Friday, October 26, 2012

good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar, 10/22

good kid, m.A.A.d city is the first major studio album from Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, but it seems like he’s been around for a long time now.  As a member of the Black Hippy crew along with Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul, Kendrick won considerable props across the board following his releases through the independent Top Dog Entertainment label, Overly Dedicated and Section.80Overly Dedicated earned the attention of the West Coast’s hip-hop Zeus, Dr. Dre, who expressed interest in mentoring the young MC.  All of a sudden, every hip-hop blog, magazine, and enthusiast seemed unable to go a single media cycle without gushing about this new prodigy, and Kendrick was appearing on songs with everybody from Rick Ross’s entire Maybach Music Group to Lady GaGa.
When word came out that Kendrick would be releasing good kid this fall, as a joint release through TDE, Interscope and Dre’s Aftermath label, excitement reached a near frenzy.  To be honest, I was kind of confused.  I had heard the two tapes, and they were pretty good, but it was hard to identify what exactly the big deal was other than the fact that Dr. Dre was cosigning on his dopeness.  It seemed like a lot of engineered hype about somebody who had, to date, done nothing except put out some pretty good music, which a lot of dudes do.
That skepticism endured up until my first listening of the release this Monday, which left me with just one thought: good kid, m.A.A.d city is an amazing album.  It features the subtitle of “A short film by Kendrick Lamar”, and the 12 songs successfully function as a narrative following Kendrick’s experience growing up in Compton.  On the first track, “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”, Kendrick immediately puts his effortless, yet urgent, flow on display, describing a teenage romance.  But even the innocent experience of being “17 with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental” brings Kendrick into danger.  The song ends with our narrator confronted by two gang members waiting outside Sherane’s house and cuts immediately to a voicemail from Kendrick’s mom asking him where he is.  This skit is expanded upon throughout the album, and it creates genuine tension unlike anything I remember hearing on any rap album of recent issue.
Although the concept of the album revolves around the struggle of growing up in an area riddled by gang violence and police harassment, it avoids being preachy or heavy-handed in the way that most “socially-conscious” rap is.  gkmc steers clear of that territory by remaining within the consciousness of a frustrated teenager with nowhere else to go.  As a result, Kendrick is able to contrast the care-free attitude of youth against the backdrop of an environment with very real dangers.  “The Art of Peer Pressure” brings those two elements to a head, as Kendrick raps about an empty afternoon cruising around with his boys, which ends with them breaking into and robbing a house, and Kendrick smoking a blunt laced with PCP.  On “good kid”, Kendrick speaks about being caught in the middle of the struggle between cops and gangs, with both sides flashing red and blue as a means of intimidation.
Despite its recurring themes, good kid is never repetitive.  “Backseat Freestyle” sounds like Kendrick Lamar’s take on the megalomania of Watch the Throne (“I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower, so I could fuck the world for 72 hours”), banging Hit-Boy beat and all.  However, within the context of the album’s concept, the track is given more weight, for in it we hear the testosterone charged ambitions of a teenager who wants everything he sees in the “Juicy” music video.  The album’s second single, “Swimming Pools[Drank]”, is similarly far more enjoyable as the 9th song on the album, as opposed to the 9th song on a summer playlist.  The voices around Kendrick urging him to drink tons of liquor are more oppressive and convincing after the frantic, near mania of “m.A.A.d city”, a two part track in which Kendrick uses abrasive internal rhymes to capture the madness around him.
As with all things Kendrick Lamar, there is already an enormous amount of hype surrounding this album.  Comparisons to Illmatic will not be endorsed in this column, but good kid, m.A.A.d city does capture this moment in hip-hop to a remarkable degree, not only musically, but in the very way it came to be.  Kendrick’s rise is very much the blueprint for success in the internet era of hip-hop: make some successful free mixtapes, catch the eye of one of hip-hop’s gatekeepers (Dre), gain momentum on blogs and features, all leading into a major studio album.  In an era when its pretty much unheard of for anybody outside of Kanye, Ross, or Lil Wayne to do well in sales, gkmc is projected to sell more than 200,000 copies in its opening week.  So yeah, it seems fair to say that K.Dot has nailed his come up.  And honestly, I couldn’t be happier.
This is a sharp, intelligent, musically fantastic album, with a strong and relatable message.  I didn’t grow up in Compton, I was never pressured to join a gang (shocking, I know), and I haven’t watched any of my childhood friends bleed to death on the sidewalk.  But I, and I think most people, can relate to feeling pressured and claustrophobic in trying to figure things out as a young person.  good kid, m.A.A.d city captures those feelings in what is undoubtedly the hip-hop album of the year.  Anybody who enjoys hip-hop of any era needs to hear this album, especially people who think there’s no meaningful rap being put out these days.  This is a remarkable first large-scale showing, certainly a strong step towards Kendrick becoming a true star, and if subsequent releases live up to this one, we might remember good kid as Kendrick's first step towards greatness.
Best line: “And they wonder why I rarely smoke now, imagine if your first blunt had you foamin’ at the mouth”, Kendrick Lamar, “m.A.A.d city”
Also worth checking out: The Man With The Iron Fists (Official Soundtrack), the RZA

