Friday, August 31, 2012

Compiling Autumn Part 5: Typeface

Cloud swabs white on grey overcast skirt the deck at a steady gait
“Compiling Autumn”

Pattern Blue

The Inalienable Dreamless not only revolutionized how grindcore would sound and what subjects were acceptable lyrical fodder, it also radically altered the visual lexicon of album packaging. It challenged audience expectations of what the genre could do artistically. From the art to the fonts to the packaging, The Inalienable Dreamless is the story of every element of an album contributing to a total listener experience that is idiosyncratic and unique.
More than being a gimmick, the DVD packaging was a crucial element in vocalist Jon Chang’s effort to present the album as an intensely personal experience. Building on the cathartic lyrics, the packaging was meant to mimic the experience of reading someone’s diary, getting a furtive peek into another person’s interior life.
“A lot of my writing in general was coming from I didn’t understand people and how to relate to them. The Inalienable Dreamless and having all the dead leaves inside, I wanted it to look like a journal,” Chang said. “I wanted it to look really personal. That’s part of the reason I wanted the DVD format. I just don’t like the aspect ratio of CDs. I just wanted something more evocative, more cinematic if you will.”
The striking seascape artwork and use of unique or hand-lettered fonts was also a deliberate break from prior grindcore albums, including Discordance Axis’ own. For The Inalienable Dreamless, Chang said he was determined to create something that would stand out on a record store shelf. The Inalienable Dreamless’ packaging came devoid of anything – including song titles – that would hint at its contents. There was only the cryptic pronouncement on the back cover, "I will live forever. Alone." The iconic ocean horizon photo – taken outside of the Sea Bright, New Jersey, beach house where drummer Dave Witte was living at the time – defied every punk, metal and grindcore convention. There were no black and white photos of dead bodies, no grisly gore, no repurposed political trappings. The Inalienable Dreamless, visually, immediately jumped out when placed next to contemporary albums. Inside, the hand-lettered lyric sheet and autumnal-themed artwork also contributed to that scrapbook feel.
“Enough of the dark imagery. The music is going to sell that,” Chang said. “On the cover I want to show this horizon. Something that’s open and hopeful, but inside here’s the reality. That’s why the back says ‘I will live forever.’ Then, ‘Alone.’ ”
Photographer Scott Kinkade, whose work has appeared in Decibel magazine and who shot both GridLink album covers, met Chang at a Philadelphia show in 1996. Kinkade said the singer is "deep rooted and methodical" as a visual artist, careful to tie his lyrics to anchor his artwork in his musical metaphors to create a cohesive artistic package. The Inalienable Dreamless is "the 'art' record to me," Kinkade said.
"The artwork is the perfect contrast of visual elements to the music Discordance Axis created," Kinkade said. "The vastness of a never-ending sky, which at one time, the cover image was going to have a human element involved but was nixed. The text 'I will live forever. Alone.' Quite chilling, but a riddle that holds the record all together. I do not think there are many artists/designers thinking like Jon. The Inalienable Dreamless was out of the box different. No one will try to recreate it. The work would get pinned to this record."

Aperture of Pinholes

Though the band’s requests may have put off other labels, Hydra Head was immediately supportive of Discordance Axis’ vision for The Inalienable Dreamless. The art was just as important as the music in creating that unique album experience.
“We’ve always been proponents of our artists doing exactly what they want for what’s right for their record. We were really excited,” label co-owner Aaron Turner said. “Not many people had done CDs in DVD packages. That seemed like a great idea. Chang wasn’t contrary for the sake of being contrary. It suited the record well. We got into Jon’s ideas and that made us even more excited about working with them. … The packaging is anything but dark. It’s this bright blue seascape. There’s no splattery logo. It wasn’t willfully contradictory. All the pieces definitely fit.”
For the other members of the band, as with the lyrics, they trusted Chang’s vision, giving him the autonomy to craft the album’s constituent parts and organize its artwork.
“He totally masterminded that whole thing,” guitarist Rob Marton said. “He told us what we were going to do and we said, ‘Awesome.’ Me and Dave just looked at each and said, ‘Cool,’ and he knocked it out.”
That artistic autonomy was also a key motivator when Discordance Axis agreed to work with Hydra Head.
“That was the thing that really sold Jon,” Witte said. “Jon had this way of doing it and was really strict about it. Hydra Head not only offered us quality music, but they cared and went the extra mile with the packaging. … I knew Aaron from Isis and playing shows and seeing him around and I knew what Hydra Head was about, but it was an alien world for Jon. I think when that happened he was like, ‘Cool.’ It’s really rare to have a huge list of demands like that and the label to go, ‘Sure.’ It’s unheard of.”
Bizarre fonts and exotic packaging were not the only demands Discordance Axis were known to place on labels and distributors. For prior albums, Chang said he had put constraints on Devour, such as not letting their music be shipped through major distribution channels “because we were trying to be punk rock or something stupid.”
Discordance Axis also attempted to make The Inalienable Dreamless slightly more eco-friendly by otherwise minimizing the packaging, a move undone by retailers and distributors.
The Inalienable Dreamless shipped without shrink wrap because I didn’t want to create all that plastic garbage and record stores would shrink wrap it,” Chang said. “I was fighting a losing battle.”
Turner said he simply accepted the band’s requests. It also didn’t hurt Witte warned the label about Chang’s artistic intentions in advance.
“We were often unorthodox in our approach, and [Witte] thought that might be a good fit given Chang’s demands for how things needed to go from a label,” Turner said. “Witte gave us some forewarning. He said Chang, by some people’s standards, is very hard to work with. He has very specific standards for people he works with. We weren’t put off by that. … Over the years he’s softened up. We like working with bands that do things in unorthodox ways. Whenever possible we try to avoid doing things in a conventional way. In that way Jon has turned out to be a perfect working partner for us.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It's the Economy, Stupid

Separated at birth?

Political maestro James Carville shepherded Bill Clinton to two terms of balanced budgets and relative world peace with his simple insight that in a post-Cold War world it was the economy that would be the electorate's overriding concern. Just to make sure campaign staffers stayed on message, Carville posted a note on the office wall: "It's the economy, stupid."
Tapping in to its punk and hardcore roots, grindcore is preoccupied by social and political topics. While it does its best to spit bile in the direction of religion, politics and other easily identifiable villains, grindcore does not do a good job of addressing thornier, more complicated issues like the economy. Granted, there's only so much you can say in 75 seconds, but it's a topic -- especially in the depth of the worst global downturn since the Great depression -- that's ripe for some angry discussion.
Here are four artists who keep their mind on their money and their money on their mind.

Tools of the (Free) Trade

No other band has ever been as attuned to the economic unease of modern blue collar workers as Benumb. Where other grind bands were content to choke out vague denunciations of The System and how it needs to be Taken Down, Benumb penned factory floor ditties about offshored jobs, disappointing unions and lives spent paycheck to paycheck with none of Bruce Springsteen's bullshit romanticism. One of the best examples is Withering Strands of Hope's "WTO: Disintergration of the Working Class," which detailed the aftershocks of the Clinton administration's obsession with international free trade deals. The treaties that ultimately tied the world together more tightly economically came at the expense of blue collar wage earners.

Exhume to Consume

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of chatting up Kill the Client's Champ Morgan will tell you that dude is not shy about sharing his libertarian outlook on life. The guy's caustic outlook on life is perfect for a "pox on both their houses" approach to America's useless, bifurcated political landscape. And like every true Ron Paualite I've ever met, Morgan is also attuned to the modern economic landscape. Cleptocracy's "Consumption is Intoxication" could have been just another "buying shit is evil" song. What elevates the tune is that Morgan zeros in on the debt and funding mechanisms that make our consumption-driven existence possible. It's that extra perceptive step that makes Kill the Client such a force.

Occupy Everywhere

Matthew Widener's impending revolution will begin at the banks. The rabble rousing Liberteer ringleader can be found philosophically camped outside of Wall Street's rapacious halls. The avowed 99 Percenter has been pretty clear about his social/economic philosophy. So it's no surprise that a song like "Usurious Epitaph" takes on the economic chains that bind us. That loan you took out to get ahead in life ultimately only holds you back, Liberteer says. A lifetime of scrimping and saving and living paycheck to credit card only to be wiped out in a catastrophic economic collapse would make even the most mild mannered middle class consumer into a frothing Marxist revolutionary.

