Tuesday, February 8, 2011

To Hit Armor Class Zero

This FPE post takes me back to the very origins of the FPE, a year and a half or so ago, when my little shrub was but a sprout who had just discovered walking, and still employed that zombie/Frankenstein shuffle that makes it clear why we call them "toddlers".

This toddler named Frances toddled over to my CD shelf and grabbed a CD from near the bottom to examine. Then she did it again, and then she did it again. When I put the CDs back, she would take them out again. They would wind up sitting on the couch or the floor. Eventually, since I couldn't keep them on the shelf, I decided to just go with it, and started stacking them on top of the CD shelf unit. By the time Frances had lost interest in this game, a month or two later, most of the high Ls and low Ms (from The Lotus to Lata Mangeshkar) were stacked up there.

The chief method I employ to quell my anxiety flareups when life upsets the order I've tried to impose is to go with it, and do my best to facilitate the process of turning perceived liabilities into the assets they almost always can be. (Isn't that what a koan is? An intentional disruption or revolution, a slap in the face of an honest petitioner, a teachable absurdity or impossibility that is the foundation for getting outside a box; lemons/lemonade [though, you need to add sugar]). Hence, the FPE - Frances un-files my records? Well then, why not actually listen to them for a change? I didn't get to this "aha!" when she was on the CDs, but needing to stack them on top of the unit was the foundation for it. Eighteen months later, the CDs are still up there, despite Frances having soon moved on to my preferred medium, the vinyl LP. If I don't write about the CDs soon, I'll need to re-file them!

I have a complicated relationship with CDs. While I have nothing against them, officially, I just love LPs so much more. I don't think CDs are evil, and they are the first music medium I collected. The LPs won my heart though. Since I considered writing this post, I've been thinking about the roles played by CDs and LPs as "versions" of album releases, and wondering if one is intrinsically better suited to "define" a release than the other.

A quarter-century ago when they entered the mainstream consciousness, CDs were quickly reviled by music geeks as a high-profit new face for old recordings: run it through a digital processor and call it "remastered", squash the beautiful cover art into nonsense, force consumers to buy shiny bauble with the face of Led Zeppelin II, snort cocaine, repeat for 'Zep 3. Technology always has the potential to facilitate profit, when craftily employed - but at the end of the century, when Sean Fanning or whoever did it first liberated the digital files from their plastic bodies, we the people had our revenge over the corporate overlords who had held up those pale mirrors to the classic rock gods of our parents' youth, at least according to the narrative that's been most popularly accepted (though there's always that problematic other side of the story - the evil labels took a non-fatal blow, but the content creators, with their artistic integrity and lack of comparable financial reserves, seem to keep complaining too!). The CDs started looking more like the "rich man's 8-track" that Steve Albini had called them when the market demanded CD versions of his beloved Big Black albums, and the vinyl albums that had refused to completely vanish started looking more robust than ever.

My personal journey as a collector has been linked with this story. In 1985 I was 12, and the first CDs I bought were reissues of canon items: the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead (lots of kids in my school dug this band, and the title seemed to indicate this was a good entry point, and plus they had a sick name - man was I disappointed with this album) and a much-hyped Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (as they did recently with the iTunes deal, the decision-makers at Beatles LLC waited until the waters of the new medium were good and tested before jumping in with great fanfare). I decided to acquire everything on CD, the assumption being that every album worth owning would henceforth be available in both a vinyl and CD version, and the modern CD was the best way to archive the canon. Later, I realized the obvious: the new object was of necessity a re-mediated re-creation, subject to any considerations that a newly-created object is subject to when being judged for value: there's no "definitive version" of a particular release, any more than there can be a "definitive" performance of a composition, the appreciation of any object or performance being subject to multiple contexts, such as how and why was it created, what is your historical/emotional relationship with the composition or album, were you high when you heard it, etc.

Despite the medium's crass exploitation by entrenched stakeholders at its inception, the CD's not naturally better or worse than the LP as a carrier of musical content. As they matured in the 90s (and quickly brought about the demise of the LP as a mainstream medium), CDs were more creatively and interestingly packaged, and came into their own as collectible objects. Independent labels, who continued to release both LP and CD versions of the same material, were of course aware of this, and, as CDs continued to gain object independence from vinyl, differentiated the versions in more significant ways. (One I always dug from the late 90s was the CD of the first OOIOO album, which employs a translucent plastic cover containing four trippy O's in conjunction with a trippy oval I on the CD itself to spell out the band's name.)

Out of the L and M CDs that Frances chose for my future project way back in mid-2009, only one is a release that I have a corresponding vinyl version of, and it's a great illustration of the right way to independently exploit the strengths of both media. Lemons/lemonade again, though the value hierarchy isn't linked to the two versions; rather, the lemons are the need to release two objects, and the lemonade is the creation of two medium-specific lenses that offer complementary views of the same material. It is...

