bowie_blackstar-H151026152736All of music has lost some of its luster today. David Bowie died at the age of 69. Suddenly, the album he released, just a few days earlier, on his birthday no less, makes a little more sense.

“★” (pronounced “Blackstar”). It’s tempting to listen to “‘Heroes'” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” now, but play that album in his memory instead. It was a brilliant example of his continued vitality in music. Today it just got more vital with this new layer of resonance. It’s a twist of fate that Bowie must have foreseen considering it turned out he was battling cancer for the past 18 months. Only Bowie could have pulled this off, so kudos to him on his way out of this mortal realm. His last great trick in rock ‘n’ roll.

To repeat his achievements would be redundant, so let’s leave that to the other obit writers. Just jump through our David Bowie tag to understand how important he was to this blog (as soon as I get the vinyl, expect a review for “★” with what is now a clearer perspective than most reviews out there).

No, today this writer will share something more personal. How and why I credit my love of David Bowie’s music for kicking off my writing career.

It began in ninth grade, at a school in the Kendall suburb of Miami called Arvida Middle School. It was 1987. My English teacher, Ms. Stinson, was a wide, round-faced black woman, who was the most intimidating instructor I had in that grade. I remember that classroom being very quiet, and if there were any bullies and smart alecks in that class, they must have stayed quiet too.

One day, we were assigned books to read and then present to the class. Ms. Stinson had a list of famous names on a sheet of paper she passed out to the class, and we were to pick from the list who we wanted our presentation to be about. I sat toward the back of the final row in class, having to pick from the leftovers. I got Janusz Korczak’s book Ghetto Diary. I never heard Korczak’s name until this assignment. Needless to say, I did not feel invested in this topic. I remember struggling to get into the book, which we had to check out from our school’s library. I don’t think I ever read the entire book, just skimmed through it looking for some distinctive bits to regurgitate in class.

Some days later, when it came time to head to the front of the class to stand by Ms. Stinson’s desk, I was rattled with nerves. I had barely a notion how to pronounce my subject’s name, much less any recollection of anything I gleaned in his book. It’s a closed off memory as to what exactly happened. Maybe students laughed at my stuttered, unsure pronunciation of Janusz Korczak, maybe all I could recall from the book was when Korczak spoke with God, as he headed off to a death camp. I might have failed to answer any questions that my teacher asked after that “presentation.” It was a haze and remains so to this day. I just remember how scary Ms. Stinson seemed.

Well, she frightened up until the end of class. Sometime soon after the botched presentation, she pulled me and a few other students aside who didn’t do too well on our presentations to offer us a do-over. This time we could pick the topic. She said to bring a book into the next class featuring a person we wanted to discuss. I had been reading Nicholas Shaffner’s The British Invasion: From the First Wave to the New Wave. I still own that book:

FullSizeRender (1)

I brought it to class the next day and showed her the section on David Bowie. “You want to do David Boowie?” she said, mispronouncing his name but with a smile. I didn’t correct her. She suggested I play some of his music to the class during my presentation. The ease I felt after playing the opening part of my cassette of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture dissolved any stage fright. My curiosity of what Bowie did during that fateful 1973 concert where he appeared as an alter ego in bright orange hair, the brashness of his backing band, The Spiders From Mars, flowed out as I schooled my classmates on Bowie.

At that age I had a pretty clear grasp of who Bowie was and what he meant in rock ‘n’ roll history. I hardly had to cite my source. At about 15 years old, I learned I could be an authority on David Bowie, and I would later go on to review several of his releases for local music publications. Because Bowie’s music over the years was so diverse, featuring influences from Little Richard to Neu!, he opened my musical interests wide, as well.

Bowie’s image, especially in the early ‘70s, played a great part in converting fans. Many speak of seeing him on the BBC show Top of the Pops doing “Starman” in a jumpsuit with that orange mullet and cozying up to his guitarist Mick Ronson. But I got into Bowie via his clean-cut Let’s Dance era via MTV, around 1984. As a young teen, I had Space Oddityonly cassettes and no large-form, gatefold albums to be overwhelmed by the images of him as Ziggy, which was then also used to sell earlier albums like Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. His image, which was so important to his career then, was reduced to surreal, small, square portraits on cassette covers, which had no inner art.

It was a strange way to get into Bowie: almost purely through his music and only his enigmatic cassette covers to guide the way (there was no YouTube back then, and I went to the library to look at music history books to find pictures of early Bowie). As I traced Bowie back through his back catalog via tapes bought at a local record shop with allowance money, I mostly latched on to the small, weird musical bits like the whooshing, oscillating intro of “Station To Station,” the strange little organ fills that gave “After All” a weird bounce, the muffled, layered, chugging guitar that hardly relented below “Joe the Lion.” I would have never sought out the music of Brian Eno, King Crimson or Faust were it not for David Bowie. I could have never appreciated the music of BauhausSwans or Deerhunter without having taken apart the music of Bowie all those years earlier. He did his duty, and I will miss him till the day I die, too.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Seer cover artAs this year comes to a close, and I spent more time than ever having to watch movies, as a newly inducted member into the Florida Film Critics Circle (including Hollywood fare! Blech), I felt a bit slack about my longtime experience covering music. So I wanted some help with a survey of some of the best albums 2012. I asked musicians, DJs and general local music scenesters of South Florida (current and past) to share their top 10 albums of 2012.

