Day 2K: North of the 37th Parallel, Round One
And here we are introducing an entire new division: the over-fives. Of the entire batch of entries when I began, only thirty-two songs—all of them chosen during the first draft—were over five minutes long. While the stuff in the other categories is all great, and I love it all (well, almost all), these thirty-two tracks are the absolute cream of the crop; per capita, there are more songs in this division that have topped my “favorite songs of all time” list than in any other. Bands are in the over-five category for one of two reasons: either (a) they do all of their work over five minutes, so I couldn’t choose anything shorter, or (b) this particular track is so damn good that I had to choose it over any of their shorter material.
Needless to say, when I loaded these onto the mp3 player, I realized very quickly that every single matchup in this division is an absolute heartbreaker, and we’re starting off at the same place where most of the divisions are just getting to—you need a paper knife to separate every one of these matchups. And so without further ado, the east subdivision kicks off with…
#1 Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Moya”
#8 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “We Call Upon the Author”
Alleluia! Don’t Bend, Ascend, the 2012 release from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, was one of the year’s most disappointing releases for me, and it made me appreciate “Moya”, which comes from the 1999 EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, even more; the more stuff GSY!BE releases, the more of an anomaly this track seems to me. It is a very constructed piece, and it feels like a great deal of thought went into it, while most of their stuff sounds… well, kinda jam-band-y, when it comes right down to it. The equally inconsistent Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds showed up in 2008 with Dig, Lazarus Dig!!, their strongest album since, in my humblest of opinions, 1996’s Murder Ballads, an album which followed in the footsteps of the previous years side-project Grinderman’s eponymous release. Dig… had far more a Ginrderman feel to it than a Bad Seeds feel (and one wonders whether that was what finally drove Mick Harvey, who had been with Cave since the Birthday Party days, to leave the band at the beginning of 2009). It is a big, beautiful, wonderful garage-rock album that works with the same sort of fractured song structures Cave and Harvey—who was not a member of Grinderman—utilized during the Birthday Party days, with a wonderful energy about it reminiscent of Cave’s earliest recordings. When I started writing this paragraph, I really had no idea which way this battle was going to go (given the quality in every track in this bracket, I suspect you will be hearing many variations on this theme); these are phenomenal pieces of work, though both in their way feel like anomalies in the respective artists’ catalogues; “We Call Upon the Author” feels like less of one, and since that’s about the only wedge I can find to drive between these two tracks, the Bad Seeds find their way into the Sweet Sixteen, and Godspeed take up an entire section of the bleachers by themselves.
#3 Skullflower, “Big Muff”
#6 Dead World, “Kill”
I started this competition with six hundred eighty-eight songs. Some of them I have been listening to for decades, others for a few months tops. I feel some sort of connection with all of them, from “I kinda like this” to “man, I liked this as a teenager, what the hell was I thinking?”, to things much deeper. Of those 688, there are two that fit into a very special category. They are songs I discovered many years ago (this one is twenty years old; the other is twenty-one), and at the time, I listened to the lyrics and thought “I could have written this. It is a perfect summary of how I feel.” Now, I have felt that way about a bunch of songs over the years. Not all of them are here, because I realized I had grown out of some of them. Others I am just now discovering I have grown out of. But both NON’s “A World on Fire”, which will be entering Day 3I soon, and Dead World’s “Kill”, from 1993’s The Machine, are two songs I have been listening to for two decades, and I still feel exactly that way about the lyrics. When you put “Big Muff”, from Skullflower’s excellent 1990 comp Ruins (which, apart from the two new tracks, contained re-recorded and/or remixed tracks selected form the band’s first few releases), how can it possibly compare? Which is not to say Skullflower, which at that point in its development was having a great time combining arena-rock with the distorted fuzz-walls of MBV-style shoegaze, did not turn in a monster here—but Jonathan Canady and his debut project turned in an even bigger one, and they head on to the next round easily.
