Category Archives: music

Fooled Again After All: The Mind Numbing Ideological Homogeneity in Rock Music

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I was smitten by a number of rock music’s many virtues.  I loved the iron studded defiance and operatic individualism in Judas Priest. I could relate to the dreamy eyed idealism and romantic yearning in Journey.  I was amused by the tongue in cheek irony and theatrical absurdity of Devo. I was captivated by the pissed off mechanized malevolence of Metallica. I was swept away by the fantastical imagery and instrumental virtuosity of Led Zeppelin. I was enthralled by the decadent spectacle and the militant rebellion of The Who. I was hypnotized by the melancholy ruminations and brooding sonics of Pink Floyd. Most importantly, I was moved by the message of unity and human universalism in Sly and the Family Stone. Even though I found the music cheesy and maudlin, I could also appreciate the good intentions behind supergroups like Artists United Against Apartheid and USA for Africa.  I figured if rock megastars could help bring about positive change in world, then perhaps this art form holds the potential for something more than fame and money. 

Rock and pop music with social and political commentary is certainly not new. It definitely didn’t start out that way, but by the time you get to the 1960’s, rock moved further away from escapism and non-conformity and increasingly towards raising social and political awareness. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. Art and music can be vessels for humanity’s highest aspirations and ideals, so it follows that artists would attempt to recreate the spiritual role that infused the gospel and R&B roots of rock in the secular sphere. Not only did rock stake a permanent claim on being the kingdom of freaks, weirdos, decadents and contrarians, it also positioned itself as the de facto moral conscience for a global secular congregation.

But rock is no longer a scrappy upstart art form chafing at the edges of social acceptance. It’s the establishment. What began as music designed to piss off your parents is now the music of your parents. Or maybe even your grandparents. It has ensconced itself into every corner of consumer culture but has carefully tended to its outsider mythology. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the political editorial in pop, rock and folk throughout the 20th century belongs to the radical Left. From Pete Seeger’s odes to Stalin to the pro-Sandinista raveups of the Clash, the soundtrack to the struggle of the underdog has been monopolized by the Left. The upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s that gave rock its sense of urgency and purpose have since been absorbed into the social, political, commercial and academic bloodstream. To the degree that the rock of yesteryear had a sense of moral purpose, today’s rock has devolved into a zombified corpse feasting from the carcass of its bygone glories. Desperately seeking the conscience which ignited the Flower Power generation, today’s artists try to maintain a pretense of youthful rebellion and relevance. Devoid of the sweeping narrative of intergenerational change that animated the Boomers, the idealism of all subsequent generations of rockers and pop artists has increasingly metastasized into rote nostrums of the progressive political and academic intelligentsia. 

Sly Stone wanted to take you higher, but Macklemore wants to telegraph the tortured solipsism of his alleged “white privilege”. The Dead Kennedys righteously lampooned the pampered collegiate class while Green Day seem content to confirm their biases. The Sex Pistols snarled out anthems for anarchy, but Rage Against the Machine would have you believe that recycled Marxist angst is an edgy and fresh perspective. Whether it’s Beyonce’s excruciating feminist infomercials or the psychic trauma of Le Tigre’s shrieking Hillary Clinton propaganda, these would-be progressive ministrations sound less like the organic rallying cries of a voiceless underclass and more like the hackneyed script of lazy, entitled royalists. 

We’ll be fighting in the streets

With our children at our feet

And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on

Sit in judgement of all wrong

They decide and the shotgun sings the song

The spirit of contrarianism that once defined rock has given way to an insufferable smug preachiness and an unhinged militancy in the wake of the Trump election. Pete Townsend may have been cheering the dissolution of the moral order of his parents’ generation in his anthems of rebellion, but he may not have anticipated that the children at his feet would construct a new moral order that would happily see him censored. The examples are numerous, but there are a few worth highlighting.

In his latest piece in the Observer, Tim Sommer lambasts Roger Waters for peddling impotent middle-aged angst without providing a mechanism for political action. He expresses his openness to “another” political viewpoint, but only in ironic scare quotes dusted off with a distinct whiff of elitist condescension. He also discusses what he regards as “four freedoms promised in January of 1941 by President Roosevelt” which include “freedom from want”. Anyone who has a rudimentary grasp of political philosophy knows this is a reference to positive rights. The US Constitution makes no reference to “freedom from want” nor does the General Welfare Clause justify the creation of a welfare state. You will never be free from want and the list of human wants is infinite. It’s fine to advocate for voluntary charity, but making this a political objective is a recipe for catastrophe.

Trent Reznor’s latest bromide against Trump in Vulture refers to him as a “fucking vulgarian”; a remarkably strange sentiment coming from the guy who immortalized “fuck you like an animal” in a song lyric. Is Reznor’s political philosophy so shallow that he’s evaluating political policy and politicians on a scale of “vulgarity”? Sure, Trump has broken some taboos and violated expectations around what a POTUS can or cannot say, but the discussion should be centered on actual policy and political philosophy. The fact that Reznor makes no attempt to discuss Trump’s policy ideas in contrast with his own political philosophy makes this an especially inane and counterproductive criticism. His comments in a recent Village Voice interview are only slightly more nuanced and reveal more explicitly the Manichean worldview that defines the progressive mindset. 

“Look, I don’t think he’s a good guy. Some people do,” he told his son. “I don’t think he believes in science and I don’t think he believes people should be treated decently and I don’t think he tells the truth. That’s why I don’t like him.”

