Best tunes of 1992: #3 R.E.M. “Nightswimming”

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“Automatic for the people”.

It was indisputably R.E.M.’s finest hour and I’m not just talking commercially. Sure, the album spawned six singles and went gold and platinum for sales in pretty much every country. However, it was also universally acclaimed. And for very good reason: There’s not a single bad track on the album.

For me, though, and as I mentioned back when I wrote about “Sweetness follows” when it came in at the number twenty spot on this very list, it’s the less obvious tracks, not the hit singles, that have become my favourites on this album. And yes, I know. “Nightswimming” was actually released as a single but I didn’t actually know that until about three years ago when I wrote the piece counting down my top five favourite R.E.M. tunes on which this song appears at the number two spot. I am thinking that the single might not have gotten a wide release here in North America because it didn’t make the charts here, only placing in England and Australia, and a track this great should definitely have placed, given the chance.

It was originally recorded as a demo for “Out of time” but was used instead for the following album. The original recording had Michael Stipe singing over top Mike Mills’ piano and was augmented by a string arrangement put together by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, along with a forlorn oboe to seal the deal. Mills’s piano doesn’t meander or dance or tiptoe. Instead, it eddies in place, like a whirlpool to get caught in, a bit of danger that might be heightened if the swimming hole was ventured upon at night.

“Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago”

The penultimate track on “Automatic for the people” is a quiet wonder, Mills and Stipe without Buck and Berry. A song about memories and remembering. A track that brings back many memories. Many of them driving in a car at night. In the city. On a backroad. Memories that are mine and memories that aren’t mine. But could be.

“Nightswimming, remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon”

There’s a sadness in Stipe’s lyrics and in his plaintive voice. Perhaps there’s regret in those memories, a sentiment never expressed, a kiss never stolen, a nakedness needlessly covered up. Yet there’s also the heavy weight of nostalgia, the excitement of youth lost forever. It’s something one can never forget. And never should.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2002: #8 Broken Social Scene “Cause = time”

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My good friend and infrequent contributor to this blog, Andrew Rodriguez, once quipped that I wasn’t able to be a fan of a band unless they had at least six members. And while he exaggerated some, it’s true that a lot of the new bands that I discovered and fell for in the 2000s had a lot of personnel. This singular characteristic, however, wasn’t one that automatically made me a fan of the act in question. As a case in point, Broken Social Scene is a band who is quite famous for having a large contingent, filling stages both large and small, whenever and wherever they played live, and try as I might, I was never able to get into them in their early days.

The Toronto-based indie collective actually started out as duo back in 1999. Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning recorded their mostly instrumental, ambient debut album, 2001’s “Feel good lost”, by themselves, for the most part. When it came to performing it live, however, Drew and Canning would enlist the help of their friends, many of them fixtures of the Toronto indie rock scene, members of bands already established or soon to be established, like Metric, Stars, Apostles of Hustle, and Feist. The duo then brought a lot of these same friends into the studio with them when they recorded their sophomore album, the now iconic “You forgot it in people”, and the rest, as they are wont to say, is history. The album was critically acclaimed, did quite well commercially for a Canadian indie band, and was cited in many conversations as one of the centrepieces around which the Canadian indie explosion of the 2000s revolved. And I remember telling people in similar conversations that I appreciated all that, but for me, they were a band of whose parts I enjoyed more than their sum.

Of course, that was back then. These days, I love Broken Social Scene. Somewhere along the line, I came to my senses and became a fan, allowing me to reclaim my Canadian citizenship. I’ve seen them live twice, experiencing the magic that made me question whether or not I was on bad drugs when I listened to them early on. Their show is so much fun, seeing so many talented musicians playing together on the same stage, all contributing to creating that perfect sound and obviously, having fun doing it. Yeah and each time I saw them, the show was completely different because it was a different combination of musicians on stage. It seems that it’s like – whoever’s available, come on out and play. And play and rock, they do.

