Heads On Sticks & Ventriloquists

The prodigious writings of a tortured genius.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Fresh Buildings

Originally written for Punknews.org:

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed upon first hearing The Locust's most recent album, "New Erections". It seemed as if there was not very much variety in the songs and they all seemed to follow a similar formula (spazz-out to death dirge to weird hazy sounds). These songs are longer than on previous full lengths, allowing the band more room to jam, which is not really a bad thing, but I felt as if they weren't using the extended time format to really craft something new. Now, far be it for me to deduct points from a band for experimenting with their established sound; the problem here is that The Locust are really just releasing the same sort of thing as before in an extended format.

Maybe it was because I had such high hopes for this album. I came to really enjoy their previous EP and hoped that their new CD would be following the same idea with more of a musical arc to it. The answer to that hope is a mix of yes's and no's.

Yes, The Locust have expanded their sound, not only in experiment, but also in production quality. Listen to "New Erections" and follow it up with "Plague Soundscapes"; the difference in quality is immense.

No, The Locust have not crafted a memorable sonic arc throughout their album. Each song simply comes and goes, it all feels unrelated and ends on a lackluster note (albeit, the abrupt ending was surely intentional).

Yes, The Locust are still headed in a good direction. Despite my disappointment initially, many of the songs on this album are pretty good on their own. "Full Frontal Obscurity" has a great fist-pumping chant of "This hegemony is hard at work!", while "God Wants Us All To Work In Factories" is filled with infectious energy.

No, The Locust have not perfected their bouts with experimentation. Opener "Aotkpta" ends up turning into a churning Mastadon b-side (which, despite how interesting that might sound, ultimately fails). "Book of Bot" becomes an ambient electronic drone in the second half that doesn't really serve to accent the music before it or after it -- it just feels dropped in.

Yes, many of the new experiments succeed greatly. Most notably, "Scavenger, Invader" uses only a handful of electronic buzzes and bass pulses, but ends up working out really well. It takes the slow plodding that failed in the end of "Aotkpta" and makes it work. The end of "The Unwilling... Led By The Unqualified... Doing The Unnecessary... For The Ungrateful" recalls some of the newer work by beloved label-mates Converge.

No, I haven't given up hope on The Locust. I feel like this album is simply the transition away from what they've been doing for years, into a more furtive territory of creativity. Only time will tell, I suppose. The Locust usually aren't predictable and nothing on this disc has convinced me that any other ThreeOneG-style band has dethroned these guys as the kings of their genre.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Daughters Spelled Wrong

Originally written for Punknews.org:

Never before have I been compelled to write a retalliation review for an album here. Sure I've certainly had strong disagreements with reviews on this site, but I usually take it with a grain of salt. When I r
ead the review of the new Daughters album on the afternoon of September 10th, I totally disagreed with it, but I didn't really bother to do anything besides post: "I totally disagree with this review. He's not trying to sing on this album, I would say. I honestly think this is the best album Daughters have released to date. They got sick of how every hardcore band sounds exactly the fucking same. For a spazz-core heavy band to release such an experimental record is a huge positive in my book. I hope more bands in this genre take a cue from Daughters and just experiment a little. This album rocks."

I thought my little comment would be enough of a way for me to vent my frustrations. However, as time passed, I grew to enjoy the album more and more. At the end of the year I cited it as one of the best albums of 2006. Now I like it even more than when I said it was one of the best of the year. As my enjoyment of the record grew and grew, so did my frustration with the Punknews.org review of it (especially by one of the trustworthy staff! gasp!). I would read it over and over. Disagreeing with almost every point, obsessing, and carving key phrases of it into my walls ("shitstorms", "obnoxious", "Hypervent Tilationsystem", etc.). I stopped sleeping. I stayed up all night, hugging my iPod rocking back and forth listening to the new Daughters CD while staring at my distant computer screen while the cursed review glared back at me.

That really happened to me.

The fact of the matter is, "Hell Songs" not only rules, but utterly destroys everything else the band has released and most of what their weirdo noise contemporaries release. I really wouldn't consider Daughters to be a part of any real genre and god
forbid I label them "grindcore" (what grindcore truely is has yet to be determined to this very day [cue frenzy of scene veterans to the comments section]). They truely seem to belong in the noise band category, more like bands such as Growing and Battles, and (perhaps more similarly) freakout bands like The Locust, Black Dice and AIDS Wolf. Either way, experimentation is not a bad thing.

The vocals were the most abhorred part of the album according to the previous review, but I think they are stronger than on previous recordings. In fact, if I hear another band with "a vicious, affecting scream, very much helping to illuminate the underlying chaos" I will blow my fucking head off. The new vocal style is not an attempt to sing, as the previous reviewer stated, but is just another way to tell the story the lyrics are trying to convey. If you think about it, talking, whispering, growing, and hissing the lyrics are no more absurd than screaming them. The new vocal style represents more of a confusion and a desperation, which I think compliments the music way better than a high pitched bark.

