Week seven of the competition begins! And you thought you were getting a break from the carnage? Silly reader.
Day 1G: Colorado Wasteland, Round One
We start off with the East subdivision…
#1 Thorofon, “Littleton Overture”
#16 Blue Öyster Cult, “Godzilla”
We’ll kick this off with an easy one. “Littleton Overture”, the opener from German powerelectronics trio Thorofon’s 1999 seven-inch devoted to the Littleton school shootings, is a fine, thought-provoking piece of material (it actually prompted a discussion about the shootings between my wife and I when it came on in the car over the weekend), but as the title says, it is an overture; the release’s longer, more pointed tracks “Drilled to Kill” and “Trenchcoat Mafia”, both of which run over five minutes, are the real winners on this release (I’ve never been fond of “Americalends”, the closer, which is another four-minute track like this one). It’s very nicely constructed, but man, it’s up against “Godzilla”, from New Yorkers Blue Öyster Cult, the lead single from their seventh album, Spectres, released in 1977. Let’s face it, when it comes to BÖC, you mention the name and people will immediately come back with one of three songs: “Burnin’ for You”, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, or “Godzilla”. The last of them has always been my favorite; originally it’s because the song came out when I was nine years old and in the throes of a monster movie fetish (that ever really went away, as you are probably aware if you read my reviews), but as I got older, it had to do with all those wonderful little guitar riffs Buck Dharma tosses in here and there and the mixer-play in the break and that final, repeated line in the lyrics that’s just so. damn. good. How can that not go on to Round Two?
#8 Oneohtrix Point Never, “Zones Without People”
#9 Man Must Die, “All Shall Perish”
I have a lot of friends who are big, big fans of Brooklyn electronica artists Oneohtrix Point Never (including, it would seem, a couple of Pandora robots who put OPN tracks into at least three stations I have set up). The only OPN release I own is the Rifts comp that came out on No Fun in 2009. I like about half of it. “Zones Without People”, which discogs tells me is the title track from a limited-edition LP that came out the same year, is a good example of the OPN stuff I like—pretty minimal, pretty repetitive, and puts me in mind of early-eighties-era Manfred Mann, when Mann started experimenting with big, ungainly synthesizers. OPN finds himself up against Man Must Die, who are, quite simply, mainland Scotland’s best musical export since Whitehouse. …Start Killing, the 2004 debut album from the Glaswegian death metal quintet, dropped like a bomb, proving that quality death metal can, and does, come from north of Napalm Death. “All Shall Perish”, which is mighty indeed, comes from that debut (which is not to take away from the two albums they have released since, both of which shred with extreme prejudice). A band I can never tell whether I like or not vs. a band I completely love? No contest here, and MMD moves on to Round Two.
#5 Einstürzende Neubauten, “Krieg in den Städten”
#12 Exodus, “Deranged”
I first bought my first copy of Einstürzende Neubauten’s genre-defining Strategies Against Architecture 80-83 at Digital Underground, a little store on Fifth St. in Philly a couple of blocks north of Tower Records. All I knew about EN at the time were that a bunch of people (including Henry Rollins) had EN tattoos and that they had done an adaptation of Hamlet, a clip of which I had heard on the Canadian radio show Brave New Waves. I listened to the first few tracks and liked them well enough… but then I got to “Krieg in den Städten” with its frenetic metal-bashing percussion and Blixa Bargeld’s staccato barking and all the sudden it all made sense and 80-83 was the best album ever. To this day “Krieg…” is one of only two EN tracks I’ve ever considered my favorite (“Die Interimsliebenden”, from 1993’s Tabula Rasa, is the other). They’re up against “Deranged”, the opening track on Exodus’ 1986 disc Pleasures of the Flesh, and this probably shouldn’t be as tough a call as it is—but I will admit I was always more a fan of the Steve Souza-led lineup of Exodus than I was the Baloff-led lineup, Kirk Hammett or no. And “Deranged”, which is where Rick Hunolt really stepped up and showed he could thrash just as well as Kirk Hammett, also sends the band out into new directions thrash hadn’t previously taken with the introduction of samples… I mean, this song was pretty much a paradigm change. That was unheard-of in 1986 if you weren’t making industrial music. Ultimately I ended up going in the direction I figured I was going to go, with EN moving on to Round Two, but Exodus put up a LOT more of a fight than I expected them to once I took a good long look at it from a more historical perspective.
