It seemed like such a routine day when I first heard the screaming. I woke up just like any other morning, showered, brushed my teeth, got in my car, and stopped for coffee and a bagel on the way to the lab. I walked over to my station at the far end of the 50ft x 100ft room where all the audio people were set up. I was the first one in that day, so the normally buzzing bank of computers along the wall had that almost startling quiet morning people so love. It is an amazing thing to think about: that if I had shown up fifteen minutes later my life would still be normal. Oh well, dwelling on past failures never accomplished anything. That's not why I'm doing this.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Saturday, August 5, 2017
The first thing one notices on their initial play-through of Arcade Fire's "Everything Now" is the disco. This effect is very deliberate. While throughout the album one finds traces and elements, sometimes even structural supports, that would have been at home on any of Prelude's releases, the first two tracks, "Everything Now" and "Signs of Life" bathe in the square multicolored lights. Rather than allowing the "20 minute line for a men's room with open urinals*" vibe to exist solely in the form of 70s string counterpoints to hook melodies of the 21st century, the kind of thing a Pitchfork writer can think himself clever for being able to point out, the band choose to follow the noble path of El Kabong before them and smash you on the head with the influence. Their has always been a certain similarity with the way many modern acts relate to disco and the way the medieval mind viewed the heritage of antiquity (why do you think Hercules and Love Affair have such a deep affection for the Greco-Roman aesthetic). Unlike many of the medieval thinkers (and most modern acts), Arcade Fire are more than comfortable expanding on the achievements of the past.
I will use this opportunity to commit the first of many breaches of the "journalistic integrity" of pop criticism by pointing out that, while I occasionally find myself tempted to add Björn Ulvaeus to my five B's of fundamental Pop songwriting that everyone interested in making music should study in detail**, by pointing out the once-tired-and-cliche-but-now-again-relevant-because-of-people-who-resist-anything-tired-and-cliche fact that disco music is at it's core banal, stagnant, and steeped in the tradition of mosaic painting on the inside of a toilet bowl.
The Arcade Fire are also aware of this, and rather than choosing to "slyly" incorporate some of the better accouterments of the genre into a more vital pursuit like so many other acts, they have chosen to show up to 2017 in an open chested Qiana shirt. The critical establishment, being in possession of a Lear-ian tendency to judge things entirely by their surface appearance, are thus all but compelled to assess this music in regards to how it relates to the shifting tendencies of other groups, and whether the right amount of them are doing so to at the moment as their metric to decide what is worthwhile.
I am hoping that whoever reads this is also of the opinion that, if one is forced to judge beauty solely by the standards of what the broader mass of songwriters and performers at this moment consider beautiful, you end up creating a cult of the moment that is inevitably incapable of making any kind of discernment regarding true beauty. It is like a sculpture of Polyclitus being used for a mannequin by some expensive boutique; an abiding force that stands unchanging from one moment to the next even as the trends that lesser people think define it are swapped in and out.
With that out of the way lets get into the actual music.
Do I suggest a remedy? I do. I suggest several remedies. I suggest that we throw out all critics who use vague and general terms. Not merely those who use vague terms because they are too ignorant to have a meaning; but the critics who use vague terms to conceal their meaning, and all critics who use terms so vaguely that the reader can think he agrees with them or assents to their statements when he doesn't.
The first credential we should demand of a critic is his ideograph of the good; of what he considers valid writing, and indeed of all his general terms. Then we know where he is. He cannot simply stay in London writing of French pictures that his readers have not seen. He must begin by stating that such and such particular works seem to him 'good', 'best', 'indifferent', 'valid, 'non-valid'.
-Ezra Pound, "How to Read".
At the moment, my music writing is limited to the kin of rock and roll, i.e. the genres that derived and spread outward from the 1950's melting pot of Folk, Blues, and Country music. This covers a gamut ranging from Soul music to Technical Death Metal. This is not to say that the children of Rock music represent the total domain of my interest. In fact, my love of Jazz is nearly on par with the subjects of my writing, and my interest in Hindustani Classical music is not insignificant either.
However, I have spent my entire life listening to the progeny of rock music, while my broader interests are at most a decade old. Hence I do not feel that I have expertise to write about them. This is slowly changing with Jazz, but I still have a long way to go. Even if I live a full life I will likely never have enough of a grasp of Hindustani Classical to write anything worthwhile about Shankar or Chaurasia.
This does not mean that I will refrain from making asides to genres outside this intimate familiarity if I feel that they will add to the reader's understanding of my subject. It simply means that at this juncture I do not feel comfortable treating them directly.
