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The Haul: Rockets Red Glare's Rockets Red Glare

Rockets Red Glare's Rockets Red Glare

This past weekend I came across a copy of Rockets Red Glare’s 2002 self-titled debut at Mystery Train Records in Gloucester, MA (otherwise known as my favorite record store in the northeast). I would be surprised by the score if not for its source; I’ve found all sorts of “This shouldn’t be here…” sundries at Mystery Train, including a stack of mid-’90s Midwestern rock records that I never caught a glimpse of during my six years living in the Midwest. Finding a limited-run vinyl copy of a Toronto post-hardcore outfit’s debut record is strange, but not unforeseen. Actually buying it, that was the tricky part.

(Choose your own adventure directions: Skip down two paragraphs for an description of this record and a sample mp3. Keep going for record-buying anecdotes.)

I can’t remember if this habit pre-dated the dollar LP warehouse, but my process for record shopping is to pull everything of interest and then sort through it at the end. I make three piles: things I’ll definitely buy, things I’ll check reviews (or Discogs prices) on, and things I’ll stop kidding myself on and put back. During this trip to Mystery Train, the first pile was comprised of Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst (an album I begrudgingly bought on CD a few years ago but will gladly purchase in my preferred format), Clikatat Ikatowi’s Orchestrated and Performed by Clikatat Ikatowi (a recommendation from my friend Charlie—San Diego math-rock/ with drummer Mario Rubalcaba, later of Thingy, Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, and Earthless), and M83’s Teen Angst EP (cheap, great song, bonus b-side and remix). The second pile was towering: a pair of John Coltrane records ( Olé Coltrane and Live at Birdland) that became no-brainers; a Sun Ra’s Live at Montreux (which reinforced my issue with Sun Ra—I have no idea where to go next); a Jon Hassell LP (Fourth World Volume Two: Dream Theory in Malaya) that reminded me I need to spend more time with the copy of Fourth World Volume One: Possible Musics I grabbed in a previous visit to Mystery Train; a Beastie Boys seven-inch for “Sure Shot” that triggered my potential resale reflex; and the Rockets Red Glare LP. The “C’mon, you have places to be” pile included a pristine copy of the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; an Engine Down single; and Pinback off-shoot The Ladies’ lone LP, They Mean Us. With regard to Engine Down and Rob Crow-related albums, Enuff Z’nuff, you know?

I narrowed my stack down to the Dr. Octagon, Clikatat Ikatowi, M83, Beastie Boys and Coltrane records. The big question mark was the Rockets Red Glare album. The review touchstones were tempting—Hoover, Slint, Shellac, Mission of Burma, ’90s math-rock like Sweep the Leg Johnny (whose label Sick Room Records released the CD pressing of this album)—but I was sure I’d seen it there before and was relatively confident I would see it there again. Ultimately I flipped a mental coin, saw that it landed on “Just buy the damn thing,” and checked out.

That was a wise decision. Despite possessing a band name more evocative of super-patriotic American country music, Rockets Red Glare nails Hoover’s style of churning post-hardcore. The average track length stretches to seven minutes, but there’s no excess. The tangled guitars, clear bass lines, deftly shifting drums, and alternately spoken and shouted vocals adhere tightly without an ounce of studio trickery. If you enjoy harmonics cutting through a thick haze of crash cymbals, shouted vocals offering impenetrable poetry (from “Embouchure”: “History is our lemon yellow awning / Opposite spokes obviate sorrow”), stop-starts that have been practiced into muscle memory, quiet passages with wandering arpeggios, and urgent strafing in the place of big choruses, Rockets Red Glare is an obvious pick-up. I have a stack of promo CDs from the late ’90s that evoke this sound, but few of them came close to Rockets Red Glare’s brutal efficiency. (Higher praise: I'm far more likely to put this one on than post-Hoover project Regulator Watts' The Aesthetic of No-Drag.) Check out “Union Station” (.mp3), which is one of the album’s standout tracks.

Rockets Red Glare's Redshift b/w Halifax single

Rockets Red Glare released one more album, 2003’s Moonlight Desires, also on the Montreal-based Blue Skies Turn Black label, before going their separate ways. Singer/guitarist Evan Clarke drummed for Toronto slow-core outfit Picastro for a spell and joined up with Burn Rome in a Dream, while bassist Jeremy Strachan and drummer David Weinkauf formed the free-jazz outfit Feuermusik (saxophone and bucket percussion). The group played a few reunion shows in 2009, but didn’t release anything new. I haven’t checked out Moonlight Desires yet, so I can’t vouch for its post-hardcore goodness, but if you find yourself in front of a copy of Rockets Red Glare, move it into the to-buy pile.

Bonus content alert: Commenter Anthony below mentioned that Rockets Red Glare's first single, "Redshift" b/w "Halifax," contains his favorite song from the group. Since that single appears to be highly out-of-print, here it is: "Redshift" b/w "Halifax" (.mp3). The a-side is an instrumental, the b-side is an urgent rocker. Both songs are more compact than their sprawling companions on Rockets Red Glare. This single reminds me of another excellent, mostly forgotten math-rock band: Drill for Absentee.

