A stubbornly alternative group, alien to the commercial route, immune to the lure of compromises, heir of the “freak” philosophy and ethics, and representative of the genealogical line of “neo-freaks” inaugurated by the Butthole Surfers – that’s Primus. Created by bassist and vocalist Les Claypool, Primus was a bright spot among the rock groups of the early 90’s. Each track was like a stylistic puzzle; the group had few predecessors as their style resembled progressive-rock (from Frank Zappa to Rush) but had the feel of hard-core. Listeners can hear echoes of Minutemen and Black Flag, but the smooth progression between tones was anything but punk.
Their first album… contains two lengthy improvisations… driven by a jazz guitarist who listened to John McLaughlin till he went nuts and by a keyboardist who fell in love with the Moog. The sound is an aberration of Albert Ayler and Borbetomagus.
…The first CD [of their 2nd album] contains four lengthy suites… The second [CD] contains 75 brief pieces, whose dementia reaches disturbing levels; a wild collage of abstract sonic miniatures that rarely coalesce in songs. The 4th is a masterpiece of punk-rock, the 11th and the 21st are masterpieces of avantgarde guitar, the 55th and following ones are space-rock at its best, the 64th and following ones are gothic/ambient psychedelia, the 73th and following ones are the childish conclusions of the whole big nonsense. A totally pointless genius, as Dada would have loved.
On Brother JT:
Original Sins’ bizarre leader, John Terlesky, created one of the most irrational corpus of music ever recorded under the moniker Brother JT. Such albums as Vibrolux (1994) and Music For The Other Head (1996) conceived composition as an utter mess. Mostly, his “songs” were a hysterical rambling over cacophonous imitations of rock’n’roll. The longer tracks sounded like hippie music of the Sixties sucked, chewed and defecated by a psychedelic black-hole. It was a (hazy, incoherent, deranged) mental state, not an art.
On Gravitar (partially Google translated):
Their music represents the state of the art in the field of noise and is inspired as much by the classical avant-garde, as by free-jazz as by psychedelic rock… The vortex in which “Bludgeon” hovers… takes its toll from a visceral free-jazz hubbub and titanic evolutions from the Jimi Hendrix. “Moist”… is an even more experimental suite, a continuous dark noise from which chilling screams and ugly miasmas of guitars rise, while the drums continue to beat an obsessive rhythm. It is the soundtrack of the electrocardiogram of a man subject from time immemorial to a brutal torture.
…Compared to the first works, which were entirely and rigorously improvised live, the group [on Now the Road of Knives] uses for the first time the study technology to “edit” the sound. Not that it makes any difference: the cacophony remains total, bestial, continuous and absolute…
Persona is Eric Cook’s side project that deals with electronic, tape and computer music instead of massively distorted psychedelic rock… Uptight… expands on the ideas of the avantgarde by employing very extreme sounds and very extreme combinations of sounds. The frantic beats and middle-eastern drones of “Poig” constitute an oxymoron. “Uptight” is classical music for truly mad people, like Frank Zappa or Edgar Varese performing Chopin… A new level of schizophrenia is reached with “100 Years Of Jazz,” a cubistic deconstruction of fanfares, jamming and propulsive big-band music (with an immensely creative use of loops, drumming and sound effects), soon matched by the funk nightmare Cyloid.” The album’s most sophisticated piece could be “Europa,” a concerto of liquid, subaquatic tones, somewhere between Weather Report and Morton Subotnick.
Pavement were the vanguard and spokesmen of the “lo-fi” movement that would become one of the most important currents of the 90s. Their deliberately amateur style, which “wastes” refrains and riffs as if to despise the rules of the recording business, but at the same time intellectual as befits the college kids, soon became the religion of thousands of alternative musicians.
…Unfortunately, Pavement’s idea was frequently misunderstood as meaning that a mediocre musician could produce an unlimited amount of music while at the same time disregarding any musical obligation. Independent musicians became more and more prolific, and often less and less interesting.
Minneapolis’ Low have coined a style which is unique and ahead of its time, far removed from the stereotypes of their contemporaries, ascetic more than minimal, the rock equivalent of Japanese haiku and Tibetan mantra. Low resurrected the depressed and anemic mood of Nick Drake and, after wedding it to LaMonte Young’s minimalism, they adapted it to the “slo-core” aesthetic. The chemistry of the band is mysterious, because none of them seems particularly skilled in compositional or executional matters, but, nonetheless, the end results are always mesmerizing. Low are the quintessential case of “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
On Nine Inch Nails:
Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails changed dramatically the fate of industrial music. Reznor created a persona that was a cross of Dostoevsky’s “demons”, Goethe’s Werther, Nietzsche’s “ueber-mensch”, and De Sade’s perverts. Technically, Reznor took elements from Throbbing Gristle, Pere Ubu, Foetus and Ministry and filtered them through the new computer technology. Reznor thus changed the very meaning of “rock band”: the band was him, singer and arranger. Brutal music, nihilistic lyrics and claustrophobic atmospheres turned Pretty Hate Machine (1989) into the manifesto / diary of an entire generation. Few albums better summarize the spirit of the 1990s than The Downward Spiral (1994). Each song is both a battlefield for the highest possible density of truculent sound effects and a largely-autobiographical ode-psychodrama. The thundering polyrhythms, the chaotic and cacophonous orgies, the grotesque “danse macabres”, the chamber blues pieces, the harsh counterpoints, the mournful melodies were carefully assembled to deliver the sense of a man without a past or a present or a future, a man who was a pure abstraction in search of meaning, pure form in search of content.
On Space Streakings:
The fundamental component of their sound is an exuberant, inexhaustible, unpredictable energy. Their songs assimilate musical finds of all genres, and recycle them in a daring way. In that agitated amalgamation of John Zorn, Zeni Geva, Boredoms, hip hop, hardcore and jazz, electronics aims to implode everything in a colossal nonsense. The songs are tops of insane sounds that take place with the exasperated kinetics of a video game; they are blinding collages; cartoons that dart at otherworldly speeds; clusters of ideas maciullate by a rhythmic section (a drum machine plus the frenetic samplings and loops) that pursues without a moment’s pause.
On Massive Attack:
Massive Attack… formalized the dividing line between techno / house / jungle and atmospheric, ethereal dance music on their influential Blue Lines (1991) …which established the sonic standard of trip-hop: a blend of soul vocals, dub bass lines, languid strings, ambient electronica, intricate drum patterns, and eerie atmosphere. The idea was not terribly original (it was basically a revamping of easy-listening, new-age music, orchestral soul and cocktail-lounge music for the affluent white disco crowds), but the choreography was clearly more important than the music, as Mezzanine (1998) proved in an even more seductive manner.
The career of … Autechre actually comprised two careers. The first one was about dance music whose beat had been deformed and suppressed, melted into a watery substance, emptied of its narrative content, but relatively warm and organic. The smooth and detached tones of Incunabula (1993), perhaps the most austere and implacable album in the history of dance music, coined a new form of ultra-minimal techno that was expanded on the more colorful Amber (1995), insinuating those minimal / artificial sounds in the most obscure orbits of the subconscious, and on the more claustrophobic Tri Repetae (1996), that resorted to metallic sounds and subsonic frequencies. These works were inspired by Steve Reich’s minimalism, Kraftwerk’s robotic trance, and Brian Eno’s ambient music, but their emotional content (if any) was radically different. Chiastic Slide (1997) was the dividing line, the discontinuity that caused a phase shift. The menacing texture of digital beats, repetitive noises and dejected melodies mutated into alien beings with a life of their own. Autechre’s second career, best represented by LP5 (1998) and Confield (2001), was about dissonance, icy ambience, irregular rhythm and non-linear development. Both careers were characterized by austere, meticulous, intricate sound design. Autechre’s tracks often seemed labyrinthine mirages: the closer one went, the more lost one felt.
