Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Meads of Asphodel - The Mill Hill Sessions

8/10

The Meads of Asphodel do not perform live; this release consists of songs performed live-in-the-studio. I'm normally not one to prefer live albums over studio recordings, but I really like these renditions because they downplay the band's non-metal influences by mixing the guitars much louder than the synthesizers and cutting out the samples almost entirely. (I didn't hate the forays into electronica, but they did provide most of the band's weaker moments.)
For example, "80 Grains of Sand" and "Grisly Den of Killing Steel" have sample sections replaced with hilarious poems read by Metatron which I shall not spoil here. There are also guest appearances by former Hawkwind members Huw Lloyd-Langton and Alan Davey (but then again, who hasn't been in Hawkwind?). But my favorite part of the album is "My Beautiful Genocide," which starts out as a pretty standard (but strong) black metal song and morphs into a great jam session interspersed with a few more spoken word bits.
This is much less experimental than the rest of the Meads' output, and while the electronic parts were sometimes good, I don't miss them much here. The only real blemish here is a Sepultura cover which doesn't really do anything for me. This might be a good starting point if you're worried that the Meads aren't "metal" enough.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Meads of Asphodel - Exhuming the Grave of Yeshua

8/10

The thing about the Meads is that they never stay in one style for too long, even in the short songs. For example, even the two minute "God is Rome" strays from its punk style with an acoustic section in the middle, and longer songs like "Blood Blasted Holy War" and "80 Grains of Sand" go through many genres.
As usual, not all of these styles work (some of the synthesized "Middle Eastern" parts are just incredibly lame, Metatron tries to rap and fails miserably near the end of "Sons of Anak Rise"), and some tracks really don't have any metal elements at all, but those are just par for the course with this band; when you try so many things, you're bound to suck at a few of them. My personal favorite track is the lengthy and lengthily-titled "On Graven Images I Glide Beyond the Monstrous Gates of Pandemonium to Face the Baptized Warriors of Yahweh in the Skull Littered Plain of Esdraelon", which switches from dance beats to a new-agey section to a repetitive yet hilarious spoken word section to another dance part. This is stronger than the debut, but just a little.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Meads of Asphodel - Jihad

6/10

NOTE: This release is a split with Mayhem. My policy with split releases is that I only review the contributions from the band which I'm reviewing at the time, so I'll be ignoring the Mayhem tracks.
The Meads' half of this EP relies a bit too much on samples that aren't especially well integrated with the actual music. The middle section of "Grisly Den of Killing Steel" is basically just samples of varying qualities, and if "Tanks in the Holy Land" has any actual original material, I didn't notice any.
Fortunately, the actual music is still pretty good, so this release is still worth tracking down. I especially liked the actual musical parts of "Grisly Den of Killing Steel." There's also a pretty good Hawkwind cover at the end. It's just a shame that the samples frequently overtake the music instead of supplementing it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Meads of Asphodel - The Excommunication of Christ

8/10

Anyone who says that there's no place for synthesizers in metal is just plain wrong. The Meads use them here to great effect, from the NES bleeps and bloops in "Weeping Tears of Angel Light" to the space rock of "The Watchers of Catal Huyuk" to the organ in "Bene Ha Elohim" and church bells in "Pale Dread Hunger." Fortunately, they're mostly used for texture and don't overwhelm the guitars. (One exception is "Jezebel and the Philistines," a completely synth-based song which I still kind of like anyway because it begins with a hilarious porno sample. Porno samples make anything better. The white album? Would've been better with porno samples. "Exile on Main Street?" Would've been better with porno samples.)
Vocalist Metatron has a great voice; his British accent really adds a lot to his delivery, and makes up for the fact that the lyrics are a bit one-dimensional, dealing with Biblical apocrypha and not a whole lot else. Most of the songs also don't go on for too long, which makes sure none of them get bogged down. There's also the first song with a ludicrously long name by the Meads, "Falling with Lightning Rays Beamed Towards the Blazing Firmament Towards the Untended Burial Grounds of Kharsag." It's pretty amazing that they'd managed to make such a unique sound do so well by their debut.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Meads of Asphodel - Intro

