Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Little Drops of Rain Whisper of the Pain: On Giving Thanks

Some years, giving thanks takes effort. And this has been one of them. 

This year didn't go as planned...pretty much from the start.

Of course, I lost my job. I've already covered how painful that was.

But there was also the health scare back in February that still isn't really resolved.

There was another fucking band that died before it was even up and running...and a lost gig, to boot.

There was the domestic violence situation in my building....a situation I'd long-since suspected before I was dragged into its center.

There was the house we were about to bid on before we realized we couldn't afford.

There is the budget we now have to live on, which is forcing small but irritating sacrifices.

There was the morning I awoke to learn that there had been a shooting on the small suburban street where one of my best friends lives, and the nervous hours I spent trying to track him down.

There was the evening I spent searching Facebook for any kind of status update to indicate that my three friends in Paris were ok.

It's really hard to look over a year like that and say, "Well, on the bright side..."

But I'm going to try.


I'm thankful for my wife.

My wife and I have a mutually-held distaste for schmoopy professions of love on the Internet. That said, I'm not writing this without mentioning her. She is the Wendy O. Williams to my Lemmy Kilmister.

I'm thankful that I had that job (that I lost).

For a long time, I felt trapped in a career that I hated. But for two years, I loved my job with a passion. I enjoyed helping people for a living, and I was excited to tell people about it. I was so proud of what I did, and that's helping shape my career search in a way that wasn't possible a few years ago.

I'm thankful that I still have my health....I think.

Not receiving an official diagnosis isn't really that comforting, especially when you're at risk for a whole lot of health conditions that you don't want. 

Still, perhaps for the first time, I appreciate the line, "at least I've got my health." But let me tell you something: if you spend enough frightened hours getting blood drawn, wearing heart monitors and having scans done of your brain, you stop taking your health for granted.

I'm thankful that I'm back in touch with my friend, Marc.

Marc and I have tried to start a band at least four times in the past ten years. We're both way too busy, and sometimes we lose track of one another for years at a time. And even though we botched another attempt this year, I have to admit that Marc was an awesome friend to me when life got messy.

Plus, he turned me on to some great music.

I'm thankful that I stood up to a bully.

Intervening in a domestic violence episode is incredibly dangerous. I wouldn't recommend that anyone else do it; there have been times when I've been very, very afraid that I've only made things worse - no matter what the victim has since told me.

But the truth is that she called out for my help, and I answered the call. In a year when I suddenly don't have a lot to be proud of, I'm very proud of that.  

And I'm very thankful that I didn't get either of us killed.

I'm thankful that we didn't buy that house.

Raising a small child in a one bedroom condo sucks. But life would be immeasurably worse if we were carrying that mortgage right now.

I'm thankful that I'm learning to live on less.

I miss having hundreds of channels of cable TV. I miss having a gym membership. I miss having expensive beer in the fridge. I miss eating big slabs of meat for dinner.

But I now know that I don't need any of that stuff. Cable TV is a rip-off. I can swim at the public pool for free. Beer makes you fat in weird places. And your penis won't get any smaller if you eat a few vegetarian meals a week. (In fact, it makes you look even more awesome naked).

I'm thankful for my friends.

My friends are all safe and sound. No one has been killed, at home or abroad. Close calls, no doubt, but everyone is ok.

In fact, while we're talking about friends, I'm incredibly thankful for my friend, Scott

I met Scott in chemistry class, Junior year of high school. We both liked Led Zeppelin, and shared an appreciation for fine wit, naked girls and terrible haircuts. We became fast friends.

That was more than twenty-five years ago. These days, I see Scott maybe once every five years. 

And, yet, he is always somehow there when I need him. It's often with odd little moments of thoughtfulness, like remembering my daughter's birthday, or my wedding anniversary. (Or buying lunch, because I'm always the jerk who throws a card during a split check).

But then there are times when he just shows up with the eerily-timed check-in. 

This year, Scott knew something was wrong. And he stayed in front of me so that I didn't have to go through things alone. 

When my health got weird, he was an incredible resource; it turns out that I was being evaluated for two conditions that have affected his family.

When I had a sick feeling about work, he followed up with me to make sure things were ok.

