Wednesday, January 6, 2010

20:09, Part 3: My Year In Music & The Best Albums NOT Released in '09

Let's face it: creating a list of best music that includes only music released during that calendar year is way limiting. Like most...hell, all music fans, a lot of my best listening experiences in a given year come courtesy of albums that are already years, if not decades, old. The list below recognizes these albums.

2009: Return of the Gangsta Rap
If I were to summarize my musical adventures in 2009, I'd have to break it down to define it as the year of Anatolian rock, Gangsta rap, and J-rap. Early in the year, I accidentally stumbled upon a compilation called Love, Peace and Poetry, which compiled psychedelic music from various countries around the globe. During a trip to Amoeba Records in LA, I looked for albums in the series and ended up picking up the compilation from Turkey, and sheeeeeeeeeiitt (read: I was hooked). Listening to that album inspired me to learn more about the Anatolian rock movement as well as research some artists on the compilation. From that, I got my hands on albums by artists like Erkin Koray (right), Cem Karaca, and my favorite so far, Selda Bagcan. Many other Anatolian rock artists are a bit harder to come by, but those three are a good start for anyone who's interested.

Thinking about my childhood, I was more or less raised on Gangsta rap, but, being about 9-12 years old during it's heyday, I was probably a little too young to appreciate it (or to be listening to it in the first place, really). 2009 was the year where I revisited some childhood memories. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony was one of the biggest acts of my childhood, mainly because they were from my home state of Ohio and therefore given lots of airtime locally. Revisiting their albums provided me with some nice bits of nostalgia and overall satisfying listening experiences. I also took this time to get into a few artists I'd previously ignored, like Big L and Jay-Z. I'd never been much of a Jay-Z fan, but I'm sure that would be different had I heard Reasonable Doubt when it was first released.

Moving to Japan in August got me interested in researching the country's music outside of the metal/noise scene or electronica scenes with which I was already somewhat familiar. Obviously there was J-pop, but I was hoping to look beyond the Arashi's in popular music. What I found out when I got here was....HOLY SHIT A TON OF PEOPLE LISTEN TO FUCKING ARASHI! Seriously, I mean, almost every goddamn person you ask....but anyway. BESIDES THAT, I found that there was a small but potent hip-hop scene going on. I'd never thought much of Japan being into hip-hop at all, but I've made some pretty solid discoveries in my research, including artists like Rhymester, Nujabes (left), and Zeebra. This is definitely a genre I'll continue to explore in the coming year.

So yeah, that about sums up 2009 musically for me. I'm sure 2010 will bring about more exciting new discoveries and all types of ill shit. Now, as promised, here's that list:

The Best 09 Albums I Heard In '09 That Were Not Released In '09

:09) EPMD - Strictly Business (1988)

“Get Off The Bandwagon”
Listening to Strictly Business is like a hip-hop history lesson. Even hearing it for the first time, so much of it is familiar: that beat that would later be used in a hit song by a mainstream rapper you hate; that lyric that would later be paraphrased by an underground rapper you like. They all started from the same point and continue to borrow from it even now. As a result, Strictly Business still sounds fresh, having aged better than most any 20+ year old album should be allowed to.

:08) Nomo - Ghost Rock (2008)

"Three Shades"
Nomo are one of those bands that hipsters love because they play an obscure style of music that doesn't somehow sound like Radiohead or Tom Waits and thus makes the hipster's collection seem more rounded. Bonus points are awarded for liking Nomo since their style of funk and jazz is rooted in the traditional sounds of Africa: the second most hip region ever to like music from (beating out South America but still a ways behind the Middle East). But that's no knock against Nomo; they're pretty damn good, and Ghost Rock is filled with tight compositions with one memorable, killer brass section after another.

:07) Zeebra - The Rhyme Animal (1998)

After some less than flattering introductions to the genre (Kumi Koda; m-flo), I was delighted to listen to The Rhyme Animal and discover that all Japanese hip-hop does not suck. Zeebra was one of the first serious Japanese rappers to emerge, and his homages to the American hip-hop that inspired him are obvious. But rather than copying the styles that inspired him, he manages to take that inspiration and make something uniquely Japanese, proving to doubters that J-rap can be taken seriously.

