Sunday, April 27, 2008

G'Phwarg-Glarb-Flang -- ROCK!

Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom. Freddie got this one off the DiamondVision; the live ones were not so good.

Merriwether Post Pavilion, Columbia, Md, April 26, 2008: Gigantour. Headliners: MegaDeth; openers (in order of appearance): High on Fire, Job for a Cowboy, Children of Bodom, In Flames, Megadeth.

When I was in college, my then-girlfriend left our school to go live in Boston. She ended up sharing a house with members of a struggling New Wave band called the Zoo Types.

(Wow. Here's a kick in the stomach: Googling the Zoo Types, I found out that their leading light, Tas Calo, died just last month. The guy who posted the linked announcement, Screeg Neegis, was a fixture around the house. Jesus. Memory. Th' fuckin' Internet and its psychic powers... Tas was one of the Good Ones. I'm slightly devastated.)

At any rate (now that I have my emotions under control), I have a memory of the Zoo Types, one of those recollections that plant themselves into your consciousness and then expand and flower as time reveals their fundamental truth. They decorated their house with marvelous band memories, little bits of flotsam that had crossed their path, the mementos of rock-n-roll veterans.

Taped to the refrigerator was a manifesto written by that very selfsame Tas Calo, the band's bassist. It read, in part, "I will never again play in a band in which the bass parallels the guitar."

(I mean, holy fuck! The guy crosses my mind for the first time in nearly thirty years, and I find out he died a month ago! Please, let me regain my composure...)

What Tas meant by his slightly gnomic declaration, was that, in the Post-Punk Era, the era of Rock-and-Roll Dumbness was over. If the bass plays the root note of the chord the guitar is playing, in essence, the band is playing "In-Na-Gadda-Da-Vida." The whole band is playing one stupid blooze riff in unison, and the results. while providing a nicely satisfactory heavy sound, are boring, boring, bow-ring.

The New Paradigm, according to Tas' manifesto, was what Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Brian Wilson had already been doing for years: Creative rock-bass playing, choosing notes that somehow comment on a harmony, or widen the sonic palette of an arrangement. Take a listen to Colin Moulding's bass playing with XTC: Pure bass heaven. That's where Tas Calo wanted to go. Intelligent bass. Sophisticated bass. Bass that's been to college.

You can call me a philistine if you want -- I can take it -- but Heavy Metal has always shrieked to me of bass-paralleling-guitar. It's actually an unfair, knee-jerk judgment: Listen to the bass in "Smoke On the Water" -- it's actually doing some pretty interesting things, for all the song's Spinal Tap dumbness: Playing eighth-notes to the guitar's quarter-notes, Roger Glover actually takes the riff to nice places, commenting on it, embellishing it.

Which brings me to the concert under review. When my son brought Heavy Metal back into my roots-and-jazz-obsessed life, I didn't appreciate its presence. I think the last time I came into contact with it was a late-night "Headbangers' Ball" episode in the Eighties -- perhaps I'd fallen asleep in front of Saturday Night Live, I don't know. I do remember thinking that hair-circles were pretty fucking stupid, that the relentless hair-thrashing must lead to sore necks in the morning, and that the music was all parallel bass-and-guitars.

My eyes have been opened, and yet they remain closed. The first two acts, High On Fire and Job for a Cowboy, just couldn't have sucked worse. High on Fire -- granted, they did thank MegaDeth for even including them on the tour, so that was kinda sweet, I suppose -- but good Lord, did they suck. Job for a Cowboy, a quintet, had a fine drummer, but the stagecraft was hilariously overdone: every sixteen bars, the four-man front line would switch positions so that each instrument was playing to a different section of the theater -- Cordless Clusterfuck Choreography, I think we could deem it without cavil. The first time I laughed at it, I looked cautiously over at Freddie to gauge his reaction: To my immense relief, it was clear that he understood just exactly how jive the whole thing was too. Good kid.

Then, the great revelation of the night: Children of Bodom were fuckin' excellent! I raised the devil horns! They suffered ever so slightly from the destroyed-vocal-chords school of HM singing -- H'm flarg-m-grbl-blag! delivered from the throat of Cthulhu Himself -- but that seems to be pretty much the Way You Do It these days. But I was able, amid the Sturm und Drang, to detect actual lyricism -- moments of, like, actual melody radiating forth. And Alexi Laiho can fuckin' shred! I was quietly pleased that my son, the flesh of my flesh, showed the excellent taste to pick a quite fine band to go teenaged-gaga over.

I do have to say, I was impressed by the drumming in every minute of five-and-a-half hours of Heavy Metal. The boys in the audience (about 90% of the house, average age about 20) were glomming onto the guitar shreddage; I was most impressed with the drumming. So that's where all the great modern drummers went! Seriously, keeping sixteenth-notes going on two kick-drums is seriously athletic work, and every one of these guys kept it up for minutes at a time.

In fact, that's what started me thinking about bass playing in HM in the first place. That concert-space was rigged to let those sixteenth-note kick-drums just roar; the bass guitar was pretty much a sonic afterthought. So if the Kick-Drum Is King, why, the thought occurs, not let the bass do some independent work? Why not let it reach for color notes, for non-root component notes? It's not like the bottom end is gonna suffer, with all that enormously compressed Heavy Metal Thunder coming from the kick drum?

Oh, and, by the way...

...MegaDeth can just suck my cock.

Calculated, slick, professional, whatever you want to call it, it was exactly the same fucking show I saw in 1976, at the already-washed-up Uriah Heep's gig at the Koncertgebauw in the Hague. My first rock show. All of 16 years old, I walked away nauseated. Same smarmy showmanship. Same self-satisfied rockstar chest-puffing. Same fuckin' stage moves, even: On prearranged cue, the bass and the second lead guitar skip across the stage and switch places, play to alternate sides of the house. Yecch. Lame shreddage, feeble audience-puffery, clearly rehearsed "sponteneity." Revolting.

