Monthly Archives: June 2014

In the Meantime – Helmet

Helmet were a band apart in their prime. East Coast, not West. Cerebral and detached compared to their Seattle peers, yet capable of the same volcanic aggression. Often labelled ‘avant metal’ by critics, but having nothing in common with commercial pop-metal, and only a passing similarity to thrash. Helmet, then, didn’t fit neatly in anyone else’s box. They seem in retrospect to have been fathers to the heavier math-rock bands. Listen to the way drummer John Stanier changes time from four beats to three under the repeating riff during the middle section of In the Meantime – all of math rock is there, in the same way that all of surrealism is in the first three lines of ‘Prufrock’.

They are, however, a hard band to love. Page Hamilton, Helmet’s singer, songwriter and guitar player, often comes over prickly and defensive in interviews, trying to convince the world to see his music the same way he sees it: as derived from his jazz guitar studies. Hence the reading of the standard Beautiful Love from Betty, which changes suddenly from a clean solo guitar playing in a chord-melody style to squonky heavy rock that seemingly bears no resemblance to the jazz guitar still playing softly in the right-hand speaker. It’s a curious beast, not really a hybrid, more of a superimposition (Hamilton is apt to talk about such concepts in interviews, so conceivably that might have been the point).

Clever though this have been, the band were always at their best when their ferocity was tightly focused, and so their finest moment remains In the Meantime, the near-title track of their album Meantime, released in 1992. Meantime was their first major label record. The band had been the subject of a bidding war the previous year; with labels desperate to find the next Nirvana, industry eyes had simultaneously lighted on a group on Amphetamine Reptile that had the right guitar sound and attitude.

In the Meantime is a furious song, beginning with drummer John Stanier rolling around his toms and bashing his cymbals, while Hamilton makes squealing tremolo-picked noise. Then, over a held D, Stamier plays half-time on the hats while stomping out a syncopated hip-hop kick drum beat. The band then drop in with the song’s main riff, over the same beat as before, before the rhythm section shift to simpler pattern, which Hamilton syncopates against with one D chord. This same feel will power the verses along, but before the first verse has even started, they’ve burned through enough cool ideas to keep many bands going for a whole song.

Key to all this, of course, is John Stanier, now in the experimental rock group Battles, who record for Warp. His reputation as a powerful and inventive drummer is even higher today than it was twenty years ago, but even then he was grabbing the ears of the Modern Drummer crowd. He is typical of a generation of American drummers who have hands schooled in the marching-band tradition and a bass-drum foot schooled by hip-hop. His complex, busy kick drum work throughout In the Meantime is a masterclass. I imagine it’s somewhat galling to Page Hamilton that his old band is known to a generation of kids as the band that the Battles guy with the really high cymbal* used to be in.

Hamilton is fond of saying that Helmet’s heavy rock swings**, but really I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Stanier tends to swing more nowadays with Battles. Twenty years ago, playing heavy rock with his left hand and hip-hop with his right foot, he was more machine-like. Certainly he had less of that back-of-the-beat feel that, say, Matt Cameron had, let alone rock drummers of an earlier era (Levon Helm or Ringo, say). Music that swings feels good. Listening to Helmet is designed to make you feel tense, clenched. If Helmet had swung, they wouldn’t have been so heavy, so claustrophobic. They’re not too well known in their own right now, and Hamilton can never resist an invitation to intellectualise, recontextualise and justify the music he made twenty years ago***, but In the Meantime is one of the greatest records of its era, and you don’t have to listen hard or long to hear their influence on later heavy rock bands of all kinds.

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Helmet live, early 1990s. Photo by Bill Keaggy

 

* Stanier plays with a crash cymbal around seven feet in the air: Modern Drummer: What’s with the super-high crash? John Stanier: I didn’t want any cymbals but the hi-hats at first. Then I was like, “Okay, I’ll use one,” but I didn’t want it near me because I’d use it too much. So I set it high so I’d have to work to get to it. I wanted it to be significant; I use it as a marker. It’s like a master reset button when I go to the cymbal. Plus, it looks cool.

