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Thursday, August 25, 2016

So Much for N

Man, N, what the heck? While I was reviewing you, a police shooting rose racial tensions in the city, then police getting shot pushed the city to the emotional brink, and then the whole place flooded. Trouble comes in threes and my name starts with "N," so chances are, I will remember you, and particularly that Norma Jean history I wrote that saved me from writing seven individual reviews. Also, that month where I reviewed every Nick Cave album was rad.
Time for the short but sweet "O," during which our city will surely experience racial harmony, a lack of crime, and weather that doesn't kill people.
Oh wait, it's August in South Louisiana...crap.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Northern Chorus -- Bitter Hands Resign


Pretty much any band that made ethereal, yet powerful music in the mid-00's was referred to as "the Sigur Rós of (insert country)," except for Sigur Rós, who were simply referred to as "Sigur Rós." A Northern Chorus, who received this comparison with "Canada" in the parenthetical, do indeed make ethereal, delicate, wintry music, punctuated by intense bursts of emotional release. However, simply declaring a band as the "___" version of anything is lazy journalism, and...I am really impressed with the little quotation marks face I just made.
A Northern Chorus sounds like their own version of themselves on the only album by them I own, Bitter Hands Resign. Songs take their time, building in gentle guitar lines and strings, drums and bass creating deep but minimal rhythms, and then the songs explode. The vocals are a soft falsetto, and rarely rise above that, falling out when the music brings the fireworks. This is a very original album, conjuring vast, snowy landscapes like few I have ever heard, but coupled with a comforting warmth, like making it home to a fire-lit house after a horse-drawn carriage ride through a blizzard.

2005 Sonic Unyon Records
1. The Shepherd & The Chauffeur 5:47
2. Subjects & Matter 6:29
3. This Open Heart 8:08
4. Watershed Divide 3:31
5. Prisoners of Circumstance 7:29
6. Costa del Sol 6:56
7. Don't Think of Collapse 6:49
8. Winterize 4:36

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Complete History of Norma Jean

Throwing Myself (as Luti-Kriss) -- 6/10
Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child -- 10/10
Oh God, the Aftermath -- 9/10
Redeemer -- 9/10
The Anti-Mother -- 9/10
Meridional --7/10
Wrongdoers -- 10/10

In 1997, some kids started a band with a really silly name. There was someone already going by the name Ludacris in Georgia (and Luti-Kriss, besides being a horrible name, was too close to that), so the band changed their name to Norma Jean. Before that, though, they actually did release an album.

It's called Throwing Myself (2001/Solid State Records), and it is just okay. It reveals a young metalcore band ("metalcore" being a genre that combines elements of heavy metal and hardcore), full of energy, but not many ideas. The vocalist, constantly screaming Josh Scogin, shows a lot of promise, though at times his voice is too awash in digital distortion. Still, the Throwing Myself's got a cool vibe, and despite the repetitiveness, it's pretty listenable. About this time, Luti-Kriss begins gaining a national reputation for an insane live show. This is mostly due to the antics of Scogin, who is known to climb to the top of whatever venue the band are playing in, crawl under the stage, or just charge straight off into the crowd and disappear at the first note. I saw the band around this time, and I can vouch for all three activities. At this point, the entertainment value of the hijinks outweighs that of the music, which is a sort of constant, sludgy, sonic headbutt.

That all changed when the band evolved into Norma Jean. I DJ'd at the local college station at this time, and I remember receiving the promo for Norma Jean's "debut," Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child (2002/Solid State Records). I placed the CD into my car stereo not expecting anything more than some fun, heavy music, but an hour later, I felt like I had just listened to the best heavy album I had heard that year. In the place of noisy musical gibberish were vast, expansive, cavernous songs, full of ghosts. How did this band come so far in only a year? Here is an album that defies categorization. Scogin, no longer employing digital distortion, has a scream thicker than a thousand Janet Lee's, going from deep bellowing to high-shrieks in the same second. The song-writing is brilliant, full of such a meticulously ordered diversity of tempo, texture, and emotion. The production, done without the aid of computers, sounds so full, with the drums in particular sounding deep and resonant. For a debut, this was unbelievably good, so naturally, Scogin left the band immediately after it was released to start a new one, and the bassist also left for good measure. The band replaced Scogin with a very Millennial-looking waif called Brad Norris. No knock against Norris, but I wanted a beast to front this band, not an emo elf who looked like he could be knocked over by a stiff breeze. I saw a guy wearing a Norma Jean t-shirt at the movies in late 2004, and I told him I liked his shirt. We talked for a moment and he said, "Man, you should see the new frontman. They got rid of that skinny little dude (ed note. I don't know the true circumstances of Norris' departure, but it seemed amicable). The new guy is a monster. It's awesome." Well, that was all I needed to here. I was back on team Norma Jean.

