Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Music of 2007

That time of the year has come around again, where the calendar reaches it's end and we need to throw it away and buy a new one, where we have an excuse to get drunk and watch fireworks, and where we draw an arbitrary line in the sand as a period of time to reference events. What an eventful year this has been, we've gotten a new Prime Minister here in Australia and buried the coconut, Bush has become a lame duck as all focus is on the potential candidates for next years election (18 month election campaigns are a total waste), England bombed their Euro 2008 campaign while Pakistan was bombed by Islamic radicals, Australia won the world cup for the third time in the most farcical manner, Al Gore won a peace prize for his slideshow presentation (it was a pretty good slideshow, and he was way more deserving than Mother Theresa), and a heap of stuff more that I probably should be aware of.

In the end the year has left me with a sense of cautious optimism for the future. It's great to see the world coming together and working towards a global solution for tackling climate change, there has been a greater focus on the rights of the individual even in countries where Sharia law persists. No, it's not perfect, yes there is a lot of shit going down, Pakistan is extremely volatile right now, Afghanistan is going bad again while Iraq is still a shambles. But there is hope persisting. It will be interesting to see the impact of Blair's convoy to the Middle East, hoping we can see a Palestinian state in the next few years. But all of this is irrelevant to this blog, I just want to focus on the music of the year.

Top 10

10. Saul Williams - The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust
I've covered the crux of this album in an earlier post. At the risk of repeating myself I'll recap why I believe this is one of the great albums from this year. Saul Williams is at his lyrical best, the production values are amazing, and apart from the Drum and Bass Reznoresque cover of Sunday Bloody Sunday the album really stands out as a classic. Turn it up and listen to how an Industrial god puts most rap producers to shame. Online is the future of album distribution, great to see quality releases like this embrace the format.
Best track: WTF!

9. Electric Wizard - Witchcult Today
A great album to chill the fuck out to. It rivals the sheer crunch that was Melvins - (A) Senile Animal, it's just unbelievably consistent and the album flows seamlessly from beginning to end. Slow grinding riffs are brilliantly layered between fitting drums and solid vocals. It's one of those albums that you can appreciate just as long as you sit down and hear the whole thing.
Best track: Satanic Rites of Drugula

8. The Icarus Line - Black Lives On The Golden Coast
This album took a while to grow on me, in the beginning I was lamenting Aaron North's exit from the band and saying "boo, not as good as Mono", but the more I listened the more I enjoyed the album for what it is. They've done something different and they have done it well. It's more melodic than anything they've released before but that is by no means a bad thing. the album itself is a nice variety, oscillating from intense to laid back compositions, though the only criticism I could muster is sometimes the need for vocals overshadows the rest of the music. Though the lyrics seem quite irrelevant at times and the vocals become another instrument in the bands. Overall a solid release, worth listening to over and over again.
Best track: Slayer

7. Dream Theater - Systematic Chaos
It's always good hearing technically proficient musicians working together, sometimes the precision gets in the way of the music quality, but not on this release. Dream Theater have gotten the balance right. The riff interchange between keyboard and guitar is seamless, reminds me a lot of UK's self-titled album. It's good to see a split track, In The Presence Of Enemies is both a fantastic opener and ender. This is a seminal prog-metal release, 78 minutes of everything that is great about the genre. I look forward to seeing some of these tracks live in a months time.
Best track: Prophets Of War

6. Rosetta - Wake / Lift
No this release is not The Galilean Satellites, the band has progressed their sound into something new. A much more Post-Rock release than their last, though it hasn't stopped this band from sounding as unique as they did 3 years ago. The music is so densely layered and the long winding compositions are so meticulously fine-tuned, it is a delight to sit back and just take in from beginning to end.
Best track: Wake

5. The Dillinger Escape Plan - Ire Works
I was hotly anticipating this album on the back of the quality of Miss Machine. Despite Chris Pennie defecting to C&C and Brian Bennoit taking a break due to a hand injury, they've come back and done something fantastic again. Greg Puciato has taken a much more expansive role with his vocals, there is actual singing on this release. The album itself is technically brilliant, the interplay between drums and guitar is as sublime as we've come to expect from DEP, and the song writing is more mature than ever. There are parts that are going to piss off the die-hard fans of Calculating Infinity but who cares? This is a wonderful album in it's own right, full of aggression, mathematical precision and sublime musicianship.
Best track: Dead As History

