Friday, June 3, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 6/3/11 - Artificial Peace and Extra Golden

Lots of people have a relatively relaxed definition of hardcore. As the dawn of the ‘80s found the commercial door firmly shut on punk, and as legions of musicians scrambled to adapt in hopes of reaching an audience (new wave, metal, roots-rock etc), there remained a mass of mostly young listeners that needed the raw abandon that punk delivered so well. So like many youth movements before it punk went underground, and it got heavier. Now, the open-ended concept to hardcore generally lumps this whole wave of small scale indie-label action under the umbrella of hardcore, and that’s not an incorrect impulse. But true hardcore was also a fairly definable stylistic phenomenon. It was a music born of speed, density, anger, and a mastery of rudimentary skill that burned white-hot for a few brief years (some would say months) before being afflicted by genericism on one side and the often wildly misjudged attempts at growth (metal again, most heinously) on the other. Sure, the difference between hardcore and early ‘80s punk sometimes just comes down to the specific personal inclination of the listener. Many consider DAMAGED-era Black Flag to be hardcore, but from my perspective they were the closest any band came to the brutal mayhem of HC without actually leaving the punk realm, a situation that was aided and blurred by the addition of a barking pup of a DCHC vocalist Henry Garfield, soon to be known the world over as Hank Rollins. This might seem like the intense splitting of hairs, and in this case that’s just what it is. But again there is a troop of bands that are far more easily identifiable as purveyors of first generation hardcore, and the list includes Minor Threat, Void, The Faith, Necros, Negative Approach, and SS Decontrol. Lots of older cretins (graying punks, music writers, club owners) found this batch of upstart bands to be a regressive and even reactionary development, and this misjudged attitude plagued the movement’s mainstream perception for decades and in truth still hangs around the fringes of its legend. And the disapproval wasn’t specifically generational; it was just as often a matter of pure taste. This unruly wrinkle in the punk equation wasn’t eloquent, ironic or intellectual, and it embodied the dictionary antonym of subtle. Listeners that felt punk was a starting point from whence future music should evolve perceived hardcore as a betrayal and in some cases a dangerous one. Punk as a platform for further exploration is a concept I fully endorse, just not to the exclusion of those that find it to be their natural comfort zone or at the expense of kids who discover it later. What the naysayers ignored or rejected was how the hardcore bands were populated and fueled by the pent-up energy of young music fans that had suffered watching numerous once-great groups either sell out or descend into suckdom and how they often lived in cities that had fragmentary or non-existent punk scenes, a fact intensified by the booze-oriented age-policies of clubs that barred them entry. These bands were starting from scratch, making their own scenes and releasing records for their peers that spread across a complicated cross-country fabric tenuously held together by homemade fanzines, phone calls, letters and the promise of food and floor space to crash if they came to town to play a show. For many music-starved adolescents circa 1981 the Sex Pistols were a distant (if fascinating) cartoon, The Clash were a bogus example of diminishing returns and The Ramones were going through the motions at best. Yes, there was lots of great music happening (the Dangerhouse and Rough Trade record labels for instance, and the worldwide impulse to be retroactively called “Killed by Death”-style punk was in full swing), but how to lay hands on it was the biggest problem. It was the reliable situation of supply not meeting demand in a variety of ways. There aren’t any good bands around here. And I’m sick of listening to the same old records. We’re gonna start a group. Yes, many great punk rock epiphanies had nothing to do with ’77 and were instead intrinsically caught up in hearing Youth Brigade, The Fix or Violent Apathy. Over the years the Dischord label has done a great job of caretaking its vital cornerstone importance to the hardcore explosion by keeping their early catalog in print and additionally slowly releasing stuff from the vaults by Teen Idles, Minor Threat and Skewbald/Grand Union. And the dusting off of Dischordian nuggets has been occurring with higher frequency of late: Government Issue, Dag Nasty and Reptile House have been given superb vinyl reissues. But the ringer in their recent program of historical sounds belongs to Artificial Peace, a group mainly remembered for their inclusion on FLEX YOUR HEAD (easily the grand-champion of all HC compilations) and for spawning the fine DC band Marginal Man. COMPLETE SESSION NOVEMBER 81 is 17 songs, the first three from FLEX, and it’s a quick, inspired blast of what made hardcore such a major sound. The band hangs sweetly between well-practiced tightness and a non-trite expression of their structural simplicity; they don’t telegraph the tempo shifts for example (a big problem as HC quickly came of age), and there’s enough looseness in the drumming to avoid what hardcore detractors have decried as its “sped-up polka beat”. Part of Artificial Peace’s success undoubtedly springs from the fact that they were part of the music’s genesis, helping to define the sound before it dipped into the zone of formula and code. But it also helps that they feel unique from within the environment of their city’s burgeoning scene. A large reason that FLEX YOUR HEAD remains such a heavy zinger to this day is how the groups, while surely navigating similar terrain, were individual enough to keep the proceedings from sinking into a breakneck blur. Everyone had their own stamp on the territory, and if Minor Threat and Void are the city’s tip-top, none of the others fall very far behind. COMPLETE SESSION does a fine job of expanding Artificial Peace’s contribution beyond that of a tasty footnote. Steve Polcari’s vocals are gruff without entering the vein-bulging extremity of State of Alert’s Garfield/Rollins or Negative Approach’s John Brannon, Pete Murray’s guitar rages and adds just the right touch of tonal variation, and the rhythm team of bassist Rob Moss and drummer Mike Manos do a fine job of propelling the music into the stuff of countless sweaty mosh pits (from back before that activity devolved into just another hackneyed tough-guy ritual). Along the way, a couple tunes stick out. The cover of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” initially feels like lark, sounding like a faceless if inspired bunch of teens growing up/gearing up for a high school battle of the bands. But it’s smartly integrated into their sonic template and the transformation helps prove that these groups had more up the sleeve than simple pummeling fury. And the instrumental “Spook Surf” is another momentary breath of fresh air, a melodic diversion that’s poised to fly off the handle at any moment in its duration. That it doesn’t, simply ending at 1:25 is a real exclamation point in their arsenal. COMPLETE SESSION NOVEMBER 81 is suitably short, less than twenty minutes in fact, and is full of ranting, thundering, riotous, righteous din. Artificial Peace went on to share a split single with The Exiled, notably the first release on Fountain of Youth records, and there’s also a cut on that label’s excellent and very slept on DC comp BOUNCING BABIES. But the majority of their work is assembled right here. Its totality is much more than a bone tossed to the rabid hounds of hardcore, for Artificial Peace stands tall all by their lonesome. So what’s next Dischord? The Untouchables? Iron Cross? Red C? I’m surely not alone in patiently waiting.

