Archive for May, 2008

Rock 4 Rookies Podcast: Episode 15

Posted: May 25, 2008 by Maximum Mike in Rock 4 Rookies Podcast

Welcome back all ye who have been on a music hiatus. This is a very special 14th episode!!! Why is it so special? Its the first 14th episode!! Get ready to hear from Weezer, The Hippos, Free, and a grungetastic salute!

It’s okay to like Pop Music. Seriously. I have defended my favorite Pop artists to friends who thought their musical tastes too sophisticated. It is frustrating that people refuse to allow themselves to enjoy Pop Music simply because it is mass produced and trendy. Yes, there is a large cadre of artists who prove that point, who make music for the masses to consume without any thought as to what is behind it. At the same time there are artists who have found their creative voice in a style of music that happens to sell well. It takes tremendous luck to make it as a Pop Star, and it takes a Madonna/David Bowie-like ability to shift images with each new release, to stay on top. The point being that Pop Music, while seemingly focused on consumerism and brainlessness, has substance in it. It just needs to be teased out delicately because for every Depeche Mode there are a thousand Flock of Seagulls.

Pop Music is not a genre per-se; it is a type of music characterized by large sales and chart domination. Today the term includes Rap and R&B. It arose in the 50s and 60s as an alternative to Rock & Roll. Basing its style and structure on Rock, Pop was smoother and more listenable. The songs themselves were traditionally short, less than five minutes, and concentrated on the repetitive verse/chorus/bridge song structure. Famously eschewing their Progressive Rock roots and entering the Pop Music sphere, Genesis’ 1981 hit “ABACAB” was a take on this form. The song’s title refers to the basic Pop structure, part-a part-b part-a again and so on.To many this album signified the death of a truly great band, to others it signified their acceptance of the mainstream and showcased the band’s ability to reach out to a broader audience.Former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel used his freedom from the band to venture into his Pop dreams, crafting lighter, more focused, but equally imaginative music. People argue that when a band ascends the ladder of Stardom, they inevitably alienate their die-hard fans for an appreciation of a larger audience. This may be seen as the case with Genesis and its spin-off solo artists who all made names for themselves making Pop Music; one even won an Academy Award (Phil Collins – “You’ll be in my Heart – Tarzan.”) On the other hand, Blink-182 signed to a major label for their fourth album, and the music did not change a bit. It was better produced to be sure, but still retained the same adrenaline-filled teenage Punk that earned them their early acclaim. The minute they released “Enema of the State” in 1999 and entered the mainstream, all of my friends who were huge Punk fans decided that they could no longer support Blink-182, and threw away their copies of “Dude Ranch”.

It is the mass appeal and pervading digestibility that runs the music industry, and causes many music fans to turn away arguing that those who are popular now are less artistic than ever, only doing what industry executives dictate. A good example of this is The Offspring. Between their break-out record “Smash” to their follow up “Ixnay on the Hombre” the band moved from Epitaph Records to Columbia. That label switch also found their music change from Heavy Metal-influenced Hardcore Punk, to standard Hard Rock. Would the band that wrote songs like “Kick Him When He’s Down” and “Beheaded” have written a power ballad like “Gone Away” if they were still with Epitaph? Probably not.The term sell-out was written for times like this when artists turned their back on their past in order to presumably make more money. That is not to say that the opposite is not true. Famed 80’s band Talk Talk, who are remembered now mostly for the Gwen Stefani remake of their classic “It’s My Life”, started out riding on the tails of Duran Duran and the other New Romantics. (The term refers to a sleek, perfectly produced danceable type of Pop Music, combined with heavy make-up and fashionable stage garb.) After achieving a fair amount of success on their first two releases, Talk Talk reinvented themselves. By embracing Jazz, Ambient, and other music styles, they created a wholly unique sound that distanced them from their peers and began to alienate them from their record label.

The other side of selling-out is the number of acts who start as viable products and continue in that vein throughout their career. Take Brittany Spears, who can hardly be considered original, but can be credited (for better or worse) with bringing back Teen Pop in a big way. She was the first in the endless wave of Boy Bands and Pop Singers who sprang up around the turn of the century. Additionally, Creed became the driving force in late 90s Hard Rock, and they influenced a generation of imitators like Nickelback and Hinder who seemed to spring up one after another in an industry that will forget them as soon as their profit margins slip. This is not a knock on the artists themselves, but an industry that is only too eager to drain the artistry from the music. It was rapper Ice-T who said it best on his track “Hate the Playa”: “I don’t know why a player wanna hate T/ I didn’t choose the game, the game chose me”. We cannot fault the multitude of acts that all seem the same for trying to become rich and famous, but take Kelly Clarkson for example. A media darling with two platinum albums and two Grammy Awards, Kelly famously feuded with RCA head Clive Davis over the direction of her third album (My December, 2007), and as a result her label refused to promote it and cancelled her tour. (She is already working on follow up.)

