First off, I don’t think many people get this, least some writer at MOJO– Fuck the Mars Volta. Secondly, the Melvins-cover is just about the most UN-phenomenal thing to happen on this record. So let’s start with that and work our way up.
42 years have passed since Bitches’ Brew. I find it a small tragedy when reviewers tirelessly reference each other as if to validate their opinions, obviously never really theirs in the first place– and overstate that album like a central reference to this new and exciting band. It’s like filling an Andy Sedaris review with swampy attributions to Dickens. One would think as educated writers we could put aside MOJO Classic Iconography, the silly pandered CLASSIC ROCK TAKE HOME SAMPLERS and form more original journalism. I mean we’re in year 2012, and all you got to say about this album is Hendrix and Sabbath? Plenty o’ underground bands have been pushing the envelope and melding styles, yet all journalists can say is this is some bloody “fusion” act?
My problem with the Melvins’ cover is–it’s like they spent an entire debut showcasing how original they are, then they do a generic, I mean almost note-for-note- tone for tone cover of a band. What are you trying to say? That you like the Melvins? That you wanna pay homage? Surely it’d be better to pay homage in one’s own style– I mean that’s the whole point, right? Not robotic manufacturers in an exercise. When one hasn’t really treated it any differently, it’s a plain shame and on the album, sticks out like a weed to be plucked.
But it’s no surprise people’s gotten a wad in their panties; affinities are clear. (I also can’t believe the same bona fide music journalist casually calls The Melvins: “grunge poster boys”. Is that supposed to be like, clever?) We see the Trio’s ode in track three, “For the air”, a familiar tube crunch meandering on a fast-paced/short-lived journey, like a Camaro spitting diesel outta a rusty carburetor. The engine revs, a devilish bass casually strolls in, and we’re off, high flyin’, high riffin’ in spraying dirt, it’s wheezin’, it’s screechin’ before slowing again, carousing by the stacks in pure enjoyment like the purity of slighted juvenile entertainment. King Buzzo would be proud.
My gut feeling with this band is that they’re much less like the jazz references staked upon them then those in the history of American independent rock. Whilst spinning Shoot! over the last months, two particular bands stood out in a histrionic dialogue. As electrified I was by these two bands, I also hear in HMT microcosms of radial power in the minutest details, on the cusp of something super cool.
That’s San Francisco’s The Fucking Champs on Drag City and Boston’s Karate on Southern Records. Especially the energy in Karate’s live album 495. I think comparing HMT could be a didactic enterprise so if you’ll bear with me, I’ll get a bit nerdy and proceed to a frickin’ thesis.
In plain English: I’m going to tell you exactly why I think HMT do something
The Fucking Champs vs. Hedvig Mollestad Trio:
“The Mondrians of Metal, a power of reductionism”
There’s something to be said about the instrumental capacity: cos where’s rock’n’roll without the vocalists’ swagger? When reduced to only three elements, how can one emulate it’s legacy? The lack of a vocals guarantees straddling the line between the experimental and conventional; forcing riffs to drive the melody. Being a hippie jam band is easy enough, fruitful jazz circles in endless nights. Pubs are filled with them. Making solid rocks songs without a singer, however, is no easy task.
The Fucking Champs notoriously never played to “metal crowds”, and with the release of their various 7″s and albums, named after roman numerals, they assiduously recruited a breed of indie rockers who saw some kind of artsy fartsy take on metal. When IV came out in 2000 it was like emitting heavy metal in it’s raw form. No frills, no hair image, no shrieking high pitched vocals, no super swanky production, no millions of overdubs. It’s like the Mondrian of rock– a self-awareness in form itself, as opposed to the elemental contents which had already been passed on and overused already– to take these elements, play it tight, push riffs hard, and most importantly, play it loud.
One quality to the Champs was the fact that it came a bit unschooled in the process, which is not to say they couldn’t play, but they didn’t do it in a way their hairspray forefathers did. The retro throwback only treaded via uncharted territory. Part of the deception of these bands, and why they’re often misunderstood or passed upon by the mainstream, is that on the outset the riffs in themselves are familiar. Like HMT, drawing on cues that’ve been long washed out or fretted upon. Yet in essence, the packaging was totally different; less fluffy drumming for instance. The Champs had a more straightforward, heavy industrial nature of bands like Helmet or Big Black; exploring cheesy 80’s metal riff in a then-modern context. Likewise, however schooled Hedvig & the mighty Trio are in their jazz roots, there’s no textbook for keeping the audience captivated and on a rock high with such stripped down elements.
