Autobiographical Order No. 422: The Soft Moon – Deeper

If you haven’t noticed, we’re deep into the goth AF portion of my record collection, where the vast majority of records I was buying were primarily for the purposes of playing in bars to people so they could dance. Or at least be in an environment to get drunk around good, dark music. And people requested stuff pretty frequently—usually the hits (“Can you play some Depeche Mode?” or “If you want to play more Nick Cave that’s just fine with me”), but more often than I would have guessed, people wanted to hear stuff that was pretty new. And I was just fine with that—if I was just playing the same songs every week (which is a complaint I often hear about DJ nights), I’d get bored fast and want to move on.

Part of what’s been growing in popularity in goth circles (or “hipster goth” if you want to go there) is some of the more ethereal darkwave stuff, heavy on synths, light on slappers. And some of that stuff’s fine, but my interests were in introducing weirder, heavier, less by-the-book music, like Algiers. The Soft Moon is a little closer to vintage coldwave, but by this album, they were taking on more industrial and post-punk sounds to deliver a record that takes more chances, goes more places, breaks the mold a bit.

To make this point clear, if I haven’t in 421 records yet, I like dark music that kicks your ass. I think all music should kick your ass, really. Even if it’s slow, quiet music, it should leave an impact. Part of what bothers me about the past few years of music is that everything’s trending toward anticlimactic, whispery lullabies and I’ve honestly been so bored with it. And you know, hate to say it, but there’s been an element of that in goth-adjacent music as well. You think The Cure wasn’t making music that absolutely slapped? Because they were. Even Faith slapped.

And so does Deeper. “Black” is gnarly synth ooze. “Far” makes good use of Joy Division jitters. And the title track is basically some kind of psychedelic black magic dance around a massive bonfire. That’s sort of how I imagine what’s going on anyway. It’s a good record, and it holds up live too—onstage The Soft Moon have a faster, heavier, more punk rock presence, which is always a good thing.

In 2018 I interviewed The Soft Moon’s Luis Vasquez, and he was a pretty interesting dude, but what always fascinates me is when musicians talk about their complications within the music industry. Openly, bluntly, etc. This didn’t make it into the actual feature, but when Vasquez discussed leaving his label, Captured Tracks, and moving to Sacred Bones, he said something to the effect of “Once Mac DeMarco blew up, we weren’t really a priority anymore.” Ouch. But Sacred Bones has a good roster, so there you go.

Anyway: Slaps.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 421: Bosse-de-Nage – All Fours

Metal is the best. Except when it’s the worst. Which is not that often, but then again Behemoth keeps on ending up at the top of best-of-decade lists for metal. I mean, c’mon guys.

But most of the time, it’s the best. There’s never any shortage of new bands, really good ones, who continue to challenge what metal is and could be, and for that reason it’s always exciting. I’ve been writing a monthly column about metal for nearly five years now, and I can pinpoint the moment that I decided to dedicate so much of my free time to listening to new metal and essentially making it my “beat.” And that was when I heard “A Subtle Change” by Bosse-de-Nage.

It’s weird that I remember that, in a way, because it’s not that this is my favorite metal album, or one that really opened my eyes to a new way of listening, or anything like that. It’s just that the song ripped so hard, I just kind of had an epiphany: “I need to write about metal a lot more!”

And yeah, this album, much like the song they released to preview it, absolutely rips. Part of what makes Bosse-de-Nage stand out from so many other black metal bands is a combination of factors. The first is in their actual songwriting style, which is something of a hybrid of classic black metal and post-hardcore in the vein of Fugazi, Refused or Hüsker Dü. The second is in their lyrical content, which owes more to Marquis de Sade than H.P. Lovecraft. Not that you can really tell, given that it’s black metal and all the words are screamed, but there’s some weird, “adult” stuff going on in there. Which is an interesting change of pace, to be honest.

Bosse-de-Nage share certain commonalities with a band more people are familiar with—Deafheaven. They both started in the Bay Area (I hesitate to call them “Cascadian black metal” because that’s such a silly term, but you know…), and released a split EP together a few years back. They also make a point of not playing by the rules, which I admire. They, for a long time, avoided doing interviews and didn’t use their real names, which gave them an air of mystery, but that’s faded a bit. They’ve even toured a bit, making their way down to San Diego back in 2015. Not that many people showed up unfortunately (possibly because not that many people here know them, possibly for poor marketing, possibly because the venue’s just…one of those venues), but it was a great show regardless.

