Thursday, January 21, 2010

Souvenir Part 1: How Nerds Make Enemies

About a month ago, I sat in front of a blank form e-mail in which I was to list my top three tunes of 2009 to submit to the Dandelion Radio Festive Fifty. Three songs. This took over forty minutes and two cups of coffee, but not because it took that long to painstakingly weigh my options; because I couldn't think of three songs worthy of ornamenting a whole year. In the end, I opted for Mos Def's "Auditorium", Pissed Jeans' "False Jesii Part 2", and the Flaming Lips' "Convinced of the Hex" - marvelous songs all, but not especially surprising or brain-expanding.

At any rate, this exercise made it clear I was in no position to write the usual year-end poll. Writers more erudite & curious than myself were reduced to balancing their top 25 lists between hipster-bait and inexcusable trash like the Black Eyed Peas - how the hell could I salvage even a dozen decent tunes from such a desolate musical landscape? Yet what music writer can resist the allure of lists? Mercifully, we'd come to the end of a decade (a milestone which almost escaped me entirely), always a decent (if arbitrary) time to take stock. But I didn't want to fall prey to the backwards-looking pattern which Simon Reynolds has noticed, nor exaggerate my crankier tendencies by echoing Glenn Branca's recent Jeremiad. Instead, I thought I'd take a look at the albums I listened to, not liked, the most over the course of the Aughts.

Fantômas, Fantômas (a.k.a. Amenaza Al Mundo)
Mr. Bungle, Disco Volante

A decade earlier, I'd been inspired to pick up the guitar in emulation of a kid six years older and many degrees cooler than me; a kid who worshiped the ground on which James Hetfield, Slash, and (whoops) Nuno Bettencourt walked. Consequently, I was the first kid in my elementary school to own Appetite For Destruction and Master of Puppets. By my last year in high school, I still hadn't suffocated my inner metalhead, though having come of age in the "grunge era" had moved me away from sweep-picking & double-kick-drums towards the thunderous sludge of the Melvins.

But my musical world had been shifted seismically by the purchase, out of sheer curiosity, of Frank Zappa's Apostrophe (') on my thirteenth birthday. It defied every rule that Top 40 radio had imposed on my impressionable mind: it was virtuosic but hilarious, it was orchestral but whimsical, it was psychedelic but cynical. Most importantly, it took the piss out of everything terrifying to the young adolescent - religion, sex, love, and bodily dysfunction.

As Tom Waits once said, you can't un-ring a bell. I was forever changed, much to the chagrin of those around me as my mission became to musically mind-fuck everyone in earshot. I forced my first band to cover "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" and would blast the Boredoms' Pop Tatari in the student lounge at school. Then, sometime when I was fifteen, my friend Ben bequeathed most of his cassettes to me before he was shipped off to boarding school. Sorting through the bag, I pulled out a tape on which a puke-green clown grinned ominously at a single lit match. Ben immediately said he was happy to be rid of that particular album and warned me against listening to it. "Imagine dudes who could've gone to Julliard figuring out how to make the scariest music possible," Ben said. "That shit will give you nightmares."

Of course, I threw it on my boombox as I bedded down that night. I ended up listening to all 73 minutes three times and went to school sleepless the next day. This was what I had been searching for, this was the band that I knew had to exist yet had so far been unable to find. Everything I loved about music was contained therein: technical pyrotechnics, whiplash genre-jumping, the funhouse dementia of Danny Elfman's early movie scores, the obsidian evil of the meanest metal riffs, and even the juvenile scatology of those Ween records my friends kept lending me, all wrapped up in circus bunting and bondage masks. This was it.

I spent the next three years amassing every album with any Bungle band member's name on it - Trey Spruance's "solo" outings as Secret Chiefs 3, Trevor Dunn's avant-jazz releases on John Zorn's Tzadik label, and of course the small-but-swelling Ipecac Records catalogue. Ipecac was (and is) the label Mike Patton started to release the projects his Warner Bros. bosses wouldn't touch, the first of which was the inaugural effort by Fantômas, Patton's metal "supergroup" featuring members of Slayer & the Melvins.

By now, Disco Volante had secured its spot as my favourite Bungle record. Its compositional density appealed to my (ahem) maturing ears, and I found its messy experimentalism more intriguing than Mr. Bungle's fussy "pop" swan song, California. But with the exception of the terrifying "Carry Stress In the Jaw", nothing on Disco Volante really "rocked." Though I was still possessed by the urge to throw devil-horns and headbang, I'd become self-conscious enough to lack the conviction required to be a true metalhead. As much as I privately loved "Walk" or "Raining Blood", I found such teeth-gritting machismo, well, ridiculous. I was also sick of getting kicked in the head at live shows.

