Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Dinosaur, Jr.

A friend won some tickets so I got to go see Dinosaur, Jr. on Friday night at the Paradise.

They were loud, of course, but not as loud as the last time I saw them.

This time, I appreciated and understood the volume as an essential component of what they were trying to create, rather than as something that got in the way of my enjoyment.

Volume objectifies the music in a transient yet monumental way. It makes it awesome. Megalithic.

Full disclosure: It also hindered my enjoyment. My ears have too long been battered by amplified music and now certain decibel levels and certain tones are unequivocally painful.

I’ve seen a lot of music over the last year and Dinosaur, Jr. reminded me of what I’d been missing from a lot of it: jamming. Dinosaur, Jr. totally jammed. And as their set progressed, J.’s solos started to stretch out. They became more involved. Elaborate. Articulate. As I wrote elsewhere, they literally blew my mind.

Before people jump on me about that “literally,” I want to stress that I mean it literally. If mind is an episodic and fluctuating state produced as our conscious brain processes external sense data, fluid, eidetic and phenomenological states, as well as the constant activity of the central nervous system, then this product (mind) was dispersed and dissipated by the music. Dust in the wind.

J. Mascis looks like a wizard (a sort of pudgy Saruman) and plays like one, his white hair swinging back and forth as he stares into the middle distance. His solos “spaced me out” as much as Garcia’s ever did. In fact, his epic coda on “Forget the Swan” at the end of the set nearly broke my head. Literally.

While undeniably punk at times, Dinosaur, Jr.’s music has its roots in 60s and 70s (Zeppelin, Rush, Neil Young, Robin Trower, etc.) and I felt, seeing them, that that was as close as I could have gotten, here in 2012, to something like Cream at the Fillmore circa 1967.

I was glad I went.

Update 12/3/2012: Just wanted to add one note on the volume issue. Yes, these guys were loud. But you could hear every single note that J. played. For most of the heavy and loud bands that I’ve heard of late, any lead playing gets lost in the sludge. Such bands would be well-served to learn from the masters.

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Three Things I Learned Watching Joe Lovano’s Us Five at Scullers on 9.13.12

Us Five, a jazz ensemble led by reedman Joe Lovano and featuring James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, opened their two night stand at Scullers last night. I saw the group almost exactly two years ago (sans Spalding—Peter Slavov handled bass duties) and, at that time, thought that they were the best jazz band I had ever seen. That may have been an exercise in hyperbole but they are a ridiculously talented group of people, and if anything, were even better this time around. The level of creativity and invention they brought to the stage was of such a high caliber, the music they made of such exquisite quality and played with such raucous refinement, I was literally moved me to tears.

There were three things I learned last night watching this group in action:

1. One Must Appreciate and Acknowledge Mastery

Two years back, I got real hung up by what I heard as excessive Trane-isms in Lovano’s playing. That was my problem, not his. Joe Lovano is a master who can play whatever he wants and everything he plays is dead-on—rhythmically engaging, intricate, elaborate, beautiful. And everyone in this band is as much the master. Last night, I focused on appreciating this fact and allowing myself to be amazed by these human beings and their stunning ability not only to spontaneously create remarkable music, but to do so collectively, “like they were one being,” as my friend Mike said after the show. I am insecure and am prone to neurotically transform encounters with incredible people into bouts of self-loathing. In this instance, however, I was simply glad  to be in the presene of these inspiring and illuminating masters.

 2. Go All Out, Every Time

The set I saw was, as I said, the first of a two night stand. Yet the band played with such intensity, joy and abandon that you would have thought it was the last time they would ever play together on this Earth. This aspect of their performance, this striving after the ultimate, made me realize that what made the evening special wasn’t simply how gifted they were as musicians or how impressive their technical virtuosity, particularly when exercised with such a relaxed, even casual air, but that they threw themselves into it so utterly. They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to play as if they were aiming to produce the best music possible, the most finely-wrought solos, the most ingenious accompaniment, but they did. To have ability is a good thing. To have the will to make the most of that ability and then to actually put in the effort (though it appear effortless) to do your utmost—for what? the audience? the art? the sheer joy of masterful performance?—that is the better thing. Go all out. Every time.

3. Esperanza Spalding Is Astonishing

She really is! I had heard of her, of course, (wasn’t she on the Oscars or something?) and seen some video on YouTube but I had no idea what a badass she really was. Laughing, smiling, swaying, lost in the music, she melded deftly with the chaotic, surging rhythmscape conjured by Brown and Mela and played several bravura solos of jaw-dropping artfulness. My only thought was, “I hope that this young woman, who could do whatever she wants musically, doesn’t get sick of doing this, because she’s awesome at it!” As good as the rest of the band is, and as great and irrepressible as Lovano himself is, Spalding was the unequivocal star. She’s astonishing.