Any worthwhile piece of music should have a purpose behind it. It does not have to, nor should it, be a purpose wholly explicable by language (the end result of this is either mediocre propaganda or a piss-poor concept album), but when a listener puts on a track or an album, it should be readily apparent why this musician(s) chose to walk into the studio and record.
Good music can range from incredibly elaborate to astonishingly primitive. A major virtue of primitive music is that a layman can readily detect the significance of, or whether their even is any, purpose behind it. The more technically proficient a musician is, the easier it is for them to swindle the ignorant with rapid fire scales, ornate chord progressions, and time signatures that require a trip to Wikipedia to count out properly, so that they think they are witnessing a manifestation of the divine when in reality all that is entering their ears is the urge for financial gain, idolization, and sexual intercourse brought to sound. This isn't to say that any of those urges, if addressed directly,cannot be the source of worthwhile music. Consider The Beatles' "Taxman", The Stone Roses' "I Wanna Be Adored", or Danzig's "I'm the One". It just has to be expressed openly instead of concealed behind a facade. One cannot mistake why Crass decided to record “Punk is Dead”, whereas even the most articulate listener will have difficulty determining what value there is in virtuoso guitar music beyond that which is valuable in a circus performance. Contrastingly, the pop music one normally hears on the radio readily announces its banal intentions (albeit occasionally dressed up in impressive studio abstractions), while “In the Court of the Crimson King” can be studied endlessly without one ever reaching the depth of its expressive capacity.
Of all the art forms, music is the one that produces the most direct connection to the depths of the human psyche. The writer of fiction and poetry has to have some kind of conscious recognition (even a rudimentary one) of what he is trying to evoke*. The artist has to encounter a vision (either externally, within his mind, or in most cases some combination) and then capture on the canvas the internal effect of that image. While their have been instances of cinematic masterpieces coming out of a group of who collectively had no clear ideas about what the were aiming for, this can be attributed to the bizarre mechanics of group behavior as well as dumb luck. Only in music can someone produce something that directly speaks to the deepest levels of the mind without having any understanding of what they have just evoked. The low formal requirements of rock and roll and its progeny make it especially susceptible to this.
The flipside is that, unlike other mediums, in which a creator can skate by with something that has an exclusively intellectual value, it is a requirement that music make some kind of connection beyond what can be appreciated directly by cognition. This can be emotional, sensational, archetypal, psychic**, or pneumatic. This is the reason that music criticism is so difficult, and why music critics are significantly less vital than any other variety of critic***. This does not mean that music that is more passionate is automatically superior to music that is less so. Kraftwerk and Joy Division both created music that is deliberately cold, and at the same time says something both direct and profound about the human experience. By contrast the saccharine over-emoting of early 70's California folk-rock and 90's r&b is so one dimensional and overdrawn as to be alienating to all but the unrefined and tempestuous (hence the popularity of both forms with teenagers).
Lyrics can either be in the service of music, where the rule of their value is how well they amplify the emotional content of the music, or they can be the focal point of the composition, with the music serving to enhance the effect of the words. This is not a binary distinction but a sliding scale, with a band like Slayer sitting close to one end and the music of Bob Dylan exemplifying the latter. Both ends of the spectrum (and any intermediary point) are perfectly acceptable means of expression.
A precious and elusive quantity, this righteousness. Needless to say most punk rock is not exactly ODing on it****. In fact, most punk rockers probably think it's the purview of hippies...
It's kinda hard to put into mere mortal words, but I guess I should say that being righteous means you're more or less on the side of the angels, waging Armageddon for the ultimate victory of the forces of Good over the Kingdom of Death (see how perilously we skirt hippiedom here?), working to enlighten others as to their own possibilities rather than merely sprawling in the muck yodeling about what a drag everything is.
The righteous minstrel may be rife with lamentations and criticisms of the existing order, but even if he doesn't have a coherent program for social change he is informed of hope. The MC5 were righteous where the Stooges were not. The third and fourth Velvet Underground albums were righteous, while the first and second weren't... Patti Smith is righteous. The Stones have flirted with righteousness (e.g. Salt of the Earth), but when they were good the Beatles were all-righteous. The Sex Pistols are not righteous, but, perhaps more than any other new wave band, the Clash are.
-Lester Bangs, “The Clash”
This will likely be the heading that alienates the largest portion of the audience I am interested in appealing to. It is also in many ways the most subjective. I do not have the energy nor likely you the patience to read through a treatise on ethics, but even without venturing out that far, save the nihilists among you, we all affirm some kind of meaning (and by no means a religious or a philosophical one) to existence. Since those who don't see any value in the game tend to stop playing it, save those possessed of either cowardice or “Notes from Underground”-esque levels of spite, this seems a rather self-evident thing to say. Just as self-evident is the fact that music can either assert or deny this meaning. What I mean is that some music recognizes something vital in the existence of humanity and some music denies this. Ultimately, I am of the belief that a musician who affirms is superior to one who denies, all other things being close to equal.
