Monday, August 26, 2013

Baroness Get Back On The Bus

"What was the plan here? I can't seem to stop! Pissing and spitting from bottom to top. Picking up viscera, tendons and broken remains." - Take My Bones Away (Baroness, Yellow & Green, 2012)

I once tried to develop a theory about how many great bands achieve their peaks essentially through human sacrifice. The Stones had Brian Jones, Pink Floyd had Syd Barrett, and Metallica had Cliff Burton. The fact is, however, that just as often death dooms a band, as in the case of Led Zeppelin. In any case, not even the most rabid fan would wish death or destruction on another human being just so we could get to the Dark Side Of The Moon. Still, when the tour bus containing Baroness and their crew tumbled off the road in England last year, there was that uncomfortable feeling of "here we go again."

Fortunately, everyone on that bus survived, with many injuries and a long road to recovery ahead. A great deal of uncertainty was put to rest when the band announced in March that they would go on, but that drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni "will not continue touring with Baroness." If that seems somewhat ambiguous about their membership in the band, the notice also said "Simply put, some of the effects and injuries were severe enough to prohibit further activity in Baroness."

The band got back on the horse with two new members: Nick Jost on bass and keyboards, and Sebastian Thomson on drums and percussion. Thomson, late of Maryland post-rockers Trans Am, is an especially interesting pickup for a metal-ish band from Georgia, but considering the monstrous grooves of recent songs like Board Up The House, an exciting choice. Of the two members they replaced, only Blickle dates back to the band's beginnings; Maggioni had been with them for a less than a year, having replaced founding member Summer Welch in 2012.

So this is the continuing tale that brought a sold-out crowd to Irving Plaza on August 14, a day before the one year anniversary of the accident. I admit to being double-booked and missing the opening act, Royal Thunder, so I can't comment on them. I can say that when I took my place on the mezzanine just minutes before Baroness took the stage, the audience was buzzing and well primed. That likely would have been the case anyway, as the band has been building a devoted following for the past decade with their blend of melody, crunch, and epic sense of structure and dynamics.

Like any band that comes from a subculture, Baroness's audience feels proprietary about their sound and hurled a few brickbats when Yellow & Green was released last year, with the usual complaints about them getting soft, selling out, etc. While that double album did have a larger share of acoustic and reflective moments (and prescient ones - see the lyrics above), the truth remains that Baroness were always experts at expanding on the "light and shade" template that Jimmy Page built Led Zep on. Songs like Rays On Pinion from their debut full-length The Red Album build up so gradually that it's like a black pepper chocolate truffle - seductively smooth until you feel the burn.

No fan could have complained when they kicked off with the stately beginning of Ogeechee Hymnal and then slammed into a maximally heavy Take My Bones Away that had the crowd churning and singing along. John Baizley, the impressively bearded heart and soul of the band, was in fine voice and dashed off complex guitar lines with aplomb, often in a twin-lead entanglement with guitarist Peter Adams. They were both fond of stepping to the front of the stage and standing tall while doing so. There was a sense of hard-earned pride and triumph in their body language, which coupled with their astonishing energy and power made for a thrilling night. Adams had a habit of pointing grandiosely at his colleague as if to say, "Can you believe this guy?" and Baizley (who also creates all the artwork for Baroness) is indeed a phenomenal talent.

While sometimes lyrically obscure and favoring musical intricacy over direct communication, the boys of Baroness are not afraid to be vulnerable and are capable of writing songs that are deeply moving. This even goes for their occasional instrumentals, starting with the magnificent Grad on The Red Album, and continuing with the Green Theme from the latest album, which was an early highlight of the set. Listening to its wailing guitars, I found a lump forming in my throat, not only due to the inventive melody, but also due to contemplating what might have been - and how far they've come. A storming take on Swollen And Halo, from 2009's The Blue Album, was followed by Board Up The House from the new album, which swung harder than ever, no doubt aided by Thomson's locked-in drums. Nick Jost was more effacing than the shirtless beast behind the skins, but ably handled the bottom end, switching easily to keyboards as required.

The concert was a continuous lesson in the awesome power, precision and passion four musicians can bring to the stage. Throughout the night, the two frontmen didn't miss a step and showed no signs of physical limitation, eagerly returning to play a three song encore, which the crowd just as eagerly demanded. My only complaint is that we had to wait until the last of these, Isak, to hear anything from The Red Album. Aside from that, it was an expertly sequenced and satisfying set. While it remains to be heard what contributions their new members will make to the future of Baroness, this blistering night proved that the present and past of this massive sounding band - one of the best in the country right now - is in very good hands.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Among The Torrid Vines

I have long rhapsodized over the Sunday morning chamber music concerts at Tanglewood, in Lenox, MA. Performed brilliantly by students in gorgeous Ozawa Hall, the concerts are like expertly sequenced mixtapes of music from the Baroque era to right now. Often featuring world or American premieres, the concerts are a great place to bring an open mind. Sometimes they can lead to frustration, however, as it can be hard to track down a new work due to the vagaries of the music business.

In July 2010, I heard a fascinating work by Australian composer Nicholas Vines called Economy Of Wax, which has just now been released - although it was recorded in January 2012. The other two works were recorded in 2008 and 2010, which makes one wonder what they were waiting for. But here we finally have it, an album of Nicholas Vines's music called Torrid Nature Scenes.

Now for those of you who see Schoenberg's forbidding and humorless face when you hear the words "contemporary classical," relax. Vines is anything but humorless. After all, the first piece on the disc, The Butcher Of Brisbane, is based on a series of Dr. Who episodes from the 70's - although liking or knowing anything about that show is not a prerequisite for enjoying the music. Described as a "Carnival for solo saxophone(s) and chamber ensemble," The Butcher Of Brisbane shows its hilarious, if unsettling, hand early on, in the Prologue. After an angular and combative start by the sax and ensemble, the horn lets loose four loud foghorn blows that are startling and raucously funny. Those bleats return throughout the work, serving as a reset button and a reminder of who's boss.

All is not spiky sturm und drang, though. The fourth movement is questing and spare, with some sinuous lines from the sax, and the Epilogue starts off clangorously but tails off with gentle flute trills and single notes from the horn. Overall, the 22 minute piece is a fast moving delight with enough twists and turns to keep a listener on their toes.

Economy Of Wax, the short centerpiece of the album, is from a series of works commissioned from eight Australian composers to commemorate Darwin's 200th birthday. The title refers to Darwin's studies of hive construction by bees and his conclusion (as paraphrased in the liner notes by Andrew Robbie), that while "...bees know nothing of the geometric principles that guide their economy of wax, they nontheless behave in ways that contribute to it faithfully." Vines, inspired both by Darwin's scientific methods and the bees own systematic activities, prepared a set of scales and motifs from which to assemble the composition. Scored for soprano (the majestic Adrienne Pardee), flute/piccolo, viola and harp, the piece completely avoids any cliched buzzing sounds and instead stays in constant motion to represent the movements of the insects as they build their warehouse of honey.

There are melodies that appropriately recall the Rite Of Spring, and the use of coloratura in the soprano line cannot help but lead one to think of Mozart's Queen Of The Night from the Magic Flute - also appropriate when you consider who rules the hive. It's a blazing little piece, a remarkable coming together of the worlds of science and music, and the lives of humans and apians. Here's hoping The Origin Cycle gets a full New York City premiere one of these days.

The final and longest piece on the album is Torrid Nature Scene, a "Romp in Seven Parts for soprano, mezzo soprano, and chamber ensemble." Vines himself describes it as "a squelchy, romping obscenity" - don't you just love this guy? - based on the "lewd and crude" poetry of the aforementioned Andrew Robbie. The text is certainly purple, loaded with obscure words and elaborate descriptions of animal activity, about as far from Darwin's rational, precise prose as possible. The third movement describes a firefly's feeding thusly: "Soon aroused, his arcs of gold encrust a monkshood, whose perfumes unfold a Hecatine entreaty; he obeys, alights, and fueled with fervent ardor splays the lacquered surplice." So THAT'S what's going on outside on a hot summer night!

The dynamics of the different movements and the interaction between the two singers gives Torrid Nature Scene a distinct theatrical flavor. This is obviously an area of interest for Vines, and one at which he excels. His lively imagination, mastery of scoring for a variety of instruments, and structural gravitas all make him well suited to telling stories through music. Based on what I've heard so far, I'm very interested to hear his (also bee-inspired) 2004 opera, The Hive, not to mention whatever he come up with next. His website lists no fewer than three new recordings coming out sometime in 2013, so it seems like we can look forward to an overgrowth of Vines.

