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Band/Artist Profile Blog

Author and Punisher

It’s hard to stand out in extreme music these days. It’s been almost 40 years since musicians discovered that screaming over top of a field of static is compelling enough content to garner a career, and the field is starting to slow down. Artists like The Rita have created the heaviest form of music that is possible with current technology, and artists like Atrax Morgue have experimented with dredging the bottom of the lyrical barrel for shock value. The only way left to stand out is to just be really good at what you do, and that’s where Author and Punisher come in.

Author and Punisher is the stage name of one Tristan Shone, a very scary looking man with a whole garden of his own homemade “instruments” that he uses to make some blood-curdling noises. His music is heavy enough that it loses bearing as a genre, melding in the minds of most listeners into that vague bucket called noise. However, if you have an ear for this sort of thing (or like me you cheat by reading his website), the music is best understood as industrial metal. However, those instrumental machines he builds distort this categorization, as the sounds of conventional metal are still constrained by what noises you can produce with a guitar.

Author and Punisher uses some truly imposing instruments. The visual aesthetic of his performance is, as you can see from the photo, some kind of torture chamber. However, if you go over to that website link and take a look at his ‘machines’ tab, another reference point might be BDSM gear. Regardless, the sounds these instruments create match their appearance.

The novelty of homemade torture instruments gives way to some pretty engaging music. Author and Punisher is truly at the top of his field, taking some of the most recent trends in noise and synthesizing it. Since the arrival of Cut Hands, noise musicians have had to step up their rhythmic game, incorporating actual pulses and beats to the clattering of noise. Similarly, fatigue with the hyper-masculine posturing of extreme music more generally has forced musicians to incorporate more emotional and grounded themes to their music. Author and Punisher doesn’t fully represent either of these two trends, but both can be found in some amount. The music is engaging rhythmic level, though by no means complex, and while I would never describe his music as vulnerable or emotionally honest, I do get the sense that Tristen Shone has a soul.

Author and Punisher isn’t going to change your tastes forever or open up genres you thought you hated, but if you’re at least open to noise, metal, or industrial, this artist has a unique level of craft and artistry that will make it worth your time.

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Band/Artist Profile

Cat Power – Challenging Music

Indie kids spend a fair amount of time bragging about how much more challenging and difficult to understand our music is than the mainstream. This attitude has been deconstructed and ridiculed for good reason, but I think many people are being genuine when they say that they crave music that will expand and challenge their tastes. So, I figured I’d start an occasional series on artists and albums that I’ve personally struggled to understand but have come to truly enjoy. You may find these artists easier to digest than I first did, depending on your tastes, but what I really hope is that you find them as rewarding as I have come to find them.

For this inaugural entry, I want to introduce you to Cat Power, a folk, blues and alternative musician who enjoyed serious critical acclaim in the 90s and 2000s but has befuddled the public at large. When I first heard Cat Power, I found her music unpleasant, challenging and inscrutable, and moved on without giving her a second thought. However, you can probably relate to the experience of having a certain album or musician you didn’t immediately like just stick in your brain. Power did this to me, and I’ve found myself returning to her music at regular intervals, each time liking it a little more than the last.

Cat Power was originally championed by Steve Shelley of the Sonic Youth, who produced and appeared on her first couple of albums. This was at a time when every Sonic Youth member was championing a new alternative act. However, the other two artists who got major label contracts this way, Nirvana and Hole, became big accessible pop acts, and none of those three adjectives would ever be applied to Power. Her music is rooted in blues and folk, following the long tradition of rock musicians who retained an interest in the original cultural context of rock and roll. She prefers a lot of covers, playing songs from the American Folk repertoire, early country greats like the Carter Family and Hank Williams, and obscure folk revival artists like Michael Hurley. However, Power stays true to blues in a way that the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan never did, she retains the somber, morbid, depressive atmosphere that dominated the blues, interpreting through the angsty and pained lens of alternative rock. On paper, her sound isn’t that far away from Sheryl Crow or Melissa Ethridge, but her music is pained in such an understated yet sincere way that I actually had to turn it off while writing this article because I couldn’t focus.

As she progressed, Power would become more accessible, relatively speaking. Her first solo album “Myra Lee” is so stripped bare and distorted that the blues-rock core is almost indiscernible. Her second album “What Would the Community Think,” is a lot more comprehensible, and her masterpiece “Moon Pix,” almost resembles an album you might listen to for pleasure. These three albums are the core of her discography, but for starters, I might recommend her less innovative but more accessible work in the 2000s such as “You Are Free,” or her covers record.

