Lately I've been working on editing a pile of short stories and prepping them to be thrown at (and probably rejected by) literary magazines, and assembling something that I hope will become novel #3. The upshot of this is that I don't have much available RAM to update this thing with anything very substantial or thoughtful.
So, let's have some filler: something not very substantial and not requiring too much thought on my part. Everyone likes top ten lists. Everyone likes music. Okay, let's call this my ten favorite songs. Or ten songs that are among my favorites. Or just ten songs. Let's cap it off by throwing in some spontaneously selected images that may (or may not) evoke the texture or flavor of these songs, and then let's call it a day. I've got stuff to do.
TOP TEN SONGS GO
When Forever Comes Crashing (1998)
My favorite album of all time is Converge's virtuosic metalcore trauma attack Jane Doe (2001). It has to be. There's no other record I've listened to at least once a month over a fifteen-year period. (Which is odd, since I don't often listen to any other hardcore bands on a regular basis, though I do enjoy them—looking at you, Discordance Axis.) Since Jane Doe is an altogether immaculate organism, and I'd no sooner remove any piece from its body than William Blake would dissect his tiger, tiger, burning bright. (Well, the one exception might be the title track—but this is a catalog of favorite songs, not best songs, and "Jane Doe" is too fucking dark even for me unless I'm in the right mood.) So I'm hedging the issue by instead naming "Love as Arson" from the band's prior album When Forever Comes Crashing.
It's very, very difficult to make out what Jake Bannon is screeching about (without a transcription and several repeated listenings), but Converge's lyrics are, to put a word to it, emo: though it sounds like it could be a first-person account of unanesthetized battlefield surgery, Jane Doe is actually about a really rough breakup. And so it is with "Love as Arson." Thematically, it's pretty similar to Adele's "Someone Like You"—the relationship is over, but I'm surviving, I'll move on—and would probably be indistinguishable from it had Adele not taken the cloyingly gracious high road instead of setting her house on fire and screaming at the flames like an emotionally honest human being.
Incidentally, "Love as Arson" was the song from which Jersey hardcore band took its name—and Arson's Words Written in Blood (1998) was the CD that attuned me to the culture of sound of which Jane Doe is the apotheosis.
The Sisters of Mercy
Some years ago, during another period when I was too preoccupied with other things to allot much RAM to updating this thing, I threw together a rather sparse and self-indulgent list of my ten favorite songs by my one favorite band: The Sisters of Mercy. (I still listen to the Sisters on a regular basis almost twenty years since picking up First and Last and Always (1984) as a high school freshman, but none of their records is as individually perfect as Jane Doe.) Anyway, I realize I didn't mention "This Corrosion" back then, and I'm here to rectify that omission. I think the fact that I've danced like a (read: "as a") Jaeger-injected maniac to all ten minutes of the song at least twice since then might have something to do with my change of heart, as does the fact that one gets more bang from his buck calling up "This Corrosion" than "Lucretia My Reflection" on the digital jukebox in the dive bar of his choice. (Postscript: I just found out that Ray's Happy Birthday Bar in South Philly has "This Corrosion" in its Friday night karaoke catalogue. I might need to make this happen.)
"This Corrosion" is the centerpiece of Floodland and probably of Andrew Eldritch's entire career, and easily the most fun song of a band that's usually more gloomy than anything else. Legend has it that Eldritch intentionally devised it as big bombastic spectacle of an anthem that stood for absolutely nothing—which I guess makes "This Corrosion" the ironic offspring of post-Madonna pop and the dour sensibilities of Modernism. Weird, is what it is. Weird, inimitable, and again, kind of a blast.
Divine Moments of Truth
Are You Shpongled? (1998)
If I were to pin down the record that served as my musical spirit guide through my prolonged initiation into the realm of psychedelic experience during my early twenties, it would be the second disc of Infected Mushroom's Converting Vegetarians (2003). No contest. None. But, again, I can't single out any one track of that album that has left more of an impression than Shpongle's seminal "Divine Moments of Truth"—to which I was first introduced via Danny Gomez's veritably ancient Flash video "Flashback" (linked above), shown to me by a more experienced friend during the plateau of one of my first LSD trips. (Although pretty much anything that you see or do under those circumstances is going to leave a pretty big impression anyway.) If you've never had the opportunity or audacity to ingest illegal hallucinogens just to see what happens, Gomez's imagery and Shpongle's sound will give you a basic idea of the flavor of the experience—provided you're doing the experience right, I mean, and not wasting it by going to a noisy party or playing miniature golf or whatever. (I do not advocate the use of psychedelics as mere inebriants. When taken properly, they are more like sacraments.)
Huh. I can't believe it took me like ten years to notice that "Divine Moments of Truth" can be abbreviated as "DMT." Derp. Must be all the brain damage.
