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Sam's Sonic Freakout

by Sam "Culture Dog" Hatch


Blackfield – Blackfield NYC:
Blackfield Live In New York City (Snapper DVD)

 Porcupine Tree maestro Steven Wilson has been musically partnering with Israeli singer/songwriter Aviv Geffen occasionally since touring Israel together about eight years ago.  Their sonic collaboration Blackfield has yielded two emotionally charged CDs, and plenty of the songs on those discs appear here on their first live DVD.
Given the spectacular audio/visual quality of Porcupine Tree’s Arriving Somewhere DVD, Wilson fans will be justifiably expecting top-notch material again.  And while Blackfield NYC goes for a different surround tactic that focuses more on a solid front soundstage, it’s still an aurally pleasing affair.  Caught live at the Bowery Ballroom in 2007, the video side of the spectrum also perfectly captures the feel of the venue and delivers the desired ‘you are there’ effect.
The first impression the disc leaves on the viewer (apart from its attractive, slim packaging) is that the menu screen chooses to include a graphic of the New York City skyline that prominently features the now-felled World Trade Center.  Given that neither Wilson nor Geffen are New Yorkers (or American at all), it’s cool that they were moved enough to pay tribute and prove that even in their absence the towers are still part of the city’s spirit.
The interactive menu can be a little slow to navigate, but it’s easy enough to select your audio track of choice (either 2-channel PCM or DTS 5.1 Surround – I opted for the latter) and get a move on.  The menu also pulls a bit of trickery by presenting itself in a square, 4:3 television format, but once the concert gets going it’s in glorious 16:9 widescreen (and properly formatted for widescreen TVs – huzzah!) The first track “Once” begins with a chugging barrage of drums, building anticipation in the viewer until the rest of the band arrives to kick things off. 
Soon it becomes apparent that this release is thankfully free of the manic, MTV camerawork that plagues numerous live releases.  We actually get to focus on what’s happening on stage, and even in the audience (which may or may not contain a number of WWUH luminaries…) Shadow detail is excellent, and accurately renders the murkier, grayish blacks of the back of the stage with the lights up.  This may fool you into thinking that the picture is washed out, but keep an eye on the bass drum and note that it is pitch black compared to some of its surroundings.
When the stage gets darker and the deep colors come out to play, the blues, greens and reds are incredibly rich and seemingly pop off the screen.  Overall you get a great, three-dimensional visual sense of being on stage with the musicians.  Viewing the DVD upscaled to 1080i, details are near HD in nature, from Aviv’s facial stubble and eye glitter to Wilson’s beautiful gold PRS guitar and the texture of its frets, complete with bird-shaped marker inlays.  During close-ups you can even see the tarnish on Wilson’s guitar slide.
The DTS surround track is also very good, and delivers a strong, spacious front stage with surrounds populated by drums and keys (and of course the frothing Blackfield fans in the audience).  While each instrument isn’t quite as localizable as on the aforementioned Porcupine Tree DVD, Wilson’s guitar can usually be clearly heard in the left front speaker.  The exquisite vocal harmonies are also repeatedly mixed into the surround channels, while the lead vocal lines generally emanate from up front.  Each man’s voice is accurately represented, from Geffen’s aggressive vibrato to Wilson’s soothing tones. 
There’s a nice, warm bottom end to the recording, and a very natural sound that works as a great counterpart to the realistic visuals.  There are a number of great moments, from the carousel-like intro to “The Hole In Me” (and the hauntingly beautiful performance of “1,000 People” that follows it) to a surprise encore of “Once” and the rousing crowd sing-along during “Cloudy Now”.  There’s not a ton of onstage banter, but Wilson does give a bit of a history lesson regarding the song “Open Mind”.  And amorous fans of Geffen will likely be pleased that he strips off his shirt for the last four or so tunes.
The disc also contains a picture gallery and three Lasse Hoile promotional videos – “Hello”, “Pain” and “Blackfield”.  All three contain Hoile’s distinctive filmmaking style, and have a faux-vintage patina to them that compliments their soundtracks.  Each video is in 48khz PCM and is refreshingly presented in enhanced widescreen.  Overall, it’s another solid video entry from Wilson and company.  If only all music DVDs held to these high standards of presentation.

