Monday, 12 November 2007

Bad Religon and the Punk Product

In an attempt to move this blog away from just being about music and concerts, I'm trying now to add a bit of social insight as a means of somehow legitimising this blog as more than "I saw xxxxxxx". As with my last entry about the new Saul Williams CD turning into a rant against the music industry, I want to use this gig review to express the whole irony of the Punk subculture. But first, the music...

1. Bad Religion / Strung Out / Mid Youth Crisis @ Hordern 07/11/2007
After a 3.5 hour bus-ride from Canberra and a frantic search for accommodation, I made my way through Surrey Hills to the venue at Moore Park. Settled at the Fox and Lion beforehand for a few pre-gig drinks, and after accidentally being served Tooheys New instead of Extra Dry, I've resolved never to drink New again. Terrible terrible stuff. Made my way to the gig and picked up some reasonably priced merch ($35 a shirt) before heading in just in time to see Mid Youth Crisis.

One thing I love about punk music is the do-it-yourself attitude. No artwork, no special effects, and the standard lighting at the venue seemed out of place. Immediately as this band started they impressed me. Very intense, yet still had a strong focus on songwriting. As they started the 2nd track, I was worried that they would be just another punk band who found a sound then stuck to it, but no MYC were very diverse in their song structure and tone while staying true to their punk roots. There seemed to be a great enthusiasm for the 3rd billed band, and as the crowd slowly swelled, no booing heard or chants for them to get off the stage. 30 minutes seemed like a good set time, no feelings of being sold short, and apart from the vocalists slight self-gratification on-stage, a pleasure to watch.

Strung Out have released the most impressive punk album of the year to date, its refreshing to hear Punk bands that do something different with the genre. The set was a mix of new and old, and again it was well received. The circle pit expanded as people rushed while Blackhawks Over Los Angeles was played. Like MYC, the sound during the first few songs was very average. Thankfully it did improve and the last 30 minutes of their 40 minute slot sounded quite great. I can see why they have a great reputation as a live act. It was a good mix of new and old tracks, made me want to explore their back catalogue. The highlight of the set was The Calling, it sounded even better live than on CD. A 40 minute set seemed about right for them, and again they were very much a crowd pleaser, and there were quite a lot of patrons wearing their merch. All in all, I had my fun jumping around to the opening acts, so I made my way to the mixing desk so Bad Religion would sound as good as possible - The Hordern isn't the best venue in Sydney for sound, I figure being as close to the mixing desk as possible is the best way to go.

Bad Religion were absolutely fantastic live, an unforgettable punk experience. It would certainly be up there with the best performances I've seen ever, let alone out of punk bands. Even without the demigod Brett Gurewitz playing, they still put on one amazing punk show. Starting with Fuck Armageddon... This Is Hell began the almost seamless 90 minute tirade of raw punk energy. The set was a good mix of new and old, though the lack of material from The Empire Strikes First made me disappointed there wasn't a tour to support the album. The highlights from the set for me included Social Suicide, Los Angeles Is Burning, New Dark Ages, 21st Century Digital Boy and American Jesus - that seemed to be a crowd favourite as a whole.

The production was slightly more than most punk acts I've seen, though that isn't to say much. Other than the venue lighting, there was one huge piece of artwork hanging up behind them. It looked cool, especially with some of the lighting used. But like other punk acts, they used the traditional method of keeping the crowd entertained... by interacting with them. Crowd interaction is something that really has been lost in recent years by bands, its good to see one genre where talking to the crowd, telling jokes and actually trying to be entertaining isn't lost. There are a couple of bands in the metal community who do this as well, like Opeth for example, but it is a lost art nevertheless and after watching an alternative rock / punk / metal festival earlier this year (Come Together) with bands that just stood still and played there songs, it sang volumes about how little emphasis the recording age has put on performance. It's just lucky that Punk Rock has nowhere near the aggression and intensity on an overly produced CD than they do playing live. Each instrument was striving to dominate the sound yet never threatening the cohesion and tightness that the band has. I wasn't impressed with New Maps Of Hell when it came out, but live the tracks just come to life.

Overall a great show, and it will stay in my memory for a long time to come as one of the best concerts I've ever been to. It was my last major act of the year (barring a last minute dash to see Clutch in December) and it was good to finish on such a high. Bad Religion have been a band I've been wanting to see live for a year, so all I need now is a new Pennywise tour to round out the teenage punk in me.

2. The Punk Product
Okay, I know the whole "punk" movement is already shrouded in irony, but surely at one stage it must have meant something. Back in the late 70s where brightly colouring your Mohawk hair while wearing clothes that were a big "FUCK YOU" to the establishment seemed to actually mean something. You were an eyesore, the opposite of what was acceptable, you were a big zit on the arse of high society and you got in peoples faces. What happened?!? It seems as though some people haven't evolved from that statement and are hoping that people will still get offended by a big middle finger on a denim jacket...

