Jason Rubenstein – New Metal From Old Boxes

Why isn’t progressive rock – full of the things we love like guitar or story-telling or actual virtuoso performances – more popular?  It’s not exactly clear why, at least not to me, but it could have something to do with the average person’s threshold for the level of rhythmic and melodic variation present in most prog-rock.  Some people need the simple comfort of straight four-to-the-floor beats, 120 beats per minute, guitar-bass-drums, done in under 5 minutes.  Oh, and no vocals?  No hit song for you.  Sometimes I need that too, frankly, but not all the time – not exclusively.

Other times I want dynamic music – I want some theatricality, or mathematical brilliance, or spiritual elucidation.  Modern rock and most metal out there can be compared with the tea-cup ride at Disney Land – you stay on a fairly even plane, rising and lowering but a little.  Prog-rock, on the other hand, has the capacity to grow into the biggest and meanest roller coaster it wants to be.  Progressive rock is, quite often, free from convention; less restrained by the wants and needs of disc jockeys and car commercials.

The logical conclusion here is that prog-rock can easily incorporate the rage of metal without bowing to metal’s clownish ham-fistedness or unrewardingly abrasive tack or tough-guy image.  Prog-rock can be angry and sometimes even violent.  Even without vocals!  France’s legendary prog-rock group Magma provided such a stark contrast to other feel-good hippy progressive rock of the time with its bite and militant propulsion that filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky selected them to write music for the bad guy Harkonnens against Pink Floyd’s heroic House Atreides in his unrealized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  It can also be said, with healthy certainty, that King Crimson’s song “Level Five” is still one of the most hardcore, screaming, dark, and ass-kicking-est pieces of Western music to have been conceived of in the last thirty years.

Now what?  Now, Jason Rubenstein.  He may have his own storied history of making music over the years, but “New Metal From Old Boxes” is a break-through – to my ears, anyway.  As I have described it elsewhere, this album is replete with an articulate viciousness.  This is not an over-the-top mad-dash for the loudest, most obnoxious noise – but rather a calculated aural assault with something to say (clearly, with perfect annunciation) before it bashes your head in.

How do you accomplish something like that without appearing silly or contrived?  Well, you have to truly shock the listener – and if you can’t do that with your image, like Marilyn Manson (for a time) or Alice Cooper before him, you have to do it with your sound.  The next issue, then, is how does one achieve that?  With strange, alien noises made from unidentifiable instruments?  It’s been done to death (thanks alot, Mr. Fripp, Mr. Belew.)  To be fair, we all (myself included) love to believe it’s all been done before.  So why did I find this album so shocking?

First, the piano is very prominent.  That, in and of itself, is no innovation – but its application here is really quite striking as it pounds out heavy, simple phrases before splintering off into a million wild, little tangents.  Take, for example, “The Contemplation Of The Cosmologer.”  As an opening track, it establishes some of the ground rules for this new and expansive universe we’ve stepped into.  Hit ‘play’ and right off the bat the drums, guitar, and piano blast a winding, marching pattern that begins to transform slightly over time until an insane segue-way at one minute-three seconds, which launches us into a new space altogether: one with a distant, piercing synth pad hovering like a strange light in the sky.  The song shakes up again, revisiting the earlier groove but expanding it through added unison layers that give it a fiery texture.

The magic is that the backbone of the record is rooted in the use of clean, traditional instruments.  The guitars are not made to sound like deranged space orchestras, the organ and piano inhabiting a mostly “realistic space.”  And, with due respect to King Crimson – there’s no leaning on vocoder for seven minutes.  This is not to say that there are no unconventional sounds on this record, as evidenced by the reverse-bell intro to “Calculation and Walkaway.”  It is to say that the core of each song – the meat of each song – is raw and straightforward.  I would amend that by saying it has a raw clarity, rather than a lack of finesse.  “I know that’s a guitar, that’s a rock organ, that’s a piano, etc.”  There’s no head-pounding overboard compression to make things sound huge – that’s what the arrangement and its dynamics are for.

The musicianship is first-rate, precisely delivering the arrangements with expert confidence.  On this second track, we divide the first minute and forty-seconds between (seemingly) simplistic, vociferous, heavy (almost “metal”) phrase and a separate, compellingly discordant phrase at a quicker pace.  It’s easy to follow along, but challenging in its own way as I try to fill my head with imagery from the song.  It all leads into an extended breakdown gliding on ride cymbals and a low string synth pad following the bass.  The drums pick up pace, and a descending guitar line appears to the right… then a piano follows it to the left.  The song continues to build, smashing through each repetition of the phrase over a double-kick that really gives the song a dizzying, careening – yet oddly controlled – feeling; one that is palpable.

“The Set Up” surprises with it’s jazz piano interruption – keeping you on your toes and refreshing the rising action of the upward melody plodded out by overdriven organ, piano, and guitar.  The repetition in this song is particularly interesting to me, when at one minute and forty-eight there’s an elaborate, extended guitar solo.  Everything else begins to loop, as though trapping this free and wild thing inside of a cage.  This song continues with a pattern I’ve noticed regarding structure: these songs often come full circle and take you back to the beginning.

By track four, I’m wondering if the record is starting to lose steam.  However, midway through “The Blow Off” I realize things were only getting started.  The break at one minute-eighteen and subsequent hand percussion and low piano key has an amazing effect juxtaposed with the start of the song, paving the way for wailing, wounded guitars to weep counter melodies at each other.  We push through into another accelerating, ascending passage that spills out into a different time signature, wailing guitars returned, and a low, dark piano banging out jittery line before exploding into a fantastic, frantic, and utterly impeccable arpeggio.  This is the magic of progress music in general – the amazing and sometimes gorgeous stuff hidden deep within.  This is not low-hanging fruit, but it is the sweetest.

Now, while I’d love to talk about “Unspeakable Highways,” and how it has some of my favorite guitars on the record, awesome jazz piano where you least expect it, and exquisite retro synth solo that absolutely kills – I have to talk about my favorite song on the record, “A Burden Of Secrets.”  This is the longest cut off the album, and it’s fantastic.  It has a cascading, downward opening that resets itself and spills down through an intermingled trickling of guitar and piano, then the filter on an analog synth peaks up above the unison phrase right before a truly unusual, other-worldly sound cuts-in.   It gives the song a breath just prior to diving into a heavy, head-banging episode with a ghostly guitar solo looming overhead.

We track through one section after another, building momentum with each shift.  Then, at two minutes-forty seven, the storms clears and open jazz piano rings gently for a few measures… but it’s not long before the momentum resumes.  The abrupt transition at three minutes-forty six lets loose a dizzying burst of energetic piano that pleasantly reminds me of Mike Garson – and this leads us to my favorite room, elevated by a faint pad that gently lifts the pounding piano alongside the guitar as it takes off.  The song is full of confounding interruptions and bizarre tangents – but it’s all delivered with amazing clarity and timing.  This “montage” approach to musical progression is disjointed and a bit jarring, but also rife with brilliant moments that tie it all together and set this song apart in a big way.  This is a stunning musical experience; full of shock and awe and audible conviction.

“The Snowflake Defines The Weather” starts out with a fairly straight-forward rock beat – and you might mistakenly think this song won’t be near as mind-bending as the last.  In fact, it might be even crazier.  While less fragmented, the progression moves and gestates radically just the same.  The arpeggio at twenty-seven seconds is absolutely insane – individual notes in the sequence fluidly filled-in by – alternately – piano, organ and guitar.  Just… woah.  I had to play it back a few times to absorb the dense, rich sonic information contained in that moment.  Chills up the spine and everything.

“Frankenstein On The Red Line” is a delivery device for some righteous organs – nice and crunchy – but more importantly it serves up a killer minute and twenty-second analog synth solo that is so brilliantly out-of-control that it grinds the song to a halt and explodes into squelchy noise.  I wanted to dislike this song because of the title (for reasons unknown to even me) but that desire was untenable.  This song is truly awesome.

And while I enjoyed “The Steppes of Sighs” parts one and two and “The Barbarian,” it’s a span of the album I’d rather you discover yourself without preconceptions, lest I wring-out every bit of magic through my analysis or heap more redundant praise onto this review.  That being said, “New Metal From Old Boxes” deserves to be mentioned.  It is, I think, my second-favorite track on the album.  Since it is the title track, I look at it as somehow being representative as a statement of the album as a whole: perhaps this is the culmination or the logical extreme of the jagged, angular, dark, textural world we’ve encountered various corners of thus far.

In a way, it’s very different from the other songs – and for all of their similarities, each individual song does manage to bring a new dimension to the record…which is obviously what keeps it interesting.  And yet this song in particular begins with a metallic phase that immediately establishes a new tone, and the dark, low striking of a piano emerges from underneath a low-pass filter, bubbling up to the surface.

The song proceeds to rock, as you might expect it too, but considering it’s the second-longest track on the album this all feels a little more monotone and reserved than “A Burden of Secrets” did.  And I like that, because the record has demonstrated it’s boundless energy and capacity for doom and destruction and even elation – every high and low you could conceive of – it hasn’t quite hit on a balance the way the title track does.  For me, it’s partially assisted by the atmospheric bits and pieces at the beginning, middle, and end of the song – threaded through the fray like evanescent moments of reflection.  Beyond that, it’s this ability to conjure up specific moods using the same basic tools (and few effects or oddities) from song to song that truly surprises – how vastly different this song feels from the others, despite sharing a similar genetic code.

Maybe prog-rock is dead, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it lives on in the people who seek it out, and those who continue to explore its infinite reaches.  One thing I know for sure is that “New Metal From Old Boxes” stakes-out at new territory despite what it may owe to the past and the pilgrimage made by bands like King Crimson – it is definitely a new beast altogether, with different values and an undeniable vitality.

As a Millennial, I know instinctively that this is music shaped by an earlier generation, owing to a pre-existing (and perhaps fading) mind-set – one that requires the audience to engage the sound and engage it for longer than three and a half minutes.  This isn’t background music (unless you live alone or your co-habitants are as badass as you are) and it isn’t particularly relaxing… or all-that uplifting… but it is incredible nonetheless.  Majestic, really.  Even with the assistance of modern technology, this was a massive and convoluted undertaking that showcases, above all, a hyper-literate musical imagination with soul.  For all of it’s cruel, shadowy math – this album is also incredibly human.  We, as a species, should be proud.

1.1 Immermann – Extra Knusprig

There are, in essence, two kinds of record I like.  The first, and most pervasive in my library, is the category of music that reflects my personal taste most closely.  I’m talking about music that, right away, speaks to me and my own tastes or values.  These are bands and albums that go right to the heart of me, resonating off of an internal architecture that seems to anticipate the sound.  Those records are also, often times, boring to discuss at length.

The second category of music I like is one I do enjoy discussing.  It’s music that challenges my mind and pokes holes in the comfortable world I would have otherwise built for myself purely out of music that placated my personality or patronized my self-image (it’s not the 90’s anymore, and for good reason.)  Extra Knusprig – the second album from Adelaide, Australia’s 1.1 Immermann – is a record that, for me, pushes beyond the familiar (or perhaps shows you what lies just on the other side).  It’s inventive, surprising, confident, and coherent.  I felt my mind expanding and changing a little as I listened.

At every stop along the way, 1.1 Immermann’s guitars are tidy, diligent, and meticulous.  The bass guitar is fluid, roving and fearless.  The use of effects and synthesizers and samples are incredibly measured and tasteful; they are almost always in support of the arrangement and mood.  The drums are, in my view, the soul of the band.  They audibly guide the trajectory of each song.  The other players are so adept, however, that the drums don’t needless distract in their mission to drive progressions forward; everyone seems to keep pace just fine.

This is also an incredibly progressive band, one that would make both jazz and classic rock titans (like King Crimson) proud – but not for any sort of emulation or particular homage.  Make no mistake, 1.1 Immermann is on its own planet.  The record is chalk-full of unique, windy passages that sometimes lead you someplace unimaginably new and other times right back to where you started.  Between the album’s ‘segues’ – short, spirited grooves far more interesting than your standard album transition – Extra Knusprig’s real “songs” are elaborate journeys full of bright, exuberant imagination and relentless energy.

There’s natural, organic positivity that emits from the sound of the record overall.  While “Zebralion” starts out reflective and distant – gentle but insistent guitar strums over a test tone – the song suddenly “snaps out of it” with a lightning flash of synth percussion into a pleasant, if adamant, groove.  This is a record that likes to use its legs; it likes to wander down the street and see what’s up.  Of course, down around two minute-ten, the scene changes and night begins it’s slightly menacing descent.  Not thirty seconds later, the song shifts again.  This is not unlike lucid dreaming: the strange, magical environment and the conscious exploration of a fantasy – and when things get weird, you fly off to the next chapter.  By five minutes, the song has blossomed into a beautiful swirling, cascading feeling.  It’s riveting and intoxicating in its effect.

