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Excuses for Our Natures to Change
510 · 10 January 09
The Best of 2008
It has literally never been my job to figure out what the new business model is for music, and thus it's hard to argue that it's my moral responsibility, either. And if I'm not responsible for it, then it probably doesn't much matter what I think.
But here's what I think: there is no new business model for music. It doesn't matter whether you fight the new technology or embrace it or try to appease it; there's no new business model for music because there was never really an old business model for music, either. There was a business model for record companies once, maybe, and there are new ones for celebrity persona-management and soundtrack-placement or something, but these are not business models for music. They are not models for how any particular person who makes music can afford to not hold other employment, and they are not models for how any particular person who loves music can express that love as effective economic catalyst or responsive reward. There is no economic system for maximizing expressive opportunity or artistic greatness. There are not even really business systems for expressive subsistence or artistic sufficiency. Mostly we have music because we are human, and one of the things humans do is sing. Periodically we hold lotteries you enter by singing, like we sometimes hold lotteries you enter by playing basketball or by lying to people en masse. But these are not businesses. Or, more accurately, they are precisely businesses, but businesses for selling dreams, and for selling tools for dreaming, and for selling memorabilia from having once dreamed.
And yet, I still managed to pay for a fair amount of music this year. Perversely, pyrrhically, I still did a bunch of this by purchasing plastic disks. I've been saying for a while that I was still buying CDs out of a rueful love for a doomed system, but I've finally realized that this isn't even true. Honestly, the CD and LP and record-store businesses were never my friends. As a music lover I have always been driven by relentless, nearly-painful curiosity, and no version of the music business has ever tried in earnest to help me be happier. They have demanded too much money, and at the wrong points in the cycle of discovery. They have not helped me learn or explore. Often they've resisted. Not very effectively, in the end, but a weak enemy is not quite the same as a friend.
But what business was too myopic to try, technology and people have made for ourselves. We can explore now. There are only three things mentioned anywhere below that I paid for before hearing, and in all three cases this was due to inattention on my part, not any kind of moral principle or logistical necessity. The systems for music discovery have abundant remaining opportunity for improvement, both technically and culturally, but for the first time in my own life, and maybe ever, they make a basic structural sense. I can follow paths of connections and associations, some made by the music itself and most by its listeners. I can explore the space of possible music directly, not at some qualitatively awkward remove. It's not nearly as easy or efficient, in absolute terms, as it needs to be for the universal benefit of music-loving humans, but for computer-geeks with fast internet connections, at least, it's workable enough.
But though I've always wanted exploration to be free, mostly because charging for it always made it more difficult for both listeners and performers, I've also always wanted to spend money on music. Our economic systems are so obfuscated by now that this simple idea probably sounds malformed or psychotic in that phrasing, but that's exactly what I mean to say: I always have, and still do, want to spend money on music. I want part of the flow of monetary compensation that comes to me, as a result of things I'm good at, to go to the people who make music I love. I download, listen, discard, download, listen, discard, download, listen, listen, discard, download, listen, listen, listen, embrace. And then I want, at the point when I have realized what I love, to have a monetary way to express my appreciation for it. And I want, honestly and specifically, for that expression of appreciation to itself have some coherent additional reward (so simply paying to redownload the same music I already downloaded isn't it), but not an imposition of burden in either direction (so no True Fan subscriptions).
Hilariously, buying CDs is actually a nearly perfect mechanism for the exchange of appreciation and acknowledgment I'm after. Here on what still seems like the brink of the death of the CD, we've finally figured out what a CD is best as: a physical sigil disguised as media. It has practical value as a data backup, aesthetic value as an artistic codicil, collector's value as a commemorative, and economic value as an excuse for a transaction, yet it doesn't force either me or the band into taking on another ongoing relationship to be managed. Belle points out that these physical sigils do also have a non-zero physical storage cost, in the finite space of our house, but I think the incremental space consumed by individual cases is basically reasonable, whether my personal accumulation of them is reasonable or not. And yes, the CDs should cost a little less, and a lot more of that reduced cost should go to the artists. And this still won't constitute a livelihood for any significant fraction of the people who might rather make music than whatever other day job they keep. But that part is just life. I'd rather listen to music for a living (or collect it, for that matter). We're not after riches for idleness, at least not yet. If global economic collapse resets everybody's expectations to sustainable levels, it will have been more than worth all its imaginary "losses". All we're really after, I think, given the current overall balance between human resources and human challenges, is a system for defraying, a little, what it costs people to share their singing. A little more time for singing, a little more time for listening, a little clearer air to carry the music farther.