:06) Love, Peace and Poetry: Turkish Psychedelic Music (2005)

“Tatli Dillim” (by Cem Karaca)
“How do you even find out about stuff like this?” asked a friend. The same way I've always made obscure musical discoveries: by accident. What a happy accident it was that this album found it's way into my collection. One can never understand just how incomplete their music collection is without Turkish psych rock until they've heard Turkish psych rock; and then, just like that, life is a little more complete.

:05) Big L - Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)

“All Black”
Big L was one of the greatest lyricists of all-time who wasted his immense talent on the mic trying to make lyrics like “They say real men won't hit a girl well I ain't real cuz I beat bitches up” sound badass. I know. I know. Terrible, right? Morally, I've never been so torn on liking a rapper. I understand that many gangsta rap acts went beyond dramatic romanticism of thug life and straight to portraying almost comically offensive, macabre lyrical imagery, but Big L often takes it to an absurd level. But, fuck dude, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been giving this album spins all year long. Sometimes you just need to turn your critical side off and hear shit like “So don't try to test me cuz I can't stand tests / fuck around I'll introduce you to ya ancestors” without feeling bad about yourself.

:04) Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt (1996)

“Brooklyn's Finest" (featuring Notorious B.I.G.)
It may be hard for some to imagine that there was ever a time when Jay-Z made great music, but Reasonable Doubt will forever be proof of such a seemingly unlikely period. With a swagger and a hunger that is long gone today, in 1996 Jay-Z delivered a classic debut that bridged the gap perfectly between the underground and mainstream; a feat that, arguably, hasn't been repeated since. Also, “Brooklyn's Finest” might just be the best rap collaboration ever.

:03) Selda - Selda (1976; reissued 2006)

“Meydan Sizindir”
I found Selda to be the most striking artist featured on the Turkish Psychedelic Music compilation (see above) and had to hear more of her. I wasn't disappointed. Make some emotional political protest music mixed with psych guitar riffs and saz (fuckin' saz!), and you've more or less got my attention. Yeah, so her voice is sometimes harsh and annoying, but don't let that distract you from the fact that this is awesome.

:02) Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - Creepin' On Ah Come Up EP (1994)

“Thuggish Ruggish Bone”
Life changed for the better when Creepin' On Ah Come Up made its way onto store shelves and into the hearts and minds of listeners everywhere. You might not be aware of exactly how the groups' brand of harmonized-rapid-fire-OMG-WTF-are-they-saying gangsta rap improved your life, but just be aware that, somehow, it did. Two skits to open the album, a pointless instrumental track to close it, and in between, five fucking classic tracks that the group would never quite surpass. And really, how could they? “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” is at least on par with any song ever made that can remotely be called a classic. Believe it.

:01) The Watts Prophets - Things Gonna Get Greater (1969;1971; reissued 2005)

“Dem Niggers Ain't Playing"
Things Gonna Get Greater is an uncomfortable listen. That's no accident. The Watts Prophets take an uncensored, no-holds-barred approach to discussing the racial issues of their generation, and couple it with the most intimate of musical art forms (spoken word poetry). Discomfort is the goal. It's the point; and goddamn does it make for one of the most intense listening experiences I've ever had.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Harinezumi Luv

First post of the new year. Acknowledging that this is my first post of the new year really has no significance to the rest of this. I just thought I should acknowledge it cuz...I dunno, everyone else does it.

Anyway, the wife and I spent the holidays in Tokyo, during which we picked up a fun new toy camera called the Digital Harinezumi 2, which has the ability to shoot weird grainy video, which I was really excited about because it means I get to make things like this:

Did this in After Effects in about six or so hours. It's the first video project I've done in a while, so it was exciting to get back into it and shake off some rust. The Harinezumi is cool because it's easy to take and use anywhere (as opposed to carting my Canon Vixia around and pulling it out everytime I see something cool, and then having to feel like uploading the footage from DV). Plus it adds instant character to the footage so I don't have to rack my brain on how to give the video some atmosphere. So's cool. Or as the Vimeo group Digital Harinezumi Users Unite! says, it's "the best thing that ever happened to faux retro camera hipsterism."

