Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Which I Direct at Least 25 More Views to the New Helms Alee Video

There's a common thread among interviews with aging 80s metal dudes that revolves around how much better things were in their day, when they were young metal dudes what ruled the land of metal. No, i'm not talking about the "Nirvana took away all our fame" meme; anyone who was paying attention back then by reading issues of RIP magazine (like 17-year-old hairmetalhead me) knows that guys like Sebastian Bach were totally stoked on Nevermind and actually thought they could get Nirvana to tour with them. Little did they know that Kurt Cobain thought their lifestyle was a joke and that Skid Row would have to settle for taking Soundgarden--a band less averse to the mainstream spotlight and mainstream shirtlessness--out as an opening act.

No, what i'm talking about is the old "MTV used to actually play music" canard. Yes, this still bothers some people, apparently. I'm not sure what their deal is--maybe during late night bouts of insomniac alzheimer's-induced dementia (ha! Old people jokes from a guy nearing 40!) they turn on MTV expecting to see Riki Rachtman introducing an Alice in Chains video and are all, "why is this 16-year-old bitching about the BMW her daddy bought her? What's going on? Why isn't Layne Staley in a pool making fun of Dave Mustaine?" And then they realize that Layne Staley is dead, Dave Mustaine supports Rick Santorum for President, and OH MY GOD MTV DOESN'T PLAY VIDEOS ANYMORE FUCKING SHIT NOW WHO ARE WE GOING TO YELL AT FOR NOT PLAYING ENOUGH METAL.

Of course, like those goofballs who turn to mainstream entertainment outlets and yell "what happened to rock music" while Dave Grohl gets drowned out by LMFAO at the Grammys, what Old Metal Dudes don't realize is that, like rock 'n' roll, music videos aren't gone--ya just have to find them in a different place, and that place is the Internet. Don't blame the Old Metal Dudes for not realizing this--after all, they are old, and old people don't like to spend any energy looking for new things. But God invented the Internet because she realized that eventually MTV would replace music videos with True Life: I Can't Stop Frenching Opossums or whatever, and she knew music videos would need a new home.

Music video is still a powerful buzz-creating medium thanks to social media, and unlike the old days, you don't have to suffer through some Republican named Kennedy (irony! Or something!) acting all "wacky" while introducing them. Hell, there are bands that spend more time coming up with awesome videos than they do writing memorable songs:

Of course, running into shit with a car was cooler (if not as musically...something) when Red Fang did it in the "Wires" video, proving that you can actually still put a good song in your kickass video and still gain nearly 500,000 views (yeah, OK Go has had over 13 million since the Super Bowl, but those classists were also sponsored by Chevrolet. YOUR BAILOUT DOLLARS AT WORK):

Which brings us to the whole point of this entire blog post. Helms Alee, one of my favorite current heavy bands, have finally completed the video for the schizophrenically brilliant "8/16," from one of last year's best albums, Weatherhead. The video takes us back to that more innocent time that the headbangers of yore still yearn for; when Temple of the Dog rocked in a field, Riki Rachtman went through a cake at Axl's wedding, and Anthony Kiedis' titties bounced in slow motion...all on Beavis & Butthead, a show that, ironically enough, is now airing new episodes on MTV--only along with the occasional video, they make fun of clips from Snooki Fucks Oompa Loompas or whatever that show's called. Don't worry; you don't need to watch MTV to see the show. I'm sure you can find clips on YouTube.

Anyway. Watch this video and develop the same crush on this band that i've had for a year and a half now. As of this posting, they have 2,166 views, thanks to the Kickstarters who donated to get the video made. Who needs Obama's bailout money, anyway? Wait, did Chevy even get bailout money? And don't i hate Kickstarter? Why is Hozi pooping in the grass? I'm so confused. AGING, AMIRITE?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hurry Up Shotgun and the beauty of The Hook

I could be alone in this assertion--and i don't think i am--but writing a good vocal has to be the most difficult part of being in a band and writing music. Aside from the simple reality that writing catchy and unique pop melodies is goddamn hard, there's a level of vulnerability that comes with sharing your voice and words with the world that is far more daunting than the simple execution of riffs and rhythms. Getting up in front of an audience and singing words you have crafted yourself while under the judging gaze of the drunken, heckling masses isn't just an act of skill or technique--it's an act of bravery, of emotional nudity. It's even worse when having vocal-only band practices to add the lyrics to the music, knowing you're about to sing words you're unsure of in front of the three guys most likely to tell you how much they suck.

