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Food for the Truth Famine
12 · 18 April 95
Skyclad: Prince of the Poverty Line
The thing that usually mitigates my enthusiasm for death metal bands is that for some reason they all seem to feel that the proper identity for a vocalist to project is that of a shoddily reanimated zombie whose death wound evidently entailed a great deal of neck damage. In fact, death-metal vocals often sound like the singer perhaps hasn't necessarily been returned to an ambulatory condition at all, and his part is being produced by most of the band gathering around and holding his lips and tongue in the right positions while the member with the heaviest boots jumps up and down on the corpse's chest to get the air moving. If such an awkward process doesn't seem to you to be the most conducive for sensitive lyrical content, either, you will probably be unsurprised by the general cultural level in evidence on the lyric sheets of death-metal albums (which you'll have to read to have any idea what is being said, as chest-stomping proves to be more percussive than articulate). There is often considerable intelligence on display, but unless you are an amateur coroner the subjects of which it demonstrates mastery may not be especially appealing.
Skyclad departs from this death-metal norm in two important ways. First, this album is, with the exception of an oddly out-of-place diptych toward the end of the disc ("Gammadion Seed" and "Womb of the Worm"), totally unconcerned with the consumption by radioactive rodents of the lower intestines of the rotting hell-bound. Instead, this album is a sustained howl of poverty-induced frustration and industrial working-class political fury, intense enough to make Metal Church's "Date with Poverty" seem like the caviling of a petulant suburban high-schooler who wants a bigger allowance. Unadorned and bitter (and frequently heavy-handed), the lyrics of songs like "Cardboard City", "Land of the Rising Slum" and "A Bellyful of Emptiness" read like Johnny Rotten ought to be croaking them at a throng of scruffy unemployed Londoners in the late seventies. Finding them here marinating in the musical venom of a well-rehearsed progressive metal band is somewhat disconcerting. Hearing them sung by a voice from beyond the grave (but not quite as far beyond as some) is even stranger.
The strangest element of Skyclad's sound, though, is the fact that they are, at least so far as I'm aware, the only heavy metal band ever to include a full-time violinist in their line-up. I've often wondered, particularly just after listening to later Wonder Stuff and New Model Army albums, why more rock bands don't have violin players. The violin's timbre and treble range make it an especially logical addition to a heavy metal band, where much of the other instrumentation spends a great deal of its time churning around in the lower registers, and it's frankly quite a bit better-suited for propulsive lead parts than a guitar is. Whether Skyclad realized these things, or whether violinist Cath Howell simply insisted on being in the band and couldn't play anything else, I do not know, but she's an inspired addition. Her playing provides an excellent melodic counterpart to Martin Walkyier's growling vocals, and goes a long way toward rescuing these songs from the brutal shapelessness that to me seems to too often afflict death metal. If you can't abide growling, this still isn't going to be your thing, but I would have counted myself in that camp before hearing this, and now suspect that it wasn't so much that the vocal style itself completely turned me off, but rather that I felt the lack of a central melody that usually results from it. Here you get both.
There appear to be several Skyclad albums (I feel a bout of completism coming on), but as of this writing Prince of the Poverty Line is the only one I can locate through domestic sources. I should note, for the release-date purists in the audience, that though this CD has 1995 printed clearly on the back of the case, I think it may actually have come out earlier. The version of the disc I have claims to have been manufactured in the Czech Republic, and perhaps their calendar hasn't quite established proper sync with the rest of ours. Word on the net seems to be that the band is due for an even newer album imminently, called Silent Whales of the Lunar Sea (one assumes that this will involve rather different subject matter than Prince of the Poverty Line, unless the labor plight of said whales is considerably more dire than I realize), though it's not clear to me whether US distribution is anticipated. When it reaches me, I expect I will report.
Suddenly, Tammy!: We Get There When We Do
Switching from fifth directly into reverse (a maneuver which, attempted in a Honda Civic while driving through Henrietta, Oklahoma, can introduce significant delays into a car trip; I believe the friend of mine whose car it was finally decided to forgive the friend who'd been driving after, a few years later, the car in question was finally stolen), here's another band with non-standard instrumentation. In this case, the difference comes of replacing the guitar in a standard guitar-bass-drums lineup with a piano. The resulting trio, Suddenly Tammy (the name, properly rendered, includes the comma and exclamation mark, but with deepest apologies to the band I'm going to omit them in the text, as putting them in tends to produce sentences that require rather too much diagramming to make sense of), ends up being surprisingly difficult to characterize, at least for me.
