On Profound Guitar Playing

61s4PKrsj+L._SY300_

At the age of 13 I received my first musical instrument. I had decided I wanted to start with bass, mostly because I had several friends who played guitar and I knew that we needed to start building a rhythm section. We didn’t have the cash for formal lessons, indeed my bass itself was quite modest, so I decided to teach myself how to play. When I was in college, I decided it was time to invest in a guitar, as it was clear that I would never be part of a band. Transferring between instruments wasn’t fundamentally challenging, but incorporating bass techniques had some interesting results. My real interest in alternative playing techniques came when I was booking concerts for my university, and I was able to interact with a number of talented guitar players. My friend Jordan suggested I watch the following video, and it changed my philosophy toward music forever:

After seeing Kaki King’s video for “Playing with Pink Noise,” I went on a spree, picking up her current albums and tracking down every live performance I could find. I spent hours studying her percussive style, trying to emulate it, and experimenting with alternate tunings. Her debut album, Everybody Loves You, was nothing short of revolutionary. While she was certainly not the first to incorporate fanning, tapping, or even using the guitar as a percussive device, she is still a pioneer in musical expression.  The ways in which she blends these styles into a cohesive musical narrative is mind-blowing. The album incorporates rhythms reminiscent of jazz and  blues classics, while maintaining an acoustic purity that is absolutely sublime. 

While trying to get friends to listen to the album, I came across the constant criticism that the album “just sounds like noise.” I came to understand where this came from, as there is a quality of her playing style that can only be appreciated when one is familiarized with the challenges of guitar playing, and the wide array of techniques and history behind it. King herself seems aware of this perspective, as her intense style is offset in the album by more traditional sounding riffs. She incorporates fun, poppy tracks that would certainly have garnered her a number of tapping feet during her days in the New York subways.

If you happen to make the time for Everybody Loves You, pay special attention to “Steamed Juicy Little Bun,” “Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine,” and “Close your Eyes and you’ll Burst into Flames.” These stand out tracks are characteristic of her range, incorporating the intensity that she has become noted for, as well as providing some upbeat tones and tempos that will have you skipping as you walk, if you get caught up in the moment. Unquestionably, her particular style and the sheer rawness of her debut album are not attractive to every listener, but with her recent acclaim, it is most certainly worth the effort to listen to her earliest works.

Advertisements

Relic Radiation: Prog Rock, Still Progressing

Relic Radiation – Prog-Rock from New Jersey? Sign me up. This trio linked me to their page on ReverbNation and I was stoked to give it a listen. I’m a fan of East Coast bands, and the genre has had me hooked for the better part of a two decades.

Relic Radiation’s demo features the sort of articulate guitars and ethereal rhythms one expects from the progressive label, feeling at times a combination of classic rock with the charm of Christmas. The actual progression in the demo’s tracks is still developing, as the band segues between modes rather abruptly, but the intent is clear: Relic Radiation is keen on making music.

As the band ramps up their intensity, and sampling, the guitars speak for them. The leads still carry a distinction amid fast, palm-muted riffs. The samples themselves tend to act as a lead in for the instrument work, but still adds to the overall ambiance, meshing well with the frenetic tones and grinding backgrounds.

The album is short on vocals, but big on sounds, which can both drag down the album’s cohesion, but allows for its musicality to remain at the forefront. The same can be said of the drum’s presence, as a more percussive rhythm would add the necessary backbone to the tracks that will give them some punch, and really tie it all together.

As far as demos go, it’s pretty clear that Relic Radiation is a band that is still growing, together and individually. These musicians are passionate about their creations, there’s no questioning that. When their passions fully align with their goals, cohesion will take them to new heights, both in popularity and in content. For the time being, support the work they have constructed to date, and be a part of their growth. You will have the uber-privilage of saying, “I listened to them back when their demo had just been released.”

I’ll have a sample available, once I’ve mastered the ReverbNation Widget configuration. Until then, check the band out on twitter @relic_radiation

JJXO – Split Lip Serenade

I recently had the pleasure of being contacted by the members of JJXO, who linked me to their site on http://jjxo.bandcamp.com/ where the album may be streamed for free, or purchased at a price the listener desires. It’s a novel idea for a novel band.

Members Jeremy Haffner and Stephen Cohen produced some well coordinated synth-rock, featuring unique vocals unaffected by auto-tune, but certainly carrying the effects of the New Wave movement. The result is simultaneously disorienting, yet easily familiar. The opening track, “On the Leash,” combines punk rhythms  with sexualized lyrics reminiscent of a dominant/submissive relationship. The Leash, as it is referred, seems just as suggestive as you might think.The theme carries over into “Too Much,” which echoes of an unhealthy, one-sided relationship. This track tones down the beat-driven tempo of the opener, but maintains a pop-quality that would ensure its placement in a primetime playlist, as perhaps the album’s most catchy tune.

