track live for the umpteenth time, and, if I remember correctly, stabbing his drumstick into one of the “lady justice” props on his way offstage (how symbolic!). This sort of piggybacking has more than a bit of self-promotion about it—we’re talking Ulrich here, after all. But then it wasn’t only Metallica. Many of the prog-metal bands I most admired from the ‘80s (Voivod, Queensryche; to a lesser extent, Iron Maiden) went through a similar evolutionary process, from a straight-ahead sound to a more experimental one, to a distilled, popular form.

This is all well and good for peaks. But the falling projectile still troubles me. The preceding discussion leads me to wonder whether a band’s achieving their voice really leaves them anywhere to go—whether the meridian isn’t also the onset of night, whether there is something vital and sustainable in that achievement, and whether other voices are possible, or at least other registers. Finding one’s voice might simply spell the end of something essential about a band’s life-cycle. This is precisely the case many have made about Rush: after the aesthetic and popular peak of Moving Pictures (1981), the band began a long downward slide, with a big dip at the end of the ‘80s and a spotty record since. Perhaps Floyd, or at least Roger Waters, did well to move on; perhaps Yes was right to continue re-configuring line-ups. Perhaps marriages, at least in rock ‘n’ roll, were never meant to last.

And yet, Rush has kept on changin’, whatever we might think of the quality of their output, and has managed to sustain and even expand their fanbase of 30 years ago. Clearly, a voice is a sound, not a style—Rush keeps dabbling in the latter despite the stability of the former.** If we imagine the peak as full maturity, or the achievement of identity, or self-understanding, is there something approaching wisdom, at least for some bands, when we look later in their careers? Perhaps we should ask a different question, one I suggested earlier: Does the listener have to be a fan, even a lapsed one, to really hear the later work? A year or two ago, a friend of mine who is a big Dylan fan floated me one of the bard’s more recent albums—I don’t remember which one—because he felt it had crystallized elements of Dylan’s art in a way that many weaker recent albums had not. I confess I couldn’t hear it; it sounded like bad Dylan to me. But my knowledge of Dylan ends with the major albums of the mid-‘60s and a few other well-known songs; my favorite of his records is still The Times They Are A-Changin’, for God’s sake. So how could I hope to understand what made this recent Dylan album different, special? In this way, consciousness of evolution—a sense of history—allows certain canons of knowledge to revolve around fan identities: what appears trite to the outsider is, in the context of an ouevre well-studied, profound; fidelity is rewarded by (presumed) insight, as the later works become runes interpretable only by the initiate.

It’s true that the evolutionary arc is a bit like Monty Python’s theory of dinosaurs: thin on both ends, thick at the middle. And from the emotional and intellectual gratification I receive, and from my vaunted academic training, it follows that I want to squeeze anything and everything I can into such a model … and when I can’t, to use the model to explain away anomalies. Even more, as the projectile implied, I want to use the model normatively, so I can judge the success or failure, authenticity or artificiality, completeness or incompleteness of a band’s career. It’s just so neat: the vulgar Hegelianism of it, simple-complex-“simple,” innocence-experience-wisdom, life-death-rebirth. And yet, for me, the neurotic fan, the reluctant follower, it begs the question of whether alternative models of evolution are possible, or desirable, and what it means as a listener to throw the template aside and embrace something completely different. And it begs the question whether it’s possible for a band not to evolve … and still remain vital.

*

HOF       I first read about High on Fire in the Village Voice, of all places. This was back in 2005 or so, shortly after I’d discovered Mastodon, and HOF was listed along with them and Shadows Fall and Lamb of God as bands that were remaking contemporary metal. Now, HOF had long been paired with Mastodon; the bands had some joint early releases and tours, and their big, lumbering sounds had yoked them together in the “stoner rock” or “doom metal” sub-genre.§ In 2006, when Relapse bundled new versions of the songs on Mastodon’s “Lifesblood” (2001) and “Mastodon” (2000) EPs with material from their original demo, they bundled that with a sampler that included two tracks from HOF’s Blessed Black Wings. Based on these tunes, my first impression was of warmed-over Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica, with some reconstituted Sabbath and Motorhead dumped in. And so, for the following several years, I wrote them off.