Good people on one side and bad people on the other. It’s not about whether you like him, Trent. The question is over what, if any, role the federal government should play in science, healthcare, immigration policy or anything else. Science is not democratic nor does it require belief.  It does require testable hypotheses, transparent methodologies, and ethical data collection. When government money is funding science, the likelihood that we’ll see any results that might falsify the hypothesis and derail the political agenda behind it is greatly diminished. Furthermore, political policy never determines how people treat one another; it only delineates the sphere of action that’s subject to criminal or civil punishment. This points to the distinction between society and State to which Thomas Paine referred, but has since been collapsed by progressives. Obviously, Reznor is making a veiled reference to immigrants, minorities and transgender people, but political policy does not nor should not form the basis of how one comports oneself in the company of others. Political policy does not shape the opinions people hold about other people. Political policy is not a substitute for having a sound moral philosophy. The quest for political protection for the so-called transgender community is taking on an increasingly absurd and totalitarian aura. And very few politicians have good truth telling records. The Democrats certainly don’t have a lock on veracity. What’s perhaps most disconcerting is Reznor’s silence on the ongoing war for free speech versus political correctness. It would have been useful to hear a public position on the matter since his material is more than ripe for social justice jihad. Considering that Reznor has written a vulgar lyric or two and touched on some rather controversial subject matter, his silence as well as the dismissive crack he made about Gamergate says more than a little about his true priorities and biases. 

The walking billboard for the DNC formerly known as Katy Perry fares no better in her increasingly hamfisted proselytizing for the Church of Identity Politics and #DIVERSITY. Positioning herself as the torchbearer of mass market #WOKE pop, Perry’s pleas for “unity” in the wake of the Manchester terrorist bombing sound especially hollow and tone deaf.  For a pop star who has cashed in so handsomely on sugar coated pop confections and girly coquettishness, her recent turn towards #SocialJustice pandering is a disappointing downgrade. 

In what is thus far the most cringe inducing bit of Trump Derangement Syndrome, second generation nu metal shitstains, Stray From the Path, literally committed their autistic screeching to tape with a bit of prefab agitprop, “Goodnight Alt-Right”.  Filled to the brim with manufactured outrage and the deranged justifications for initiating violence against people who deviate from progressive orthodoxy, it reveals quite a bit about how leftists deal with people who stray from their path. Way to go, edgelords. So contrarian. 

Speech is “free” but it comes with a price
And if you’re speaking out some bullshit I’ll give you advice

Hit ’em with a left a left and a right

Got ’em dropping like flies with the stars in their eyes

So fuck them and fuck you too and appreciate

That if you preach hate, then expect hate

Needless to say, blasphemy against the Church of Progressivism has been met with the customary acts of censure, vindictiveness and retribution. None other than Johnny Rotten himself came out in favor of #Brexit and Trump to the dismay of many fans.  In what is thus far the biggest shitstorm in the ever widening culture war over political correctness, the little known band, The Dream Machine, were dropped from their label for committing blasphemy making “ugly” remarks about immigration and feminism. That’s right, folks. Shit on Christians, Trump, white people and conservatives all you want. That’s #EDGY because they’re privileged and shit. But if you say even one mean word about immigrants or feminists, brace yourself. Hell hath no fury like a social justice warrior triggered. 

As someone who entered the world of rock precisely because of its spirit of individualism and contrarianism, nothing disheartens me more than seeing rock musicians and rock culture breeding the worst kind of conformity; conformity of political thought.  Artists are generally an empathetic and well intentioned bunch who, like many others, want to maximize goodwill and global harmony. I suspect there’s more than a few people who set out to change the world with three chords and the truth. But what most artists fail to grasp is that government policy is not meant to be the vessel through which compassion, love, and brotherhood flow. It is a very dangerous institution whose power should not be extended to satisfy your altruistic urges. If you believe it should do something not specifically enumerated in the Constitution and for which provision can be made through voluntary means, then you bear the burden of justifying the application of its coercive powers to your fellow citizens. And if you genuinely feel justified in advocating for these policies without having to make the case to your fellow citizens, then consider the possibility that you are the one who was fooled again after all.  

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

La La Land (2016)

It’s not going to replace The Sound of Music in the pantheon of greatest musicals, but it’s a nice throwback to Old Hollywood with a modern sensibility.

La La Land is the kind of film that you thought was consigned to the scrap heap of Hollywood history.  In other words, it’s a boy-meets-girl love story with song and dance performed by two charismatic and attractive leads.  It’s colorful. It’s fun. It’s a film with a smile on its face that wants to entertain you. Ryan Gosling is the idealistic jazz musician, Sebastian, and Emma Stone is aspiring actress, Mia. Even with its bittersweet ending, the film is refreshing because of its unabashed old fashioned approach.

Besides the love story, La La Land deals with the question of what it means to be an artist and being true to your principles by finding your own voice. Sebastian is the quintessential jazz purist who wants to rescue jazz from cultural oblivion. He dreams of opening a club that features Honest Jazz, but bides his time playing lounges and 80’s cover bands. Mia is just another actress hunting for scraps in the Hollywood meat grinder until Sebastian encourages her to tell her own stories by developing her long abandoned writing.

More specifically, the film addresses the ideological divide in jazz between innovation and tradition, and which takes priority when it comes to attracting audiences. Is jazz a fixed tradition with specific, definable parameters or is it a blank slate which must incorporate modern technology and borrow from other idioms in order to innovate and attract audiences? In Sebastian’s case, his version of artistic radicalism was to return to jazz tradition despite being given an opportunity to play in John Legend’s globetrotting pop/R&B act.

