Top 12 for 2012

Hi everyone! I’m sorry I pulled such a disappearing act during the past few weeks, I’ve just been very caught up in the holiday preparations and I haven’t had time to immerse myself in a lot of music. However, I’ve got something special planned for you all today. Is it a mixtape? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a big fat cliche heading straight for you, hopeful in the desire to entertain! It’s the ZaRecords Top 12 tracks (and albums) of 2012!

The songs are not arranged in any particular order, other than following the vague, heartfelt guidelines for making a mixtape. The top is not, thus, based on any objective factor, save for the fact that all of these albums and songs have been released in 2012. It covers, as you’ll see, very diverse musical areas, from experimental, to jazz, to metal and rock and so on. I hope it proves to be an eloquent and interesting retrospective of the year, and, why not, a bit of an attempt to define certain trends currently observable on the musical scene.

There’s also a game to be played! Send me your own tops (3, 5, 10, 9 3/4, I don’t care how many tracks, just that it’s a well thought out top for 2012) and I’m sure there will be some lovely opportunities for debate and expansion of musical horizon, and even some (sur)prizes! I’m not saying anything more. Who’s game? I hope you’ve had a wonderful year, my friends, and I wish you a prosperous and harmonious 2013!

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The Fingers Inside – Blister EP (2007)

I’m quite proud of having discovered this band, honestly. Exploring the wilds of MySpace has become akin to an African safari nowadays, what with the overgrowth of the Internet, like a savage jungle, all over the ancient social network. And yet, the desperate little bit of archeology I performed on a dare yielded this find, which I think merits more exposure.

The dark, ominous jungle references aren’t accidental, since the music this elusive group posted on MySpace five years ago, never to be heard from again as far as I can tell, is some of the most moody, twisted and downright scary I’ve heard in a long while. I’m actually tempted to reference Lovecraftian horror when describing the tantalizing experience these songs weave. Their sound is very experimental, at least to my ears, and I’m having a hard time trying to decide whether it’s ravenous for additional instrumentation or if the rather minimalist way the songs are recorded is a fully conscious choice on their part. This tension between minimal expression and maximal effect is what caught my eye in the first place, although I can’t say it works on all the songs on the record. And I only say that because some of the songs aren’t really songs at all, coming across more like some form of poetry, although so lo-fi and so garbled it’s actually less spoken-word and more sonic texture. Now I might be in an unexpected phase of hipster frenzy, but I find myself liking it, although I wouldn’t call it “user friendly” at all. The record feels like watching a weird Terry Gilliam film in musical form.

The band gives very little detail about themselves. All I know is that they claim to be from France and there seem to be more names in the roster than instruments heard in the actual tracks, but then again, given the processed, garbled sound they work with, it’s really quite hard to tell who’s doing what on some of the songs. This stark, bleak, rough sound reminds me of early Cranes records, with a pinch of Neurosis thrown in, especially on the more drone driven, hilariously titled Post Traumatic Blowjob track. I get the distinct impression humor is a big part of what these guys were trying to accomplish – dark, twisted, gallows humor, with hefty doses of absurdity mixed in. As far as I’m concerned, it really hit a nerve.

Given the scarcity of material and the fact that this EP sounds more like a demo tape than anything else, I don’t think I can come up with anything more to say about The Fingers Inside, so I’ll let you enjoy their music, and see what happens. I was able to rip the songs off MySpace and upload them to YouTube, and I’m using the only visual  output the band associated with themselves as background images for the tracks. How’s that for cryptic and obscure? Enjoy!

Melvins – Stag (1996)

This coughing sickness kicked my ass somethin’ fierce. I apologize for not posting anything for so long. I actually went home for some recovery time and reading and the chance to listen to my records again. Didn’t help much with the sickness, but it recharged my batteries. Serendipitously, I managed to catch up to my “listening list” – bands I know I should have listened to already but neglected to, for whatever reason. From this perspective, it was a very productive, although spastic week, especially since I managed to tune in and immerse myself in Melvins’ brilliance. Given that my last post was about Alice in Chains, my favorite grunge band, I figured I should write about Melvins, one of the bands cited as a major influence by most of the players in the Seattle grunge scene of the early nineties.

Source: alarmpress.com

True to my affinity for bands which are hard to classify, I fell for Melvins almost instantly. It took me a few months, true, but I’d say that’s relatively expedient given their immensely wide exploratory range and influence. They’re responsible not only for shaping the grunge sensibility, but also sludge metal, and influencing bands like Tool, Boris and Isis, which are gender-benders in their own right. Truly impressive is the consistency with which King Buzzo (voice and guitars) and Dale Crover (drums) shape their music into the staggering display of experimentation and sheer mass they weave, all while changing bass players so often it’s probably the hardest thing to keep track of concerning the band’s output.

