Metal

Best New Music Releases of 2015 (So Far)

Music of 2015 (so far):

I’ve been listening to a lot more new albums lately. I’m a bit tired of the driving focus placed on singles in our iTunes era, and everything I’ve loved this year has been part of a strong album that functions well as an album, not just a collection of songs. NPR’s First Listen has been an amazing resource in this regard (http://www.npr.org/series/98679384/first-listen). There is no better argument for limited sharing of digital audio -I’m going to be purchasing most of these albums as physical media in the next month or so.

In no particular order:

Matthew E. White, ‘Fresh Blood’: I saw the band open for The Mountain Goats in 2012, and my brother thought they were better than the main act -if I didn’t love John’s band so much, I might have, too. Amazing musicians, amazing arrangements, monster presence. The new album has all of that -and better songs. ‘Holy Moly’ kills.

Lightning Bolt, ‘Fantasy Empire’: Great music to play loud. Noise-rock, proto-metal high-clarity lo-fi… it’s hard to classify. It’s damn good, somewhat intoxicating, and exhausting. Not for the faint of heart. Listen to it all the way through.

Inventions, ‘Maze of Woods’: Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark Smith teams up solo laptop guy Matthew Cooper and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The guitar arrangements and piano parts sound like they’ve been lifted out of ‘The Earth is not a Cold, Dead Place’. Great minimalistic post-rock with an extravagant electronic twist. Like ‘Fantasy Empire’, listen to it all in one go.

‘Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith’: The title is rather self-explanatory. heart wrenching, black songs covered with beautiful precision, full of dead-on harmonies and understated acoustic instrumentation. I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with Elliott Smith’s music, but this album has put my feet upon the path. Don’t listen to this if you’re having a bad day.

Liturgy, “The Art Work’: Another very loud and aggressive album that refuses to fall to our rock-nerd Linnaean taxonomies. On first listen, it seems to be more squarely metal than something like ‘Fantasy Empire’, but that’s just where the train is coming from and Liturgy are going somewhere else entirely. Horns and spoken-word vocal delivery sit right next to driving tremolo-picking and black metal thunder and it all belongs together.

Reading Log: John Darnielle’s Master of Reality (A 33⅓ Book)

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I received three books from Bloomsbury’s 33⅓  series for Christmas, and since Master of Reality is the only other published book written by extraordinary human being John Darnielle, it was the first one I sunk my brain teeth into. Each book in this series is a prolonged look at a particular album, but the particulars beyond that point are left to the individual authors taking part in the project. Nonfiction is generally the rule of thumb (whether via the oral history of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or the series of interviews that make up Piper at the Gates of Dawn) but Darnielle chose to go the route of fiction. A young boy in 1980s Southern California is committed in a teen psychiatric ward and is made to keep a journal, which he uses to explain Black Sabbath’s album Master of Reality to the head of the unit in hopes of convincing him to give back his Walkman and tapes (or at least Master of Reality).

It’s an unconventional choice in a series composed mostly of rock-geek music journalism, but it works remarkably well. I listened to the album twice before reading and once again after, but the book would stand up fine without, although I’d strongly recommend a listen at some point; ,t does add something to the reading experience. Listening to each track as it’s mentioned would be really interesting… someone should do that and get back to me).

The voice of Roger (the boy in the psych ward and our narrator) is fully realized; it’s a nuanced perspective at an intelligent young person who is unmistakably a young person, not just a 34-year-old YA author living out their teenage fantasies from the blunted hindsight of adulthood. Roger is young and undeveloped (and dark) in those critical ways that make him believable and that set off his intelligence and his perception. Longtime readers of the blog know that Darnielle can write a troubled young male like no one else, (go read Wolf in White Van) and since he also spent some time working as a nurse in places like the one where Roger is being held he’s developed a special understanding of how they worked, as well as a deep rapport with and understanding of the kids who were sent there (go listen to The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton). When the story shifts forward ten years as Roger revives his correspondence with the head of the psych unit the narrative voice changes. Roger is still intelligent, still damaged and still unmistakable Roger, but he’s lost that frenetic chaos that typifies a certain kind of youth. He’s just as perceptive, but calmer; he can step back and see things better. His perspective on Black Sabbath has changed in an important way, as well.

The book gets across a good idea of the nature of the music in question, but those considerations take a back seat to the examination of who needs an album like Master of Reality and why. It’s amazing to read as Roger looks back ten years down the line and sees why he needed Black Sabbath so badly, why Master of Reality specifically had such a magnetic draw. This book isn’t going to tell you anything about the kind of amps Tony Iommi was using or get you inside the producer’s head, but it does examine why music that might not be the best music objectively is the best and most important music to some people and why that’s so goddamn important to understand.

Music for Writing

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I usually listen to some kind of background music while I’m writing. Since I play music myself I have to be somewhat particular about what I listen to or I’ll just stop working and zone in. Anything novel is out. Music is only helpful in my writing when it’s something I’ve listened to closely at least a few times. I recently tried to work on something while listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It’s pretty innocuous,  but I kept getting distracted by every little change. This is the biggest problem I’ve had with Eno (who I have the most respect for as a recording artist and producer). His work is invisible enough that I often have a hard time listening to it when I’m not doing something, but too engrossing for me to listen to for the first time while I’m working on something.

Classical music is completely out of the question. I’m got a few nice LPs of the Spanish guitarist Christopher Parkening playing Segovia arrangements of Bach. I know the arrangements very well -I’ve even played some of them- but the stark complexity of the melody makes it so arresting that I’m incapable of doing anything that requires creative thinking (it’s great for cleaning the house or doing dishes though). And much like the melody in a classical piece, lyrics are so at the forefront of most music it’s impossible to avoid being either distracted or polluted by them. Almost anything with a decipherable vocal part is disqualified as “writing music”. Even lyrics I know well enough to recite backward force the part of my brain that should be writing away from its task.

The best thing I’ve found for maintaining a good writing flow is post-rock. Explosions in the Sky, Calm Blue Sea, Mogwai, God is an Astronaut, and some of the less esoteric recordings of Godspeed You: Black Emperor are in heavy rotation. Melodic metal like ISIS (the members of which are probably regretting the name they chose in 1997 right now) and You Will Know Us by Our Trail of Dead can also work, although there are days when that kind of music doesn’t click. I’ve had some decent luck with movie soundtracks too. Anything Hans Zimmer does is in the running, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross have made some pretty impressive work together as well. I usually listen with noise-reducing headphones on, as I’m more easily distracted by unusual sounds than anything else. I’m always looking for new auditory input for writing, so feel free to let me know what your favorite writing soundtrack is.