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Music and Culture (sort of...)
Sam's Sonic Freakout

by Sam "Culture Dog" Hatch

  I realize it's been quite some time since I've written one of these review column-type thingies, and I've sadly let plenty of great releases slip through the cracks. So with little time to spare, I rifled through my collection looking for some great CDs/DVDs that weren't released too long ago. So without any further ado, delay or even hooplah, here's what I found amidst the releases on my dusty shelves.

Joseph Arthur - Nuclear Daydream (Lonely Astronaut Records)
  I'd like to take credit for discovering Joseph Arthur ten years ago, though I should probably concede that Peter Gabriel found him first. Back in '96 when I was digging around in one of Boston's great record stores, I tripped across Arthur's first album (Big City Secrets) and instantly fell in love with it. Songs like 'Mercedes', 'Daddy's On Prozac' and 'Haunted Eyes' became part of the soundtrack to my life during the late nineties. Joseph left Gabriel's Real World label shortly thereafter, and has been regularly releasing critically acclaimed records ever since. His latest release Nuclear Daydream finds him occupying the same musical skin, though vocally he's undergone a drastic transformation. It isn't until the 5th or 6th track on this release that a hint of his earlier, tortured death rattle comes through. Overall he sounds less like the bastard child of Peter Gabriel and Iggy Pop and more akin to a mixture of Beck, Damien Rice and Neil Young. Though Arthur writes circles around Beck, and can craft memorable, quirky ditties effortlessly. Arthur's earlier work was cast more in the traditional singer/songwriter vein, but the tracks on Nuclear Daydream are more focused on mood than on poetry. Not to say that there is a lack of poetry altogether, as 'Electical Storm' delves into the cyclical nature of birth, death, wolverines and trees. The songs are all relatively short, but complaining about the lack of overall album length would be like griping to Nick Drake about Pink Moon being too short. There are 12 tracks in total, and the opener ('Too Much to Hide') is one of those songs that feels like an old favorite about halfway through the first listen. While that tune would feel at home on any given Matthew Sweet album, the style of the remaining tracks varies wildly. 'Enough to Get Away' sounds like The Pretenders crossed with Heather Nova, only, y'know, sung by a guy. Most of the songs are built upon Arthur's acoustic guitar, but there is plenty of deep bass to be found as well. He's also a good harmonica player, but it doesn't appear on this album until the intro of 'You Are Free'. He also dabbles in a bit of Lennon-esque piano on 'Don't Give Up On People', though it winds up sounding more like a Blur song than something like 'Imagine'. Expect to be hearing plenty of these tunes on upcoming film and TV soundtracks. Then you can impress your friends and family by saying "I've got this album. It's Joseph Arthur!"

The Sword - Age of Winters (Kemado Records)
  Things are gonna get ugly in the world of 70's retro-rock. For years, an underground genre has existed in which bands channel the sound of classic Sabbath with no pretensions of making money or achieving fame. Newer bands such as Witchcraft go so far as to record albums with strictly vintage instruments, amplifiers and taping equipment. This music, generally called Doom, has been secretly thriving beneath the topsoil of popular rock and metal for years. It has never been considered profitable, but it has a very loyal fanbase that helps it sustain its niche status. And now it's primed to messily collide with modern rock radio and non-Doom listeners, mainly thanks to the success of Australia's Wolfmother. With the trend of recapturing the vibe of 60's garage rock on the wane, it only makes sense that new, young bands would latch onto the concept of reimagining classic Sabbath. Unfortunately, through naivete they probably didn't realize they were about to step on some very big toes. As expected, the big guns of the Doom genre aren't getting any recognition now that its newer, less developed sibling is gaining in popularity. You could call Wolfmother the Green Day of Doom if they were ever a part of the underground in the first place, but they weren't. Houston's The Sword are also garnering weary groans from the Doom elite as well as kudos from the mainstream press. They're mainly called to the carpet for 'appropriating' the sound of the much-loved Doom band Sleep. That said, Age of Winters is a darn cool album, right down to Conrad Keely's awesome fantasy cover art. On first listen, if you start feeling like a pelt-clad Elven warrior fighting mythical beasts (with the jewel-encrusted sword given to you by a mysterious, beautiful woman who appeared in a snowswept field) alongside a pack of wolves, then the album is working its magic correctly. The guitars are downtuned, distorted and heavy. The drums have a thick, Neanderthal Steve Albini-ish sound. Song titles like 'Celestial Crown', 'The Horned Goddess' and 'Lament for the Aurochs' yield similarly fantasy-driven lyrics. Whether or not you take it as the second coming of 70s rock or as tongue-in-cheek retro swill is up to you. Either way, I think it rocks!

