Thursday, December 31, 2009

Daydream Nation

With the release of 1988's 'Daydream Nation', erstwhile avant-garde rock pioneers Sonic Youth finally and decisively consolidated their credentials as elder statesmen of alternative rock. While previous efforts like 1986's 'Evol' and 1987's 'Sister' were commendable exercises in melding leftfield songcraft with the band's noise-terror approach, 'Daydream Nation' successfully corrals the past sonic aggressiveness into a more streamlined sensibility. This new archetype made for a better, more realised vision of Sonic Youth's artistry, in which the unorthodox, the primal, and the poppishness coalesce into a single innovative totality.

The boldly defiant anti-anthem 'Teenage Riot' sounds as riveting as ever, while 'Providence' is rightfully hazy in its shifting fever-dream musicality. 'Eliminator Jr.' is an exercise in controlled cacophony, and 'Hyperstation' is almost skeletal in its short, controlled bursts of staccato guitar chords.

Elsewhere, 'Total Trash' is a piece of low-key, mildly threatening white noise, while 'Silver Rocket' kicks out the jam with its punky demeanour. The cascading 'Eric's Trip' practically rolls with waves of feedback, and the terrifying 'Cross the Breeze' revels in a venomous arrangement that borders on speed-metal. The group also indulged in a bit of social commentary here, skewering Hollywood shallowness on 'Kissability' and lampooning American consumer culture on 'The Sprawl'. The most accessible instance on the album comes in the form of the relatively 'normal' rocker' 'Candle', which bears the immortal lyric "Wind is whipping through my stupid mop".

In short, the overall disposition of 'Daydream Nation' is nothing short of stunning, and perfectly illustrates how well performance-art aesthetics can be seamlessly embodied within fairly conventional rock structures. Even though Sonic Youth would go on to achieve greater commercial heights in the 1990s and beyond, this album still represents the band at the height of their powers, and still sounds remarkably cohesive, well-rounded and self-assured, more than twenty years after it was first put out. Aficionados of classic alt-rock can do no wrong by investing in this confirmed genre tour de force.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Red by King Crimson

The music that progressive-rock pioneers King Crimson made in the mid-1970s continues to be a rather contentious issue, even amongst avid aficionados who possess every single one of the band’s recordings. On the one hand, supporters would refer to the mind-expanding improvisatory instrumental jams and the virtuosic musical aptitude that luminaries like Bill Bruford, John Wetton and Jamie Muir brought to the table as proof of the enduring qualities of the music. On the contrary, detractors would charge the same long-winded instrumental jams as nothing more but artistic self-indulgence, and would also point to the lack of coherent melodic structures and intentionally complicated production values as evidence that King Crimson was deliberately making life difficult for their fans.

While King Crimson’s mid-1970s-era material continues to inspire endorsement and exasperation in roughly equal measures, one album does stand out from the rest of the three albums that were released between 1972 and 1974. This particular record is 1974’s ‘Red’, which, incidentally, was the 1970s King Crimson line-up’s last album before bandleader Robert Fripp decided to retire the King Crimson name, albeit temporarily until 1981. ‘Red’ stood out by virtue of its tighter, more focused songwriting and more purposeful performances (although artistic excess did exist in places), as compared to the dissonance of the preceding ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ and ‘Starless and Bible Black’, making it arguably the most resonant and accessible of the three albums.

This newly minted surround-sound reissue of ‘Red’ fleshes out the inherent muscularity of the original music, making it the definitive version of the album. The remastering does help in spades, especially in bringing out the hitherto buried tonal shades of the opening proto-metal instrumental ‘Red’, a cacophonous but still melodic tour de force that compellingly displays Fripp’s one-of-a-kind tri-tone guitar-riffing method. The following ‘Fallen Angel’ is an expansive six-minute ballad that abounds with lots of interesting sonic details like oboes, cellos and alto saxophones, while the guttural, raucous ‘One More Red Nightmare’ is an explicit showcase for percussion, a psychedelia-tinged rocker with death-defying metrical changes.

