Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » March
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On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

In hip-hop music or anything hip-hop related, it’s almost expected for something to be grandiose and bigger than life.  To be honest, that’s how the music used to feel. Maybe saying “used to” is an indication of not just my appreciation for the old school, but also my age.

When something’s titled Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3, though, potential listeners focus on a few things. One, the title completely misses the seven syllable rule, a rule suggesting titles be seven syllables or less in order for it to be accessible and easy to say on the radio. Two, apparently we are all going to burn in hell. That alone summons fear from people who will see those words and go, “Nope, I will not touch this. There’s too much Illuminati talk in hip-hop, and this will not suit me in the after world.” Fair enough. Three, the word “megamixx.” The word, real or imagined, doesn’t represent the music on this album or how it’s mixed or presented. If anything, Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 is an offering that sounds as futuristic as anything El-P has ever done, but remains rooted in not only hip-hop’s past but also the history of influences making early hip-hop records great.

This 15 track, all-instrumental album consists of brand new material plus a small handful of songs El-P fans will recognize. In this context, one can consider the effort a completely new album. El-P, who’s known equally for his effective lyrics and flow as much as his own abrasive productions, offers listeners a chance, once again, to enter his own world, with its stories and adventures of his musical mind. One might say, “15 tracks? All instrumental? So he just released an album of break beats for other rappers and producers to rhyme over and sample ?” Yes and no. I would actually rank this album alongside RJD2’s Deadringer (Def Jux, 2002), Nobody’s Soulmates (Nippon Crown, 2001), and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (Mo Wax, 2006) as a hip-hop instrumental albums done right.

Consider this disc a producer’s workshop of sorts, although those who aren’t engaged with the inner makings of music production don’t have to listen to it in a studious manner. Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 is a very cinematic set of songs, in that these works are audio movies. For me, it sounds very much like New York circa 1974, going back to when Manhattan looked like a pretzel-loving porn mecca and not a Disney mall, where failed hopes and dreams mingled with forced images of what success is meant to be. It sounds like the smell of piss in a dank subway station. Music being capable of summoning that kind of vivid imagery is pretty amazing.

But again, it’s cinematic and it’s those kind of head games that help make this album much more than just a simple collection of cool break beats. These songs are properly structured compositions sounding like obscure library music that producers and record collectors mine, because those samples were created for the sole purpose of being cinematic. There’s a recent documentary about sample-based production, and in it El-P says something to the effect of, “If you can detect what I’m doing, then I’m not doing my job.” He’s not a producer just throwing in samples and sounds to add another layer to his work. There’s an incredible amount of thought going into what he puts together. There’re definitely recognizable sounds included here, but the way EL-P cleverly inserts them makes you want to go to New York, find him, and say, “Yes, I know what you did there. Props.”

Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 is not an everyday hip-hop album, even though its influences come from the same places that made the music what it is – hinting at Superfly, Bloodsucking Freaks, and Vanessa Del Rio. It’s the blemishes on Peabo Bryson’s shiny forehead. It’s misery’s blues. To sum it up, it’s what hip-hop was, is, and always will be. It may be experimental in nature for those who are used to fitness instructor hip-hop, but the adventure lies in trying to figure out what El-P is trying to say over the course of a wordless album. You can now walk through the entrance, but watch out for the piss soaked bum in front.

In hyper-sped up media time, releasing the long-playing follow-up to a debut album within a year’s time is pretty much the only sensible path for a band to take. Issuing Lux through Kranky last April didn’t leave Chicago’s Disappears too much time to work up new material, thanks to a spate of well received touring. Summoning another 30-minutes of music, though, might be less difficult for this ensemble than others. Devoted to playing as few notes as possible, Disappears seems to be continuing its focus on simple atmosphere instead of the psych freeqouts its peers deal in. Surely, there’s been a resurgence in drug music over the last decade or so. And with the likes of Wooden Shjips cum Moon Duo trucking about with decent press notice, it would seem a simplified version of those West Coast stalwarts was again in order.

