Sunday, November 27, 2011

requests 2.0: help a blogger out

Last time we did this, it proved rather successful and I had several holes filled in my collection thanks to the kindness of my followers.  So, it's now time for Part II.

This batch mostly focuses on the 1980s-early 1990s Chicago/Minneapolis punk axis.  Why?  It's been flooding my ears lately (in the best way possible) and I've long intended to put together a comprehensive post detailing this extremely prolific era and scene.

The problem with this era/scene is that while documented, and celebrated, a lot of these records never saw CD release.  Which is a shame, because there's some really terrific music out there languishing on beat up LPs that for one reason or another has not been approached in the reissue game.  The versions that are out there, usually on fellow blogs, are (typically) the same vinyl dub, clicky and poppy, and not transferred with the greatest of care (a LOT of inner groove distortion from beat up equipment and vinyl, mostly).

Here's hoping my readership can help rectify this.  If you have any of the below and can provide as requested in the details below, please contact me at analogloyalist at gmail dot com and let's play ball!

In no particular order...

STRIKE UNDER - Immediate Action EP
The celebrated first Wax Trax! release - and nowhere near what the label would eventually become known for.  Strike Under is straight-up punk, Chicago style, and this record is a celebrated document of the early 1980/1981 Chicago punk scene.  Only one track has seen CD release (on the Wax Trax! Black Box anthology), yet the whole record - all 13 minutes of it - needs further recognition.  Not likely any of my readers has this original 12", but if so, a FLAC rip done with care would be fantastic.

BREAKING CIRCUS - The Very Long Fuse / The Ice Machine / Smoker's Paradise
Really underappreciated postpunk from the Strike Under singer/guitarist Steve Björklund, who on the first record The Very Long Fuse backed himself with Roland (Big Black's drum machine).  Then he moved to Minneapolis, hooked up with Rifle Sport's rhythm section Flour (bass) and Todd Trainer (drums), and released two terrific records before disappearing.  These long out of print records were all released on the seminal Homestead label, and never saw CD release.  Word is that Björklund has put the kibosh on various official entreaties to reissue these records, for some unknown reason.  Again, these are widely available in BlogWorld, but usually in low bitrate MP3 and usually seem to be the same scratchy rip with distortion.  FLAC rips, transferred with care/good equipment, would be stellar.

RIFLE SPORT - Primo (CD appends White [Made In France])
This Minneapolis band is fantastic.  Their rhythm section (Flour and Trainer, as described above) is among the best EVER - so much so that Steve Albini stole Trainer for Shellac, a drumstool he still occupies today.  Their two top albums, 1987's White (Made In France) and 1990's Primo, saw some limited CD release in 1990 on a single disc, the Big Money-issued Primo.  There's a copy today on eBay with a Buy It Now price of $79.99...  That should say it all... Certainly one of my readers has this CD and can FLAC it up for me.  It's not available anywhere on the darker sides of the Internets, at least not from CD - the rarity shows in that most of the Rifle Sport material available on the webz is from clicky vinyl.

ARSENAL - Factory Smog Is A Sign Of Progress CD
Big Black broke up in 1987 because Santiago Durango enrolled in law school.  Albini states the secret to Big Black's awesomeness was Sant's guitar.  Sant still had something musical to say, so stole Roland (him again) and a bassist and released two industrial-sounding EPs.  Touch and Go released both EPs on the Factory Smog... CD, but let it lapse out of print.  FLACs are nowhere to be found online.

A mid-80s Chicago band that featured members of the Effigies, the other Björklund brother (Chris) from Strike Under, and Pegboy; a bit more riff-focused snapshot of mid-period Chicago punk.  This record was their only release and never saw CD issue.  Online rips are all the same clicky vinyl, all MP3-only, and suffer from poor transfers the most of these that I seek.  A nice, clean transfer in FLAC would be great.

DeKalb, Illinois punk rock largely in awe of Naked Raygun.  This band disbanded to form Tar; or, the sound of the band was changing enough that the members decided to change their name too.  This record was only released in Germany and never saw CD release either.  As is becoming a motif, online copies are all low-bitrate MP3s and are poor transfers.  A clean transfer in FLAC would be pretty neat.

Chicago surf-punk from the late 80s that really has to be heard to be believed.  This band was my first live punk rock gig; they opened for Naked Raygun when I went to see my first big-city big-punk-rock gig and I was *blown away* by this band.  Fittingly, my hometown never saw fit to, you know, RELEASE the album as they had to go to Germany (I sense a trend here...) to release their sole LP.  I finally found it online this year (over 20 years of searching!), but (gasp) as clicky MP3s only.  I would die a happy man if someone transferred this, cleanly and distortion-free, and offered up FLACs.

