The year in music

It’s a little early for a year end round up, but this year I’ve found myself listening to a lot more recently-released music than I ever have in the past, and am therefore eager to write about it. Either great new music actually gets released every year and I’ve been living under a rock, or 2014 has been a particularly good year for new music. Whatever the case may be, below (in no particular order) is a list of my favorite albums from this year.

Chris Joss – Bimbo Satellite
Budos Band – Burnt Offering
Bill Frisell – Guitar in the Space Age
Robert Glasper – Black Radio 2 (released a year ago today…nonetheless this album is great)
Dr. John – Ske-Dat-De-Dat…The Spirit Of Satch
Gene Rains – Faraway Lands (CD reissue)
Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
José James – While You Were Sleeping
Beck – Morning Phase
Freddie Gibbs/Madlib – Piñata
War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
Stephen Malkmus – Wig Out At Jagbags
John Lurie National Orchestra – The Invention of Animals
Drive-by Truckers – English Oceans

Honorable mentions, or albums that I was excited about being released but haven’t listened to enough to justly put them on the above list:

Prince – Art Official Age
Aphex Twin – Syro
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – A Long Way To The Beginning
Robert Plant – Lullaby and The Ceaseless Roar
Brownout – Brown Sabbath
Nathan East – S/T


Semitic Prawns in the Bouillabaisse

“Vocals are for pussies” – Nietzsche

The Budos Band’s latest album, Burnt Offering, has familiar touchstones on display: strident horn charts, fuzzed out psych-funk guitar lines, and a driving rhythm section, but there is something different this time around. The album title is not Budos Band IV, and with good reason. The album offers something altogether more dark, mystical, occult, and outright psychedelic than their past work. The instrumentation is the same (horn section, organ, guitar, bass, drums), but they’ve made a stylistic shift into more psilocybin-laced territory.

Brownout is another band whose latest release, Brown Sabbath, is a stylistic shift, but the undercurrents leading towards the shift in tone have been present all along. A Latin funk outfit from Austin, their latest release is all classic Black Sabbath material. I’ve been spinning their 2009 effort Aguilas y Cobras often lately. Dig the track “Slinky”, which comes paired with clips from Sun Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place:

For both Budos Band and Brownout, though their musical chops are considerable, no one steps up front and takes a 10 minute solo. Songcraft is what drives these musicians to release albums together, and tight arrangements lasting 3-5 minutes seems to be par for the course for both bands. The basic musical substrate, funk, is played with reverence, with each band making it their version of funk (be it psychedelic- or latin-tinged). This is different from say Medeski, Martin, and Wood, whose postmodern take on funk makes it a more consciously cerebral ordeal.

Finally, I leave you with Eugene McDaniels, and his own brand of Marxist funk from the early 70s:

Adrian Belew

Late 1970s popular music was a bipolar era, with the decadence of the polished studio sounds of disco, jazz fusion, what we now call classic rock and album-oriented rock (viz Village People, ABBA, Al DiMeola, Steely Dan, select Frank Zappa, Blue Oyster Cult), and on the other the DIY ethos of punk and early new wave (viz The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Television). In spirit the two movements are the antithesis of one another, but those musicians who entertained a sort of musical doublethink are the ones who survived the era, and made the most lasting music.

The case in point is Adrian Belew. Discovered by Frank Zappa playing in a barroom in the Southeast, Belew was invited by Zappa to audition for his band, and toured with Zappa for about a year or so. Belew can be heard singing on the song “City of Tiny Lites”, recorded on the road circa 77 or 78. Zappa was a musician whose depth of musicality and breadth of influence was impressive: from the proto-punk albums of the late 60s with the Mother of Invention, to the genre-defining jazz fusion release “Hot Rats” in 1969, to the R-rated guitar-heavy pop rock and his own twisted style of progressive rock in the mid-70s. Zappa’s catholic approach to music resembles Belew’s — genre is the least of their concerns.

After his tour with Zappa wrapped up, he was invited by David Bowie, who had seen a performance of his with Zappa, to join his band. Bowie was another musical chameleon of the 70s. Starting off as an unworldly folk-singer-songwriter in the late 60s, then experimenting with blues-rock, glam-rock, soul, and disco in the mid 70s, he started to make insular art-rock in collaboration with ex-Roxy Music member and ambient pioneer Brian Eno in the late 70s. Bowie put out his “Berlin Trilogy”, so named because of where the albums were recorded. They reflect a paranoid, tension-filled state of mind, appropriate for the site and situation. Belew can be heard on the last album of the trilogy, “Lodger”.

Through Eno, Belew was invited to play on the Talking Heads 1980 release “Remain in Light”. The Talking Heads started out in the NYC punk scene, but made off kilter, subtly humorous music that had a nervous energy that wasn’t in step with the distorted, palm-muted power chords and constant-downstroke-strum of the bands typical of the scene. As their sound evolved, they started incorporating the polyrhythms of African musics into their sound, culminating in “Remain in Light”.

Another guitarist called in by Eno to play on “Remain in Light” was Robert Fripp, guitarist of the at-the-time defunct progressive rock band King Crimson. In keeping with the pattern of impressing any new musician he met enough to have them invite him to join their band, Belew not only impressed Fripp enough to have him join his band, but Fripp reformed his band in order to do it. King Crimson’s 1969 release “In the Court of the Crimson King” was a seminal progressive rock album, and Crimson continued to be at the cutting edge of avant-prog rock, incorporating modernist classical influences such as Bela Bartok and heavy distorted guitar riffs into their sound in the mid 70s. As a result, their following never expanded to a wider audience, but their albums such as “Red” and “Starless and Bible Black” were heavy influences on grungy, sludgy metal acts that became popular in the 90s such as Tool and Kyuss. Had either of these two mid 70s releases of Crimson’s come out twenty years later, they may well have received radio play and garnered Crimson a wider audience, considering the abrasive rock music that was topping the charts at that time.

However, the reformed 80s Crimson stands in sharp contrast to their earlier music. With the “Remain in Light” sessions fresh on their minds, Fripp and Belew decocted the polyrhytmic elements of the Heads’ sound and the minimalism popular in classical music at the time (Steve Reich, Phillip Glass) to make a unique trilogy of albums – 1981’s “Discipline”, 1982’s “Beat”, and 1984’s “Three of a Perfect Pair”.

During the early 80s Belew found some time to begin release solo material, on which he generally played all of the instruments. His first two albums had a country western influence, but later albums for the most part were straight ahead Beatlesque pop songs. This is a particularly catchy one from his 1989 album “Mr. Music Head”:

I record my life by console cycles

I stand in front of a coin-op tower.  Two glowing orange rectangles stare me in the eyes, their yawning slots demanding something I do not have.  At the age of four, I have yet to grasp the exact relationship between a quarter and 25 cents.  What I do understand is this; when a quarter goes in the slot, I can play a game.

Sean holds down square.  I hold a strategy guide splayed out across my lap to a two page map of the grim facilities beneath Racoon City.  This is the first time I’m able to enjoy a game without playing it.  Sean’s three grades ahead of me, my mother’s friend’s son—he’s a close friend I wouldn’t have otherwise; built for sports, budding with stubble, self assured, older.  If not for these awesome qualities, I likely would have demanded the controller for myself, certain that my fingers were better suited for the job.  Yet somehow this compulsion is absent, and not simply because he’s my senior.  For the first time a video game is more to me than just a challenge.  The zombies sound like zombies, the world looks real, and I’m too distracted to be bored.

I stand in front of a smudged display case that enshrines the Sony Playstion.  My family’s about to move.  It costs too much so I tell my mother there aren’t any good games for it anyways.

In front of the coin-op tower, I pretend to control the Ninja Turtles that blink around on its monitor.  My parents do not plan on handing out anymore quarters.  When Dad says it’s time to go, I cry.  I won’t let go of the joystick because I want to play some more.

My friend Eric offers exasperated advice beside me.  When the controller’s passed, I do the same.  We sit cross-legged playing Sega 20 inches away from the television at his house after school.  Both of us are nine years old.  As I inflict damage on pixelated baddies with a pixelated club, I hear Eric’s older sister behind me.  She runs a hand carelessly through my short cropped hair and asks what we’re playing.  At that moment it’s the most meaningful physical contact I’ve made with a member of the opposite sex.  Eric answers.  She’s long gone before I notice I’ve died.

We turn off of Dixwell Avenue into the blacktop expanse of the Hamden Plaza.  The darkened storefronts lining the strip are entirely un-noteworthy.  After parking among a cluster of cars in the otherwise empty lot, Jon, Sam and I emerge from Jon’s beat up blue-green Mazda into orange streetlight and noise unusual for the hour.  Our elongated shadows stretch from our feet towards the source of the commotion, an excited collaboration of speculative discussion, sporadic hollers, and peals of laughter.  Soon our own exchanges intermingle with the din.  We’ve come to gather our midnight copies of Halo 2, receipts in hand, senses heightened, on the lookout for shifty characters trying to cut in line; on the lookout for brief conversations with fellow enthusiasts who too are gathered to receive the sacrament of a tin case that costs only a few dollars more.  We’re here for the love of the game and when the collector’s edition is delivered in its flimsy Gamestop bag, I swallow my anticipation and say, ‘hell yes’ as we pile back into the Mazda and drive as fast as we can back to Jon’s for thirty scanty minutes of deathmatch on Ivory Tower.  It’s a school night and we shouldn’t have been out this late to begin with.

