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Sam's Sonic Freakout

by Sam "Culture Dog" Hatch

Meshuggah – ObZen (Nuclear Blast)

The mega-technical metal monstrosity known as Meshuggah are generally one of those love ‘em or hate ‘em kind of bands.  While their earlier output was oft compared to the classic thrash stylings of Metallica (probably more by accident than purpose), they quickly evolved their sound into that of a throbbing, industrial nightmare. 
On their last release, they even took that tact to the next level – ditching the warmth of 2002’s Nothing in exchange for a clinical sounding experiment called Catch 33.  While that album had a number of individual tracks, it was technically one long song, landing the band squarely in the realm of (very good) self-indulgent prog-metalry. 
ObZen (a play on the word obscene, meant to reference mankind’s discovery of peace within and/or through obscenity) is a half-step back into their traditional style, for gone is the last album’s drum machine (the aptly named Drumkit From Hell software) and returning to the fold are songs as separate entities.
The songwriting however is clearly an evolution of the stuff explored in Catch 33, and upon first listen I often thought I was hearing versions of that album’s main riff recurring here as well.  In a sense, Meshuggah’s particular style sees them slightly repeating themselves in the way a blues artist builds numerous songs around a limited number of key musical phrases.
Their buzzing guitars and staccato bass lines tend to follow the rhythm tracks closely, so there’s more of an accent on percussive trickery than on out and out melody.  The sound at times closely resembles the churning, Roland-derived sturm-und-drang of Justin Broadrick’s legendary Godflesh.  There are guitar solos as well, but they’re more like miniature explosions of chaos theory rendered through seven-string axes.
It’s perhaps fitting that the term “Math-Metal” is so often applied to the work of these Mad Swedes, for they seem to be shedding the skin of ‘groove’ and embracing some sort of nefarious, ritualistic rhythmic codes – perhaps in the effort of contacting some insane Lovecraftian gods in the depths of space.  That said, they don’t sound like other bands that fall into that same description, such as the blisteringly unpredictable Dillinger Escape Plan. 
My mind tends to wander while I listen to Meshuggah albums, but don’t take that as a negative.  Repeated listens have proven that it never wanders during the same moments twice, and that songs that I previously zoned out on completely fascinate me on subsequent listens.  I’ve played this disc no less than ten times before officially sitting down to craft this review, which is necessary due to the fact that major revelations continue to appear with each go.
ObZen’s songs vary in tempo and texture quite a bit, and the typical sludgy numbers are well balanced by the clockwork-like battery found on fast songs such as the opening track Combustion.  At times their world aligns with that of modern metal, and you may be fooled into believing that their output is similar to that of bands like Lamb of God.  That is, until the whole affair gets sucked back into a nearby black hole and stretches out into the warped industrial behemoth that only Meshuggah can conjure. 
Vocalist Jens Kidman certainly screams, but his harsh shrieks match neither the guttural cookie-monster growls of death metal, nor the banshee-like wails of Scandinavian black metal.  He almost sounds like a Skinny Puppy guitar track on his own, blasting forth his lyrics like a chainsaw amplified and manipulated with broken effects boxes.  As expected, there’s an interesting hallucinatory sci-fi take on the songs, which are often reflected in clever titles such as “Pineal Gland Optics”.
The album’s overall concept of commingling spirituality with atrocity certainly evokes thoughts of Clive Barker’s seminal Hellraiser, and the cover graphic (of a bald, bloodied man meditating in lotus position) wouldn’t feel out of place in any of that film’s related graphic novels.  Though I do smell a bit of shenanigans, since the label Nuclear Blast proudly hides the complete artwork behind a stylish cardboard slipcase – and they seem to be using the “secret, banned artwork!” gimmick with a lot of their current releases.
The duality inherent in ObZen comes through loud and clear in the music itself, which challenges the listener to find the heart and soul of what can initially sound like an inhuman machine.  If you’re expecting a disc that you can just throw in and immediately headbang to, you may be disappointed that this one expects you to perform a little mental calculus before unveiling its true self.  The good news is that it’s worth the effort in the long run. 

