Saturday, November 28, 2015

Killing Joke At Full Throttle

I have a skeleton in my closet when it comes to Killing Joke: In my first band, the Young Aborigines, my colleagues and I used to make fun of them. Our main target of ridicule was their early single, Change, finding hilarity in it's minimalist lyrics and what we saw as a crude approximation of funk. Can't be right all the time, I guess. It took Andy Berenyi, the guitarist in my college band, to show me the light. And it shined bright in both of us: we named the band Silly/Hate and did a fair cover of Wardance, from KJ's debut. 

I went all in, tracking down all the music I could find and even citing a "Killing Joke fact of the day" when information was thin on the ground. But even with that devotion, I never would have predicted the current situation, with the band releasing Pylon in 2015, the third and best in a trilogy of records both classic and contemporary. Starting in 2010 with Absolute Dissent and including MMXII from 2012, each album is a clarion call to take nothing in today's world for granted. Pylon is also their most scintillating release since 2003's self-titled return to form

Just to rewind a sec, understand that we are talking about a band more than a decade into its second (or maybe third) career. Their first life began in 1979 when they quickly established themselves as one of the most fascinating bands of the burgeoning post-punk era with Nervous System, a slice of taut reggae-funk with a large helping of modern dread. At first their label, Malicious Damage, was distributed by Island Records, but they really dropped the bomb on their debut, distributed by Editions EG, Brian Eno's label. That connection helped astute early listeners make sense of the mixture of ambient sounds, blistering guitars, pummeling drums and massively treated vocals from a former choirboy and classically-trained musician named Jaz Coleman.  

This was a man both disciplined and open to chaos. His partners were Geordie, a Grecian ode to rockabilly swagger, dealing death from a huge hollow body guitar, Youth, a sloppy-perfect bass and production maven, and Big Paul Ferguson, a drummer whose name aptly describes his sound. Most of these characters were unknowable if you only bought the records - their faces never appeared clearly until their fifth album in 1985. 

Along the way they managed to attract fan bases in both the worlds of metal and industrial music (which, it should be said, they helped invent), two groups that don't always agree on much. It was an eye-opener, at least for me, when Metallica included a cover of The Wait on their Garage Days EP. 

By the time of their most popular period, with singles like Eighties and Love Like Blood and the Night Time album, they'd already weathered their first storm, with Jaz off to Iceland to wait out the apocalypse and Youth nearly becoming an acid casualty of Syd Barrett proportions. In an interview he described tripping so hard that he looked at his bass and couldn't imagine a possible use for what appeared to be a random collection of metal and wood. When he came to, he knew he had to leave Killing Joke and produce Bananarama. Survival instincts. 

There's a polluted ocean under the bridge at this point, including the introduction of Paul Raven, muscular on bass, who remained until death did he tragically depart. Big Paul himself was briefly displaced by Martin Atkins, late of PiL etc., and even Dave Grohl, among other comings and goings. But the death of Raven seemed to lead to a rapprochement with Youth and all of a sudden we were looking at the four original members creating together again. 

This is, I believe, without precedent and feels at the same time completely inevitable. After his time in the pop market and as the other half of The Fireman (with Paul McCartney, who also plays a little bass) Youth has emerged as an historian-provocateur, spearheading projects like Killing Joke In Dub (mostly fantastic) and recording a crushing live album, Down By The River, without telling his band mates. These activities seem to have cemented the group more firmly. 

So what elevates Pylon above its recent companions, which were both very good albums? For one thing there's a stronger sense of each member's personality. Big Paul, for example, seems to be driving from the front seat more, with aggression and attention to detail. Jaz is letting his voice soar, spooling out longer melodic lines over Geordie's chunky chording. Geordie is a mighty force, slashing, scrubbing, or spraying widescreen arcs as befits the song - and his brawny guitar has never sounded better. Respect to Paul Dalgety, who produced the album with the band. Youth manages to inject a bit of wit into the proceedings, while still holding down the bottom. You will hunger for his louche little lick in Autonomous Zone after just a couple of listens. Jaz's use of keyboards is also distinctive, putting dissonance, white noise and other sonics into the mix alongside more traditional synth sounds.

