Thursday, October 18, 2007

Surrealism's Frantic New Frontier; a review of Blanche Davidian's "Orange Sunshine."

After playing the hermit and hiding for the first set of months after I moved to Phoenix several years ago, I was hired to play bass for a punk-influenced rock’n’roll band. My first show on-stage with them was an appearance at the (now non-existent) Mason Jar, with Blanche Davidian, Army of Robots, and Calabrese. I never would have guessed at the time that this show, as my first memorable experience with live local music in this city, would set a precedent for the caliber of bands that call this wasteland home that most of the rest of the town’s entertainment options would fall far short of living up to, and that the bands on the bill of that show would still be topping my list for the most noteworthy and entertaining acts in town years later. In retrospect, boy, was I spoiled.

Upon my initial encounter with the Davidian boys, I was thoroughly impressed by their energetic, glammed-up stage-show, and aggressive yet mature blistering punk sound that reminded me, at the time, more of “No Lunch”-era D Generation than anything else. From the start of their set to the end, they were tight, professional, and kept the crowd captivated.

Blanche Davidian still impresses me with these same traits, but on their new record, “Orange Sunshine,” they also demonstrate that they have elevated their craft to a level that far transcends being merely an independent band that happens to be more interesting to watch than most.

Listening to “Orange Sunshine,” I now hear hints in the Davidians of the raw power-pop stylings of “Live at Budakon,” “Radar Love”/ “Barroom Blitz”-style anthemic campiness, a bit of “Night at the Opera” vocal harmonizing, the occasional vocal-part reminiscent of an early Michael Stipe, and a touch of cherry and oak in the slightly tannic finish.

Singer Jamie Monistat VII’s lyrics are gritty, creative and steeped with perverse wit, in a way that reminds me a bit of a more spastic William Burroughs when read on paper. One of the most noteworthy aspects of his writing-style is that the lyrics create a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” game of pastiche and intertextuality. Each song seems loaded with toungue-in-cheek references to other songs, borrowed and altered lyrics, and ironically placed fragments of familiar melody lines. This is particularly obvious on the song “Brimstone Jannie,” which strikes me as a verbal collage of borrowed elements decoupaged creatively and sarcastically (with gobs of glittery mud as the laquer) around a chorus, as well as appearing in a large number of other places on the album, such as in the album‘s opening track, “The Five Muscatels,” where layers of non-lyrical vocal parts morph at one point into a familiar doo-woppy part lifted, to admirably surprising comic effect, from a Monkees song (I think? Maybe Billy Joel? The Grease soundtrack? You get the point, you’d recognize it…).

My biggest complaint upon initial listen to this record also turns out to be something that I respect immensely from an artistic and conceptual perspective. The tone and tempo of the record is, with a couple of exceptions, fairly uniform throughout, with only the melody-hooks of the vocals and the guitar solos (which are exceptionally written and played by Mike Hawk and Nikki Seven, with stylings that are more often than not [to my great pleasure] more thoroughly “power-metal” than “punk”) cutting through what is at other points a somewhat monotonous first-listen. In this regard, I find that some of the album’s artwork is exceptionally well-chosen. On the disc itself is printed an orange-and-black mesmerism spiral, which gives way to a photograph of an atom-bomb explosion on the tray when the disc is removed. In light of these visual symbols, the trance-like consistency of the album’s sound seems quite deliberate. Listening again with these visual representations in mind, the record seems to, overall, suggest several layers of psychedelic spirals, in feeling very similar to the orange spiral on the disc, giving way to “explosions,” which lead to drops or rises to lower or higher levels of the intensity of the spiral. Probably the most easily exemplified of these transitions is in the song “Hale-Bopp Panty Raid,” which features a drastic fall to the softest segment of the record (featuring still more of Mr. Monistat’s witty lyrical pastiche… “knock knock knockin’ on Heaven’s Gate”, etcetera), which proves just as (if not more) psychedelically spirally than the more intense moments of the record, such as the one that it builds and explodes back into. If it is a coincidence that the cover-song that follows this track (Warrior Soul's “Let’s Get Wasted”) contains a lyric that refers to an explosion, it’s an extremely accidentally apt and ironic one.

