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The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium

I must say that repetition of this album is definitely in favor of The Mars Volta. For each time the album inched its way up the scale in my head.

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With all the hype behind the break up of At The Drive-In and the birth of The Mars Volta I expected to be floored by this album or at least left with my jaw dropped. The effect this album had on me was far more gradual and time consuming. I tried with all my might not to come to a conclusion about the album before listening to it more than once. I must say that repetition of this album is definitely in favor of The Mars Volta. For each time the album inched its way up the scale in my head.

From what I have read it seems as if the songs are developed in such a way that they tell the story of a friend’s suicide or illustrate one … something of the sort. In attempt to parallel the concept and accurately describe the music I will take you through the visual progression that takes place in my mind.

I am in a park (though not a designated park). In fact, I am not in a park at all … more a hilly green area with large, branched trees sparsely distributed about. Slightly beyond this setting is a forest; a dark forest with mass amounts of overcrowding trees, which seem as if they are trying to push one another out. Back to where I am sitting; without any company of my own on the ground with my back against a rather old tree. I am asleep yet stirring. Without being aware of when or how, I wake up. The unnoticeable transition I make from sleep to wakefulness is much like the undetected transition made from song 1 to song 2 on the album as well as other successions.

As I survey my surroundings I find that the most random group of people I have ever encountered encapsulates me. My fellow “just before the forest-dwellers” are physical representations of the various characteristics or attributes of the music in the CD. There is the eccentric, slightly schizophrenic kid who is entertaining in small doses but whom too much of just gives you a headache. Then further off into the distance is the unassuming, brooding, sullen, profound and intellectual looking one. Her presence, although subtle, is much needed. The person closest to me is the innovator. It (we’ll make this person androgynous for the time being) weans in and out of this imaginary circle around the area. Each time it comes near me it is convinced that it has come up with a revolutionary idea or sound when usually it is just coming up with different variations of one new concept. So it is rather repetitive in its thoughts and even patterns of walking around. Somewhere in the mix is the heartbroken boy who has had to suffer all kinds of dreadful circumstances. That he has made it this far, this close to the forest is amazing and somewhat inspiring. Yet, one look at him and one can see and feel only some of the pain he has had to endure to merely survive. Not lastly, but last of the more apparent figures, is the happy go lucky girl who wants nothing more than to save the world. To pull the downtrodden boy from his misery, to hand the schizophrenic some medication and therapy, to hand the “thinker” a puppy so she can attempt to enjoy life at the moment and not dissect it, and to hand the inventor a camcorder so that it may see for itself the productions of its mind. Jesus, the savior, in the form of a woman … (kidding).

Much of the day passes as much of the CD passes. The guitar resembles the psychotic (schizophrenic) kid weaving in and out of the background then bursting into the foreground. During the trek around the area the kid magnifies his presence at times while randomly pulling back at others. Much of his time is spent in the foreground though, creating an excess of dirtied guitars. Many times simultaneously, the depressed girl brings voice to her thoughts and frustrations through the “ooohs” that complement the music an unimaginable amount especially in the second track. The whispering she does may just make up for the incredibly screechy guitars effects offered by the schizo. In the third track there are attempts to give more voice to her. As a result she finds herself in opposition to the faster paced music, which is dominating the track. She tries to hold her ground and results in an eccentric pace wavering from soft to loud to soft to loud over and over again. It is not till late in the song that she perseveres with her softer background music that allows more focus on the vocals; only to revert back to the fight between soft and loud.

Contributions of the bruised (mentally and physically) pervade every song. The desperate feeling that is apparent in each track is inescapable much like his past. The wandering psychotic has inspired the innovator. In fact this inventor is convinced that the overbearing guitar sounds brought about by the schizo are ingenious. He (the innovator) is inspired to add effects, which are unnecessary and distracting to me. In addition he tweaks the environment adding an immensely cut up quality, constantly wavering in tone and volume. He refuses to offer any stability in the environment. All the while the carefree girl attempts to raise my level of awareness so I can attempt to see the brilliance of the combinations instead of wondering what the fuck is going on. After much probing and prodding I am able to see bits of genius and creativity but for many of the positive points are hidden behind the screeching guitars, thanks to the frantic schizophrenic and his newly acquired pal, the innovator.