Throughout their career, Melvins have changed styles as often as Sonic Youth (which is to say pretty damn often), switching from punk to slow, hard and heavy punk, to stoner, drone, sludge and experimental metal within a decade. Their agility is remarkable not only from one album to the next, but within the confines of a single record, which is why I’m eventually going to start writing about Stag, at some point during this post, since it’s one of the albums which I think illustrates this multifaceted approach most eloquently.

This record feels to me like a very well constructed utterance, like an impeccable speech, covering a number of bullet points with accuracy and patience, in a remarkably articulate fashion. It starts on a strong note, an engaging statement (one of the most bad ass stoner-rock tracks I’ve ever heard), moves swiftly to a joke, to endear audiences, follows with some meaty, satisfying exposition, then another joke… you get the point. Every song on the album seems like it covers another point about their musical interests and forms of expression, and the record as a whole is punctuated with little tracks which do wonders to keep a certain mood, alternatively ominous and funny, and to give unexpected coherence to an otherwise overwhelmingly eclectic collection of songs. The band moves from repetitive, pounding rhythms which remind me of Queens of the Stone Age’s “robot rock”, to whimsical meta-metal in the style of Primus, to something which sounds like Metallica n their early nineties, to murky ambient industrial desert musical nightmares, drowned in echo and terrifying drones, only to bat their lashes and move on, over and over and over, in a tantalizing and completely genuine parade of musical languages, spoken perfectly. My amazement and admiration is doubled here, because of the fact that Melvins were probably the first band to delve into these territories in the first place, and it’s rare for pioneers to show such mastery of the trails they blaze.

In any case, the overall mood of the album seems fit for a bipolar night out, from party to panic, from amusement to anxiety, from jocularity to jugular threat. If you’re feeling especially exploratory, give the Melvins a proper chance, they’re definitely on par with great names like Frank Zappa and Primus, although I feel like they outclass almost any one of their peers I can think of, save perhaps for Sonic Youth. Enjoy, and I’ll see you soon!

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Grand Opening And Closing (2001)

Don’t hold me responsible to this, but I might be feeling a little feverish today – my head has a slight but definite tendency to spin to the left, after what seems like almost a week of constant dry coughing – hence making this the perfect time to write about Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a band which is more an organism than a band, making music which is half math, half manifesto and half madness. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum members have been very prolific and active in the avangarde rock scene, participating in numerous projects, including but not limited to Idiot Flesh, Faun Fables and The Books of Knots (these are the ones I’ve heard, but there are many more associated acts I haven’t gotten round to acquainting myself with), but this particular coagulation of their creative energies was the first to capture my attention and has not let it go ever since.

Source: theendrecords.com

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have a very wide and colorful range of influences or rather building blocks they play with, ranging from King Crimson to Univers Zero, although I feel more comfortable tracing their roots to entire movements, like the prog-rock explosion of the early seventies and the Rock In Opposition current, or math-rock as a whole, rather than just representatives. This band functions best when thought of in terms of aesthetic vision, not in terms of influence and lineage, because they present such a unique and coherent way of musical thinking that picking out “influences” seems short-sighted and simply inefficient. The music demands as much creativity of perception as it proposes, it embodies that eternal attitude of the mythical trickster, challenging every taboo with one hand, an nurturing comprehension with the other.

I could never really tell where Sleepytime Gorilla Museum address to my intelligence and when they assault/assist/afflict my emotional side – it seems to me they provide one of the best examples of music which treads the line between these two hemispheres of perception. I’m tempted to engage in the type of exercise Animals as Leaders or Sikth lure me into, namely trying to follow the numbers, count the rhythms out, find comfort in the face of musical aggression through a sort-of automatic and subtly-induced obsessive-compulsive need to assign numbers to the slices of song. On the other hand, such an exercise would be futile, partly because there’s no hint in SGM’s music that they have any sort of interest in proficiency or virtuosity, and partly because, when attempted, it simply doesn’t work, it doesn’t bring any wonder or surprise to the listening process. Their music can’t be tamed that way. All that remains is a feeling of nakedness and delirium in the presence of such coherent inconsistency, of this paradoxical parading of sounds evoking amusement, absurdity, analysis and annihilation. How do you react in the face of the quintessential trickster, speaking volumes and deconstructing his very speech as he spouts it forth? A reasonable position will be eroded, an emotional perspective will be overwhelmed, an absurdist viewpoint will be challenged, over and over, unrelentingly – more than any other music I’ve ever heard, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s offerings defy classification and that is precisely what draws me to them.

The very name of the band is part of the enigma – apparently it is derived from the name of a small group of Dadaists and Futurists, titled Sleepytime Gorilla Press, which curated and owned a so-called “museum of the future”, which was “anti-artifact, non-historical and closed”. The grand opening exhibit consisted of a fire, which caused much confusion and chaos, and led to the grand closing, the very next day – hence the name of the band’s debut album. It might be my slight, temporary disorientation, but even thinking about that makes me feel like the ground is being pulled from under me. Or it might be that I’m easily impressed by the antics of the early-twentieth century artists. But even if that’s the case, the fact that a band beginning their activity together at the turn of the millennium could capture the same attitude and whimsical absurdity which was the hallmark of the Dada movement, almost a century later, leaves me thoroughly impressed, especially as they pull it off in musical form! Say what you will about the avant-garde, but music they did not get, at least not at the time. None of them could even begin to approach the level of complexity and power of statement Sleepytime Gorilla Museum make for the Dada movement. I guess it had to take that long, didn’t it?

Approach with caution. Do not fiddle with the exhibits. Don’t overstay your welcome and keep in mind that it has been known for visitors to enter and never really, fully, leave. Enjoy! See you soon.

 

P.S. – Sleepytime Gorilla Museum performed three final shows in the month of April 2011. There will be a final album release from them sometime in the future, a fourth album, but the band have officially performed their last live shows. I’ve found one of these shows on YouTube, in 3D no less! So even though this post is about their debut album, I’ll paste it over here, for your enjoyment.

World’s End Girlfriend – The Lie Lay Land (2005)

I don’t know why exactly, but I feel this band has the best name in the world. Thankfully, that’s not the only reason I have for writing about them. Or should I say him, given that it’s a one-man-project which employs multiple musicians for live shows. World’s End Girlfriend is the brain child of Katsuhiko Maeda, a child prodigy who at the age of twelve was already composing songs on keyboards, guitars and computers. He’s all grown up now and has reportedly written over six hundred songs, creating a sort of music which slyly avoids any straight-forward classification.

Photo source: chroniquesautomatiques.com

This album is so terribly difficult to approach with the tools given to me by any previous musical experience… It’s such a tremendously protean mix of references and genres that I can’t find any one dominant to start from – the music is simply too slippery, too restless. Spanning from circus music, to post-rock drones, to lush violins reminiscent of romantic classical music, break beat percussion, industrial sound effect, theatrical pacing, vocal samples taken from films, acoustic guitar tunes akin to the most harmless, sunny folk and bass lines of unrelenting ferocity, this album is a monumental confusion engine which would normally tear itself apart, but somehow, supernaturally, it doesn’t. Some laws still function, some sense is still there to be found and the devil is in the details.

The Lie Lay Land is an album of mesmerizing patience. It was constructed with much care and much consideration, I think that is obvious, and it demands patience of the listener as well. Like all good puzzles, it requires dedication to solve, but also presents a worthwhile challenge. The oddity is that I couldn’t precisely single out any passage in any song to illustrate what I’m trying to say. The effect this music may or may not have on the listener boils down to the most minute details embedded in the songs. It’s not that a certain stretch of rhythm is particularly remarkable, it’s the little cracks that show up, expertly placed and nurtured, the tiny details which warp any sort of predictable, comfortable structure you might expect the song to settle into. And what’s more, I’m not even certain “songs” is the right word for what this record has to offer. My impression is that World’s End Girlfriend treats music in a singularly visual way. Listening to this I get flashes of color, textures superimposing and alternating, depth, all translated into sound. It’s not synesthesia I’m talking about here, it’s the feeling that this music is a sort of slowing down of light to the speed of sound. Tricky business to absorb and even trickier to put into words (which is, after all, just another form of translating, isn’t it?).

I think World’s End Girlfriend takes the cake when it comes to exploring the uncanny valley in music. No matter how much I love this art form, how fresh it seems to me every single day, I can’t help but feel there are some tried and true tricks musicians often resort to in order to induce a certain mood. Surely, it’s the same in all artistic mediums. Take for example the fact that a minor scale will almost always provoke a feeling of melancholy, or danger, something ominous or simply fragile and ephemeral. Major scales are usually a lot more solar. There are many more such little feats of magic one can get attuned to in time and with a lot of practice and patience for devouring all sorts of music. In this context, I find myself able to realize why certain tunes have a certain effect, but not when it comes to The Lie Lay Land. This is music built in a way which constantly flirts with chaos, defying these old, well-worn rules much more often than respecting them. Perhaps one of the songs I feel the need to showcase from this album can prove this whole theory wrong, since it’s probably one of the more structured, simple tunes on the record, but this is the only way I can find to explain that feeling of awkward confusion and delight when listening to World’s End Girlfriend. I turn to dreams yet again to gain some perspective – they are visual, lush affairs, cinematic or otherwise, colorful or eerily desaturated, but in the end, their defining trait is the failing of everyday logic which does not simply disappear, but gets replaced by another, convoluted and mysterious set of rules. The tantalizing aspect of this is that one rarely gets to spend enough time in a dream to fully glimpse this new architecture. This fracture in perception and sense is what I experience while confronted with The Lie Lay Land.

What more can I say? It’s tricky, fascinating and hypnotic! Give it a try. I chose the live version of the second track because otherwise I really get the feeling the music sounds a bit too alien for comfort. Seeing it played live, by humans, softens it slightly.