Monday, 23 September 2013

Lasting Impact: Bill Hicks

The amazing, nearly prophetic, hypnotizing Bill Hicks. This great great man was born in 1961 and was died in 1994. I was 11 at the time and had never heard of him then, so it have a lot of impact on my life at that point. I mean Frank Zappa died the year before and that probably had even less affect on me and my daily living. Why do I bring this up? Well, one of the jokes/routines Bill used to do was when he talked about something happening a long time ago, and thus should be forgotten. And I get sick and tired of people saying "Before my time". That is no excuse to be ignorant.

The first time I ever came across Bill Hicks was when my older brother brought a couple of VHS tapes (Yes those) during one Christmas. For some reason the tapes didn't work properly, but the audio worked. And the message he was spreading was immense. He didn't really do stand-ups, he delivered sermons. If he had taken a job a as a vicar, that church would have been on the brink of world domination by now. He was a major influence in terms of philosophy, politics and life. He raged against organized religion, consumerism and any restrictions towards personal freedom. Sure he did have his conspiracy theories(well one of them), in the form of the JFK assassination. He was a big drug user, but quite very soon. But the stories he used to tell about his experience were great like this sketch:

His main problem with governments were attacks on personal freedom, The War on Drugs, Pro-Lifers, censorships against pornography... and the like. Freedom was his agenda. And not just his freedom. Everyone freedom. The freedom to do to your own body as you want. The freedom to live as you wish. Of course you can't have freedom if it restricts somebody else's freedom. But if you wish to do drugs, have sex, smoke, drink... whatever then you should be free do to so. If you want to burn a flag, then sure go ahead. That flag (the US one) does stand for freedom, including the freedom to burn the fucking flag. This video also applies to the Poppies that the Brits as so obsessed about.

The other thing about Bill Hicks that most people don't notice or know is that he was actually a very positive person. It might not always come across like that during his stand ups, but if you read the biography that his friend wrote, Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution and the book filled with his scripts Love All The People, you get a totally different picture. The first one sort of destroyed my brothers image of Bill Hicks as a uber skeptic who was the new messiah. How? Well it turns out that Bill was a big believer in nature, and would only take mushrooms during certain times of the month, in the grace of mother nature, with a week long preparation before embarking on his shroom trip at his friends land. But the upside of that was of course that we got great comic material like this one:

So... He didn't kill anyone. Didn't rob anyone. Didn't rape anyone. But then, why did he stop? Well in his words "once you've been taken aboard a UFO, it's kind of hard to top that".

But why am I writing about Bill Hicks since most of what I write about is music? Well, the answer my phantom questioner, is that he was also a guitar player. Not a great one, but a good one though. Best example of his musicianship is on Arizona Bay. For a man who would rail against popular music, if he had concentrated on his music instead of stand up he would have based his act on KISS. Of all bands I don't think there is a bigger commercial enterprise in the music business that knowingly will market anything to the masses. Probably even arsenic for babies. With a patent to follow it up. But he did treat is stand up act like a rock and roll show. I don't think there's any doubt that he would have made it as a musician.

His influence was very outreaching. Tool asked him to open their concerts during the Lollapalooza festival. Radiohead have sampled him. Tom Waits loves Rant in E-Minor.

As I said in a previous blog entry, Bill possibly had a bigger influence on my political leanings then any other figure I can mention(besides my parents). His values of freedom, social justice and equality, are still values that I hold very dearly and live my life by.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Bipolarism from Devin Townsend

Mister Devin Townsend is quite possibly the most inspirational, heart-warming, ludicrous, positive musician in the industry today. Don't believe me, just watch and listen to this video:

"Laugh. Love. Live. Learn."