The tastes represented here are eclectic, and, as inspired by my first contributor, Emile Milgrim of Other Electricitiesand Sweat Records, include no music journalists who are pandered and marketed to by music labels. I therefore, humbly put my lists and thoughts at the end of these 12 notable personalities. Yet, I was pleased to find that within these varied lists, the one album I dared to call a masterpiece in 2012 appeared six times, far more than any other album (and the guy behind it laughed at me!)— hence the headline image.

I had attempted for a moment to survey a top 10 ranked list, but these people are not ones who follow rules easily, hence you can expect many albums ranked in no particular order and even albums from years outside 2012 and lists that did not care to limit themselves to 10 choices. I believe these are all genuinely beloved releases and should provide many intriguing discoveries for adventurous music-types.

Those included in this informal survey are all random people I know who responded to my request mostly via Facebook. I know plenty more people who could have provided intriguing lists, so if you feel left out… never fear, there is always next year.

Without further ado, on to the lists:

Emile Milgrim
Owner at Other Electricities

Ten 2012 albums listened to most (in no particular order):

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch vinyl

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
Lee Fields – Faithful Man
Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Loscil – Sketches From New Brighton
Micachu & The Shapes – Never
Bat For Lashes – Haunted Man
Open Mike Eagle – 4NML HSPTL
Doseone – G is for Deep
Jeans Wilder – Totally
Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin – Instrumental Tourist

Honorable Mentions (note: my record label released some of these)

holly hunt year one cover

Holly Hunt – Year One
Bacanal Intruder – Do While, If Else
Motèl Mari – Eternal Peasant
Chelsea Wolfe – Unknown Rooms
Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II
Giulio Aldinucci – Tarsia
Dan Deacon – America
Serengeti – C.A.R.
Black Marble – A Different Arrangement
Orcas – Orcas

Reissues of Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Stereolab, Califone, Sea & Cake, Tortoise, Crass, Codeine, Wendy Rene, Alvarius B., Destroyer, Blur, Sugar.

Sleeper hit of the year: Pepe Deluxé – Queen Of The Wave

I’m sure I’m forgetting something… It should also be noted that I probably listened to Belle & Sebastian more than anything. They’re my Beatles.

Richard Vergez
Member of the instrumental band Möthersky

Agent Side Grinder – Hardware

Agent Side Grinder – Hardware
Excellent post-punk from Sweden. The aesthetics of Cabaret Voltaire, the fury of Swans, and the precision of Kraftwerk. Saw them live in Berlin this year, fantastic energy.

Raime – Quarter Turns Over a Living Line
A complete deconstruction of electronic music. Terrifyingly beautiful.

Fabulous Diamonds – Commercial Music
Zoned out super heavy minimalism from this Australian duo. Loads of atmosphere and droning mantras disguised as rock. Sounds like drugs.

Pye Corner Audio – The Black Mill Tapes
A collection of original analog tapes brought back to life on this double LP from UK label Type. Dark and desolate soundscapes built from vintage synths and drum machines.

Swans – The Seer
Another amazing full-length from one of the world’s most uncompromising and prolific bands. Hypnotic, cathartic and dynamic. Although I can do without the Karen O track.

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time with the Deadbeat

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time with the Deadbeat
Another Aussie release. Nasty and dirgey rock ‘n’ roll a la Birthday Party. As if they dug up the bones of Roland S. Howard himself and slapped six strings on him.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Everything you would expect from a Godspeed record. Weird tape loops, slowly building phrases, crescendos, Middle Eastern flourishes, and tons of despair. Even some spacey Hawkwind moments.

Cult of Youth – Love Will Prevail
Dark folk with a good post-punk energy. See also Death in June.

Tamaryn – Tender New Signs
Lush, swoony, reverby shoegaze stuff. Tamaryn stays consistent.

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
This made the list only because it is the worst thing I’ve heard all year and Scott is a genius for convincing the public to spend a shit on this record. Unlistenable. Piss taker of the year award goes to Scott Walker.

