Month: April 2018

Gil Scott-Heron: The Mind Of… (1978)

Catch-All: A term or category that includes a variety of different possibilities.

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One of the many covers displaying his mug. I was duped!

Greatest hits albums just aren’t my thing. One of my favorite things about music is to be taken on a journey by way of a deliberate, intentional sequencing of songs. There are a few compilations and collections among my records but I mostly pick them up from bargain bins. I don’t seek them out nor do I listen to them frequently. In the case of The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron, it was a mistaken, intentional purpose that I paid full price for at a record shop. A lot of his album covers look similar, which wasn’t uncommon at the time. As a massive fan of the man and his music, I wasn’t happy with my mistake.

Gil Scott-Heron was an author, musician and poet, among other things. He was a politically-charged speaker and excellent songwriter. Unfortunately, this album is a collection of his spoken word material written and performed live between 1973 and 1978. Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with talky talk. I dig comedy albums, anecdotal storytellers and lectures. The issue with this album is that the content is terribly dated. It is difficult to even listen to it as a period piece because it is so strongly opinionated and preachy. I’m not suggesting that I disagree with any of the topics present here but it is all so terribly dated that it is hard to get invested.

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Full price for this quality? This, folks is why you should ALWAYS pull the record out for inspection at the record store. What even is that? I shouldn’t have asked.

The vocal delivery is all very good. Scott-Heron is a master wordsmith who can rhythmically add interesting flourishes to any topic. I could listen to him read the ingredients of every item at the grocery store and be thrilled, though that doesn’t mean I want him to. The Ghetto Code showcases his talents as a speaker particularly well and is both intriguing and biting. Of all the spoken word chit-chat on display I’d say that this is the most compelling. As for the rest, go read a history book.

Things are wrapped up with the song Bicentennial Blues which is a track taken from the album It’s Your World. Both the tempo of the music and the delivery of the vocals are interestingly similar to rap music. It is way ahead of its time and an excellent song but, sadly, not worth the purchase of this dated record. For curious people I’d suggest listening to the entire album online for free. I cannot recommend spending even a dollar on the material present here strictly due to how antiquated the topics are. Instead, I’d recommend any of his music albums produced in the ’70s. Pieces Of Man is the most popular entryway into Gil Scott-Heron’s catalogue and a helluva place to get started. Winter In America is also very good as is all of the work he did with Brian Jackson. Don’t make the mistake of purchasing The Mind Of Gil Scott-Heron like I did when there are so many better albums of his out there. You can thank me for my heroic warning later. I suffered so you don’t have to.

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Track List:

H20 Gate Blues
We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)
The New Deal
Jose Campos Torres
The Ghetto Code (Dot Dot Dit Dit Dot Dot Dash)
Bicentennial Blues


Depeche Mode: Black Celebration (1986)

Reinvention: To invent again or anew, especially without knowing that the invention already exists.

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A little wear and tear for an album that has gotten a lot of use over the years.

Things are always changing. A decade ago I could eat a hamburger or enjoy a few beers without having to adjust the size of my pants. Road signs were easier to read, sleep was uninterrupted by washroom breaks and Nickelback were on the FM radio. Growth and change are two things that many artists attempt. Sometimes it is to appeal to the masses, many times it is caused by boredom but rarely does change act to truly reinvent and improve things as well as Depeche Mode on their fifth full length album.

Prior to Black Celebration, Depeche Mode wrote great poppy music. The treble was hot, the songs a bit scattered and the sound very discernibly a product of the ’80s. Sure, they had some hits and yeah, I dig almost all of those earlier outings but it wasn’t until this record that their sound became entirely original. It is as dark as it is lively and full of hope. Focused while being absolutely random. Somehow all of the anomalies present here culminate into a truly remarkable beast of a record. This significant paradigm shift in sound may have lost a few fans of the band’s earlier material but it was a change that separated them from a lot of the radio fluff that was being released at the time. It is as mature an effort as any band in the industry has ever made.

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What do the symbols on the lyric sheets mean? Who cares, they look snazzy.

It is admirable when a successful band takes such risks. There are few artists who can pull it off. Miles Davis, Radiohead, Sonic Youth are a few examples who come to mind. It is a gutsy move for anyone to change their trajectory so abruptly and downright terrifying for an iconic band to do so with a legion of followers behind them. Still, this was an artistic decision, whether intentional or naturally, that turned a stadium packing band into something more. Since 1986, Depeche Mode has been one of the most unique, intriguing and important bands in the industry, in my opinion.

