Day 1I: The Land of Rape and Honey
Finally, the South subdivision vomits up…
#1 Bridesmaid, “WarCrown!”
#16 Kitchen Cynics, “Me Forgetting You Forgetting Me”
I’m going to wimp out on this one by using one of my old standards: Columbus, Ohio doom trio Bridesmaid, who are notable for having a twin-bass attack and no guitars, are one of those acts who just get going when they hit the five-minute mark. (My first choice here would have been “The Lions of Pharaoh Will Guard Its Gates”, which runs almost ten minutes.) “WarCrown!” is a thing of beauty indeed, full of Bob Brinkman’s trademark wit, but man, I keep imagining what this could have been had it been eight or so minutes long. Which allows me to save all my ranting about how wonderful Kitchen Cynics is until the next round.
#8 Lili Haydn, “Anything (Radio Edit)”
#9 Crass, “It’s the Greatest Working-Class Rip-Off”
Crass are legendary in punk; they were for all intents and purposes the founders of the anarcho-punk movement. The problem is that no one bothered to ever ask them, “you’ve got the social-consciousness thing down, now do you think perhaps you should learn to play your instruments?” Which always leads me to feeling that I should like Crass, but I never get round to actually doing so. And thus, as it should be, Lili Haydn goes on to Round Two without actually having to do any work here.
#5 Sarah McLachlan, “Fear”
#12 Mediæval Bæbes, “Omnis Gentes Plaudite”
One of the things I love about the best songs by Vancouver vocalist and perennial million-seller Sarah McLachlan is that she is entirely unafraid of dissonance, even in pop music. Just listen to those tracks and tell me how someone who gets so much play on the radio can turn out something like “Black”, with its almost microtonal vocal delivery, or “Fear”, whose keyboard break is beautifully fuzzed-out in a way that must have made everyone who was only familiar with “Possession” clutch their ears and cringe when they dropped this record (1994’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy) on the turntable for the first time. She’s up against Mediæval Bæbes, originally a side project of Miranda Sex Garden vocalist Katharine Blake, but one that ended up well outlasting MSG. Their third album, 2000’s Undrentide, never reached the lofty sales figures of many of their other releases for reasons I have never quite understood (and this despite having John Cale in the recording booth as a producer!); they spice up their usual slate of reworked medieval tunes with things like a wonderful cover of “Summerisle”, the maypole song from The Wicker Man, and “Aria”, a track they recorded with Front Line Assembly’s Rhys Fulber. It’s a fantastic album and deserves a great deal more recognition than it’s gotten. And how can you not like “Omnis Gentes Plaudite”, which is basically a 1400s version of a Tom Waits tune—it involves a great deal of drinking while singing, which is always a good thing. There’s a surprising number of solo female vocalists jockeying for position in this bracket, but not a great deal of choral work, so we’re going to hand this one to the Bæbes by a nose.
#4 Integrity, “Vocal Test/Hollow”
#13 Slowdive, “Alison”
Two titans enter the ring in this battle. Cleveland hardcore legends Integrity (who are one of the few bands in the competition to get two tracks; at least they’re tracked separately on the CD, but I don’t believe I have ever listened to one without the other) were charter members of the Victory Records early-to-mid-nineties roster that changed the American hardcore sound, along with equally influential acts like Earth Crisis, Bloodlet, and Strife. (While Integrity would not release a full-length on Victory until 1995, they were releasing singles and EPs through the label as early as 1990.) 1996’s Humanity Is the Devil was the final album with the “classic” Integrity lineup (which was vocalist Dwid and guitarist Aaron Melnick surrounded by a revolving-door rhythm section; Melnick split to join Capitalist Casualties in 1997, right before their first breakup; last I heard Melnick was in Pulling Teeth, though they too are now on hiatus. Dwid continues with Integrity, who celebrate their 25th anniversary in 2013); no two ways about it, this album is a classic of the new hardcore sound, slower and way way sludgier than hardcore’s early days, dripping with venom. Dwid’s voice is capable of killing small animals. Up against it: British shoegazers Slowdive, whose 1993 release Souvlaki was the original Goat Central Album of the Year for 1993—the final traditional-music album to hold that title until Delain’s We Are the Others in 2012. (It would lose the position around the turn of the century to Merzbow’s Batztoutai with Material Gadgets: De-Composed Works 1985-1986, which I didn’t discover ’til 1997, but it’s still in the top ten.) “Alison” is both the album opener and its first single, co-produced by Neil Halstead (guitar, male vox) and Brian Eno, who also contributed piano to a few other tracks on the record. I just found out a couple of days ago it is one of the most critically reviled albums in British music history. This, of course, fits perfectly with the Goat Central aesthetic (“if NME thinks it’s shit, it’s got to be good!”). I’d almost call “Alison” a kind of precursor to witch house, but without the keyboardiness; it’s fuzzed-out walls of My Bloody Valentine worship (Shields’ whole “the voice is just another instrument” gig) but with a more acoustic/less metal sensibility than MBV brought to the table. And then Rachel Goswell’s voice enters stage left and magic happens. If there’s a problem here, it’s one of lack of vision; throwing a different effect (or no effect) on Goswell’s voice to make it even more distinguishable in the general fuzz would have been groundbreaking. But even without heading in any new directions, Slowdive took the embers of a fading scene and blew a little more life into them—and in the process, kept shoegaze alive long enough for a revival to happen. This is another race that was far closer than most people who know me would believe, and they’re likely to see the result as an upset—but over the last couple of weeks, listening to both of these in my car, “Alison” emerged a pretty clear winner. I’m not entirely sure why; I seem to have been going kind of 50-50 when a calmer track comes up a more aggressive one, with no pattern I can discern (yet) to which is going through. But in this case the calm defeats the storm, and Slowdive advance.
