Monday, February 26, 2007

Avatar by Comets on Fire

Relatively unknown in these parts, Santa Cruz five-piece, Comets on Fire unveiled this gem nearly 6 months ago to minimal notice. And what a travesty of the music media that this happened, because Avatar is probably one of the best records to come out of the US last year.
Opening with the faux-blues psychadelia of 'Dogwood Rust', the tone is set. Not many bands have the confidence or virtuosity to open their record with a solo and close the same track with about 4 minutes of wigged-out jamming and multiple, simultaneous guitar solos. This is classic rock, today style. Connections to 70s mid-America rock and progressive acts are tenuous on the surface. But listening to Avatar, one gets the distinct impression the band recorded this in the desert, bearded and probably wearing sunglasses, at night-time, in a peyote-fuelled jam session. Like the best of the classic American rock canon.
Shades of classic 70s acts like Zeppelin, Hawkwind and Sabbath flitter around the edge of your awareness, so briefly and flirtatiously that you're not sure you heard them. Mid 1970s excess and indulgence never sounded so good in 2007.

4 stars

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Friday, February 16, 2007

All time top ten - #2 - ( )

Pretentious lack of album name? Check. Pretentious song length? Check. Pretentious lack of track titles? Check. Pretentious lack of any writing anywhere on the case other than two mysterious shapes that have been interpreted as brackets, parallel sausages and everything in between? Check. Pretentious use of a fictional language when the bulk of your audience can't speak your native tongue anyway? Check. You get the idea. Compile any list of overblown, proggy, self indulgent records, and Iceland's own Sigur Ros' major label debut is likely to find its way to the top of it (or perhaps come a close second to Metal Machine Music).
So how on Earth does it find itself at this (fairly illustrious) position on this list? Because it is so amazingly rare to find a record that provides irony-free attempts at bringing high-art rock music to a stadium level and succeed this dazzlingly. Simply put, if you're this good, you can be as pretentious as you bloody well want.
Sigur Ros had established themselves as idols of the musical intelligentsia with their breakthrough second album, Agaetis Byrjun, full of ethereal, swirling sounscapes (yes, I know these are the Sigur Ros buzzwords, but they've become cliches for a good reason), sitting gracefully at the back of some of the most mind-bendingly stunning melodies ever heard. Celebrities arrived in droves. Metallica attended a gig, Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow's first child was born to the sounds of that record and Sigur Ros were the IT band. So what did they do? Attempt a retreat into obscurity.
All the vocals by Jón Þór Birgisson (the man with a voice like Thom Yorke mind-melding with a children's choir) were recorded in a fictional language which was originally named 'Hopelandic' by the band, and was later revealed as gibberish. Songs became longer, averaging 8 minutes, with two songs pushing out past 12. The songs and album remained unnamed, the band claiming that the music spoke for everything. They were reluctant to do interviews.
Some songs can almost be called 'mainstream'. Track 4, appropriated by one Tom Cruise (another fan) for the closing credits of his epically banal Vanilla Sky, is the most conventional offering here, with something resembling a chorus, over vibrato guitar plucking, gentle rhythms and sweeping bass guitar and keys, while the mammoth Track 8 (or 'Pop Song' as the band have been heard calling it) is 12 minutes of gradually building tension, released in an explosion of bass drums and screaming guitar, almost the logical 21st century extension of late Led Zeppelin. Other moments are less clearly defined. Track 3, an ascending piano loop, played again and again above a slowly growing crescendo, is more of a movement in a symphony than a stand-alone song, but is mesmerising nonetheless. Track 5, after 30 seconds of silence (perhaps splitting the record in 2 halves like the album's 'title' suggests, is a sloth-paced affair which, while possibly the weakest link here, is possibly the perfect preparation (and perhaps antidote) for the slow-building series of climaxes that close the record.
But behind all the stories, pretentions and supposed difficulties of the album sit a collection of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever recorded. If ever a record rewarded repeat listens, benefited from being heard through headphones in a dark room, this is it. Contrary to popular belief, ( ) is anything but elevator music. Detail lies everywhere. No sonic nook or crevice remains unfilled or unexplored. Jonsi's voice is stretched to mosquito pitch, layered and thickened. Guitars are played with cello bows, not a piano key goes unplayed. And throughout it all, imagery is conjured, of sweeping, icy plateaus, eerily beautiful landscapes, starlight night skies and heart-crushingly gorgeous mountains, to name but a few possibilities. Because if there is anything, ( ) is about, it is possibility. The possibility that there is still new music to be made. The possibility that music will keep getting better. The possibility that it's still ok to be willful, obscure, self-indulgent (as, one might point out, the Beatles were in 1967) and create sheer, unparalleled, magic.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