Track is by Daedelus. "Only For The Heartstrings" from the Love To Make Music To album.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

20:09, Part 2: Albums

It's that time of year where music bloggers and publications post their picks for the best music of the past twelve months. I'm just following the crowd. As a gimmick to force me to narrow down my selections, I'm presenting my list in the form of the nine (09) best albums and songs. Go here for the songs. Below are the albums:

:09) The Devin Townsend Project - Addicted
Devin Townsend has always been on the fringe of what I tend to like in a metal band, but somehow he manages to impress me where similar artists bore me, or worse, make me laugh. I'd given up on him after a so-so latest release from his full-time band, Strapping Young Lad, but I'm glad I gave Addicted a shot. With Swedish-style industrial pop tracks like these, it should be easy to see why “HevyDevy” and I are on good terms again.

:08) The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
At War With the Mystics is what happens when the Flaming Lips try to sound like the Flaming Lips. Embryonic is what happens when the band goes balls to the wall and see where it gets them. I like that Flaming Lips much better. This album starts off sounding like 70's krautrock mixed with Kid A-era Radiohead, and goes all over the place from there. Sometimes their experiments prove unsuccessful (take the annoying “I Can Be a Frog”...please*rimshot*), but for the most part, everything works, and works together to create what should be remembered as one of the best albums of their career.

:07) Lightning Bolt - Earthly Delights
Maybe the most amazing thing about Lightning Bolt is that I've yet to grow tired of them. What we basically have here is a band with about 1.5 songs repeated ad nauseum, spread across a ten year career and (now) 5 albums. But maybe I just find it hard to be super critical of a band who is constantly doing this to my face:
Earthly Delights came after a four year hiatus and they haven't missed a beat. Still melting faces.

:06) Dälek - Gutter Tactics
Dälek are like that friend you don't always like to hang out with because all they ever wanna do is talk radical politics. Oh sure, the conversation starts with your new kitten, but before you know it, it ends up with how the government plans to use the microchips implanted in pets to emit a mind control signal that will expel minorities from America. Good thing the music is so damn good. DJ Oktopus seems to mature with every new album, and this is his darkest, most consistent, and overall strongest effort yet. To give credit where it's due, MC Dälek's doomy lyrics fit the mood, and his thoughts are often passionate, well-researched, and perhaps agreeable. But...damn dude, can we just talk about kittens for a minute?

:05) Converge - Axe To Fall
I've figured it out: Converge are not human. They look human, but that's just a ruse. Any bit of human they may have one point had in them belongs to a power far more sinister. They've sold their souls for rock and roll, which has given them an uncanny level of stamina that allows them to thrive at a pace that would've destroyed other hardcore bands. What's more impressive is that Axe To Fall is what most people consider a “weak” Converge record. This does not bode well for their hardcore peers.

:04) The Mars Volta - Octahedron
A funny thing happened in 2009: the Mars Volta made their comeback record; only many of those who might have cared have long since given up on the band. Octahedron is the album many people thought they no longer had in them: a shorter, straightforward album that significantly trims down on the elongated prog-rock passages they've indulged in as of late and brings back the hooks. This is what people wanted to hear after De-loused In The Comatorium, and after six years, they finally have it. Better late than never, right?

:03) Mastodon - Crack The Skye
Let's take notice of a few things working against Crack The Skye: 1) it's Mastodon's most progressive and indulgent album yet (which is saying something). 2) It's a concept album in which the concept sounds like it was written while on acid, at 4AM, by a monkey that has been trained to type. 3) The lead singer was a douchebag before the band found success and is an even bigger douchebag now that they've made it kind of big. 4) The band were coming off their weakest album to date in Blood Mountain, and many thought they'd only go downhill from there. And now here they are with a collection of songs that can't seem to decide which riff it wants to settle upon and it still manages to be among the best things to come out of 2009. Though the lead singers' massive ego needs to be deflated a little, I can't find reason to do so after listening to this album. The most hyped metal release of the year totally deserves it.

:02) maudlin of the Well - Part the Second
I really want to hate this band. Look at those fucking song titles (“Another Excerpt: Keep Light Near You, Even When Dying”, and “Laboratories of the Invisible World (Rollerskating the Cosmic Palmistric Postborder)”, to name two)! Look at that fucking all-lower-case-except-the-last-word band name! Look at that fucking haircut! Anyone who's been exposed to Toby Driver's music has figured out that he's frustratingly pretentious, but goddammit if he doesn't strike gold sometimes. On Part the Second, he strikes five times. Yeah, the pretense is still abundant in the music, but these melodies do too good of a job calming the part of me that wants to punch him in the face.

:01) Ancestors - Of Sound Mind
The lead guitarist of this band found a review I wrote of this album and personally thanked me for my kind words. I could speak about his act being humble, but when you're as overlooked and unknown as this band is, humility has yet to enter the picture. I could spend most of this space speaking of how criminally overlooked this record has been, but when it all comes down to it, I'm not that surprised. A little-known psych rock/doom metal band channels 70's progressive rock and records an album full of 12-17 minute epics? Not the kind of thing that's going pique the interest of a press stuck on the discussion of where Merriweather Post Pavilion ranks among the best of the decade. Oh well, that's their loss. I have little hesitation in calling Of Sound Mind a modern classic. I can only hope that time will earn this album the more widespread praise that it deserves.

20:09, Part 1: Songs

It's that time of year where music bloggers and publications post their picks for the best music of the past twelve months. I'm just following the crowd. As a gimmick to force me to narrow down my selections, I'm presenting my list in the form of the nine (09) best albums and songs. Below are the songs:

:09) “Hand of the Host” by Isis
I've sort of tired of Isis' repetitive song structures lately, but when done well enough, it can still make for some infectious music. As this song demonstrates, the band's predictability doesn't always ruin the listen experience.

:08) “Gutter Tactics” by Dälek
How to describe this? It's like an industrial flavored doom/sludge metal shoegaze track but with rapping, except it doesn't suck nearly as much as it sounds like it should.

:07) “Isis Unveiled” by ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Sometimes Trail of Dead can overwhelm themselves with the amount of bombast they throw into some of their songs. But every once in a while, you get songs like “Isis Unveiled” that strike a perfect balance and destroy without destroying the song in the process. Completely epic, this one.

:06) “Anonanimal” by Andrew Bird
Honestly, I often find singer/songwriter music to be a little boring, but I'm glad I gave Andrew Bird a shot after years of ignoring him. This song combines violin melodies with post-punk guitar and acrobatic word play, which is like automatic win in my eyes.

:05) “Abdul Alhazred's Anxiety” by Bird From The Abyss
Sometimes you can hear the first 30-seconds of a song and just know that it was tailor made to your tastes. This is a creepy experimental track with Eastern-style instrumentation, therefore bound to be one of my favorite songs of the year.

:04) “Gorgon” by Natural Snow Buildings
Part of the reason “Gorgon” is so striking is because of it's placement on the album. Following a 24-minute heavy, daunting drone, this song comes out of nowhere and this delicate voice serenades you. It's like the aftermath of some terrible disaster, letting you know that, in the end, shit's gonna be alright.

:03) “Fields of Coal” by ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
I'm breaking my own rule by putting two songs from the same album on this list, but when I thought about it, I couldn't honestly say that there were many other songs this year better than both "Isis Unveiled" and “Fields of Coal”. This is a monumental anthem that seems to express the joys of youth so well that I have a hard time believing it was recorded by a band in their 30's.

:02) “Laboratories of the Invisible World (Rollerskating the Cosmic Palmistric Postborder)” by maudlin of the Well
The title of this song alone is almost pretentious enough for me to hate it. In fact, if it weren't such a great song I'd probably talk shit about it. But honestly, this song got me through the month of August. The most moving 11+ minutes of music I've heard this year.