Portishead – Third (Mercury /Go! Discs)

The new Portishead album is like the final episode of The Prisoner.  For those who have never tripped across the seminal 60s spy counterculture masterpiece late at night on PBS or Bravo, it’s the tale of an ex-government agent trapped on a mysterious island while various ‘superiors’ attempt to crack his brain like a piñata.  Of course Patrick McGoohan as the title character is such a complete and total badass that more often than not he breaks them instead.
Anyhow, the final episode was a gonzo, psychedelic burst of ultimate zaniness.  The show itself was already considered strange by squares and norms around the world, but the rest of us with strangely wired brains simply ‘got it’.  What was interesting about the final episode was that even we of higher brain function and ultimate hipness were still thrown by the finale of the Prisoner.  Even we had to admit – “Damn, that thing was weird!”
The analogy is apt not only because that show and this critically lauded trip-hop band are both steeped in ultimate Englishness, but also because the band’s last album (released ten years ago!) sported a cover image that looked like a still photo swiped from an unaired episode of that groundbreaking television series.  As the name of this disc implies, Portishead have only released three studio albums since emerging from the Bristol trip-hop scene forged by Massive Attack in the early 90s.
They don’t produce much music, and spend most of their time drinking and ‘reclusing’, but when they do get around to tooling about in a recording studio – watch out!  Their first album Dummy sounded nothing like any of the popular American music of the time, and with each subsequent album those of us who think we’ve got them all figured out have been proven wrong.
Third is probably their least accessible album, and will do nothing to sway the votes of the folks who just can’t get into their vibe (like my girlfriend).  They’ve also driven farther down the same dark, spooky road that birthed their second, eponymous album.  There’s not a lot of ‘feel good’ energy on this disc, which is the way I like it.  (Side note:  a friend once recommended the band Garbage to me with the description that they were a ‘less depressing version of Portishead’.  Another friend and I immediately looked at each other and exclaimed, “Who would want a less depressing version of Portishead???”)
Vocalist Beth Gibbons provided a short oasis for us fans back in 2003 with her soft compilation with Rustin Mann (Paul Webb), but it’s great to have the whole band back together again.  Or what counts as the band nowadays – which is Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley and multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow.  One of the initial revelations granted by listening to Third is that the latter fellow seems to have abandoned his turntables altogether.
In fact, the famed trip-hop element has been pared away considerably this time around.  Make no mistake, press play and you’ll still instantly feel like you’re starring in some half forgotten 60s Italian spy film – thanks in no part to Utley’s reverbed, twangy guitars and the vintage drum sounds presumably performed by Barrow.  Gibbons again oozes with beautiful despair, like a creature that would like to howl in agony but just can’t summon the energy.  Whenever I hear her voice I like to picture a vintage cabaret singer holding a pistol to her temple (in this case that’s a good thing).
The disc starts out with one of my favorite songs, the dark, percussive “Silence” - which bounces a driving, lo-fidelity drum barrage against a lush orchestral arrangement.  Again, if the KGB is tailing you and you have to race across London in a desperate attempt to save your life – you’re going to want this song on your iPod.  Did sixties spies have iPods?
I would say that the next song “Hunter” is the perfect retro-lounge soundtrack to bed the beautiful Russian turncoat afterwards, but the super-fuzz guitar breaks and the bits of weird electronic madness might freak her out.  Regardless, the song is plain gorgeous.  “Nylon Smile” derives most of its charm from Gibbons vocals and a perpetually groovy percussion track. 
“The Rip” is a sad, plaintive number led by finger picked guitar until the two minute mark, where it suddenly turns into a Kraftwerk tune.  “Plastic” sounds closer to some of their older material, with a head-bobbing drum line accompanied by some strange, staccato sampled fills.  While a lot of these beats sound like they’re coming at the vocals from odd angles, after a few listens you can feel the patterns behind the chaos and glimpse the true nature of the melodies.  You’ll probably also go insane, but that’s okay since the KGB just caught up you anyhow.
“We Carry On” is another candidate for my favorite song here – and its infectiously catchy main hook sounds like something you’d hear at a sword-juggling performance at some sort of old school Turkish bazaar.  Again, there are some off-putting breaks and countermelodies, but give them time to sink in and you’re hooked for good.
“Deep Water” is a surprise, as it’s a short vocal piece that sounds like it was swiped from some vintage 78.  Beth sings as if she’s a ghost from the 20s, backed by a compressed ukulele.  Not to mention the male backing vocals that are so dense they sound like foghorn blasts if you don’t pay enough attention.  It’s a sharp contrast to the next song.
“Machine Gun” is a ferocious beast that sets Beth’s lovely vocals against a harsh, industrial sampled drum barrage that sounds like, you guessed it, machine gun fire.  It’s great stuff, and eventually devolves into rhythmic nuttiness (and synths that sound like they escaped from the soundtrack of some unproduced John Carpenter film) towards the end.  “Small” is a long, moody dirge that begins with a strong cello presence before morphing into 60s psychedelic prog a few minutes in.
“Magic Doors” sports a surprising funky opening beat (complete with cowbell!).  The chorus is another haunting moment that really gets under your skin, and once it arrives it make you itch with stings of saxophone insanity.  The final song, “Threads”, again sports that classic Portishead drum sound, and even though Beth wails that she’s “always so unsure”, I’m sure that I don’t want her to change one bit.  The disc ends with an ominous, repetitive alarm – probably sonic torture the Russians are using to break you after dumping you in some godforsaken gulag.  It’s not always glamorous being a spy, after all.
My only complaint is that either due to the intentional lo-fi production or overdriven CD mastering levels, my car speakers get completely shredded by the tunes that I really want to crank up, but alas cannot.  It’s also near impossible to assimilate and ascertain the quality of this record on first listen, but that’s not really bad at all.  Don’t decide what you think of it until you’ve given it at least three or four spins. 
The cover image, with its simplistic P logo morphed into the digit 3 commands you to use your own imagination (or third eye) to suss out what all of this weirdness means.  That 3 represents not only the fact that this is the band’s third official album, but that they’re also essentially a trio now.  In this case it eventually becomes clear that three is, in fact, a magic number. 

Oh, Okay...Back to the Top

Yoav – Charmed & Strange (Verve Forecast)

I caught this Isreali/South African/English singer-songwriter opening up for Tori Amos a year ago.  I was impressed by his DIY acoustic performance and the fact that he covered a Pixies tune (Where Is My Mind?).  A few months ago, I downloaded a performance of his on KCRW and soon found out that his full-length release was now available.
In a way, it’s best to see Yoav live, because part of the fun of his music is that he builds all of the percussion and backing harmonies by manipulating and sampling his one acoustic guitar.  Similar to K.T. Tunstall’s looping work, he builds the blocks of each tune one by one through abusing and slapping his axe, screaming into the pickups and employing a dramatic amount of delay.  He describes himself as a ‘frustrated DJ’ and sees the guitar as a means to an end – and will manipulate it any way he sees fit to get booties on the floor.
The deejay on KCRW compared him to Jeff Buckley, but vocally he reminds me more of the L.A. folk/poet Jude or Texan singer songwriter David Garza.  Musically, his layered lead lines remind me a lot of Michael Brook and the kind of delay-derived echo slap featured on songs like Brook’s “Aquamarine”.  Yoav uses these moody backing harmonies to great effect, and his vocal lines are equally accomplished.
There’s quiet, heartfelt numbers (“One By One”, “Beautiful Lie”) and peppier, funky tracks (“There Is Nobody”).  But it’s his “Club Thing” that has burrowed itself into my mind and has since refused to exit.  It’s a great song that I can’t get sick of. Extra points to the producers for capturing him in studio with the same bag of tricks he employs on stage.  It must have tempting to go nuts in the computer and add all sorts of excess noise.  If you can’t catch the man live, this will certainly do. 

Bloodbath – Unblessing The Purity (Peaceville)

This is a pretty badass release for what's essentially a four-track EP.  Bloodbath is a death metal side project made up of members from Opeth (singer Mikael Akerfeldt and drummer Martin Axenrot) and Katatonia (guitarist Anders Nystrom and bassist Jonas Renske) completed by additional guitarist Per Erikson.  This band has been sonically pillaging villages for about eight years now, but this is their first release in six years to feature Akerfeldt on vocals.
Considering both Katatonia and Opeth have wandered closer to the realm of melodic progressive rock, this is clearly a fun, pure death metal release for them to reconnect with their bloody roots.  Still, they can't leave all of their precision behind, so this is a very cleanly rendered release with great production.  Akerfeldt really lets it rip vocally, and proves yet again that for all of his sweet harmonies in Opeth, he's still a death metal growler at heart.  The guitars are crushing as expected, and Axe's technically proficient drumming sounds awesomely beefy and unyielding. 
The only complaint is that there are only four tracks!  This is a bit of an obscure item, for while it's been officially released by the well-established metal label Peaceville, it's only available through mail order from their site or Snapper Music.  Apparently it won't be in stores for another month or so.  It comes housed in a very cool book like package adorned with the popping, blood red logo and fan artist Dusty Peterson's awesome imagery of wolf monks performing some sort of blasphemous baptism.  It may be just a teaser, but it'll certainly do until their live DVD comes out!