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Does Intensity Belong in Music?

I came to consider the question posed in the title of this post after seeing Tinariwen on a Friday night and then, three days later, Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan.

The second concert was undeniably “intense.”

Dillinger Escape Plan play a frenetic brand of mathcore—the demonic love-child of hardcore and metal (particularly of the “technical death” variety). From the second they started playing, they were in constant motion, careening around the stage, jumping off everything. The singer taunted the audience by implying that they were not as extreme as the crowd in NYC, but eventually dove into the mayhem. Their performance frequently made me cackle in glee, on account of its ridiculous extremity. My friend Emmanuel said, “This band makes me feel like I’m 80 years old.”

Mastodon, the headliners, were thunderous and epic. Heavier than Dillinger, they were less dynamic, their klangwelt less varied, but they were also undeniably the crowd’s favorites. Propelled by a poly-limbed drummer and an impressive collection of riffs, their set bludgeoned and exhausted me, ending with the anthemic “Creature Lives,” the stage filled with people, every voice joined in a kind of viking chorus. I felt transported (at least for a moment).

Born of volume, velocity, and insistent, concussive rhythms, the intensity of this concert was something I had to physically endure.

The first concert of the weekend featured, as I mentioned already, Tinariwen. Made up of Taureg tribesmen adorned in colorful desert robes, Tinariwen plays a trance-y, guitar-driven, North African folk blues. They sing in Temashek, their lyrics a mixture of politics (the Tuaregs have long been at odds, and even all out war, with the central government of Mali) and Saharan melancholy.

Occupying the opposite end of the intensity spectrum—about as far away from Dillinger as you could get—was Tinariwen’s leader, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who, according to Wikipedia, “at age four witnessed the execution of his father (a Tuareg rebel) during a 1963 uprising” and, as a young man, received military training at the behest of Muammar Ghaddafi.

Standing on stage, Alhabib was taciturn, inscrutable, slowly swinging his guitar back and forth, singing with his mouth barely moving. His was not an intensity that overpowers so much as one that draws everything into itself like a neutron star. The music was hypnotic, weaving a spell. I couldn’t help but move, turning around a distant fire in an endless night, orbiting a source of power that was deep and enduring like the ever-growing desert.

Look, I like the loud version of intensity, but the quiet intensity of Tinariwen meant so much more to me. It wasn’t the intensity of performance and display, it was the intensity of a lived life taking the time to quietly express itself in rhythm and melody. It was a human and even healing intensity.

The intensity of Mastodon and, especially, the Dillinger Escape Plan felt more like an imagined antidote to boredom in the face of our culture’s incessant barrage of superficial stimulus and cheap (even stolen) entertainment, as if they could create, as an aesthetic experience, the intensity that produced Tinariwen.

Unfortunately/fortunately, only real life can do that.

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Homage to Saccharine Trust

Until the appearance/Of a lone ocean bird/Skimming over the choppy water/Airily eyeing after anchovies/And occasionally glancing at the people/Who had come to be at the beach/On the winter solstice – from “Estuary,” by Saccharine Trust

I think it was in the late summer of 1981 that I jokingly suggested to my friends that we go see a concert at the Whiskey A Go Go featuring the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, and the Meat Puppets. I had not ever heard any music by these groups and was probably just amused by their names, especially the Meat Puppets.

Who knew, then, that some four years later these would actually be among my favorite bands?

Indeed, it was in the spring of 1985 that I went to see the Keystone Palo Alto installment of what SST billed as “The Tour.” The bands involved? SWA, Saccharine Trust, The Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Husker Du. I had gone mainly to see the Minutemen, having had my mind blown over the preceding months by their magnum opus, Double Nickels on the Dime.

The Minutemen totally rocked, as they did every single time I saw them. SWA was forgettable. The Meat Puppets, oddly enough, left no impression (though later in my life I devoted significant turntable time to Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, and, in fact, if I were inclined to recommend any band from that era now, it would probably be them). Husker Du were a white noise blur and my rock concert companion (Eric!) and I left during their set.

The band that ended up haunting me, however, was Saccharine Trust. Jack Brewer, the singer, was dressed in a banana yellow leisure suit; Joe Baiza, the guitarist, had a piece of spin art taped to his guitar. They produced a very angular and spastic kind of punk noise with Baiza given to hacking out long, experimental lines while Brewer—curly haired, baby faced—spit his beat-inspired words. At one point, Brewer hit himself in the forehead repeatedly with the mic until it drew blood. Later, he took off his belt, tied it around his neck, and awkwardly jerked himself into the air with it over and over again.

