Monday, 19 January 2009

Three extraordinary albums, part 2

I'm thinking of making this a "series", with new parts posted every two Mondays. And since this is the second Monday since the first triple review, here goes another selection of albums I consider extraordinary for my own personal reasons and which you shouldn't care about if you don't want to.

1. Amber - Autechre

Even though this is not my favourite Autechre album, it's one that marked me deeply. It took me quite a long while to listen to 90's electronic music, mostly because of the stupid and illiterate fear that it was a dangerously territory to explore, filled with traps that go "doof! doof! doof! doof!" for hours on end. Eventually I assembled my courage to get into Autechre, following "recommendations" (not quite) from one George Starostin, and got hooked into it. It was Untilted (sic) that knocked some sense in me and helped me realise the genre wasn't at all to be dismissed, but Amber... ahh, Amber. Sweet Amber. It even sounds like a lady's name, but that doesn't sound too cool since I'm a married man (um, to avoid misconceptions, face "married" like this: we know the theorem is true, and we only need to formalise and publish the proof). The album, though! There is this sweet, magical combination of sounds and approaches that sound abstract, evocative, beautiful, hypnotic and disturbing. Some tracks are marked by rough, intrusive, repetitive sounds meant to dig deep into your subconscious; other tracks are like sudden, unexpected sights of gorgeous landscapes that don't look real but feel like it; other tracks throw you in the middle of an ocean of unfamiliar sounds, and leave it to you to find your way around it. And that's the way I like it!

The songs are, of course, long and repetitive, but that's the way it's supposed to be. In fact, my only complaints in regard to length is that some tracks could be longer than that. If I truly get into the mood, even the longer tracks are over in a flash; and 'Nine' barely sounds worthy of being merely a "vignette". But everywhere else, there are gorgeous slices of genius like 'Slip', 'Nil' and 'Piezo', as well as brilliant works of electronic texture like 'Foil' and 'Glitch', as well as unexplainable masterpieces like the lengthy 'Further' and the scary 'Teartear'. This album is an example that it doesn't matter how coldly crafted, carefully calculated, how synthetic, precise, robotic and artificial a piece of music may be, it's still perfectly possible for a listener to achieve a very high degree of emotional connection to it. Booth and Brown are obviously two people who put a lot of care into what they do, and the result is not that the album sounds "emotional", but that the album sounds amazing, intriguing, fascinating and beautiful.

2. Boy - U2

This album is one of the most amazing cases in my collection of songwriting and production being nothing short of perfect to each other, to the degree of being inseparable. This notion was increased further by the release of the Deluxe version, which includes, on the second CD, the entirety of the U2 Three EP. The production on that release is vastly different, and almost makes the band sound like a New Wave band. But on the LP, Steve Lilywhite's production definitely makes things shine. Larry Mullen's drumming seems to come from the middle of the Grand Canyon, in its aggressive grandiosity; The Edge's guitar is laden with reverb and delay to unprecedented degrees; Adam Clayton's bass rumbles right through the mix and makes its presence heard and felt at all times; and Bono's vocals are always on the spot, given just the right amount of stress at the right times. But production really doesn't mean all that much without good songs, and about 75% of this album consists of real classics. The songwriting is just brilliant; the guitar riffs are always carefully constructed melodies, and not just a couple of chords jumbled together because they sound "cool" -- and even the most simplistic ones, like in 'I Will Follow', refuse to leave your brain for a long while. The vocal melodies always have an interesting twist to them as well, and adding to that, the lyrics are at times absolutely direct and clear, at other times vague and intriguing. There's always something going on, you know? All songs make an impression -- even 'Stories for Boys', which sounds awfully similar to the far bigger hit 'I Will Follow'.

Side A, in particular, is entirely flawless and brilliant. The poppy, fast and nagging 'I Will Follow' can barely prepare to what comes next: 'Twilight' and its intense contrasts between sneaky and all-out raging; 'An Cat Dubh' and its dissonant riff, wild dynamics and creative arrangements; 'Out of Control' and its sheer level of fun and energy; and particularly 'Into the Heart', a song that has mystified and fascinated me right from the days when I only owned this album on vinyl. The lengthy, quiet passage for bass and guitar and leads right off 'An Cat Dubh' couldn't possibly come from a band without at least an ounce of talent. Really. I can only say that the most raging U2 detractors never listened to this song, or if they did, dismissed it because it was too much for them.

