Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween Week: Scariest Music of All Time

If you're planning a Halloween party, there's no shortage of scary movies to watch – it's pretty easy to find at least 10 horror movies with the word "Halloween" in the actual title of the movie – but finding scary music is tricky. What kind of music could possibly be as scary as a horror movie?

It's Not What It Looks Like
Ever since Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper hit it big in the 1970s, there have been hundreds of metal, goth and emo bands willing to dress up in "scary" costumes to look like they're part of the scene. You know, the traditional "scary metal" look: wild hair, everything in black, chains . . . how could it not be scary?

'Ozzy on tour in Japan' by Jennifer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 - follow link for details.
Ozzy Osbourne, Godfather of Scary Metal.
Forty years later, this sort of look just isn't scary at all, anymore – and neither is the music. In the 1970s, church groups were terrified about the "satanic powers" of bands like KISS – but these days, who's afraid of a little hard rock?

There's only one "scary"-looking band that might be worth a fright, and that's The Horrors. Although they're a pretty obvious choice – look at their name! – they're also one of the better British bands of the past few years, and their last couple of albums were great fun. But either way, they're probably not exactly horrifying . . . so who is?

I'm here to help. Give these tunes a whirl:

Come To Daddy — Aphex Twin
The music is very, very unsettling, but the real kicker is the video – directed by the great Chris Cunningham, and widely regarded as one of the scariest music videos of all time. Be warned: if you come across this one on Rage at 3am, you may have trouble sleeping afterwards.

'97 Bonnie & Clyde — Eminem, Tori Amos
The original Eminem version, with its disturbing lyrics and "googoo-gaga" toddler noises (sampled from his own baby daughter!), is creepy enough. But Tori Amos's interpretation – from her covers album, Strange Little Girls – is really frightening. While Eminem's skittish rant sounds like a sarcastic slasher film, Amos's intimate whispers create an In Cold Blood–style true-crime horror. Seriously, be warned: this song is not for the faint of heart. (Or the easily offended.)

And from the same Tori Amos album, her almost-unrecognisable cover of Slayer's death metal epic "Raining Blood" is pretty interesting, too . . .

So if you look around, there are plenty of scary songs in unexpected places. But if you want to hear something really scary, there's one musician who stands above the rest:

Why Does His Voice Sound Like That? BECAUSE HE EATS YOUR BONES
'Tom Waits' by Theplatypus, public domain image - follow link for details.
That's right – Tom Waits. He began his career as bluesy, Bukowski-esque balladeer, but with 1983's Swordfishtrombones his music took a turn for the seriously bizarre. Haunted 1880s gypsy accordions, skeleton-rib xylophones, electric guitars tuned to breaking point, some instruments so obscure that they may not actually exist – from one song to the next, Waits's music ticks every box marked "creepy" and several marked "awesome".

The most intense and terrifying instrument of all is his voice, which often sounds like he's been gargling battery acid. But his vocals are surprisingly versatile; one moment he's genuinely tender and forlorn, and the next he's crawling inside your ears to eat your brain. If you want to hear a sound that will make you fear for your life, Tom Waits's voice is a great start.

What's the scariest music you know?
Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 19, 2009

(Not) The Last Post

My favourite quote (out of everything I've read on the web today):

Comma. You never want one of these anywhere near you [. . .] Every time you add a comma to the description of what you do, you suck a little bit more [. . .] Commas are for unfocused hacks.

The quote isn't quite so awesome in context – it's from an article about marketing, *ho-hum* – but what a line, huh? I dare you all to yell, "Commas are for unfocused hacks!" at a professional writer or editor, as soon as possible. Preferably during a job interview.

I've been trying to think about what I should write about that would be fitting, now that my uni course (the one that's been about blogging) is almost over . . .

First, some trivia:
The most expensive word on Google is mesothelioma. If you want to buy a Google Ad that appears on searches for "mesothelioma", it'll cost you US$99.44 per click.
Secondly, Twitter:
It's a good and useful thing. Probably. I blogged about Twitter a while ago, but just yesterday I came across a really neat article about some ways that it might be worth your while. If you're curious about Twitter but still unsure (or if you're on Twitter already, but you have no idea what to do with it), try reading this.

Thirdly . . .
I like words. I like people. Blogging seems like a good compromise.

People often talk about the "dehumanising" effects of technology, but I don't really buy into that. I think the whole memesphere of the web is powered by people communicating with other people: it all feeds off the kick we get from exercising our empathy, from recognising differences and commonalities between ourselves and others. Jokes, stories, ideas. It's all good. (Mostly.)

Anyhow, I think it's something that we should feel good about. Sometimes people are awesome, and sometimes it's too easy to forget that.

(I think I read somewhere that happiness is "seven successful human interactions per day." I like that; it sounds achievable . . .)

Blogging is fun and satisfying in a very unique way, I think. If you keep writing, I'll keep reading, I promise.



Friday, October 16, 2009

Email: Obsolete?

By now we're all familiar with the imminent death of newspapers, the imminent death of CDs, the imminent death of television, etc. But the other day I came across an idea that I'd never considered: the imminent death of email. That got my attention.

Email went mainstream only fifteen years ago, but it's now an essential part of daily life; to imagine it being completely replaced (already?!) is bizarre. But this article has almost convinced me that email's days really are numbered; the writer has some interesting arguments, at least . . .

To begin with, email is apparently too slow for the modern internet, because it's not instantaneous. Email is stuck in the 1990s – deep down, it's still expecting you to be on dialup:
. . . email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging on and off, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected . . .
And that's why, according to the article, email is steadily being superseded by various kinds of instant messaging and chat (not to mention Twitter and Facebook). The last time you wanted to tell somebody something over the internet, did you actually use your email? Or did you just update your Facebook status?

The other big problem is email's lack of finesse. We're all dealing with more information than we actually have time to read, so we need good ways to classify and sort everything – #hashtags and meta-data, blog labels, threads. Email doesn't really allow for that. Also, we now have various personal profiles associated with our presence on the net – extra information and context about ourselves, which is a kind of "passive" communication – and email doesn't really allow for that, either.

This is why, for example, Google are setting up their Wave: a new system that's supposed to combine the functionalities of email, instant messages, social networking and collaborative documents (a.k.a. wikis) into one supreme package. When I first heard about the Google Wave I was sceptical (and also slightly . . . concerned), but the more I think about it, the more useful (and plausible) it all seems.

Is this really going to happen? Will email be completely abandoned within our lifetimes? Is it going to matter, either way?

Also: should we be worried that Google knows everything about us and is building artificially intelligent supercomputers?

Image © 2002, C2 and its related entities. Via Google Image Search ;)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rage Roundup (ish)

Not much Rage on this blog, lately? Yeah, I know. Here's a couple of tunes to tide you over.

Liam Finn has produced some impressive music lately. His band Betchadupa (currently "on hiatus") never made a huge impact, but I'll Be Lightning (2007) – Liam's melancholy solo album – was a more substantial success. Now that his musical partnership with Eliza-Jane Barnes (daughter of Jimmy Barnes) has moved to equal-billing status, there's a new enthusiasm to the music that's seriously punchy.

Both Finn and Barnes are multi-instrumentalists, and it's clear they have a passion for unusual musical arrangements. To construct this tune they've surrounded a glam bass riff with 1960s psych organ, 1970s synth bleeps and modern drums. It's an odd blend, and the central riff is very simple – you might even say, "old-fashioned" – but the arrangement overall is crafty and energetic. The guitar solo buzzes and twists like a drunk wasp, the organ chords generate great texture and tension (especially in the bridge – check out the way the organ plays against the background vocal harmonies), and the "sshhhpp!" percussion effects remind you to dance. It's great stuff.

The video shows Finn and Barnes flashing rapidly in and out of existence on their various instruments in the recording studio, showing off their simultaneous multi-instrumentalism. It's an interesting visual effect, but it's probably more uncomfortable to watch than it should be – the flashes are so rapid, it's surprising the video doesn't come with an epilepsy warning. Enjoy!