And when he knew I had arrived in a bad place, he sent me a long and very heartfelt message about our friendship, and what it means to him. I return to that note when I'm feeling weak and alone, and it's always a source of strength.

I am so grateful for his friendship.


Looking back on it all, I fully own the fact that I take things for granted. I admit that I don't live with as much gratitude as I should. And I recognize the irony that I didn't start giving thanks until life threw me a couple of change-ups. I suppose that I'm thankful that I've gone through that experience, and I hope that it shifts my perspective in the future.

This entire post was a little heavy for me, and it didn't have anything to do with music. And, so, I leave you with my personal Thanksgiving anthem. 

Have a safe holiday.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Out on the Streets for A Living: On Love, Loss and KISS

I didn't cry when they told me.

I didn't cry, or yell or protest. I didn't make a scene or do any of the other things that they probably expected me to do.

I took the news like a man: the department I led was being dismantled, my position was being eliminated, and I was losing the only job I'd ever loved.

In a career that had so often been marked by anxiety and frustration, this was - by far - my most painful experience as a professional. I believed in my work, and I was more proud of it than anything that I'd ever done in my life. 

I helped people in need for a living. It brought me true happiness.

And, then, on a sunny September afternoon, the job disappeared. It was heartbreaking. It was humiliating. It was crushing, disorienting and invalidating.

But through it all, I didn't cry. 

I leaned forward, listened closely and asked the right questions. And, given the choice of going home for good that afternoon or finishing out the week, I chose to finish out the week, tie up loose ends and leave as the best professional I could be. 

A lot of people stopped by my office that week. And a lot of them cried. 

I did not cry.

They told me I was crazy to keep coming to work. They asked me how I could stand being there, knowing my job was being taken away from me. But the truth was that I loved the work, and - more importantly - I loved the people I was there to help. And I thought that they deserved better than to have me vanish with no explanation.

One of those people was Mark. Mark was a native Washingtonian in his early 50's. A talented artist with incredibly eclectic tastes, we bonded over music. I loved his stories of what it was like to be the only black kid in Anacostia listening to Alice Cooper in 1976, or how he hitchhiked to Landover, MD as a teen to see Earth Wind and Fire in concert. We'd talk about Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Judas Priest. Anything. 

But mostly we talked about KISS. 

We both loved KISS. We'd argue about which songs were on Destroyer vs Love Gun, debate the merits of Music from the Elder and laugh about how amazed we all were by the band's theatrics when we were kids.

Sometimes, when I was having a bad day at work, I'd talk to Mark, and immediately feel less isolated and weird. I'd like to think that he walked away from our conversations feeling the same way.

On my last day, Mark approached me. He was with Bianca, the beautiful art therapist who worked closely with him most days.

"She tells me today is your last day," Mark said, nodding to Bianca. I looked at Bianca, who had a sad smile on her face.

"It is," I replied, unable to hide the sorrow in my voice.

For an awkward moment, all three of us were silent. And, then, reaching behind his back, Mark produced a 9x12 canvas. On it, he'd created a mixed media interpretation of the first KISS album cover. Without saying a word, he bowed his head, and offered it to me. 

I remember every split second of that moment. My mouth going ajar, the small gasp I drew in and the inevitable burning in my eyes.

I remember my inability to find any words.
very time I took a breath to say something, I found myself holding back a choke.

"It's yours'," he said. 

I looked at Bianca, who was still smiling. Too overwhelmed to even make eye contact with Michael, I stared at the painting.

"Listen: I don't sell my art; I give it to people if I know they'll appreciate it," Mark said. "I want you to have this, because I know you always loved it."

He was right, of course. That painting was the conversation piece that had sparked our entire friendship.  

I reached out and accepted the gift. "Thank you," I whispered -- because my voice was quivering too much to speak out loud. 

"No," he said. "Thank you. Thank you." His voice became gentle. "Sometimes when people say goodbye, they forget to say thank you. So, thank you."

I didn't cry. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On Record Store Day

It would be easy to dismiss Record Store Day.

I mean, isn’t Record Store Day just a cash grab by the labels, to push out some special releases and boost sales for a day?

Who even has a turntable anymore? And CD’s? Even I’ve moved on to a less cluttered embrace of mp3s and those streaming services (that happen to make me so uncomfortable).