Alex Caso
a.k.a. Musician/DJ Alx Czo

Top 10:

Tame Impala – LonerismTame Impala – Lonerism
Peaking Lights – Lucifer
Soft moon – Zeros
Swans – Seer
Sad Souls – Apeiron
Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin – Instrumental Tourists
Laurel Halo – Quarantine
The KVB – Always Then
Echo Lake – Wild Peace
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes

Notable 5 I couldn’t fit:

Brian Eno – Lux
Grimes – Visions
Gary War – Jared’s Lot
Mirroring – Foreign Body
Lust For Youth – Growing Seeds

Mikey Ramirez
Operations manager at Radio-Active Records

In no particular order:

Cult Of Youth – Love Will PrevailCult Of Youth – Love Will Prevail
Swans – The Seer
The Wake – Here Comes Everybody (reissue)
Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
Tame Impala – Lonerism
Ceremony – Zoo
Chromatics – Kill For Love
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Moritz Von Oswald – Fetch
Gaslamp Killer – Breakthrough

Steven Toth
a.k.a. Mr. Entertainment of the band Mr. Entertainment and the Pookie Smackers

Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light1. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
2. Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat The Factory
3. Brian Jonestown Massacre – Aufheben
4. Earth – Angels of Darkness Demons of Light II
5. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
6. Ian Hunter – When I’m President
7. Kramer – Brill Building
8. Holly Hunt – Year One
9. Swans – The Seer
10. ZZZ’s – Prescription

re-issues:

Michael Chapman – Rainmaker
Captain Beefheart – Bat Chain Puller
The Reactions

Music-related film:

Waiting for Sugarman – Rodriguez

Alex Gimeno
a.k.a. Musician/DJ Ursula 1000

Poolside – Pacific Standard TimePoolside – Pacific Standard Time
Seahawks – Aquadisco
Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams (Psychemagik Remix)”
The Fangs – Vampire Vamp
Toy – Toy
Purson – Rocking Horse
Temples – Shelter Song
Boston Bun – Housecall
The Three Degrees – Maybe (reissue)
The Primitives – Echoes and Rhymes

Pocket of Lollipops
a.k.a. musicians Maite Urrechaga and Tony Kapel

The-Kills-The-Last-Goodbye-single-2012The Kills – “The Last Goodbye” EP
Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
Crystal Castles – III
Mykki Blanco & the Mutant Angels – “Join My Militia”
Unrest – Perfect Teeth (reissue)
Grizzly Bear – Shields
Animal Collective – Centipede HZ
Jack White – Blunderbuss
The Ting Tings – Sounds From Nowheresville
Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
Santigold – Santigold (2008)

On heavy rotation at the couple’s home this year:

Sonic Youth – Destroyed RoomSonic Youth – Destroyed Room
Versus – Deep Red
Jane’s Addiction – Ritual De Lo Habitual
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Modest Mouse – Building Nothing Out of Something
Pink Floyd – Umma Gumma or Obscured by Clouds
Bat for Lashes – Fur & Gold
David Bowie – Hunky Dory
Efterklang – Tripper
The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come For Free

Aramís Lorié
Managing Partner & Co-Founder Grand Central

Listed in no particular order:

The XX - CoexistThe XX – Coexist
Grizzly Bear – Shields
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Tame Impala – Innerspeaker (2010)
Crystal Castles – III
Beck – Song Reader ( I haven’t heard it or attempted to play it yet, but concept alone is immensely brilliant)
Lower Dens – Nootropics
Tanlines – Mixed Emotions
Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters
Lana Del Rey – Born To Die (great fabrication of an artist)

John Physioc
Assistant Manager at Miami Beach Cinematheque

Listed in no particular order:

Brian-Jonestown-Massacre-AufhebenThe Brian Jonestown Massacre – Aufheben
The Soft Moon – Zeros
Peaking Lights – Lucifer
Swans – The Seer
Tropic of Cancer – The End of All Things
Tales of Murder and Dust – Hallucination of Beauty
The Limiñanas – Crystal Anis
Matthew Dear – Beams
The Blondes – Blondes
Starred – “Prison to Prison” EP

Jsin Jimenez
“Doer of Jobs” at (((SHAKE)))

Grimes – VisionsGrimes – Visions
Beach House – Bloom
Holly Hunt – Year One
Traxman – Da Mind Of Traxman
Tnght – Tnght
Swans – The Seer
Mala – Mala In Cuba
Ryan Hemsworth – Last Words
Metro Zu – Mink Rug
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Juan Montoya
Guitarist (currently member of Atlanta-based MonstrO, but formerly of Miami greats Torche, Floor and Ed Matus’ Struggle)

Manray – TournamentManray – Tournament (2011)
Order Of The Owl – In the Noon of the After Day
Kavinsky – Drive Movie Soundtrack (Even though it’s from 2011, I spent the whole year listening to this)
Melvins – The Bulls and the Bees
Biters – “Last of a Dying Breed” EP

Can we finish it off with albums I wished would of come out? I can even title them:

My Bloody Valentine – Eternal Wait
Aphex Twin – Beyond Babylon
Trans Am – Fluid To It
Melt Banana – Nude Mood
Danzig – Sangre Nuestro