Lots of songs begin with only piano and voice; it's an elegant combination that flatters a nice voice, so singers tend to enjoy it. Jessica Says's new single starts with only piano and voice, but then it does something unusual: it refuses to add a single extra instrument as it goes along. (Listen carefully and you might notice occasional background vocals from New Buffalo's Sally Seltmann, but that's it.) One instrument, no overdubs – as far as pop ballads go, that sort of approach is practically punk! Luckily, the vocals are strong enough for the song to work well with piano alone, and it creates a wonderfully pure and clear, "live" sound.

It's tempting to compare Jessica Says (a.k.a. Jessica Venables) to Kate Bush – they share a similar songwriting taste for sweet-and-sour melodies, and there's even a vocal resemblance – but it'd be unfair to mark this as any kind of rip-off. Venables possesses a unique edge of her own, and this is simply a great song; the musical craft and spirit on show are undeniable.

The video is interesting, too. It looks like a homage to 1960s European art films (dubious sexual politics included); production-wise it's obviously cheap, but it's adequate. A song this good really deserves something better, but Jessica Says will hopefully be successful enough to demand a bigger music video budget next time. Looking forward to it!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

2009 ARIA Awards: Nominees!

As shiny as the Oscars, as confusing as the Grammys, as lucrative as the Nobels? No, the ARIA Music Awards are something else – Australia's own. And the 2009 nominees have been announced!

However, I have some questions:

1. How can there be "nominees" for the "Highest Selling Australian Single/Album"?
This has always confused me. Shouldn't winning this award be about statistics, not nominations? It generates competitive interest and publicity, I know – but surely anyone could figure out the winners right now, just by looking at the sales figures?

(Moral of this story: music journalists cannot be bothered to look through sales figures.)

2. What does "Adult Contemporary" mean?
Nominees this year include Bob Evans, Josh Pyke, Little Birdy and Paul Dempsey – all indie mainstays, each one loved and supported by youth radio stations (especially Triple J). So has "Adult Contemporary" become a replacement for the abandoned "Alternative" category? The teenagers of the 1990s "alternative music" boom are getting into their thirties now, so maybe the ARIAs are growing up, too. (Either that, or Triple J is actually a station for contemporary adults. Hmm . . .)

3. How come 2009 includes AC/DC's first ever ARIA nomination, and not their 50th?
Because the ARIAs only began in 1987. And let's face it, AC/DC have released only two albums since 1987 that are arguably better than "adequate": Black Ice (this year's nominee) and The Razors Edge (1990). Razors Edge does include "Thunderstruck", one of their best hits, but it was disqualified due to the lack of apostrophe in the word "Razor(')s". You can't rock out without appropriate punctuation, and I commend the Australian Recording Industry Association for their strong and principled stance on this issue.

4. Do the ARIA nominations violate their own guidelines?
This year, C. W. Stoneking was nominated for "Breakthrough Artist – Album", despite being ineligible (because his previous album was nominated for a 2007 ARIA). He's since been stripped of this nomination – but he's still nominated for "Best Male Artist", "Best Independent Release" and "Best Blues and Roots Album", so he's doing all right.

Another odd nomination is Ladyhawke (Pip Brown), who's nominated in 6 categories despite being a New Zealander. (Not that we aren't happy to claim her as an honorary Aussie, of course.) ARIA fine print indicates that artists are eligible if they've lived in Australia for more than six months and applied for permanent residency, which may or may not be the case – I'll keep you posted . . .

5. How many nominees have an exclamation mark in their song or album title?
Answer: At least four!!!!

It's good to see a strong field this year – I don't think there are any "what the?!" nominees making up the numbers. Award ceremonies are often controversial (one way or another), but their real purpose is to celebrate the industry and create publicity for deserving nominees. On that count, the 2009 ARIAs are already a success.

What do you think about giving awards for high sales, "Adult Contemporary", AC/DC or Ladyhawke's fair dinkum kiwi-ness?