Holiday Musical Adventures

During the holidays, I found myself in a very strange place, Portland, Oregon. As a music junkie, of course I was gonna check out the local music scene. There is no better way to get to know a place than to listen to its music and I had to make the most of my mere two nights in the city. The first night I wandered downtown into the Ash Street Saloon.

Ash Street Saloon is a landmark in Portland. Located just around the corner from the famous Voodoo Doughnuts, the dirty rock bar features nightly live music. Locals go here to grab some pub food, a microbrew, and to listen to Portland’s common people become rockstars. December 27th, 2017 was dubbed the Farewell to Indie Rock because unfortunately, Ash Street Saloon will close in 2018.

According to the Portland Mercury, “commercial real estate agents have already begun showing the property to potential new tenants.” The owner has no plans to open a second or similar venue, “which means it’s time to celebrate Ash Street for what it has always been since it first opened its doors on Halloween 1994: a readily accessible venue for live music, specializing in local, loud, and low-cover shows, often spotlighting bands before they break through on the scene.”

I felt like an outsider as bands that had been playing here for years graced the stage one last time. That night featured sets from King Ghidora, J. Graves, Another Neighbor Disappeared, The Hoons, The Bible Belts, Pink Tornado, and Aux.78. There was nothing too special about the venue, but the poorly lit room with overbearing music didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t. It simply was what it was.

Night Two started with a red headed flannel wearing Lyft driver picking me up in a blue Prius, but when in Rome right? We ventured to what is acknowledged as one of the top music venues in Portland, Mississippi Studios. Inside the intimate room attached to Bar Bar, it’s all about the music. Built, owned, run, and for musicians, they provide a comfortable setting for local musicians to showcase a variety of new and innovative music.

The room was absolutely beautiful. The floors are semi-carpeted with rugs. The red painted walls suspend wooden guitars surrounded by angel wings. Purple lights shine down on decorative drums that line the balcony.

The first band was Volcanic Pinnacles. They are only a drummer and a sax player, yet produce sound that is so complex and intriguing besides using such little instrumentation. The perpetual pounding of the drums keep rhythm, while the smooth sax plays with effects pedals looping, distorting, and morphing the sound. Their music is some kind of post jazz psych rock and is fantastic. They stole the show at the beginning of the night.

Long Hallways was the second instrumentalist band of the night. The 5 musicians formed a mini-orchestra with drums, trumpet, synthesizers, a bass, guitar, xylophone, flute, cello, and a euphonium. They play post indie rock and display a comfortable familiarity on stage. Therefore, between songs you can hear them talking with each other. The bass player casually raised a finger to the crowd to indicate “last song”.

The final band was Mercury Tree. A simple 3-piece band that played indie rock with a twist. They had modified a guitar and bass dividing the octave into seventeen notes, five more than the standard twelve used in Western music. The lead singer’s microphone was programmed with heavy effects. Tempo variation within songs and strange titles such as “Hedgehogs are the Emperors of Space” and “Jazz Hands of Doom” added to their uniqueness.

However, as the rollercoaster of a year that was 2017 came to an end, these nights exploring the Portland music scene were exactly what I needed. It helped me unwind after the stresses of the year and reminded me of a few things. Primarily, that the world is constantly changing. Local hideouts are getting shut down and replaced with big businesses. Music is evolving and growing as technology improves. Change can be frightening but can lead to positive transformation. May 2018 bring innovation, personal expression, and new music to help get us through.

Album Review: Polygondwanaland by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

One problem that I have with the music industry is how commercialized it has become. Concert prices are going up and band tees are 50 bucks a pop. Meanwhile, record companies are making billions and artists are losing creative control.

Some bands, like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, are combatting this epidemic. The Australian psychedelic rock band released their 12th studio album and 4th this year, Polygondwanaland, on November 17, 2017. The marvel of this record is it is 100 percent free.  On the band’s website, they say this album is “free to download and if you wish, free to make copies.” They have put up a link to the mp3 files and the CD and vinyl masters. King Gizzard says, “we do not own this record. You do. Go forth, share, enjoy.”