Enter Fantômas. For kid who liked Marc Ribot and Ministry in equal measure, that album pushed all the right buttons. Gut-rumbling low-end? Check. Pummeling palm-muted riffs? Yep. Gatling gun drum rolls? You bet. Sudden left-turns and defeated expectations? By the bushel. Cartoonish shrieks and sound effects? And how!

It was only later that I realized the extent to which I'd forever be at odds with The Hip because of my fandom for, specifically, Zappa and Patton. The former's modernist & satirical tendencies have somehow left him tarred as "nerdy shit" that is "not expressive", and the latter is one of the most universally reviled performers still alive for reasons I've yet to hear satisfactorily explained.

Who knows. Maybe it's because back in high school, some prick kept blasting "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast" or "Desert Search For Techno Allah" in the student lounge.

Next: Punk & pigfuck enter the picture.


TV's David Caruso said...

So here's my thing with Zappa, while he is undoubtedly, a very talented and gifted musician, his music feels so much like a sideshow. I've enjoyed the songs of his that I've heard, and they're all pretty weird, but they've never felt as out there, and heart-poundingly desperate as a lot of the avant jazz that was contemporary with him for the first half of his career. I think the same about Zappa's music as you do about Animal Collective's now. Mainly, that its out-there music calibrated to appeal to middle-class cultural capitalists (which Zappa was, being the son of a mathematician), it may have been sardonic and cynical, but in a way that was palatable to his audience. It didn't have blood on its teeth. He gets trumpeted (maybe less now, but still) in the press as an innovator because the people he appealed to were the same people that could grow up and become music critics. Meanwhile, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman and their compatriots are given cursory mention. Maybe it was just because of the times, and nowadays Rock is in the same twilight phase that Jazz was then, but, even though I've enjoyed everything I've heard by him, I never thought of Zappa as rocking. And I never had my mind blown by him.

As for Patton, I don't know much Mr. Bungle, but I liked Fantomas. I can't escape the feeling though, that its music created by people who are just bored with music and want to see if they can toss a can-can beat into a thrash metal song and make it work. Just for shits and giggles and something about that rubs me the wrong way.

Eric said...

Damn Seb, you were born too late. I'm ten years older than you, and i had friends in college who dug this music! One friend had set up his computer to play a sample (usually from Mr. Bungle) when someone pressed certain keys. I have memories listening to Naked City, DNA, Pussy Galore, the Contortions and all the Skin-Graft stuff with actual other people. Granted my friends had pretty extreme taste, but I knew plenty of folks who liked Fugazi and Ministry and others and who laughed at my Zombies and Beach Boys CD's. (for the record, they also disliked Alex Chilton's _Like Flies on Sherbert_ which is just amazing) Funny how indie-rock has changed. And strange how I dislike the direction it's taken.

Incidentally, since our exchange, you've seemed to have taken a more earnest and straight-forward tone. Just be sure to be ironic and elliptical sometime.

Seb said...

TVDC - Believe me, I've heard every possible criticism of Zappa & Patton and I understand from whence it comes. After all, you can't really love something unless you also know how to hate it. Also, given their voluminous discographies, Zappa & Patton have both put out music that I'd level the same criticisms at (You Are What You Is, Jazz From Hell, and Peeping Tom all spring to mind).

Eric - Yeah, it's no negligible detail that all my dearest friends have between 6 and 13 years on me in age. And don't fret about this seemingly straight-forward tone I've taken: I've got 4 reviews of contemporary records coming up for which I'm sharpening every knife in the butcher's block.

And for the record, Like Flies On Sherbert is probably one of my top 10 of all time.

pollywog said...

i dont get the whole electric rock guitar thing at all. never have and probably never will. sometimes i think i'd like to, but the whole 'guitar as penis wank' thing just puts me right off.

i do enjoy a good chicken scratch as rhythm accompaniment to some stonkin funk, a riffingly good reggae skank and some virtuoso classical where, like soccer, i can appreciate the talent and artistry, but as a spectacle it's kinda dull.

by the same token, my brother for instance, who is hardout into his guitar noodlings cant fathom my obsession with cutting edge electronica.

Seb said...

Both the most brilliant thing about the guitar and its curse is what a clumsy, caveman, counterintuitive instrument it is. I mean, look at it, look at how it's held - would you ever think to design an instrument that uncomfortable? Not to mention any chump with at least one finger per hand can pick it up and start flailing away. The guitar is the "Rain Man" of instruments.