100 Best Songs of the ’90s: #90 – Britney Spears | “…Baby One More Time”

Spectrum Culture continues with 10 more songs on their ’90s list. Here’s my entry for “…Baby One More Time”:

Max Martin may be credited as songwriter and producer, but he’s neither; he’s a military strategist and an evil overlord, and Cheiron Studios is his volcano lair. It was clear from the outset that he was bent on world domination, and with *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys he was well on his way. To fully achieve his goal, he needed a number one hit, and found it with Britney Spears.

Martin had big singles with other artists, but with “…Baby One More Time,” he successfully weaponized pop music. While Spears seemed little more than a means to an end (the song was famously turned down by TLC), she owns it by alternating between her come-hither slink and demanding presence. As the debut single and title track of Spears’ first LP, “…Baby” was a guaranteed career-launching smash hit. Naturally, being engineered for greatness certainly helps, especially that supernova of a chorus. Yet after the first half-dozen listens, hidden elements reveal this as more than just a few catchy melodies. The three-note piano line, wah-wah guitar and hiccupping bassline are all tiny hooks themselves, further solidifying the song’s permanence in your brain.

Still, the song may be even better known for its music video than for its mega-hook. Taking the song from inescapable hit to cultural touchstone, the four minute video of outfit changes (some cringe worthy) and choreography formed the blueprint for every teen pop hit of the late ‘90s and early ‘00’s. After “…Baby One More Time,” Martin and Spears would go on to make fantastic singles together and separately, but this first collaboration is still the peak of both careers. And, yes, that includes “Since U Been Gone” and “Toxic,” respectively. In their defense, this song is fucking perfect.

 

100 Best Songs of the ’90s: #93 – Smashing Pumpkins | “Mayonaise”

Spectrum Culture is doing a 100 Best Songs of the ’90s list. Here’s my blurb for Pumpkins’ “Mayonaise”.

That the Pumpkins struggled under the pressure to follow up Gish—addiction, a breakup, writer’s block, suicidal thoughts—is well-documented. That Billy Corgan and company rose to the challenge(s) with Siamese Dream is unquestioned. That Dream contains some of the band’s finest performances and some of Corgan’s best songwriting is canon.

And, of course, this includes “Mayonaise,” of which Rolling Stone declared, “In some ways, it’s the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins song.” Readers agreed by naming it the band’s greatest song in a 2012 poll, beating out “1979,” “Cherub Rock” and “Soma.”

The question, then, regarding its greatness isn’t what or where but why: Why is it so revered by fans and critics alike? Beyond the obvious answer of being a near-perfect composition, it’s rather simple: “Mayonaise” is vague. Its discussion of struggling to understand one’s own identity is clear enough, but exactly why the struggle is happening—that’s the song’s key. In that unexplained space, the listener is free to insert whatever troubles s/he is going through, making Corgan’s lyrics that much more accessible. In other words, less is more. To wit, this is expressed in four words: “Words defy the plans.” As standalone lyrics, “Mayonaise” is brilliant because it’s both precisely opaque and opaquely precise.

Having beautiful music as accompaniment always helps, though. The soothing guitar melody bookending the song and the warm blanket of multi-tracked riffing throughout is premier comfort food. Even the moody, insecure solo—perhaps representing the song’s (and band’s) inner turmoil—is quickly silenced by gentle acoustic strumming as if to say, “It’s gonna be OK,” with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

Besides being the album’s crown jewel, “Mayonaise” is Siamese Dream’s purest distillation: six minutes of naval-gazing with tangents through self-doubt, anxiety and hard-earned confidence. Corgan wrote abstractly about inner conflict, but it’s clear he was talking to himself as much as anyone else. “And I fail/ But when I can, I will,” he assures himself (and us). “Try to understand/ That when I can, I will”. The Smashing Pumpkins may have written better songs, but they never wrote a more relatable one.

Album review: Suffocation | ‘…Of the Dark Light’

I reviewed the new Suffocation album, …Of the Dark Light, for Spectrum Culture.

