Critics of rock music and rock writing have observed that newer forms like ambient and techno, the kind of music made by Britain's Orbital, get less attention than they deserve, perhaps because critics do not know what to say about music that lacks easily recognizable song structures, lyrics, stories, and personas. And, yes, certainly there are moments, such as on tracks 3 and 4 of In Sides (both called "The Box"), when one wants Trevor Horn to burst into the studio, wrench Orbital away from the mixing desk, and shove a microphone down Martin Fry's throat, with the cry, "Now, the chorus!" Such are the frustrations of the outdated rock listener.
Not withstanding the remix of "Sad But True," from 1995's Snivilisation, In Sides is less accessible than the previous record. It eschews some of the rock patterns and media bites that provided an entree to the new dance musics -- territory that has since been further explored by acts like the Chemical Brothers and Leftfield. Most effective when it is floating ("Dwr Budr"), not bridging, this version of Orbital is more satisfying on the second disk of remixes (including, in case you needed it, a 28-minute version of "The Box"), where repetition meets a greater sense of adventure.
But remixes interminable, however good, remind me of nothing so much as the endless jam sessions of the rockin' '70s -- which is of course exactly what they are, except that the jammers are now clicking on virtual tracks instead of stamping on distortion pedals. Best experienced when deafened and high, this aesthetic translates to the in-car stereo about as well as a 25-minute live cut from Mountain. "Post rock," some critics call this, in opposition to grunge, punk, and Britpop. They prefer not to notice how much jungle resembles speed metal, and refrain from mentioning that a band like Orbital essentially offers a revitalized progressive rock. How long before a new electro-punk sweeps it all away?
-- Andrew Goodwin
King Sunny Ade
Sunny Ade's flowing robes of beaded silk and fine embroidery proclaim his royal status as the "king" of the popular juju song form. The Yoruba bandleader's first stateside release in 10 years, E Dide ("Get Up"), follows a spate of groundbreaking activity on his home front of Nigeria. Over the past decade, Ade has recorded 25 albums, started his own label, spearheaded the domestic music-video industry, fought for musicians' copyright laws, and founded an organization to educate youth and give economic support to elder musicians. Unlike fellow Yoruban Fela, Ade does not openly criticize the military government, so he is largely free to do as he pleases.
His feel-good tunes endorse the kinds of traditional values even the military espouses, such as family, camaraderie, and social responsibility. He offers much praise and thanksgiving to the creator, "Orisun Iye," and urges revelers to "Dance, Dance, Dance" away their sorrows. Steeped in the rich imagery of thought-provoking African proverbs, his moralistic lyrics come off as more entertaining than didactic -- "Let's tie the dog down/ Let's tie the leopard down/ Let's put the tail of the leopard/ In the hand of the dog/ How do you see that?" -- jauntily challenging one to unravel the message.
Ade's big band of almost two dozen singers, percussionists, guitarists, bassists, and an unobtrusive keyboardist comes together in an infectious amalgam of intensities. At the fore, heavy talking drums exchange phrases as if in emphatic dialogue, each drummer solidly making his point then opening up space for another equally insistent position. This percussive onslaught is tempered by a male vocal quintet, who sound a lot like a scaled-down Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They render simple folk melodies in mellow tones, alternating between near insouciance and solemn ritual. Dashes of pitch-shifting keys or Hawaiian guitar, where you least expect them, further color the mix, creating a melodic/rhythmic juju weave as texturally intricate and remarkable as the dazzling stitch of the King's performance garb.
King Sunny Ade plays Monday, Aug. 5, at the Warfield, 982 Market, S.F.; call 775-7722.
-- Sam Prestianni
The adjectives that rock diarists use to describe drumming can be divvied up into two distinct families: those qualifying intensity (fierce, pyrotechnic, fukkin'-A thermonuclear) and those depicting musicianship (solid, stellar, "Ringo"). All are exaggerations of "good," expressed with trembling fanboy awe. Fine -- but can't one describe the accomplishment of the most meatheaded (and crucial) instrument in the rock ensemble without resorting to polarities or blow jobs? Maybe not, since percussive invention in rock is rarely elevated above the level of "neat tricks," perpetrated by "master skinsmen" like Neil Peart, who can fake entire song structures using hyperfast fills, or like Tommy Lee, who knows how to mug. White-bread polyrhythm, incessant bass drum rolls, and stick-twirling are all well and good, but the core role of rock drumming is immutable: to emphasize every other beat. In oompah bands, tubas do the same thing.
Melvins drummer Dale Crover, however, is doing something else. You won't hear his signature approach all over Stag -- a sedate Melvins outing by metal standards and a bizarre one by any other -- but "Goggles" and "Lacrimosa" recall earlier glacier-pacers like "Charmicarmicat" (Eggnog) and "Eye Flys" (Gluey Porch Treatments). Crover turns the plod of hard music unpredictable by placing long, uneven rests within unusual time signatures. All beats take you by surprise. The headstrong both-sticks-over-the-head quality of metal drumming is there, sounding doubly simplistic since the blows are more sparse -- but the creativity is undeniable, however tedious it might sound to mainstream audiences raised on extended master skinsmen solos.
Though Stag most frequently offers drumming of the "fierce-solid-stellar" variety, Melvins songs still conflate silly and sinister effects, though this time with decidedly non-metallic appliques: spit-drenched trombone ("Bar-X-the Rocking M"), easy-listening atonality ("Tipping the Lion"), and even jangle pop ("Black Bock"). The beauty of the material lies in not knowing when the joke ends, or if it ever started. In "Skin Horse," for example, you don't know you've been had until halfway through, when an unremarkable major-chord progression gives way to saccharine melodies and Chipmunks vocals. Metal, shmetal -- music with humor can do no wrong. Forgive my trembling fanboy awe.
-- Michael Batty
Henry Rollins defines history: "From the fuckheads in togas to the fuckheads in suits."
... But you don't have to wear a toga or a suit to be a fuckhead. This is America! Here, even a buff, T-shirt-clad rock star like me can be a complete fuckhead if I feel like it, and since I'm a literary rock-star fuckhead with arty jazz friends, I can release a two-hour, double-CD "audio book" that highlights my own neo-beatnik spoken-word complaints. Yep, just a saxophone, some drums, and me, plumbing the depths of my own dumb fuckhead soul, haranguing my fuckhead audience with I've-been-around prose like, "I refuse to answer the stupid question, 'Where do you see yourself at 50?' What a joke. Like I can really believe that I'm going to make it that long. There will be a time when death caused by a bullet will be a natural cause. I don't see 50 years old for me. I know too much. I know everything." 'Cause, see, I need to tell the people that, listen up, America is a mess. That's right! We've got litterbugs! We've got child molesters! Everything sucks! The world's gonna end! But I remember you little people. In fact, I'm addressing you personally when I say, "You fucking farm animals. I see you in the shopping malls dragging your litter of children behind you. The resources run out right in front of your face and all you can do is make more kids. We'll have to go back to the old-fashioned, manual, hands-on wars to weed them all out. You fucking bovines with briefcases." Don't say I never gave you anything! I gave you my contempt! I gave you this record! Same difference!
-- Sarah Vowell