Overall, the effect created by these tonal spirals and explosions works well with other thematic elements of the lyrics and packaging of “Orange Sunshine.” Nuclear fallout, psychedelia, hypnosis, drugs, realism so gritty that it’s unbelievably hazy, cults… are all thematic elements that seem exceptionally well, yet exceptionally ambiguously and appropriately confusingly, treated by the thorough-going statement being made by the record as a whole. This is one of several recent records that makes me wonder if music could be the next viable medium for effective displays of authentic Surrealism. As all modern painting in the genre seems mere pale Dali imitations, and the conceptual intent of DaDa poetry has sunk far enough into the cultural understanding that the point it makes is no longer as pertinently discomforting, the sonic palette could very well be this genre’s next frontier. If this is the case, Blanche Davidian could very well be among our best current demonstrators of how it could be done, and their new record "Orange Sunshine" is a well-crafted step in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On second thought...

I had intended to post a critical explanation of the relation between the two works of art from diverse mediums in my last post. On second thought, however, from reading back over the post that combined the two together, I feel that, to any close-reader/ observer/ critic, the point that I intend to make should be fairly apparent, and a more thorough explanation could verge on insulting to the intelligence and scholarly deduction skills of my readership.

Let me just say, then, that the painting posted is one of the two referred to in the poem, and the girl depicted next to me in the visual representation is the girl to whom the narrative perspective of the poem is directed.

This is the other painting that is referred to in the poem, still very much incomplete, sitting on an inactive easle...

I apologize for the poor quality of reproduction of the piece in the prior post; I fear that much important detail is missed by the size and detail constraints and the flash-spot of my camera reacting with the gloss of the piece. If there are elements expressed in the detail of the visual work that would help to understand what I'm attempting to say by the way of the two combined works (the collage-elements embedded into the bark of the tree, for instance) all that one would need to do is to ask.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Non Serviam, Shades of Gray

I return, now, to blurring and combining artistic mediums. Thus, as examples today I present two pieces of my own work that rely on one another for conceptual strength.

"Shades of Gray."

As I sit
Meticulously mixing my
Shades of gray
On the patio
Wishing that you
Were across from me,
Spewing beautifully your
Scholarship or
Philosophy that you
Called by another
Name, discussing our
Various shades of
Gray, angles of
So very not binary
Differences in perception,
Of the shades
Of the colors
Of our lives
And views and
Lifestyles, the
Difference in the
Shade of which
Did nothing but
Prove that our
Modes and our
Dispositions (the
Fundamentals of the
Blacks and whites that
Must most intrinsically
Originally make us up)
Most notably and
Startlingly were
(or were to become)
So strikingly similar.

Even the shades
That sometimes must
Strike each others’ eye
As vile or a bit
Jarring at least
Were shades that we
Mixed for ourselves,
Splashed across our
Own palettes, and later
Regretted of ourselves,
Or colored over with
A different shade…
I’m sure that you
Can see this, Darling,
The pigments in each of us
That bother each other
Tend to be the ones that
We suddenly start to
Regret using ourselves.
In short, the tones
That we each
Call the other out on
Makes each of ourselves,
In turn, by reflection,

Mars Black and
Titanium White sit
Drying on my palette
With very little wet
On the canvas,
As I’m having a hard
Time recovering the
Work that I dropped
To commence the painting
That I did for you.
I’m realizing that work required
A bit of a different style,
A bit of a different set of
Skills than my
Usual, much like
You yourself do, but I’m
Realizing that it
Very well may have
Made me a better
Artist. After
Certain techniques that
I developed to
Mix the greens to
Form the tree that
Includes us, includes the
Cycle of the things that
We arguably must serve,
The blacks and whites and
Shades of gray on
The work that I
Put away for a bit
Seem challengingly
Simplistic, although more
Definitively structured.
My brush keeps
Drifting to the tone of
Surreal that, through
Painting for you, I
Came to realize, more
Thoroughly captures
The gradients of the
Hue of who we are,
Who we are to be and
Paint ourselves as,
But obscures the precision
Of past architectural
Lines. Gobs of dried
Acrylic still sit in the
Divots of my palette
This morning, with very
Little used. I left it
To mix and mold
Our shades and shapes of
Black and white to
Compatible grays together,
The way, I feel,
That we are both best served.

"Non Serviam; The Things That We May and May Not Serve."
(A self-portrait(of sorts) in acrylic paint, oil pastels, and collage-elements that aso appears on my DeviantART profile, and was presented as a gift to Hysteric Noir, the other individual depicted in the work.)

I will analyze the connections between the two in my next entry.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wrapping up my drawn-out show review (Today is the Day, et al.)

OK, so I intended to finish this the next day, but I guess that didn't happen... It's been a wierd week; my apologies.

