Sunday, September 25, 2016

Swans, "The Glowing Man"; Tim Hecker, "Love Streams"

These are two new albums by acts that have (stubbornly?) stuck to a formula for some time but have gotten away with it on account at being better at their style than anyone else.  In fact that would be underselling their talents -- they've been so successful at what they do that they're practically inimitable.  

On one hand, they get to claim a micro-genre for themselves and monopolize the attention and accolades that come with it.  On the other hand, there's a fine line between working the formula successfully and falling back on it as a safe default option, in place of pushing their creativity forward.  With both of these albums, we've reached the latter point.  The bloom is off the rose, and we've heard all they have to offer with this style (sadly, one could say the same about the M83 record as well).

Michael Gira had already announced that he was retiring Swans in their current incarnation.  I sense that he knows he's taken the 2010-2016 version of the band to its extreme, and there's nowhere left to go. The next time we hear from Swans, he claims it'll be a studio based guest artist collective, rather than a fixed collective of surly middle aged dudes who flesh out their ideas at maximum volume on stage.  "The Glowing Man" has been labeled as the softer, more contemplative side of Swans, but that side was always around on their past few albums.  It was on the folksy "The Daughter Brings the Water" (from "The Seer") and the mammoth, shimmering intro to "No Words/No Thoughts" (extended to almost unfathomable lengths when played live).  "The Glowing Man" is a half hour of crushing and spectacular noise, but they've done a few of those now and the sense of numbing shock you get when hearing those kinds of tracks is lessened every time they do it.

Tim Hecker's explorations into the densest, blackest drone reached their extreme with "Ravedeath, 1972".  Since then he's tried to lighten up, so to speak, but I can't hear much beyond the fairly gimmicky "Hecker + choir" combo.  He's not adapting his music to fit the choir, he's doing his thing and hoping it sounds cool and different with vocals decorating the mix. Hecker has played a number of live shows in churches over the years and perhaps that's what inspired him here, but his math feels off.  It's like there's an assumption that the hazy, soaring vocals merged with Hecker's typical style will automatically produce something meditative and spiritual, but I'm not feeling it.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 33

His ancestor mix would be simultaneously revolted and proud - a techno classics mix (85 minutes)

After my last mix I wanted to continue making pure techno club/dancing oriented mixes.  I also wanted it to be a fun, "greatest hits" type of set with a number of well known tracks rubbing shoulders with a few newer ones.  And these were the results ... there are nearly 25 years of techno represented here, with (multiple) tracks from 1992 right through to 2016.

V/A, "Clicks and Cuts" (Mille Plateaux)

I recently dug out a massive booklet with more than a hundred old CD compilations from my parent's house.  I haven't heard a lot of this stuff in over ten years, so it's like a wormhole opened up and dropped a mountain of classic and rare music from a long lost galaxy right on my head.  Expect a good deal of tripping down memory lane over the next little while, including at least one mix (already in the can).

This very famous compilation was released in January 2000, and the symbolism of the date is significant because it was intended to signify a new paradigm for techno in the 21st century.  It's title became synonymous with the entire genre, and the first MUTEK was for all intents and purposes, a "Clicks and Cuts" tribute festival.  I was the target audience for "Clicks and Cuts" without a doubt -- a fan of bedroom techno (e.g. Warp's Artificial Intelligence series), of minimalism, ambient, of Oval, Sub Rosa compilations and similar oddities on the outskirts of techno.  It was one one of my top albums of 2000, and I was very much in favour of the slow continuing takeover of "Clicks and Cuts" style techno. 

Of course it didn't quite happen that way.  "Boring" laptop techno was superseded by less boring laptop techno with a beat, and became minimal techno that you could actually dance to. 

Needless to say, this stuff hasn't aged well.  On the first CD, even the stuff with a semblance of a groove that I really dug back in the day, like Farben, now sounds feeble and almost directionless.  Tracks by Sutekh and SND are nearly unlistenable, with nothing to draw one's attention outside of the frittering pops and whirs that burrow into your ears like sand swept up by a gust of wind.  The stranger tracks have fared better, such as Vladislav Delay's ten minute "Synkopoint", which used to bore me but now presents a more varied and unpredictable palate of sounds than anything else on the disc.

The second CD is a bit better (fifteen years ago I would have said the opposite).  Again the weirder tracks by Ester Brinkmann, Dettinger, and Goem are the highlights.  The Panacea, Ihan, and Kid606 tracks towards the end form the worst three track run on "Clicks and Cuts" by far, with almost nothing to redeem then other than the historical curiosity of being included on this album.  But that's the whole point here -- as a historical document, "Clicks and Cuts" is still essential as an accurate summation of a major trend in techno at the time.  If you try to edit this down to a 40 minute condensed version of "highlights", you're missing some important information.   

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Starship, "We Built This City"

GQ's story about the making of "We Built This City" is an instant classic and might be the funniest oral history I've ever read.  At least half of it reads like parody.  I'm not even 100% sure that it isn't.

I remember that Blender list from '04 that named it as the worst song ever.  Up until that point, I don't recall it being ridiculed more than any one of dozens of silly and dated 80's synth rock songs.  But somehow the worst song ever moniker took on a life of its own.  The "We Built This Starbucks" remake/rewrite didn't help either.

For me, "We Built This City" falls into a rare category along with songs like Phil Collins' "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" -- a song that I absolutely despised in the 80's but have come around to thinking it's sort of awesome.  The bridge is epic!

The "selling out" tropes are hilarious, for a number of reasons beyond the usual (i.e. the idea of maintaining some kind of arbitrarily defined integrity and refusing to "sell out" is tired and meaningless now):

1) The most embarrassing thing about the song isn't the music, it's the clothes that Grace Slick is wearing on the single cover.  It's mind boggling that anyone over the age of 15, even in the 80's, would agree to be photographed wearing that.

2) There's nothing more safe and conservative, in the 21st century, than lionizing late 60's psychedelia and hippie culture.  So Grace Slick and her "we want to make hits and rake in money and then we'll shit on our music and complain that there was no 'integrity' in the 80's" attitude can take a hike.

3) Jefferson Airplane's legacy (that some people would go out of their way to defend and protect) comes down to two songs that predated their classic lineup (Grace Slick brought them from her previous band).  At least Starship were genuinely huge for about two years and had three number one hits.

The hero of the piece is of course Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, who delivers all the best lines and may in fact be a fake Twitter account rather than a real life washed up 80's rock star, I can't be sure.  Choosing between his best lines is tough, but I have to go with "Marconi's the guy who invented the radio, and his style of music was the mamba.  But listen to the radio now.  Do you hear any mamba?  That's how I look at the lyric: things change.  I could be totally wrong."