In hindsight at least, Mastodon and High on Fire make an odd pair. Like Metallica, Mastodon might claim they are “like Rush,” or maybe just “like Metallica”: from the punk-length, solo-less miniatures of the early work, through the crushing Remission, the proggy Leviathan and Blood Mountain and, to a certain extent, Crack the Skye, a title suggestive of that pinnacle/breaking point, and an album on which one can already hear the paring back to a more popular, anthemic, vocal-melodic style of The Hunter. Mastodon have clearly made the arc part of their identity, and, like the progressive rock bands of yore, expend a good part of their artistic energy in the self-reflective mapping of their career.

But High on Fire? They’ve been mired in a sound, the sound of sounds, since Matt Pike was roused from Sleep. They are the Neanderthals to Mastodon’s Homo sapiens. Evolution has never been the point. As with their career, so with their individual albums—two-speed bikes all of them—and songs, which work less through development than bludgeoning repetition. There’s no hiding here, either the band in their music or the listener from it. It has a single dimension, and it demands surrender.

Said surrender was never more apparent than at the Bowery Ballroom last winter, my sadly belated introduction to HOF live. I started out in the back, by the bar, a little skeptical, mildly disappointed. But the longer the show went on, the closer I got, wending my way song by song through the crowd; and the closer I got, the more my critical and rational faculties were beaten out of me, until, by the time the band ended with “Hung, Drawn and Quartered” and encored with “Snakes for the Divine,” I had no resistance left. The “stoner rock” and “doom” labels thus fit nicely, even mesh: music as inescapable as Fate, as the potsmoke-haze of distortion that envelops everything. At the Bowery, you could hear that distortion humming between songs; the amps sounded restless, twitchy, as if the music were a tiger hidden inside them, waiting to pounce.

Like his music, Pike is all of a piece—what you see is most certainly what you get. And what you get is ugly. It’s important, no, it’s essential that Pike be ugly. Pale, sweaty, bloated, tattooed, shirtless, snaggletoothed, strings of hair sticking to his face, guitar strapped to his body: he is metal’s answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that dirty, sweaty, snaggletoothed sound he gets owes as much to his one-time Gibson Les Paul as SRV’s did to his Strat. (The other two, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel, are not bad stand-ins for Double Trouble; Matz even looks a little like a younger Tommy Shannon.) As for his voice, what would you expect it to sound like, coming out of that jagged hole of a mouth? It has that heart of a heart of a Gibson crunch, too, as if, by following each other so often, guitar and voice had come to be parts of a single instrument.

Pike. Even his name is a weapon.

The Bowery stage didn’t transform Matt Pike, or anyone in High On Fire. Or anyone in the crowd. At the Bowery, no one, nothing becomes beautiful. But then this is a music, a band, that tries with might and main to make a virtue of an aggressive ugliness. What’s amazing is how often it succeeds.

*

It was Snakes for the Divine (2010) that turned my ear to High on Fire, that made me want to turn back to the earlier records. There’s some sense in this. With the opening riff of the opening and title track, the album announces itself as more riff-oriented, more traditionally power-metal, than what I had heard previously. The songs as a whole are less chorus-averse, and sometimes even downright chorus-friendly, more invested in structure than droning repetition. The production on Snakes (and 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis) is a little cleaner, too; the chord progressions are a tad less jagged and time-screwy than those on, say, Surrounded by Thieves (2002). These differences are probably what enabled Snakes to serve as a way “in” to the bands oeuvre. And yet, the idea that Snakes marks some new stage of growth, some new incarnation of High on Fire that more closely mirrors my taste, is impossible to sustain, since these differences are overwhelmed by the general sameness of a decade’s music. The pummeling, bludgeoning feel is as much in evidence on Vermis as on the debut Art of Self-Defense (2000) … to the point that any music critic who would grapple with writing about HOF has to dig deep into the Thesaurus to find new words meaning “to be hit with a blunt instrument.” The sound is still hugely oversaturated, with a humming layer of hyperdistorted bass, although, as noted, it has pulled back a little from the edges. Songs still regularly wander into the six-to-eight minute range, trading on a certain amount of droning monotony to get there, if (again) a little less relentlessly than a decade ago. Nor did the heavy riffing really start or stop at any particular moment; I can point to Snakes as having more of them, and “Snakes” as having the sort of über-riff that is worthy of video-game immortality; but Self-Defense is hardly riffless (cf. “Blood from Zion”). Even Death Is This Communion (2007), the band’s most “experimental” album (according to Pike), keeps experimentation firmly on the margins, as preludes, postludes, and interludes, hardly troubling either the typical bent of the songs or the overall sound. Thus, small differences of degree submerge occasional, tantalizing differences of kind.