Polygondwanaland is a made-up word referencing multiple different things. Gondwana was 1 of 2 supercontinents that formed Pangea. It consisted of Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Polygon might reference their album Nonagon Infinity which pictures a polygon with 9 sides. Many of their albums exist inside the same interconnected universe and reference each other. Polygondwanaland uses polyrhythms, uncommon time signatures, and takes you on a journey to a mysterious land.

“Crumbling Castle” is the 10-minute opener. Several of their other albums, including I’m in Your Mind Fuzz (2014) and Murder of the Universe (2017), depict castles in the artwork. Descending guitar and vocals alternate between playing in unison and stagnated with complex polyrhythms. Guitar and flute solos take you up and away as they begin to enter the new world of Polygondwanaland. The lyrics are dark and gloomy. Stu Mackenzie sings, “we wait for our death… our extinction.” This is a heavy epic opening that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

“Polygondwanaland” begins with groovy drums and bass. They talk about climate change and how it will create a new world. They sing, “Snow melts… it will get hot.” Perhaps polygondwanaland is the new world that will be formed after the climate settles down. Mackenzie hopefully sings, “we’re gonna get there.”

Each song transitions seamlessly between one another. They tell a single story and build off each other. Spoken words by Leah Senior narrate the story and propel the album forward. Synth interludes give the impression of time traveling. Relentless drums drive us into “Deserted Dunes Welcome Weary Feet” where we learn that polygondwanaland is full of dinosaurs.

A theme of this album is gods and devils and the battle between good and evil. “Loyalty” is about a god whose people revolt against him. He chooses to make an example and show his wrath until he gets his loyalty. “Horology” takes you “to the ninth circle of hell”. They sing about a demon creature the walks across the land with death.

The last 3 songs touch on the theme of tetrachromacy, which is having 4 distinct cone cells in the eye. This condition is seen in many birds, fish, and other animals. Humans only have 3, which is why we see 3 primary colors. Millennia ago, all mammals were tetrachromats but it has been genetically phased out over time.

“Tetrachromacy” introduces this idea of a fourth color that humans have ever seen. They become curious about this color and “lust to see the invisible”. “Searching…” is the mysterious transition. Mackenzie sings, “Doctor please… I want to see the world differently.” The surgery is successful. They can now see “The Fourth Color” and it has granted them god-like powers. They can “see through walls… your terror… [and] the future.”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard has delivered another stellar album with Polygondwanaland. The use of strange rhythms and time signatures creates a unique sound and music that is anything but boring. The albums complexity and connectedness transports you into a new world as all good psychedelic albums should. Free music is a futuristic idea and one that I can get behind. King Gizzard has promised another album this year, so all we can do is eagerly await as they explore new musical ideas.

What’s On My Playlist? #3

There are certain songs that you can never get enough of. We listen to them over and over till we have every minor detail memorized. These are a couple of my favorite songs that I have been listening to recently.

“I Need A Forest Fire” by James Blake, Bon Iver

“I Need A Forest Fire” was released in May of last year on James Blake’s album The Colour in Anything. Blake teams up with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on this heart-wrencher. Their similar music styles yet distinct voices mix perfectly providing an interesting texture. A loop-pedal, electric drums, and a synth are all these musicians need as they plead for a forest fire, a restart.

“Tap Water Drinking” by Lewis Del Mar

Lewis Del Mar is an experimental rock duo from NYC. They combine simple, often single note, acoustic guitar melodies with heavy distortion, electronic beats, and Danny Miller’s spoken word style lyrics. “Tap Water Drinking” is about a sexual relationship between two people. The song starts off innocent and simple but soon grows darker, heavier, and more distorted. This symbolizes how relationships sometimes get out of hand and become destructive.

