Day 2K: North of the 37th Parallel, Round One
In the west subdivision, we have…
#1 Rapoon, “Breathing Gold”
#8 Black September, “The Absence of Life and Death”
“Breathing Gold”, from Rapoon’s 1994 disc Fallen Gods, has been my favorite Rapoon track since it came out, but I’ve never taken a close listen to it, I’ve always give it the “just above silent” treatment, but for the purposes of this competition I closed the car windows in my wife’s car, where I actually have a whole set of working speakers, and turned the volume up to 15. (For the record, 9 is “both windows down, 80MPH, I can hear everything perfectly.” Had it still been at 15 when switching tracks, I might have permanently damaged my hearing.) This is a very, very deep ambient track that sounds like soundwash…until you really crank up the volume. The subsonics in this track are massive. Like “I had to turn it down and open the windows at 4:45 because I was developing a severe headache” massive. That sound wash, it turns out, is guitar, not keyboard. There is a great deal going on under the surface here. It’s up against “The Absence of Life and Death”, from the 2010 album The Forbidden Gates Beyond. Chicago’s Black September are another female-fronted death metal band, and I say “another” but honest to christ how many are there, really? Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and no, Black September do not sound one damn bit like Arch Enemy, though I am extremely fond of both bands. Arch Enemy have always seemed to be to be mining commercial death metal, even though that train left the station twenty years ago, and I am continuously surprised at their success. Black September, on the other hand, make music much more in the traditional death metal style; they play fast, they play hard, they’re less interested in catchy hooks than they are complexity and technical expertise. Which makes them no less fun to see live, by the way; these guys put on on helluva show. I feel like I should be dinging Rapoon for being bad car-listening music here, but despite the fact that if you don’t have a noise-cancelling cab you probably think you’re listening to silence when “Breathing Gold” is on, there is so much going on with those subsonics that you feel the music, rather than hear it. I have always known this about the track, but now I understand why, and I find it mighty impressive indeed—impressive enough to send Rapoon on to Day Three, and Black September into the dugout.
#3 Woods of Ypres, “I Was Buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery”
#6 Loreena McKennitt, “The Mystic’s Dream”
I’m not sure how I never really noticed this, but “The Mystic’s Dream”, the opener from Manitoban Celtic-rocker Loreena McKennitt’s 1994 album The Mask and Mirror, clocks in at 7:40… but maybe two, two and a half minutes of that is actually meat. I’m normally a big fan of repetition, but in this competition, if you bring a song over five minutes long, it better be a buck a bone. Woods of Ypres get a pass in this round.
#4 Dream Death, “Back from the Dead”
#5 The Cure, “Wailing Wall”
I’ve been a huge fan of The Cure since 1985—like many Americans, I discovered them when “Close to Me” became a hit on then-nascent Alternative Rock radio. So the earlier recordings I discovered somewhat later; I think I picked up The Top, Seventeen Seconds, Concert, and the Faith cassette (which included “Carnage Visors” on Side 2, and “Carnage Visors” is absolutely stunning if you’ve never heard it) all in one big whack in 1988 or so. The Top, first released in 1984, very quickly became my favorite Cure album, and “Wailing Wall” is a huge part of that, though I am not sure I ever understood why until this week. Much of The Cure’s work, as we all know, is mournful; Robert Smith’s voice is tailor-made for that sort of poor-poor-pitiful-me routine that the band did so well until roundabout Disintegration. And there’s a lot of that wallowing-in-self-pity, and I am not saying this in any pejorative sense; there are times when there is nothing in the world more satisfying than dropping the needle on side two of Seventeen Seconds and drinking oneself into oblivion. But it occurred to me that my favorite Cure tracks over the past quarter-century and change from this period have always been those where Smith forces his narrators to look outside that excessively solipsistic mindset, where he gives them a sense of place—songs like “The Snakepit” and “The Funeral Party” and this one. Robert Smith has a real gift for description, and it is never better-served than it is on “Wailing Wall”. It’s up against “Back from the Dead”, the opener from Pittsburgh doomers Dream Death’s 1986 effort Journey into Mystery. The album was recently named one of the 50 greatest doom metal albums of all time by Terrorizer Magazine, and let’s face it, how many bands were making doom metal in 1987? (Hint: we didn’t even have a name for it then.) It’s a great track…but it does get a bit sloppy at times. (I saw their reunion show in April 2012. They’ve cleaned it up a touch.) Thus, The Cure find a crack to slip through and advance to the next round, while Dream Death head for the sidelines.
You can kinda-sorta see me in the first few seconds of this video (taken live in Pittsburgh in April 2012, at the Dream Death reunion show); the red light obscures that section of the 31st Street Pub, but I’m sitting at the very front corner of the bar.