They did open the bass up, though. Oh -- and the only harmony singing of the night -- if limited to about four bars in the opening number. That's why they're the pros.

I'd like to see the same audience turn out for Gid Tanner and the Georgia Skillet Lickers. See what happens. Yes, sir.


Anonymous said...

Never, never, never understood heavy metal.

Watched a documentary on Metallica with a mate recently, and winced when it came time to add their 'melody' over the top of it. Bass seemed more an extension of percussion than anything, and seemed like the most thankless job in the world.

A lot of post-punk and no wave isn't much better. I've listened to something like 10 Sonic Youth records over the years, yet have never been able to audiablly identify just where the hell Kim Gordon is in the mix, and what the hell she's doing wherever she is - other than singing the guitar riff usually. No wonder she ended up with RSI of the wrist.

Christopher said...

Your observation about the bass in heavy metal music is exactly right. It almost always mirrors whatever the drums are doing, and in recordings it often disappears from the mix. See Metallica's . . . And Justice for All — a towering edifice of the genre, probably the best album of the band's career . . . but the bass is entirely gone from the mix. I don't get it.

Some more current bands make better use of the bass guitar, most notably Rage Against the Machine and Tool (my personal favorite). I've heard the term "lead bass" (as opposed to "lead guitar") applied to both bands. In both cases the bass functions as rhythm guitar as well as part of the rhythm section. Of course, neither band would qualify as typical heavy metal, either. RATM is heavily influenced by funk and rap, and Tool is about as progressive as metal gets without turning into masturbatory tangents trying to squeeze as many time signatures into the same song as possible.

Also, I can't wait to hear new material from Metallica, as their new bass player used to play for Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves, both of which highlighted funk-inspired bass lines beneath straight-up metal guitar riffs.

Anonymous said...

Intelligent bass. Sophisticated bass. Bass that's been to college.

We've got one of these guys around at the moment, Neddie. May I introduce J. Scott McClintock of Great Lakes Myth Society.

Favourite bass line i heard last year. Terrible sound, but highlights the detailed bass work, which i assumed was recorded phrase by phrase, but he's pulling it off live with no obvious clams:

I love the subtle change of attack at 1:34. I always smile when i hear it on the record, so it's great to see he's having fun playing it.

Of course, this being 2008, no critics have the skill or intelligence to notice.

Incidentally, he's a huge XTC fan, is moving over Washington DC way at the end of the year, and is looking for guys to jam with, so, if you're interested...

Neddie said...

Incidentally, he's a huge XTC fan, is moving over Washington DC way at the end of the year, and is looking for guys to jam with, so, if you're interested...

Interesting idea... We local DC Chalkheads have an occasional jam -- just had one last week, in fact -- do you know the guy personally?

Anonymous said...

Remember Sturgeon's Revelation: 90% of everything is crud! One good band among the losers is a win for the concert.

Anonymous said...

We correspond on an occasional basis, so only know him as well as you can know someone via the net. Still, he seems like a cool, grounded bloke - writes for the AllMusicGuide.

Plus, anyone who successfully asked Louis Philippe to record his answering machine message has my respect.

Kevin Hayden said...

st checkin' in... heard Virginia had some heavy metal flying, along with houses, cars and cows. Hope you & yours were missed by it.

Sorry to hear of your loss of a friend from a former dimension; perhaps the intro to Children of Bottom was a planned replacement the Fates dealt your way. One door closing sadly, another opened gladly, you know, all of that.

I can't say much of my knowledge of heavy metal; I was too heavily wooed by Brits invading and acid rock, and by the time you were banging your brains on Zoo Types, I was spacing to Atom Heart Mother, leaving me no place to go in the disco era except Earth Wind & Fire and the rhythm-challenged white dude's favoritest dance ever, The Bump.

Probably the closest I ever attended was Led Zep (though I called that acid-rock) and AC-Dc. With my tin ear, I'm afraid most of it sounded like Drain Bamage requiring masochism and entirely too much beer.

Kevin WOlf said...

The closest I've come to experiencing HM in concert in the past 10-20 years was seeing Tenacious D about six, eight years ago. Devil's horns indeed.

When I want to hear something "heavy," when I'm not in the mood for a nostalgia-fest like Led Zep, I'll throw on the Minuetmen's Double Nickels On the Dime which at least has some wit.

Paul said...

Hi there, this is actually Tas Calo's son, Paul Calo. I thought you'd be interested to know that shortly after my father passed, I found this manifesto you speak of. I just thought it was a weird coincidence, as I found it, not having heard anything about it before, and here's your blog, mentioning it in clear detail to make a good point.

If you want, I could find it and type it up for you. Or not. Your choice.

Neddie said...

Wow, Paul. Once again, from my keyboard to Google's ears... Wacky old Internet.

I'm terribly sorry for your loss, Paul. Although I knew him only briefly, he struck me as a very nice man and a helluva bass flogger, and he treated Mary, my then-girlfriend, like a sister.

If you ever run into Frank Gerace (hey! I remembered his name!) tell him Mary's old squeeze from 1979 sez howdy, and ask if he ever used that Super-Secret Can't-Miss chord progression I slipped him.

I would take it very kindly indeed if you would transcribe that Manifesto for me. What I remember of it was both funny and wise.

Loudoun Insider said...

Excellent review!

As far as melodic metal and GREAT bass playing, it's hard to top Queensryche and Eddie Jackson. Revolution and Empire have some of the best bass playing ever, with phenomenal tone.