“The Conch” is my favorite song off the record.  Deceptive and sly, it kicks off with a straight beat – but within a matter of bars, there are stutters and stabs impelling the “simplistic” groove to mutate gradually.  The switch-ups are flawless: the execution of their ideas is just as impressive as the ideas themselves are.   There’s impeccable musical timing to the record throughout; it knows just what to say and when to say it.  The song continues to expand with logical expansions, purposeful flourishes, and eventually some pretty wild tangents.  The guitar solo at two minutes-fifty is expertly restrained, beginning choked and intermittent before filling in more and more, and then diving into some serious math with the band.  And when three minutes-fifty rolls around, I have a sense of how I arrived at this place, but the destination is still somehow totally unexpected.

“The Big Squeeze” is also a standout track on the record.  It is perhaps the most cinematic of all the songs, evincing the band’s ability to establish and maintain a thick, unbreakable mood.  There’s a sense of intrigue and shadow, but not “darkness” or grimness.  The band appears incapable of moping around or exhausting their inherent drive.

The production of this record – the mixing and editing – does a superb job of drawing the listener’s attention to all elements in an organized way, maintaining an emotion and keeping the humanity of the record intact.  The mix manages to show off the texture of each instrument or synth patch or sample, and not just the melodic content.  It is suitable that a record with such innovative arrangements should have an innovative mix, as well.  “The Hate Camel” is a great of example of this, and of all the songs this one takes the most playful approach to the use of samples with an audience applause recording cut into the hypnotic acceleration of the song at the three minute-forty-five mark.  It has a strange effect on the ear, to be sure, but this band thrives on strangeness and newness.

The fourth and last segue is also an example of the mix showing you different sides of a track, taking a pleasant, if standard, groove and then abruptly shifting the instruments off to the side and into the corner for a vocal harmony to appear.  Simple, bizarre, smart.

“En” is built on a series of complicated grooves, as opposed to the wider and more gradual progression of “The Conch” or “The Big Squeeze.”  It’s harder to follow, frankly, but extremely rewarding.  There are a dozen singular and compelling moments throughout the song, each with its own distinct tone and feel.  The tape cassette sample at three minutes isn’t just a sample: they drop a single phrase of the song into this diegetic moment and then leap right back out of it.  It’s a fun experiment, but if it hadn’t been executed as smoothly it would have been a bit irritating.

“Samizdat” does a fair job of representing my overall impression of this record.  This song, like the record, is a detailed exploration of rhythm and dynamics; of melody and strategic dissonance; of imagination and technical proficiency.  It’s scary that this much imagination has found such a reliable set of hands to communicate such complex and stirring ideas.  More importantly, they have taken chances and have endeavored to show the listener something new.  They have succeeded.

For myself, I have struggled and ultimately failed to find anything about this record I don’t like.  But considering 1.1 Immermann have a stronger sonic palette than Radiohead, the same boldness of The Bad Plus, an imagination that matches (and in some ways exceeds) McDonald and Giles, and a technical proficiency beyond any band remotely in the same class or particular strata of genres (Battles sounds boring and childish in comparison) – I can’t say I’m surprised.  Extra Knusprig is a wonderful and exotic experience.

ACKER – EP 1

There are four people in a room.  There is a light and there are shadows, too.  Everything that happens next is almost supernatural in its steely intensity, its grave conviction.  ACKER is a group of four people playing instruments together.  That’s all that EP 1 is, on the face of it.  What they have done with those instruments, however, is quite fantastic, unsettling, stirring, and dark as hell.

Music, popular and otherwise, has a broad range of darkness.  There is the kitschy darkness of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, or the earnest and substantial darkness of folk artist Damien Youth.  There’s also the explorative darkness of Einsturzende Neubauten and the spirit-decimating darkness of Red Death-era Diamanda Galas.

ACKER, on the other hand, has conjured their own unique darkness, taking the indie-rock intensity of bands like Trans Am with the focus and deliberateness of King Crimson — and an element that I think is, in part, critical to the identity of ACKER: its cello.  Or is that viola?  (Shit.)  I know almost nothing about stringed instruments, except to say I know what I like to hear.

