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Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

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Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta

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Andy Wallace, mix engineer

I’ve mentioned before here that Nirvana were the band that inspired me to start playing guitar and making music. Without hearing them when I did, I’ve no idea where I might have channelled my energies. As it was, I did put them into music, and having never been one to do things by half measures, I became a Nirvana obsessive. One of the marks of the young obsessive then (and it may still be, for all I know) was to profess a love for In Utero over Nevermind. The reasons for this are fairly simple: Nevermind was a huge hit record, and therefore middlebrow, and Cobain himself had said derogatory things about it in public (how it was closer to Motley Crue than punk rock, etc.), as had Steve Albini (who recorded In Utero).

The man responsible for the final sound of Nevermind was Andy Wallace. Not coincidentally, Wallace is one of the most in-demand, highly remunerated mix engineers of the last 25 years or so. The records he worked on defined the sound of rock music (certainly at a major label level) from the very start of the 1990s for about ten years, when gradually the Lord-Alge brothers’ (Chris and Tom; they work singly, not as a team) sound took over until it was everywhere, on vocal records from pop to country and gospel, to major-label rock. By the time of American Idiot, it was all over: what the Lord-Alge brothers did was now standard methodology.

For the tech-minded and interested in home recording, I’ve been doing some podcasts of late on the subject of recording drums in the home studio. The CLA/TLA approach to compression is discussed briefly in the podcast on snare drum recording. They use a combination of heavy/fast compression and sample triggering to create a very controlled, compressed snare drum sound, which I surmise from interviews with them they think of as aggressive-sounding. To me, it’s the opposite. By reducing the transient/attack element of the snare drum stroke so heavily, they’re reducing the excitement of the music. The benefit to them is that there’s more room for everything else, and it’s easier to turn in a very controlled, loud mix with all the critical instruments presented with persistent audibility.

As I became alive to this stuff, and realised why I disliked the sound of modern records so strongly, two paradoxical things happened. Firstly, I began to properly understand the nature of Steve Albini’s complaints about Andy Wallace’s mixes (most people who talk smack about Wallace would be unable to identify compressor or limiter if it were placed on a table in front of them, let alone actually work the thing). Secondly, I began to respect the hell out of Andy Wallace’s work, which to my ears gracefully walked a fine line between the controlled and focused sound that labels tend to look for, but still retained an awful lot of the sense memory I have of what it sounds – and, crucially, feels – like to sit a couple of feet away from a snare drum and cymbals while giving them what for.

This is really hard to do.

It’s why Wallace’s work sounds like his work. Sure, there’s been an evolution over 25 years or so, but there are certain things he still does that are Wallacian hallmarks: he still uses the acoustic drums to trigger samples of ambience, he still rides the room mics up (and the overheads too) for a bigger, roomier sound in the choruses (both of which are done in the context of mixes that are still on the dry side) and he still leads the listener by the nose to whatever it is they should be listening to, while never making it apparent to them that that’s what’s going on. And sure, if you’re Steve Albini and it’s your drum recording he’s using to trigger samples and your stereo field that he’s narrowing (as he did on Helmet’s Albini-recorded In the Meantime) that might be annoying and seem disrespectful, but Wallace (or any mixer) has to serve three masters: the record company paying the tab up front, the band who created the music and the listener who’ll ultimately be enjoying it. It’s a difficult place to be and hard to keep all three parties happy all the time, but Wallace has managed it more often than not for a very long time now.

Unfortunately times change and even Wallace’s work misses the mark sometimes now. The Joy Formidable’s 2011 release Wolf’s Law, for example, is one of the most horrendously squashed and flat-sounding records I’ve ever heard, and it’s hard to know whom to hold responsible: the band, listed as the producer; Wallace, who mixed it; or Bob Ludwig, who mastered it. Both Ludwig and Wallace have done stellar work over the years, so maybe they were painted into a corner by their tracking engineers. Who can say? But I can say this: if you listen to a Wallace mix from the 1990s, whether it’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, Grace or The Globe Sessions, you’ll hear a guy giving a repeated masterclass. It’s interesting, too, if you can stand it, to listen to his work on heavier records in the early 2000s (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, Slipknot, System of a Down, Disturbed, etc.); you’ll hear that it’s definitely the start of a different era, but a lot of the old Wallace techniques are still audible, and whatever the artistic merit of those groups, Wallace’s mixes were still efficient and ruthlessly focused.

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”.’

Inside Out – Odyssey

Odyssey had several big UK hits between 1977 and 1982, yet all of these songs were musically and emotionally distinct from each other. The band seemed to transform themselves with every single: the world-weary elegance of their first hit, Native New Yorker, gave way to the resigned despair of If You’re Looking for a Way Out; the Caribbean dancefloor celebration of UK no.1 Use it Up and Wear it Out was followed by the triumphant nostalgia of Going Back to My Roots. This puzzlingly diverse but magnificent run ends here, in the bleakest and most disturbing of their singles, Inside Out.

Written by the helmeted, kilted and claymored Scotsman Jesse Rae (watch Over the Sea here and give yourself a New Year’s treat), Inside Out – like If You’re Looking For a Way Out – deals with a love affair that the singer knows is all but over. This time, though, the lover is already on his way, and Lillian Lopez sounds empty; the warm, agile voice she sang in on her earlier records is absent, replaced by something tired, strained and hollow. If Billie Holliday had lived long enough to record disco, it might have sounded a little like this.

Inside Out was produced, phenomenally well (in standard Odyssey fashion), by Jimmy Douglass, who assembled a crack band for the occasion. Steve Arrington (from the Ohio funk band Slave, whose style this song resembles) is on drums, and Sandy Anderson channels Arrington’s bandmate Mark Adams for his magnificent performance on bass guitar, while Lenny Underwood (like Anderson, a member of New York group Unlimited Touch) creates the patchwork of squiggly synths that gives the record so much of its colour.

The result is a track made up of fragmentary hooks, stray bits of melody, hard-funk slap bass, disco strings, and harshly staccato backing vocals (‘In! Side! Out!’), yet the result is a record that not only coheres, but adds up to something I find as just as compelling as the timeless Native New Yorker (which, as those who’ve been following this blog a while may remember, is my push-comes-to-shove favourite single of all time) despite the vast sonic and emotional gulf between them.

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Odyssey

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Jesse Rae