Peeps can reference Bitches’ Brew in relation to Hedvig Mollestad Trio all they want, but one primary difference is that of a tightly controlled substance as opposed to waves of oscillating textures and colours. Here after all, it’s only three. Opener track, “Gun and the e-kid” is heavy, simple, precise in all it’s chuggery, tasteful Don Cabarello-style drumming, time signatures and quick rhythm changes. It wastes no time before plunging into “Ashes”, another riff-tacular track, hammering up and down the scales like it’s nobody’s business. Very metal-heavy “Sidetracked” also tears, especially into the solo. The upright bass’s beautifully rendered sound on this album is not to be understated, it’s constantly in perfect dialogue with Hedvig’s guitar if not lucid moments of fingers screwing their way outta hell.
Karate vs. Hedvig Mollestad Trio:
“If you don’t pick a team, They’re gunna leave you out”
Some groan whenever I bring up Karate– I’ve heard them described as everything from Fugazi with a bad singer OR an emo-jazz band. But like most great artists, I don’t think you get them unless you understand their entire (fancy word, but can’t think of another) oeuvre. You know, a band you can’t really “get” in 1-2 albums.
Debates about Karate aside, let’s strip it to the fundamentals. Karate were a trio of well-schooled jazz musicians that formed in the early Nineties, drummer Gavin McCarthy graduating from the top conservatory of music, Berklee, in fact. But the boys grew up on DC-punk and a DIY ethos, and blended it with their love for jazz at a time when it wasn’t really THAT cool to show-off you were also a) white; b) educated; c) relatively upper middle class. The music of Karate almost painfully exhibited all the above. A lot of soon-to-be Karate haters found the jazz influences and Karate’s overall penchant for precision and clean, technical detail some sort of contradiction to the sloppiness or uneducated primal quality of punk. Bands of that scene also tended to be rabidly political, whereas Karate never fit in and instead focused on writing grammatically correct codas, a-political interviews and being unaligned with any band that had ever existed, ever. I remember reading the band’s roadie was a doctor––who’d afford that?
“Number Six” from Unsolved (2000)
One could argue on the other hand, musically, they were as fucking punk as you can get. Understood in the subversion of conventional jazz; reconfiguring traditional and schooled elements into a style completely their own. Part of this unique style were brilliant lyrics, really, some fucking poetry. The singing-style of Geoff Farina was so cold, jazzy and smooth–– always reminded me of the way Mike Myers’s character in So I Married an Axe Murder recited those lines on the open mic night… Woman, woooooman…
The reason I chose this track in comparison to HMT, is we find the same kinda introversion or offshoots “Doom’s lair” or “The Valley” in Shoot!, tracks all in the context of highly persuasive riffing. To isolate these tracks in themselves could very well justify it as a jazz-heavy band, but at the same time, it defies categorisation at the changes. Musically, Karate mastered the soft-loud dynamic that at the right time, they knew when to whisper and when to blast it really hard, going on and on like they forgot what they’d learned in school. It mighta sounded like a band that took themselves very seriously– but upon close listen it didn’t quite match up with what’d happen on stage. Oh, they let it loose.
03 In Hundreds by KARATE from 595
Listen especially in this Karate track, when it reaches 5:14 to when it climaxes at 6:53. Suddenly all the slogans about the death of guitar bands seem at a loss for words. Like HMT, have an appreciation for bare, pure un-plasticised guitar nakedness! The same is true of track “No encore”, what appears to begin in a conventional manner suddenly becomes explosive. Never having put their foot into one succinct genre, Karate were abandoned to a cult following until a timely break-up.
I doubt they’ll ever be a “right” time for bands like this. They simply exist and at best, understood by music lovers. At worst, passed through conventional categories and filed under “fusion”. As for HMT, who don’t fit comfortably into one suit– I hope they never try. While their debut album exhibits the tinkerings of a newcomer– and I hope they never do a word for word cover again– may they strangle as much educated rock heaviness outta jazz as frickin’ possible.
Also worth mentioning on the “defying stereotypes”-front, the band is 2/3 comprised of women.
Sometimes writers get caught up in the referencing game, I’m sure I’m guilty as any, but you know if every moment in music was codified the way, as an after-thought, journalists describe them– then we’d never have groundbreaking work. That’s how the greats were born anyway, in the midst and not an after thought. So fuck calling it jazz. Let this find mirth in it’s own unpretentious glory. Some can’t detect innovation if it smacked them across their faces. A string of words with pieced-together facts is not, in my opinion, a review. So if you need to know the names of the other members or when they’re playing next: google it your own fucking self. These cats transcend.
To view more journalistic injustices to this band, check out By:Larm’s HMT review by the festival’s newspaper.