Radiohead, the most hyped and probably the most over-rated band of the [90s], upped the ante for studio trickery. They had begun as third-rate disciples of the Smiths, and albums such as Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995) that were cauldrons of Brit-pop cliches. Then OK Computer (1997) happened and the word “chic” took on a new meaning. The album was a masterpiece of faux avantgarde (of pretending to be avantgarde while playing mellow pop music). It was, more properly, a new link in the chain of production artifices that changed the way pop music “sounds”: the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Despite the massive doses of magniloquent epos a` la U2 and of facile pathos a` la David Bowie, the album’s mannerism led to the same excesses that detracted from late Pink Floyd’s albums (lush textures, languid melodies, drowsy chanting). Since thee production aspects of music were beginning to prevail over the music itself, it was just about natural to make them “the” music. The sound of Kid A (2000) had decomposed and absorbed countless new perfumes, like a carcass in the woods. All sounds were processed and mixed, including the vocals. Radiohead moved as close to electronica as possible without actually endorsing it. Radiohead became masters of the artificial, masters of minimizing the emotional content of very complex structures. Amnesiac (2001) replaced “music” with a barrage of semi-mechanical loops, warped instruments and digital noises, while bending Thom Yorke’s baritone to a subhuman register and stranding it in the midst of hostile arrangements, sounding more and more like an alienated psychopath. Their limit was that they were more form than content, more “hype” than message, more nothing than everything.
Tool was the most innovative band to emerge from grunge’s second generation. Undertow (1993) announced their sinister, threatening and (in a subtle way) explosive blend of Led Zeppelin, grunge, heavy-metal and progressive-rock. The lengthy and brainy suites of Aenima (1996) displayed a shimmering elegance that was almost a contradiction in terms, but that was precisely the point: Tool’s art was one of subtle contrasts and subdued antinomies, one in which existential rage and titanic will competed all the time. It was also a diary of primal angst, and the lyrical level truly paralleled the instrumental level. Lateralus (2001) expanded on that two-level approach, with tracks that, musically, were multi-part concertos or mini-operas, and, lyrically, were Freudian sessions that elicited all possible interior demons.
The whole album [Sing to God] is pure adrenaline, but a melodramatic kind of adrenaline, and doped with overdoses of strings and keyboards as if Jim Steinman, Frank Zappa and Phil Spector collaborated on a remix of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Who’s Quadrophenia. It feels exhilarating like a rock opera, emphatic like a Broadway musical, and, last but not least, funny like a vaudeville show. The listener is stunned by an overwhelming pyrotechnics of soaring refrains, killer riffs, tempo shifts and demented arrangements. “Dog-Like Sparky” (one of their masterpieces) is a spiraling musichall skit with a choral singalong and a divinely catchy refrain. “Eat It Up Worms Hero” is Queen-ish operatic rock updated to punk-rock. Then the avalanche tears down all musical walls: the explosive merry-go-round of “Fiery Gun Hand,” the thundering and hard-rocking “Bellyeye,” the Kinks-ian parody of “Manhoo,” the manic punk-rock eruption of “Bell Clinks,” etc. The lengthier songs may not pack the same creative fury but are nonetheless unorthodox. An apocalyptic guitar riff opens the nine-minute plaintive elegy “Dirty Boy,” with an ultra-dense coda stretching out towards infinite. The ten-minute “Nurses Whispering Verses” unleashes one last insane gallop aboard the band’s alien spaceship. The closer, “Foundling,” finally slows down the tempo to intone a pathetic David Bowie-esque singalong but punctuated with magniloquent mellotron. If Wagner had orchestrated a Marx Brothers film maybe it would sound like this. Tim Smith joins Pete Townshend as one of the great (and grand) opera-rock composers of all times.
On Green Day:
The rock opera American Idiot (Reprise, 2004) is a verbose expression of these former punks’ view of the world. They had never been particularly literate, and now they want to rely mainly on the lyrics. It sounds like a really bad idea, but it they manage to turn it upside down. [They] analyze the USA from both the political (explicit) and the sociological (subtle) viewpoints. Green Day are no Clash and they are no Kinks, but they are clever enough not to try to be. Their rock opera is different from its noble ancestors precisely because it does not try to be ambitious. They shun venom (ideology) as well as humor (satire). They simply tell it like it is, like a young man of their generation feels it is. This humble and sincere approach helps craft songs that are unusually mature while being catchy as usual… The trio even succeeds in the two, nine-minute, five-movement suites, “Jesus Of Suburbia” and “Homecoming” (especially the first one), a format that one would have thought way beyond their reach.