My challenge now is to combine my scribbled notes with my wracked memory of a show that's now a couple weeks past, and combine those with the vague recollections of the points that I was intending to use that show to demonstrate. Perhaps this challenge (and my rather abstract intended ways of confronting it) will prove large chunks of my point. I think that it will, or will at least help. Some of my intended points may even be made better, if less directly or cogently. This is a study of bias itself rather than of the subject, and the limitations of this post, and the necesary piecemeal/ goulash nature of its presentation, are the bias. This is much like post-modern critical anthropology. The anthropology of a rock show. All writing is fundamentally primarily about the writing task itself, and the biases of its author rather than about the subject undertaken.

With that in mind, I return to the show itself. After Christine, Defcon 4 from Boston took the stage. Musically, these guys were strikingly dissimilar to the rest of the bill. A hardcore band that leans harder toward thrashy punk than metal, their set felt a bit like a circus act for intermission at the opera. Not that this is a bad thing, necesarily. The crowd seemed to revel in a brief change in the mood of the room. And I practically grew up on Boston hardcore, so their set struck me as a refreshing chunk of nostalgia, even though I wasn't previously familiar with anything besides the name of the group prior to this show. Say what you will, the Boston area has (and will probably always have) a pretty distinct sound in violent music, and Defcon definitely has a bit of something in them that would give me a good guess where they were from at the most casual cold listen. Their set was alot of fun, in a similar way to how it can occasionally be fun to dig through boxes of old cassette-tapes with hand-made labels and reflect on the chaos of the shows that I picked them up at.

Today is the Day themselves delivered what their reputation promises. From the moment that they began playing, they assaulted the crowd with nearly transcendentally precise walls of rhythmic sound. From my place in the bobbing crowd in front of the stage, their music struck me as having a distinctly trance-like quality that I found thoroughly enjoyable. The sensation that their music created for me was similar to being lifted into it and then sorrounded or wrapped by it, taken completely into the different sort of space that the music comes from (whatever that may be). From inside of the grip of the music, it seems that the point of it, the purpose for the construction of this space, the composition of the music that is the tool to propell the listener there, is completely atmospheric and textural. The culmination of this feeling came, rather predictably, with a heavy and rythmic rendition of the song "Temple of the Morning Star" (a song that appears on their myspace page in an acoustic form) which features a well-crafted pulsingly repititious chant that sucked the crowd, joining in and mobbing toward the stage, further into the embracing effect created by the sound. "I can't be... what you want me to be... I am... dead..." By the last time through, I couldn't see a person who wasn't positively screaming. If the show is intended as a sort of ritual (which at times it felt like) and the embracing sensation of the rhythms is in some way thereputic and building toward some sort of goal, this refrain serves as a most definite point of release. And it felt damn good.

Of course, this could have been merely an idea that I had been spinning on my own that evening (or something that part of me bady wanted), and the sensations that TITD created for me played into it rather (coincidentally) well. Jotted in my notebook from prior in the evening (I believe just after Black Hell finished playing) is this-

The purpose of "scene" has nothing to do with other people. It has to do with the constructin of individual identities, something to allign yourself with, the ability to space-out and step into the pseudo-surrealistic realm of an option for "reality" that the band is creating for you.

Music communities, it seems, aren't fundamentally about community at all. The aspect of community created as part of the activity of musical enjoyment is merely a tool with which individual identities are sculpted. Therefore, the most artistically valid moments in the act of musical appreciation are intrincically and harshly individual moments. At this show I remembered that it is still possible to say something artistically valid within a guitar-bass-drums cliche box-structure or with the utilization of otherwise unnecesary social frivolities like music scenes or the cheap enjoyment of conventional entertainment. Even if what's being said by the art is merely the brief expression of a single feeling, atmosphere, or texture that an individual wants as a facet of their self-constructed identity. As I left the show, I felt decidedly disconnected, dazed, and strangely somewhat content. If music can still be relevant art, I think that this feeling alone may be a valid and important point to make, and I commend Today is the Day for making it for me that evening.

Friday, October 5, 2007

A show review, or a review of shows in general? (Today is the Day, et al, at Stray Cat in Tempe, AZ)

(...picking up where I left off yesterday...)

One of the shows that I found my way out to last week was the September 28th Tempe, AZ stop of the Supernova Records "Axis of Eden" tour. Headlining the show was Today is the Day (whose most recent record lends the tour its name), with support from fellow Supernova acts Defcon 4, Christine, and Taipan, with Phoenix locals Black Hell opening the show.