I lie in bed on my stomach, bolstering my chin in my small hands, my forearms shaping a pyramid, a copy of EGM open to where my pillow should be.  It’s far too late for me to be awake, but I work at a contest insert harder than I did my homework.  It’s a crossword or a scramble or both, and I contemplate the prizes more vigorously than the answers I scrawl into the little boxes that are supposed to reward me with them.  I picture myself pressing my eyes against the rubber rim of a shining new Virtual Boy, smelling gloriously of factory fresh plastic and dustless electronics.  I feel the controller in my hand disappear as I enter the freedom of true 3-d.  I navigate red vectors in my imagination.  Before too long I’m dreaming of it, asleep on the magazine.  I remember the dream the next morning, but when the sweepstakes sends a response to my entry, they ask for money to join the next round.

I cry in front of the Ninja Turtles coin-op because I want to play.  My father must have seen it like a plea for one more chapter before lights out or a few more minutes of catch even though dusk fell.  He whispers something to my mother, my sister in her arms, and then to me, ‘If you stop crying, I have a surprise for you.’

I sit cross-legged 20 inches away from the television in a living room I once shared with my old roommate.  Our friends are littered around us, drunk and smoking.  We play Smash TV, full of liquor and smoke ourselves.  He’s got my back and I have his, and through our own past discord, through on-screen kamikazes and bullet-hell, we mow down waves of baddies and have the sort of fun we had when we first met, shared this living room, and waxed nostalgic with all night sessions of UO and too much caffeine, before work and after school, when the only thing that mattered was the passing fun of electronic entertainment.

My father leads me by my hand into a Babbage’s in the same mall as the little arcade that housed the Ninja Turtles Coin-op.  The walls are lined by wire racks that blossom with heroic illustrations of every kind.  Just over the tile threshold that separates this place from sunglasses kiosks and lamp heated pretzels are animal-skinned barbarians on mythical beasts, battle ready spacemen with guns bigger than their legs, brightly colored cartoons designed to catch young eyes, and the technology to bring all these wonders to life.  My parents purchase a Sega Genesis, perhaps to reward my bad behavior, perhaps to encourage participation in interactive media, perhaps so they could play it themselves.  At first I’m not even entirely sure what’s in the box, but as sit cross-legged beside my father playing Altered Beast, I know my life is changed forever.

Raymond Scott

Raymond Scott is one of my favorite composers of the early-mid 20th century. He had a “jazz” band that recorded a number of songs for CBS radio broadcasts. I put jazz in quotations because improv is a defining characteristic of jazz music, but Scott “wrote” out all the parts to be played by his musicians, and only had limited sections for ad-libbing. Wrote is also in quotations because he would play the parts he had come up with on the piano, and the musicians would listen and play it on their instruments, so nothing was actually written down. Here is his “quintette” playing some zippy little numbers:


“War Dance for Wooden Indians”

You may recognize powerhouse from early Warner Bros cartoons and a couple of Ren and Stimpy episodes. Scott recorded these pieces in the late 30s and maybe early 40s, and the rights were then obtained by Warner Bros and appropriated by the music director for the cartoons, Carl Stalling. So Scott’s melodies have become hardwired in people’s brains after their extensive use in the cartoons. Scott did not compose any of the music specifically to be used in the cartoons, but the frantic rhythms and wacky horn parts were particularly well suited for the job. Incidentally, the drummer for his band was Johnny Williams, the father of film composer John Williams.

In addition, Scott was also a technology hound, and in the 50s created a number of electronic instruments which were really among the first synthesizers. With these he created some of the earliest examples of fully electronically produced music, and sounds decades ahead of its time. He apparently worked on a couple of these instruments and/or songs with a young Jim Henson.

Life imitates art?

In the bleary AM hours of February the 19th I fumbled through the sordid pages of Newgrounds to find a game to play. A bright and pixelated title called Tax Time caught my eye. After hitting start I was presented with some green grass, a blue sky, a can of gasoline on the left, an airplane on the right, and a little house in the middle. Huh.

So I began walking my crew-cutted avatar around this strange space. I picked up the can of gas. ‘Does it fuel the plane?’ I thought. ‘Nope. Apparently it’s for dousing the house.’ So doused I did, and when I finished a match appeared where the gas can sat before. It didn’t take me long to figure out what to do with that. The house went up in flames. White text appeared above. ‘That will show them!’ it said. I even got a Newgrounds medal for it. Burn Baby Burn.

With the house ablaze, the only thing left to do was enter the airplane. As it took off, a triumphant, almost blissful bit-tune replaced the more dissonant one that played before. I had no idea what I was doing in this plane. As it turned out I was headed for an IRS building, which I crashed into shortly. ‘Justice is Served’ it said in giant block letters over the ruins. Then a Prius I had flown over earlier crashed into the building too, just for good measure. A horn played a silly riff, I had a good laugh, and I went on looking for other, better games.