4. Dark Tranquillity - Fiction
This is just an incredibly balanced album, Dark Tranquillity have gotten the balance perfect. Melodic Death Metal at it's finest right here. The interlay between the keyboard and guitar as the melodic instrument is done seamlessly, the interlaced piano transforms the album from solid to fantastic, everything has just fallen into place. Even the lyrics are perfectly fitting for the chaos surrounding them, yet never are overbearing on the sound. The metal release of the year for sure, just listen to Icipher and see for yourselves.
Best track: The Mundane And The Magic

3. Battles - Mirrored
This was a very pleasant discovery of 2007, decided to check them out after they were added to next years Big Day Out line-up. While being a perfect example of avant-garde math-rock, most of all this is a fun album to listen to. The almost chipmunk like vocals fit beautifully over the music, elaborate compositions that you just want to dance poorly out of time to.
Best track: Tonto

2. Deerhunter - Cryptograms
A perfect mix of ambiance, post-punk and noise rock, Deerhunter have created an album truly worthy of being called a masterpiece. It captivates from the first few notes of the intro and leaves you wanting more when Heatherwood finishes. The composition is sublime, each track flows so well into the next and the mix of ambient pieces spacing out the more rock style pieces is done just perfectly. Each listen just begs me to start over again.
Best track: Heatherwood

1. Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet
What can I say? It's been a year of excellent prog releases. And
Porcupine Tree have made the best of all of them. One thing this album does above all others is the focus on songwriting, the intense tracks come from a perfect balance of lyrics and prog styling in a way only Steve Wilson can deliver. It's one of the best concept albums I've heard in years, it really captures the apathy that is the offshoot of modern technology and culture. Sometimes the music is a thing of beauty, the harmonies hit just convey the meaning so precisely. Since it's release in April, it's had the staying power to be played all year despite the stream of other great music out there. And the subsequent EP Nil Recurring completed and complemented this release so well. The best praise I can give it is it's better than In Absentia. Well done Porcupine Tree.
Best track: Anesthetize

Honourable Mentions
So many good albums came out this year, so this list will be a little longer than normal, but all these deserve mention in some form. No particular order to this.

* Riverside - Rapid Eye Movement
* Puscifer - V Is For Vagina
* Radiohead - In Rainbows
* Coheed & Cambria - No World For Tomorrow
* Alchemist - Tripsis
* Symphony X - Paradise Lost
* Clutch - Frome Beale Street To Oblivion
* Ministry - The Final Sucker
* The Ocean - Precambrian
* Minus The Bear - Planet Of Ice
* Unkle - War Stories
* Strung Out - Blackhawks Over Los Angeles
* Paradise Lost - In Requiem
* Down - Over The Under
* Queens Of The Stone Age - Era Vulgaris
* Rosetta & Balboa - Project Mercury
* Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
* Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero
* Regurgitator - Love And Paranoia
* Arch Enemy - Rise Of The Tyrant
* Daysend - The Warning
* Skinny Puppy - Mythmaker
* 65daysofstatic - The Destruction Of Small Ideas

Just wanted to say a few more things. It's sad to see Ministry go out, been consistenly good for almost 2 decades, The Last Sucker was a fitting end to their recording career. Good to see NIN release something different and while it may not have pleased many hardcore fans, it's good to see Trent try something new. A Nick Oliveri-less QOTSA showed it could still rock, while Billy Corgan didn't quite match it for the Smashing Pumpkins reunion record. Baroness tried to copy Leviathan if it were mixed with a little Neurosis while The Ocean did a better job of staying on the forefront of what is great with modern metal. In terms of Australian music, Regurgitator released their most consistent album in a decade while Alchemist and Daysend showed that the metal scene here is alive and kicking. Radiohead captured the media's imagination with it's gimmicky fight against piracy while capturing Pitchfork's love of the band. Punk died a little more on the inside with Bad Religion's new release, though Strung Out did it's best to try something different. Marilyn Manson has faded into obscurity as his shock rock tactics grow weary and all musicians around him work on other material. And still no democracy in china...

Next year sure is shaping up to follow the spectacular. New Meshuggah, Opeth, Nevermore, The Mars Volta and Cog to name just a few I'm excited about, plus there is sure to be countless others and the second half of Year Zero. Something to look forward to in the new year I suppose.

The Gigs Of '07
2007 was my busiest year for live music ever, 12 live shows and 3 music festivals, it's left me worn out and my credit card maxed out. Still a lot of fun though.