In one way I want to call them a punk band. Singer/pianist Beth Sorrentino's voice has a guileless reediness to it, something like a cross between Belinda Carlisle and Pauline Murray, and it seems totally natural to call Suddenly Tammy peers of the Breeders, Belly, Magnapop, Velocity Girl, Letters to Cleo, Juliana Hatfield and whatever other names you habitually append to such a list. On the other hand, though, the difference between Kim Deal's guitar and Beth Sorrentino's piano is dramatic, and makes me want to shelve this CD beside either Beth Nielsen Chapman or Tori Amos, though both places are clearly inappropriate for their own reasons. Suddenly Tammy don't have Chapman's suburban mainstream sentimentality (I mean this in a good way; her eponymous debut is one of my favorite albums), but their pop rhythm section does put them mainstreamward of Tori's more solo-piano-centric approach. Beth's piano style actually reminds me of folksinger Richard Shindell's guitar playing: understated accompaniment with a fondness for bouncing around the sections of an extended chord, articulating a song's rhythm but not trying to flay it the way Little Richard or that guy from the Busboys might. Whatever way I categorize Suddenly Tammy's music, though, We Get There When We Do strikes me as a wonderfully enchanting album, almost certainly one of my favorites of the year so far. I bought it with no particular expectations, after hearing their song "Lamp" (from their first album) on the spinART compilation ...One Last Kiss. Now I can't stop singing bits of these songs to myself in the bus on the way home from work.
The bit I'm most fascinated with is the couplet "You haven't heard my band yet, / You haven't seen my house", in Beth's slow solo dirge "River, Run". The song as a whole I'm not sure I really understand. I can't figure out what "You cannot understand yet / What it means to be old" is supposed to mean, given that the "my band" line seems to imply that the song's narrator is, like its singer, young. There's all this stuff about a river, too, but the idea of the narrator bringing a river to see her house has a sort of Labors-of-Hercules feel that I can't reconcile with the mood of the song. My personal interpretation, which I grant you involves discarding most of the lyrics other than the two lines I happen to like best, is that the song is being sung to either a new lover already departing, or perhaps a new lover already dying. The narrator seems to me to be saying to the person leaving that they actually don't yet know her well enough to leave her. This is a very different thing said to somebody breaking up with you than it is to somebody breathing through tubes, but I find both images very affecting, compelling in their sincere irrationality.
Some days, in fact, I think that it is moments of music like this one that make pop music a uniquely powerful medium, even though judged against print for its ability to communication linear information it can seem badly lacking. I just read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, you see, so a part of my mind is idly trying to construct the media-analysis of pop music to go along with his studies of print and television. I don't have it all worked out yet (and explaining it right might have to be done in song), but where print is structurally suited for understanding, and television for entertainment, maybe music is the medium of emotional truth. When a song captures an experience just right, and several on We Get There When We Do do (a couple other notable examples, for me, are the slow martial drum rolls of a walk through a small town in "Mark of Man", and the surreal magic of "Beautiful Dream", "Floating with schools of tropical fish / In a high school gym lit like a talent show"), the combination of the text, the voice delivering it, and the music accompanying it, create a rendering of the event that captures not the details of it, but the sense. Music, perhaps, is the medium for sharing what life feels like.
Luka Bloom: Turf
This isn't a new album, but I just got a copy for my birthday recently. My parents decided to give me CDs this year, which news I greeted with some apprehension, as buying CDs for somebody who buys as many CDs for themselves as I do is a rather chancy proposition. Impressively, though, they came up with seven, none of which I had, and only one of which (not this one) is probably destined for the spare-jewel-case stack.
Some of the discs took a few listens before I was sure I liked them, though. Turf's chances after the first playing looked particularly unpromising. Luka Bloom's voice seemed sort of dull and featureless to me, and the single plain acoustic guitar that is the only other element on this album didn't really excite me. Okay, it was folky and nice, but I'm really hovering on the brink of music overload most of the time, and anything not truly special pretty much has to go in the vault to free up mental space for whatever comes out next week.
But, because I like to be fair to albums, and because my parents generally have impeccable folk taste, I took Turf with me to work last week. And for some reason, playing the record on the little box on my desk, the tones of Bloom's guitar bouncing around my silo-like office (I haven't actually measured, but I'm pretty sure my office is taller than it is wide in either direction; turned on its side it would have more useful space, but would be hard to get in and out of), the record suddenly hit me in a way it hadn't at all when playing in my bedroom at home. Acoustics? EQ? The fact that I wasn't falling asleep while listening? Whichever, suddenly I got it.