The songs also seem stickier, as if they took their time a little more, rather than accepting the first impulse. New Jerusalem, for example, starts with a wary dialogue between bass and guitar, which soon develops into a lethal strut enhanced by some squirrelly synth. Jaz enters calmly, almost reciting the lyrics, but the calm is brief. With almost frightening ease they are instantly at full throttle, and that is always something to behold with this group. 

While they didn't print the lyrics, and Jaz's vocals are deeply embedded in the sound, there's a sense of depth and variety that feels a little different for them. I wouldn't say Jaz has mellowed but songs like Euphoria and Big Buzz make me think he's found a way to embrace broader ways of being. Don't get me wrong: there's still enough skepticism towards modern society and the security state to keep Edward Snowden entertained for some time. One point, however: If I ever meet Jaz I may have a quibble with him about his 9/11 truther line in I Am The Virus ("No one believes/In 9/11/Steel framed buildings/don't fall in seconds") - can't be right all the time, I guess.

Like some of Wire's recent albums (though not this year's, alas), Pylon is good enough to serve as an introduction to the venerable band, which is no small thing considering the creative half-life of most rock groups. So whether you're a dyed-in-the-wool Gatherer or new to the fold, find a safe place (an Autonomous Zone with "no phones, no drones," perhaps) to blast Pylon. And as you heed Jaz's call to "Dance to the beat of Goldman Sachs," don't be surprised if the world shakes a little. 

NOTE: This will be my last regular review of 2015. My "Best of 15" series will begin soon with a look at the best reissues of the year. Subscribe above, Like the Facebook page, or follow on Twitter to be sure not to miss anything.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Long Time Coming

Phil Cook and M.C. Taylor, brothers of the road.
I was wrong twice the other night. The first time was when this native New Yorker told someone at Canal Street that the downtown J train would take them to Delancey Street. My bad. I don't ride the J often enough to understand its wicked ways but I think I've got it down now. 

The second time was when my friend asked me "What's that instrument he's playing on the right?" "It's a Gretsch," I confidently replied, "they've come back in fashion lately." I also told him that John Lennon favored that sort of axe in the latter years of The Beatles. 

I couldn't resist pointing out that the bassist was playing a Gibson SG bass, another instrument I've seen often these days. The hegemony of the Fender Precision bass, fabulous as it is, seems to finally have ended, and the SG is a nice middle ground between that and the Hofner "violin" bass, which was made famous by Paul McCartney and became ubiquitous a couple of years ago. 

Anyway, it turned out that the Gretsch was actually a Guild, as I discovered when I got closer. At least I was right about the SG, and the Guild is a wide semi-hollow body not unlike the Gretsch. The object of this instrumental trainspotting was Hiss Golden Messenger, who were playing live right in front of us, and spectacularly, at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn. Sound is as important as song to Hiss Golden Messenger, which was why I was paying so much attention to what people were playing. Phil Cook was also on stage, playing a keyboard hidden in a rough-hewn plywood case as well as guitar. His brother Brad, AKA "the Rock," was on bass.

But the main man in Hiss Golden Messenger is M.C. Taylor, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose most recent album, Lateness of Dancers, topped my Best of 2014. This show was a consummation devoutly to be wished as I had missed a few opportunities to see them in the last year. To say it was worth the wait is a gross understatement - it was simply everything you could want from a rock & roll concert. 

There's a backbeat throb that Taylor and his comrades have mastered, with quarter-note bass lines and a fat snare, an hypnotic groove that irresistibly compels you to move. They worked that seam all night, mining a variety of moods from a rich motherlode of American music. After a brief intro before Taylor took the stage, they lit into Saturday's Song, and the jam-packed club was instantly into it. I scanned the crowd and found I was not the only one singing along, which was the case for nearly every song they played from Lateness Of Dancers. Intriguingly, a few of those songs were re-recordings from earlier in Taylor's career, but they didn't really connect. He's fully plugged in now and we all fed off the charge at Baby's.