Of Guider’s six tracks, each count a vocal. The 15-minute closer, “Revisiting,” representing Disappears’ aural bent, though, is mostly instrumental. At the three-and-a-half minute mark, the composition sports a few sung/chanted bars from frontman Brian Case (Ponys, 90 Day Men). For the most part, listeners are ostensibly required to wait for the minutiae of derivation from the song’s main statement for entertainment. Every once in a while the bass-line flutters up an octave before again fitting in seamlessly with the rest of the group while occasional drum fills, amounting to a tossed off roll or added in eighth note, serve to differentiate one portion of the track from the next.

In mentioning percussion, it’s endlessly bizarre to think that with all the various avenues people dispense information, Steve Shelley joining and touring with these Chicago based space(d) rock dudes hasn’t impacted digital media at all. Even if the only thing the drummer recorded was last year’s Michael Rother-led Hallogallo single, referenced here on “Halo,” Disappears’ line-up change would be worthy of note. But toss in Shelley’s decades of playing with Sonic Youth and the entire situation amounts to confusing.

With such plainly spoken drum parts – well, all parts – the line-up shift probably doesn’t make too much of a difference other than in a cultural sense. Impactful or not, Guider remains a useful addition to record collections already engorged with repeato-rock’s past royalty. Disappears might not rank alongside a Germanic version of Hawkwind as of yet, but wait another nine months and the group’s next full-length could prove they do.

Guitarist Nels Cline knows no restrictions. He creates music he wants to hear and has attracted listeners who appreciate his aural endeavors as they balance metal, jazz, avant-garde, ambient and much more. Cline is as prolific as he is accomplished and keeps up with innumerable side projects, solo experiments, collaborations and other recorded matter. Among the countless undertakings Cline has participated in or led, Dirty Baby stands out as unique, challenging and fateful.

In a way, Dirty Baby is the summation of Cline’s past since it marries a few of his disparate passions: music and visual art. Cline’s been a professional musician since the late 1970s and an art enthusiast just as long. The two-disc Dirty Baby, though, is poet/producer David Breskin’s brainchild and ranks as a follow-up to his first foray into art/music, RICHTER 858, a 2002 assemblage which concentrated on Gerhard Richter’s paintings.

Dirty Baby, however, spotlights two Los Angeles icons: Cline and artist Ed Ruscha. Cline was born and raised in the city and is a constituent of the area’s jazz, avant-garde and improv music community. Ruscha, on the other hand, moved to Southern California, quickly became associated with the Pop Art movement as well as an artist coalition centered around the Ferus Gallery.

Breskin’s concept was to place a fresh perspective on selected Ruscha paintings by utilizing Cline’s inventive compositions –  sort of a soundtrack for non-moving pictures. Cline’s assignment was to organize a single extended opus (Side A, or the first compact disc) for 33 lesser-known Ruscha images grouped as Silhouettes and then construct concise, self-described nanopieces (Side B, or the second compact disc) for another 33 Ruscha paintings arranged as Cityscapes. In addition to Cline’s music, the boxed set features three glossy booklets – two reproducing Ruscha’s artwork and another comprising musician/session photos and Cline’s insightful notes.

Side A has a real-time sense of storytelling, which Breskin half-jokingly calls “a time-lapse history of Western Civilization, American subdivision.” Ruscha’s cryptically labeled and ghostly Silhouettes canvases were sorted by Breskin into a rough narrative sequence yielding an abstracted chronology of the American saga from the discovery of the New World and western expansion to 20th-century urban and suburban growth. Side B is less formally structured, in part due to Ruscha’s Cityscapes having no images apart from blocks which conceal rather than clarify titles made up of taunts, pleas, commands, irony-laced designations and darkly-humored text.

Using a nine-person ensemble, Side A counts The Nels Cline Singers – Cline, drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff – as well as a number of players Cline handpicked. The 42-minute suite’s arranged with six interlocking portions mirroring the progression of events depicted in Ruscha’s prints. “Part I” and “Part II” highlight folk and country elements accented by Bill Barrett’s chromatic harmonica, tiered acoustic guitars, Wayne Peet’s understated organ and lithe drums/percussion.

