Tag Archives: reviews

Some thoughts on the state of music blogging

This post was originally going to veer into a discussion of a particular group of songs that I thought were worth talking about, but ended up developing into something completely different and I think that it works better as a stand alone piece. These are some of the things that I have been thinking about lately, perhaps spurred by my frustration with music blogs in general. I have read so many negative reviews (which are pointless for all involved) as well as many very poorly written reviews and other pieces about music that attempt to cover up the author’s lack of musical knowledge through convoluted verbiage. There are specific things that I could cite, and I will do so at a later time, but for right now I think that I am just going to let this stand as is and get back to the actual music tomorrow.


There are pretty much only two ways to get my attention music-wise. Despite sounding like the completely opposing ideas of beauty and aggression, I think that the best way to wrap these things up together would be under the umbrella of “visceral.” Something that is quiet can be visceral, though it seems people typically use the word to refer to something that is unusually aggressive, or overbearing in general. But really it’s about feeling something either way.

Leave cerebral music to those that don’t know any better; leave it to those that can’t figure out how to say anything other than “look how smart we are and how complicated our songs are.” Even early Genesis, the most proggy of the prog, had some deep emotion running through a lot of their songs (though not all of them, I mean they did write an entire song about a giant hogweed after all.

But, the point is, and I do have a point, is that when I hear a song I almost instantly know whether I am going to like it or not. I’m not saying that I make snap judgements that are completely biased one way or the other, but I have listened to enough music to be able to tell when something is not going to have anything to offer me. At a certain point you just have to figure out how to do it and how to do it fast. Better that than sit through something for an hour just because you feel like you have to. A lot of times I can tell just from the ambiance around the first second or two of a song, especially if there are some drumstick clicks to count off. It’s easy to hear if something is going to be overproduced from that sound alone. If something is overproduced, and by that I mean surgically recorded, hermetically protected from any environmental sounds, then I am almost positive that I am going to have no interest in listening to it no matter how good the “song” is. Because, and bands need to figure this out, there is a lot more to writing a good song than the chord progression and the melody. As soon as you think about those things too much you are sunk.

Recording something in a deadened studio is like telling someone that you love them for the first time via text. There’s no emotion. The music needs to express something, and not through the use of overwrought bad teenage poetry. Make a connection, a real human connection. That is what music is all about.

And maybe this all sounds too heavy handed, and maybe you haven’t even read this far down, but if I get another email from another band that is trying way too hard, well, I don’t know what I am going to do. I can tell you what I am not going to do though, I am not going to pollute the rest of the internet with it. A lot of filtering happens, and I’m not ashamed of it.

There’s actually another thing that I am not going to do, and that is spend an evening writing about how much a specific album is terrible, detailing the ways in which it is. Sure, I could do that (and there are plenty of sites that do) but what would be the point? Throwing stones is easy. It’s easy because it takes very little knowledge and makes the writer sound like they know a whole lot more than they actually do. Why not just say nothing? Listen to as much of the song or album as you need to make a decision on whether or not it is worth listening to and if it is then you should happily share it with everyone. On the other hand, if you just can’t get through the song or the album, simply stop playing it and don’t listen to it anymore. That’s what everyone should do. Why waste your time and the time of others?

Album review: Colin Stetson – "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"

Colin Stetson is a saxophonist that is clearly out of his mind.

Sax players, in my experience, are a divided lot. They usually either stay on the side of jazz or classical and never the twain shall meet. More accurately, they will stick with party lines and immediately show their loyalty to their chosen side by hating the other group with every ounce of expendable energy that they have. This means that any energy that is left over after obsessive study of all things saxophone is dedicated to speaking down to the other side. I feel as though Colin Stetson may be an exception to that rule, or maybe he just didn’t get the memo. He clearly doesn’t think that there is a need to take a side. Perhaps he is creating a new side, because his music sounds like nothing I have ever heard before. If all contemporary composition for the sax sounded like this I would actually pay attention to contemporary compositions for the sax.

His music is a non-stop barrage of sound that searches for, and finds, ways to make a unilinear instrument such as his sound polyphonic. It’s not that it just sounds that way, it is. Stetson employs not only a complex melodic line that pops out over a sea of supporting, textural, notes; he uses everything that his instrument and he himself physically has to offer. Percussive key clicks serve as not only drums of sorts, but mimic the pitch and timbre characteristics of the pizzicato plucking of a double bass. Multiphonics, or complex clusters of pitches sounded simultaneously as a result of overblowing certain key combinations, help to not only thicken the sound, but provide unique colors to certain parts of a song.

The circular breathing technique, which is essentially breathing out while breathing in concurrently, means that there doesn’t have to be a single break in his melodic line. Ever. For minutes at a time the notes just flow. It’s remarkable.

Colin Stetson - "New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges"

While all of these things are great, they don’t make a song in and of themselves. All of these things would mean so much less if they weren’t coming from a virtuosic performer of such a high caliber.