Help a blogger out!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rex: 3 (Brooklyn-via-Chicago "slowcore")

It's not very often I post about a band or record I know very little about.  Usually when in my trawls through unheard (by me) music, I come across something that piques my interest, I put it on my iPhone for future in-depth listening.  Sometimes it turns out not my cup of tea, and sometimes I just can't turn away despite my best attempts.  Very rarely am I driven to post about something I have only the barest familiarity with.

Rex was a band from Brooklyn that was active in the mid-90s.  I was not in a musical state at that time to really appreciate this band (or so I tell myself), but it could also be that I'd simply not been given exposure to their records.

So in my trawls through the darker side of the Internets I ran across two of their records.  Now, having heard of this alleged slowcore (I hate that term) act in passing, and liked the record they made with Califone as a combo called Loftus, I figured I'd give them a listen in their own right.

This is plain and simple beautiful music.  I suppose the slowcore label fits (after all, drummer Doug Scharin was in Codeine for a couple years), but it's more than that.  There is beautiful guitar, skillfully mixed with beautiful string playing.  Some might call this boring but given half a chance - these two records C and 3 are all I've listened to for the past three days - the pure beauty and melancholy seeps from every musical pore.  It certainly doesn't hurt that the records were impeccably recorded by Chicago producer Brian Deck.

So here is 3, their third and final record.  Less rocky than the previous album C, it's perhaps the band's essence of beauty in one encompassing package.  If I had found this in 1997, when it came out, I don't think I would have appreciated it nearly as much.  "Balloon" finds me hitting the repeat button over and over; other tracks reek (in a good way) of Red Red Meat and other Tim Rutili/Califone sounds.  Chicago guitar dude Bundy K. Brown plays on a track or two (he known primarily for Tortoise and the other John McEntire scene bands) too.

(1997, Southern Records)

01 Gathered
02 Jet
03 Waterbug
04 Other James
05 One Stew
06 Oafish
07 Balloon
08 Yah Land
09 Clean


Sunday, November 6, 2011

my engine's running: Bitch Magnet 2011 review

Having to slip into my old objective shoes is difficult because I'm used to promoting the things I love via this outlet.

Bitch Magnet was a band that was neither here nor there, in the critical bridging-alternarock-with-hardcore years of 1988-1990.  This was just a couple years before Sonic Youth broke punk, and Nirvana put out a record that you might have heard of.  Did punk really break, though?  Did Fugazi suddenly become a stadium act?  Did the Buzzcocks (they were around then) find themselves topping the charts?  I think a subset, the "accessible" subset of so-called punk, made it into the mainstream.  Certainly nobody calls Nirvana punk, at least these days (and you would be hard-pressed to find someone even back then call them "punk", for that matter).  Regardless, a not-insignificant number of bands - for whatever reason - suddenly found themselves in the spotlight and playing the mainstream late night talk show circuit, etc.

By the time critical mass was reached at this point, the American underground had largely become a fragmented scene of sorts.   You had the Washington DC proto-emo thing, with bands the likes of Rites of Spring/Embrace/Fugazi/etc on one coast.  On the other coast you had the LA "whither SST?" set led by the Black Flag disciples, and a (growing) Gilman Street pop-punk subset up in Oakland/San Francisco ultimately characterized by Green Day.  In the middle you had classic Midwest punk/hardcore blends of Die Kreuzen, the imploding Huskers, the entire Chicago scene, Michigan's underrated Laughing Hyenas, and (stretching the definition of Midwest) the Texan cowpunk of Scratch Acid.  This is just a sampling, of course; I could spend all day cataloging American indie/punk acts of this era and you'd long have decided that reading utterly randomized Wikipedia entries was more productive.

Each pocket represented a different, pretty consistent, sound.  Sure, the bands argued that they were not of a particular scene ("we exist outside of all time and place" nonsense was common then), but the filtering of hindsight finds a common thread running through each distinct geographical entity - with each regional pocket's associated acts connected in some fashion to that particular region's common stitching.

Then you had bands such as Bitch Magnet (previously discussed here, in fan mode).  With both feet equally in the post-hardcore and straight-up metal scenes, and a drummer so talented he may have been placed here by aliens *simply to drum*, there is no category that neatly fits them.  Labels are for canned food, anyway (according to a certain M. Stipe), but the nifty thing about labels is that it gives an outsider even a brief snippet of an idea what to look for when discovering something.  So you have to start somewhere.

What is great about these Bitch Magnet records is that even their records aren't sure what they want to be.  1989's Umber starts off with two, at their essence, metal tracks and then suddenly slips into "hey! We've discovered dynamics!  softLOUDsoft really sounds neat!" mode.  It then does a 180-degree spin and sounds like any number of 80s hardcore/punk acts, and then on the next track ("Douglas Leader") completely invents "modern" post-rock.  Again, labels.