Carl Ferrari
Guiatarist of Gypsy Cat

Kurt Rosenwinke – Star of JupiterKurt Rosenwinke – Star of Jupiter
Elisa Weilerstein with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle – Elgar and Carter Cello Concertos
Dead Can dance – Anastasis
Lenacay – Ryma
Esperanza Spalding – Radiomusic Society
Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
Lupe Fiasco – Food and Liquor II
Bomba Estereo – Elegancia Tropical
Brooklyn Rider – Seven Steps
Earth – Angels of Darkness Demons of Light II
My Bloody Valentine’s long awaited follow-up to Loveless

Hans Morgenstern
writer of this blog

Jazzy cover art designed by Bert Rodriguez. Image courtesy of Spielberger.comFinally, my top 10 albums of 2012 (and I really feared I wasn’t going to be able to come up with one based on all the film reviewing I did this year [that list will be out tomorrow, by the way]. Another note, as you can tell by the contacts above, I am too partial and precious to my local music scene to pick out local artists, for fear of leaving someone out, but let my coverage this year of Holly Hunt, Boxwood and Spielberger stand for itself.):

Swans – The Seer
I declared it a masterpiece to the creator’s face, and I am happy to own up to it here. It’s a difficult one to listen to from start to finish, from it’s near 2-hour runtime to its sweeping range of emotions, and its dynamics between noisy indulgence and soaring symphonic qualities. I doubt most modern musicians have the kind of talent Michael Gira has and know how to use it as well.

Beach House - Bloom cover art. Image courtesy of Sub Pop RecordsBeach House – Bloom
Another album of bold declaration to the songwriter’s face. I told singer Victoria Legrand that no album has grabbed me with such immediacy since the album that topped my 2010 list. I feel obliged to own up to that and place it after the masterpiece of 2012. Though I interviewed several other musicians, as the coverage of Swans and Beach House on this blog shows, I feel genuinely lucky to have been able to talk to the artists behind some of the greatest albums of the year. To hear these two as much as I did and study them as deep as I did and not get tired of them, either, stands as testament to that.

Grizzly Bear – Shields
I wished I could have written as extensively about and talked to the artists behind this album, but no tour down here made it hard. I was skeptical about this release, as Grizzly Bear has only turned further and further away from its brilliant moody, abstract and atmospheric debut, Horn of Plenty with each release. However, Shields, it’s fourth full-length, had so much genuine soul, it swept away all doubts with each song.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Mature ThemesAriel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
I had heard this man’s prior work, but was never blown away … until Mature Themes. It jumps genres with a glee I have not seen since I first heard Ween, 20 years ago. It even had progressive rock elements that remind me of very early Brian Eno. Anyone who can do that deserves props.

Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
So, lead singer/guitarist Bradford Cox of Deerhunter often gets all the attention for the work in the brilliantly noisy Deerhunter, but I am partial to the band’s shy guitarist Lockett Pundt. His contributions are the band’s catchiest and most indulgent. It’s all on display here, his second solo album under the moniker of Lotus Plaza.

Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
It’s been a long time since a Spiritualized album took ecstatic turns into blissful, noisy jams. This album has several of these moments.

Faust - 10 handmade artFaust – 10
It may seem hardly fair to include an unreleased album on my list, but Faust is one legendary group, and it is damn sad that legal issues has kept 10 unreleased. A resourceful bootlegger manufactured two runs on vinyl, and I was lucky to have been led to a copy. The works on here are some of the best I have heard featuring founding members Jean Hervé Péron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier since the original line-up’s masterwork Faust IV.

Diiv – OshinDiiv – Oshin
I was drawn to the wit and atmosphere of the album cover, something that has not happened to me in years. The contents did not disappoint! By tuns Krautrock-inspired droney to as catchy as the Cure, Oshin was one of the best blind-buy album surprises of my life.

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
It’s a sad shame that gossip rags/blogs seem attracted to hounding Apple. She is one of the most talented performers I have ever seen, and a brilliant songwriter, as well. Her raw delivery and energy are an impressive thing to capture on vinyl, and this was definitely one of the year’s highlights. Between her soulful growls and her resonating piano are brilliant, human insights few pop artists know how to tune into.

Just to off-set things, too, number 11 is an obscure honorable mention:

Birthmark - AntibodiesBirthmark – Antibodies
One of the great but little recognized albums I have heard this year comes from Birthmark. This is the on-going side-project of Nate Kinsella, formerly of Joan of Arc and Make Believe. It features the familiar deconstructive, yet still catchy approach of songwriting that defined his earlier bands. However, Kinsella brings together elements of classical instruments and electronics, and mixes them together to compliment and contrast each other to brilliant effect.

Off-setting things some more: Music documentary of the year goes to: LCD Soundsystem – Shut Up and Play the Hits

OK, so I haven’t seen the buzzy Searching for Sugarman or Marley documentaries, but I cried a tear the moment Murphy sang the lyric “this will be the last time” during “All My Friends.” So this is the way LCD ends, with a bang and a whimper. The documentary is brilliantly mixed by James Murphy himself featuring bombastic performances of the band’s final show at a sold-out Madison Square Garden interspersed among Murphy’s contemplative musings of why he ended it. The blu-ray release features the ultimate  bonus feature, as it includes the entire three-and-a-half-hour MSG show spread across two blu-ray discs. LCD Soundsystem was indeed one of the most amazing bands of the turn of the millennium. They will also go down as one of the best live experiences of my life, which makes the dissolution of the band all the more tragic.

P1000579

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

So today Swans arrive in Florida for three dates before continuing on with its world tour. Starting with a show at the Social in Orlando (Buy tickets), the band will move closer to my area tomorrow, at West Palm Beach’s Respectable Street Café (buy tickets). You can expect a review of that show the next morning on the music blog for the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times.” Just follow the “County Grind” blog through the image below:

In the meantime, most of my coverage for Swans (besides an extensive, indulgent album review for the band’s new album The Seer on Independent Ethos) has been for the “New Times.” I spoke to its founder and frontman Michael Gira back in July:

First interview, on The Seer:

Swans’ Michael Gira on The Seer, Released Today: “Once It’s Done, It Just Sounds Like Dead Matter to Me”

Second interview ahead of show:
Long preview: “Swans’ Michael Gira: ‘At the Best Moments, Music Plays You and Not the Opposite.'”

Shorter version that appeared in print: “Swans’ Michael Gira on Ecstatic Feelings, The Seer, and Being ‘All in the Sound’”

There’s also a third Q&A coming on influences and Gira’s love of the sound of children’s voices contrasted with the infamous dark din Swans have been known to create.

Update: here’s that third interview: Swans’ Michael Gira on the Value of Dynamics

Swans is one of the few bands I discovered during my college years, in the early 1990s, that I still have an affection for today. It’s a rare thing when a band that actually started in the early 1980s can so fiercely maintain a relevance in today’s alternative music scene. Gira does this with little desire to look back on anything, as he revealed in our conversations chronicled above. There are very few artists who can maintain such creative vitality during the length of time he has maintained Swans without selling the music short by succumbing to popular trends.

If you want to know what to expect of this show (though he told me this in July, and things may have changed since), Gira says, “It’s going to be a few things from the Seer, and three new pieces. I’m not gonna call them songs because they’re 20 minutes each. And one old Swans song, which is called ‘Coward.’ But that’s going to be arranged a little differently than the original.”

Here’s the vintage version of “Coward” (though Gira seems scary, he’s really going into places few dare: the Jungian Shadow personified):

Do not take that at all as a primer on Swans, as Gira notes in the quote above, the song has changed over the course of nearly 30 years since that was recorded. Here’s a recent official live video:

Finally, Gira also knows the darkness can be hushed and gorgeous. Here’s a great example from the brilliant 1992 album White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, “Love Will Save You:”

The final US tour dates include:

10/16 – Orlando, FL @ The Social
10/17 – West Palm Beach, FL @ TBA
10/18 – Tallahassee, FL @ Club Downunder
10/19 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
10/23 – St. Louis, MO @ Firebird
10/24 – Chicago, IL @ Cabaret Metro

However the tour continues without pause to Europe with these dates:
10/25 – Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
10/26 – Montreal, QC @ La Tulipe
11/01 – Reykjavik, IC @ Airways
11/15 – London, UK @ Koko
11/16 – Glasgow, UK @ The Arches
11/17 – Manchster, UK @ Sound Control
11/19 – Paris, FR @ Le Trabendo
11/20 – Nijmegen, NL @ Doornroosje
11/21 – Haarlem, NL @ Patronaat
11/22 – Hamburg, DE @ Kampnagel
11/23 – Copenhagen, DK @ Det Kgl. Danske Konservatories
11/24 – Prague, CZ @ Lucenra Music Bar
11/28 – Vienna, AT @ Arena Big Hall
11/30 – Bologna, IT @ Locomotiv
12/02 – Kortrijk, BE @ De Kreun
12/03 – Bern, CH @ Reitschule Gross Halle
12/04 – Lausanne, CH @ Les Docks

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Allow me to temper the following review with the expectation that the album I am about to review is an acquired taste. It is also not for the faint of heart nor the easily influenced. Accepting that this review comes from a long-time Swans fan, allow me to declare the legendary New York band’s new album, the Seer, a masterpiece (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl with MP3 download on Amazon). Though it saw release only this past Tuesday, Swans representation shared a preview copy via MP3 in mid-July, and I have devoted much time to appreciating the work.

The album opens with the persistent throb of nylon guitar strings and the swirl of a four-note refrain on the high-end of a piano. As the guitar pulses on and on and the piano notes repeat over and over, other instruments layer up, creating a swirling repetitive din of electric guitars, drums and even hammer dulcimer that end in a ringing minor-key refrain that captures the typical dark tone of Swans. Insanity, Albert Einstein famously said, is defined as repeating the same action though always arriving at the same result. Here is the musical equivalent, so aptly named “Lunacy.”