Those are truly great words to live by, and Devin Townsend and his merry men(and woman) deliver them with great conviction and gusto. Devin, for those who do not know(How dare you?) has been around for years now. First coming onto the scene singing for Steve Vai's Sex & Religion, he also proved to be the gracing point of that album. Euggh. But hey, it was a starting point. Everyone needs a starting point... except maybe some teenage stars and Black Eyed Peas(vomit). After his collaboration with Steve Vai, he went onto founding Strapping Young Lad. A project to release all his catharsis, all his frustration on the music industry, all the anger towards life in general... oh and a solitary love song. But during his time with Strapping Young Lad, he started writing music that was more mellow, progressive and forward thinking. He did start out as more introverted, with Infinity, Ocean Machine and Accelerated Evolution.

Devin has one of the most versatile vocal chords in the music industry, as can be heard during his time as Strapping Young Lad, or as Agony in Ayreon's The Human Equation, channelling Elvis and when doing cheesy(Danish blue style) ballads. He's one of the very very few that sing with a falsetto and actually make it sound good. He is also a very very good guitar player, he's not fancy like his friend Steve Vai, but he can certainly make his guitar gently weep. And shriek. He doesn't to solo's very often, and when he does them they tend to be overwrought and over the top, but knowingly so. But he does use lots of pedal effects and arpeggios, and he seems to be able to keep things simple, whilst also making them sound complex.

The first time I ever came across Devin was when my brother recommended Ziltiod The Omniscient, which was Devin's first true solo album. I.e. meaning he did everything thing on that album, including programming the drums using EZdrummer program with Meshuggah's  sampled drumkit. While broadly speaking it's a comedy album, the music on there is pure gold. Best listened to when in a coffee shop, while drinking a tall latte.

His sense of musical humour also came out in Punky Bruster, another concept album about a punk band that decides to play death metal instead and finding finally success.

My personal favourite album by Devin Townsend is Biomech: Ocean Machine. It's an epic, sweeping, progressive album of Devin-sized proportions. My favourite song keeps on shifting, currently my favourite song is Funeral, though his best song that he's ever written is also on there.

But his best album is undoubtedly Accelerated Evolution, here he goes all 70's prog anthem rock on us. One of his many talents is that he manages to write songs that sounds like you've always known them and enjoyed them. He uses his nearly patented wall to wall music production, but without overloading your musical senses and everything is just HUGE on here.

The man oozes positivity. It's not like he hasn't had problems of his own. He has been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, which could explain his spurts of creativity along with the varying degrees of emotions he goes through. During his time as Strapping Young Lad, he decided to come of his medication in order to create a more extreme album, and it was an extreme album. But mainly on a technical level rather then on an angry level. In terms of output and level of genius, I would say that it wouldn't be unfair to compare him to Frank Zappa. I'm pretty sure that if Devin wanted to write a piece of classical music he'd do a fantastic one, probably on par with Jon Lord.

He has been taking a lot of beating for stopping Strapping Young Lad, and not reviving the project. But so far he's been adamant that it's not going to happen, the closest people got to it was when he covered 'Love?', which according to him is never going to happen again. And quite frankly I can understand him. Why try and revive a period of your life that you can't really connect with any more, the thing about SYL was that it was about raging against the machine(Ha!) when young, and at the time he might be have been genuine about that. But people grow up, change their points of view on life and just get on with it. Something that a lot of fans can't do. Which is kind of sad really.

Devin has also dabbled in making ambient albums(I hesitate using the word music here), having released two of those. Devlab and The Hummer.

After Ziltoid, Devin announced that he was finished with putting out music and wanted to concentrate on being a father and had more interest in being a music producer. Which is an area where he's also extremely talented. Having produced albums for Lamb of God, Himsa, GWAR, Soilwork and Stuck Mojo. Along with doing remix work for bands like Rammstein.

