Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The best of 2012, Part 1...

It's approaching that time of the year where music critics and fans pick some arbitrary number of their favourite albums over the last arbitrary 365 (or 366) day period.  I'll do that too, because lists are fun (lists of that kind, anyway.  Lists of chores = not so fun).  But in the meantime, as a sort of a predecessor and whilst I figure out exactly where the excellent new Deftones album slots in to my arbitrary list, I've instead got another list... this one of arbitrary musical things that I thought were worthy of mention, or recognition.

Best Live Album and Best Live Band
Machine Head - Machine F**king Head Live
Too easy, really.  Iron Maiden's En Vivo isn't half bad but it isn't Flight 666 and it certainly isn't Live After Death.  Alter Bridge's Live at Wembley is pretty decent without ever completely knocking it out of the park.  But you know what? Even if those two albums were mind-bogglingly awesome, they would still not come close to topping Machine F**king Head Live.  This album is everything a live album should be.  The setlist is near-perfect... leaning heavily on their excellent last two albums whilst also having the best of the older stuff.  The performances are intense, spirited, powerful - great renditions of some great songs.  And crucially, this live album captures exactly what a good Machine Head gig is like - a savage, beautiful maelstrom.

I was lucky enough to see them in February - they were astonishingly good.  And this album reminds me exactly how astonishingly good they were, live.  If you are a metal or hard rock fan and you have not seen this band live, you need to sort that (do not settle for just buying this admittedly excellent live album).
Best EP
Down - Down IV: The Purple EP
Does anyone remember all that talk a few years ago about how digital EP's were going to replace CD albums as the prevalent form of music distribution?  That sure never happened.  The EP is actually getting to be almost a lost art-form, which is a damned shame (according to iTunes, a single with two live b-sides constitutes an EP now, sadly).  Despite that, this was not as much of a one horse race as you might expect - the Company Band's Pros and Cons EP was also pretty solid.  But Down's latest was a sludgy, thick beast of a thing, a big return to form after their slightly hit-or-miss third album.  Oh, and Phil Anselmo also gave one of the best interviews I've ever read.

Best Music Video
I didn't really watch many music videos this year, to be honest.  Seems slightly odd in the YouTube era, but anyway.  Testament's video for Native Blood was pretty cool.  But in the end, El-P produced not one but two standout music videos, for a couple of tracks from Cancer 4 Cure: The Full Retard and Stay Down.  So I'm just going to give the award to El-P and then not have to figure out which is the better video.  It probably comes down to whether you have a bigger thing for inappropriate puppets or 80's schtick.

Best reissue
[still to be decided]
Before I start on this, whoever is is responsible for setting local pricing of some of the reissue box sets is ABSOLUTELY GOUGING.  Both the Rage Against the Machine XX reissue (2CD/2DVD/LP) and the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie reissue (5CD/1DVD) are getting local pricing which is ridiculously out of kilter with US pricing.  The flash version of RATM will set you back US$75 on Amazon... or NZ$225 from a number of local retailers. After accounting for currency conversion and shipping, the price difference is circa NZ$100 more if you buy locally.  That's completely ridiculous.  Not quite as bad in the case of Mellon Collie (US$128 versus NZ$225, and arguably still overpriced in USD terms!), but still material.  I suspect it's the local distributors trying to extract the best they can out of the small NZ market - but screw that.  I buy plenty of my music off Amazon now anyway and this will only reaffirm my commitment to do that.  This is only going to hurt NZ retailers when consumers switch to ordering online internationally, so the distributors are probably shooting themselves in the foot.

Anyway, after that little rant, the contenders (subject to me ACTUALLY BEING ABLE TO AFFORD THEM) are:
Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction 20th Anniversary
Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine XX (20th Anniversary)
Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Best album released 10 years ago
Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf
2002 seemed like a great year for music at the time, and looking back I think it still holds up pretty well.  But nothing from that year has held up as well as the remarkable Songs for the Deaf, the third - and best - QOTSA album.  It's an album I always seem to return to regularly, a fantastic hard rock record which has that timeless quality to it that all really great albums have.  It sounded unique and original then, and it still does.  QOTSA took everything they did so well on Rated R - great hooks and catchy melodies - added a whole lot more raw energy and edginess (largely thanks to Nick Oliveri, who left not long after), and produced a hard album that brilliantly straddles heavy and melodic. 

Coincidentally, ten years since he last drummed for them, Dave Grohl is back behind the kit for QOTSA during recording sessions for their new album following the abrupt departure of Joey Castillo.  I'm pretty excited about this because Grohl's drumming was a big highlight of Songs for the Deaf - maybe it'll add that extra edge that they've missed since Oliveri left (it certainly worked for Them Crooked Vultures).

It's always a great track live - but this performance with occasional contributor Mark Lanegan on vocals and Grohl on the kit is one of my favourites:

Best weird obscure limited-edition singleClutch - Pigtown Blues
This is really just an excuse for me to mention this song, which is excellent.  It took a while to grow on me but once it took hold there was no letting go.  It's hard to imagine this on any Clutch album as it is a slightly quirky (albeit groovy) number, so I can understand the logic for the single release.  Did I mention they have a new album coming next year?

Anyway, the top albums of the year will follow in the not-too-distant future...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

League vs. Rugby, are we still on about that?

With the ARLC recommending that the shoulder charge be banned this week for the 2013 NRL season, the league versus rugby debate seems to have been (unfortunately) reignited on comment threads.  Again.  This blog was always intended to be primarily a music blog but I am so honest-to-god sick of seeing the rugby-head (league is an inferior imitation) mentality on display that I couldn't not write something.

So here we go, a bunch of myths that rugby-heads try to perpetuate about rugby league, and why they are wrong (or in some cases, entirely hypocritical).

I should preface all of this by saying that I am a league fan.  I am also a hockey player and umpire.  I occasionally watch rugby, but not very often, and not as much as I used to (some of the reasons why may be evident below).  I don't think union sucks.  I just prefer league, and other sports.

1. "League is just 5 tackles then kick it"
Wrong.  Ever seen Ben Barba or Greg Inglis on a kick-return?  Nothing predictable about that.  Even in 'regular play' teams will have specific plans for the tackle count, typically working it either straight up the middle, or to one side and then the other.  By the 4th tackle, the backs will be involved and then all sorts of options come into play.  Sometimes there's a kick on the fifth.  Sometimes there isn't.  Some of league's most memorable tries have been scored when teams didn't kick it on the last and were deep inside their own territory.

League's structure provides a lot of opportunity for backline moves too.  In rugby, this would typically only happen from a set-piece.  In league, it's a possibility every time a team is inside the opposition's half.  Watching the Storm or Bulldogs backlines in action, running second man plays or whatever else, is pretty impressive stuff.

2. "League is a joke as an international sport"
True, but hypocritical and pointless.  Rugby union is only slightly better, really.  In league there are only three teams with a serious crack at the World Cup - NZ, Australia and England.  In rugby union there's also a clear top tier (NZ, Australia, South Africa), but there's also a pretty reasonable second tier from Europe (plus Argentina).  But this is a silly point for league-haters to make for several reasons.

Firstly, both are completely crap as so-called 'international' sports - comparable to ice hockey, arguably behind cricket, and certainly nothing compared to genuine global sports like football, basketball and field hockey.

Secondly, it's a mistake to assume that international competition is the pinnacle of league, or any sport.  Many would say State of Origin is, for league.  However, international competition fits into the league calendar around the NRL (and Super League) club season.  The club season is what the fans primarily get excited about.  And there's a good reason why - the NRL is a well-organised, well-structured competition.  It's competitive - on a given day, any team can beat any other team (and upsets do happen) - this is thanks partly to the salary cap and partly because the current NRL is well aware of the dangers of over-expansion, thanks to the disaster of the mid-1990's (anyone remember the South Queensland Crushers?!).  Super Rugby doesn't seem to have figured this out yet.

Anyway, in league, test matches are something of a cherry on top of the season.  There's nothing that says sport has to revolve around international matches - basketball and the NBA are a good example here.  The AFL is an even more extreme case - Collingwood's average home crowd in the AFL was 56,000 in 2012, and I doubt any of those fans care that the sport is almost unknown outside of Australia.

3.  "Union provides for a more diverse range of players"
This is true, but pointless.  Between locks, props, loose forward, halves and outside backs, union does have a broader range of player sizes.  You can generally figure out who the halves are on a league team; beyond that it can get hard.  But so what?  This is elite level sport.  Most soccer players have a similar build.  So do most hockey players.  It's nothing to do with body shape and all about skills, attitude and athletic ability.

I'd also suggest league's structure creates more scope for the smaller players to use their speed and agility.  Someone like Robbie Farah can cause absolute havoc out of dummy half against a tired opposition forward pack.

4. "League players (and fans) are dumb and/or thugs"
This is wrong, and a stupid thing to say.  The suggestion here is "your sport sucks or is somehow less worthy because the average IQ of the players and fans is lower".  Take this to its logical conclusion, and the pinnacle of sport would involve some sort of battle between Einstein and Stephen Hawking, watched by the members of MENSA.

Like any sport, some league players are smart and others are not so smart.  But they're on a sports field, not working at NASA, right? They are there to be good at the game, not to be rocket scientists.

At least league players have got a bit of personality too.  James Maloney has made some great quips on Twitter, as have others.  I'm sure the NZRU would be pretty quick to squash any similar banter if it came from contracted union players.

Anyway, the same point also applies to allegations of thuggery.  Yes, league has players like Steve Matai who keep the judiciary productively employed.  But it's pretty farcical for rugbyheads to throw stones of this nature when they live in glass houses - look at the sort of silly, dangerous acts we've seen this season from Dean Greyling, Adam Thomson, Rob Simmons and others.

As to the fans, it's no different.  Some league fans are smart and others are not so smart.  I know passionate league fans who are CEO's, teachers, builders, and accountants.  The fan base is as diverse as any other sport.  Let's not forget also that a lot of NZers are both rugby and league fans - so there can't be that much difference in a small place like New Zealand.

I will also add that I have heard far more creative, clever and downright hilarious sledging (of the opposition, referee, and occasionally the home team) at Mt. Smart than I've ever heard at Eden Park.  I've witnessed the odd person do something a bit dumb, or who was a bit too wasted, but I've never seen any fights.  I'd probably liken the camaraderie between league fans to a bit like what you get at a metal concert.  People are passionate, and not afraid to show it - but you rarely see them getting stuck into each other.  Maybe they drink Lion Red instead of Steinlager.  So what?

5. "League is simple.  Union is far more complex"
True - if we're talking just about the rules. 

But is that actually a bad thing, having simple rules?  I know from playing and umpiring sport myself that confusion over rules or interpretations is probably the single most frustrating thing there is for players and fans.  About the only thing worse is when the referee makes an absolute howler of a decision.  Clear rules mean that players know exactly how far they can push it, what they can and can't do - this is totally crucial at the elite level where the best players are experts at pushing it to the absolute limit.  There's nothing good about a penalty being awarded for reasons that neither players nor fans can understand.

And the trouble with union's complex rules - and rule interpretations - is that this does happen, and it influences the outcome of games.  Scrums in union can be a total lottery and the ruck situation is not always much better.  Confusion over which team collapsed the scrum can (and does) lead to one side getting a points-scoring opportunity that they should not have had.

As for the gameplay itself, I appreciate that there is considerable depth to rugby, and I've already explained above why league also has a lot more depth to it than than non-fans might realise at first glance. 

6. "League is very stop start.  Union is always a flowing game"
False.  Yes, league has regular tackles and play-the-balls.  These are no more disruptive to the flow of the game than a ruck in a union match.  There are far fewer stoppages in a league match - no lineouts, de-powered scrums (which are, admittedly, a bit of a joke), and less injury stoppages (given the interchange rules).  Consequently, the actual time the ball is in play is quite a lot higher.  About the only time there is a break in play of more than 20-30 seconds is when a try is scored, or there is a referral to the video referee.  Aside from that - it's all on.

Finally, I would add that I don't really care too much that rugbyheads perpetuate these myths.  What bugs me is that they are either wrong or irrelevant.  If you're going to start slagging off other sports - especially rival codes - at least say something sensible.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Soundgarden - King Animal

Soundgarden aren't the only band from the late 80's / early 90's Seattle era on the comeback trail, but personally, I think they had the biggest obstacles in their way.

There's a real art to finishing on a high, you see, and Soundgarden managed this when they split in 1997.  They pulled the plug on the back of Down on the Upside, a good album which followed two legendary albums in Badmotorfinger and the exceptional Superunknown.  Things were starting to get messy internally, so they parted ways before creative or musical decay set in, before it could get to the stage where they were just phoning it in.  I've always thought they were posthumously accorded a certain reverence as a band for this exact reason - they called it quits at the right time and left a great legacy.