In one scene, the film does an excellent job showing the chasm of misperception between the jazz aficionado and the casual consumer. Mia tries to explain that she finds Kenny G perfectly enjoyable and her parents would put on a smooth jazz station as background music. Instead of being an elitist snob, Sebastian draws her attention to the musical action happening on the combo performing in front of them.  The film clearly wants us to see the beauty in jazz that Sebastian sees and show what makes jazz such a dynamic and rich art form.

Where La La Land really shines is in the romance between Sebastian and Mia. How long has it been since Hollywood unironically presented the pursuit of love and companionship between a man and a woman as a virtue? Hollywood has been so far up its own ideological ass for so many years trying to fulfill every politically correct agenda that a scene with Sebastian and Mia holding hands in a theater while watching Rebel Without a Cause feels pretty radical. 

It’s multicultural, but it is blessedly free of hamfisted racial or identity politics. Sebastian’s sister marries a black man, but they didn’t insert some tortured narrative about racism. The jazz club scenes contained multiracial audiences and showed people getting along and having a great time enjoying an art form that has succeeded in building cultural bridges.  Since Hollywood seems so solidly intent on propping up politically divisive narratives by constantly emphasizing America’s sordid history in films like Race and Birth of a Nation, the absence of these tiresome themes in La La Land is noticeable and welcome.

The film is not just a candy coated sugar high though. The tradeoffs, compromises, self doubt and financial insecurities which come with the territory of being an artist create the emotional and dramatic tension between the characters. Artistic idealism is an admirable virtue, and one which resonates with me, but Damien Chazelle is correct to point out that absent clear communication, the pursuit of a stable family life and the artistic dream can easily become irreconcilable goals.  It’s great to see that the pursuit of artistic individualism is upheld as a heroic virtue, but it’s worth remembering that it is not an ironclad promise of financial remuneration or commercial recognition.

Needless to say, the SJW media factions and progressive Twitterati have predictably heaped condemnation on La La Land for the very reasons that it’s good.  Hopefully, studios will pay more attention to the positive acclaim and box office receipts, think twice about pushing ideological agendas, and remember that people enjoy being entertained and watching attractive people fall in love on screen.

Le Tigre and Feminism’s Cult of Government Worship


In case you still harbored the delusion that feminism was some kind of edgy, contrarian ideology, the original purveyors of 90’s Riot Grrrl feminist electroclash, Le Tigre, have returned from the dead to destroy all doubt. In this sad attempt at cultural relevance, these would-be “rebels” become full throated propagandists for corporatist, neocon-approved Hillary Clinton. 

That’s right. Apparently, cheerleading for the woman who has voted for wars which have killed tens of thousands, taken money from Islamic regimes, and actively undermined her husband’s rape accusers is super feminist and like totally empowering. She’s a Democrat, she has a vagina, and she’ll be the first womyn in the Oval Office, so set aside all those petty right-wing conspiracy theories, PYGS!

If you can even make it past the knife-to-the-skull intro, the song is nothing more than a moronic and childish pander-fest. Filled to the brim with idiotic clichés, feminist straw men, obligatory talking points, and canned Trump hate, the song achieves new heights in cringe.  

Apparently, neither Le Tigre or Pitchfork are all that interested in feedback on this song because the voting buttons and comments have been disabled.  

Way to stand behind those feminist convictions, SYSTERS.  

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Stories of musical pop culture icons are being adapted for the screen with increasing frequency in recent years. Most fail in one way or another, but Straight Outta Compton is one that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the story of one of hip-hop’s most controversial and influential groups. SoC tells the story of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group NWA as well as the ascent of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as solo artists. Thematically, the film covers a lot of ground. It’s a story of music industry glory, but it’s another vivid reminder of the difficulty in maintaining integrity within the when the money starts rolling. More broadly, it confronts us with the challenges of urban black families faced with the prevalence of inner city crime and gang culture. SoC is also an important film for this political moment since free speech and police brutality are themes that are deeply embedded into the fabric of the story. 

The film opens with a drug deal between Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright) and some random gang bangers which escalates very quickly. Right away, the film is taking us into the Compton underworld of the mid-80’s. Everyone is packing heat, drug dealing is one of the few engines of economic mobility that’s easily attainable, every negotiation carries an implicit death threat, and “bitch” and “nigga” are freely deployed throughout normal conversation. It wasn’t called gangsta rap for nothing. The deal devolves into threats, but everyone scrambles for safety when the armored military-style battering ram vehicle rounds the corner, plows right through the front door and cops swarm the house. Welcome to Compton, bitches.

When we’re introduced to a young Dr. Dre (aka Andre Young), his Roy Ayers induced blissed out reverie is violently interrupted by his irate single mother. She castigates him for failing to attend a job interview while simultaneously reminding him how hard she worked to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Dre isn’t having a word of it, and packs his bags so he can pursue his music career free of persistent maternal nagging. The film is giving us a sense of the burden black single mothers carry imparting the importance of developing personal responsibility and meaningful job skills in the absence of strong, paternal role models.  

We meet a young Ice Cube (aka O’Shea Jackson) penning rhymes and staring out the school bus window. Middle-class white teenagers idle away to pop music in fancy cars and clothes while he awaits being shipped back to the dreary impoverishment of Compton. The bus ride home is interrupted by armed gangsters whose sole intention is to intimidate the kids who taunted them during the route. Once again, we’re reminded that gangsters were a common phenomenon in South Central LA, and the thug life offered a sense of purpose, belonging and upward mobility for young blacks who faced a seemingly hopeless existence short on positive parental figures or examples. 