There are plenty of artists who sell a lot of records and are truly talented individuals. Aside from the obvious Madonnas and Michael Jacksons, people seem to forget that for a while in the 80s George Michael was just as popular. It was not just the perfect dance pop he created with Wham!, his debut album “Faith” is a classic, blending Dance and R&B elements into a more adult sound. It’s smooth and listenable and shows how truly vocally talented Michael is. Recently, the band Keane became stars with a largely piano driven sound that shimmers with its maturity and poise.Depeche Mode have been making dark electronically driven Pop for nearly 25 years, and with their 2005 release “Playing the Angel” showed no signs of age in their abilities. Steve Winwood is still making great albums more than 25 years after his classic “Arc of a Diver.” There is so much beautiful music out there; it is a shame that people adamantly refuse to go out to find it.

What I am listening to: K.D. Lang – Absolute Torch and Twang

At the peak of her Nashville faze, Lang had found her voice in a decidedly more Pop oriented Country music. Her voice is supple and strong with just a hint of smoke, and it’s truly astonishing that such a sound can come from a person. It is a strong batch of songs and worth listening to if only for the voice, but the music stands on its own as well.

In the beginning….Maximum Mike proudly presents the first in a series of shows documenting the History of Rock. This week, the 50’s and the 60’s.

I knew the song “Closer”, but nothing could have prepared me for the opening track on Nine Inch Nails’ epic 1994 release “The Downward Spiral” where a man get shot to death. I was thirteen when I picked the album up and it scared the hell out of me. The violence, the intensity, the barrage of sounds and textures were a little more than I could handle. The truth is that I liked it because of its ability to instill the darkest fears in me. I would lie in bed listening to the album, shivering in my jammies even though it was the middle of summer. The music, if stripped of its lush aural soundscapes, would probably seem very straight forward, but with Trent Reznor’s creativity it was anything but. Combining the hooks and crunch of Heavy Metal with a solid dose of Electronica and odd time signatures, Reznor created a musical envelope for his dark brooding personality. In short he was not about Industrial Music, he was of it.

Certainly not the first person to experiment thusly in Rock, Reznor can be accounted as one of the few who was able to make the sound mainstream. Some of the earliest influences came from avant-garde composers like Luigi Russolo, whose manifesto “The Art of Noises” argued that the human ear had grown accustomed to the modern urban soundscape; therefore, new approaches were needed in order to push music forward. He often incorporated household items in his compositions as a way to approach “Noise Sound” (engines, rustling trees, car horns, etc.) and break from conventional music methods. While this was a more abrasive way to enrich the sound palate, other composers were approaching the idea of sound as music from a more ambient perspective. A quick definition, Ambient is a style of music that focuses on sound and atmosphere more than the notes themselves. The immortal John Cage (who any artist dabbling in ambient productions owes their livelihood to) was instrumental in taking everyday sounds and using them in a way to “affirm life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” The best example of this is his 1952 composition “4’33”. A pianist (or an entire orchestra) sits with their instruments without sounding a single note; the point being that the surrounding sounds of the concert hall, people coughing, the air conditioning blowing and so on, create the composition itself.

In this examination of early ideas of Industrial music, it is interesting to note that as the music began to grow in popularity and scope, the songs became about nihilism and despair. The very style that was created as a source of hope for the future of music began to be its death knell. If we look at the idea of the Industrial sound as a deconstruction of known forms, the growth of pain and hopelessness as underlying themes in the music is a natural deconstruction of the love and sex themes in Pop Music that have become familiar. It is Rusollo’s idea taken from the realm of sound and applied to lyric.

Industrial music was still more of a curiosity then a viable movement of its own. It was during the 70s when bands began to take the idea of the music to its potential. There is a trio of bands considered to be the founders of the genre; each brought their own creativity to the form. The first, England’s Throbbing Gristle (yes that is really their name) made powerfully distorted and twisted music; however they were more known for their live shows which were more about performance art. The second band, Einstürzende Neubauten from Germany, focused on the sound itself, pushing the boundaries to their most extreme by using power tools and construction materials. The last, England’s Cabaret Voltaire experimented with Electronica as a tool with which to dig into the harsh sounds the movement was obsessed with. It was raw and unfocused but it was Industrial, and it was something new.

That bands like Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM (more on both soon) were able to create their own tonal landscapes speaks to their predecessors who gave them these very singular musical experiences to draw from. Interestingly enough it was another form of music (that was also viewed as a breakdown) that helped the New Wave of Industrial acts find their voice. Punk’s raw, explosive power was exactly what Industrial artists needed in order to polish their music. Where early Industrial music had a tendency to ramble on in unfocused directions, adding the terse manic energy of Punk directed all of that noise into a more constructed package. Beyond that, bands like England’s Nitzer Eb and Canada’s Skinny Puppy injected pounding Electronic beats that pushed the music forward.

It was bands like Ministry and Germany’s KMFDM who were able to take all of these precedents and create what is considered the true blueprint for Industrial success. KMFDM did it by tapping into Electronic Music and highly distorting it. Consider it Disco music for a generation of audiophiles raised on feedback. Ministry took it to the other side. They filled their music with hammering Heavy Metal guitar riffs, and through that were able to appeal to a much more vast audience.

So the table was set for Nine Inch Nails (whose only real full-time member is Trent Reznor) to take the world by storm. By using his musical talent and charismatic personality, Reznor was able to bring the music into the mainstream and influence an entire sub-genre of imitators with limited talent. The only Nine Inch Nails follower that had any true and lasting success was the Richard Patrick-led Filter. Patrick had toured with NIN as a guitar player on their first couple of tours, and as such drank directly from the Well of Knowledge that is Trent Reznor. Filter’s first hit “Hey Man Nice Shot” had them pegged as a one-hit-wonder, but as they have developed as a band they have successfully distanced themselves from that song, growing lyrically as well as musically.

Industrial music grew from early avant-garde roots to briefly top the charts as the most popular music in the land. As it stands today it is a mere niche, a small footnote in music history. What is interesting about Industrial music is how it grew from a style hell-bent on deconstruction to another cog in the great machine of the music industry. What is even more interesting about that is that none of the artists mentioned here would compromise their sound in order to sell records. So in that respect they made the industry bow to them, if only for a brief period of time.

What I’m listening to: Army of Anyone: Self Titled

Comprising of Robert and Dean Deleo of Stone Temple Pilots and the above mentioned Richard Patrick, the band went a bit under the radar with this, their first release. The music is straight-up Hard Rock, with added nuances courtesy of the Deleo Brothers who seem to play off one another with an almost psychic gift. The music is tight and Richard Patrick’s vocals soar above. A great album.

Rock 4 Rookies Podcast: Episode 13

Posted: May 11, 2008 by Maximum Mike in Rock 4 Rookies Podcast

Sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes you don’t choose the music, it chooses you. Limp with the Bizkit, Filter out the Army of Anyone, put 12 Stones on your Cake, it’ll make you Def !!!

Stone Temple Pilots used to be awesome. Though their initial sound borrowed heavily from other bands that were either more popular or more recognizable, they refined the Grunge sound as the first true Arena Rock group of the era. Their music was groovy and catchy. They had all the right elements; a preening, dour frontman, and a tight backing band. With their second release “Purple” the sound got even tighter, and the songs even catchier. They were beginning to develop as a serious contender to the more “legitimate” Alternative acts, although they were habitually panned by the critics. Then in 1996 they released their third album, the bizarrely titled “Tiny Music: Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop.” It sold well, going multi-platinum, but the material was a departure from their early formula. Adding elements from all over the musical spectrum the album was incoherent and rambling, unable to focus on any one element long enough to make a serious go of it. In addition the usually airtight musicianship of Dean and Robert Deleo and Eric Kretz was loose, jangling like the jowls of the elderly.

There are many arguments you can make as to why something like this happened. For one the band, achieving a great deal of recognition, decided to branch out and try something different. With the band’s fame came an elevated profile; with that came information about the band’s very public struggle with drug abuse. After cancelling most of their tour in 1995 the members decided to get help. They emerged from rehab a few months later feeling refreshed and renewed, entering the studio amid a flurry of publicity only to come out with the question mark that is “Tiny Music”.

Yes, I am implying that drugs, or more specifically Heroin, Scag, Smack, Horse, (what have you) played a significant part in the early works of the band. Its removal during the recording process left the band members unfocused and confused. Take the Beatles as an example: the most creative and forward thinking era of their career, from “Rubber Soul” to “Abby Road”, was created amid a wave of hallucinogenic intake. The point I am trying to make is not that drugs are good, I am merely pointing out what Bill Hicks said best; that all those people that have made the music that enhanced our lives were “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreal f—–g high on drugs.” Sad yes, but startling, no. Our singers and Rockstars live above the law in a realm where we give them a pass on anything they do. People were shocked when Keith Moon (Drums, The Who) busted up his teeth diving into an empty swimming pool. In a sense we are the greatest enablers of all. We stand back and watch our favorite artists self-destruct, only becoming concerned when they are no longer a viable product. The presence of drugs in the lives of our Rock heroes is hardly shocking either. In some respects the artists themselves feel that drugs help them provide us with the best possible product. George Michael, who has sold over 80 million albums in his 25 year career has said that he absolutely needs weed to make music, that he cannot write songs without it.