Far from being predictable and dull, Blink 182’s punk-rock packs life stories and teen energy in catchy refrains and then stretches them over ever mutating structures. Enema Of The State (MCA, 1999) offers the same flavor of the previous album, but with increased sharpness and louder production… Sometimes too slow and too intelligent for its own sake, the album is redeemed by the senseless hoedown and the unstoppable bubblegum of “All The Small Things.” Blink 182 were not born to think, they were born to rock.
Utah’s Iceburn fused the languages of progressive-rock, jazz, metal and hardcore on Firon (1992) and on the monumental Hephaestus (1993). The latter’s brainy jams opened a number of stylistic avenues that the band would take a decade to fully explore. Poetry Of Fire (1995) introduced elements of classical music and atonal avantgarde, not to mention Indian ragas, while veering towards the loose structures of free-jazz, a metamorphosis that continued on Iceburn Collective’s Meditavolutions (1996), featuring the suite “Sphinx,” one of their most terrible and accomplished works, and was completed with the three lengthy group improvisations of Polar Bear Suite (1997).
…Two electric guitars, two stand-up basses and drums recorded the seven pieces that make up Power Of The Lion (Iceburn, 1998). Those pieces are intended not as finished goods but as components to be superimposed at will, according to a principle derived from Quantum Mechanics.
The cataclysms of the debut album, Pick Up Heaven (Trance Syndicate, 1992), shift the level of unheardness of rock music by another notch. Cyclones of riffs and cadences… verge on the debauchery of Helios Creed and compose a chilling panorama of the human condition. Rarely… does the duo resort to such a shake-up for purely Gothic purposes: almost always the goal is much more ambitious, the medium much more destructive. It is the infinite frustrations and neuroses of the individual that make up the skeleton of these mini-symphonies… Always at the pace of charge, without respite. An endless hallucination. Singing is often a gimmick, without texts or with minimal texts; when it is not a pure sound effect, it is an insane sampling… Many of the techniques used would envy Cage, others would delight any kindergarten child. In these gargantuan orgies of rapidly moving sounds, rock music finds its revolutionary history and mission duly amplified by the times.
On Today is the Day:
Today Is The Day, based in Tennessee, straddled the border between grindcore, noise-rock, death-metal, hardcore, progressive-rock, and industrial music…
Supernova… brings back memories of the original Butthole Surfers, the MC5, and the original Melvins as well as the bombing of Bagdad during the Gulf War. The unnerving harmonies of the disc sink its roots into nightmare-like songs such as “Black Dahlia” and “The Kick Inside,” the two mainstays of the disc, alive with rhythmic sobs, obscene screams, and grim riffs. The savagery is like that of Laughing Hyenas, but the scores are like the bizarre scores of progressive-rock. The harsh sounds of “Silver Tongue” suggest a punk version of the Art Bears or a Cage concert performed by Jesus Lizard. The slow and cumbersome “6 Dementia Satyr” was born of a sacrilegious embrace of Black Sabbath and King Crimson, first – the heavy pulses, and second – the complex ruminations. The apex of the disc, “Goose Is Cooked” resembles the blues of Led Zeppelin slowed down until it disfigures the tones of the vocals and instruments. The experimentation continues to the extreme limits on the instrumental tracks: the electric-acoustic dance that is off-key in “Blind Man At Mystic Lake,” or in the stabbing solo of “The Begging,” or in the dissonant free-jazz of “Self Portrait,” the equivalent of a Picasso in rock music. [Steve] Austin imitates David Yow (Jesus Lizard) with his frantic barking, unable to tell a story but rather only able to bite at the notes and tempos.
Rage Against The Machine represented one of the most important crossroads of the 90’s: the one between the music of urban black rebels (funk, hip-hop) and that of their white counterpart (heavy metal, hard-rock, punk-rock)…
…Rage Against The Machine (Epic, 1992) is one of the most violent albums of the period, rightful heir of the homicidal rage of Detroit’s MC5. It is not so much the incendiary lyrics as the earthshaking power of the music that raised a barrier between them and common hardcore. Where other bands try to express their angst while at the same time trying to stay melodic, RATM can decimate their own songs in order to express their rage. Rage which becomes condensed in an crossover between heavy metal, hardcore, funk and hip-hop. Mirroring the melting pot of contemporary LA, the quartet took its inspiration from Public Enemy, Clash, Bad Brains and Red Hot Chili Peppers to create wild and ferocious attacks, verbal and musical, against the institutions…
In the 1990s, with the release of Korn (Epic, 1994), the band settled in a then-uncharted territory where rap, industrial music, grunge and heavy-metal converged. The vocalist, Jonathan Davis, immediately became a symbol of post-yuppie neo-pessimism. Born in Bakersfield in 1971, but having moved to Huntington Beach, one of Los Angeles’ most conservative counties, Davis was educated in classical music. His style of singing is one of the most terrifying of our times, embodying all the psychological discord of the common young man. The rest of the band takes cues from groups such as Sepultura, creating, through their own technical competence, a rough and ferocious style that earned them millions of fans. The album is filled with intense, rattling pieces, such as the opening track “Blind,” which is as roaring and bombastic as the heaviest of death metal and torn by an excruciating sense of desperation. The profoundly somber lyrics reflect an almost Leopardian idea of the hostile human nature and the inevitability of pain. “Shoots And Ladders,” which opens with a requiem-like sequence played by bagpipes, is composed exclusively of nursery rhymes – with some of them dating back to the Middle Ages – and brings to light the most disturbing psychological aspects of Davis’ soul. The centerpiece of the album is also its most tense and subdued song, “Faget,” which managed to convey a sense of pure anger in the verge of bursting into full-blown wrath. The whole album… serves as a sort of vehicle trough which Davis exorcises his terrible childhood (with animalistic scream after animalistic scream, brutal riff after brutal riff, hysterical beat after hysterical beat, psychotic chant after psychotic chant). Davis is so absorbed in letting out his anguish and Freudian nightmares that some songs (“Need To”) can barely be called music, being composed only of screams, limping cadences and shuffling riffs. “Daddy,” a Freudian psychodrama reminiscent of The Doors’ “The End,” …opening with an acapella choir that seems to transport the listener to a monastery and later, through the use of harmonically dissonant vocals, to a psychiatric hospital. Between flashbacks of torture chambers – hysterical chants of singing, prolonged distorted guitar riffs – and Tartarean rooms – the music stops, the singer groans, a female voice intones a lullaby – the band sonically conveys the image of a terrifying abyss of suffering, in which millions of young teenaged boys recognized themselves… This is one of those records that managed to save heavy-metal from stagnation.
On Shinjuku Thief:
Bloody Tourist (Extreme, 1992) opens with “Komachi Ruins” very violent industrial attack. The rest of the album, however, falls into a mist of nuanced harmonies, of indecipherable noises, of limping rhythms, of incomprehensible voices. The method of composition borders on the most absolute randomness, with in addition a lazy and bored attitude. “Feather Woman Of The Jungle” seems to have been built by random accumulation of unrelated musical signs (jazz saxophone, exotic percussion and lunar electronics). The most liquid and dreamlike atmospheres live on nocturnal noises (“Burden Of Dreams”), on subsonic nightmares (“Preacher’s Ghost”), on surreal tribalisms (“Hallucinations”) and distant electronic echoes (“Sacrifice”), they leave you to guess more than say. The apex of this method of dissolution is the minimalist suite of “Open Wound,” in which a slow melancholic acoustic guitar figure fades into the noises of ocean and wind, into the distant litany of an Arab singer and into the touches of a piano. Only “Nkoma,” at the end, finds the funky energy of the beginning.
