Go Big or Go Home
Amplifier and the Violet Burning Get Ambitious

We haven’t done this in a while. Here’s a look at what’s coming up in your local record store.

Next week’s a good one, with Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues and the Beastie Boys’ confusingly-tiled Hot Sauce Committee Part Two hitting shelves. The new Dredg will make an appearance as well, and if you know Dredg, you’ll be interested to hear what an album of theirs entitled Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy might sound like.

The following week, jam out to the first Cars album in 24 years, Move Like This. But that’s nowhere near all. We’ve got the new Sloan, The Double Cross, the Antlers’ Burst Apart, Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far, Manchester Orchestra’s Simple Math, Jesu’s Ascension, and yes, Turtleneck and Chain, the new one from SNL mainstays the Lonely Island. The next week, on May 17, Danger Mouse hits us with his multi-artist project Rome, Moby returns with Destroyed, and Glasvegas deliver their second album, Euphoric Heartbreak.

David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations leads off May 24, one of the lesser music weeks of the spring and summer. (Not that Bazan’s album should be anything less than amazing.) Kate Bush delivers Director’s Cut, which revisits a few old albums; The Prodigy gives us their first live album, World’s on Fire; and Thurston Moore drops his latest solo album, Demolished Thoughts.

May 31 is another big one, though, led off by Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys. Everything I’ve heard from this has been underwhelming, but Death Cab albums usually take on new dimensions when experienced as a whole. My Morning Jacket comes back with Circuital, while Eddie Vedder unveils his Ukulele Songs. BT drops a pair of reimaginings of his extraordinary These Hopeful Machines album, one a 60-minute megamix and the other a series of remixes. And ultra-dramatic songwriter Patrick Wolf presents Lupercalia, the follow-up to the silly yet satisfying The Bachelor.

June 7 will bring us a rock opera from Fucked Up called David Comes to Life, an EP from the Appleseed Cast entitled Middle States, an ‘80s covers record from Duncan Sheik (with an unimpeachable track list), a live album from Def Leppard, and the ninth solo record from Peter Murphy, fittingly entitled Ninth. Arctic Monkeys head up June 14 with the ludicrously-titled Suck It and See, in direct contrast to Owl City’s third album, All Things Bright and Beautiful. And Battles delivers a second album of crazy prog called Gloss Drop.

And June 21 will see Bon Iver grace record stores once again, with a self-titled effort on which every song is named after a place. Neil Finn’s son Liam will return with FOMO, electro-poppers Yacht will deliver Shangri-La, OK Go will give us their first live album 180/365, and amazing ambient metal guru Devin Townsend will complete his four-album Devin Townsend Project series with two polar opposites, the furious Deconstruction and the peaceful Ghost.

The year will also bring us a new They Might Be Giants, a fifth album from Fountains of Wayne, and another reunion record from Jane’s Addiction.

But wait, I hear you saying. You’ve missed a big one. And you’re right. On June 21, the greatest pop satirist in America returns with another helping of balloon-popping, piss-taking goodness. I am, of course, talking about “Weird Al” Yankovic, and his new one, Alpocalypse. You may have heard about his flap with Lady Gaga and her people, over a parody of “Born This Way” that cuts right to the heart of what Gaga is and does. It’s called “Perform This Way,” and you can hear it here. I am an unabashed Weird Al fan, and I can’t wait for this.

Consider this your coming attractions reel for the next two months here on TM3AM. And now, our feature presentation.

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Lately, I have been rereading The Sandman, and I’ve rekindled my love for it.

The Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s epic 10-volume (plus two ancillary epilogues) comic book saga, published in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s by DC Comics. It was, at the time, the first attempt by a mainstream comic company to take hold of a massive, multi-level novel and see it through to the end. And Gaiman’s story did, in fact, have an end – the series ran 75 issues, and that was it. It’s not even accurate to say that a self-contained, extended graphic novel was a rarity in mainstream comics in those days. It simply did not exist before The Sandman.

And it’s painfully flawed, as you might expect from a first attempt at something this complex, but in places, particularly its second half, it sings. The big comics companies have gotten much better at this sort of thing in the years since The Sandman was published, and now it’s fairly common to ask writers of monthly comics just how many issues they have in mind, and whether they will be collected in a series of volumes. But The Sandman did it first, at least in mainstream America.

I think it’s the ambition I most admire about this work. It takes a long time to read, but it’s worth the investment. I’m always drawn to art that demands much of me, hoping that it rewards just as much in return. I think creating a 75-issue comic book series with a beginning and an end (particularly an end that requires you to have read the beginning) is a bold and fearless thing to do.