Candy Land

Harry McClintock's "Big Rock Candy Mountain" may just sound like a goofy Candy Land tune about a pancreas-crushing paradise of diabetic delights. But if you pay closer attention to the lyrics and put the song into its proper context, suddenly it becomes a snapshot of the economic instability that led up to the Great Depression. In the hands of The Oily Menace, the song also takes on a fierce new urgency, getting a 21st Century update for a new era of bankruptcy, both moral and monetary.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Demo-lition Derby: Acid Shark

Acid Shark
Bombs Away
Acid Shark’s Amebixed punk sounds very British. At least in the way that movies have conditioned Americans to think about our colonial cousins. The Britishosity (totally a word, I swear) rests largely on the singer’s voice, which sounds like someone who routinely employs English colloquialisms like “Oi!” and “Right you are, luv” in between calling for a pint of bitter at the quaint local pub in a decidedly blue collar swath of smoke-choked London. Please none of you disabuse me of this stereotype because it makes Acid Shark that much more fun.
Reinforcing that British charm is that Acid Shark’s three songs sound like Amebix if the crusty forefathers had jettisoned all that maudlin crap about friends dying in motorcycle accidents to pen more bangers in the mold of “Arise!” Acid Shark will not overwhelm your senses with either their musical or lyrical originality (especially lyrical—songs largely consist of the title being shouted repeatedly), but it’s a fun little demo. The songs all have a propulsive vibe, like Acid Shark is rushing to the end before they collapse in on themselves. The knotty guitars have a twisty little crunch to them, though the drums occasional blur into flapping mush.
At only three songs, Acid Shark’s demo does what it should. Namely, it encapsulates a rousing football hooligan spirit not so much in a rioting down the road sense as it is kicking back an ale with a few mates after a rousing match. Essentially, Acid Shark know how to tease just enough to make you want to hear more.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Compiling Autumn Part 4: Jigsaw

Start from the outside find the edges
Look for patterns in the seams
Some pieces fit together wrong
Remaining parts seem to fit nowhere
But you can force my teeth together
If you think that it will make you happy


Come Apart Together, Come Together Alone

Recording The Inalienable Dreamless was different from past Discordance Axis sessions in one notable respect:
“We were prepared this time. That was the huge difference,” drummer Dave Witte said, laughing. “The way it worked in the end, the other records we would record a song on the boombox and go, ‘Done,’ and record another on a boombox. Then we’d bring the boombox to the studio and then record it for real on the tape. Relearn it and record it.”
Unlike Ulterior or Jouhou where songs were relearned, rewritten or simply created whole in the studio, Discordance Axis entered Trax East in late 1999 practiced to perfection. Rehearsals found the band playing the record straight through in order twice as they built up the stamina and cohesion necessary to deliver the demanding songs. The level of preparation for The Inalienable Dreamless was “unheard of” for Discordance Axis, Witte said.
“That was the first record we were all generally excited about and rehearsed in advance,” he said.
Honed to precision, the band realized they needed to record the music before they lost their edge.
“At some point we’re like, we’re done,” guitarist Rob Marton said. “We’ve got to get into the studio. We prepared I don’t know how many months before. We’ve got to be spot on.”
But all their preparation was nearly wasted when engineer Steve Evetts, who had worked with the band previously, quit Trax East two weeks before the session. The studio wanted Discordance Axis to push back the recording until mid-2000, something the band said would have been devastating.
“We were right at the razor’s edge at that point,” vocalist Jon Chang said. “You can only stay that good for so long. We were practicing multiple times a week. We never did that kind of shit for Discordance Axis. We were a once a week band, if we were lucky. If we had to delay, it would have been a disaster.”
Narrowly avoiding a delay, Discordance Axis enlisted Boston engineer Jon D’Uva at the last minute. D’Uva came recommended by Bill T. Miller, who had recorded Jouhou. One of Miller’s assistants, D’Uva had assisted on albums like Grief’s 1994 sludge touchstone Come to Grief, but he had never helmed his own session or worked with a grindcore band.
“[Miller] was like, ‘Hey do you want to do this band in Jersey.’ I wasn’t even doing this full time yet,” D’Uva said. “I had a day job. I said, ‘Let them fire me.’ ”
The four day session – which included recording, mixing and mastering – was a first for D’Uva in many ways. It was his first solo shot as a producer, his first project where a label was involved and it was also his first exposure to grindcore and Discordance Axis.
“He had never done fast music, but he did a great job,” Witte said. “He captured the band the way it sounds. It was a lot different from other people we worked with.”
Before D'Uva travelled to Trax East, Miller had given him old Discordance Axis records by way of background, but the session was a learning experience.
“I had touched upon it, but this was definitely intense,” D’Uva said. “The music was not understated. On the session when you’re an engineer, you can be engineering any style once you’re focused in. You’re not even listening to what the music is. You’re very technical. You’re making sure all the machines were on. It was all tape then.”


D’Uva calls himself The Inalienable Dreamless' "ghost engineer" because he was accidentally left off the album's liner notes. Though he laughs at the oversight, D'Uva also downplays his role in recording the album, choosing to describe himself as an engineer rather than a producer. As D’Uva describes the sessions, Discordance Axis came prepared, were able to nail most of the songs in a single take or two and immediately knew which takes felt right.
“For the most part it was a self-produced album,” D’Uva said. “They knew what takes were good. They knew what was tight enough. The sound of the band was defined. I wasn’t making decisions on the tempo or the arrangement.”
Witte and Chang said recording The Inalienable Dreamless was by far the easiest session in Discordance Axis’ turbulent relationship with recording studios.
“It was a not a nightmare recording session,” Chang said. “There were hard things in it, but we were never at each other’s throats, which was unusual for us.”
Marton’s recollections, however, are not so rosy. The compressed recording schedule took an extreme toll on the guitarist as he labored to nail the intricate parts he had written.
“I think I hated it as much as any other recording we did,” he said. “Jouhou was hellish and we couldn’t get anything right. [The Inalienable Dreamless] was a grueling three days. We weren’t even halfway through and my arm felt like cement. The songs were hard to play. They weren’t easy. It was the most grueling recording experience of all of them. I vowed to never to do it again. When that recording was done I absolutely hated it. I was like, what did we do? How it sounded in my head and how it came out, it was just too different. It was two different sounds. It was just the result of cramming for three days. That’s what we had. There was no other way we could have done it. It was hard.”
Chang has his own, unique way of motivating his bandmates during the laborious recording session. It involved holding up signs during takes that read “‘fuck your mother,’ something totally douchebaggy,” Chang said.
D’Uva said he recorded The Inalienable Dreamless the way he would have approached a jazz ensemble. He set up the microphones around the room – using only about half of the 24 tracks available in the studio – and turned Discordance Axis loose. Once the desired tones were dialed in, D’Uva said the actual recording flowed smoothly with minimal mistakes and very few attempts to punch back in and correct errors.
“Those guys didn’t play with a click track, didn’t play with headphones, nothing was edited: as is,” D’Uva said. “Jon sang while the band was playing. Ninety-five to 99 percent of that album is a live a capture.”
Though D’Uva said he had no input into the band’s songwriting or arrangements, he did suggest subtle touches to strengthen the album’s sound, including adding a subharmonic bass synthesizer to Marton’s guitar. The effect added extra presence without sacrificing the sharp, trebly sound. It helped create that sleek, vicious guitar sound that defines The Inalienable Dreamless.
“The guitar stayed bright and in your face and the box created the sub-bass,” D’Uva said.
For his part, Marton said The Inalienable Dreamless’ signature guitar sound was a matter of “trusting the producer and trying to get the best sound we could.”
Though the session was already short, Witte had an extra incentive to quickly capture his parts. Not knowing he was recording a career-defining album, the drummer was more interested in the holiday festivities at work.
“It was all quick. It was my company’s Christmas party, so I was racing to get the drum tracks to get out of there,” he said, laughing.
D’Uva said Witte was able to make the Christmas party because of his professionalism and practice.
“I remember Dave coming in and being surprised. This heavy aggressive band, his drum kit looked like a jazz drum kit,” D’Uva said. “The drums were nicely tuned. The toms weren’t too big. In my experience all the metal guys have these huge toms. … A drummer’s drummer, I thought, a guy who really studied, who is precise about his kit and precise about his drumming and he was.”


