Skyscraper Magazine » 2012 » January
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In the pantheon of contemporary musical greats, there are but a select few bands that can truthfully lay claim to birthing a genre. Black Sabbath number in that elite group, and as such are musical icons. These facts no sane person can dispute. Everything else, the average music fan can and will probably debate at length.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, forty years have passed since the four Sabbath proprietors threw in together as The Polka Tulk Blues Band in Birmingham, England. Twenty-two members passed through the fold in those four decades, a pantheon of greats that speaks volumes to the lasting cultural impact of Black Sabbath. Encapsulating a band of this stature takes a special kind of writer, and if there is anyone today tailor-made to document said significance as regards the dark ones, it would be Toronto, Ontario, native Martin Popoff. Popoff is arguably the Black Sabbath (or at the very least the Tony Iommi) of contemporary rock scribes, having penned over 20 books on the likes of UFO and Deep Purple, in addition to a number of genre-encompassing compendiums of rock record reviews in the heavy, hard, and Southern varieties. More pertinently, Popoff has written on the subject previously, publishing the band history Black Sabbath: Doom Let Loose (ECW Press, 2006).

While Doom Let Loose was the usual comprehensive Popoff work and is widely held as the definitive Black Sabbath tome, there is always a deeper vein of minutae to be veined. Black Sabbath FAQ fills that role nicely. Truth be told, it’s a pretty amazing work. Subtitled “All That’s Left To Know On The First Name In Metal,” there couldn’t be a more apt encapsulation of the proceedings. Year after year, in between arguments as to which tracks Sabbath never played live or which recordings were best and why, pundits have broached such discussion topics as whether Van Halen really wiped up the floor with Sabbath in 1980 on their first national tour or what really fostered the dissension between Blue Oyster Cult and the boys from Birmingham. Don’t get the average fan started as to which singer was the best. With the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, late greats Ronnie James Dio and Ray Gillen, as well as Ian Gillan and Tony Martin in the running, the debate could go on for years.

Regardless of where your allegiances lie, Popoff gives cannon fodder for all sides. Black Sabbath FAQ covers artwork, band lineups, and the like, but gets much deeper than that. Readers can revel in the esoteric delight of chapters ranking each Sabbath release by sound quality, a roster of bands who opened for Sabbath in the early days, solo achievements from each of the four original members, and even a lengthy enumeration of bands who took their name from Sabbath songs. And that’s all before the appendices.

Rare interviews with early supporters of the band like Norman Hood and Sandy Perlman sweeten the pot, as do the elaborate timelines that break each decade down monthly by pertinent date, starting with the release of the first Black Sabbath 7” (a cover of “Evil Woman,” by local never-rans Crow) on January 9, 1970 and culminating on November 16, 2010, with the release of last year’s Neon Knights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell – Live In Europe on CD and DVD (Eagle Rock Entertainment). Whether you are a casual Black Sabbath fan flipping though or a completist that feels the need to read the book cover to cover, Black Sabbath FAQ is quality musical infotainment at its finest.

I was just looking at the bio for LAKE and trying to pin down the year that I would have seen them, and it seems that it has to have been their second or third year together. They formed in 2005-6 in Olympia, WA, and I probably saw them in 2007 or 2008 in Ana Cortes, WA, at the Department of Safety, a DIY venue/art space. They played as Karl Blau’s backup band and then he played on their set as well.

Rad Racket and Grandchildren played at the same show (at the time I was only in Rad Racket), which was a very different sound than Karl Blau, LAKE, and most of the other bands that were playing that night. The vibe at the DoS was definitely a bit more earthy and (and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I can’t think of how to say it differently) hippie-ish than what we were generally used to at the time. But this is also a quality that’s inherent in that area of the US, and in a much more earnest and unconscious way than the neo-hippies one would find elsewhere.

As someone whose first show was Phish in 1994 at the age of 13 and who lived through the entire coming and going of the jam scene with occasional forays to shows such as Deep Banana Blackout, Ray’s Music Exchange, and Jazz Mandolin Project, I’m quite familiar with the development of the neo-hippie culture, although I kind of opted out of it as things started to get really over-flooded. So there were no String Cheese Incident or Leftover Salmon shows for this pre-journalist. The scene at DoS, and in a lot of the Pacific Northwest in general, differs in a way where that aspect is more the base of how people are there, rather than an affected trend. Or at least that’s my view of the matter.