I have to begin by commending Tyler King, who booked the event, for choosing a local opener extremely well-suited to the show. I had been hearing Black Hell's name around town for quite a while, had heard some of their recorded material, and had been meaning to check them out, although admittedly with expectations that were far from high. I was extremely pleased to have my assumptions debunked in this regard; The band only played three (fairly long) songs, but I was thoroughly impressed. For one reason or another, from a combination of their recorded sound/ the contexts in which I usually heard their name/ etc., I was expecting a performance from the band that was far more cliche-ridden and formulaic, and a sound that was a bit "crustier." I'm definitely not going to claim that this band is doing anything that hasn't been done before, but these guys do it extremely well. I found that my knee-jerk reaction to this act was to question for a moment some of my idealistic preferences about "good" or "noteworthy" musical performance (when I'm speaking critically, I most often vehemently hold that in order to have artistic value at the present juncture, an act must offer a complete package, which involves elements of showmanship, well-calculated/ artistically appropriate appearance, etc, in addition to the music itself). I found Back Hell's no-nonsense approach to "get up there, play your instruments, and play them really well" suprisingly refreshing. Their performance was tight, heavy, and musically proficient, and their stage-demeaner was humble (I don't usually think that humility and the stage mix very well, but for some reason that vibe works for these guys). While perusing the band's websites, I was pleasantly suprised to notice the use of the word "Psychedelic," which came to my mind while they were playing, but I would have figured would be an element that much of their audience might have been oblivious to. Their well-sculpted and precise guitar-tones seemed to spiral around the room, often-times transcending and elevating the more conventional (although also skillfully accomplished) "brutality" of their rhythms, creating a more "spacey" effect than your average (particularly local) metal band.

(whew, that was more time than I was planning to spend on the opener. Oh well, I enjoyed their set.)

Next on the roster was another short (three- song) set, this time from a band that I've since learned is called Taipan, a Today Is The Day side-project. Frankly, their set scared me, and not in a way that's akin to how some metal bands might want to "scare" their audience. I have to admit, I hadn't actively listened to Today Is The Day much in quite a while. So, when Taipan took the stage looking an awful lot like the slated headlining act (both bands are trios, and they share two out of three members between them...) the first thoughts going through my mind involved questions of why they were playing so early, such a short set, and so poorly. Jotted in my notebook about this band are phrases like "Steve Austin's voice is shot... struggling with guitar-work... not very tight..." I don't think I need to elaborate. I wasn't impressed, and I was extremely relieved when Steve Austin and bassist Chris Debari took the stage again later in the night with a different drummer to play a much more fulfilling set as the real headliner.

Next up was a band from Nashville called Christine. This band would easily be my prediction for "every metal-head in America's next favorite band," if they cleaned up a few fairly minor things. They are a female-fronted act that walks that dificult line of doing enough genre-blurring to stay interesting while also remaining coherent, while mixing in less than orthodox elements, like an occasional steel-guitar part, without becoming too avant-garde for metal fans. This band's overall biggest selling-point, in fact, are these sorts of issues of "balance." Most bands that skirt the vague boundaries of "doominess" choose to be infuenced either primarily by sources that are blues-based or classical-based, whereas these guys meld the two in under-attempted ways that would make Sabbath proud. The vocals waver from growls to angelic/ child-like clean parts, which is a balance that very few bands that attempt can pull off with any success at all. The main issue that I feel could keep this band from their potential is their stage and promotional demeanor. The vibe that their presense and banter between songs portrays is not at all the sort of image that their sound and songwriting conveys. A perusal of their myspace page after the show proved to present the same sort of slapstick-ish sarcasm (They list themselves as "Regional Mexican / Southern Rock / Crunk"... "southern rock," sure, that influence is definitely there... the other two? definitely not) that doesn't seem an adequate match from the fairly serious and dark feeling that their music conveys. Again, my peaves have to do with merely wishing that the performance-package presented were complete, which a more caculated attention to their demeanor and conduct (making sure that it is well-suited to the artistic statement being made or attempted by their music) would easily achieve for this band. It is obvious that their songs and sound are carefully crafted. A bit of similar care to other elements of their performance would do this noteworthy material far better justice.

OK, I think I'm going to cut it off here for today and give the readers' eyes and heads a break. I'll finish this tomorow, with (hopefully) a final installment of "how many posts can a single review possibly take," as well as some attempts at critical "conclusions." Remember, my attempt is to write on broader phenomenon than the bands themselves.