Thanks to the grueling rehearsal schedule, Discordance Axis were able to capture the songs live in only a handful of takes without overhauling them the way they had during past sessions.
“We weren’t totally jacked up on caffeine like we were on Jouhou, but we were really excited about the music,” Chang said. “It came out pretty good. It was a good record. It was the only record where we went into the studio and didn’t radically change half the songs on the record.”
While Discordance Axis didn’t make wholesale changes to the songs in the studio as they had in the past, a few of The Inalienable Dreamless’ songs were reworked at the time. Witte excised a section from “Oratorio in Gray” the band had dubbed the “monkey blast” because he couldn’t synch up the timing properly.
“I personally never heard what was wrong with it,” Chang said. “At the time I didn’t understand what the problem was. That’s the only part of the record that got cut.”
The band did attempt to overdub the guitars on “The Third Children” because on the second verse “the drums are not even remotely following the guitar because it was so hard to record that song,” Chang said.
“Dave eventually kept going and said, ‘That’s my last take,’ ” he said. “That’s the only song of the record we tried to overdub the main guitar track to kind of fix it and we gave up at some point.”
The hardest song to set to tape, at least for Witte, was “Compiling Autumn.” However, all of the laborious practice sessions and the chemistry he had fostered with Marton paid off when Witte’s headphones fell off during the last take for the song.
“That was the days before punch-ins. I’d play songs multiple times to get it right,” Witte said. “That song was so hard because the midsection was super fast for me. We tried it over and over and there’s this accent in the middle where we lock up in the grind part. That’s one of the ones we were having a hard time with rehearsing. We never really had it down. The last time we did it my headphones fell off and I was feeling the song. They fell off and we kept going. We totally nailed it without me hearing the guitar.”
Though he’s proud of the work, Witte did say he still has minor qualms with how The Inalienable Dreamless sounds.
“I think it was more me not knowing what I wanted at the time,” he said. “The toms sounded great. I like everything the way it is. I wasn’t stoked on the snare drum sound. It’s my own fault.”
As much as The Inalienable Dreamless has defined Discordance Axis’ career, the album has also served as a landmark for D’Uva even as he’s expanded his repertoire, recording jazz bands and folk music. Though he’s never returned to grindcore since, the album represents an early peak in his work.
“It was definitely a proud moment,” D’Uva said. “It was the most intense record that I’ve ever recorded. Since then as an engineer, I’ve run the gamut of genres from plain old thrash to the most jazz and folk music there is. I remember after recording it, bringing it back and playing it for people and they were pretty impressed. Even though it was a little too heavy and fast for them, they thought, ‘This was the sickest, tightest stuff I’ve ever heard even if it’s not my thing.’ Even then it was, ‘Oh wow, this is a crazy record.’ ”

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

G&P Review: Dephosphorus/Great Falls

Dephosphorus/Great Falls
Hell Comes Home

Apparently Dephosphorus are gonna keep dribbling out new music in spurts until your balls are swollen and cerulean in anticipation for Night Sky Transform. Here's one more astrogrind tune to keep you primed.
Unlike the comparatively pithy pack of songs they gave us on the Wake split, Dephosphorus go long with “Stargazing and Violence.” The lengthiest song in their repertoire to date, Dephosphorus had me worried at first because the first 30 seconds of the nearly four minute tune is spent beating to death one stomping riff. I’d feared the Greeks may have lost their touch, but then “Stargazing and Violence” supernovas into crystalline black metal spidering. That gets blended with blastbeat urgency and guitarist Thanos Mantas' constantly shifting musical architecture that manages to bleed psychedlic swirls, shrill thrashings and downtempo introspection into a single protean tune. The one real misstep to the song are some really sour clean vocals at the midpoint, but they’re mercifully short and then erupt to one of drummer Nikos Megariotis' finest blastbeat moments, a snare rolling snap that reminds of me of Kataklysm’s Max Duhamel at his best. “Stargazing and Violence” is only one song and one with some admittedly awkward components, but it shows once again how fearless Dephosphorus can be. They take a lot of chances here and most of them pay off. I've heard the ambitious Night Sky Transform and this actually serves as a nice Rosetta stone to decrypt Dephosphorus' evolution since Axiom.
Along for the ride is Great Falls, which features of Shane Mehling of Playing Enemy/excoriating album review fame. Like Mehling’s prior outfit, Great Falls dabble in aslant noise rock on “Everything But Lightning.” The nimble song refuses to walk a straight line when it could parkour its way up a wall instead. It could be my love for Playing Enemy clouding my judgment, but I kept waiting for that spinal compression beat down to kick in and it never came. Playing Enemy songs, no matter how convoluted, always found a way to circle back around to jack you in the chicklets and it didn’t happen here. It’s hard to judge a band by one song, but I missed that moment when the riffs click into something monstrous. However, I’d definitely be interested in hearing more.
On the physical front, Hell Comes Home have done with a fantastic job with the packaging, including that face only Mama Cthulhu could love. And for those of you who haven’t given in to the seduction of the needle, the 7-inch also includes a free download.

[Full disclosure: Dephosphorus sent me a review copy.]

Monday, August 20, 2012

Say You Want a Revolution: Matthew Widener Talks Life, Liberteer and the Pursuit of Happiness

Right now, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, we are all going direct to heaven, we are all going direct the other way - in short, the period is so far like the French Revolution, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Some shit never changes; just ask Chuck Dickens. Or if a brick of turgid prose and fabulously face-punchable characters ain't exactly your thing, Matthew Widener will give you the 27 minute tutorial on economic unrest and social instability with Liberteer's debut album Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees. A record that bears close study and gives back what you put into it, Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees has a sweep that can only be described as operatic. If the world were a more artistically just place, this would be the soundtrack to the latest film version of Les Miserables. Liberteer's 17 songs are all of a piece, intentionally written as a whole with repeating motifs and musical callbacks throughout. Widener (who is also one of Cretin's resident freaks) said that was the goal from the beginning, to write, what he called "one long song." And all it took was a wholesale revolution in his musical approach.
"I study orchestration, as best as an amateur can, but I have read the mainstay texts on it," Widener said. "So I’d had this idea for the album, to make it more epic in scope, and I knew I was going to include orchestral and marching band instrumentation, so it made sense to use motifs and arrangements that supported that. It seemed to me song breaks were a vestigial thing. Why write around that concept, if I had all these lofty ideas that ran counter? So I started writing the album in order, first track to the last. I learned that I had to identify riffs I had already written in previous songs, and then foster them into grander statements later. Sometimes I had foresight to do this when writing the original riffs, but other times it was like sifting through mud for gold flecks. What also happened was writing great riffs later on in the album, and wishing they were present and foreshadowed earlier. So I’d go back and insert them, rewrite stuff to accommodate those later themes. So it was a strange way to write, but I got used to it, and the crosspollination started to invigorate me. You write differently when you have the long view like that."
If the thought of banjos and horns rubbing shoulders with your grind scares you, this maybe isn't your album. However, every note of the record has a purpose. Widener said the additional instrumentation had a twofold purpose to conjure up revolutionary fervor and to give your earholes enough of a break to process what you're hearing.
"I found out early on that the ear fatigues without the benefit of song breaks. In grindcore, those song breaks give the ear a rest. Psychologically, we know we can gulp some air and make a decision to continue or turn it off," he said. "Typical songwriting gives the listener agency. But this operatic method was going to alienate. So I wanted to simulate the same effect that a song break gives, and decided I’d compose a non-metal instrumentation part every few minutes, which would give the ear a break from distortion and blasts. This worked, I think. It also gave me time to seed the major leitmotivs, which came instrumentally as either grand introductions or culminating recapitulations, depending on where in the album they appear. I really like composing in this way, turns out. For other bands, the traditional format is best. Liberteer albums will continue to be one long song. It’s going to be inseparable from the project."

