Sunday, March 12, 2006

Raw Power

Considering all the vitriol and censure that has been inspired by rock music from its very beginnings when Elvis asked if it was alright, mama, there are really very few rock records that can be considered truly toxic.

Elvis has been so assimilated that it takes a spin of his Sun Records recordings to remind you of how intensely powerfully he could rock, as well as reminding you as well as anything how a burning, brilliant star can be dulled and quenched by commerce.

But throughout the history of the form, a few rock artists have ducked expectations and produced music that is simply out of time and place. One such recording is Iggy & The Stooges Raw Power.

I bought this record when it first came out, all the way back in 1974. I'm glad I did, because that record has essentially ceased to exist. There is a CD, but this is a remixed version. A very worthwhile version, to be sure, and definitely worth having, but it is not the same.

The remix, by Iggy Pop himself, is entirely understandable. The original sound of the record is incredibly monochromatic. Guitars and vocals are merged into each other. The rhythm section churns underneath like a quicksand. It could have been recorded directly from a cheap transistor radio.

Nonetheless, this compressed sludge of a sound is perhaps the greatest hard rock/heavy metal you are ever going to hear.

The Stooges are (rightfully) touted as the first true punk band, in the 1970s meaning of the term, and everything you hear in punk music from that date onward has its roots in that sound. All the masterpieces made by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks or The Ramones are unthinkable without The Stooges, and Raw Power is surpassed by no one.

Whichever recording you hear, you are going to be pinned against the wall by the first cut, Search and Destroy, and you won't slide down to the floor until the final, the most appropriately named Death Trip.

Not a long time to hang suspended for sure, about 30 minutes, but you might not be quite be the same ever again.

Raw Power was made by a band in the throes of dissolution, with nothing to lose and nothing to spend. The extraordinary dense mix is attributed to the use of an ultra-cheap, practically lo-fi, recording studio. David Bowie attempted to apply to 1970s-style clarity to the original recording and failed spectacularly. Iggy Pop simply cranked all the meters into the red for the remix and let the sludge bleed through unadorned.

Raw Power is in no sense a pretty record, despite a peerless heavy metal ballad in Gimme Danger, and it is best listened to when you are in a really foul mood. For however bad you might feel, you are not going to match Pop for sheer piss. When a song such as Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell is one of the lighter tunes, you know you are in deep. Deep as a song such as the highly ambivalent Penetration will take you.

It's a great ride.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

City of Ruins

I recently picked up a copy of Bruce Springsteen's album The Rising in a clearance sale. Getting it this way I removed myself from accompanying publicity on its release about 3 years ago that mostly focused on the World Trade Tower attack theme running through the record. In addition, time has cast a more nuanced view of that event, a tragedy that spawned more reckless tragedies. Things are not quite so black and white now.

The record is a good one. I have never been a great lover of the Springsteen sound, but he sings well here and the E-Street Band plays well. The production is guitar heavy, which I like, but the drums are mixed too loud and too trebly. If I have any problem with the record, it is that it tries too hard to be a heartfelt epic. The lyrics are mostly generalities and are pretty obvious ones at that. That need not necessarily be a problem, but 15 songs in much the same vein is too much. Musically, too, it relies often on r&b and gospel derived forms that have regrettably also become somewhat clich├ęd.

I think Springsteen made this record too soon. Perhaps he felt he had to at the time, and there is no lack of sincerity in his approach. Memorials made soon after any event are notoriously difficult to pull off, because what seems earnest at one time can become overly sentimental and even mawkish later on (witness Elton John's almost unlistenable today Candle In The Wind for Princess Diana). I don't think anything on The Rising will suffer that fate, but should Springsteen return to the subject today, I think he would make a better record.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fog Tropes

I have always found the sound of fog horns uniquely compelling. Perhaps the song of whales comes close, but the unwavering and slowly unfolding music of the fog horn will hold me entranced for hours on any coastline where I should chance to hear the sound.

So when I first came across Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes on a compilation of various pieces put together by John Adams , I was intrigued. One listen, and I fell in love .

I subsequently acquired an equally entrancing early version of the work, also conducted by John Adams on Ingram's own New Albion CD ( NA002CD) featuring the work along with Gradual Requiem and Gambuh I.

Ingram is an assured master of the ambient soundscape. His work often resembles that of Brian Eno with whom he shares a strong structural underpinning for even their most ethereal works. But, unlike Eno, Marshall is more apt to make use of conventional 'classical' instrumentation, albeit in a heavily electronically treated form.

A brass sextet plays an important role in Fog Tropes, providing melodic and coloristic counterpoint to the wailing of the also electronically treated fog horns. He also introduces voice, again in a strictly coloristic mode, to give a human touch to the electronic fog. It does so admirably.

In some ways Fog Tropes resembles the famous Ives' Unanswered Question. There is a low register, relatively unvarying, foghorn-derived bass over which brass and voice pass repeated musical phrases. But it is more multitextured than the Ives' piece and consequently has a different feel. If Ingram was trying to paint a sound portrait of a fog bank he succeeds admirably, but the work has a resonance that goes way beyond those pictorial associations.

I often compare it to the Eno work, Ambient 4: On Land, and it shares many qualities with the pieces on that album. But unlike the Eno works, there is a sense of progression, climax and resolution that separates it from the more static ambient pieces. Fog Tropes tells a story as well as representing a state of nature, and that gives it one extra level of meaning.

A wonderful work.