Upon his arrival home, he is treated to the prodigious turntable skills of Dre who had recently taken up residence on his couch. With the knockout combination of Dre’s instincts for production and Cube’s pugilistic street poetry, the two friends set their sights on carving out a new sound in rap that reflected the gritty reality of life in Compton. The bonds of friendship which created a new hip-hop dynasty were sealed.  

One of the great strengths of the film is the absence of phony PC propriety and artificial attempts at racial correctness. The unvarnished portrait of urban black speech and gender relations all by itself is a glorious kick in the teeth to social justice warriors who are constantly bitching about “harmful representations in the media of Marginalized Group (fill in the blank)”. Admittedly, the portraits are not the most flattering towards this particular segment of the African-American population, but when contrasted with the modern Hollywood PC orthodoxy which mandates that blacks always be portrayed in a positive light, this film feels like it’s making an above average attempt at honesty instead of trying to pander to phony leftist piety. In an early scene where Dre and Cube are given a slot to perform at a popular nightclub, the owner sternly reminds the young MCs that he wants the people focused on “pussy, not pistols”.  They ignore his admonitions and perform the track to overwhelming enthusiasm.  The track contained many of the lyrical themes which became commonplace within the gangsta rap genre: gritty, profanity laced realism, unrepentant portraits of guns and criminal activity, and raunchy sex.  

In many ways, the film is the story of Eazy- E’s role in creating NWA’s success. Emboldened by the positive reception to their track, Dre and Cube convince Eazy-E to bankroll their first recorded effort. When the crew they hire unceremoniously quit, Dre persuades E to sing the lead vocal. Here, the film gives an interesting insight into Dre’s gift for producing as well as E’s unsteady flow at this early stage in their career.  The result of this effort was “Boyz In Da Hood” and this initial success laid the groundwork for NWA.  

A big theme in the film is the challenge of maintaining integrity, professionalism and independence in the music industry. Especially when the money, drugs and women are readily accessible and the behavior and habits they acquired in the streets of Compton informed their business interactions as adults. The two dubious business partnerships between Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, Suge Knight and Dre drove a lot of the interpersonal drama between the characters.  Heller discovers E when “Boyz In Da Hood” was climbing the charts and helped steer the Ruthless crew to global success, but the absence of transparency in the contracts eventually drives a wedge between the friends. It’s insinuated that Heller took advantage of NWA, but it’s not entirely clear that he was completely unscrupulous, either.  Not only does Heller exhibit courage and loyalty throughout NWA’s ascent, but he talks E down from exacting vengeance on Suge Knight after a business meeting turns violent.  Suge Knight, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sociopathic thug with few scruples, a hot temper and a propensity towards arbitrary violence.  Clearly, the relationship between him and Dre wasn’t completely fruitless since Dre’s career went stratospheric during the Death Row era, but it brought with it a great deal of dysfunction and more than a few hangers on.

The relationship towards law enforcement plays prominently throughout the film and gives it an urgency that speaks directly to currently escalating tensions between police and the black community.  The film portrays the incident which inspired “Fuck Tha Police”, and not only is it an example of the indignities to which inner city blacks are routinely subjected, it brings the vitriol of the song to life even more vividly.  While recording Straight Outta Compton in upscale Torrance, California, the members of NWA were minding their own business outside the studio when cops descended on the scene and demanded that each of the members drop face down on to the sidewalk. Heller arrives shortly thereafter, demands that they be released and chastises the officers for assuming criminal intent based on their appearance. Heller instructs the band members to rise, but the cops refuse to allow them rise until they give the instruction. They forced the men to eat concrete and their dignity for several minutes before issuing a command to stand up.  Heller indignantly reminds the cops they’re rap artists, but the black police chief responds with a disparaging and contemptuous retort that “rap isn’t art” and tells them never to be seen in Torrance again.

NWA get their sweet revenge when the song explodes in popularity, but it draws the attention of the FBI while they’re on their first tour. Prior to their now infamous concert in Detroit, the police threaten to arrest NWA if they perform “Fuck Tha Police” during the show. Heller is rattled and advises that they abstain from performing the song to avoid any entanglements with the federal government, but NWA aren’t willing to back down on free speech grounds.  In one of the film’s finest scenes, the band members pause after finishing a song and give one another a knowing look.  The crowd is roaring with applause while Cube tells the audience about how they were threatened and the cops stationed throughout the venue grimace in anticipation of their defiance. They milk the drama of the moment just right, and when Cube instructs the crowd to hoist their middle fingers aloft and finally cues the song with, “Yo, Dre. I got something to say”, it’s positively explosive. The crowd goes mental, but shots are fired and mayhem ensues ending in the apprehension of the members of the group.

When it comes to the message of NWA and the success of the gangsta rap phenomenon, I’m divided. As a full throated advocate for free speech and free markets, I believe that NWA were fully within their rights to write and rap about whatever they damn well pleased and that the government had no business attempting to censor or silence them.  On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to cultural and religious conservatives (and even secular progressives) who find the lyrics distasteful and don’t want their children exposed to that lifestyle. I can appreciate that a parent who is attempting to impart an appreciation for monogamy, education, conventional employment and a respect for the law might feel a bit of frustration towards the success of gangsta rap. I’m also sympathetic to black community leaders and parents who also may be galled by their success because their lifestyles and message run counter to their efforts to turn their own communities around. Regardless, NWA’s message burns with intensity and relevance mostly because they were the first and arguably the best at this particular style of hip-hop. Like every innovator, scores of imitators have sprung up in their wake, but they’ll never match the originality of the pioneers themselves.