** ‘I’ve had great musicians like Danny Kortchmar, the great guitarist and producer, and T.M. Stevens from The Pretenders, and Steve Jordan, who works with Keith Richards, say to me, “Helmet’s the only heavy band that swings. You guys really swing. There’s a groove to it”.’ Interview with Page Hamilton, Invisible Oranges

***’Then my manager tells me James Hetfield said Helmet is one of his top five bands of all time and you’ve had Elton John and David Bowie say that they love your band. Musicians are still inspired by what you are doing.’ Interview with Page Hamilton by Justin M. Norton, About.com; ‘So many musicians like the band – and I’m talking guys from Gene Simmons, who told me I was the future of music, to Tommy [Lee] and Nikki [Sixx] from Mötley Crüe, and David Bowie and Elton John. A wide variety of people have told me they like the band. I think that they get that there’s this other musical mind at work in there. It’s not just hardcore, it’s not just metal. It’s got all these elements in it, but harmonically and feel-wise, it’s interesting. I also was friends with the Pantera guys, and Dimebag Darrell said, “I told you you were going to influence me”.’

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Thursday 12 June, 12 Bar Club, London

Hi all,

Just a final reminder about this!

I’ll be playing bass with Yo and opening the evening up at around 8.30pm

https://www.facebook.com/events/239357892934468/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

The White Album – The Beatles

Yesterday evening I caught up with my friend Yo Zushi on the phone. As usual, we went through a bunch of subjects: jazz harmony, songwriting processes, logistical stuff related to this. But the bit of the conversation that got me thinking the most was about the creepy atmosphere of certain late sixties’ artists, particularly the Beatles and the Beach Boys. We talked about the White Album and discussed that thorny old issue: would it have been better as a single record?

For me, the answer’s no. There are, to be sure, a lot of albums that are simply too long, that could have done with a few songs being removed and the remaining edited somewhat to trim their running times. The bloat of the late CD era (roughly c.1998 to c.2005) is a well documented phenomenon, caused by the slow realisation that the technical deficiencies of vinyl no longer applied and so running times didn’t need to be kept to around 22 minutes a side. People stopped making albums as if the delivery medium would be the LP, and simply filled the CDs up. Probably most music fans can think of a bunch of albums from that era that just feel bloated and distended, particularly hip-hop/R&B fans; Yo and I spoke particularly about R.E.M.’s Up, which we both agree is their final interesting album, with a bunch of strong, atmospheric, slightly loungey songs that did something that was new for them, and was a brave response to Bill Berry’s departure. At 65 minutes, though, it’s too much of a slog to sit through in one sitting without the attention wandering. I’d excise Lotus and Sad Professor and would be happy to have had shorter versions of most of the remaining; Airportman, Daysleeper and At My Most Beautiful are fine at the lengths they are, but why on earth is Diminished six minutes long?

Then the White Album question. Yo’s in the camp that would prefer a single-album version. I’m not. When we went through out preferred tracklistings, I concluded that I could make a case for removing 11 of out of 30 tracks, but that the record would then not have worked as a single LP in the vinyl age (it would still have been too long), and that a lot of the context that make the great songs great would be missing. To misquote Greil Marcus on Electric Ladyland, the White Album is a mess, but it’s a sprawling, fascinating mess. To take away The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (and I understand why many want to) may make the record ‘better’, but at the expense of changing what it is, its character, its shifts in mood, which combine to create one very singular mood.

The interest in listening to the White Album derives from how those songs play with each other, how McCartney’s raucous Birthday is succeeded by Lennon’s despairing (or faux-despairing) gutbucket Yer Blues, which in turn gives away to McCartney’s solo acoustic Mother Nature’s Son, before being unceremoniously followed by Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey, with its frantic bell and babbling voices. The White Album may not be the finest demonstration of songcraft in the Beatles’ career, but it showed how expertly they constructed songs into albums.