One of the biggest "historical" charms of this album, also, is the fact that it's pretty much impossible to tell that THIS band would become the worldwide messiahs of an entire generation. Really, THESE kids? THESE Irish boys who write lyrics like "My body grows and grows / It frightens me, you know"? All the signs of religious larger-than-life-ness and I-wanna-change-the-world intentions are pretty much absent -- and in fact Bono criticises his own ambitions in 'The Ocean', acknowledging how small he felt before the whole world (humanity = ocean, see?). Oh, well, anyway, but not let those details get in the way of the enjoyment.

3. EP+6 - Mogwai

Hope you don't consider me a "cheater" for including a compilation here. But no, this ain't a "greatest hits" compilation -- its merely a package containing three EP's by one of the most influential "post-rock" bands, Mogwai. There's no overlap whatsoever with their studio albums, and I see this as an absolute essential release for the Mogwai fan -- either that or the three separate EP's, but you've gotta have it if you dig this band. But look at this: I dunno why, but this album works far, far better if you rearrange the tracks to play the EP's in reverse chronological order. Try it! Really!

See, we start with the more recent EP, opening with the extremely mellow and pretty songs 'Stanley Kubrick' and 'Christmas Song' on side A, giving way to the longer, more hypnotic and "Mogwai-like" 'Burn Girl Prom-Queen' and the "mini-epic" 'Rage:Man', with the usual contrast between quiet and OMG OMG LOUD LOUD. If you don't know Mogwai too well, it's a great way to get used to the band! All four tracks are fairly mellow, staying away from the noise and repetition and focusing a bit more on "song-like" structures. They're brilliant songs, either way, and makes you ready for the second EP: No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew).

Side A of that EP consists of the magnum opus 'Xmas Steps', which packs together an excellent bass motif, guitar layers carefully stitched together, relentless building up of tension, brilliant control over noise and chaos, and an extended closing section with a cello solo. This song was re-recorded for the album Come On Die Young, but I always preferred the EP version better for some reason, including the fact that the cello is left intact. Side B works as a little "break" on the LP, with the slow 'Rollerball' and the hazy shoegazer-like 'Small Children in the Background'. They're nothing particularly unlike what you've heard so far, but they prepare you for the most extreme release: 4 Satin.

For starters, this opens with a drum machine and synthesized chords. It's sort of like a disfigurement of hip hop, and over the course of its eight minutes, the band gleefully assaults it with loud, rude guitar noises: distortion, squeals and screams everywhere keep pushing the envelope further and further, beyond anything you could imagine from this band. The lengthy "ballad" 'Now You're Taken', featuring the only vocals in the whole album (supplied by Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat), closes side A and leads into the final track, the epic 'Stereodee'. The opening groove might make it sounds like a pleasant and fun finale, but the "coda" arrives about ten minutes too early. You know those live performances in which the bands end their songs with a long, "stumbling" final power chord? Well, Mogwai takes that concept and extends it into ten minutes of a loud, massive wall of pure noise. It's not too far from what My Bloody Valentine used to do in live shows, but the band is not really intent on blasting your eardrums off here. But I gotta say, there are VERY few moments in my entire collection that invigorates me as much as these ten minutes, and its closing moments are really awesome, sounding like the band short-circuited and turned into a heavily sabotaged "techno" pastiche for no reason whatsoever. It's a pretty brilliant work, and a perfect finale for the album.

See? THIS is the perfect track order. If you have the album, try it once! And if you don't have the album, well, it's a quite good place to start with Mogwai, AND one of their best releases, in my humble opinion. This, Mogwai Young Team and Mr. Beast are items that should not be absent in your Mogwai collection. Maybe Ten Rapid, too, if only for 'New Paths to Helicon'.

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