Sunday, June 15, 2008

Album Review: Xaphan, Secret Chiefs 3 (2008)

Although I like John Zorn’s sense of melody, I find it often gets lost in the delivery. Imagine my joy at hearing that Secret Chiefs 3 were going to be interpreting some of Zorn's Masada material as part of the Book Of Angels series. Trey Spruance, who for all intents and purposes is SC3, has an incredibly high standard of quality in his work and Xaphan is no exception. Stripped of the conceptual pretentiousness that has become expected with SC3 releases, the music is more song-based and accessible than its predecessors.
Akramachamarei is very typical of the current SC3 sound – a spaghetti-Eastern track that combines ultra-baritone surf guitars with lead violin lines. Uncharacteristically for SC3 releases however, this track (and much of the album) features a number of prominent solos before launching back into the main melody.
This can be effective in some songs, but the looseness of structure becomes repetitive to the point of boring in tracks like Shoel, Bezziel and Labbiel. The tracks are impeccably produced, but after a while it sounds like Spruance is just shifting between differently arranged sections of the same melody fragments to see which one will sound best.
Barakiel is another surf tune, with excellent shifts from 4/4 to 3/4 timing and a more subtle middle-eastern influence. Opening with a harp and female vocal arrangement of the main melody it then segues into a driving surf beat, parts of which are somewhat reminiscent of SC3’s cover of Halloween. There’s even a brief break with just bass and keys that sounds like a dead-ringer for Good Vibrations-era Brian Wilson. (The bass line in the main riff sounds like Phantom Of The Opera. Is this significant? Who the hell knows? This guy referenced TRON on his last album for god’s sake.)
Listening to the seriousness of SC3, it’s easy to forget that Spruance used to write music that was actually fun. I’m not going to mention the M.B. words, but suffice to say that Kemuel sounds positively Disco Volantian. Combining those creepy circus keyboard sounds that Spruance used to be so fond of, Kemuel is probably the most effective use of female vocals on the album and also allows Timb Harris a chance to play one of the most unconventional violin solos of his career. In the same vein, Omael is an up-tempo Balkans thrash piece that even my friends who don’t like ‘weird music’ would love.
Basically, this is SC3 at their best. The conceptual baggage that Spruance insists on inserting into his projects has been set aside and the music is better for it. Xaphan is an excellent album and a great interpretation of Zorn’s compositions.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Mohammad appears on piece of bark in Chicago?

God, I’m told, moves in mysterious ways. He showed up once 2000 years ago, told everyone to be nice to each other, got nailed to a piece of wood for his troubles (what a way for a carpenter to go – the irony!) and hasn’t made an appearance since. Unless of course you believe the hoards of credulous pundits who have seen God, Jesus, The Virgin Mary etc. appearing live in toasted cheese sandwiches, tree stumps and stained highway overpasses. Catholics have been particularly notorious for Virgin Mary sightings – one of the most famous being ‘Our Lady of the Toasted Cheese Sandwich’ which sold on eBay for $28,000. Muslims have not been as keen as their Christian counterparts to play these games of ‘Spot The Deity’ until very recently. But they’ve gone one better and found the actual name of their god rather than an indistinct figure or face. (Just to go off on a diversion, it seems that people just see what they want to see; Catholics see the Virgin Mary, Christians see Jesus – it’s solely based on context. It’s my theory that if the indistinct image of a bearded man showed up on a wall in Abbott, Texas they would build a shrine to Willie Nelson on the spot. But I digress.) A Muslim man in Chicago has actually found the name Mohammad written on the bark of a tree by insects. Assad Busool heard tree bark hit the ground in his front yard ‘as though God was trying to get his attention’ and when he picked it up he saw the name Mohammad carved by termites. "I was astonished," said Busool, 69. “I have a holy tree in my yard." (I’m going to pass on a termites/holy tree gag at the risk of sounding like my parents.) Undeniable proof that the Islamic god exists! (The sacred bark is pictured below so you can see for yourself how miraculous this item is.) Now, we all know that God is pretty good at doing stuff, but how exactly did he go about instructing his invertebrate minions to do his holy bidding? Busool explains all: “They don't know Arabic. To eat the inside of the branch and make that writing, it's guidance from God, of course. The termites were worshiping God". Of course. It turns out, in fact, that the insects ‘worshipping God' were wood borers rather than termites, but who’s going to argue with a man who clearly has a direct line to God via the trees in his front garden? I think the final word should be left to Busool’s wife Ann: “Either we have some very intelligent termites out there or something else is going on”.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Brutal music reviews

Call me a contrarian, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than reading a really scathing music review – even more so if it’s of something I like. And believe me there’s no better place for really bitchy reviews than our very own internet.

My current quest for fantastically negative reviews originates from a casual interest in the making of Radiohead’s Kid A, the bands polarising album of 2000. The good reviews were good, but the bad reviews were really bad. I noticed that it had received glowing praise from most of the usual media outlets, but only got 1.5 stars from British music press Melody Maker. This I had to see. Referring to the overall sound as “post-bollocks”, this review almost surpasses the famous two-word review of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich (“Shit Sandwich”) in its nastiness and hilarity. The track Optimistic: “we race hell-for-leather down Tuneless Wank Boulevard,” The National Anthem: “utterly redefines the notion of ‘unlistenability’” Brilliant stuff, but one can’t help but think that the reviewer had personal reasons for so damning an attack, ie. he would have rather heard an album of Creep repeated 12 times.

Music review site Metacritic conveniently has a worst reviewed list for those interested. The number 1 worst album? Playing With Fire by Kevin Federline (AKA The former Mr. Britney Spears). But surely this doesn’t come as any surprise; the reviews mostly discuss the tragicomic story of K-Fed’s semi-rise and fall rather than critique the music.

A funnier, though no less easy, target is Limp Bizkit (pictured below displaying the finesse that's made them famous). Remember them? They’re those schmucks that helped make being an aggressive, baggy pants-wearing goon fashionable to shopping centre-dwelling bogans everywhere. Limp Bizkit’s 2003 album Results May Vary comes in at No. 3 on Metacritic’s worst reviewed list. The album was described by the usually civil All Music Guide as having “inane lyrics that are shocking in their banality,” and described singer Fred Durst as “the worst front man in the history of rock.” Launch website was even more concise: “No, Fred, the results don't vary. The results are consistent throughout your new album - consistently crappy.”

Sufjan Steven’s album Come On Feel The Illinoise! has torn me lately. It was one of the best reviewed albums of 2005 and was designated album of the year by many review sites and music magazines. But who trusts critics? Rate Your Music is a community based site which invites people to (who’d have guessed it?) rate their music collection. I knew I would find unbiased advice here and potentially some really hilarious negative reviews from people who aren’t constrained by the niceties of the media. Examples: “Pointless self-indulgent chamber-pop wankery at its worst”, “If I am ever lowered into the depths of hell then this will playing in the elevator on the way down.” and the slightly deranged “if I met this fucker in an alley or something I wouldn't hesitate to beat the motherfucking crap out of him.” Now that’s a review.