Friday, January 30, 2009

Amebix and Phish

Friday, Jan 23, 11:53 pm

Tonight tonight I danced I danced. I lifted one foot and then the other to a pulse that never wavered. I bent my knees and bent my body around swirling mountain clouds and endless green pastures. I got just a little high and found myself contemplating the utter ease of peace. I understood so easily why human beings invented God. I did all this because now I understand Phish. Before human beings had the power to make these sounds, the sounds of the third set at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 31, 2007, played as I arrived home from my thirteenth year of fighting the spirit-shivering New Hampshire winter alone and not listening to Phish, we were more lost in our examination of the metaphysical. Phish BEGAN their set with the sound of the way I want to experience the world all the time: a bodacious, shimmering, and not unnecessarily clear sound. When I was thirteen I would have heard that as the exit signal on a city bus: "Now entering the void, please step clear of the door upon exit and have a pleasant eternity." No I hear it as the sigh of relief Atlas would utter if he were ever allowed to put down the world, find a fitting spot and say "I think I'll investigate that!" And he IS allowed to put the world down. No one is in fact allowed to carry it by themselves. It relieves us all of a sacred duty and the joy of doing it together. The sound of Phish is sound of the Super-Conscious starting the first run of it's life on a water slide.

Phish is one of the most generous bands ever. You can only listen properly when you can receive the entirety of their music and their spectacle with utter gratitude. They play fifteen-minute versions of their songs not out of fanatical patience or self-indulgence. Rather, they stay with you for fifteen minutes insisting "Don't let us go one without you." They blend familiar, proven musics like Stevie Wonder and Peter Frampton without scorn for either. They experiment and ply their music together, and choose the best. They are in the honorable position of desiring to make music that many wish to hear, and some need to hear. They present themselves openly and without shame, playing tender songs made of sweet sounds juxtaposed with frightening songs made of growls and thunder. They sing like most folks do and play their instruments to the best of their ability, like a bar band from outer space. They do this expertly, and it is the basis of the symbiosis with their audience.

In contrast, I was at an Amebix show last night thirty years coming. I emerged at the close, sweaty and bruised from a seething mass of bodies in black stockings. We hugged, we caressed, and were intimate. I spent fifteen minutes with my groin pressed firmly into another man. I knew instantly that I was pressing my pubic bone into the soft flaps surrounding his anus. I was doing this because a 300-pound skinhead named Dave was being to forced to force me. He had moved into a throng immediately behind me, who could not or would not move him back, so like a hundred or so others, I was forced into a physical connection with a stranger. I inhaled and tore out his hair, I gave his moist, cow's-back 200 incidental massages. This connection is so expected that it seems shallow and beneath appreciation, but it's not. It give me hope. We held our hands and hinds aloft to hear words from brazen anti-heroes, nobility from a passionate and passed age. We spoke the words we knew with them. We roared the words we loved: "
Use your head, take control; use your head. NO GODS! NO MASTERS!"

Amebix, it was later said to me, had never played a US show before that night. In the thirty years since they began dragging their amps around the United Kingdom their influence has grown expansive enough to gather teenagers from the suburbs, ex-gang members, metal-idiots, relaxing skate-punks, and Scottish skins named Dave to east LA in the hundreds. No one called me a fag for rubbing against my neighbors, not one person refused to lift another into the air, not one person got left on the floor of the mosh pit when they fell. Nights like this are the kind that went well. Sometimes, the anger apparent in the art attracts the kind of violent cowards who would refuse to fight for any sane cause, but relentlessly attack people standing for the same concert. Sometimes I get hurt pretty badly. I was trampled for ten seconds at my only Slayer show; I fell and no one noticed until others began falling over my body. I danced too hard at the last Baroness show in Boston, and some equally uncoordinated yutz dislocated my knee with a kick. I left the show, thinking my knee was cooked and that it required immediate attention. I went back because the opportunity to overcome my fear of death and dismemberment is one of the strongest attractions I feel for heavy music. But mosh pits can be beautiful places, especially at punk rock and crust shows, where participants create new ways for themselves to dance, and leap joyfully into one another without struggle or hurt feelings. When Morne played in Somerville the only anger came from the stage. The audience participated by being too excited to even resemble standing still.

Amebix sounds like the eruptions of
Kīlauea. The drumming, since the earliest inception of the band, has aspired to primitivism but usually churned out something either more parochial or unintentionally metropolitan. As it is every hit sounds like a bursting bubble of molten rock, deep bass drum heaving, air racing away from the heat on cymbal splatters. Listening to an early recording "No Gods, No Masters," it's easy to imagine being wrapped in roughly-tanned skins, surfing a lava flow to the floor of an empty desert, but this band is more interesting to me than their apparent interest in the post-apocalypse. Take the lyrics to "Chain Reaction," the song I quoted earlier.