And if you really want to be a jerk about it, who even needs brick and mortar record stores anymore? If you need a hard copy CD or vinyl record that badly, can’t you more easily order it online instead of trolling around every record store in town, hoping one of them might have it in stock? You get your disc in 3-5 business days. Everyone wins, right?

There’s a grain of truth in all of the above. And, yet, I reject it all. Because record stores do matter.

Record stores have been a special place to me, and to many other people. They are places when music isn't just consumed, but where it’s shared and discussed. They’re places where friendships are made and communities are built. No one ever met their girlfriend at the iTunes store. And no one ever hung out with their friends on Spotify.

Record stores were safe spaces for me. Places to get lost without feeling scared, and to be alone without feeling lonely. Places to get exposed to new things and indulge the things I already knew I loved.

Every year on Record Store Day, I find myself thinking about my favorite record stores. In no particular order, here they are:

Amoeba Music, San Francisco -- An obvious pick; the mecca of record stores worldwide. Perhaps too massively spacious to have the warmth and community of a more traditional mom and pop shop, but who cares when there’s so much music to rummage through?  I've been to Amoeba about four times. Nearly every visit has come with a $70 minimum investment.

Notable purchases: David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (double album re-issue); Sahara Hotnights: Jennie Bomb

Tower Records, Rockville, MD – The record store I spent more time in than any other. I actually credit the presence of this store within two miles of my home (and their late hours) as the primary factor in my staying out of trouble through high school. I mean, who wants to get drunk in a parking lot when you can eyeball the entire Aerosmith catalog?

Notable purchases: Nearly the entire Aerosmith catalog.

Streetlight Records, Santa Cruz, CA
-- Around 2004, I spent several lonely Autumn weeks working on-site with a client in the San Jose/Santa Cruz area. Almost every single night I drove into Santa Cruz to grab dinner, walk the pier and stare at sea lions.

The experience was typically kind of depressing. The summer crowd has rolled out, and even with downtown teeming with college students and beach bums, it had the feel of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" -- a town defined less by what it is and more by what it used to be (...even if that "used to be" was only three weeks earlier).

Eventually, I happened upon Streetlight Records, and it felt good to wander into a strange place and find myself among familiar types of people. I eyeballed fliers for punk rocks shows. I filed through the staff picks. I slowly grabbed a handful of CDs. 

And I waited every second until closing time before I paid for them.

Notable purchases: The Pixies: Doolittle; Lynch Mob, REvolution 

Waxie Maxie’s, Rockville, MD – Crappy, dark, cramped, and not particularly friendly. One of those places where the entire damned inventory of tapes was kept behind glass. But it’s where I purchased my very first Rolling Stones tape. And that's good for something.

Notable purchases: The Rolling Stones: Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out

Kemp Mill Records, Rockville, MD –
Less cramped and more friendly than Waxie Maxie’s, Kemp Mill was a phenomenally successful local business before Tower came to town. I especially valued their selection of silly heavy metal posters.

Notable purchases: Dokken: Beast from the East; Iron Maiden: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son; Andrew Dice Clay: Dice; Metallica and Iron Maiden: various posters.

CD Depot, College Park, MD – Back before the Internet, finding rare recordings took some work. But if you knew the right people at the right record stores, there was this entire underworld of “bootleg” live and unreleased recordings that one could partake in. In the distant past, CD Depot was one such place. (I'm pretty sure they discontinued this practice many, many years ago).

I don’t remember what I bought at CD Depot, but I remember it being expensive and rare. And I remember the thrill of buying it….so much like buying porn or beer, or something else you weren’t supposed to have. Except something about it being called a “bootleg” made it seem even more illegal. 

Notable purchases: Very likely something by the Stones. 

666 Rock Shop, Beijing – China is a confusing place. Just about everything feels unfamiliar, and the linguistic and cultural barriers are a constant source of bewilderment and frustration. To stumble upon a record store that specializes in extreme metal is comforting in a way that's hard to express.

Notable purchases: none.

Yesterday and Today Records, Rockville, MD
– I’m old enough to know why owner, Skip Groff, is an important guy to D.C.’s music scene. But if I’m being perfectly honest, the guy was needlessly rude to me more than once. To this day, I still don’t know what I did that was so wrong when I asked him if the Samhain “Unholy Passion” poster on the wall was for sale, but he channeled the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons pretty aggressively on me.