I mentioned before that HOF is a two-speed band, either full ramming mode or smoke-clearing-after-the-battle rumination, menace, and self-regard. Of the two, I go for the lower gear, and a cross-section of such songs demonstrates both the essentally static nature of the band’s career and the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, changes between records. “Thraft of Caanan” (2002) could be “Death is This Communion” (2007) could be “Through All Dark We Pray” (2010) could be “King of Days” (2012). All exhibit the doom sound in full regalia: the heaviness of Fate; the certainty of Death in the slow, tidelike motion of Time; or some other such statement ending with a capitalized, abstract Noun. It’s music that sounds smelted; you can hear iron and sweat, smoke and blood. Fuck, you can almost taste it. But within this essential continuity, differences: the jaggedness of “Thraft,” pared back to a near-hypnotic groove on “Communion”; the latter’s minimal riff extended on “Through All Dark” into something more Sabbath-flavored; while “King of Days” has the vibe of a heroin anthem from an old Alice in Chains record. Differences, yes; but never any sense that the band is building toward anything, that this series forms part of a growing edifice, where each album is a stone lain atop the last. With HOF, the edifice was there from the start; the band have just been exploring chambers within it, some a little more classical, some more modern.

Again, the contrast with Mastodon is illuminating. Mastodon build songs out of smaller parts, adding them together, and then trying to create bridges between parts, or just letting them jangle against each other, in either case hoping that they add up to something greater. This is seldom the case with High on Fire. They don’t build up and out; they dig down, mining the guts out of a single riff, burying themselves and us in their groove. With Mastodon, at least as late as Crack the Skye, you’re just getting a taste of a riff when they change it on you. HOF cram it down your throat until you choke on it. There are no sudden shifts, and sometimes no feeling that a chorus or bridge (insofar as they exist) is climaxing a song. Instead, what you feel is a vein exhausting itself: walls collapsing, oxygen giving out, tissue beginning to die. You can’t really like or dislike part of a HOF song—you either take it whole or don’t take it at all. It’s carved out of a single stone; its success or failure is integral, not additive.

That stone isn’t only the monotony of a single power-chord progression, or riff disguised as such, but of a sound: one that depends on voice and instruments all saturated and downbeat-pounding on that riff together. Listening in particular to the earlier albums, you sometimes get the feeling that the musicians have all found the same frequency, and that the recording is in the process of shaking itself to pieces. (Remember that movie we all had to watch in science class, of the suspension bridge coming apart, the roadway twisting like a sheet of cardboard, the cables snapping, the towers crumbling? Like that.) These are unfinished, half-emerged carvings in noise—noise feeding on itself, muddling everything into a hivelike, motoric drone.§§ Pike’s endearingly sloppy guitar playing only multiplies that overall noisiness: double-tracked solos a la Tony Iommi, big bends with a wavering semitone to grate against, speedy runs that feature a wildly-picking right hand.