“Rattlesnake” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

“Rattlesnake” is the psychedelic rock band’s 8-minute opening song to their album Flying Microtonal Banana. This song and album use modded guitars as they explore the world of microtonal tuning. “Rattlesnake” takes you into the desert where the familiar rattle is lurking around every corner. Don’t get lost because the serpent is always there waiting to strike.

“Carin at the Liquor Store” by The National

Released earlier this year, “Carin at the Liquor Store” is another National song that hits you deep down. The namesake of the song is lead singer Matt Berninger‘s wife, Carin. An elegant piano melody accompanies Berninger singing in his unmistakable baritone, “blame it on me.” By the time the guitar solo comes you’re already in tears. What more can you ask for from music?

“Oceans” by Seafret

It’s been said that all you need is a guitar, 3 chords, and the truth. This indie-folk duo from the U.K. doesn’t use much more than that on their 2016 track “Oceans”. Sounds of crashing waves and dripping water fill the background. Vocalist Jack Sedman sings, “I want you… but it feels like there’s oceans between you and me.” This song tells us that love is complicated and sometimes it doesn’t work how we imagine.

“Dissolve” by Private Island

The indie-rock band from Southern California delivers wonders on this jam. A fantastic guitar melody reals you in, and the passionate vocals seal the deal. The lyrics tell the story of an ending relationship. They sing, “take me back now,” and “when they say your name, they can watch me, watch them, watch me dissolve.”

“Sun in Your Eyes” by Grizzly Bear

“Sun in Your Eyes” is the last song on the psychedelic folk album Shields (2012). The song slowly builds 3 different times with subtle repetition and slight variance. Each time it gets bigger and better. The lyrics, “I’m never coming back”, are repeated multiple times. By the end of the song, you’ll be asking yourself if you can ever go back to who you were before it began.

 

Arcade Fire live from Las Vegas

 

Arcade Fire sets the stage big when they perform live. When I saw them in Las Vegas, they had a square stage designed like a boxing ring. The 9 musicians on stage play somewhere between 20 and 30 instruments.  Just 3 weeks after the worst mass-shooting in US history, the Canadian indie-rock band fearlessly took the stage at Mandalay Bay. Lead singer Win Butler offered his condolences to the victims of the horrible attack followed by “f*ck being afraid”.

Arcade Fire neither lacks style nor confidence. In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Butler said, “I feel like we’re one of the best rock bands on Earth now.” The lead singer has also been quoted saying they are one of the best performing bands of all time. Before you dismiss them as crazy, go to one of their shows and then decide.

The squareness of stage meant no front. Arcade Fire was constantly moving around rotating from side to side. They had enough members so that all sides of the stage were always filled. The beauty of this design was it allowed more people to get close to the stage. The constant rotation gave the concertgoers a chance to meet each individual musician, instead of staring at one the entire night.

Opening act Angel Olsen, didn’t have the band members or preparation to fill the stage in the same way. They stuck to one side, and unfortunately my friends and I were on the wrong side. Frustration arose as we could just see their backs. They sounded hollow, as if they weren’t able to fill the entirety of the arena. Had I seen the indie-folk artist in a cozier venue and actually been able to see them, I might have enjoyed the show.

The stage wasn’t the only boxing themed part of Arcade Fire’s performance. As they were entering, an announcer on the overhead speaker stated each musician’s “boxing” record. They walked through the crowd with their pump-up music blaring (“Everything_Now (continued)”), then climbed through the ropes and started into “Everything Now”.

The next hour and a half were awesome. It is pretty obvious when bands love performing. Their passion radiates through the crowd who in turn loves watching them perform. Smiles were visible on the faces of band members Richard Reed Perry and Regine Chassagne. Will Butler is one of the most animated performers I have ever seen. Whether he is banging on a drum or jamming on synth, just watching him will bring you pure joy.