I remember feeling embarrassed in front of other customers, and wanting to smack the glasses off his fat face. (If I’m remembering correctly, I think I spit on the front door of his shop on the way out. Sounds roughly like what the 19 year old me would have done).

All of that said, well, he ran a pretty damned good record store, and I came back several times over the years.

Notable purchases: The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Requests (vinyl, with the 3-D cover. Status: missing/stolen).

Phantasmagoia, Wheaton, MD (various locations)
-- This is where I purchased my first Metallica cassette in 1988. And after they moved down the block and opened a club, this is where my first band played most of their shows…where I saw Nebula, the Friggs, ScottWeinrich's and John Stabb's various bands perform live.

The owner was nice. The head bartender was pretty. I spent a lot of Friday nights seeing kind of overpriced shows at Phantas.

I don't remember being shocked when it closed; it often felt like it was just about ready to fold. But now that I'm thinking about my time there -- and very likely about to move back into that area -- I do miss it.

Notable purchases: Metallica: Ride the Lightning. 

Down in the Valley Records, Minneapolis, MN – I was about 24 years old, and finally getting into the groove of business travel.

The plan was to finish a day of sales meetings in Minneapolis, then spend the night in town, getting to know this music scene I’d heard so much about. After finishing the day at work and checking into my hotel, I called home to let my folks know where I was.

That’s when my dad told me my grandmother had died, and that I needed to come home as soon as I could.

I wasn’t distraught, but I was sad, particularly because there were no flights available until the next morning. I’d lost the will to go drinking or hit up the punk rock clubs, but I still had time to kill in Minneapolis.

I wondered around the Mall of America and ate a burnt cheeseburger for dinner, not really sure what to do with myself. By the time I left the mall, the sun was down, and I was still sad. And the only thing I thought could possibly make me sadder would be to sit in a hotel room by myself all night.

So I pulled my rental car over at a gas station, found a Yellow Pages directory (remember the 90’s?), and found a record store that was open late.

What do I remember about Down in the Valley? Not as much as you’d think. They were selling some expensive Misfits boxed sets and strangely shaped bongs. They were playing loud punk rock. The employees seemed to like one another.

I hung out there for a long time, pacing up and down the aisles, not speaking to anyone or buying anything. But it makes this list because -- like so many of the stores on this list -- it was there for me on a night when I needed to not be alone. I’ll always be glad that I found them.

Record stores matter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Strange New Sound That Makes Boys Explore

A year ago, my wife and I had a little girl. It has changed our lives in all of the predictable ways.

The experience has been joyful and scary and frustrating and exhausting. But it’s also been fairly typical; this is what all first-time parents experience. To suggest otherwise seems awfully close to the definition of hubris.

That’s a big part of why I won’t be blogging about my child. This is a special time in my life, but I’m not going to demand that it has to be a special time for everyone else.

That said, I'm making an exception for the event of her first birthday. Because it’s been a year, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want for this child in her life.

I grew up in what you’d call a musical household. There was a ton of music in our house….lots of folk and Celtic music. Tons of show tunes. Country music. Church hymns. Some jazz. 

We were exposed to all sorts of stuff at an early age. We didn’t love all of it (…fucking show tunes. Hate em), but the good stuff stuck, and I feel like it gave me and my brothers a foundation for identifying “good music” and articulating exactly what about it made it “good.”

(I take a lot of pride in this. Possibly too much.)

We were all encouraged to take up music and play in the school band, and all of us played through high school. I played through college, and never really stopped. 

Music became a refuge for me – perhaps for my brothers as well, but definitely for me. Some kids find that safe place playing sports or hanging out with their friends. Some kids find it by being out in nature. For some it’s found buried in a book.

For me, it was music. Listening to music. Studying music. Reading (and re-reading) books about music. Practicing. Writing. Recording. Performing. Discerning. Music was always a safe, healthy space, no matter what else was happening around me.

I'd like for my child to have a similar experience. But I also want to know my place as her dad first and a music snob second.   

I don't want to over-step my bounds....insisting that she listens to the same music as I do, or (far more annoying) insisting to my friends and family that she likes the same music as I. (This is one of the biggest lines of bullshit any parent will ever try to serve you: your kid does NOT like punk rock. Your kid likes you. She likes what you like. Don't lie to yourself).