The album is almost Amish in its simplicity. Mom said something about the recording having been "one room, one guitar, one voice, 25 microphones"; the liner notes don't explain this, but the sound seems argument enough that something like that method was used. There's a backing vocalist on one song, and some crowd noise on a few others, but otherwise there are only two elements here: Luka's voice and his guitar. He sings in tune, and he plays well, but there's nothing technically flashy about either. What there is, though, is an awesome calm depth. The acoustic guitar sound here may well be the best ever captured. The high notes ring pure, the low notes hum roundly. Chords swell to fill the room, and swirl back into the soundhole of the guitar to be swallowed and reborn as the next ones; I don't get sustain like this with my Ebow. If every acoustic guitar sounded this good, there'd be no need for orchestras. If I ran the Grammies, I'd introduce a Best Tuned Instrument award, just to give it to Luka and then retire it.
That there's also singing on the album is almost excessive. I could sit and listen to just the guitar decay; the singing is nearly offensive for intimating that the music by itself isn't enough. Luka seems to recognize this, though, and his melodies carefully avoid disrupting the mood established by the guitar. He sings the tunes simply, handing them over to the space and then getting out of their way. Though the lyrics are thoughtful throughout, they too have the good sense not to try to impose themselves on anything. The stories are there when you want them, but you can come to them at your own speed, drifting in the sound until you feel like focusing on the meaning of the words.
The temptation to heap superlatives on this album is very strong, but I resist for two reasons. First, despite my ardent belief that there are probably enough true masterpieces produced every year for me to review nothing else, provided I could find them all, my credibility (such as it is) is put at risk every time I admit to a new love. (I mean, you might realize that I'm really a fan, not a critic, and where would my reputation be then? For that matter, where is it now?) Secondly, though, saddling Turf with effusive praise, or effusive anything, seems like a violation of its spirit. If this album is anything, it is perfectly proportioned. Western culture isn't very big on moderation, but this is one of those works where I glimpse what the Golden-Mean Greeks were on about (though they might be irked that it took 25 microphones to produce such a flawless balance out of only two speakers). The best thing to do with this album, I think, is to simply, calmly, recommend it to your consideration.
No, that's wrong. The best thing to do with this album is to listen to it again.
Orb: Orbvs Terrarvm
Before I do, though, I'm going to indulge in one more gut-wrenching Knievel-esque stylistic chasm-leap. In terms of mood, the Orb's intricate ambient sound constructions are about as far as you can simultaneously get from Luka Bloom's restrained grace, Suddenly Tammy's elegant pop and Skyclad's tightly controlled aggression. If Bloom reaches complexity through simplicity, the Orb does the reverse, reaching ambient simplicity through sheer profusion of detail. The fact that Luka's album is called simply Turf, and its cover finds him standing on some, contrasts perfectly with the mock Latin (at least, I assume it's mock, though given how little Latin I know I doubt I'd be able to unmask the linguistic equivalent of that pseudo-apple-pie whose recipe they have on Ritz cracker boxes) of Orbvs Terrarvm, and the combination of ornate cartography and Escherian geometric figures that adorn its cover. If Turf is the solidity of a clump of fresh Irish-coast sod held in your hand on a cool, misty morning, Orbvs Terrarvm is the elaborate detail coursing through the satellite moored miles overhead. The two views of the world seem to have nothing in common, but yet the world they examine is very much the same.
Ambient music is only a very recent interest of mine, so I'm not really very well prepared to put the Orb in their proper context. This album is bigger on samples and cicadas, and less into analog synthesizers and running water, than FSOL's Lifeforms, and it lacks (for the most part) the menace of ISDN, or the dance drive of Accelerator. It's noisier than Brian Eno's Music for Airports, but much less likely to be mistaken for equipment dysfunction than Aphex Twin. It doesn't have the world-music feel of Bill Laswell's Axiom Ambient stuff, nor the jazz virtuosity of Channel Light Vessel or Polytown. And the Orb isn't on Virgin, so they don't have anything on any of the Brief History of Ambient volumes. There, I've now compared it to everything ambient I have.
Even aside from genre context, though, it's hard to know what to say about any album like this. I mean, it's ambient music, so you're sort of supposed to put it on and ignore it. I have tested the suitability of this CD for that function, and judged it mostly adequate, though the final track, "Slvg Dvb", is a little too narrative (is that Beatrix Potter they're reading?) and amusing not to be distracting. Much of the album consists of atmospheric sound composites, but parts are identifiably musical. I think albums like this are cool, but at my level of ambient interest the only reason to have more of them is so that by the time you cycle through all of them, you don't mind hearing the first one again. At nearly 80 minutes in length, this CD serves admirably in that regard. So, now I have an Orb record. Okay.