14 June 2006

Is this challenging and offensive enough for you?

During a recent mp3 binge, I happened upon a random collection of works by the artist O Yuki Conjugate. The name rang a bell, and I couldn’t think of what they sounded like, so I thought I’d give it a shot. The album, Primitive (1983 – 1987), turned out to be a wonderful surprise. It’s experimental post-industrial ambient – occasionally you can hear the time frame it came from in its tracks, most certainly, but in a good way. It’s dirty and grainy, ghostly and creepy, repetitive and psychedelic: just the way I like it.

I liked the record enough to want to learn more, so I turned to allmusic.com. Now, a quick word about allmusic.com. Pre-internet, the All Music Guide along with the Trouser Press were the weirdo music lover’s bibles. They held myriad details of the secret history of underground music. If you wanted a discography on The Raincoats or Throbbing Gristle with descriptions of their music, they had it at a time when you were the only kid on your block that ever even heard of those artists let alone actually heard their music. When All Music Guide launched allmusic.com, it was an online music geek’s dream. To this day, I use it all the time, but I have my problems with it.

Chief among allmusic.com’s problems is its slow speed. I already feel a bit 90’s when consulting AMG, but I really have to congratulate them on their 56k modem simulation, as it really completes the sensation. Worse than the lag, however, is the consistency of the content: poor quality writing and half-baked opinions litter the site randomly. You might find a fantastic article on one topic and then an utterly awful one on another with your next click. The trouble with this is that because it all falls under the allmusic.com umbrella, it takes on an authoritative feel. The branding makes it feel like if you can trust one article, you can trust them all.

The more I thought about allmusic.com last night, the more I came to the conclusion that I was right in my “it feels 90’s” hunch on a level that was more fundamental to web development than music fandom. Whether you hate buzzwords or love them, it’s succinct and safe to say that allmusic.com is very Web 1.0. Yes, it has a varied group of contributors, but they are all chosen through a hiring process, which their FAQ told me I could learn about from their corporate web site. I went there and they told me exactly how eager they were to hire me: “AMG is not currently looking for additional freelance writers, but please check back for changes.”

It’s fine to hand-select your writers in this way. Music review sites that I read every day do this to a great effect. I wouldn’t let anyone else but me write on this blog, for example, except in the comments. But the internet is growing in a direction that makes it feel less useful for information repository sites like allmusic.com to do this. I can’t help but think that an allmusic.com wiki would be more useful. The collaborative spirit of the wiki would allow a wide variety of people to contribute to articles, resulting in a greater diversity of opinion and a more complete set of facts. If that’s too extreme, then at least the addition of a message board on each artist’s page or each album’s page would give the site visitor a polyphony of voices sounding on the subject of their research rather than the monolith they currently offer. Their model works great for a printed book, but it’s pretty closed-minded given the wide range of possibilities that emerges when bringing a concept like the All Music Guide to the internet, where nothing needs to remain static or single-sided.

I’ve digressed so much that I almost forgot about the O Yuki Conjugate, and might have were it not for the sound of the child chorus in “Sedation” playing in my headphones, making me wonder if there was acid in my morning coffee. Every day I listen to a lot of music that I’ve never heard before, so often I hear many things that I don’t find remarkable. It’s the price you pay for trying to find something awesome (remind me sometime to talk about the 60’s psychedelic album by the Freak Scene that I listened to yesterday: proof positive that drugs didn’t help everyone make cooler music). But after hearing a few songs on Primitive, I woke up and realized that I really dug this… enough to look them up on allmusic.com! (You doubted me, but I made like Dylan and brought it all back home, yo!)

After a brief skimming of their bio page, I skipped along to check out their discography, wondering what other treasures awaited me. On the discography page, each album an artist has released is listed along with a star rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with usually the highest ranked one receiving the “Best of Artist” honor in the form of a checkmark. I was excited to see that this honor went to O Yuki Conjugate’s mid-nineties excursion, Equator, which I haven’t yet heard. I was also surprised, however, to see that the album I dug so much, Primitive, only got two lousy stars. With such a low rating, I figured there must be a review to accompany it, and indeed there was.

