SYSTEM OF A DOWN Toxicity (American)
For a band that‘s only been around since ’95, System of a Down is quite an advanced machine, and Toxicity is a welcome mat into the modern metaldom. Hold this album close to your bosom, snuggle with it under a warm blankey and set a place for it at the dinner table, ‘cause something this good needs special attention.
Cast in layers upon layers of aural intricacy, Toxicity charters new frontiers, yet it’s still grinding rock at its most deafening. Bassist Shavo Odadjian and guitarist Daron Malakian have a knack for the abrupt, dislocating their schizoid riffs with memorable melodies and mellow tempos (“Chop Suey!”); “Science” beautifully lilts mid-thrash amid singermulti-instrumentalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan‘s blowing on Coke bottles. “Bounce” is a full-on health hazard, with drill sergeant Serj Tankian repeatedly ordering “Pogo, pogo, pogo, pogo!” — it just don’t make for safe head-bangin‘, man. Tankian is the rare bird of a metal singer with a wide vocal range and the wackiest of styles; his pit-bull attacks and maniacal fits of anger sound like the male equivalent of giving birth. But in those hellish pipes lurks a balladeer, someone who raises his hands to the heavens as if to pray (which he does onstage) and humbly ask for your attention. Why, he’s practically wailing on parts of “Shimmy,” a sort of metal version of an Armenian church hymn.
Their politics? Tankian expectedly gives a mouthful on the public school system, religion, anti-technology and the drug war (“Minor drug offenders fill your prisonsYou don‘t even flinchAll our taxes paying for your warsAgainst the new non-rich”) on “Prison Song.” But as socially conscious musicians go, System are neither the first nor the greatest, nor should they be — although “Pull the tapeworm out of your ass” from “Needles” is funny. The musicianship is more than capable of saying everything Toxicity wants to and is: dirty, polluted and lethal.
DAVID S. WARE QUARTETCorridors & Parallels (Aum Fidelity)
Oh yeah. Right here in this spooky, insinuating, brain-blessed album lies the secret of how free jazz stays exciting after 40-some years. The method: Now and then, it can turn itself on its head, shake out its pockets and find new wealth.
Phil Freeman concludes his book New York Is Now! (reviewed here last week) with a description of the sessions that produced tenor saxist David S. Ware’s Corridors & Parallels, and it‘s a good way to end a narrative about improvisers — spotlighting the risks that let the music grow. Freeman was a trifle apprehensive when he saw keyboardist Matthew Shipp setting up synthesizers instead of dusting off his usual acoustic piano, when he learned that Ware had prepared no material, and when he noticed that the ensemble sound wasn’t coming together at first. But he knew that the long-running team of Ware, Shipp, bassist William Parker and (more recently) drummer Guillermo E. Brown was virtually infallible. So he wasn‘t surprised when great music emerged.
Ware successfully tested a new direction away from his shred-blasting signature sound with his last release, the melody-oriented Surrendered (Columbia). But aside from one beautiful song based on chord changes, “Mother May You Rest in Bliss” — his mother died this year — Corridors is something else again. The most obvious novelty is Shipp’s synth playing, which incorporates mostly single-note runs and drones, not chords, and exploits sound programming that can make him sound like a windstorm, a computer in an old sci-fi movie, or an African thumb piano. Brown picks up the African theme, laying down strong festival grooves; just as often, he concentrates on subtle accents. Parker, whether bowing, accenting or grooving, always does what‘s appropriate in a big, big way. And Ware shows a keen ear for proportion, backgrounding his Albert Ayler–Archie Shepp improvisations or foregrounding his dramatic shrieks with an overall sound in mind, not his own ego. When he likes the way the others sound without him, he just disappears.
Even if Ware didn’t arrive with blueprints under arm, his hand in arranging is unmistakable. Individual roles of droner, timekeeper and commentator shift from track to track with amazingly consistent results, even when the combination seems illogical, as on “Spaces Embraces,” where Ware blares soul sax against space-echoing keyboards, while Parker thumps arrhythmic bass notes as the inspiration strikes him.