The Spirit of '76

Solo project Liberteer builds on expands the themes Widener had touched on with his prior band Citizen. With that trio, Widener had rallied for a new breed of patriotism that put the the populations' interests ahead of those of the state. To provide that requisite rallying cry he had extensively studied national anthems, dissecting them for musical themes. Those studies came in handy when it came time to write for Liberteer, which relies on more than your friendly neighborhood power chord to stir the emotions.
"The most important thing about my early studies on nationalistic and folk music was learning the proper modes and key changes when it comes to stirring music. Most of which aren’t used in metal," he said. "Even the minor key is tampered with in extreme metal, with heavy emphasis on the tritone, the minor second, and the fourth—all intervals that smudge the tonality of a key, that rob it of expectation and psychology. I’ve never been too afraid of using major keys in my metal. Take a look at Cretin. But I think studying those historic pieces taught me a lot about songwriting in general. So that stayed with me. There aren’t any explicitly sampled songs on the Liberteer album, like in Citizen. I think it’s more the concept of learning to unlearn. I do have a fondness for the early Americana musical idiom, which is really a European transplant, and use a lot of it in Liberteer. Some people draw a conclusion about that, but I’m not really trying to make a statement with it. I just think it sounds emotional, in a stirring way, with instrumentation that evokes a groundswell, of a primitive and participatory nature."

Patriot Games

An album with orchestration this demanding requires a conceptual foundation that says something a little more involved than "this shit sucks." Widener makes you realize just how fucking lazy so much of our so-called political grind really is. Too many political bands are content to wind up the audience for half an hour, preach to them in the most vague terms and send everybody home self-satisfied and content that they've been appropriately outraged at the acceptable targets. Instead, Liberteer demands you get up off your ass and really wrestle with issues of personal autonomy and collective responsibility in ways that are more nuanced and demanding than any number of albums you have on your iPod right now.
"I think that’s the very intention of anarchism, how do you reconcile liberty and the collective, how do you make both work together? When they seem to be mutually exclusive? That’s the ongoing dialogue of anarchism, really. And so you might be mistaking my honesty and inclusion of differing anarchist thought for the total lack of an ideology. The album does have an ideology when compared to other political viewpoints," Widener said. "It can be somewhat of a litmus test, in that many will identify with some elements of the lyrics, but overlook the rest, like a confirmation bias. American Libertarian free-market types will ignore the socialist elements and focus on personal liberty. But it’s not fair to do that. Because a big part of the album is about social responsibility and compassion, and I wouldn’t rank U.S. Libertarians as being very high on the compassion scale, with their unkind interpretations of 'fairness' and narrow definitions of 'liberty.' Theirs is an ideology totally incompatible with anarchism. They exalt capitalism as some arbiter of fairness, and to the anarchist, capitalism creates a hierarchy of economic oppression, the exact opposite of liberty."
There are themes at play on Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees that will appeal to Tea Party patriots and outraged Occupy Wall Street protestors alike. However, when listeners sit down and really wrangle with what Widener is saying, they'll find he's advocating for a very specific breed of social anarchism.
"I think the real reason the album seems different from most political grind is because of this social anarchist element," he said. "It’s funny, most bands that either self-identify or are categorized as anarchist, at least in punk and grind, are of the individualist anarchist branch, where personal liberty and expression trump the social. But Liberteer is strongly social anarchist. So the tone feels a bit different, doesn’t it? I know singing about tolerance and getting along with your neighbors isn’t very metal, ha! But I’m not too concerned with metal heritage, or fitting into a whine-and-grind circle-A stencil aesthetic format. I believe there’s room in grindcore for hope."

Semper Fi

Topics like patriotism and social responsibility may sound corny in grindcore, but Widener has spent a lifetime coming to terms with his relationship with society and his fellow citizens. That includes a stint in the Marines, where this (unreformed) Dungeonmaster first grappled with his place in the broader culture. The topic of metal musicians and their relationship to the military continues to fascinate me, and Widener said his experience with the Marines was an instrumental step in his political evolution.
"I joined the Marines out of a misguided sense of machismo and desperation. My patriotism was borne of fear. I know this firsthand," Widener said. "So when I talk to a nationalistic person, they can’t bullshit me, I’ve been there. I believe that emotions are symptoms of existential anguish and other fears caused by this anguish. Ultimately, our concerns drive us. And these emotions, the tricky thing about them is that they feel essential, they feel like imperatives, and we easily mistake them for the thing in itself. Like a prepackaged truth. How fucked up is that? It’s dangerous. It’s like if doctors mistook the symptoms of a disease for the disease itself! When I was young, I didn’t realize that we’re supposed to question our feelings. I just wore them like a fucking football jersey. Patriotism was probably where a lot of my fears were channeled. Typical stuff: fear of dying, fear of being poor, fear of the other. I was not popular in high school. I was still a virgin. I read comic books. I was a Dungeonmaster. The military promised some sort of vague sense of power or righteousness. So I enlisted. They nab a lot of guys that way. By the way, I’m still a Dungeonmaster, and have roleplayed every Friday since 1982, ha."
The trip through the military, with its rigid hierarchies and emphasis on blind obedience, set Widener on the path to introspection and social awareness.
"It wasn’t until much later, in my thirties, that I worked on myself, read a lot of philosophy, psychotherapy, understanding the ways I trick myself, and really put the time into sorting through my bullshit," he said. "I came out the other side realizing that nationalism is all about identification at the exclusion of others, built around prejudice and an inflated sense of the self. Like, is there really any reason to be proud of where you were arbitrarily born? For fuck’s sake, it’s a justification to practice xenophobia and tribalism, all those things Ernest Becker wrote about. But I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t want to take it back. I like where I ended up, and it took that to get me here, along with the rest of messy living. But it’s not a choice I’d make again. And I actively discourage people from enlisting. There are better ways to learn life lessons."
Liberteer packs a life's worth of lessons into less than half an hour. When you survey the musical, economic and political unrest that characterize late 2012, it's a far, far better thing that Widener has done.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Compiling Autumn Part 3: Loveless

Let me share my heart with you
As I'm guided by the dead to a miserable end
“Vacuum Sleeve”

Information Sniper

Following on the themes developed with Jouhou, The Inalienable Dreamless was an emotional purgative for vocalist Jon Chang, a lyrical exorcism for feelings of pain, isolation and loneliness.
Chang said he often “retreated from people into fiction and games,” and he turned those passions into metaphors to express his anger and anxieties. With Jouhou, Discordance Axis had already moved away from grindcore’s narrow, safe, stereotypical preoccupation with social and political themes to delve into something more personal. Those ideas would flower to their fullest expression with The Inalienable Dreamless. The first album, Ulterior, was Discordance Axis’ attempt to place Napalm Death and Assuck’s political fixations “in a more interesting place.” However, as he matured, Chang said he found punk and grind’s sloganeering “naïve.”
“I didn’t want to write about politics,” Chang said. “If you’re in college, if you really have your eyes open, you realize so much of it’s bullshit. They all try to make it so black and white.”
Beginning with “Continuity,” the last song on Discordance Axis’ 1995 split with Melt-Banana, Chang said he strove to “go a little bit deeper.” It would become the Rosetta Stone song in Discordance Axis’ catalog, influencing how Chang approached his lyrics for both Jouhou and The Inalienable Dreamless.
The cancer-clouded song is full of evocative imagery and clever wordplay. Tongue-twisting lines like “Life tuned to a time table” show a deeper focus on lyrical rhythm while “Decapitated body of information/ Reassembled wrong into a smile” placed a new emphasis on capturing feelings of anxiety and unease. It’s an inwardly-focused song that captured Chang’s growing obsession with interpersonal relationships. With "Continuity" Chang began to focus more on “where I’m at rather than where I thought the world was at.”
“'Continuity’ was the first time I crossed over to write a song that tapped myself as the base and layered metaphor on top of it, rather than starting with fiction [or] abstract material to provide the base and inserting myself somewhere in between,” he said.