#4 Argent, “Hold Your Head Up”
#5 Alcest, “Solar Song”
Even if Rod Argent had retired from music with the dissolution of The Zombies in 1968, he’d be a musical legend. Instead, he kept on with a solo career that, while never eclipsing the success of his signature band, was notable for a number of things, among them the discovery of lead vocalist Russ Ballard. (Both The Zombies and Russ Ballard have songs that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen; you’ll be seeing them again on Day 3C.) Ballard and Argent teamed up for Argent’s biggest solo hit, 1972’s “Hold Your Head Up.” The song reached #5 on both the US and UK music charts, and remains in the public consciousness thanks to being covered by everyone from Mother Love Bone to Uriah Heep to Mr. Big. Released just as women’s lib was peaking and a groundswell of support was building for the then-nascent Equal Rights Amendment, its popularity was partly a case of being in the right place at the right time, but you can’t deny there’s a lot of magic in that Argent/Ballard combination. None of which helps when the song gets stopped in its tracks by running into one of the twenty-first century’s most exciting new acts, French metal pioneers Alcest. Alcest’s music combines black metal and shoegaze—yes, you heard that correctly—into a very unexpected, and tasty, stew spiced with lead vocalist Neige’s lyrics, all of which center around a lucid-dream world he has been experiencing since the age of twelve. If that sounds kind of familiar, it should; this is exactly the same sort of subject matter bands like Love and Rockets, The Mars Volta, and Coheed and Cambria have been putting out there for a long time, but no one is doing it like Alcest. This is a once-in-a-lifetime band, and the faster you cotton to them, the happier you are going to be. I would like to say that “Solar Song”, from the 2010 release Écailles de Lune, is the pinnacle of what Alcest has achieved (so far), but when it comes right down to it, you pick a random Alcest song and you are sure to find magic in it; I grabbed “Solar Song” because it strikes me as the most commercially-accessible track the band has yet released, the one you want to play for people who aren’t into black metal but who you know, deep in your heart, will love Alcest. Argent, whose members have two other horses in this race, head for the sidelines, while Alcest continues on.
#7 Lycia, “Ionia”
#2 Agalloch, “Kneel to the Cross”
Despite my rule about no covers—I want these guys to stand on their own, not on someone else’s lyrics—there were some bands where that was just impossible. I can no more separate my regard for Agalloch from their cover of Sol Invictus’ “Kneel to the Cross” than I can my regard for Fistula from their cover of “Cocaine” or substitute Enter the Haggis and “Lanigan’s Ball” or Fascist Insect and “Push It” or…you get the idea. (It is also worth noting that all of my other favorite Agalloch tracks are of epic length; “Black Lake Nidstång”, for example, is seventeen and a half minutes long.) This is a relatively early track (it comes originally from the 2001 EP Of Stone, Wind, and Pillor), from when the band were still mixing regular singing with black-metal howls, and the vocal dichotomy is absolutely perfect for the subject matter. It’s up against the opener from goth legends Lycia’s debut album, 1991’s Ionia. Which I love, back and forth and out the door, but man, the idea that someone can sing a line like “I’m so obscure” without a trace of irony put up against “Kneel to the Cross”? The decision becomes obvious, and Agalloch sail on through to the Sweet Sixteen.
In the midwest subdivision, we have…
#1 Atrax Morgue, “There’s Not an Exit”
#8 Pearl Jam, “Indifference”
Atrax Morgue may seem like a funny band to have landed in this rarefied bracket in the competition if you’re familiar with my Grammar Nazism and specifications for noise-powerelectronics artists. But all of the shortcoming’s of Marco Corbelli’s flagship project, which died with him when he committed suicide in 2007, ending a fourteen-year career of almost-unparalleled prolificity, make perfect sense when you consider Corbelli’s lifelong obsession with giallo films. When you look at something like “There’s Not an Exit” through the lens of giallo, all of it—the simplicity and repetition, the badly-mangled English, the whispered vocals, the lot—take on an entirely new sheen. It’s the title track from a very limited-edition cassette that came out on Italian label Nail Releasing in 1998, and when copies surface on the open market these days, it’s definitely worth snapping one up; for me, this release has always stood head and shoulders above the rest of Corbelli’s output. It’s up against “Indifference”, one of the two songs (the other being “Rats”) from Pearl Jam’s best album, 1992’s Vs., that I have never heard on the radio. I find that kind of weird, really, considering how incredible a song it is and how much breadth that album got, exposure-wise; it’s got twelve tracks, and ten showed up on commercial radio for various stints (hell, four or five are still retro-alternative standards two decades later); to put this in perspective, the best-selling rock and roll album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was a nine-song album and seven of those tracks were released as singles. Pearl Jam were actually BIGGER than that at one point…and still “Indifference” was the poor neglected stepchild, the “Baby Be Mine” of Pearl Jam’s greatest moment. It’s low and brooding and full of barely-contained anger that finally ends up exploding…but only vocally, as the music continues on down that same path. I’ve been switching back and forth on this one for two weeks, and it keeps coming down to whether the smoothness of “Indifference”’s music will win out over the jagged, pulsing powerelectronics of “There’s Not an Exit.” And today, it will—Atrax Morgue heads for the coffin, while Pearl Jam pull the upset and advance to the next round.
