Sontag Shogun - Tale

You don't hear a lot of piano at the vanguard of contemporary music. Where the piano once served as the most mainstream instrument for much of western culture, I often wonder if the itinerant lives of most composer-types today guide them almost intuitively away from those imposing masses of hardwood and cast iron resting in the corners of their professional lives. We place so much collective value on portability, even in our relationships with the arts: recordings should be accessible from anywhere at any time, musicians should tour to share their work in a fluctuating variety of venues, and their instruments should easily tag along in car trunks or overhead compartments in airplanes. Pianos, then, are sometimes for the concert hall, but mostly for home, keeping their secrets from a past where the instrument was more prominent.

However, those same attributes that might lead some to regard the piano as a sort of phone booth of the musical instrument world in terms of portability hold emotional capacity in abundance. As a non-portable instrument in a globally-connected world, the piano can't help evoking stability in space, continuity in time, a kind of grounding force. Piano is home, indeed. The piano speaks to gently fading memories, unshakable nostalgia, longing at great distances, and to the weight of returning, forever changed for having been gone.

I'm as swept-along by the portable/mobile/always-busy routine as most folks, and these elemental forces concealed at the piano were almost forgotten to me until I had the privilege to welcome spring with Sontag Shogun's "Tale." This album is flawlessly arranged to evoke deep feelings with the subtlest of gestures: field recordings/environmental sounds, ambiguous dialogue samples, space transmissions, and synth pads intermingle, dilating time and geographical distance, peering through layers of reverb and delay. But no matter how remote any individual detail within this complex soundwork might feel, everything is ultimately married to a species of pianistic permanence. Stylistically, the music flows in many directions, including contemporary classical, experimental improvisation/sound-art, big-budget cinematic drama, and tuneful, almost indie-pop forms at times (and sometimes the music is moving in several directions simultaneously), but the piano writing anchoring it all reminds me a lot of Arvo Pรคrt's best work: steady and reverent, pressing toward the sacred but in a universal style.

The record has a very literary vibe for me. There's the album title itself, of course, but on the macro level, it works with the kinds of extreme contrasts needed for dramatic structure: memories versus the present, isolation versus togetherness, dreams and imagination versus stark realities. Song by song, these opposites intertwine with a real sense of purpose and movement, forming what feels a bit like a captivity narrative in which the "natives" we're struggling to understand are ultimately our own memories, and our own sense of place in contemporary culture as viewed through travel and geographic distance. It only seems right, then, that this album is released through Sontag Shogun member Jeremy Young's Palaver Press, where "Tale" is part of a larger body of work combining print, sound, and visual media.

My favorite section within "Tale" falls toward the end of the album, with the wonderful back-to-back pieces "Beyond Wynd Gey" and "The Musk Ox." These pieces roughly demarcate what feels like the climax through the denouement of the larger narrative of the album: "Beyond" feels more tense and ominous then earlier parts of the record, with lots of electroacoustic elements drawn into a dense, complex mix. Starting with metallic drones, tapping sounds, wind, and voice fragments, a synth and tape manipulation section slowly reveals the piece's piano theme, which goes through lots of sampler permutations and blends with backwards electronic sounds and a chorus of speed-manipulated voice samples. "Musk" follows with gorgeous melancholy piano work suspended in an incredibly detailed mix, subtle vocals swelling in and out. This is probably the richest, most satisfying piece here, feeling like those first hesitant steps after a good cry. I also found "Let the Flies In" particularly notable as almost the opposite of more open, unpredictable pieces like "Beyond." It's the closest thing here to a "pop song" in terms of structure and having formal vocals with lyrics. Subtle background ambience with rich stereo panning underlies pianos joined by organ pads, and there are lots of beautiful harmonized falsetto passages that I really dig, featuring guest singers Liam Singer and Cheryl Kingan.

You can pick up "Tale" on Bandcamp, but I'd recommend spending some time browsing the Palaver Press site while you pick up a copy instead. The upcoming "audio-lit" project described there, which will publish new fiction along with new music, sounds really exciting. You'll also find an event calendar there that will keep you informed of upcoming Sontag Shogun performances, which are reputed to be fantastic immersive experiences that include the ensemble's own video loop collages.


Spanyurd - OOW

I haven't been following heavy music scenes like I did in the oughts, but I still get down with aggro jams when they're done right. And Chicago's Spanyurd has been killing it for the last four years. Their latest EP, "OOW," was released in the spring by the always-surprising Already Dead Tapes & Records, and it's ready to be the soundtrack for 20 of your craziest minutes this year.

