Inexplicable Albums: The Grateful Dead’s “Infrared Roses”
What a long strange trip…
You know what? I’m not going to throw down that hoary old quote like it’s some beatific mantra that distills the essence of life into seven simple words. It’s a petty and banal way to start a review and I won’t stand for own laziness. Especially as this is, indeed, my first review after a two-year break.
And, of course, I decide to review the Grateful Dead for some reason. And not only a Grateful Dead album: but one that has no recognizable songs and is, instead, edited together as one long continuous suite of keyboard noise, bass thumps, drum paradiddles and guitar scrapes.
What a way to reintroduce myself to the reviewing world! Indeed, what a long strange trip…
It’s been so long since I reviewed anything that my fans are likely unaware that I went and did something incredibly stupid and ill-advised: I became a Grateful Dead fan.
It started out small: just a single live album, “Live/Dead.” Then some MP3’s. Then all the studio albums… right now, as I type, I’m plotting how to afford the next massive multi-concert box set they’re sure to release soon. After all, who doesn’t need 17,000 variations of “Sugaree”?
How did this happen?
The Grateful Dead have a way of working their way into your mind and your musical sphere. Their songs are pleasant, melodic, harmonious, well-played and varied. They have pretty good lyrics. Sometimes their songs are excellent. They’re almost always good.
But then you listen to a live album. And it clicks: Jerry starts soloing, Phil starts zooming, Bob starts chicka-chicking, whichever soon-to-be-dead keyboard player they had was tinkling and the double drummers were thumping.
And off you went, on some musical adventure! Sometimes it really sucked, but it was usually listenable. Sometimes it was transcendent.
Jazz in a rock format.
Not jazz rock. Not fusion. But rock (and roots music) played as if it was jazz. Nothing quite like it.
Another reason the band is so addicting is due to what I call the “Walt Whitman” effect: so much of them, and all so luscious. Because the band was constantly up to…something. There was always some kind of music they were working on or a side band with which they were jamming.
Simply put, they released a ton of studio albums (better than most people think), recorded almost all their shows and had baffling solo careers that veered from Grateful Dead stylization straight up into funk, jazz and even mainstream AOR.
Jerry probably did the best: his literally all-solo self-titled album is a winner and one that that mixed folk songs with avant-guard noise. He also had a collection of standards with an orchestra, helped invent modern bluegrass and toured with his own band (imaginatively titled “The Jerry Garcia Band”) when the Dead wasn’t.
And Weir released a handful of solo albums (including the classic “Ace”) and was in half a dozen different bands that often released only one album before he got bored and wandered away. The best of these is probably “RatDog” which takes the Dead jam aesthetic and slams it into Weir’s surprisingly complex songwriting.
However, no record produced in the band’s camp (be it a Dead release or a solo album) was as strange as “Infrared Roses,” beyond, perhaps John Oswald’s legendary Plunderphonic “Gray Folded.” But that’s a topic for a different time.
“Infrared Roses” is a collection of the “space” and “drum” sections that started appearing in the band’s concerts in the 80’s and 90’s. These sections took the place of the standard “Dark Star” sonic explorations in the 60’s and 70’s, popped up at any time during a concert and were easily the most “out there” moments of the band’s decline.
For some reason (I’m not near my copy and am not willing to look it up for religious reasons), the band decided they would edit some of the best sections together and release it as an album. The producer (again, blanking on his name) skillfully slapped together weird jams and noise making and made it sound like…weird jams and noise making. For about an hour.
Such a description is, likely, very uninviting. In fact, this was the second Grateful Dead album I ever owned and it was quite a shock to hear what often sounded like harsh industrial synthesizers droning into a near Amon Duul II-type soundscape. Where the hell was “Uncle John’s Band”?
Probably playing to the time in a different dimension.
After the initial terror of the album wears off, it becomes surprisingly listenable and even diverse. Sometimes, it’s just Billy and Mickey locked into some interminable drum groove.
Other moments, it’s Jerry soloing dissonantly while Phil lets his bass feedback.
Occasionally, Michael McDonald look and soundalike Brett Myland runs his hands across the keyboard aimlessly while Bob Weir screws around with ridiculous midi sounds.
After awhile, the mind starts focusing in on the little details. That’s the secret of Grateful Dead jams: they go on so long that your brain starts focusing on the small things, picking apart weird little details and entertaining itself with moments it might not have noticed otherwise.