When recreational listening takes this much effort, there has to be a considerable payoff, and for Cat Power, that payoff comes in the wistful emotional space her music occupies. There’s something deeply beautiful at the bottom of Power’s depressive emotional space, and indie rock’s obsession with mental health as subject matter can be partially attributed to Power. Artists from Phoebe Bridgers to Billie Eilish owe her a debt, and the better part of 20 years of folksy lyrical indie rockers have tried to recapture and build upon what she accomplished. Give it a shot if you want a rewarding but unforgiving listening experience.

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Classic Album Review

Hercules and Love Affair – Album Review

Some genres have a pretty short shelf life. Indie music has this problem, but far more forgettable is straightforward dance music. Barring Donna Summers, Skrillex, and a few others, straight up club-friendly dance music produces few household names, and the music tends to be buried after less than a decade. EDM is the first dance genre I can remember, and I don’t think I’ve heard a single thing from the breakout genres of the 2010s for 8 years.

So, today I’d like to introduce you to one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved dance albums of the 2000’s which I, and likely you, had never heard of, “Hercules and Love Affair.” The eponymous band, if you can’t tell from the name, works in some of the gayest styles of dance known to mankind, namely house and nu-disco, but they stand out for a heavy emphasis on songwriting. The beats are as immaculate as the words, and the singing is… well let’s talk about the singing.

Hercules and Love Affair, like many dance acts, is one guy, Andy Butler, with a rotating cast of supporting musicians. Butler is a talented songwriter, both in the musical sense of constructing melodies and structures, and in the lyrical sense. This talent means he was able to pull some of the best singers in indie, namely baroque pop singer Anhoni, another name that’s been slightly obscured. Anhoni started as a collaborator with Lou Reed and Bjork, before fronting her own band, Antony and the Johnson’s. She’s a solid songwriter as well, but her voice is untouchable, and combined with the music on “Hercules and Love Affair,” she has an emotional power that is near transcendent.

If you only have time to listen to one song off this album, the choice is clear. “Blind,” was a dance hit in multiple countries, and despite being virtually forgotten now, ranked in the top five songs of 2008 in the majority of publications that year. The song is a pure example of what Hercules and Love Affair are about, it’s the kind of desperate and soul-searching party music that has taken over queer music lately, and Hercules and Love Affair do it better than anyone.

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Music Education

From Classical to Expirimental – Going Mainstream

This is the last part of a four-part series on the birth of avant-garde music. You can read this article alone or view part one here.

When we last left off, the modern experimental ethos had developed in classical spaces. But there’s still a missing connection. How do we go from this academic music to the experimental musicians of today? Well, the answer has to do with a few musicians who made the jump from one genre to another, but first, we need to talk about money.

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Miscellaneous

New Pants Track Review: 没有理想的人不伤心

If you’ve taken a foreign language in the last decade, you’re probably familiar with a very specific side effect where Google, unable to distinguish between homework and bilingual users, will give you recommendations in a language you cannot read for years. This is very annoying, and the type of thing you’d expect to be repaired by machine learning, given how much of our data is collected for targeted advertising, but it has some upsides.

Today I would like to introduce you to one such upside of my six semesters in Chinese language courses: New Pants. The Chinese band 新裤子乐队 which literally translates to New Pants Band (or, if you play with Google Translate enough, “Unused Breeches Orchestra”) was suggested to me by a still confused YouTube recommendation system, and I am entirely here for it. They play a unique blend of dance punk, indie rock, and new wave, and have been going strong since the late 90s. This makes them approximate contemporaries with American bands like The Strokes and The Flaming Lips, both in terms of age and musical style. However, the New Pants have seen relatively more commercial success and longevity than their English analogs, partially because, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, traditional rock music seems to be more successful in China than in English, Korean or Japanese markets.

I really don’t have the cultural context to do a full artistic profile or even album review for this band, so I’m going introduce you to my favorite song by this band: 没有理想的人不伤心. That phrase, “Meiyou lixiang de ren bu xiaoxin”, is made of some pretty basic words, to the point that I can roughly understand it has having something to do with imperfection and feeling sad. Google Translate gives something along the lines of “People without ideals don’t feel sad” which is a translation I’m suspicious of, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The music gives a pretty good idea what it’s about, even if the exact lyrics are unclear. The song is raw and wistful, and it builds to a crescendo of the lead singer belting the chorus, which switches between the first person to express his feelings in pretty unmistakable metaphors. ‘I don’t want to stay underground,’ or ‘Ants scrambling around,’ etc.