Straight Outta Compton is ultimately a story of five African-American men who achieved success by simply raising their voices and never backing down.  But like many other stories of its kind, the success came with a price.  Eazy-E’s fall from relevance, financial woes and his untimely death from AIDS was just one of the consequences of a man who was arguably ill prepared to deal with either the temptations all around him or the responsibility he took upon himself.  Though neither story was a focus of the film, the death of Tupac Shakur and the imprisonment of Suge Knight also serve as a reminder that the gangster lifestyle eventually catches up with you.  Both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube may have had the talent and maturity to both persevere and thrive, but neither of them was without flaw in their interpersonal or business dealings. There are articles complaining about the ways the film glossed over some of the ugly and inconvenient truths, but I doubt there’s a biopic out there that gets everything completely right. The film makes it sufficiently clear that none of these men were saints.  If you are someone who feels strongly that the omission of certain facts supersedes and delegitimizes the broader story the film is telling, then you should probably skip the film.

The filmmakers clearly wanted to connect the message and story of NWA to the current tensions over race and police brutality.  The Rodney King beating and and the riots which erupted in the wake of the trial verdict were weaved into the film as a vivid reminder that the Ferguson and Baltimore incidents are not new.  While many will likely shoehorn the narrative of the film into the now omnipresent and shopworn narrative of intractable, systemic racism embedded in the American psyche and institutions, the film very subtly reveals the true origins of these problems for anyone who’s actually paying attention. Like many other urban black neighborhoods, crime rates in Compton outpace the national averages. Single motherhood rates are disproportionate to other ethnic populations. Taken together, you’re going to have a community which naturally requires more aggressive policing. The police are certainly not above reproach or criticism, but the persistent effort to paint every instance of police brutality and harassment as evidence of “systemic racism” serves no one.

The performances from all the young leads are first rate and the soundtrack is filled with nuggets of classic funk, R&B, 80’s pop and hip-hop. This is a film that captures the voices of rage, defiance and alienation which changed the course of hip-hop and reverberate to this day. Like NWA themselves, the film is brash and unapologetic. Highly recommended. 

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

If you haven’t yet read Spin magazine’s stunning exposé of the true legacy of Live Aid, you owe it to yourself to give it a read.  Just like the other well-intentioned social justice musical venture whose legacy is equally dubious, Artists United Against Apartheid, this story proves that there is a vast difference between virtue signalling and being a champion for the expansion of human freedom and market economics. 

There isn’t much that needs to be added to this story other than to emphasize that Marxism creates misery and oppression everywhere it travels, and that the progressive narrative of an all-encompassing white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is once again exposed for the pathetic, childish farce that it is. 

What Happened to the 80’s Anti-Apartheid Dream?

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You got to say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

Steven Van Zandt and a multiracial supergroup, Artists United Against Apartheid, created the anti-apartheid rallying cry heard around the world. It played a significant role in turning public opinion against South Africa’s regime of racial segregation and towards full political enfranchisement for the black majority of South Africa. 

Artists United Against Apartheid was Van Zandt’s brainchild, and followed the pattern of other star-studded affairs by attracting industry heavyweights from across the music spectrum. It also distinguished itself by being tilted ever so slightly towards the edgier end of the pop spectrum by including jazz, rap and punk rockers.

As much as I might be inclined to view Macklemore’s loathsome preachiness as a phenomenon unique to our Age of Multiculturalism and Social Justice, he pales in comparison to the stadium level, globe spanning virtue signalling which occurred throughout the 80’s.  Pop music has always been a vehicle for political protest and social commentary, but the particular brand of “racial justice” grandstanding which is Macklemore’s stock in trade definitely had antecedents in the glossy megaconglomerations of the 1980’s.

Though USA for Africa, Band Aid and Live Aid captured the attention of the masses and drew widespread attention to the plight of starvation in Africa, Artists United Against Apartheid was unique in that it was a protest against the de Klerk regime. It was also an organized boycott of the Sun City resort and a call for economic sanctions against South Africa.  While I can appreciate that the track and the project was animated by a genuine spirit of human goodwill and brotherhood, I think it’s worth taking a look of the song’s allegedly “apolitical” message and the quality of life for post-apartheid South Africans in light of recent current events in South Africa.

On the surface, the political situation in South Africa cried out for change and justice.  The repressions and abuses of the South African National Party and the facts behind the construction of the Sun City resort created a perfect subject for a protest track. State enforced segregation, violent crackdowns, and mass relocations were among the list of human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime.  Add Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement”, and the standard narrative of the white supremacist conspiracy of capitalist state power writes itself. 

What’s more difficult to appreciate and less frequently discussed is that there was a sharp competition of economic ideas between the nascent ANC and the various militant African nationalist factions vying for political power and the minority National Party.

By his own account, Van Zandt sought the cooperation of militant group, AZAPO; a group which not only espoused socialist political beliefs, but were willing to use violence to achieve their political ambitions.  Van Zandt apparently had to dissuade them from targeting Paul Simon for assassination.

Listen, this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so, you know, six months.