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Math in Words (Part 3)

This week's Math in Words attempts to subject an individual to the kind of intellectualizing he made a career out of rejecting. 

Writing any kind of introduction to a piece on musician/pundit/engineer/ Steve Albini is a task which is incredibly marred by the many ventures he is/was involved in and his determination to avoid such academic scrutiny. It is however essential to my project that I attempt to contextualise his accomplishments and work during the 90s. As an exponent of Touch & Go Records (an institution he once referred to as the “only responsible label in America”), Albini's involvement is indisputable in the engineering of math rock as a genre (pun totally intended). Whilst insisting he receive no credit or royalties from musicians (a reflection of his belief that he is in no way responsible for conceptual ideas, just the capturing of them), we must note that distinctively math rock records such as Owls, American Don, and Ron just could not exist as they do without him.      

Sketching an accessible profile of Albini is near impossible; the hellacious amount of information available and the sheer volume of his contributions means any attempt to do so will invariably become limited due to its subject matter. To avoid repeating countless articles and committing this piece to the more banal features on Albini, I figured a closer inspection of his recording principles and music journalism would at least be a little more original and conducive to a study of math rock.    

The adulation of any self-respecting music-tech undergraduate, Albini’s approach to recording is tirelessly emulated, but never truly reproduced. Unlike the uniform and multi-tracked approach adopted by many modern studios, Albini privileges analogue apparatus for live recordings over digital, tailoring his sessions towards the sounds and intentions of the artists he works for (to suggest Albini works 'with' artists seems to me counter-intuitive to his project). Strategically placed microphones (each selected independently for their appropriateness) and the exiguity of the kinds of effects made ubiquitous by major studios combine to produce a sound which, however unconventional, seems a great deal closer to the sounds of a band playing than the versions offered by more traditional studios. Unlike the kinds of recordings saturated by studio gimmickry, Albini presents the kind of sound which complements the characteristics of math rock perfectly; the punch of a dynamic shift is totally lost once its been processed by an unnecessary compressor.               
Albini ostensibly acknowledges a division of responsibilities in the creation of records, choosing to remain impartial w/r/t to production (preferring the designation of ‘recording engineer’ to ‘producer’) and allowing total freedom to the bands he works with; the bands perform in their respective creative capacities whilst he resolves any technical issues which may affect the desired sound of the record. This separation ultimately allows for the intentions of the artists to be more clearly communicated through their distinct lack of any compromise; Albini effectively operates less as an honorary member with artistic license and more like a trusty intermediary between the band and listener, relaying as accurately as possible the sounds coming from his revered home studio.