1990's Ben Hur is another beast altogether.  Working with Steve Albini (err, Arden Geist, sorry) among others, the band refines the unique road they began hewing to with Umber, and really begins to define modern post-rock (sorry, Jon...) with this record.  The suppose-we'll-call-it metal is still there, but subsumed under complicated non-metal rhythmic patterns and a growing sense of melody and out-and-out songwriting.  Listen to "Crescent" and "Mesentery" (both recorded with Mike McMackin, not Albini) and don't tell me that underneath the noise you don't hear beautiful music.

Where it all began for this band, on 1988's Star Booty, is a muddled mess with interesting ideas emerging from the murk ("Sea of Pearls" is an outright classic, for this band, and several other tracks have their moments).  I don't think, though, that had I come across this record at the time, I'd have seen a path to Umber.  It's really just not there, because the growth of this band in the intervening year is akin to - gasp - Joy Division between the May 1978 "Warsaw" record and the April 1979 Unknown Pleasures LP.  That said, the mixes on Star Booty do not lend themselves to pictures of clarity; it is entirely possible that these same songs, properly recorded and mixed, might alter that impression.

For the most part, these records had either slipped quietly out-of-print or were only available via online retailer; copies of Umber and Star Booty (issued together on a single CD by their label Communion) were known to fetch prices anywhere from $20-$60 via eBay or Amazon depending on the season.  (I was fortunate enough to have snapped up my copy of U & SB during what can only be presumed a lapse, for the bargain-basement price of $16 for a used disc, in great condition.)  Ben Hur was periodically available as a new CD via the usual online merchants, but certainly it was never in great abandon or promoted.  So as is becoming the norm, the band reclaimed the rights to these recordings and have now remastered and reissued them via Brooklyn label Temporary Residence.

As with any modern reissue campaign, the band dug through those dusty tape boxes and fleshed out the records with errata.  Ben Hur appends two tracks unique to 7" releases, "White Piece of Bread" and "Sadie", which showcase the band's metal tendencies and punk roots, respectively ("Sadie" is a 2011 remix; the band was unable to locate the master for the 1991 7" so had to go back to the multitracks).  Umber finds producer Mike McMackin gifting a lost "louder" mix of the leadoff track "Motor", which, frankly, I struggle to see the difference (a bit louder racecar-effect guitar and Orestes' kick drum, it seems).

The biggest find, however, was a forgotten 5-song session recorded between Star Booty and Umber, which was recently rediscovered and mixed down with the band and John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky) in late 2010.  These five tracks - four of which would feature, in re-recorded versions, on Umber - are special.  The basic three-piece of Sooyoung Park, Jon Fine and Orestes Morfin recorded these (missing Dave Galt, who had yet to join the band on guitar), and the essence of these tracks is really captured here (along with some monstrous drumming, the best I've heard on a Bitch Magnet recording).  "Sadie" - making its second appearance in this set, though an earlier recording - is different to the Ben Hur take, and crushes it.  Excellent songs and for any reasonable fan of Bitch Magnet, these five newly-discovered recordings are worth the price of admission alone.

Now, the technical side.  If I had one complaint about these reissues, it would be the remastering (by West West Side Music's Alan Douches).  These reissues are mastered LOUD.  LOUD.  LOUD.  Sadly, too LOUD.  For a band that began to define dynamics in modern post-punk recordings, these dynamic volume shifts are obliterated by this needlessly in-your-face mastering.  It's fatiguing, and (in this blogger's humble opinion) frankly unnecessary.  While the remastered result doesn't appear to suffer the obvious "pumping" sonically-crushed masters often do, the relentless assault of constantly-maximized sound makes my brain want to take a break and take off the 'phones or get out of the room for a bit.  Music should draw you in, not push you away.  The original CDs did just that.  While I can understand the overall want to have the best transfers possible from the original master tapes, using top-notch technology available today that didn't exist when these were originally mastered in the late 80s/early 90s, there's no automatic "compress/limit the hell out of it" expectation at any stage of mixing or mastering.  There are records being issued today that are textbook examples of clarity and dynamic range, and these are not they.  My humble opinion tells me that such dynamically-involved records as these gain a lot of their strength, appeal and lasting power by their creative and effective use of dynamic range, something significantly lacking here.

The packaging is lovely, a nicely-executed 3xCD triple gatefold housing all the CDs and an attached booklet with great photos, flyers, and other errata.  I commend Temporary Residence and the band for keeping the price reasonable; can you name any other 3xCD "deluxe edition" set retailing for $15 (as this does)?

As I type this the band is amidst their first live dates, in this lineup, since mid-1989.  Far East fans are enjoying Seoul, Korea and Japan gigs before the reunited combo winds its way to Europe for gigs in December; alas, no Stateside dates have been announced.  Let's hope this is rectified.

Official site, preorders, etc (3xCD, 3xLP available for December delivery)!