To me, this is a large part of why so many bands--mostly on the less-than-national level, but some big dogs too--seem to treat their vocals, maybe not as an afterthought, but not as important as the music. Vocals get buried, processed in effects, and the hummable bits--the hooks--get lost. And of course, in many genres the idea of actually singing the lyrics is shelved in favor of full-throated screams, yelps, barks, and other non-musical vocalizings. And sure, these choices all have their place and their purpose (I can't really picture the Jesus Lizard with three-part harmonies, and Six Finger Satellite wouldn't be the same without J. Ryan creepily croaking all over everything), but there's just something about having the balls to make sure everyone knows just what the hell you're saying up there (and letting everyone know that you actually thought "my lifestyle determines my deathstyle" was a good lyric, right Jaymz?), and presenting it with a melody that commands memorization, that it begs the question--what's everyone else hiding?

Of course, I could be projecting. And after all, not every earworm is necessarily a good thing.

"And once the creature wraps itself around your cerebral cortex, Chekov, you will hear 'Surfin' Bird' on a loop, leaving you susceptible to...suggestion"

This is why the vocals that encase Hurry Up Shotgun's self-titled late-2011 disc in a gauzy, blissful three-part harmony wrapper should be recognized as the tremendous achievement they are.

They sneak up on ya, it's true: the opening "Reason" isn't necessarily peppered with multiple vocal tracks or backing vocals; it's simply a well-crafted Hot Snakes-ey slice of downstroke guitar, pulsing drums, and good ol'-fashioned full-throated rock-n-roll belting, with plenty of upper-register "YEAHs" to keep you listening. It's not until halfway through "Watermelon Sugar," the jam that rests in the tried and true track 2 "hit single" pocket, that the listener is informed that--guess what?--this serviceable post-punk trio can FUCKING SING, and are about to take what you thought was going to be a pretty above-average collection of driving, if unmemorable tunes and push them waaaaaay into the stratosphere and deeeeeep into your thinkmeats. Relax, Chekov. This won't hurt.

That's not meant as a dig on Hurry Up Shotgun's instrumentation, by the way--their riffs and chord progressions and drumming are great--but let's be honest: there are plenty of indie-rockers banging out the Wipers and Superchunk riffs these days, and "great" doesn't necessarily lead to "memorable." Fortunately, Hurry Up Shotgun as an album is anything but forgettable, thanks to brilliant sequencing. Each song delivers just a little bit more sugar; the heavy petting in "Watermelon Sugar" leads to some "ok, just the tip" in "Paths," and pretty soon the first truly grandiose moment of the album is exploding in your brain (yeah, that's where) as the second half of "Swim" is having its way with you--completely consensually, of course, as these guys are lovers, not fighters. But seriously, "Swim's" final two minutes are a revelation on par with any of the best moments of Menthol's 2002 indie-synth-rock power-pop ode to the Cars, Danger: Rock Science! (a lost new wave power-pop classic of the early millennium, and if you've heard it you understand the huge compliment i have just bestowed).

It doesn't let up from there. "The Birds of Islam" add a degree of Hum-inspired heaviness to the proceedings, while "Little Pieces" lays down keyboard lines lifted from some mid-80s post-apocalyptic d-movie Thunderdome ripoff, all while delivering the check-cashing goods: The Hooks. For all the work that was put into the music--and it's obvious these guys put in the work--they put even more into The Hooks. And boy howdy does that work pay off in "Girl From CA," an album-closer so thoroughly catchy and memorable that it single-handedly makes me mad that i listened to this album too late to put it into my top 5 of 2011. I haven't heard harmonies this honey-thick drizzled over rock this hard since the Galactic Cowboys (another band you could stand to revisit if that name-drop just triggered an "oh SHIT, i forgot about them!" moment).

And i think that's something that loud, driving, occasionally noisy rock and roll has to reclaim from the overly-precious, NPR-approved twee indie "rockers" that dominate the venues these days. Look, y'all know me--i loves it loud, and i loves it noisy, but dammit, i also loves it pretty. And i really loves it when it's all three at once. Why should the beardos get all the pretty melodies?* If more bands followed Hurry Up Shotgun's lead, maybe--just maybe--we could take indie rock band from the wimps, or at least carve out our own little piece of Fantasy Island paradise on Ceti Alpha V. Save us, Hurry Up Shotgun! command us with your mind-control earworms, your purple literary references, your rich Corinthian accent, and your heaving, prosthetic chest! It is very spaaaaaaaaace...

Yeah, i just metaphored Hurry Up Shotgun into Khan Noonien Singh. What of it? How else was i gonna tie the end of this post in with those Chekov references from early on?