On “Part III,” ambient electronics take over. Cline’s effects boxes, dissonant percussion and Brion’s keyboards provide an eerie backdrop building to a cacophonous climax. The proceedings then turn bluesy on “Part IV.” Acoustic guitars employ a Southern-spiked melody evolving into an East Indian motif that’s the set’s most beautiful moment. “Part V” echoes the early 1970s fusion era and seems influenced by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and the even funkier On the Corner. Devin Hoff lays down a heavy bass line, Barrett offers Chicago-sliced harmonica, Brion spins a Joe Zawinul-esque riff on his vintage EMS Synth as the others supply grooves and assorted underlying din.  “Part VI” escalates towards a trip-hop vibe mixed into a wall of sound with a sinister, dominant overtone. A conclusion of acoustic guitar and banjo unexpectedly replaces malevolent electronics, a shift Cline states in his liner notes reflects how “the land is reclaimed by time/nature.”

The 51-minute Side B is a complex mash-up of modern classical, free jazz, hard rock, grindcore, blues, spy movie themes and a great deal more as The Nels Cline Singers are augmented by trumpeter Dan Clucas, violinist Jeff Gauthier, percussionists Brad Dutz and Nels’ twin brother Alex. The pieces – which range from thirty seconds to three and half minutes – attempt to wed Nel’s written compositions with group improvisation. The result’s described by Cline as “a sort of pastiche approach, pioneered by composers like John Zorn.”

Those who’d like to experience the total realization of Dirty Baby should hunt down DelMonico/Prestel’s 160-page, approximately 12×12 inch hardcover publication, described by the publisher as a trialogue between Ruscha’s paintings, Cline’s music, and Breskin’s poetry.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

When I first heard El Guincho on WFMU a while back, I could have sworn it was some obscure Animal Collective side project or Panda Bear B-side. Listening to that track, an effort from 2007’s Alegranza! (Discoteca Oceano), the only clue it was actually written by a young Spaniard named Pablo Díaz-Reixa and not some tech-savvy member of the American avant-garde were lyrics being sung in something other than English. It’s hard to get the chronology down exactly, but Díaz-Reixa appears to have developed a specific kind of au courant pop – a blurry, repetitive take on Brian Wilson and tropicalia – independent of, but concurrent to, American indie bands.

Ditching doo-wop vocals lifted from some basement-bin Jan & Dean knock-off and shimmery string arpeggios hijacked from Os Mutantes, Pop Negro focuses on straightforward dance-floor melodies, tight verses, and precisely formatted choruses. Gone are dense, stacked rhythms and gauzy bits of aural bric-a-brac. This album is nothing if not focused. El Guincho still relies on beats to hold a song together, but here they’re firmly in the driver’s seat  – clipped, clean, and brooking no nonsense from the peanut gallery. Tracks such as the opener, “Bombay,” move like stripped down seventies funk, just as it was morphing into dour, Top 40 pop: syncopated and a tad off-center, just jittery enough to keep you guessing, but ultimately locking into place with a severity veering towards domineering.

A distinct lessening of chaos doesn’t necessarily make things more dull, but it does force one to contend with the vocals, which have never been El Guincho’s strong suit, and the lyrics, which unless you’re fluent in Spanish remain an unknown quantity. Pop Negro, a title reminding me of signs in European record stores labeling “the Black Music” section, clearly hasn’t been made for Yankee ears. Neither was Alegranza!, but that album dealt in a universal language: Kennedy-era beach living as conjured through a lifetime of cultural detritus mixed with hybrid forms of urban, immigrant American music. Pop Negro, on the other hand, as sure-footed a collection of contemporary global pop as it is, lacks that accessibility. Instead of bobbing along to “Danza Invinto’s” cold-filtered, eminently respectable grooves, I was left wondering if the song was about Tony Danza. And that’s a question no album should cause listeners to ponder.