There are just five short tunes on "OOW," but this dense, ambitious album evokes more ideas than most full-lengths. If you're into Guerilla Toss, this is squarely up your alley, but there are other potent vibes at play, too: at times I'm reminded of the relentless high-tempo attack of early Dillinger Escape Plan, like the walls of lethal guitar/drum clusters in the intros to MARTINfitzgeraldLAWRENCE or ORENTHALjamesSIMPSON. On the "VOZAR" side of the sound, Plethora "MC Naptime" Haystacks' vocal delivery often reminds me of later Daughters albums or even the Jesus Lizard, rarely resorting to all-out screaming but continually building tension with a menacing kind of delivery that pulls you further into the music. The overall vibe reminds me of a whole slew of bands along the Load Records/Skin Graft continuum without sounding beholden to any. They strike a great balance between casual noiserock and startling precision, and make non-repetitive songforms interesting with thoughtful shifts in tempo, dynamics, and density at every turn.

Like a lot of the Skin Graft/Load scene referenced above, they lean toward irreverence instead of depressed or angry vibes. Song titles reference various celebrities (if you count Fenriz, and I totally do) with their "real" names elided together. The "lyrics" they list for the album on their Bandcamp page are pulled from other sources: Sinatra, 311, Montell Jordan, etc (though they aren't the actual lyrics in the tunes). And the art is just fantastic--this is easily my favorite cassette art of the year among some pretty steep competition. Spanyurd's mascot of sorts is this intense dude in a classic luchador wrestling mask, with a Rey Mysterio-style cross on the forehead, and this image is set on the perfect pastel pink background on the cover. The teeth of this character, cleverly forming the band's name, also appear on the side label, and there's more phenomenal art on the inside of the j-card that I'll leave you to discover for yourself. Absolutely perfect. If you check out Spanyurd's Facebook page, you'll find more wicked Mr. Luchador art that's been used in band flyers over the last few years.

My favorite tunes here are probably the opening track, ORENTHALjamesSIMPSON, full of slippery guitar work over solid drum/bass riffage, great shifts in dynamics, and almost pointillistic layers of bending string atmospheres in the outro, and album closer, GLENallenANZALONE, with the most flashy drum work on the album, and riffs that blend old-school thrash with Providence noise-chaos. But at 20 minutes, every song is great, and I think it works best as a full-album experience. The tape sounds phenomenal, and considering how great thou art for this release is, I would highly recommend picking up the tape from Already Dead while they're still available. But you can totally rock the digital edition at the Spanyurd Bandcamp, too, and be sure to check out their earlier releases while you're there.

Spanyurd is presently looking for a new vocalist, and they're also working on some longer tunes that feature some repetitive sections. Definitely excited to hear what they do next. And if you live in Chicago and you're down for some acrobatic vokills, you should make the magic happen!


The meta-ennui of modern life: reviewer reviewing reviews of reviewers

"It will most likely sound better on your computer than on a cassette anyway."
I'm going to take a moment to address a very weird phenomenon ramping up this year: critical articles about critical writing. While there have always been critics of culture assessing broad trends in society, including art criticism, it seems like the relatively new "click bait" style of 'net writing lends itself to more faux-provocative pieces, with obnoxious headlines to draw people into what usually turn out to be very shallow overviews. And I'm compelled to take a moment to point out that I think these articles are really poisonous, while amusing myself with the notion that I somehow find myself writing a critical article about critical articles about critics. If you can vibe on that, follow me into this weird Matrix for a moment...

Here are a few examples of the articles irritating me in the last few months: Has Music Criticism Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting? This article makes some valid points, but of course deeper forms of criticism still exist--it's what I try to nurture with this blog, and there are many other blogs that continue to write with both grace and precision: Decoder, Tome to the Weather Machine, and Guide Me Little Tape are three of my favorites, and there are many more. The economic reality is that in-depth writing about relatively obscure music doesn't sell advertising or papers or whatever, so it's retreated to a largely volunteer community of deeper writers and readers. Besides, it seems obvious that the broader issues in the article permeate so much more than music journalism that narrowing the focus to produce an article seems mostly useless. The same goes for The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism, which serves mostly as an extension of the "Lifestyle Reporting" piece, although it proposes that mainstream music journalism has become more pedestrian than coverage of other forms of art/culture. Perhaps that's marginally true, but again, it's an issue of profit--you can cover a new restaurant or a new weird-ish movie, and your advertisers will still hang on.