I know that I was personally a bit curious to see how people would react to Rad Racket’s noisiness and harshness, but figured that Grandchildren would go over fine. Semi-surprisingly, what we found was a very genuine acceptance from the crowd and the other bands, and also found genuine enjoyment in the other bands’ laid back, poppy styles with Blau bringing a bit of white-boy funk to the table. The mix was dichotic, but comfortable.

The same feeling transcends into listening to LAKE’s newest album, Giving and Receiving. There’s something more poppy, a little dancy and a little easy listening about it, compared to what I tend to listen to. But at the same time, I find it pleasantly soothing, well-crafted and -recorded, and in particular I really appreciate the lyrics. Along those stylistic lines, the bands I do listen to regularly are Air, New Buffalo, and Stereolab. Although in terms of sonic similarities, I’d only use Stereolab to compare LAKE to, and in that case only a couple songs.

The rest of LAKE’s songs seem to stem from artists I don’t listen to. I’m just going to pull a quote by K Records off of the band’s page on their website, since it says what I mean: “The sounds they craft are straight from the playbook of the good parts of Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, and Turkish psychedelic music. Caressing the Rhodes piano, endearing drum fills, guitars that don’t sound like guitars, and some slamming bass lines: listening to LAKE is like pouring sugar in your ears. They’ll turn your brain into chocolate, 67% cacao.”

If we’re going to go with food metaphors here, the most prominent image that comes to mind to represent the relationship between the music I listen to and my brain is the Skeksi feeding scene from The Dark Crystal. But hey, I would venture to guess that even Skeksis have a sweet tooth from time to time.

Gus finally seems to be catching a break. In this third volume of Jeff Lemire’s Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, the human/animal hybrid at the heart of the story gets rescued, reunited with the comic’s other main character, and set on a new path.

Before all that happens, however, Gus spends the bulk of the six issues collected here in confinement — getting beaten, tested, and questioned. Though he speaks about returning home throughout the book, it’s obvious by the end that Gus realizes his old life is over.

Lemire is an award-winning cartoonist from the small farming region of Essex County in Ontario, Canada. He now lives in Toronto with his wife and son. Before Sweet Tooth and his other work for DC, Lemire authored and illustrated the Essex County Trilogy and The Nobody.

With Sweet Tooth, Lemire has pitted an entirely innocent and unprepared protagonist against the apocalypse  — or rather, the people still surviving it. Gus lived a sheltered life up until the start of the series. His father dies in the first issue, leaving Gus alone in the woods. As a result, much of the series so far has involved Gus being hunted and traded. Survivors think the hybrids are the key to understanding the unknown illness which killed off most the world’s population. Hybrids only started being born after the outbreak and all look to be immune to the sickness. Then there’s Gus. Throughout the series, it’s been hinted that Gus might actually predate the apocalypse — which raises questions about whether he could be the cause of the catastrophe. This third book further explores those issues and points the growing cast toward Alaska on a search for answers about Gus.

Though it shares some characteristics with other post-apocalyptic fiction, this series is worlds apart from books like The Walking Dead. Lemire is more interested in slowly unraveling Gus’s sci-fi secrets than detailing the travails of a small band of survivors. As in other such stories, it took little time for all the safety nets set up by society to begin deteriorating. In the first two books, Lemire establishes a world of tribes, shanty towns, and paramilitary outposts. He also develops his two main characters, Gus and Jepperd, whom Gus calls “The Big Man.” Gus joins up with Jepperd at the start of issue two, leaving behind his home in the woods of Nebraska on the promise of being taken to “The Preserve,” a rumored safehaven for hybrids. Though they part ways at the end of the first volume, most of the subsequent issues have continued to expand on their relationship (or, more accurately, their relatedness as characters) despite their actually being separated in the book.

The first volume of Sweet Tooth collected issues one through five under the title “Out of the Woods.” Volume Two collected the “In Captivity” storyline, which saw publication in issues six through 11. Both of those trade paperbacks hit store shelves in 2010, the first in May and the second in December. Then, this past June, Vertigo released Volume Three, called “Animal Armies,” which collects issues 12 through 17.