So, it goes without saying that I highly recommend Black Celebration. From the opening mechanical hum that opens the title track to the wonderfully poppy yet poignant echos of New Dress and But Not Tonight this is a perfect experience. Along the way it flows seamlessly from stark to bombastic from dance tracks to ballads without ever sounding jarring or ill conceived. For every bouncy Question Of Time there is a bare-bones song like Stripped to offer variety. It is one of those rare experiences that it both as rewarding as it is timeless and at a perfect 40 minutes you might find yourself promptly replaying the entire thing over.

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Track List:

Black Celebration
Fly On The Windscreen (Final)
A Question Of Lust
Sometimes
It Doesn’t Matter Two
A Question Of Time
Stripped
Here Is The House
World Full Of Nothing
Dressed In Black
New Dress
But Not Tonight


Agalloch : The Mantle (2002)

Crisp: (Of a substance) firm, dry, and brittle, especially in a way considered pleasing or attractive.

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Don’t let Ted Nugent near this photo shoot.

Three years after the magnificent rawness of Pale Folklore Agalloch created what some still consider to be their magnum opus. The Mantle is more atmospheric, focused (folkesed?) and far cleaner in production to its predecessor but is it really the masterpiece that most fans claim? Well, like everything it really boils down to taste. One thing is certain, it is different.

Like Pale Folklore, The Mantle opens with an ambitiously long collection of song(s) based around a singular structure. A Celebration For The Death Of Man is a tiny acoustic guitar intro that does an apt job at setting the mood but is a tad too unremarkable to open an album with. There is nothing offensive or inherently “bad” about it but it could have easily been a quarter of the length and added to the opening of In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion without anything being lost. I understand that they were trying to evoke a feeling of isolation and solitude with a minimalist approach but it as about as compelling as listening to an amateur strum the only 3 chords they know by a campfire.

After a build that feels like days things finally start getting interesting at, roughly the minute mark into the aforementioned In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion. This is where the entire album starts to build at a slow, calculated pace and rarely disappoints for the remainder of it’s run time. If the intro track didn’t actively force you to sleep you’re in for a real treat as the the next thirteen-plus minutes are among the best in all of music. The layered acoustic and electric guitars on display here are nothing short of breathtaking. Haughm’s signature “whisper” screaming and uneasy cleans are cleverly used to accentuate the instruments. He is noticeably less intrusive on this outing. The vocals are delivered sparingly. They contribute a frigidness akin to a wispy breeze on a cold winter’s night.

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Fantastic vinyl pressing and quality artwork on this reissue.

The rest of the album is a bit of a mixed bag for me personally. Odal is a misplaced oddity of a song that nearly halts all momentum. What’s more the production of this singular track sounds much different than anything else on the record. Structurally, contextually and thematically it is out of place. It should have been completely omitted. For the sake of a more interesting progression I Am The Wooden Doors should have been the third song.

I Am The Wooden Doors is the highlight of the Mantle. The bass is far more prominent here than on any song written by the band up to this point and the drums keep things moving at a steady rhythmic pace. It adds rhythm and groove to an otherwise mellow album. The harmonized guitars are well written with one contributing a swelling lead while the other keeps the momentum with quick tremolo picking. An acoustic guitar plucks away in the background to add to the well orchestrated composition. This is where influences of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor really start to become apparent. The only difference is that Godspeed You! knows how to build and work with a subtle, quiet song and a slow beat whereas Agalloch at this point in their career hadn’t quite mastered it yet.

The Lodge is maybe the best example of the band creating a successfully quiet instrumental piece on this record and is also the point at which I begin to lose interest. At nearly 70 minutes The Mantle just doesn’t keep me as captivated as I’d like. You Were But A Ghost In My Arms to A Desolation Song are well written and performed but an absolute bore to listen to. The latter also feels just as out of place as Odal and simply doesn’t work to close out the record effectively. Haughm’s clean vocals just aren’t interesting or confident enough to carry an entire tune. Again, campfire guitar noodling.

Agalloch’s The Mantle is a bloated, ambitious record that should be heard by fans of interesting music. The sum of its parts are greater than the whole and the 70 minute run time is a bit of a drag. If the fat had been trimmed this could have been a masterpiece. Still, there are so many great ideas and ballsy attempts on display here that it makes it hard to be too negative. As always, I’d prefer a band take a few swings at creative ideas and strike out a few times than become complacent and formulaic. For those reasons and all of the truly amazing moments on The Mantle I would definitely recommend it. I’d also recommend a healthy dose of caffeine before laying the needle down though.

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Track List:

A Celebration For The Death Of Man…
In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion
Odal
I Am The Wooden Doors
The Lodge
You Were But A Ghost In My Arms
The Hawthorne Passage
…And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth
A Desolation Song