#4 Tara Key, “Bender”
#13 Burning Star Core/Prurient, “Quiet at the Bottom”
This is the matchup that kept the songs from this bracket on my mp3 player for two full weeks. The echoey, bleak, creepy as hell “Bender”, from Lousville, KY’s Tara Key (from Antietam; taken from her first solo album, 1993’s Bourbon County) is a marvel of ugliness; you have seen all of these elements of songwriting before, of course, but perhaps not used in quite this way. You know all those movies that try so hard to be indie, where every time you look out over the great plain, there’s this reverbed guitar-chord stuff that is supposed to represent “I’m looking out over the great plains!”? Well, imagine that, but all you’re looking out over is the bottom of another empty bottle, probably because the bar you’re in is so smoky you can’t see the back wall. Add some other (minimal) instrumentation and you have the nightmare-inducing “Bender”. It’s up against “Quiet at the Bottom”, and I got a story about that one, too, but for the moment I will just tell you that it’s a collaboration between Cincinnati’s Burning Star Core and Brooklyn’s Prurient, and like most of the box it comes from (2008’s Ghosts of Niagara, which you must hear to believe), it sounds not a damn thing like either of the bands who produced it, and that is the quality that gives it the very slightest of edges in the second-longest it’s taken me to decide a matchup so far. (Way back on Day 1A, it took me three weeks to decide between Boris/Merzbow and Killer of Sheep).
#6 S. J. Tucker, “The Pixie Can’t Sleep”
#11 Angelcorpse, “Reaver”
Missouri’s Angelcorpse, fronted by the seemingly-ubiquitous Pete Helmkamp (Terror Organ, Order from Chaos, Feldgrau, etc.), released four slabs of vicious, ugly blackened death metal that are well worth seeking out if you’re into that sort of thing. “Reaver”, from 1999’s The Inexorable, is a very good example of them doing what they do best: playing fast, playing loud, and offending everyone within a mile radius of where they’re standing. They’re up against Arkansas-born and bred S. J. Tucker, an acoustic folkie from an area of the country that doesn’t really spawn acoustic folkies. (But then, like I said, Angelcorpse were from… Missouri?) “The Pixie Can’t Sleep”, the opening track from Tucker’s 205 release Tangles, is about as perfect a showcase for Tucker’s deep, sensuous voice as one could ask for, and the chorus is just so ridiculous, and yet so catchy, that it’ll be stuck in your head for days. I figured I’d be giving this one to Tucker, and jotting this down hasn’t changed my mind any; so mote it be.
#3 Marvelous 3, “Cold As Hell”
#14 December Magic, “The Morning of December 26”
It would have been easy to choose “Cigarette Lighter Love Song”, the last track written by Atlanta’s short-lived Marvelous 3 before their dissolution, as the entry here; it’s become a staple of lead singer Butch Walker’s solo sets. But ReadySexGo, the band’s final album from 2000, deserves to be remembered for more than “Cigarette Lighter Love Song”, because the rest of it’s pretty darned fine as well, despite it getting no publicity from the folks at Elektra (this was the reason Walker walked away from Elektra in 2001, effectively dissolving the band). Allmusic dings the album for not treading any new ground, but Marvelous 3 were new ground altogether (all three members had been part of SouthGang, whose sound was very different than M3’s), and they did what they did remarkably well; if you’re unfamiliar with M3 but know Walker’s solo work, it won’t surprise you to find out that ReadySexGo and Left of Self-Centered are pretty close together both sonically and thematically. They’re up against December Magic, one of the many Hospital Productions bands about whom not a great deal is known (are we all just assuming these are Prurient side-projects by now?). The act has released only a single cassette, 2011’s Could the Web Be Re-Spun?, a C10 that treads in murky noise territory vaguely reminiscent of a softer, mixed-down version of History of AIDS-era Prurient’s shorter tracks a decade before. It’s good stuff, but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the crowd; that gives Marvelous 3 the edge, and they move on to Round Two.
