John Stanier: Battles with a Tomahawk

Consider Helmet to be one of the best bands you’ve ever heard in your life, even if you don’t really like them. Bringing jazz syncopation into their brand of experi-METAL if you will, Helmet essentially paved the way for the slew of worthless groups that live and die by the Drop-D. Not a winning endorsement for sure, but their records, In The Meantime and Betty in particular, kick the shit out of any nü-metal dance riff.

Consider John Stanier to be one of the best drummers you’ve ever heard in your life, even if you’ve never really listened to him. Adding depth to sometimes one-note riffs with his belled snare and that colossal kick drum, Stanier would take unforeseen opportunities to expand on a song’s rhythm, filling any empty space with a pound. Next time you hear In The Meantime’s title track, or “I Know” from Betty, you’ll understand what I mean.

Consider 2007 to be an interesting year for John Stanier, even if you have no idea what I’m talking about yet. Two releases:



Battles
Mirrored
Warp Records
Released 5.22.07

Rating: 9 out of 10

Industry meets jazz. Technology meets doo-wop. It’s difficult to know where exactly to place this band, as the mostly instrumental tracks featured on the band’s full-length debut, Mirrored, flirt with a lot in terms of genres, but seem to center ultimately around the world of tomorrow. New York quartet, Battles, might fall into the realm of “primitively modern.” They aren’t yet ready to abandon the guitar or the basic drum set, but they seem to be looking to at least stretch the boundaries of traditional vocalization or vocal harmonizing. Or, in the case of these guys, traditional “VOX.” It’s actually kind of a dangerous game they’re playing, one that could easily lead them down the poop chute of pretentiousness. But, instead, Battles is making something new: A love song to the digitized and an homage to everything that came before.



With the album’s opener, “Race: In,” Battles not only starts off the album but they also introduce their sound. Starting off with Stanier’s rather characteristic drum work, then leading into picked guitar licks, “Race: In” quickly adds its keyboard compatriots and its vocal harmonizing. From there, “Atlas” compounds on the machined aesthetics, churning away over tom beats while guitarist/keyboardist, Tyondai Braxton sings the song of the robotic chipmunk. In any instance where actual lyrics are involved, effects or speed with which the words are sung, make them hard to decipher. It’s easier to accept them as a musical element and nothing more.

For me, the winner on this record is “Tonto,” a 7-minute jam wherein guitar play is the focus. It may be the only track where modernity doesn’t play a role; it’s all about guitar textures and the flawlessly slowed climax.

Other notable tracks include “Rainbow,” which roars through high-pitched keyboard notes and percussive assault. The mellowed “Bad Trails” plays around with effects and vocal pitch and “Tij” comes off like very quick circus music and gets to be oddly repetitive toward its end. “Race: Out” comes in to shut it all down, fading out with a heavy snare and three-note guitar exchange.

And then you hit PLAY again. And again.



Tomahawk
Anonymous
Ipecac Recordings
Released 6.19.07

Rating: 8 out of 10

Up until this point, Tomahawk has been one of the more accessible of Mike Patton’s myriad projects, this being one that actually isn’t his. Experimental, but usually concept free, Anonymous breaks Tomahawk’s two-record mold, seeming to take a cue from the Fantômas model, and comes up with something thematic. In this instance, they decided to try and visit Native American music and see what they could do.

Ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist, Duane Denison, is really into Native American culture, hence the band’s name, Tomahawk. He did some digging and found some late 19th century Indian music and wound up inspired to come up with new variations on the material, some of which appears with its original titles. Anonymous is the result and it’s a fascinating, and respectful, listen.

Sometimes brooding and dark, but always mystic, Patton, Denison, and Stanier, create a truly desert-born piece of ritual rock that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. Its rhythms belong to the Indians, but Tomahawk has not shied away from putting modern touches on aged ritual music, most notably in the entrancing “Red Fox.”

Some of these songs, especially “Mescal Rite 1,” “Ghost Dance,” and “Antelope Ceremony” feature Patton in chant mode, trying to invoke the voices of old. But, he does add his own lyrics to tracks, letting “inspiration” carry some of the album, and not just relying on outright appropriation. “Totem,” at times, hits the unmistakable strides of Tomahawk’s previous albums, though they break into the vocal refrains that return to the ritualistic theme that they do a great job maintaining. The same can be said for “Cradle Song,” “Omaha Dance,” and “Sun Dance” which almost sounds metal at points.

It’s only at the album’s climax where the band drops ritual, and goes a little country for “Long, Long Weary Day,” a lonely guitar piece.

So, for John Stanier, one-time back beat for one of the most underrated bands of all time, it’s been a busy and eclectic year. Two bands, two distinctive sounds and two worthwhile listens. Everyone pays attention to the guy up front, but sometimes the guy behind the scenes is the one doing something different.

Class dismissed.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead
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