Arcade Fire’s sound doesn’t miss a beat transitioning from recordings to live shows. Balancing that many different musicians and instruments can be difficult but they do it with ease. The music is extremely powerful yet so fine-tuned you can still hear each individual instrument.

The disco balls and strobe lights are programmed beautifully so that the lights portray what the music is playing. There are moments of complete darkness and others when fog is so thick they disappear from view. Light and dark are themes that Arcade Fire loves exploring in their music and they bring that into their live shows.

Their setlist was spread-out across their 5 albums playing at least 3 songs from each. They finish with fan favorite “Wake Up”, and leave the stage with the crowd still singing the chorus. Many concertgoers continued singing as they flooded into the casino. I don’t have the expertise to say if Arcade Fire is one of the greatest performing bands of all time, but it was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever been to.

The Music of Halloween

I love the month of October. Utah is beautiful, you can pull out your old sweaters, and of course Halloween. Aside from the jack-o-lanterns, costumes, and candy, the sounds of this season are amazing. Hearing creaking doors, howling wolfs, or whispering winds can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Music is the greatest thing to create a mood, and the music inspired by Halloween does just that.

During the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, people would light fires and wear costumes to scare off ghosts. That night they would play dark folk music. These haunting tunes, known as souling songs, are still played in parts of Europe today. Children go out in groups singing these souling song and begging for treats.

Dark classical music is often associated with Halloween for its mysterious overtures and frightening melodies. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony number 5 in C Minor” are iconic songs recognized by many as the first Halloween songs. Dozens of other composers from Rachmaninoff to Vivaldi have taken a crack at capturing the eeriness, suspense, and gloom of this beloved time.

In recent years, horror films and their accompanying scores have been a new way to showcase scary music. Movies live and die by their soundtrack. Good horror films have soundtracks that put you on the edge of your seat and make the film enticing. Films such as Psycho, The Shining, and Saw have powerful musical themes which add to their popularity and success. Other movies like Jaws and Ghostbusters feature songs that have become so popular they stand alone. The Nightmare Before Christmas and A Clockwork Orange are two of my personal favorite horror film soundtracks.

Halloween has also made its way into the rock and pop world over the last few decades. Bobby “Boris” Picket’s “Monster Mash” was released in 1962 and was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 prior to Halloween of that year. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was listed as the most successful music video by Guinness World Records and is in the Library of Congress. It’s safe to say that people love scary music.

Aside from the two Halloween songs that everyone knows, many other artist have been inspired by the horrors of Halloween. The Cure’s “Lullaby” from the album Disintegration (1980), is a haunting track and the one of the darkest from the gothic-rock band. They sing an ominous tale of the always hungry Spiderman.

David Bowie’s song “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” features screeching guitars and sharp piercing chimes. Bowie sings of running scared from the horrors of monsters. Other songs inspired by this holiday include The Ramones “Pet Sematary”, Morrissey’s “Ouija Board, Ouija Board”, and Alice Cooper’s “Feed My Frankenstein”.

Although Halloween lacks full length albums, like Christmas, there is a wide variety of music that features themes of fear, fright, and horror. For centuries, this music has been revered by several different cultures. Today it is the music of October, the music of Halloween. It shows how music can create powerful emotions and is one of the reasons why this time is beloved by so many.

A Night With The National

Concerts have a way of bringing people together. We all have personal struggles, yet concerts have always been a way for me to forget mine and enjoy a night. Being in an amphitheater, surrounded by 5,000 people; it doesn’t matter if I just failed a test or had a spat with a parent. I’m going to enjoy the show and dance with the person next to me, regardless of if I know you or not.

The National is one of my favorite bands. Their songs speak to me on a personal level. I deeply relate to their lyrics that speak of depression, anxiety, and not fitting in. I recently saw them perform at the Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre in San Diego, making it the third time I’ve seen the indie-rock band from Cincinnati. The venue is in the middle of SDSU’s campus. College students wander around the many restaurants and bars surrounding the school.

Eager anticipation overtakes me as the opening act, Daughter, performs. There is nothing better than seeing your favorite music being performed with people you love. My mom and I are sitting in the third row. She is almost as big of a fan as me. It is fitting to go to the show together as she was the first person to introduce me to The National years ago.

Earlier this year, The National released their 7th studio album Sleep Well Beast.  Their new album is more experimental than their older stuff, but still has a classic National feel. Seeing them perform is a one of a kind experience. Despite their melancholic sound, the 5 band members know how to rock out and put on a hell of a show. Lead singer Matt Berninger ventures into the crowd during “Mr. November”. He often reaches into the crowd and grabs peoples drinks. He chugs half, then showers the concertgoers with the other half.

For certain songs, guitarist Bryce Dessner plays with 2 guitars; 1 around his neck and 1 in his hands. He bangs the hand-held on the ground creating an ominous feedback that echoes throughout the theater. Band member improvise and elongate songs, making 3-minute songs last 7 or 8.

Prior to playing “Fake Empire”, Berninger says that some song’s meanings have slightly changed over the years. “This is one that has,” he says. “Things seem a little less fake now.”

Berninger told a story about a conversation he had with his dad earlier that day. His dad said, “Matt slow down.” “I’m trying to dad, I have to be in San Diego in 2 hours.” His dad then repeated, “Matt slow down.” Berninger tells the audience, “I heard him that time.” I love when musicians are honest with their fans and show that they are people too. Simple stories like these create an intimate connection between the musicians and the crowd.

With close to 20 years’ worth of music, The National has plenty of material to choose from. You’ll never hear them play the same setlist twice. They played “Start a War” for the first time since 2014, numerous songs from Sleep Well Beast, classics such as “Apartment Story” and “Terrible Love”, and some lesser known songs like “Wasp Nest”. They are on stage for a solid 2 hours, playing over 20 songs.

During the show, I remember looking up at the night sky and taking it all in. I had had a bit of a rough week, and it seemed like all the pressures of the world were coming down on me. For a moment, just a moment, I forgot about all of them. Listening to music doesn’t erase my problems. It doesn’t put a roof over my head or buy the groceries. It does, however, make life tolerable. It brings people together and allows them to dance. I’ll always cherish that night in San Diego, with my mom and 5,000 other friends, listening to some of my favorite music in the world.

The Possibilities of Music

Some bands simply love playing music and don’t care about anything else. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is one of those bands. These Aussies are straight-up music-holics. Since their formation in 2010, they have released 11 full-length studio albums that span a variety of genres. Their music is described as psychedelic or progressive rock but is influenced by folk, jazz, and heavy-metal to name a few. Songs incorporate themes and ideas from these extremely different styles pushing the boundaries of music.

I saw them at Metro Music Hall accompanied by Ice Balloons and Tropical Fuck Storm. Ice Balloons did not impress me. They sounded muffled and messy. However, they did leave a lasting impression for one particular reason, their lead singer wore a fly’s head mask. Uniqueness aside, I was not a fan of their music.  Tropical Fuck Storm was less memorable but seemed more put together as a band.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard consists of a herd of members and more instruments than I could count. Their distinct sound is attributed to multiple guitars, synthesizers, harmonicas, a flute, driving bass lines, and two dueling drums. Drummers Eric Moore and Michael Cavanaugh are smack-dab in the middle of the stage battling the entire night. They are the heart and soul of the band whose songs constantly change tempo.

Mixing music genres is not the only way King Gizzard revolutionizes music. For their album, Flying Microtonal Banana, guitarist Stu Mackenzie, Cook Craig, and Joey Walker “modded” guitars adding additional frets.This allowed them to access microtones, semitones, and additional notes impossible on a traditional western guitar. Lead singer Mackenzie had the idea after messing around on a Turkish stringed instrument called a baglama. The result is an easter sounding electric guitar. Creating their own instruments adds to their odd unique sound.