While most of the album proceeds in such a way that there is a constant struggle between all the characters or attributes of music in the end there is a breakthrough. Instead of trying to find their way and their strengths, everyone finds his/her voice in track 9, “Televators”. This is all in good time because dawn is breaking. After experimenting with length of songs or activities, ranging from one and a half minutes to twelve minutes, a compromise is reached. “Televators” lasts a mere six minutes, six wonderful minutes. Everyone gets his or her say in this song. Beginning with an abrupt silence, contrasting from the previous track, nature sounds are heard resembling the awakening of the “just before the forest” area. Like soft and slow gusts of wind the sullen girl’s vocals soothingly brush against your skin and through your ears. I feel like I am ingesting the thought process she has. Slowly the fragile gusts of wind acquire more strength as the courageous boy sings his piece through piercing vocals that so obviously express unsurpassed pain. Not only pain but desire as well. The shifts in rhythms proposed by the psychotic are nice with the arrangement at hand. Instead of confusing me, they subdue me while provoking me. Provoking me to think and consider a variety of things. “Televators” is without a doubt my favorite song on the album. It is as if all the characters in my mind have collaborated in such a way that each contributes the perfect amount of themselves to the collection of music. Unlike most of the songs this one has not one thing in excess until the very end where the sounds resemble light sabers. This track is the lowest common denominator of all the instruments. Even with no excessive manipulations it easily instigates the most intense feelings in me, especially when reading the lyrics while listening to the song.

All in all the evening spent in the area just before the forest was eventful, sometimes painful, and eye opening yet it is something I do not wish to experience again for sometime. I need to recover from the night’s festivities. Similarly while I find this album intriguing, I am not interested enough to listen to it again for at least another week or two perhaps longer. While I will listen to “Televators” I do not think I will be revisiting the other songs. This is just my experience and my pathological interpretation of De-loused in the Comatorium; however, there are many critics who hail this as album of the year, the Holy Grail of new music.

(Universal Music)

Music

Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and the Art of Alienation

The hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating

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Willie Nelson

Someday, when the world finally loses Willie Nelson, there will be an eruption of sadness. He is an icon, yet many people will still be shocked at the depth and profundity of his body of work. At this point already, the unbroken length and quality of his career is almost without precedent in American music. He has simply been here so long it seems he has always been here doing what he does. And his music has defied easy categorization, slipping seamlessly between wide varieties of country music, jazz, and American standards. He is probably the artist for whom the term “Americana” was most properly invented. 

Yet his career can be divided into rather neatly-defined stages. For many people, myself included, his most interesting stage is probably his brief stint with Atlantic Records in the early 1970s. Atlantic had just begun a Country division and Nelson was brought in as a cornerstone for that new endeavor. The experiment was not long; Nelson ended up recording only two albums under the Atlantic label, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, but the two albums worked out to be an essential bridge in Nelson’s gradual transformation from a fixture of the Nashville establishment to an iconic Outlaw and the singular artist we know and love today. Without these works, there is no path to Red Headed Stranger or Stardust or the collaborations with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that would come to define Country music in the decades to come. 

Here I want to discuss the simple, singular genius of one song from this period, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie. The song perfectly embodies the artistic maturity gained by Nelson’s long breakup with the Nashville machine. And the hard lessons learned by that process show up in the song’s spare production, which works with its deceptively simple lyrics to show how market economies alienate human beings from themselves and one another. 

“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Willie Nelson’s Career

Nelson was pushing 40 when Shotgun Willie was released. He was a longtime fixture in the Nashville music business, mainly as a songwriter (he was a hit maker for many other artists, writing songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline). As a solo artist himself, however, Nelson was constrained by the producer-centric power structures of The Nashville Sound. His ambitions were too large to be contained for long, however.

Nelson had already experimented musically. For example, he released a beautiful yet enigmatic concept album in 1971 called Yesterday’s Wine, which began the process of pushing his way out of the mold Nashville had formed him in. Eventually, he would leave RCA and Nashville altogether, moving to Austin, Texas and, in that strange mix of bikers, cowboys, and hippies, Willie Nelson as we now know him began to invent himself.

This is the world into which Shotgun Willie, and its third song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was born.