The Mae-Shi - To Hit Armor Class Zero

The Mae-Shi itself, as a unit, has a bit of a history when it comes to multiple versions. As a close but not intimate observer, it's clear to me that ambition, mis-communication and differing visions of what the band was all had a part in a story that was not a little bit tragic in some aspects - but rather than get into that uncomfortable, recently buried history, I'll just refer interested parties to the written records that remain on the Internet here, here and here, and instead move on to my intended focus, which is their first release, an EP that turns 8 this year.

I pretty much love this band, and this explosive record is as great a mission statement as any band has ever dropped for a first release. Three tracks of bonkers noise-rock mayhem, Ezra Buchla's gonzo voice belching all over it, analog synth noise impolitely dolloped over the top like Cool Whip, followed by one track of the comparatively subdued, but still way too over-caffeinated noise-disco that they would try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to reconcile with the noise-rock on their first album proper, 2004's brilliant, unsatisfyingly produced Terrorbird (but a style that would be fully integrated into a mature Mae-Shi by the time of 2008's masterpiece HLLLYH), followed by "To Hit Armor Class Zero II", an unapologetically indulgent, abrasive analog synth jam (possibly, a composition?) that's epic in length, overstaying its welcome again and again for some fifty headachey minutes (more than five times the length of the other four tracks combined!).

Yeah, it's an EP that's an hour long. But really it has the soul of an EP; the title jam is really just too much, you know?

So versions. The 10" vinyl (that's right buddy. I said 10". What's up now, tough guy?) presents completely different (and much handsomer / more assertive) cover art, though the cheerful color scheme is the same. Naturally it's on colored vinyl: a creamy yellow/orange mango. The four actual songs on side one play at 45 rpm, again natch, and for gravy, you get a vinyl-exclusive super-stupid comic book, drawn with gusto by someone that, like, "can't draw".

And then the icing on the gravy: Side Two! The noise-jam ogre from the CD has been replaced with "To Hit Armor Class Zero (Locked Groove DJ Tool Edition)", explained thus by a toothy dog in the enclosed "Instructional Comics": "Those are lock grooves that you can use to make your own songs. You can make rap songs, IDM, um, uh... Activist techno, Pizza Hut commercials, etc." They are groovy, gravy needle-droppers indeed, and what an object of wonder is this slice of mango.

So versions. Obviously the record is cooler than the CD - but be real, I can't spend an hour getting up and shifting the needle to new 3-second dance parties, any more than I can listen to fifty minutes of blonky scrapes (of course, if Pizza Hut calls me to score an ad, I'm totally going with this). Where the FPE takes me I am pledged to follow, though - so listen to the noise jam I did, and listen twice. It's great. Total sandpaper, start to finish, the choppy stream of a loud consciousness, a mushroom cloud that never lets up. As a listening experience, easier than the physicality of that record, and less painful by far than the anxiety-inducing repetition of letting one of the vinyl grooves play (the head-trippiness of some of them notwithstanding). Even a formless explosion that changes eases my tension more than an unvaried infinity. Would I prefer pi to 1/3? It would seem so.

Thus I'm with the CD for casual plays. It gives you one more little bonus as well: the booklet! Like I said above, it's original art that's not reproduced anywhere in the vinyl version, and yeah, it's not as "handsome", but it's kinda cool: some leg diagram thingy with weird writing that might be Hebrew on the front, and paper cranes on the back. The inside-booklet art is exclusive to the CD too: it lists the tracks, and each track is paired with an animal (avatar?). "You Can't Do That to an Axe!" gets a turtle, "Summer in Gomorrah" a hedgehog, "Revelation Party" a flower, "(Raise Up) The Judges Go Dancing Again" a fish, and "To Hit Armor Class Zero" another fish. Wicked zen, man, kinda deep, and there are tiny guitars and buildings and creepy crawlies and stuff too. The CD art is by dudes in the band, and the vinyl art, even the comic, is by dudes not in the band. The CD is the first release on this one dude in the band's label, the vinyl is #31 on some dude not in the band's label. So in the end I'm with the CD for homeyness, full integration with the band's scattered trip, and the koi - and I'm with the vinyl for polish and panache.


In closing I'll add that we just got the non-small, non-board-book versions of two Dr. Seuss classics that Frances has been reading in small form for a long time (Dr. Seuss's ABC and Hop on Pop), and her mind was blown and world rocked. Mine too, actually - who knew there was just tons of extra material in the big books? I wasn't quite as disturbed by Frances at the near-total lack of convergence on the K page (she cried), but I must admit the X page was a bit of a shocker: it's completely different (and much better - the big book has "ax", "extra fox" and "Nixie Knox", and the board book replaces these with "X-ray" and "xylophone", ho-hum).