Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#7)

Have you ever wondered how the first blues song ever recorded sounds? Probably not, because if you did you'd have Googled it and found the answer pretty quickly. However, even if you did do that, you may not have had any context for how that song fit into blues history, so I'm going to give you a little bit of context now.

The origins of the blues are shrouded in mystery. That's a melodramatic way of saying that because of the oppressed and illiterate state of the genre's progenitors, there's really no concrete documentation of the earliest blues music. Music historians argue anywhere from the 1840s to the 1890s as the starting point of the style, with increasingly blurred lines in the early periods between the gospel and assorted traditional folk music that blues grew out of and blues itself. The term didn't come into use in print until the early years of the 20th century, when sheet music with "blues" in the song titles first emerged. Around that same time, anthropological documentation of black folk music in rural southern areas first began to take hold as an area of academic interest.

These early blues songs were primarily vocal, such that they could be sung while working. Largely improvised instrumentation worked its way into these songs, since proper musical instruments were often hard to come by for these individuals. Additionally, homemade versions of traditional African instruments were still prominent in those early years. Eventually a few standardized instruments, especially the guitar, settled into central roles in the music. Blues musicians had played guitars for years, but in the early part of the 20th century, blues singers still performed with a wildly mixed bag of other instrumentation as well.

With the Perry Bradford song "Crazy Blues," 1920 saw Mamie Smith become the first black singer to record a track. This recording, like most of the very earliest blues records, had a female vocalist backed by a jazz band with a prominent horn section. Largely, this was because the then-recent rise of New Orleans jazz had become something of a phenomenon, capturing the attention of white audiences to a degree previously unheard of in black music. These early recordings could easily be called jazz rather than blues, and it was not until the late 1920s that what we now recognize as the traditional blues sound began to find its way into recording studios. Nonetheless, this song stands out as an important milestone in blues history.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale

It's time for a quick beer review.

Today I tried a brown ale made by Tommyknocker Brewery from Colorado. Their "Maple Nut Brown" is a mellow ale that pours a rich, dark, slightly reddish brown with minimal head. It has a mild, rich, nutty flavor profile with a sweet aftertaste from the maple syrup used in the brewing process.

I'm not a big fan of overly hoppy beers. Thus, I'm happy with the fact that this brew has a modest 20 IBU, since there's enough substance to the malt that this low hop level leaves the overall flavor sitting comfortably on the sweet side of the scale. At a modest 4.5% ABV, there is also minimal alcoholic bite. The result is a very accessible, highly sessionable beer that likely won't appeal to those seeking strength and/or bitterness from a craft beer. This isn't likely to knock the socks off of any craft beer connoisseurs out there, but for the casual drinker who just wants something pleasantly flavored that they can enjoy with their friends, this is an excellent option.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Flames - Siren Charms

Oh boy...

Like many In Flames fans, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the band's more recent output. I actually came to know the band initially through Come Clarity  and worked backwards from there, so unlike some of their more old-school fans, I don't write off everything they released after 2000. I must say, though, that I do vastly prefer their older material. Additionally, I'm a firm believer that what little still existed of the band's core spirit walked out the door with Jesper Strömblad.

Now, I'd like to make it clear that I really want to like their new material. I have no problem with a band evolving over time, and I dont begrudge the current lineup their success. Some of you may recall that I actually had some positive things to say about their last release, though in retrospect that was mostly a product of the preview tracks I'd heard pushing the bar so low that I wound up being pleasantly surprised on my first full listen.

No such luck this time around. It would be easy to say that this is their new sound, so you know what to expect going in, and that's partly true. I'm willing to accept that Whoracle  isn't going to happen again: that's just not who the band are anymore, and that's fine. But even if I treat modern In Flames as a whole new band to be judged by a separate standard, this would still be the worst album they've ever released. At best, it's bland but basically tolerable. At its worst, it's so whiney and grating that I found myself actively hating several songs.

I could write an exhaustive essay on all the failings of this record and what I think the reasons are that the band has been reduced to producing this dreck, but in the end I just don't have the heart to extensively tear into a band that has given me so much listening pleasure for so many years. Instead I'm going to be happy for their success, wish them well on their journey, and go listen to something else.

Grade: D

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sólstafir - Ótta

Sólstafir are an Icelandic band who recently released their 5th full-length album, Ótta.

It's funny how something that annoys the shit out of me coming from one band can really appeal to me coming from a different source. Earlier this year I tore into the new Alcest record for being a dreary, boring piece of shit. Primarily, the band's continued push into shoegaze territory had, in my opinion, stripped them down to nothing but directionless jangling. Yet here I sit, listening to a one-time Viking metal band that has just produced a slow-paced post-metal album that leans almost as heavily on shoegaze as Alcest currently do, and I love it.

So am I just being erratic or hypocritical, simply because I (consciously or not) want to like Sólstafir better than Alcest? I won't deny the possibility, but I don't think that's what is going on in this case. Rather, there are some key differences between these albums that I think matter a hell of a lot more than the general stylistic shift toward post-metal.

First, Sólstafir haven't forgotten who they are. Tasteful splashes of acoustic folk instrumentation ranging from violin to what sounds like a bango still tie them back to their traditional roots. The Icelandic-language vocals establish that link even more firmly, demonstrating that while the band's general style has evolved, their soul remains uncompromised. To me, that is important.

Second, those vocals I just mentioned are delivered with such passion and sincerity that I can't help but feel drawn to them. The mystery of what he's actually saying only adds to the intrigue, causing the vocal performance to take on an almost mystical quality while remaining deeply human and sincerely compelling.

Third and finally, while Ótta  is a generally slow album, it still has energy and a sense of direction. The quiet passages feel beautiful and contemplative, and the music rises and falls, with active passages that build to crescendos before rolling back down into gentle valleys. The gorgeous piano plays perfectly into this flow, playing a truly vital roll rather than existing as window-dressing. It's okay that the music is mostly very mellow, because while Alcest was just quiet for a lack of anything to say, this is quiet because sometimes a soft word is the strongest. Music doesn't have to be heavy and aggressive to be engaging, as long as it's purposeful and passionate: a truth which this record demonstrates wonderfully.

I'm not totally convinced that this is really classifiable as metal rather than some form of alternative post-rock. Whatever you want to call it, though, I think it's wonderful.

Grade: A


Saturday, September 6, 2014

World Beard Day 2014

Today is World Beard Day. I'm at work, but I can hardly let such a holiday pass unnoticed on a blog with "Beards" in the title. Thus, I'll turn you over now to the capable hands of the ultimate authority in facial hair, The Beards!