That December, we had some guests over at our house for dinner and drinks, and when the (non-terrible) holiday music playlist exhausted itself, we transitioned into a best-of-2015 playlist, and “A Subtle Change” came on. Someone asked who it was and I, not paying much attention (I do zone out a lot), said “Deafheaven.” My wife said, “No it’s not, it’s Bosse-de-Nage.” Which is reason #4,508,799 why she’s the best.

Rating: 9.2

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 420: Chameleons UK – Script of the Bridge

I didn’t plan ahead for this—I’ve reached number 420 in this series, and it’s not Electric Wizard or Bongzilla or Mac DeMarco or something, and I feel like this is a major missed opportunity. (Number 419, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, is pretty stoney, but here we are. I can’t unring this bell.) For what it’s worth I also kind of botched number 69. My juvenile numerology is wayyyyy off.

Not that you can’t enjoy this without some provisions. One of the band’s I’d long kept on my shortlist of Albums You Must Buy If You Ever See Them Used is The Chameleons, the great UK post-punk act that was every bit as good as Joy Division but nowhere near as famous. The Chameleons also arrived a few years later, their production crisper, their riffs a bit sharper, their sound a bit heavier overall. The drum sound on a single like “In Shreds” alone—basically the template for any and all Interpol tracks—puts them in a special, unique category of post-punk era bands that absolutely fucking slay. (Which is actually a lot of them; see Siouxsie and the Banshees. So maybe not “unique” so much as “elite”.)

The thing is, I actually bought a new copy of this—a reissue to be totally clear. And I remember it seeming fairly expensive at the time, though it does have a bonus LP of demos and whatnot. That’s hardly the point—what’s important is songs like “Don’t Fall,” “Up the Down Escalator” and “Second Skin,” some of the punchiest, yet extremely catchy post-punk tracks ever. Still, they sometimes slip through the cracks when it comes to canonical appraisals. And if your post-punk don’t have Chameleons, your store could use some fixin’, to quote the Dead Milkmen.

I had the pleasure of actually seeing Mark Burgess’ Chameleons Vox show at the Casbah late last year, and honestly it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from a late-career icon. Though the band was basically him and three non-original members, they sounded amazing, the energy level was high, and aside from not looking like he was 22, you’d probably never guess he’s been doing this for 40 years or so.

One thing I don’t quite love is the updated album art with the blue pencil or whatever it is. The band’s surrealist artwork is certainly a product of its time, but this wasn’t the way to *improve* it. But hey, sometimes good albums have disappointing artwork. Any prog fan will tell you that.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Great

Autobiographical Order No. 419: Tricky – Maxinquaye

Let’s talk about the ’90s for a minute. I’m an old millennial, which means I’m a hair too young to be a Gen-Xer, which means on some level I will probably always have an unshakable fondness for entertainment from the ’90s. By which I mean Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Big Lebowski and grunge. (If you’re expecting me to say Tarantino or whatever, sure Pulp Fiction was good, but I’ve never been all that invested in his oeuvre—*said* with a guttural, saliva-filled French accent*).

And then of course there’s the music. I’m sure at some point people are gonna “OK boomer” me about the ’90s, and in a few decades I’m sure it’ll be warranted, but let’s not be dumb about this: The ’90s was an absolutely phenomenal time for music. (It was a terrible time for music in other respects too—this is arguably when A&R cocaine budgets began to catch up with everyone and poor planning started an inevitable collapse. Plus Creed. They suck.) Far too many incredible records were released during this decade for me to mention, and there were a lot of movements that happened that yielded untold amounts of gold. (Listening gold, not like actual hordes of bullion.) Take, for instance, the parallel rises of Britpop and trip-hop.

I’ll admit I wasn’t really ready for the former when it was beginning, but I was sold within a year or so. But I was intrigued as hell by trip-hop. I heard Portishead’s “Sour Times” in my brother’s car and was pretty sure it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I wasn’t convinced that I was cool enough to listen to it, but I was certainly into it. Then I heard Massive Attack’s “Protection” and wasn’t quite as wowed, but I was starting to pick up on something cool happening in the UK, and whether or not I totally had the sophistication beyond “Loud guitars are good!” to appreciate it, it challenged me.