“A Dream of Water” takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up. Melodies are hidden inside other melodies, weaving in and out of each other. There is a constant flurry of septuplets rolling through the air while a plain-spoken voice enters, noting observations and asking some questions: “There were those who knew only the sound of their own voices, there were those who knew the rules, there were those who freed their bodies…what was it? What was it?” The voice doesn’t simply make the track more accessible to a certain extent but also serves to haunt the listener, making the pervasive rapid notes carry more weight.

With “Home” the percussive techniques are amped up while the general mood is considerably more sedate. Colin sings through his instrument, humming in a way that transforms the saxophone partially into a theremin in its thin and straight tone. He also sings on the track “Judges”, but there it is a bit more like a growl or a choked scream. His ability to circular breathe isn’t just used to crank out a million notes without stopping, but also to lay down a single foundational pitch like the flat bass pedal tone that remains throughout “Lord I just can’t keep from crying” while a soulful spiritual is sung over top. His inhaling can be heard while the bass note continues to grow louder and more intense while this time the sax seems to take on the sound of a didjeridoo.

An entire ensemble of percussive tongue slaps, key clicks, and growls are summoned in “Red Horses” while “The righteous wrath of an honorable man” is pure blazing virtuosity, fingers flying all over across (this time) silent keys. The notes pop and squeal, leaping out of the furiously fast line. The work on this piece is truly awe inspiring. Starting from nowhere and then soaring for two and a half minutes at breakneck speed before abruptly stopping. The end comes suddenly as a car slamming into a brick wall at 80 miles an hour with nary a note out of place.

The album closes with a track that layers multiphonics atop an endless pedal tone, just as in “Lord I just can’t keep from crying”. Here, however, multiphonics slowly turn to a growl as the volume grows, sounding like something between an overdriven guitar and a siren, until eventually the track slowly fades away.

One of the many great things about this album is that Stetson’s bag of tricks doesn’t grow tired by albums end. His technique is flawless and his songs are multifaceted. There is just so much to listen to and so much to listen for. On the one hand it’s great to just sit back and listen to all of the notes fly by in some of the tracks. Another listen and one can begin to hear the different melodies weaving through each other; another ten listens can easily be spent marveling at how he put this all together without recording over himself a million times.

This album has me spellbound in amazement at his superhuman abilities. “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” is quite an astoundingly daring, creative and virtuosic masterpiece of an album.

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/05-From-no-part-of-me-could-I-summon-a-voice.mp3|titles=From no part of me could I summon a voice] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/07-Home.mp3|titles=Home] [audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/12-The-righteous-wrath-of-an-honorable-man.mp3|titles=The righteous wrath of an honorable man]

Album Review: Paul A. Rosales – "Wonder Wheel I"

With his debut solo album Paul A. Rosales creates a complex sound world that completely envelopes the listener from first track to last. With an understated guitar pushed to the background behind ever present vintage sounding synths and vocals treated through an array of varying echoes and delays that sometimes change as the songs develop, this is an album that demands the full attention of the listener. True headphone music.

The opening track, “Crimes”, introduces us at once to all of the elements that are present throughout the album: a driving, urgently attacked guitar that is made to sound less threatening by being set way back in the mix. The tone of the guitar is clean, but rounded out a bit with the help of a phaser. Synths are layered over top, taking precedence in the mix, even over the vocals. The synth tone covers everything in a wash of color similar to the retro sound of Neon Indian. It is the aural equivalent of a grainy VHS tape playing old home movies. The bass pops up between the synth and the guitar with a persistent line that wants to encourage you to dance, but the trippy vocals and disorienting drums will probably find you too out of sorts to try.

Most captivating in this wash of visceral noise are the vocals. They are made cryptic, shouting out from the back of the room, trying to reach above the din. Some of the words break through, but they are layered over each other with a good dose of delay. It is clear that Rosales is interested more in creating sounds and then manipulating them than he is in creating catchy pop hooks. The closest thing that we do get to a catchy pop tune is “She Tells Me” that is guitar driven and precariously close to having qualities that would make the listener want to sing along to the stand out line, “I fucked up, she tells me” that is repeated several times.

Paul A Rosales "Wonder Wheel I"
Paul A. Rosales - "Wonder Wheel I"

In “Bastard of a Man” it is startling to hear the vocals so up front and out in the open. Most of the instruments are stripped away to make room for the lyrics “Don’t give up baby/Don’t worry baby” made all the more disconcerting through a vocal approach that doesn’t settle into pitch until after the words have already been delivered. The delay on his voice in this track bounces along with the drums. He’s really in complete control of every element of the sound on this album and even more so by taking the entire sound as a whole and casting a bit of distortion and fuzz on to it as if the recording was a little too hot. Especially on “Bastard of a Man” the grittyness is amped up a little bit more than on any of the other tracks.

“Clarity Dissolve” adds some dimension to the sound with drums that were recorded to sound like they are a mile away, and the vocals are once again pushed to the back of the mix and this time sung in falsetto. The guitar is more up front, taking the role formerly held by the synths, by creating an amorphous cloud of overdriven sound. The synth line is only able to be heard in tiny bursts as if it were trying to take quick breaths.