Euphoria Dejection

With his first steady job out of college, Chang said he was able to indulge his passion for anime and manga, making several trips to Japan every year just to watch movies or stock up on games and books that were not available in the United States.
“I was saving all my money, and I kept going to Japan,” Chang said. “Every four to six months I would go to Japan. One [trip] would be long, three or four weeks, and one would be short, a couple of days. I was showing up to movie premieres. I had never had money in my entire life. Now that I was making it, I wanted to spend it. I’ve never said anything about materialism. I’m such a collector.”
He increasingly drew inspiration from games, science fiction and the anime as lyrical springboards to express himself as a songwriter during that period. Though commonplace today, in the mid-1990s it was quite a radical departure from the narrow list of topics metal found acceptable lyrical fodder.
“It wasn’t anything that intentional at that point,” Chang said. “As a young person I didn’t understand where I was going with my work. I couldn’t think critically about my work at that point. … Jouhou was the start of that. Those metaphors seemed perfectly natural to me. They didn’t seem like they were coming out of left field."
Ultimately, The Inalienable Dreamless would be shaped by Chang’s discovery of the movie Evangelion Death : Evangelion Rebirth. The movie and the related anime series would serve as the master metaphor for Discordance Axis’ final album and much of Chang’s subsequent songwriting with his later band GridLink as well.
“I had a functional understanding of Japanese. I could follow a decent part of the movies I watched," Chang said. "I saw Evangelion and I understood 15 percent of what I saw, but emotionally, I understand 100 percent of it. It was like the death of a friend watching that movie. There’s been nothing like that in my life that I’ve been that crazy with, ever."
The themes of loss, courage, maturity and the desperate need for approval from distant parent figures that drove the story, ostensibly about Japanese teens suiting up in giant robots to fend off an alien invasion, made such an impression that it became the defining reference point for developing The Inalienable Dreamless’ lyrical conceits on songs such as "Pattern Blue," "Angel Present" "The End of Rebirth" and "The Third Children." Chang even credited himself as Eva05 in the album's liner notes in tribute to the series.
Chang connected with the emotional struggle of Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, who conceived and directed the series following a four-year bout with depression. The series was groundbreaking and controversial in Japan at the time for both its involved, psychologically rich plotline and for its violence.
“Evangelion is my life, and I have put everything I know into this work. This is my entire life. My life itself,” Anno said in a 1996 interview with anime and manga magazine Protoculture Addicts.
It was that kind of dedication to an artistic endeavor that drove Chang as he prepared himself for what would become The Inalienable Dreamless. With Anno as his inspiration, Chang said he felt compelled to make something as profound and personal as Evangelion, to replicate that experience in audio form.
“[Anno] had gone into a massive depression and retreated from society for a year, and when he returned he had written this thing,” Chang said. “He got this thing made somehow. I decided I had to write a new kind of record. If I wanted to do anything creatively ever again, I had to go to the same level this guy went. Me and the world and who am I and who I want to be.”
Focused on the musical end of The Inalienable Dreamless, drummer Dave Witte and guitarist Rob Marton allowed Chang free rein with his lyrics.
“We’d just let Jon go wild. We’d do the music. In our mind, we’re the musicians. We’d write the songs and play the music. He’s the singer. Who are we to tell him what to do? All three of us expressed ourselves the way we wanted to,” Witte said.
While there’s a searing emotional honesty that screams through Chang’s performance on The Inalienable Dreamless, the lyrics are intentionally shrouded in several layers of metaphor and striking imagery. Chang declines to discuss the individual meanings of his songs. Instead, he said he prefers for listeners to draw their own conclusions, infusing the songs with their own, personal interpretations. However, as with Jouhou, Chang said much of The Inalienable Dreamless is obsessed with the difficulties of interpersonal relationships, particularly those with women.
“I just didn’t know how to relate to women at all. I still don’t know if I do, despite being married,” Chang said. “Jouhou is so much about my inability to have a stable relationship with a chick. It sounds funny now, but half the fucking songs are about that shit.”
Chang’s bandmates are also content to leave the lyrics unexamined, respecting the singer’s emotions and his reticence.
“It’s super angry and poetic. I don’t have any emotional attachment to it because it’s cryptic,” Witte said. “There was a lot of inner hatred, too, that shined through from Jon, personally. At the end of the day I was really proud of that record. ‘I will live forever. Alone.’ That pretty much gets to the point.”

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

G&P Review: Wet Nightmare

Wet Nightmare
Wet Nightmare

A clever song title goes a long way toward grabbing eyeballs in a media saturated environment where listeners have endless options and their spastic, ADHDed attention is the most precious commodity musicians can envision. Total Fucking Destruction set the bar pretty high with "Seth Putnam is Wrong About a Lot of Things But Seth Putnam is Right About You" and Wormrot made me giggle like a school girl with "You Suffer...By Why is it My Problem?" Just thinking about either of those song titles is enough to send me to my album collection to binge like a comedy grind crackhead. Wet Nightmare come pretty close to those heights with "Insect Welfare," which once made me blow Fruity Pebbles all over my laptop screen. So the duo have that going for them, even if their humor is still a tad hit or miss ("Raped in the Superdome" is less clever than it is tasteless in an Anal Cunty kind of way).
And speaking of Boston's most overdosed blurcore hooligans, Wet Nightmare straddle their earliest, loosest blastiest material with something more structured a la early Napalm Death, if you need a musical reference point. So while all of that will definitely pique my interest, Wet Nightmare's challenge is holding my attention. And this, unfortunately, is where they're going to struggle a bit. Musically, their presentation is just spiffy, but like a lot of bands out there making their own way, Wet Nightmare's miniscule recording budget saps their songs of that sonic jolt to the adrenals that makes grindcore click. The guitars are wiry and probing but never pierce too far below the dermis and the drums sound like they've been smothered in feather pillows in spots. That's not to say there's anything particularly wrong with Wet Nightmare's music unless you're turned off by tasteless rape jokes (see also: "Donald Flagg Was an Honorable Man"). Wet Nightmare's task is to translate their racket into something that has the zing to stand out in a crowded field.

[Full disclosure: Wet Nightmare sent me a download.]

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Namesake Series: "Black Sabbath"

Considering Black Sabbath single handedly (more or less; suck it, Blue Cheer) invented this heavy rock thing we all love, it takes gigantic hairy balls to nick not just one of their songs titles but their namesake song. However, that's exactly what happened in 1999. Though to be fair, Black Sabbath did steal their name anyway. I guess it all evens out.

Swedish noisecoreniks Breach swiped the name of the gods on album Venom, an unheralded gem of second gen noise rock that lands somewhere in the sweet coital space between Converge and Anodyne. Rather than a doomy dirge about a lovely midnight dinner party with Satan, Breach make their "Black Sabbath" a scraping noisy hardcore freakout.

And just because I love them so much, here's Australia's sludge monsters Halo absolutely pounding out the tale of the most atramentaceous Sunday in history.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Compiling Autumn Part 2: Grindcore Ninja Commando Team

Reinventing the wheel so many times
I've become calloused to its genius
“Sound Out the Braille”

The Old Ball and Chang

The Inalienable Dreamless is the sound of three strong personalities — the uncompromising visionary, the quiet technician, the speed demon —pulling together for a common goal in ways Discordance Axis had not been able to achieve previously. In many ways, it’s the sound of a band truly becoming a united force for the first time.
Where previously “Sgt. Chang” had been the band’s taskmaster and arbiter, deciding how the songs should go, dictating the lyrical and artistic direction and handling their releases – often without any input from his bandmates – The Inalienable Dreamless represents the fullest expression of guitarist Rob Marton and drummer Dave Witte’s musical vision for the band. For the guitarist and drummer, it was no longer “Jon Chang’s Discordance Axis.”
“The earlier stuff, when we first started Discordance Axis, it was Jon Chang’s Discordance Axis," Marton said. "We never had a problem with that. It was his project. He kind of directed the whole thing. We were cool with that. We were there to have fun. But at some point it took over.”
Marton and Witte's new confidence meant Chang no longer dictated song structures or arrangement via spliced together bits of tapes from rehearsals. For much of Discordance Axis’ existence, Chang would direct the band’s sound by chopping up cassette recordings of rehearsals, piecing together riffs until he had songs that satisfied his criteria. As Witte and Marton grew as a musical unit, Chang was willing to relinquish some of the control, confident his bandmates had bought into the vision he had for what The Inalienable Dreamless would ultimately be.
“When we started the band it was my drive and my money and my contacts and everything was me pushing that thing forward,” Chang said. “When Rob said it was my project, he was right. It was literally me ordering things. It was me saying, ‘I demand this. We need to play this fast. We need to have this structure.’ And being really tyrannical about it, honestly. I did that because I had a vision of what we could be. We weren’t going to get there unless we went through a lot of things to be there. By the time Jouhou was done, I felt we were there. Whatever was going to come next, I trusted the guys to understand it and accept the vision. It was a common goal of everybody to make music like this. I pushed everybody in Discordance and it was one of the reasons it was a stressful band. That stuff hasn’t changed.”
The Inalienable Dreamless, Chang said, demonstrated a band pushing for and achieving that desperate need for perfection.
“After we wrote that record I felt like I was a different person,” he said. “It really was what I was trying to get with for a lot of years.”
The songs that would become The Inalienable Dreamless were hashed out by Marton, who had been writing throughout the band’s hiatus, and Witte during weekend rehearsals. The two musicians would refine the songs for two or three hours before Chang joined them for the final hour of practice to offer his thoughts.
“I think he let us create more and there wasn’t any splicing," Marton said. "There was ‘maybe we could lengthen this part and maybe put this part before this part’ instead of just him splicing a tape. The whole process was different. That sort of thing just really wasn’t necessary at that point. There was a bit of ‘I’m going to do what I think sounds good’ and it’s going make it or not. Before we were writing fast, we were having fun, but it was more of a ‘Jon will like this, so let’s do this.’ We wanted to write grind. We wanted to be fast. We wanted to be in your face. We were trying to find out how to do it.”