How the cello interfaces with the plain, natural, and small sonic space these instruments inhabit evokes its own aesthetic which is both elegant and raw.  The cello sounds like it’s being played by a human being, tracked simply and with whatever feeling was available at the time to the player.  The sound of the band, as a whole, is honest and credible.  Any liberties taken with the mix, editing, use of effects or otherwise are tasteful and driven at a feeling, not for novelty.  For all the careening guitar and washy drums, there’s a solid strategy between each instrument, from one passage to the next.

Throughout this 5-track, 20 minute record, the guitars are tasteful and supportive: there’s no ego.  The guitars are accountable to the arrangement, not master of it.  They provide support to melody, they swell in unison with the band, and they are played both with deep consideration and ferocity.  I don’t usually give a damn about guitars.  That being said, I find ACKER’s guitars impressive in that they have made themselves indispensible to each arrangement by serving them with the utmost loyalty.  With a sound as nuanced and purposeful as ACKER’s, it would have been all too easy to bulldoze the shit out of certain passages.

However, if you were to judge this band by the first 42 seconds of “Trinidad,” it would be hard to know what to think.  The guitar is a little sloppy, the cello a bit pitchy, the drums fighting to establish tempo.  This looseness is, as you begin to wade further into the record, part of the feeling and are not a detractor.  This is the combined personality of the band; four people who are not going to pretend to be the same person with the same ideas and the same exact sense of timing.  And it’s not sloppiness, either.  It is what it sounds like: working this feeling out in a room, just us.  As the progression continues, and the sound opens up, you will begin to get it.  This stuff is beautiful, and articulate – and huge, in it’s own microcosmic way.

By the time you arrive at “Trinidad’s” lull around the minute-thirty mark, the cello plucks out a careful and intriguing sequence.  Building the song from that point is a lesson in flying, because at three minutes thirty the track begins to soar.  I’m 12 years old, riding my bike through fall leaves, pissed off at someone – wanting some sense of freedom.  My feelings are real; the memory is powerful, if fragmented.  Whether ACKER meant to or not, they led me there.

“Norilsk” is far more aggressive, and better shows off the progressive abilities of the band.  Polyrhythms and mathy-phrases line a path extending into the horizon.  Everything is in flux, drums gently ushering the band along one side-street and down another.  At three minutes-twenty, a ghostly reverberation of the guitar gathers in the distance, a brief glimpse at something awesome in its scope and effect.

“~” follows, a bit of soundscape on the heels of “Norilsk” and its insistent march forward.  It’s a lovely, if cold place to float before diving into the fiery narrative of “The Mid-Atlantic Waste.”  Thus far, the band has demonstrated an ability for evoking feelings of fear, sadness, rage, reflection.  “Waste” is panic.  I see someone lost and confused, thrown this way and that while the circumstances of life supersede individual choice and free will.  The guitar “solo” at a minute-thirty is not standard or forced; it feels like a necessary expression of pain – necessary to tell this story, whatever that may be.  This band can rock, too.  They make a great noise, building a mountain of thrash to two minutes-forty and then expertly reverting to the song’s initial size.

In the end, “Vrangelya” begins appropriately with a solemn and contemplative vibe, bells ringing through a vast darkness; memories trying to break through.  There is somewhat of a sonic similarity with King Crimson’s Islands record.  I can feel the ocean behind this track and others.  Great, sweeping waves and dull, grey skies.  This dark and lonely world.  Too much time spent in my own head.  Regrets brush past, sting like nettles.  She and I, waltzing beneath the tress.  Suddenly, it’s the three minute-forty-five mark, and I’m pouring over old pages; yellowed leaves falling out of one journal after another onto the dust-coated floor of an abandoned library.  Scouring, desperately.  Her picture.  I can see her face, in my head, but it’s fading.  What is that memory?  Is it mine or someone else’s?  A light.  Slowly, my iris expands; I begin to see.  The way the song lifts itself and rises up into the sky at the five minute-ten second mark is the most satisfying moment on this record.  And it just keeps going, right into the sun, to burn.  To extinguish itself.

Instrumental music is dangerous.  Without a voice and lyrics, bands run the risk of having their music heard and interpreted in a way that was not intended.  This can get out of control: the record can take on a life of it’s own, each note and beat communicating false messages feeding one big lie.  People are going to hear this record in their own way, and believe their own lies about.  But I love that, really.  I love my own experience of this record – what it does to my mind – as much as I enjoy the record itself.  ACKER, and it’s four members, will never know of the immense and eternal mental empires they have helped to build.

It makes me mad that this band and this record are not better, or more widely, known.