(And, really, do you need or want for your tastes to be formally endorsed by someone who can't read?)

With all of that said, I offer the following advice to my daughter on the occasion on her first birthday:

  • You are young and you are female, and as such, I accept that you will like pop music for a substantial portion of the next several years. In fact, I encourage it. Pop is the only musical genre that exists exclusively in the present moment. As such, I can think of no more worthwhile genre for a young person to become immersed.

  • You will likely obsess over attractive young men with great hair, who dance better than they sing and who can neither play musical instruments nor write music. They will do idiotic things in public and often get in trouble. I accept all of this. Sometimes it will annoy me, but trust me, I do get it.

  • At some point in your youth, you may become fascinated with nostalgia. This is normal and healthy. Have fun with it. Get to know those bygone eras. But resist the urge to indulge this at the expense of what contemporary artists are doing. The minute you hear yourself saying that "music was so much better in [add era here]" is the moment you must realize that you are certainly missing something great happening right in front of you.

  • That said, know the classics. If it turns out that pop is your thing, your old man can point you towards mountains of albums by the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna. You should give them all a listen.

  • I hope that you'll be a good dancer. Your father is not, and it makes him sad. Sometimes, you will just want to dance, and that's not something one should be afraid to do.

  • Stay away from boys who dance too well. They will bring you nothing but heartache. (Beware of singers while you're at it). 

  • Your dad has an open mind and an enormous appetite for music. That means sooner or later, he will intrude upon your musical interests. Try not to be mortified if I sing along to crappy pop radio in front of your friends. Mock me if you must, but secretly take it as a compliment.

  • It is inevitable that you will listen to music that I don't understand. At some point I will definitely bang on your bedroom door and demand that you "TURN THAT NOISE DOWN!" This is a ritual that marks your burgeoning independence, and you should relish it. 

  • You can rummage through my mp3s any time you like. Please.

  • Some day, we will have a proper house, with a basement and lots of acoustic tiles. My drums will be set up, and I'll buy a new amp for the crappy guitar I stole from your Uncle Kevin, and maybe we'll even create  makeshift PA system. Your mom and I will sometimes jam down there (believe it or not, she's a pretty good drummer!) You are welcome to join us any time that you like. I won't pressure you, but please know that it would make me very, very happy.

Happy birthday, kid.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: The Year in Shows

It's safe to say that this year was seismic.

My wife and I had a baby. I found my legs in a new-ish career. And in one head-spinning two-month period, I lost someone I loved, another person who I tried to love, and two people I really liked.

And then there was a major family health scare.

All in all, it was an insanely busy year that didn't allow for much writing or very many shows. I say that every single year at this time, but this year it was true: there just wasn't any personal time in 2014.

All of that having been said, I'm deeply grateful for every single show that I did see. Here are the highlights:

Bob Mould at the 9:30 Club

My wife and I realized when we bought these tickets that the show was scheduled for three weeks after our daughter would be born. And frankly, neither of us knew if that was an ok thing to do. But we went ahead with it because other parents told us we'd need a night out by that time.

Which was a fact. We were utterly exhausted and claustrophobic by the time this show rolled around, desperately in need of some alone time. And the show was fantastic: a friendly, unpretentious performance of the "Workbook" album. 

But the truth was that we both had trouble focusing during the set. In fact, just about the only thing either of us could think about was getting back to our baby.

No foul on you, Mr. Mould. You'll always be our guy, but you'll never be our little girl.

Taake at Maryland Deathfest 

I like the idea of black metal a whole lot more than I actually like black metal. In fact, aside from the early classics -- which basically demand that you embrace the shitty production as part of the overall aesthetic -- I find the sound of black metal to be very much lacking in any kind of blues- or soul-based foundation (lacking soul...geddit? Because: Satan).

Which is why Taake's set at DMF XII was so thoroughly enjoyable. The band completely owned their decades-awaited U.S debut -- a set that was unquestionably black metal, but also commanded the crowd with a decidedly rock and roll stance.

And they did it at 3:00 in the afternoon.

Outdoors. Facing the sun. In late May.

In full leather and corpse paint.