The sentiment is, as near as I can tell, a bit more poetically expressed in the Chinese version, there’s a few pieces of wordplay to pick out, the rhyme scheme is complex, but it’s still a pretty simple song. It’s a power ballad about feeling trapped, the bread and butter of alt-rock. The quality of these kinds of songs rests on the emotional vulnerability and the expressiveness of the instrumentals, and those aspects come through regardless of the language.

Categories
Band/Artist Profile

Janet Jackson Is Being Written Out of Pop Music

I had a small realization the other day. I didn’t know a single Janet Jackson song. She’s one of the bestselling musicians in history, she has ten number one hits, and I can’t name a single one. I checked with my friends, neither could they. Despite everything 80s being blasted ad nauseam for the last decade, Janet has been almost totally forgotten. How did this happen?

Well, we all know how. In 2004 Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake invented the concept of nipples live on stage at the Super Bowl. The sheer shock from millions of Americans discovering that nipples exist made her a social pariah and resulted in a very literal blacklisting in the industry that lasts through today. I would be far from the first to point out the double standard that allowed Timberlake to walk out of the Superbowl controversy virtually unscathed. I’m also not the first person to point out that Janet’s legacy has suffered. I might be more original in suggesting that the stigma surrounding Michael Jackson as of late has done more damage to her career than his, even though she’s more or less kept her mouth shut about him since the 90s. But I’m not really here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Janet, because as someone born in 2001, I had no clue what type of artist she was. Who was she before the backlash? What would the history books have to say about Janet had CBS not ordered her name be struck clean from the record books? Well, here’s my brief attempt at explaining this well-documented, yet forgotten, career arc for the Zoomers out there, because Janet Jackson is worth revisiting.

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Music Education

Things Get Weird- Classical to Experimental Pt.3

This is part three of a series on the birth of avant-garde music. You can read this article alone or view part one here.

Last time we covered some music that wasn’t very good, this week we’re going one further to discuss some music that isn’t very music. Yup, in the 1940s and 50s classical music lost its mind and the boundary between high art and experimental was all but erased. Hope you like four minutes of utter silence and naked people playing the cello with guitar picks, because it’s time to talk about John Cage and Fluxus.

So, my main criticism of modernism was that it didn’t untether itself fully from the classical tradition. This was a fairly common criticism, especially as early modernists like Schoenberg who retained some sense of harmony gave way to incredibly complex, mathematical composition methods like Stochastic Music and Markov Chains. Classical music was rapidly turning into a race to the bottom for who could create the most mathematically intricate yet aesthetically bankrupt composition method. A change was sorely needed.

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Music News and Interviews

Courtney Love Is Plotting a Comeback

Okay, this topic is a little bit of a landmine, but you may have noticed that Courtney Love has been floating around in the news lately. We here at WKNC aren’t usually much for covering straight-up celebrity gossip, but the history of Love’s public image is personally fascinating to me, and the topic seems to be floating back into relevance for the first time in decades. We’ll try to keep things mostly above board.

Let’s start with the story that got this article rolling. Olivia Rodrigo, pop princess extraordinaire, has a concert film coming up, and for the promotional image, she recreated Love’s classic “Live Through This,” album art. That is a pretty cool callback, Rodrigo’s music is a teeny-bopper version of Love’s in a lot of ways, especially “Good 4 U,” and it’s nice to see her promoting a classic album by a pioneer of female-led rock.

Courtney Love did not agree with that assessment.

Yes, Love took to Instagram, remarking that it was rude for her and the photographer to not be consulted, and despite Rodrigo vocally stanning her, was generally dismissive and unhappy with her. This is, at least arguably, defensible, at least in the abstract, but reading what Love actually wrote left me confused. In fact, everything on Love’s social media left me kinda confused and put off. So, let’s talk about Courtney Love, and the past, present and future of her public image.

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Band/Artist Profile New Album Review

Faye Webster- Artist Profile and Album Review

Faye Webster isn’t a huge star right now, but she definitely deserves to be. Her latest album is a triumph, and it’s exciting to see her get both critical attention and actual commercial success from it, as it’s currently on Billboard’s Heat Seekers and folk charts. So let’s get to know Faye Webster, and see what she has to say for herself.

Webster is, first and foremost, a country musician. Based out of the ATL, she has a very retro countrypolitan sound reminiscent of Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt. 70s pop country is uncool both within country music, where it garnered a pretty big backlash for selling out, and outside of country where it’s mostly been written out of pop history. But for several years, country musicians were having number one albums getting multiple pop hits a year by being just aggressively sad.

