The Return of the Gangsta, Thanksta…The Gorge, Seven)Suns and Cleric (Live Review)

After an extended break due to graduate school, teaching and writing academic things (woo!), I have decided to return to the game…of unpaid, thankless blogging.  Such competition.  Much fun.  Okay, bad meme and misconstrued references aside, I’m glad to be back.  These past couple years have been filled with concerts and various musical adventures, so strap in! It’s going to be…a ride.

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Because apparently we’re about to go punk.  And that means skateboarding images! Because I’m one of those “damn millennials.”

I’m going to call these past couple years, at least from my super relevant perspective, the United States era of sludgy, grimy and depressing as shit doom, funeral doom, and stoner metal.  Pallbearer, Bell Witch (Mirror Reaper is album of the decade, change my mind), Mastodon, Sleep (new tour!) and all those masturbatory Black Sabbath startups…each have pulled, or continue to pull, the boundaries of metaldom back to its slow, riff driven blues and stoner roots.  Specifically, in St. Louis, there is an interesting development of punk attitude and grungy, working class, almost Birmingham-esque live trend, providing a widening space for road warriors Weedeater, Corrosion of Conformity, Eyehategod, Black Label Society and, most recently, Pallbearer.  Because, when the levee breaks…

Okay, so, in this scene, where does the jazz, the technicality, the Djent! belong?  Apparently in the St. Louis, Cherokee coffee house, Foam.

“What a transition!” — Nobody

I had the pleasure of attending the Cleric headlining tour, opened by tech metallers, The Gorge, and string quartet, Seven) Suns, at the Foam coffee house in St. Louis.  That’s right,  a coffee house.  Metal and hipsters.  Fuck yeah!  The venue is intimate — I couldn’t think of a better word for small — and run by some fabulous baristas/bartenders.  I only wish I got their names.  Poor journalism on my part, but oh well.  What’s important is the beers were cheap, the coffee hot, and the atmosphere warm, inviting.  Perfect for some twisted, weird ass metal.

Disclaimer: A major label needs to sign The Gorge.  Seriously.  If some Nuclear Blast intern is looking for some mobility, here’s a tip: put The Gorge on the executive’s table and drop that fucking mic in your new office space.

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Did I mention this was at a coffee house? Look at that face…

I’ve been following The Gorge for about a year now.  I saw them open for Weedeater back in, I believe, August 2017.  I’m too lazy to look so just take my word for it.  The Gorge adds some melody to the djenty meshuggah framework, all the while maintaining a jazz-conscious feel for groove.  Their live performance is cathartic, culminated in politically-driven and emotionally jarring lyrics.  I mean, their album art for Thousand Year Fire is a drawing of the Cahokia Mounds!  How else to bring attention to the voices of a colonized and destroyed culture than through some djenty, emotionally jarring metal? So, in a postcolonial perspective, besides the album being written and performed by a juxtaposed personality of bearded and clean cut white dudes, The Gorge brings some cultural and political significance to the table.  Told ya I’ve been in academia for a hot minute.  Don’t be surprised when I go there, metal bros.

String quartet, Seven)Suns, added discomfort to this cathartic atmosphere.  One of my biggest complaints regarding the venue is the layout.  There is no “stage,” but who can blame em? It’s a coffee house. However, it’s kinda hard to see the performers, especially when the audience, including myself, are mostly around or over six feet tall.

A toast for the short folks and those who would rather sit at the bar! 

String quartet, Seven)Suns has worked with Dillinger Escape Plan, and have an energetic live presence, breaking dissonant and melodic runs with passionate grunts that do not feel out of place or forced.  Each string could be heard, and I’m not gonna lie, I have a soft spot for the cello.  Its sound is just too damn beautiful for its own good.  If I were to describe Seven)Suns’ stage presence, it would be creepy.  Beautifully unsettling.  A nice transition from The Gorge’s brutality into Cleric’s…I don’t even know.

I’m not gonna lie, I only started listening to Cleric earlier in the day.  I heard their name cast around in internet forums of the most obscure and pretentious sort, but, as usual, I cast them into a general, maybe later part of my brain.  But, Fuck, was I blown away.  As soon as Larry Kawartowitz set up his fucking obnoxiously large china symbol, I knew the room was in for an experience.  Drum lord, Lars Ulrich, would faint at the sight of that behemoth.