Characterized by an intolerance of pretentiousness and a certain iconoclasm, Albini’s journalism frequently confronts the questionable ethics of major labels and the shared malpractices within the music industry. Regularly contributing to a variety of zines, Albini promoted through many essays his belief that analogue loyalists would survive despite the growing affinity for digital production. This preference for format still exists in Albini's work today, a remarkable achievement when you consider how this kind of approach has become all but obsolete due to the likes of music software Protools and Logic. Albini is likewise critical about the dubious intentions of music journalism more generally, suggesting in one interview that: “there is no one that actually works on stories, there may be feature articles about bands but there is no one, for example, trying to uncover the abuses in PRS society. There is no actual journalism going on.”

Albini's journalism and punditry has subsequently led him to become something of the anti-philosopher for D.I.Y exponents and fans of math rock. Heralded as some kind of demigod, Albini has unfortunately become trapped by a fame which is as ironic as it is deserved; whilst reluctant to be affiliated directly with the albums he engineers, Albini's name has become something of a short-cut for band's desperate to validate their status as a respected identity in their field- Albini appears to acknowledge and refute this kind of glorification in his 1986 Forced Exposure essay by suggesting that: “I don't give two splats of an old Negro junkie's vomit for your politico-philosophical treatises, kiddies. I like noise. I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin.”

What ultimately seems the most refreshing quality to Albini is his willingness to engineer just about any record he finds in some way interesting; charging bands on their circumstances means that, in theory, anyone from U2 through to the precocious kids down the street indulging in atonal sonic-experiments could have themselves a great sounding record, providing their ideas captured his imagination.

This ethos is arguably an inherent part of math rock; if such producers didn't exist, it's unlikely anyone else would have taken the risk of engineering records that would find their market only once fans had consumed the vast amount of material already available to them. Whilst Albini may be reluctant to accept credit, it's at least a little encouraging to have an anti-hero who's prepared to work endlessly on records which however unpopular or inaccessible they may often be, are all important and respected by their fanbase. To offer a 'suggested listening' to end this piece seems to me a foolish move (his catalogue rivals Dante's), so I figured I'd just recommend a listening to Slint's debut record, Tweeze. Whilst no record Albini has engineered can truly operate synecdochally,Tweeze features a stock of his 'trademarks'; the sounds of the band talking through a take, huge leaps in dynamics, and a mix which is only identified as his own because no one else would dare try it that way.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I Can Feel Brit Coming ‘In the Air Tonight’

I know what you’re thinking - blog posts from ‘Don’t Give a Brit’ are synonymous with blog posts about drummers. In effect, I have even tunnelled my concentration to a larger extent than my last post on a single musical artist in dedicating this latest blog post on just the famous Phil Collins song ‘In the Air Tonight.’ I am not intentionally showing my ignorance of the excellent music that was produced during these sublime decades; it is simply poor management on our side. We are not advocators of bureaucracy on our show, we tend to side with arbitrariness.
The 1980s saw the rise of the New Wave musical movement and in another all too typical trait of our weekly show, I have chosen a song which is the antithesis of much of the music that dominated the radio airwaves at the time. This dark, eerie song stands as a binary to much of the upbeat, electronic 80s. But then, if those old rascals Cliff Richard and Tom Jones were still knocking around in the 1980s, I can surely dedicate this blog to ‘In the Air Tonight’…  
                The title ‘In the Air Tonight’ provokes many thoughts in the minds of its listeners. Is Collins documenting his flatulent habits? Do you think of Miami Vice’s famous scenes from its first episode? Do the numerous attempts at the final mission of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City come to mind? Perhaps the Mike Tyson scene from The Hangover? Or maybe even Cadbury’s 2007 dairy milk gorilla advert (located at: Judging by all these instances I have just rekindled your memories over, it would be true to say that this song has been widely used in popular culture. The numerous interpretations of the song have been considered in its use in popular culture. Its wide use makes it hard for a listener of the song to solitarily relate it to just one moment in that culture. The track’s inscrutable nature makes it so powerful.
As well as the multiple interpretations in popular culture, the song’s lyrics have also been met with multiple interpretations surrounding their meaning. In consequence, there have been many pervasive urban legends regarding the song’s undercurrent. These urban myths have included whether Collins was writing about a man who watched another man drown. This urban myth gathered cultural credibility through Eminem referencing it in his song ‘Stan.’ Some also argue that a young Phil Collins witnessed a man drown. Over time these two myths became more and more farfetched to the point where it was claimed Collins hired a private detective to find the man who witnessed the drowning, sent him a free ticket to his concert, and premiered the song that night with the spotlight on the man the whole time. The implausible tendency that these myths developed removed their validity and their falsity lied exposed. This led to Phil Collins publically stating that the song was written about the feelings he had surrounding his 1979 divorce from his first wife. This very reason is also why Collins left Genesis for a short time. The lingering tension of the ins and outs of a complicated divorce is structurally mirrored in the song, cumulating in the explosive drum solo at the end. However, with the atmospheric guitar work, simplistic keyboard chords, a prolonged, sequential drum beat and dystopian, Big Brother-esque video (located at: it is hard to ignore these credible myths surrounding the song’s creation. These techniques also builds upon the freakiness and macabre already created by the song’s lyrics.

