MASSIVE ATTACK – Mezzanine (1998)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner

If you grew up as a music fan under the dominant sway of the music press during its three-four decade long heyday then you most likely know the desperate feeling that came from constantly reading about some hugely important influential record that, having been name dropped once too often, you were eventually forced to save up enough money to buy (yes, you read that right, you used to have to pay for music, which tended to really limit your options) and listen to over and over again – and that, after countless vain attempts to ‘get it’, to understand what all the fuss was about, you were forced to give up on and chalk up as a failure of imagination or music appreciation on your part. Actually it quite often turns out that years later, when you eventually return to such half digested masterpieces, that rather amazingly the pieces just seem to fall into place of their own accord without any additional effort on the part of the listener, maturity or a deeper appreciation of music in general having taken up the previous slack. For other records that never happens at all, ever, and you’re forced to conclude that either there’s some musical blind spot in your brain (and that maybe, possibly there’s a chance you just might get it in the end, on your deathbed maybe), or that the music press had in fact been actually selling you a massive pup all along. Ladies and gentlemen, Blue Lines by Massive Attack just happened to be exactly one of those personal bugbear records of mine. I mean I admired the album, and parts of it I really loved, but in the end and in spite of all that initial goodwill on my part, Blue Lines left me lukewarm. 

You see I get how the record might have won over the critics in the early 90s, its relentless privileging of style and hip over soul and substance and its achingly sussed on point musical allusions/borrowings served as a potent weapon against the earnest rockism that was still characteristic of the alternative music scene back in the days. But the fact is that no amount of studied cool could make up for the essentially pedestrian quality of the music. Indeed, trip hop taken as a genre – and aside from a handful of notable exceptions like Portishead or DJ Krush – tends to sounds much less impressive than it did in the mid-90s. Because it really had an untouchable, hazy green aura, of mystique surrounding it back then. Albums like Dummy or Entroducing felt epochal, significant, like a promise of much more to come. But in the end it all proved to be one big anti climax – and all those cruel jibes about trip hop being a safe, sanitised version of rap/hip hop without all that stuff about thugs and guns and violence and bitches that you could play at nice dinner parties without offending your guests seemed not to have been so wide off the mark after all. I listen to those old trip hop records again now 20 years on and after having, rather critically, had the chance to hear many of the original dub, soul and reggae records that were formative influences on the genre and I can’t help but notice just how cumbersome and actually dated trip hop sounds in comparison.

All of which egotistical rambling finally brings us round to Mezzanine, Massive Attack’s third album: the one where the band started to expand on their sound, developing an earthier, more rock-oriented style, and softening some of the hard, blunt edges of their first two albums. I mean in theory it should appeal a lot more to my rather more organic sensibilities, but to me it just sounds a lot like probably the best beer commercial soundtrack music ever. I still find an immense depthlessness to their music, a horrible anodyne quality that lurks behind the immediate surface allure, of which admittedly there is plenty. Angel and Teardrop, the two that everyone knows from the album, are completely worn out from over familiarity, like a frazzled imitation persian rug — and really I can’t even begin to separate out the music from its role as the incidental music or as the inspiration for the incidental music in a thousand different adverts or television productions. The images and visual symbols, the products, and the music all bleed into one another, one great trite miasma. Worse still whenever I listen to Mezzanine and start to really get into it, I reflexively think of where I’ve heard the same thing done better or where it’s felt far more genuine. There are, as always with Massive Attack, exceptions: moments when they triumph over their musical limitations, Risingson being one obvious highlight, although there are fewer of these than on Blue Lines. But (to my most alas) I still don’t get it; I just can’t overcome my by now decades long resistance to the group (6/10).
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JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION – ACME (1998)

Review by: Nicolás Martínez
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner

This is definitely an interesting album, it has a rich sound but is not overthought. It has a very soundtrack vibe onto it, I feel it could be part of the classic formula of the good old American film with great music that makes the movie so much better whilst perfectly standing for itself as nice tunes to listen on the car. It’s an easy listener, there are some nice guitar riffs and vocals, nothing too fancy, but it just goes very well together. It also has a very contemporary sound; it uses sampling in a very smart way considering the foundation of the album is good old blues music.

Maybe I should give some important contextual information before proceeding with more comments. First of all, this album is said to belong to the genre of punk blues, a style which I was not familiar of. It surely is nice, it’s a combination of old and new sounds put together in odd ways, it sounds a lot like Beck to me. This album is the sixth of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a band of New York with modest success throughout the 90’s. Consulting in various interviews on the recording and the production on this particular album, I saw the members said most of the album was made just like the others: they composed nice rock n’ roll tracks with dirty sounds. The difference of this piece was the influence of producers who mixed and remixed the tracks which gives the album the distinctive modern sound I was mentioning before.

Although it sounds like a really good rock n’ roll album, it has very noisy moments, and I’m talking about 90’s rock. I’m not really fond of those kinds of experiments, what I find most pleasurable of this album is the simplicity of the sounds which don’t necessarily translate into simple tracks. The sound of this pieces is very authentic, but it’s not built on the expertise of a single musician but rather on the chemistry of the band. It is a very good listen.

PELT – Ayahuasca (2001)

Review by: Christian Sußner
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

Ayahuasca, recorded by the experimental trio Pelt mainly consists of drones played simultaneously on different string instruments including a couple of traditional Indian instruments. Most of the time we hear the band meandering extensively through different chords and combinations, sometimes more harmonic, sometimes more noisy with long feedbacks. Rhythm instruments appear very sparsely but sometimes, in the more folky and song-oriented moments of the album, there are vocals.

