By Chris Anderson
…and so 2016 continues its hard slog, claiming musical legends at every turn. Just today we learned of the passing of Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg. Along with Q-Tip, Phife led A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most influential hip-hop groups to emerge in the 1990’s. Originally part of the “Native Tongue” family (which also included De La Soul, Black Sheep, and Jungle Brothers), A Tribe Called Quest introduced a jazzy, more literate style to rap, something more akin to the Beat poets of the 1950’s than to the gangsta rap that soon took over the airwaves, and Phife’s rhymes were some of the best. Midnight Marauders was part of the soundtrack to my college years and is a cornerstone of hip-hop. Malik will be sorely missed.
On the other end of the musical spectrum is the news of the recent suicide of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, which took everyone by surprise. One of the greatest and most accomplished players in his field, Emerson almost singlehandedly invented “prog” in the 1960’s, in his work with The Nice, and then he took the genre to its most logical (and, at times, ridiculous) extremes in the 70’s with Emerson Lake & Palmer. His penchant for reimaging classical masterworks to fit a piano/bass/drums format was untouchable and his showmanship set the bar for all acts to follow. Now, I was never the biggest ELP fan, despite owning all of their albums, but I always admired his vision, grandiose as it may have been. His synthesizer work on 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery is mind-boggling at least, though my favorite ELP album has always been 1971’s Tarkus. The side-long title track features some otherwordly piano and organ playing from Emerson. While it may not be as majestic as, say, “Close To The Edge”, it still stands as one of the truest epics in all of prog-rock. A master at his craft, we are all going to be shaking our heads about this for a long time to come.
The sting of all the losses of this year would be eased, at least a bit, were there any great rash of new music coming out. But, alas, such distractions seem not to exist this year. Winter is usually the driest season of the year, when it comes to new music releases, but this year has seemed to be more barren than most. While there are plenty of new albums on the horizon, from the likes of Hellsingland Underground, Marillion, Biffy Clyro, U2, The Tragically Hip, and plenty others, there have only been a few albums to really turn my head. Fortunately, they just about spun my head off.
Black Mountain: IV
Formed in 2004, Vancouver’s Black Mountain has maintained a vital musical link between the present and some distant, hazy memory of lava lamps, laser shows, and bongwater. Their aptly-titled fourth album finds them moving through ten deep dark grooves that are jarring and comforting at the same time. The eight minute epic opener, “Mothers Of The Sun”, sets the mood, with Stephen McBean and Amber Webber’s fragile voices weaving in and out of the ambient mellotron bed before the band explodes into a riff that would make Tony Iommi proud. And, oh yeah, they jam the hell out of it. From there, they move into the space-punk of “Florian Saucer Attack”, which reminds me of what Hawkwind might have done had they continued in the vein of “Silver Machine”. Webber proves mighty on this one, her voice bringing to mind CBGB’s circa 1976. “Defector” reminds me of mid-period Charlatans, had they been a little bit heavier, while the minimalist textures in “You Can Dream” calls to mind Stephen McBean’s other band, Pink Mountaintops. “Line Them All Up” moves from a gentle acoustic folk ballad to pure cinematic sweep, one of the most dynamic songs I’ve heard from this band. “Cemetary Breeding” is the obvious single from the album…in a perfect world this song would be a massive hit (it’s still possible). The vocal blend in this band reminds me of their hometown buddies, The New Pornographers, and it is most prevalent on this song. This is followed up by the nine-minute epic, “(Over And Over) The Chain”. Opening with almost four minutes of ambient synth and psychedelic swirls, they best Tangerine Dream at their own game, before the band moves in with a sly, fuzzy groove, pulsating rhythms and voices creating a mantra of some odd sort, before slowly dissolving back into nothingness. At times this makes me think of where Pink Floyd might have gone had Syd Barrett not gone off the deep end – a most impressive slice of psychedelia. “Crucify” offers up a breather after that dense work, in the form of a pretty, spaced-out country-folk number – this is the sort of song that could be a really solid little track, one that could be a smash single, but they avoid that by constructing one of the most obscure arrangements possible….and it works. They close out the album with another nine-minute epic, the slow burning “Space To Bakersfield”…a perfect, mellow way to go out. This album is not as heavy as their others but it is just as dark and weird, perhaps more so. Whenever I listen to Black Mountain I think about how iconic a band they would have been had they existed in the 70’s. I can not be more thankful that they exist in the present.
The other albums that are knocking my socks off right now include the latest from Norway’s brilliant Motorpsycho – Here Be Monsters. A dense and complex work, it will be the subject of a future column. Another is Miss Nostalgia, the latest pop masterpiece by Italy’s finest, Stadio. 35 years in, they are delivering the finest work of their career. Despite understanding next to no Italian, “Un Giorno Mi Dirai” just might go down as the song of the year for me. Seek it out at all costs. More later…