New moods don‘t hit the market that often. When they do, you gotta invest in the laboratory. (Greg Burk)
SUVDesert Rose (Full Cycle)
Suv is one of the four producers in the compelling U.K. drum ’n‘ bass collective Reprazent. The association is an unavoidable point of departure, certainly necessary during this Reprazent downtime (the group’s second album, In the Mood, was released nearly a year ago) that‘s all about making cases for the members’ solo identities. After the group‘s debut, New Forms, Reprazent mastermind Roni Size and teammate Die formed Breakbeat Era and pinpointed the most shockingly fresh moment in d’n‘b with Ultra-Obscene, an album that delivered its revved-up rock licks and sex-punk vocals (by Lennie Laws) as the future mosh for people blessed with funk. Shortly after, Krust released his debut full-length, Coded Language — so coded, in fact, that hardly anything came through in its desolate lunar expanse.
Suv’s solo project is called Desert Rose, a debut full-length for himself and the label Full Cycle, and with the very fine exception found in the Spanish ambience of “Flamenco Cybernetico” and “Nina,” the album is mercilessly anonymous, plodding away with those murky murmurs and morbid bass-line abysses that have made the current sound of d‘n’b the musical score of a heart-attack drowning. True, the soullessly dark reaches of today‘s d’n‘b is a topic beaten to death, but it makes no sense in giving up when you’ve got A Guy Called Gerald producing something like “Humanity” and J Majik recently dropping “Love Is Not a Game,” awesomely vital vocal tracks that prove there can be a deeply humanizing response to the genre‘s cryptic mechanized groove.
Why isn’t there a proper vocal track on Desert Rose? That‘s not to say that the woman’s voice is the only way to lead d‘n’b out of its dead-end corner, but surely Suv could have put individualism in perspective and learned from the success of Reprazent and his own side project Reel Time, which features the beautiful songstress Virginia. Let the girls sing, man, let ‘em sing! (Tommy Nguyen)
BEULAHThe Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette)
Summer records come in many varieties. These days, the best ones happen in hip-hop, because hip-hop is the sound that seems most relevant blasting from the backs of jeeps, gruff guys going on and on about asses and such. Song titles are usually irrelevant. Summer 2000 belonged to Sisqo (“Thong th-thong thong thong”); while Lil’ Jon & the EastSide Boyz‘ chant of “Bia! Bia!” didn’t quite make it to the top of the charts in 2001, it certainly did impact the memory via the eardrum.
Hip-hop‘s dominance doesn’t keep punk and pop and rock guys from creating invitations to think light thoughts and live in the moment, though. They‘re just more likely to mine the sonic archive, writing songs that transport us away from the here and now. In June and July, New York was ablaze with the gritty sound of “The Modern Age,” a single by the Strokes. It was dirty and hot and fueled by their fandom of New York punk circa ’77 (Television, Lou Reed). I imagine the Midwest was riveted by the White Stripes‘ raw, candy-striped punk-blues. Their fusion of Led Zeppelin and Blind Willie McTell made even me long for a bong hit in the basement rec room of the three-bedroom ranch-style house my family never had. In California it sometimes takes us longer to figure things out, and though we’ve just passed the autumnal equinox, only now has last season‘s record arrived.
“Do you feel afraidthe days are getting shorter?” asks Beulah’s new album, The Coast Is Never Clear. “And what will you do when your sun tan has faded and the summer‘s gone?” Listen closely to lyrics like this, and you’ll realize there‘s more going on here than mere escapist fare (e.g., “When the city spreads outjust like a cut veineverybody drownssad and lonely”). Read the song titles and you’ll know this album is about lingering upon the recent past, rather than forgetting about today (“Night Is the Day Turned Inside Out,” “Cruel Minor Change,” “Burned by the Sun”). But Beulah‘s front men, Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan, deliver their harmonies with too much twee to have a bummer-inducing impact, and you might prefer to listen to their jumbled genre collage of orch-pop and poppy punk as a way to lose track. That prevents unfruitful comparisons to predecessors like the Association, the Beach Boys or even Belle & Sebastian.