Maybe one’s whole listening life isn’t about coming to terms with noise. Hell, maybe music is a way back to noise, and not the reverse …

Mastodon, then, are building a cathedral, crafting a legacy with a self-consciousness about and worshipfulness toward rock tradition befitting a prog-metal band. The idea of the quest, which has been with them through all their albums since 2004’s Leviathan, folds into the broader quest for a sound, a voice, and nicely into the Rushian arc. With Mastodon, one can’t really predict the next record from the last. Nothing could be less true for HOF. I’d as soon ask a record store clerk what the new High on Fire sounds like as ask a druggist how their latest shipment of aspirin is. Their career is a flat line, slope 0, with bumps and divots, hillocks and gullies. If we want to imagine anything like directional change—and I’m always looking for it, and making it up when I don’t find it—I would think not arc, but straight line with a negative slope. Let’s borrow a word from the band, redefined for our purposes: devilution. Here, perhaps, is the Cartesian equivalent of that mining I described earlier: a distilling, a purifying, an attempt to become yet more themselves, to dig down to the essence of something that has been present from the beginning, only in mixed form.*** That they seek this purity in dirt, in noise, is, I think, what makes them so interesting, and what keeps me listening.

 

* I don’t mean to imply that this template begins with Rush, or progressive rock more generally; it is clearly part of the way an artist’s career is measured against his or her life. But since a rather interesting idea has emerged, I’m going to let the discussion stand.

** It’s different for a band that reach their meridian and then stall, or for the band that achieve something toward the beginning of their career and then find they have nowhere else to go, no way to really build on that sound. In such cases, after a few iterations, we start to get the feeling that the band are performing themselves. Rage Against the Machine, Tool, maybe Living Color. Consider Tool: after they had fully achieved their sound with the brilliant Aenima, less by transformation than by organic expansion, the few subsequent albums—each longer-awaited and more elaborately packaged—added nothing to what they had done before. A few great tracks on Lateralus, and a couple of quite good ones on 10,000 Days. But those albums sound a little forced; the psychedelic, faux-Eastern, fractally-multiplying minimalist sound had already been perfectly realized; all they could do now was lard it. Of course, such an assessment is much influenced by the first album one hears by a particular band, as well as by the listening background that brings one to them. (By the way, that Rush were considering what it meant to be a band on the other side of a megahit like Moving Pictures (and their resilience in the face of this) is suggested by the chorus (and title) of “Marathon,” from Power Windows (1986): “From first to last/ The peak is never passed/ Something always fires the light that gets in your eyes/ One moment’s high/ And glory rolls on by/ Like a streak of lightning that flashes and fades in the summer sky.”)

§ For me, the pairing goes deeper. The Bowery Ballroom, the first place I saw High on Fire, is the same venue where I first saw Mastodon back in 2005, after waiting a very good hour in front of the sold-out club for the bouncer to grace me with a point and curl of the index finger.

§§ I may have parodied the idea of metal being a drug in “Vermis Odium” (02.11.13), but only because I am intrigued by metal’s (like all music’s) potentially therapeutic use; I’m actually still waiting to receive a scientific paper to this effect from a presenter at April’s Heavy Metal and Pop Culture conference. Seriously, there’s a reason I listen to Miles Davis on the way into work and Napalm Death on the way home. Distortion, noise itself, has to be therapy. Writing this post called to mind an experience my partner and I had while working in Spain as WWOOFers back in 2002. At one of the fincas, the proprietors informed us of a technique where one person lay relaxing belly up on the ground while another blows into a didgeridoo, moving the end of the instrument all around the person on the floor, about a foot away from their body. I don’t remember what the outcome was supposed to be, or whether I felt anything when it was done to me; but it was clearly intended to be therapeutic (relaxing? exciting?), and it strikes me that the sort of all-consuming distortion HOF trades in might have a similar effect on the listener. A vibrational purging, like those tractors with a vise on the front, that shake the ripe olives out of a tree at harvest.

*** Or perhaps I have stopped writing about High on Fire here, and started writing about Meshuggah?

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.

The Apotheosis of Blitz

blitz      How did little Blitz grow so tall?