We are a desensitised culture, what was shocking yesterday is meh today. Forget this whole PC culture we keep on being told we live in, what surprises and shocks us is very little anymore. Partly this is thanks to the media, partly the Internet, partly that we learn to tolerate what we get used to so outrageous social trends lose their shock value really quickly. Dressing up like Vivian from The Young Ones is now a punk cliché. The clothing has stayed, but the attitude has gone, now the clothes are a mark of identity with the punk culture rather than a rebellion against society.

It seems as though the one thing that keeps the punk movement together is that air of rebellion. Even if that rebellion is a myth, there is a certain attraction especially to teenagers looking towards an outlet with which to vent their frustration. Personally I think for the most part the movement is quite harmless compared to other subcultures like emo or goth, and punk is really developing a social conscience, and I find that amazing how conservatives will do what they can to marginalise the message of punk music. Anti-authority is a huge selling product, and while authority continues in it's attempt to suppress certain lifestyles, they are going to continue to manufacture dissent. Maybe that is the plan, maybe it's all part of the idea of keeping capitalism flowing. I guess the only true anti-authoritarians in this society are those who reject and do not practice modern consumerism. And there aren't really that many people who do.

In the end, there were a few people dressed as punks, using the concert like a beacon to show off their identity, but now that identity is becoming quite irrelevant. The punks of the late 70s / 80s in the vein of Vivian from the young ones are still around. Not too many people who were alive at that stage, but it is still there. Do they wear it as a means of irony in this post-modern environment? I don't think so, more so it seems like mark of symbolism to the anti-establishment movement. The 90s punks still are the same people, now in their mid 20s, now wearing jeans with a Rancid band shirt only partly covering up their tattoos. While the modern punk seems to try and go for shock value again, with lip-rings becoming passé, they've gone the route of earlobe stretching. To see a 17 year old do it seems foolish enough, to see a man in his mid 30s with them is downright funny. You don't look rebellious, you just look idiotic!

It's all aesthetic though, all of this is skin deep, a mask placed over the real person inside as a means of both standing out and fitting in. The true punks are those who actually rebel against authority rather than just feeding the system it despises. The movement hasn't grown up or out, it's become convoluted and just pushed the message "conformity is only cool if you conform to us". The only true punk left is Casey Chaos from Amen, the rest are either pointing out the ironies of the punk movement - like Fat Mike from NoFX, or are using the punk culture as a means of conveying their message. At the concert, what I saw were men and women (mainly men) who were there to see a band they have grown up listening to and wanting to experience live. And that is what the punk movement has become... for better or worse.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

The inevitable rise and liberation of legal MP3s

As us format elitists are seething about Radiohead only releasing their album in 160kbps, two major events have happened recently on this front. OiNK has been shut down, and Trent Reznor has made good on his word by helping Saul Williams release their collaboration on the Internet - in the format of choosing and for only $5 US (or free if you choose)

First off, a quick word about the Radiohead album. Yes I did purchase it, I paid 4 pounds ($10AUD), and I really did enjoy the album. Personally I think its their best since OK Computer. Though I am disappointed in the sense that I "bought" the album in such a low quality. 160kbps might have been okay back on dial-up days, but in the days of Cable and high-speed broadband, I don't get the logic behind it. Especially as the audience they are aiming at are those who can tell the difference and want something more... and this leads me directly to Oink

1. The OiNK Affair
This article sums it all up tbh, its a long but very engaging read, a rant that anyone would be proud of. Oink was great for someone like me, it allowed me to get music I wouldn't normally even dream of hearing at the format of my choosing, there are so many bands that because of OiNK I've gotten into then went and saw them live. Without it, I'm lost when people recommend me new stuff.

Its not that I want to rip artists off, I don't. Though I won't deny the convenience of it all. Every time I buy a CD these days, all I do is rip it and play it through my computer or MP3 device. MP3 may not have the sound quality of CD, but MP3s are far too damn convenient. I have a huge library available at a click of a mouse button. Compared to that CDs seem bulky, archaic devices whose only real purpose anymore seems to be for the car (and even then, MP3 players are fast becoming the standard) and as a collectors item. In a wireless media world, it seems such a waste to take up precious space with CD cases, where a HDD can store thousands upon thousands of albums and be conveniently accessed.

OiNK brought something to the music industry that companies have tried to suppress: choice. It wasn't a collection of overpriced shitty pop discs like most record stores, pretty much anything you wanted was there to grab. Albums that are out of print, rare and esoteric bands that it would cost more in shipping than the album itself to get here. It was all there and at a bitrate that does as much justice as possible to the original release. And the reason all this worked so well is that it was consumer driven - the music fans sharing music with other music fans, who wouldn't want to be a part of that. The product? great music. The currency? sharing with others. But somehow the anti-piracy groups thought people were making a profit out of it and shut it down. But in truth the people who make money out of file sharing are... THE ARTISTS!