The Song

With only a single guitar, alternating bass notes between plucky strums to create a (you guessed it) waltz, and backed by a distant steel guitar, the song begins “I’m writing a song all about you. A true song as real as my tears. But you’ve no need to fear it, ‘cause no one will hear it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” 

This utterly simply, yet devastatingly powerful opening tells the whole story. A man, an artist, is betrayed by his love and longs to express it through his art. The power of the marketplace makes this an impossibility. He is left both without a woman and without a song to mourn her absence. This is the purest tragedy. 

Essentially the song, like many country songs,  tells a story about a man who has lost a relationship with a woman. This is a rather normal part of human life, but human relations are flexible and people typically have the ability to craft new relationships in the wake of these breakups. The speaker in this song is deprived of that opportunity. The purpose of his art, the song he sings about writing, is to forge a relationship between him and his audience. His artistic expression is an extension of his humanity, his self. Sadly, this self does not exist outside the controls of the marketplace. His song will remain unsung because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” 

The chorus puts it in even more starkly economic terms. “It’s a good thing that I’m not a star. You don’t know how lucky you are. Though my record may say it, no one will play it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Perhaps if our singer were more famous he could escape the cage built  for him by the music industry, but he is not. Therefore, any effort to make art from his pain — art that might forge a relationship between him and an audience — is in vain. No one would play it in the first place as it is not marketable. 

One particularly interesting feature of this song is its meta approach to songwriting. It is, in simple terms, a song about a song. This is not a particularly novel concept in itself, with the supreme example probably being the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes” provides a fascinating twist on the genre, however. This is a song about another song that no one has heard, nor will they, for economic reasons that we will get into in a bit. 

This is not merely clever, it is a formal feature that contributes to the song’s meaning. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a song is about alienation. And the singer of this song is so alienated from his personal art that he can only sing about it at a distance. It represents an ultimate form of alienation.

Alienation and Markets

Alienation is a devastating consequence of life lived under the control of markets. This is a central point in the writings of Marx and other critics of capitalism. The moving around of money in the quest to extract profit makes us all, in one way or another, cogs in a capital-producing machine, and Nashville certainly was and remains one of those. 

Like many talented artists working in Nashville, Nelson had been alienated from the fruit of his labor. He was put to work writing songs for other people to sing to create income for his record company. And when we was permitted to record his music himself, it simply wasn’t Willie Nelson as we know him. Seriously, look at his early album covers and try not to laugh at how uncomfortably not Willie Nelson he looks.

And just as Nelson had been forcibly removed from his authentic self, alienation extends beyond our relationships with the products of our labor. It also emerges as a barrier between individuals, interfering with proper relationships among human beings. Forced to sell our labor for wages, other people lose their individual identities and become mere competitors, making human cooperation difficult to achieve. We become, above all, alienated from ourselves and other people on a natural, human level when subjected to the demands of money-making. We lose our status as fully embodied people, having been reduced to a figure in some equation to determine the bottom line. 

Its hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating. The betrayed singer is alone and must remain alone because he cannot spin his pain into enough profit for the bean-counters. 

Conclusion

When Shotgun Willie was produced, Nelson had only recently emerged from the Nashville money machine. He had spent years conforming himself to the demands of that industry, stifling his creative self in service of its products. This professional history provides insight into the source of a career frustration that finally exploded into songs like “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”

The move to Austin, a place that was weird and incomprehensible to the logic of the Nashville scene helped break him from his binds. Hanging out with the hippies and hillbillies of that unique and idiosyncratic music scene allowed him to develop something closes to an authentic artistic self and it set the stage for his many career reinventions. He became, in many ways, country music’s best answer to Bob Dylan in this way. 

When he eventually returns to Nashville it is as a bonafide “outlaw” with the rest of that movement largely founded on its rebellion against the Nashville Machine. Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a good example of how the Outlaw movement wore an open animosity against how Nashville’s system stifled individual creativity and forced it back down the throat of that very system. Capitalism being what it is of course, Nashville eventually found a way to coerce profit out of the artistic forms that rose up against it, bringing the enemy into the fold as it were. Outlaw Country became the defining sound of 1970s Nashville.

Still, Willie Nelson’s Atlantic Records period serves as an inspiration. It is a moment when an artist well into his career finds the strength to reinvent himself and claim significant ownership over his own art, taking a career full of alienation and molding it into a new form of art that would indeed forge powerful human relationships with a new audience for decades to come. It might even be said that he took a share of the means of production, with the product being Willie Nelson.

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A Night with Northlane

Josh Hockey went to go see Northlane in Melbourne and took photographer Albert LaMontagne with him to capture the night.