Looking back, the band's 2004 decision to go with fellow Gen X'er, Cory Brandan Putman, and not some emo Millennial with a $400 haircut as their vocalist is what kept me with the band, and has kept me with them all these years. Putman and his "get off my lawn, punks" perspective has elevated him near the top of my favorite front-man lists, and is a key reason that I make Underoath jokes all the time instead of Norma Jean ones. He brought a well-earned maturity to Norma Jean, and his constant presence has held it together over the years as most original members have jumped ship, But on March 1, 2005, I wasn't altogether pleased with Putman.O God, The Aftermath (2005/Solid State Records) sounds nothing like I wanted it to sound because I wanted it to sound exactly like Bless the Martyr and Kiss the ChildOGTA has none of BTMKTC's immense space or booming production. It is instead a trebly, constant battle against churning water. The drowning Hookman, which (beginning with OGTA) became the band's logo, perfectly represents it. It took me three years to fully appreciate Oh God, The Aftermath., After I bought a vinyl boxset of the band's first three records, and gave the album a fresh-eared listen, everything clicked into place. Certain critics accused Norma Jean of ripping off certain other bands for this release, but a close listen reveals that Norma Jean are simply giving their own spin on a certain musical idea: sharp, cutting, heavily distorted but reverb-free power chords, underscored by a dissonant lead guitar. At times, the guitars suddenly come together, or fall out into something more harmonious, such as on nine-minute album centerpiece, "Disconnecktie." Speaking of which, I understand that technically, there's no such thing as "Christian Music," and when I was making my own music, I certainly wasn't calling it "Instrumental Christian Rock," but if an actual combination of musical notes can be "Christian," the hope in the instrumental bridge of "Disconnecktie" is it.

While Oh God, the Aftermath took three years to grow on me, I faced no such issue with Norma Jean's third official album, Redeemer (2006/Solid State Records).  Redeemer producer, Ross Robinson, brings Norma Jean back to the basics, and really pulls out the unique sensibilities Brandan Putman brings to the band. Putman had a few singing parts on OGTA, not high-pitched Underoath-esque singing, but gritty, mid-range screaming with melody injected into it. Brandan Putman does the same on about a third of Redeemer's songs (amidst his usual screaming), but Robinson helps Putman refine these parts a bit more, Robinson also helps to bring bass back to Norma Jean's sound, as the drums and bass guitar are much deeper and richer in the mix. Recorded during a period where it sounds that the band are comfortable in their skin and looking to have a good time, Redeemer holds its place as the most fun album in Norma Jean's catalog, The band's mud-caked liner-note photo, and the slow-dance clap of "Cemetery Like a Stage," which conjures a "Thriller"-esque visual, give testament to this.

The Anti Mother (2008/Solid State Records) then, is the most difficult album in Norma Jean's catalog. The band had such a great experience with Ross Robinson. that they brought him back to produce for a second time. This outing, Robinson brings Norma Jean into some stranger directions. On top of that, the band announced that the album was about an idea called the titular "Anti Mother," anything that looks beautiful on the outside, but is ugly on the inside. I did not notice this concept at all in the album's lyrics, instead finding them strangely dark, violent, and paranoid. Unfortunately, I could not connect with The Anti Mother on any level. However, about a year later, I read an interview (since deleted, I assume, out of respect for Putman's ex-wife) which revealed that The Anti Mother was actually about Putman's bitter divorce and struggle to get sole custody of his two children. My own ten-year marriage has had its ups and downs, and when I read this interview, the entire album clicked into place for me, both lyrics and music. Not only could I understand Putman's point-of-view, but also the reason the band had adopted a more simple, sludgy, bludgeoning sound, as it better backs Putman's desperate vocals. Putman sings far more here than ever before, blending his singing and screaming together at a higher level. Overall, this album is extremely emotionally heavy, and perhaps the greatest divorce record heavy music has ever produced.