The Haul 2010: The For Carnation's The For Carnation

The For Carnation – The For Carnation LP – Touch & Go, 2000 – $28 (eBay, 7/22)

The For Carnation's The For Carnation

It took me until 2010 to finally appreciate The For Carnation’s self-titled LP. Much like the group’s two previous releases, 1995’s Fight Songs EP and 1996’s Marshmallows, very little happens on The For Carnation. Those hoping for the climactic catharsis of Slint’s “Washer” and “Good Morning, Captain”—the two most physically jarring examples of Spiderland’s brilliance—encounter no dramatic crescendos in The For Carnation’s catalog, only carefully pruned plateaus of superhuman patience. The most dramatic moment on any of these releases comes on Fight Songs’s “Grace Beneath the Pines” when McMahan’s quietly spoken vocals become uncomfortable loud with the line “with crack heads and assassins and burn victims” before mumbling his way into the closing “and millionaires' sons.” There’s no incisive harmonic riff accompanying this peak, only a single strummed chord, far from the bombastic payoff of Slint’s high-water marks. For a band relying on patience, The For Carnation had worn mine thin by Marshmallows.

It certainly didn’t help that Slint’s offspring—Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in particular—reveled in the dynamic range that The For Carnation had left behind. The immediacy of a distorted guitar climax is hard to deny. Yet as the thrill of those rollercoaster rides became commonplace by Godspeed’s demise and Mogwai’s descent into routine, I should have recognized that The For Carnation offered a crucial aspect of Slint’s legacy that had gone all-but-ignored in the formation of post-rock’s playbook: Brian McMahan’s engrossing storytelling.

This emphasis on storytelling is certainly not the sexiest or the most earth-shattering element of Slint’s success, but as Scott at Pretty Goes with Pretty (the author of the upcoming 33 1/3 on Spiderland, an honor which fills me with envy) eloquently puts it, Slint “earn[s] its drama,” and I’ll fill in the gap by saying that the storytelling is a big part of how they earn it. He mentions how “Don, Aman” thrives on “a palpable sense of foreboding and anxiety, both lyrically and musically.” It’s precisely that mood that The For Carnation explores. Each track, ranging from 5:36 to 9:29, plots a measured course through dimly lit wilderness, and five of the six are driven by McMahan’s involving storytelling.

I’ll focus on closing track “Moonbeams,” since it finally broke my decade-long mental block with The For Carnation. The musical backdrop is deceptive; built upon a lyrical bass line, a skeletal drum beat, intermittent guitar phrases, a cricket-like electronic whirr, and a haunting piano loop buried in the mix, it initially recalls the austerity of Marshmallows, but Christian Fredrickson’s (of Rachel’s) string arrangements add melodrama-free depth. It would make a worthy instrumental, but McMahan’s lyrics provide the song’s anxious tension. The opening couplet “Scatter the roots of our passage tonight / Discard the memories we chose to survive” hints at the song’s elliptical narrative, which only grows more confounding with each verse. The second verse offers, “When she was five years old there’s cake and bright lights / and when she was ten she became the maid’s bride.” The third turns the pronoun back around—“Stand up and face it although you’re half dead / Try to remember though they’ve taken your head”—then becomes inclusive: “Why we sleep fully dressed and rise only from bed / Who did this to us? Who did this to us?” Each softly sung line in “Moonbeams” resonates exponentially over the eerie landscape. (Taking ten seconds in between lines certainly helps that effect.) Piecing together a concrete narrative like the carnival trip of Slint’s “Breadcrumb Trail” from these disparate mental images is impossible—McMahan closes the song with “I climb to the top and I find where I am,” but he doesn’t pass along the coordinates. “Moonbeams” evokes (and occasionally invokes) a dream world of intangible unease. And the best part? You’re stuck there.

That’s the notion that took me so long to grasp: The For Carnation’s greatness lies in their staunch unwillingness to break the tension, to provide the natural release of a “Washer” or a “Good Morning, Captain.” “Tales [Live from the Crypt]” comes the closest, teetering precariously on the slashing guitar chords that might trigger an avalanche of noise, but it never topples. A decade ago I would have bellowed for chaos in this moment, but now I recognize how the convergence of all of the song’s instrumental tensions is better left with the threat partially revealed but not engaged or eliminated. Almost nothing happens, after all, but the desire for a break in the tension is transformed into a need.

The For Carnation is loaded with potential contradictions. Its sonic plateaus might encourage placement in your bedtime listening pile, but the songwriting demands foreground listening. It seems austerely minimal, but the attention to detail is astonishing. (Having guest performances from Kim Deal, Rachel Haden, Britt Walford, and John McEntire, among others, certainly helps.) It’s the closest companion album for Slint’s Spiderland, even if it casts aside that album’s most exciting moments. It’s one of the finest post-rock albums of the decade, even though it ignored the prevailing trends of the genre, specifically instrumental songwriting and noisy climaxes. A more accurate statement is that it’s one of the finest post-rock albums of the decade because it ignores those trends.