Live from the infamous Halloween 1995 show at Peabody’s.
#6 NON, “A World on Fire”
#11 Drea, “Justified”
What is it about videogame advertisements and awesome female vocalists? (I first discovered La Roux when “In for the Kill” was used in a videogame ad, too.) “Justified” was featured in the videogame Dead Rising, as well as on Read What’s Written, the first album from New Hampshire-based hard-rocker Drea. Lyrics could probably use a little work—it’s kind of repetitive—but this song rocks hard. It’s been a fixture on my mp3 player for years, and that’s without me playing the game (AFAIK it’s only available for xbox). But it had the misfortune to run into Denver, CO’s NON, one of the original American noise acts, and still one of the greatest. “A World on Fire”, taken from 1992’s In the Shadow of the Sword, has served as a statement of belief for me for twenty years now (why should I bother writing one when Boyd Rice did such an excellent job of writing one for me?). While I do wish the recording quality on it were a good deal better, it’s still a track of unique power to me, and it easily passes through to Round Two.
Fan vid. Apologies.
#3 Seal, “Lost My Faith”
#14 Cold Warrior and the Mercenary Band, “Jean-Paul Sartre Is Dead”
British popstar Seal’s recent tenure as a parody of a lounge singer has hopefully not overshadowed the brilliance of his first four solo albums, three of which were eponymous (Peter Gabriel fan much?), released between 1991 and 2003. For a lot of years, 1998’s Human Being, Seal’s third disc, was filed off in the back of my mind; when I originally heard it, I thought it the weakest of his offerings, and proceeded to not listen to it again for over a decade. It’s only recently I’ve come back to it and appreciated a good deal of the material there; it’s a transitional album (for a transition that never happened; the 2003 album was a return to 1991 form as much as anything else), introspective and acoustic and way more personal than anything else in the catalogue. There is no better example of this than “Lost My Faith”, perhaps the most personal song Seal has ever released. It’s not quite acoustic, but it’s pretty darn close. And there’s a string section. None of which matters all that much, really; this would still be a powerful piece were it delivered acapella. In contrast: Pittsburgh one-off Cold Warrior and the Mercenary Band, which is actually new wavers Carsickness backing up performance poet (though in the early eighties we did not have that term) Francis James Lackey. They released two seven-inches, both on Carsickness’ own TMI Records label; “Jean-Paul Sartre Is Dead” comes from the first, 1980’s “Extended Play”. It’s actually a relatively new addition to my catalog; I lost the badly-dubbed-from-the-college-radio-station tape I had it on long, long ago, but Carsickness’ bassist has an incredible archive of TMI stuff up free on the net for download, so I was finally able to snag another copy (as well as a huge amount of Carsickness material I’d never heard before) last year. It’s just as funny as I remembered it being, quirkier and funkier than a lot of the stuff Carsickness were releasing around that time under their own name, with great, great lyrics. Two long-lost rediscoveries go head-to-head…and I end up going with the one that was longer-lost. I can’t get the meta of Seal’s recent career out of my head, so Cold Warrior marches inexorably toward the Western Front of Round Two.
Live in Canada 2012.
