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A Perfect Storm
By Bill Ketzer

Mastodon
LEVIATHAN (RELAPSE)


Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! From the opening realization that “I think that someone is trying to kill me!” to the final, swirling, drowning instrumental “Joseph Merrick,” Mastodon have given new hope and direction to what was slowly becoming a very ho-hum genre. Unlike so many have mentioned during recent reviews in the various metal rags, I wasn’t awfully keen on the band’s initial material, rabid as their fans are. I had seen them live a few times, and to my consternation it seemed like just another Frank Oz voiceover in the thick and hairy onion soup of today’s standard-issue armament. On “Mother Puncher,” for example, from the band’s first full-length CD Remission, the passage “Change, stand, grow, these things you’ll never be” sounded too goddamn much like “All me know, I’d do anything for cookie!” for my taste. But something has evolved beneath the patina of this new Southern godsend, morphed into a roiling, fanatical constellation that piques the intellect and rocks your gut cave like a bad steak.

Albums like Leviathan are the ones that will save metal, the ones that will keep it viable and astute. It graciously empties its waste pan on the loose vermin of commercial-formula cattle silage like, oh, say Nickelback or Saliva. Like the Melville novel that inspired it, Leviathan at times appears bizarre and obscure, yet proves to be infinitely open to interpretation and discovery. Unlike Moby Dick, however, its genius is instantly recognizable. There is a consistency to this album; its soundscape gives one the sensation of constant pursuit, of being continuously battered at sea during an impetuous storm. It is prevalent in the hiss of “Blood and Thunder,” the hurtful down-picking and wondrous harmonies of “Iron Tusk.” It is in the stabbing upward might of “Megalodon” and the crushing final riff of “Seabeast.” The drummer Brann Dailor (originally from Rochester) is clearly at the peak of his powers with a tempestuous, churning business that, rather than detracting from the overall composition, only enhances the spray of the ocean in the mind, the mimicry of sea-induced mania beneath the ceaseless creaking of the bow. Twin guitar harmonies, at once voracious and hypnotic, join a murder of voices, souls at absolute zero, attempting to embody the bodiless. Like Ahab’s wind, the whole package just whispers and roars all the things that most possess and exasperate the commoner and the elite alike.

The beauty of this record is that its fidelities, its bursting prayers and damnations, are dangerous, meaning risky. Basing an entire CD’s worth of material on the white whale (insofar as it taps into the whirlpool of human monomania, limits of human intelligence and the deceptiveness of fate explored in the novel—the whole disc isn’t about the whale) is a risk in the most handsome interpretation of the word. But one that pays off in spades. While listening, you get the feeling you are hearing something very, very old. Yet it is so very young. The downside is that it will be hard to trump, lads.

The Chris Stamey Experience
A QUESTION OF TEMPERATURE (YEP ROC)

Last year's Travels in the South was Chris Stamey's first new album in more than a decade. Where that work bore some of his finest characteristics, it also had the marks of being too fussed over (Stamey has remained quite busy since the nineties, as a producer). Well, less than a year later he's back with a complete winner. Accompanied by Yo La Tengo and a few other pals, Stamey delivers a set of well-chosen covers and a few originals. It opens with a minutelong blast of instrumental fury and then jumps right into The Yardbirds' "Shape of Things" with the original bass line, fuzzed up a bit, played with unshakable glee by James McNew. Television's "Venus" is given a quieter setting, but for the most part this is flat-out celebration of loud combo interplay. When they come to their version of Eddie Harris and Les McCann's "Compared to What," Stamey skips the "goddamnit!" But who could ever equal McCann's explosive three-syllable punctuation? Stamey's own "The Summer Sun" is revisited for a robust update, clearly a favorite number of YLT's, who used it as the title of their last album. With A Question of Temperature (a song they did not cover here), Chris Stamey is really back.

—David Greenberger

The Libertines
THE LIBERTINES (ROUGH TRADE)


Plenty of rock musicians have struggled to get their acts together; few have so boldly resisted the very concept of recovery as Pete Doherty of Britain’s Libertines. In the 16 months following the release of the band’s revelatory Up the Bracket, Doherty admitted to having a crippling addiction to crack and heroin, entered and fled rehab facilities (twice), burglarized bandmate and close friend Carl Barât’s apartment (for which he spent a month in prison), and was suspended from his own band (the group have yet to tour at any length with the proper lineup).

So what of The Libertines, the group’s not-so-long awaited follow-up? Up front, it’s not as good as Bracket, or at least not as immediately arresting, but it’s still damn good. The album is bookended by two stunning meditations on a friendship tattered by drug abuse. On “Can’t Stand Me Now,” Doherty and Barât play call-and-response over lines like “Have we enough to keep it together, or do we just keep on pretending?” “What Became of the Likely Lads” closes with the pair wondering “What became of forever? We’ll never know!” These are truly touching moments, quite beautiful in their honesty. In fact, the album’s best moments are its most diary-entry-like. “Music When the Lights Go Out” and “The Ha Ha Wall” find Doherty waxing apologetic and confessional; on “The Saga,” he’s come to the conclusion that “when you let down your friends . . . only fools, vultures and undertakers will have any time for you.” He sounds damaged and hoarse, struggling toward notes and falling off, not necessarily giving the impression that he’s going to get straight, just that he recognizes the spoils of his chosen lifestyle.

For being such a topically troubling album, Libertines is a blast to put on. The spastic sounds of the band’s previous release are somewhat tempered, but that works to the listener’s advantage: A relatively straightforward tune like “Music” simply wouldn’t have flown before. They justify the Clash comparisons on “What Katie Did” and “Tomblands,” then revel in abandon on “Arbeit Macht Frei” and “Campaign of Hate.” Weak spots (“Don’t Be Shy,” “Road to Ruin”) are few and far between, and don’t sully the album’s overall quality. It’s just good, good, good. Here’s hoping Doherty gets his shit straight, or at least learns to regulate his intake, so we might get another one out of him.

--John Brodeur


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