This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

In tribute to the old and the new - Hendrix

A couple of weeks ago, the only child of my only sibling became a father for the first time and they named their son Hendrix.

It'd be pretty nice, I think, to be named in tribute to someone great; but, when it's someone whose very name is as recognisable as Hendrix, a name that everyone knows and in some way or other respects, it'd be hard not to grow up feeling at least a tiny bit cool.

But this is not a blog about names - it's a blog about music, and it's the music of Jimi Hendrix that I wanted to talk about today.

Jimi Hendrix is arguably the Luciano Pavarotti of the three big Js of the 27 club - Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who all died at the tragically, obscenely young age of 27 - all of them great, but Hendrix the one who, from where many people see things, still towers above the others. He was the one who, more than anyone else, seemed to take music in his blood-stained, sweat-stained grip, and twist and turn it into bits of barbed wire, into shapes that can slice your skin to shreds, yet leave you asking for more. He was the one who did things with music that anyone else could only have done with knives and shards of glass, and yet still made it sound like music.

The Hendrix guitar is unmistakably his. The way he slides to notes that seem to be aching, screaming, crying, to go one step further, leaving you on the edge, unresolved: sexual music that holds back its orgasm, music that makes you writhe with grief but then denies you closure.

There's not much that can be said about Hendrix that someone hasn't already said, but when someone can make an instrument speak with the passion and guts that bleeds out of the Hendrix guitar, it's worth saying things more than once.

And yet, despite the instant recognisability of Hendrix's music, there's enormous diversity there too, and you are left in that unique place where you can hear the screeching pychedelic rock of something like 'Purple Haze' or the Rhythm and Blues of his music with the Band of Gypsys, where at times he almost turns his guitar into an electric banjo, or the rock blues of his compilation album Blues or of his posthumous First Rays of the New Rising Sun; you can hear any of that, and still know it's Hendrix.

Perhaps that has something to do with the actual sound he gets out of the guitar, his attack on the notes, and the way he drips them in acid and emotion with the wah-wah pedal; perhaps it has something to do with the way he phrases things, with long lines of music that somehow manage to sound airy and breathless at once, music that hyperventilates on itself; or maybe it's because of the way he finds notes in places where you wouldn't expect them to be, and puts them exactly where they should always have gone, those flattened blues notes, those notes that seem to be contemplating something, hesitating, then rushing into a wild, harsh frenzy, rugged and ragged.

But like all great artists, Hendrix is so much more than the sum of his parts and, ultimately, it's his soul, his tattered, tortured, troubled, triumphant soul that we latch onto most of all when we hear his music. Hendrix is one of those unique and extraordinary musicians with whom you have the best communication, the best conversations, and maybe even the best sex, when you listen to his music. He's one of those artists who is never more himself, never more honest, never more passionate, eloquent or erotic, than in his music. It's not just that he talks to you through his music, but rather that he is his music.

That, I guess, is why Hendrix will always sound like Hendrix, no matter what you hear him doing - it's because he will always be there; because whatever colour he shades his music with, it's still him.

Insatiable honesty and musical brilliance is a pretty awesome union to have and, whatever tragedy may have befallen Jimi Hendrix's personal life, we can, thanks to that union, continue to have him live and love and lust amongst us even today, forty years after his death.

And to have a new life named in tribute to that honesty and brilliance is a pretty nice message, even to those who have not gone deliriously ga-ga at the birth of my grand nephew, that good things really do keep on keeping on.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The cool and trippy avant hip hop of Flying Lotus

If you could take a bit of DNA from Tricky, mix it with a bit from John Zorn and temper it with a bit from Marice Ravel, you may well end up with something pretty much like Cosmogramma. Not that the latest full length album from Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison, and great-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane) sounds anything like any of these, but their genes are definitely there.

There's the electronic trippiness of Tricky; there's the crazy, comfy experimental jazz of John Zorn; and there's the subtle, dappled, fluid blends of colours and rhythms of Ravel. I can't imagine those three musicians in the same room together, let alone in the same music - but then, by any rekoning, Cosmogramma is an extraordinary album.

It represents quite a leap from Flying Lotus's previous work, Los Angeles, and even that was a pretty amazing show of what can be done when you take music off the mainstream dance floor, and bend it and break it a bit with Latinish, Africanish, Alienish beats.