The songwriting is improved as well, everything has a bouncier, carnival-in-hell sort of quality. The ideas are drawn out longer as well, because one of my biggest complaints about the last album was that it was over too quick (there's only one song under a minute long on their new album). This new format allows the band to jam a little longer on each song, which in turn makes the heavy parts much more intense. This idea is really taken advantage of on the three-part, six-minute long "Cheers Pricks" (which also features one of the most loopy and catchy basslines on any album released last year).

Even though it's only 20 minutes long, "Hell Songs" has a menacingly epic quality to it. The album opens with droning sun's-in-your-eyes-and-you're-hung-over guitars and a thick, plodding drumline, giving way to "Fiery" which could be playing right now in Satan's discoteque (plus the wonderful acapella ending of "This is how you go burning there as quiet as a mouuuuussssse"). Other highlights include the unbearable tension of scissors(?) clipping the empty air in "Fiesty Snake Woman" that later crumble away into complete deep chaos; the use of horns and strings towards the end of "Providence by Gaslight"; and the "love is a disgusting thing" chant on "Hyperventilationsystem". The album ends almost innocuously by suddenly fading out. It's just suddenly over.

So obviously I'm extremely pumped on this album, which may deter some people, but I absolutely
mean it. I have no ties to the band or anything like that; in fact they seem very distant from their fanbase, constantly making fun of them live (which I believe is still totally justified). So if anything, I just want to try to get Brian and the rest of the music-adoring public to re-listen, at least once. Chuck Klosterman wrote in his newest book about how people can't be satisfied with simply having their own opinion and living with it; people want their opinion to be considered the "right" opinion. They want it to be a part of the status quo. So that's what I'm doing right now. I just want to have my feelings justified.

Punknews, please post this deeply erratic and troubled review for a deeply erratic and troubled album.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Is It Like When You Throw A Person or a Person's Sine Wave Frequency?

Originally submitted as a review for Punknews.org:

Noah Lennox has a storied musical history. He released his first album under the Panda Bear monkier as a teenager in Baltimore. He was longtime friends with a guy named Josh Dibb, who helped him release some of his music. Noah went away to Pennsylvania for awhile, when his friend Josh started a band called Automine with two other college students: David Portner and Brian Weitz. After much moving around, the four of them wound up living in New York by 2000. Portner asked Lennox to play drums on the album he was working on under his solo alterego name. The album was called "Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished". Eventually all four musicians would become known by their made up names (Avey Tare, Deakin, Geologist, and Panda Bear) when they formed Animal Collective; their most successful band to date.

Despite writing much music together in Animal Collective, Noah still had the itch to record more solo material. He released a second album as Panda Bear, called "Young Prayer". It was a very divisive record, as it was somber low-key indie folk. It came after the death of Lennox's father and was recorded in his father's old house. It sounded like Animal Collective, but with the pop and energy removed. Where the strong melodic sense of Animal Collective is one of the band's key selling points, Panda Bear opted for etherial, mood-based music.

After another Animal Collective record (2005's excellent "Feels") and moving his wife and daughter to Lisbon, Portugal, Panda Bear has returned with a total departure from his previous sound with "Person Pitch". Loose, rythmic guitar strums and ambient tones have been traded for tight polyrhythms, samples, loops, and commanding, melodic vocals.

The album opens with what sounds like a cheap carnival roller coaster being cranked up the initial slope. The album that ensues, however, is less like the gut-churning dive of the first drop, and more like the roller coaster got to the top and you were suddenly floating in the Bahamas. This is the soundtrack to taking it easy. I found a smile creep across my face as Lennox sang on the first track: "Coolness is having courage / Courage to do what's right / I'll try to remember always / Just to have a good time".

The Brian Wilson/Beach Boys influence is extremely apparent, but certainly isn't derivative. The use of loops, not-from-this-planet sound effects, and heavy reverb keep this album extremely fresh. The real one-up on previous Panda Bear recordings is the incredible sense of melody on each track. Every song -- even the foggy dawn haze of "I'm Not" and the ambient loop-based "Search For Delicious" -- has an instantly memorable hook that you'll have stuck in your head until you hear the next hook. It's an altogether sublime experience.

One doesn't really grasp how epic the album is, however, until the third track "Bros"; a 12+ minute jungle beach party in heaven. It is only surpassed in greatness by the other 12+ minute track on the album, "Good Girl/Carrots". Instead of the feel-good acoustic strum and heavily multitracked harmonies of the first, "Good Girl/Carrots" is an entrancing foray into tribal drums and echo-disguised vocals. Halfway through, the song becomes a rhythmic saloon piano stomper. Lennox sings to some unknown hater, "All I want to do is take it easy / It's not a ticket / For you to pick at / Other people / Who don't know what's up like you're so sure you do". The lyrics are almost entirely like this; heavily influenced by the rules of Brian Wilson Songwriting 101: Make a simple statement, sing it nice, have said simple statement now become profound because of how laid back you are.

The album ends with Lennox singing in three part harmonies over a chimey organ that sounds like it's underwater. One can imagine the sun setting behind palm trees as Lennox falls asleep on the beach. Ultimately, the imagery one associates with these songs become the most important aspect of the album. At least for me, as the mercilessly cold Philadelphia winter begins to give way to the irrevocably pleasant spring time, this album helps to serve as the transition. It's a prelude of things to come.

