In Memory of Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Unlike so many writing about him in the wake of his passing, Neil Peart didn’t change my life.  By the time I first seriously listened to Rush in college, when I reviewed Permanent Waves for the student newspaper, my tastes were pretty set, and they didn’t lean toward heavy rock.  (Truth to tell, I looked down on “that stuff” back then.)  So while Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Exit Stage Left got me into a band my best buddies from high school still raved about — they were using keyboards now! — I basically thought, “hmm … noted and logged.  Buy their stuff from now on”, and kept moving.

So I bought and enjoyed Rush’s albums through A Show of Hands; picked them up again with Roll the Bones (probably my favorite, which I know makes me a schismatic or a heretic); lost track again following Peart’s family tragedies, retirement and comeback.  All the while I dug deeper and wider musically — into classical, jazz, country, folk — and finally embraced the heavy stuff.  (This happens when your stepson digs Led Zeppelin.)

But for me and Rush, 2007’s Snakes and Arrows finally sealed the deal.  An album this good after this many years of active service didn’t just catch my ears; it commanded my respect.  I knew I had to see them live, and my high school buddy Keith obliged with tickets to their 2008 Joe Louis Arena show.  And I saw something like this:

And I was gone.  And I saw Rush four more times before they retired from live performance (usually with those high school buddies); bought Clockwork Angels, all the concert videos and everything else Rush-related I could get my hands on; exulted at their elevation to the heights of Noughties celebrity by the movers and shakers of geek culture; cheered when they made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (and took over the induction ceremony), then finally made the cover of Rolling Stone; even grew to appreciate the over-the-top virtues of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” 2112 and A Farewell to Kings.

So yes, Neil Peart’s loss moves me.  But what ultimately drew me to him as a musician, a man, an artist, an exemplar?  Some attempts to unpack the mystery follow.

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District 97, Screens

Impossibly sick drum groove by Jonathan Schang: check.  Heavy unison guitar/bass riff from Jim Tashijan and Tim Seisser: check.  “Yep, that’s District 97. Now where was I?”

But then new keyboardist Andrew Lawrence joins in, steering opener “Forest Fire” in a head-snapping direction with cool, jazzy chords.  Cue Leslie Hunt, riding a thrilling vocal line over a cascade of progressions and textures  — including off-kilter breakdowns from Lawrence and Schang.  By the time the track climaxes with a powerhouse unison lick (all in under five minutes), my head’s where it belongs — in the music.

Screens feels like a fresh start for District 97.  The Chicago quintet’s trademarks — Hunt’s lush tone and oblique, syncopated melodies, Tashijan and Seisser’s thick crunch and odd-time riffage, Schang’s lateral ideas and heady polyrhythms — are all present, correct and on point.  But to me, Lawrence is the secret ingredient that’s taken them to a new level, bringing a love of jazz fusion and a rich sense of harmony to the party.

This edition of the band isn’t afraid to take chances with the new tunes — leaving more space, leaning into dynamic contrast, unexpectedly launching skittery, Zappaesque flurries of noise.  Which enables shorter tracks like “Sea I Provide”, “Trigger” and “Blueprint” to cover lots of ground, and the extended efforts “Sheep”, “Bread & Yarn” and “Ghost Girl” to feel like genuine epics. Everybody contributes to the writing and all the players solo — which makes the overall sound more unified and more expansive at the same time.

And all this gives Leslie Hunt more room to run than ever.  It’s hard to think of a vocalist in progressive music with so many tools at her disposal: a gutsy, versatile sound and technique; deeply expressive emotional range; a fertile, eclectic imagination powering her melodies and lyrics.  On Screens, Hunt simultaneously sounds fully unleashed and fully integrated into the band.  Focusing on the lyrical theme of isolation (self-inflicted in “Sheep” and “Shapeshifter”, imposed by others in “Trigger” and “Ghost Girl”), she makes a meal of it: throughout the album, she reacts, resists, reflects, rages — and when she can, reaches out (especially in the poppy “Sea I Provide” and the gorgeous ballad “Blueprint”).   She’s something else.

