Friday, November 18, 2011

Greg Ginn and the Royal We-We Are Amused

In which, Greg Ginn continues his decades-long personal quest to make the music that best suites him at the current time. Disaster Amnesiac has been listening to We Are Amused, along with reading the most recent Black Flag book, Spray Paint the Walls. The latter has not much bearing on the former's sound, aside from being of the same musical continuum, but certain interviews in the book have influenced my hearing of this new release from SST.
I'm not sure if this is Greg's first truly solo recording, but it appears to be so. The instrumentation consists of guitar (and guitar synth?), bass, keyboards, theremin, and programmed percussion. As it is after all Greg Ginn, let's start with the guitar. As opposed to the recent recordings of Mojack or Gone, Greg keeps the guitar relatively restrained, more a part of the rhythmic/melodic aspect of the sound than a soloing voice. This is not to say the classic Ginn guitar tone is not present. His tone is instantly and recognizably unique, a tart, treble-ey melodic style that is his alone. When he does take solos, they are brief and somewhat understated. In this, his guitar approach is more akin to that used in Jambang. As mentioned, some of the sounds seem to be generated by the guitar synthesizer, an instrument that Greg has mentioned using in recently on-line interviews. These tones have a bright, keyboard-type sound, but an attack that sounds guitar generated. Having seen Ginn play the bass for full sets on four different tour cycles recently, Disaster Amnesiac knows how much he loves the instrument, and great his playing of it has become. On We Are Amused, the bass is a central element. Given that the percussion is all programmed, the bass is in a lot of ways the "lead" percussion instrument. By that, I mean that it provides the sound of physical impact (fingers hitting strings) in a much more "real" way. Greg's bass style is very percussive and heavy; at times, the tunes end up being duos of percussion and bass, with the bass being very compelling just on its own. Perhaps the best interview subject in Spray Paint the Walls is Kira, bass player for Flag from 1984-1985. At one point she expounds upon Greg's desire to "let the rhythm ooze". On Amused, he has definitely achieved this oozing sensation with his bass playing.  
We Are Amused is in some ways a recording of surprises from Greg Ginn, one of which is his heavy inclusion of keyboards throughout. He keeps his playing paired down to a simpler melodic approach, but this new timbre in the Ginn sound world provides interesting and cool hearings of his melodic style and song writing approach. The keyboards brighten the sound a bit. It's a bit disconcerting to hear Greg's sound as an almost joyous one (in the conventional sense), but the keyboards do provide that aspect on the record. Also new and entirely unexpected is the theremin. While not used on every song, this strange, noisy instrument seems to be used as the out-and-out noise generator that the electric guitar so often has been in Ginn's hands. There are points where the tones of guitar and theremin are played in harmony, even, but, for the most part the instrument provides weird, wiggy sounds atop the groove.
Speaking of groove, despite the fact the the drums and percussion on We Are Amused are all electronically generated, they still manage to provide enticing rhythmic action throughout. Ginn's programming is creative, the beats are clearly thought out and "non-stock". On top of and around them, percussive accents swirl and echo and twist. Greg has managed to utilize the percussive approach of the electronic and techno music that he loves so much, melding it to a more Rock/Jam Band aesthetic. It's pretty unique, actually. This is most likely the aspect that will turn off many of Ginn's fans. To them I say, try and listen to the record with headphones on, paying close attention to the beat programming and percussion. You may change your opinion.
The overall sound of We Are Amused is a kind of Rock/Techno/Jam Band hybrid. The pacing of the music is one of slowness, overall. Another compelling interview subject in Spray Paint the Walls, Keith Morris, talks of the rehearsals for the 2003 Black Flag reunion shows, in which he mentions an annoyance with Ginn's desire to have the tempos of the classic Flag tunes slowed down. According to Morris, Greg's response was something akin to "that's their correct tempo". It is telling that, possibly as far back as the late 1970's iterations of Black Flag, Greg was already feeling a slower rhythmic tempo. Just venturing a guess here, but I'd opine that it may be Greg's desire to slow the music down in order for the riffs and melodies to really sink in. I say this because We Are Amused's tunes benefit in this way from the slower pace of the rhythm. The melodic sounds are given time and space to be heard and felt. They are all quite catchy and memorable, and in that, We Are Amused strikes Disaster Amnesiac as being as compelling a statement from Ginn as Nervous Breakdown or Slip it In or In My Head or Let it Burn (Because I Don't Live There Anymore), all high water marks of his career. The album also benefits from great mixing and great production standards. One can hear the attention to details in this mix, an aspect that has sometimes not been the case from SST productions. It just sounds solid, all the way through.
Greg Ginn and the Royal We seem to be heralding yet another change of pace from Ginn, another new direction. Regardless of what others think, he continues to follow his own muse. Only Greg knows whether or not he'll continue with more recent projects such as Jambang or the Taylor Texas Corrugators, along with older ones such as Gone or Mojack. Disaster Amnesiac looks forward to hearing whatever comes down the pike next from SST; We Are Amused will absolutely stay in my rotation until that time.


Pig State Recon said...

Great review, DisAmn. Now I can't wait to get a hold of this thing, and TURN IT UP.

On a related note: ever hear the eight GONE tracks on the "Lovedolls Superstar" soundtrack CD? They're totally fun, really diverse bits of Ginnteresting scoring - there's even a Madonna knock-off! Greg couldn't have been paid more that $20 and a pizza for his troubles

Disaster Amnesiac said...

No, haven't! Sounds cool! I will seek on the interwebs.
RE: Amused-it's really, really great. I wanted to say things like "new form" and "groundbreaking", but didn't want to be too cloying. Anyway, I LOVE this record. Its melodies are great, and the programming is top notch.
Enjoy, Row! Nice pun!

wally said...

Disaster Amnesiac said...

I read that story when it broke, and was perplexed. That call was up to Greg. I'm a fan of his musical production. That's as far as it goes with issue, for me.

Pig State Recon said...

Repeated listens to this one have me reckoning: this is the bestest and clearest distillation of New Millennium Ginn. I've loved aspects of every recent Ginn project, but here the combination of slowly evolving riffs, layered lines of bass/synth/gtrs, and programmed beats melt together like nowhere else. And those short breakouts of therimin and gtr soloing are the perfect garnish to an otherwise meaty meal.

I'm also finally understanding his recentish predisposition to longer, repetitive musings on his tune. It actually serves the whole beautifully. Bravo Greg.