The Meads of Asphodel have to be one of the most diverse-sounding metal bands I've ever heard. They're nominally a black metal band, but they replace most of that genre's cliches with elements of punk, electronica, progressive rock, medieval and Middle Eastern influences, and more. They aren't any fonder of Christianity than their brethren in the black metal genre, but they don't have any of the goofy Satanic trappings that other bands do. This is thinking man's black metal.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Trisector

6/10

Uh-oh! David Jackson left the band. Fortunately, Trisector doesn't suffer that much without him; it may not sound that much like traditional VDGG, but Hugh Banton's organ is still familar, and Hammill does a pretty good job playing more guitar (frequently with a rather punkish tone) to fill out the hole left by the saxophone. Also, most of the songs aren't especially long; there's only one epic-length track.
Much of the album brings to mind an avant-garde version of Booker T. and the MG's from some alternate universe; this works to great effect on some tracks, such as the opening instrumental "The Hurly Burly," which takes a little while to get started but really cooks when it does. Unfortunately, some tracks, such as "Lifetime" and "The Final Reel" are just too sedate, bringing my grade down to a 6. There's little of the chaos that defined Van der Graaf Generator to be found here, but it's not a disaster like the albums released under the "Van der Graaf" moniker.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Real Time

8/10

This is the band's first 21st century live show in its entirety. The setlist is pretty damn good, with 3 songs from Godbluff, 2 from The Least We Can Do, Pawn Hearts, World Record, and Present, 1 from H to He, Still Life, and the Hammill solo song "(In The) Black Room". Sure, Peter's voice isn't what it used to be, but the original albums were recorded 30 years ago! It's only natural that he sounds different, and he gives a good performance despite the fact that he shows his age.
My only real issues with this album are that most songs don't really add anything to the studio versions, and that there are some sections of dead air that didn't get edited out. I also would have like to have seen more improvisation based on the strong second disc of Present.Otherwise, this is an exemplary live release that completely destroys the horrible memories of Vital.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Present

8/10

Van der Graaf Generator's first album since the 70's is pretty strong, considering how long it was since they'd performed as a band. Then again, maybe this shouldn't be so surprising, considering how often the other principals had appeared on Hammill's solo albums. This is a two-disc effort, with the first disc consisting of six songs, and the second featuring well over an hour of studio improvisations.
The first disc's highlights include the fiery political "Every Bloody Emperor," about how civil liberties decline as democracies seek empire(I strongly suspect that this song is directed at least as much to Tony Blair as to George W. Bush) and "Abandon Ship," with punkish guitars colliding into Hammond organs in a song about the misery of old age.
The second disc is hard for me to review, because I have a tough time describing improvisatory music. This is one of the two main reasons I'm not reviewing jazz artists on this blog (the other one being that they tend to have insanely huge discographies). However, the pieces on this disc are very interesting and varied, with some typically chaotic and others more sedate, and it makes me surprised that VDGG had only released one 90-second instrumental all the way back on "Aerosol Grey Machine" when they could jam this well. This is definitely one of the better comeback albums, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Van der Graaf - Vital

4/10

Ugh, this live album is terrible. The sound quality isn't very good, and there's too much reliance on obscure material and the better-known material is ruined by the fact that the songs were rearranged for a violin and guitar (which has a fucking horrible tone). The only "classic" material here is "Pioneers Over C" and a few bits and pieces of "Killer" and "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers". I have to say I'm glad they didn't try to do a full version of the latter song; playing it live in its entirety would've been an incredibly tall task even under the best of circumstances. There's also a performance of "Mirror Images," a Hammill solo song, which does away with the awesome NES synth-tones of the original which made me love it so much. Lame. I would've given this trainwreck an even lower grade if it weren't such an interesting trainwreck, since the songs don't sound much at all like the studio versions.
This was a double album originally, and I have the 1-disc version which deletes a few songs, but I can't imagine this being any better in slightly longer format. Fortunately, the band broke up after this and did not reunite for nearly three decades.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Van der Graaf - The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome

5/10

This isn't a Van der Graaf Generator album. Instead, it was released by "Van der Graaf," whose shortened name probably had something to do with the fact that David Jackson and organist Hugh Banton left the band. However, they weren't replaced with new members their instruments (although Jackson guests on two tracks), resulting in a band that has lost most of what made it unique. So it's little wonder that the name was shortened.
Replacing them is violinist Graham Smith, whose playing is just generic as hell on an instrument I've never liked much in the first place (both the electric and acoustic variations). This album is definitely the most commercial that the band ever produced; there's nothing chaotic or dark about it at all (except for the excellent track "Chemical World," the one song on the album which manages to recall the band's previous sound). The only reason that this doesn't get an even worse grade is that it never veers into incompetence and isn't exactly unpleasant to listen to.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Maida Vale

7/10

This is a compilation of four BBC sessions consisting of two songs each. You get 1 song from The Least We Can Do, 1 from Pawn Hearts, 2 from Godbluff, 2 from Still Life, and 2 from World Record. This is kind of an unnecessary release, as most of the songs really don't have anything on the studio versions. Oh, there are a few differences here and there, but they don't really make the songs any better or worse. Plus, there's nothing from H to He! I understand that they were trying to promote their latest albums at the time, but I really would've liked to hear Killer or House With No Door. But while this disc doesn't add a lot that's new, the songs are still good; however, they're not good enough to make this release essential.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - World Record

7/10

This is VDGG's "instrumental jamming" album; it's not nearly as lyrics-heavy as earlier efforts, with Hammill featured far less prominently. Unfortunately, it's also not as atmospheric as some of the band's better albums, and side two is dominated by "Meurglys III", a 20-minute song that's really inconsistent, with some great parts (Hammill's guitar makes a rare appearance here, adding an extra dimension to the band's sound) mixed in with some dull and even outright offensive sections (there's a fucking reggae part near the end. On my list of "least favorite genres", reggae is second only to gabber.)
Some of the higher points included some surprisingly subdued reed work from David Jackson and some synthesizers which I find dated, but in a wonderfully charming way. World Record isn't horrible, but they've done so much better in the past.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Still Life

8/10

The second album from VDGG's second era is even more subdued than the first. Hell, near the end of the title track, things get so quiet that you can actually make out the tape hiss, something that never would've been possible in the days of Pawn Hearts. Unfortunately, the relative simplicity frequently acts as a detriment. I especially disliked how David Jackson was just buried in the mix much of the time.
It's not all stripped down, however; "La Rossa" and "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End" are just as over-the-top as anything the band ever recorded, but they're only half the album. However, many of the more subdued moments just aren't as engaging. My favorite song was "Childlike Faith," with its anthemic themes and wall-of-sound production that was absent on most of the rest of the album.
One gets the impression that Hammill intended some of the songs for a solo album, as they don't feel quite like VDGG songs. However, Still Life still isn't a bad album by any means.

Monday, April 13, 2009

We interrupt this blog for a special announcement!

donkdj.com allows anyone to make hilariously bad remixes of your mp3s. Just upload an mp3 and DJ Donk does all the work for you! Here are a few I came up with:

David Bowie: Diamond Donks
Bruce Springsteen: Donkness on the Edge of Town
KISS: Donk and Roll All Nite

Admittedly, while I'm not fond of the chipmunk vocals, the fake drumming that's not in time with the music is still an improvement on Peter Criss' drumming on that last one.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Godbluff

9/10

I have to say that I'm glad that this reunion album didn't just consist of Peter Hammill just surrounding himself with a bunch of schlubs and using the VDGG name. In fact, this lineup is exactly the same as the last album! But Hammill's solo work clearly tempered him a bit, as this album's more restrained than the last few. Sure, the songs are all over seven minutes, and Hammill just can't resist throwing in a few Broadway-esque vocal flourishes into the mix, but there's barely any cacophonous sax playing, and the instrumental sections are at least somewhat melodic (I greatly enjoyed the opening of "The Sleepwalkers," which is complex yet catchy at the same time). I also like the use of keyboard bass pedals on "Arrow" (the band had been without a bassist since the recording of H to He, and organist Hugh Banton also played both the pedals and bass guitar).
Unfortunately, the production's not great, and Hammill's lyrics are very hard to understand at times as a result. It's still relatively accessible for a VDGG record, though, and a good place to start.
Oh, and one more note- my version has the band performing two live versions of Peter Hammill solo songs at the end, and they SUCK! Well, the songs themselves are okay, and the performances aren't terrible, but the fidelity's so bad that it's just an iota more listenable than Metal Machine Music. Lame!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Time Vaults