#7 Pocahaunted, “Virginal Lamb”
#2 Big Black, “Kerosene”
California’s now-defunct Pocahaunted had one of rock and roll’s best band names. In the early days, it was a psych-drone duet consisting of Amanda Brown, who seems to have given up sonic production with the dissolution of Pocahaunted and gone into visual design, and Bethany Cosentino, who left in 2009 to concentrate on her pop act Best Coast. A terrible thing, as when it comes to psychedelic drone, Pocahaunted may have done it better than anyone else. 2007’s A Tear for Every Grain of Sand C20 is a perfect example of same, featuring three slightly different forms of the genre. “Virginal Lamb”, which opens side one, is the most rhythmic of the three, full of guitar wash and chanted vocals and all kinds of brilliance that make it endlessly fascinating. It’s up against Chicago punk legends Big Black, and despite all I said about Pocahaunted and all my love for “Virginal Lamb”, “Kerosene” is the kind of song that shaves small dogs and kicks babies out of the way on its quest for rock and roll immortality. It’s this huge, monstrous THING that sounds like the best rock and roll song you’ve ever heard while turning ideas about traditional instrumentation on their heads (Santiago Durango’s bass has the actual lead line in this track; he uses it like a rhythm guitar), with the whole thing overlaid with Steve Albini’s somewhat terrifying lyrics. It’s been one of my favorite songs since I first heard it almost a quarter-century ago, and very few tracks in this bracket would have been able to take it down; Big Black advance to Day Three, while Pocahaunted head for the bleachers.
And finally, in the South subdivision:
#1 Anthrax, “Black Lodge”
#8 Bastards Trained by Bastards, “Mark Barnsley”
I have always considered British anarcho-punks Bastards Trained by Bastards (and is that not one of the best band names ever?) to be an oi! band, but the more I listen to their signature track, from the 2002 EP Natural, the more I realize there’s a lot more going on under the hood here; the band combine oi!, hardcore, and metal to come up with this track. Alas, the melding between the genres is not entirely seamless, and while I will go to my grave loving this track (which involves the imprisonment of the titular British anarchist, which many considered to be politically-motivated; this is only one of many tracks about the incident), when you put it up against “Black Lodge”, it has to slip a bit. I have recently revisited the various eras of Anthrax, and was very surprised to discover that the Jon Bush years now strike me as by far the band’s strongest output; I was a big fan of 1993’s Sound of White Noise back in the day, but twenty years later it now towers over everything the band released with lead vocalist Joey Belladonna, and it comes off a damn sight better than the debut with Neil Turbin, too (though I still love love love Fistful of Metal, for all its amateurishness). It helps that I was a Twin Peaks fangeek, as well, and truth be told I still am. It’s a fun, fun song with some mighty serious undertones, and it finds itself heading for the next round pretty easily.
#3 The Lords of the New Church, “Pretty Baby Scream”
#6 Radiosonde, “Pilot (Belly-Up Mix)”
San Francisco-based experimental musician Scott Arford runs all things related to 7Hz—a record label, a performance space, etc. He was also the mind behind the unfortunately short-lived noise project Radiosonde, whose first two albums, 1998’s Somnambul and 1999’s Meter Sickness (this track comes from the latter), topped my Best Albums of the Year lists in their respective years (and are still on top after a few rounds of revisions). The former was a much more deep-ambient album, full of long, dark drones, perfect for meditation and shit for driving. The latter changed things up, with Arford moving into the kind of electronica/dub territory many noise kids eventually find themselves getting into—but instead of going straight electronica, Arford brought his head for dissonance into the mix, and “Pilot” feels like a crazy, twisted mashup of Mel Blanc, Scott Joplin, and a record that’s been left too long and is now spinning on the inside groove over and over again. It’s all sorts of fun. It’s up against Stiv Bators’ post-Dead Boys project. Bators is best-known for being the leader of seminal punk band The Dead Boys (whose “Sonic Reducer” has been a mainstay of Pearl Jam live dates for twenty-odd years now), but to me, it was when the Dead Boys dissolved and he formed the Lords, a post-punk supergroup featuring ex-members of The Damned and Sham 69, that Bators came into his own. The punk sensibilities of the various acts whose members comprised the Lords collided perfectly with Bators’ desire to move in a poppier vein, much as contemporaries The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were doing right around the same time. The Lords of the New Church generally kept a more metallic edge than other acts going down that path, though. Their real breakthrough, as far as structure and songwriting, was 1984’s The Method to My Madness (they actually had their greatest chart success the year before with “Dance with Me”, though Method’s single “Murderstyle” also hit the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #97); all the pieces fell into place, and the guys came up with a killer album; the original release is solid from front to back, though later re-pressings are bogged down with a bunch of stuff that detracts from the raw immediacy of the initial songs. It seems to me, though I have not gone back and analyzed, that for a while now, when confronted with traditional-music-vs.-non-music battles where both tracks are pretty much unassailable, I have been going with the traditional song more often than not; because of this, I’m going the other way this time, having nothing else to separate these fantastic tracks, and promoting Radiosonde, while the Lords head for Paris to get struck by another taxi.