Van Zandt goes on to recount his disagreement with Simon over Mandela’s own political views. Van Zandt displays a typical leftist bellicosity towards Simon and dismisses his allegation simply because he cited Henry Kissinger as the source of his information.  But neither Kissinger’s or Simon’s claim was without foundations in fact. Mandela may not have been a communist, but he sure sounds like one.  

Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country.

His association with the South African Communist Party wasn’t exactly a secret either.  While it wasn’t necessarily a carbon copy of the Communist Manifesto, the Freedom Charter was a solidly socialist program and became the guiding document of the ANC.  In his legendary 1964 Rivonia Trial speech, Mandela himself acknowledges as much.

Under the Freedom Charter, nationalization would take place in an economy based on private enterprise.

So what does this have to do with the “Sun City” track itself?

When Rolling Stone ranked “Sun City” as 100th greatest song of the 1980’s, Bono describes the message of the track in the following manner.

This is apolitical. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on — this is common sense.

See? It’s just “common sense.” But the lyrics are pretty explicit about the nature of the injustice in South Africa.

23 million can’t vote
‘Cause they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers
And sisters in the back

Van Zandt was equally explicit about the call for economic boycott.

I thought in order to change the system, we need to enforce this cultural boycott as a means of getting to the economic boycott, which is really where the action is.

Despite winning the battle of public opinion, witnessing the release and election of Nelson Mandela, Van Zandt affected a phony posture of humility and declined to attend his inauguration and directs blame towards the Reagan administration for their alleged support of the de Klerk regime. 

Social justice warriors, artists and politicians alike agitated for economic sanctions, congratulated themselves for their moral righteousness, and went on to systematically ignore the consequences of these policies on South Africa’s already fragile economy. An economic contraction that would affect tax revenues and purchasing power for a population which depended heavily on redistribution.

One effect of this capital outflow has been a dramatic decline in the international exchange rate of the rand.  This means that imports are increasingly expensive.  It has also helped fuel South Africa’s inflation rate, which at 12-15% per year, is much higher than its major trading partners.

All of which brings us to the present. 

Longtime ANC veteran and current president, Jacob Zuma was charged with raiding the public treasury to fund improvements to his home to the tune of 246 million rand, or about $16.7 million at current exchange rates.

Where is the international condemnation of Zuma from artists?

Van Zandt and countless others agitated for universal suffrage and equal representation in the South African government, but has this made a material difference on the quality of life in South Africa?

By any objective measure, the results are negligible and have perhaps deteriorated further since the demise of apartheid.

Unemployment has remained stuck above 20% for years and certainly hasn’t improved since Mandela and the ANC came to power.  Few black children are raised by both parentsEducational performance is consistently dismalViolent crime persists, and a minority of taxpayers are subsidizing one of the world’s biggest welfare states.  Loose monetary policy has fueled the same speculative bubble in South Africa as it has throughout the developed world.  Politically motivated violence is a common feature of post-apartheid South Africa.

Everyone involved in AUAA was apparently so focused on the attainment of political power, but placed no emphasis on the necessity of economic development.  Even Bono has acknowledged that recently

But their hearts were in the right place, so why get so incensed over a pop track?

Perhaps. I would feel a little bit more charitable towards this effort if it was a one-time phenomenon, but this type of “racial justice” activism was at the very least, an early template for virtually every social justice campaign you can name.

Nowadays, if there anythng done or said that has the slightest perceived hint of a discriminatory attitude, the calls for retribution and censure from the social justice crowd is swift and immediate. With an equal disregard for economic consequences.  All that apparently matters is that egos are satiated by upholding the virtues of Social Justice prescribed by its self-appointed gatekeepers. 

But what about the track itself?

It’s pretty good.  It’s a stylistic hybrid that is a reflection of the people who recorded it; a hip-hop/Afropop flavored rave up with a fist pumping chorus.  It is propelled by its sense of righteous indignation so effectively, you can almost ignore its guilt tripping preachiness.  It doesn’t even get sunk the pretentious affectation of Lou Reed’s laughable cameo. 

I do not doubt that Steve Van Zandt and the artists who contributed to the AUAA project had the best of intentions.  Unfortunately, we now live in a world where good intentions are often all that’s required with little or no attention given to the political consequences of good intentions. 

The standard narrative that the Reagan administration’s support for the de Klerk regime was animated by racism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Not that anyone on the Left would be that charitable towards a conservative, but anti-communist sentiment was white hot during the 80’s, and even if the fears of communist global expansion were exaggerated, I don’t begrudge Reagan for fearing the rise of another socialist regime in South Africa.  Besides, if that criticism is going to be levelled at Reagan, then it should be made of his predecessors as well.

I also do not begrudge AUAA for making a bold political statement.  In fact, I would prefer to see more artists express their political convictions with such fervor.  Of all the realms of real economic cooperation, music and art is perhaps the one sphere of human activity which allows us to experience and appreciate our shared humanity and sense of purpose.  But if you are going to make a political statement like “Sun City”, don’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of your advocacy. Most of all, make sure you’re applying your criticism consistently and directing a comparable level of indignation towards the black politicians who abused their hard won political power.

U2 Live at TD Garden: July 14, 2015

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U2 are easy to take for granted.

They’ve been so huge for so many years, it’s easy to dismiss them as mind numbing pablum. Their mawkishness and sentimentality begs for ridicule.  I’m accustomed to hearing musicians deride them and make snarky comments just to get a few easy “likes” on social media. 

The funny thing is that I really like U2.  I always have. 