“Cause = time” is the perfect way to illustrate how they bring the rock. It was an exceptional tune for me because it was one of the few that I liked even before I became a full-fledged fan. The atmospherics of their early work still laid the groundwork but the driving drum beat, rumbling bass line, and screeching, screaming, and scratching guitars all get the heart racing. Indeed, it is a noisy cacophony and could’ve been in danger of becoming unlistenable if it weren’t for the counterpoint put forward by Kevin Drew. He settles things down to a mellow and cool vibe with his vocals and it’s like losing yourself in the beauty of the moment while the chaos of the world flashes violently around you.

Chaos and calm. That says it right there.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.

Top five tunes: Industrial rock

The context:
I got the idea to do another one of these genre-themed Top Five Tunes posts*, more specifically, one dedicated to the alternative rock sub genre of Industrial rock, back in June when I was writing about how I first listened to Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty hate machine“ and naming it my second favourite album of 1989. I got so fired up thinking about the passion I felt and the rage I latched onto when I first discovered this sound and immediately started trying distill all my favourites from the era down to five. I wanted to write the post right away, to forget all the half-written and not yet started posts in the hopper, and unleash this fun upon you all. But I restrained myself. I wanted to finish up my three-part Depeche Mode series I was still working on and you can bet, as soon as I managed that, I got right down to this piece.

If you’ve already read or just now linked back to read the words on “Pretty hate machine”, you’ll know that that album was my gateway to the genre. I loved the term ‘Industrial’.  It so perfectly described the sound. I much later learned that it was coined by one of the genre’s forefather groups, Throbbing Gristle, in the 1970s, when they called own record label ‘Industrial Records’ and adopted the slogan ‘Industrial music for Industrial people’.  Their electronically inclined music (if you can even call it that) and that of their contemporaries, Cabaret Voltaire and Einstürzende Neubauten, was very experimental, eschewing normal song structures for a focus on message and live performance as art. This aesthetic would leak into the head of David Bowie during his Berlin period and then, find itself deeply entrenched in the recordings of Joy Division (and later, New Order) and their post-punk contemporaries.

Arguably, the moment avant-garde Industrial music began to evolve into what would become Industrial rock was when Kevin Ogilvie, frontman of Canadian Throbbing Gristle acolytes Skinny Puppy, started hanging out and exchanging ideas with Al Jourgensen, who was just starting to find his own voice with Ministry. That’s obviously over simplifying things and putting a lot of emphasis on this one meeting. Indeed, there was already a lot exciting things happening in Chicago, home of Jourgensen and Wax Trax! Records, which ended up being the de facto home of all things Industrial rock. However, those two musicians formed a short-lived side project called PTP, and then, each appeared on and influenced the other’s main project’s next releases. This started an incestuous trend (particularly with Jourgensen) of different groups from the Industrial rock world working with each other, sharing ideas, and forming one-off side projects to produce and release new music. This happened a lot during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period I consider to be the genre’s renaissance.

It wasn’t a big leap for me to find Ministry after falling in love with the angst and rage of Nine Inch Nails. And from there, I began to check out every band I could find that had been tagged with the dark and spiky Industrial rock label. KMFDM, Nitzer Ebb, Revolting Cocks, Die Warzau, Laibach, The Young Gods, Front Line Assembly, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and even, Filter. They all crossed my plate. I even picked up on some bands just because they were falsely identified to me as Industrial rock, Jane’s Addiction being a prime example. By the time Trent Reznor released his sophomore album, “The downward spiral” in 1994, the term ‘Industrial’ was on everyone’s lips. And so began the further evolution and filtering down of Industrial rock into Industrial metal and Industrial dance and the leeching of the sound into the hearts and minds of other alternative rock bands. Just for an example, it was shortly after this time that Grebo stalwarts Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Pop Will Eat Itself both released albums heavily influenced by all that was going on in the Industrial rock world.