But since 2008 Devin has been busy with The Devin Townsend Project. A project that started out with only meaning to publish 4 albums, all hitting 4 different musical themes. Ki, being the mellow yet heavy hitting album, Addicted being the Abba/Ace of Base infused metal, Deconstruction a re-visitation of SYL and finally Ghost being the ambient album. Apparently that original plan was to just do those and leave it. Thankfully he has continued with it, touring pretty much consistently and constantly. Me being the unlucky person that I am have managed to miss 2 gigs of his when he's toured the UK. It seems like he's fallen a bit in love with the Ace of Base style of things, and to be fair I can understand why because Epicloud is an amazing album. With both Addicted and Epicloud, Devin has managed to make albums that are uplifting and positive. They are both great albums to listen to when you feel down, want to exercise or just want to remind yourself how good life actually is.

I know the way, and you know the way
We all fall down if we fear love

Friday, 13 September 2013

What is in that goulash in Hungary?

Ever since writing about Thy Catafalque, I've been dipping more into the music scene in Hungary. What I have found is a veritable melody treasure chest. Most of the ones I'll be talking about work in the Metal genre bar one. So I'll get this one out of the way right.

The Moon And The Nightspirit, is a folk project headed by Ágnes Tóth and Mihály Szabó. They play this mystical pagan traditional folk music and since the second album they've sung in Hungarian. The duet have been active since 2003. Up to now they've released 4 albums, 'Of Dreams Forgotten and Fables Untold', 'Regõ Rejtem' ( I conjure Magic), 'Ősforrás'(Ancient Sources) and Mohalepte (Moss). The music is filled with traditional musical instruments, along with all the standard folky ones(flute, drums, violin) and they do manage to create a magical universe (even though I have no idea what they are singing about), and not that fancy pancy universe with unicorns and ever healing nature. But the one that where while some creature are friendly there are also the monsters in the dark, there are songs full of desperation, songs full of joy and songs full of sadness and melancholia. All in all it seems like the songs represent the way nature actually is, an amoral being that doesn't care whether you live or die. The majority of the singing is done by Ágnes Tóth who has featured before on albums by Thy Catafalque, and have to admit that she has become one of my favourite folk singers out there outshining most stars like Candice Night. There's this refreshing and beautiful honesty in the way she carries tunes. Mihály Szabó does provide a nice bass full counter point to Ágnes Tóth fragile soprano vocals as well, by being the manly man in the forest clothed with leather loincloth. With every album they've been able to expand their sound, and have since added two more members to flesh out the sound. I for one can't wait to hear their next offering.

It would seem that every country need their version of Mr. Bungle, and the Hungarian one is Damned Spirits' Dance. First time I came across them was when I was browsing my favourite Music Labels webstore, Code666, and they had this odd band, with a rather stupid name. And their album cover didn't help either. And neither did the  album's name. Weird Constellations. But I got the album, and it nearly blew me away. Wow, as I said before these guys are the Hungarian Mr. Bungle, which is as good a compliment as I can give really. They've only released this one album, and an EP... oh and a demo. These guys started out as rather high brow melodic Black Metal, like so many other bands do. It does seem like to be the standard to start of as either Black Metal or Death Metal(In some rare cases, j-pop) before trying to go Unfortunately according to Metal Archives, these guys are now On Hold. Which is a real shame because I was really looking forward to the follow up, hopefully with slightly less ridiculous cover and album name.

This next band, are as far as I'm aware, the biggest metal band from Hungary (Someone correct me here please, if I'm wrong). At least the on that gets the most mentions. Sear Bliss, they play a form of atmospheric Black Metal, like no other. Which is probably a good thing because what they do include is brass instruments. And when you least expect it they breakdown into playing this big band brass section in their songs. I don't think any other band could actually get away with it, still sound coherent, melodic and atmospheric. They've been around now for 20 years and have been steadily releasing albums since, all with bassist/vocalist András Nagy at the helm. His vocal style does need getting used to, best probably described as Dani Filth with more testosterone. But it definitely fits the mood that he goes for. The other thing that is worthy to mention is his bass playing, which comes directly from Steve Harris school of thought and at times it sounds like he's playing a fretless one at that. In the last album 'Eternal Recurrence' there is a lot of harmonized singing to complement András ,ehemm, singing. What seems to connect the albums together as well is that it seems like their about this doomed Space Pirate Ship... Think Disney's Treasure Planet with more metal.

The other band I was going to write about was Dalriada. But to be honest I haven't listened to them enough to make an opinion, the only reason I know that they exist is because they somehow beat Thy Catafalque's Rengeteg to Best Metal Award in Hungary. So it wouldn't really be fair of me to do a write up until I've had a good listening session.The bits and pieces I have heard have got be me intrigued to say the least. Arkona springs to mind straight away.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Avant Garde madness of Thy Catafalque

Thy Catafalque. Ho, boy. Thy Catafalque is a one man project from Hungary, named Tamas Katai (or Katai Tamas, depending on where you live). He does all of the instrumentation and music programming(that I'm aware of anyway), with clean vocals being provided by Attila Bakos on both Rengeteg and Roka Hasa Radio. Janos Juhasz provides a  helping hand on the guitar front. Other stars of the Hungarian scene to guest on his albums, specifically Agnes Toth from The Moon and the Nightspirit. It should be noted that Tamas Katai also published an album under his own name called Erika Szobaja. Which is a brilliant folk-ambient album of extraordinary proportions. When I feel introspective, or slightly emotive or just want to put something light in the background that album is the one I go for. Then there's Gire, a very unusual death metal project where Tamas plays the keyboards and programming. 

The first time I became aware of it was when I was trawling through Metal Reviews, and at that point in my musical life I was very interested in the Avant Garde section of music. So I procured their album Roka Hasa Radio, and oh my was I taken away by it's sheer magnitude. There was a lot going on there, but at the same time it all seemed so simple. What was the most mind-blowing about the whole thing is how well put together it was, shifting and turning in every direction, yet there was always some kind of order to it all. The music is not avant garde for the sake of wanting to be different and sound out of place, it is avant garde because that is the only label that will suffice to describe the music that has been sprouted. Roka Hasa Radio, was probably the most original metal album I had listened to since, I started listening to Iron Maiden all those years ago.

In fact I would argue that Thy Catafalque is the most original metal project going at the moment. Being original is by no means a stamp of quality, because you can be original and still sound like shit. But Thy Catafalque is just pure original quality.

One of the things that I do love about this project is the fact that since Tuno, ido Tarlat the language of choice to sing in has been his native Hungarian. I tend to prefer it when bands sing in their native tongues, it's not a necessity but it adds to the flavour of the music.

Generally, the albums have their basis in Black Metal. But there's also quite a bit of dance element in there, especially in the rhythm section. Yet, in between you get this gorgeous folk in between flurry of black-techno-metal and lush ambience of nature calling (not in the urination sense). The songs tend to be long, very very long, but that's okay as well. Because they never stretch to the point of boring. Best examples of this are the songs Neath Waters from 'Tuno, Ido Tarlat' and Molekuláris gépezetek from 'Roka Hasa Radio'.

The latest album 'Rengeteg', is also just littered with great songs. It starts of with blistering heavy metal with 2011's greatest metal riff:

And from there it only gets better. I mean the whole song pretty much runs on just that one riff and some really really angry barking in the background to begin with. All that catharsis being vented on all fronts, but when he's exhausted the vocals he just drives home that riff like a tractor ripping through a barn when powered by nuclear waste. But that one riff is enough to carry the whole song, and while it shifts and turns like a snake in the background the riff itself just keeps on going and grinding and fascinating.

While there does always seemed to be a theme underlying all of the albums, I have not always been able to decipher those. The only guess I can stab at are that 'Tuno, Ido Tarlat' is aquatic in nature, Roka Hasa Radio seems to be urban and Rengeteg is like running in the forest. And they are all so original, all so fresh that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to anyone. Yes they do take a bit of time to get used to, but there is something for everyone to enjoy on these albums. And I can't wait for the future releases, especially when Tamas told me that the next album is going to have a lot of Erika Szobaja influenced moments and passages.