The Onslaught

Recombinant Rock in the Valley of Dub

Actually, someone has. On the album Sabbatum, Estonian medievalists Rondellus translate 12 Black Sabbath songs into Latin and arrange them for medieval instruments, and the results are haunting and not at all gimmicky. Interestingly, in adapting the music to medieval modes, Rondellus not only eliminate Sabbath's heavy guitar riffs but also give short shrift to the band's 19th-century Northern European romantic (or 20th-century horror film) chromatic density. And the result is that Sabbatum highlights how psychedelic—that is, how Eastern-sounding—Sabbath is. And I guess if you're a musicologist (which I'm not, but I've read Peter van der Merwe's Origins of the Popular Style) this shouldn't surprise you, since 1000 years ago European music was generally derived from that of the Middle East—in fact the Mideast musical influence stretched from West Africa to Ireland. And so, in outlying parts of Europe that later resisted the newfangled do-re-mi scale—the rural parts of the British Isles, for instance—the Mideast influence hung on. And it not only hung on, but by way of both West Africa and the British Isles, crossed into the Southern United States. Which is one reason rock has an affinity for Eastern music.

Exile by Pharoah's Daughter places a well-mannered Natalie Merchant-type folksinger in music that could be described either as Jewish-Arabian tropes inserted into British-derived folk music or as British-derived folk reconfigured for Jewish-Arabian modes. The instruments are almost all acoustic. The lyrics are personal and poetic: "If I join what's moving, I may not notice how it stirs in me, grows in me." This has a woman-folkie sense of quietness. So, my reaction on first hearing it? "It's a goth-metal album." I kept expecting power chords, pulsating sludge, and aggressive vocals. Which of course never came, but I still hear them in the music as potential.

On the first track of Montgomery Gentry's first album, these c&w whiners instructed us not to judge them until we'd walked in their shoes, while showing no interest themselves in what it's like to walk in anyone else's. On the title track of the new Our Town they tell us significantly that their local Church of Christ is well attended, but they make no mention of any mosques or synagogues and presumably wouldn't want to know the Mideast ancestry of their twang. But their music isn't content to just rock back on its reactionary haunches; instead, it filches rock 'n' roll "na-na-nas" and AOR harmonies and Mexican melodies and wicked slide guitars from near anybody's palette. Montgomery Gentry are not as rambunctious and obnoxious this time, to their musical if not moral detriment, but nonetheless they rock harder than you do.

One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida
photo: Courtesy Jagjaguwar Records
One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida


Field Mob don't need caddies.
photo: Brad Miller

Southern hip-hoppers Field Mob aren't afraid to go far afield either. Their rural identification (they're from the small city of Albany, Georgia, but they make a point of their plantation slave heritage: "If you're from the South, you're from the fields") doesn't stop them from using Euroclassical moods in the same way that a lot of supposedly black-as-asphalt street rappers, e.g., the Cash Money groups, go for romantic motifs that would make Schubert and Beethoven proud. Since hip-hop always pulls in everything it can, the Euroclassical moods are only one of about 40 or 50 musical elements. On Field Mob's new From tha Roota to tha Toota, the first orchestral riff you hear is Asian, and what follows is a clamorous mix of beats and tones and shouts and soul songs and what have you, all partying away.

Sole's raps on his Selling Live Water CD are surrounded by background moods—eerily beautiful whines and electroscrapes that have the feel of film music. If Sole had maintained the quality of the first two tracks, this could have been a seriously great album, despite his rather grim voice. What keeps the album undie/indie rap rather than mainstream isn't what he puts in but what he keeps out: He doesn't latch his voice onto the instrumental hooks or provide vocal hooks himself, or act like enough of a show-off (the first two tracks being partial exceptions). So he's not doing something that the mainstream forbids so much as he's failing to do something that the mainstream craves. That said, Eminem and Mannie Fresh and the Dungeon Family and RZA—hip-hoppers who do plenty with soundtracky tunes and tones—could learn a lot from his album.

Clouddead: Noise hum; voices pushed through a grinder or a radiator. Then a moodier, more musical hum. Singers in the distance, lost in hum. They wander from speaker to speaker, start talking. The hum won't leave, won't leave, finally fades. Piano notes stroll by. The distant talkers now contend with windstorms while dodging the occasional piano chord. Suddenly, orchestral strings well up, like a truck passing on the left, except they're pretty rather than truck-ugly. Some guys are declaiming, I don't know about what. Their cadences are like auctioneers'. And that's just one cut. Even though Clouddead's Odd Nosdam produced the title track on the Sole album, and the sounds on the Clouddead album sometimes fall into rhythm and the talking into meter, the record is probably too empty of rap and too full of static and clouds to meet most people's definition of hip-hop—except for Clouddead's own, of course. Intriguing, but you have to like clouds.

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