‘In the Air Tonight’ was Collins’s first single as a solo artist as the rest of Genesis felt it was too simplistic to be released as one of their own songs. However, the intense passion that Collins put into the song led the album Face Value, of which ‘In the Air Tonight’ was the title track, to sell more copies than any other prior Genesis release. It seemed the ‘genesis’ of the song was something that the band had not picked up on prior to this and that caused the group to move in a different direction. ‘In the Air Tonight’s’ raw emotion was typified in that the song’s lyrics were simply an impulse and were not written down prior to Collins’s first play of the song.  
So at this point of the blog, I would generally suggest checking out some other music that relates to the blog post. However, in choosing to do my latest blog on a single song I have removed any potential doing that. Similarly, no other Phil Collins song comes close to achieving the greatness, mystery, popularity and acclaim of ‘In the Air Tonight.’ Likewise, I cannot point you in the direction of a playlist as we did not construct one from this week’s show. Stepping into the studio is about where our bureaucratic duties begin and end.  However, having said that, we will be releasing a podcast for all those listeners who are occupied from 1-2pm on a Thursday. But then what things in life are more important than hearing why you should give a brit in life?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

WRMC featured on NPR website!

In some of the most exciting station news of the semester, WRMC is currently featured on the NPR music site for our help in curating their 2012 CMJ Preview Mix.  Dylan Redford, our general manager, was approached earlier this fall about collaborating with other prominent college radio stations on this mix and brought the project to the station's music directors (Carly Shumaker and Stephanie Roush) with much delight.

The music directors were asked to choose their favorite song of 25 artists from a list of about 100 artists that are all playing at the CMJ Festival this week (October 16-21) in New York City. CMJ represents the foremost opportunity in the college radio world to connect with other stations as well as the music industry as a whole.

This WRMC collaboration with NPR Music is a step forward for the station in terms of establishing WRMC as one of the best college radio stations in the country.  Hopefully, this will help the station gain recognition not only among other college stations, but with music promoters and music labels alike.  With NPR under our belt, who knows what could happen next.

Check out our NPR playlist here.

Ghost EP, Sky Ferreira, EMI, October 16th

For fresh-faced twenty-year-old pop icon Sky Ferreira, embodying America’s Sweetheart was never an option, much less the goal. At a young age, Ferreira breeched the music scene via MySpace, winning e-audiences over with racy tracks like “Sex Rules” and “Lolita”. Her second extended play solidifies the singer’s image as a natural-born rebel. In the past two years, Sky has capitalized on growing internet phenomenons like ‘soft-grunge’ and ‘pastel-goth’, blending bubble-gum pop beats with a Kim Gordon-esque edge. It comes as no surprise then that Ghost registers as an eclectic collection of teen-blogger anthems. In a recent interview with fashionista and Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson, Sky declared that she “wanted to make something different...and [wanted] it to speak to younger women”. While Ghost undoubtedly caters to the adolescent female audience, my initial listen left me feeling disoriented, and ultimately unsure as to whether Ferreira was writing for herself, the producers she collaborated with, or the anonymous internet following that has come to define her fan-base. 