And, really, melancholy isn’t the point here, just an armature upon which Beulah hang fastidious arrangements — choral harmonies, trumpet blurts, keyboard layers, multiple Mellotrons. In this way, The Coast Is Never Clear is somewhat of a California tragedy, an album of deeper sadness masked by a cool veneer. (Alec Hanley Bemis)
MONDO GROSSOMG4 (Sony Imports)
In Shinichi Osawa‘s garage, every vehicle blings like a gem. But there’s some real guts beneath those hoods. Take the Rogers-and-Edwards-on-a-string-orchestra-overdose opener, “MG2SS.” Osawa and arranger Tatsuya Maruyama‘s swooping lines are virtuosic and showy, but not merely ornamental. Against a monochromatic, stuttering two-step break, they splash big colors with fervor and skill.
Osawa’s vision is in full flower on MG4 — gorgeously warm instrumentation, soulfully sweet vocals, and blazing samba and speed-garage backbeats that can‘t stop, won’t stop. An all-star lineup — N‘Dea Davenport, Monday Michiru, Amel Larrieux and Brazilians Tania Maria, Ed Motta and Lino Crizz — spins narratives of journey and return, with the irrepressible Maria especially enchanting on the piano groovers “MG4BB” and “Samba Do Gato.” But the real find here is Osaka soul-jazz chanteuse Bird, whose performance on “Life” lifts a brilliant guitar-in-Rio groove into the realm of the indelible.
In an era of bedroom minimalism, Osawa and his collaborators dream big, play purposefully, choose soul over irony, are never afraid to appear nostalgic. Nowadays critics often sneer at “jazz” aspirations on the dance floor, as if to say that if it’s big and it grooves, it ought to be dumb. Osawa shreds that trite mind-body binary with ease, creating a fluid music that moves just the way folks move on the street. (Jeff Chang)
Mondo Grosso performs at Sugar, Thursday, October 11.
ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE CHARLES MINGUS ORCHESTRA at UCLA Royce Hall, September 28
When Elvis Costello performed with the Charles Mingus Orchestra at UCLA‘s Royce Hall on Friday night, it was not merely as singer, instrumentalist, songwriter or former new-wave rocker anthropologizing in the big, sophisticated world of jazz. It was, instead, as a bona fide bandleader, welding dizzyingly complex tunes to weird lyrics and singing them all like he’s squeezing passion from a narrow-necked tube. Once in a while he even screams. I mean, screams — howls like a demon, shrieks like an animal about to strike.
And who can blame him? Every musician in the orchestra curated by Mingus‘ widow, Sue, proved devastatingly gifted: drummer Johnathan Blake and acoustic bassist Boris Kozlov bobbing and weaving around each other’s lines, Dave Kikoski slouching over his nimble piano playing, Alex Foster directing it all with body language and a complement of woodwinds. There was also the wonder of Michael Rabinowitz on a jazz bassoon — a novelty, a technical marvel, and an honest emotional wallop. As for Costello himself, his fans are forever vindicated: “Watching the Detectives” in a big-band setting by Roy Nathanson stands up as a spectacular feat of macabre poetry; “Almost Blue” has become a sure-fire jazz standard, with a sufficiently plaintive melody to function independently of lyrics.
“There‘s no money-back guarantee on future happiness,” Costello spat on “The Long Honeymoon,” his 1982 Imperial Bedroom ode to the precise details of marital dystopia. Those gravelly lyrics against a fluid jazz line may seem to some incongruous, but Costello, for all his respectability, has not lost his rebellious edge or sacrificed his right to sneer at convention. While others might be tempted to smooth out a legendary bassist’s raggedness, Costello roughs it up with confidence, as if it‘s his job. And maybe it is: “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown‘s Afraid Too,” Mingus titled one of his songs. Who could elaborate better than Costello on a thought like that? (Judith Lewis)