Besides the sound of Swans’ mastermind Michael Gira moaning as if about to wretch, vocals do not appear in this lead track until well after two minutes have passed. And then, the voices of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, of the band Low, join Gira in a monotonous chant that includes the phrase: “Hide beneath/Your monkey’s skin/Feel his love/Nurture him …” among other expressionistic lines. The lyrics end with rattling dulcimer, piano and the rapid-fire thud of a bank of snare drums being flourished. The clamor crescendos as the voices chant, “Lunacy, lunacy, lunacy, lunacy.” But the song suddenly comes apart to a creaking, sputtering stop.

It is as if a building had just crumbled and the dust is now clearing. The song takes a turn into stillness, on an acoustic guitar’s ramble and the creek of bowed cellos with a distant, barely perceptible melody on what maybe a flute or a synthesizer. The instruments are loose and meandering. There are occasional swelling splashes of mallets on cymbals, as the trio’s voices take overlapping turns to softly sing, “Your childhood is over.” The voices sing slow and quiet, extending the words with soft tremolo and patient, possibly tired, extended syllables here and there, until the song fades away.

Prepare for a journey. The Seer, runs only a few seconds shy of two hours long, and is best experienced in one uninterrupted sitting*. This is a masterpiece of entrancing dynamics and mood. One cannot just pull these songs out of context, for maximum effect only arrives in a single sitting with two hours to invest. It takes a remarkable album to hold anyone’s attention for that long, and I can think of many acclaimed double-disc concept albums that fail to maintain such quality for their duration. However, the Seer is something beyond a concept album. It’s a meandering piece of expressionism in music that reveals an intelligent and sensitive awareness of a variety of instruments capabilities in creating mood. All these songs earn their moments because of the other songs in the album. This album is like a living organism.

When “Lunacy” ends with the soft whispering of “Your childhood is over” and the hushed hum of barely perceptible instruments, a percussive assault kicks off “Mother of the World.” This dichotomy, though seemingly in opposition, only enhances the effect of the other. The coda of “Lunacy” haunts and may linger like the ghostly wavering, glistening metallic creek that hums through the start of “Mother of the World,” as the second track heaves and crunches along on sporadic drums beats. The song is as much about its varied, yet steady beat, as it is about the surprising moments during its build-up, such as Gira’s quiet muttering honk that grows into what sounds like the chant of a shaman. The entranced man mutters along until everything halts to reveal a panting, solitary Gira, the creaking music reduced to a ghostly, aural residue on an erased tape, heard very faint below his exhausted breathing. The starkness of the rattle of those breathes shocks, which is then multiplied when all the percussion comes back only a few seconds in, then Gira snarls, “In and out and in and out. Again!” After a few refrains of the phrase by Gira, this song, like “Lunacy” veers into peaceful tranquility.

A humming organ and only one drum kit patters along softly. It’s all humming afterglow until the ramble of an acoustic fades in and a treated piano offers a repeated phrase. The instruments drone and entrance until Gira starts to sing, finally at an even-tempered tone: “and where are you now … oh mother … of the world?” The last syllable repeated in imitation, man-made echo. After a few verses as brilliantly expressive as any can be expected of this surreal songwriter, the song swells with tremolo mandolins and hushed, though frantically bowed violin.

“Lunacy” offers a brilliant set-up of what to expect in the extreme dynamics, original song construction and creative use of instruments throughout the Seer. “Mother of the World” offers a similar structure in a song that takes a third of the time longer to finish. Then comes the real epic moment of the album comprised of the nearly acapella “The Wolf,” the 32-minute title track, capped with “The Seer Returns.”

One must consider all three tracks together as one piece, as they all work that well together. Unless the barely touched strings of an acoustic guitar and the subtle hiss of what sounds like an oscillating fan, which appears halfway through the song, count as instrumentation, “The Wolf” sounds, or better, feels acapella. Gira slowly mutters softly in that wonderful gravel baritone of his: “Now, feed … me through … the power … line/Wash … me in … your blood … less light…” The song ends with the screeching, netherworld quality of bagpipes blown at full force, damn the notes. Meanwhile, dulcimer and tubular bells are beat at frantically against a droning hum recalling the distant honk at the end of  King Crimson’s “Sailor’s Tale.” The bashing and screeching slowly fades away as the drone continues to hum and burble. A hushed, metallic industrial groove then appears, augmented by the light trill of what sounds like dulcimer, offering a shift in the piece. It is moments like these, these dichotomous swings and shifts into different moods that make the entire album. They appear between songs and within songs and often find an entrancing groove before making shocking shifts that both depend on the prior music and oppose it.