:01) “Bounty of Age” by Ancestors

Nearly 14-minutes of bliss. “Bounty of Age” achieves the notable feat of getting more badass every 2-3 minutes. Take a bluesy opening baseline, add a psychedelic guitar solo, super down-tuned chugs, megaphone vocal effects à la Outkast's “Da Art of Storytellin' pt 2”, a church organ solo, and a fast section with tag-team vocals, and you've got the recipe for song of the motherfucking year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

High Ate Us

(view of Himeji-jo from near my new home)

I'm bringing this blog out of hiatus, much to the cheer and fanfare of no one but myself (but that's okay). If there does happen to be anyone reading this, I'll explain further.

The difference between this post in my last one is that I'm writing this one from my apartment in Japan, where I've been living for the past four months. I moved here for the same reason a lot of foreigners come here: to work as an assistant language teacher in Japanese public high schools. I've had this move on the agenda for quite some time, but was hesitant to write about it on a public forum for fear of being found out before telling my employer in the states that I planned on quitting. Perhaps it was just paranoia, but in a bad economy where jobs were being cut, I'd rather not have given them any reason to consider letting me go before I was ready, when I was relying on those paychecks to prepare for my wife and I's big move. But I told them with enough time in advance to transition smoothly and leave on good terms, so all is well.

The Future of What? Xoxobra...
Since moving to Japan, I've began putting a lot of time into the research of the Japanese music, especially the hip-hop scene. Why Japanese hip-hop? Well, pretty much because I knew nothing about it and was curious. Essential in my research has been reading Ian Condry's 2006 book Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, which, as far as I know right now, is the definitive introduction into the genre and its relatively short history. While I don't plan on going to the lengths that he did for his research, I do plan on providing some reviews and insight on the differences/similarities between the American and Japanese hip-hop scenes and the general perception/acceptance of black culture in Japan from my point-of-view (which is all I really can do), and hopefully that's interesting enough.

I'll still review non-Japan related stuff, of course, but for the most part, due to my surroundings, this blog will likely just be another fish in the sea of Japan-centric music blogs (removing it from the even bigger sea of general music blogs).

The Reason for My Return
Mainly, because I'm finally starting to get my head straight and get settled. I've been so busy with school and adjusting to my new life that I could barely even remember to call my family at times, so trying to maintain a blog was just kind of out of the question. But I've still been writing, and I've got enough of a handle on things to begin putting more attention to hobbies and all that other shit.

That, and because it's December and I have a music blog, and as such a person I wouldn't be able to stand it if I didn't post a year-end list or two. It's required. It's in mah blood. So that's coming up soon enough.

For those who have for some reason maintained interest in this blog, thanks. Here's a short introduction to Japanese hip-hop by way of Rhymester, one of the leaders of Japan's underground J-rap scene, who also don the cover of Hip-Hop Japan.

"AB・A・O・B" by Rhymester

Friday, August 14, 2009

Isis - Wavering Radiant (2009)

Wavering Radiant

One thing that Wavering Radiant does immediately is expose the weaknesses of In The Absence of Truth. Not that Absence was a bad album by any stretch, but it was missing that certain whatever-it-is that made you feel as if repeated listens would continue to reveal new and exciting subtleties. There were certainly good songs on there, but since its release in the fall of 2006, I haven't been back to hear them again. Exposing Absence's weaknesses is about the only thing that Wavering Radiant does immediately. You know that it is a stronger album when you hear it, but the magnitude of that strength takes a while to gauge. Even after several weeks of ownership I still wasn't sure where I'd place it in the hierarchy of Isis albums from best to worst.

Admittedly, my first few listens revealed a certain sense of staleness; that feeling that they as a band and I as a listener had been down this road one too many times before. Isis aren't a band known for sea changes between albums, and over time it seems like the differences that do exist from one album to the next is getting harder to spot, and perhaps is almost nonexistent; and that is especially pertinent here. Wavering Radiant presents the same basic formula as their other works as of late: the crystalline guitar tones, predictable clean vocal/growl variations, long post-rock buildups withs sludge crescendos, the token ambient album break. Even if you haven't heard this particular album before but have heard their previous work, chances are Wavering Radiant sounds eerily similar to how you thought it might sound, which is obviously a little disappointing if you were looking for more significant growth.