It’s very intuitive and, at its finest, something like meditation: that is, focusing your attention on something so fully that you grasp its essence intuitively.
Or maybe it’s just a bunch of noises. Could go either way. And don’t get your hopes up for a big epic solo or crescendo. After an hour, ust kind of ends after what seems like an eternity spent listening to the band make goofy noises for an hour.
But hey, it’s a journey that beats Journey, a long strange trip that beats “Strange Brew” and a noise rock experiment from a band that was square enough to regularly cover (the sublime) Marty Robbins.
So, it’s pretty epic.
The Red Telephone Presents: “Goat” by The Jesus Lizard
All things come to an end. And thankfully, all things come to a beginning. Chris Harry, the newest contributor for Culture Fusion ponders the eternal question of beginnings and endings and decides upon a single point of origin: Goat.
Where to begin. Where to begin.
I listened to this about 5 days ago for the first time. I’ve been on a long Grateful Dead trip for the past few months, but for some reason I felt like acting on a suggestion my friend Adam has made to me multiple times. Jesus Lizard. Jesus Lizard.
I listened to Then Comes Dudley on Youtube around a month or so ago, but it didn’t click with me. I’ve since listened to Goat. On repeat. For the past 5 days. I mean, I’ve been listening to other stuff. I even bought the new Boards of Canada. But, my god. I don’t want to know how many times I’ve listened to this album.
Where to begin.
So, they’re from Austin, formed in 1987. The Jesus Lizard play a really heavy driving and hard hitting form of noise rock that is completely original and very brooding. Sparse hints of industrial music and speed metal are found throughout this varied yet distinctive record.
Their lead singer, David Yow, is a slightly deranged skeleton from Austin who is a very compelling case for Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as a completely intuitive singer in every possible limb of his act: his crazy and unpredictable songwriting; his behavior on stage; and his “singing” on stage. The man is a walking study in schizophrenia.
So, it’s fun to count the man’s changes, since they happen so often and drastically randomly throughout the course of this album, so many times, that it’s almost as if he was patched together by a drunken robot that runs on magnetic tape. He’s almost inhumane, like a wounded train hobo, drunkenly moaning in the night.
It’s daunting, it’s dark, it’s disturbing at times but it’s always Yow. Drunk Yow. Stoned Yow. Sleepy Yow. Maybe even, “Wanting to Strangle Albini Yow.” Who knows. Who cares. His singing is great. He shares “The Damo Suzuki Effect” where a completely bizarre and uniquely talented singer jumps into a band that is complete sounding and who don’t really need a singer.
This is part of the reason everything the man does when he opens his mouth sounds appropriate. That and he’s insane enough to emulate raw fear on command. He conveys it with his grunting and his screeching and his swells. Just about everything else too.
Then there’s good ol’ Duane Denison. A man who’s face screams: “You’re lucky I’m way too fucking high to care about anything, or else I’d probably strangle you with my guitar strap.” A man of interest and certainly a man of stellar cohesion.
Within their dynamic, his role in the band is very contrary to our friend Yow. He pierces through anything the band does on every track in this album and sounds like a fire storm doing it. But he’s the wings of this band. They fly because of his ability to retain structure within his chaotic playing. The melodic edge he brings to this band gives the music its nastiest and grimiest edge.
“The Serial Killer Sound” as my dad commented. I thought more, Aztec. Then Comes Dudley sounded like Tenochtitlan to me.
Either way, Duane brings his bizarre look farther than meets the ear whenever he’s playing. On Nub, Denison’s guitar sounds like a chainsaw that suddenly found itself attached to a rocket that was cutting through the Mojave sky, and Karpis has a very ornate rhythmic and harmonic structure. It also happens to have the unarguably clearest vocal takes on the whole record. I would say: “The whole band really meshes on this track.”. But since that can be easily applied to every track, I’ll just say Goat.
The bands dark energy and constant hay maker attitude is affirmatively owned by Mac Mcneilly and David Wm. Sims. They stir around like a giant vat of oil, bubbling sporadically to release some of the built up pressure, but with a constant undertow spinning the entire room to make it seem as if things are going wildly out of control. They are maniacally entwined on this record and without their incredibly tight chemistry, The Jesus Lizard would just sound like a creepy meth head playing random riffs while his drunken friend screams and barks and yells incoherently and drunkenly dives into the “crowd” only to get up and continue.
Not without his beer, though.
Combine the psychiatric facility ramblings, the blisteringly melodic and sharp abrasion of the guitar, the impossibly tight lock-step drumming matched to the “T” with an incredibly murky and speedy bass line and you get one of the best records you’ve heard in a long time. You get a rethinking of what you thought music could be. You get it all.
Goat’s sheer capacity for slamming all of these things so fiercely together just boggles my mind. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to write about this stuff, especially with it playing. Let’s just be safe and say this record, after listening to it with intention, has commanded my attention ever since I laid ears on it (again).
I’m always listening to it, wherever I go and that trend doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop any-time soon. I would maybe considering going down a list of individual songs, but honestly, it’s rather pointless. I don’t feel like spending the next four hours trying to draw minute and demure comparisons. I feel like listening to Goat.
Amazing or Amazingly Shit? “Half Gentlemen Not Beasts” by Half Japanese
“What’s the worst album you’ve ever heard in your life?” As a reviewer, I often get asked this question. The worst album I ever heard? There are so many ways one can define bad music! One could go the completely subjective route and say all music is based on taste and that there is no way you can objectify taste.
However, one could also go the ultra objective route and rate music based on the notes played, the construction of the songs, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics (if it’s song based music to which you’re listening) as well as the memorability and harmonious nature of the music.
Well, if one wants to rate music on such an objective scale, I’d have to say that “Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts” the triple (!) debut (!!!!!) by the Michigan-born Fair brothers would undoubtedly be, objectively one of the absolute worst albums I’ve ever heard.
This is an album with six sides of ridiculously written, out-of-tune music played on out of tune instruments by two idiot-savants that obviously barely know what they’re doing. The lyrics are the absurd droolings of a permanent man-child with a touch of autism. Objectively, listening to this album from start to finish is absolute agony.
Subjectively, this album is also one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life.
Okay, here’s where things start to get a little too intellectual (and perhaps more than a little stupid). David and Jad Fair are infamous for their naivety, crude approach and their dedication to never, ever getting better. Ever.
This can be viewed as a crime against music or as a refreshing breath of fresh air. There is nothing else in the world that sounds like this…except for perhaps the Shaggs which I won’t get into right now. Jad (usually) plays guitar like somebody who just picked it up for the first time. David (usually) plays drums in the same manner.
Both scream childish gibberish that focuses on girls they like, bands they love, girls they hates, bands they love, things they like doing, things they hate doing and an unending obsession with Jodi Foster, of all things.
Does this album sound a bit “serial killer” to you? Well, the Fair brothers are genuinely harmless but I think with a tad more insanity they’d be on some kind of watch list: both are rather nerdish, nebbish weirdos that have to be hovering near Asperger’s.
The music is always loud (cept when it’s not) and always noisy and sounds like a barely in control improvisation session: every song sounds the same but every song sounds different. The band tries their best to make each song stand out but over three sides of vinyl (including two complete concerts indexed as one track!!!) one starts to get a headache.
Basically, it sounds like the worst garage band ever (skills wise) playing whatever pops into their head and trying to create a diverse, unique experience and failing most of the time.
However, as one listens to the album, it starts to create its own unique soundscape and world view. Yes, it’s endless and the songs basically sound the same but you start to hear little weird touches…the kind of thing a real musician would have never included or “fixed up” to make it sound “better.”
This includes single note, endlessly repeat riffs, go nowhere solos, guitar tuning that’s done by “string tension” rather than actual notes played (or sometimes even stringing it with the same string six times) and a complete lack of care and abandon.
It all starts to make sense which can (and should) become terrifying: am I becoming a nerdy, nebbish, Asperger based potential serial killer too?
No: you’re just experiencing the unique sensation of absolute musical freedom. Kind of…I mean, as naive as the band wants to present themselves as being they still have a musical philosophy which guides them…that being that knowing what you’re doing is inherently limiting.
The basic concept is that if you “know” how to tune and string a guitar, how to play the “right” chords, all the “right” scales and how to “properly” write and arrange a song, you are falling victim to rules created for you by somebody else…rules that should not apply to you as they are rules you did not create and which will lead to music inherently limited by those rules.
I’ll admit it: this philosophy is intriguing to me and I agree with it to a certain extent. I have found that musicians simply have to play and write as if they know no boundaries. Try out new things, different sound combinations that they’ve never played and hopefully they can create something that’s somewhat unique and free of the “limitations” of the correct way to do things.