I’m not very familiar with drone music. I occasionally enjoy the monolithic power of Sunn O))) and other similar bands that somehow originate in a “metal-tradition” but take a more experimental approach on the genre. But Pelt is different, rather spiritual than cathartic, carefully shifting between frequencies rather than operating with sheer volume or other sonic extremes. I went through the over two hours of Ayahuasca in one session. Twice. And it neither caused me headaches nor did I find it really captivating. They do create a meditative atmosphere which I enjoyed in some moments but a bit too often smells of patchouli and batik clothing, of not-so-revolutionary-anymore senior-hippies in Goa. In the end I was glad when it was over.

Adorno in his “Introduction To Musical Sociology” establishes seven types of music consumers. On one end of the scale there is the “expert listener” who has a deep understanding of the subject and therefore enjoys music by identifying, following and predicting the composer’s motives and techniques. On the other side of the scale he identifies the “entertainment listener” for whom music is more a backdrop for other activities. I doubt that Pelt have enough to offer to entertain the sophisticated “expert listener”. On the other hand it is difficult to imagine situations in which the “entertainment listener” could enjoy this stuff. And no, I’m not going to make the obvious drug reference here.

ULVER – ATGCLVLSSCAP (2016)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner

Well, shit.

In the previous two rounds of the Only Solitaire Review Game, my luck wasn’t that great. I was assigned Preservation: Act 1 by The Kinks, which I found mediocre, and Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater, which was pretty enjoyable if overblown. Neither one was an album that I truly loved or at the very least was intrigued enough by to want to revisit immediately.

It’s perhaps ironic that this album, which is mostly a canvas of ambience rather than a set of songs a la its predecessors, is the one that grabbed me so strongly, but there you are. Perhaps it helps that, unlike The Kinks and Dream Theater, whose reputations precede them, Ulver is a group I was utterly unfamiliar with going into the listening experience. Regardless of the answer, despite its daunting length (80+ minutes), it’s a record I want to revisit almost immediately.

I never would have known this album was mostly recorded live had I walked into it blind. True, it consists of multiple live shows overdubbed on top of one another, and additional studio trickery has been applied, but the sound is so pristine that even then it’s hard to believe any of it was recorded in front of an audience. It’s comprised of dense sonic layers, sweeping synths and chiming bells and swirling guitars and pounding drums piling on top of each other in a sound that’s misty and enticing rather than an overblown Phil Spector mood. Apart from two penultimate tracks, there are no vocal melodies, merely vague chanting and vocalizing that serve to supplement rather than dominate the music.

Without driving melodies or intricate structures, it would be easy for the songs to turn into so much ethereal self-indulgence, noodling their way into a directionless new-age haze, but this thankfully doesn’t happen. Lack of melody doesn’t mean lack of direction or power, and the record has those to spare. It’s not very helpful to say that it sounds like many great SF/F stories read, but that was the thought that kept recurring to me as I listened; there’s an otherworldly, beautiful aether that runs throughout the music. The only place this falls apart comes with the aforementioned duo of penultimate songs, “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)” and “Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)”. It’s here that vocal melodies become prominent, grounding the music in a way that doesn’t really suit it and injecting a force of individual personality where it isn’t wanted. This is especially damaging on the latter track, whose lyrics consist mostly of a recitation of a passage from the titular book of the Bible. Beautiful poetry, obviously, but it can’t help but feel canned when it’s sung over music; it smacks of empty pretension, as if the artist felt he had something important to communicate but fell back on a Biblical text because he couldn’t be bothered to say it in a new, interesting way. Yuck.

This misstep aside, however, this is an engrossing and frequently gorgeous piece of work. It’s already a part of my iTunes library, and I hope upon further listens to uncover a myriad of new things to appreciate.

GRATEFUL DEAD – Terrapin Station (1977)

Review by: Christian Sußner
Album assigned by: B.b. Fultz

The Grateful Dead formed in California in 1965 and generally file under the label psychedelic rock. Their album “Terrapin Station” was released in 1977 and consists of 6 songs, the final centerpiece “Terrapin Station Medley” being the longest.

I think the first song “Estimated Prophet” is a pleasant opener for the album. With its nicely grooving bass, the wah-guitars and the vocals by Bob Weir and Donna Godchaux it creates an optimistic, almost summer-like atmosphere.

The following couple of songs in my opinion can’t keep up with the quality of the first track. “Dancing In The Streets” is meant to be a cheerful, well, song for dancing but it’s just too simplistic and straightforward to catch my attention. “Passenger” and “Samson and Delilah” are standard folk-rock songs which kind of remind me of CCR without having their power. And “Sunrise” finally which is sung by by Donna Godchaux alone back then may have been a reminiscence to Flower Power but nowadays just sounds pretentious and boring.

But in the end these first five songs seem like a prelude to the final 16-minute-track “Terrapin Station Medley”. In the tracklist of the LP the song is broken down into subsections but I had problems to retrace the intersections while listening as the different parts are quite homogeneous and the transitions flowing. Not like, let’s say, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. However, the song is BIG with a relaxed intro including some nicely picked guitar, some soothing solos and finally a long but not lengthy orchestral crescendo including some good co-singing by Donna again, various mood changes, more solos and finally a whole choir chanting the title of the album. I like it!

I too like the production of the whole album (I got the “mastered for iTunes version”, if that makes a difference) because it doesn’t sound outdated, au contraire, powerful with an eye for detail. I can’t say very much about the lyrics. The bits I understand while listening to the record without paying much attention to the words make me think that they’re not worth the effort of listening closer.

As a conclusion I’d say that, although it’s not an absolute classic, I enjoyed listening to the album. A good start and an excellent ending with some filler in between but I’ll definitely give it another listen after submitting this review. Last question: Which substances does one have to take to get to Terrapin Station and watch these cute turtles from the cover dance?