#4 MC 900 Foot Jesus, “The City Sleeps”
#5 Conjure One, “Manic Star”
“The City Sleeps” inspired an entire poem cycle of mine. Not in the way some things did, where I took a full album and borrowed all the titles of the album for poems, but “The City Sleeps”, which comes from M900J’s first solo album, 1991’s Welcome to My Dream, actually meshed with an existing poem that I had written in the eighties in my head, and the two of them conspired to put me to work for a year building a world (or at least a city) in the poem cycle “Metropolis”. That is some heavy juju indeed. But it’s up against fellow Canadian Rhys Fulber (whom you may know better as half of Front Line Assembly, who were huge in dance clubs in the eighties/early nineties) with his project Conjure One, known for extensive collaborations with female vocalists—Fulber was one of the few people to brave working with Poe and risking the wrath of the lawyers who were keeping her tied up in court throughout the 2000s, for example. On “Manic Star”, he was working with Argentine vocalist Marie-Claire d’Ubaldo, and the collaboration is sheer magic. Though, interestingly, and I triple-checked the attribution, I have never heard another piece of d’Ubaldo’s music that sounds like “Manic Star”; her voice on the one solo record of hers I’ve been able to track down is deeper and richer than it comes across here. Nevertheless, this song is something else indeed. This battle came down to lyrics; M900J’s simply work better, and thus Conjure One are off to the sidelines, and MC 900 Foot Jesus is off to train for Day Three.
#7 Field of Hats, “Votary”
#2 Pray for Teeth, “Puritan Eyes”
This would have been the most difficult matchup of Round Two were it not for one factor: simple length. “Votary” is here because it’s my favorite song ever. Period. End of story. It’s also thirteen and a half minutes long, which makes it pretty untenable when you’re looking at eighty minutes of music; you’re getting close to twenty percent of the music you’re going to be listening to for the rest of your life being one song by one band, which is a pretty tough sell, even when that one song is “Votary”. “Votary” isn’t like sex, in the way that, say, Duran Duran threw in those fake-orgasmic moans at the end of “Hungry Like the Wolf”, or like, well, the entire Prince catalog. No, “Votary” is sex. Or, to be more precise, “Votary” is foreplay, then coitus, then afterglow. It is the most perfect sonic depiction of sex you will ever hear outside an amateur porn reel, which is made all the more ironic given that it’s one guy. (Does that make it masturbation?) Granted, that one guy is one of the world’s best guitarists, and if you haven’t cottoned to his music yet, there is no better starting point than the 2008 two-tape set Ancillaries, whence this track. All that said, it’s still thirteen and a half minutes long, tough sell blahblahblah…but even so, and even given that pound for pound the thirty-two songs in this bracket are simply the best in the entire competition, there are exactly two tracks in this round that could have sent “Votary” to the sidelines. One of them is Robert Turman’s “’al-Qaida”, which you just saw handily dispatching the great Noisegate a couple of battles ago. The other is “Puritan Eyes”, the best song of 2012, seven and a half minutes of brutal, face-shattering hardcore/sludge/mathcore from Pittsburgh trio Pray for Teeth, who may be the single most exciting band to emerge so far this decade. It comes from their eponymous demo, which unfortunately seems to longer be in print, not even at bandcamp. I’ll put it this way: Pray for Teeth actually out-Protestant Protestant. And Protestant are one of the best hardcore bands on the planet. Regretfully, we allow Field of Hats to head for the bleachers, while Pray for Teeth head for the Sweet Sixteen.
And when we see the over-5 Sweet Sixteen on Day 3L, you will find yourself facing the following matchups, where blood is certain to fly…
#8 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “We Call Upon the Author” vs. #6 Dead World, “Kill”
#5 Alcest, “Solar Song” vs. #2 Agalloch, “Kneel to the Cross”
#8 Pearl Jam, “Indifference” vs. #6 Robert Turman, “’al-Qaida”
#5 Tearoom Trade, “Bathhouse” vs. #2 Chris Connelly, “July”
#1 Rapoon, “Breathing Gold” vs. #3 Woods of Ypres, “I Was Buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery”
#5 The Cure, “Wailing Wall” vs. #2 Big Black, “Kerosene”
#1 Anthrax, “Black Lodge” vs. #6 Radiosonde, “Pilot (Belly-Up Mix)”
#4 MC 900 Foot Jesus, “The City Sleeps” vs. #2 Pray for Teeth, “Puritan Eyes”