Monday, May 12, 2008

My Bloody Underground - Brian Jonestown Massacre

My Bloody Underground

Brian Jonestown Massacre
A Recordings.

SCQ Rating: 81%

The grey area between artistic pursuit and mental breakdown is always the most detailed and discussed period of any troubled musician’s career. Some of rock and roll’s most popular folklore was bred from a songwriter’s life-altering experience, that u-turn that gave birth to their most experimental (and often most celebrated) music. In other cases, these radical excursions rise against critics and find an audience among other cult classics. In the most extreme of cases, you’ll find people worshipping the original music of incarcerated murderer Charles Manson. On a more commercial level, Robert Smith’s self-abuse and severe depression created Pornography, a record that Smith himself claims was recorded to be “completely unlistenable”. From Syd Barrett’s collapse into psychosis and Dylan's motorcycle accident to Thom Yorke’s bitter break-up with the guitar, these resulting records not only provide a document for fans to probe in search of answers to its mind-bending mysteries, but also affords us a closer glimpse at the aural perfection that artist had in mind, as it’s the closest we, as fans, will ever get to hearing the sounds they heard in their heads.

No doubt that drugs play a key role in many of these tales; few as prolifically as for Anton Newcombe, lead songwriter for the semi-successful and sporadically brilliant Brian Jonestown Massacre, whose drug-abuse and emotional problems have resulted in the exile of every original band member sans himself, a major label implosion, and countless interviews ending in derogatory hang-ups. On his triskadecaphobia-tempted thirteenth album, Newcombe’s ego outdoes itself with a seventy-eight minute exploration into full-blown madness; a collection that seems intent on destroying the memory of BJM’s past while searching for a way to start fresh again.

Moving from psychedelic trances to instrumental piano ballads to warped shoegazer tracks without so much as pressing the skip button, My Bloody Underground is by far the most conceptually barren, awkwardly sequenced album in the BJM catalogue, but as long as you expect the unexpected, it works. While the in-your-face shoegaze production of ‘Who Cares Why’ feels coarse at first, close listens uncover a great space-out track full of acoustic shifts and vocal layers. At its finest, the breakbeat drones of ‘Just Like Kicking Jesus’ provide enough noise to make a would-be ballad one of Newcombe’s great recent songs. The guitars shred, the squalls of feedback ripple against each other but the beauty beneath it all is untouched. It’s all as far removed from the band’s previous material as you fear it is, but these moments are sonically exciting. This is a record about embracing the insanity; one where you listen closely as often as you let your mind wander.

Like a trusted friend, the plethora of spiraling guitar riffs and heavy whirrs are there to lean on if the whole trip gets too overwhelming. This is especially common in the record’s second half, where ‘Golden Frost’s guitar romp sustains us against the Icelandic screams and seasick My Bloody Valentine drones. In many cases, there are songs hidden beneath the noise but all we’re getting is a blown speaker and echoes of what might’ve been. As far as what might’ve been is concerned, I feel confident that all die-hard fans awaiting this album will hate it for the same reason I’m enjoying it; leave your expectations at the door or don’t bothering coming in.

What strikes me as tragic about Newcombe is that his uncontrollable temper documented in the now famous rockumentary Dig has stolen the spotlight from what he always convinced himself was the message: his music. A casual glance at BJM footage on Youtube presents a strong case that most people attending BJM shows since 2005 are there to see a fight, cause trouble or catch some violent footage on their cellphones. While My Bloody Underground feels oblivious to that irrefutable change in the BJM fanbase, many of its song titles succumb to that sensational attention-grabbing [nobody names a song ‘We are the N*****s of the World’, ‘Automatic F****t for the People’, or ‘Bring Me the Head of Paul McCartney on Heather Mills’ Wooden Peg (Dropping Bombs on the White House)’ without trying to ruffle some feathers]. Who knows, maybe this is Newcombe at the tail-end of his insufferable craziest in an era that will later be looked upon as the climax of his manic behaviour…? These abusive attempts at creating the perfect album commonly end in a U-turn, as mentioned earlier, or death; I personally expect Anton Newcombe to be the exception to that fork in the road.

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