Webster has forgone the pop hits and success, but boy can she be sad with the best of them. She takes the twang out of her voice and relocates to some deeply melancholy lyrics (and some great slide guitars). Her album “I know I’m funny haha,” is perhaps the best indication of what kind of artist she is. It makes her music engaging and beautiful, but in a way that’s not much fun to talk about. If you’ve heard any indie folk, you know what to expect.

Her last album, “Atlanta Millionaires Club,” however, yields a few more interesting details. The album is a tribute to the musical history of Atlanta, both White and Black. The default instrumental palate is a fusion of her countrypolitan aesthetic with classic 70s soul, a fusion that works so well I’m honestly surprised it’s not done more often. There’s even a token country rap song, which, despite not really blowing me out of the water personally, beats the heck out of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan.

So, if you want to know where to start, I might suggest listening to a few of her top songs on Spotify, then hitting up the new album when you’re feeling a little blue. Fusions of country and indie are just getting better and better these days, and Faye Webster is an excellent addition to that trend.

Categories
Music Education

Modernism: From Classical to Experimental

This is part two of a series on the birth of avant-garde music. You can read this article alone or view part one here.

Alright, so we spent part one introducing the topic, now it’s time to get into some specific music. Today we’re going to look at the earliest precursors to modern noise music: modernism. These composers still thought of themselves as part of the classical canon but listening to their music….well let’s just say it’s a little “out there.”

Modernism is a term used in art history a lot. Now I didn’t pay very much attention in high school English, and in visual art I have the taste of toddler, but Wikipedia confirms my vague recollection that modernists sought to replace old forms of art with newer and more exciting forms that reflected a modern, industrial world. This resulted in some notable artists like Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and Georgia O’Keeffe. In literature, this resulted in writers like Virginia Woolfe and James Joyce, who I’m sure some psychopathic English major actually enjoys.

So, with these beloved figures of art and literature attached to the word modernism, surely there are some fondly remembered musicians from this period? Well, no. Modernist music was roundly rejected by literally everyone. Audiences routinely rioted at modernist concerts and even through today no one actually likes it.

THE END.

Okay, that might be a little harsh. A more accurate way to put it would be that audiences don’t really know what to do with modernist music. The composers associated with the era, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Satie, Shostakovich, wrote very difficult music that eschewed tonality and easy-to-digest sounds, opting instead for novel forms of composition that pushed the boundaries of what music could be.

The result is that modernism is the oldest Western music that doesn’t feel like classical or folk music. It’s so unconventional that it just kinda sounds like, well, noise. Take Schoenberg for example. Schoenberg didn’t like classical harmony, and he wanted to write music that lacked a key and favored no particular note as a harmonic center. To accomplish this, he organized all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in a random order called a set, and then layered the different notes backward and forwards in different octaves and on different instruments to create something that could, arguably, be referred to as music. His masterpiece, the opera Moses und Aron, is absolutely terrifying, as exemplified by this production featuring an underwear Moses for some reason.

However, you would never really mistake Schoenberg for modern avant-garde music either. He still composed for orchestra, piano, and operatic voices, it still features conventionally defined notes, and there aren’t really any of the mechanical banging and scraping sounds that typify noise. It’s too rigid and formal to be genuinely fascinating, but too weird to be good on its own. This is what I mean when I say no one really likes modernism. Classical musicians end the common repertoire right before modernism, and experimental pop listeners don’t find it edgy or daring enough. Modernism, in my opinion, is best approached as a historical document, and a demonstration of how hard it is to push the envelope of music. When you’re steeped in a certain musical tradition, the boundaries of the system can start to feel natural, rather than limiting, and the formation of experimental music took genuine imagination and work. Your toddler might be able to make experimental music, but you might struggle.

The exceptions to this rule are Russolo and Satie, the only modernists who I can enthusiastically recommend. Luigi Russolo, who was associated with the Futurist movement in Italy, made straight-up noise music. Like it would sound completely normal released today—he just tried to impersonate the sounds of steel mills warming up. Futurists were not merely extending the classical cannon like Schoenberg; they were rebelling against it. Satie, by contrast, wrote tranquil piano music that sounds beautiful, but had such a simplistic and amateur quality that his music anticipates the ambient and minimalist movements of the 60s and 70s, which we will get into later. If you want to hear the very earliest inklings of musical rebellion, these are the two artists I would recommend.