Solstafir at Maryland Deathfest

One of the best things that can happen at a music festival is getting turned on to a new band. This year, that band was Solstafir at MDF XII.

The deck was somewhat stacked against Solstafir that afternoon. Sandwiched between Necros Christos and Taake, it would be safe to assume that most fans would struggle to embrace Solstafir's "post metal" stylings.

(By the way, if anyone can actually explain to me what "post metal" means, I'll consider editing that last sentence. Till then, my apologies for using dumb terms I don't really understand).

But for the sizable crowd that did stick around for Solstafir's set, they were treated to one of the most thoughtful, visionary acts of the day. Despite some significant sound issues (which plagued other bands on that particular stage), the band methodically built its set to something that was very much a hybrid of metal and rock - somehow blending elements of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd with that particular Icelandic vocal style that's at once eerie and enchanting (see also: Sigur Ros, and to a lesser extent, Bjork).

This set kind of blew my mind. It may not have been extreme metal, but I still felt sorry for everyone who skipped them that day. If you get a chance to see this band, take it. I'm serious. These guys are artists.

(Plus, we chatted briefly during At the Gates' headlining set that night, and they were awfully nice guys. Awesomely engaged with me and other fans on Twitter, too: @solstafir).

Samhain at the Howard Theatre

Never bet on Glenn Danzig.

Just don't.

Sure, he made incredible music for much of the 80's and 90's. But, God, did he start to suck after a while.

And then there were the concerts. The late starts. The no-shows. The prima dona demands that made life hell for promoters and concert staff.

There came to be a long period of time when Glenn Danzig just didn't seem to give a damn about his fans. Which was a great source of irritation for those of us foolish enough to continue to champion the guy in spite of himself. (God knows I tried).

And, so, I was understandably conflicted when I heard Samhain was touring. I'd always found Samhain to be Danzig's most fascinating and overlooked work, but I couldn't stomach the idea of wasting my limited time and money on another one of his old-man temper tantrums.

But I caved, as I knew I would. Because the show was to take place on Halloween. And if Danzig is playing in your town on Halloween and you don't see it, then you fucked up.

As for the show: it exceeded ALL my expectations.

It would be my fourth time seeing Danzig, but the first time he actually looked happy to be on stage. In fact, the guy looked uncharacteristically pleased to be there. Like, REALLY happy. Having fun. Even smiling every so often.

His banter with the crowd was funny and down to earth, and he even managed to tell a story or two ("Thirty years ago, we put out the Initium album. A whole lot of people got it. A whole lot of people said....[muttering] 'What the fuck is this?'")

I'd forgotten how many Samhain songs I'd memorized over the years. I'd forgotten all of those incredible sing-along choruses. I'd even somehow forgotten that "Archangel" is one of my favorite songs in the entire history of music.

And that's how I came to be standing in a group of guys I'd never met, bellowing at the top of our lungs to every single song. Things went from exuberant to kind of silly in no time flat, the group of us shouting out the ""Whoah-OOOH! oh-WOAH"s on "He Who Cannot Be Named", and the "WARNING YOU!" section of "Horror Biz."

At the end of the night, I was 19 again, in a spent 40 year old body.

If there was one downside to this show, it was an absurd curfew that wrapped things easily 45 minutes earlier than it should have. But as a consolation, Glenn Danzig brought special guest, Randy Blythe from Lamb of God, on stage to perform Mother of Mercy, which more than made up for the early shut-down.

Hands down, my favorite show of the year.

Here's to an even better 2015!

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The Year in Shows

Every year I do this post, and every year it seems to start the same way:

I sure didn't go to very many shows this year.

And why on Earth should I break with that humble little tradition? This was yet another year when I couldn't get my act together, constantly hearing that Clutch or High on Fire or Mudhoney was playing, only when it was already too late (or, more likely, I was too worn out) to make the run downtown to see them.

Anyway, I'd like to think that I made up in quality what I gave up in volume. So, here are my top three shows of 2013:

3. Pig Destroyer at the Black Cat

Pig Destroyer is a weird band, and so I'm happy that they've amassed the following that they have. God knows, there probably isn't a huge market for 2-minute long songs consisting largely of distorted screaming backed by feedback and spastic drums.