Wheels Within Wheels

Discordance Axis’ two year break had allowed Marton to spend more time writing in private, refining bits of riffs and songs on his own. He said that made them “more of a personal experience” than previous Discordance Axis material.
“I didn’t have - I don’t want to say the shackles of Jon Chang - but the sky was the limit,” he said.
Marton’s playing style was also evolving into the technical, demanding riffing that would further separate Discordance Axis from their punks-on-speed grindcore peers. However, he was careful to ground technique in strong songwriting, never succumbing to the impulse to pursue complicated riffs for their own sake.
“I never purposely tried to make it technical,” Marton said. “I guess we did want to bring something else to grind. All my choices are just what I want to hear. What would take me some place? It wasn’t, ‘We’re going to make it really technical on this part and contrast it with this slow part.’ It was just what felt good.”
Witte said outside influences like Voivod, with their unique chord phrasings, separated Discordance Axis from bands who were content to rehash what Napalm Death and Repulsion had already done. While speed was certainly a central priority, Witte said Discordance Axis also never lost sight of what made songs memorable.
“Most grind bands never had a riff,” he said. “Rob really stood out in that world because his riffs were super memorable. He knew how to write a catchy riff that worked in the context of what we were doing.”
One of the songwriting tricks that flourished during that time was Marton’s penchant for slashing a half time riff up against Witte’s blastbeasts, creating a unique, dynamic tension between guitar and drums on songs such as “Angel Present,” “The Necropolitan” and “Pattern Blue.”
“It’s just something I like to hear,” Marton said. “When I write, I love that contrast. That type of contrast pulls me into it. I have fun with that. It’s just like when I try to write something, I try to have it take me somewhere. Those types of riffs do it for me. I like a hook. I like to be hooked in a song.”
Witte said the slow riff/blasting drums dynamic was also a bit of a band inside joke, a subtle undermining of Chang’s insistence on playing all grind, all the time.
“You could blame that on Jon early on because he was like, ‘It’s got to be grind, it’s got to be fast,’ ” Witte said. “At one point whatever riff Rob brought in, I’d try to do a blast beat over it to see if it worked. Whatever it was, I’d try to put a blast beat under it. That’s how that push-pull was born."
Whatever its genesis, Witte said tension between the guitar and drums allowed Discordance Axis add dynamism to their songs, better harnessing the energy to generate an explosive climax.
“When you’re building up or coming to some climax - when you reach that and we combine forces - it’s like extra explosive,” he said. “We’re kind of restrained at some points. I don’t know how to explain it. That formula really worked well for us.”
That dynamic approach would find its fullest expression on songs like “Jigsaw,” a largely instrumental, eternally cresting grindcore tsunami that combines precision drumming with Marton’s spiraling riffing to explosive effect.
Marton's riffs also prodded Witte to push his drumming further. It was that time when Witte was focused a humble goal: “to be the fastest guy in the world.”
“I was pushing myself pretty hard. I was focused on being the fast guy,” Witte said. “In my mind, blastbeasts, I have to be inspired and feel the riff to do a blastbeat. I just can’t sit there with any guitar player and bust out blast beats. I have to feel the riff. Rob’s riffs totally gave me that platform to jump off of. Then you threw Chang in there and it was like throwing gas on a flame.”
Some of the songs on The Inalienable Dreamless, including “A Leaden Stride to Nowhere” and “Drowned,” were leftovers from an album Discordance Axis had planned to record after Jouhou. Though the two year breakup scuttled those plans, the band dusted off the songs when it came time to write The Inalienable Dreamless.
Though he remained active musically during the band's hiatus, Marton said he’s not the type of songwriter who sits at his guitar all day working over a song. Instead, he writes best when he follows a spark of inspiration. In fact, during the two year break after Jouhou, he would often go for days without picking up an instrument.
“Sometimes I just get this sense like I feel inspired or I know I’m going to write something so I sit down and do it. Other times it’s an accident,” Marton said. “It’s not for all day. Generally, the best songs I write in a few minutes. Something will happen and I’ll write a riff, and then literally in a span of 10 or 15 minutes I’ll write a couple of riffs and, boom, there’s a song.”
Both “The Necropolitan” and “The End of Rebirth” were songs that flowed quickly, Marton said.
The songwriting process was propelled by Marton and Witte’s growing connection as performers. Both musicians said they seemed to instinctively comprehend what the other was doing, even when they were hashing out the basics of a new song.
“Most of them are kind of written that way,” Marton said. “Some of the songs me and Dave would just be noodling around on some riff and Dave would put drums on it. Me and Dave would have this thing where I would play something and he would know what I was playing.”
“Rob Marton and I had this amazing chemistry together where we would just jam in a room and just stop together without even synching it,” Witte said. “We worked really, really well together. It was just like a glove, the guitar and drums really fit.”
With that growing confidence, Witte and Marton also felt more comfortable standing up to Chang when he would try to interfere with their songwriting.
“Sometimes Jon would come and say, ‘Do this,’ and we’d say, ‘You don’t play an instrument, dude.’ It was really easy with just the two us,” Witte said.

Why So Serious?

What may not be readily apparent from the relentless aggression of the music and Chang’s excoriating lyrics about failed love and isolation is that two-thirds of Discordance Axis were there to have a good time. Witte and Marton's rehearsals turned into “a comedy volleyball match between Rob and I with instruments,” the drummer said.
“There was a lot humor based around the songwriting. We made ourselves laugh,” Witte said. “… Jon was a very serious person the way he conducted himself and his lyrics. It’s really deep. He was very angry. Rob and I just wanted to play tunes, and we weren’t really angry about everything. It was not a complete joke, [but] we liked to fool around a lot.”
“A Leaden Stride to Nowhere,” with its monotonous pounding, the “Mexican Hat Dance” ending to “Angel Present” or the pick slide opening to “Radiant Arkham” were intended to be jokes. To the instrumental members of the band, those elements were deliberately absurd, sly parodies of musical pretension.
“At the same time we were like, ‘We’re going to do what we want this time,’” Witte said. “The big joke was a lot of the stuff is funny. We thought it sounded funny. At some points like ‘A Leaden Stride to Nowhere,’ we were like, ‘Jon’s going to hate this,’ but he wound up liking it.”
Though “A Leaden Stride to Nowhere” may have started out as a joke, the song’s ominous, relentlessly building menace is also integral to The Inalienable Dreamless’ overall impact. It was the slow rolling thundercloud that presaged the final lightning strike that was “Drowned."
“Doing 20 accents, that was a joke too. We were fooling around with the accents,” Witte said. “I remember us being in this little room in New Brunswick and we said, 'Let’s do it 20 times.' We were laughing our asses off. It’s a huge part of the record. It’s a huge windup for the end. It seems pretty simple, but it’s technical in some ways. We were proud of the song, but the 20 accents, we thought it was funny. When we played it live it was a whole different animal. You really had to lay into your instrument.”