This does not mean that the music has to be upbeat or positive. Sanctuary's “Future Tense” is so deep in the waters of bleakness that it submerges the listener in the inky tide. Yet its darkness only serves to point out the absence of the sun (and hence the sun's existence). Its cry against modern hedonism and froth-at-the-mouth culture only stings insofar as one harbors hope of something better. As Morpheus says to Lucifer “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?"
Of all my criteria, this is both the most recent and the most personal in its nature and my application of it. However, events in my life have compelled me to place a higher value of the righteous than the nihilistic. This is also where I remain the most flexible. The second VU album is a masterpiece despite its utter contempt for literally everything, so are a number of Black Metal albums. At the same time, I believe that the Odinistic influence provided an affirming direction that tends to raise Black Metal with a Viking temperament higher than its morose peers.
Because the gifts of musical ability are bestowed evenly across humanity, the music on any given cultural or subcultural spectrum will have a relatively uniform distribution of quality. The exception to this is where outside forces shape the environment, most notably in how the drive to appeal to as broad a consumer base as possible renders the curve of commercial music a little flat and puffs up genres where there is little chance of financial success by assuring only those with a deep interest remain.
While every genre of music has its highs and lows, I, like ever other human whose interest in music has progressed beyond the passive absorption, lean more toward some forms and styles than others. Due to this, I think it is only fair that I briefly repress my urge to avoid pigeonholing myself so that those interested can get some sense of what I value personally. Especially regarding music, the idea of objectivity is utterly empty, so everything I write will reek of delusion if I cannot come out and tell the reader directly which of the numerous methodologies for the arrangement of sound has, in the broadest of assessments, has tended to have the greatest impact. Then, one who does not share my peculiarities is equipped to both diminish the value of my praise regarding styles that I naturally move towards and give extra attention to those points where my baseline sensibility meets theirs. Plus, in those occasions where I speak highly of a piece of music that does not naturally appeal to me, one can properly understand the significance of this statement; either the piece so excels beyond its peers that it demands special attention from even an outsider, or it moves away from the general trends of similar artists towards areas I find more appealing.
As a general rule I prefer the experimental and avant-garde to the traditional. I have a polarizing tendency to be attracted to both the most ornate and primitive. I have great appreciation for the craftsmanship involved in good songwriting, but I often grow bored when these skills are held by people without a coherent vision. The genres I value highest are most subgenres of metal, experimental rock, punk (with all the standard prefixes: proto, post, hardcore, and their various combinations), and Krautrock. I also have a significant interest in folk music, the better pop of the 1960s, indie rock, and some prog.
Thursday, May 25, 2017
Il miglior dottore
Stephan A. Hoeller:
Ⲡ·ⲥⲁϩ ϩⲟⲗⲱⲥ ⲧⲁ·ⲧⲁⲡⲣⲟ ·ⲛⲁ·ⲱⲁⲡ·ϥ` ⲁⲡ ⲉⲧⲣⲁ·ⲭⲟ·ⲟⲥ ⲭⲉ ⲉⲕ·ⲉⲓⲛⲉ ⲛ·ⲛⲓⲙ`
“Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and reign over all.”
-The Gospel of Thomas
“I guess Shepard came outta St. Cloud with a little ideology, some new way of thinking. A view to the future. Jesus this might be a mess.”
-The Hold Steady, “I Hope This Whole Thing didn't Frighten You”
I had a spiritual experience while laying on my bunk at the Hartford Correctional Center. I am far from unique in this. Spending high school and a good chunk of college as a militant atheist, rocking a Venom shirt, and blasting Burzum out the open windows as I drove past Sunday morning services may have put me at the far end of the bell curve of likely candidates for a cosmic epiphany, but jail's firm and unforgiving soil seems ideally suited for the cultivation of contact with the divine.
It happened on my third day in custody, just as the dope withdrawals reached their apex. Prior to that day I had counted myself among the millions of people turned off by all that “higher power” business at the NA meetings. However, the Buddha's message of liberation from the suffering that characterizes existence had struck a gong that very much resonated with my mindset during the previous five years spent shuffling my living space from my car to my parents house to detox facilities back to my car all while struggling with the day to day reality of heroin addiction. Starting about six months prior to my incarceration I had gotten into the habit of putting on lectures from a wide variety of Buddhist sects after I came back from my Hartford runs and then listening to expositions of the Dharma as I drifted off into oblivion.