#7 John Carpenter, “Halloween II Main Title”
#10 Miranda Sex Garden, “In Heaven”
If you’re unfamiliar with London’s Miranda Sex Garden (or Katharine Blake’s wonderful side project Mediæval Bæbes), you’re missing out—lead vocalist Blake has one of the world’s sublime voices, in part because she is capable of playing both the angel and the drunken wastrel with it, and frequently does both in the same song. “In Heaven”, from 1993’s Suspiria, is a great example of this; listen to the vocals in the first few bars, soft and sweet and everything Blake is known for, and then WHOA, things get louder… and uglier. And there’s an alternation there, with slides and changes and all sorts of nifty stuff that always sounded to me like Blake was trying to mimic ocean tides in this track. I have no idea if I’m right in that, but it always seemed really cool to me. Which does absolutely nothing when your song meets Michael Myers in a dark alley with a butcher knife. The main title from Halloween II (which can be distinguished from the main title for the original film thanks to a longer intro and an upgraded drum machine) is one of filmdom’s iconic theme songs, instantly recognizable even by people who have never seen the movie it comes from, and it would have pretty much overpowered anything that encountered it in this round; Carpenter advances.
…and it’s a cover, too. oops. Missed that…
#2 Joanna Newsom, “Sprout and the Bean”
#15 Decomposed, “Ratas Humanas”
Very tough one here! NorCal meets SoCal, as Joanna Newsom, who originally hails from tiny Nevada City, CA (northeast of Sacramento), faces off against L.A. death metal pioneers Decomposed. Newsom has been the most public, and influential, face of the freak-folk/New Weird America movement since being signed to Drag City in 2004 after self-releasing two critically-acclaimed EPs (the version of “Sprout and the Bean” I’m using for this competition is from the second of them, 2003’s Yarn and Glue, though I’m not sure there’s any difference between it and the version that would appear on her Drag City debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, which is the version that would end up appearing in the movie The Strangers in 2009). It’s somethin’ else. And it says something (this occasionally occurs with me, and I always consider it a strength of the song in question) that I always assumed this was a reworked traditional song rather than an original Newsom composition, though it actually seems to be the latter; Newsom has internalized the ballad tradition exceptionally well. Her voice is an acquired taste, but once you have acquired it, you’ll be a fan for life. Decomposed, on the other hand, seem to have only ever appeared on the 1993 comp The Heralds of Oblivion, vol. 1, which chronicled the emerging LA death metal scene. (Of the five bands showcased, two are still active—Demolition released an album in 2012, while Catalepsy changed their name to Hateseed and morphed into a rap-metal band.) While the whole comp was pretty good (with the notable exception of Brainstorm), Demolition and Decomposed jumped right off the tape as the heaviest bands on it. Which makes it doubly depressing that Decomposed split up right after this, and the only member to do anything else, as far as I can tell, is drummer Angel Elías, who worked with Pro-Fé-Cia for a time in the late nineties. “Ratas Humanas” is Decomposed slowing things down, almost treading the line between death and doom, pounding out some of the heaviest riffs you’re likely to hear in anything that was coming out of LA in the early nineties. Newsom would seem to have the upper hand here if you know anything about my taste in music, but when I loaded “Ratas Humanas” onto the mp3 player to give it my first listen in a few years, I was really grabbed by it—it’s early-nineties death metal that still sounds just as fresh and exciting as it did when I first heard this comp almost two decades ago, in the summer of ’93. Music that ages exceptionally well is always going to have the (however slight) upper hand here, since the whole idea is to come up with eighty minutes of music that you’re betting is going to age really, really well; Decomposed spring a mighty upset here and head on to Round Two.