A Leaden Stride to Somewhere

Though Witte and Marton may have exerted their independence when writing The Inalienable Dreamless, they deferred to Chang when it came to sequencing the songs for the album. Chang used the songs the band had written to create a narrative flow that propels the album.
“Whenever I do the track order for any record or live event, I try to create a flow that matches the songs,” he said. “Does the ending of one part complement the beginning of another? What's the lead-in song, what's the last song and what is the end of the second act (generally the last track on the A-side of the record)? Records are just like stories. They need structure with multiple layers of introduction and conclusion that are stretched across the record.”
Chang said he conceived The Inalienable Dreamless as three suites – “Castration Rite” through “Vacuum Sleeve,” “Angel Present” through “Pattern Blue” and “The End of Rebirth” through “The Third Children.” “A Leaden Stride to Nowhere” and “Drowned” were intended to serve as a “surprise second ending” like the film Alien.
“It’s like the experience of giving blood,” Marton said. “That whole album, the tempo of every song and how it pulls you through it, it feels like you’ve been through something when you’re through with it. We were all on board to just be relentless. Reign in Blood was relentless. That was my feeling. That was in my head.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

G&P Review: Yama

By the water of Leman I sat down and wept...
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear

T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land
III. The Fire Sermon


Mind Flare

For all of Seaquake's nautical themes, Yama's three song stoner dude excursion to Hindu hell is desert dry. Rather than billowing swells crashing against mossy rocks covered in seagull shit, Seaquake sounds more like a parched sirocco scraping through an arid sagebrush plain. Like a scorching summer, Seaquake starts out seasonably pleasant, but it grows a bit more suffocating as Yama drag on. With only three songs and 20 minutes of baked doom, that causes a bit of a problem in spots.
First off, the Dutch quartet's influences nod to the obvious: Master of Reality, later Sleep and the sunbaked Sky Valley where Kyuss would hang out taking drunken pot shots at gila monsters. Everything starts off strong enough. Lead track "Hollow" is the best of the bunch, a head nodding jam that thrums with a nicely throbbing rhythm that will cradle and comfort whatever recreational pharmacopia you choose to augment your musical experience. Vocalist Alex's stab at a Layne Straley croon is at its loosest and most vibrant even when he's yowling nothing more complex than a prolonged "Hey, yeah."
The subsequent two songs, "Seaquake" and "Synergy," are a bit spottier. The title track's dusty blues (you can practically see the grit blowing out the rusty harmonica) becomes increasingly desiccated, teetering on the verge of inertia. "Synergy," a seven minute seminar on a single riff, tumbles straight over into stasis. Sleep proved with Dopesmoker that a single riff could be transcendent, but "Synergy" is less than the sum of its parts. The monotonous vocals and unidirectional riff don't cohere into something that elevates your brainwaves through warping reptition.
"Hollow" proves Yama can pen a quality tune when they have half a mind. Now they need to work on crafting a coherent album experience. As strong as Seaquake started, it withered rather than flourished under the scorching noonday sun.

[Full disclosure: Mind Flare sent me a review copy.]

Monday, August 6, 2012

Blast(beat) From the Past: Attack of the Mad Axeman

"Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilizes it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin."

George Orwell
Animal Farm

Attack of the Mad Axeman
Systematic Death Slaughter
RSR Records

We could probably argue ad infinitum about the desirability, artistic merit, cultural implications and ironic intentions behind a grindcore cover of "Who Let the Dogs Out" (yes, that "Who Let the Dogs Out"), but, accepting as a baseline the infinite monkeys model of the multiverse, it was bound to happen. Inevitable even. So with that as a precondition, who better to tackle that questionable bit of grindcore infamy than Germany's Attack of the Mad Axeman. So yes, a grindcore version of "Who Let the Dogs Out" does exist, Attack of the Mad Axeman did include it on latest album Systematic Death Slaughter and it took me a good half dozen listens before I even realized what those while blastbeat furries had done. So all in all, it's about the best outcome that we could all hope for from the situation.
I must be slipping because Attack of the Mad Axeman managed to slip their third album past me late last year and I'm pissed because it's another corker. Like an old fashioned spring-driven clock wound too tight, Systematic Death Slaughter is permanently poised on that cusp where the tension becomes too much and various gears and clockworks go exploding into temporal shrapnel. But they deny you that combustible release. Instead, they keep you on your tiptoes the entire 20 minute runtime.
Otherwise Axeman's lyrical preoccupations remain unchanged, launching with the mauled by bears tale of Timothy Treadwell (he of Grizzly Man ... fame [is that really the right word?]) with "Don't Mess with Mr. Chocolate." From there Systematic Death Slaughter is all anti-Disneyfied tales of animal uprisings, Knut the bear, survivalist revolutionaries and other stories of chattering beasts. Sonically, Systematic Death Slaughter represents a further refinement from Scumdogs of the Forest, but Attack of the Mad Axeman still err on the side of the grim and grisly. Two legs bad; four legs grind.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Compiling Autumn Redux

As of Wednesday, Compiling Autumn is now out of print. For those of you who bought a copy, you now have a priceless heirloom to pass down to your great-great-grandchildren (who will roll their eyes at your quaint grindcore and lecture you on the finer points of Tibetan dubstep jazz). For those of you that coughed up the eight bucks, thank you. At last count you guys have sent somewhere in the ballpark of $350 to the Japanese Red Cross. So thank you for chipping in for a worthy cause.
Now about you cheap ass sumbitches who couldn't scrape up a few lousy dollars... I kid.
But what's gonna happen now is what I intended from the first day Jon Chang approached me with this whole cockamamie scheme: I'm gonna blog the whole thing like I originally planned. That's right, if you would have waited you could have had it all for free. Suckers.
And now I'm gonna take that giant grindcore paycheck we scammed off you schmucks and move my sexroids to some breezy tropical island to live out my days.

Compiling Autumn Part 1: Continuity

This is my memory
A lonely series
Repeats without even a pause
Floating weightless
Uninterrupted until I exhale
Ghosts have no shadows
They must conspire for even one
“Angel Present”

Hydra Head Records’ reissue of Discordance Axis’ second album, Jouhou closes with 15 minutes of the sound of workers quietly cleaning up a Japanese loft after a 1997 show with noise band Melt-Banana. It was an artifact of the DAT machine that recorded the show left running accidentally, but at the time Discordance Axis thought it might be their epitaph.
Despite the success of the Japanese tour, a combination of a hellacious recording session for Jouhou, health concerns and typical intra-band squabbling sidelined Discordance Axis for two years, threatening to cut short the career of one of grindcore’s most innovative artists. When they ultimately reunited to record their third and final album, Discordance Axis would annihilate 15 years of stale grindcore conventions in a single 23 minute statement of artistic purity. The result, 2000's The Inalienable Dreamless, was a landmark album, the first truly 21st Century grindcore record.
Where their peers were content to recycle the same musical and lyrical affectations handed down from Napalm Death and Repulsion, The Inalienable Dreamless saw Discordance Axis further refine the themes that had defined their career to unleash something that was wholly unique and personally meaningful. The Inalienable Dreamless would be an album that would fundamentally alter the trajectory of grindcore for a decade to come. It was a record whose influence was not immediately recognized but whose reach would grow pervasive.
With The Inalienable Dreamless, Discordance Axis established a musical legacy that will live forever but, given the album’s devoted fanbase, definitely not alone.

Pirouetting like a fan dancer
Choreographed into the desire for rebirth
Or just a wish for death
“The Inalienable Dreamless”