My wife suggested that we see them and since I hadn’t seen them, I realized I’d missed out on the very phenomenon that has sealed a bond with millions of fans and placed them in the firmament of rock in the first place. 

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And boy, am I glad I did.

U2 are a band who’ve earned the superlatives.  They are the consummate Big Time Rock Band. 

For over two hours, U2 reminded me that love is the healing force of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, we can redeem ourselves through rock music.  Perhaps most significantly, they reminded me that sometimes the most transgressive, punk rock thing you can do as an artist is to write a song about your mother and actually affirm the gift of life and express love. 

In a pop culture world overrun by narcissistic wankers and smug, detached handlebar mustachioed would-be hipsters so consumed by their cynical sneering and ironic, postmodern deconstructions, U2 come across as the real radicals. 

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The music succeeds on so many levels.  It’s got a missionary sense of purpose, but never forgets that rock and roll is a secular church.  It has equal reverence for Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Elvis, but never forgets its Dublin roots.

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It’s music that says “All I want is you” and means every word.  They are a band so grounded in the emotional truth of what they’re laying down, it’s really difficult to remain unmoved.

The tour is called the Innocence to Experience Tour and naturally, as the title suggests, the show traces the arc of their development as artists and men. 

Visually, this show was a marvel.  There was a giant rectangular structure which served as a projection surface and an elevated stage.  At various points in the show, the screen showed animated renderings of their neighborhood, star constellations, oceans, nighttime cityscapes, and a virtual Johnny Cash among many other things. 

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Dublin’s favorite sons paid homage to their formative years with several selections from their latest release, “Songs of Innocence”.  I was especially moved by their rendition of “Iris”; Bono’s tribute to his mother. He set up the song with a story about his mother’s death and how it served as an opportunity to deepen his artistry.  “We all find ourselves orphans at some point in life,” he said.  As someone who lost his own mother, this sentiment hit home for me in a big way.  

U2 have never been shy about their political convictions and openly proclaim their desire for peace, justice and love in many songs.  The scars of violence in Ireland were transformed into a plea for justice for victims of terrorism in “Raised by Wolves” and a pared down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Photos of victims of IRA violence were woven into a devastating digital collage while the words JUSTICE FOR THE FORGOTTEN hovered over the images like a command from beyond the grave. 

“We must never give in to fear.  There are people who hate freedom.  Who hate rock music. Who hate women.  We must never give in.  We must send the love that’s present here and radiate it everywhere so that it reaches every community,” exhorted Bono. 

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Right on, man. 

At midpoint of the set, they began to lean more heavily towards the classic canon and the show gathered momentum. 

“Bullet the Blue Sky” revealed U2 at their rockist best and successfully channeled Cream and Band of Gypsys.  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen churned out a thunderous groove that bored into the center of the earth while Edge’s searing sheets of feedback and noise soared over the top.  A kaleidoscopic mashup of Wall Street trading pits and American iconography served as the visual companion to Bono’s Morrisonesque declamations.  “America is an idea. I want to be part of that idea”. Nice work, guys. 

The highlight was without question their transcendent rendition of “Pride”.  “This song is for peacemakers,” declared Bono. He stepped back and allowed the congregation to carry the wordless vocal phrase; gently goading the crowd to ever increasing intensity culminating in full throated ecstasy with each chorus.  This is the kind of secular devotion that is often attempted but rarely matched. 

For their encore, they delivered a trio of gems; “Beautiful Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.  By the time the chiming chords of the latter began, the crowd was in the palm of their hands.  Once again, Bono didn’t even sing the first verse and simply allowed the song to be carried by the reverie of the crowd.

They exited the stage one by one until all that remained were the sounds of Edge and Bono. The show ended just as it began. Bono sneaked in a line of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”.

Message received, gentlemen.  Thank you for bringing it home. 

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Sly & The Family Stone: Don’t Call Me Nigger

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I was listening to this song last night, and I genuinely wondered if we’re headed towards a culture of repression that would censor this song purely because of the title. 

I’m concerned that we’ve already become a culture so consumed by the surface appearance and rhetoric of diversity, and yet so afraid to be labeled a racist for saying something that might be perceived as a microaggression. 

I’m concerned that we’ve become a culture that stigmatizes the usage of a word all by itself and makes no distinctions around intent or context. 

I’m concerned that we have become a culture that encourages self-appointed racism cops to go around pointing the finger of reproach and finding RACISM in everyone but themselves. 

I’m concerned that we’ve become a culture that’s more comfortable ascribing blame to symbols and doling out moronic lectures about “white privilege” than ascertaining responsibility for the actions of individuals. 

My biggest fear is that we’ve conflated speech and words with actual violence. Subsequently, we are ceding a fundamental liberty that each of us has to the authority of the State and all of the sycophantic, authoritarian would-be do-gooders who believe that calling everyone and everything racist is actually creating any real racial harmony. 

If policing speech over the usage of words or enforcing some prescribed template of PC virtue becomes the norm, then we have effectively ceded free thought and agency themselves. 

This song is precisely why free speech matters.

We have the opportunity to access the best in ourselves because we’re free. 

We have the opportunity to see the basic humanity in everyone because we’re free.  

We have the opportunity to create racial harmony because we’re free. 

Not because some self-appointed social justice cop posted a link to a feminist website and not because a politician doesn’t like what someone said or wants to use the power of the government to pass a hate speech law. 

But you have to choose free speech and you have to be willing to defend it.  Not with a gun, but with the power of your own convictions. 

What will you choose?

