Day 1D: Nasty West Virginia, Round One
The west subdivision gives us…
#1 Microdisney, “Armadillo Man”
#16 X, “4th of July”
This one is kind of ugly, because when I listen to these two tracks, it becomes obvious I wasn’t quite on my best game when grabbing them. “Armadillo Man” is a fun piece of work from Irish social-consciousness-rockers Microdisney (who would morph into the more successful Fatima Mansions in the late eighties), but it feels like an outline more than an actual song—there is much more between the second verse closer (“you can’t stop the armadillo man!”) and the third verse closer (“bye, bye, armadillo man”) than we get in the actual song. On the other hand is “4th of July”, the first single from X’s 1987 album See How We Are. At one point, I saw—or didn’t see, I may have fabricated this out of whole cloth—John Doe perform this song. I believe it was solo. It was definitely acoustic. It would’ve been the mid-nineties, when Doe was touring on his first solo release, Meet John Doe (which is wonderful, and I need another copy of it). It’s slow and ugly and much more mournful than the version on See How We Are, which fits better with the song’s vocals. That performance, whether it occurred or not, has achieved legendary status in my head, and the album version doesn’t quite measure up. But putting these two tracks together, especially given that I’ve no idea whether that Doe performance is something I dreamed or whatever, It seems obvious to me that X’s shortcomings may in fact be my own, while Microdisney’s lie with the construction of the song; that gives this matchup to X by default, though I don’t think they’ll make it through another round.
#8 Garmarna, “Den Bortsålda”
#9 My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, “Gateway to Hell”
Swedish band Garmarna are best described as folk-rock, in that the majority of their songs are traditional folk ballads given a contemporary spin, but if you’re an American and you hear the term “folk-rock”, you’re liable to get a very different image in your head than Garmarna, whose interpretations of classic cuts range from metal to house and pretty much everywhere in between. There’s no better depiction of how many different genres the band get into than “Den Bortsålda” (“Sold Away”), a track from their first full-length, 1994’s Vittrad. Emma Hardelin’s voice is angelic for the first bit, and then turns Satanic in the last thirty seconds or so, while the band start out sounding almost kinda folky before heading down the brimstone road. They’re up against My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, a band who moved quickly after this album to capitalize on the growing lounge-act craze—but that does nothing to eclipse the greatness of I See Good Spirits and I See Bad Spirits, their industrial-metal 1988 debut album that’s chock-full of B-movie allusions and catchy hooks courtesy Thomas Thorn (who would leave when the band turned lounge and continue in the indutrial-metal vein with Electric Hellfire Club). “Gateway to Hell” is the album’s most traditionally-metal song, with a wailing guitar intro that brings Ennio Morricone to mind, pounding percussion, and growled/shouted lyrics. Both are exemplars of their respective genres, and both deserve a place in the Round of Thirty-Two. So I’m going with the old standard selection method in cases like this, and George Washington selects Garmarna, who choose to bowl in Round Two.
Side note: that’s a different cover than the one on my cassette.
#5 Ayumi Hamasaki, “A Song for XX”
#12 Keelhaul, “Brady’s Lament”
Ayumi Hamasaki’s second album, 1999’s A Song for XX, was almost not released; her first album did not sell well, and she was dropped by her label. She was picked up by Avex in ’98 and drew the attention of the company’s CEO, who’s also a producer and A&R man who specializes in emerging artists; he worked with Hamasaki on the string of singles that would eventually become A Song for XX. It debuted at the top of the charts, stayed on said charts for over a year (sixty-three weeks, according to Wikipedia), and as of 2008 is Japan’s 139th best-selling album of all time. Ironically, at least six albums higher on that list were recorded later by Ayumi Hamasaki—who has never produced another album even remotely like A Song for XX, a lush J-pop album that focuses on combining straight-ahead pop with big, deep arrangements (think Michelle Branch’s major-label debut The Spirit Room, which was released around the same time). Soon after, Hamasaki would get into electronica, and she hasn’t recovered from that particular malady yet, but when she does pop, she does pop perfectly. The album spawned five singles, and any of them could have appeared here—but instead I went for the relatively-unheralded title track, both for its lyrics—rumored to be about Hamasaki’s relationship with her father—and for that massive change in tone where the strings kick in and the song goes from being a sensitive acoustic ballad to the closest Hamasaki has ever come to rock and roll. (Yes, with an orchestra.) Cleveland math-rockers Keelhaul, still sludging out after fifteen years (this track comes from 2009’s Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity), put up a darn good fight—I spent a lotta time listening to this track over the weekend, wondering if Davey was gonna land one against Goliath. But in the end, Ayu has been a fixture on my mp3 player for almost a decade, and I’ve probably listened to “A Song for XX” thousands of times over the years; it deserves a shot at the title, and if you were booking bets at William Hill, it would be medium-priced at best to go all the way. Ayu goes on to Round Two.