More than just wrapping up a number of the ongoing storylines, this third volume of Sweet Tooth serves as a springboard for the coming immediate and farther away future issues. What makes this volume all the more enjoyable is how seamlessly Lemire has seeded these new plotlines along the way. Having gone back and re-read the first few issues after finishing Volume Three, I was surprised to see so much has been plotted out so far in advance. For that reason (and because Lemire’s managed to keep an air of mystery present throughout the series), all three volumes merit repeated reads. All the more impressive is how this title’s managed to hold out in the monthly comic marketplace. For as satisfying a read as the series is, it’s a slowburner. Lemire advances his plots incrementally in each issue, which, as with so many of Vertigo’s titles, pays off in the longrun. It’s just pleasing, with the conclusion of this 17th issue, to see Lemire’s characters there and continuing forward on even more stable ground.

Roberto Lange laid down the tracks for his sophomore album Canta Lechuza entirely in Spanish. He lives in Brooklyn, was raised in Florida, was born of Eucadorean immigrants, and he recorded this album in Connecticut. So, I guess we can consider him an East Coast kinda dude.

Judging from this chill, dignified release, you could be forgiven for thinking him Mexico’s latest sophisticated electronic export (think Murcof). But, no, despite the preponderance of lyrics in Espanol, Lange is an American born and bred. That makes his recording all the more idiosyncratic, especially considering it arguably falls squarely into the electronica fold. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation. Straight up? This is an admirable effort that deserves the attention of all of those implicit audiences: American, Latin, Electronic – and more. If you’re want to pigeonhole, though, I’d best describe this as downtempo Latin, ambient, cerebral headphone music. It stands, certainly, on the shoulders of the IDM movement, yet remains quite nicely distinct from it, gracias.

Canta Lechuza means “owl singing.” On the cover, Lange lounges in a tub, the perfect depiction for what you feel listening to this album: like you’re bathing in ambient sound, awash in Lange’s often somnolent vocals. Immerse yourself first with the opening coos of the gelid opener “Globito,” then the burbling, drawling “Regressa,” followed by the chill, ambling “2º Dia.” Ah, yes, now you’re soaking in it!  Next, “Lechuguilla” sounds most like swaying Brazilian samba. So, too, the chill repetitive trudge of “Calculus” proves hypnotic. It’s a playful album, too, though it never lapses into silliness. The gurgling glitch of “Oreja De Arena” even translates as “grinning from ear to ear,” making explicit the tone which surfaces throughout.

On each of these songs, unobtrusive electronics accompany Lange’s even, smooth vocals. This characteristic makes for soothing electronica largely without the inescapable glitch and grit of dubstep and grime, for example, but which nonetheless still sounds fresh and of the moment. Sure, there’s some gentle feedback to follow the soft keening on “El Oeste” and to introduce “Regresa.” It serves to rough up the proceedings a little, but it’s elegantly inserted, serving to string out your vibe, not to interrupt it. Even Lange’s vocals prove languid and thoughtful, carefully, politely placed to ensure they are heard, but don’t disrupt. Some might complain that the net effect here then is to leave the listener with few surprises. I think it simply makes for a consistent, cohesive piece of work.

Overall, Canta Lechuza proves an elegant, refined effort which defies precise categorization. As for pairings, it goes down well with a rich Belgian triple (from personal experience), a night under a feather-filled comforter, or, of course, a long, slow soak in the tub.

Black Up is a slippery beast: challenging but not antagonistic, seductive but not out to impress. On the surface, the new project of Ishmael Butler (he of Digable Planets and more recently, Cherrywine) scans as occupying the same kind of abstract headspace as hip-hop acts like Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, Dabrye, and others who break and fray beats. But where others take abstraction and process it through propulsion and aggression, Shabazz Palaces produce something both more alien and more relatable.

Working now under the moniker Palaceer Lazaro and unwilling to divulge very much information about who precisely is involved with Shabazz Palaces, Butler is committed above all else to allowing the music to make its own impression. There are welcome echoes of Digable Planets’ underrated Blowout Comb (Pendulum/EMI, 1994) in places, but such are the often woozy sounds here that more than the offspring of that aesthetic, Black Up feels like the result of an amnesiac trying to reassemble by rifling through a stack of unrelated snapshots. The song titles read like lines from a game of Exquisite Corpse; “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” bounces out on a ghostly, slowed-down playground chant and Butler serves as his own hype man, chattering in against his own words but laced with slapback echo. The mbira break that comes halfway through the track seems to signal a new melodic direction, but it’s a red herring. The track evaporates into what I guess passes for a hook: “Who / do you think / you are?” Not exactly the stuff to get the crowd moving. Just when it seems to start making sense, when those creepy children come back chanting and some kind of form is established, the song breaks off and disappears.