For all their obvious love of the genre, talent and energy (I’ve been bowled over both times I’ve seen them play to hometown crowds), I’ve sometimes felt that District 97’s music had trouble standing out in a crowded field, especially when they’ve leaned into the metal.  Trouble with Machines and In Vaults are fine albums, but over the years they  blurred together in my ears.  Gratifyingly, Screens busts out into new territory, stretching D97’s sound and style in refreshing, exciting ways, and setting the table for continued growth.  This one’s a winner that’s worth your time and attention.

Screens is currently available as a signed advance CD from the band.  The digital version (released October 4) can be pre-ordered at Bandcamp.  The regular CD (released October 11 in the US) can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

d97

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tool, Fear Inoculum

My history with Tool?  Checkered.  I didn’t tune in during their initial rage-metal period at all; if I had, I probably couldn’t have got past the vulgarity or the in-your-face attitude.  King Crimson opening for Tool (in my mind, Tool closing for King Crimson) got my attention in 2001, and I thought that Lateralus was a nifty hunk of knotty art-metal, with lyrical directions that began to clear a path through the bile.  10,000 Days?  For me, a loooong album that started strong, then meandered through one bizarre, tenuously connected detour after another.  It wound up giving me a headache (also my consistent reaction to The Mars Volta).  So no, Tool has typically not been my cup of tea.

Which is why I’m completely — and delightedly — flabbergasted by Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first album in 13 years.  Beyond being as heavy, brainy and cathartic as one might expect, this is deeply thoughtful, richly layered, compelling music — a satisfying, unified work from start to finish that also rocks like a truck full of bricks.  If this is what Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones and Maynard James Keenan have been aiming for all these years, it’s been well worth the wait, because they’ve nailed it.

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Relentless Mutation

At the frontiers of metal, and probably beyond that, resides Archspire’s dizzying precision. Here compositions proceed in convulsive strides of synchronized riff–drums and robotic vocals, stepping from one atypical rhythm to another. Abruptly switching to varying palates — from “Sound of Perseverance” like scathing guitar harmonies, to math rock signatures. But everything strung together into a seamless train, almost propelling at this dissonant pace and agility.

Drum patterns on the title track — every single beat astonishingly audible and precise, pretty much illustrates this measured approach to compositions. Even though rooted in the ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’ like riffs, those dialed down hardcore-punk influences make the band more symphonic, in a classical music sense. So, quite akin to a brutal-math-metal orchestra, with novel and yet coherent influences, Archspire is well into that inimitable territory.

 

Scourge of the Enthroned

With subtle dynamics, and a uniquely synchronized riff-drum assault, Krisiun forges ahead. Signatures here are inimitable. Not only is it old school as it ever gets, that intricate shredding and precision temporal switches simply elevates the band, altitudes above the numbing turbulence of run-of-the-mill death metal releases.

When a steady synchronized hammer of riffs and double bass runs into that hardly decipherable characteristic growls – “Slay yourself for the glorious day. When the bell tolls for the sins you have made” – it just provides that vocal finesse to this old school technical train. But, as expected, “Devouring Faith“ finally scorches its path into an electric blues like shredding, searing and relentless.

S. Bollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Exercises in Futility

When that punk coarseness is braided with some outside influences, black metal becomes something more. Whether it’s ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’, ‘Nemesis Divina’ or the stunning ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ — it’s crassness with sophistication, that has elevates the genre to unusual heights. Exercises in Futility is not completely rooted in the 90s, but they channel that very sensibility, and same crudeness with atmospheric elegance.

Mgła mellows that black metal fury, almost like they applied some post-metal filters to a Burzum sound. With that constant strumming interleaved with adequate doses of tremolo picking and blast beats, the sound here becomes more streamlined. In short, there are no jarring temporal switches, but more tempting progressions. It’s not an all-out melodic assault like Dissection or Watain, but a more contoured, and structured aggression. But, quite like the black metal greats, Mgła is also moving the genre forward, beyond the confines of its Norwegian creators.

 

 

S. Bollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons