Tool’s Fear Inoculum – impressions

First a tangent. I’m so disappointed the Sony noise canceling ear buds (WF-1000XM3) aren’t out yet. Listening to music for the purpose of a review while on a train is just brutal. These headphones are getting great write-ups as an upscale Air Pod replacement. I have been thrilled with the AirPod (1st Gen) for connectivity and sound, in that order. Hooking up to phone (with adorable animation) had never been so easy. And I also like the sound. Now, I have a chance to get improved sound (because the Sony is sonically better and because it has the active noise canceling). By all accounts, I will sacrifice some ease of connection because only Air Pods and Power Beats Pro have the H1 chip, but I think I can manage. Having now introduced other devices to my Air Pods, I almost never get to see animation, and it is not uncommon that I actually have to connect under Bluetooth in settings. Not so easy after all. So, just a few more weeks till the Sony comes out. 

Now on to the new Tool record, Fear Inoculum. I have an interesting history with this band, despite not being a huge fan over the years. I’ll get to that history in a second. Everyone knows that this is the first release in over a decade. I have not yet ascertained the reason for the delay, but the music really stands (or falls) on its own. I’m not too worried about an explanation on the earliest listening. 

Sometimes it’s good to just take the work on its own. I realize artistic expression is often designed to have a certain outcome. Sometimes bands get back together after a really long hiatus just for the money. can you imagine? Music, perhaps more than any other mode of expression, gives the audience a chance to approach the work on its own terms, without the worry of someone constantly trying to make the hand fit into the glove. 

Also, it should be noted that this album features the ‘classic’ lineup (thank you, half-assed internet research). I have an unexpected affection for the original bass player Paul D’Amour. He helped create one of my favorite albums of he 90’s after he checked out of Tool. It was Free Mars and the band was Lusk. Nothing else came of that project – no tour, no follow-up record, nada. D’Amour has landed on his feet twenty plus years later as the bass player for Ministry. I have no idea what kind of creative control he has in that endeavor, but when he DID have maximum creative input, the result was spellbinding. I could go on at length about Lusk’s one and only record, but instead I will draw focus back to more relevant matters. The new Tool.

There is a thickness to the sound with thunderous and rhythmic drums and heavily distorted guitars. Odd time signatures and polyrhythms create an atmosphere of constant movement, almost bordering on chaos, but it’s cool. That power remains, almost drones, and forms the contrasting backdrop over which singer Maynard James Keenan spills his poisoned honey. Even from the very beginning: 

Immunity

Long overdue 

In other words, when you get to be this old, you can’t be harmed any more. Not by the fear of life’s cruelty and uncertainty. No explanation about why it’s overdue. Like I said above, it doesn’t really matter. My opinion might be that the Immunity CAN’T come without that passage of time, and that what seems overdue is actually quite punctual. But the real sentiment is that the freedom of Immunity should have come sooner. That dissatisfaction and agitation is the young man’s game. The game that involves a stalking vision of inadequacy. This band still runs from that. This is not an album by aging superstars who are now somehow comfortable in their own skin. Instead, the search into thse dark sounds and the pain they suggest is an ongoing process. Indeed, the more time you take off, the more you have to prove upon return. 

It’s not just Immunity, although that’s a good place to start and even gives the album it’s name. But the lyrical theme at the albums dramatic conclusion shifts from the ‘I don’t give a fuck you can’t hurt me’ to the other key ingredient that can only come with time: familiarity. 

You are darkness

Trying to lull us in, before the havoc begins

Into a dubious state of serenity

Acting all surprised when you’re caught in the lie

We know better

It’s not unlike you

The worry over being ‘overdue’ is now replaced by a cunning that can only come with age and experience. 


Let’s turn to the music. As much as Keenan provides a substantive incantation that speaks to a primal and violent side of masculinity, the amount of time when the vocal instrument is silent is by far the majority. 

When it comes to music, the intensity of my love necessarily creates a lot of baggage. I have listened and studied and learned and joined and rejected and tried and failed to love every kind of music. Heavy Metal could charitably be described as a blind spot. I look to the familiar ground of Prog. Dream Theater is not a band I adore, but I have listened to several of their albums and have seen at least one love performance. I know their association with both Prog and heavy metal communities. Does that help create an easy path to Tool? Many have told, and I have read as much, that Tool is a form of Prog band. 