Unfortunately or not, there won’t ever be a consensus regarding Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s one-time leader. He was, perhaps, an eccentric. Maybe a nutter. He was a songwriter – for a bit. But at this point, almost five years after his death, his legacy’s comprised nearly entirely of myth.

In his A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett, ex-Glaxo Babies singer Rob Chapman attempts to shuffle out the fallacious stories with some factual ones and set them aside a spate of interviews (though none with Pink Floyd members) and his own personal recollections. There’s a brief introduction with Graham Coxon, Blur’s guitarist, not amounting to much more than a cool idea. But the remainder of Irregular Head is pretty engrossing – all 400-pages of it.

Following a young Roger Barrett through school and his childhood, replete with his father’s early demise, the book’s author is able to weave a filmic narrative out of stories and other ephemera from the era. It becomes pretty clear early on, though, that Chapman is angling towards reconciling reality with Barrett’s legacy. Innumerable mentions are made of an incident during which the one time head-Floyd allegedly dolloped hair treatment and drugs on his pate prior to a performance at the UFO Club. Revisited countless times and related by as many different people, there’s no consensus regarding the actual events. Here, the truth winds up being whatever people decide to re-tell. And that, unfortunately, seems to be the trajectory of Barrett’s public biography.

After being jettisoned from the group he named, the latter period of Barrett’s life doesn’t get too rosey. Syd sightings were tabloid fodder during the early 1970s in Britain. And at every opportunity, a journo would show up at Barrett’s home – he eventually returned to Cambridge, where he was raised and lived with his mother – to snap a few clandestine photos, try to ask some questions, and head back to the big city.

Just prior to repairing to the family home, Barrett’s reported skirmishes with sanity find themselves ceaselessly documented in events ranging from holding up in a pricey hotel, living off royalties, and buying absurd numbers of guitars all the way to erratic sessions recording songs for his three post-Floyd solo albums. Even folks present at these events tend to conflagrate various meetings in singular occurences, sometimes borrowing from other people’s lives to flesh out a narrative. Chapman does an admirable job dispelling some of these rumors and tirelessly works towards the avoidance of painting Barrett as an acid casualty. Whether he was or not isn’t concluded here. But that doesn’t seem to be the point.

What’s unique about this particular volume is the extensive examination of Barrett’s life as a painter. Granted, it ended abruptly after the songwriter made music his career for all of a few years. But Chapman describes a version of Barrett which sounds like a catch-all for any and every sort of literature, art, and music. He was an AMM fan and a blues fan. Barrett liked fine-lit, abstract art, painted it and recoiled from it, burned his own work and lived in seclusion for the majority of his life.

A Very Irregular Head won’t be the last book on Barrett, but it’s probably going to be the most journalistic in scope and least bawdy. Part of that has to do with Chapman being an ardent fan. Part of that has to do with truth remaining at the heart of existence even as people, purposefully or not, work to obfuscate it on this dark globe.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

I look at the cover of Women’s sophomore album and can relate. It’s winter here in Western New York and we’ve been hit with it. The snow makes for slow going. Everything takes longer. The days start earlier, with the physical labor of shoveling. Then there’s added time onto commutes and the cold, quiet co-workers, silently dreading their return to the roads.

Public Strain matches this mood, in a way. Immediately, the album’s noticeably less raucous than the Calgary, Canada, band’s 2008 self-titled debut, also on Jagjaguwar Records. The label’s home to such other acts as Black Mountain, Parts & Labor, Oneida, and Sunset Rubdown, which makes it a perfect fit for the Chad VanGaalen-produced Women. The group’s debut was all jittery guitars and angular drums with most singing and layered harmonies buried deep in the mix.

The format hasn’t changed much with Public Strain, keeping all the tension and release yet opting for a less antagonistic blend of noise. None of the songs have the same straightforward-sounding 1960s pop of “Black Rice,” the popular single from the first album which found the band copping bits of early Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, the Zombies, and the Velvet Underground. This album’s subdued by comparison, with many of the songs feeling more atmospheric than in-your-face. Guitarist Pat Flegel described it as “moody” when I talked with him last September. He called it a “walking around type of album,” the kind you listen to with earbuds on the street or alone in your car. “It’s maybe a bit more hypnotic,” he told me, which holds true throughout each of the release’s 11 tracks.