Which is why this album is, subjectively, one of the top 10 albums ever created. Because it’s music created with absolute freedom by two lunatics that are barely able to bash out anything even accidentally coherent on their instruments (they swap instruments a lot and both sing so it’s hard to know who is doing what and when).
But here’s the thing: completely unhinged and unschooled creativity such as this ultimately leads to…everything sounding exactly the same. As the band “expresses” themselves “absolutely freely” they end up making everything sound like everything else as they lack the skill to…differentiate their playing or “composing” approaches in anyway.
This is another reason why the album is objectively awful: a completely uniform sound palate.
But then there is the personality factor, the charisma and the charm which are impossible to define and bottle and which will vary from person to person. One person’s “charming masterpiece” will be another person’s “incoherent gibberish.”
So, long story short, the album is simultaneously the best album ever made and the worst. Both opinions are completely, perfectly, 100% valid and both can be proved using both subjective and objective definitions.
Which is why you should buy it and listen to it once a day for the rest of your life. And it’s been re-released on CD!
Songs to Youtube:
You kidding me?!
Noise is noise and music is music but sometimes noise is music and music is noise. Nothing but grinding sounds crashing against each other in discordance. Scrapes. Moans. Bashing out a stupid rhythm on a snare drum. Plucking out a few notes on a sitar (which you’ve never played). Feedback. Rumbles. Looping everything or playing it live. Pretension. A guy reading religious texts. Expressing something with nothing and nothing with everything in the room.
No light. No melody. No style but that which comes naturally with no effort at all.
Kluster may or may not have been three wild eyed Germans who created noise from 1970 to 1971. They may not or probably didn’t (or did) release an album called “Klopfzeichen” in 1970.
But the truth is something named “Klopfzeichen” exists in the world: it’s an album two record sides of the future of music (circa 1970) according to three unschooled, wild eyed Germans: a complete amateurish abandonment of all conventions, musicality and thought processes influenced by philosophers, composers and philosophies far above their heads.
A brooding German voice reading a disjointed, confusing text which often contradicts itself and which wasn’t really in the original plan. Nobody minded the man, standing nervously in the room, reading a strange speech while Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius ran around a room randomly working up an extensive and noisy drone on instruments, trash, sheet metal, ball bearings and various other incidental items that they had gathered up for the purpose of…creation.
The Man Reading the Text no doubt had ear plugs in as the microphone rolled, captured on track as it occurred with little to no editing interrupting the style, the sound and the feel of an endlessly rolling boulder crushing all offenders that stand in the way.
Nobody could convince the three (even if they’d wanted to try) to stop playing and another endless track was made out of metaphoric cardboard boxes and string. The German Text Reader ran away before this track even started, never to be heard from again.
“Let’s do it again!” somebody must have said as the band once again gathered up a reader (a woman this time) and made her read some type of strange, religious texts forced upon them by their label.
The three unskilled (but skilled) impatient (but patient) crazy (but focused) Germans shook obelisks at the sun (metaphorically of course) for another 40 or so minutes (the text reader fleeing after the first 20) and said “hey we should stop now.” And they never did it again.
The second 40 minutes of noise is “Zwei-Osterei.” It has two pieces (songs doesn’t work) and they sound in no discernible way different from “Klopfzeichen.” Aesthetic or limitation?
The band never recorded in a studio again but they released a live performance called “Eruption” which is 60 minutes instead of 40 and has no singer.
This time, our three German anti-heroes glided around a stage instead of a studio and really “let their hair down” to “rock and roll” in a way unheard of on the first two albums. Which is to say it sounded exactly the same but with no singer ruining the flow.
Play any of the tracks by this group and stop it at a random point. Edit a small portion out, save it and then do the same with another track. Edit these two together: you have a hit single.
Kluster ditched Conrad Schnitzer (and the K) to become “Cluster” and found a home blipping out random disturbances on synthesizers until they finally became skilled enough to be ambient, where all the music sounds the same on purpose.
The box set of Kluster music is the way to go because a) you can’t find them any other way and b) you can play all three albums in a row without stopping and spend over two hours listening intently.
Because even if it all sounds the same and seemingly never ends, each groove is like the Genome Project in that there are endless variations and permutations in each track that give it identity, life and a personality.
One moment its ball bearings rolled in a bowl of jelly. The next it’s the endless grunt of synthesizer feedback and a German grunting monosyllabic odes to joy.
Is it good? It isn’t good or bad. It simply Is. I wouldn’t listen to it if I were you but you probably should listen to it anyway.