Rush – Snakes and Arrows Live (Atlantic)

It used to be that the Canadian super-prog-trio Rush would release a live album after each four-disc arc of studio releases, but the old template has apparently been thrown to the wind.  The band's last four studio efforts (starting with 1996's Test For Echo) have all seen a CD or DVD (or both!) live counterpart.  The most recent was the awesome R30 anniversary tour release, but diehard Rush fanatics are always looking for new material.
Their recent release Snakes & Arrows has been one of their biggest hits in a while, and it is a great album that continually grows on me.  Clearly this is a band that has still yet to creatively 'jump the shark', and this live release cobbled together from two shows in Holland certainly spotlights their vibrancy.  Apparently a DVD version is also on the way later on in the year, but this will definitely keep my car rockin' in the meantime. 
One of the first things that jumped out at me was the unusual amount of new material present on this two-disc set.  While I loved the 3-disc Rush in Rio set that followed their awesome Vapor Trails album, I was slightly disappointed that there were only a handful of that new record's songs present.  This time, there are no less than 9 songs from Snakes & Arrows, including all three instrumentals!  A recent interview with Bassst/Keyboardist/Vocalist Geddy Lee revealed that the complex layers found in their newer recordings make them harder to pull off live, but I'm glad they gave it a go!
As a trio pulling off ginormous sounding rock epics, Rush have always been impressive with their onstage ingenuity.  As always, Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson maneuver all sorts of backing tracks and effects with the use of soundbanks operated by foot pedals.  Clearly all of this could easily be done by some guy at the soundboard, but this group never takes the easy way out, and wants to let you know that they're essentially 'playing' even the pre-recorded samples.  Lee gets most of the spotlight for singing while playing badass bass riffs and keyboards, but Lifeson is no slouch himself, jumping around on numerous different guitars and even the lute-like Mandola during “Workin' Them Angels”!
And of course there's The Professor, the unbridled giant of rock drumming - Neil Peart.  As always, this unassuming Tom Hanks lookalike sits behind his massive kit and pounds it into oblivion with mind-boggling precision.  Never a slouch, he even learned an entirely new drumming technique a few years back and can still beat the crap out of the kit better than ever.  As expected there's a sweet drum solo included here - an insane bout of battery known as “De Slagewerker” that includes plenty of new bits.  He also triggers numerous sound effects during the regular songs, and even sets off guitar chord samples here and there!
The setlist is pretty cool from a fan perspective, since the better-represented jams such as “Closer To The Heart” and “2112” are pushed aside to allow room for newer stuff and deep cuts.  Of course there are still plenty of regular faves, from “Subdivisions”, “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” to “Dreamline”, “Distant Early Warning”, “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”. 
It's nice to see “Between The Wheels” (from Grace Under Pressure) has retained its place after the R30 tour, and this is the first time I've run across a live version of Permanent Waves' “Entre Nous”.  The long, driving jam “Natural Science” was already released live on the Different Stages set, but it's such an awesome tune I'm always glad to hear it again!  Other suprises include 80s numbers “Digital Man”, “Mission” and the very cool “Witch Hunt”, as well as a few vintage numbers such as “Circumstances” and “Passage to Bangkok”.
The cool thing about Rush pumping out so many live discs is that any egregious omission is probably easily found on another release.  While I could always dig hearing some more old stuff like “Anthem” or “Bastille Day”, I think it was smart to fit in more of the material from Snakes & Ladders.  Soundwise, this is a solid effort that equals the R30 collection a few years back.  Rush In Rio was always a little dodgy, but that was more from the insane circumstances surrounding that gig.  The bottom end here is beefy and crushing, yet none of the finer elements get lost in the mix.  Lifeson uses alot of acoustic guitar in the newer songs, and it fares well against Ged's bass and Neil's punishing drums.
The packaging is an attractive folded digipak covered in Hugh Syme's photorealistic imagery - including the cover shot that I kinda wish had been the cover of Snakes & Arrows proper.  The booklet included sadly lacks the usual Neil Peart philosophizing, and sticks to stage shots from the tour.  It gives you a good look at their setup, from Lifeson's important dinosaur army guarding his amps to Lee's "Henhouse" BBQ Chicken Roasters (which are even mic'ed!) that replaced his old clothes dryers/snack machine combo.  While I appreciate the look of the digipak, I'm still always leery of keeping the discs housed in cardboard since my discs from Different Stages are all now needlessly scratched due to their packaging.
If only I could afford to go to their upcoming CT show on the second leg of the tour!  Even as a member of the fan club, the pre-sale prices were $110 a ticket!  I'll have to settle for this disc and imagine being there at the front of the stage rocking out!  Can't wait for the DVD release - hopefully they'll also put it out as the first Rush Blu-ray!  I can't wait to see all of the comedy videos and the South Park bit that preceded Tom Sawyer!

DVDs and Surround tracks reviewed on a surround sound system made up of Rotel, SVS and old-school Advent gear.  Video was evaluated on a 100-inch screen generated
by a 3-LCD Sony HD projector fed to an upscaled 1080i image from a
firmware-upgraded PlayStation 3.


Listen to Culture Dogs every Sunday night at 8 PM for an hour about films on the
local scene (and at your local video peddler) with Kevin O'Toole and Sam Hatch.

  Listen live at 91.3 FM WWUH and 89.9 WAPJ Torrington and wwuh.org.

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