Ghost’s opening track, “Sad Dream”, lures listeners in with a smooth lullaby, as Ferreira’s voice glides effortlessly from a surly alto to wistful soprano. The song is simple, almost too simple to work; it is a trick that the track’s producer, California-born songwriter Cass McCombs, has pulled off countless times: give listeners something clean and familiar, leave them contented at that. The trouble is, “Sad Dream” ends up sounding more like McComb’s creation than Ferreira’s. Her voice is shrouded in Cass’s dreamy acoustic riffs, making for a strong track, but one that lacks a distinctly “Sky” quality. 

Similarly, grunge-girl anthem “Red Lips” feels drenched in co-writer Shirley Manson’s (of Garbage fame) influence. The crunchy bass line and whispery vocals sound uncannily like Garbage hit, “Stupid Girl”. Ferreira’s delivery is effortless—she sing-speaks jibes like “you’re ten a penny” with an undeniable cool before the chorus erupts in a wave of power-chords; nonetheless, I find myself disappointed, waiting for Sky’s synth-pop edge to resurface. The track is a far leap from the crooning ballad that starts the EP, and almost left me wondering whether I was listening to the same release. It is for this very reason that Ghost feels disjointed and almost unfinished. Rather than building on the successes of her 2011 release, As If!, Ferreira forfeits her creative ownership and offers too much authority to the producers. 

With ominous electro-pop tracks, “Lost in My Bedroom” and “Everything is Embarrassing”,  however, Sky holds her own. Here, Ferreira revisits a style she mastered when she first entered the music scene at fifteen: a careful balance between catchy dance beats and melancholy atmospherics. Accompanied by a booming bass and tight snares, Sky sings wistful melodies of racing minds (“lost in my bed, and I’m lost in my head”) and unrequited love (“maybe if you let me be your lover”). The tracks are definitively teen-angst, definitively Sky Ferreira, and arguably the best on the EP. With these modern girl anthems, she holds nothing back; she sounds sure of who she is as an artist, unafraid to wear both her true bubble-gum-pop colors and a grimy layer of smudged black eyeliner. By the time Ghost draws to a close, “Everything is Embarrassing” gives listeners a glimpse of Sky’s promise. The track shows Ferreira for who she is, a rising commercial-avant-garde starlet who owns her image without apologies. And although disappointed that the EP as a whole fails to showcase Ferreira’s potential, I am hopeful that her upcoming album I’m Not Alright (still awaiting a release date) will give testament to Sky’s capability as a dark-pop girl wonder. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Numbers, MellowHype, 10/9