Whether Damon Albarn is implicitly calling the Queen ugly for the benfit of fans of Westerns, or if there is some deeper, more ephemeral meaning to the title of the new record by his new band (which, depending on who you read and listen to, either has no name yet, or shares its name with the record - and closing track), is open to interpretation. What seems more certain is that this feels like Parklife MkII. Not to say that The Good, The Bad & The Queen is derivative or unoriginal - it most certainly is not either of those - but it is very much a record about London and living in it. The difference being that this is coming from the mouth of an older, more worldly man, whereas Blur's breakthrough could only ever have been written by someone under 25. 'Friday night in the Kingdom of Doom/Ravens fly across the moon' muses Albarn on potential single 'Kingdom of Doom', providing what seems to be a more refined and gothic view of his hometown than Parklife's "Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they're girls/Who do girls like they're boys/Always should be someone you really love", screaming of a young man rapt that me managed to string together such a sequence of non sequiturs in a pop single and get away with it.
What Albarn has defeintely created is one of the best English post-punk records since his very own Think Tank. The band photo in the sleeve speaks volumes: Albarn, Paul Simonon (yes, the guy from The Clash who is forever distilled in that iconic photo on the verge of shattering his bass), Tony Allen (Afrobeat superstar of Fela Kuti fame and widely reputed to be one of the greatest drummers on Earth) and Simon Tong (former Verve keys man) looking grizzled, cold and maintaining classically starchy British upper lips. Simonon even has a bandage on his nose from what we are obviously meant to assume was a bar fight. The music fairly screams this grittiness also, gone is Albarns's Gorillaz-era dance music/hip hop influences (irrespective of the presence of Danger Mouse heading up production duties), and in place are moody, layered and vocally/lyrically sophisticated songs. The rhythm section in and of itself also speaks volumes about Albarn's newfound adulthood and maturity (Blur's last - and most excellent - release, Think Tank notwithstanding) in the recruitment of two legends of their capers, and then proceeding to heartily under-utilise them. This restraint pays off in spades, particularly in Simonon's case (although, seeing as he is on record as saying he hadn't picked up a bass in 20 years, it may have been through neccessity), as his pared-back rhythms carry many a song to a level that more youthful exuberance may have missed, particularly on 'Baby Bunting' and 'History Song'.
The closing, titular, track suddenly finds itself impulsively picking up classic Kinks-ian britpop and turning it upside down and inside-out, creating seven minutes of fuzz-filled mayhem and wonderment, Albarn opining 'Don't kick the crack heads of the green/They are a political party/And the kids are never going to be tired', and it's this geo-political spectrum and awareness that gives The Good, The Bad & The Queen it's allure and a sense of place and maturity that ensures that this project, in amongst the growing catalogue of side projects and Blur revivals, will live on as something more than a 2007 curio.

4 stars

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Muse Deliver!

I'm sick of people knocking Melbourne's Festival Hall. Buried away on Dudley St, near the docks, surrounded by warehouses, people whinge 'it smells', 'it's too hot', 'the floor's sticky' etc. etc. But you know what, having seen two of the best gigs I've attended (and I DO mean ever, the other being Nick Cave in 2005) within the space of 18 months, I can say it is one of the BEST places to see a big-name band. The sweat, the smell, the heat and the adhesiveness only add to a rock and roll experience which is generally sorely missing in any venue that houses over 1,000 people. But enough of that.
I'm here to talk about the face-melting awesomeness that was Muse last night at that very venue. And my face has been very much melted. Opening with the first track of 2006s Black Holes and Revelations, 'Take a Bow', complete with dazzling light show (something that did not let up for the entirety of the show and was probably the most effective use of video and computer imagery at a show I've yet seen - apologies to Sigur Ros), Muse proceeded to rock Festy Hall and all within its confines to within an inch of their lives. Recently, I commented on the performance of the Arctic Monkeys at the Palace, and how the show had been over-rehearsed to death. Well, this was no less choreographed, yet managed to be thrilling in a way no live show has been for me (with the possible exception of last year's TV on the Radio show at the Hi Fi). Ever. Moving seamlessly from belters like 'Hysteria' from 2003s Absolution to the more synth-heavy numbers of the new record, Muse established themselves as one of the live acts in the world right now. Highlight of the night was the crazy, martial Invincible, which climaxed with a guitar solo that must have left many aspiring axemen in the crowd shaking their heads in wonder and resignation.
I can recommend nothing more to anyone, fan or not, than to go see Muse next time they're in town. You won't regret it.
PS: Special mention to support act Ground Components (a favourite of Machines Against the Rage from way back) who put on a terrific show in front of a semi-hostile crowd of ignorant wanks who obviously had no intention of broadening their horizons past Muse one iota. They showed that should success beckon, they're definitely up to the task of performing big arena shows such as this, numbers such as (and especially) On Your Living Room Floor standing out.
PPS: Special arse-kicking for the event organisers who decided to put an 8pm door time on the ticket, only to have the support act start at 7.55. Dickheads.

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