Well, I Must Destroy Myself. I Have Twenty Dollars.
55 · 15 February 96
I'm not sure what we were to expect from this thinly disguised Alex Lifeson solo project, filling the unusual gap between Rush albums. One generally thinks of the members of Rush in this order: first, there's bassist Geddy Lee, who has the silly name and sings in a very high voice, and bears a general physical resemblance to Elric of Melnibone after a good dye-job, sans the demonic soul-sucking sword and the propensity for thigh-baring garments that Elric always displayed on the old DAW paperback covers; then, there's Neil Peart, who writes the stiffly philosophical lyrics and forces music magazines to change their poll questions to "Who do you think is the second best drummer, after Neil Peart", in order to ever get any interesting answers; and then lastly, there's the other guy, the one who doesn't sing and doesn't write the words, who manages to be largely anonymous while still providing the bulk of the music in Rush music. Perhaps Alex was simply getting impatient, in which case we could expect an ersatz Rush record with other people attempting (and one feels pity welling up for them, even before the clause in which we imagine their existence has reached its object) to fill Geddy and Neil's roles. Or else Victor might be an excuse for Alex to exercise some urges that Rush's stylistic confines prevented him from expressing (not that Rush has ever given any impression that they were holding themselves back from some other musical direction -- not that Rush has even showed signs of being aware of other directions most of the time).
Victor falls somewhere in between these two possibilities. Drummer Blake Manning, who anchors the rhythm section, is a believer in solid snare-thwacking and rattling kick-drum fills, but shows little sign of Peart's fondnesses for Byzantine complexity and a drum kit with enough components to incorporate as a town should percussion ever be granted Canadian citizenship. The bass parts, provided by Alex himself on seven songs, Peter Cardinal on three, and Primus' Les Claypool on one, are solidly supportive, but don't aspire to be foci of attention. (Even Claypool's appearance, on "The Big Dance", is oddly devoid of the trademark small-animal-being-deftly-strangled noises that usually signal his presence.) Lifeson's guitar playing, which, predictably enough, is the musical focus of most of these songs, is a little more aggressive, self-indulgent and obtrusive than it tends to be on Rush records, but you'll still recognize plenty of familiar Rush-esque twists and figures.
And if this were an instrumental album, that would be then end of it, and we'd have something for Rush fanatics, guitar students and errant Steve Vai fans, which most other people would judiciously avoid. Lifeson escapes this end by recruiting extra guitarist Bill Bell and I Mother Earth vocalist Edwin, and turning parts of this album into something that sounds like an actual band playing actual songs. Edwin's gruff howl isn't as abrasive as Burton Bell's manic croak on Geezer Butler's g//z/r album, but he isn't anywhere near as shrill as Geddy Lee, and his voice is placed low enough in the mix that even when he sings at full force Lifeson's guitar holds its own. The Edwin tracks (the surging (and lyrically execrable) "Don't Care", the swirling "Promise", the jittery "Sending a Warning", the distorted and industrial "The Big Dance", and a crazed but oddly bouncy "I Am the Spirit") are more sophisticated, musically, than most standard-issue contemporary metal, but they don't strike me as qualitatively different.
Interwoven with these numbers, though, is an odd mixture of other experiments, which contribute to the album's intriguingly erratic overall musical personality. There are a couple of instrumentals, the lighthearted "Mr. X" (not the Ultravox song, obviously) and a piece called "Strip and Go Naked" that ranges from some ever-so-vaguely Asian bits to almost Dire-Straits-like slow jamming. There's the novelty song "Shut Up Shuttin' Up", in which Lifeson and Bell indulge in showy guitar histrionics while Alex's wife Charlene and a friend named Esther exchange cliched complaints about men, a track that strikes me as the best argument for buying one of those CD players that you can tell to always skip this song that I've heard since the song with the interminable wrong-number recording on Chagall Guevara's album. And for those of you who really miss Rush, there's even one song on which Dalbello contributes a surprisingly plausible Geddy Lee impersonation (provided you can imagine Neil ever writing lines like "I am pink and you are blue; / Can I trust my whole life to you?" and "You better stand up on your feet / If you ever want to feel my heat".).