I’d been busy watching the slow striptease of that black satin shirt, a button here, a button there—normally he’d be as topless as a go go girl by the set’s end, this small, gamey man with the boxer’s nose smashed onto his face and the glowering blue eyes. Tonight, though, he only has forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes!We’re runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time here,” he cries, in a voice that distills twenty-five years of Turnpike grit and Jersey mockery, the voice of an old boardwalk barker or casino whore: wheezy, grating, peppered with expletives, and pierced now and again by hoarse, squealing laughter. He’s trying to get himself off, you see, and he hasn’t yet, and he’s runnin’ out of motherfuckin’ time. When he stands hunched in front of the mic, his head stutters more than bangs, somebody pull the clutch out, Bobby’s stuck. And those big entrances: sprinting for the edge of the stage, catching the mic stand along the way, tilting it over one knee; he has to time them just right to pick up the first words of the verse post-bridge. But with all the head-stuttering and sprinting, with “Rotten to the Core” and “Electric Rattlesnake” and “Wrecking Crew,” with the shirt that comes off in dribs and drabs, he’s still not convinced. And so neither are we. And though we try to give him the energy with our own violent movement and adoring expletives, we know Blitz isn’t there.

And then, during “Elimination,” it happens: Suddenly he is atop the monitors, balancing on one foot, splayed, enormous, chest heaving, driven there by the fury of the music, by the jackhammer in his voice, by the cut-tin edges of his breath driving through that scream, eliminate eliminate eliminate ELIMINATE!—newly tall, this electric man with the boxer’s nose and eyes that dare you to be tall, too. Now the whole band is ready for “Fuck you,” they needed “Elimination” to get them to the brashness of “Fuck you.” And here again, as the song nears its end, Blitz climbs atop the monitors—but slowly this time, squeezes his legs together, holds out his arms, middle fingers raised. A self-crucifixion in blasphemy, or at least vulgarity; the stiffly-raised fingers are the nails from which he hangs. Fully unbuttoned, the shirt clings to either shoulder; the belted pants ride low on his hips, exposing the join of thigh and belly, just shy of decent; his body is a braid of muscle, and entirely hairless, jerked, it seems, by sun, tar and rage. A mirror-Christ. In that moment I am sure he will ascend, hover a few feet over the drum riser in a halo of noise and power, the thin raiment of his shirt still clinging to him, and then disappear up through the lights, his body but the husk and the echo of that voice, its flesh totem.

Somewhere between the becalmed pose of inverted worship and the fragging on the grenade of his own rage—somewhere in that cross of sky-daring rebellion and sneering martyrdom, the soul of metal.

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.

Master/Class

      The first thing I heard was laughter.

At The Stone, John Zorn’s Dieter-jazz follow-up to defunct Tonic, this is no mean feat. If Tonic had all the earnest scruffiness of a mid-90s Williamsburg squat—the garage with bedsheets for walls and a dirty skylight for a window—The Stone’s aim seems the opposite: to create a high-cult, gallery-like ambience for “creative” music. Even the name strains under the weight of its own symbolism: cornerstone of a new downtown, laid at the southeasternmost corner of the East Village/Alphabet City. Heavy stuff, this.

But laughter has a way of transfiguring spaces, making windows out of walls, turning stones into feathers. A child laughing in a museum always sounds insouciant. Laughter in a church turns the pulpit into a sandbox and the censer into a swing.

It was Steve Coleman doing the laughing. I might have guessed; I don’t think I’ve ever gone to see Coleman and not heard him laugh. This was at last year’s Pi Recordings festival, and Coleman, the resident heavyweight, was busy lightening the mood. He was sitting in an empty row of chairs at the far corner of our Spartan little auditorium, joined by the other musicians in that night’s trio, the trumpeter John Finlayson and pianist David Bryant. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves. But it was Coleman whose laughter rang out for The Stone to hear.

A well-known educator as well as composer and improviser, Coleman clearly enjoys working with younger musicians, and one can easily see why younger musicians like working with him—and why artists like Finlayson, a ten-year veteran of Coleman’s Five Elements band, would stick around. In his backwards baseball cap, chamois shirt and loose-fitting jeans, Coleman looked hardly older than his mentees, many of whom were appearing in other Pi festival sets, on other nights, in combinations and permutations that seemed to mirror the music’s complex logic of chord substitutions.