The other thing making it tough for them is that their contemporaries have set the bar quite high.  Pearl Jam have put out consistently good albums - and have garnered a deserved reputation as one of the greatest live acts in the world (not to mention that they change the setlist up practically every night).  Alice in Chains put out a great comeback album, Black Gives Way to Blue, and proved that despite losing legendary singer Layne Staley, they were still a major musical force to be reckoned with.  Nirvana, well, they continue to maintain demi-god status but I'd maintain that's got more to do with Kurt Cobain's face being on a lot of t-shirts and Dave Grohl's subsequent antics than it does with Nirvana's actual recorded output (better I don't get started on that).

And now here we are, in 2012, with a new Soundgarden album.  Frankly, for a while, there were pretty long odds on that ever happening.  Singer Chris Cornell spent time with Audioslave, and seemed pretty happy doing his own thing and putting out solo material (I'm going to resist the opportunity for another potshot at Scream).  Drummer Matt Cameron linked up with Pearl Jam, and proved to be a great - and permanent - solution to their revolving door line-up of drummers.  Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd did various things that no-one really paid that much attention to (which is a shame, really, because they are both excellent musicians).

Putting all this together, I think Soundgarden had more to lose than to gain with this album - collectively, at least.  Hearing their first 'post-reunion' track Live to Rise, from The Avengers, only fuelled that view - it's pretty by-the-numbers for a band who generally excelled at anything but that.

Nor was I any more hopeful after opening track Been Away Too Long.  It's a decent enough rock song, I guess I just didn't expect a reasonably straightforward straight with a reasonably obvious message. 

But oh my does it ever improve from there.  Second track Non State Actor is an absolute gem, with a glorious opening groove from the band that shifts and segues through the verse, before hitting a great chorus, simultaneously psychedelic and melodic.  It's a song that steadily unfolds, that demands your attention, and never settles for second place - there are subtle twists and turns throughout.  When I listen to this track, it feels like the band started with a good idea, and then threw absolutely everything they could at it to make it even better (whilst individually performing at the top of their respective games).  It's so good, that it convinced me the reunion was worth it just for this one song.

It's followed up with By Crooked Steps, an aptly-titled continuation of Soundgarden's Wacky Adventures in Weird Time Signatures.  Not content with accidentally writing songs in odd meters (example: Spoonman), this time they've excelled themselves by pairing a fairly straight riff (seemingly 4/4) with a series of weird and wandering time signatures.  But, music geekery aside, it's a interesting, catchy track.

There's a couple of head-nods to major influences on the next couple of tracks - the eastern-tinged A Thousand Days Before recalls classic Led Zeppelin (partly thanks to Kim Thayil sounding particularly mystic), whilst the doomy, sludgy Blood on the Valley Floor has a distinct Black Sabbath flavour to it.

Bones of Birds and Taree are both steady, mid-tempo numbers.  The former is a big highlight - intricately detailed with layered guitars and vocals, whilst maintaining an effortless catchiness to it as well.

Attrition is essentially Kickstand 2012 - a fairly straight-ahead punkish track, although it's a welcome change of tempo ahead of the winding acoustic groover Black Saturday - which will make you wonder why Messrs. Cornell and Thayil never pulled out the acoustic guitars a little more frequently on Soundgarden records (I suspect Cornell's Songbook tour was a formative influence on this track).

Cornell is also a clear influence on Halfway There, which almost sounds like it might have fit better on a Cornell solo record.  It's more of a pop song - not a bad one - but it almost sounds a little too, well, happy, to be Soundgarden.

Worse Dreams and Eyelid's Mouth are both classic Soundgarden - heavy, thick but infernally catchy - and the album finishes with the experimental, sparse, Rowing.

All told, King Animal has more than enough moments of sheer excellence from Soundgarden - both collectively and individually - to hold its head high amongst their impressive back catalogue.  It'd be easy to criticise the inclusion of Been Away Too Long and Halfway There as obvious singles, but I'm happy to overlook that when they're sitting alongside tracks where the band takes big risks (with big payoffs), like Black Saturday, Non State Actor and By Crooked Steps.