The album’s strongest quality is its inherent familiarity. While it is an avant-garde collection of well-produced rhythms and vocals, it does not stray so far into the experimental as to distract from its overall enjoyability. “Grind” seems at place in a dark nightclub, perhaps the setting for some tryst that would precede some noir adventure. I try not to undermine the efforts of a group by comparing it to another, but there are distinct hints of influence present in Split Lip Serenade, culminating in the latter half of the six-track production. Overall, the album’s primary weakness is also a strength for it, in that it is not exceedingly edgy, but rather, is incredibly welcoming. JJXO will do well in the background of an intimate gathering or over your car stereo, provided you aren’t a fan of sub-woofers. I hope to be hearing them on popular playlists by the fall. So, do yourself a favor, check out the link, enjoy yourself, and contribute to their success by purchasing Split Lip Serenade. 

Follow them on twitter: @jjxoband

In Memoriam

511VbUVNgnL._SL500_AA280_

This year saw the passing of one of my all-time favorite bass players, Chi Cheng, of Deftones. As a teenager, I did my best to emulate his consistent, yet distinct playing style. While considering the impact that he, and the band, has had on my life, I couldn’t help but think back to my favorite album. Around the Fur, as the title suggests, featured some hyper-sexualized lyrics, but also featured some unprecedented moves for the band.  This sophomore effort has some of the band’s strongest hooks, boldest experiments, and what is perhaps the most cohesive interplay between the their members, particularly with the addition of Frank Delgado.

Musically, this album was not their most advanced work, but they made bold moves in various aspects of their style, developing greatly in the years since Adrenaline. Delgado’s sampling added a depth to their sound that resonated throughout the records that have followed. Cheng’s deeper, more impactful style, paired with Abe Cunningham’s precision and experimentation, marked a distinct progression for the Deftones. Certainly, the albums titular track features one of the most memorable drum intros of the decade. Despite the band’s growth, Around the Fur wouldn’t be certified platinum until 2011, but it would certainly mark an incredible point of progression for everyone, especially Chino Moreno.

 

During Adrenaline, I appreciated Moreno’s vocal intensity. Only in recent years, and after several more albums, and numerous bouts with throat cancer, have I come to appreciate his true ability as a vocalist. He has a genuine strength in range, which can be seen as a masterful display in later albums, but to witness its growth in  Around the Fur is nothing short of inspiring. Truly, the best example of this burgeoning strength is in the breakout track “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away).” This track showcases not only his range, but the very ethereal dynamic that would characterize the band in the years following. Over these past decades, Deftones have grown into a unique musical experience, with a dedicated family of supporters and fans that have grown with them, and have felt their pain. Chi Cheng’s absence will always be felt, but his contribution to this incredible influence on the music world will always be undeniable.

Return to the Spiral

the-downward-spiral-cover-art

Perhaps the most significant contribution, to my life, that came from the soundtrack to The Crow was an introduction to Nine Inch Nails. And while I wouldn’t listen to Joy Division for some 10 more years, my exposure to “Dead Souls” started a fascination that would propel my musical tastes to this day. The Downward Spiral  introduced me to genre stylings, musical expression, and the sense of continuity that I had not experienced in my years listening to the radio.  During the angst of my teen years, I could listen to this CD and drift to a world where I ruled, where I was understood, and where I didn’t feel alone. And while my mind would wander to the dark, depressing places of adolescence, I found solace and hope in these tracks.

As a pioneer in the industrial genre, Trent Reznor forged a movement through his Nothing label, and this album was its leader. The machine-driven sounds of “Mr. Self Destruct,” “Ruiner,” and “Eraser” deconstructed the manufactured state of the world around me, exposing a system of gears and levers behind a facade of normalcy that gave me a sense of awareness. I was unique among the assembly-line factory that was, or is, Idaho. This awareness propelled in me a sense of quiet rebellion. This rebellion grew louder with my awareness, and during a time of public outcry against this and other artistic expressions, I felt as if I were a part of something greater than myself.

I went through no less than three copies of this album, between theft and destruction. My parents hated Trent Reznor with a fiery passion, but had the utmost respect for my choices – my friends, however, could not make such a boast. On more than one occasion, some album from our teenage years would find its way into a paper shredder. Seeing firsthand the censorship that we felt was being propagated by congress (ours was a grand purpose, wasn’t it?), we returned time and again to Nine Inch Nails with a restored respect for its passion. There was little that could stir us out of our collective lethargy, but this album inspired us, me especially.  The complete experience of this album was nothing short of cathartic.

There were unquestionably some breakout tracks from The Downward Spiral. Certainly “Closer” has left a lasting impression on most of us, regardless of how we may have felt about Nine Inch Nails then or now. “Hurt” had a resurgence in popularity, following Johnny Cash’s cover, prior to his death. But the real beauty of this album is in listening to it from start to finish. Tracks like “Heresy,” my personal favorite, and “A Warm Place” stand out as markers during its progression, setting and resetting the pace for the album. Its titular track effectively pulls the listener back into a dark stillness, before the album closes on its most somber track, returning to its thematic sense of self-destruction. Despite the sorrow in Reznor’s voice, and the somber lyrics, this album gave me a sense of hope. In listening, I belonged to something, and sometimes, for a teenager, there is nothing more important.