In This Moment: The Dream
In the meantime, if the air won't carry your music far enough, you can always play it louder. In another year in which my listening was so dominated by metal that I'm making two separate lists, and my metal listening so dominated by arcane menace that if I ever slip up and start talking about it to normal people I have to repeatedly insist that I'm serious, my favorite metal album of all is actually one of the rare stylistic compromises between aggression and elegance, and a brave coercion of metal's extremism into the service of melodic rapture. In This Moment's 2007 debut already hinted at an emotional lineage deriving as much from the sharper early edges of New Wave as from Arch Enemy or Evanescence, but for this second album they have solved the whole next set of differential equations, for maybe a unified-field theory connecting T'Pau and Veruca Salt to Dream Theater and DragonForce, and ended up with something that does for vertiginous joy what Slayer did for punitive hatred.
Trinacria: Travel Now Journey Infinitely
And while The Dream was my favorite metal album viscerally and involuntarily, my favorites intellectually and deliberately were this matched pair from somewhere in Norway where the permafrost just ominously stopped being permanent. Trinacria, a half-Enslaved side-project, made the most sonically bracing record I heard this year, a processor-shredded involution of metal into maelstrom soundscape whose title, I think, is a New-Age-disguised way of making getting thrown off the edge of the flat earth sound meditative. Enslaved's own record, a 49-minute concordance for the astonishing whole new universe that dark metal has tesseracted into, finally pulls off the decryption of Pink Floyd's expansive introspection out of stormblasting grind that Voivod once attempted, and in the process probably liberates the ghosts of more metal bands than have yet been killed.
So many dense nexuses of metal have unfolded into new worlds that it's easy to lose track of the margins, and by now there are probably 50 technical-death-metal bands and 500 melodic-death-metal bands for every operating melodic-neo-progressive-metal group. Blame Dream Theater, maybe, for making lyrically-abstract 8:34 speed-symphonies the new 4:30 alienation anthems, and Marillion for drifting out of the market square, and everyone who slid past simple songcraft into texture-mapped caricature. But off in this neglected backwater, Everon are several albums into an uncannily gorgeous running extrapolation of what might have happened if Jonathan Cain had joined Rush instead of Journey. Oliver Philipps might be the best mainstream songwriter in (or near) metal, and if there's ever a rotisserie metal league, I'm taking Philipps and Christian Moos' SpaceLab as my production studio.
There's no shortage of folk-death bands, either, which only seems like a joke subgenre until you think a little about the nature of fable and cultural self-identity. Or hear some. Nods to Metsatöll (Estonia), Equilibrium (Germany) and Týr (Faroe Islands), but my favorite folk-death discovery since Skyclad is a Swiss band (or, judging from the band pictures, a small Swiss village) called Eluveitie, who sound about like what you'd end up with if you drove Clannad up the nearest Alp and left them for the wolves to eat, but went back a few generations later, when you realized you hadn't seen a wolf in a while, to discover that they're now 6'9" and waiting for you with fifes. And halberds.
Leviathan: Massive Conspiracy Against All Life
But if soaring melody and introspective subtlety and "Don't Stop Believin'" crossed with "Red Barchetta" (and fifes, at least) all sound fairly approachable, then there's Leviathan. Massive Conspiracy Against All Life is approachable, too, but in the inexorable sense of a black hole mounted on the front of a thresher meant for farmland where the corn has taken to fixing lead instead of nitrogen. Leviathan and Xasthur basically invented the one-man-ambient-abyss subgenre, but where Xasthur has warped towards sounding isolated by self-negation, like a slow-motion suicide, Wrest has modulated Leviathan into a kind of retrospective nihilism, not quite advocating or agitating for destruction as much as ghosting through ruins from an emotional apocalypse nobody else has noticed already happened. The advanced copies of this album had different names on all the songs, and it didn't make the slightest bit of difference, in a superficial sense because the voices in Leviathan songs are mostly the wrecked muttering of the ruefully damned, but maybe more interestingly because in a disturbing way language is part of what we've already lost.
