Monday, November 02, 2009

One Track Mind

Cerebral Metalhead readers: I apologize for the month-long gap in posting. This October was one of the most hectic months of my working life thus far and I barely had time to devote to exercise, social obligations or hygiene let alone Cerebral Metalhead. You can expect more frequent posting now that I'm out of the woods. Thanks for sticking with me. Without further ado: One Track Mind!

The impulse that causes us to listen to most metal is not the same impulse that causes us to seek out a 40-minute song. The former usually involves energy in need of immediate outlet; the latter requires long term, process-oriented listening experience. That's probably why single-track metal albums tend to be so slow, and just as heavy on atmosphere as on, like, heavy (think Sleep's Dopesmoker, Cephalic Carnage's Halls of Amenti and Pig Destroyer's Natasha). Can you imagine a single-track album that's all shredding? Plenty of doom metal bands stretch song lengths to ludicrous extremes, but it takes chutzpah, pretense and absolutely no commercial ambitions to commit to a whole album consisting of one track. Here are a few recent albums by acts within metal's sphere of influence that went the distance.

Jesu - Infinity (Avalanche Recordings, 2009)

Jesu's alchemical transformation from slow-burn doom to blissful synthetics is one of the more fascinating (and transparent, thanks to Justin Broadrick's obsessive documentation of his progress) metal metamorphoses of recent years. Yet I grow increasingly disinterested with Jesu the more deeply Broadrick explores his shoegaze fixation. He's a frequently brilliant producer, but the move towards enveloping warmth coats over his music's disturbing core. Whereas Jesu was pulverizing in its droning atmospherics, the Why Are We Not Perfect? EP (reviewed here) felt lighter than air, even at its deepest moments.

"Infinity" (excerpt)

Broadrick seems well aware of his path on Infinity, a one-track album that references the entirety of Jesu's recorded output -- like a sonic version of the "my whole life flashed before my eyes" scenario that near-death experiencers go through. There's plenty of actual riffing deployed in the first twenty minutes, followed by long stretches of ambience in the middle, some droning metallic crush, and then more than ten minutes of the noodly post-rock cues of recent Jesu to finish it off. For many, the return to the heaviness of Broadrick's earlier years will be enough to recommend Infinity. Me, I need more in exchange for my 50 minutes. This track is nicely produced (pretty much a given with Broadrick) but poorly sculpted. There's nothing driving toward a conclusion here. Segments are pasted together, without much mind paid to momentum. Perhaps this is more a preference than a criticism; music need not be linear to move. But a 50-minute track oughta give you an experience that you couldn't have just by listening to 50 minutes worth of Jesu music in any other context. Infinity doesn't.


MGR y Destructo Swarmbots - Amigos de la Guitarra (Neurot, 2009)

Admittedly, Amigos de la Guitarra isn't a metal record in the slightest. The metal association comes via MGR main (only?) man Mike Gallagher, who plays guitar for Isis (whose recent Wavering Radiant is reviewed here) as his main gig. You'll hear a lot of that group's watery guitar soup-ization on this guitar collaboration with experimental musician Mike Mare, aka Destructo Swarmbots. The disc pits cyclical electric guitar figures against soft washes of ambience and guitar loops manipulated in various ways. It's profoundly meditative stuff, growing and changing incrementally but steadily. It's important that Gallagher is accustomed to destroying speakers with Isis, and that Mare's early work with Destructo Swarmbots amounted to sonic terrorism. Amigos de la Guitarra is the kind of quiescent, patient music that could probably only be made by creators so accustomed to its impatient inverse.

"Amor en el Aire" (excerpt)

While Amigos de la Guitarra involves discrete sections with patches of ambience smoothing their transitions, they scan best as a gestalt. A lot happens over the course of the album but it's mostly on a micro level and only in the long term; guitar patterns fade and are overtaken by others, loops rise and fall like tide waters are lapping at them and eroding them, cycle by cycle (those who have heard Basinki's Disintegration Loops might find a less willful echo of the same idea here). On a surface level, Amigos de la Guitarra is a pretty gorgeous work, and your average post-rock band ought to take cues from the glassy depth of MGR y Destructo Swarmbots' production, captured by Alap Momin, otherwise known as the amazing producer behind Dälek. But beauty alone isn't enough to sustain Amigos de la Guitarra for its 42-minute run time. This one sets the dimmer switch low early on and never raises or lowers it. As a result, there isn't any risk at all, nothing that compelling beyond fodder for a nice long gaze at the navel.

The wind cries "Mike" at MGR and Destructo Swarmbots' MySpace pages

Overmars - Born Again (orig. 2007; reissued Crucial Blast, 2009)

This forty-minute sludge marathon from France's Overmars is exactly the right length. The pain of listening to a single chord for so long, throbbing and bleeding interminably as three vocalists purge their innermost fears, is exactly the point. Like Swans and Godflesh before them, Overmars make vulnerable, uncomfortable music for scraping out those unexplored recesses of the soul. Whatever joy we experience through listening to it is the joy of vicarious catharsis, the knowledge that by album's end, the band has exorcised everything they could and that, if we follow their example, maybe there's some hope for us. That purging process takes a lot of time. Born Again has to as well.

"Born Again" (excerpt)

This is music about process -- if you're in search of tonal variety and chord changes, you'll be bored five minutes in to the harmonically stagnant first half. Stop thinking about it and let those tick-tock dirges take control. Let it own your listening experience instead of vice-versa for a change. Locate the loneliest, most self-critical part of you, the part that might sympathize with Overmars' amazing female vocalist Marion when she screams "I’m close to dying a thousand times/But this time I allowed myself to cry." Only then will you truly feel the payoff of Born Again's second half, a succession of droning Neurosis riffs that gets heavier, denser, more engulfing as it goes on. Overmars couldn't continue to make music this emotionally devastating if it weren't healing in some way. And based on the surprisingly upbeat, but still über-metal final stanza, it is:
Listen to the screams coming out of my wounds, free from the plague
Listen to the screams coming out of the hole, holding the sound of joy and pleasure
Listen to my screams announcing the birth of a new man
I, born again
Until the bell tolls, nothing’s finished, nothing’s done
Until the bell tolls, I am immortal

Amazon (CD)
Amazon (MP3)


dschalek said...

I liked MGR and Overmars. Strangely enough.

Matt Vogt said...

Overmars was pretty cool, the slow trudging reminds me particularly of Godflesh's 'Go Spread Your Wings'.

Infinity doesn't do much for me, unfortunately. I don't necessarily agree that's it a clear downwards progression for Jesu (I really like Sundown/Sunrise and Lifeline), but I still don't think they've matched 'Heart Ache' in the subsequent releases.