Los Angeles’ Odd Future collective (officially Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), burst on to the scene formed in 2007, and it quickly gained a considerable audience following frontman Tyler, the Creator’s release of his debut album Goblin in 2009.  But interest in the group truly exploded following the posting of Tyler’s “Yonkers” music video on YouTube (seriously, watch this if you haven't seen it already) and his appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with fellow OF rapper Hodgy Beats.  On Tuesday, Hodgy Beats and producer/occasional rapper Left Brain dropped Numbers, their third album as the duo MellowHype.
First off, Numbers is overall a good album.  It’s consistent in every regard, it’s sufficiently diverse, and it has a definition not common to many contemporary hip-hop albums.  But listeners hoping for the chaos, anger, and general depravity of Odd Future’s early music will likely be disappointed.  Numbers takes a decidedly more stable tone than Tyler’s releases, or even previous MellowHype joints YelloWhite and BlackenedWhite.  That’s not to say that the duo is attempting to transition to the mainstream; rather, it feels as though we’re hearing their maturation as it happens.  Its just that what they’re maturing from, a delinquent gang of anarchist skaters celebrating their rape fantasies, was pretty darn entertaining.  Their early work was so startling and captivating that Numbers, which has more than its share of aggression and creepy allusions to satanism, comes across as relatively tame.
That being said, there are many strong aspects of Numbers.  Left Brain’s production, which is featured on all 16 of the tracks, is consistently enjoyable.  He rarely uses samples, and the built from scratch quality works well, for he rarely tries to do too much.  His jumpy, dissonant sound is unique and effective when paired with Hodgy Beats’ nervous, almost compulsive delivery.  Hodgy has certainly chilled out a bit, his rapping is more controlled than previous efforts, in which he often seemed right on the edge of dropping the lyrics and just screaming.  He is technically sharp throughout the album; indeed, its hard to think of one poorly delivered verse, and his newfound precision makes his more aggressive lines cut sharper (“On a one to ten, you like an average 8, blow job, you suck, shall I, elaborate?”).
Numbers starts out hitting on all cylinders, with assists from OF big shots Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt on “Astro” and “P2”, respectively.  Earl’s verse is fantastic, despite being the consensus best MC in the collective, his flow and content has evolved.  Again, this isn’t your high-school self’s Earl, there’s nothing on dismemberment or vomiting blood, but he explains, “Last year I didn’t know what the cost of a coffin was, so now I’m often buzzed, in the apartment bummin’”.  Left Brain pulls out all the stops on “Grill”, with an awesomely twitchy, smokey beat and a rare verse, which is pretty average, but his spacey, deep voice is a lot of fun to listen to. The segmented “65/Breakfast”, which couldn’t be any more different than BlackenedWhite’s “64”, unless it was performed by the 2 Live Crew, is also quite strong, as are most of the album’s tracks.  Left Brain and Hodgy Beats are just simply both very skilled at what they do.
There are weak spots, such as “Snare”, which sounds like MellowHype covering a rejected Talib Kweli cut, and “Gnc”, a hip-hop 101 piece filled with familiar rap tropes.  And when Hodgy urges us to take care of our families and loved ones on “Nfwgjdsh” (your guess is as good as mine), it feels forced, and honestly, he’s not somebody I would ever consider taking advice from concerning the organization of my life.  In these instances, MellowHype strays too far towards the middle of the pack, but they always find their way back, close to their unique place.  Over the course of “Leflair”, “Untitled L”, and “Monster”, Left Brain deftly pulls off 3 beats which move through electro-freak-out, to a Lex Luger style blast of snares, to a Tyler-esque classic OF sound.  Hodgy ramps up the intensity, bringing the album to a darker, moshier place.  On these tracks his rhyming is most impressive, sometimes so rapid as to demand multiple rewinds, other times excruciatingly slow, scratching out every syllable.  In an era in which guest spots from producers attract more attention than guest verses, there is a definite and refreshing flow to the way MellowHype’s two members move through the album together.
Again, Numbers is a really solid album.  But, fair or not, it didn’t quite satisfy the itch that builds up as the release date for an Odd Future album approaches.  I found myself pausing in the middle of songs and looking up old classics like “Drop” and “F666 the Police”.  This is not a knock on  MellowHype, so much as a testament to the degree to which Odd Future occupied such a specific spot in hip-hop.  I really like Numbers as a showcase of Hodgy’s evolving skills and Left Brain’s unique touch, but I can’t help but feel a touch of nostalgia for the good old days, when you could count on two words to be screamed in every MellowHype song: “!”.
Best Line: “I said...niggas be takin life to serious, that’s why my music be takin’ lives (uh) period”-Hodgy Beats, “Astro”
Also worth checking out: Wu-Block, Wu-Tang Clan and D-Block, presented by Ghost Face Killah and Sheek Louch

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Math in Words (part 2)

In the second installment to Math in Words: the confused attempts to contextualize and assess the significance of Don Caballero and their third record, What Burns Never Returns.

Released on Touch and Go records in 1998,What Burns Never Returns is the third record by Pittsburgh’s Don Caballero. The album is characterized by the many features which established them in 1993 as a formative component of math rock; complex structures, abrupt time signature shifts, diverse rhythmic measures, and more layers of guitar than pretty much every record released in the past decade combined are all testament to the complex mechanics of the genre.