This is how things proceed in the world of Shabazz Palaces: more or less bereft of choruses, replete with chanted refrains, disorientingly abstract in sum but never less than crystal clear moment-to-moment. Butler’s cadence feels more conversational than performative; it’s laconic and sometimes marble-mouthed, but charmingly so. When the album’s orbit passes closest to that of Digable Planets on “Recollections of the Wraith,” it’s the best example of the album’s casual but smart beauty. There are at least four different types of reverb on the track: the cushy echo on the vocal track, the cavernous ping on the drums, the gated clip on the bass, and the lo-fi compressed room sound on the sampled vocal melody. Rather than blending, though, these different aural spaces remain distinct. This is not the clangy, abrasive disorientation of El-P, but something more subtly unsettling.

Where groups like those mentioned at the front end of this review seem committed to breaking something to make something, Shabazz Palaces don’t seem interested in manifestos or revolution. The sound of a cocking pistol on M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” resonates in many directions: as a political statement, as something brazen but also endearing, a repurposing of something violent into something lilting and catchy. But the same kind of sound here on “Yeah you” exists just for itself, with no direct connection to the lyrics of the song. The elements resist signification and leave you wondering what this is all supposed to be. Perhaps it’s best to just keep in mind what serves as the hook of “Are you … Can you … Were you? (Felt)”: “It’s a feeling.”

As a fan of the music of Prince Rogers Nelson for 32 years (“I Wanna Be Your Lover” was my formal introduction), I’ve read a number of books that have covered his complex and unique world, but not in a way that covers all the bases.  Author Jason Draper makes an attempt at just that, and succeeds beautifully in his new book, Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution.

The book goes very deep into creating a close-to-accurate picture of who Prince is as a man and musician, from reaching into some of the troubles he dealt with as a child to bringing in the influences of his hometown of Minneapolis. This breadth helps create a metropolitan, if not Neapolitan, outlook that helped him step out of his comfort zone (at least physically) and into the hands of an industry initially unsure of what to make of him.  At the height of disco in the mid to late 1970s, the music and its creators were a well-oiled machine, everything incredibly organized from start to finish, so that it would come off as flawless. When you watched bands like Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind & Fire, or Brass Construction, it felt like you were watching families from lands unknown, and you wanted to join that family (or in the case of Parliament/Funkadelic, a three ring circus).  While the book does touch on the fact that Prince was in bands during high school, his craft was primarily based on the fact that he did everything himself, from the singing, songwriting, and musicianship to occasional album themes and framing of the music’s perception through the front cover artwork.  There was a time when true solo albums, such as Paul McCartney’s 1970 debut McCartney, was the exception.  Most albums where there was one musician were either intimate acoustic pieces or freakish electronic and stereophonic bongo adventures.  Draper touches on the fact that Prince was definitely a risk for any label, but when Warner Bros. looked at him, heard his music and saw potential, they would sign him.   That would mark the beginning of this “strange” relationship between Prince’s music and personas, the public, and an industry that would end up changing as much as Prince’s outfits.

Prince’s music can be divided up into a number of different eras, and Draper documents them very thoroughly.  It’s great to read about some of the struggles he went through to make his first albums.  Warner Bros. were still a bit iffy on whether or not their new artist could pull off making an album on his own, so his 1978 debut album (For You) was assigned an executive producer (a title which basically means “supervisor”).  Warner Bros. did not have to worry, and while that album did not make an immediate impact, Draper states that those who listened were wondering how it was made and were convinced he had a lot of musicians in the studio with him.  That would continue with his eponymous second album (1979), which was structured a bit better and would help get him higher on the charts with songs like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,”, and “I Feel For You,” a song which was turned into a hit five years later by soul vocalist Chaka Khan.  The questioning of Prince’s talents by the industry would eventually fall to the public, especially as they would begin to see him strutting on stage with nothing on but bikini briefs and a trench coat, singing in a sweet high falsetto.  Had his career crashed, he might have been ranked as a freaky Village People reject, but there was a huge difference: as raw, sexual, and uncontrolled Prince might have seen by outsiders, he was someone who was not only talented but in complete control of what he wanted to do, almost to the point of obsession, as expressed by the many musicians and music associates who have worked with him over the years.  It goes through his formation as an artist who never forgot his first audiences, but found a reason to explore as his fanbase grew wider (and whiter).  Was he soul? Was he funk? Was he new wave? Is he “black punk”?  No one new, and even though many have asked many questions about him, it only meant people were discussing him, which allowed him to cater to his muse.

Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution also explains the impact of a fledging cable network called MTV, and while history has documented Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as being the first video by a black artist to be on the network, it is Prince’s “1999” that beat him by a month (although deep trivia buffs will also cite Musical Youth’s “Pass The Dutchie” as a possible contender).  If Prince’s following had only been limited to audiences in large cities, MTV made it possible to hear him everywhere from Midlothian, Virginia, to Waianae, Hawai’i.  Two years later, Purple Rain came to be, and finally made him a worldwide rock star.  For a lot of casual fans who were introduced to him and his music with the 1984 album and movie, he reached success while seeming to crumble. But such a conception misses out on 27 years of an incredible discography that has had a lot of ups and downs, some of which followed some of the personal, social, and spiritual battles the artist went through in that time.

What I’ve always wanted to know about was the period post-Purple Rain, when Prince recorded some of the best work in his career, including 1985’s Around the World in a Day, 1986’s Parade, 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, and 1988’s Lovesexy.  When he received the attention of the media, he became everything from the new Jimi Hendrix (when in truth he owed more to Carlos Santana) to the new Beatles. And while he could’ve repeated his own guaranteed formulas for success, he simply wanted to innovate.  Draper looks at how his popularity and struggles with the industry would also create tension within the musicians who helped him in the studio and on stage, and how chasing his musical muses also meant putting his emotions on a pedestal for explanation and scrutiny,

What is also of note in this book is how Draper describes the expectations Warner Bros. had of Prince, and how he eventually became fed up to the point where he simply ignored the demands and played for (and with) himself, for better or worse.  This lead to him symbolically “killing himself,” changing his name to an emblem, marking his face with the word “Slave”, and showing the world how to fight for your right to be creative.  At the same time, he was one of the first artists to initially embrace the Internet as a means of music distribution, finding ways to use it as a means of promotion and as a way to make money directly as opposed to working within an industry he felt was not working for him or anyone.  It is during the discussion of his career in the late 1990s that the book starts to take a more critical approach, for it was a time when Prince fans were put to the test with a wide range of projects that some felt were incredible lows.  It didn’t matter that a lot of times it was Prince creating music for Prince and Prince only, but Draper gets very harsh in his criticisms. However, he never moves away from trying to describe the intent in these projects.  It’s a nice, quasi-objective approach, one that is critical of the bad while trying to to find a way to find the good in it.

Outside of the music, Draper’s biography touches on Prince’s spiritual path and how that has always played a major role in his music and life, even when it has been a bit of a struggle without him being direct about it.  Then again, it was Prince who did sing the lyric “everybody’s looking for the ladder,” and his career has always been about him taking himself higher, or at least going anywhere but where he had been before.  The music discussion here is equally balanced with his personal life but without it turning into a tabloid piece.  What will also be of interest is the talk of Prince as a businessman, doing well in some aspects but at times showing that he needed a bit of business and financial guidance that could have put him out of the music industry for good.  Prince has always been at his best when he’s self-contained, but the reason the public feels that is because he allowed the public to hear and see him, the essential interactivity of an artist. But he is also at his best with the right collaborators and associates, and he has worked with the best for over 30 years. He has always played with the sly and romantic with spirituality, and how you can be serious but still retain a sense of humor.

The one thing this book is not is exploitative.  Draper researched the topic extremely well, taking in quotes from various interviews and sources and compiling it in a way that will make the book appealing to new fans who have been curious about Prince but uncertain on where or how to start.  You can start with Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution and go from there. The title of the book describes his music and life perfectly: the internal and social mess his career would become, and yet the innovations in his music that continue to be measured and treasured.  His name is Prince, and he remains funky, but this book will make new fans and old timers want to explore and (re)discover someone who is one of the most gifted singers, songwriters, and musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries, someone of whose caliber may never be experienced again.