History is littered with bands who have cast a poor light on their legacy by either flogging a dead horse, or making an ill-advised 'comeback'.  King Animal is neither of these things, and a very clear reminder that Soundgarden are as unique - and relevant - today as they were 15 years ago.  Welcome back, guys.

edit: A mate (cheers John!) has just drawn my attention to this recent live performance of By Crooked Steps.  Well worth a watch.  I never really spent a lot of time talking about Matt Cameron in my original review, but this reminded me of his ability.  He always seems to play with a great feel for the song - even when it's in some weird-ass time signature - but never overly flashy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Unexpected surprises...

A couple of unexpected musical surprises have infiltrated my iPod in the last week.

The first was the new album from ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, entitled Lost Songs

One never knows quite what to expect with Trail of Dead.  Ten years ago, they released the universally acclaimed Source Tags and Codes, which followed the also-pretty-decent Madonna.  It was a great album in a year of excellent releases off the beaten track - that year we also had The Music's self-titled debut (a peak they sadly never managed to repeat), Down's outstanding second album, and the mighty Songs for the Deaf (ironically, ten years later, Dave Grohl is now back playing drums for Queens of the Stone Age on their new album following Joey Castillo's departure).  Anyway, one of the many great things about ST&C is that Trail of Dead struck an exceptional balance between hard hitting and wistful, energetic and restrained, tight and sprawling.

It sort of went downhill from Trail of Dead after that though.  Follow-up album Worlds Apart started with a hiss and a roar with the brilliant Will You Smile Again? (bonus points for the stupendously good intro in 5/4 time) but from that point on Trail of Dead started a downward tilt, with nothing to write home about on the rest of that album or the next two.

So I was caught a little off guard by last year's Tao of the Dead.  Having essentially written this band off, an 'epic prog rock concept album' had 'potential disaster' written all over it.  Except it actually turned out to be very good.  Colour me once again a Trail of Dead fan, albeit tentative.  And it was in that frame of mind that I approached Lost Songs.

One thing you can never accuse Trail of Dead of is being lazy or afraid to experiment.  ST&C and Tao were good for exactly the same reasons that some of their other material was forgettable - some experiments turn out great and others inevitably flop. 

It's probably no real surprise then that Lost Songs sounds almost entirely different to its direct predecessor.  In fact, Lost Songs largely eschews the sprawling, progressive aesthetic in favour of an unashamedly direct, almost punk approach.  And it's really, really good.  From the outset, there's considerably more emphasis on riffs, shouting, distortion and crash cymbals than we've heard from this band in quite some time, but it's balanced out well by the occasional mid-song wistful meander. 

There's still hints of prog, most notably on the mid-album melancholic groove of Flower Card Games.  But in general, the riffs are big, the drumming is fast with plenty of tom rolls and rapid-fire snare, and the choruses are best shouted.  It never really feels unrelenting or repetitive though, thanks to the occasional atmospheric diversion.  And there's a few huge euphoric moments too that recall tracks like Days of Being Wild - most notably Bright Young Things.

Overall, a very enjoyable album and I'd almost go so far as to call myself a Trail of Dead fan once again.

Moving along, the second unexpected surprise is the new P.O.S. album, We Don't Even Live Here.  To be clear, this was unexpected purely because I forgot it was coming out and I'd preordered it from Amazon.  I had few doubts that it was going to be a good listen though - Never Better was one of my favourite albums of 2009, and last year's Doomtree album (of which P.O.S. is a member) was also very good. 

There's definitely a strong electro influence evident here in terms of production, but equally P.O.S. and the various other producers continue to layer in actual instruments to give a slightly more organic sound.  P.O.S. still maintains his trademark excellent delivery and flow - he's sonically direct but lyrically abstract, if that makes any sense. 

As an album it's well put together, with an easy flow from one track to the next and no weak moments.  There's nothing perhaps as instantly stand-out as Drumroll (We're All Thirsty) from Never Better, but the album as a whole is a real grower and there are still some pretty exceptional tracks - most notably Lock-picks, Knives, Bricks and Bats, and the propulsive Weird Friends (We Don't Even Live Here).

I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop these days but I still can't help but feel that P.O.S. doesn't seem to get the props that his music deserves.  We Don't Even Live Here sees P.O.S. consistently delivering some clever, insightful lyrics combined with some great and often unique production. 

When it comes to hip-hop in 2012, We Don't Even Live Here is right up there for me with El-P's Cancer 4 Cure.  Intelligent, different and consistently good.