There are similarities with Dream Theater, but I’m more struck by the difference. I would summarize the key distinction as patience. Tool seems to be a far more patient band. Perhaps that is evidenced by the thirteen years it took to get this record released. When Dream Theater engages in a ten plus minute excursion, it’s often a dance of swords. There are acrobatic feats of daring that keep the listener on their toes. Tool may employ a fancy time signature, but the emphasis is more on a chunka chunka built around Danny Carey’s controlled chaos. The pattern may be hard to discern at first, but it is there and it is relentless. 

Guitarist Adam Jones is a founding member, yet his playing is so understated. There is not a single solo in this mass of music that seeks to draw too much attention to itself. On the contrary, the purpose of guitar on this record appears to be building drama and clearing a path for percussion. 

And that’s the on-ramp. I was really surprised to learn that Tool wasn’t started by Carey because that polyrhythmic thunder seems to be the foundation of Tool’s sound. And not just on this record. This percussion design is not a motif or calling card, it’s more like a religion, or physics. A unifying principle from which all things in Tool-world can be better understood. Having embraced that for the first time while listening to this latest record has been a powerful revelation. 

Hot take alert. I apologize in advance, but to put this in context I would suggest that the funk infusion which makes Rage Against the Machine so listenable and lovable is a mere parlor trick by comparison. A gadget play that subsequent history has proven to be unsustainable. The building plod of Tool, on the other hand, is more akin to an infinite army of Lovecraftian nasties, marching over the hill with an unimaginably huge Cthulhu leading the charge. 

Both are heavy music, but in one case the reference point (hip-hop, rap, funk) takes over and becomes the thing itself, larger than anything in Rage’s music. They put themselves behind the eight ball. With Tool, the sparse simplicity of tone and poly rhythm suggests a much greater power, of which we can only see a glimpse. 

Oh, to be young and fit again

And this brings me to the opening of Lollapalooza 1993. In the sweltering August heat of Philadelphia, a friend and I staked out a space just behind the mosh pit. We were waiting to see Rage Against the Machine, then at the height of their powers. And we saw them alright. All of them. Because they came out, each completely naked (thank you, Red Hot Chili Peppers, except of a large letter painted on the chest. They turned all amplifier setting up to maximum and laid down their instruments with pickups facing the speakers. This created the most horrifying and painful feedback loop anyone should ever have to experience. The noise continued unceasingly as the band members came to the front of the stage and spelled out P-M-R-C. Take that, Tipper Gore!

After what seemed like an eternity, an unknown quartet came out to take Rage’s place. I don’t remember much of Tool’s set, but I’m proud to say I got to see one of their earliest performances. Now that I have embraced that big beat, I’m going to have an even better time reuniting with my old friend in another seat just behind the mosh pit. 

Mommy, Daddy, We Are Legion

SPOILER ALERT! Major plot points of seasons 2 and 3 of Legion are discussed below.

When this final season of FX Network’s Legion began, the previewers told us this was a story about time travel. That’s certainly a big part of it, but now that the last episode has aired, the more important thematic take away for me was about ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ and all that is conjured by those two simple and complicated concepts.

First, telling a story well, whatever the story, involves communication aimed at all the senses. That’s not so easy with a TV show where only our ears and eyes are open for business (smell-O-vision, anyone?). But I think show-runner Noah Hawley had the right idea about the very unique comic-book adaption Legion, which just wrapped up on the FX network a couple nights ago. This show, unlike, say, ‘Better Call Saul’ draws so much attention to its production that it risks distracting from the story. Maybe that’s by design, as the story of Legion‘s final season involves a lot of time travel, plus a land between time, plus the Astral Plane, plus three new characters who are REALLY important. Lots of stuff going on.

Do the audio and visual elements help explain the story? Or does the story provide a playground for the outrageous production? Or does it even matter?

Well, yes and no. If the viewer has absolutely no idea about the plot and where their sympathies should lie, then there will be zero investment. It will be like looking at a pretty rock.

The good news is that Legion season three does a decent job of telling the story of how David Haller, an omega-level mutant with unimaginable power, realized, to some extent, that he had become a force for evil, and sought to go back in time to change his behavior and save the world. There really isn’t too much more you need to know.