Top 10 Sets
1. Nine Inch Nails (Hordern Pavilion, 16/09)
2. Tool (Sydney Entertainment Centre, 24/01)
3. Nine Inch Nails (Luna Park Big Top, 15/09)
4. Muse (Gold Coast Big Day Out, 21/01)
5. Slayer (Thebarton Theatre, 15/04)
6. The Cure (Sydney Entertainment Centre, 10/08)
7. Isis (The Metro, 03/02)
8. Bad Religion (Hordern Pavilion, 07/11)
9. Cog (Greenroom, 27/11)
10. These Arms Are Snakes (The Metro, 03/02)

Honourable mentions
* Kasabian (Gold Coast Big Day Out, 21/01)
* The Killers (Gold Coast Big Day Out, 21/01)
* NoFX (Manning Bar, 17/02)
* The Bronx (Greenroom, 28/02)
* Mastodon
(Thebarton Theatre, 15/04)
* Regular John (Come Together Festival, 10/06)
* Mammal
(Come Together Festival, 10/06)
* Shihad
(Come Together Festival, 10/06)
* Alchemist (Bar Broadway, 17/08)
* New Pants (Greenroom, 05/10)

Next year I already have 6 gigs lined up, including the prize scalps of Rage Against The Machine and Dream Theater. I've been waiting to see RATM since I was 14, so the teenager in me is going into overdrive. The Big Day Out line-up is great though I can foresee many clashes. And with Tool, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Coheed & Cambria all rumoured for tours within the next six months and a Rosetta tour in June (so stoked they are playing Canberra) I'm already excited about the prospects, maybe even a Helmet show to these parts as well. Though finances will keep me away from V Fest unfortunately, though Smashing Pumpkins, QOTSA & Air are tempting me more than an open bottle of fortified wine.

It's been a great few years for music, and there still are plenty of albums I didn't probably check out due to time. I look forward to the next twelve months and can only wait in wonder to see what the music world can offer me*. Happy new year!

*a legal equivalent to Oink

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Merry Chrifsmas

Rejoice, for it's that time of year again, where everything winds down at the office but everything winds up at home. The time for personal reflection of the years past while frantically organising for that one day in late December where consumerism is mixed so seamlessly with tradition. The cricket is on television and a summer of music festivals is just around the corner. So what is this blog about? Well I want to explore the idea of Christmas and what it really means in our society, also I want to explore a bit of the year that was; at least through the filtered eyes from which I see. Mainly the 2007 election in Australia. Anyway, best get too it.

"Happy Holidays"

It's interesting listening to the debate about this, on one hand we have those who talk about Christmas being a celebration of Jesus and on the other hand being that Christmas is merely an extension of pagan celebrations. And in a way they are both right. Christmas is a tradition that is derived from other celebrations that follow the Winter Solstice. There is a reason for it being December 25th after all, and no that is in all probability not Jesus' birth date. There were many traditions kept from those pagan days that have been amalgamated into Christian folklore like gift giving. But the reason we celebrate Christmas here in Australia is almost exclusively because of our historical ties to England colonialism. Of course with the take-up of capitalism, the influx of multiculturalism and not to mention the localisation as is inevitable with any tradition, which brings me to my point: traditions change.

It seems that in an effort to make society a more hospitable for everyone, there is a push to refrain from calling it Christmas, instead using the generic term "holidays". Personally I don't see the point to this, yes it's a more encompassing term, and yes it still probably does reflect all that encompasses what Christmas has come to be, but there is really no use for it. All you do is piss off the traditionalists and give ammunition to those deluded fools who thing there is a war being waged on Christianity. Not one of those real wars, but a phoney one to confirm in their minds how dangerous secularism is. Christian persecution complex at it's finest. The truth is, the label in the end is quite irrelevant. Of course churches are going to push their message about Jesus, people are going to claim that it's a Christian holiday and we are going to be inundated with the same crappy carols as we frantically push through crowds to find gifts that will probably go unappreciated. The point is that really Christmas is only a label, and it is a label entrenched into society so there is really no point in changing it, the term itself has expanded to be encompassing of multiculturalism.