The Process (1996)
Oh, I wish industrial were still a thing. With relevance and power, I mean. Yes, yes, tastes change, mileux shift, artists and audiences move on—but it's kind of a bummer that the machinery of electronic music isn't really being used to kick up the kind of clanging, screeching, grinding racket that it was back in the day. What passes for industrial today is usually stupid club music for aging cybergoths who play Call of Duty, and I require at least four shots of vodka to come close to enjoying it. Now that hard rock is practically moribund and electronic music is synonymous with dance music, the sonic ethos that motivated acts like KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, Filter, et al. has all but dissipated. (I mention these acts because in all likelihood you haven't heard of Frontline Assembly, Haujobb, Leæther Strip, et al.) This makes me sad.
But we'll always have the memories. Like the glory days of Skinny Puppy, the politically-charged Vancouver noisemakers who can be called the definitive industrial act now and (probably) forever. I really should be saying a few words here about "Worlock" or "Tin Omen" from their 1989 album Rabies, produced in collaboration with Ministry's Al Jourgensen—but I think I've listened to them so many thousands of times I might actually not have anything to say about them. If not either of those songs, then certainly the harrowing "Convulsions" or "Spasmolytic" from 1991's Too Dark Park, the "getting clean" record that necessarily had to follow a period of close proximity with Al Jourgensen.
But—memories. Memories of the three or maybe four times I saw Skinny Puppy perform between 2004 and 2010. The one that stands out most to me—aside from a guest appearance from then-President George W. Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney staging a mock execution of frontman Nivek Ogre during a performance of anti-oil industry screed "Hexonxonx"—was a towering, frenzied live rendition of "Hardset Head." I remember noise. Crescendo and tempo. I remember being soaked in fake blood and sweat—my sweat, and the sweat of all the other motherfuckers wearing black. Pretty much the entire front half of the venue erupted into a mosh pit—which it had failed to do during either "Tin Omen" or "Convulsions." I remember that The Process was always an album I'd avoided on the advice of older Puppy fans, and I remember being inexplicably inspired to being able to shout the lyrics back at Nivek during the final moments of the song, even though I'd never heard them before that night. (The vodka might have had something to do with it.)
In an age where most of us are introduced our new favorite tunes via streamed recordings, there's something special about the experience of getting to know and falling in love with a song during a live performance.
Keasbey Nights (1998)
Wow. Forty percent of these songs were released in 1998. Good year.
Even though I faked it pretty convincingly in The Zeroes (if I do say so myself), I was never a punk kid growing up. My opinion as to which punk record is the best of all time isn't worth much—but I'm gonna say that if it's not Operation Ivy's Energy (1989), then it might well be Catch 22's Keasbey Nights, which I'm pretty sure I've said some words about elsewhere. "1234, 1234" is the record's scappy coda, capping off an album about teenage angst in Jersey with an admonition to keep carrying on, to try, try, try.
I was recently speaking with my friend Jeff (who was a punker kid) about Keasbey Nights—Catch 22's Keasbey Nights and Streetlight Manifesto's Keasbey Nights. The long and short of it is this: Tomas Kalnoky, Catch 22's original singer/songwriter/genius, left the group shortly after Keasbey Nights' release, and went on to form his own band Streetlight Manifesto. In 2006, Streetlight Manifesto re-released Keasbey Nights, re-recording the entire album with the new lineup. From a technical standpoint, it's a much better album: the sound quality is superior, and Kalnoky brings to the reissue eight years of experience and cultivation of his talents.
Neither Jeff nor I are fans of the new version. Catch 22's Keasbey Nights sounds like it was performed and recorded by a bunch of rowdy kids because it was. That's its charm. The original version is raw, unrefined, and blazing with the youthful elan, unselfconscious swagger, and amateuristic enthusiasm that are almost always diminished when adolescence gives way to adulthood, and a hobby becomes a career. Streetlight Manifesto's Keasbey Nights crisply translates the original's sound, but it excludes its soul—and nowhere is this more apparent than on its new and "improved" take on "1234, 1234." The original version ends with the band members thanking their families, giving shout-outs to their friends, joking, and busting each others' balls. The new one concludes with an except of an interview where Kalnoky pretty much brandishes a preemptive rebuttal against critics of the re-release, practically quoting George Lucas in explaining that this is Keasbey Nights the way he always meant it to be, so fuck you. (That the whole thing is conveyed via droning synthesized voices is more appropriate than Kalnoky probably knew.)
Help Me, I'm Hungry
Outcesticide Volume II: The Needle & the Damage Done (bootleg; recorded 1989)
Oh, yes. Speaking of: let's talk about rawness.
You know what? Let's not talk about rawness. It can speak for itself. Listen to it instead.
Jeff and I also agree that Nevermind (1991) is a tragedy of overproduction.
Historical note: I never owned any Nirvana bootlegs. My friend Brian had a collection though, and he included "Help Me, I'm Hungry" on a cassette tape mix that he passed along to me when we were in the eighth grade. BECAUSE THAT'S HOW WE DID THINGS BACK THEN.
A Cunt Like You
Mummy and Daddy (1998)
I never do this, but I'm gonna go ahead and issue a trigger warning here. Whitehouse (named after anti-pornography crusader and Dr. Who villain Mary Whitehouse) is not for the faint of heart. I'm usually reluctant to advertise the fact that I really enjoy them, for the same reason that someone with a penchant for BDSM might not wish to get into the particulars of their kinks in their Facebook posts.
I'm not even sure I should be including "A Cunt Like You" on this list. This is supposed to be a catalogue of songs, and the word "song" denotes music. Whitehouse is not music. Whitehouse is noise—the negative reciprocal of music. And it's really vicious, brutal, ugly noise, and "A Cunt Like You"—the centerpiece of an album constructed around the theme of domestic abuse—is as dark and viscerally fascinating as Whitehouse gets.
This prompts the question: why would anyone (who isn't a psychopath) enjoy this stuff? Well. I'd propose that if you can understand or at least appreciate why someone might enjoy being choked during sex, you're on your way to getting it.
Tune Up Your Chips and Circuits
Implant (with Anne Clark; remixed by Electric Universe)
You Can Watch/My Gun (2005)
Psytrance is an excellent time, especially if you're fortunate enough to live in a place where events are accessible on some sort of regular basis. (To my chagrin, I am not.) As much fun as I've had attending the very occasional psy rave, it is at these gatherings that I've been struck by a peculiar contradiction. The psytrance ethos and its corollary aesthetic are deeply rooted in New Age concepts: if you attend an event, you're very likely to be surrounded by tripping hippies talking about the collective unconscious, Gaia theory, primitivism, chakras, etc. The scene has a philosophy of organism, but at its axis is the pulse of pure machine music, throbbing and buzzing with laser noises, samples from sci-fi films, and sonic textures that are probably best characterized as "cyberpunk."
"Tune Up Your Chips and Circuits"—the version remixed by psytrance stalwarts Electric Universe—cannily articulates this contradiction. (The original song is a so-so EBM track by Implant; Electric Universe's reimagining eclipses it in every considerable way.) bears very little resemblance to it.) Veteran spoken-word artist Anne Clark impresses upon a thoroughly cyberpunk track a foreboding ambivalence towards the tenets of the cyberpunk fantasy. Usually psytrance is too busy giving addled hippies and ravers beats to stomp their feet to until sunrise to think very hard about something as mundane as a "message;" it was and still is very refreshing to hear a positively banging track not only making something resembling a statement—and a rather subversive one, no less. (Credit here is due to Impant, who enlisted Clark to begin with. Industrial bands never squander an opportunity to be or to at least seem subversive, and their views on futurism tend to be as bleak as their views on everything else.)
Burning Empires, 2000
The musical subgenre futurepop ended up being rather a flash in the pan, but at least the world got some killer tunes out of it—and it gave the afterhours goth scene a few extra years of life before it was rotted from within by awful EBM and enervated from without by decent EDM (whose events didn't entail a dress code). Futurepop is what happened when a few people in the late 1990s got the brilliant idea to combine the anthemic, synth-driven melodies of trance with the Phyrexian soul of industrial. The holy trinity of futurepop consisted of Apotygma Berzerk, Covenant, and, most famously, VNV Nation, possibly the one musical act the ravers and gravers could both agree on.
At their best, VNV Nation not only made you dance, but actually inspired you with their message of humanistic idealism, compelling even a misanthropic digital hardcore devotee to beam with a smile and reach towards the stage with the rest of the crowd during a live performance in 2002. (Not to keep bringing up The Zeroes or anything, but I might be talking about the dude Blake was based on.) At their worst, VNV Nation made you wonder why you waited three years and spent fifteen buck on a CD that was half instrumental tracks you skipped through in order to hear Ronan Harris's soulful, lilting vocals and pensive (if not increasingly familiar) lyrics. (Wait. VNV Nation is still active. Why do I refer to them in the past tense? Someone else's review of their 2013 album Transnational helps explain why.)
"Further" is vintage VNV, another song I fell in love with after hearing it for the first time during a live performance, and possibly one of the most depressing tunes ever committed to compact disc. It's about how the sun is going to die and the world is eventually going to end and there's nothing we can do about that and FUCK, what's this all for what does it mean?! And it's got a beat and you can dance to it! (Well, more likely you'll be gloomily swaying, but close enough.)
Beach Song/Take Me Down (1992)
Huh. I was thinking about closing this thing out with some old school Marilyn Manson—"Dried Up, Tied, and Dead to the World," "Angel with the Scabbed Wings," maybe even "Lunchbox"—but after Whitehouse, I think it's only fair to call a moratorium on aggressive, angry noise for the remainder of this thing.
So instead, let's listen to the haunting and lovely "Beach Song." I never listened to Slowdive until 2014, and found this song after reading comments on its similarities to "I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart" by A Place to Bury Strangers. Since then, there's been any number of occasion where "Beach Song" is the only song I care to listen to for the rest of the night. I even ripped an .mp3 from the YouTube upload, burned it to a CD, and keep it in my car so I can listen to it on repeat while driving. (I can only imagine how much detail was distorted or excluded in the translation from vinyl to bootleg .mp3. Not like I have much choice but to settle.)
Sometimes "Beach Song" makes me miss St Thomas. Sometimes.