That basic framework is the sandbox in which this show successfully plays with ideas of love and family. The time-bending plot and the over-the-top production cause a different kind of confrontation with those issues, fusing the universal with the inexplicable.

Song and Dance

One of Legion’s calling cards is the fabulous musical set pieces. In the very first episode of Legion ever (S01e01) we got a sensational Bollywood dance tribute. Earlier in this season we had a somber and beautiful sing-a-long with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” And for our big send off, we get David and his young mum Gabrielle performing a duet of Pink Floyd’s “Mother.”

Hush now baby don’t you cry
Mama’s gonna make all of your
Nightmares come true
Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you

It’s a brutal note, but fortunately not the one the series wrapped up with. Still, the mommy pain is important as it comes, in part, from David’s being adopted. He has felt abandoned and unloved his whole life. Mix that with probable mental illness he inherited from Gabrielle, and his near god-like abilities, and the fact that he was basically inhabited by a malevolent demon for most of his life, David is deeply damaged goods.

Bad David

Much of the third season is about the cult that David forms, planting the seed of love (and desire) in all of his attractive adherents. They call him “Daddy.” It’s creepy as fuck, especially considering this is an expanded version of the power he used to rape Sydney (ex-girlfriend) in the second season. That particular horror was so effective because the viewer had no idea how bad David’s action were while they were being depicted. Wait a minute, is this… ?Is he…? Did he just…?

Syd is much more than just the ex-girlfriend, of course. She is, in effect, the true protagonist through most of Season Three. Her backstory deeply concerns being raised by her wealthy single mother, and she has her own formidable mutant power to manage. As David tries, and fails, to get from Syd the love he was denied from his biological mother, Syd refuses to conform herself to the reality David needs. It is the one place where he is powerless.

My Three Dads

And of course we have dad, or should I say dads. There is Charles Xavier, himself a super mutant and David’s biological father. There is Amhal Farouk, the demon mutant secretly living inside of David for over thirty years, and then there is young Amhal, before he lost a telepath battle with Charles and subsequently infected the son for revenge. Current day Amhal explicitly takes credit for raising David and says he loves him. These four clash beautifully at the end, each with their unique point of view on the matter at hand (saving/controlling the world), but it is a clash of wits and words, using, as the show always has, cheap practical effects to effectively suggest other times and dimensions.

Demonic fake daddy

We see Charles and David working together as a mutant super-force, maybe for good. We see Charles and current-day Amhal trying to bury the hatchet in the astral plane. We see David trying to murder young Amhal before he has a chance to infect. It all ends in a dramatic and satisfying truce where maybe, just maybe, all the adversaries understand each other a little better.

Love Doesn’t Always Win

And then we are left with Syd and David and baby David. An appropriately fucked-up version of the nuclear family based on what Legion has provided so far. As they await their trip to oblivion that a new timeline will bring, they look down at the baby and he is their baby. In the characters’ final exchange, there is dulled pain, acceptance, and sadness, but not despair. David is his narcissistic self: “I have to say, I didn’t think you’d help me [change the timeline, save the world, whatever]. Syd responds, looking down at baby David: “I didn’t. I helped him.” She then tells adult David to “Be a good boy,” and we see the baby, smiling just as he did in the first episode of the series, Syd and David disappear (as parents do), cue the ‘Happy Jack’ and we’re out.

Baby David, on sheets the color of a devil’s yellow eyes

It’s a bit frustrating because, as the same Pink Floyd song asks:

Ooooh aah, is it just a waste of time?

So, there’s ample reason to think maybe this will all repeat. I’m not too worried about that, though. We had three seasons of emotional, fun and risk-taking TV. So, whatever conspiracy theories may arise from the actual ending of Legion, I’m not too broken up if this is really it.

As a parent, I greatly appreciated the reconciliation between time traveler Switch (who sort of made this whole mess possible) and her father. This was an emotional catharsis that I needed to not be so overwhelmed by the uncertainty and sadness of the main story lines. Switch was a new character appearing only the last season and still, with limited screen time, was able to make a tremendous impact. The same can be said for David’s parents Charles and Gabrielle. They are new, yet pivotal. Somehow, without the prior seasons for development, and competing for screen time in the current season, they are still able to make sincere contact with the viewers’ emotions. It’s a great testament to the writers and performers.

