Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Past Greatness: July '17



Welcome to the seventh installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. The one pre-requisite I have for this series is that I must have first listened to the album relatively recently. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's albums dot the landscape of modern music, starting in 1968 with influential mastery, stopping in 1980 for innovative Post-Punk, and ending in 2011 with an atmospheric gem
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Balam Acab | Wander / Wonder
2011 | Downtempo | Listen

Balam Acab's Wander / Wonder is an album that snuck up on me. Like many albums of years past, I downloaded with passing interest, pursuing my daily routine as it played idly in the background. It was, and still is, perfect music to set the scene. No distinct impression was made until it came time to judge the album, track by track. Not a single one disappointed, and more than that, every one accomplished exactly what it set out to do. Like fellow contemporary producers, Acab cherishes an atmospheric setting, overindulging to the point where senses dissolve in the trickling puddle of liquid he's created. Much like Burial, Andy Stott, or Jon Hopkins, who've submersed listeners into their respective Electronic domains, Acab's world is equally as recognizable. It's not the damp London alleyways, or the filthy, apocalyptic club scene, or a rave that goes until sun break, but rather a hidden underwater cave that may, or may not, shelter some lost souls.

Unlike those aforementioned artists who dabble in the darkness, finding cold beauty amongst a heartless world, Acab's plan of admiration is more peaceful. That is, however, all dependent on how you perceive the tranquility. As that beacon of light on the cover pleads for entry amongst the pitch black ocean, there's one question remaining: Do you feel safe surrounded by water? If night's looming and the moon peeking through a crevice is my only source of light , I sure as hell don't. The refined elegance of Wander / Wonder then subsides, replaced by petrified resolution at the hands of a weeping voice whose succumbed to her own fate. That's how I perceive the album, your interpretation may vary drastically. To me, the bliss and serenity echoing through each chipmunk coo isn't as much a blithesome fantasy as it is a legitimate nightmare. That voice sounds trapped. Choosing to sing through tears and fears as roaring creatures, planetary shifts, and the ceaseless power of water begin to consume her.

All of this without a single discernible word spoken. That's the power of Electronic music, to traverse foreigns lands with unforeseen horror, or enchanted ecstasy, so you don't have to. Balam Acab's success here is maddening, the quality and authenticity on display a testament to his craft. The five-song stretch beginning with 'Apart,' ending with 'Oh Why,' is some of the best Downtempo, beat-driven ambience I've heard in a long, long time. Aquatic synths dot the landscape like a Nosaj Thing cut, structural lucidity constructs paralyzing rapture akin to Blue Sky Black Death, and sample mystification conceals the identity of the voice like Stott did on Luxury Problems. The grand aesthetic never sways or loses focus, remaining concise throughout, welcoming in enough variation despite adhering to some clear, written rules. Dreams of drifting off, or nightmares of drowning, Wander / Wonder allows an open mind to conceive of the specifics. It's there that you realize the polar opposites aren't so different after all. Death can be beautiful, paradise can be ugly. 

Take the album's cover literally and admire all the empty space your mind's forced to fill. For me, I imagine our vocalist just out of view, withered and dehydrated, accepting her fate, singing the blues as the world outside moves on without her. Even the track titles, simple and subtle, can unfold the story of her demise. 'Welcome' ushers in the obscure blackout, nearby terrain unknown. 'Expect' finds optimism in a time of need. 'Oh Why' tearfully subjects to the despair. 'Await' waits not for help, but for death. And 'Fragile Hope' ends with a solemn cliffhanger on who won; the girl or nature. The loose ends of Wander / Wonder are so ubiquitous that I just created a concept for it. The attachment to the aura is so strong and unyielding that I spent the duration of this review discussing it, rather than the music itself. But really, they're one in the same. Each minute fixture, whether it's bubbling liquid, crumbling rock, or the female singer torching her vocal chords, adds to the setting. Whether intentional or not, the bass seems to follow her, leading me to believe it's not a malevolent force, but one that signals hope and a desire to find out what's next.
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Silver Apples | Silver Apples
1968 | Psychedelic Rock / Electronic | Listen