Cosmogramma, however, takes you into freakier territory - some of it quite dark, but always with just enough stability there that never feel you're losing your footing entirely. It's like looking out of a slightly scary trip onto a dance floor that still lures you, even though its lights and beats are not predictable anymore, and the cool blues and greens get broken every now and then by flashes of red, and the steady beat beneath you seems to rumble once in a while, as if there could be an earthquake stirring in its sleep somewhere down there.

With guests vocals from Thom Yourke, Thundercat and Laura Darlington, and a guest sax from Ravi Coltrane, this is a pretty star-studded piece of work - but star-studded in the way that a distant galaxy is, where it's not so much the individual points of light you notice as their combined brilliance. And that's becase of the way Flying Lotus fuses his sounds - sounds of winds and strings amongst the laptop electronics - the way the disparate worlds of his guests and his influences all come together, blended but still themselves.

Comsogramma seems to invite you into the future and, when you listen to it, you may begin to feel that it could be tricking you just a bit - seducing you with the familiar but then holding you captive in a place that is alien and strange. You laze back into the big comfy chair of its lush and luxurious sounds, while creatures with two heads and blue skin serve you your drinks. You're a bit freaked, but it's too late - the drinks were spiked, and now you belong to Flying Lotus for the night.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The OED of Noise - Merzbow's Merzbox

The Oxford English Dictionary is a pretty amazing piece of work. If you get the full thing, it's 20 volumes - 20 massive volumes telling you everything about the English language, the different ways words have evolved and have been used, and how they have come to mean what they mean today - all with copious examples, painstakingly collected and assembled, to illustrate the point.

Language is worth that sort of obsessive attention because it is, after all, a fascinating thing. But whenever you hear another language spoken - especially a language that is totally unfamiliar, a language that structures and expresses itself in entirely different ways to the one you speak yourself - it can be incredibly difficult to believe, at first, that it could possibly make sense. When you first hear the highly intonated languages of Asia, for example, it can be almost impossible to imagine that those sounds can really be saying anything - hard to see where words start and finish, hard to even imitate the sounds.

The complexities of a language can be fascinating, though, once you dive into it. And once you stop expecting it to behave and sound like the things you are familiar with you begin to discover its riches and that, ultimately, it communicates the same ideas, the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same banalities and profundities, the same crudeness and elevation - the same everything - that you do.

Music is the same. And yet, while in much of the Western world we have become accustomed to training our ear to hear new words, new syntax, new versions of old sounds, we have still, to a large extent, stayed within the territory we know and understand - like learning French or German or Italian in an English-speaking school.

It's not surprising, then, that to many ears, the music of some of the extreme Japanese noise artists comes across as pretty daunting and leaves many of us wondering how, with all that screeching and distortion and rasping and grasping, it can possibly be music at all.

Surely the greatest musician of this genre, the greatest linguist of the language of noise, is Japan's Masami Akita who, under the name of Merzbow, has produced some of the most diverse and yet unified body of noise music so far.

He is incredibly prolific too - and, while that's a bad thing for an obsessive completist such as myself, it's an incredibly good thing for noise music because, when you immerse yourself in what he does, and begin to hear the meaning, and not just the strangeness, of his language, you see what a massively rich and varied lexicon he has to share with you.

I have already posted here about his amazing 13 Japanese Birds. That enormous work is just the teensiest dot in his output so far and, from what I can gather, he is far from finished yet. But, if you want a pretty comprehensive survey of his work up until the end of the 20th century, and if you've got $500 or so to spare, then I think you should unhesitatingly lash out and buy his ridiculously massive MERZBOX. The MERZBOX is a collection of 50 CDs, plus a whole lot of slightly cool, slightly gimmicky, paraphernalia, such as T-shirt, a medallion, some stickers, some cards and a very, very good book - all giving you a fascinating tour of his evolution as an artist and of the diversity and variety of his art.

There is no pretence that the MERZBOX is any sort of "best of" compilation of Merzbow's artistry - anymore than there is an intention to make the OED an overview of the best words of the English language. Rather, it is a massive historical tour of its first two decades - covering Merzbow's first recording of 1979, through to the 1997 compilation Annihiloscillator. It is a glimpse of the music's its highs and its lows, its grandeur and its glitches, and explanation of how things now formed from things then, a presentation of the language as it is, a description not a prescription.

