“Gastwerk Saboteurs” by Imperial Wax

It’s been 16 months since legendary Mancunian musical genius and cancer victim Mark E. Smith stubbed out his last cigarette and shuffled off this mortal coil, at the sadly premature age of 61. Seven months before he flew away, he released New Facts Emerge, the final album by The Fall, the group which he had fronted through four decades of brilliant studio releases, storming live concerts, and a series of ongoing lineup changes that had long become a music critic cliche by the time he last took a stage before an audience.

That final studio document of his life’s work found Smith supported by his longest-lasting and most stalwart musical crew, guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling. The instrumental trio had worked together with Smith for eleven continuous years by the time of The Fall’s final bow, most of that time spent with Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou on keyboards and backing vocals, though she was absent for the muscular all-lads New Facts Emerge, having re-emigrated to Germany, where she is now recording excellent droney noise with NOHE NOSHE.

Greenway, Spurr and Melling were left in England to handle the obligatory interviews, and my admiration for them (already high based on their no-nonsense musical chops) increased several orders of magnitude as they gracefully, graciously handled the press in ways that honored and humanized the easily-caricatured Smith, without clutching the spotlight closely in any self-aggrandizing or self-promotional ways. They made it crystal clear that The Fall had died with Mark E. Smith, while also resolutely and accurately noting that they’d become a formidable group over a decade together, and that they had more to say in their own rights. Other key tenets of the last years’ worth of interviews with the trio tended to focus on four key themes: (1) Mark E. Smith was their friend, (2) He was funny, and they had fun with him, (3) He instilled a tough work ethic in them, and (4) They had a process for making music, and it worked with and for Smith, and they believed it could work for them without him.

Based on the audio and video evidence of their new debut album, Gastwerk Saboteurs, Imperial Wax (as they are now known, invoking the 2008 Fall album, Imperial Wax Solvent, where they first worked together) still hew to that tough work ethic, with a proven process for producing noisy, clattering rock and roll built on titanic riffs with abrasive, creative soundscaping, and they’re having fun still, both as old friends, and with a new colleague, singer-guitarist Sam Curran of post-punk garage rockers Black Pudding. You can certainly hear the sonic connections to the punchy, muscular and weird New Facts Emerge (most clearly in Greenway’s amped up psycho spaghetti western guitar stylings and the Motörhead crunch of the Melling-Spurr rhythm section), but Curran’s strong voice and the heft of the twin-guitar attack clearly mark Imperial Wax as a different sort of beast than its forebears, to everyone’s benefit.

Album opener “The Art of Projection” (which has a dugga dugga dugga Wire vibe about it) and lead single “No Man’s Land” have been floating around online for awhile before the rest of the album’s release, and they provide a fine introduction to the new group’s charms, as evidenced by their entertaining videos, linked herein. Imperial Wax would have been ill-served in recruiting a Mark E. Smith mimic (if one could be found) to handle microphone duties, and Curran shines as a front man, not only just as a different type of singer, but also as a strong and confident vocalist in his own right, with a fresh approach and a range that allows him to deliver shouts and croons as and where needed, with aplomb. He’s got a different lyrical style, too, and Gastwerk Saboteurs is a word-rich album as a result, engaging and direct in the spaces where Smith was often verbally obtuse and elliptical, (wherein lied many of his own unique and irreplaceable charms, of course).

Gastwerk Saboteurs features another ten songs beyond those two teaser tracks, with a pair of short jammy instrumentals (“Wax On” and “Wax Off”) serving as previews of an unexpected album closer, the wordless nine-minute epic “Night of the Meek,” which builds and stomps with the sorts of mecanik precision and power in which Fall-inspirations CAN once specialized. Another long highlight is “Rammy Taxi Illuminati,” a wonderfully weird two-parter that opens with a storming, shouting roots rock rave, then pivots into a lugubrious, syrupy, effects-drenched groove that would have done Hairway to Steven-era Butthole Surfers proud. (Interestingly, Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus forged the link that got Imperial Wax signed to the Texas-based Saustex Records label; they’ve been doing a great job with early marketing of the disc, so it seems a sound connection).

“Turncoat” and “More Fool Me” turn the tempos down a bit, but not the grooves, and they both merge memorable rock riffing with unusual and unexpected production approaches that pop sonic surprises into unexpected crevices. “Plant the Seed” is a classic chugger, and “Barely Getting By” is an inverted blues lamentation anchored in a timely and recognizable sociopolitical setting, rife with dismay and disappointment, delivered with demon intensity. Group backing vocals and processed guitars and keyboards (?) are prevalent throughout, adding density and variety to the record’s sound, which is spacious and warm and invites, nay, demands loud plays on the family hifi, on repeat.