It was here that I parted ways with the genre. I still kept my ear to the ground somewhat, still appreciating the new work of some of my favourites, like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. And who could ignore Marilyn Manson’s shock rock brand of Industrial metal once he hit the scene? But that brief seven or eight year period is frozen in time for me. I often go long periods without listening to these bands because my tastes have evolved a ton since those days but whenever one of these tracks slips on, the alternative dance club memories from those days come flooding back.

So if you’re ready for a bit of rage and angst, let’s have a look at my top five favourite Industrial rock tunes. And hey, share your own thoughts, memories, and favourites from this period in the comments section below.

The top five:

#5: “Supernaut” by 1000 Homo DJs (1990)

Yeah. You might recognize a few of the guys in the above photo. 1000 Homo DJs were one of the many Industrial rock side projects that I alluded to above. In this case, the outlet was one for members of Ministry that started around the time of the recording sessions for “The land of rape and honey”. 1000 Homo DJs only ever released a couple of EPs and a handful of singles and in the liner notes for each, pseudonyms were provided in lieu of the real names of the various participating members, though we know for a fact that Al Jourgensen, at different points, enlisted the help of Jello Biafra and Trent Reznor, among others. In fact, Trent recorded the original vocals for this very cover of Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut”. However, his label at the time, TVT, wouldn’t let Jourgensen use them on the release. Some people have always thought that Jourgensen simply added effects to Reznor’s vocals and muffled things up to disguise them but he has always maintained that he re-recorded them himself, doing his best impression of his friend. The version below features good ole Al but you can easily find Reznor’s version out there on the Internet because it was later released on the Black Box Wax Trax! boxset. I’ve always loved both versions of this tune. The chainsaw guitars, the dance floor shaking drum beat, the drug referencing samples, and the distorted screaming vocals. “I want to reach out and touch the sky. I want to touch the sun but I don’t need to fly.” It is rage and ecstasy personified.

#4: “Join in the chant” by Nitzer Ebb (1987)

“Lies, lies, lies, lies. Gold, gold, gold, gold. Guns, guns, guns, guns. Fire, fire, fire.” Whoever else has shouted along with those four lines of repeated words on the dancefloor knows Nitzer Ebb and their brand of dance ready Industrial rock (aka EBM). Despite their German sounding name, the trio of “Bon” Harris, Douglas McCarthy, and David Gooday was actually formed in Essex, England in 1982. The post-punk influenced act self-released a bunch of singles before being picked up by Mute Records in 1986, an indie label known for its roster of prominent electronic artists. Their debut album, “That total age”, was released in 1987 and with it came three of the group’s biggest hits, of which “Join in the chant” was but one. I came upon the group a few years after this album came out when I saw the video for “Control I’m here’ and thought the sound hilarious and compelling at the same time. Then, I remember overhearing classmates talking about them at high school and found myself drawn into them further. “Join in the chant” has since become a favourite of mine, mostly because of the sheer number of times I have drunkenly danced and shuffled and jumped about to its angry rhythms. The song is all manner of synths, at various different levels on the spectrum, all doing double duty as rhythm and melody, computers sampled and filtered as percussion. Other than that and the vocals, Nitzer Ebb’s sound here is quite minimalist and insular. And those vocals, tribal and repetitive, as if indoctrinating their audiences as much as entertaining them, dancing and education, rage and angst. Join in the chant.