Read the rest of this entry »

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A Disappointing Film About Norwegian Black Metal

I watched the documentary film Until the Night Takes Us and was disappointed. I really think it fails on every level.

Neither a true “history” of black metal (Norwegian or otherwise) nor a revealing portrait of the genre’s main innovators (Fenriz of Darkthrone and Varg Vikernes of Burzum), the film never even raises the questions it should answer.

For example, wherein lies an engagement with or appreciation for this genre, especially in its purest, “necro” form (as one might find it on Emperor’s Wrath of the Tyrants, for example, or Darkthrone’s incomparable, Transylvanian Hunger) as an aesthetic experience?

Sure, Fenriz and Varg talk about choosing the crappiest amps and mics, etc., but why does the result sound so compellingly haunting?

And, frankly, how did it even become a recognizable genre and how do we categorize its defining characteristics?

On the other hand, where is the discussion of the neo-Nazi ideology associated with this music, so associated with it, in fact, that there is a sub-genre known as NSBM, or National Socialist Black Metal? I use the term “sub-genre” here guardedly since some of the genre-defining artists have produced music that falls squarely in this dark realm.

On that last front, why don’t the filmmakers actually call Varg on his bullshit?

For example, during the segment about his trial for the murder of Euronymous, Vikernes states that he was given a stiff sentence (by Norwegian standards, not American) because, in his words, the authorities wanted to say, “We don’t tolerate this kind of rebellion.” What kind of rebellion was that exactly? Stabbing a man, fleeing from you in his underwear, to death?

Varg is also shown saying, “It’s very hard to recognize the truth, when you are bombarded by lies all the time.” This may sound noble, until you realize that this is the kind of “truth” he’s after:

If we have a positive relationship to our homeland, to our blood, to our race, to our religion and to our culture we will not destroy any of this with modern “civilization” (id est capitalism, materialism, Judeo-Christianity, pollution, urbanization, race mixing, Americanization, socialism, globalization, et cetera). The “nazi ghost” has scared millions of Europeans from caring about their blood and homeland for sixty years now, and it is about time we banish this ghost and again start to think and care about the things that (whether we like it or not) are important to us.

Finally, why do they let it slide when Hellhammer—known for saying things like, “Black metal is for white people”—refers to the man Bård Guldvik “Faust” Eithun (erstwhile drummer of Emperor) killed as a “fucking faggot”?

I’m sure they’d fall back on the “we’re letting our subjects speak for themselves” ethos of some documentarians (and if you’re reading this, please feel free to comment!) but even there they don’t let their subjects speak enough or at length. One of the most interesting segments involves Fenriz being interviewed by a German journalist (in which he says, “We’re not just sitting around in a trailer camp listening to Anthrax!”). Why couldn’t we have more of his views or ramblings (and, while we’re at it, a conversation about his use of the phrase “Norwegian Aryan Black Metal” back in the day)?

For good or ill, I don’t tend (any longer) to reject music or other works of art based (solely) on the politics or behavior of the maker.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that one should at least explore the ways that politics and aesthetics inform and influence each other and, if only on a personal level, ask ourselves why our response to something, on a visceral level, may be positive when we would reject it on an intellectual level.

Anyway, if you have the time and interest, Lords of Chaos is a much more satisfying account of black metal, its origins, and its consequences.

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Odd Future in a World that Allows Rape

“In 12 years, there have been 6 million dead men and women in Congo and 1.4 million people displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls have been raped and tortured. Babies as young as 6 months, women as old as 80, their insides torn apart. What I witnessed in Congo has shattered and changed me forever. I will never be the same. None of us should ever be the same.” – Eve Ensler, May 2009

The World We Live In

The situation Ensler describes above has only gotten worse and its “intractable” nature, documented by yet another report on the extent of sexual violence in Congo, led her to declare last week, “Here’s what I Am Over/400 thousand women getting raped a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo/48 women getting raped an hour/1,100 raped a day.”

As she rightly points out, we live in a world that “… has allowed, continues to allow 400 thousand women, 23,00 women, or one woman to be raped anywhere, anytime of any day in the Congo.”

Of course, we also live in a world in which Odd Future can release a song (“Swag Me Out,” from the Radical mixtape) containing the line (picked more or less at random), “”Nigga we/take a girl/rape her in the back/of the fucking jeep,” followed soon by, “Chop a bitch head off/Then get a pleasant nut off/Bitch!” In fact, in this world, the band can appear on Jimmy Fallon’s show and even have an interesting article written about them in the New Yorker. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Aesthetic of the Raw Nerve

At times, the philosophical artist will produce a work which primarily expresses the thought that somewhere in the world, right now, there is an open wound.

This tendency reaches the stage of decadence, however, when said artist produces, either actually or metaphorically, said wounds himself.

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