All in all, a wonderful and exciting debut record from a new band forged in the crucible of an old one. It’s not The Fall, not at all, and much credit to its creators for recognizing that the best way to honor their fallen Chief is by forging forward, with the new album, if not the next album after that, standing as the one that excites them most. Bless them for sharing that excitement with us, and kudos for a job well done, under circumstances where most others would have faltered and failed.

Listen/Purchase Here: Gastwerk Saboteurs by Imperial Wax

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Another Song About . . .

Professor Buggy Jive is a soul rock singer-songwriter with a basement studio in Albany, New York. He loves Joni and he loves Aretha and he loves Prince, and I love him and his music. He comes from a big musical family, and I also knew his sister, Jennifer (she was, indeed, too big for Schenectady) and his second cousin, Bryan Thomas, when I lived back in the 518. Good folks, all of them.

Bryan was an especially exquisite performer and composer, now retired. When my Dad died in 2002, his then-recent song “Shine” was my centering chime for months and months. It perfectly captured the complex swirl of emotions around a boy losing his church-loving Daddy (we both had church-loving Daddies) and the confounding feelings associated with seeing the men we loved most being taken away by the God they loved most. It was just right, just so, just perfect. My soul moved. I wept. It helped. Later, I asked Bryan to sing “Mary, Don’t You Weep” during an Easter Weekend Mass at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer when I was director there. All the souls in that room moved too. But he told us not to weep, so we (mostly) didn’t. Much.

Much later still: Albany’s creative community (of which I was a small part for nearly two decades) was devastated in recent weeks by a pair of losses, with Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen and Greg “Sarge Blotto” Haymes both flying away too young, and with shocking quickness after late-stage cancer diagnoses. I knew them both. I was shocked, too. And very saddened to hear the news from so many miles away. It’s hard to hug over wifi.

Folks in Albany and elsewhere (even Des Moines) have been extending condolences, sharing hugs and stories, planning memorials, remembering, laughing, reflecting, as one does, when one grieves. Buggy Jive knew and loved Greg and Caroline too, and while he was thinking about them, someone asked him to go look at the Moon. He tells us about it in this little video here. It is just right, just so, just perfect. My soul moved. I wept. It helped. Love you, Professor. Thank you.

EP Me

Back in the ’70s, ’80s and maybe into the early ’90s, the EP (“extended play”) record was a key component of any good collection. These were collections of songs that were just a bit too long to be singles (even 12-inch ones), but just a bit too short to be LP (“long play”) albums, and the 10-inch vinyl record was a particularly iconic representation of the format.

Some of my favorite songs and records from that era were originally issued as EPs, including, but obviously not limited to:

Brown Reason To Live and Cream Corn From The Socket of Davis by Butthole Surfers

Autumn Equinox: Amethyst Deceivers, Winter Solstice: North, Spring Equinox: Moon’s Milk or Under an Unquiet Skull and Summer Solstice: Bee Stings by COIL

Slates by The Fall

Poguetry in Motion by The Pogues

Chronic Town by R.E.M.

The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited by Metallica

Four Tracks From Steely Dan by Steely Dan (the only place you could get the rare and weirdly anomalous early “Dallas” b/w “Sail The Waterway” single)

An Ideal for Living by Joy Division

The Power of Lard by Lard

The Witch Trials by The Witch Trials

Nervous Breakdown and Jealous Again by Black Flag

Paranoid Time and Buzz or Howl Under Influence of Heat by The Minutemen

Fugazi and Margin Walker by Fugazi

Duck Stab! and Babyfingers by The Residents

Signals, Calls and Marches by Mission of Burma

Datapanik In The Year Zero by Pere Ubu

Beware by The Misfits

1981-1982 by New Order

Gravest Hits and Smell of Female by The Cramps

The idiom seemed to mostly croak around the time when CDs became the dominant format, and routine, regular bloat ensued. Artists seemed more inclined to issue 70-80 minutes worth of music at a pop from that point forward, just because the format easily allowed for it. Of course, albums didn’t get 50% better for having 50% more music on them, and the opposite was actually quite often the case.