#4 Keiji Haino, “Evolving Blush or Driving Original Sin 5”
#13 GNHN, “Belaboring the Necroequine”
In the interests of full disclosure, GNHN’s frontman was J. Eric Smith, whose articles inspired this series. “Belaboring the Necroequine” is also one of the few songs that XTerminal has covered that’s actually made it into a release (it’s on Sampler 2008). Keiji Haino may be one of Japan’s most respected—and awe-inspiring—vocalists, but no one can stand in the face of that sort of endorsement, can they? GNHN breeze through.
#6 Midge Ure, “Fallen Angel”
#11 Delain, “April Rain”
Yeah, I messed this one up, though the best that could have happened is Midge Ure would have finished a couple of lengths closer in this particular rout. “Fallen Angel” should have probably been a sixth choice at best (just off the top of my head, “Guns and Arrows”, “Sinnerman”, “Cold, Cold Heart”, “Light in Your Eyes”, and “Breathe” would have all fit better), but ex-Ultravox vocalist turned soft-rock standard Ure found himself up against the band that holds the reigning Album of the Year at Goat Central. “April Rain” was the first single (and title track) from their 2009 release, which is maybe a smidge not quite as good as We Are the Others, but it’s like trying to compare death by chocolate and coma by chocolate. Delain advance, as if there were any possibility they would do otherwise.
Live in Germany, both “Fallen Angel” and “Sinnerman”.
#3 Automating, “Projection”
#14 Alexis Antes, “True Desire”
This one was going to be easy until I slapped Automating’s Somnambulist back onto the mp3 player to give it one more chance. Aussie ambient project Automating is… well, if I could call someone up and customize a band, they would probably sound a lot like Automating, sample-heavy and treated-field-recording-y and droney and ominous. “Projection” is a way stronger candidate than I had thought to unseat “True Desire”, Cleveland-based Alexis Antes’ ballad-of-closure that remains one of her most popular pieces fifteen years after its release (on her first album after the breakup of Odd Girl Out, 1998’s Stronger). I’ll put it this way: my wife and I asked Alexis to be the musical entertainment at our wedding reception. (She had to decline due to scheduling conflicts.) That’s how strongly I feel about this track. But then… “Projection” is so perfectly what I want in a piece of non-traditional music. There were times when I was driving around out there over the weekend I would just hit repeat and listen to it over and over again. I put this one in the back of my head and thought about it while writing up the rest of these, and it didn’t get any easier. I’m going to take the wimp’s way out—while both are staples of my collection, “True Desire” has been so longer, and thus it goes on to Round Two.
#7 Eluveitie, “Omnos (Metal Version)”
#10 Marilyn Manson, “My Monkey”
I’m not as enamored of Eluveitie as a number of my friends are, but I gotta say, when they’re on, they are on. This was certainly the case with this grungy, death-growl remix of “Omnos”, which appeared as a bonus track on the limited-edition version of Evocation I: The Arcane Dominion in 2009. Murphy and Glanzmann’s voices ricochet off one another in the chorus mercilessly, giving the song a sense of ominousness that the more polished version on the album proper lacks. They go up against Marilyn Manson, whose descent into glam rock soon after shouldn’t eclipse Portrait of an American Family, the band’s savage, ridiculously catchy 1993 debut. “My Monkey”, which combines nursery rhymes and heroin addiction into a disturbing stew, exemplifies that paradox better than any other track on the album. This one could go either way—and in fact has, as over the last hour I’ve been mulling this one in the back of my mind, and have come up with either of them on top at various times. But usually when I’m knocking Marilyn Manson off, I’m bending my own rules and considering the artists’ catalogues as a whole; when just looking at these two songs, it’s a very close call, but I like “My Monkey” just better enough to send it on to Round Two.
#2 Popol Vuh, “Morning Sun”
#15 Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Cities in Dust”
Man, the RNG screwed up on this seed something fierce… Siouxsie at #15? Popol Vuh are good and all, and “Morning Sun” is one of those little acoustic instrumental pieces that just makes your day brighter, but “Cities in Dust” is really one of the all-time classics, not only of the goth subgenre, but of the whole New Wave movement. It’s big and bold and catchy and…why am I trying to describe it? Is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t heard “Cities in Dust”? I should only have to defend this choice if I’d toppled it. Siouxsie and crew advance.