#3 Noisegate, “Chorale”
#6 Robert Turman, “’al-Qaida”
Noisegate were, for a brief time, the musical outlet of investigative journalist, photographer, and all-around great guy Trevor Paglen. They released two full-lengths. The Towers Are Burning is probably the world’s most successful melding of ambient and sludgecore. No, that statement will not make sense to you until you actually hear the album. (And you should.) Then came Suspended Animation Ambient vol. 1, whence “Chorale”, and they dropped the sludge to create an absolutely masterful piece of minimalist ambient, the kind of thing that bands like Wilt and Winquist/Virtanen were managing one song at a time when they brought their A games to the table (and understand I am a huge fan of both those acts). Noisegate was doing that for an entire hour-long album, seemingly effortlessly. And then they disappeared. (Paglen is now turning out excellent whistleblower-style books that you really need to read if you live in America.) They’re up against Oberlin, OH-by-way-of-San-Francisco-by-way-of-Denver’s Robert Turman, one of the charter members of seminal noise band NON, who struck out on his own in the early eighties, recorded in almost complete obscurity for almost two decades, and then relocated to Oberlin, hooked up with ex-Wolf Eyes guitarist Aaron Dilloway for a tour in 2008, and has since experienced a remarkable—and completely deserved—resurgence in popularity that has led to the re-issuing of a number of earlier works. “’al-Qaida” comes from 1990’s Beyond Painting (actually, the 20th anniversary release of it on CD, but who’s counting?), which was my Album of the Year in 2010, and has held that position firmly through the last two revisions of the Top Ten Lists despite 2010 being second only to 2012 as the strongest year for music in my lifetime. Beyond Painting is not so much an album as it is an experience. I’d call it the pinnacle of Turman’s work, but from everything I’ve heard, both old and new, it’s actually part of a plateau that has stretched almost thirty years of consistently rock-solid quality. Listening to Turman’s work, it becomes obvious where the initial direction of NON came from—even Turman’s most recent material (I saw him perform a brand-new piece live in early June 2013, days before writing this) still utilizes those same techniques of loop-distort-repeat found on NON’s debut single “Knife Ladder”. After Turman’s departure, Boyd Rice has occasionally worked with that same structure, most notably on Children of the Black Sun, but post-Turman NON has always worked better for me when Rice just throws that sample on in the background and starts ranting, a la “A World on Fire” (which you will be seeing once again on Day 3K) or “Total War” or “Great Destroyers” or… you get the idea. All the subtlety and the progression and the structure? That’s all Turman. A very difficult battle, this, made even more so given that I know both of these guys and love them like brothers, though I haven’t actually seen Paglen in almost fifteen years now (my review of Noisegate’s 2000 Cleveland appearance was on the front page of noisegate.org until the domain lapsed sometime after 2008)… I’m falling back on an old standard here–”Chorale” always seems to me as if it’s a part of the larger album rather than a standalone track, where “’al-Qaida” stands alone very easily (it’s a staple on baby-go-to-sleep CDs in my house). And thus, Robert Turman ekes out a win and heads onto the next round, while Noisegate head for the grassy knoll to take some pictures.
