28 Feb, 2013

CU Independent: Required Listening by Sam

Sam, our music director, would like to introduce you to some of his must-listen albums. These reviews originally appeared at the CU Independent.

Boris — Flood

There are few genres that repel unknowing listeners away quite as rapidly as metal does. Of course, metal would not be metal without its uncompromising attitude towards the uninitiated, but sometimes it’s frustrating how difficult it is to find metal records that have any crossover appeal. Even for a style of music that revels in isolation and the extremes of human darkness, surely there exists a universal truth in the bleakness of metal that can be conveyed in a relatable way to newcomers.

Boris definitely seems to think so. These Japanese maniacs have spent their career casting out lines between drone music, doom metal, noise punk and straight-up psychedelic rock and then skipping over those lines as if they were in some life-or-death game of hopscotch. They’re like the sonic equivalent of the French Liam Neeson vehicle “Taken”,  so completely obsessed with the tropes of the genres they tackle that their sheer enthusiasm breathes new life into concepts that might feel juvenile in less capable hands.

This is certainly the case with the most grandiose of their releases, the 2005 behemoth, “Flood.”All this talk of metal belies the fact that only about 14 of these 70 staggering minutes are all that heavy; “Flood” is much more concerned with the resonance allowed by minimalism, almost like a direct opposition to the needlessly complex prog epics of the 70’s. Just listen to the opening track, which literally consists of one endlessly repeated riff along with some distant menacing ambiance. These five notes circle around each other like some seagull hovering above a still island, the delay effect seeming to provide company at first before the offset of rhythms creates the slightest sense of discomfort. Wherever we are right now, it isn’t safe to stay for much longer.

Despite the warning signs at the end of the first, the second track maintains a serene feeling of motion. E-Bowed guitars strike a piercing light through the bubbly, minor chord progression before an extended guitar solo carries the song through an assortment of passages that manage to be dreamy and subdued, yet soulful and fiery all at once. This sense of drifting continues into the third section, which slowly builds a body of distortion in the background before lumbering in with an absolute golem of a guitar riff. Boris’ trademark amplifier-incinerating guitar tone reduces all of the scenery of “Flood” into rubble, earning its doom metal badges without ever losing the golden chords that keep the band’s head out of the underworld.

Several interludes of intense shredding and crumbling drones lead into the fourth and final movement of the record, a completely submerged continuation of the riff established in the previous section. As the harsh, bluesy pattern slowly disintegrates into the depths from where it came, peace seems to return to the land with ambient reflections that coat the track in a deep slumber. However, this sense of resolution slowly reveals an even more abstract sense of darkness lurking underneath, growing ever distant as the track winds down, but never turning its gaze away.

Boris demands quite a bit of patience from the brave souls who dare enter the detailed and melancholy world they’ve created in “Flood.” The final section especially continues for such an extended period of time that by the end, the glimmers of hope that emerged earlier truly seem like a thing of the past. And yet even their attempts at ambient music are so fully realized that any accusations of extremism seem ignorant to what commanders of genres these sonic warriors are. “Flood” is one of Boris’ least tongue-in-cheek albums, a genuine achievement of inhuman proportions that marries disparate schools of musical thought into a constantly surprising and enthralling listen for music enthusiasts of all kinds. If metal always seemed like a strange outsider in the massive landscape of music, “Flood” fits it into the picture just because anything less extreme would be doomed to fall short.


Jim O’Rourke — Bad Timing

Roughly a year ago, my longtime friend and I played our first open mic night together. Our set consisted of primitive guitar pieces, and later that night we got obliterated on the cheapest whiskey I’ve yet to purchase.

We got to discussing the nature of acoustic guitar-based music when my companion made the assertion that the guitar was capable of conveying infinite musical possibilities, and that all other forms of music were limited by comparison. I countered that, though the guitar is certainly an instrument open to interpretation, surely it would fall short trying to convey the violence of an artist like Brian Chippendale, or the fluctuating textures cast about by Sun Araw.

Though my friend pulled examples of guitarists that he felt explored the same worlds as artists that I mentioned, the album that kept getting danced around was Jim O’Rourke’s ultimate love letter to the Takoma collective, “Bad Timing.” A song cycle comprised of four 10-minute pieces, it stands as a singular entry in the long-standing tradition of guitar records, its precious arrangements providing a peculiar supplement to the same coming-of-age story O’Rourke has told time and time again.

There’s a curiosity pervading O’Rourke’s work, and from the innocent melody that opens “There’s Hell in Hello But More in Goodbye,” O’Rourke sets up an album that manages to age as it progresses. The unsure plucking of “There’s Hell in Hello” gives way to the first of several extended ambient sequences, an endlessly thumbed G holding down a silver lining of harmonics and slowly building organs.

