Friday, September 26, 2008

random musical interlude

In between craving the start of bird season (and, in fact, even just more content now that preserve season has opened here in New York) and the hunt test + field trail seasons, I decided to write a few thoughts on music. This post is inspired by the recent NPR All Songs Considered podcast titled 'The '80s: Were They Really That Bad?' It's a funny hour-long podcast perhaps mostly because I happen to agree with most of the comments in it that, yes, in fact, the 1980s produced some of the most insipid, superficial popular music ever.

I would agree with the host of ASC, Bob Boilan, that so much of 1980s music was dominated by the technological emergence (and subsequent suffocation by) the Yamaha DX7 and digital reverb-heavy studio production. And yet, for all the Escape Clubs and Don Johnsons, there were still bands like Tears for Fears or even Talking Heads who could rely heavily on synthesizers and heavy studio production and still produce great records. (And they were still records, then.)

However it made me reflect on a few things I've been listening to recently. In a lot of ways, I think black metal may be the perverse cousin of 1980s hair-metal. For example, while I can appreciate the athleticism of the drumming, I can hardly listen to Emperor's highly touted Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk because the armature, for want of a better word, is so prominent. There's an element of baroque excess -- in the keyboards, in the band's colorful biography, in the album artwork. And 'excess' seems like the appropriate word because it's not as though Morbid Angel's Blessed Are The Sick is, on paper, much different -- nevertheless, I would say that Blessed is one of the archetypal death metal albums that I measure every other death metal album against. And where every drumbeat on most of the hair metal albums of the 1980s seemed entirely synthetic, Emperor embodies excess by cramming every possible bass drum beat into operatic length songs complete with sweeping synthesizers. And while Emperor is hard for me to listen to, there is still a melody and structure that emerges -- and in that way, Emperor is chaotic in a quasi-mathematical sense. By contrast, Hate Eternal, the side-project of Morbid Angel's former guitar player Erik Rutan, is just uncompromising in its seeming randomness. And hard to listen to.

However, what has emerged from all this digression is my appreciation for Johnny Cash (and frankly, the energy and insight that Rick Rubin shared with him on his final three 'American Recordings' albums). I recently heard Johnny's cover of Neil Diamond's 'Solitary Man' on the radio for the first time and think it's just awesome -- especially if you compare it to both the original and Chris Isaak's cover. Being the velveteen crooner that he is, Isaak's cover is much closer to Neil Diamond's original, smoother but lacking the goofy horn section. While Johnny's version has some sparse background synthesizer/organ/ strings in places, what shines brightly through the recording is his voice and guitar.

In the meantime, my other recent musical highlights have been:

* Jacaszek, Treny -- also first heard on All Songs Considered, and a wonderful dark, moody ambient series of compositions with strings, female voices, and assorted rumbles and pre-digital clicks and creaks.
* Opeth, Watershed -- I have been an Opeth fan for several years and loved them because they (unlike very few other death metal bands) were actually capable of handling modulation (in tempo, tone, genre) without sounding completely ridiculous. This is their newest album and has all kinds of echoes of classic rock and jazz.
* Habib Koité, Afriki -- another great album from Mali. A fabulous mixture of solo songs and more complicated arrangements with backing singers, violins, and horn sections.


Pam Lambros said...

Really interesting review Andrew. I am impressed. In my opinion, havin my formative muscial years ing 70s, I can't help but feel that decades music was pretty dismal. Although there were a few good bands during that time.

smartdogs said...

I just ordered Treny. Had been listening to Morphine while finishing up some painting right before reading the post and "Lament" (from Jacaszek's myspace page) sounded like something Mark Sandman and Ennio Morricone might have composed if they collaborated. Love it.

Dennis the Vizsla said...

Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails is well worth listening to as well.

mdmnm said...

Loves me some Johnny Cash, but I have a hard time with The American Recordings. Great concept, nice productions, but his voice had lost so much that it sounds almost like a different man and I have a hard time reconciling that with my expectations.

dave said...

Black metal and mathematical chaos. Very nice!

Andrew Campbell said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments.

And MDMNM, I know what you mean about Johnny's voice... but part of what I still love about the Rick Rubin production is that he gets everything he can out of Johnny and doesn't try to hide what he does have with excessive instrumentation or production tricks.

And Dave: black metal and chaos theory was all for you. Maybe just the chaos theory. But I was still thinking of you.