I can hardly describe Cleric’s sound.  A little Gorguts here; a little Frank Zappa there.  And a large helping of general holy shittery that is just Cleric.  Keyboardist, vocalist, second base, guitarist — pretty much everythingist — Nick Schellenberger took full advantage of the space.  His dual microphone rig and passionate stage presence brought even the sound guy (mustachio’d, dressed, roller bladed, and fuzzy hat guy, you the best) to the front, headbanging and bouncing.  This band is tight, folks.  Think of a metaphor for tight and Cleric will shatter it with two synchronized doom chords.  The bass (Daniel Kennedy) and lead/rhythm guitarist (Matt Hollenberg) were synched perfectly with the drums, casting aside count downs in favor of good ol’ fashioned, felt nonverbal communication.  And, punctuating the evening, Cleric played an extremely emotive rendition of, I believe, “The Treme,” a nine minute piece transitioning from technical what the fuckery to an existential sense of doom.  Incredible work from everyone involved.

Again, this venue creates and maintains community.  The openers, the staff, the small, but passionate crowd, were caught in Cleric’s strange, chaotic apocalypse.  Check out their groundbreaking underground album, Regressions sometime for a general feel before the record goes out of print.  Also, make a trip to Foam if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

Next week:  Weedeater (Round Two)

Final Verdict:  I’m done assessing shit.  Just take what you want from the review.  The venue was accommodating.  The show was kick ass.  

 

 

 

 

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Blackstar: A David Bowie Tribute and Review

Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

— David Bowie, “Lazarus,” Blackstar (2016)

I’ve been putting this off for a bit — That’s if, of course, you consider a month under the definition of, “a bit.” I honestly felt that David Bowie’s swansong, and final effort, Blackstar, deserved some time to grow, to escape the swelling press and nonsense attributed to a famed celebrity’s passing.  The Blackstar review needed to be objective.  The review needed to feel sincere.  My love for Bowie’s music and his various personas would’ve clouded the discussion and led to a completely biased post.  What else could you expect when one of your personal artistic influences dies the day after you purchase his last album?

Initial Reaction

After listening to Blackstar multiple times, and watching the “spectacle” of Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute, I can safely say this is one of the Thin White Duke’s finest achievements, a record pulling from the melancholy of the Berlin trilogy and jazzing it up.  Yeah, yeah, bias be damned.

For projecting such a flamboyant stage presence, Bowie seemed to operate behind the camera’s eye.  Nobody, not even hailed producer and Berlin trilogy creative consultant, Brian Eno — whom Ziggy was scheduled to work with on a future project — knew how short the artist’s time was. Yet, Blackstar was recorded.  Blackstar dropped.

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Credit:  globo.com

The record delves deep in symbolism, from the star pieces in the cover spelling out Bowie, to the cryptic lyrics throughout its seven tracks.  This highlights the artistic realization of the musician, the finality of the moment.  So, does it all mean something?  Or, am I just bullshitting away for the sake of word count?  You tell me:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/Your eyes

— David Bowie, “Blackstar,” Blackstar

Immediately, Bowie adds an occult, dark tone to a career smothered in glamour, drugs, sex, and good ol’ rock n’ roll.  The twelve personas stare into the flame and capture that feeling of hopeful isolation.  As the record rolls on to, “Lazarus,” and then closes with, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the message is simple and powerful, punctuated by the hopeless notes of a saxophone.  Bowie has said his goodbye to the the music world in the only suitable way.

An Influence

Bowie was a legend on the sheets of stardom.  He didn’t give a damn whether the mainstream market approved of his disco number or his funk experiment.  He certainly didn’t care if the masses disapproved of his support for minority musician airplay on national media. How many guys can enter the film world as Crotch and Big Hair — I mean, Labyrinth’s, the Goblin King, of course — and then, a few years later, jump on stage with Trent Reznor and seep venom into the crowd with Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rattle, “Reptile.”

Yet, through all of the collaborations, all of the media appearances, Bowie seemed to desire privacy in his personal life.  That’s why, on January 10, 2016, the music industry faced shock and reflection on just how much The Man Who Fell Down to Earth influenced the way music was composed, performed, recorded, and understood.

Bowie singlehandedly pioneered glam rock with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  He brought experimentation to the mainstream, starting with the blues/soul/pop sensibilities of Station to Station and ending with the listener friendly, but serene, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).   Bowie continued this musical freedom into the eighties, where Let’s Dance and other do-whatever-the-fuck-Bowie-wants records came to fruition.  Let’s not even mention the amount of singles and classic tracks he pumped out;  “Under Pressure,” anyone? He was a fan of music as much as he was a creator, a trait evident in his — deceivingly random — performances with other musicians.

Basically, if Kanye West cites you as an influence, you know you broke some ground.

*Mic drop.

Pshhhh, I’m not going to end Bowie’s influence on a Kanye tweet.  That’s the last thing I want to do.  Either way, David Bowie’s stage presence itself brought theatrics into rock n’ roll, a flamboyant expression inspiring thousands to pick up the guitar, throw on — to mom and dad’s disappointment — a kimono and belt out some, “Wam, bam, thank you, ma’am!”

Bowie was a rock star who, quite simply, did not give a single fuck what the industry pushed or pulled. He performed and inspired artists to pursue what they wanted, rather than cater to the needs of a third party.  Of course, this led to fandom chaos, but, fortunately, each Bowie persona was met with embrace rather than alienation.  By the peak of his career, the Bowie brand was defined by the eccentricities and flamboyance of Ziggy Stardust.

Bringing it Down

So, it is no surprise that, in this perspective, Blackstar brings a different light to Bowie’s discography, one of sincere sadness, reflection, and longing.  Please forgive the pretentious pun. Anyways, take the pairing of the haunting, marching rhythm of, “Girl Loves Me,” and the somber, “Dollar Days.” Both tracks highlight this dark atmosphere, as well as push the boundaries of the musician’s instrumental focus.

As I previously said, Bowie was no enemy of collaboration.  However, instead of bringing in A-list or aged names, the album welcomes the talent of prominent jazz musicians.  This is not a typical solo artist, half assed vocal performance, where session musicians take a back seat to the ego of their employer.  Blackstar often leans on its studio musicians, especially in the umph of the title track and, “Girl Loves Me.”  The LP’s rhythm section, courtesy of drummer, Mark Guiliana, and Tim Lefebvre, balance complexity with rhythmic freedom; noticeable, but not distracting.  Their chemistry and poise develop Blackstar into a lesson on tasteful, musical freedom.  That’s hard to find in a record emphasizing a jazzy style.  The record also features a career performance by saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, whose horns bring out, “Lazarus’,” heavy subject matter, making tears nearly inevitable.

Vocally, Bowie doesn’t even sound like he’s aged.  There are moments where his voice adopts a rasp, but that only heightens the overall feel; that of a tired man facing the reality of his situation.  Sure, his voice is not quite at the quality level of, “Under Pressure,” or, “Heroes,” but there is no denying the emotion transmitted through tracks like the title piece and, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

A Final Look

Overall, Blackstar brings the audience to the darker, experimental side of David Bowie.  In his final record, he pulls ears in with explorations in jazz form, dark atmosphere, and cryptic lyrics, often alluding to past treasures in the likes of the Berlin Trilogy and his quintessential 70’s classics.  A beautiful transition from the idol to the human, Blackstar serves as both a celebration and ode to the life of a musician, that of excess, fear, longing, and fulfillment.  Whichever Bowie felt in his final moment, we’ll never know.

We love you, David Bowie.  You will be missed.  Rest in peace.

ALBUM RATING:  5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and property of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/entertainment/david-bowie-death/.   All rights, content, and property of the body image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://g1.globo.com/musica/blog/antonio-carlos-miguel/post/blackstar-de-david-bowie-geraldo-vandre.html.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit or personal gain.

 

Live Review: Steely Dan – Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour 2015

Steely Dan brought their trademark groove to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, complete with an impressive setlist and phenomenal backing cast.

I don’t know how many times I had to explain jazz fusion this week. It’s simple:  jazz fused with other genres, usually rock, or metal.  You’d be surprised with the scope of bands utilizing such a musical approach, sometimes subtly, other times throwing the in-itself mega genre right at listener’s faces.  Steely Dan, minus “Reelin’ in the Years” (more on that, in a minute) falls into the latter category, but don’t let that alter your perception just yet.  What separates Steely Dan and their ensemble of horns, guitars, singers, and cute, little, trumpet keyboards from bands like prog juggernaut, King Crimson, is groove.  These guys had it.  These guys still have it. And, boy, let me tell you, St. Louis felt Steely Dan’s groove on Wednesday, July 27.

I’ll admit it, I was a little on edge going into this venue.  Hollywood Casino Amphitheater — locally termed “shitty parking, shitty odors, shitty bugs,” among the locals — has reputedly poor sound production.  This was evident through Elvis Costello’s set.  Just look at his setup.

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As a neutral Costello listener already, the aging hipster-Dylan failed to catch my attention.  Musically, the band explored many interesting topics and instrumentals, but between the sound quality and generally poor vocal performance, there was an air of discomfort surrounding the venue.  And not the, “The people here are going crazy,” kind of discomfort.  Yikes, did I mention the sound was bad? I know it’s an honor to follow a musical inspiration, but Costello and The Imposters fell victim to the dreaded opening sound guy, complete with inaudible guitars, overzealous vocal volume.  And let’s be honest here, that was a mistake in itself.  Such a talented and respected musician deserves more. Reviews From the Other Side, unfortunately, can not justify the hype.

That’s enough complaining.  Steely Dan practically jumped on the stage, and given both their age and the venue’s reputation, it was hard not to be inherently impressed.  The lights were unimpressive, but who attends a jazz fusion show for the effects and fireworks?  No, this is a musically complex outfit.  As pretentious as this sounds, to understand Steely Dan, listeners need to focus on the intricacies, crescendos, and transitions of Fagen and Becker’s expansive back catalog.  Steely Dan is, in no way, a “smoke a joint, drink a twelve pack, and go crazy” kind of band.  As Becker would probably put it, they’re a “glass of wine and have makeup sex” kind of experience. Lights and effects would detract from that experience.  So, how’s that for practical argument?

I’m getting the scowl, better move on.

Steely Dan opened with two seminal numbers, “Black Cow,” and evening highlight, “Aja.”  Immediately, the amphitheater adopted a nightclub atmosphere, the horns and general setup somewhat resembling a big band rig, Fagen sulking to the right, Becker smoothing away to the left.  Smooth.  If the band could be summed in one word, it would be smooth.  “Black Cow,” with its  groovy rhythm and heavy accents, moved the audience, not exactly pulling limbs from seats, but making heads sway involuntarily.  When attention is brought on a performance with such minimal provocation, it’s a magical feeling to witness.

Then, the opening melody of “Aja” struck the audience’s nerve.  Goosebumps all around.  The instrumental following Fagen’s suspenseful verse-chorus was the highlight of the night, assaulting listeners with images of China and uncertainty. When stripped to its core, the driving force behind Fagen’s key-trumpet and Becker’s guitar is their newfound drummer’s graceful attack.  Becker himself labeled him as “The best drummer of his generation.” And besides Young Guy, I couldn’t, for the love of God, remember the guy’s name.  However, the drum solo interludes — you know, the parts where everything goes crazy for a mint — were absolutely jawdropping, not to mention the lighting guy realized he had to wake up.  All around, the instrumental highlighted each member’s repertoire.  I could spend this whole piece discussing “Aja,” but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the band’s set.

Transitions. I’ll always think of Steely Dan as the masters of transition.  See what I did there?  The jazz genre explores multiple avenues and various emotions throughout its millions of creations.  To make these sections, improvisations, and mood shifts work, transitions must flow seamlessly, without risking disillusionment from the listener.  Awkwardness is a jazz piece’s downfall.  Pretty much all of Aja, “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Black Friday,” “Babylon Sisters,” hell, their whole damn setlist employed perfectly executed transitions.  Even the band’s setlist moved between tracks flawlessly. When taking in the scope of Steely Dan’s 19 performances — don’t forget the improvisations — it’s hard not to fall asleep.  Yet, musicianship and transition kept the audience’s interest.  Because they’re smooth, damnit!

My only complaint is Donald Fagen’s voice.  Again, perhaps a mixing or health issue — you have to take a vocalist’s excuse with a grain of salt — but Fagen commonly adopted the vocalist, pull-away-during high-notes-to-feign-passion, trope throughout his performances.  Sure, age is a bitch and touring wears out the vocal chords.  However, amplifying the band’s background singers to mask Fagen’s struggles served as more of a distraction than if the guy actually attempted some of his more difficult lines. Either way, the overall, instrumental performance far outweighed Fagen’s minor, vocal wear and tear.  You get off this time, Fagen!

Believe me, that sounded cooler out loud.

Steely Dan proved once again the impact and importance of the jazz fusion movement during their Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour stop in St. Louis.  The parking, bugs, and strange odors were worth it after all.  Great show, through and through.

RATING: 4.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, property, and content of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://thekey.xpn.org/2015/02/12/steely-dan-elvis-costello-playing-susquehanna-bank-center-august-3rd/.  All rights, property, and content of body image 2 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.daytoncitypaper.com/dukes-of-september/. I have, in no way, used said images for profit.