Mastodon - Blood Mountain (Reprise Records)
  Mastodon have quickly conquered the heavy music market in a few short years, and many were expecting their newest release (their first on a major label) to be a sell-out in some fashion. Those people were wrong, of course, as Blood Mountain is still just as uncompromising an entity as any release in their catalog. Mastodon are hard to pin down. They're huge fans of Neurosis and Iron Maiden, but sound like neither. Brann Dailor's drums are a whirling dervish of energy, and owe more of a debt to experimental jazz than to traditional metal. Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds' dual headed guitar beast is steeped in countless influences. For every neck-snapping heavier-than-hell riff, there's a countrified finger-picking ditty that makes you go "What the?" before it crushes your skull again with another beefy riff. Troy Sanders' bass work is all slippery, unsettling thunder, while his vocals are equally hard to define. In earlier work he was more intent on a harsher Neurosis-style vocal, while on their second full-length release 'Leviathan', more actual 'singing' emerged. Blood Mountain continues this trend to exploit further melodic material, and Brent Hinds steps up support vocalist efforts to provide more vocal coloring this time around. Mastodon are known for their terse lyrical storytelling ability, and they indeed communicate just as much meaning through mood and song titles alone than with the actual lyrics. Leviathan was primarily a concept album based on Moby Dick, while Blood Mountain is a band-conceived story about an uphill quest to find the fabled Crystal Skull. Similar in concept to Dante's Purgatorio, multiple encounters occur during the trek up the hillside, and we get to meet The Birchmen and creatures such as the Cysquatch. Once the skull is attained, instead of setting a spirit free to attain paradise, it acts as a pseudo-Kubrickian Monolith and evolves the human that holds it, ridding them of their reptilian brains. And musically, it sounds just like you'd expect it to given the subject matter. Put it on, and if the first track 'The Wolf is Loose' doesn't rock your world, then your world isn't worthy of proper rocking! (How's that for a weak threat?!) Blood Mountain is an uncompromising, crushing release from one of the best bands on the planet. Take that, reptilian-brained naysayers!

Gojira - From Mars To Sirius (Prosthetic Records)
  For those who think that quote unquote extreme music has to hail from either the United States, Scandinavia, or the United Kingdom, take note. The metal wilderness known as France has unleashed Gojira (named after the original Japanese version of Godzilla) upon the world, and they are a supremely talented bunch. Their latest release is as beautiful as it is brutal, and can only be described as a mash-up of Morbid Angel and the soundtrack album to the film Lost In Translation. There are plenty of moments driven by blastbeats and unyielding double bass drums, but there are also moments of sublime emotion. Fans of Isis and Pelican will be duly pleased, as will traditional metal accolytes. Much like with Mastodon, the vocals are never easy to pigeonhole, as singer Joe Duplantier is just as deft at delivering beastly growls as he is channeling the sound of Killing Joke vocalist Jaz Coleman. The artwork (also done by the singer) with its imagery of humpback whales sailing past moons in the depths of space is also reflected in the lyrics and song titles. Harsh distorted guitars trudge through opening track 'Ocean Planet' with as much emphasis on crushing riffs and harmonic bends as on slow-picked, melodic (though slightly atonal) chords. 'Unicorn' is a sparse, mellow track backed by samples of whalesong. It lulls you into a false sense of security before 'Where Dragons Dwell' unfurls, a fast-picked beast that opens with a churning intro that makes you want to curl up and cry as much as it inspires you to 'throw down' in a mosh pit. 'The Heaviest Matter In the Universe' follows, and well, the title kind of says it all. 'Flying Whales' is another slow picked groove with a great bass line to match. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. From Mars to Sirius isn't just one of the best metal releases of the year, it's one of the best releases period, whether of the year or the decade. Metal bands should strive for this kind of greatness. Emo bands wish they could be this good, and can only achieve the mood-drenched atmosphere of this release in their wildest dreams. Finally, an album you can just as easily listen to in a frothing mosh pit than in an open field under a dark, starlit sky. Watch for the space whales! And now for the only DVD release on this list.

