Talking MGMT’s Congratulations with QTL’s Grant Huling

A few months ago, I appeared on my friend Grant’s podcast Quick to Listen. We discussed MGMT’s psychedelic indie pop masterpiece Congratulations (2010), using Gothic fiction and the Age of Aquarius, among other conceptual models, to interpret this strange and captivating album. Enjoy.

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OOIOO Returns with Gamel

OOIOO has just released Gamel, the 7th album by this longstanding Japanese art rock band. As the title suggests, Indonesian music provided much of the inspiration for this recent set of songs. You can hear the resonant tones of Gamelan bells throughout “Atatawa” and “Jesso Testa”

Back in 2009, I reviewed their last album Amorica Hewa, another stellar collection of songs informed by a wide variety of Asian and African folk music styles.

Right now, the band is in the midst of a small US-Canadian tour. Those in the Northeast and Midwest should make the effort to see them. OOIOO ranks among the most captivating and technically proficient live acts ever I’ve seen. They possess an uncanny ability to translate the intricate, layered recorded versions of their songs onto the stage with astonishing fidelity.

Band leader Yoshimi P-We began her career as a drummer for Boredoms in the 1980s. Her skills as a percussionist and trumpet player led that band’s transition from noise rock provocateurs to their current configuration as a kind of transcendental drum-circle art happening.

Most Americans know of her as the inspiration behind the Flaming Lips song and album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—not a bad example of one artist tipping their hat to another, but one since become a cliché in reviews of her work with Boredoms, OOIOO and many others.

A current interview with Yoshimi can be read at Impose Magazine

Michael Gira on 30 Years of Swans Music

Two years ago, I interviewed Michael Gira about The Seer, the second album by Swans following their reformation in 2010. A few months ago, the band released another record, To Be Kind, one of their best in the 30+ years since their formation.

For those unfamiliar, Swans emerged in the early 80s from art and music scene of lower Manhattan. Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, and Sonic Youth were early stylistic touchstones, but even among those contemporaries Swans stood out as especially uncompromising. Their music gradually evolved to incorporate elements of folk, psychedelic rock and ambient soundscapes, but the expansive, grandiose nature of the music has remained constant.

Truth be told, I was apprehensive going into the interview. Gira has a reputation for being prickly in the face of ill formed interview questions. And I was inexperienced, something which he seemed to pick up on. “So do you do this often?” he asked me pointedly near the end of our conversation.

Immediately apparent was the seriousness with which Gira approaches music making, but also the care he felt towards his bandmates as well as his sense of humor, which belies the one-dimensional image of Swans being a dour band helmed by dour old men. He spoke about collaborating with Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O., saying, “I was singing and it just seemed like I was in the way, that my voice was some kind of troll trying to be gentle to someone. I’m not Nick Drake. Let’s put it that way.”

By Gira’s own account, Swans are more popular now than they’ve ever been. This may seem odd in a culture so obsessed with celebrity and instant gratification. But what sets them apart and what, I think, lies at the heart of their appeal is the obvious devotion put into every second of their music. For anyone interested in creating on their own terms, whether that be art, music, or literature, their late career renaissance is something to admire.

You can read more of my interview with Gira here.

Shabazz Palaces Preview New Album Lese Majesty.

Late last month, the Seattle rap duo Shabazz Palaces debuted new material at the Pacific Science Center. I wish I had been there.  Since forming sometime around 2009, they’ve made some of the most interesting music in the city, full stop. Pitchfork and other national music pubs have paid attention since the group’s inception.

 

 

That’s good. Seattle has earned the reputation for being middle of road, culturally speaking. And while Shabazz Palaces doesn’t rep the city as loudly as that other rap duo, I do prefer them as musical representatives for Seattle, however obscure they might be in comparison to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. False dichotomy? Least interesting thing about Shabazz Palaces? OK.

 

 

So what does this new stuff sound like? The answer is quite similar to their previous full-length release Black Up.  “They Come in Gold” features the deep, robotic grooves characteristic of the group backed with philosophical but easy flowing verses from lyricist Ishmael Butler.

Press releases make for dull reading most of the time. Here again, Shabazz Palaces do things differently. Their statement about the new album, Lese Majesty, is a little slice of pop-spiritual philosophizing that wouldn’t be out of place on the liner notes of a Sun Ra LP.

Herein bumps and soars Lese Majesty, the new sonic action of Shabazz Palaces. Honed and primal, chromed and primo. A unique and glorified offering into our ever-uniforming musical soundscape. Lese Majesty is a beatific war cry, born of a spell, acknowledging that sophistication and the instinctual are not at odds; Indeed an undoing of the lie of their disparate natures.

Lese Majesty is not a launching pad for the group’s fan base increasing propaganda. It is a series of astral suites, recorded happenings, shared. A dare to dive deep into Shabazz Palaces sounds, vibrations unfettered. A dope-hex thrown from the compartments that have artificially contained us all and hindered our sublime collusion.