Since reforming in 2002 after a four-year breakup, Suffocation’s output has been promising, if a bit spotty. The quality of the band’s albums trends upward, yes, but it starts at a fairly shallow point. Their records go from the band awkwardly finding its footing (2004’s Souls to Deny), to slowing the pace down for improved results (2006’s self-titled LP and 2009’s Blood Oath), to making one hell of an impressive display of sheer aggression a quarter-century into its existence (2013’s Pinnacle of Bedlam).

Bedlam is easily Suffocation’s best offering since 2002, and among the best in their career. Yet, if there is a flaw to be found within it, it’s the same flaw that has plagued much of the band’s catalogue: too often the band mistakes mindless jackhammering and apathetic brutality for songwriting. Sure, blast beats and endless riffing are cool and easy to headbang to, but the slope of diminishing returns is steep. The closest they came to shedding it was Oath, a record that shifted the focus from headlong sprints to groove-based compositions but suffered the same issue regardless.

Sadly, the band hasn’t fully shed that tendency on their new record, the often brilliant …Of the Dark Light. While breakneck jackhammering is still prevalent throughout (especially on “Return to the Abyss,” “The Violation” and “Some Things Should Be Left Alone”), the songwriting is more varied than Bedlam. In this way, Light appears to borrow ideas from its two predecessors and combine the results. As an example, “The Warmth Within the Dark” is mostly a mid-tempo stomp (with bursts of speed that equals anything they’ve done) with a main riff during the quasi-chorus that has a slightly uplifting feel and is even catchy.

But Suffocation knows when to borrow from other bands to break up the monotony, too. Immolation, a fellow New York death metal institution, seems to be a source of inspiration on the opening of the punishing “Your Last Breaths” and the psychotic title track with their eerie leadwork over frenzied guitar crunch. Notably, the title track also slows down as it progresses – mimicking the passing of time in the lyrics – making it one of the few truly different compositions offered.

And then there are times when pummeling concrete does serve a purpose. “Some Things” illustrates this the best. It’s a sci-fi horror scene that finds some innocent strangers encountering a creature from another dimension that kills them purely for “wrong place, wrong time”. The song’s lyrics paint a grisly picture (“Spines snapped/Heads cracked/Carnage ensues”) as flailing riffs and light-speed drumming attempt to match said carnage. The song ends with vocalist Frank Mullen stating that the unlucky person(s) to stumble onto this “scene of malevolence shall be forever scarred” which is then followed by a delirious solo from lead guitarist Terrance Hobbs, as if to imagine the thoughts of the unlucky.

In keeping with a tradition dating back to 1995’s Pierced from Within, Suffocation ends …Of the Dark Light with a re-recorded track from 1993’s Breeding the Spawn. This time around it’s the fantastic “Epitaph of the Credulous,” riff-fest that describes a winged creature searching for “helpless victims” to feast upon. Mullen notes that, “The beast has no feelings/ It sees no remorse”, which is an apt description of the band itself. Suffocation begins its fourth decade next year, and there are no signs that this beast can be stopped.

Album review: Arcadea | ‘Arcadea’

I wrote about Brann Dailor’s latest project, Arcadea, for Spectrum Culture.

For his new project, Arcadea, Mastodon’s vocalist and drummer Brann Dailor joins forces with two keyboardists and vocalists, Core Atoms of psychedelic weirdos Zruda and Raheem Amlani of black metal experimentalists Withered. The trio’s self-titled debut is a concept album that the band has described as envisioning “a future five billion years from now, where the impending collision of galaxies creates a new order of planets…where cold, distant moons pledge alliance to new suns and expanding gas giants implode into black holes” and where “Arcadea reign supreme as the last surviving space wizards since the final extinction.”

It is within this context that you begin to understand what Arcadea is: namely, a frontrunner for oddest album of 2017 and the silliest thing Dailor has ever been a part of—and keep in mind that Mastodon once made a record about a child’s soul traveling into the body of Grigori Rasputin via astral projection who tries and fails to overthrow a Russian czar…or something.

If the explanation of the record’s content isn’t ridiculous enough, simply refer to the lyrics. When the vocalists aren’t busy singing in the first person as a group of electrons (“We spin freely/ We breed orbit/ Velocity/ We crash to ignite, we are electric”), they’re trying to sell absurdist word salad (“Crystals that form on the outside of life/ Lifeless the seas that have sent them in waves/ Perfect destruction, we’re floating away/ Swim through the static, the ocean alive”) and cosmic beat poetry (“Push past the pulsar phantoms with future kind/ Erase, replace, deface, create the space”).