(All images in this post have been pilfered from the band's own websites. I apologize and will remove them if this is a problem to anyone. I didn't have my camera with me on this night.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A show review, or a review of shows in general? (...part 1)

Reconstructionist journalism, the documents of the post- post-modern, must make a thorough assumption of bias, discard all presumption of "truth" or "fact," and closely examine the broader representations of what we do/ think and why we do/ think these things. Conventional entertainment is therefore dead and invalidated, and it is the critic's job to either reconstruct its purpose or choose to discredit and discard it completely. (yes, this passage may sound a bit familiar to some of you. I posted it yesterday as part of my promo-blurb on my myspace blog for the previous entry. Reading back over what I had last written, though, this looked like as adequate as any of a place to begin.)

I've been having a rather intense inner-dialogue lately about these subsequent purposes of "entertainment" and the significance that is culturally imbedded into it, particularly by individuals who associate themselves and their constructed/ chosen identities with entertainment (particularly music) "scenes." I realized, over the course of these ponderings, that it had been quite a while since I had been to a show or concert at all (particularly by choice), largely due to the more cynical side of my thoughts on the matter. After a final burn-out run with ambitions of "success" (of some hard-to-define sort or another) as a performer, which concluded in a defiant decision that musical interests were most certainly NOT worth the academic sacrifices that they required to take either as seriously as I wished to, I had settled into a bit of overanalyzation of the show-going experience; the general questions that most commonly came to my mind when I thought about live music performance included "exactly WHAT am I watching," "WHY am I watching it," "WHY would this entertain me, or anyone else," etc. My assumptions rested on the methodology of conventional rock-based music, at our present juncture, being a mere following of formulaic structures that had, to a large degree, become by this point "understood variables," the mere basics of how it is, or is "supposed to be," done, as well as the speculation that the social and cultural cliches of building personal identities around music preferences and scene affiliations had more of a factor in our level of "entertainment" by a show than the spectacle of the performance itself.

In a word, I've been wavering in and out of varying degrees of "jaded," from a critical perspective. I tend to see structures and assumptions rather than entertainment, envelopes that neatly contain rather than "art." I've become, at times (ok, most of the time) a rather hard person for a musician to hope to entertain.

From this standpoint, when the urge suddenly DOES strike me to go out and check out a live music performance, I try not to pass it up, for fear of losing important potential revalations on these questions to my own potential for slipping back into the "fickle" and "difficult." Somehow, this urge struck me recently twice in one week, and I jumped at the occasions to creep out of my cantakerous bubble.

(to be continued, as usual...)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A show review, or a review of shows in general? (Preface)

This is not a music-blog. There are far too many sites floating around the internet dedicated solely to concert and record reviews, thus I feel that my addition to that dogpile would be superfluous.

However, this blog IS dedicated to multi-medium art-criticism, and as a musician and a reluctant (and extremely critical) music "fan," music IS one of the multiple mediums that this blog occasionally covers.

As an art critic who is versed and educated primarily in literary scholarship, the scope and format of the majority of mainstream, journalistic music reviews are of very little interest to me. My attempt with the "reviews" that I post on this site, therefore, is more akin to what I consider to be viable and noteworthy literary criticism. The goal of this, in my eyes, is not to merely explain and cast judgement on the work being examined, but to use the individual work as an example to demonstrate broader, more "important" topics about art and culture in general.

Therefore, I have several "reviews" slated for this blog of shows that I have recently attended/ will attend and records that have recently been released. This has mostly come about because, as I wrote among scribbled notes about the performers and the crowd while sitting at the bar between acts at a recent show that I attended, "I seem completely unable to leave my work at home lately" (as anyone who's recently spotted me sitting at various pubs around Phoenix on busy nights with stacks of books and notebooks in front of me can attest to). So, I may as well make critical use of the ideas that strike me, and scribbles that I go home with, when I go out at night, right?

My first entry (or set of entries) of this nature, for which I'm currently sifting through a hap-hazard set of notes, will address questions of the purpose of entertainment and entertainment "scenes" (and, yes, the identity-constructions that come about by way of them) as they pertain to two recent shows that I attended (the first couple that I had been to in quite a while); Today is the Day, et al, at the Stray Cat, and The Red Elvises at The Rythm Room.

And, the next time that you're out in Phoenix and see the wierdo sitting amidst the crowd at Rosie Mcafrees or the Dubliner studying for the GRE's or editing a thick packet of dry typescript with illegible scribbles all over the margins, stop by and say hi.