Similarly, I think in this age of instant-download singles and short attention spans, it’s brave to put out an album that asks for hours of a listener’s attention. In the same way that I want to support a work like The Sandman, I want to help make it financially viable for musicians to pursue their two-hour concept albums without fear. I want to support ambition, wherever I find it. For me, even the idea of an album that expands to two hours or more is exciting, particularly if the music contained within is similarly ambitious.

You can imagine, then, how thrilled I was to get my hands on The Octopus, the third album from Manchester trio Amplifier. I know, I’d never heard of them either, until the ever-reliable Rob Hale from Kiss the Sky introduced me to them. Amplifier makes loud, loud music – they’re a power trio that takes equally from Porcupine Tree and Tool. Over two albums, they established a crushing, yet melodic sound, one that never really deviates from the two-or-three-note crawling riff template, but creates a punishing and powerful force ahead of it.

Still, they’re not a band that I would describe as particularly ambitious, which is why the self-released The Octopus is such a stunner. It’s two hours long, contains 16 expansive tracks, and is easily one of the most demanding albums I’ve heard in a long time. This is the sound of three musicians doing whatever they want, for as long as they want. Since they are Amplifier, what they want to do is often slow, pummeling riffage, but here it is just as often moody soundscapes, melodic breaks and tricky, Rush-like passages.

I was initially underwhelmed by The Octopus, because I think I expected something more out of character. The first two tracks certainly led me in that direction. “The Runner” is three minutes of sound effects, Pink Floyd-style, while “Minion’s Song” is a full-on Freddie Mercury show tune. There’s pianos and swooping melodies and a Brian May-esque guitar-and-harmonies explosion, and the whole thing is farther over the top than Amplifier has ever gone. Which may be why the remaining 14 tracks of glacially-paced guitar thuddery left me scratching my head.

But on subsequent listens, I grew to love The Octopus. The repetitive, dirge-like nature of many of these songs is the point – this is an album that sets a mood with its third track, and never breaks it. The title track is nine minutes long, and built around one two-note bass line, with creepy clean guitars slithering atop it. As a song, there isn’t much to it. As a mood, it’s splendid. Same goes for even the more upbeat tracks, like “Golden Ratio.” They’re louder, but they’re still inexorable death marches. The first disc is mainly slow punishers, with more interesting and melodic moments creeping into the second – check the eight-minute “Fall of the Empire,” a stop-time nightmare with some terrific harmonies.

If you spend The Octopus looking for the hooks, or the killer melodies, you’ll be missing the point. You need to let an album like this wash over you. Then, when you’re fully immersed in the atmosphere it creates, you can really hear how amazing the band’s playing is here. Sel Balamir’s guitar playing is top notch – check out the extended solo on “Trading Dark Matter on the Stock Exchange” – and Matt Brobin’s drums and Neil Mahoney’s bass lock together like puzzle pieces. Dig “Bloodtest,” a straightforward number on the surface, but with one of the most interesting drum patterns on the album. This band is very good at what they do.

Whether you’ll want to listen to what they do for more than two hours is the question. By never taking things above a doom-laden crawl, Amplifier have essentially rendered The Octopus impenetrable to all but the hardiest of music fans. That’s probably the intention – when the first respite offered is “Oscar Night/Embryo,” an acoustic ballad with creepy coda nestled at track 15, you can be sure the band knows what it’s doing. The Octopus is a trip, but the scenery rarely changes. I’ve grown to like it a great deal, but your mileage may vary.

Go here.

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For all that, though, Amplifier does not win the Ambition Award for the year. It pleases me to no end to report that 2011’s clear, runaway winner is Michael J. Pritzl. And I doubt anyone will surprise me more this year than he has.

For more than 20 years, Pritzl has led The Violet Burning. He’s done it for so long, in fact, that he’s the sole remaining original member – for some time, TVB has been a rotating cast of musicians with Pritzl at its center. They’ve made a lot of albums, and in fact they’ve made a lot of different kinds of albums, from the expansive self-titled effort in 1996 to the tidy and worshipful This Is the Moment in 2003 to the roaring, explosive Drop-Dead in 2006.

But he’s never made an album like the one he’s just dropped. It’s called (deep breath) The Story of Our Lives: Liebe Uber Alles, Black as Death and the Fantastic Machine. It is two hours and 20 minutes long, spread out over three full-length CDs, and it’s a cohesive concept album, the kind where themes from early songs resurface in later ones, and a main character goes on a journey, coming out the other side a different person entirely. It’s a vast, impressive achievement, and even after 20 or so listens, I’m not tired of it – I hear new things in it each time.