And yet, even with all of their grindcore trappings, it's kind of fun to look at these guys as avant garde. True, there was a shitload of something happening at this show that might be most easily called noise. And yet, 40 minutes into the set, I was exhausted for them and the incredible stamina it must have taken to pull off that tour.

2. Graveyard at the Black Cat

People have been calling Graveyard a metal band for at least three years now, and I still don't quite know why. They sound a good deal more like Led Zeppelin or even the Allmans than any "metal" band I can think of, yet the label persists. Perhaps it's because they're Swedes....

Nonetheless, this bill was a remarkable reminder of what rock and roll can sound like when it's done with effort.

In recent years, it's become fashionable for many bands to cast off blues-based rock and roll as a simplistic, paint-by-numbers relic. What's lost in that opinion is the fact that rock and roll is only easy or simple when it is played by average bands -- which it all too often is.

However, when played by inspired individuals - with real songwriting talent and a proper rhythm section - a great rock show can become something of a clinic for the audience. And that's exactly how Graveyard did things on this evening.

It wasn't terribly fashionable, but at a time when bands like Awolnation and Imagine Dragons are occupying that space with little more than synthed-up soccer chants, it was good to be reminded that hip is so often the enemy of cool, and that rock and roll never goes away for long.

1. The Melvins at Maryland Deathfest

I gave this one some love already this year, but it's worth repeating: 

The older I get, the more I need bands like the Melvins. Much like my beloved Motorhead, their existence is proof that you don't have to be young or good looking to find success as a professional musician. You simply have to be talented, focused and very disciplined.

In fact, the Melvins stepped into Maryland Deathfest directly following a several-months-long European tour, and directly before embarking on an even longer U.S. tour. They didn't look tired or grumpy. In fact, they were at the absolute top of their game, despite playing in the middle of the afternoon on a summer day.

Why? Because - quite simply - it's their job.

As I had written before, the mood at Deathfest was relatively blah for much of Saturday afternoon. Fans largely wondered around, chatted with one another and checked out merch as bands like Weedeater and the Obsessed played their meandering sets. Such is the nature of a festival.

When the Melvins took the stage, something altogether different happened. The foot traffic stopped. Vendor sales plummeted. Fans planted themselves in place for the length of the set and took it in almost reverently. All for a band that isn't easily pigeonholed into any metal sub-genre.

In fact, if there were one single theme of this set, it would be that of respect. Festival attendees paid attention. Fellow bands crammed to the sides and back of the stage to take it all in (and perhaps take notes).

Moreover, the band showed an uncommon respect for the crowd. The mood of the set was communal and familiar, without Buzz Osborne ever having to deliver the types of pandering rock and roll speeches that Phil Anselmo would make a signature of his performance later on in the evening.

And the set itself was thoroughly rehearsed without sounding the least bit stale...no small feat within the context of a year on the road.

I realize that some of this sounds a little righteous, so I'll offer you a less serious memory from the afternoon:

The Melvins did a fairly long warm-up. This is a fact of life when you're sharing a festival stage (and when you have two drummers to sound check). As Buzzo was trying to get his levels right, he riffed along in that second-nature kind of way that all guitar players do when they're trying to fill time. 

In the middle of a bunch of noisy riffs, he began to slowly pluck an eerily familiar solo...a majestic 70's-style walk-down lick that caught me by surprise. I knew that I knew it -- in fact, it was a lick that I knew intimately -- but in this context, I couldn't place it at all. For a frustrating five or six seconds, I unsuccessfully raked my mind, to no success.

I looked around at the people around me. A kid in a black hoodie was standing next to me with a grin on his face.  He glanced at me and made the first move.

"Detroit Rock City. He does that a lot."

I thanked him and laughed at myself. Of course it was Kiss. Of course...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Confronting Honesty: On Deafheaven

December is a tough month for me as a music fan. Given the plethora of year-end lists that emerge at this time of year, it's often difficult not to feel as though I've failed in my efforts to discover new music.

That said, if you can work through those feelings, it's a pretty awesome (and economical) opportunity to catch up on things in short order.

Complicating matters, this is also a time when music critics become even uglier than usual. As certain bands pull away from the pack, there is an immediate backlash against them -- a backlash that is often petty and seemingly motivated by the critic's personal insecurities. (If that sounds mean, than you probably have never met a music critic -- or a critic of any kind, really).