The Melbourne musicians put everything into their performance. They are incredibly energetic and the crowd matches their energy. In all my years going to concerts, I have never seen a wilder crowd. My shoes were completely destroyed in the madness. During the slower parts of songs, concertgoers sway and headbang. When the music gets faster and heavier, mosh pits form in the blink of an eye. The crowd is tightly packed, but the proximity doesn’t stop people from dancing.

King Gizzard’s albums have related songs that blend together and are often broken into multiple parts. Their setlist is programmed in the same manner. They play multiple songs in order or slightly jumbled so that they playing music for 20 or 30 minutes with no breaks. The reoccurrence of melodies and specific lyrics makes you question whether you are still listening to the same song as half an hour ago.

By the time Mackenzie announces their last song, the audience and musicians are beat. They summon enough energy to play a 15-minute version of “Am I In Heaven?”. The crowd cheers for 10 minutes but they don’t get an encore today. After almost 2 hours of constant music, there is nothing left in the tank.

Music truly is limitless. There are innumerable possibilities to be explored and as a society, we have only scratched the surface. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is a band that is pushing the limits of traditional music both in the studio and on the stage.

Metal Alliance Tour at The Complex

It’s Monday night. My roommate is talking about some concert he wants to go to. I’m not one for turning down concerts so of course I’ll go. I’ll soon find myself in semi-unfamiliar territory. Tonight is the Metal Alliance Tour at the complex.

Metal shows are always an experience. There is an incredible amount of passion that the musicians and audience members share. People are quite literally screaming to vocalize their uncontrollable emotion.

The night starts out with a man handing my friends and me free tickets at the door. I didn’t even have to give him my email address. Amazed and bewildered at the ease of it all, I enter the complex eager to see what this show has in store for me. The lineup of the tour includes Invidia, Black Fast, Havok, Crowbar, and Overkill.

I’m a little bit late walking in. Havok is finishing their set. I didn’t come for any particular band, so it’s not a big deal. Being at a concert with relatively unknown bands can be liberating. I’m not expecting to hear any songs and won’t be disappointed when they don’t play them. I have no preconceived idea of their sound. Whatever the band chooses to play and however they sound will be the lasting memory of the night. I can fully soak up my environment. Everything else becomes irrelevant.

I buy some earplugs. Once Crowbar comes on you’ll be wishing you had too. The crowd is relatively scarce. Everyone sneaks outside or upstairs in-between sets for a smoke or a beer. The mostly male crowd is dressed in black, red, and white. My friend is wearing a blue jacket and sticks out like a sore-thumb. Only a handful of people have short hair. The rest have their hair down and are ready for some head-banging.

When Crowbar comes on stage, I’m shocked. The musicians look nothing like how I imagined. The overweight middle-aged men are wearing shorts and t-shirts. The bass player has shoulder-length hair.  The other two front men are bald with massive facial hair. I never get a good look at the drummer. I guess that’s why he’s the drummer.

The sludge metal band from New Orleans relies on slow groovy guitar riffs and aggressive male vocals to sustain their sound. Formed in 1990, Crowbar was a pioneering band of the heavy metal subgenre. The crowd nods and sways with the drum and bass. People throw up rock-on signs and chant “Crowbar”.

The room fills to capacity and overflows into the lobby. Thrash metal band Overkill increases the tempo and the volume. The crowd takes the hint. Some mosh-pits get started but nothing too crazy, it’s still a Monday night in Salt Lake City. The band is quite animated, letting their passion show. They put it all on the line and the audience loves it.

Leaving the show, I couldn’t tell you the name of one song. I might never listen to these bands again, but that is not the point of a concert. I saw musicians get up on stage and do what they love. I saw them create art and music. Personal expression is one of the most important things humans do. I was able to be a part of theirs. It’s moments like these that make life livable.