Tag Archives: music review

#11: The Flaming Lips – Clouds Taste Metallic

(Warner Bros., 1995)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

I’ve been a fan of The Flaming Lips for quite some time, but I had never gone very deep into their discography – mainly stuck to The Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi/At War With the Mystics (their critical success and immediately following). In anticipation of their upcoming album, The Terror, and having sampled their previous Embryonic (whose raucous sounds I attributed to going ‘back to their roots’), I thought I oughtta go back and check out some of their older albums and get a better feel for their earlier sound – I enjoy being able to ‘contextualize’ a sound/album within a band’s discography, and the more albums I hear of them, the better. Clouds Taste Metallic seemed to be viewed very favourably, so, I started there (I’ll admit it, I’m a cherry picker. Usually, when delving into a new band/new ‘era’ of a band, I will start with what appears to be the most-favoured rather than the first).

As I cued up the first track, “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”, I turned down the volume and put some distance between myself and the speakers, expecting an aural assault of high, piercing notes and feedback (these, after all, were the ‘early days’, before their commercial success and they were well-known as a noise-rock outfit). Much to my surprise, what I heard first was acoustic guitar, piano and Wayne Coyne’s searing, but gentle vocal. Even when the electric guitar enters the fray, it calmly echoes the vocal melody (though, soon after, its distorted cousin attempts the same thing and ends up being a funhouse mirror held up to the first). This album is not simply an aggregate of noise blasts stitched together but a display of excellent songwriting and musicianship throughout. The distortion is present much of the time, but never unseats the core of the songs happening.

Usually at that core is the unbelievable rhythm section of Michael Ivins (bass) and Steven Drozd (drums). Ivins plays in a wonderful flow, never boring, incorporating swells in his basslines like waves washing up and down the fretboard. Even in a straight one-note run, he manages to wobble it up with the occasional note to either side. Drozd, similarly, scarcely sits on a backbeat when he can be peppering in hi-hat or tom fills, and menacing everyones ‘phones with his distorted bass and snare, doling out rock-solid, rich rhythms without losing a drop of the beat.

That’s not say that all your hear is the sound of a four-piece band throughout the album. In addition to overdubbed guitars and the occasional swell of backing vocals from Coyne, sound effects are used on this album to great success. The sound of a filmstrip reeling runs over “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”;  “Psychic Explorations of the Fetus With Needles” begins with synthesized ‘nature sounds’; “Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World” has a cheering crowd, shouting ‘yeah!’ throughout, as well as a narrator describing the ‘scene’; “They Punctured My Yolk” begins and ends with what sounds like police radio chatter. The sparing, subtle way it’s done gives the impression that the album takes place in a slightly larger world apart from one just inside a studio.

Just a fantastic collection of songs. Each seem to have a simple enough centre to it, but at the same time, each is richly textured between the interlocking performances and the additional clangs, beeps and squeals coming from every direction. Totally at home in the alternative rock scene of the mid-90s from which it was birthed, but distinct from it as well – there is much more of a psychedelic edge to the proceedings that most groups had at the time. There’s a little touch of whimsy mixed in with the noise – all is not lost.

9/10

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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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#9: Peter Gabriel – Up

(Real World Music, 2002)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

My affection for Peter Gabriel is no secret. Just about all of my friends have heard me gushing over him at one point or another. He is my favourite vocalist, barnone (though the fight for second place is vicious). It began with listening to his time with Genesis and me loving every second of his performances/lyrics there – the ridiculous theatricality, his scratchy wailings telling stories of ghosts-turned-lecherous-old-men and man-eating plants alike. After exhausting the quite small discography of Gabriel-era Genesis, I turned to his solo stuff. Though it took getting over a couple of speed bumps, I slowly made my way through chronologically, having a lot of affection for his first four albums and So. And there it stayed, until I saw the man himself in concert.

It was the Back to Front tour, on which he played the entirety of So, his smash-hit album. He also played, however, several tracks off of Us, the following album, which I had been reluctant to check out based on the brief bits I’d heard. Needless to say, I picked Us up the day afterwards and was summarily blown away. This was textured, mature and rhythmically rich. It was finally the right time for Us. Obviously, now, it was inevitable that I finish the remainder of his solo studio discography (he has several collaborative projects, but solo albums take precedent), which consists solely of Up. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Us was quiet, often times slow and subtle. It was contained, underground, intimate (with tracks like “Secret World”, “Digging in the Dirt” and “Only Us”). Up lifts the lid right off and lets the thunder out. “Darkness” begins the album with a slow, quiet rhythm, making us lean in and gets ready for another album of the kind we enjoyed with Us. One moment later, you’ve tumbled backwards and trying to pick yourself up after an offensive, squealing blast of noise assaults you for a moment. The pieces are then picked up by the drums which shock and rock their way through the track, shuddering and shaking under the sheer force of their own impact (which is picked up again in “My Head Sounds Like That” and “Signal to Noise”), smashing away at the threatening, plodding rhythm. Gabriel whispers to you, in the sinister way that he used to warn you on “Intruder”, while in the background, he screams intermittently with heavy fuzz.

Not every track screams as the first one does upfront, but the noise is allowed to gather and pulse and scream as it will, belying much of the seemingly calm demeanor at the outset. Every track on this album (with the exception of the 3-minute “The Drop” which concludes the album) is in between 6 and 8 minutes, and each one is given time to stretch out and mutate into something else as it goes on – many of them sounding like the serenity of Us and then slowly morphing via scraping, noodlings and histrionics into something entirely different by the end (“My Head Sounds Like That”, “More Than This”, “Signal to Noise”). “Sky Blue” is the only one that manages to keep its calm, with its choruses of plaintive vocals and contemplative pace.   This is less a bed for Gabriel’s vocals to lie upon than it is an interactivity between the two. His (still impeccable) vocals are front and center for much of the time, roiling over internal woes, often stacked on top of one another, but always at great interplay with the rest of the track.

I thought was originally going to be a collection of sedate, sad-sounding songs (my indication being his recent Scratch My Back which was his rendition of several covers done with an orchestra, which all sounded rather gloomy), but I am very glad to be wrong. This is a lively, engaging listen, firing on all cylinders. All the best bits of Gabriel are on display here – sinister chords changes, incredible percussion, interesting tones, passionate vocals and songs with multiple but logical sections. Each one has had a great deal of care put into it, and it’s plain to see. And, clocking in at over an hour, there’s lots of it!

10/10

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#1: Crystal Castles (III)

(Fiction, 2012)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

My first exposure to Crystal Castles came upon the release of their debut in 2008, where I was shocked to learn that modern music had co-opted 8-bit sounds taken straight from my childhood into its music. I checked out a couple of songs and filed it away as ‘neat.’ At the time, to me, it was a gimmicky attraction, as I had virtually no time for electronic music. To my ears today, however, it’s quite a different story, this being the first actual album of theirs I’ve listened to.

As the attention is often drawn to it with 8-bit music, the tone is everything here. Screaming old synthesizers wanting to be put out of their misery loop around and around the racetrack Crystal Castles have arranged here – synthesizers that would be bubbling and roiling if they weren’t so busy chirping and buzzing. Though it doesn’t glaze the entirety of the album, the hard tone of the synths used here offer almost instant satisfaction, pulling you under wave after wave of stop-start chords as they hiss at you.

Alice Glass alternately whispers and howls in-between the layers in an often-dreamy alto, letting the synths do a lot of the screaming for her and giving many of the tracks a more hypnotic lilt to put alongside the klaxons, though in “Wrath of God”, she’s on top of everything else, pulling you down into the maddening morass with her. Her vocals always seem one layer removed from your ears, having to lean in close in order to hear what she’s really saying, but getting past that layer is no easy feat.

This album’s at its finest when it spots a single patch crawling along towards you, tweaking and twirling in a small-ranged rapid pace to create a focus around which the song is based, as on “Pale Flesh” – parts where there’s a little bit of open air or a big orchestra-style burst of many parts in harmony actually don’t do as much for me. There’s no question that these synthesizers are masquerading as anything but synthesizers, but I much prefer the alien, claustrophobic feel of “Insulin” (which gives me impressions of Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”, which is a very good thing  to the open sweeping bursts and static riff of “Sad Eyes”. The less room to breathe, the better.

On the whole, I enjoyed the hell out of this album. The beats are engaging, though not revolutionary, and the range of synth and vocal tones and interplay create a great mixture of terror and curiosity in me that I could definitely see myself getting addicted to.

8/10

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