Silver Apples' debut album was not made to be appreciated by everyone. You'd think I'd be apart of the group criticizing, as the unescapable detractor is that of redundancy, something I'm rarely fond of. Even though it's merely nine songs condensed into 33 minutes, you really only need to choose one, apart from 'Dust' or 'Dancing Gods,' to determine if Silver Applies is for you. The year was 1968, and Electronic music wasn't really a thing. The New York duo of Dan Taylor and Simeon tried to make it so. Literally so, as the latter named an instrument he created from combining multiple oscillators together after himself. The result is resoundingly ahead of its time, a bold statement to make given the relative simplicity of the music held within. Silver Apples is a perfect album to display in a museum, an arcane creation that set the stage for the technological revolution. And, unlike many pieces of early experimentation, Silver Apples' jarring soundscapes are actually improved by its antiquated backbone. It's Electronic music made in the 1960's. The rarity of such a delectable piece of timeless music simply astonishing.

Oddly enough, Silver Apples' debut draws me to 1938, the year in which Orson Welles' infamous radio recording of War Of The Worlds took place. The story, whether factual or fabricated, is well known. After airing the broadcast mass panic across the country ensued, all under the fear that an alien invasion was real. Why do I bring this up? Because I've always been curious about a hypothetical situation in which past humans experience our present. 3D or CGI movies, Skype, Google Earth just some things that come to mind. I'm getting off track here, it's just all to say that Silver Apples doesn't feel as if it belongs in 1968. It's not so much the vintage sound, that's muffled and textureless, as it is the entire genre in the first place. Amidst Motown, Blues, and Folk, music in the 60's was entirely generated by voice and standard instrumentation. Silver Apples, by contrast, is bizarrely left field, a conjuration of stilted genius. For god's sake, 'Program' borders on Plunderphonics with scratched sampling of conflicting television theme songs! What's perhaps most perplexing is the relative normality of the vocals and lyrics, sewn into the era while the production leapt decades beyond it. 

In a way, I see Dan Taylor and Simeon, who both provide vocals here, as time travelers trying to assimilate to 60's culture, singing awkwardly through poetic refrain, bringing production from the future along for the ride. At times the result is hilarious, like 'Velvet Cave' or 'Whirly-Bird,' stiffly fumbling through the integration process. Others it's more natural, like 'Oscillations' or 'Misty Mountain.' What the two results have in common is pure delight. There isn't a mishandled idea here because, prior to 1968, not a single idea here was even attempted. You could make an argument that The Velvet Underground's Lo-Fi tendencies or Experimental edge can be found throughout, and while that's true, it only amounts to each band emerging from NYC and trying to honor an untested aesthetic. Silver Apples, truly, is one of the more inspiration-less records I've ever heard. In fact, inspiration was likely taken more prominently from the Sci-Fi films and novels of the time, rather the music around it. But then you hear that frightened rabbit of a voice Simeon has and the artsy, Psychedelic Folk scene at the time rears its head. The two opposing halves, one tethered to the future of technology, the other rooted in past folk tales, provides a discordant calamity that endlessly confounds.

That comes to a head when, just as the routine of Silver Apples sets in, 'Dust' and 'Dancing Gods' appear as violently obtuse Avant-Garde setpieces. After being heavily engrossed in this loving, harmless landscape that welcomes your ears with pleasant melodies the previous six songs, these two monoliths disrupt the peace in favor of nightmarish bedlam. 'Dancing Gods' evokes a tribal ritual, with relentless drums investing your brain like a parasite, while 'Dust' farts out synth waves that evoke a Lynchian horror film. At times, the latter even sounds like Soundtracks For The Blind-era Swans. It's harrowing, made all the more so by the jovial vibe preceding it. And while 'Dancing Gods' succeeds in building that atmosphere I wasn't expecting, the sheer length (exceeding the next closest song by 90 seconds) causes the fascination to turn irritating with repeated listens. Apart from 'Dancing Gods' and the relative confusion and uniformity of 'Velvet Cave,' there is no other faulty song on the LP. The minimal Electronics, bustling like 5 P.M. rush hour, the romanticized lyrics, written in a field under a tree, and the catchy melodies, bordering on 90's Indie Rock, all come together in one freakish Frankenstein monster known as Silver Apples.
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The Sound | Jeopardy
1980 | Post-Punk | Listen