Whatever passes through Leviathan's veil and survives will look different. Septicflesh's theory, I guess, is that the next ruling hominid will look like a half-Korean/half-Egyptian elk with horns made of inverted adobe tube-socks. I'm not sure what the evolutionary thinking is with this creature, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to argue with it. In addition to the horns, it has a very big orchestra, and it makes records that make Wagner sound like Ellis Paul.
Dir en grey: Uroboros
In the net age, nothing is more than two or three jumps from anything else, and any two things you ask about are thereafter directly linked by virtue of your question. So if the Greeks in Septicflesh can invoke ancient Egypt and Persia and H.P. Lovecraft, then obviously the Japanese in Dir en grey can do whatever they want with Gnostic worm-icons. My Japanese is a lot (indeed, infinitely) better than my Greek, but in this case this isn't much more useful than knowing what the radio presets go to in the car that's running over you. I heard somewhere on the order of a thousand different kinds of antagonistic fury this year, and Dir en grey may still be at once the most technically proficient band and the one that, when they hit their Panic pedals, sounds the most genuinely and immediately unnerving. I'm not sure whether it's a tribute to, or a transgression against, the idea of eternal cyclicality to simply eat the whole worm, but now I have an idea what it tastes like.
Cynic: Traced in Air
If there's a stranger demonstration than Vertebrae of how far extreme metal has come, it's that Cynic were once considered a Death Metal band. This was always more true by association than by composition, but with the benefit of fifteen extra years of context, their at-once understated and hyperarticulated no-beat-missed second album now sounds much more obviously like King Crimson after a rusty cistern of coffee and a weekend of belated and more than a little befuddled listening to an old LP copy of Master of Puppets misfiled in a Hawkwind sleeve.
Gyöngyvér: Világok Virága
One of two albums on these lists that I didn't pay for in any form, in this case because I couldn't figure out how to, this was not just my favorite Hungarian album of the year (not as faint praise as it might sound, as I heard two), but gothic enough to displace a very fine Moonspell record, and maybe a better HIM record than anything since Love Metal.
In Flames: A Sense of Purpose
I think I hated every new "melodic death metal" band I heard this year almost instantly, and most of them were probably trying to sound exactly like this, but apparently transitivity doesn't quite hold across death. Something is subtly but importantly different between sounding like this and trying to sound like this, maybe. Or maybe I had only one hole in my heart for this sound, and In Flames filled it. Or maybe I'm just pleased by the idea that the co-creators of a new kind of Extreme now qualify as Traditional, just as New Wave slides into Classic Rock. Whatever, any list that has Death Magnetic above this I suspect of plain ignorance or worse.
Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight
My daughter loves dancing. I guess we got her started by demonstrating the basic idea, but she careens around the living room wheeling her arms with an enthusiasm so instinctive that I suspect it comes at least in part from some agitated trilobite plunging into the primordial mosh-pit millennia ago. She'll dance to pretty much anything, which I attribute to a combination of her unflappable good nature and the fact that she's only 2'6" and I can (usually) keep the MacBook up out of her reach.
My wife loves dancing, too, but she's taller. Her nature is also good, but experience has demonstrated that she is, when provoked by metal (or at the other extreme by over-fluffy pop), flappable. For our best family dance parties with all three of us in attendance, we need other music. Bethany and I actually met talking about music, so there's ample precedent for this, and we have a fairly large area of basically overlapping taste. But we both have strong, quick, sub-rational (or is it super-rational?) reactions to things, so finding points of overlap is trickier than just finding areas. She made me a mix for my birthday, though, and my favorite song on it I liked so much I put three songs from that album on my mix for her on her birthday, and so Frightened Rabbit became our shared band of the year, and "Head Rolls Off" probably our most-played family dance song.