It’s the second track that stands out the most among the suite, though. Opening with its immediately recognizable bluesy key change, “94 the Long Way” grows from a tumbleweed rolling down the great American thoroughfare into the grandest coming-home parade this side of “Paprika.” Piling slides and brass horns on top of each other, “94 the Long Way” feels like a falcon soaring higher and higher through the clouds until it reaches an absolutely gorgeous climax. Every second of the song feels intensely calculated, yet breathes completely on its own.

After the optimism of the first two tracks, pensiveness dominates the closing side of the album. The creaky title track presents what might be the most hummable of O’Rourke’s melodies on “Bad Timing,” his accidentals and completely random tempos sounding essential to the ethos of the music.

After an extended pre-Sufjan drone of jingles, O’Rourke briefly turns into Kevin Shields for the final movement of the album. After the blaring intro, O’Rourke’s now-twangy guitar jumps back and forth between wilting progressions and aggressive stabs at life before its jarring bridge marches in. Whether the synthetic strings and cartoon-like trombones stand for some bizarre late-life crisis or perhaps a delayed epiphany is for only O’Rourke to know, but as “Happy Trails” fades, it feels as if the journey into the forest is only just being written.

When it comes to “Bad Timing,” my friend and I both agree completely that it’s nothing short of an opus. Throughout the entire album, O’Rourke’s six-string is constantly the central figure, even when significant chunks of playtime are devoted to more colorful and abstract passages. O’Rourke acknowledges the profoundness of the guitar’s abilities with melody and rhythm without ever being limited by the instrument. He welcomes the guitar’s friends and cousins into the mix, creating a singular identity for the album while always continuing the traditions set before him. When questioned whether or not it’s possible to express the range of human emotion with just a guitar, Jim O’Rourke dug deep within his own passion for simple, touching melodies, alongside his fascination with extravagant arrangements and experiments, and found a gray area instead of a direct answer. And as with all things in life that don’t have a numerical equivalent, that grey area is closer to the truth than any one school of thought could ever be.


Prefuse 73 — One Word Extinguisher 

As many individuals have said before me, actions speak louder than words. Where words can be rearranged and honed in syntax with intended meaning and effect, actions are more difficult to sculpt to gratify people in given situations.

Writing a breakup album without words is a mission that requires intense sincerity, as Guillermo Scott Herren — Prefuse 73 — unquestionably understands. I say ‘without words’ in the general sense, as anyone who’s listened to “One Word Extinguisher” knows that within its first two minutes, Herren’s 2003 masterpiece features two separate rappers delivering verses with frantic bombast. Rather, “One Word Extinguisher” is unique in the sense that it does contain vocal samples and guest features, but Herren goes out of his way to separate the other voices from his singular presence, warm and elastic yet constantly doubting itself with motorized anguish.

From the first batch of songs that bring us into the immediate aftermath of Herren’s abandonment — the rowdy MC’s tempting him to distraction–, “Uprock and Invigorate a Prefuse” sets the atmosphere for the rest of the journey. Keyboard and bass lines dance around the notes they should be settling on, while a drum machine struggles underneath, sputtering out as it marches towards its bleak precipice.

Words emerge again from the haze in “Dave’s Bonus Beats,” where Herren’s friend calls a non-answering Prefuse to provide him his outsourced beats, immediately to segue into the most spacious track Herren’s produced yet. Slow, jazzy keys float amid clicks and screwball noises while a choir refuses to let the hero rest. For perhaps the first time in the album, the separation of the beat, vocals, and the music pinning down the track becomes overwhelmingly apparent.

Moments of relief appear on tracks like “Busy Signal” and “The Color of Tempo,” where bouncing beats counterbalance their soft melodies, while the wailing sine waves of “Detchibe” and sighing chorus of the title track remind us of the struggle taking place. By the time we’ve reached the late album highlight “Choking You,” Herren seems ready to break. High pitched warning lights flash as the smooth synthesizers that lined the record carefully begin to dissolve into their synthetic origins. The purposefully lengthy album brings us to its emotional lowest at the 45-minute mark, before the beautiful “Styles That Fade Away With a Collonade Reprise” settles the arc on a refreshingly open-ended note.

The album marks a critical point in the merging of hip-hop and electronic music as the new millennium began to unfold. Artists like DJ Vadim and Boards of Canada had separately brought Bristol sensibilities to an underground culture hungry for more artificiality in their music, but with “One Word Extinguisher” Herren mixed in the glitchy refinery of his Warp associates to make a direct personal statement with his turntables.

The art form had been established, and it was about time someone used it to make something completely specific to themselves. Through the course of the album, Herren’s friends, memories, and demons attempt to reassure him and steer him down the proper path to recovery, but they are ultimately all silenced by the honesty his music conveys. When emotions as blurry and self-contradicting as depression, love, and loss are so sincerely depicted in Herren’s art, what’s the point of words?


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