Reviews of What Burns Never Returns seem largely to hesitate on broad abstractions and theatrical language which denies any kind of plain speaking with respect to the record’s merits and achievements; “thought-provoking”, “totally mind-bending”, and “unlike anything you’ve ever heard before” are all fair approximations, but a little reductive and vague nonetheless. I figured that a more critical review, which seeks to identify the influences and investigate the composite elements of the record, would instead be more useful.

Like the first viewing of Mulholland Drive or possibly Nights of Cabiria, What Burns…can often leave the newly initiated with a sense of disorientation and an inability to articulate exactly what was interesting or enjoyable about the experience. This isn’t to say the record is purposefully designed to alienate its listener, but it is certainly dense with the kind of ideas which only repeated listening can fully expose and make any kind of sense of. It would be a disservice to describe the record as  “chaotic”, “panicked”, or even “confused” once you grasp the meticulous composition of each of the respective fragments. It’s less analogous to three individuals competing for precedence inside of a rehearsal space and more like four separate musicians pursuing ideas which, however unique, correspond to each other in incredibly subtle ways.

Whilst at once creatively aligned with Fugazi, Voivod, and early Metallica, Ian Williams, the band’s lead guitarist, lends simultaneously from minimalist-loopers Steve Reich and Terry Riley (this orchestration and experimentation with guitar motifs would return on his final record with the band, American Don). The unorthodox application of guitar pedals throughout the record demonstrates Williams’s ability to successfully sequence and negotiate with existing technologies and the conventions of songwriting without coming off as purely inaccessible -He had only the year before released the self-titled LP with the avant-garde Storm & Stress, an arguably less palatable project that, despite of its greatness, takes an even greater patience to access and enjoy.

Complementing and often starkly juxtaposing the many microcapillaries produced by the guitars and bass is the overt and ostentatious ‘drumming’ of Damon Che. It seems to me a little unfair to limit Che’s role to that of a mere percussionist when you consider how frequently he deviates from such responsibilities in order to create entirely new architectures in a far more independent fashion than your conventional drummer. In Delivering the Groceries at 138 BPM Che performs in an anti-drum solo of sorts, providing an interlude which illustrates his ability to utilize the entire kit for the purpose of an almost melodious shift, meanwhile allowing Williams to demonstrate his unusual and iconic mode of finger-tapping as he keeps time. It is arguably these kinds of inversions of the traditional roles which makes What Burns… a truly interesting record.              

The record is by no means an isolated instance of brilliance, but is instead part of a larger genealogy of releases which all exemplify a band developing a system of ideas over the course of a few years. Critics often use the analogy of the middle sibling with What Burns…, a cute and fitting observation which seems somewhat accurate; if Don Caballero 2 is the precocious younger brother, and What Burns the competitive middle child, then American Don is certainly the elder on his return home from music school. What seems incredibly significant about these records is the distinct lack of a framework available to describe them; it would be foolish to imagine that the tired cliché of listing similar bands could come anywhere close to articulating how these records sound.

Whilst still performing today, it is only Damon Che who remains from the original 90s line-up; the tumultuous dynamics of the band are second only to fan contentions surrounding the legitimacy of the ‘original members’. To fully appreciate the band’s relationships around this decade and to access some truly great rock journalism, it’s worth at least glancing over Fred Weaver’s account of his time with Don Caballero before their original line-up disbanded in 2001. As with anything which falls under the umbrella of math rock, Don Caballero’s contribution is one which ironically escapes the ability to be lucidly defined in terms of words and insists on an intense listening experience. I may have just undermined my entire essay, but you may now be listening to the record.

Monday, October 8, 2012

John "Bonzo" Bonham, Should we Give a Brit?

