Sunday, June 28, 2009

A few random musical happenings in Bulgaria

1. Samael, Sepultura, Kreator, and Lordi all played in Sofia this year. Within a few weeks of each other. In wintertime, of course (did you really have to ask)? Dream Theater are playing in July. With metal, it's business as usual in Eastern Europe.

2. Everyone who wasn't singing along with the Czech folk songs in the Czech pub in Nessebar was grinning like an idiot.

3. Our conference boat trip was mostly soundtracked by classic early 90's Eurodance. Haddaway's "Life", people! Wow!

4. The couple who salsa danced to "Hotel California" in the Irish pub in Sofia.

5. In the same Irish pub, I had a premonition (sometime around the 4th U2 song played in the first hour after I arrived there) that they'd play Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and it would close the bar down, for all intents and purposes. And how about that, this is exactly what happened.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson RIP

I'm typing this in Nessebar, Bulgaria, participating in a bubble of science that exists within its own bubble in this beautiful little vacation spot where people go to bake on the beach, wander among centuries-old ruins, and generally feel cut off from the world. I suppose this is how they feel at Glastonbury (minus the occasional mud and rain), where everything happening out "there" is somehow not real, or is happening in some parallel universe. Nobody is talking about the death of the biggest pop star the world has ever seen, even though BBC news is on the TV in the hotel lobby. Nobody was paying attention to it.

I heard about Michael Jackson's cardiac arrest before I went to bed last night. So I knew what to expect when I woke up this morning, which certainly diminished the shock factor. All of this is simultaneously the most and least surprising celebrity death that I can remember. Surprising because his death was sudden, he was so young, and because most people (and this is one of the few times that "most people" can be stated literally, as in "most people in the world", without hyperbole) can't remember a time when Michael Jackson wasn't a phenomenon nearly on par with many major world religions. But it's also not surprising because he's been wasting away, very much in the public eye, for decades. There's the weirdo stuff we know about (the plastic surgeries, the air filters he and his kids wore in public), the stuff we don't (who knows what sort of pills and drugs he took over the years to cure his ailments both real and imagined), and it all sums up to a picture of a profoundly unhealthy man.

I honestly have no idea if Michael Jackson was a child molester or not (the courts say no), but no matter what bad stuff he was accused of, I always thought back to a comment made by his close friend Elizabeth Taylor. She claimed they had a lot in common and truly understood each other because they both knew what it was like to have never had a childhood. He didn't have what 99.9999% of people take completely for granted -- whether you were happy or miserable, whether you were beat up everyday or had everything handed to you, we all had the chance to grow up. I always felt sorry for Michael Jackson. It doesn't excuse anything he may or may not have done (or said), but I always tried to remember Elizabeth Taylor's comment and to understand him just a little bit better.

That's why I felt good about the way that his critical reputation has been rehabilitated over the past several years. During much of the 90's, it was hard to get away from "Michael Jackson, fading popstar and batshit personality" and to remember "Michael Jackson, superstar and creator of some of the finest pop music ever made". After he went into seclusion following his trial (of course, he moved to Bahrain, so this was not something accidental), the well of eccentric Michael Jackson stories dried up, and the only thing left was to talk about the music. Plus, a new generation of pop stars emerged (Britney, Justin, Usher) who grew up idolizing him, weren't afraid to show it (in their music, in interviews, and in their videos) and honestly didn't seem to give a crap about what kind of person he was. Their brains seemed permanently dialed in to the image of the man-child they watched on MTV and whose moves they imitated in their basements every day. Michael Jackson's music becoming cool again might be the best example you can find about art trumping life (att: Phil Spector), and although we might be conflicted about that as human beings, as music fans it's comforting to know that Michael Jackson's status as a creative genius and certifiable music legend will be forever safe.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sunn O))), "Monoliths and Dimensions"

I can see where a lot of the praise is coming from with this one, i.e. Sunn O))) break with formula and add strings and angelic choirs to their already dense sound, but any album that begins with drudgery like "Aghartha" will dampen my enthusiasm to some degree. It's not such a horrible track, but the vocals are downright risible at times, and what's more, appear annoyingly upfront in the mix.

From then on, things get a lot better. Sunn O))) are becoming more and more similar to black metal with each new album, and that type of evolution can only be a good thing. The standout track is certainly "Big Church" -- if they were looking to record a track that would defy you to avoid using any and all cliched descriptions (floating to the heavens on an angelic cloud of noise-cum-spirituality, etc.), then they succeeded beyond all expectations.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

MUTEK revisited (V)

MUTEK10 wrapped up on the weekend, but I've still got one show left in my queue:

9. Matthew Dear

May 30, 2003:"Then Matthew Dear seems to double the volume, get darker and wildly nastier, while the beats come full circle to take on the role of full body massage."

This set, which at the time fit comfortably into the sound of Montreal's then red-hot microhouse scene, was recorded during Dear's time working under the False moniker for M_nus. He's more of a follower than a leader here (albeit a very talented follower), and it's simply amazing to think about how much better his music became when he started pushing the boundaries of the genres he dabbled in, rather than trying to comfortably slot himself within those boundaries (as he's doing here). The first half of the set is exuberantly dancefloor friendly, but the second half is darker and more sinister. It's a small jump from the first half to "Leave Luck to Heaven"'s strange combination of microhouse bounciness and bored vocals, but thankfully he stayed clear of that path in favour of the second half's more twisted, destructive side, which foreshadows a) the twisted, hypersexual sneer of Audion, b) the Bowie-esque dark pop of "Asa Breed", and c) Richie Hawtin's set that immediately followed.

It's a shame that we'll never get to hear Hawtin's jaw-dropping set from that night -- he was the only artist who forbade recording and streaming of his performance that year, citing the need to prevent unreleased material from being widely circulated. Months later, those unreleased tracks made up the bulk of "Closer", which is one of the decade's best albums. Otherwise, I really wish that the rest of MUTEK's complete archives were still accessible, although I can understand why they're not, given MUTEK's and many of the artists' tremendous growth as brands of considerable value (at least, I assume that this a key reason why). I doubt that my top two requests would ever show up on possible future versions of the podcast, since nobody ever talks about these artists anymore, but I'd lop off a toe to hear Mens/Koolwyk from 2002 (skin-flaying bass-heavy techno minimalism with rapid-fire test pattern video images), and especially Philippe Cam from 2001 (one of the most memorable techno gigs I've ever seen, perhaps my all-time top "Ballad of a Thin Man" moment, in fact, something happened that night and I STILL don't understand exactly what it was).

Bonus mini-review! Even though I wasn't there in 2005, I thought I'd cover this one too just because I love the new Moderat album so much (much jealousy toward those who saw them at MUTEK this year):


Left to his own devices (i.e. when not collaborating with other artists), Apparat's music tends to be too trebly, too bright, too reliant on sparkling, looped melodic leads. I mean, ripping off 1996-1999 period Orbital can't be a bad thing, but Orbital always understood the value of pathos, better than just about all of their peers. This set might be lacking in emotional depth, but it makes up for it with it's "perfect execution", to paraphrase the blurb from the podcast. It flows smoothly and brilliantly between euphoric highs and more subtle lows, and decisively nails the big finish with its noisy, chopped up beats. Whew ...