Rise into the light, and set a flame to the night
We must destroy the institution of fear
Every shadow of doubt, grind it out!
There is a vision now becoming so clear

Use your head, take control
Use your head, no gods no masters

Feel the strength from within, do you believe it's a sin
To find the power lying inside your mind
Not from the cross or the gun
Not from the moon nor the sun
But rising from the very soul of mankind

We are straining at the leash!

We swear allegiance to none, be, not become
There is no one upon whom praise we will shower
I believe that the sin is the first to give in
On the path toward the ultimate power

There are few bands who can sing "Ride into the light" in total seriousness to metal-heads. The band echoes Nietzsche when it states that all power relevant to our human causes is human in origin, and that fear and a weak mind bar the path to fulfillment of greatness. When they sand this song I had never heard it before, and it was nearly a religious experience. The maelstrom of guitar noise sounding like the wind tearing shale from limestone in Monument Valley, the band stroked by undulating green light, films of themselves twenty-years past and in the present moment projected like the shadows of gods behind them, were completely inspiring to me in the moment. These men retired from the music industry without having ever made a compromise to their vision for life. They retired to the middles of moors and lochs. One makes his living crafting some of the finest broad-swords made today. Their ability to thrive being such extreme outsiders makes me trust them. In the moment, the song sounded like a call to embody the fullest extent of my humanity from someone who had gone beyond the limits of my farthest-flying dreams. Reading the third verse right now is as close to having the opposite experience as I can imagine. Who knows how considered that dreck was, but the world I want to participate in has no room for de-evolutionary vanity. It makes an unfortunate dichotomy of most notable and repeatable line: "No Gods! No Masters!" In a world ruled neither by gods nor masters there would be no slaves. There would be no hierarchy of any kind. But there could be no Jedi Masters either.

In the aftermath of the dancing in a California bedroom it became painfully clear that Phish presents a more and obviously pleasurable music experience than Amebix. The physical joy alone of dancing, as opposed to being danced upon, renders the situation nearly dilemmaless in my mind. But there is a spark. I've heard the call, the sound of a three-story horn blown with the wind, carried to deepest corner of every land, resting in my heart should my faith in metal every falter. I heard it not one-hundred feet from my house: the first four beats of "Blood of the Kings" by Manowar set my blood ablaze. I cried with joy, so much that I needed to pull my car to the side of the road until the song was over and I could see again. Those chords awakened something strident and truthful, in spite of the fact that half of Manowar's material is fascistic or facetious, which I have never been able to adequately describe. Perhaps it's that metal, when it's not nihilistic, has the power to reach past mental and emotional barriers, to get into hardened hearts. Metal has the power to touch those who could not risk the courageous vulnerability, who cannot accept the generosity of a band like Phish. In my greatest metal moments, my courage became stout, and I gained the ability to be vulnerable.

So what if you replaced the juggernaut of metallic motivation in metal with the deliberation and service of Phish? What kind of music would make an amalgamation of Amebix and Phish? With the exception of relative levels of sophistication, the basic timbre's they are working with aren't so different. The instrumentation is identical. Each drummer is working to dance us into a state of mind. What's good about Phish is that this state of mind leads easily into philosophy, into intentional unity that's as easy as saying yes. Amebix builds callouses, drags its home for miles on its back, can bellow from a mountaintop and hear its spirit reflected. Their drumming has the potential to be more globally inclusive than Phish's because it isn't rooted in American blues. The strength of it's pulse is derived from basic rock music, but it's played the way percussion ensembles play ceremony. To my mind, the best possible combination would be to lay some funky-ass stank on the back beat, drive with 16th-note tom figures, and keep up the four on the floor. Introduce a second percussionist and one could do Taiko drumming or lay down a bed of Brazillian rhythms. The straight 16th-note thinking will center the beat on the funk, and help to maintain the musical narrative. [What Phish does better than any other band I've ever heard is unify different pieces of music with the same rhythm. I suspect this is why they bore impatient people. Those people are too busy waiting for what's about to happen to consider that Phish is contemplating the past repeating in the present.] The bass guitar has to talk. It should not be the harmonic or rhythmic bedrock as much as conversationalist. The harmonic terrain formerly occupied by bass must be malleable. It must seethe and bate us; it must have the headroom to make the music powerful from below, and to add emphasis by exploding periodically. I think that the organ needs to be a part of this. Organs are right. The guitar should be able to make any sound there ever will be, but I would use the sound of an adulating crowd on fire as a template for exploration. I think the music would sound like contrapuntal riffs, composed in pentatonic scales, and played in repetition for examination. We'll say love is greater than nations, truer than money, higher than romance, more important than history, too heavy for Superman; the world will shout back to us "MY LOVE IS HIGHER THAN YOUR ASSESSMENT OF WHAT LOVE COULD BE!" We'll take this to the streets! Summon cities, hordes of over and underworlders flying freak flags, dancing in the valleys and climbing the peaks. It will be Carnivale with guitars.

Oh Amebix! I'm worried about your anarchist underverse. I want to live in the liberated oververse. I'd love to see absolutely free, but I don't think only the strong should survive. I will swear no allegiance to any god, but I should take lessons from those greater than myself, and I should call Master those that deserve the title. What the world needs is to see the virtue in fluid-selves, non-possessive individuality, participation without borders. We need to get a message through to those who see stolid autonomy as a strength. The message will read "Wake up, friends! Wake up and get down." It will be loud.

Trees Are Why You Trip: notes on psychoacoustics, psycho-actives, and just plain psychos from the road from Kingman to Los Angeles

...Examining "The Red Album" by Baroness, reverberance as delight, the trials of early reflections, and the desert.

Three things we must understand.

1. Reverberance, as it exists in human art, is a gift from a loving god and proof that we evolved from ocean-dwellers.

2. Early reflections, tough they may be part of a reverberant initiation, may be terrifying or disorienting when they can't give you immediately cogent information about your surroundings. For instance, hearing birds chirping and the scattered reflections bounding through a grove of trees can't effectively tell you where the individual birds or trees are; timbrel experience will tell you if the sounds you hear emanating from within and around the grove are made by familiar animals, and that information helps you determine whether to treat them as parts of a threat. The result is heightened emotional response coupled, and enhanced by spatial disorientation. In short: trees make you trip.

3. There are no trees in the Mojave Desert. The desert doesn't lend itself to the spastic joy and exultant sensationalism of a trip. The desert wants you to be an animal.

Capitalizing on these three notions, the "Red Album" by Baroness makes the drive from Needles to Barstow, a potentially turgid and frightening business, into a beautiful journey.

I was 36 miles west of the California/Arizona border. Past the first rest stop and the Desert Oasis gas station, home of a BLT famed among local truck-types, I descended into a wide valley, and climbed a high hill. I began playing the record when I neared the top.

The first notes sound like soft calls from nowhere, tiny sirens between the desert rocks. The song goes I, IV, I/iv, V. This is regal and portentous music that calls me forward rather than casting me aside. Clean guitars reflect themselves in echoes, the slow cousins of early reflections, leading and powering reverb, flying across the stereo spectrum which is lost inside a car. It's dry, comfortable warmth, with a hint of challenge to hear this and see the desert outside my car. The tones have the purity of feedback: distinctly guitars but no plucking. They make musical swells that sound like organ pipes breathing like people. The cadence at the end of this introduction goes I/vi, IV, I. The melody finishes on a third. I accidentally timed my trip such that I heard the last note of the introduction just after I crested the hill and the empty world of the Mojave spread itself for me. The only human presences were cars and the highway scar of their escape. In these opening minutes, before the thrust-poetry of drums took over, Baroness reminded taught me that I like the desert for the same reason I like reverb.

According to psychoacoustics guru David Moulton, humans shouldn't like reverb. We should have a biological imperative to fear perceptions of vast, open unclear spaces because they are more likely to be dangerous than smaller spaces, where our hearing will more accurately determine the possible location of a threat. However, reverberant occurrences delight us. I am frequently lifted into reverie of the world's grandeur when my ears describe it to me with reverb. The more the better, because I feel freer as the space around me sounds more infinite. There is no sound in infinity except that which the body makes. There are no reflections and no soothing wash in a free field. Such is the Mojave Desert: a tract of lifeless, useless grit. In such a place, I can meditate without distraction and imagine spirits growing like a body might if it weren't material. However, in my head the Mojave sounds like Baroness: cloying sounds with a little discordance for flavor. The drum thrust is like the ridges on the yellow line, potholes and cracks. The first riff plays like a sidewinder, the amps break up like highway mirages, and the singer shouts "Rays! On pinion!" Am I a pinion? Am I the smallest cog in massive clockwork? In the Mojave I am a cog without works, but the reverb tells me I am alive and I am somewhere. I exist and feel godly.