What is most interesting about this relationship is how the music being created usually reflects the most popular drugs being consumed at the time. For example, in the 60s and 70s the most popular drugs were LSD and Marijuana. The laid back nature of Folk-Rock and proto-psychedelic classics like Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” represented the free-thinking and free-living these drugs stereotypically foster. As the 70s began and the Vietnam War continued to escalate, more and more soldiers were found with weed stashed in the butts of their M16s. It seemed that was going to be the way of things, but as the decade wore on and musical tastes shifted, so did the drugs being consumed. As Punk-Rock rose and its newly wealthy artists turned to PCP, the youth who largely could not afford the real thing turned to Glue Huffing to satisfy their desire. PCP, or Angel Dust, Ozone, Sherm, Kools, (well, you get the picture) is an anesthetic and an amphetamine combined, which was perfectly suited for the frantic, often self-destructive nature of the music. Across town, the early superclubs like Studio 54 were packed to the gills with the social elite burying their heads in mountains of cocaine. The socio-economic rift between the Punks and the more bourgeois Disco fans is apparent. Where PCP made you crazy, Coke kept your head in the clouds and your feet on the dance floor.

This continued into the 80s. As New Wave music and early Electronica rose from the ashes of Disco, cocaine followed it. Led largely by Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and The Pet Shop Boys, the music was ripe with the overly synthesized dance sound that filled dance floors. While true Punk faded into Hardcore, the growing Hip-Hop community already had a problem; Cocaine’s ugly stepsister, Crack. Known as a ghetto drug, crack infested poor ethnic communities all over the United States, and became the source of the rallying cry for early rappers like Grand Master Flash and Eric B and Rakim. In that respect it is not the music that reflects the drugs, rather it is the lyrics that are influenced by crack’s siege on their communities.

As the 90s were ushered in, the freewheeling rockstar cokeheads were replaced by Kurt Cobain and his eras Heroin-chic Grunge sound. The widespread use of heroin was so prevalent that Rolling Stone magazine famously put Layne Staley (vocals, Alice In Chains) on a magazine cover under the headline “The Needle and the Damage Done.” This was a reference to the Neil Young song that speaks about drug abuse. At the same time that Rock was undergoing a public struggle with heroin, another narcotic was infecting the youth of the fledgling Trance community. Ecstacy, or X, E, Go, Adam, Clarity, and so on was a bit of everything. It combined the euphoria of Marijuana with the craziness of crack, and some mild hallucinations to boot. In clubs like London’s famous Ministry of Sound it was all the rage; it fit with the upbeat excitement of the music as well as the sensory overloading light shows. That the pills were cut with a dangerous cocktail of other substances did not seem to bother the kids who came for the drugs and stayed for the music. In the late 90s the DJs themselves tried to put some semblance of sanity back into their scene. Famously Paul Van Dyk, one of the genre’s founders, donned a shirt that read “There is no E in Dyk.” This combined his fear for the drug-obsessed youth of Europe with the correct spelling of his oft misspelled surname.

As we find ourselves hurtling forward into the new millennium, this question seems to beg: what is next? We certainly will continue to idolize our favorite artists with the ever impressionable youth striving to emulate them in every way. A recent poll in England showed that Amy Winehouse, a Heroin addict, is the most influential woman in the country. Where are the boundaries? Is it our fault for idolizing these flawed people, or is it their fault for falling into the trappings of stardom? It is a symbiotic relationship that cycles from our obsessions to the artists fears, and trickles back down. At the end of the day it seems to be not only our choice but one that we have to make together.

What I am listening to: Above & Beyond – Tri-State: A trio of British producers Above & Beyond are one of the first groups in Trance to create an artist album that stands as a cohesive work. Expertly produced with crystal clear beats and lush melodies they proved that Electronic Music is alive and well. They also showed that it was possible for producers who felt trapped by the DJs whose careers they were fueling to escape the shadows and become recognized on their own.

Rock 4 Rookies Podcast: Episode 12

Posted: May 4, 2008 by Maximum Mike in Rock 4 Rookies Podcast

Why is it that rock is always about jumping up and rocking out? Can’t it be about kicking back and relaxing? Just a chill show!!! The Chillax Special, Black Sabbath, The Romantics, and a couple of Heartbreakers.