Welcome to the second edition of the ‘Don’t Give a Brit’ blog that tries to take something rational from a completely arbitrary show. For the past two weeks we have split the show into two halves of the musical seventies in Britain. Typifying the overarching structure of the radio show, there was no chronological rationale to this split, it was simply a merge of acts from across the decade; creating a diverse show each time. To avoid this complicated diversity, in this blog I have chosen to stick with one absolute legendary pioneer from the era, the late John Bonham – the greatest drummer of all time. So you’re now thinking, that is quite a statement to make, but Bonham was at the forefront of Led Zeppelin’s distinctive sound, which is why the band has received much critical acclaim over the past 45 years. There was plenty of subject choice for this decade, with the rise of British punk and glam rock – now the brunt of many fancy dress outfits. However, I chose to leave the glitter and flamboyancy behind to concentrate on more conventional rock n’ roll. I also did not want to give out the wrong impression to my blog readership in covering the now infamous Gary Glitter in just my second week… So then, Bonham was the standout candidate for me. With his death being in 1980, it would be wrong of me and an insult to his musical calibre not to cover the great man’s final decade.

               Bonham was the epitome of everything good about rock music. His drumming skills covered many bases – it was a distinctive, powerful sound encompassing an instinctive rhythm and furious velocity (especially through his fast right foot!) To magnify this sound, Bonham would use the longest and heaviest sticks money could buy. It is no wonder that, thanks to his revolutionary double bass style of drumming, Bonzo has been proclaimed the greatest drummer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine and many similar magazines. With other instruments, it has been much more difficult to grasp who was the best ever; such as the debate surrounding guitarists – is it Duane Allman? Jimi Hendrix? Eric Clapton? B.B. King? It is just not so for drummers— there is no debate about who has been the best that has ever graced the musical world. Bonham revolutionised the entire sense of the word drumming, there is no two ways about it. He has influenced modern drummers such as Dave Grohl, Brad Wilk and Chad Smith, but to name a few.
                Bonzo just had a tremendous feel for rock n’ roll. His living-on-a-knife-edge style of drumming was perfectly complimented by his faultless and completely in-tune rhythm. The obvious song that illustrates this perfection is “Moby Dick”. This is a song in which Page and Jones simply build towards Bonzo’s mind-blowing mega-drum solo. It would often last for 30 minutes when the band would perform the track live. Bonham once said that “Not everybody likes or understands a drum solo, so I like to bring in effects and sounds to keep their interest” and “Moby Dick” really stays true to that sentiment. Its live performances regularly featured Bonham’s use of bare hands to achieve different sound effects. Heck, I bet he would have whacked his drum kit with a whale if he could. With the complete absence of Robert Plant’s voice in the song, you would think it would a futile task in asking people who have never heard the song before to attempt to guess who “Moby Dick” is by. However, as a result of John Bonham’s drumming capabilities, it becomes almost as recognisable as Plant’s screaming voice.
                What makes Bonham’s tale all that more remarkable is the fact that throughout a vast amount of his live performances he was intoxicated. The fact that he kept this resolute rhythm under the influence of alcohol is some achievement. However, it would be wrong of me to praise his effective actions after drinking alcohol as it was alcohol that finally killed this magnificent musician. Prior to a tour of the US in 1980 Bonham drank spirits excessively during rehearsals, beginning early in the morning. After one of these heavy drinking days, Bonham died in his sleep. It seemed each shot he took was another step in his stairway to heaven. The autopsy confirmed that Bonham had consumed the equivalent of 40 shots of vodka in the drinking session that eventually killed him. He was 32 when he died, meaning he is not another member of the infamous 27-club.
                Bonham was simply irreplaceable to Led Zeppelin, who split with immediate effect after news of Bonham’s premature death. The band are now limited to reunion tours in which Jason Bonham steps in for his father. To truly understand Bonham’s raw musical talent I would advise you to check out Led Zeppelin’s entire discography. But if I had to narrow it down, Bonham’s finest drumming pieces are located within “Moby Dick”, “Immigrant Song” and “When the Levee Breaks.”
                In next week’s ‘Don’t Give a Brit’ show we will be covering the 1980s, so we’ll be leaving behind the moshing rockers of the seventies and replacing it with glowsticks, synthesizers and bad haircuts. In the mean time don’t forget to check out our most recent playlist located at: