Tag Archives: experimental

Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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A Tale of Two Johns: They Might Be Giants in 10 Songs

They Might Be Giants have been around for so long now and are so prolific that there’s no way they weren’t going to engrain themselves into popular culture, regardless of whether people knew that they were there or not. From writing and composing the themes of The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, to their songs being featured on Tiny Toons, to their collaboration with the Brothers Chaps at Homestar Runner, not to mention 16 studio albums to date, the two Johns from Brooklyn are seemingly inescapable in one small way or another.  These points are only the tip of the iceberg, however.

Rounding about 30 years making music together, John Flansbergh and John Linnell are seemingly tireless with adapting to new styles, sending up existing ones, oftentimes trying the patience of the audience and always keeping things very silly. It always takes me awhile to parse a They Might Be Giants lyric, because they look at life from the most obtuse angles. “Ana Ng”, a potential love song to the one time Vietnamese smallest woman in the world begins with “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/to the name of this town on a desktop globe/exit wound in a foreign nation/showing the home of the one this was written for”. To stay on the subject, in “Purple Toupee” they describe the Vietnam War as “Chinese people fighting in the park/We tried to help ’em fight – no one appreciated that.” Theoretically, many of the things described in the songs are things we all experience, but you have to tilt your head at a hell of an angle.

Here’s ten songs to act as sort of a broad primer to this quirky band, though there’s so much to uncover, it’s hard to know what to leave out!:

1) Don’t Let’s Start, They Might Be Giants (1986)

Described as being about “not let’s starting” by John Linnell, this was TMBG’s first single – their first cry into pop culture as they started to find their way. And what a cry it was. Ostensibly about a break-up, few songs contain the strange mix of absurdity and melancholy sent to an intermittent jangly guitar rhythm as this one does. The narrator keeps trying to cope with what’s going on, but spends the whole song talking around the subject.”Wake up! Smell the catfood/In your bank account” cries Linnell, after comparing the subject of the song to a cat for about a verse, while a minute later, shoegazing with the line “everybody dies frustrated inside/and that is beautiful”. It’s a peppy, energetic song and the combination of pop hook and sad lyric would serve them well throughout their career. The balls-out commitment and refusal to tone down any of the weirdness gives that “two against the world” feeling of a fresh new band trying to make their indelible and confusing mark (there were no band members other than the two Johns until 1994’s John Henry) The video contains what would remain hallmarks for quite a few of their videos – weird choreography, goofy faces, black and white, and giant cut-outs of the head of newspaper editor William Allen White.

2) They’ll Need A Crane, Lincoln (1988)

From one of my favourite albums of all time, this is the one. The poppiest, heartbreakingist track you’ll ever hear. Second album in and they nailed it. As is often the case, the title belies the true focus of the song – a relationship in just complete dissolution as they cling tighter to the architecture of it: “They’ll need a crane/to take the house he built for her apart”. The song is peppered with clever little stories and observations about our protagonists, Gal and Lad as they come apart – “Lad looks at other gals/Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than Lad/He isn’t bad” – as the wobbly bassline (wobbly as in coming from an 80s synth, not as in dubstep) bops along underneath, displaying the poppiness of the track almost brazenly in the face of the destruction of the couple’s metaphorical home. Never has it been easier to sing along to something so devastating as Linnell and Flansbergh once again prove their knack for earworms.

3) Birdhouse in Your Soul, Flood (1990)

Stepping away from the theme of love, this is one of the Giants’ more popular songs, having been covered on Pushing Daisies by Kristen Chenoweth and steering just shy of psychedelia into silliness. Though the narrator of the song is stated outright at the beginning – “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you” – it’s a little hard to swallow that this is going to be a song from the perspective of a nightlight. The best moment comes when he realizes that if he were to the light in the lighthouse that steers Jason and the argonauts home, that he probably wouldn’t do a very good job, which makes things even stranger. Rather than being in a situation that is relatable, TMBG takes the perspective of something mundane and utterly nonhuman, and shows us its perspective – it just wants to be “the only bee in your bonnet” after all. It’s hard to deny it’s a charming song. The four-note trumpet solo in the middle sort of underlines the absurdity of the whole proceeding, though the song is actually a bit more nuanced than its predecessors, with a few distinct sections and a deft synth guiding us through the whole thing.

4) The Guitar, Apollo 18 (1992)

One of TMBG’s experiment at playing with convention, you leave “The Guitar” both frustrated and amused. After a funky bass intro, the titular instrument shows up and starts to jam only for a couple seconds before it’s found out and the introductory words of “Hey!/Who’s that playin’/Hey!/The guitar” set the tone. “Is it Jim?/I don’t know” serves as a pretty weak interrogation to get to the bottom of the mystery, but a much more interesting one makes itself known soon after. The tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” interrupts the song three times, each progressing a very strange story we get to see so frustratingly little of “In the spaceship/The silver spaceship/The Lion take control”, the first line ominously tells us, soon to be followed by “The Lion’s on the phone” and “The Lion waves goodbye”. What does the Lion want from us? It is unfortunately, never made clear, nor is the identity of the guitar player (though it’s probably John Flansbergh). Despite the guitar being the titular instrument, it’s really the saxophone that takes centre stage here, as it lays down the big riff during the chorus and peels away in the middle of the song, presumably out of frustration at not being able to figure who is playing the guitar.

5) Meet James Ensor, John Henry (1994)

“Meet James Ensor” would definitely go in the category of  one of the Johns’ ‘cute little songs.’ It clocks in at 1:33 and moves along at a rapid pace, providing sad detail about actual Belgian painter James Ensor, who lived “before there were junk stores/before there was junk” and seemed to be quite a tortured genius. Seeming to really be interested in people learning about him, in the chorus, TMBG asks you in a sort of morbid way to “dig him up and shake his hand”. They seem to have good intentions, but it’s difficult when you hear a gobsmackingly well-written and saddening stanza as “He lost all his friends/he didn’t need his friends/he lived with his mother/and repeated himself.” A little space is carved out in the last twenty seconds for a groovy low guitar riff to come in and get harmonized by accordion and bass, which seems like it might launch into another  song, but instead just ends with another appeal to “appreciate the man!”

6) Dr. Worm, Severe Tire Damage (1998)

Another biography here, this time of a fictional character who says he “is not a real doctor/but I am a real worm”. Whether this is metaphorical or literal is anyone’s guess, but it’s seems like he’s getting good at the drums (he’s studious – he’ll “leave the front unlocked ’cause [he] can’t hear the doorbell”), and he’s definitely in a band with bassist Rabbi O. As sort of a posturing move, he tries out his identity by saying “Good morning/how are you?/I’m Doctor Worm/I’m interested in things”, hoping that someone will “call me by my stage name”, so he’ll get the chance to put it into practice. Musically, the song is a front-loaded brass assault, with a few layers of brass introducing the song and giving it a ska feel as it toots into an appropriately energetic rhythm from the drums – this would foreshadow the expanding of the band’s instrumental repertoire as they get further and further out from the standard rock band set-up.

7) Older, Mink Car (2001)

There are few songs by the band that are more frustrating than “Older”. It crawls along at a snail’s pace, and the instruments provide just the bare minimum framework to cover Linnell’s quiet vocals, which are telling us “you’re older than you’ve ever been/and now you’re even older/and now you’re even older”, almost taunting in a fashion while being absolutely right. After a verse of this, John Flansbergh bursts in with a crescendo from the band to comment on the proceedings: “Time is marching on!” he cries, before a another blast from the band with a fairly assured “And time…is still marching on!” Dedicating a song to the maddening repetition displayed in this song is a hallmark of the band – they’re perfectly willing to hand an entire track over to this single concept and just let the people do what they will with it. My favourite? Certainly not. It makes a better story that they have a song like this than it does a song. But classic TMBG? Undoubtedly.

8) Stone Pony, Venue Songs (2004)

“Stone Pony” comes from the quest TMBG set upon in 2003/2004 to write a song for every venue that they played on the tour, on the day of their concert there. The result was Venue Songs, a collection of a short little ditties covering quite a variety of styles about the various clubs and bars dotting the USA (Venue Songs also gave John Hodgman the character he uses to this day – that of the Deranged Millionaire, who would unleash his marauding teams of baseball players on New York York unless the band kept using their magical talisman to keep writing songs). “Stone Pony” was the stop in New Jersey and has a very jazzy feel to it, with the walking bass and heavy ride action. The main beat is used to tell the short story in slightly increasing detail – a word or two added with each telling – about how the guy who stole that other’s guy beer just LOOKED like me. It’s a wonderful, strange little song and the fact that it was invented mere hours before its debut gives it a charm that it might not have had if it were overcooked in the studio.

9) Marty Beller Mask, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)

One of my absolute favourite little-known tracks by the band, “Marty Beller Mask” claims that Whitney Houston grew tired of all the stardom she was receiving put on the mask of TMBG’s drummer, and has been drumming ever since. Just hearing the concept affirmed over and over again has me rapt with attention for its two minute length, especially, when totally flat readings of Whitney Houston lyrics are added as a build up to the chorus as “proof” (“Don’t walk away from me/I will always love you”). The drums are quite low and supple, building the mood while the guitar spends the verses getting into a reggae groove in the offbeat and marking out time in the chorus. The whole thing has a bit of a grunge/lo-fi feel, but without being quite so noisy, with Linnell’s vocals sounding very matter-of-fact, if not outright just talking. Easily one of their most hilarious songs.

10) The Lady and the Tiger, Join Us (2011)

This song absolutely blew me away when I first heard it. 15 albums into their career, I was not expecting They Might Be Giants to pull out a track like this, ever, nor would I have blamed them for it. Their experimentation continues here, as a wandering melodic beat sets the tone for the mumbling, distracted vocal that sets the tale of the captive titular beings. The interlocking saxophones that serve as a bridge between the verses were totally out of left field for me. They’d used the sax to great effect before, but playing two different, but complimentary riffs that each seem to do their own thing, but still in harmony, made me gain a whole new respect for them as songwriters – not to mention, it’s hella catchy in its own way. The incessant, thesaurus-heavy rhyming scheme used is good ol’ TMBG by this point – “felines and dames in flames/will hardly serve my aims/do you surmise it’s wise/to have laser beams emitting from your eyes?” Every seemingly-disparate element clicks here and serves up a completely unique and compelling track.

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List-O-Mania: 5 Songs Where the Artist Went Outside the Box

Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:

1) The Police – Mother

One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.

2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion

A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.

3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me

Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.

4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)

Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”

5) Muse – Madness

Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.

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#20: New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light – Colin Stetson

(Constellation, 2013)

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(Image from inyourspeakers.com)

Nothing beats the roar of an instrument giving a complete solo performance. No lattice to string notes between, no safety nets to pad the sound – the noise just curls and undulates out in space. At least it would if Colin Stetson said it was okay. Though there are a few extended drone-like passages, Stetson uses flurries of clustered notes in order to build his houses of horror and redemption. Not to mention the incessant clack of the keys and occasional deep-throated scream which has no tongue to articulate it.

Now on the third album in what, thus far, is a trilogy entitled New History Warfare, Colin Stetson takes his bass and other assorted saxophones up once again to construct entire soundscapes with. The effect is mesmerizing. Wave after wave of flitting, honking, scronking notes texture each piece, while the mic’ed up keys give it rhythm and Stetson’s throat-screams lend the occasional ragged melody. Despite the astonishing diversity of sound at no point does it feel like an attempt to simulate the pieces of an actual band – it’s still one man emoting feverishly in every direction he can muster. To see more light.

To counterpoint Laurie Anderson’s narrative appearance on the previous volume, recent collaborative darling Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (on whose doubly eponymous album Stetson appeared on in 2011) lends his high haunting vocals to the proceedings this time, with ghostly wails on “High Above A Grey Green Sea” and a very surprising turn into deathmetal growls on the album’s visceral apex, the stunning, aggressive “Brute”. On “Who the Waves Are Roaring For (Hunted II)”, Stetson briefly considers taking the back seat as Vernon attempts to stretch coherent melodies over top of the jagged architecture, taking each phrase as a new melodic hill to climb. On “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, that arrangement is set more firmly, as Vernon’s multitracked vocals take precedence and Stetson’s wailing reigns in ever so slightly to allow some harmony to accompany Vernon’s lead. This is the only moment on the album that feels restrained, and provides sharp contrast to the unbound quality of the rest of the tracks.

Between the latter two tracks comes the finest demonstration of the album’s boundless nature, the title track, “To See More Light”. At 15 minutes, by far the longest track on the album and the longest in Stetson’s oeuvre, he has the time to set out for the goal stated in the track title. Lines build and build throughout, the energy never ceasing, never tiring, always grasping with no view towards cessation. This is where Stetson, no pun intended, shines. With a wider scope set around all of the manifestations of his wild muse, the picture comes into sharper focus and each mad tangent finds its own place within the sonic narrative.

Absolutely unlike anything else I’ve heard (save for Stetson’s previous outings), To See More Light expands what was built upon earlier in the trilogy and gives some new angles and fantastic payoffs, all rooted in the single instrument put in front of his face.

9/10

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#17: Nanobots – They Might Be Giants

(Idlewild, 2013)

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(Image from theymightbegiants.com)

It’s always nice to hear from They Might Be Giants. For nearly thirty years now, the quirky duo of Brooklyn Johns have been putting out the highest quality music that you’re embarrassed to tell your friends that you listen to. Yeah, they’ve heard “Particle Man” and a more than a few people will confess a fondness for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, but if only they knew “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” or “Lie Still, Little Bottle”. If only they had been there to share your outrage when they ‘sold out’, dropped the drum machine and acquired a real band on John Henry.If only they noticed that copy of Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) you have sitting on your shelf.

I’ve been a fan of TMBG after picking up Apollo 18 on a whim and loving the hell out of every quirky track (particularly “The Statue Got Me High”), including the enigmatic “Fingertips”, which comprises 20 tracks of the album, with each track only lasting about 5-10 seconds. It gave the effect, at the time, of flipping down the dial on a radio and each station being equally goofy as the last. This is the most evident touchstone for their 2013 effort, Nanobots. With 9 tracks lasting under a minute and a couple only a few seconds long, the rush to get the hook and the meaning in in that time gives a little thrill and so rears the ugly head of the realization that they are attempting to recreate/recapture the feeling of x album (as opposed to the idea that a band working constantly over a span of thirty years is bound to sound like itself at some point). Fingertips, however, was more of a structured experiment. The short tracks (in this case, I reject the term ‘throwaway’) on Nanobots is simply the band playing its game of chicken with the listener and losing. TMBG have always been a band willing to and almost needing to experiment on just about every release that they make. On this album, for the first time, there is a sense of not what will work and what will not, but for how long it will work for.

On “Sleep” (my favourite of the sub-minute tracks), the song is interrupted every line by a wordless, harmonized “ahhhh” (as in every other instrument stops to allow this to happen). If this were to go on for three minutes, the charm would be lost – but at a svelte 43 seconds, it’s memorable, hilarious and even a little bit catchy. Similarly, the 16-second “Destroy the Past” paints a fantastic and horrifying picture with its sole lyrics comprised of the couplet “Let’s go backwards and destroy the past/How long will your oxygen last?” Any more information would ruin the story. The closer “Didn’t Kill Me” with John Flansbergh singing acapella I found reminiscent of “Her Majesty”, the unexpected closer for the Beatles’ Abbey Road.

The album doesn’t float on its gimmick, however. Excise all of the short songs, and you would still have a solid collection of quirky and, at times, complex tunes. The Johns have always been solid songwriters, belied quite hard by their funny lyrics or instrumental tricks. Their palette feels like it’s expanding even more in recent years, with John Linnell’s surprisingly deft turn on the bass clarinet on Join Us’ “Cloisonne”, or the layered saxes on the same album’s “The Lady and the Tiger” (my favourite track of 2011). The brass and winds are sprinkled liberally  throughout Nanobots, but the blowaway moment is the entrancing “The Darlings of Lumberland”. Fuzzed out percussion lays the bed for a rip-roaring interlocking melange of flutes, saxes and clarinets (and accordion) that fits together with shocking precision, each instrument a staircase in Escher’s Relativity. This sits in stark contrast to the incredibly hip drum and bass (not Drum n Bass) verses. A beautifully cut jewel that serves as a stark reminder of the power TMBG can unleash is they keep their faces a little sterner.

Even the knowing way they deliver their lines can change the shape of a song entirely. On the title track, the backing vocals delivered with a monotony (and a blocky harmony) that somehow gives it a slightly reggae flavour nails the feel of the song as it waves from straight-laced to exuberant. The sound of John Linnell’s tongue wrapping around the line “what is that certain je ne sais QUOI?” on “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” with such glee moves the song that much more to get the grin plastered onto your own face.

Check this album out. This is a couple of mature songwriters writing fun as hell music that is funny if you listen to the lyrics or satisfying musically if you don’t. They have yet to rest on their laurels.

10/10

In addition to my review, I had a conversation with longtime friend, fellow blogger and TMBG enthusiast Nick Zacharewicz about the band and about Nanobots:

MCJ: So Nick, you’re an avowed, nearly lifelong TMBG fan. What keeps you coming back to the fold?

NZ: My love of everything strange and wonderful, certainly. Though I must admit that Nanobots completely slipped under my radar. I guess because I though the band was too busy touring in the States.

MCJ: Yes. In the States exclusively, I might add. When you did come around it, what did you find strange and wonderful in Nanobots?

NZ: Well, as you mentioned in your review, “Sleep” is definitely a standout track because of what it does with sampling. But overall, the whole album really reminds me of their early stuff. It’s a collection of songs from various musical styles that all tell a story. Plus, I’d never thought that I’d hear TMBG do a song with the sort of surf sound that “Call You Mom” has.

MCJ: It sort of beggars belief, the amount of styles they’ve co-opted over the years and felt comfortable enough to turn into their own brand of amusing little song.

NZ: Definitely. I think that’s really their best quality. And, really Nanobots has just about every style they’ve ever played with covered: from Reggae to Jazz. I don’t think they’ve done much with Funk, though.

MCJ: They’ve switched to using a lot of horns, but nah, I don’t think they’ve ever gone quite funky. It’s got to only be a matter of time, though. How did you react to the presence of the ‘short’ songs on this album?

NZ: Oh, the short songs. After hearing about all of the theories for “Fingertips” on Apollo 18, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any meaning to them here.

MCJ: As far as I know, it was simply a matter of the band stopping when they didn’t see anymore to write of the song. Though I’d be interested to see how people attempt to weave “There” into any sort of narrative.

NZ: It’s disappointing that the band hasn’t come out and said that there’s any meaning to them, but that’s never stopped fans before. I think there’s something about them, though, even “There,” which is suspiciously placed after “Nouns.”

MCJ: I think they [the band] just get a kernel of an idea, and then run with it, leaving the fans to fill in all the gaps, which they do quite amply. Has a favourite track emerged for you?

NZ: The fans definitely do, myself included. On my first batch of listenings “Circular Karate Chop” really stood out for me. I liked its fun pace, and the goofy spoken bit in the middle of the song sounds like something from ‘They Might Be Giants’ or ‘Lincoln.’ But then, I started to get into the second half of the album, since I can’t help but hear a break after the clump of short songs running from tracks 13-16. So, now the standout track for me is the jazzier “Replicant.”

MCJ: Yeah, there is definitely a sort of side break – a musical sorbet of short little songs that get you over to the material on the other side and make you question how invested you should get into each song.

MCJ: “Replicant” is an excellent song, and probably one of the best genre switches on the whole album. The “do do do dos” really sell the mellow swinging jazzy feel. Also, I believe it’s the forebear to “The Darlings of Lumberland”, which is a track that, correct me if I’m wrong, doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before. Those tracks usually end up being my favourites.

NZ: Yes, “Replicant” comes in before “Darlings,” making for a curious transition. “Darlings of Lumberland” is a weird song. It doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before (it has the same sort of ghoulish atmosphere as “The Edison Museum” from ‘Long Tall Weekend’), but it definitely sounds like TMBG.

NZ: And, even though they’ve never really done much with swing/jazz, it’s like they ventured from unfamiliar territory into an absolutely uncharted place moving from “Replicant” to “Darlings.”

MCJ: Diving off the edge of the world, so to speak.

NZ: Definitely.

NZ: Can you describe what you like about it?

MCJ: It’s crazy – coming at you from every angle. You have a bunch of different woodwind instruments, each playing fairly complex passages but layering over each other and interlocking perfectly. Not what you would assume of the writers of “Particle Man”.

NZ: That’s very true. A lot of their songs have gotten more complex since their drum machine days, but it’s good to see that they haven’t lost their quirkiness.

NZ: Actually, you mentioned in your review that they’ve experimented with their own playing before (Linnel on the bass clarinet on “Cloisonne”), do you think that they’d be making the same sort of music if they’d never added a band to their line up?

MCJ: Nope. A band offers a completely different angle. I’m sure there are a few tracks that came from a groove the band made or whathaveyou. I can’t say which tracks, and the Johns are certainly leading the charge, but they would not have been able to be nearly as versatile, genre-wise, if they didn’t have the band.

NZ: Maybe they would have gone into seclusion for a while, but I wonder if they would’ve just come out with fully digital stuff along the same lines of what they’re putting out now. There must be some high fidelity Garage Band-like program available to musicians of their calibre.

MCJ: There’s no telling what they would have come up with. They’ve certainly been paving their own way ever since the technology barely existed for them to be able to do so. But we never would have gotten “Marty Beller Mask”.

NZ: (laughs) Good point!

MCJ: Nick, where can we find you on the internet?

NZ: You can find me at my video game and book review blog Going Box by Box (at http://goboxbox.blogspot.ca) and my dead language translation blog Tongues in Jars (http://tonguejar.blogspot.ca). Or you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @the_penmin.

MCJ: I will remind any readers reading that Going Box by Box is updated twice DAILY. Thanks for the chat, Nick!

NZ: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Malachi! I’m always happy to talk about TMBG.

And there you have it. Be sure to check out Nick’s tireless blog efforts!

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#10: The Knife with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock – Tomorrow, in a Year

(Rabid, 2010)

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(Image from Spotify)

Picking this up on a whim, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember listening to an album by The Knife once upon a time. It didn’t make too much of an impression on me then, but I was in the mood for some electronic music. The sparse cover and track names like “Epochs”, “Geology” and “Minerals” had me excited for some sort of concept album about a geological or archaeological expedition, but I did not expect what I got, which was a full-fledged opera based on The Origin of Species that was over 90 minutes long!

To my great pleasure, no effort seems to have been made to bend this album towards any sort of traditional operatic style, musically, apart from the use of an actual opera singer on a lion’s share of the tracks. The music is felt as much as heard. Great swathes of the album go by with only the noise of nature to keep you company (“Schoal Swarm Orchestra”). The introduction (“Intro”) begins with what seems like an anomalous blip in your ears, but is actually stretched out and evolved upon into a swaying bit of percussion. There is no need felt here to use every available instrument – only those needed for the track are present at any one time. Creaks and obscured crashes (are they cymbals or someone injuring themselves?) serve to mark a strange sort of time as the synths ebb and flow, burbling and diving and scratching into its surrounding area, with no sense of “song”, but simply of atmosphere.

The operatic vocals stand in stark contrast to the experimental tack of the backing music, but never sound out of place – they come from the same place as the music does, though the music gives the vocals a wide berth when they are present. My one complaint is that the operatic vocals make it difficult to understand the lyrics, with the vowel-heavy pronunciation (but such is opera). Vocally, the best moments come when the vocals are used percussively (“Upheaved”, “Colouring of Pigeons”), in which they are interwoven with the rest of the piece quite deftly and give a fantastic ominous feel to the proceedings. Strewn throughout are the vocals which I expected to hear on this album – quiet, almost whispering in a jumble of close notes with the occasional lash out higher.

The significant album length allows the band to stretch out a lot in the experimental department, devoting entire tracks to one or two effects in order to simply play them out and discover where they can take them – animal call-like vocals and a short echo, for example (“Letter to Henslow”) – nothing is hurried or over-the-top. The album takes all the time it needs to deliver exactly what it wants. There are some lulls and long form songs which allow for reflection within the album itself. It’s never pared down to nothing, but the time that it takes to build scenes from a drone or blip lets you acknowledge the changes as they happen and focus easier. There’s no all out attack on this album. When you hear a clip of just rain and wind for a minute or two, it makes sense within the context of the greater story. in order for them to place you in the story, they have to establish the setting. Feel is all important here, and the use of multiple instruments tracks to carry the story along in an opera is a risky proposition, but it pays off in spades here.

A fantastic experience! One of the best blind buys I’ve ever made. Everything has a nice build to it, despite the fact that what is building up seems to make no sense initially. The noises The Knife begin their songs with morph into little passages that take some time to come together, but become all the more satisfying when they finally do. They make something out of seemingly nothing and combine these disparate elements to create what feels like a proper, whole experience. A very low-key opera, but wholly enjoyable from start to finish.

9/10

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#5: Swans – The Seer

(Young God, 2012)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

I’ll come right out and say it: I HATE this album cover. If I could feasibly put another image up there I would, but it’s the cover of this damn album, so up it goes. My hatred of it, however, comes not from a critical place – it’s not that I think the execution is poor or that they didn’t try hard enough. As a matter of fact, the execution is excellent and I think it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, as well as encapsulating the album it stands for – it terrifies me. It’s a horrible, frightening image that’s meant to be horrible and frightening, and it hits me on an instinctual, visceral level. I can’t get to it critically, because I have to avert my eyes. Funnily enough, I feel very similarly about the first track of the album.

“Lunacy” is the song I previewed from the album before picking it up, and what a song to pick. It felt like something that I shouldn’t have been listening to before being indoctrinated – like I had stumbled onto a secret ritual chorus that would be the last thing I ever heard. It starts innocently enough, with some neat little chords chopping away on guitar, but then come the voices. It’s not long before they’re swiping at you out of the void chanting the title of the song over and over and over and over again, each time with more menace. You sense that it’s not a bluff, it’s not lunacy in the abstract. There will be consequences. It is legitimately frightening. For all these reasons and more, “Lunacy” is quite possibly my favourite track of 2012.

It’s probably no surprise that the track couldn’t be topped. Which song could compete with the gravity of the first? The model of repetition is played out over and over across the album, however, as phrases are in holding patterns with more and more layers heaped on top of them as the songs build to a climax, as Michael Gira’s Nick Cave-esque vocals make the occasional appearance, his lyrics and melody in flux atop the rock solid foundation of the riffs etched into the walls of noise that make up much of the album’s backing, which never lacks interest.

Feedback, quite liberated from the guitar at this point, swells and washes over much of the proceedings (in lieu of feedback, bagpipes are found to do quite well in a pinch, as on the title track), with the occasional King Crimson-esque free form drum doodle peeking out of the darkness, and mandolin and piano riffs circling over and over, drawing the ear in. The palette is well-stocked and scarcely less than full. In absence of vocals, guitars are wont to muse about and do so amidst adhering to the drone they set forth for themselves. The atmosphere is so thick you could spread it on toast, and is wonderfully creepy. The adherence to repetition becomes almost fatal in the middle of “The Seer” as a back and forth between two chords blasted by the band in unison at varying tempos seems to go on for what seems like ages, but I will always err on the side of self-indulgence in music and the guitar histrionics in between make it worthwhile.

The album moves through a few different moods, though none of them will ease the nausea, and the band makes no apologies either way. “A Piece of the Sky” spends approximately half its considerable running time with the sounds of a crackling fire leading to a wave of noise akin to a folk band having been thrown into a blender, at which point they begin to actually pick up the main thrust of the song. Regardless of whether or not their approach suits you, you trust them in that they have not censored themselves one iota – their vision is seen out to its last. Apart from Karen O’s relatively straightforward turn on “Song for a Warrior”, the rest of the guest vocalists here star as the devil’s choir, evoking the ghoulishness and avoiding the cheesiness of horror movie soundtracks with their sinister harmonies on “The Seer Returns” and “93 Ave. B Blues.”

Though I personally feel that a couple of tracks might have been excised in order for the album to sound a little tighter/more cohesive, this is a triumph of vision. It’s a journey through an almost unremittingly dark world, with a two-hour tour given by its mad prophets with no stone unturned. I’ve not heard a band successfully capture  the kind of immediacy and raw emotion found here in quite some time.

9/10

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