And music, like language, finds its meaning on its own terms. It moves from being incomprehensible to being eloquent when you let it speak to you in its way rather than in yours. That's why, if you expect music to come to you from guitars and keyboards and strings, and to speak to you in tones and semitones and quavers and semiquavers, then you will be as bamboozled by Merzbow as would someone who expects Cantonese to have a handful of vowels sharply bordered by a another handful of consonants.

So, if your initial inclination, when you hear Merzbow's distorted electronic feedback, his manipulated sounds of radios and drums and random objects being tossed in metal cans against a subtley shifting hum of white noise, is to think that this can't possibly be music, then try to make yourself listen to it a little longer, and then a little longer still, until you forget to look for the consonants and vowels and instead discover and appreciate this very new, very different, way of saying things.

Everything is there - the music has structure and shape, it has harmony and rhythm and melody and counterpoint: but just not of the things you are used to hearing harmonised, rhythmised, melodised and set in counterpoint. Here it's not violins melting into cellos, pitted against pianos, but rather screeching static entwined with scraped metal, hovering above a distorted, droning mis-tuned radio signal.

When you listen to this music, and listen for the ways themes build and blend, the way tension rises and recedes, the way the music confronts you, plays with you, seduces you, attacks and, yes, even at times comforts you, you will begin to feel that your initial inclination to dismiss it as unbearably harsh and uncompromisingly unmusical was way, way off the mark. It's just music in a different language.

This is not the place for me to go through the 50 CD  MERZBOX in anything like the detail it deserves and, in any event, that has already done by one of the most impressive labours of Merzbow love I have ever encountered, in a fantastic disc by disc review of the Merzbox that you can read for yourself. Still, one day, when I have lots and lots of time, I would love to write about every nook and cranny of this amazing collection, this uncensored, unadulterated survey of one of the most interesting emerging languages in modern music.

Merzbow's music is often seen as the music of the extreme. But, really, music is every bit as vast as the universe itself and, in something of that magnitude, the question of what lies at the extremes, and what lies at the centre, will always only be relative. If you allow Merzbow's music to become your centre for a while, as this MERZBOX invites you to do, then you may just find that it's the violins, the pianos, the vowels and the consonants that all start sounding just a little freaky.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rhythm driving melody - Beethoven, grindcore and PIVIXKI

PIVIXKI is unfortunately a relatively unknown duo of musicians, from Melbourne, who do some incredible things with a piano and a set of drums. Comprising avant-garde classical pianist Anthony Pateras and grindcore drummer Max Kohane, they have a pretty small recorded output - a self-titled EP and, more recently, a full-length album Gravissima - and seem, as far as I can gather, to perform a bit, but not a lot, in public. It's a shame that they don't get heard more often and more widely because what they do with music has captivated audiences ever since Beethoven started doing it at the start of the 19th century.

When you listen to Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, which he composed in 1804 and 1805, you might not recognise with today's ears how outrageous something like that must have sounded back then - the way he uses dense, pounding chords with such force and power, especially throughout its first movement and in the final moments of the last, so that the piano becomes almost more of a percussion instrument than something lyrical and melodic.

But it's not just about beat - it's about rhythm, too: about the way the beat grows into something that has a shape, a structure, a story, so that the narrative of the music seems to be told there first, with melody providing the embellishment.

The primacy of the beat in music is something that we find in a lot of modern music - especially, and most obviously, in some of the frantic and ferocious bashings and smashings of metal, industrial and grindcore. It can be awesomely commanding stuff and the fact that it might make you want to bang your head against something very, very hard and harmful is surely only testament to its power.

But it's less common for us to see rhythm in the driving-seat; complex rhythms, central to the music's drama - as it was for Beethoven in that massive, ground-breaking sonata - and it probably wasn't until Pateras and Koehne decided to bring together the innovation of the classical avant-garde and the frenetic belly-fire of grindcore that we could ever have expected it to have again come off so spectacularly as it does here in the music of PIVIXKI.

Pateras bashes the extreme ends of the piano's register with fists and palms, and races his fingers over the keyboard, in music that has one foot firmly planted in the wild and daring domain of composers like Messiaen and Xenakis, while the other foot stomps and stamps in perfect sync with Koehne's grindcore drum-kit.

Most of the music is muderously, mercilessly, fast. It has the energy and spontonaeity of free jazz and yet, in its chaos and its sense of improvisation, there's a discipline, of sorts, there too.

It's music that stops you in your tracks, makes you go "wow", and then leaves you thinking, in the way it melds so much together, spanning centuries and genres and techniques, how closely knit even the most diverse music can be.