*This is not to say that all wussy, twee beardo folksters have the market cornered on catchy pop hooks--if i ever leave a Bon Iver song able to remember a single goddamn melody line mumbled outta that affected falsetto, i'll eat Justin Vernon's knit hat.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rockometry 101 with Elusive Nonagons

Now that i'm once again in possession of a computer that doesn't want to shut down every 10 minutes as it gets used, maybe i'll be motivated once again to start updating regularly. I still haven't quite worked out a regular routine of motivating myself to sit and write after my 9 PM dinner, which, after a long 8-hour second shift, leaves me more inclined to zonk out on the couch as i continue to plow through Parks and Recreation on Netflix. Still, i have to make this work somehow, so let's get back into it with some geometry-themed bands that have just put out some baller new tunes in the last week or so.

First off, my boys in Chicago's obtuse-angled, math-addled post-punk dynamo Nonagon have unleashed People Live Everywhere, a sort of obviously-titled 5-song blur of rhythmic 90-degree turns, occasionally jerky grooves, and always hard-driving, serrated tunage. A "Mission of Burma moves 8 hours down the coast to DC and recruits the Jawbox rhythm section" fanfic of a band, Nonagon is anchored by drummer Tony Aimone, formerly of Chicago ska-punks The Blue Meanies, who i once saw cover Operation Ivy in front of a packed and pulsing throng of Concert Cafe kids in Green Bay, only to follow it up by saying "ok, now never listen to that band again; listen to this instead" and launching into "Ace of Spades." Aimone sends Nonagon's abrasive riffs through time signatures even and odd, while bassist Robert Gomez and guitarist (and infectiously energetic superfan of all things rockin') John Hastie sweat, churn, and scream. People Live Everywhere is complex and intelligent, but not exhaustingly so; it doesn't take an accounting degree to latch onto the lurching and occasionally downright funky guitar play happening in songs like "The Swifts," with its tense competing dual vocal lines that converge in a "it's still not easy!" release of balls-out energy.

As with so many of the bands i love, Nonagon fits squarely in the "why don't more people know about this band?" category, but if you're in Chicago this Friday, February 10th, you can rectify it by attending their record release show for People Live Everywhere at the best bar in Chicago, Quenchers Saloon on the corner of Western and Fullerton. Wereworm and Radiant Republic of Texas are playing too, which officially makes the lineup unfuckwithable.

Speaking of amazing record release shows, i spent this past Friday night losing my goddamn mind thanks to a downright transcendant set by Milwaukee's own Elusive Parallelograms--obviously the second-place finisher in tonight's geometry-band-name throwdown, but never mind that. Friday night's Cactus Club show saw the release of their own new EP, the six-song Habits, a deliriously trippy sixteen minutes of psychedelic Built to Spill-flavored indie rock that easily cements the Parallelograms as one of Milwaukee's most crucially underrated bands (despite a surprisingly healthy turnout for the release show).

The not-so-secret weapon of the EP sound is their interweaving triple-guitar attack--seemingly competing lead lines that, much like Nonagon's vocals, seem like they should logically clash but fit together like the weave of a gauzy, enveloping blanket of blissed-out fuzz, occasionally locking into unison for glorious riffs like the BtS-biting "Collapse" (which i swear is actually lifted from a Built to Spill song, but i can't for the life of me track it down, and it is driving me insane. Comment if you can clue me in).

I've been seeing Elusive Parallelograms do their thing in the Borg Wards and Cactus Clubs of Milwaukee for several years now, and, real talk: i've seen them be excellent, and i've seen them at their shambolic, trainwreck worst, their fate generally decided by the inebriation level of their now-former drummer. The band that took the stage on Friday with now-exiting second drummer Eric Reiter was an assured, confident force of screaming slide guitar, airy vocals, and a solidly locked-in rhythm section (despite a misbehaving bass drum that at one point turned so far to one side that Reiter was sitting on his floor tom in order to keep the beat going). It may have been the fact that i had two Spotted Cows on an empty stomach, but it took a lot of restraint on my part to not hug guitarist Stefan Dostanic and go completely fanboy on him. Seeing a Milwaukee band grow from a shaky cauldron of occasional brilliance and occasional disaster to a fully-functional and tightly-wound machine of still-loose, pure room-filling vibe is a thrilling thing to behold, and i'm damn proud of these guys and the killer set of tunes they just unleashed.

Both releases from Elusive Parallelograms and Nonagon can be streamed at Bandcamp, so stop reading my purple prose and make your own judgment call.