These reveries were sent to Palaceer Lazaro and Fly Guy ‘Dai in the year of gun beat battles in excess; In a succession of days, whilst walking in dreams and in varied transcendental states….(every minute of every day is filled with observation and composition. In action). Songs are committed and gathered by robots at Protect and Exalt Labs, a Black Space in Seattle, Washington.

The visual features of Lese Majesty are resultant of the gleanings of fellow Constellationaire, Nep Sidhu.

The Black Constellation squads up, protects and exalts the messages within, and colludes accordingly. We thank you.

According to the label, the album is structured as series of suites rather discrete pieces of music.  Unusual for hip-hop, sure, but similar to how the group as always written their music.  And while the new track doesn’t break new ground for them,  it still proves that Shabazz Palaces are still one of the most unique bands working in hip-hop today. Listening to them means entering into a unique aesthetic space, an afrofuturistic universe where sound worlds intersect according to their own mysterious laws. Lese Majesty is definitely something to look forward to.

 

 

Reliquary House: Nate Boyce and Oneohtrix Point Never

I’ve been following the career of Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never for a few years, ever since he released the triple LP Rifts back in 2009, a collection previously release  EPs, compilation tracks, and other limited edition work.  Initially, Oneohtrix Point Never’s sound was heavily  based on synthesizer arpeggios and spectral detuned drones—very appealing stuff for fans of German kosmische artists like Popal Vuh, Tangerine Dream, and Klaus Schulze.

Lopatin could have continued churning music like that forever and have kept his fans happy, but something more interesting happened. The definitive break from his old sound came with album Replica in 2011. Synthesizers remained present in the mix, but in a diminished role. Vocal samples, often edited and distorted beyond recognition, became the basis the album’s most effective moments. The music still retained the hazy textures of Lopatin’s early work, but the chaotic structures and harsh tones put it at a far distance from most ambient music.

R Plus 7, Lopatin’s newest album, marks an even more radical change in style. Bright digital tones predominate. Digital piano and choral pads lend a mood of Clinton-era nostalgia, Window’s 95 start-up music and the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country. Lopatin fashions these rather banal ingredients into something far stranger and more compelling than the slick, corporatist digital-utopianism with which this type of music is associated.

Nowadays, what I find most compelling about Lopatin’s work is not his music per se, though I like R Plus 7 quite a bit, but rather it is his willingness to collaborate across disciplines. When I saw him on tour following the release of Replica, he was accompanied by disorienting and beautiful projections by the video artist Nate Boyce. Like Lopatin, Boyce uses the artificiality,  the synthetic texture of digital media as a creative departure point.  His 3D animations are “wrong” in the conventional sense that they do not form a coherent, realistic environment, but that is the point. They show the strangeness and instability lurking behind a supposedly frictionless digital reality.

Lou Reed in Memorium

There was a sense of the inevitable with Lou Reed’s passing on October 27th, Sunday morning,  which along with being the day of his death, was the title of the lead track off The Velvet Underground &Nico. That album, along with its follow-up White Light/White Heat, provided the soundtrack my years as a teenage malcontent in suburban Washington State. For all the hirsute posturing of Staind, Slipknot, Rob Zombie and dozens of other nu-metal mediocrities popular at the time, there was nothing on modern rock radio as transgressive as the fourteen minute auditory middle finger t known as is “Sister Ray,” and nothing as transportive either.

Between classes, my high school friends and I would hang out in a disused corridor between the Pottery and Photography classrooms, pile together on a filthy old sofa, and listen to music, mostly scuffed CDRs of obscure oldies, ’77 era punk rock bands, Northwest indie rock—really any unpopular rock based music, to keep the jocks at bay and to provide accompaniment to whatever hopelessly naïve art project we were working on at the time. And it was the Velvets that I remember being played the most. Just hearing “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” was enough to make us feel a part that lost world of dark glamour of the Factory and the Lower East Side circa 1967—an absurd dream, to be sure, but irresistible at a time when we were desperate for some creative identity, one that would help us navigate out of adolescence, more of a trek up a glacier in a whirlwind than any all night bohemian cocktail party.

Sex, drugs, and death, of course, weren’t the only things Lou Reed was about, not that I cared at time. Excepting Metal Machine Music, I didn’t bother with his solo albums and felt ambivalent about the last two Velvet Underground albums. Years went by before I had the maturity and imagination to feel the sweetness and candor in a song like “Pale Blue Eyes” or understand that an army of novelists could deforest whole swaths of Canada before they were able create stories that rank with “Candy Says” and “Oh Sweet Nothing!”

I won’t pretend expertise regarding Lou Reed’s latter day career. The first few solo albums, along with his work in the Velvets, have always been enough for me. But if he had recorded nothing after Loaded, Reed’s place in musical posterity would be assured. Unlike the Rolling Stones and Beatles, his work still feels contemporary, and not for the risqué subject matter or avant-garde connections, but because the music is charged with brilliant contrasts, unspeakably tender one moment and then uncontrollably wild in the next, like the life that we imagine for ourselves when we are young and filled with cynical innocence.