I’m noticing a trend in recent years to reverse this unfortunate predilection for musical bloatiness, and two of my favorite new records in 2019 are small collections that clearly would have been issued as EPs back in the day. The first of these is Wisdom Teeth by Jealous of the Birds, a concise and perfect five-song gem that actually follows on this heels of another EP, 2018’s tremendous The Moths of What I Want Will Eat Me In My Sleep. My favorite song on the album is “Marrow,” which also features a stellar video:

Jealous of the Birds’ guiding light, Naomi Hamilton, is a relative newcomer to my record collection, but my other favorite 2019 EP (so far) comes from a singer-songwriter who has been a deep personal favorite of mine since the mid-’80s: Andy Prieboy. His latest record, Every Night Of My Life, also features five songs, everyone of them a winner, played by a core trio of Prieboy, the late Tony Kinman (The Dils, Rank and File, etc.) and David Kendrick (Devo). Song styles vary widely, but Prieboy’s extremely astute and engaging lyrics, amazing arrangements and his always lovely baritone voice give them great continuity, and they are all fine additions to his canon. The sample song provide below features Kinman and Prieboy in a vocal duet, and it’s a delight:

I would certainly love it if artists followed these fine recent examples, issuing short, sharp collections every so often, regularly, rather than working for years to drop an 80-minute marathon on my listening machines. There’s no reason for them not to, in this our streaming season (though I still resist that development), and there’s so much quality control and discipline to be gained in purposefully issuing music in tiny packages.

Get on it, musos. Less is more!

COIL’s four equinox/solstice EPs were as beautiful to look at as they were to hear.

The “Favorite Band” Question (Revisited)

Eight some years ago, I wrote a blog post called “The ‘Favorite Band’ Question,” wherein I attempted to answer the query that, as a known hardcore music nerd, I am probably asked more often than any other, online and in the real world: “So, who’s your favorite band?”

I noted then, and I note now, that I listen to so much music, and I am so musically omnivorous, that it’s really hard for me to answer that question, simply because there are so many apples to oranges, or meatloaf to polonium, or bicycle to aardvark comparisons between the different types of things I spin. To wit: per my iTunes account, here are the past ten songs that have spun via the “random shuffle” setting on my collection as I’ve sat at my computer, getting ready to write this post:

  • “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” by The Specials (Caribbean funk/ska, 2019)
  • “Funky #7” by Hot Tuna (Power trio stoner rock, 1975)
  • “Whisper” by Schnell Fenster (Weird Australian pop, 1988)
  • “Dead Behind The Eyes” by Soulfly (Brazilian-flavored metal, 2018)
  • “Delius” by Kate Bush (Arty pop, 1980)
  • “Nothing Will Be The Same” by Renaldo and Michael Alan Alien (Experimental tape torture, 2012)
  • “The Wrong Thing” by Xiu Xiu (Tortured art rock, 2019)
  • “Mr. Wiggles” by Parliament (Aquatic funk, 1978)
  • “Gone, Gone, Gone” by Bad Company (Arena rock, 1979)
  • “The Creator Has A Master Plan” by Leon Thomas (Vocal jazz, 1969)

I loved everyone of those songs as they spun, and I love everyone of those artists. But can I rank or compare them in any meaningful fashion? No, not really. They’re just too different. So because I don’t do anything simply, when I first started thinking about this question back in 2011, I decided that I had to define what constituted a “favorite band” for a generic listener before I answered the big question myself. Here’s the list of criteria I developed:

  • The listener actively looks forward to listening to the favorite band’s music more than any other music, and does so weekly, if not daily;
  • The listener seeks to have a complete collection of the favorite band’s work, and is willing to spend a little bit more money than usual to acquire it, with special attention paid to albums or singles that less-enthusiastic fans might never find or hear;
  • The listener never grows tired of the favorite band and its works, and anytime they come on the stereo or radio, no matter what the song, it is greeted with volume raising and singing along;
  • The listener seeks to learn more about the favorite band, and will often buy books or magazines or watch television or internet shows related to its members and their music;
  • The listener makes an effort to see the favorite band in a live setting as often as practically possible.

In my first stab at this article, I went back through the ages of my life and listed the bands that I am pretty certain met all of those criteria more than any others in different years. That list looked like this:

  • Simon and Garfunkel (Initial musical sentience-1971)
  • Steppenwolf (1971-1973)
  • Wings (1973-1976)
  • Steely Dan (1976-1978)
  • Jethro Tull (1978-1982)
  • XTC (1982-1984)
  • Butthole Surfers (1984-1994)
  • Hawkwind (1994-1998)
  • The Residents (1998-2003)
  • The Fall (2003-2008)
  • Napalm Death (2008-present)

I note that those years in no way limit the time spans in which I actually listened to all of those groups. Take The Fall, for instance: I started playing them in 1983 or so, and I was gutted when their leader, Mark E. Smith, passed away last year. I still listen to them regularly, and I cited some albums from outside the 2003-2008 time span as all-time favorites in various lists like this one or this one. But for a variety of reasons, internal and external, I was really, really, really into The Fall in that six year span in the early Naughts, and they really spent an extravagant percentage of time on my stereo, and on my mind. I didn’t like them any less come 2009, but I did find myself spending a lot more mental time, energy, and effort listening to and seeing Napalm Death.