3/10

Van der Graaf Generator went on hiatus for several years following Pawn Hearts, and this compilation collects rehearsal recordings and outtakes. The liner notes state that these "are not studio-quality recordings," which is the understatement of the century. The quality starts out okay, but soon degenerates into near-unlistenability. It's a shame, since the music is interesting (although not quite up to par with the band's other work at that time), but the insanely lo-fi quality kills this dead.
I'd say that this release is for die-hard fans only, but I consider myself one and I really have no need for this whatsoever. This is only for people who can tolerate really low fidelity recordings.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts

10/10

I'm more than a little biased towards this album. You see, this was one of my first CD purchases after I had gotten my first Bose headphones, and I was just blown away. It was also my first VDGG album. I understand this album isn't well liked among a lot of people, what with John McFerrin and George Starostin giving it a 6 and Capn Marvel giving it a C+,but I think it's just incredible.
Pawn Hearts has only three songs on it; "Lemmings" and "Man Erg" take up side one, while the epic "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" makes up all of the second side. "Lemmings" is alternately quiet and chaotic. It's probably the weakest song on the album, but that's not saying much. I did think that the ambient outro was unnecessary (for all of the people who whine about prog songs with lengthy intros, I find prog outros to be poor much more frequently). Then "Man-Erg" is a wonderful tale of mental illness; I love how it switches from a sedate piano song into typical sax-based VDGG madness in a manic-depressive manner.
And then there's the sidelength, which tells the tale of a lighthouse keeper who goes insane from loneliness. Some people think that this is the most ludicrous example of prog this side of "Tales from Topographic Oceans," but I think it's wonderful, spanning a wide range of emotions. Admittedly, some of the middle parts drag a bit, but I can forgive that when the rest is so good.
"Lighthouse Keepers" isn't one of those long songs that feels short, but that just adds to its effectiveness. It's supposed to be dreary and ponderous, and does a great job of evoking that mood. This makes the heavenly harmonies at the end even better, as if the listener is ascending into heaven after a journey through hell.
This is not an easy album to get into by any stretch of the imagination. Don't get it if you haven't listened to much progressive rock before; this one's for the initiated only.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - H to He, Who Am the Only One

7/10

FUTURE PUGS: I've decided that this album's second half is just too aimless, with instrumental sections that aren't atmospheric like the ones on Pawn Hearts or interesting in any other way. I have downgraded this album to a 7 from my original score of 9. I still love the first side, though.

Okay, this is where things really started to gel. The songs here encapsulate everything I love about the band; David Jackson's wild reed soloing, intriguing organ lines, lyrics that are interesting (if not always comprehensible) and great vocal performances by Hammill. My personal favorite song on here is "House With No Door," a lonely piano ballad with none of the anger of other VDGG songs, but all of the isolation and melancholy. "Killer" is also one of my favorite songs in the band's catalog; it's the polar opposite of "House" in mood, but still has that world-weary attitude.
The second side isn't quite as strong as the first, with just two songs that go on just a little bit longer than they should, but it's still full of interesting melodies and moods so it's all fine by me. Apparently, this album has a lot of scientific references in it, with the album title being a reference to hydrogen and the song title "Pioneers over c" refers to the speed of light (as in E=mc squared), but my ninth-grade science teacher scared me off of physics forever so I don't really get the point of them.
Oh, and "The Emperor in His War Room" features a guest guitar performance by Robert Fripp.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other

7/10

This can be considered the first true VDGG album. It's the first with David Jackson on reeds, and the first with the dark-but-bombastic style that became the band's trademark; hell, the first track is called "Darkness (11/11)"! (I'm not sure what the "11/11" means; I just hope that creature doesn't have trample.) It's not all dark, though; "Refugees" is a hopeful story of Eastern European intellectuals escaping their Communist-dominated home countries after World War II (I think), although even that song's awfully melancholy. It's a little reminiscent of King Crimson's "I Talk to the Wind," in that it's the second song on the album and it's not nearly as dark as most of the rest of the band's catalog.
Unfortunately, the next song, "White Hammer," suffers from somewhat tepid music (except for the wild sax solo at the end) and TERRIBLE detached lyrics straight out of a history book about witch hunts in the early Renaissance. Lame. Fortunately, side 2 is pretty good, with more typical VDGG lyrics. There's even a bit of electric guitar in "Whatever would Robert Have Said?," a song about the band's namesake, Robert van de Graaff. (The band's name was misspelled initially, but they decided to keep it that way.) The last two songs are the also-surprisingly light "Out of My Book", which is the album's shortest song at just four minutes, and the 11-minute "After the Flood," which isn't too bad except for the middle part, which just descends into chaos. I can't rate this higher because "White Hammer" is just a waste of eight minutes, but it's not a bad place to start at all.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Aerosol Grey Machine

8/10

This wasn't even supposed to be a Van der Graaf Generator album; instead, it was supposed to be a Peter Hammill solo album, but the record company insisted that the album be credited to the band (which had only released one single at the time). As record company decisions go, it wasn't a terrible idea at all. Aerosol Grey Machine, released in 1968, is prog in an embryonic form. It's more drenched in late 60's psychedelia than any of the band's other albums, but it's still good. Hammill plays his acoustic guitar a lot more here than on later VDGG releases, and the saxophone is nowhere to be seen (although some tracks feature a flute). The music also isn't nearly as blatantly dark as the band's later material, although I can't call it happy by any stretch of the imagination; it's a more subdued, introspective form of darkness that you have to look past the hippie 60's sound to see fully. My favorite tracks include "Afterwards," with its great organ line; the hilarious title track, which is a short commercial jingle parody; and the Syd Barrett-esque "Octopus."
Okay, "Necromancer" is just goofy;with its drum opening reminiscent of Holst's "Mars" and fantasy lyrics, it almost sounds like a Spinal Tap song minus the guitars. but that's the only real misstep, unless you count "Firebrand," a bonus track which was the B-side of the band's first single, "People You Were Going To." Firebrand features Hammill sharing lead vocals with Chris Judge Smith; his voice is terrible and his delivery is just beyond awful in its over-the-topness (while the A-side was a pleasant but lightweight psych-pop song). Neither song was on the original LP, but they were added to the end of my CD copy. I might have lowered my grade a point due to Firebrand, but I don't take bonus tracks into account for my grades.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Van der Graaf Generator - Intro

Van der Graaf Generator are considered by the prog community to be either a great band or the epitome of the genre's worst excesses. Led by frontman Peter Hammill, VDGG eschewed guitars almost completely, preferring to focus on an organ and saxophone-based sound. They're barely remembered at all today except among hardcore prog fans.

Oh, and they're my favorite band. I promise not to gush too much, though.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Christian Weston Chandler - Christian and the Hedgehog Boys

10/10

I used to think that the best evocation of loneliness on record was Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Then, after listening to it many times, I decided there was too much filler in the middle and Bob Ezrin's production was a bit too overblown. Then I thought that the music which felt the loneliest was Sam Cooke's "Night Beat." But while it is a fine record, there are a few upbeat songs which break the mood (although they're not horrible).
Then, I heard the record I'm reviewing right now. "Christian and the Hedgehog Boys" is a masterpiece, providing a panorama of isolation from the world that few artists could ever hope to approach. First of all, it should be noted that the contributions of the "Hedgehog Boys" are practically nonexistent; the more cynical of us might suspect that they don't actually exist. Instead, Chandler sings over generic pop songs (including the Macarena and songs by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys). What an insightful statement on the vapidity of such music; admitting that these songs are free of emotional content, he adds his own.
And what emotion! Christian chooses to write lyrics from the perspective of a pathetic autistic man. Now, not all autistic people are pathetic, but we're clearly intended to see the narrator that way due to the primitive recording style, and a remarkable concept album results. On the first track, "So Need a Cute Girl," the narrator is "stuck as a virgin with rage" and never wants to hear that a girl has a boyfriend; if he can't have a partner, no one can. "Feel So Lonesome" tells of how he tried to use a sign to attract women, and "La Cocina en La Casa de Casanova" brilliantly uses middle-school Spanish to illustrate just how narrow the narrator's world really is.
Admittedly, this album is more than a little derivative of such post-modern masters as Wesley Willis, Wild Man Fischer and Anton Maiden, but I have no problem giving it the 10. It's a shame that this is Chandler's only full-length recording, although the concept is so great that a follow-up would either be a rehash or pale in comparison.