On Spring Heel Jack:
Spring Heel Jack… soon established themselves at the helm of “ambient jungle,” a melodic and atmospheric take on drum’n’bass fundamentals…
The drum’n’bass remix of “Walking Wounded” (the Everything But The Girl track) captured the attention of the media, but the duo instead responded with an even more ambient work, 68 Million Shades, weaving lush arrangements that bridge Jimi Hendrix and free jazz, Ry Cooder’s soundtracks and romantic orchestras. The relatively melodic electronica of “Midwest” and the relatively straightforward dance of “Take 1” are complemented by complex and erudite compositions such as “Suspensions” (influenced by both John Cage’s prepared piano sonatas and Steve Reich’s minimalist chamber music) and “Take 3” (a parade of quirky noises in the tradition of Edgar Varese). The album is an eclectic heap of ideas…
Busy Curious Thirsty is their stripped-down concession to jungle, but with more than a passing quotation from big-band jazz and avantgarde music. The musicians move up to the front fast-paced dancefloor deliriums but then inject them with enough neurosis (robotic horns fanfares, atmospheric trumpet solos, ghostly vibraphone tinkling in “Bells,” disjointed industrial repetitions and jazzy staccatos in “Casino”) to turn them into psychotic nightmares rather than night-long dances… How little Spring Heel Jack belong to the world of dance music is proven by the addition of three experimental tracks: a minimalist piece in the slowly-building manner of Steve Reich (“Galapagos 3”), including a coda of dissonant chamber music; a composition for bells… (“Bells 2”) that ends in a cloud of free-jazz/new-age electronics; and the symphonic mess of “The Wrong Guide.”
…Treader is yet another face of their multifaceted art: a wild excursion into 20th century classical music, minimalism and be bop. Most of the tracks sound like symphonic poems, i.e. thick, thematic orchestral narratives built out of samples, loops and echoes…
“Rachel Point” opens Disappeared with methodically pounding drums, Miles Davis-style trumpet licks and looping keyboard wails. The calculated geometry of this track contrasts with the Wagnerian intensity of “Mit Wut,” a mind-warping distortion clashing with symphonic staccatos over a martial pow-wow beat, first interrupted by a gentle piano figure, then torn apart by a hard-rocking bass riff and the whole finally soaring via a church-like organ drone, a minimalistic piano pattern and insistent drumming. “Galina” is no less extreme, at least the way it sticks cascading dissonant sounds into the crevices of tribal, resounding, robotic, industrial beats. These are Spring Heel Jack at their best: a storming, Foetus-like power that crushes a steady flow of sonic debris… Aided by jazz-rock glory John Surman in person, the duo vent their passion for jazz in two shimmering interludes that deserve to be called chamber concertos. They both begin with harsh notes and dissonances, but then settle into trance-like moods, although of a very different kind: “Disappeared 1” is a languid, dreamy lake of neurotic saxophone and romantic vibraphone noises; “Disappeared 2” weaves minimalistic fanfares of clarinet and saxophone that sound like Anthony Braxton waltzing with Albert Ayler. Coxon and Wales play all instruments, and would easily rank among the best players of each instrument for the year. They seem to have an unerring talent for secreting the best out of every musical source they touch. The way they mix those spectacular sounds is no less spectacular, and they would also rank among the most original composers of modern music.
Masses completes Coxon’s and Wales’ conversion to avantgarde jazz. The album is actually played by one of the most sensational ensemble in jazz history: Matthew Shipp on piano, Evan Parker and Tim Berne on saxophones, Roy Campbell on trumpet, Daniel Carter on flute and saxophones, Ed Coxon on violins, Mat Maneri on viola, William Parker and George Trebar on double bass. Of course, this is not a collective improvisation as they used to do them in jazz. This is a collage of those players’ improvisations over the digital doodling provided by the Spring Heel Jack duo… Spring Heel Jack has surrendered the drum’n’bass magisterium and is now attempting a new kind of fusion, between studio manipulation and improvisation.
With Amassed Spring Heel Jack managed to top their best work in the genre that they invented. Featuring an all-star jazz line-up of Han Bennink (drums), Ed Coxon (violin), John Edwards (bass), Evan Parker (saxophone), Paul Rutherford (trombone), Matthew Shipp (piano) and Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), and adding the “shoegazing” guitar of Jason Pierce (Spiritualized) to the proceedings, the duo composed eight mini-concertos straddling not one stylistic border but pretty much all possible borders.