Rush - Replay X3 (Anthem Entertainment/Universal Music)
  Rush fans have been eagerly anticipating DVD releases of the band's classic home videos, but we never expected to get them all in one fell video swoop. Hot on the heels of the superlative R30 boxed set, Anthem entertainment has collected three previously released 80's Mercury-era concert films and bundled them together with a bonus audio CD containing the Grace Under Pressure tour performance. The bad news is that although the video looks better than on my laserdiscs, there was apparently only so much they could do to enhance the transfers, and plenty of video noise and artifacts abound. When the purple light on bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee's face is striated with bars of pink color, it's not your TV that's going bad, it's just the ugly nature of really old video. The image also retains the soft look of traditional analog sources, and obviously can't hold a candle to the band's newer concert releases. I griped that the Rush in Rio DVD wasn't anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, but that is a moot point with this release, as all three videos are in their original squarish 4:3 television format. The good news is that all three concerts are presented with an uncompressed stereo PCM track in addition to new 5.1 surround remixes in both Dolby Digital and DTS formats. I listened to that latter during all three discs, and am happy to report that the surround mixes are done rather well. Naturally, crowd noise primarily occupies the rear channels, but Geddy's synth work and Alex Lifeson's guitar also worm their way behind the listener from time to time. By the release of the Moving Pictures album, Rush had turned an artistic corner, so fans keen on viewing classic video material are urged to check out the bonus disc on the aforementioned R30 disc. That said, the Exit Stage Left disc is still close in time to their traditional 'space rock' era, and renditions of 'The Trees', 'Xanadu' and 'By-Tor and The Snow Dog' sound just as beefy and rocking as they should. The only major disappointment is that Beneath, Between and Behind (from the sister CD release of Exit) doesn't arrive on the video, nor does a complete version of 'YYZ' with the Neil Peart drum solo. 'YYZ' does appear in its entirety on the second disc (Grace Under Pressure), which is also notable for its inclusion of all three parts (as of 1984) of the Fear Trilogy ('The Enemy Within', 'The Weapon' and 'Witch Hunt') in numerical order. Grace Under Pressure is one of the band's criminally underrated albums, so it's great to have a live counterpart to that album. Moving Pictures fans will also be delighted to find that 'Vital Signs' also appears on the set list. The classic songs don't sound quite as crushing as on Exit Stage Left, mainly because Geddy Lee had at this time moved on to a headless Steinberger bass that has a different sonic characteristic than his old Rickenbacker warhorse. Keep an eye out for the cool bandanna-wearing youth playing air-drums along with Neil during 'YYZ'. The longest disc in the set is A Show of Hands, which covers the tour following their Hold Your Fire album. The set is dominated by tunes from that album and Power Windows, though they do delve into some classics during the medleys in the latter portion of the set. And finally, a Neil Peart drum solo makes its way onto videotape. The bonus Grace Under Pressure CD disc contains the same PCM stereo track found on the corresponding DVD. I bought the special version found at certain brick-and-mortar stores that contains extra CD tracks, and was expecting a longer version of the same concert. I was slightly disappointed to find that the bonus tracks are just random songs picked from the other DVDs in the set. So don't feel bad if you can't track down a copy with the 'exclusive tracks'. The packaging is great, with a huge foldout case covered in cool artwork by Rush design mainstay Hugh Syme. An extra bonus is miniaturized replicas of the programmes for the Moving Pictures, Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire concert tours.

  ...And that's all she wrote. I wish I could review the upcoming 2-disc special edition of Opeth's Ghost Reveries, but you'll have to wait for my next installment for that little wonder. In the meantime, spin and enjoy!


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, 89.9 WAPJ Torrington and wwuh.org.

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