As a 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal noted about his ongoing workshops at the Jazz Gallery, for Coleman “performance and instruction are often indistinguishable.”* The bandstand is a classroom, and vice-versa; a workshop is a set by another name. This was certainly borne out at The Stone, where Coleman spent the hour leading Finlayson and Bryant around the wormhole alleys of his harmonic imagination, restating lines, breaking them into bits, cycling through the bits until the other two musicians could patch the whole together. More than once he stopped playing and sang a melody, accenting the rhythm by clapping his hands. And just when they thought they had it, he would find some unexpected way out—the trapdoor, the corkscrew ladder, the skeleton key. No surprise that Coleman has compared his role to that of a Griot … or that he counts among his influences a visit to the Dagbon people of Ghana, who have—according to his rich, recondite website M-Base—“a tradition of speaking through their music, using a drum language that still survives today.”

Now, every good teacher knows that teaching is part performance. It’s not so much that Coleman exploits this crossover as that he seems most at home as a performer when he is teaching. At the same time, it’s possible to overstate Coleman’s role as leader. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the set had him laughing at, and then musically responding to, Bryant’s noodling diversions and interventions. The laughing teacher is the one who enjoys what his students have to contribute, who expects to learn as well as teach, to inspire and be inspired. Coleman, that is, never stepped back to play teacher—he was as fully present, as fully integrated in the music-making as the other two. It’s a difficult line to walk, between self-indulgence and self-effacement. Coleman made it look easy. Then again, if you like to teach, the classroom is often just a more structured, measured extension of whatever else you do.

Of course, teaching and learning are still work. Coleman may not be a harsh taskmaster, but his is a labor-intensive music, with a certain agony of force behind it. Finlayson had beads of sweat shining in his cropped afro, and not just because it was August. For a while, a moth circled around and around in the light above him, like some errant melody he couldn’t quite catch, hovering just out of reach of his spiraling drones.

Here is a thought: perhaps the set must be a lesson, because the lesson so conceived, and the teacher-student relationship so understood, embodies an ideal that allows egos to fuse, and the collaborative product of music-making to rise above the artificial strictures of clubs, sets, times, fees, and all the other elements of our culture that work to divide music from life, experience, spirit.

For this, finally, is Coleman’s project. In his wildly abstract musical imagination, jazz is code, a complex series of algorithms, but employed for the purpose of rising above mere intellectual play. Listening to a jam build over the course of eight or ten minutes (as one can do on Coleman’s most recent albums, like The Mancy of Sound) is like watching crystals grow in solution. Those clumped crystals, you may remember from your high school chemistry lab, always looked eerily organic, as if the submerged metal rods had grown hair. And this is precisely what happens in a Coleman jam: the austere, unforgiving beauty of pattern and code slowly takes on a palpable life. Math grows hair.

When the house lights came up, maybe because they’d played overtime, Finlayson and Coleman kept blowing as they exited (which, at The Stone, means either walking back over to the folding chairs, where everyone pretends they can’t see you anymore, or down to the basement). Had I stuck around a few more minutes, I have a feeling the conversation would have picked up right where the music left off.

 

* Unfortunately, Coleman has never been present the few times I attended these Monday night workshops. What I saw was a venue for up-and-coming musicians (the sort the Jazz Gallery exists to support and promote) to test out new compositions with each other, and with an audience. Apparently, Coleman’s absence from many of these “Steve Coleman Presents” events resulted in complaints—or so the guy working the door himself complained, on one of those nights when I was there and Coleman wasn’t. True, curator and organizer does not mean bandleader … but it is a little questionable to put the words “Steve Coleman Presents” in big letters on the ad, and then wonder why people—particularly visitors to Gotham—might be a teensy-weensy bit disappointed. Anyway, for a good idea what Mondays look like when Coleman is present, see the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article.

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.)