Whether Darwin himself would have predicted the death of the CD due to evolutionary pressures is debatable. However, he certainly would not have thought anyone would release an enhanced CD in 2013 - but that is exactly what we have here. The note on the Navona Records release states: "Place this product in your computer to access study scores, extended liner notes, videos, and more." It feels somewhat archaic to double-click the Flash logo and see the slightly rudimentary "website on a disc" that appears. However, the liner notes are certainly a deeper dive than the CD booklet has space for and students and composers might enjoy poring over the score while listening, so in this case the physical product gives good value for money. Mention should also be made of Stephen Drury's expert conducting throughout, which keeps the energy up, while also keeping the thicket of Vines's music from getting too tangled.

Economy of Wax by Nicholas Vines from Nicholas Vines on Vimeo.


Saturday, August 03, 2013

Infamy On 48th St. (Week of Legends, Pt. 2)

Top Left: 6th Borough | Top Right: Joe Budden | Bottom Left: Mobb Deep | Bottom Right: Prodigy
My affinity for the gritty urban noir of Mobb Deep has been previously explored so it should come as no surprise that when their 20th Anniversary tour rolled into NYC I made plans to be there. To pay proper homage to one of hip hop's longest running acts, I went all in with the VIP package, which included a meet and greet with members Prodigy and Havoc as well as copy of Prodigy's new novel, HNIC, and his first solo album. The venue was a new spot in midtown west, Stage 48, and an email from them instructed me to arrive at 6:00pm sharp. I had been at Wire's amazing show the night before but had no lack of energy when the time came around to leave work and head downtown.

Live hip hop has a bit of a bad reputation - shows start late, crowds get rowdy, there are too many acts. Also, there's the fact that the music is usually recorded and there is little room for surprises or improvisation. Unlike seeing a band like Wire or Fleet Foxes where part of the thrill is teasing out just how they make their music, seeing a rap concert is almost entirely about the collective experience and the electricity of sharing space with your heroes. The Mobb Deep show entirely lived up to all those aspects, the good and the bad, starting with that "6:00pm sharp."

Dinner was a bag of trail mix, which I enjoyed while observing the others who had followed instructions, lining up in the blistering heat outside the club. The main demographic was smokers - tobacco users of all races and both genders, all younger than me. Everybody was relaxed and I was soon chatting with two guys from Queens and a man who had moved here from Medellin, Colombia, six months ago and had grown up listening to the Mobb ("They are quite underground in my country," he told us). He was living the dream, but had never been to a concert like this and didn't speak much English so I decided to keep an eye out for him.

Eventually, we were admitted to the place, patted down, and instructed to go upstairs. The decor was as expected, with neon-lined steps, low seating, etc. No sign of the stars, but I was just just happy to be in the frigid air with a drink in my hand. I chatted with my friends from outside - they called me "token old guy" and were continually surprised by the fact that I knew what the hell I was talking about, which became a theme of the night. It caused me to wonder if many of those of us present at the birth of hip hop have given it up, at least in public.

A line gradually formed opposite a table with two chairs so I stuck with the Colombian who showed me his shaking hands. The was a bit of a flurry as Prodigy and Havoc entered and took their seats. They seemed in a good mood, bantering with each other and showing no sign of the beef that made headlines last year. We had been instructed to ask for only one signature and only pose for one picture and the line moved smoothly. The Colombian was ahead of me and he came away walking on air after his photo op. Then I stepped up to the table, shook their hands and they each signed something for me before we stood for the picture, which was taken by one of their posse. Prodigy had been making a pointing gesture in the photos I observed, so it was a while before I noticed he was making quite a different gesture in my picture. I patted each guy on the back, told them they were great, they thanked me, I thanked them and then stepped away.

AnEarful meets The Mobb
The Colombian was still in heaven when I caught up to him. It turned out that he had neglected to take a copy of the H.N.I.C. CD so I gave him mine - I've had that classic for a while now. And then...we waited. The DJ was great and the sound system excellent so it was fairly painless until the lights went down around 8:00pm and H2-O took the stage. He's a positive-minded rapper of some skill but nothing spectacular. I was hoping Joe Budden, the advertised opener, was up next but no such luck. Ninety minutes later, I was putting out an open call on Twitter for Sandman Sims to come down from the Apollo with his hook. This was strictly amateur hour - there was even a (not bad) breakdancing crew - and the crowd's restive booing and chanting for Mobb Deep grew louder than the performers at times.