‘Providence’ marks the one instance on ‘Red’ when King Crimson lapsed into musical indulgence, a freeform instrumental improvisation that is both calculatedly chaotic and whimsical, and ends up neither here nor there. Thankfully, the band did a fair bit of bootstrapping for the concluding, twelve-minute epic ‘Starless’, a carefully crafted, multi-segmented showcase that seems to incorporate everything that contributes to King Crimson’s artistic majesty: melancholy, slightly medieval-influenced balladic elements, aggressive riff-based counterpoints and dissonant improvisational changes, making for a very apt swan song for this formation of the group.

So, even if King Crimson’s music in the 1970s still constitutes a bone of contention amongst its community of hardcore fans, ‘Red’ does prove that there is a large measure of validity to the material put out back then. It’s a futile exercise to compare ‘Red’ to the awe-inspiring 1969 debut ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ or any of the latter-day, streamlined albums released from the 1980s onwards, simply because it operates on a different level of artistry altogether. Therefore, ‘Red’ must be assessed on its own terms, and in doing so, one can finally recognise its core values and appreciate its true artistic standing, without any inappropriate comparison to other Crimson albums. The best way to do so is to get hold of this remastered edition, which also doubles up as an essential and effective introduction to a particular stage of King Crimson’s artistic evolution.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Amidst all the acclamation that veteran musical Renaissance man Ryuichi Sakamoto has garnered in his extensive and varied career, a little-mentioned but nonetheless essential facet of his artistry is his dexterity as a concert pianist par excellence, which has been proven time and again in numerous onstage solo performances in diverse locations all over the world. For a stellar example of Sakamoto's painfully perfectionist ivory-tickling acumen, check out this devastatingly, emotionally stirring recital of his undelible theme from Nagisa Oshima's existentialist war epic 'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence', during a 2005 jaunt.

Friday, December 11, 2009

In the Court of the Crimson King

Has there been a more electrifying and attention-grabbing debut album in rock history than ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, the 1969 introduction of seminal progressive-rock legends King Crimson? The short answer is an unqualified no. It is easy to discern why 'In the Court of the Crimson King' is held in such high regard in critics’ circles and amongst serious rock fans. Everything is pitch-perfect on this era-defining album, from the towering, overwhelming music, which successfully merges disparate genres like psychedelic rock, baroque classicism, avant-garde jazz and folk balladry into an artistic totality that is almost frightening in its dexterous execution, to the physical packaging, whose macabre, fearsome album cover by the late Barry Godber remains one of the most indelible and arresting sleeve jacket ever produced.

It is also on this mammoth, influential record that all the essential artistic elements of King Crimson came together to form a seamless whole: the death-defyingly accurate and proficient playing aptitude, the abstract, intuitive lyrics that oftentimes border on the outrageous and surreal, and the elaborate, intelligent production values which hold everything together effortlessly. It is no wonder that subsequent King Crimson endeavours are invariably compared, frequently unfavourably and unfairly, to this antecedent record whose cultural relevance still resonates strongly today.

‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ now gets a long-deserved 5.1 surround-sound release, which efficiently fleshes out all the detailed instrumental nuances and tonal colours of the five-song set. This is good news indeed for those King Crimson aficionados who have been looking for a sonically superior replacement for their worn-out first-generation CD copies. This new remastering job benefits the proceedings greatly, especially on the awe-inspiring opener ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, King Crimson’s undisputed signature tune, and a virtual precursor to and benchmark for all forms of rock music to come (its tempestuous post-bop jazz middle-eight section sounds particularly provocative here).

The following ‘I Talk to the Wind’, an airily placid and melodic medieval madrigal, makes for a sudden but welcome change in pace from the sonic frenzy of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, with its poignant flute solos and low-key double-bass underpinning. Next up is the hauntingly sinister, nine-minute multi-segmented symphonic suite ‘Epitaph’, which abounds with a surfeit of apocalyptic lyrical imagery ("The wall on which the prophets wrote, is cracking at the seams, confusion will be my epitaph").