And I continued to do so for many years, although the reason that I revisit this old post today is because I realized recently that a couple of years ago, Napalm were supplanted atop the current pile by another group: King Crimson. (Favorite bands are like economic recessions, apparently; you can’t really decide that they’ve started until you’re well into them). I have been listening to, and loving, the Crim since the ’70s, but they sort of moved onto a different plane for me around 2014, when the “Seven-Headed Beast” incarnation of the band (now with eight heads) hit the road with a show that for the first time in their complicated history featured music from 1969’s debut album, In The Court of the Crimson King, along with cuts from every band era since, and a healthy slab of new tunes.

Marcia and I have seen King Crimson twice in recent years, and we have tickets to see them again in September. I check their website on a near daily basis for news, downloads, archived articles, or whatever else they feel like sharing with me and their other fans. We play their music pretty constantly around the house, and I’ve always got some of their cuts on my commuting and travel iPods. I still spin Napalm Death on a regular basis (though Marcia is not particularly fond of them, even though she was a sport and went to see them live with me once), but somehow it feels like they really hit a peak or a pinnacle of sorts with their 2015 album Apex Predator – Easy Meat, after which long-time guitarist-vocalist Mitch Harris went on sabbatical to deal with family matters. I’ve seen them twice since then with replacement live guitarists, and the shows were fantastic, but I don’t find myself obsessing about them quite as much as once did, with Crimbo oozing into the spaces in my frontal loaf that they used to fill.

One thing hasn’t changed since I tackled this question in 2011: I’d cite King Crimson as my favorite band right now, but if I had to name one all-time favorite, above and beyond all others, for an entire lifetime of listening, I’d still pick Jethro Tull, who have consistently filled my playlists and brightened my heart since 1975 or so, never, ever leaving the current listening pile, never, ever making me say “Ennnnhhhhh . . . not in the mood for this today (or this week, or this year).” Looking at my most played songs playlist of 2019, there are three Tull cuts on the list, and that’s the case most years since I started keep track of such things. Ian Anderson and his colleagues moved me way back when, and he and the music they made move me now, and I expect he’ll continue to move me as long as he’s still alive and kicking, and probably beyond that, unless he unexpectedly outlives me.

So, to summarize: you ask “What’s Your Favorite Band” and I answer “Right now, King Crimson. All-time, Jethro Tull.” Easy peasy. But subject to change. Watch this space.

The Mighty Crim (Eight-Headed Beast Incarnation)

The Albums Of Our Lives

I was reminded recently of an old interview with (great) writer Chuck Klosterman where he deflected a “best album ever” type question by citing a list of his favorite albums from each year of his life. Probably no surprise to those who are regular readers here, but that made me say “Ooooo! I need to do that too!!”

So I did. And it was an interesting process to develop the list. Some thoughts and observations:

  • The key word is “favorite:” I didn’t try to pick “best,” but rather the things that I enjoy the most, right here, right now, really hewing to the true definition of “favorite” in all of its subjective glory. The difference between “favorite” and “best” is significant, since I know that I love some bad things, and I also know that I hate some good things. Such is the essence of taste.
  • I used my Top 200 Albums Ever list as a starting point, but that quickly stopped being useful, primarily because there are some years where literally dozens of my favorite albums were released (e.g. 1977, with David Bowie’s Low and “Heroes,” Eno’s Before And After Science, Wire’s Pink Flag, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Steely Dan’s Aja, the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, just to cite the top of the pile), and other years when I had to deep dive into my collection to find a single album that I considered worthy of being on this list. As much as I always espouse my non-nostalgic “the best music ever made is the music being made right now” rubric, in truth, objective music quality and import over time is a lumpy graph, and that really shows up in a project like this.
  • I had what would seem to be another quality resource available to me in developing this list, with my own “Best Album” reports from print or digital outlets going all the way back to 1992. But interestingly enough, I did not receive much utility from that list either, as there were loads of years where my identified “Best Album” entries from those long gone years either didn’t have long-term legs and do not please me as much now as they did then, or where I still like those old records well enough, but saw them supplanted by things I only heard some year or years after their original releases. Perspective changes over time, for sure.
  • The final list I developed here is a little bit more of a Caucasian Sausage Party than I probably would have preferred. That said, I am glad to see that the trend lines for diversity generally move in the right directions as we careen into 2019.
  • Chuck Klosterman is younger than me, but we do have two albums in two years where we overlap in our lists. See 1990 and 1993. I’m highly skeptical of any self-proclaimed music critic/nerd if he, she (or you) does not agree with me and Chuck on these two. 1990 and 1993 are years where there’s not a lot of room for negotiation. Seriously.
  • If the first year presented in this list seems incongruous to you in terms of what you think you might know about my life’s timeline, let’s just say that I come from a grand old South Carolina family where such piddling insignificances as “When was I born?” or “When was I married?” or “What year is it, really, and how much does it matter, darling?” are highly negotiable in one’s personal narrative. Suffice to say I’m old enough that it’s rude to ask for clarification on such matters, so don’t.