As great as Taylor's lyrics are, this night was more about the music, with nearly every song achieving thrilling lift-off, sometimes verging on the edge of control. The man with the Guild (I missed his name!) was the ringleader on many of those occasions, which usually reached their height when he and Taylor turned their back on the crowd and lost themselves in the sound. We all followed them, aided by the weather and a malfunctioning air conditioner, which conspired to turn the club into a sweltering sweatbox. 

It was hot enough that I began to pontificate between songs about the Native American tradition of the sweat lodge. As my friend poured water on his head, I opined that perhaps it had been created as a way to alter their moods when they ran out of peyote - but what the hell do I know? (See J Train directions above for answer). In any case, our moods were definitely altered, in the direction of communal musical enjoyment.

Brother, Do You Know The Road?, from this year's Southern Grammar EP, was an extended highlight in a night filled with them. As the show neared its end, I turned to a guy next to me and said, "The next one is Southern Grammar, or he's saving it for the encore." Bingo - this time I was right - and the crowd exploded again, rocking out to a wicked riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dickie Betts & Great Southern album. 

I was dancing pretty hard, but no one was moving as much as Frazey Ford, who had opened the show and was now grooving off to the side, her hands in the air. Lucky lady - she gets to hear this every night while on tour. She was an apropos warm-up, too, her sweet Stax-folk sounding much less studied than on record. Her voice is warm and distinctive and the songs are sturdy. Her band was great, with two horn players enriching the sound. Phil Cook had started the night as her keyboard player, often employing that beloved Fender Rhodes setting, which sweetens everything.

Speaking of sweet, there was only a brief pause after Southern Grammar before the band returned for a single encore, a Waylon Jennings cover (Lonesome On'ry And Mean, I believe) that was a fitting capstone to the night. Then it was really over. The lights went up, Baby's began blasting cumbia and dancehall to prepare for a midnight show, and the crowd streamed out into the damp night.

I stood at the bar sipping a Blanton's and trying to make sense of what had transpired. It occurred to me that part of the wonder of what Taylor is up to is that this was only one possible way a concert by Hiss Golden Messenger could go. The songs are so good that I could picture a much mellower but no less satisfying evening featuring a stage crowded with fiddle, banjo, backup singers, and whatever else Taylor needed to add to realize his vision of Americana. I would happily sit and watch and hang on every brilliant word he sang. It was also pretty clear that HGM is outgrowing clubs the size of Baby's, a fact confirmed by Taylor when I spoke to him.

I also asked about the multimedia project he had premiered at Duke University just days before, called Heart Like A Levee and featuring photographs by William Gedney. "That's our next record," he told me, "but it won't come out for almost a year." Be still my heart. It's scheduled for next October and he hopes to tour with the photographs after it's released. I will be there, with eyes and ears open to whatever Taylor dreams up next. 

Here's a brief video that gives a sense of the show. See you at the next one.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Guilty Simpson & The American Dream

On the eve of the release of his latest album, Detroit's Son, I interviewed veteran rapper Guilty Simpson for Mass Appeal. Our discussion was wide-ranging, hitting the notes from his earliest memories of music to the development of his style, and from what it's like to grow up black in America to how he sees the landscape at the current fraught moment. 

Here's a sample quote:

So, is the American Dream a lie? Or is Guilty, in fact, living it? “I’m living it because I’m doing something that I love to do. But, when I look back through my history of making it, there wasn’t really a blueprint. It was all trial and error. I’m living the dream, but it’s almost like I survived my dream. I wanted be a doctor once, but it seemed so far-fetched. For some reason, I had a bigger dream: to be in the NFL. But even me, a black guy from Detroit, Michigan, I’m more likely to be a brain surgeon than to be a point guard for the Detroit Pistons. But, that’s the side that’s presented to me to become a success, rather than becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect. It’s kind of ‘all or nothing’ with us. There is no intermediate ground.”
Read the full article and don't get caught sleeping - Detroit's Son is an excellent album. Watch The D below.