The White Album has so many facets to it that it prompts debates between fans as to what its strongest elements are. Yo is a fan of Lennon’s acoustic fingerpicking songs, written during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh: Dear Prudence and Julia. Both songs have pretty big reputations, Prudence’s at least partly based on the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover. I don’t care that much for either of them. The slippery, elusive Lennon of Happiness is a Warm Gun, Sexy Sadie and Cry Baby Cry interests me far more. Similarly, of McCartney’s rock songs only Back in the USSR stands up as a composition, and it’s hampered by the author’s ham-fisted drum track (recorded while Ringo was absent, having temporarily quit band and session). McCartney’s acoustic songs, on the other hand — Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird, I Will, Martha My Dear — are all beautiful little miniatures, with all of his talent for expressive, expansive melody intact. Blackbird may be a weighty metaphor, and Martha My Dear may start out being about a sheepdog and end up being about nothing at all, but all these songs share a lightness of touch that’s completely disarming. (Junk, which appeared on McCartney’s first solo album, was demoed at this time too, and is almost impossibly lovely. I wish it had made the cut).

Which leaves George Harrison to encapsulate the White Album issue. He has four songs on the record, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. He never wrote anything better than the hushed, devotional Long Long Long; he never wrote anything worse than Piggies, which is without a single redeeming feature. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is ponderous, and hampered by El Clappo’s deep-as-a-puddle ‘blues’ guitar, but it succeeds on the strength of its chorus, and certain live versions down the years have caught fire and shown the song’s underlying robustness; Savoy Truffle (about, rather than featuring, Eric Clapton) would be the worst entry in his Beatles songbook if Piggies hadn’t got there first. Played four: won two (one by a whisker); lost two, ignominiously.

Ultimately the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with the White Album. In the iPod playlist era, with any amount of alternate versions and demos available, we can all create our own favoured White Album (or Smile, or whatever), but I can’t believe any other tracklisting could create the fragile spell the unedited White Album weaves over the course of 94 minutes. And if the concluding trio of Cry Baby Cry, Revolution 9 and Good Night don’t leave you feeling a wordless, inexpressible panic and leave you looking over your shoulder into the shadows in the corner of the room, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

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You know who these people are and which one’s which, don’t you? Good.

Mania – Throwing Muses

 

I was flying, flying through the air, thinking, So this is what this feels like.

As the pavement came up toward me […] a thought occurred. You’re about to hit your head harder than you’ve ever hit it before, so maybe you should… you know… go limp.

I lay in the street, feeling the brand new sensation of a lot of blood leaving my body, then tried to unfold myself. Lifting my left leg, I noticed there was no longer a foot at the end of it.

Then a woman appeared from nowhere and leaned over me. She was wearing mirrored sunglasses. What I saw in her glasses was bizarre: I had no face. The front of my head was hamburger and blood with two blue eyes staring out.

When I turned away to look for my missing foot, the woman grabbed what used to be my face and turned it toward her. ‘You were hit by a car!’ She spoke loudly and slowly, carefully articulating each word. ‘You’re gonna be fine!’

Why is she talking to me like I’m foreign?

 

Kristin Hersh, Paradoxical Undressing, 2010

 

In 1985 in Providence, Rhode Island, an eighteen-year-old Kristin Hersh was knocked off her bicycle by a well-known local oddball, referred to in her book only as ‘the crazy witch’, who drove off without stopping. In hospital, Hersh realised she was hearing things that other people were not. Loud, abstract sounds, a bit like heavy machinery. Slowly these metal noises became tonal and organised. She was experiencing auditory hallucinations, and progressed to hallucinating whole songs. Strange songs, fragmentary songs, songs with funny out-of-key chords, jarring tempo changes and tunes that took a while to decipher.