The Impenetrable Beauty of Love

Two characters who both embody and transcend the parent/child relationship are Carey and Carey. They get an elegiac ending that is supremely fitting for their one-of-a-kind connection. She calls him “old man” and he says that doesn’t work any more because she has now caught up to, and surpassed, him in age. Then she says: “Then how about ‘brother’?” and Carey responds: “That works, my lover. That works.”

There are aspects of love that make no sense and can never be put into words. That’s why sumptuous productions and big musical montages are so important. You can’t just do it with words. But we need words, even when they will never be adequate. Ultimately we have to go with what works.

And maybe that’s a better place to stop with Legion. It’s colorful and crazy and pretentious and over, but that works.

The Mega-Shuff, ep. 1

Stephen Stills – Pensamiento from Bananafish Gardens (1973)

What a song to start off the Mega-Shuff institution! This is the randomness that you worry about with such an experiment, and there’s almost certainly no other way I would have explicitly wanted to listen to this recording. Stills is frustrating. He is a multi-instrumentalist, does all his own stunts in terms of songwriting, producing, performing, and even had the Jimi Hendrix seal of approval. Having seen Stills a bunch of times in the 80’s, I can confirm that he is a prodigious guitar player, a real blues man. He dabbled with mixing the music of other cultures into his brand of popular folk/rock, but he never went as far as he should have with it. As much as I dislike the music of Paul Simon, there is no denying the absolute brilliance of Graceland. Stills arguably had the music-biz juice to execute such a move, if he had it in him, but he was a apparently bogged down by the fame and fortune of his super-group. As much as Stills has given us over his storied career, I can’t help but think there was even more brilliance that we missed out on.

This isn’t the version from Bananafish Gardens, but about six months later, and it’s very similar.

 

Primus – Golden Ticket from Primus & The Chocolate Factory (2014)

There’s no way I would have picked this one and so the deities of randomness and algorithms assert their unyielding will again. My best argument (to myself) is this band’s extraordinary approach to rhythm. Perhaps that’s owed to original drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander returning to the band after a hiatus. That means that return of Rush and early Peter Gabriel solo as major influences – that’s real progressive rock! But, for better and worse, there is usually no space for nostalgia because of the band’s aggressively individualism. I could never argue with the true progressive credentials of Primus – there is a fearless persistence to define their own sound that makes the albums utterly unmistakable. That’s some strong branding. At the same time, there is a delicateness that is missing. When prog and fusion giants roamed the earth, there were moments in the composition that recalled a more primitive form of music, a jazz or blues riff here, a Scottish folk progression there. If used correctly, these forms can provide emotional context to the complexity that, on its own can make some prog and fusion tiresome. While this may be a full subject elsewhere, suffice it to say here that Primus, as much as I want to love everything the band has produced, doesn’t ‘swing’ – a lot of the time. Maybe this is evidence of my lacking a good appreciation of Heavy Metal as a genre. Even here, when Primus has progged out to the extent that this is a full concept album, I still can’t get completely on board.

 

David Bowie – TVC15 from Los Colinas (1983)

I’ve certainly been thinking about Bowie enough recently. As i try to get back into playing a band, it is helpful to learn more well-known songs. Bowie has a ton that check the boxes of fun to play, viscerally appealing and recognizably popular. This particular track is more of a deep cut that i might have occasionally heard on classic rock radio of my youth. What particularly interesting about this version is that it features Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar. SRV’s prominence on “Let’s Dance” is revelatory. The circumstances which lead to him NOT touring with Bowie in support of that album are summarized in this article. I disagree with the notion that Bowie “made” SRV’s carrier, whether indirectly or directly. SRV was going to become the colossus he became, no matter what. The rehearsals for that tour are one of the great bootlegs in circulation. You can hear the entire concert on YouTube.