Also! This is pseudo related. Check out this awesome unreleased AC song live...

Friday, March 16, 2007

People Who Love Dolphins

Okay, I'm back. I know it's been a month, I just haven't been motivated to write anything. Especially since the weather seemed to be getting nicer. In the last two days, Philadelphia has seen a temperature change of over 50 degrees. I was wearing shorts on Wednesday, it's snowing on Friday. But that's not what this is about. This is about Dolphins. More specifically, people who love Dolphins.

You know what, sure, even I think Dolphins are great. They're cute and smart and you can ride on their backs (they love it! just ask a marine biologist!). They're "benign and innocent beings". So before I write any more, I ask you to watch the brief video below. It is what inspired this post.

Warning: Some of these shots are grusome and bloody.

The video, (narrated by Joaquin Phoenix [who I think is an excellent actor]), is posted by a user named "VeganBryan", so I feel I can rightfully assume he's against the slaughter of any animal; but the video helps illustrate some very interesting American ideas, and it advertises the very sort of Americanization that most culturally-sensitive liberals claim to be against.

So I'm going to say it now: I don't have a big problem with the events that took place in the video above.

I'm not going to get into the politics of animal cruelty/veganism/vegetarianism/free-ranging, but rather the idea of American culture vs. world culture. Hunting, fishing, and raising livestock for the purposes of consumtion are all very large and (mostly) accepted practices in America today. We eat cattle, pork, poultry, fish, and even deer, toad, and fish eggs. We don't, however, eat dolphins.

Dolphins have a friendly appearance; genetics has blessed them with a built-in smile, beautiful shiny skin, and a graceful disposition. The innate cuteness of the dolphin is why so many young men and women aspire to be marine biologists each year. Even though marine biology is the world's most competitive job market, thousands go to college each year so that they can bask in the warm Miami rays and hang onto a dolphin's fin as it pulls them towards the nearest Haitian man making Pina Coladas. This is the reason that the only one of those people that cares a lot about clams too is also the only one to actually get the job.

The reason that I feel so many people have responded negatively to the images in the video are (obviously) because of the violence and (less obviously) because Americans love dolphins and think dolphins are adoooorable. It's because we love good looking things. We love beauty and intelligence and grace. And all of these are dolphin characteristics. So if "delicious" is a separate trait that another culture wants to impart on dolphins, so be it. The violent tactics used to kill those dolphins is no different than the tactics we use in the U.S. to kill farm animals. So if it's the violence against animals you have a problem with, look no further than your own borders. But if you watch the video above, say that you're appalled and demand action, but you also eat meat; you're a hypocrite.

Let's re-watch that video for a second. Pretend, for a moment, that the animals depicted are not dolphins, but instead, each one is a big, writhing, grey squid. Dudes are pulling those ugly motherfuckers out of the sea instead. Mama squid is separated from baby squid. A man starts cutting off their slimy, gross tentacles and cutting their ugly, dumb squid throats.

Now how do you feel? Who gives a shit about a squid, right? Hell, those fishermen could pull the last god damn giant squid out of the ocean and the choir would shout "Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!" This is because squids -- especially giant ones -- are the ugliest, dumbest, scariest things on the entire planet. And that is not American. In fact, I bet this same shit does happen to squids, but no one cares. Not Joaquin Phoenix, not no one.

Which brings me to my final point. That most Americans would not flinch if the squid was hunted to extinction this morning is an indicator of our culture. If there was a video depicting the slaughter of the last ever giant squid during the commerical break on American Idol people would simply be confused or scoff (this is speculation, I know, but bear with me). Switch it to the slaughter of dolphins and you would have people crying and throwing up into their Louis Vuitton handbags.

And the thing is, dolphins aren't even an endangered species. Many of the responses to the video talk about how sickened they are by the hunting of an endangered animal. Dolphins are not endangered. According to the ongoing Endangered Species Act, the only endangered dolphin is the Chinese River Dolphin. And that one is extinct because it can only live in a small freshwater area that is gradually becoming more and more polluted. There are only 13 left in the wild. Which I guess speaks more loudly of mankind. We're a poison. Our intelligence has given us the ability to destroy everything. And again, I don't care. Call me nihilist, but I've accepted that humanity has irreverisbly fucked everything up. That's just how the world works. I'm a happy person. I enjoy my life. But at some point you have to realize that the true state of the universe is that everything must always be fucked up.

Some people like to eat fish, some people like to cows, some people like to eat pigs, some people like to eat people, and guess what, some people like to eat dolphins. Yes, hunting is a grusome venture, but no more violent than if a shark were to attack those dolphins. No more violent than a lion pounging on a gazelle. Or a cougar and a rabbit, etc etc etc. As long as man as lived he has hunted. So you can either have a problem with the act of hunting itself or accept that anything can be hunted.

Maybe I'll try dolphin sometime.

"Don't kill me, I'm cute!"

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