The War On Semantics
A few years ago I was boarding while going to university. One of the people I lived with was probably the closest thing we have to a Fundamentalist Christian in Australia. He complained that people who aren't Christian shouldn't be allowed to celebrate Easter or Christmas, they are just taking advantage of Christian tradition as an excuse to have days off work. While initially I dismissed it as the lunatic ravings of a broken man, it made me think about what Christmas and Easter really mean in these cultures. So now, I think it was the lunatic ravings of a broken man who couldn't separate religion from culture. And I think that in it's essence is the problem. Culturally we have come on in leaps and bounds, and the holiday has changed to reflect that. You're more likely to find a family at the beach having a BBQ in between a game of cricket and swimming than seeing them in silent prayer at a church. Throwing back a few beers and discussing how the Aussies will fare in the Boxing Day test with friends and family while the kids have toys is a much more fitting image than sitting around a table saying grace. But that is just the essence of what I am saying, the reality is very different from the idealist fantasy of respect. We don't need to change the label "Christmas" because Christmas changed for us.

Santa is a more central figure in Christmas preparations than Jesus. Walking through a busy crowded centre reaffirmed just that. Crosses were few and far between while there were children with "I *heart* Santa" shirts on. Being the salvation of mankind pales in comparison to being a fat man bearing toys, or Australia is a Godless country doomed to eternal damnation thanks to the greed of children... If I'm going to hell, I'm blaming that 6 year old girl ;) But to get serious again, Santa is pretty much the ultimate embodiment of Christmas. He transcends cultures, religions and countries. And even though an obese man wearing fur clothing is going to burn up in Australia, he is the perfect symbol for the interfaith multicultural holiday that Christmas is now.

There was a recent article in the times lashing out at Richard Dawkins that I found quite disturbing. It was just one long ad hominem blasting someone for actually taking part in the cultural side without believing in the spiritual side to Christianity, the absurdity can be summed up with the following quote

"But if you loudly and repeatedly make a career of denying any possibility at all of the reality of God, how honest is it to sing?"
It's a terrible way to try and undermine a persons point of view. Hypocrisy comes from doing something you preach against. Dawkins is a supporter of the cultural aspect of the Church, anyone who actually reads the God Delusion can see how Dawkins regards religion itself as an important part of our culture. Taking away the supernatural side and being upset at the child abuse and intolerance does not mean that it's all bad. Such an absolutist view, an all or nothing approach that really is trying to reinforce that Christmas is a Christian holiday rather than a cultural one.

In the end, Christmas means a different thing to everybody. For some, it's a celebration of the deity they attribute their life's worth too, for others it's an excuse to drink and spend time with mates. For me personally, it's a day I can spend with my family and just be content with life in general. The consumerism annoys me, though I do like to both give and receive gifts, but the less time spent pushing through crowds the better.

Ruddslide '07
The election result came as a significant but pleasant surprise. It's great to see Howard finally gone and I hope that Rudd can restore some of the international parity that was lost under the Howard years. Though that remains to be seen, but there is an encouraging start with the ratification of Kyoto and the beginning steps to apologising to the Indigenous population for past injustices. It's going to be an interesting ride over the next three years, my hope is that Rudd doesn't screw everything up.

The election itself was quite an interesting spectacle, after the crushing Labor received under Mark Latham, it was going to take a minor miracle for them to win. In the end, the victory was severe enough to force the Liberal party to change their policies when it comes to the environment and work choices, but not enough to restore balance in the senate. Come July 01, the Liberals will lose their majority, but the balance of power now either rests with bipartisan support or a combination of the Greens, Family First and an Independent. Pretty daunting and it will probably ensure that nothing radical will be able to get pushed into law. There is always the chance of a Double Dissolution if the senate is too hostile.

The one sad thing about the election result is the final death-call for the Democrats. I was a huge fan of this party, and it's sad to see a moderate influence on the senate cut away to nothing. It is sad to see voters abandon the party in droves, those on the left disenchanted by the introduction of the GST and those on the right who saw the in-fighting as far too destabilising. My hope is that people will realise what they are missing and the party makes a comeback in 2010, though it's more a fools hope than anything else. Democrats, you will be missed.

Howard's legacy is an interesting one, there is a healthy dose of xenophobia and racism in there. Workchoices and the Environment really hurt him, standing blindly behind the US as the globe warms wasn't the smartest choice, nor was taking away workers rights. But I want to take a moment and single out a few good things he did:
* Gun Control - The Port Arthur Massacre was a national tragedy, something that shocked a nation. And it was a Prime Minister just 6 weeks into the job who decided to place tough restrictions on gun control. It brought the ire of some, especially followers of his own party, but he stuck to it and now Australia has a strong gun control policy.
* East Timor - It was a great step in Australian diplomacy that we stepped into East Timor and ensured the peaceful transition to independence for the former Indonesian state.

Well I've kind of run out of steam and out of time if I want to get this posted before December 25th. So Merry Chrifsmas to all.