#3: “Juke joint jezabel” by KMFDM (1995)

In spite of the rumour that was spread, partly from a joke started by the band themselves, their initialism name does not actually stand for “Kill mother f*cking Depeche Mode”. Instead, it was shortened from an already bastardized German phrase, which meant, “No pity for the majority”. The group was formed in 1984 and continues strong today, though with all the musicians that have come and gone over the years, the only remaining founding member is vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Saschia Konietzko. They are renowned for their live show. I’ve never seen them myself, but by all accounts, it’s mayhem. I always picture something akin to a dark and twisted sideshow circus. This, of course, all stems from their early days and beginnings as a performance art troupe, their message almost more important than having a cohesive song structure, much like the early Industrial pioneers. Interesting, then, that KMFDM got so popular and successful and that they are seen as one of the main groups responsible for bringing Industrial rock into the mainstream. This song here is a big reason why, easily their most recognizable tune, owing mainly to the inclusion of a remix of the song on the “Mortal Kombat” soundtrack. “Be mine, sister salvation. Juke joint Jezebel is coming for my cremation.” It is pure science fiction dystopia with chain saw guitars looping throughout and dark, breathy, pained vocals, pain verging on ecstasy. It is an epic and thunderous booming beat. A backing gospel choir ups the ante to monumental, towering heights. “Juke joint jezebel” is a song seething with sweat and pheromones, sticky PVC clothing, cheap piercings, riding crops, and dog collars. Doesn’t it sound lovely?

#2: “Ministry” by Ministry (1989)

A fine product of the aforementioned meeting of the minds between Ministry head honcho Al Jourgensen and Skinny Puppy frontman, Kevin ‘Nivek Ogre’ Ogilvie, “Thieves” is the track that opens Ministry’s fourth studio album, “The mind is a terrible thing to taste”. Though the material produced around this time is among their fans’ favourites, Jourgensen and the rest of the band don’t think all that much of it. It’s definitely more aggressive and guitar heavy than the previous work and forced Jourgensen to grow the ranks of the band to include two drummers, multiple vocalists, and a platoon of guitarists just to be able to perform the stuff live. I think it was my friend Tim that turned me on to this particular track by putting it on one of the mixed tapes he made for me back in high school. It quickly became a favourite for turning up loud to let loose the pent up teenage rage and angst. The anger and venom and hatred is palpable in the track. It’s Jourgensen at his anti-political best, unleashing his vitriol at the US president at the time, George Bush. “Thieves, thieves and liars, murderers, hypocrites and bastards.” The sampling here is done to great effect as well, filling the gaps in between Jourgensen’s unmistakable message with choice words by R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor character from the film “Full Metal Jacket”. A frenetic and incessant guitar riff that sounds like a pneumatic drill is interspersed with other whirring sounds that could be saws or rivet guns and punishing drum machines. And then at each chorus, the pace speeds up tenfold into thrash metal territory and all you can do is whip your head around and scream along with the Jourgensen’s crazed, growling chants.

#1: “Head like a hole” by Nine Inch Nails (1989)

Perhaps this choice for number one is an obvious one, especially had you gone back to read the post I mentioned earlier on the album on which this appears. How could this not be my number one though? It was my introduction to the genre. You’re lucky I didn’t stuff this whole list with songs from “Pretty hate machine” and perhaps the “Broken EP” that followed, given that this is pretty much the only music from the genre that I might regularly think to put on these days. “Head like a hole” really is an excellent tune. Apparently, it was written by Trent Reznor in about fifteen minutes and it was the least agonized over track on his debut album. So imagine his surprise when it became so big and has had such staying power. My teenage self definitely identified with it back in the day, as did so many others, and it wasn’t necessarily the words but the feelings they invoked. It isn’t really clear what he is talking about and many have superimposed their own meanings on it but taken in the context of the whole diary of “Pretty hate machine”, you might wager that all this vitriol is aimed at that same woman that broke his heart. “Head like a hole, black as your soul. I’d rather die than give you control.” It is an organized chaos of mechanical percussion, layered and piled at different rates. The underpinned drum beat is explosive, simple but angry, and the menacing synths threaten violence at every turn and this threat turns real everytime the chorus rolls around and the ripping guitars rear their demonic heads. Reznor delivers the goods here, backed up by sampled, tribal chants and unbridled emotion. Not bad for a machine of hate.

*See the one I did on Second wave ska here.

For other top five lists in this series, click here.