#7 I’m Not Jim, “Drink ’til I’m Sober”
#10 Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Warriors of the Wasteland”
I’m Not Jim is not actually a band, in the traditional sense of the word—it’s a songwriting collaboration between author Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) and Silos vocalist Walter Salas-Humara, put together by producers remix artists The Elegant Too, which features ex-members of Brave Combo and The Skeleton Key. It kind of makes me want to disqualify them here, but only until I listen to “Drink ’til I’m Sober” again. It’s a country-infused indie-rock spectacle of a song, big and brash while still managing to retain the intimacy of a performance at a smoky dive bar with imitation-velvet curtains. It’s up against what may be its polar opposite, the second single from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s second and final album, 1986’s Liverpool. Liverpool was considered a bomb at the time, peaking at #5 on the UK album charts, and was quickly eclipsed by the legal scrag between departing frontman Holly Johnson and record label ZTT (which has since become a landmark restriction-of-trade case). It’s a very good album, though is doesn’t really break any new ground for the band musically. Johnson’s lyrics are another story, though I would have had to promote the band to over-five-minute status to mine tracks like “Maximum Joy”. “Warriors of the Wasteland” is more of the same from Welcome to the Pleasuredome, but “the same” is not necessarily a bad thing when two of the singles from that album remain in the top 25 sellers of all time in Britain. I was giving a slight edge to I’m Not Jim going into this, but I believe I just talked myself into promoting Frankie Goes to Hollywood on to Round Two.
#2 Broken Gadget, “Downtown Rat Waster”
#15 The Wonder Stuff, “Room 410”
Broken Gadget is the performance moniker of circuit bender and VST plugin programmer Tim Wilson, a UK musician I first got acquainted with through a Yahoo! group (remember those?) called sound_injury, which was dedicated to mixing and remixing clips in a sort of communal orgy of electrokinesis. (No, you’re not reading wrong, that sentence makes not one goddamn bit of sense.) We got chummy and ended up trading stuff; he sent me the rather brilliant 2001 release What Is Wrong with These People?. “Downtown Rat Waster”, which opens, is quite unlike anything we were doing at ‘injury, an almost new age-y keyboard melody—not random, but sounding so—over very minimal rhythm. It’s quite likable, and has become more so with the intensely-repeated listening I’ve subjected it to over the past few weeks. It’s up against another British export, The Wonder Stuff. 1989’s Hup, their second album, spawned the band’s first big hit, the upbeat, poppy “Don’t Let Me Down Gently”. It’s a good indication of the Wonder Stuff sound. “Room 410”, on the other hand, is a complete anomaly, dark and driving and very, very moody, with that ultra-ironic “don’t be sad!” sample popping up now and again to remind you that this is a band who doesn’t normally make music that contains lyrics like “I’m not the worst fucking nightmare that you ever had.” Both are markedly different from the albums that spawned them, but “Downtown Rat Waster” is different on an album full of different, which makes it less “one of these things is not like the other”; we’re giving it the edge here.
Live in Oxford, 2010.
We’re into the homestretch of Day 1, with only one more division to go. The combatants are tired, and will have a well-deserved rest before striding into the arena for the following Round Two matchups…
#1 Ministry, “You Know What You Are” vs. #9 Danielle Spencer, “Tickle Me”
#12 Fire * Ice, “Corpus Christi” vs. #13 Amaran, “Crow Me”
#6 The Damage Manual, “Sunset Gun” vs. #3 Murderous Vision, “A Whisper Becomes a Shiver”
#7 Tia Knight, “Raindance” vs. #15 Lantlôs, “These Nights Were Ours”
#1 The Orphan, the Poet, “Black and White Photography” vs. #8 Bob Mould, “Fort Knox, King Solomon”
#5 Elijah’s Mantle, “A Call to Prayer” vs. #13 Bile, “Lowest Form”
#11 MacKeel, “On That Day” vs. #14 Jonathan Coulton, “Re: Your Brains”
#10 Bodychoke, “Ideal Home” vs. #2 Fields of the Nephilim, “Shiva”
#16 Dio, “Rainbow in the Dark” vs. #8 Nine Inch Nails, “Last”
#12 Akercocke, “Enraptured by Evil” vs. #4 The Gathering, “Shortest Day”
#11 KMFDM, “Brute” vs. #3 Clutch, “Bacchanal”
#7 Chu Ishikawa, “Dinosauroid” vs. #15 Pigface, “Tonight’s the Night”
#16 Kitchen Cynics, “Me Forgetting You Forgetting Me” vs. #8 Lili Haydn, “Anything (Radio Edit)”
#12 Mediæval Bæbes, “Omnis Gentes Plaudite” vs. #13 Slowdive, “Alison”
#6 NON, “A World on Fire” vs. #14 Cold Warrior and the Mercenary Band, “Jean-Paul Sartre Is Dead”
#10 Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Warriors of the Wasteland” vs. #2 Broken Gadget, “Downtown Rat Waster”