Lifeson himself takes the microphone on two songs, but speaks his parts rather than singing them. In "At the End" he reads a bleak suicide scene over skittering programmed drums, creepy and atmospheric synthesizer eddies, and punchy guitar lines that slice through the dense arrangement like freak lightning discharges. And then finally, in the position of honor created by naming the band and album after it, is "Victor". The text for this one is taken from a 1937 W.H. Auden poem of the same name, though those of you whose primary association with Auden is the funeral reading in Four Weddings and a Funeral will find the song's grim and moralistic murder story something of a stylistic shock. I must confess that Lifeson's point in including and emphasizing this track eludes me. The blithe rhymes in the original seem to me to cleverly undercut the grim nature of the poem's plot developments, but Lifeson's ominous narration obliterates this tension and makes the poem seem like a horror story from the very beginning, which I don't think was Auden's intent. The few couplets that Alex chose to omit baffle me, as well. It's not a long poem, and if there are any parts of it that are extraneous, these aren't them. The deleted third verse is essential to undermine the stolid piety of the first two, and without it the whimsical treatment of the father's death in the fourth verse seems unmotivated. The two omitted verses about Victor's coworkers trying to get him to go out with them and his manager belittling him, and the deleted verse about Anna's apparent purity and champagne kisses, provide social contexts for each of them, without which neither of their fates really make sense. The second verse of Victor's eavesdropping is the one in which one of the clerks actually claims to have been involved with Anna in some way, and without this detail and the verse in which he wanders around crying, the transition to his sudden despairing conversation with the sky seems jarring. And the passages toward the end about Anna's card game and her struggle for life are integral to understanding her side of the story. It's not an earthshatteringly insightful poem, frankly, but at least the original has some grim humor to it, and one may derive some commentary about fate catching up to one, how things you don't understand can destroy you, and why child-rearing may produce better results if you treat it as a dialog, not a lecture. Lifeson's version ends up as a callous woman-as-helpless-victim thriller to which someone meant to add suspense later, and then forgot to. I don't get it. I can only think of one bad motive for abridging the poem, that being its length, but as the song is over six minutes long even after the edits, I don't see what harm another minute or two would have done. The misogynistic elements that emerge from the editing are particularly unfortunate, as they reinforce an ugly theme already running through "Don't Care", "Sending Out a Warning", "Shut Up Shuttin' Up" and "The Big Dance", and make me a little queasy about recommending this album.
It does rock, though. Make up your own mind whether that's enough.
Thought Industry: Outer Space Is Just a Martini Away
No such moral qualms need trouble your enjoyment of Outer Space Is Just a Martini Away, the third album by the deranged Kalamazoo, Michigan weird-metal band Thought Industry. This is due to several concurrent factors. First, in terms of just listening to this album, it's virtually impossible to make the slightest bit of sense out of more than a handful of phrases on it. Brent Oberlin's delivery tends to turn the vocals into a rhythm instrument (albeit a musical one, not a percussive one), which makes it difficult to follow what he's saying. On top of this, his lyric writing style is extremely fractured and impressionistic, which means that even when you decide what words you think he's saying, it's very hard to decide whether you're right or not.
Of course, there is a comprehensive lyric sheet, which you'd imagine would settle most arguments about what is being said. It doesn't quite work out that way. It's simple enough (depending on your eyesight) to read what Brent claims the words are, and easy enough to hear how he could be right most of the time. Combining any two sentences, on the other hand, quickly presents challenges. "Ireland cry seizure bound. / A rogue from Holyhead. / Manhattan grotto lie. / It seems so premarital." It's not impossible to invent explanations for this, but it's hardly "The Summer of '69". And the higher the level of abstraction you try to rise to, the worse the predicament gets. Even if you can assemble and interpret a whole paragraph to your satisfaction, the lyric sheet adds subtitles, editorial asides and quotes from unexplained sources. And then there are the song titles. And if all that wasn't bad enough, there are enough details throughout to imply that at least some of these songs are intended to relate to each other, in some sketchy tale, whether literal or metaphorical I'm not sure, of the near, or possibly far, future, in which the citizens of Kalamazoo colonize the moon, or something. Is it intricate, or is it stream-of-consciousness nonsense. (Is there a difference?) Is "sulfer" a clever hybrid of "suffer" and "sulfur", or did Brent just not know about the second "u"? I'm not sure yet. Actually, I haven't quite decided what I think of the lyrics on the other two Thought Industry records, either, so it's probably best if I don't ask you to wait around while I make up my mind about this one.