The assumption, then, is that it’s better to focus on the music and melodies, right? Well, mostly. The darting, nimble melody of “Gas Giant” and the ethereal vocals of Susanne Gibboney’s guest spot on “Neptune Moons” suggest as much. Hell, the vocoder-heavy vocal melody of “Through the Eye of Pisces” sounds like the first draft of a Daft Punk song, and “Motion of Planets” has an actual groove. The majority of the album, however, imagines oddball scenarios like electro-funk having an epileptic seizure or a pinball machine doing an impression of an Atari 2600. Keyboards and synthesizers pulse, twinkle, fizz, bubble, jab and stutter, yet to accurately describe this record is to traverse dangerously close to Dr. Seuss territory with onomatopoeic non-words like “skwonk,” “squink” and “twonk.”

Either way, Dailor’s drumming throughout demonstrates his unwavering faith in the proceedings. His effort to break up the wall of bong-ready keyboards and synths via his insistent jazz-style playing is both Herculean and Sisyphean in equal measure. Even on subdued compositions “Neptune Moons” and “Through the Eye of Pisces,” where he largely acts as time-keeper, Dailor can’t help but let a few fills seep out as if to imply the songs weren’t interesting enough as is.

Still, the record is not a total loss. Sure, there’s undeniable, right-brain creativity here, like when the keyboards in the left and right channels have a ray-gun fight (“The Pull of Invisible Strings”) or when the band attempts to soundtrack electrons colliding (“Army of Electrons”). Even the jam session that closes the record is loosey-goosey fun. But, it’s that esoteric nature which ultimately becomes Arcadea’s downfall. Weirdness is good in art, maybe even essential. When weirdness goes unchecked, though, it tends to suck away good ideas into oblivion—kinda like a black hole.

Spectrum Culture work, vol 9

DREAMCAR (No Doubt + Davey Havok) put out its self-titled debut and I wrote about it. I even brought back some snark from my college days.

Davey Havok is quite the busy man. Since April of last year, two of his projects (AFI and Blaqk Audio) have released full-lengths and toured behind them. Now, it seems, he’s decided to further crowd his ridiculous schedule with a new project: DREAMCAR. It’s a supergroup of sorts, with Havok fronting a band consisting of No Doubt members not named Gwen.

That trio from No Doubt – guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal and drummer Adrian Young – began writing music for a new project in 2014 and later asked Havok to join. The group’s eponymous debut, presumably, is only now getting a release because this is simply when there was time to promote and tour behind it.

In a recent interview, Kanal says that the project was largely kept a secret, allowing them more creative freedom since they weren’t beholden to a record company exec or a manager. Given that the band brought Tim Pagnotta on board as a producer, this is a curious statement. Pagnotta has worked on two of the most inescapable Skittles overdoses of the last few years: Neon Trees’ “Sleeping with a Friend” and WALK THE MOON’s “Shut Up and Dance.”

“Creative freedom,” then, appears to mean “follow the current trend of doing your best ‘80s pop-rock impression.” In this way, Pagnotta was the logical choice. He knows how to paint any band in bright, “Miami Vice”-esque pastels to get the desired aesthetic, and he does so here with almost cynical precision. Darting and tickling synths are paired with itchy guitar, and they’re polite enough to each other without forming a partnership.

Actually, it’s kinda like how the first third of the record finds Dumont, Kanal and Young answering the question, “How many different ways can we write the same anthem that builds to a soaring chorus over which Havok can howl his goth-tinged kabuki theater witticisms?” Yes, “Kill for Candy” and “Born to Lie” have massive hooks (despite trite lyrics like, “But I’ve grown too tired to lie/ And you’re born so sick of truth”), but they’re hollow and empty. Throughout DREAMCAR, the means are the end – and that’s the problem.

See, when you don’t have an earworm hook (as most of side B demonstrates), you’re left with tepid, mid-tempo synth-rock. There are flashes of brilliance (“The Preferred” struts around on a scratchy guitar lick, and “Don’t Let Me Love” opens with a playful, sing-songy riff that leads to twinkling guitar and pulsing bass effectively complementing each other), but not enough to break up the monotony.

The end result is a record where most of its material demands your attention but is forgotten 10 minutes later. In effect, DREAMCAR is like a sugar binge – you only kept going beyond the first few pieces because it was in front of you, and at the end you’re left feeling unfulfilled and wondering what it was all for. Or as Havok puts it in a bit of laughable irony: “You do nothing for me/ But don’t ignore me.”

Spectrum Culture work, vol 8

I went long about one of my favorite albums from 2007, Phantom Limb, from one of my favorite acts in all of extreme music, Pig Destroyer.

Say you’re in a respected grindcore band whose first record was promising (2000’s Explosions in Ward 6), its second impressive (2001’s Prowler in the Yard) and its third genre-defining (2004’s Terrifyer). More importantly, these included (gasp!) songwriting elements that extend past the genre’s rigid boundaries, with each release stepping further outward.

So what’s next? If you’re Pig Destroyer, you take what made those albums great and run with it. In this case it’s sharper lyricism, better production/engineering and some (relatively speaking) traditional song structures alongside the frantic conniptions for which they’re known. The result is 2007’s Phantom Limb, the band’s finest LP and the one that found the Virginia outfit refine their focus without rounding off the violent and ugly edges of their sound.

Additionally, Phantom marked the moment when PxDx became not only the best band in grind, but among the best in all of extreme music. It also marked the moment when they became rule-breakers. “Jupiter’s Eye,” “Loathsome,” “Heathen Temple” and “The Machete Twins” feature some actual grooves in between flailing sprints of insanity. The album as a whole features a number of memorable riffs: “Alexandria” alone has more than one; “Girl in the Slayer Jacket” even has a recurring motif(!). You can actually tell songs apart, something of a no-no within the genre.

In other words, PxDx decided to try writing more than simply a collection of spastic fits and it shows. Not only is Phantom a fantastic piece of grind, it’s a fantastic album in general. Its pacing, with its peaks and valleys, makes an already sickening ride even more so. This is a record that delights in its own repulsiveness.

To wit, the album opens with “Rotten Yellow” and its first lyrics are, “Stench of solvent/Covers stench of rot/I didn’t even recognize her/Like a painting/A masterpiece in pieces/And set to flame.” From there, Phantom goes to the darkest corners of vocalist and lyricist J.R. Hayes’ mind to match the utter psychopathy of his bandmates (guitarist Scott Hull, drummer Brian Harvey and sampler/noisemaker Blake Harrison). As Hayes stated in a 2015 interview, “I’ve always been fascinated slash haunted by death, morbid thoughts and morbid subjects”.

But Hayes doesn’t just rummage through demented material for its own sake (unlike, say, Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster). Instead, he paints images and scenes, exploring characters within each – if only for 90 seconds at a time. In the case of “Rotten Yellow,” the song is a window into the mind of a deeply unbalanced individual. After disturbing, aforementioned opening lyric, the narrator gets oddly poetic about his victim’s appearance: “Her skin/Is yellow/Like wildflowers/In July”. By the song’s (quick) end, he’s conversing with her: “She asks me how she looks/And I tell her/That she’s as lovely as the vultures/As pretty as the larvae of the fly”.

Neither the scene or character would be out of place in a Thomas Harris novel. Indeed, Hayes’ fearlessness makes him an unparalleled lyricist, both in extreme music and pop music in general. It’s also what makes him PxDx’s secret weapon. Other acts have tested the tensile strength of grind’s boundaries – even old-school heroes like Brutal Truth and Napalm Death – but no band can offer the unique talent of Hayes.

Appropriately, as it is for the rest of the band, Phantom Limb is Hayes’ crowning achievement. To that end, just as important as his diction is his succinctness. The violently lurching “Fourth Degree Burns” has only 39 words, but not a single one is wasted as Hayes describes a breakup: “I see everything sour before it’s ripe/Tomorrow she’ll step on that plane and disappear/But tonight her lips are real”. Of course, because this is Pig Destroyer, the partner in question kisses “like a head-on collision.” Hayes also discusses romantic troubles in “Jupiter’s Eye”: “It’s like losing a limb/This agonizing goodbye/My dreams of her are violent/All swirled in red/Like the storm in Jupiter’s eye”. It’s a bit demented, but purposefully so.

Which is a great way to describe Phantom Limb and PxDx as a whole. Hayes’ tortured screams over the sputtering racket from his bandmates is grotesque, sure, but it’s also as beautiful and poetic – and special – as Hayes’ lyrics. There is some real ugliness to be found within Phantom Limb, including “Thought Crime Spree.” Over two minutes of darting madness, Hayes splices some surprisingly deep self-reflection (“I don’t have any scars/Only dormant wounds/That crack like fault lines”) into a murder fantasy (“I only have/Five thoughts anymore/And four of them/Are of you/Body bursts and leaks/Like a trash bag.”

Pig Destroyer would follow-up Phantom five years later with the superb Book Burner. Yet while that album’s highs matched those of its predecessor (including “Sis,” “The Diplomat” and “King of Clubs”), Book was a slight step backward for the band. That’s not a dig at Book, though, rather further illustration of how exceptional Phantom Limb is.

 

Spectrum Culture work, vol 7

Full of Hell released their fifth LP, Trumpeting Ecstasy, and I reviewed it.

For all the havoc Full of Hell has wreaked, the first thing you hear on Trumpeting Ecstasy, the group’s new full-length, is not the band. Instead, it opens with German director Werner Herzog speaking. “Nature here is vile and base,” he declares. “Of course, there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery.” As you might imagine, his thick accent (as well as the audio’s manipulation) gives those words a certain malevolence, setting the tone for the audio terrorism to come.

Ecstasy is FoH’s fifth LP overall, but it’s the first non-collaborative album since 2013’s Rudiments of Mutilation. Coming off of a particularly aggressive (and surprisingly catchy) split seven-inch with Nails from this past December, the effort sees FoH fully embrace the death metal aspects of their sound that have slowly creeped to the forefront and use them as the basis for much of the record’s songwriting.

This includes Dylan Walker’s vocals. While he was mostly a vein-bursting screamer in FoH’s early work, he’s added a death growl into the mix over time, giving him two distinct vocal styles to utilize. In some instances, the former controls the song; in other cases, the latter. Sometimes there’s a back-and-forth between them (as on “Gnawed Flesh”), allowing Walker to perform as if two personalities are fighting for control of his mind.

While a sizable chunk of Ecstasy is death metal-tinged, FoH is still a grindcore band. Interestingly, “Bound Sphinx” and the six-minute closer “At the Cauldron’s Bottom” seem to act as a bridge between the two worlds. Both begin as flailing nightmares before suddenly pivoting into droning, hardcore-esque marches. Perhaps as a way to reiterate the band’s roots, there appear to be nods to other grind stalwarts. “Crawling Back to God” has a zig-zagging riff that would make Pig Destroyer proud, while the sub-minute spastic tantrums “Branches of Yew,” “Digital Prison” and “Fractured Quartz” recall early Napalm Death.

Speaking of Napalm Death, Walker’s lyrics are similarly (far) left. Walker is one of extreme music’s sharpest lyricists, and has tackled left-leaning subjects before (proletariat suffering, societal apathy, etc.). Thus, it was only a matter of time before “man vs. nature” was discussed – hence the album’s opening. Nature as a literal topic, however, is only part of the story. Walker addresses man’s egotistical towering over nature (“Society is a blister on the skin of the planet/ Man is a pustule on the face of the Earth” and “The planet sings sweetly of empty chambers/ Of a future without the threat of species”). But he also reflects on man’s egotism in other aspects as well. “The Cosmic Vein” and “Gnawed Flesh” both castigate man’s assuredness of itself (with “Man will fail/ Man will always fail” being a blunt thesis), while “Crawling Back to God” and “Branches of Yew” see Walker return to a classic punching bag: religion.

Despite being only 23 minutes, Trumpeting Ecstasy offers much to unpack both lyrically and musically, and is a beautifully paced soundtrack to the apocalypse. And while Full of Hell’s whirling dervish outbursts aren’t anything new or unexpected in grind (except for the title track, which resembles last year’s joint work with The Body, One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache), Ecstasy is nonetheless a worthy addition to the genre.