The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Aufheben (A Recordings/Cargo)
by Scott Deckman
The Brian Jonestown Massacre and its mercurial leader, Anton Newcombe, have been around for quite awhile now, releasing neo-psychedelic records and generally building an underground following that has resulted in, among other things, Dig!, the 2004 tale of the band’s earlier efforts (mostly in the mid to late ’90s, I believe) in trying to build a rivalry with the Dandy Warhols, Portland’s resident SWPL royalty (the Brian Jonestown Massacre were originally based in San Francisco). It was an odd path to take, because while it can be argued that the Dandys have enjoyed greater mainstream success (much deserved, by the way. Check out The Dandy Warhols Come Down and Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, both of which find a home in my top 100. As of this writing, numbers 84 and 87, respectively), the critics seem to favor Newcombe, and isn’t cred what these artistes lust after even more than Pabst Blue Ribbon in a biodegradable cup?
(To get a load of Anton unhinged, check out this remarkable interview at DrownedinSound.)
Another Dandy-related oddity is that in 2010, Dandy guitarist Peter Holmstrom’s Pete International Airport released its own psych-inspired eponymous album, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t what Aufheben reminds me of. Is Anton still chasing ghosts? Of course, this is just a point to ponder, as I’m sure he’s enough of an auteur to follow his own strange muse. And with all this talk of the Dandy Warhols, who Anton really reminds me of is Kurt Heasley of the Lilys, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great characters. (Heasley guested on the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 2003 record And This Is Our Music).
And just like Holmstrom’s effort, Aufheben is not going to be for everyone. Maybe you have to be in the right mood to really get druggy, neo-psychedelic music. But I will admit one thing: Anton and the gang, which now includes players from several different bands (Will Carruthers — Spacemen 3, Spiritualized; Thibault Pesenti — Rockcandys; Constantine Karlis — Dimmer), have put some real time into Aufheben. So if you count it as a failure, it’s one fussed-over flop.
Though much of Anton’s oeuvre is patchouli-laced and herb-infused — I mean, for Christ’s sake, look at the name of the band! — compared to other offerings I’ve heard on YouTube (sorry, though I’ve always been interested in the group, I’ve never dug into their back catalogue), the music on Aufheben is drowsier, more relaxed, and yes, a bit weaker; the record is also infused with Eastern influences. But this isn’t to say that the psychedelic Rolling Stones worshippers don’t produce some highlights.
Instrumental “Panic in Babylon” features a vaguely familiar melody amid various wildlife sounds. The exotic “Viholliseni Maalla” is a very airy, tuneful song featuring Eliza Karmasalo singing in Finnish. It reminds you of a female-voiced Donovan for the ’10s. According to band management, Viholliseni Maalla means “the enemy of my country.”
“I Want To Hold Your Other Hand” lopes along with stoner grace, while “Face Down On the Moon” features the meanest flute this side of Jethro Tull, courtesy of Friederike Bienert (not sure if this qualifies as a highlight, just thought I’d throw it in for the curious). “Stairway To The Best Party Of The Universe” is another foray into the ether, and it too has a familiar ring to it (but really, what melodies haven’t already been played at this point?). It’s ironic Newcombe didn’t use that title for “Waking Up To Hand Grenades,” as the intro to this number somewhat favors the like-named Led Zeppelin song. And there’s something repetitively positive about “Blue Order/New Monday,” too. So no, alluding to my earlier statement, I don’t count Aufheben as a total flop. Though not my thing, it certainly has its moments.
Then we get to the name of the album itself, Aufheben. As per the press release, it’s a German word with contradictory meanings. It can mean “to abolish,” “lift up” or “to sublate.” Looking online I also see “resolve” and “offset.” The release goes on to claim that Hegel himself used the term to explain his claim to fame: The Hegelian dialectic, or what happens when two opposing forces — thesis and antithesis — collide. Though aufheben does seem simpatico with synthesis, after a little cursory research, I’m not sure how Hegel used the term exactly (ever tried to read up on philosophy?), so we’ll save this query for another discourse.
Getting back to 2012: Nothing on here rocks, nor does it pretend to. And whatever you say about the pretention and Pro Tools wizardry happening on Aufheben, you have to like a guy who puts out an album with song titles like the aforementioned “I Want To Hold Your Other Hand,” “Stairway To The Best Party Of The Universe” and “Blue Order/New Monday,” or whole records with similarly ridiculous names. (Again, look at the band’s name.) Newcombe’s a pisser who, despite his reputation as a mad genius, clearly isn’t taking himself too seriously here.
Or is he?