Elsewhere, ‘Moonchild’ is a defiantly experimental set piece that is divided into two sections: the first is a delicate, folk-influenced pastoral ballad with lyrics that could have been lifted straight from a medieval troubadour’s sonnet, while the second is an elongated, improvisatory instrumental portion that makes for a respectable template for the ensuing minimalist-classical movement of the 70s.

The concluding almost-title track ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ is perhaps the most creatively realised and musically majestic composition here. Underlaid with an exceptionally inspired lyrical depiction of Lucifer’s palace in Hades, this cathedral-sized, sonically dramatic, Mellotron-driven symphony, capably bone-chilling in its intensity, makes for one hell of a grand finale to one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

In short, the singularity of vision on ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ remains fiercely undiminished and dynamically commanding, despite the passing of four decades since it was originally unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Nothing released since has come close to the album’s fundamental, calculated power and uncompromisingly intellectual musical structures, and it’s certainly no overstatement to say that this is one album that can be safely regarded as belonging to a far, lofty roost completely removed from and above any capricious vagaries of the day. An outstanding, breathtaking reissue of a true rock-music classic, and one that rightfully belong in any self-respecting rock fan’s record collection, or any record collection for that matter.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Wish You Were Here

One of the lesser-known outfits to emerge during the mid-1990s trip-hop boom, the Aloof developed a knack for combining sleekly freeform, nocturnal-themed electronic textures with more organic rockist tendencies. This resulted in a categorically unique, intensely cinematic sonic sensibility that managed to score the band a series of minor hits on the independent dance charts throughout the fag end of the century. Check out one of their more accessible singles, the desolately titled ‘Wish You Were Here’, which received a suitably existential angst-themed video-clip treatment, showing the group walking purposelessly through a deserted, godforsaken summer-resort beach.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Pandora's Box

Possibly the only pop song to have been written about cult silent-film flapper celebrity Louise Brooks, Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark's 1991 single 'Pandora's Box' was a surprise top ten hit for the veteran synth-pop outfit, and one of the more accessible numbers in a rather ornery discography that contains songs about nuclear warfare, genetic engineering and Catholic martyrs. Neatly packaged in a straightforward, house-inflected synth-pop guise, 'Pandora's Box' also boasted some rather empathic lyrics about the tragic star, who was beset by scandals of all sorts during her truncated career. Check out the atmospheric video clip, which intersperses clips of frontman Andy McCluskey in performance with footage from one of Brooks's more notorious pictures, the titular 'Pandora's Box'.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Tunnel of Love

While Bruce Springsteen is best known to the masses for his declamatory, rabble-rousing stance and an astute chronicler of the times and troubles of the American everyman, there is another side to The Boss which might not be readily apparent at first.

This Springsteen taps a subtler artistic vein, telling stories of desperados on the run, relationships that turned out wrong, and other more understated subjects. 'Nebraska' from 1982, 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' from 1995 and 'Devils and Dust' from 2005 are all valid showcases for this particular sensibility, but the one album that really does the trick is 'Tunnel of Love' from 1987, which examines the wreckage of an expired relationship.

'Tunnel of Love' manages to take in all the various uncertaintites and turmoils of that exigent thing called love: unrequited feelings ('Ain’t Got You', 'Tougher Than the Rest'), emotional turmoil ('Cautious Man', 'Tunnel of Love'), romantic disillusionment ('When You’re Alone', 'All That Heaven Will Allow'), marital infidelity ('Two Faces', 'Brilliant Disguise') and hard-won, if utterly bitter acceptance (the emotionally wrenching 'One Step Up', the brilliant and darkly ominous closer 'Valentine’s Day'). In hindsight, Peter Gabriel’s 1992 masterwork 'Us' is perhaps the only work that can match 'Tunnel of Love' in its extensive explorations of the entire spectrum of romantic turbulence.

The Boss decided to keep his regular E Street Band on the sidelines for 'Tunnel of Love', making the album an unassuming, low-key work that relies mostly on acoustic instrumentation and shaded production values. This translates into arguably Springsteen’s most rounded and cohesive effort, without any of the giant-sized guitar riffs, cavernous rhythm sections and Wall of Sound production qualities that characterised more popular efforts like 'Born to Run', 'The River' and 'Born in the USA'.