The title track is a half hour exploration in prolonged dynamics that can leave one entranced if one gives it a close listen. I have been lulled into dozing exhaustion while paying too close attention to it. “The Seer” is the epitome of a master manipulating a jam session to earn the moment when the singing finally appears, almost eight minutes into the piece. Gira’s singing only involves the quickly repeated phrase of “I see it all.” It seems to come out of the song’s looping, entrancing quality of pattering drums and rambling, sighing guitars. It builds and builds until the song sounds like something one might hear when trapped in a crashing wave before coming to an extended grinding halt featuring spastic, buzz-saw guitar work, waiting harmonica and various creaking instruments. It ends with Gira singing a nonsensical, almost tribal chant** on a grooving melody that feels long absent from existence.

In a song as sprawling as “the Seer,” it takes a genius well attuned to the natural vibrations of music to know how to hold back the singing and leave it as minimal as it appears during this ultra-long song of over 30 minutes. This is soulful music. Gira never over exerts his control over it. He is presenting us with a pure aural creature, something indeed to experience.

When “The Seer Returns” finally appears with proper lyrics and a more restrained, moody quality as drums, churning guitars and the looping howl of female voices (former Swans member Jarboe), a sort of re-birth has occurred. After the tumultuous, extended quality of “the Seer,” it almost feels as if language and civility has been re-born with the return of coherent words. But the imagery Gira spins in his lyrics are once again, signature Swans gloom and grim viscera: “… in a field of sticky black mud/I’m down here naked/There’s a hole in my chest/Both my arms are broken/Pointing east to west.” Then, not so much a palindrome, but a sort of circular surreal picture: “Your light pours into my mouth. My light pours out of my mouth. My light pours into your mouth.” The music marches along in an entrancing, luscious quality.

But, by now, odd shifts in the music should be expected, and the next one, “93 Ave. B Blues” offers a doozy. It opens with the screech of a clarinet and shares more DNA with free jazz than anything else in the Swans catalog. It features mostly squawking woodwinds, the layered howl of Gira and occasional explosions of sporadic percussion including pounded bass strings and screeching, buzzing guitars in a classic noise rock vein. In keeping with the free jazz principal, as it seems to go nowhere and everywhere at once. So when two of the most tranquil pieces of the album follow, they become well-earned respites.

Out of the reverberating feedback that closes “93 Ave. B Blues” comes the hushed, if still grim “The Daughter Brings the Water.” It’s spare and features flat pattering percussion, creepy reverberating guitar and even some decorative vibraphone. Veering the album into true gorgeous territory, however, meant bringing in Karen O to sing lead vocals. She offers a patient accompaniment to the slide guitar and delicate piano that make for the music of “Song for a Warrior.” Her voice quivers like the embodiment of fragility. After she sings “Some people say/God is long dead/But I heard something inside you/With my head to your chest,” the song swells in a cascade of chimes and bells and tremolo piano. It’s a song of optimism in the face of death, which is treated as a path to a cycle rather than something final. There is plenty room for hope in the music of the Swans, and this song may well inform all the so-called gloom of the album.

The great and key thing about the Seer is the beautiful lulls from intense noise and din Swans often achieve. Swans have always been fantastic at hushed moments contrasted with pummeling sounds, but the band has never received enough credit for that. One of my favorites song in their catalog is the luscious “Her” from 1992’s The Love of Life or the majestic “Other Side of the World,” also from that album (Though out of print and kind of expensive on the secondary market, the album is a good starting point). Those moments have always been key to the Swans aesthetic and there are plenty such moments on the Seer.

There are three more tracks to explore that close out the Seer, “Avatar,” which runs just shy of nine minutes, “A Piece of the Sky” (just over 19 minutes long) and “The Apostate,” which runs 23 minutes even. If the descriptions of the songs that precede these three intrigue enough, these three will not disappoint, as the cycle continues with them. I’ll restrain myself so as not to give away the ending of the Seer, but dynamics remain enthralling and entrancing moments abound featuring more of Gira’s voice and even Jarboe’s, as well as Akron/Family. In fact, the end of “A Piece of the Sky” is nothing short of gorgeous, heart-aching beauty, lead by Gira’s voice and vocals.

This is an art rock album if there ever was one. It’s as impressionistic as it is expressionistic, just as it is powerful and delicate. Without reservation, I would say this is the most awesome thing I’ve heard this year, if not one of the most powerful moments in my history of listening to music, and easily the best of Swans’ catalog … yet.

Hans Morgenstern

Notes:

*I interviewed Gira recently, and he suggested the best way to listen to the Seer is without breaks, digitally. You can read my interview with Gira at the “County Grind” blog site. A longer profile on Gira, Swans and the Seer will appear in the print version of the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” in early October, ahead of the band’s live performance at West Palm Beach’s Respectable Street Café (buy tickets).