The Village Voice probably runs these kinds of things with tongue firmly in cheek, but it's still disappointing to read tripe like "Stop Using These Cliches When Writing About Music." I'm sure this sort of thing is a fun way to get your kicks when P4K puts your resume in the trash, but seriously. "Growers" exist, for example--that ridiculous rule tells me more about the shallow and inflexible listening habits of the article's author than anything about the nature of music. "Weak points" exist--they're describing points along the timeline of the music, not sportsball scores. This stuff seemed so lame that I couldn't imagine anyone taking it seriously, yet it floated around the social media sharing circle for a while, and we're all the poorer for whatever conversations it started on such shaky ground.

It's this really obnoxious piece that ran earlier today on The Key that has finally motivated me to write about these issues, though: here we find some more inflexible rules for reviewers, including the notion that requesting physical media for reviews is a huge faux pas. Complete with click-bait headline, "here's what blah blah blah did," I'm frankly a little bewildered by this article. Maybe things are wildly different on the Philly scene, or maybe popular/local-focus coverage has is own more digital needs, but among all of the other review writers I know around the country, it's absolutely still common to work from physical media whenever possible. I'm totally the opposite of this article's author in that I rarely listen to mp3s, promo or otherwise--they sound terrible, and I care about the entirety of the experience an artist or label is trying to create through packaging, liner notes, mastering for particular media formats, etc. Reviewing a download of a cassette/CD/record feels like trying to review a sit-down restaurant with a takeout order. Bringing up "j-school ethics" in this context is alarming, too, if you'd hope that journalists are still at least pretending to do any kind of research. But I suppose that's no different than how investigative journalism has gradually been supplanted with the reading of government and corporate press releases almost verbatim as "news."

And it's terribly ironic in the specific case of this article's author: The Key is a subsidiary of WXPN radio in Philly edited by Mr. Vettese, who is also a DJ there and runs their social media. Like most radio stations, WXPN's submission policy requests physical copies--two copies, in fact! Here's the relevant info if you don't feel like clicking on the link above:
"Interested in Submitting Music for Airplay?Please send TWO compact discs (no cassettes or tapes, please) to:
Programming Department
We regret that, due to the large volume of material we receive, we cannot confirm the receipt or the airplay of unsolicited material."
(address redacted) 
Given that, it seems likely that Vettese is rarely troubled by the lack of physical copies for review, at least when it comes to CDs (if he were so inclined, of course). And who spends more time contemplating a given recording--a radio DJ scanning for a song or two for airplay while making sure there are no FCC-dirty words, or a reviewer trying to articulate the deeper attributes of a recording? The preference for downloads speaks to the writing style of The Key, too: the pieces read like 1-sheet and press release materials warmed up with a bit of personal hype. It's useful in its way, but subject depth is obviously secondary to width. Fundamentally, it's a completely different kind of resource than "review blogs," with a local/regional emphasis and more of a news/show-oriented focus, in contrast to the largely format-centric and avant-garde-leaning review/interview blog the article criticizes. It seems pretty elementary that such different kinds of e-publications might have different needs--instead of proposing that the rules for one publication should apply to all, why not let everybody work the way that's most sensible for their own unique situation? It's whatever-year-it-is, after all.

I didn't know the fellow who runs the Raised by Gypsies blog before today, but using him as an example of bad behavior is totally out of line. His reviews are shorter and less in-depth than mine, but there is a certain advantage to that approach when he's covering tiny runs of cassettes that are likely to sell out by the time a fellow like me is finished ruminating. Considering that he's published an insane 110 reviews already in the month of July, which is only halfway done, it's inconceivable to think of this blog as some kind of get-freebies scam. Jesus. Dude is flying solo and working hard.

My ultimate point in bringing all of this up is simple: it's all about common sense. If you're a reviewer and you don't like the way other people write, do it your own way. If it resonates with folks, you'll have a happy audience. If you're an artist/label, check out the previous work of the press folks you contact or who contact you, and if you like it, send them what they need to do their work. If you don't like it, don't. Readers, look for folks whose reviews you trust, whose descriptions are accurate, thorough, researched, and compliment your tastes (or challenge you in a way that feels good). Then keep listening and reading and supporting. All of this seems painfully obvious to me, but in case it's not, cheers, and thanks for reading.