What He's Listening To:


The MERZBOX review is still in the works and will be posted on its own PAGE as soon as there's anything substantial written down.  I plan to review each of the 50 cds individually, plus the bonus cd 51, plus the cdr.  So it might take some time, but the first ten reviews should but up pretty soon.

Anyway.  Now onto what's been dancing through my brain as of late:

Brian Eno:  Another Day On Earth.
        At last, an album feels like it was recorded in the 21st Century.  Ironically, much of Another Day also feels like Eno's output (both vocal and ambient) in the 1990s.  This just goes to show that even when Eno is functioning in a kind of "retro" mode, he's still well ahead of the pop culture game, still making music that compliments the science fiction we live in.  Thank God for Brian Eno.
        Another Day On Earth is Eno's first complete vocal album since 1990's collaboration with John Cale Wrong Way Up.  On one level it's kind of criminal that Eno doesn't release more vocal stuff, and I wish he'd get over all the shyness he has about his voice.  But, ultimately, when a record is as good as Another Day On Earth, it's well worth the wait.
        Eno himself describes the music on this album as "resigned but hopeful," and that's a fairly accurate description of the mood these songs create.  The album straddles the border between the emotional and the intellectual; it's detached and cool, and yet just human enough to prevent it from sounding sterile.  You can listen for the sake of technique-- Eno's production values are top-notch and each of the sounds he uses are clear, sharp, and precise; you can sit back and experience the naive beauty of his (almost always multi-tracked) voice, and enjoy the playful profundity of his lyrics (the song "Undergrounders" is one of the best hymns to the Internet generation I've ever heard, and "Under"-- a song dating from the early 90s-- is nothing short of inspiring); or you can treat the songs as a cycle of sonic textures and explore the wistful, mysterious, and always futuristic ambiance Eno creates.
        The songs themselves are all kind of sad without ever becoming mopey, sappy, or melodramatic (unlike, for example, Coldplay, who should be taking notes), and they're mostly dominated by layered electronics with a touch of avant-experimentalism that never descends into the trivial, kitschy, or trend-jumping (unlike Radiohead, who should also be taking notes)-- the one exception being "How Many Worlds" which features a simple yet effective guitar and a set of surprisingly naive, hopeful lyrics that wonderfully counterpoints the cyberpunk paranoia of the preceding song, "Passing Over."  Two of the songs have guest female vocals-- "Going Unconscious" and "Bone Bomb."  "Bone Bomb," the last song on the disc, is comprised of what seems to be a series of rearranged vocal samples, cuts off abruptly, and cycles back into the first track, "This," in a subtle way that's only apparent if you're listening to the album on a cd player set to repeat: I believe it's Aylie Cooke's voice, the voice that recites the lyrics in "Bone Bomb," that provides the sampled "this"-- also taken from "Bone Bomb"-- that anchors Another Day's first track.
        Like all Eno's vocal albums, this one contains a sense of narrative progression, with each song leading listeners into the next like in a song-suite.  (Before you misunderstand me, this doesn't mean the tracks are mixed together, though.  They are distinct units.  But they seem like chapters in a novel.)    Although, in this case, the moods of individual songs are generally far more consistent, and don't generate a kind of counterpoint structure with alternating, or staggering, highs and lows.   Most Eno vocal albums also end with songs that feel like hymns, or prayers: "Here Come The Warm Jets," on the album of the same title; "Taking Tiger Mountain," from Taking Tiger Mountain (by strategy); the majestic and perfect "Spider And I" from Before And After Science, and "The River" from Wrong Way Up.  The only exception, up until now, is Another Green World which ends on a menacing, brooding tone, creating a sense of open-endedness and unknowability.  Another Day On Earth follows the pattern of Another Green World, concluding with a paranoid, edgy soundscape which, as I said above, cycles back into the album's first track..
        All this might make Another Day On Earth seem obscure, or at least overly intellectual-- and there always will be, out of necessity, an extremely cerebral element to everything Eno does-- but, really, this album is mostly just a good, solid set of well-done, evocative, moving songs with lush electronic backdrops.  There's nothing on Another Day On Earth you can dance to, but there is an awful lot to think about, and feel.  Try playing it while you're driving through a city, in the afternoon, looking at all the precisely-positioned buildings with their equidistant windows; listen to it on your iPod while walking in the evening, looking up at clouds that seem to be cut directly out of a Playstation game and pasted on a hyperreal, baby-blue, dead tv backdrop; play it softly in the background while you watch the news; surf the net to it, wallow in conflicing data; turn off all the lights, lie down, and listen to it in the dark.
        Moving, cerebral, "ambient," and even edgy.
        One of the best albums of 2005.
        One of Brian Eno's best albums, period.
        Welcome to the 21st Century.

Foetus:  Love.
        Jim's back in town.  And this time, he's brung....
        A more mellow Foetus?
        Well, yes and no.  While it's true that there are far fewer screaming guitars on this album, there is still a modicum of anger and danger and dread-- and, yes, even some pretty nice violence.
        All the old Foetus issues are there: self-hatred, hatred of others, misogyny, misandrony, misanthropy, drinking, killing, fucking, literary references, tons of black humour, driving beats, sinister soundscapes, lush arrangements-- and even a goddam harpsichord this time.
        The sound on Love is closer to Thirlwell's Steroid Maximus or Manoriexia projects than it is to Null and Void or Gash-- and in a way, that's good.  While Thirlwell's guitar is, arguably, one of the most destructive sounds in the world, it's when he chills out and lets himself and his songs breathe that his music really gets powerful.  Walls of gothic speed-metal noise are fine (and I understand why he spent a few years going in that direction; he had to show that young whippersnapper Trent Reznor-- who would be nothing at all without copping Jim Thirlwell's bag of tricks and attitude-- who the real King Of The Void was), but Foetus has always been at its best when it starts subtle and builds to a climax.  While there are none of Thirlwell's patented slow-building, thundering, swaggering walls of big-band insanity on Love, the bad craziness is present in other, more restrained-- and become of this-- menacing ways.
        Also, Thirlwell's voice hasn't sounded this good in years.
        And, he sings in French on Track 2.
        And, some of the songs on Love are actually-- gasp-- catchy and accessible.
        And, the cd comes with a dvd featuring some videos, and trailers for both an upcoming Foetus documentary by Clement Truffreau called A Foetus Life, as well as the Venture Brothers cartoon that Thirlwell scored for the Cartoon Network.  And MY GOD!!! is Venture Brothers funny, and the music just makes it that much cooler.
        I also find it kind of funny that Foetus is getting so much respect now-- what with a Kronos Quartet commission and all-- when for so many years Thirlwell's name was such a nasty word.  Most reviewers wouldn't touch his stuff, or if they did they did so with reservations, lest they be labeled unmutual.  (Of course the really edgy magazines didn't care, but they were already on the fringes.  Back when there were fringes.)
        I was even almost kicked out of a record store in the early 1990s for asking for Foetus stuff because, apparently, the store didn't "sell music by Fascists," which was as funny and clueless then as it is now.  And, of course this store had absolutely no problem with Guns N Roses.  And, if they were still in business, I'm pretty sure they'd carry Eminem.  But that's another story....

Dälek:  Absence.
        On the whole, I don't like rap.  But, baby, I love this!!!
        The night I bought it I slapped it on my stereo, put it on repeat and listened to it for 3 hours.  I actually missed a couple phone calls.  The best way to describe "Absence" is rap mixed with Glenn Branca and Merzbow; others have said it's like My Bloody Valentine with a hiphop beat, and that's fair, too.
        Before this album only other Dälek thing I'd heard up until now was a Kid 606 vs Dälek ep which I bought because I like Kid 606 quite a bit.  When I played the ep, at first I was shocked to discover that it was rap, but then I listened to it and decided that it was really good.  I actually found rap that I liked, that wasn't all about "bling," "booty," and bullshit.  And so when I saw "Absence" I bought it on the strength of that ep.
        And Kid 606 vs Dälek didn't prepare me at all for the assault of this disc.  The only other rap analogue I can come up with is Public Enemy (another rap band I actually liked a lot), except a million times more assaultive.  I mean, this thing is just one huge wall of layered noise.  It's like being thrown into a jet engine with beats and static in the background.  But it's mixed so well that everything remains distinct, every crackle, explosion, beat, sample, and scratch can be heard perfectly.  And the lyrics are actually smart and thoughtful-- and really, really angry.  The first 30 seconds are an acapella rap, and then the wall of sound starts and doesn't let up for another 56.5 minutes.
        So I returned the phone calls, sat down at my computer, put the disc back on, and listened to it, writing, till 4:00 am.
        Fucking WOW!

Merzbow:  24 Hours, a day of seals.
        A 4-cd mega-album inspired by Masami Akita's love of animals and a day at the zoo with his little girl.  Also, this box set marks a milestone for Dirter Promotions, being the 50th cd released by them-- what an amazing way to celebrate.  I wish Merzbow would make me one of the best albums of his career to celebrate some auspicious event.
        The sheer length of this album is daunting, as it stares you down and dares-- just dares-- you to take it all in one sitting, to consider it as a single unit, but if you do there are rewards.  Since it's around the 4 hour mark, after a while you start losing yourself in the sound; you start to drift off, your self slips away, and the world seems to open up into another kind of spacetime.  This can be kind of taxing at times, but the end result like like an exercise in extended meditation on Nothingness, or maybe absolute Presence-- which, I guess, is sort of the same thing.  Oh, and nature and animals.  It's really quite beautiful and mesmerizing.  24 Hours is great on long car rides.
        Also, on many of the tracks, it sounds like Akita's layered environmental sounds into his characteristic sonic assault, or maybe I'm just imagining them.  I'm not 100% sure, but then again that's the beauty of Noise.
        And, there are guitars in this one.  And so, there's something kind of "psychedelic" about this one in that, given the presence of distorted guitars, large parts of 24 Hours feel like a kind of mutated, processed "acid rock" freakout.
        I had to order this one from abroad, and it took a hell of a long time to show up at my store of choice, but it was well worth the wait.
        Monolithic, important, and ultimately a labour of love.

Merzbow:  Sphere.
        I've been listening to Merzbow for quite some time, now, and nothing prepared me for this release.
        Just... woah.....
        In Sphere, Masami Akita mixes traditional Japanese drumming with layers and layers of both digital and analog noise.  And, because of it, this album is just pure power.
        When the drumming comes in at the beginning the sheer volume of the rhythm hits you in the soul.  And then when the drumming gets buried and then, later, simply fades away, the quality of the sound more than makes up for the lack of layered visceral beats.
        The digital sounds in this recording are crisp and clear and the analogue sounds are deep and thick and fuzzy.  This gives Sphere an exceptional, amazing depth of sound and a thick, layered, almost infinitely deep feeling.  While other recent Merzbow releases have been layered-- I mean, he's been layering sounds ontop of sounds and hiding other sounds inside of sounds for decades-- the sounds he's been using lately have been almost exclusively digital in nature-- which is fine because he's incredibly proficient at digital sound manipulation and rabid laptoppery-- but still the digital precision of the sound has lacked lacked some of the indeterminacy and richness analogue technology brings.  Thus, his recordings of late have been a bit on the cold side-- which actually has worked to his advantage on more than one occasion, giving the Noise a distant, clinical and because of this compellingly futuristic feeling-- but they've still felt cold.  But not this one.  In fact, because of the nature of the sound, Sphere is both warm and cold.  Soulful and soulless.
        Anyone who is skeptical of Merzbow's status as capital-A Art should listen to this disc.
        Sphere finds its home on John Zorn's always excellent Tzadik label, which also put out Akita's amazing 1930 album.  There aren't many Merzbow discs on Tzadik (only two in fact), but the ones there are are top notch. My guess is, Akita knows that the Tzadik releases are going to be his highest profile works, so he pulls out the stops.
        If you've never heard Merzbow and are curious to know what all the fuss is about, check out Sphere.  And, if you're a long-time fan you probably won't be disappointed.
        (Check out the sudden birds near the end of the last track as they twitter over the highend hissing of a laptop and Akita's mangled guitar.)
        A masterpiece.

Crack (We Are Rock):  Silent Fantasy and Cosmic Mind Flight.
        Two girls on vocals, two guys on machines, a lot of evil attitude.  The best new band I've heard in ages.  Think GABA (or "Gabber" if British accents confuse you) techno mixed with 80s New Wave and a bunch of sex and black magic thrown in for good measure.  CrackWAR is on tigerbeat06.  Awesome, but will probably remain obscure because there's no justice in the world and people are stupid.

Pan Sonic:  Kesto.
        The legendary quadruple album.  4 cds, each exploring a different aspect of Pan Sonic from minimalistic bleep techno, to more groove oriented listening friendly fare, to abstract experimental noise, to radically quiet ambiance.  All with that pure sine wave edge that will either mesmerize you like a hypnotized cat or send you running out of the building with your hands over your ears.

Amon Tobin.  Chaos Theory (the Soundtrack to Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell).
        Layered and moody.  Amon Tobin has always been on the forefront of everything that's cool on the Ninja Tune label, and he's one of the best practitioners of IDM / Drum n Bass / Drill n Bass / Funky Jazz n Bass / whatever n Bass / "Bossanova Click Jazz" (whatever that is) / fill-in-the-blank-tronica hybrid music in the world.  Everything he's ever done has been compelling, fun, and yet repays close "serious" listening.  And this soundtrack to the new Splinter Cell game is no exception.  Both electronic and natural instruments / textures are fused into ten beautiful tracks that feel alternately jazzy, moody, and frantic.  In fact, I suspect that the soundtrack is probably better then the game.  Mind you, I'm not a connoisseur of 1st-Person shooters-- I tend to prefer more of an RPG platform or something goofy and cartoony like Ratchet And Clank.  But, anyway, I'm sure this soundtrack adds a new, classy, and thoroughly excellent sonic dimension to what appears to be a state of the art game.  And, if you're not interested in the game, it stands on its own as an independent work of art, preferably in some late-nite listening situation.

Leviathan:  Tentacles Of Whorror.
        Yeah, yeah, I got it.  "Satan, Satan, blaaaarrrrgh."  But y'know, this is actually a really, really good album.  It's an hour long blast of harsh, extremely hateful black metal filled with atmosphere and white-noise rage.  Of course the atmosphere is all evil and, like most black metal, the subject matter is fairly limited-- but still, for sheer inarticulate rage this album just can't be beat.  And it also manages to be a extremely layered.  If, like me some days, you're sick of everything and utterly enraged, fed up with an entire universe of oxygen-wasting parasites who do nothing but intentionally and unintentionally fuck you over every bloody goddamn day, this is the album for you.  Kind of where Metal meets Noise Music.  And, like almost all the most raw and powerful Black Metal, it's all done by one guy.  Cathartic, yet with sonic depth.

The Fall:  The Real New Fall LP (formerly "Country On The Click").
        This IS the focal of M.E.S. locus-- uh.
        I've loved The Fall for almost as long as I can remember and greedily devour whatever albums of theirs wander onto these shores-- which, since the 1990s has been fewer and fewer.  This isn't to say that Mark E. Smith isn't recording, it's just that nobody around here orders the damn things because-- even though the fall has been around since most of you out there were in diapers (me included)-- nobody seems to've ever heard of this damn band.  Mind you, Smith probably hasn't heard of you (or me), either.
        Fortunately, the perpetual obscurity Smith finds himself in keeps The Fall immune from current musical trends and idiotic "expectations"-- even though everyone who likes them still seems to prefer their mid 80s, "classic" lineup, etc. etc. etc.
        Anyway, The Real New Fall LP is the strongest thing I've heard from Smith in ages-- even though I haven't actually heard much, recently.  Guitars, bass, drums, and weird electronics.  Cutup lyrics, driving rhythms, primitive tape experiments and a mutated rockabilly cover, and some good catchy tunes.  Mark's delivery is as "fuck you" and in your face and mumble-slurred as ever (why should he enunciate?  It's not like he gives a shit if you understand him or not), more punk than any of the punks claiming the punk throne today, bitter, derisive, obsessed with-- well-- whatever he's obsessed with: blank-eyed poseurs, Lovcraftian beings, the rampant idiocy of contemporary society, fractured male-female relationships, walls of data, people who hate him, people he hates, European history, conspiracies, and so on.
        Everything Mark E. Smith does deserves to sell a lot more than it ever will.  And then the guys from Pavement will probably take all Smith's ideas again and stage a comeback on his coattails.

Meshuggah:  I.
        "Intelligent Death Metal," really pissed off "Math Rock," "Industrial Metal," the sound of a million androids laying waste to the human race, an exploration of order and identity and existential aporia set to chugging guitars, music the Mandelbrot Set would make after having a really bad day at the office, who knows?  It's a 21 minute, 1 track ep that crunches through a series of angular, metallic riffs and bizarre time signatures that seem primitive, ritualistic, and ancient while at the same time extraordinarily dense, sophisticated, and futuristic.  More and more detail and mathematical relationships the more you listen to it.  I want more.

Johnny Cash.  Cash Unearthed.
        Say what?  Johnny Cash?  Yes.  The guy who likes Merzbow and Eno likes Johnny Cash.  You got a problem with that?  "But... it's country music," gasp the detractors.  To which, I say: "Johnny Cash is not country music!  Either that or Johnny Cash is country music and everything else that we know to be country music just ain't country."
        Actually, Johnny Cash is/was an amazing musician and an even more amazing songwriter.  All you have to do to witness this is just pick up one of the 4 "American" / "Rick Rubin" discs and you should be more than adequately blown away.  Amazing voice, stark arrangements, haunting melodies, etc., etc.  The Cash Unearthed box is a 5-disc set, 4 of which are some of the literally hundreds of songs Cash recorded for Rubin while they worked on the "American" albums.  Cash sung and played his heart out for Rubin, and it shows.  This is some of the most powerful music Cash has ever done, which makes it some of the most powerful music anywhere, at any time.  You've got traditional songs, original compositions, covers rubbing elbows with collaborations with people like Fiona Apple and Nick Cave, and my God, does it ever work.  And the 5th cd is a sampler of the already released 4 American music albums.
        It's actually hard to believe that these cuts were (mostly) out-takes.
        Good music is good music.

Dieselboy.  The Dungeonmaster's Guide.
        A 2-cd set of totally ass-kicking Drum 'n' Bass cuts that's so tight and fast it leaves me speechless.  The nerdy D 'n' D connection doesn't really make any sense-- but it also doesn't interfere with the music, and actually adds a bit of charm to the mix (although I know some who disagree-- violently).  Turns out Dieselboy is a geek from way back who liked to DM-- and, well, me being a geek from way back who tried (very miserably) to DM... a few times.... I can sort of relate to the nostalgia for the Good Old Gaming Days of highschool and elementary.  Anyway, even though Drum 'n' Bass is supposed to be "dead," when something smokes it smokes, and this mix smokes.

Brian Eno.  Here Come The Warm Jets (remastered).
        This doesn't really count as anything "new" because I've been listening to this album for well over 15 years, but this is (with the exception of the Eno Vocal box) the first time the cd has ever actually sounded any good.  The vinyl issue of this album is awesome, but the old EG cd is embarrassing and muddy-- a pale, pale approximation of what the "real" album sounds like.  But this reissue is clear and sharp and darn near perfect.  They even fix the glitch that plagues the opening seconds of "Blank Frank", the part where it sounds like the master tape gets a bit of a grinkle-- an error that even made it into the box set-- except there it appears as a nanosecond of silence.  It seems that nobody but me has ever noticed this problem with earlier cd issues of Warm Jets, and I was actually beginning to think I was becoming schizophrenic, imagining mastering errors where there were none.  But, with this release, the sonic slippage is pretty much cleared up.  I think I can still, maybe, hear a little bit of an error, but maybe I'm just being too fussy.
        Assaultive guitars, weird melodies, bizarre pop songs, mellow thoughtfulness, weird sounds, and utter evil madness ooze from every second of this record.  It could have only been made in the '70s, and in fact is, maybe, the ultimate '70s Glam album.  It captures the experimentalism and weirdness and freaky mutant pop sensibilities that hit the world hard, but for only a few years, before crumpling away into laughable clichés.
        Warm Jets is a piece of avant-glam-pop music history that sounds like it was recorded in some parallel universe 1973 by a nostaligic drag queen superhero who's come to turn all our brains into raw data and rape our daughters with his fabulous chocolate-covered death machine.  How the hell can you go wrong?

© 2005 Brian Cotts

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