Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Not-so Progressive Mars Volta

The Mars Volta
Universal Records
Released 9.12.06

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Progressive rock is always a risky genre to work with. Naturally, you have to have talent and an unfailing understanding of how to “compose” rock music. In the 70s there were a lot of performers who committed themselves to the painstaking task of making guitar/bass/drums sound refined, suitable for the for the not-so common music aficionado with a passion for Bach, Miles AND Hendrix. A tall order some might say, but a listenership emerged nonetheless, somehow adding miles of wildly perceived time signatures to the chemically addled heads of ex-hippies everywhere. The wild nuances of composers like Frank Zappa, the jazz influence of John McLaughlin & The Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson’s affinity for mathematically pristine musicianship, Miles Davis’ reviled and misunderstood explorations into adding a dash of James Brown to his trumpet: Rock was growing by leaps and bounds into more than just its bare necessities.

This wasn’t everywhere of course. Backlashes to this possibly blasphemous mistreatment of rock music emerged in the form of bands like The Stooges. Plus you also had bands like Sabbath and Zeppelin that, despite experimenting musically in later albums, kept it “real” for the most part. But, the emergence of the best known of these groups, a small musical outfit from London called Yes, gave progressive rock its heroes.

Now, here’s the danger part: Rock is by nature a universal “fuck you” gesture. Mixing a “fuck you” gesture with the stiff upper-lip sophistication that comes with classical music is kind of offensive. I know that I was more than a little mortified when Metallica released the S&M album. Not that I don’t believe it can’t be done, but why drain away your music’s bare-bones rawness and intensity for the sake of indulging your own self-congratulatory misconception that your songs are somehow too good for that? I mean, there’s reinterpreting and then there’s just straight-up pretentiousness. And that’s what happened with Yes.

With The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To the Edge, (which is my personal favorite), Yes successfully expanded rock’s potential and, despite stripping away some of its rebelliousness, still managed to sound like a rock band doing some cool shit. And then you have Tales From Topographic Oceans: the pinnacle of progressive pretentiousness and self-indulgence, a long and boring exploration to nowhere. Someone should’ve told Yes “no.”

Now, what I’ve been trying to get across with the long intro, is that progressive rock has a tendency to lead the performers into situations where they feel they have to cleverly outdo themselves from album to album. The music may get better, the band may get tighter, but no matter how much you try you just can’t get into the albums these bands produce. At least not like you used to. The Mars Volta, the quintessential Yes for the now, has unfortunately found themselves in this very predicament. Since 2003s De-Loused In the Comatorium brought prog back to the new millennium, composer (for lack of a better term) Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala have found themselves caught up in their own private Tales From Topographic Oceans.

Amputechture, the Volta’s third LP since Omar and Cedric disbanded At The Drive In, is almost a return to Comatorium’s refreshing spirit and songwriting. With Comatorium, the Mars Volta combined At The Drive In’s emotional heights with the signature precision of Yes and King Crimson. They also incorporated the unpolished movements perfected by bands like Sonic Youth and Fugazi. Upon listen, The Mars Volta won me over but has since become something to endure. It’s not to say that they’re a bad band, far from it. Strangely enough, I fault them for almost being too good. But their songs drip with as much uncertainty as they do with competence. Even the most amazing author needs an editor and this whirlwind of multi-directed “compositions”, (which is what they call them), sounds empty.

“Vicarious Atonement,” the opening track on Amputechture, starts things of off with a dose of straight-up Pink Floyd gloom. It’s a slow opener that was probably meant to enhance the intense drum and horn play of the 16-minute “Tetragrammaton.” With the amount of musical directions “Tetragrammaton” spreads itself around, they could’ve dissected it like a dead biology class frog and spread them all throughout the album, creating a possibly more fluid and focused collection of songs.

“Vermicide” and “Meccamputechture,” are two of the album’s moments of clarity, relying on one basic rhythm section and a reserved amount of change-ups while allowing other musical elements to craft mood and interest.

The haunting “Asilos Magdalena,” is an unexpected but welcome piece of acoustic beauty, conveying the band’s potential for sound songwriting when it isn’t trying to outdo itself. Adding a little more heft, “Viscera Eyes” does a good job of employing some King Crimson signature work but mixes an over abundance of sci-fi sound effects and brass that sort of detract from the song’s positives. Similarly, “Day of the Baphomets,” plays with some really inspired rhythm sections but they get lost in the shuffle as the song bends and twists itself into a junk art wad of digressions.

The almost 9 minute “El Ciervo Vulnerado” struggles along at a snail’s pace in an annoying haze of Cedric’s multi-tracked falsetto, sitar and feedback, and then ends the album abruptly like the producer just ran out of tape.

Overall, The Mars Volta come off like they have too much to prove, packing their songs with every trick in their book and possibly leaving themselves no ground to stand on for further releases. If they could space these musical directions throughout their albums, I think they could come up with a more comprehensive and enjoyable selection of songs that could maintain their complexity without sounding overdone. I give The Mars Volta high marks for their talents, but they need to learn some control. Having said that, Amputechture has its moments and hopefully The Mars Volta haven’t spent too many of their ideas. I’d like to see them caught up in their own private Close To The Edge.

Letters From A Tapehead

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Better than TV or the Radio…

TV On The Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
Released 9.12.06

Rating: 4 out of 4

Media is one thread of humanity that we all share. As much as we may love or hate television, we’ve all seen the same shows, watched the same news program, caught the same commercials. We all buy advertised goods, believe paranoia-inducing news spots on the potential dangers of cell phone radiation, and somehow get involved in celebrity break-ups. Television’s glowing realities are viral, nesting into brain cells and creating legions of channel surfers that always, ALWAYS, have something to discuss the next day over stationary water coolers and coffee makers. The same can be said for radio, whose monotonous and unimaginative playlists only accent the DJ’s morning banter which, a lot of times, is about what they saw on TV. Not to say that television and radio rarely inform, but their rafts of often mind-numbing programming are sought and uploaded with gusto, overtaking a large percentage of the human experience.