Ruin Trajectory

During its life, Discordance Axis’ sleek, forward-thinking assault on grindcore convention always found its greatest success in Japan. The trio - vocalist Jon Chang, guitarist Rob Marton and drummer Dave Witte - played to packed houses overseas where rare domestic performances only mustered crowds of 20 or 30. The support they received in Japan sustained the band throughout their career.
“That tour was pretty cool,” Chang said of the Jouhou tour. “We didn’t get into any arguments. Nobody broke down. Nobody went insane. When the last show came, we put everything into it. Dave was smoking ass that night, I wish I had video of it. It was the most violent show we ever played.”
But before the tour got underway the cracks were already showing. Regular guitarist Marton had left the band, leaving Witte and Chang to enlist Human Remains guitarist Stephen Procopio as a last minute stand in.
The 1997 tour was organized by HG Fact and Devour Records, which had supported many of Discordance Axis’ albums to that point. However, it had been repeatedly postponed to avoid competition from other, more notable metal bands who were also touring Japan at the time. The delays drove a frustrated Marton out of the band, starting a two year schism that crippled Discordance Axis.
“There was a big falling out with Rob and myself over the repeated tour delays. I was the driving force trying to lock those shows down, but with so many other bigger acts touring, the shows kept getting pushed back because the promoters wanted to make sure the tour was as successful as possible. I think Rob got sick of it because he kept having to go to his job and request the time off. His boss would arrange for coverage and then the dates would shift again, monkey wrenching the whole process. Between that and all the other shit in his life, he finally just quit the band. Suffice to say, like our many other break ups, it was not cordial,” Chang said. “That was basically World War Six starting right there. I literally didn’t talk to Rob for two or three years at that point.”
For much of Discordance Axis' existence, conflict was the norm, Marton said.
“I don’t think anything was ever that smooth. We were never ‘Aw great, let’s get together guys, gee whiz.’ It was like a job. We all wanted to do it. We would get excited about it,” Marton said. “Being in a band is kind of like having two girlfriends, sort of. You’re in a relationship with them. You get under each other’s skin. You start to anticipate each other’s moves at some point. You get close to people. You get close to people you’re in a band with. You can imagine where it’s great. Sometimes it’s not.”
Marton's departure was the culmination of intra-band friction that had been roiling since Discordance Axis’ agonizing recording session for Jouhou with producer Bill T. Miller. Recording in a studio in Boston with no air conditioning, far from home and practically subsisting on a diet of Mountain Dew and Jolt cola, the trio were at each other’s throats incessantly. It wasn’t uncommon for one of the members to suddenly walk out of the studio in a rage, leaving the remainder to wonder if he would ever come back.
“It was really bad, how close we were to literally murdering each other,” Chang said. “We just never recovered from that. We were insane from that point forward. At one point they asked me to go out and get soda and I said, ‘Fuck you! Go get your own soda.’ ”
The stress was compounded by Chang’s notorious perfectionism. As a photography student in college, one professor, in particular, had pushed him relentlessly. Her demand for perfection would not only tax his photography skills, but it also opened Chang’s eyes to just how far he could go with his talents – whatever the medium – provided he was willing to pay the price to achieve it.
“She made me go through the darkroom on this [photograph] for two fucking days. It was a nightmare to get it there, but when I got it and she said I got it, and I knew I’d gotten it before I showed it to her, I was more happy with that picture, which was nothing special, than anything I’d done up until that point. I was still a freshman in college and while people had pushed me to do better on things before, they were not on any kind of things I cared about,” Chang said. “When it came time to do a band, I approached it from that direction. This is an opportunity to do something great. It is not sitting around and having fun and jerking off. That’s been a problem for me in my life: taking projects and turning them into art projects. I really want it to be at a certain place. I wanted to eclipse what Napalm Death had done for me at that point. Not to make From Enslavement to Obliteration, but to make the record they would have made after. That was Ulterior for me.”
Though Chang’s bandmates could appreciate his drive and the results, the intensity inevitably led to conflicts between the members. While that friction could drive Discordance Axis’ songs, it also took an emotional toll on Witte, Chang and Marton and breakups and hiatuses were a regular occurrence for the band throughout its existence.
“The band had a really strange way,” Witte said. “It was like being completely excited and being completely over it. They went hand in hand.”

Flow My Tears, the Guitarist Said

When Marton quit the band after recording Jouhou and before the band’s scheduled Japanese tour, they soldiered on without him, Procopio in tow. However, the band said Marton’s absence strained things even further. Afterward, Discordance Axis ground to a complete halt for two years.
“I got really burnt out on DA,” Chang said. “Rob had been a friend of mine since before the band. I hated to lose him as a friend. I didn’t like playing the songs anymore. It didn’t make me feel good. It wasn’t like a cathartic experience at all. It was like reopening old wounds.”
Though Witte and Chang had been eager to tour in support of Jouhou, playing live had never been Marton’s passion.
“The end of Jouhou we were still a band that played very infrequently,” Witte said. “Rob was totally not into playing shows. That’s how it was most of the time, anyway. We all had very different schedules. When we were recording with Bill in Boston, Rob was still on his overnight shift."
Marton’s health was also a factor in his decision to quit. Though stories have persisted that he was plagued by irreparable nerve damage that caused seizures when he was exposed to loud noises, the truth is Marton has had tinnitus his entire life and feared playing in Discordance Axis could permanently damage his hearing.
“I’ve had tinnitus since I was a kid. It had just gotten to the point I thought it was too much,” he said. “I thought I was really doing damage to my hearing. At that point I went to a couple different doctors, and I was pretty much, ‘Doc, it hurts when I do this,’ and he said, ‘Don’t do it anymore.’ ”
While he never had seizures, Marton said the ringing in his ears would cause the sounds to break up when he was playing, interfering with his performance.
“I had symptoms like, 'Hey, you’re losing your hearing,' ” he said. “I had headaches and stuff and that was related to other things. I got into a car accident and I had whiplash and I had headaches.”


Witte, who has always kept himself busy with multiple bands at once, turned his musical attentions to Black Army Jacket during Discordance Axis' two year break. However, after tempers had a chance to cool, Witte found himself itching to grind again and began corralling his wayward bandmates.
“Dave was the one who actually got us back together,” Chang said. “Dave had somehow gotten in touch with the Hydra Head guys and he contacted me and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to do another record?’ I said I didn’t want to do it without Rob. I’m not sure if he had gotten Rob on board at that point. I had half of The Inalienable Dreamless written before we knew it was going to be a record.”
Marton and Chang, now with two years’ perspective and maturity behind them, were able to reconcile during a trip to Cape Cod. Between time on the beach and intense Quake sessions, the two reconnected and found the drive to reform Discordance Axis.
“I ended up hanging out with Rob alone for a day,” Chang said. “We went up there cold and we didn’t book a room. When we got to Cape Cod we found a hotel immediately and it was reasonably priced. I had a long talk with Rob. We said sorry and tried to patch things up between us. A lot had changed between us at that time. I don’t think he was with the girl he was with at the time we did Jouhou. He was no longer working graveyard shifts. We were all older. We all had jobs at that point and our offices used to play Quake against each other at night. We were really good at that game.”
Marton had been busy writing music during the two year hiatus, but he said his new material was very different from what he had done with Discordance Axis. However, after reconciling with Chang and writing with Witte, the grind began flowing again.
“Everybody had it in them,” Marton said. “I just started writing songs again. They were Discordance Axis songs, and I had a whole bunch of them. The momentum built behind it and we started talking. Things just happened from there.”
As the band reformed, Witte introduced them to Hydra Head Records, which would issue The Inalienable Dreamless and subsequently put the bulk of the band’s catalog into wider distribution.
“I’d been familiar with some of the other things he had done,” Hydra Head co-owner Aaron Turner said of Witte. “I’d seen Black Army Jacket a few times. Dave’s the kind of guy that if you’re in the metal underground, you’re bound to run into him.”
Though Hydra Head has never been known as a grindcore label, Turner said the forward thinking spirit of Discordance Axis blended well with the label’s preference for bands that skewed outside listener expectations. It didn’t hurt that despite his preference for slower, more atmospheric music, Turner was a Discordance Axis fan, himself.
Jouhou had such a crazy effect on me. I got it on a whim. The cover got to me. It was very cryptic. Totally mesmerized by it,” Turner said. “At that time I hadn’t considered working with them, taking them on as a Hydra Head band. When the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance. They were a very unique band. Their music was heavy and metal-oriented. The only criteria we’ve had is we’ve tended to stick to things that were heavy or metal-oriented. We really like to work with artists that are the vanguard of their subgenre and have very clear artistic intent and have a very well developed visual aesthetic. Discordance Axis is the perfect Hydra Head band.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

G&P Review: DeathAmpmhetamine

The Lost Album
Obscenity Cult

If there were an underground punk/metal version of VH1's I Love the 80s, DeathAmphetamine would be the not-so-ironic cast member dishing on their love of the Reagan/Thatcher years' musical bounty. DeathAmphetamine dwell in that twilit netherworld between blackened proto-death metal and grind with heaping helpings of throwback adornments. The Lost Album is an emulsified whirlpool of hardcore swagger, grind speed, death metal chunk, rasping black metal vocals and the occasional foot on the amp Iron Maiden gallop. And then "More Sauce for the Goose" lards on King Diamond shrieks just for good measure.
If that all sounds convoluted, it's because it occasionally is. While DeathAmphetamine's undercarriage is plotted firmly along the death/grind axis, their songs' superstructure is piled Babelian high with confections of florid guitar solos and extra-genre excursions. There are times when the planets align and the pieces neatly fall into sharp profile, as on "Losing it All," which sounds a tad like a slightly less assured Dephosphorus. The supple bass undercurrents of final song "The Last Man" are another clear album highlight. But there are other times, again King Diamond vocals, where the souffle collapses under the weight of its own metal cheese. The mileage you get out of The Lost Album will depend largely on your affection for heavily ornamented music. Though I found some of DeathAmphetamine's musical digressions distracting, I'm sure others will gravitate to their unique blend of various influences and give them their proper credit for trying something different.