The evolutionary hat trick of Tom Waits' transformation from offbeat singer-songwriter to hipster beatnik poet to howlingly dark performance artist took a grueling couple of decades. In the process Waits concocted some of the most amazing and maddening music of this generation without a second thought toward its marketability. The byproduct of Waits' diligence of craft and integrity of vision in creating his brilliantly erratic body of work is that he has become one of the most inventive and influential artists in modern music, regardless of the shape that he has assumed at any given moment in his career. On Mule Variations, his one-off release for Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph Records, Waits manages his most impressive synthesis to date, incorporating all of his moody and manic personas into a single mindset and producing a stunning set of new material.
Waits' recent greatest-hits treatment, Beautiful Maladies, was a compendium of all the experimental and eccentric work he produced for Island Records since signing with them in 1983. Like Maladies, Mule Variations encompasses the many styles of Waits' career, but he utilizes brand-new material to achieve a similar retrospective atmosphere. Using everything from mutant piano ballads to shuffling, Beefheart-squonk blues progressions to clanging, farm-implement, Dadaist rants, Waits has reinvented himself every half-dozen years or so, and he's dragged the music establishment kicking and screaming right along with him.
On Mule Variations he lurches effortlessly between his early melodica ("Georgia Lee," "Picture in a Frame"), his archly moody and percussive middle period ("Big in Japan," "Lowside of the Road"), and his wickedly arcane experiments of late ("Eyeball Kid," "What's He Building?"), touching briefly but effectively on each major artistic shift over the past decade and a half. The brilliance of Mule Variations is not necessarily that Waits pulls off this style roll call with aplomb but that he blends his own styles together to create something new out of something familiar. He hasn't written anything as heart-rendingly gorgeous as "Take It With Me" since "Grapefruit Moon" on his debut album in 1973, but elements of all his recording faces are brought to bear on the track, making it fresh and referential simultaneously. In this way Mule Variations is not merely a clever scrapbook of Waits' career highlights, but a fascinating sonic quilt that documents his journey and explores new options at the same time.
Waits continues to seek out the most unusual avenues to explore, both within and beyond the context of his musical advances. His film credits are becoming a major component of his resume, his theater work is overshadowing his standard live appearances, and his music is still among the most challenging and stimulating being made today. Mule Variations is a testament to the strength and consistency of Waits' vision and a powerful reminder of his ability to create music independent of any prevailing trend.
-- Brian Baker
To suggest a stylistic connection between classical music and heavy metal is nothing new, considering the Baroque forays of Iron Butterfly's operatic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," or Randy Rhoads' studied precision on Ozzy's classic solo works. However, finding a band whose virtuosity and creativity truly evoke the complexity of classical music is indeed rare. Legendary in its homeland of Norway as well as in the international coven of black metal, Emperor has earned infamy both for its musical precision and for select band members' violent crimes of passion. The trio (formerly a four-piece until bassist Alver departed last year) creates fugue-style compositions thickened with layers of chugging guitars that bolster climbing arpeggio leads. And just as it's extreme in speed and in its barrage of guitars, the group is aligned with the esoteric philosophy of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and Emperor members make no apology for their involvement with violent and extremist actions in the past.
Unlike run-of-the-mill speed-, death-, and black-metal bands, Emperor is an elaborate and eloquent revision of -- and extremely devoted to -- the complex structures of classical symphonies and Scandinavian folk music. Its band members' fervent devotion to the black-metal scene's rampant church-burnings and violence in the early '90s nearly jeopardized Emperor's existence: guitarist Samoth served a sentence for arson; former bassist Tchort was convicted of burglary, knife assault, and desecration; original drummer Bard Eithun is currently in prison for arson, burglary, and murder. Freed in 1997 from legal entanglements, the band reunited (adding new drummer Trym) to record their sprawling masterpiece, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk.
The equally triumphant follow-up, IX Equilibrium, pushes the keyboard flourishes further back in the mix to emphasize grittier guitar girth. Here Emperor's symphonic structuring is distinct and disciplined. On epic tracks like "Nonus ®quilibrium" and "An Elegy of Icaros," grunting and galloping rhythm guitars fill out the staccato foundations traditionally given to cello, brass, and reeds. Relentless 16th-note, double-bass-drum thuds and rapid-fire snare cracks track the 3/4 waltz-time meter, punctuated with occasional thundering kettledrum triplets. Chamber organ keyboards take the place of violins and woodwinds. Guitar leads introduce new melodies and harmonic layers, while vocalist-guitarist Ihsahn's harmonized, throat-grating aria screams sound like a full choir. Like the bombastic overtures of Wagner and Mussorgsky, "Decrystallizing Reason" builds dramatic keyboard flourishes into a relentlessly ascending refrain.
Just as their previous album brought musical eloquence to the genre, IX Equilibrium's anthemic persistence and classical Scandinavian folk structures uphold Emperor's throne as black metal's extremist vanguard. But detractors be warned: Emperor backs its musical might with impassioned action.
-- Dave Clifford
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