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Northlane

Settling in to 170 Russell would have been nice, but as we stepped in at the allocated 6:30 door time we were greeted with the start of Void Of Vision’s set. Sprinting down the stairs and into the room, it was clear that moving the door time forward half an hour had definitely affected the crowd.

A decent audience had streamed in, but nowhere big enough considering the year Void Of Vision has had. Releasing their magnum opus album, Hyperdaze, they have been on an absolute tear, and it was clear during this set that they were going to keep going hard.

Opening up by bringing the heavy early, Void had the room shaking from the world go. An impressive light show and an almighty wall of sound filled the room with layers upon layers of adrenaline. Vocalist Jack Bergin led this assault, bringing as much energy as he possibly could, whilst utilising his seemingly endless amounts of stage presence.

New songs like “Babylon” and “Hole In Me” showcased their new sound, while “Kill All Your Friends” got the pit going like it always does. They finished strong with “Ghost In The Machine” and left their stamp on 170 Russell.

International act Silent Planet were up next. A pretty much completely new band to me, I was immediately impressed by the connection they appeared to have with their audience. From the word go, the pit was open, and everyone in the front few row was singing along with all the passion in the world.

Spoken word vocals mixed with harsh screams ensured that vocalist Garrett kept the audience on their toes. The instrumentals kept up this pace as well, with their hard hitting dark tones unrelentingly assaulting the ears of all listeners (in a good way).

Silent Planet sounded incredibly large all the way through, and definitely would have made themselves some new fans on the night. Their music appeared to be full of themes of mental illness, and political issues, which is absolutely super important in today’s societal climate.

Counterparts were up next. Definitely a well known band, the heavy Canadians immediately made clear the tone of the set announcing themselves with a call of, “Counterparts Schoolies Week Motherfucker.” They launched into their first song and it was immediately clear why they are as acclaimed as they are. Ridiculously tight and sounding stupidly massive, they had fans moving from the second they started playing.

The shit talking between sets would have been the highlight, but the songs themselves made it hard to top. Playing the old classics as well as the new heavy-hitters, there was as much two stepping as there was singing along. Also this was perhaps the first time in history I heard a pitcall of “schoolies 2019 motherfucker open it up,” which was an experience that I’m glad I had.

Dedicating a song to Australia’s very own Trophy Eyes, their massive sound continued unrelentingly. Coming towards the end, the set closed with a wave of crowdsurfers all diving and climbing towards the microphone, trying to get ahold of vocalist Brendan so they could scream his words right back at him. This set was great, and I’m quite sad I personally am not a Counterparts super fan so I couldn’t join in the fun. Next time boys. Next time.

Finally it was time for the big dogs, Northlane. The lights went down and hands went up, ready to go and awaiting the bands arrival impatiently, the audiences cravings would soon be met. Northlane charged onto stage and belted into “Talking Heads.” The movement was huge from the start, and the audience was off their feet and jumping non-stop all the way through.

“Details Matter” was a definite highlight of the set, with the ridiculously massive sound of one of the better songs of 2019 running rampant through 170 Russell. Headbangers were aplenty and moshers were in surplus. This continued even into one of their softer songs, “Rot.” The first song released by the band with vocalist Marcus Bridge, “Rot” went down an absolute treat as always.

Northlane are a ludicrously tight live band, and this became ever more clear as they smashed through “Citizen, “Obelisk”, and “4D.” New party song “Eclipse” had the room shaking as everyone refused to stop bouncing. The set began to come to a close as massive Alien single “Bloodline” was the definite highlight of the show. It has been one of my favourite songs of the year, and this rendition locked that in even more. Cannons and lights were ablaze and firing everywhere, and made this even more of a spectacle.

Leaving stage momentarily, Northlane returned as Marcus came back wearing a big sparkly coat. “Sleepless”, the closing track of the album was incredibly effective and touching live. And was a nice sombre end to the show, right before they launched into the timeless heavy classic, “Quantum Flux.” And goddamn was it massive.

Northlane are one of the best bands out there, and this show only locked that in.

Check out the images from the Northlane show:

All photos by Albert LaMontagne. Copyright 2019 Albert LaMontagne / Sound the Sirens Magazine. Please do not use or distribute these images without the permission of Albert LaMontagne. If you use these images without permission, you are a terrible person.

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