This year, no metal band is more firmly trapped in this tug-of-war than San Francisco's Deafheaven.

The Objective: Being Objective

I'll be honest: I didn't hear about Deafheaven until this past fall. Maybe I should have. I dunno. (The fact that I've heard of them at all makes me feel like I've done at least one thing right this year...)

Among the very first things I heard about the band was that they were considered by many to be "metal for people who don't like metal." 

At root, everyone knows that this is an incredibly elitist statement. In fact, it actually made me want to give the band a fair shake. So, I did something I rarely do anymore: I bought Sunbather, sight unseen. Just like the old days. And it felt good - just like it used to.

That's not to say that I didn't walk into the experience with my own set of prejudices. Quite the opposite.

The hipster fascination with metal that's emerged these past ten years irks me deeply, and I struggle with it quite a bit; I can't sit here and honestly tell you that I think every single 29 year old in East Austin (or Silverlake or Williamsburg or Wicker Park) who owns a Slayer tee is just a poseur.  Some - if not most - of them have to possess a true love of metal.

Yet, there are days when I feel 100 percent certain that this weird hipster fascination with black metal is little more than the result of a bunch of music nerds who got so bent out of shape over "alternative punk rock" going mainstream that they went out and deliberately tried to find the least accessible music possible, so that they could still feel cool and different and flaccidly subversive.

God knows we've all been there. Remember that first time you heard your "yeah-bro!" coworkers talking about Block Party or the Arctic Monkeys or whoever?

It sucked. Made you want to take up free jazz, didn't it?

So, anyway, I knew it was going to be tough to be impartial with this record. I was incredibly quick to dismiss Krallice and Wolves in the Throne Room as "hipster metal" after very quick listens, and that probably didn't bode well for Deafheaven.

...And neither did the first several minutes of Sunbather. In fact, I probably wasn't even 30 seconds into the album before I found myself saying it out loud:

"This isn't a fucking metal album."

Trailblazers or Trend-chasers?

To the contrary, this sounded like just one more record in a firmly-entrenched trend of bands that using ambient soundscapes as a technique for enhancing their arrangements.

That's not to say that it sounds bad. Quite the opposite: there are bands that I like a great deal who use this same technique in different ways: the Drop Electric and even Sigur Ros come to mind.

But within the context of metal, it sits poorly. There is a strong sense that without the drums and the screeching vocals, none of the music would be terribly identifiable as metal.  Maybe that shouldn't be a problem for me, but it is. Because when the sound of the music is so - forgive the term - mainstream, the metal vocals begin to sound like a gimmick.

That's undoubtedly an unfair accusation. But it comes from an honest place: these songs may be beautiful, tragic and tortured, but they provide little or none of the visceral sensory satisfaction that I seek in metal.

Maybe I'm simple that way. But I kind of doubt it.

On the Bright Side....

To be completely fair, there are moments on the album that absolutely work - particularly in the second half of the record. When "Vertigo" hits fifth gear, it is simply tremendous. Ditto for "The Pecan Tree", which is the album's masterwork.

To that end, its a real blessing to have Sunbather end on such a strong note. It leaves an impression that is somehow powerful enough to forgive the unsatisfying shoegaze of the album's first half.

In fact, I can't even pretend not to love the final 25 minutes of Sunbather. When it gels, it represents a tremendous meeting between vision and execution in a way that utilizes the soundscaping majesty of the first half of the record, without sacrificing its metal underpinnings. And those moments are incredibly satisfying.

In Conclusion: An Undisciplined Sidebar Thought That Just Came to Me...

I have a feeling that it could be a long time before I make my peace with Sunbather as a whole entity. In fact,
if I were a better writer, I'd make a big comparison between Sunbather and Kanye's Yeezus.

They're both incendiarily polarizing to critics. They both seem intentionally confrontational to the listener. They both strike me as an example of the vision of the art being significantly greater than its execution. And they both seem to be records that demand a few weeks' worth of listens in order to make a fully-formed opinion.

But I'm not a better writer. And I don't give a fuck about Kanye. And I have limited time these days. So, I'll be spending these next few weeks trying to get to know Sunbather.

To tell you the truth, it feels nice to embrace such a challenging record. I'm finding myself almost grateful.