#4 Rie Fu, “I So Wanted (English Version)”
#5 Tearoom Trade, “Bathhouse”
Another matchup like Atrax Morgue vs. Pearl Jam above where you’ve got a smooth, commercially-accessible, underrated piece of popcraft going up against a nasty, underground piece of powerelectronics. I’m not sure how big a secret the lineup of Tearoom Trade still is, but in case it’s still a general mystery, I’m not the one who’s going to spill the beans (though I will say at least one member of the band have made an excellent showing in another bracket). Impersonal Sex in Public Places, the band’s 2010 debut (and only release to date; there have been rumors of a second tape coming on Andy Grant’s label, whose name entirely escapes me right now, for about two years now), covers much the same ground as the book it’s titled after, and if you can’t grok that from the title, then, well, I can’t help you out here. They’re up against Rie Fu, one of the eight-hundred-pound gorillas in this competition…but as I have been listening to this track more and more over the past few weeks in a more concentrated way (it has actually been on heavy rotation at Goat Central for years), I’ve realized that Rie Fu—who may well have been still in high school when she wrote the lyrics to this one—didn’t quite have the compositional mastery she would bring to later albums on this early track (from her 2005 eponymous debut, released when she was twenty years old). There are a few places where Funakoshi slips a bit, despite being a fluent English speaker (she spent much of her pre-teen years in Maryland before moving to Tokyo for high school); specifically, there’s a two-line bit before each chorus, and the last time, she changes the first line of it, but not the second, throwing off the rhyme scheme. It’s little things like that, but they add up, and when you’re splitting hairs… Rie Fu is left with the other horse she has in this race (“Tsuki Akari”, which you will be seeing again in Day 3D), and Tearoom Trade pull a huge upset and move on to the next round.
#7 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “For You”
#2 Chris Connelly, “July”
There were a number of first-round over-5 matchups I absolutely hated, but none more than this. Manfred Mann’s psych-lite extravaganza probably would have remained a one-hit wonder (1964’s “Doo-Wah-Diddy-Diddy”, a classic-rock staple to this day) had not three fortuitous things happened relatively quickly in the seventies. First, ex-band member Klaus Voormann allegedly (according to his memoir, anyway) mentioned to Mann that his next project should have an “earthier” sound, advice which Mann heeded enough to make “Earth Band” the name of said new project. Second, charter guitarist Mick Rogers left the band in 1976 (he would be back in the fold by 1983), leaving the band without both a guitarist and a vocalist, positions Mann filled with two youngsters getting their first starts in music—Dave Flett (who would later go on to fame in Thin Lizzy) and Chris Thompson. Third, Mann developed a relationship with Bruce Springsteen, and started covering Springsteen’s lesser-known tracks. Earth Band’s first, and still biggest, hit was a Springsteen cover, “Blinded by the Light”, in 1976. It remains their only song to go to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. They recorded two other Springsteen tracks that had minor chart success; 1975’s “Spirits in the Night” made it to #97 on the Billboard chart. “For You”, released in 1981 from 1980’s Chance album, never cracked the top 100 (it would peak at #106), but for a song that never made the Hot 100, it was everywhere on the radio in 1981… and it damn well deserved to be. As had been the case twice before, Mann and crew had taken an unlistenable Springsteen track and turned it into sheer prog-rock genius. (Wikipedia notes the song has five separate guitar lines. Five. Even the Scorpions never got that crazy.) Chance has been my favorite Mann album for thirty years, and “For You” my favorite Earth Band track. I love it just as much today as I did when I first heard it in 1981. It’s up against “July”, the first single from Chris Connelly’s second solo album, 1992’s Phenobarb Bambalam, and you could just substitute and do some math there and say exactly the same thing about “July”. I have no way to separate these two tracks, so I’m taking the wimp’s way out: I broke the no-covers rule with “For You”, though if you ever listen to Springsteen’s version (for the love of Asbury Park, save your ears) it’s obvious Mann’s is a cover in name only. But it’s enough in what is otherwise a squeaker to allow Chris Connelly to advance with yet another dog in this race.