You have to wonder why intellectually based art rock bands like Television and The Talking Heads, two vital groups to rise to prominence during ’77’s musical colossus, would purposely don names that relate to such a vacuous device. Irony is probably the reason, but there is also something to be said for humanity’s aforementioned common thread and the television’s widely known name being related to something artistic.

Similarly, New York-bred TV On The Radio, cleverly advertise the juggernauts of mass media, only to change its purpose by impregnating it with art. It’d be false to state that intellectualism and art in music have died, (obviously Radiohead have managed to corner that market as well), but it’s difficult to trace its path from the Heads ‘til now, where it seems to be on short order.

Return To Cookie Mountain, TV On The Radio’s second album and first with Interscope, forms brilliantly layered soundscapes that rely on abstract musical concepts and funk rhythms. Headphones only exist because of albums like this. The vocals, mostly sung in unison between band mates Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, are the primary element to every song and mix the high-pitched essence of Smoky Robinson with Brian Wilson’s harmonic textures. A lot of times the verses almost sound improvised, finding unique inflections at odd moments in the songs but never sounding wrong. It comes off like either beautifully sung beat poetry or very passionate Motown.

Though seemingly minimal, TV On The Radio experiments with a wide array of instrumentation and electronica, managing to rewrite the traditional sounds of psycadelia, most notably with the orchestral samples employed on the opening track, “I Was A Lover” and the vast fields of noise produced on the almost dancey, “Playhouses.” Following the album’s opening track, “The Hours” subtly heightens the album’s tempo, bringing horns and piano to the mix:

”You walked around, thought yourself beautiful/Just too bad they stared, just too bad they stared…”

That line has been in my head for a month.

David Bowie guests on the beautifully piano laden, “Province,” adding his Brian Eno and pop associations to an album that clearly takes his invaluable lessons very seriously. In fact, bringing back the Talking Heads for a moment, TV On The Radio could easily be the modern day synthesis of Eno’s work with the Heads and Bowie. They combine the ultra-orchestral vision of Bowie’s Low with the world music influence and funk of the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Remain In Light. But they add a current spin by not shying away from, while not overusing, the sampler and the synth. The result is a masterpiece for the now and a fresh and innovative variation on pop music. Bowie’s presence here is appropriate in more ways than one, and indicative of TV On The Radio’s potential as both an alternative AND mainstream powerhouse.

“Wolf Like Me” is the album’s most accessible track, providing the album with its only real straight-ahead rocker. “Method,” definitely birthed from the Beach Boys school of harmony, functions almost solely on percussion and vocals. Adding strum-heavy guitar noise to the anthemic “Let the Devil In,” a choir of voices exclaims the song’s title over marching drums and bass. The guitar sticks around for “Dirtywhirl” and then the band expands on the traditional sounds of blues for “Blues From Down Here,” a fast-paced bit of funk that’s sung with preacher-like passion and spontaneity, which is reflected by the song’s use of multiple horns.

The beautifully sung ballad, “Tonight,” flows over echoed piano, defined tambourine and clarinet. The distinctive elements carve themselves out of the song’s dissonant background and almost sound alone in the audio expanse. It’s like the instruments are being played far away, like the song exists in a musical between five different people that happen to be playing the same piece of music in five different corners of the planet.

”Don’t keep it silent and tortured/Or shove it unto the floorboards/Your busted heart will be fine/In its tell time time/So give it up/Tonight”

Part of me thinks that “Tonight” should’ve ended the album, but “Wash The Day,” hitting anthemic notes again with heavy vocals, celebratory drums and electric sitar, suits the album well as its climax.

My only complaint with Return To Cookie Mountain, and it’s a minor complaint for an otherwise flawless album, is the inclusion of four additional tracks. After 14 tracks consisting of 16 to 17 seconds of silence, (Just a note to iTunes users, these tracks reveal a hidden joke when you upload the disc to your computer.), a filler track called “Randomness,” throws in almost two minutes of studio noise and talk which is then followed by “Snakes and Martyrs,” a remix of “The Hours,” and “Things You Can Do.” The tracks are good, but they deviate from Cookie Mountain’s intended sequencing and add a different ending to the album. I would’ve liked to these tracks featured on an EP, maybe accompanying the CD as an interesting companion piece. But, I’m just being a picky bastard.

TV On The Radio is a band that the world of music desperately needs. Their highly intelligent and artful Return to Cookie Mountain is an album that restores hope that we haven’t seen it, heard it or done it all. The world of possibility still exists as long as albums this good can still emerge from skilled hands, heads and hearts.

Art isn’t dead. Yay, God.

Letters From A Tapehead

Friday, November 10, 2006

I'll be pressing PLAY real soon...

To Whom It May Interest,

On tap are reviews for the latest from TV On The Radio, Thom Yorke and The Mars Volta. I'm also playing a little catch-up on Johnny Cash, Helmet and a couple others. Well, a lot of others. The list has expanded immensely and this year has been surprisingly good for music. I'll be back at the keyboard in a little while with headphones on and the volume turned up.

Thanks for your patience.

Letters From A Tapehead

Guerilla Toss: "Meteorological"

I was elated to find out that Guerilla Toss will be releasing a new LP this September called Twisted Crystal . Last year's GT Ultra sp...