 

Mississippi Fred McDowell – When I Lay My Burden Down (1968)

When I talk about my experiences in music, there is a clear distinction between music I learned how to listen to, discovering nuance and soulful beauty in complexity and chaos, and music that affected me more like getting a wrench smashed into my funny bone. Sometimes things would just click for me because of what my parents listened to when I was growing up (Bob Dylan, Neil Young), but I didn’t get exposed to too much blues music. And yet it has clicked, possibly because I discovered it at the same time I was trying to lean how to play guitar. Regardless, Muddy Waters and BB King quickly became regular listening. Then I graduated to John Lee Hooker and Albert King. And then, years later, I discovered the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues and the gentleman farmed called Mississippi Fred McDowell. This track appears to be from March of 1968, but I can’t find the name of the other vocalist.

 

Bonnie Raitt – Love Me Like a Man from Ultrasonic Studios (1972)

WHAT A COINCIDENCE! Probably not. Probably proof that there it is more algorithms than actual randomness. I continue to hope that randomness plays some role. I want to see the dark corners of my collection. The reason it’s no coincidence is that in 1970, Bonnie backed up Fred McDowell at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. They became friends and Raitt studied guitar from the undisputed master of the Mississippi Hill Country Blues. Here is the audio for the entire glorious session, which features legends Lowell George and John Hammond Jr. Love Me Like a Man is the first tune.

 

#stephen/stills #Primus #David/Bowie #MIssissippi/Fred/McDowell #Bonnie/Raitt

 

The Mega-Shuff

Overview:

For many decades I have been collecting albums, live recordings, bootlegs, outtakes and any other kind of ear candy. I started with vinyl and then cassettes for the car and then CDs and MP3’s and now streaming music. Throughout all of these iterations, I have tried to discover more and more different kinds of music from different kinds of artists from every corner of the globe. I have my favorites, of course, but the thrill of discovery may be the most favorite thing of all.

 

I invariably engage in contextual listening. The purely aesthetic experience is always there – and I certainly know what I don’t like – but I’m always thinking about how one title sounds next to another – as a DJ would select track after track to purposefully create specific feelings and reactions on the part of the listeners.

 

Context is not limited to how one song followed by another may reveal previously unknown aspects o both works. Context includes the familiar personal, social, racial, political and economic aspects of work. Sometimes these aspects are front-and-center and sometimes they are hidden. Sometimes these aspects inform a negative view following a positive aesthetic reaction. In such a scenario, the listener is really forced to make a choice and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Active listening is always encouraged!

 

My focus here is on this narrow type of context – that generated by modern convenience of being able to shuffle, with apparent randomness, through tens of thousands of songs with no overarching connection other than that they are in MY collection. That will be the jumping off-point and from there I’ll engage the music in whatever manner it strikes me.

 

#music

Mike Bloomfield – From His Head To His Hands To His Heart

Michael-Bloomfield

Been waiting a good long time for this one.  Here’s Vintage Guitar magazine on the tendency Bloomfield’s playing had to change people’s lives.

Mike Bloomfield had that effect on people.  For a Jewish kid playing the blues in the mid ’60s, that’s no mean feat. But regardless of who his influences were and how proficient he became at various styles that preceded him, there was guitar playing before Bloomfield and guitar playing after Bloomfield. It’s as simple as that.

The compilation comes out next month.

KING CRIMSON RETURNS

robert-frippOld and new – should be very good with Mel Collins back in the fold after a FOUR DECADE hiatus:

The 8th incarnation of King Crimson will be Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk and Robert Fripp.

Writing on his (not yet published) dairy for September 24th Fripp notes “The Point Of Crim-Seeing was of a conventional Back Line – Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin and Pat Matstelotto – reconfigured as the Front Line, with Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk and myself as Back Line.”

Robert goes on “All the Crims have expressed great excitement at the return to Go! mode. Given the considerable commitments of all members, it will take a year before Crimson is able to perform.”

Bill Rieflin mentioned to me that he told Jacknife Lee (REM and Robbie Williams’ producer) of the triple drumming, and Jacknife’s reply: Of course. We know what two drummers sound like! I’m hoping we’ll find out, and have a pile of fun doing so.”

In his (not yet published) diary for September 7th Fripp begins “dear brother crims, we have one year to prepare for action of the savage variety, and be in Go! mode for september 2014… but essentially, King Crimson is in motion.”

Robert expects that they’ll be rehearsing, in full and small group formations over that period.

From DGM official.