Musically, Thought Industry occupy a small corner of the universe all their own. On their first album, Songs for Insects, they had the exoskeleton of a conventional speed metal band, but songs had a disconcerting habit of slowing down every once in a while for no easily discernible reason, and machine-gun power-chord riffs would sometimes spontaneously wander off in odd directions, and a folk melody would drift in from an alternate universe. They'd sound like Judas Priest for three seconds, and then they'd be off again on some unhinged digression whose internal logic was pretty clearly as rigorous as it was impossible to apprehend from the other side of the CD.
The second album, Mods Carve the Pig: Assassins, Toads and God's Flesh, made the first one sound like Balls to the Wall. It may well be the strangest, least accessible album ever made with conventional musical instruments and Western tonal systems. Songs mutate at a dizzying speed, so that you rarely get to listen to the same thing for more than about ten seconds. It's as if the band took a film-studies course, and was particularly struck by the revelation that a movie is composed of individual frames whose subject matter only relates to that of the adjacent frames by convention. There's no theoretical reason why individually intelligible frames with no inherent common subject couldn't be spliced together to make a film whose overall substance was totally a construct of the whole, independent from any will of the parts, and which would be holistically abstract without ever actually involving an abstract image. And if that principle, arising out of the time-sliced mechanical nature of film, could translate into the human experience of the film, which is continuous, then why couldn't music be made with transitions just as arbitrary? Treating Mods Carve the Pig as if it were ordinary music is something like being pelted with random tornado ejecta and calling it an especially resource-intensive form of massage.
Outer Space Is Just a Martini Away is neither as fast and straight as Songs for Insects, nor as chaotic and exhausting as Mods Carve the Pig. Radical course changes rarely happen more often than once or twice a minute, and here each segment tends to have some melodic cogency, which was by no means always the case before. "Love Is America Spelled Backwards" alternates Voivod-ish repetition with a bouncy handclap-animated gallop. "Jeb and the Haymaker" (which has one of the few almost wholly coherent texts, a brawl that turns into a sort of Paul Bunyan-esque fable about an errant head) starts out sounding like short-wave transmissions from aliens, then turns into a choppy metal sprint, which gives way to a dreamy acoustic conclusion. "Fairy" and "Spot on the Radio" find elfin piano meandering through the infrastructure of songs that center around roaring guitar cycles, and the English reminiscence "Sharron Sours" employs echoing isolated guitars notes and sketchy percussion to the same end. "The Squid"'s odd guitar-synth effects give its verses a disarming New Wave lilt, until the sledgehammer guitar lines come in for the paragraph-ending anthemic catharses, and the sampled strings and sinuous bass lines of "Dante Dangling From a Noose" lend it something of the feel of a double-speed Rush cover. "Jack Frost Junior"'s surging bass riffs duel with a whirring background fretless-guitar whine, and "Pinto Award in Literature" uses sequenced keyboard parts and guitar harmonics for a similar ambiance. Acoustic guitar on "Watercolour Grey" helps make it a rare interlude of almost mellow musical reflection. Solid drum stomp and a thoroughly self-demonstrating howl of "I don't feel tranquil!" in "DIY Tranquilizers" alternate with chattering vocal samples that sound like garbled track bleed-through from some low key educational filmstrip. "Fruitcake and Cider" is an engrossingly paranoid exposition of the role of animals in the universe ("everybody knows pets are just camcorders for God"!), which ends with the frayed muttering "Betrayed by my cat. I swear, it's always my cat. Always my cat." After this telling revelation the short, noisy collage "Atomic Stroller Helps None" and the long, undulating finale "Bottomfeeder" feel like an epilogue. After nearly an hour of Thought Industry, it's hard to imagine that "Bottomfeeder"'s juxtaposition of vacant romance, homelessness, cyborg self-doubt and random urban crime would ever have felt mismatched.