At times, Women’s debut album felt like Geffen-era Sonic Youth; “Shaking  Hand” had a definite “Dirty Boots” feel.  Tracks like “China Steps” and “Drag Open” from Public Strain bring to mind Sonic Youth long-players Confusion Is Sex, Bad Moon Rising, or Evol, but not their more polished major label work. In slowing tempos down somewhat, Women lock into interesting grooves contrasting with what sounds like a winter lullaby on “Venice Lockjaw.”

Like their debut, Public Strain is an album to listen to in its entirety. Women‘s first record was a surprise and one of 2008’s best. Public Strain is easily its equal for 2010. Despite two years’ time having passed between the albums, there was little pre-release hype or hyperbole, just the arrival of another well-crafted pack of tunes. Hopefully it won’t be the last. The band had a blowout onstage in October just as their tour to support the album was getting started, resulting in some canceled tour dates and what appears to be an indefinite hiatus, though nothing’s been stated officially. Hopefully, though, the fact that the band members are all longtime friends – two of whom are brothers – bodes well for Women’s future. We’ll have to wait and see.

Broadly speaking, documentaries fall into one of two categories: those that provide the viewer with a narrator who gives a certain insight or sometimes opinion on the subject (Grizzly Man or any Michael Moore film spring to mind) or those that prefer to let the content do its own work, witholding any overt moral judgment to guide the viewers’ response. Until the Light Takes Us (released in theaters in 2009), which examines the Norwegian black metal scene and the controversy surrounding it in the early 1990s, takes the second tack, although like most documentaries in said camp, the filmmakers’ views come through in the juxtaposition of material, as in the subtle way a musician like Kjestil Haraldstad, who performs in the band Satyricon as Frost, can be made to look like something of a poseur compared to Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz, the leader of seminal black metal band Darkthrone. The early black metal scene is ripe for such documenting, bringing with it murder, arson, accusations of Satanism, and basically everything a good filmmaker could want in a non-fiction subject.

Filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell frame the rise and (in some ways quite literal) self-immolation of Norway’s black metal scene through extensive interviews with Fenriz and another of the scene’s founders, Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh of Burzum. Those with little knowledge of black metal will not find this film a suitable primer (Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s 1997 book Lords of Chaos remains the genre’s best point-of-entry), in part because the soundtrack is largely electronic music (although creepy enough, including as it does Boards of Canada), but the clear tension between the situations of the main interviewees is enough to propel you through it: Fenriz is seen being interviewed by a magazine, going out to bars, checking out an art exhibit, and doing everyday things while Vikernes is locked up in a maximum security prison.

On the other hand, this focus on the people involved means that various interesting bits fall by the wayside. Vikernes’ and Nagell’s interest in making records that would sound as bad as possible (Vikernes explains that they ended up using a headset mic to record much of Burzum’s first album) is fascinating, and Nagell’s brief explanation of the “typical” black metal guitar riff is poetic but unenlightening, perhaps due to the language barrier. How exactly does picking up and down produce an eerie sound? Quickly, such technical concerns are pushed to the background as the black metal scene becomes embroiled in politics and in-fighting, which leads to church burning and the murder of some members by some others. The explanation of this, which is key to understanding how Vikernes landed in prison in the first place, is left to Vikernes alone, and it makes little sense. The confusing—at least to non-Norwegian ears—jumble of names and pseudonyms makes it worse, and there’s little attempt to sort out the facts.

But even though no individual part is truly satisfying (there’s also a visual artist who pops up every once in a while as he’s preparing an installation based on black metal, but we get little to no sense of him), the sum ends up exploring interesting issues about art and meaning. It seems that black metal aspired to a kind of artistic purity through a strange combination of virtuosity (playing really fast is key for both drummers and guitarists, it seems) and lo-fi recording, and while Fenriz seems resigned to its commodification as a pose nowadays, it’s clear that Vikernes still has a twisted sense of idealism about what the scene meant.

As a sociological study of cliques and violence, Until the Light Takes Us is fairly capable, reserving judgment of its subject in a way that mostly helps the viewer. But as a chronicle of a musical style, it falls short. Interested listeners of modern avant-garde metal bands like SunnO))), Boris, Black Dice, and Mastodon will find little insight here into the music of black metal itself.

It’s appropriate that Detroit garage-rockers The Sights titled their fourth album Most of What Follows Is True, which is also the opening disclaimer for the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The connection between The Sights and the film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman may not seem real, but remains apt. The film, and The Sights’ latest outing, are both revisionist and, pardon the pun, clear-sighted in approach. Butch Cassidy reworked the western genre’s rules without breaking the mold. The Sights have done the same with garage rock.

This 38-minute, 12-track release is as revved up – in places – as previous Sights’ records. But the quartet, led by vocalist/guitarist Eddie Baranek, has prominently added 1960s pop references, 1970s hard rock influences, and bits of country and folk. In essence, The Sights have come up with an honestly American collection of songs transcending the sometimes limited garage rock genre.

Sporting a tradition of heavy-duty music, from Mitch Ryder to Bob Seger as well as Iggy & The Stooges and Grand Funk Railroad, Michigan’s working-class, sweaty ethic permeates the two opening cuts on Most of What Follows Is True. The incriminating kiss-off “How Do You Sleep?” immediately flexes with high-powered, riffing guitar, pummeling percussion, and snippets of Hammond B-3 organ. That’s followed by another punchy, crunchy rocker, “Hello to Everybody,” an unpretentious paean to having fun with a new girlfriend. The closing piece, “(Nose to the) Grindstone,” also has a touch of boogie-rock, contributed by Baranek’s thick guitar, but the tune’s leavened by vocal harmonies and Small Faces-esque breaks.

The Sights almost ceased existing a few years ago. Baranek was no longer inspired to write or keep the band he created functioning. In 2009, he put together a different line-up, with Dave Lawson (banjo, bass, vocals and acoustic guitar), Gordon Smith (piano, organ, guitar, trumpet, backing vocals), and the latest in a long line of drummers, Jim “Skip” Denomme. Smith and Lawson are important collaborators. Their input provides essential supplements for the group’s dynamic. Lawson radiates a roots slant with the two songs he penned. “I Left My Muse” has a charmingly off-kilter, pop-roots demeanor reminiscent of The Minus 5, with vocals akin to Scott McCaughey and lyrics comparable to his shaggy-dog narratives. “Tick Tock Lies” has a similarly jaunty deportment highlighted by jangly guitars, panned across left and right channels, along with equally amiable organ and arrangement suggesting Badfinger or Shoes. Gordon Smith’s sole contribution, “Take & Take,” has a stimulating power-pop resonance, updating the melodically revealing songwriting parlayed by late 1970s UK ensembles such as The Records or Bram Tchaikovsky.

Baranek’s tunes, which often have a newly-discovered-love tone, share Lawson’s and Smith’s light-hearted attitude. The carefree pop nugget “Maria” has a brisk quality underscored by Lawson’s banjo and Baranek’s self-mocking account of attempting to take his girlfriend out on a date. “I’m already balding, there’s nothing I can do,” Baranek lets her know. “I’m only five-foot-four, but I ain’t no bore.” Post-adolescent ardor also bubbles through the cheerful, power pop track “Honey.” However, Baranek’s constantly upbeat remarks about his new-found relationship can wear thin over the record’s duration.

Producer Jim Diamond, who thankfully returns for behind-the-boards duty, is a perfect sonic partner. He adjusts the stereo balance to benefit the banjo and acoustic guitar’s softer characteristics while facilitating a heavier foundation when needed to boost the bottom end on louder, faster cuts. Throughout Most of What Follows Is True, The Sights demonstrate a restless adaptability and, at times, unpredictability. But nearly always, the ensemble succeed due to genuine, straightforward material mixing progress with revivalism.