And although I made two separate lists again because I don't think interleaving the modes really helps anything, when I had to file a single critics-poll ballot, this was my #1. If metal is about magnifying emotions by projecting them, onto myth or imagination, then these tiny, fragile Frightened Rabbit songs, some of them beyond fragile to broken-and-taped-together, turn around and look through a magnifying glass at the cracks in their most mundane reality. Most of them are nominally breakup songs, some about breaking up with people and some about breaking up with ideas, but this is a lyrical genre, not a defeat, and done right, breakup songs are always about what you find in what you're left with. Life-affirming songs are often, and maybe necessarily, tinged with sadness. If they aren't, it's probably not life they're affirming. So these suspended moments of confusion and loss belong to the same emotional core, to me, as Tanya Donelly's buoyantly resolute "Keeping You", B and my marriage theme-song, and "Head Rolls Off"'s "While I'm alive, I'll make tiny changes on Earth" could go on our new family crest. The other way to deal with the resistance of the air is to just draw your listeners closer, and Frightened Rabbit may be the third vertex, with Low and Tori Amos, of a quiet triangle of intimacy I didn't know until now I was waiting to complete.
Puressence: Don't Forget to Remember
My music-discovery methods are changing, and my life is changing, and yet every once in a while something reaches back to a beginning. Puressence already reminded me excitingly of the Chameleons when I ran across them ten years ago, but somehow (helped by the lack of US labels) I kept losing track of them. And in fact this (fourth) album was released in September 2007 in the UK, but I didn't discover its existence until I ran across it on iTunes in January 2008, and since it never had a physical American release, arguably its effective domestic release-date was when, in February, it was featured as the first iTunes Editors' Choice.
I like to think that it was my iTunes purchase of the album, which at the time had no reviews or "Listeners Also Bought" links or mixes, that nudged it in the direction of whatever "editors" subsequently endorsed it, but really I feel more surprised than responsible. Puressence is one of those bands that used to feel like almost the rule in my life, music from somewhere else that nobody near me has ever heard of, which thus seems to exist solely for my own solipsistic transport. The Chameleons were like that, and the Lucy Show, and perhaps most definitively the Comsat Angels; and later, Whipping Boy and Ultrasound and Geneva: bands making dense, reticent, atmospheric anthems with internal catharses you have to find your way into rather than the kind on the radio here that you have to avoid being trampled by.
Sigur Rós: Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
At times it's tempting to believe that the dominion of night is inexorable, and that we capitulate helplessly to pervasive isolation with cycles of fear and fury, each more desperate than the last. But then there are these sons of northern darkness who seem immune, staging tiny conspiracies in secret support of everything and next breaths.
Mid-80s synth-pop has been pretty much continuously revived in rounds ever since its first quick fade, but rarely with such weightless grace: Propaganda's expressionist cool mitigated by Thompson Twins delicacy and Cocteau Twins shimmer, Flesh for Lulu's fizzy whir rebalanced by early Talk Talk translucency and Modern English chime, Psychocandy's tidal buzz interleaved with The Flat Earth's cinematic melancholy.
Katy Perry: One of the Boys
I read enough music-press to know that Katy Perry defaulted on somebody's idea of her dues at some point, but not enough to understand whose (could Jill Sobule have that many children (or exes) old enough to blog yet?), and anyway not until after I heard this record in a record-store that has since gone bankrupt, though not because I didn't do my part that day. The two matched-pair gender-tease gimmick songs may win or lose you, but if you made it through She's So Unusual or any Pink album, you can handle this, and if you wonder what it might sound like if Hannah Montana had grown up next door to Liz Phair (and Liz Phair had never heard of Avril Lavigne), maybe you should.
Delays: Everything's the Rush
I don't remember the last time I heard anybody else mention Icicle Works' If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song or the Boo Radleys' Wake Up!, but one of the advantages of repeating history instead of struggling to remember it all is that you can repeat whole swaths of it at once. In my next wishful British alternate-history, a jubilant Puressence/Delays mock-feud will replace all the petulant Oasis/Blur sniping.
Ida: Lovers Prayers + My Fair, My Dark
If Sigur Rós made their records in a Brooklyn brownstone living-room while their kids were asleep, we'd have two of these bands.
Bob Mould: District Line
My vote for comeback moral of the year: unpacking your guitars is always a good idea. But keeping them out and tuned and waiting is even better.
Shearwater: Rook + The Snow Leopard
The closest I've ever heard anybody come to pulling off a plausible homage to Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, albeit as if Eden was a desert amusement park now long abandoned to returning sand and feral cornets.