And if you have any spare capacity for sonic abuse after you get done with Thought Industry, you may efficiently exhaust it by subjecting yourself to the latest album by Voivod, which I still have a hard time believing is their eighth, even though the other seven are sitting right here in a pile by my keyboard. Judging from the band's cacophonous 1984 debut, War and Pain, and its successor, the eruditely titled Rrroooaaarrr (with umlauts on the "o"s that some largely unsubstantiated fears about character-set incompatibility prevent me from essaying here), I would have guessed that the members of the band would have killed themselves in tragic D&D sewer-exploration accidents long before they ever made anything resembling listenable music. These are two of the most preposterously incoherent albums in my awareness, awful to the point of hilarity, testaments to the all-consuming solipsism of adolescent imagination and the undeniable truth that it is possible to make a great deal of noise with a rock band's worth of equipment without having the slightest idea what you are doing.
By 1986's Killing Technology, though, Voivod, perhaps as surprised as the rest of us to find themselves still around, actually began to pay attention to their own output, and a series of increasingly interesting albums followed. Dimension Hatross (1988) and Nothingface (1989) began to exploit guitarist Denis D'Amour's newly-discovered facility for constructing unpredictable jazz-influenced chord-progressions, and vocalist Denis Belanger adopted a singular style that frequently involved singing along in a grating unison to D'Amour's guitar parts. Drummer Michel Langevin and bassist Jean-Yves Theriault's rhythm section evolved into one of the form's masters of the abrupt tempo-shift. The introduction, on Nothingface, of some musical passages that one might tentatively call choruses, provided useful hooks into songs that otherwise could be rather hard to embrace (and the idea that covering something in sharp hooks could make it more huggable is fittingly Voivodian).
And then things started getting a little strange. For 1991's Angel Rat, Theriault was relegated to session player, and the band recruited producer Terry Brown, of Rush fame. The resulting album strikes me simultaneously as the band's most distinctive and most mainstream. Belanger is actually singing on it, and there are a few songs one could even hum as one walked, were one of a mind to. This was followed by the 1993 album The Outer Limits, which on some listens struck me as electrifying, and on others sounded aimless and unsteady (and which features the lamest 3D booklet art you are ever liable to see). I began to suspect that Voivod were running out of fuel. And sure enough, they then found themselves, in quick succession, without both Belanger and their label. I observed a respectful moment of silence for the band, which I cut short when it occurred to me how much more appropriate a moment of blood-curdling screaming would be.
But they didn't die. Much to my surprise, they found someone else who was willing to play bass and sing with them (named Eric Forrest), and another record label that was willing to host their activities, and so we have yet another Voivod album. And damn if they don't sound pretty good. Forrest's screaming and hammering bass style provide a solid core that the band never really had with Belanger, and D'Amour and Langevin accommodate this change by streamlining their own approaches to match. This produces a record that isn't as willful or bizarre as Dimension Hatross or Nothingface, but which conversely suffers from none of the aimlessness of The Outer Limits or the cross-over ambivalence of Angel Rat. It's almost as if Voivod, after a decade of learning how to play, has decided to start over at the beginning, and make the destructo-speed-metal album that they so thoroughly mangled the first time around. It's much, much better this time. Eleven years on they've learned several valuable lessons: a little noise, properly organized, can be much more effective than a lot of noise with nothing unifying it; D'Amour's obscure chords are fascinating transition elements and surprising changes, but interspersing them with some more conventional power-chord churning doesn't dilute them, it accentuates them; referring to yourselves only by nickname, and calling your instrument assignments "Screaming Mike Torture", "Thunder Machine", "Burning Metal Axe" and "Blower Bass" only sounds cool to people too young to afford CDs without resorting to a resource-consolidation process that involves lunch money and numerous blows to heads; and when you're drawing futuristic armaments, it's really unnecessary to adorn them with so many spikes that they'd be impossible to fire accurately without losing an eye and possibly an arm. True, it took them a decade to learn these lessons, but plenty of bands take longer to learn less.
And Voivod could crush them all, anyway.