But there's something about this album that kept bringing me back. Once the initial disappointment faded, I actually discovered some nice touches here once I paid attention to the details. A lot of merits can be given to the production, which is getting more and more layered and complex to a degree that, to be honest, I notice but don't quite understand. Isis have experimented with sound on previous albums, but this one finds them taking those tricks a bit further, and with mostly positive results. You'll notice this immediately in the start of songs like "Ghost Key" and "20 Minutes/40 Years", even if they are eventually buried by Isis' standard song development methods.

In the end, Wavering Radiant is just good enough to satisfy me as a fan, but without some noticeable adjustments in the future this will likely be the last time I'll be able to say that with any level of sincerity.

Score: 6.5/10

"Hand of the Host"

"20 Minutes/40 Years"

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Mars Volta - Octahedron (2009)

The Mars Volta

Reviewing Mars Volta albums feels slightly pointless. Chances are, you've already got your opinion of the band and it's not really going to change. So eff that; instead of reviewing Octahedron outright, I'll share some personal thoughts inspired by listening to Octahedron -- which will likely be barely distinguishable from a proper review, but that's neither here nor there. For what it's worth, though, I will say that this album is a slightly different beast than their recent work, and that if there is any Mars Volta album that will change peoples' minds about them, or reengage any wayward fans, then this would be it. If you were not keen on the pointlessly long solos, chaotic drumming and guitar playing, and general prog-rock indulgences, you may like what they've come up with for Octahedron. At 8 songs and 50 minutes long, this is easily their most straightforward, digestible album yet. Inversely, if you were a fan of the long solos and chaos, you may not like Octahedron all that much. And that's all I have to say about that.

I've always positioned Mars Volta as the kind of band that I would eventually grow out of. They provided some good music and memories for my younger days, but their brand of rambunctious prog-rock was surely bound to work its way through my system as the process of my maturing musical tastes simultaneously coincided with their inevitable decline in quality (though can you ever tell which is occurring faster, if at all?). It's no wonder, then, that I've approached their last few albums with a bit of hesitation, none more so than Octahedron. I saw it sitting on the New Releases wall at the record store, stacked next to new albums by Green Day, Depeche Mode, Eminem, Mos Def, Marilyn Manson, Dave Matthews Band, Iron Maiden, and other such artists past their prime (arguments on whether some of those artists ever had a prime will be heard at a later date), and wondered about the kind of people who buy those records. How much do they really expect these new albums to live up? It's not because those artists are still making classic material, I decided, but it's more of a comfort issue. The listener knows what they're gonna get. The purchase doesn't require them to take any risks and there's little uncertainty as to how it will sound. Certainly I'd never fall into such a habit, right? Right? Wrong. Because there I was, doing exactly that with the Mars Volta.

So what does it mean if I tell you that Octahedron is a great album? Or if I add that it's their best since De-loused In The Comatorium? I believe that I mean it, but there's that nagging feeling that I may merely be trying to justify my continued support of a band that many of my friends no longer listen to. That I'm not listening to them because they are still good, but because they have only done a good job at reminding me of how I felt when I first heard them when I was younger. On that note: does how much a new album reminds you of a past good album mean that the new one is good too? Is Octahedron successful in my eyes because it sounds the most like their earlier material, or because it is an honestly well-written, well-performed, and well-executed album? The more I think about it, the more I think the answer to those questions don't really matter, and that it's a lose-lose situation to try to provide a completely objective opinion of a band with as polarizing a history as The Mars Volta.

I walked out of the record store with Octahedron feeling like the oldest 25-year old in the world. I was barely anticipating that the album would be worthwhile, yet I bought it anyway, realizing that I was now able to answer my own question: Did I really expect that this new album would live up? No. But maybe it would be good enough. Good enough to remind me of the old days (that really aren't very old at this point). Good enough to satisfy me for a short time. Maybe good enough to get me to buy their next record. And if I was lucky, it would be more than that.

In my eyes, Octahedron is more than that; and even if I do just have smoke in my eyes, I suppose there are worse aspects of aging than stubbornly supporting bands that you felt like you should've stopped caring about a long time ago. Besides thinking that 90% of teenagers are fucking retarded, supporting declining bands is about as "old" as I this point.

Score: 8/10

"With Twilight As My Guide"

"Desperate Graves"