Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hella - "The Republic of Rough-N-Ready"

The Republic of Rough-N-Ready

This is tied for favorite song from one of my favorite albums, so it's tough to want to do anything but offer it up. Maybe with a side of superlatives like "the high point of contemporary progressive music," or "the most brilliant dense music ever made by two people live in a room" (at least in the realm of rock, because I don't want to get in to comparing this to Interstellar Space, but it certainly kicks the ass of anything I've ever heard by the Ruins), or "the most meaningfully busy drumming ever recorded" (again, I'll stick to a rock context for such a claim).

I can say that you should listen to it ten more times if you're hearing it for the first time and it sounds like a big mess of notes and rhythms. That's how I heard it the first time I heard this album -- Hold Your Horse Is, credit for first listen goes to Adam Rigger, fall '03 -- until I got to 2:22 of this track. There's a bouncy almost country-ish guitar lick and a response that goes back and forth three times and never comes back. The phrase was undeniable and I was like "okay, these guys aren't just shredding to show off, this kind of sounds like Yes, or at least like Faraquet." It took me a bunch more listens plus seeing Hella live to realize that all these parts are purposeful and melodic. Not just Spencer Seim's guitar playing, which for all its aggressively physicality (tapping, hammer-ons and pull-offs, blistering picking, etc.) is always subservient to musical phrases. Zach Hill's drumming is even more brilliant in coming off at first listen as an incoherent jumble, and yet ultimately revealing itself as an overcaffeinated deconstruction of rock beats.

Take for example his first set of more-or-less repeated phrases when this song starts in earnest at :10. His phrase starts half a second before the guitar's and plays a part filled with off-accents on the snare, but that ends clearly with a fairly conventional closing statement on open hi-hat. The phrase is so busy and off-time that I don't even know how to start counting it, but it's still recognizably a cut-time let's-get-warmed-up intro part. Sort of. Obviously nothing in those last few sentences is going to express why it's a successful part, but what I'm saying is seriously listen to it again and again until you can hear it, if not understand it. My main man Mike Dooling, formidable drummer and trained opera singer, told me he got some software to slow down tracks from this album without changing the pitch. . . and he still couldn't figure out what the hell Hill is doing most of the time.

Or take one more example: the weird interjection of a chopped-up hip hop beat in isolation at 1:18. Brilliant, and yes, a bit non-sequitorial, maybe even obnoxious (like: we have so many sick parts we're giving them away. . .) but then holy shit that part that comes right after it. They're in 4/4 actually, but Seim has both hands on the fretboard, making thick clusters of clean tones topped off by a sad pretty almost-melody, Hill is sweeping across his set, no time for fills with a part that busy.

Busy at being superlative.

Bygones - "Click on That (Smash the Plastic Death)"

Click on That (Smash the Plastic Death)

Here goes my first foray into writing about something (kinda) new: the Bygones album that I just acquired a few weeks ago, though I'd listened to it online some last summer. Or was that the summer before last?

Bygones is the duo of Zach Hill, the drummer of gold-standard instrumental math rock band Hella, and Nick Reinhart, the guitarist of Tera Melos, a band at the center of what I gather is a thriving scene of music like this Sacramento. Both Hella and TM make non-music-school prog rock, with "pop" belonging somewhere in the genre description of the latter. This side project is what you expect from this background, but so far I like it more than anything I've heard from Reinhart's main band and almost as much as the great works of Hella -- who supposedly will release a new album in classic duo format some time later this year.

The song I'm sharing here has been stuck in my head for days, and this album is particularly good at demonstrating that the point of writing dense music with oddly timed changes doesn't have to be denying the listener the joy of hummable hooks. In keeping with this sentiment, Hill actively sublimates his famously IDM-level virtuosic beat chops (cf. this or anything else on youtube from the Hella Japan tour DVD) to verses, choruses, and bridges. This isn't to say that these guys are just trying their hands at writing pop songs. Hill's busy toms pepper the parts with unexpected accents, and the hummable riffs and progressions rarely conform to a straight metrical pattern. Obviously I don't know anything about how these guys write their parts, but I'm happy to think they share an idea I've had (Jake Anodide gets partial credit for this one): that odd time signatures should be the result of feeling out how long a phrase wants to be, then refraining from putting an extra chugga or pause to make the meter even. This rather than writing a phrase and then dropping or adding a beat simply to translate it from regular rock into math rock.