Altering sound elements is not the only way that Rosales builds his songs. On many of the tracks the beat has a fluidity to it that creates another level of motion against the shifting color palette. Sometimes the vocal delivery is a bit relaxed and behind the beat, creating a push and pull from where one would expect a new measure to start. This is the fluid element to the song writing. That is not the only way that it is done, for example in the song “Change Faster” he swings from a steady eighth note pulse that alternates with a few bars of a metric modulation that speeds things up slightly, giving an off-kilter motion to the song.

Overall this album is a study in sound manipulation more than it is an exercise in writing standard, radio friendly songs. This album is pretty far from being radio friendly with its truly lo-fi production and all around grittyness. This is an album of experimental sound sculpture disguised as songs. There are some very interesting things going on throughout, and I would suggest giving this album the due time that it deserves to sink in and truly begin to enjoy all of what it has to offer.

The Bad Plus – Prog

The Bad Plus

I love a group of musicians that can get together and just play. There may be an umbrella style that they fit under, but when it comes down to it there are all sorts of influences involved. Genre-bending, undefinable, whatever you want to call it. Animal Collective, Cuff the Duke, Of Montreal, Eighth Blackbird, Sonic Youth, Beck, Les Georges Leningrad and The Bad Plus are all bands that are impossible to solidly nail down to one particular genre. Sure Sonic Youth is “rock” but they sound nothing like the Flaming Lips, who could also be categorized in the same way. Speaking of which, how the hell would one categorize the Flaming Lips anyway….

That is neither here nor there. If you have not checked out the latest release from the super talented, jazz inflicted-rock inspired prodigious talents The Bad Plus, then you owe yourself. There are far too many things going on in this album to be able to point out in one blog-post, but leave it to me to try anyway.

Although I am never usually a fan of cover songs, I suppose that the exception to the rule would be when bands decide to try something totally new with their cover versions. The versions of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, which opens the album, “Life on Mars” and “Tom Sawyer” fit flawlessly amidst original tunes “Physical Cities” (more on this tune later…) “Thriftstore Jewelry” and “Mint”.

The album floats effortlessly by, without a hint of pretension. One can tell after listening to this album (and watching some footage of them on ye olde Youtube) that this is a group of 3 very talented individuals that simply has fun playing music. From my understanding they record their albums with a limited use of overdubs, putting this fairly close to a live-in-studio album (obvious overdub on “Life On Mars” but other than that I can’t spot any). Because of this the album is not flawless, it is real. This album is amazing because of this. It lacks the overproduced, overperfected and factory produced albums that are cranked out every day.

Pianist Ethan Iverson masterfully rips through a piano solo with as much excitement as anyone with an electric guitar has ever done. Taking a listen to “Tom Sawyer” you would think that Iverson has two brains, with brilliantly voiced right hand lines emerging over the top of an extremely busy yet acutely articulated left hand accompaniment. They imaginatively incorporate their own material into the song so flawlessly you would be led to believe that Geddy Lee and co. meant to do it in the first place over 25 years ago.

The Bad Plus“Life on Mars” builds to a fiery crescendo with grand octaves and the entire ensemble playing out as if they were trying to fill a stadium without the aid of amplification while drummer David King plays with pinpoint accuracy and mathematical complexity. “Mint” remains somewhat restrained, not coming off quite as dynamic as the rest of the album, but providing the listener with a well deserved break. Some light whimsy to help digest the monstrously progged out “Physical Cities”.

“Physical Cities” deserves a post to itself. This is a prog fans dream. The final three minutes of this track are among the most rhythmically intense and demanding I have ever heard. I realize that there is a pattern at work, there must be, and I think that I have found the beginning of it, but it is the longest most complex combination of syncopations and tuplets I have ever heard. When King lays down a solid drumbeat over top, alternating accents with the kick drum it is absolutely unbelievable. Musicianship to such a high caliber that everyone I have let listen to it says something to the effect of “how do they do that?” or simply “nooooo”. But believe it folks, there are still real live musicians out there that value true showmanship and virtuosity.

If you don’t believe that music can be serious and fun then you should check out closing track “1980 World Champion”, a fast paced, swinging jaunt that uncovers the answer to the question, “What would it sound like if Buddy Rich tried to write the theme to the olympics”. The song gets off to a rolling start, breaks down into bombast and then launches forward once again.

“Thriftstore Jewelry” is another lighter tune like “Mint” that sounds like something Page McConnell might try, though The Bad Plus are able to take their forms to new levels rather than simply wandering around in mundane cliches before cascading in a downward spiral towards boring repetitive stagnation. It is worth noting that I, personally, find it fun that the end of “This Guy’s in Love With You” features a recapitulation of the rhythmic material originally found in “Physical Cities”. These guys truly are having fun with their art.

An amazingly well formed album played extraordinarily well by a group of 3 phenomenal musicians.
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