That's right, the artists make money out of file sharing. Not directly of course, but as a result of increased concert ticket revenue and merchandise sales. The great thing about filesharing is that it has taken the focus away from creating CDs (then touring in support) back to the performance aspect. While it may not be ideal for the bands themselves, its a huge win for the music loving consumers. This year alone I have seen: Tool, Muse, The Killers, Isis, These Arms Are Snakes, NoFX, Mastodon, Slayer, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and many more. Most of which I would have never heard if I hadn't had people there to recommend me the music. And there are so many more like me that instead of paying $30 for an artist they haven't heard, they have downloaded the music, then gone and saw the band live and bought the CDs in the end.

Its the corporate entities that have built up their whole business model, the ones who are responsible for frivolous lawsuits against music fans, the ones who populate music stores with that shitty pop and generic metal, they are the ones who lose out. Their whole system is built around the CD. They have the artists tied to insane contracts. Its not about the music for them, its about the profit. And unless they understand the needs of the consumer and the artists and adapt to the global market brought on by the Internet, they will crash and burn... and I'm sure sue a few more music fans for several hundred thousand dollars in the process. Companies suing Youtube and Myspace because they are no longer in control of their product. The reason they aren't in control... CONSUMERS FINALLY HAVE A SAY

Thanks to this global distribution system, us in Australia are realising how much we are being ripped off. Our dollar is good, yet we pay $30 instead of $17 for CDs. We pay $100 instead of $50 for games. TV shows come out here months after they are screened in the US, sometimes put on at ungodly hours or aren't even shown on free-to-air TV. No wonder people in Australia feel cheated by the system. The system expects us to pay more and wait longer for a product thanks to this archaic distribution system. Well fuck that! This is the age of decentralised information. We get the news immediately, newspapers have had to adapt and move to posting articles online. As have magazines, they have become quite irrelevant with most of their content coming out online well before they are published and distributed. The system is moving forward. And now when we are all citizens of a global village, why the regional solutions still stay is beyond me. We didn't even get half of Grindhouse released here before the DVD came out in the US. No Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie period. Location shouldn't be a problem, and the Internet makes it more irrelevant as technology increases.

So bring back Oink. Throw fees on it if need be to help pay the artists who have their music replicated. The consumers now know they can get something better than the shitty pop music that fills record stores, and they can get it so much more conveniently. Adapt or be destroyed.

2. The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust
Normally I'm not a fan of hip-hop, the genre shits me (for lack of a better word), especially the crap on the charts. Saul Williams is an exception to that. And with my all time favourite artist, Trent Reznor, at the helm I was very excited to get my hands on this release.

I've got to say almost everything about this release is great. Saul's lyrics and vocal style are sublime as usual and and the music fits almost perfectly in the background. There are times when the sound drifts towards that of NIN (especially the sounds of Year Zero), but mostly the Reznoreque elements are subtlety interlaced behind the main riffs. A good example is the piano on Convict Colony. There is a big "what the fuck" to the cover of Sunday Bloody Sunday. Not that it sounds terrible, it just doesn't fit with the rest of the album. The first half of the album overall is solid, though a bit unspectacular. Unfortunately some of the time it sounds like Saul is doing an impersonation of Trent when singing, though it's not surprising given the same thing happened on Year Zero. Niggy Tardust has vocals like this, though of the whole album it has my favourite lyrics.

The highlight track for me is WTF! As a song it just fits together so well, great lyrics, fitting music, catchy chorus, and the most complex song structurally on the album. Absolutely love the outro. As the album wears on, the tracks get more and more diverse. Scared Money has a very retro funk feel while Raw is, oddly as the title suggests, stripped back to the bare minimum that constitutes a song. Skin Of A Drum is at times an Industrial Music outcast yet still carries the human touch. The last 30 minutes is a journey through different moods, points and counterpoints, lyrical brilliance coupled with pronounced accompaniment. And it all finishes so strongly with The Ritual.

Its great to see an album that gets better at it goes on, most albums put the best tracks first then descend as more and more filler songs pad out what would have been a killer EP into an average LP. But as it is with almost every single NIN album, the strongest tracks are saved until the end. Albums like this are the reason to listen from start to finish, not to take each track individually but rate it as a whole. There must be a lot of hip hop producers out there right now listening to this and feeling quite green that an Industrial musician has managed to produce a hip hop album of this quality.

In the end, this album has showed the abilities and versatility of both Saul Williams And Trent Reznor. It makes me wonder how good the Zack De La Rocha / Trent Reznor album would have sounded. And like the Tapeworm project, I guess only a few people will ever know, though I have a faint glimmer of hope that NIN leaving Interscope will clear up the contractual problems and we'll see an Internet release. After all, there is a huge legion of fans who have showed they are willing to support Internet downloads... provided its not the terrible crap available on iTunes.