This morning when I got into work I grabbed a copy of the Times off the rack, as per usual. A photograph filled a good portion of the front page; in it a smoking pile of gory rubble was heaped along the charred face of a building. ‘One Man’s Act of Rage Against the I.R.S.’ read the caption. ‘A computer engineer flew a small plane Thursday into a building in Austin, Tex., where nearly 200 Internal Revenue Service employees worked.’ He did this after burning down his own home. Two people were badly injured and one person is still unaccounted for, not including the man who perpetrated the act, who is dead. I literally pulled a double take. Not so funny anymore.

(photo from New York Times)

Maybe I should chalk all this up to my own ignorance, but I find it astonishing that I played a game about a major event before it had even been written about in the papers. As I played Tax Time I had no idea I was reenacting a desperate man’s act of domestic terrorism. And while I will say the game was done in poor taste or at least done too soon, I’m not going to beat myself up over laughing when I did—satire is satire. What I find most troubling—most confusing? interesting? bizarre?—is that we live in a day and age where we can hear news first by playing it out in a flash game on Newgrounds.

Free and Worth Every Penny – Issue 33

Replace ‘buttons’ with rude nomenclature and ‘make a game’ with ‘change a light bulb’ and you’ve got yourself an unfunny joke. If you leave bad jokes out of it all together, you’ve got yourself the theme for this week’s issue of Free and Worth Every Penny:

How many buttons does it take to make a game?

I don’t mean make it make it, of course. The people who made these games used a hell of a lot more than one button for that. I’m asking how many buttons we need. How much do we, as players, have to do to have fun?

According to the short list of games below, all we need to do is press a button.

One Button Bob, as the name might imply, is a one button game like the rest in the roundup; this one a translation of the platformer. You take on the role of an 8 bit adventurer in search of treasure in a moody castle that looks more like a cave once inside. The usual obstacles block your path: pits, dissolving platforms, marauding bats, etc. The trick is, all the platforming is handled by single clicks of the left mouse button. The game is broken up into a series of rooms, each with its own pitfalls and control convention. In some rooms Bob walks across a screen full of oncoming baddies; clicking the mouse throws a boomerang to dispatch them. Some rooms present Bob with platforms that need to be hopped across; holding down the mouse button charges up a jump. Try not to overshoot. There’s even a giant rolling stone, requisite for all good adventures, that is escaped by madly clicking as fast as possible. Considering the control limitations, the range of platforming actions reproduced are impressive. Most interestingly, the games scores you not by how many lives you lose or points you gain, but by how many times you click the mouse button. The fewer the better.

Play it here:

War and Peace: The One-Button Civilization is a strange bird. I’m not sure whether to call it a game or not, but I try to stay as far away from that argument as possible. I did play it, and I did draw enjoyment from it, so for all intents and purposes, game it is. I mention this because as much as it is game, it is also simulation. You’re presented with a low rez plot of land–woods, plains, mountains and all–and, just like in Civilization, it is your task to either conquer that land or to leave it all together for greener, more Alpha Centuari-y pastures. Except all this is boiled down to one button. You lead your civilization through the alternation of an analog philosophy, either war or peace. When you select war, you research war tech; peace, growth and culture. Your citizens act in kind. Their autonomous actions correspond to your dictum. War, they take opposing cities. Peace, they build their own. Within two minutes the ‘game’ is over. It’s fun to watch a little history unfold before your eyes.

Download it here:

No discussion of one button games would be complete without the mention of Canabalt, the super slick black and white apocalyptic parkour game. Here the player is thrown into the shoes of a fleet footed dude, once again drawn in that classy bit style, who looks to me like a tiny Michael Jackson—I think it’s the white shoes. This character runs automatically and the player’s only input is when to jump. Timing is key. The wide pits, scattered office furniture and debris falling along the rooftops are nothing if not unforgiving. Run and jump as far as you can and share your high score. Plus, doves.

Play it here:

Some would call Canabalt the king of the one button game, and I suppose it is. But a new challenger appears, and the only reason I hesitate to crown it champion is because it is not, technically, a one button game. You see, Robot Unicorn Attack adds a whole new dimension to one button gaming—a second button OH MAN! Basically it’s Canabalt, but with robot unicorns, robot dolphins, fairies, rainbows and the best soundtrack ever. Your unicorn runs, you decide when to jump. The second button activates a dash move that destroys deadly stars strategically placed to screw you up, and can also save you in a pinch if your double jump wasn’t quite enough. Play this game. Be merry.

Play it here:…line-game.html

Originally posted on Immortal Machines.