Hersh began presenting these songs to her band Throwing Muses, already together for four years and a fixture on the local punk scene. But her behaviour was getting strange: she couldn’t sleep so spent most of her nights breaking into swimming pools and doing lengths until she was too exhausted to stay awake any more. She had boundless energy, so much so that her bandmates were concerned about her inability to slow down, let alone stop. She wanted to know everything, see everything, live everywhere. Eventually she was informed that this was classic manic behaviour and was diagnosed as bi-polar, a diagnosis she struggled to accept. She was given a cocktail of powerful drugs and electro-convulsive therapy. She stopped taking the drugs when she fell pregnant a few months later.

The song Mania, then, was written by a woman who knew whereof she spoke. Fast and unrelenting (unlike many early Muses songs, it barrels along at the same tempo for its whole duration), Mania was her most vivid, if not her most lucid, musical reflection of her mental state. It’s not easy listening – at this remove it’s hard for me to recall how hard I had to work as a 16-year-old hearing Hersh for the first time to get inside this music and make sense of it. I had no reference for it, knew of no one else who sang songs like this, this thing, with its frenetic country-polka rhythm in the verses, crazed Subterranean Homesick Blues-style vocal delivery, and unsettling breakdowns where Hersh declares ‘shocking is therapy’, before screaming ‘electrify your head’. Hersh is unique, a one-off, undervalued and inevitably taken for granted.

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Throwing Muses have breakfast, 1989: l-r, Leslie Langston (bass), Tanya Donelly (guitar, vocals), Kristin Hersh (vocals, guitar), David Narcizo (drums)

The early Throwing Muses records (their eponymous debut, second album House Tornado and third album Hunkpapa) are the best documents of this frantic and unsettling period in Hersh’s artistic career. 1990’s The Real Ramona was a transition, a more considered, conventional record with pop hooks and more ABAB song structures. Nevertheless it retains enough of Hersh’s spiky originality to be compelling in the way a proper Muses record is.

After Ramona, Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donelly left the band, making a record with Kim Deal as the Breeders (Pod, a classic) before forming her own group, Belly. With their more approachable but pleasantly strange sound – like something bad going down in Toytown – Belly achieved instant commercial success in its first year, the photogenic Donelly even being approached to appear in a Gap ad. Star reached number 2 in the UK album charts and sold 800,000 copies in the US, and Feed the Tree was a number-one Modern Rock hit single. These were indeed heady times for semi-popular indie rock artists.

But surprisingly Hersh’s commercial peaks were ahead of her too. The bombastic and rather hollow Red Heaven from 1992 reached number 13 in the UK album charts, and 1994’s University peaked at number 10 (in the US it fared less well and Sire dropped them). Most impressively, Hersh’s solo album Hips and Makers reached number 7 in the UK album charts, which for an entirely acoustic mood record with some pretty unconventional songwriting seems scarcely believable today.

For me, Hersh hasn’t recaptured the greatness of her work between 1986 and 1994. That her voice has become ever hoarser and throatier doesn’t help, and nowadays she frequently writes compelling tunes she can’t adequately sing. But apart from that, something that I essentially can’t define is missing from her work since the late 1990s. I’m trying to work out what it is at the moment by reacquainting myself with the early Muses stuff and Hips and Makers, before moving on to her output since 2000, all of which I have but none of which has ever really connected with me. I’ve got tickets to see the Muses in Islington later this year, which I’m looking forward to hugely, but I wish I could have seen them in their pomp 25 years ago at the Town & Country. That would have been quite a thing.

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Throwing Muses on the beach, 1990: l-r, Narcizo, Hersh, Fred Abong, Donelly

 

For those who are interested…

Here’s some of my own music.

 

I’m playing at the 12 Bar Club, Denmark Street, London, on Thursday 12th June. They’ll likely be more dates after that. Check back for updates!