It's just now dawning on me just how huge Post-Punk was in the early 80's. In my naive state, which I'm very much still in, Joy Division was the only band that seemed to matter. But then, one after another, the holes of Post-Punk began to fill. This Heat, Wire, The Gun Club, Swans, and The Chameleons just some names chomping at the bite to convince me otherwise of Post-Punk's prosaic prestige. That's right, no album from the infamous 80's era has won me over. They're either too straightforward, too unoriginal, or too messy. The one thing they tend to all have in common? A song, two, or maybe three that transcend. The heights of Post-Punk are sublime. Joy Division's 'Disorder,' This Heat's 'Sleep,' The Chameleons' 'Second Skin' just some examples. However, I've finally found an album that steps above the rest. The Sound's Jeopardy. The balance of grittiness and artistry that I've so often desired. Political angst initiated by growing tension over the refueling of the Cold War. Progressive commentary that sided with peaceful protests despite harboring riotous anthems. On top of that, precision vocals by Adrian Borland that screamed sophisticated Punk. They've somehow managed to avoid the retrofitted bore that some influential artists suffer from. And that's an impressive feat.

To elaborate on what I mean by that, contextualizing the past while in the present means that, sometimes, current acts overshadow those that paved their way. The Sound was especially susceptible to this, as Jeopardy, impressively so, sounds like ripe fodder for the 2000's era of watered down Alternative Rock. Bands like The Strokes, The Walkmen, or Spoon come to mind. The latter largely, as Britt Daniel's vocals borrow so much from Borland that, at one point in time, I thought The Sound was a precursor band to Spoon. The hooks of 'Missiles,' 'Resistance,' or 'Words Fail Me,' for example, are so polished and modern that Jeopardy could've slid into a playlist of 2000's Rock and many wouldn't question anything. For an album from 1980, that's striking. The punch is instant, the potency animalistic, the poshness appeasing. All this told in the stunning cover, a black and white version of a 1926 Soviet poster by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg. That was art, and so is Jeopardy. The Sound knew it, churning the chaotic Punk roots into a refined palate that appreciated high-brow style. Couple that with the political firestorm this record's built upon, and you have a piece that could theoretically appeal to anyone.

Proving that doesn't take long, as the opening track 'I Can't Escape Myself' is often heralded as the band's best work. That's yet another pattern found in Post-Punk, for the first song on the first album to be declared a capsule for all that will come. While it's not my favorite - that award going to 'Missiles' - 'I Can't Escape Myself' is unquestionably the perfect barometer for judging Jeopardy's potential penchant. While not as obvious, the juxtaposition of soft and loud bears resemblance to the Pixies, a band that would popularize the method a decade down the road. However, where other albums in the genre soar out the gates and stumble across the finish line, Jeopardy's steady pace and consistent quality makes for a gratifying listen front to back. Really, there's only one track that doesn't land in any meaningful way and that's 'Hour Of Need.' It doesn't help that the two songs surrounding it, 'Heartland' and 'Words Fail Me,' embody the lively raucous that garnered Dexy's Midnight Runners some attention with their high-pitched squeals and blaring horns.

What's most alluring about Jeopardy is the subtle dejection that sets in as the piece progresses. Remain In Light influence seems doubtful, given the two were released only a month apart, but similarities can be drawn to how the Talking Heads began with 'Born Under Punches' and ended with 'The Overload.' Now, 'I Can't Escape Myself' isn't the cheeriest of introductions, but the ensuing catalogue, up until the title track, certainly are, which makes the gloomy nature of deep cuts like 'Unwritten Law' and 'Desire' all the more intriguing. Despite personifying Post-Punk to a tee, The Sound incorporates a fair share of diversity, at least enough to warrant multiple listens just to understand the predominant mood. The LP is lush with anxiety, as the fear of war looms. 'Missiles' is the penultimate climax to this, as Borland states so dully, as if to question humanities sanity: "Who the hell makes those missiles, when they know what they can do?" That's a great question posited by a man who's worried we're about to blow ourselves up. Talk of oppression ('Unwritten Law'), revolution ('Night Versus Day'), corporate injustice ('Heyday'), and resistance ('Resistance') coat Jeopardy in an anarchistic sheen, hellbent on rectifying past mistakes and current inactions. Plus, it's stupidly enjoyable.
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