And with all of that as preamble, here’s the list I’ve developed of my favorite albums, right now, from each year of my life:

1965: John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

1966: Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence

1967: Yusef Lateef, The Complete Yusef Lateef

1968: Bonzo Dog Band, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse

1969: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

1970: Grateful Dead, American Beauty

1971: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

1972: Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick

1973: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

1974: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

1975: Wings, Venus and Mars

1976: Steely Dan, The Royal Scam

1977: Steely Dan, Aja

1978: Jethro Tull, Heavy Horses

1979: David Bowie, Lodger

1980: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (III)

1981: Kraftwerk, Computer World

1982: XTC, English Settlement

1983: Swans, Filth

1984: Christian Death, Catastrophe Ballet

1985: Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

1986: R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant

1987: Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician

1988: Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven

1989: Einstürzende Neubauten, Haus der Lüge

1990: Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet

1991: Public Enemy, Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black

1992: Television Personalities, Closer To God

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: The Bogmen, Life Begins at 40 Million

1996: Sepultura, Roots

1997: Katell Keineg, Jet

1998: Clutch, Elephant Riders

1999: Coil, Musick To Play in the Dark, Vol. 1

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Original Cast Recording)

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Ween, Quebec

2004: Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles

2005: Coil, The Ape of Naples

2006: Kamikaze Hearts, Oneida Road

2007: Dälek, Abandoned Language

2008: The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Death Grips, Exmilitary

2012: Napalm Death, Utilitarian

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

2015: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

2016: David Bowie, Blackstar

2017: The Fall, New Facts Emerge

2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins

1965 was a very good year to be born, hypothetically and musically speaking . . .

The Trees That Move Us

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the February 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Last summer, I wrote a Leading Thoughts column on “trees as inspiration,” sharing my affection for a wonderful work-in-progress book about ginkgos by Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China. Last month, my column focused on another book, The Overstory by Richard Powers, a powerful novel about the ways that trees can shape our lives, from birth to death, and maybe beyond.

I received more feedback on those two columns than I did from any of the others I’ve written here, I think because those of us who count ourselves as “tree people” generally don’t leave our interest in trees at our work sites but are also awed and moved by them in our personal lives as well. We look for and admire great trees in the cities, fields and forests where we work, live and travel, and then we also seek out opportunities to celebrate trees in books, art, music, and in all of the other myriad of creative arts.

On one of our recent snow days, I bundled up and walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago – my favorite place in my favorite city, hands down – and wandered around the various galleries there as I often do. In the 19th Century European Art collection, I saw a wonderful painting that I’d not noticed before by Albert Bierstadt, depicting a glorious stand of birches around a rocky waterfall, and I shared a photo of it in on the TREE Fund Twitter feed.

And then I decided to have a full tree day at the museum, walking through every gallery, seeking out great trees in the collection. It was a wonderful way to re-experience galleries that I’ve seen more times than I can count, looking through a different lens at paintings, decorative arts, sculptures, and more. I found abstract trees, photographic trees, and impressionist trees. I was awed by the ways that artists were inspired by trees over centuries and around the world. I shared my findings on social media, and they were widely liked, commented on, and retweeted.

A couple of weeks later, I was home again and the song “The Trees” by the BritPop band Pulp came up on my stereo. Once again, thinking about trees, I decided to have a tree music day, going through the 14,000+ songs that I have on my computer, looking for great ones about trees, woods, forests, and more. I posted my 25 favorite tree songs on my personal website and once again got loads of comments, feedback, and response from others about their favorite tree songs. People just love tree art, in all of its forms.

I recommend you have your own museum tree day, or make a tree song playlist, or look at some other creative idiom through tree lenses. It’s truly rewarding to actively consider how the trees we care for professionally enhance our lives beyond their scientific and landscape value.

The Albert Bierstadt painting that inspired my Tree Day at the Art Institute.