Solid Sound Day 3: June 28, 2015

Despite some unseasonably cold summer rain, my wife and I set out to Mass Moca to take in the sights and sounds of the conclusion of Solid Sound 2015. 

As an artist who’s consistently staked out adventurous musical territory over the course of my own career, I’ve sought to support venues, promoters, and events which present ambitious visions which fall outside the common perception of “mainstream” taste and still manage to reach a mass audience.  Solid Sound is a festival that aspires to achieve this goal and by and large, succeeds.  That said, there is a little bit of a stuffy and oppressive air to the whole thing. Needless to say, holding a music and art festival at a museum is going to have a bit of a THIS IS ART vibe to it.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such a self-congratulatory atmosphere creates its own aura of stultifying conservatism. I measure the success of any art by how successfully it balances its various ambitions and most importantly, whether it manages to convey some basic humanity and soul. What is this artist saying about life and the human condition fundamentally?

The three acts we saw managed to present music that was simultaneously virtuosic, visionary, and futuristic, but occasionally lapsed into antiseptic and sterile intellectualism.  Some more than others. 

This tendency was perhaps best exemplified by the Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance.  Since I was familiar with Mr. Cline’s work, I was looking forward to this set.  Stained Radiance featured Nels doing his solo guitar thing with various looping devices, delays and effects while Norton accompanied with a painting improvisation and three dancers added a movement element.  This certainly had all the ingredients and potential to be a pretentious wank, but ended up having enough of an emotional center to engage.  To my surprise, the real glue of the performance was Mr. Wisdom. He painted on a semi-translucent canvas which was projected on to the main screen in the hall.  It had the effect of being a white board so he could create negative space with a wiping tool and wash away an image with relative ease.  His style had a phantasmagoric quality to it.  The color palette was dark. His opening image appeared to be a surreal impression of Mr. Cline. Strange monstrous humanoids were conjured from amorphous blotches of paint. Anthropomorphic animals and human forms with wings took shape. The surface allowed the paint to run and gave each form a melted quality that was naturally very creepy.

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Mr. Cline churned out subsonic drones, shards of harmony and melody, shrieking spears of noise, ghostly pulsations, and icy riffs at various moments throughout the piece.  The two aesthetics were complementary.

One of the dancers was outfitted with a diaphanous fabric sheath which lent itself to a performance which resembled either an aquatic plant or a flame burning in slow motion.  Another dancer did a passage with a long piece of fabric that was meant to convey imprisonment or a struggle to be free from some kind of bondage.  The physicality of the dancers certainly lent the piece some much needed drama and made it more of a performance, but it still felt a little aimless and pretentious. 

What did they intend to convey with this performance? I’m not entirely sure.  Clearly, they were content to let the process unfold and allow the audience to generate their own experiences and interpretations.  I find that leaving it entirely up to the audience to extract a message from abstract art can be a cop out.  Abstraction for its own sake can be an evasion and a way to avoid risking any real emotions. 

This performance suffered from that pitfall a bit. It felt non-committal. I sensed vague allusions to gender based conflicts.  I sensed some struggle to be free.  I sensed a small appeal to love buried beneath the layers of darkness and abstraction. 

It had a foreboding and ominous atmosphere. It more or less held my attention. It was among the most successful attempts at this kind of performance I’ve personally seen and I’ve actually done gigs that were almost identical conceptually. However, I was not deeply moved. I’m going to seek out one of Mr. Cline’s bands next time. 

One of the great successes and recurring themes of Solid Sound is that Cool is ageless and that making vital art is the pursuit of a lifetime.  The greats may not draw the attention of the pop culture spotlight, but they are always creating and cultivating their own unique language without regard to which direction the winds of popular taste are blowing.  The booking of Richard Thompson, NRBQ and the great Charles Lloyd were testimony to this. 

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Charles Lloyd is one of the last remaining giants of 20th century modern jazz and his CV is indeed impressive

Not only was he backed up by a first rate rhythm section comprised of Gerald Clayton on piano, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Joe Sanders on bass, he was joined by Bill Frisell too!  This more than compensated for the unsatisfying and uninspired pairing with Sam Amidon. 

Mr. Lloyd exuded the ease and confidence of a true master.  His music was equal parts post-bop modernism and blues inflected spiritual exploration. It is big hearted and filled with romanticism but still leaves ample space for experimentation.  Most importantly, it was always swinging.  Frisell’s languid, cubist Americana avant-bop was totally complementary. 

We concluded our afternoon with the sedate bleeps and bloops of Quindar.  Quindar are an electronic music duo comprised of Mikael Jorgensen and James Thomas. 

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Their unique angle is that they’ve been granted access to NASA mission video and audio recordings and their performance is meant to emulate a journey to the moon. 

In theory, I should love these guys. I’ve spent the better part of my career playing music that hews very closely to this artistic territory.  My current band Mission Creep has cosmic ambitions of its own.

The music is very tasteful and the execution is flawless.  There are identifiable melodies and riffs amidst the pulsations, oscillations, and layered beats. It’s just a little too tasteful. 

They were wise to utilize video because they would be insufferably boring to watch without it.  Public Service Broadcasting from the UK are doing the exact same thing conceptually, but are utilizing live instrumentation and subsequently have a more dynamic sound. 

Sadly, King Sunny Ade was held up at the Canadian border and was unable to perform. 

Mass Moca and Wilco are producing a quality festival and I’m genuinely hopeful that it was a financial success. I look forward to next year’s incarnation.