Going completely against tradition, I had neither a strong negative, nor positive reaction to Meridional (2010/Razor and Tie), Norma Jean's fifth album. It isn't great, it isn't bad, it is just okay. The band, to me, sound like they are just going through the motions here. Six years later, on re-listen, I still can't summon much emotional reaction to it. The artwork is awesome, the first three songs get me jazzed, but then the rest of the album just kind of happens. Nothing stands out much. Maybe one day it will catch on with me. To me, Meridional just sounds like an overly polished Anti Mother without any of the Sturm und Drang...

which is strange, because Norma Jean followed it up with what I believe might be their best album to date, Wrongdoers (2013/Razor and Tie). By this point, the band have bled all but one original member, guitarist Chris Day, and the lineup for Wrongdoers consists of Day, Brandan Putman, and three newcomers. Rather serendipitous, this injection of new blood comes just as Brandan Putman seems to be fully realizing his capabilities, and what he wants to do with Norma Jean, which has at this point been his band for nearly a decade. Wrongdoers reminds me of Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, not necessarily musically, but more because it is an excellent musical vision, perfectly executed. Like Bless the Martyr, Wrongdoers contains tons of space, but unlike that classic album, it also contains a perfect combination of harsh and melodic vocals, utilized at the perfect times. Musically, the new lineup, anchored by band grandpa Day, is full of energy, like a rocket taking off. Brandan Putman, who has contributed musically since his inception with the band, seems to be the guiding hand over the entire proceeding, and an incredible proceeding it is. The album's diverse emotions and tones progress naturally from beginning to earth- rumbling end, as the band unleash a fourteen-minute closer which devolves from a brilliant apocalyptic epic, to a sludgy, stoner-rock riff that seems to drag stone off the moon.

Now the band prepares their latest release, Polar Similar (2016/Solid State Records). I await with anticipation.

Photo by David Jackson

Monday, August 15, 2016

Please Pray for Louisiana!

Eleven years removed from Katrina, and our state faces great peril once again. A surprise tropical system has caused extreme flooding in the south central portion of our state, including in Baton Rouge, Denham Springs, Walker, and Hammond, among others, as rivers reach historical levels. Tens of thousands have been forced from their homes due to rising waters, many rescued by boat and helicopter. For some reason, the national news media is not reporting this at all. I checked CNN a couple hours ago, and despite several fascinating reports about the amount of Donald Trump's nose hairs, and what Hilary had for breakfast, Louisiana was no where to be found. Please know that we are once again in great danger and need. Nicsperiment HQ is dry thanks to higher ground, but many great friends are without homes. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

 UPDATE: CNN has finally noted our disaster.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Nodes of Ranvier -- Lost Senses, More Innocence/Nodes of Ranvier

7/10 (Same score for both albums)                                    

So this musician in a local band circa 2002 kept trying to tell me that Zao sucked now, and that Nodes of Ranvier were way better. Zao is one of my favorite bands of all time, their brand of heavy music, in my opinion, done better by no one. Zao had an "it factor." Nodes of Ranvier made technically good music, heavily influenced by Zao, but they just didn't have that "it factor." I noticed later on that my connections to music are more emotional, and that particular recommender's connections were more technical. With that said, the texture, atmosphere, and ambiance of a Zao record from '97-'03 is nowhere to be found on these two Nodes of Ranvier albums. But if you like technically well-done metalcore (a name for a sort of metal and hardcore fusion mastered by Zao in the late 90's and oversaturated by half of the kids who picked up a guitar in the mid 00's), both of these Nodes of Ranvier albums will satisfy your tastes. The music is heavy, there isn't a bunch of singing (there's barely any), and the screaming is good, except when the vocalist tries to inject spoken word into it. The Zao guy (Daniel Weyandt) could do it because he sounded tough and scary. This dude from Nodes of Ranvier...not so much...but when he sticks to screaming, he sounds great.
So musician from a local band back in the day, I appreciate your recommendation of these decent-but-not-great albums, though I think I'll stick to Zao. Actually, that was nearly 15 years ago, so SPOILER ALERT: I've stuck to Zao.

2002 Facedown Records
1. Do You Wanna Dance? (9-11-01) 02:46
2. A Life Wasted Sleeping 03:36
3. Horizon 04:11
4. Soundtrack for Salvation 03:54
5. The World 02:35
6. It's Going to Be OK 03:20
 7. Cold Fingers 03:51
8. Soiled Rags (Let Us Raise Our Hands in Victory) 03:34
9. Beauty With No Words 03:47
10. Adam 06:10

2003 Facedown Records
1. A Clean Head and a Clear Conscience 02:29
2. Eight Weeks of Privilege, No Time for Regret 04:15
3. Butcher the Baker and the Candlestick Maker 03:51
4. Number Four 04:15
5. Don't Blink (Or We May Miss It) 03:49
6. Oh Yeah, Well My Daddy Died With a Needle in His Arm 04:01
7. New York City, 1963 03:26
8. Kyrie 03:20
9. Faith in the Faux 03:42
10. The End... 01:09

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Wii U Game Reviews: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD (Review)...

I just wrote a review for a game I really like. I tried to be a little more brief than I usually am...not that the review is brief. This is the explanation for my lack of posts last week. These Wii U reviews take me forever...

Wii U Game Reviews: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD (Review)...: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD Released on the Wii, March 4, 2016, by Nintendo and Tantalus Retail: $59.99 Wii U Game Reviews...