The review was only a paragraph long, but it was possibly the snottiest, most pretentious review I’d ever read, and I read a lot of snotty, pretentious reviews on a daily basis. It’s fine not to like the album I like: diversity of opinion is a good thing. This review, however, went beyond that to say that not only did he not like the album, but that “there is no reason to like this disc.” That really got me, not to mention the fact that he closed that sentence and the paragraph by saying another close-minded adage: “and that is reason enough not to like it.” It is one thing not to like something, but it’s entirely another to crap on the act of liking it. What reason do I need to like it other than I like it? And since when was art about reason anyway?

Here’s another sampling of our writer’s fine criticism: “If there is such a thing as ‘middle-of-the-road’ e-music, this is it. OYC does very little to offend or challenge -- at least on this disc. There is some dissonance, there are atmospheres, but the music is just kind of there.”

Okay, that’s a tall statement. Let’s dissect it.

First, he calls it “middle of the road”. I’ve heard a lot of music and this is far better than “middle of the road e-music” (whatever e-music is… personally I’d rather do ecstasy whilst listening to Merzbow, but that’s another story for another day). What a pretentious pseudo-critique to throw down and then give nothing to back it up!

Next is the real kicker given the background of the reviewer (more on that in a second): “OYC does very little to offend or challenge… there is some dissonance, there are some atmospheres, but the music is just kind of there.” I like a great deal of potentially offensive, challenging music, and this O Yuki Conjugate disc is certainly not all that offensive, whatever that means anyway. It’s not even the best of its class, but that’s not the point. It’s a solid collection of some far out tracks which I’m probably going to use in an upcoming DJ mix. It’s good and I dig it. To say that it does little to offend or challenge really sells it short. It makes it sound like a goddamn Enya record and belies the musicians’ real talent here for making intricate sound experiments with a taste for the dark side. And since when was art about offense anyway?

When you bitch to me about a piece of music doing little to offend or challenge, you better have something to back it up. Few people have that privilege around me. After all the noise they’ve heard, I’ll let Peter and Spencer say that. I’d let Masonna or William Bennett say that. I’d still find the comments pretentious, but their backgrounds afford them such bold statements. With that in mind, I Googled the author’s name: “Jim Brenholts”.

I got an assload of results. All of them from sites claiming to be about ambient music, but really were about new age music. Yeah. Not the good ambience that you or I or anyone decent and wholesome likes to hear upon getting home at 6am wanting the drugs to wear off, no, this is the middle-aged hippie-cum-yuppie shit that does very little to offend or challenge.

Since I came all the way to Google, I decided to peek around. I stumbled upon a site that featured a compilation CD that Jim himself released. Being a good journalist, I tracked down a few songs by these artists before starting this diatribe. What I found confirmed my suspicions. Big swooshy synth swirls, Tangerine-Dream-derivative arpeggios and the big godlike “ahhhhhhh” sound of space were all over these productions. They were like crudely-drawn caricatures of ambient music, laughably indulgent in every cliché known to the genre.

And yes, I hate this music with every fiber of my being, but despite that, I would never say that there is no reason to like it. You don’t need a reason, just like it if you like it, and if you don’t like it and want to share that sentiment, please do it in at least a semi-intelligent manner that doesn’t make blogpunks like me have to tear you a new asshole.

In summary:

  • * O Yuki Conjugate’s Primitive: decent dark experimental post-industrial ambient music
  • * allmusic.com: web dinosaur
  • * Jim Brenholts: middle-aged new age hippie
Up for a chuckle:



Mannhein said...

You're mean!

You should send him some of the Devu stuff and tell him to choke on it.

asshat023 said...

holy cats, thanks for turning me onto the mighty Terry Oldfield and his oh-so-challenging opus "Ambient Visions' Focus on Yoga Harmony"!!! one more reason to avoid the Oldfield section in the CD bins...yikes.

boss rant, by the way.