But then I did hear a song that set of my “Loud guitars are good!” receptors. It was heavy, it was loud, fast and intense. But it was also catchy, with lots of scratchy wah-wah riffs and deep basslines, and a cool, restrained female vocal that provided an interesting juxtaposition to the intensity underneath it. The song was a Catch of the Day from Jed the Fish on KROQ in 1995, and once he announced what it was, I was taken aback: “Black Steel,” by Tricky.

First off, I couldn’t even tell it was a Public Enemy cover. Not by a longshot. And this is what Tricky sounded like? The trip-hop guy? Well, yes and no. This is the only song of its kind on Maxinquaye, his debut LP, but on some level you can say that about a lot of its songs. Even more so than Dummy or Protection, it’s pretty well all over the place. Some of it is psychedelic, some if it rhythm-heavy, some funky, some loud, some quiet, some ethereal. It’s easily one of the weirdest entries in the early trip-hop canon, as well as one of the best. He’s never topped this, and though his next few albums were all pretty strong, Maxinquaye stands alone.

Trip-hop kind of fell apart after a couple years because it became the soundtrack to hotel lobbies and hold music, and changed its name to “Downtempo.” Though it did have a few hits, mostly by groups like Hooverphonic and Sneaker Pimps, who never really made a great record but certainly took advantage of a trending sound for the sake of a good single.

Tricky didn’t really have any hits that big, but his singles were great: “Overcome,” “Aftermath,” and of course “Black Steel.” After a while even his records started to lose their luster, but Maxinquaye remains one of the greats.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great

 

Autobiographical Order No. 418: The Faint – Danse Macabre

Sometimes I wonder about certain artists I’ve discovered and come to really like in my lifetime and how I might have viewed them differently had I been introduced to them at a different time. People talk about this a lot with movies; one example I often hear is that, if you weren’t introduced to Goonies at a young age, you’ll absolutely not enjoy it as an adult. And that’s probably true. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or just being in the right place at the right time to appreciate a composition or creation of some sort, but it’s a real phenomenon. I know there are plenty of bad grunge or punk albums I liked when I was in junior high that I absolutely wouldn’t now (and don’t).

Yet I also wonder this with bands like The Faint. I like goth. I like synth-pop. I like post-punk. All of which are part of Danse Macabre, the band’s dark and theatrical third album. But I also picked it up at a time when that was something I was obsessively diving into. I first heard their song “Worked Up So Sexual,” which is a kind of campy, sassy, over-the-top electroclash track. As much style as substance, maybe not even at that ratio, but it was fun and I liked it. Today I might find some charm in it but not necessarily love it.

Danse Macabre, though, I dare say is a strong album. It is, of course, also very campy. And it also might be something I view with skepticism had I not heard it when I was 19. Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe I intellectualize these things too much. But I tell you this: It whips ass.

At the time (early ’00s), the Saddle Creek/Omaha indie scene was starting to get buzzy and bands like Bright Eyes were being profiled in Rolling Stone. In fact, members of The Faint were in a band with Conor Oberst called Commander Venus. I would say it was pretty incestuous, but every local scene is. Have you guys been to San Diego?

This, though, was different than the emo-adjacent folk thing happening. More dancey. More fun. More goth. And in time they got pretty big pretty fast, thanks to “Agenda Suicide” being played on mainstream radio channels. It landed them an opening spot on tour with No Doubt, as I recall. Which maybe wasn’t meant to last—bands like this are always too weird to sustain that kind of success. But it was cool to see them earn that kind of attention, even if for a short time.

One of the reasons I bring up these doubts about whether or not I’d love this band now, without the context of my youth, is because I didn’t actually listen to this album for quite a few years. But a bolt of inspiration hit me once I started doing goth Djing: The Faint! And to be honest, I’m not sure anyone cared, but it was fun to play “Agenda Suicide,” and in the process I was reminded of how much I also liked “Glass Dance” and “The Conductor” and various other standouts. And, honestly, I’m not sure if I would have come to love bands like Soft Cell without them. (Maybe that’s not true…I dunno.)

Maybe I should stop overthinking it and just enjoy the fact that it slaps. Yeah, that sounds pretty good.

Rating: 9.1

Sound Quality: Good

Autobiographical Order No. 417: The Jesus & Mary Chain – Automatic

Automatic is not The Jesus & Mary Chain’s masterpiece. That’s Psychocandy, which is basically a ’60s pop album mashed up with a Ramones album and slathered in more distortion and feedback than most bands then and since have really known what to do with. It’s not some headphone masterpiece, with all kinds of rich, sonic details or fancy production footwork. In fact, it’s not even really crucial that you need some original copy with analog mastering. It essentially doesn’t matter. This is late ’80s alternative rock with a drum machine and era-specific cocaine sheen, and it’s far from perfect. But you put it on, in whatever format, and you’re good to go. It’s great just the way it is. No frills, no close listening, just a killer rock ‘n’ roll record that kicks ass no matter how you’re listening to it. And even though I acknowledge it’s not the band’s greatest moment, it’s maybe the album of theirs I listen to most. No, it definitely is. It’s basically a miracle of imperfection.

My first time hearing Automatic was on a dubbed tape in a box my brother left behind when he went to college. There were some other ’80s college rock gems in there: R.E.M., Camper Van Beethoven, etc. And by virtue of being a secondhand transfer of something on cassette, naturally, it wasn’t the highest fidelity. But I loved the shit out of it and played it a lot, and had a lot of favorites early on: “Head On” (obviously), “UV Ray” and my personal fave, “Blues from a Gun.” I’m not nostalgic for much, but the promise of unearthing some forgotten music in a box somewhere is something I kind of miss. It happens less these days, mostly because I already have so much music in my house. But here we are.

By virtue of being an early CD-age album, Automatic doesn’t need some special remastered reissue. I bought the Plain Records vinyl version, a notably unloved label mainly because most of their titles are actually CD-to-LP transfers (which is sort of pointless), mostly because it wasn’t expensive and I wanted to spin tracks from it at goth nights. (“Head On” goes over well, by the way.) And if something happens to it, it’s no biggie. It’s not a valuable specimen. Weirdly, the My Bloody Valentine record I have that Kevin Shields hates goes for a pretty penny on Discogs. Who knew?

As a matter of fact, one time when DJing, I was getting chatted up by this super drunk girl who stumbled and ended up stopping the record while it was playing. And from that moment forward I always kept the door closed. Lesson learned. But Automatic keeps on ticking.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Good

Autobiographical Order No. 416: Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas

There are bands you love right away, and there are bands that take some time for you to warm up to. Maybe even more than that, you need to unlock them, decode them, understand what is actually going in the music before you can positively say you like or enjoy it. Maybe that’s normal, maybe it isn’t—I’m not sure how other people process music, and I wouldn’t presume anything based on what I do. And maybe I’m not even being totally honest here—there’s plenty of grindcore or death metal that I like that I’m not even close to “solving,” per se. But the chase of figuring out how to like something or why to like it is just as interesting to me as that immediate dopamine thrill.

I don’t imagine the Cocteau Twins are a band that makes sense to people on first listen. That doesn’t mean what they do isn’t accessible or melodic. But they’re certainly weird. That has a lot to do with vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, whose vocal style is alien and disorienting—she invented her own language well before Sigur Rós did, only there’s no actual words, just yelps and feelings. Listen to some of the darker, weirder highlights on Treasure—arguably (or inarguably) their best album—and you’ll understand what I mean.

So for a long time, I just didn’t get Cocteau Twins. But a lot of things told me that it was worth making the effort to do so, whether because of their significance in dream-pop and post-punk realms, or the fact that they’ve influenced pretty much everybody, including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, who I’m pretty sure was responsible for inviting them to play Lollapalooza in 1996.

The moment that it all clicked for me was maybe 12 years ago with Heaven or Las Vegas, particularly the song “Cherry Colored Funk.” (Which I revisited thanks to this review which has maybe the best lede Treble ever published.) All of a sudden this bizarre, intangible, completely baffling group became a perfect pop group before my ears. And it’s not like it’s that different from their other material, but it was just enough of a push to make my primitive brain think “Oh, this is like stuff I like, so now I like this.” It helps to have that gateway, which then led me back to Treasure, which I now recognize as a damn masterpiece.

Heaven or Las Vegas is damn close though. It’s also the band’s funkiest—”Pitch the Baby” got some asses moving at St. Vitus Dance Party back in 2015 or so. I don’t know if this is their prettiest album, but if someone were to ask where to start with the Cocteaus, this is the obvious answer to me, as it’s the one that hooked me. Now I’ll take all their weirdest stuff, thank you.

Though there are some things even Cocteau Twins can’t quite pull off. As my wife said to me this morning, “Not even the Cocteau Twins can make me like ‘Frosty the Snowman’.”

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great