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Bass Communion – Pacific Codex (E=mc16)
 
Speaking of Steven Wilson, this is the seventh release in his series of ambient collaborations under the Bass Communion nomenclature.  In this instance both he and Theo Travis perform the sonic noodling found within through percussive utilization of the metal sculptures of artist Steve Hubback.  It’s like Blue Man Group, but without the body paint and stripped way, way down.
I suppose this technically counts as a DVD review, since I didn’t listen to the CD disc but opted instead for the DTS surround mix on the accompanying DVD.  This disc also includes an option for two-channel PCM listening, but the surround version is the only way to experience this release. 
A 4:3 menu invites the listener to select their audio preference, and also offers the option of browsing through a photo gallery of work by Carl Glover.  However, once the tracks proper begin playing, there’s no visual accompaniment at all – just a relentlessly black void staring back at you as the first immense “BONG!” booms ominously at your head.
There are only two tracks present (totaling around forty minutes), so your best bet is to simply surrender yourself to their length and allow them to assail you in the darkness.  As expected from a collective called Bass Communion, the bottom end here is pretty impressive.  Some of the louder passages contain a throbbing rumble that goes on for what seems to be forever.  For an example, skip about eight minutes into track 2 and hold onto your bowels.
Some have likened the listening experience to being in the hull of a sinking ship and listening to it fall apart, which I can’t argue with.  Though apart from the rumbly, gonglike sounds that begin piece, more high-end percussive hits arrive later.  These remind me of some discs I have of Tibetan bowls being played.  There’s also some bright noises in the surrounds that reminded me of the spacy moog stings populated throughout the opening of Rush’s Cygnus X-1 from A Farewell to Kings.
The tonal layers generated by the surround mix really bring the recording to life, and it’s impressive when waves of sound move over you from back to front.  The first track begins with such an experience, where the building ‘music’ transports from the rear to the front soundstage and then expands.  Another great surround experience is the series of noises that open track two – they sound like water droplets continually falling behind the listener.  When they bounce around from speaker to speaker it’s almost enough to drive one mad!   
While on the surface it seems like the tracks are amorphous noise experiments, there seems to be a recurring pattern wherein a crescendo is reached about every ten minutes, leaving the track to rebuild itself from there.  This is abandoned however during track two, which settles into a constant aural barrage about halfway through that sounds a bit like whalesong. 
From the initial booming attacks to the final sonic sting at roughly thirty-nine and a half minutes, Pacific Codex is a listening experience best met in DTS 5.1 with the lights off.  Its Kubrickian coldness left me constantly anticipating a new evolutionary stage in my humanity.  Sadly, I remained the same old fleshy biped once the disc stopped spinning.  Or did I?

Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV (The Null Corporation)
 
It looks like NIN mastermind Trent Reznor has found a wellspring of creativity alongside a new level of disdain for corporate record labels.  The Australian release of Year Zero was a prickly issue for the aging goth-industrial icon, since ‘the suits’ behind it admitted that the price of that album was kept high on purpose since they knew his built-in fanbase would buy it regardless of cost. 
Now ol’ Trent’s following hot on the heels of Radiohead by issuing a multi-tiered self-release of his new quadruple-EP set of instrumental works.  In a way he’s bettered that band’s digital download template by offering high-quality LAME encoded MP3 tracks and multiple lossless audio options for the same price.  Of course there’ll be a hard copy double disc release come April, but those who order early also get to download the digital version to tide them over. 
It seems business is great, since the first week of sales alone netted over a million and a half dollars.  There was even a $300 limited uber-deluxe edition that sold out almost instantly.  The numbers are pretty impressive considering this is essentially an experimental recording.  So assuming you’re Thom Yorke or Trent Reznor, you truly can live without a record company!
The thirty-six tracks that make up these EPs are all relatively short, with the longest just barely petering out before the six minute mark.  Some are what you might call ‘typical’ Nine Inch Nails, with Reznor building slowly around simple, four to eight note piano doodles.  There’s a high level of DIY at play, and at times it sounds like he’s banging on cabinets in his house to create percussion loops. 
Perhaps the most surprising element of the release is just how many funky tunes there are on it.  There’s even a slide guitar line that sneaks out at one point.   Other tunes rock more significantly, leaving the listener to instinctively await the harsh howl of the man on vocals.  In this case, you’ll have to add your own. 
Which is actually something Reznor himself relishes, since he released this project with an open rights scheme that allows people to rework or mangle it for their own purposes as long as they give credit where credit is due.  He also mentioned that he has some specific fan-participatory ideas in store for the world shortly.  Apparently, there’s also a YouTube video-creating contest as well. 

That’s apt, since this thing really sounds like a soundtrack to a movie that never existed.  Reznor’s done music for video games before (how many of us NIN-nerds went out and bought the demo CD of Quake just because it came with all of his background music?), but he clearly has the chops for tackling a silver screen project.  Here’s hoping something good comes his way.

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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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