The temperature is getting hotter in these parts, and just thinking about the music of Extra Golden makes me feel good. A bi-continental band consisting of Kenyan benga musicians Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari (of the group Extra Solar Africa) and North American indie rockers Ian Eagleson (of Golden) and Alex Minoff (of Golden and Weird War), Extra Golden are a well developed, natural synthesis of the membership’s overlapping backgrounds, a relaxed yet biting meeting of the minds that emphasizes an expansive, durable groove. 2007’s HERA MA NONO is the second of their three records, and it’s a beauty. What so impressive about Extra Golden is how they never sound tentative or restricted by cultural differences or the fact that the players reside in two opposing hemispheres, instead thriving as so much more than just an admirable gesture in global goodwill. Many bands that live in the same city and practice every day of the week can only hope to sound this unified. The growing demand for African sounds and the increasing ease thanks to the internet in satiating that interest helps situate Extra Golden into the grand scheme of the contemporary cultural discourse, and the fact that they are a sincere blend of musical ideas places them at the forefront of musical progress. The curiosity into African sounds by the West has been a longstanding one, hitting record racks way back through the albums of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé and via labels like Ocora and Nonesuch Explorer, with the action increasing in the ‘80s through the World Music phenomenon and musicians like Ali Farka Touré and Francis Bebey making a huge international impression. Over the last twenty years there’s been a steady flow of compact discs documenting African affairs, the best being the exhaustive 27-volume ETHIOPIQUES series from the Buda Musique label, but recent stuff like GHANA SPECIAL on Soundway and NIGERIA 70 – LAGOS JUMP on Strut also deserve high praise. One result of this activity has been an increasing inclination of Westerners to adopt African musical motifs to their own ends. It can be heard in Vampire Weekend, for instance. Same goes for tUnE YarDs. Now, some decry this impulse as ideologically suspect, an example of the empowered siphoning inspiration from the exploited for their own ends (cred and profit, mostly). This is certainly a valid idea. I’m by no means fully on board with the notion (though I find it intriguing in a way similar to my once problematic relationship to the white-boy blues), but I bring it up because what Extra Golden has achieved can in no way be thought of in those terms. If HERA MA NONO is anything, it is a study of equals. It is surely not an egocentric pop-star basking in fake-ass authenticity through tepid, overly polite music for the “enlightened” bourgeoisie (sorry, GRACELAND fans). This is instead four guys getting in a room and working things out. One common factor between the disparate sides of the Extra Golden equation is scale. All of the members come from a background of small bands making rhythmically focused music, essentially club-based stuff that’s meant to get people dancing or at least moving. Here the guitars are largely of African origin, hanging in the air through clean, cascading tones, while the rhythms speak a more universal language. The vocals are often in the Luo language and this fact definitely directs the initial thrust of the record’s motion toward the Kenyan tradition. But other wrinkles are asserted. Both “Night Runners” and “Street Parade” kick up funky dust that’s clearly in the debt of early Funkadelic’s twisted stuff. But there is thankfully no rigidly defined division of elements on HERA MA NONO, with the idea instead being to collectively decide what works best for each individual composition, and then to work the dialogue and ride it until it shines. One near constant is the joyous, elated sense of release that is such a pleasurable quality of African music. In the West music of a celebratory atmosphere is sometimes derided as escapism, but that’s because we often like to think of ourselves as coddled or spoiled. I think this is somewhat in error. True, most of us Westerners do have it good in comparison to the average Kenyan, but it’s undeniable that everyone has to fight their own battles with the nagging specificity of personal realities. This extra-musical state of being is another aspect that unites this band. The desire to go to a rock club and hear sweet music after dealing with a shitty day’s work or navigating a breaking-down relationship with a loved one isn’t much different from the people of Kenya gathering to play and dance and shake off the ugliness of strife, disease and governmental corruption. Yes, one circumstance is certainly harsher than the other, but I’m starting to believe very strongly that life will get much better on this rock when we stop obsessing over our differences and acknowledge how we’re fundamentally alike. That’s a big part of Extra Golden’s success; emphasize and celebrate the common ground and then let the differences come through. People unschooled or intimidated by African music shouldn’t be. HERA MA NONO is a fine place to start listening. It’ll groove a mind and body extremely good. From there checking out some of the names and records mentioned above (and more) should be as easy as making a sandwich. It’s a huge sound world that’ll pay a lifetime of dividends, and the lobes that are seduced by these enduring strains will get a lesson on another of humankind’s great commonalities: Music = Love, ya’ dig?

In the bin today!

A few new things in today.

David Bazan-Strange Negotiations

Boris-Heavy Rocks

Death Cab For Cutie-Codes and Keys

Booker T. Jones-The Road from Memphis

Tame Impala-Innerspeaker

Chris Thile & Michael Daves-Man in the Middle 7"