It is, in short, the finest moment of Pritzl’s two-decade recording career. And even if you’ve never heard of him, you should hear this.

I’ll start with the sound. This record is LOUD. It is the rawest, most aggressive thing Pritzl’s name has ever been associated with. There have been times in the past when the Violet Burning has felt like a bedroom project, like a studio-created entity. There is no point on The Story of Our Lives where they do not sound like a real live band, playing their hearts out. There’s a palpable energy that never flags over two hours and 20 minutes, even during the more sedate final third. I don’t want to give the impression that this is all Black Sabbath slash-and-burn guitar rock – there’s plenty of Pritzl’s trademark beauty here – but aside from seeing them live, I’ve never heard TVB rock out like this.

The album is subdivided into three chapters: The Fantastic Machine, Black as Death and Liebe Uber Alles. By and large, Black as Death is the heaviest, and Liebe Uber Alles the quietest, but the songs are not evenly divided by type. The album plays like a single thought, like a beginning-to-end trip. Its opening chapter, The Fantastic Machine, also feels like a single song – its 15 tracks blend together like a pocket symphony. It’s a work of tremendous scope, and though there are no standouts, the entire thing is consistent. It is Pritzl’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and the reference is not incidental – this often sounds like prime, early Smashing Pumpkins.

The story of The Story of Our Lives follows a character who, overwhelmed with the world around him, chooses death. He then moves through metaphorical and emotional hell before ending up praising the heavens. The Fantastic Machine’s first real song is called “This Is Where It All Begins,” and it sets the tone – the clean, quiet guitars suddenly give way to a massive metallic explosion. “I love you in the fading dawn, I’ll sing it though my breath is gone, home, won’t you carry me home…”

The Fantastic Machine then follows our main character as he makes his way though the world, and watches it destroy him. The two “Brother” interludes take aim at the Christian rock machine Pritzl spent years in, but also illuminate the architecture of that machine. When Pritzl sings “the lights have gone,” it’s heartbreaking. The molten “Firstborn From the Dead” is the last sign of struggle here – from there on, it’s all surrender. The gorgeous “The Letting” finds Pritzl singing “I’m not dead yet, I’m not gone, but I’m leaving soon,” and in the album’s whispered closer “Leaving (But I Don’t Want to Leave You),” our hero chooses death.

Black as Death announces itself as the loud one right away with “My Name is Night,” and follows it up with the chaotic, swirling “Maelstrom.” “I’m falling in too deep, please get this out of me, I’m haunted, I’m haunted,” Pritzl screams, his voice in astounding form. But this chapter is not all gut-punches – the dark “Sung” is perhaps the emotional low point, our character as far away from the light as he’s ever been (“I sang for you, all my life for you, now I’m sung”), but it’s followed by the wonderful “In Ruin.” Over a web of clean guitars, Pritzl sings, “Ain’t it just like love to be stronger than this death.”

And then, Liebe Uber Alles. The title of the album translates to “love over all,” and here the light begins to trickle down. The delicate “Mojave” leads into the U2-ish “Mon Desir,” and then into the rollicking “Finest Hour,” the album’s most upbeat moment, and the one that gives the album its name. “Now you’ve carried me 14,000 days, isn’t this the story of our lives…”

It is all sunrise from this point on, but it feels earned, hard-won. Liebe Uber Alles brings our character face to face with love, both earthly and spiritual, and it’s gorgeous. “My heart belongs to you, the only song I ever knew,” Pritzl sings in “Cardiac,” and then drives it home in the title track: “And in the end, all we’ve got, love and love alone will outlast death…” “Change of Heart” is the ultimate expression of romantic love here, and the nine-minute finale, “Made For You,” takes us to heaven: “Lord of all light, I was made for you, lord of all creation, I was made for you…” The extended coda is joyous and magical, and feels like a massive release, an exultation shouted to the heavens. It is, in short, classic Violet Burning.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give this three-CD set is that, had any one of the three been released on its own as the new Violet Burning album, I would have been happy. But with all three, bound together in a case that resembles an old book, with 80 pages of notes and pictures, well… I’m ecstatic. Michael Pritzl has been very good for a very long time, but even his biggest fans are in for a shock with this record. With The Story of Our Lives, he has delivered his magnum opus, his crowning achievement.

If you’ve never heard the Violet Burning before, well, there’s almost no point starting anywhere else. This is the record Pritzl’s been working towards for his entire life. If you want to hear his stuff, this is the one you need to get. Go here.

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Next week, Fleet Foxes and the Beastie Boys. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.