** Gira said the end of “the Seer” is actually a slew of coded erotic phrases. “The words at the end of that whole piece are kind of a secret erotic message,” he told me via phone with a laugh. “There’s a lot of sexuality in that, but I don’t really say any specific words, but I think if you listen, you can glean what I’m talking about.” Indeed, when one listens loosely to it, one will hear phrases like, “My cock in your mouth” or “you sat on my mouth.” Meanwhile, a rhythmic, brief scratch on a violin’s strings seems to suggest ecstatic female moaning.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

September in South Florida is beginning to look as good as last year’s October, or should I say: “Rocktober.” It’s still four months away, but I’ve already bought advance tickets for two acts below, and there is one I am hoping to turn into an interview, but we shall see…

First was news of Bryan Ferry appearing at the intimate Fillmore Theater in Miami Beach (Sept. 29). The last time I attended one of his concerts in South Florida was the mid-nineties, at the much larger Sunrise Theater in Broward County. Though his latest album Olympia (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon via this link) did little to move me, even if it included every member of his old band Roxy Music in some form, I’ll be there. His solo work in general has been a hit and miss affair, but this English glam-rock pioneer has always done justice to the early seventies Roxy Music tunes that I thinks stands up as some of his best work, yes, even better than the later-era Roxy Music.

That said, I’m looking forward to seeing how he pulls off “Virginia Plain” nowadays. So sue me, I’m stuck on the past glories of Bryan Ferry. Here’s Roxy Music, when they were a new pop band on the scene, circa 1972, promoting “Virginia Plain” with a lip-synced performance on the BBC’s “Top of the Pops” (legend has it their set up was too complex to hook up all the instrumentation in the TV studio, so they had to mime the song, and yes, there is Phil Manzanera on guitar and Brian Eno on organ):

Then I get a text from a friend recommending I get my Peter, Bjorn and John tickets for their appearance at the even more intimate Bardot, in Miami (Sept. 23). He said they were going fast. When I purchased them they were $25 and could be up to $30 now, if not sold out. I’ll admit, I got the tickets because my wife would not forgive this opportunity should I pass on it. I have only casually listened to their work, but over the course of six full-length albums, they have shown an interesting career, from their third album’s breakout hit “Young Folks” in 2006 to their surprisingly spare and at times dark follow-up Living Thing (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon via this link) and now comes the Swedish trio’s return to perky form, Gimme Some (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon via this link).  Here’s a video from a their new single on the new album, “Second Chance”:

But, speaking of dark: the reliably grim Swans are the capper for me (thanks to Sweat Record’s mailing list for the heads up!). The band I liken to the sound of the end of the world if it had melody, is only making it as far south as Respectable Street in West Palm Beach (Sept. 14) , but I will be there. I have been into this gloom and doom band, which stands head and shoulders above any Goth or Industrial band ever, in its own wall-busting genre,  since the early nineties.

I first stumbled across their music during my years at Florida International University’s radio station when it was on the AM dial and played grunge music before MTV (and nobody listened). But Swans was not grunge, industrial, Goth, dream pop, shoe gaze, noise pop or any of those scenes of that era. They were an entity unto themselves. They still are. The band broke up soon after I got into them in the mid-nineties, but 2010 saw the group’s baritoned singer and songwriter Michael Gira re-form the moniker for a new album and tour. I will now finally have a chance to see them live (I have never even bothered looking up live videos of them, as I have only heard of some of their legendary performances, and I prefer to be surprised). I’ll leave you with the rare video “Love of Life” that appeared on MTV’s “120 Minutes” once or twice: relentless drums, minor key piano, roaring guitars, creepy warped backward female voices, quickly cut disturbing images. Don’t call it Goth rock. This is music of grandiose doom…

P.S. Emile at Sweat Records told me Sir Richard Bishop will warm up the stage for Swans with his Flamenco-inspired noise. He is the co-founder of late-seventies-era experimental rock band Sun City Girls.

Another show of note in September includes another dark, re-formed nineties-era act, Berlin’s electro-hardcore act Atari Teenage Riot. They will play the night before Swans (Sept. 13— funny, that’s my deceased, Berlin-born father’s birthday) at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale.

I have heard the band’s new album already thanks to an advance copy from their PR company. Fans will be happy to know that the “hacktavist”- inspired album features Atari Teenage Riot as raucous and ear-splittingly aggro as ever. Is This Hyperreal? (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon via this link) is slated for US release on July 26. They have already recorded one of their new songs during a recent session for Daytrotter, which you can stream or download by clicking on their Daytrotter-drawn mugs above. I don’t know how these geezers can still do it, but just as their new album is true to their familiar sound of inhuman rhythms and screeching electronics, their live shows will probably be just as brain-melting. Here’s a taste of a recent live performance in HD:

Hopefully, September will see even more cool shows in South Florida. If so, I plan to up-date this post, so stay tuned and maybe bookmark this post.

Addendum: Manu Chao to make Miami debut Sept. 9

Addendum 2: Grand Central to host OMD and Cut/Copy, adding to more notable Sept. shows in S. Fla.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)