Friday, July 29, 2016

Nirvana -- MTV Unplugged in New York


So Kurt Cobain died. I watched his memorial service on MTV. His wife read his suicide note. I remember that part the most, because I was in disbelief at how she was embellishing his note with her own comments, and that most of those comments were derogatory to Kurt. It's easy to lose count of how many times she calls him an "asshole" in just the first few minutes. It's weird, I just watched it on Youtube for the first time since I saw it on TV 22 years ago, and I am realizing that I can almost remember it word for word.
Here it is.

Her reading felt so insulting to his memory, but as I watch it now, having been married for a decade and with a child of my own, I can understand the impulse she followed. It doesn't change the fact that he is gone, cannot give guidance to his child, and cannot make music anymore. And with that, I think I am already done talking about Cobain's death (SPOILER ALERT! I'M NOT!). Great symbols for generations usually die young. I don't know why. Maybe it is impossible for them to exist for too long. Whatever the case, their deaths always make for good conspiracies. I wonder, with the ubiquity of the Millennial Generation, if they'll have someone, a figurehead, like that. With the Internet seemingly carving up humanity into six billion subgroups, I seriously doubt it.
Nirvana left one last definitive audio document after Cobain's death, and their dissolution, though I remember watching MTV Unplugged in New York before Kurt died. I should remember, too, because it first aired on my birthday. It took nearly a full year for the audio CD of the concert to be released, though, seventh months after Cobain's April 1994 death.
MTV Unplugged in New York is Nirvana's last musical will and testament, but it's also a ghost of what might have been. After the noisy distortion of In Utero, Unplugged quite obviously goes for something less electric, but it is in no way a gimmick. Instead of just playing "the hits" with acoustic guitars, Cobain and crew used the Unplugged opportunity to evolve the musical identity of Nirvana. Two of Unplugged's 14 songs are Nirvana singles. Six are non-single tracks from Nirvana's previous three albums. The other six are covers of songs by bands who certainly do not sound like Nirvana. The performance of the eight Nirvana songs are stripped down, but they aren't "unplugged." Cobain plays through an amplifier the whole time. This isn't an acoustic Nirvana--it is a different iteration of Nirvana altogether. This Nirvana defies genre, particularly "grunge," blending folk, Americana, and classic rock, into their own unique sound and punk attitude.
I only say this is a "ghost" of what could have been, because I don't think Kurt could have survived without some serious mental health treatment for his depression and bipolar disorder, true rehabilitation for his crippling heroin addiction, and some type of peace or resolution in his marriage. I don't think Kurt would have been the same person after overcoming these considerable deficits, and I don't think the art he would have created after such an arduous, life-changing transformation would be predicated on anything he had done before, if indeed he would have wanted to continue making music at all. The person who survived would have certainly created something drastically different. The Kurt who wrote these four beloved albums could not possibly have survived past his 27 short years on this Earth. MTV Unplugged in New York is this iteration of Kurt Cobain's final musical stop.
With all that said, and little else to say, this is one of my favorite albums of all time, and contains one of my favorite musical moments ever. I won't even pretend like its is some obscure, little heralded moment. It is the most famous moment of this album.

As a junior high all-star with little life experience, I could still tell that "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" is a dead man's song, and that the eyes that flutter open 5:06 into this video are those of a man who knows he will soon leave this Earth in a box. But the shriek leading up to that eye opening moment stops time itself.
I should also note that as a religious person, I am still troubled by Kurt's conclusions on track three of this album. He needed hope, and that song dashes it.
I don't have anything else to say about Baby Boomers vs. Generation X vs Millennials. Any human being can enjoy this performance...well, maybe not Baby Boomers. Thanks for reading these rambling, searching reviews, where I attempt to carve out my identity right in front of you. If anything, I hope you gained a further or new appreciation for this great band, whose name, I am quite certain, will emblazon the t-shirts of my (theoretical) grandchildren's generation...if they still wear shirts or aren't completely destroyed by some predicted or unpredicted disaster by then. My bets on destruction by Space Squirrels.

1994 DGC
1. About a Girl 3:37
2. Come as You Are 4:13
3. Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam (The Vaselines cover) 4:37
4. The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie cover) 4:20
5. Pennyroyal Tea 3:40
6. Dumb 2:52
7. Polly 3:16
8. On a Plain 3:44
9. Something in the Way 4:01
10. Plateau (Meat Puppets cover) 3:37
11.Oh, Me (Meat Puppets cover) 3:26
12.Lake of Fire (Meat Puppets cover) 2:56
13. All Apologies 4:23
14. Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Traditional; arranged by Lead Belly) 5:08