One bright spot among the parade of rappers was the duo 6th Borough, who had real songs, real skill and real stage presence. They were followed by Status, who started strong but lost the crowd after a couple of songs. It was hard to figure out why, but he was done. I would have gladly had Status come back over the mangy crew that next took the stage. Whoever they were, the crowd drubbed them off the stage in fairly short order, making way for Joe Budden at around 11:00pm. He's a strange case. Ten years ago, his big single, the Kool & The Gang-fueled Pump It Up, and subsequent debut album put New York at his feet. But it would be a few years before more music, and much of it was forgettable or guest-heavy, like the albums he made as a member of Slaughterhouse, the "supergroup" he put together in 2009. Yet another dude who wanted to know what this "token old guy" was doing at a Mobb Deep show told me Budden is widely considered the least skilled of that crew.

In any case, he was greeted warmly and was an affable presence, if a little indifferent to his surroundings. Budden can't seem to decide if he is a comic rapper or a tough one, turning in a perfunctory set that just seemed to peter out after Pump It Up, which still got the hands in the air. In any case, by that point I would have booed the second coming off the stage, and the crowd would have joined me. Fortunately, no more booing was necessary: the tense opening notes of Survival Of The Fittest were heard, the crowd exploded, and suddenly Mobb Deep was on stage, both Prodigy and Havoc spitting their verses with energy and authority.

This is why we came, I thought, this is why we stayed and slogged through three and a half hours of opening acts. Their beats, whether produced by Havoc, Alchemist or others, are some of the best ever and they sounded extraordinary on Stage 48's system. And while their first album is often considered their best, they rolled out song after song from across their catalog with each one garnering huge reactions from the audience. It was a well-earned greatest hits set featuring bangers like Quiet Storm, Put Em In Their Place, Have A Party, and Shook Ones Pt. II. Prodigy and Havoc performed a song each from their recent solo albums, with the former's Give Em Hell fitting in perfectly.

Both rappers have distinctive performing styles. Havoc is all business, head down, unleashing his rhymes with precision and passion. Prodigy is more animated, acting out nearly every line with nuanced and creative movements. Throughout the concert, he seemed to be hanging on every word, mouthing Havoc's bars even when he was performing his solo track. Prodigy is a riveting presence and I hope to see him in the fall when he tours with Alchemist.

As the show progressed, the sense of barely controlled chaos continued to grow, and the stage continued to fill up with more and more hangers on. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, adding to the celebratory feel. At one point Prodigy invited an audience member to climb up and film a song. She stayed for the rest of the concert, a stand-in for all of us fans. Though there is a promise of new music from them later this year, everything they've done so far has cemented them in the firmament of hip hop and New York history and the concert was both a consolidation of that achievement and a reminder of their deathless vitality.

Prodigy at Powerhouse Arena

And what of Prodigy's book, HNIC: An Infamous Novel (written with Steven Savile)? I have long thought that the universe of Mobb Deep could be expanded to include longer forms of storytelling, so I was ready for it. The short novel, the first in a series, grew out of an unproduced screenplay Prodigy wrote to accompany the H.N.I.C. album. He reached out to Savile, a well-known author of fiction of all stripes, to help him shape it into a book. At an interview with Sacha Jenkins at Powerhouse Arena about a week after the concert, Prodigy freely dispensed credit to Savile for some of the choicest lines in the book but took pride is telling a story that used characters and experiences from his past.

HNIC is a quick read and has some familiar crime literature tropes - a gangster's last job before going straight - but some new twists and turns. While I haven't kept up with the literature being sold by the average incense vendor, I did matriculate at the school Black Experience fiction, with a major in Donald Goines and a minor in Iceberg Slim. Like their work, once HNIC begins the narrative engine pulls you along like the A train between 59th and 125 - and you might find yourself missing a stop or to to find out what happens next.

The main difference is in the perspective. With Goines and Slim, there is a sense of being down in the street with their characters throughout, while Prodigy has an increased distance, a view from above. His main characters, Pappy, Black and Tonya, are playing out an old story of love, loyalty and betrayal and Prodigy's POV links them to the archetypes behind those themes. In the course of the story, he and Savile drop enough breadcrumbs to past and future plots that they should have no trouble creating sequels. The only thing they should watch out for are the Britishisms that slipped in to the text (Savile is English). I doubt anyone from Queens as gotten dinner from the "takeaway" and brought it to their "bedsit" while worrying about ill-gotten gains stored in a "holdall" - but that's a minor detail. If there is an HNIC book-of-the-month club, sign me up!

The bonus beat to the whole week was having the opportunity to be introduced to Prodigy by Sacha Jenkins before their interview. I found him to be a very relatable guy, well-aware of his stature as a million-selling artist, but open and humble to new experiences and people. Here's to another 20 years of his dark urban tales and killer beats.