Asian Kung-Fu Generation: World World World + Surf Bungaku Kamakura
Guitars, bass, drums, singing. On paper there is nothing even remotely distinctive about this band, and how hard can these songs be if they can bang out two albums of them only seven months apart? But we keep making bands like this, all over the planet, precisely because the structure doesn't determine their character. They sound different in Mali and Liverpool and Austin and Yokohama, and maybe just as different when they're AKFG or BUMP OF CHICKEN or the pillows, and maybe different in the irreducible ways that we are different.
Deathspell Omega: "Chaining the Katechon" (EP)
You might feel inclined to object that it's cheating to call a 22:12 armageddon "a song" just because it doesn't have internal indices. But you'll only goad them into making the next one even longer. Although, if anything, this EP is even more monolithically overpowering in its compressed continuity than Fas was in twice the length and labeled parts. Together they would probably constitute a new genre if there seemed like any chance that anybody else could play in it, or even replicate the tuning. I'm not sure there's ever been a significantly better demonstration of what it means for music to have a purely internal logic, nor a more explicative aural rendition of proving the existence of a pervasive universal ether by methodically shredding it.
Nightwish: "The Escapist" (from The Sound of Nightwish Reborn)
Frightened Rabbit: "It's Christmas So We'll Stop" (single)
But then, of course, the universe rarely actually ends. A music may have as insular an internal logic as it likes, but then it finishes and you get to put on something else. Extremism is the love of one extreme. Counterpose extremes and you get life. You get an "internal" logic of your own encompassing experience, which can be as vast and erratic as you like. Armageddon can segue to Nightwish sounding like The Nutcracker rewritten for Valkyries, with maybe Anette's best demonstration of the selfless lightness that Tarja would never have allowed them. And escapist pomp can collapse back into possibly the new greatest modern Christmas song ever, a quiet anthem not of exonerating illusion but of the stubborn yearning wish for an excuse to believe in ourselves.
Mountain Goats: "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" (from Heretic Pride)
Wetnurse: "Life at Stake" (from Invisible City)
And so we can look at strangers and see how they are us, and we can find and lose and find our way.
Pink: "It's All Your Fault" (from Funhouse)
OLIVIA: "Rain" (from Trinka Trinka)
We can learn our qualities in other people's disappointments, and catch glimpses of our fragility in moments of release.
Uh Huh Her: "Wait Another Day" (from Common Reaction)
Mia: "Mausen" (from Willkommen im Club)
We can be sustained by patience, and levitated by memories of balloons.
Retribution Gospel Choir: "What She Turned Into" (from Retribution Gospel Choir)
Zapruder Point: "An Arm & a Leg" (from Soda & Sympathy)
We can take apart our longings and make them into splints for hearts,
L'Arc~en~Ciel: "NEXUS 4" (from NEXUS 4/SHINE)
Ihsahn: "Emancipation" (from angL)
or we can let the spinning stars dizzy us.
DragonForce: "A Flame for Freedom" (from Ultra Beatdown)
Bob Catley: "We Are Immortal" (from Immortal)
We can take our own silliness just seriously enough to let it bootstrap us out of our self-doubt,
I Nine: "Seven Days of Lonely" (from Heavy Weighs the King)
Jewel: "Two Become One" (from Perfectly Clear)
or score our helplessness as serenity.
Týr: "Gatu Rima" (from Land)
Grand Magus: "Like The Oar Strikes The Water" (from Iron Will)
We can leave any battered island,
Cradle of Filth: "Stay" (from Harder, Darker, Faster: Thornography Deluxe, originally by Shakespears Sister)
Zapruder Point: "Artificial Light" (from Soda & Sympathy, originally by Rainer Maria)
even our own,
Puressence: "April In July" + "3rd Degree" (from Drop Down to Earth single)
to search sometimes for currents
Belle & Sebastian: "(My Girl's Got) Miraculous Technique" (from The BBC Sessions)
Lucksmiths: "Anyone's Guess" (from Spring a Leak)
and sometimes for shores,
Garry Schyman: "Praan" (for Where the Hell Is Matt? · Dancing 2008)
and lose and find ourselves among people we could be.