Friday, April 17, 2015

Review - Morphosis, by Max Lilja

As I set out to add reviews of fellow musicians on this blog, I realized while mulling over the idea during my nearly paralyzing hesitation that there are a few aspects of this that are going to be difficult for me in the act of stepping into three roles at once: the struggling independent musician, the challenged writer, and the principled critic. It occurred to me the more I thought over what I would write in a review - particularly in a review for Max Lilja as I have said multiple times to my audience that I would be starting with his album, Morphosis - that this may not be fun and that I may have stepped in over my head. As of right now - as I write, now - I have a somewhat constricting feeling in my chest and find myself avoiding the actual act of reviewing.

Because I feel I must express first that I primarily wanted to include reviews on this blog as a means to promote my fellow independent musicians and to journal about music that I like that I have no personal stake in. But I do feel as though I have a personal stake in painting the artists that I am seeking to or have already connected with in the best possible light. After all, I have volunteered to review their music primarily because I like it. In the case of Max Lilja, I'm being persistent in attempting to coerce him into a collaborative project. So I want these artists to know that I support them, that I am doing whatever I can to promote their work, and that includes reviewing their work. But in the act of reviewing I must criticize, and I must do so honestly to maintain my personal integrity. This in turn challenges me as writer, for I must find nice, constructive ways to point out what I may view as an element in their art that could use some work, or should be altogether avoided.

This must be why most critics come off as total bastards. If you're an asshole, at least you're an asshole with integrity.

So here goes: I fell head-over-heels in love with Max Lilja's art the moment I encountered the video for "Revelation" through someone who happened to like both of our musician pages on Facebook. The cello is my favorite instrument, right up there with my own instrument, the piano, and the human voice, which was my previous instrument. While I used to be able to wield my voice like "an entire orchestra" and I've been tinkling away at the piano and taken lessons since I was quite small, I can't play the cello, which makes the instrument hold that much more wonder to me and makes me intensely fascinated by those who play it like "an entire orchestra." An aside - I'm using this quote from an old friend who was also one of the biggest fans of my singing and had once compared my abilities to those of Ani DiFranco as a guitarist, saying that just as Ani wields her guitar, I wielded my voice..."like an entire orchestra." Now hopefully I don't use that again for the rest of this article and I can shut up about how well I used to be able to sing. Because I'm letting myself get off-topic now, aren't I.

Focusing: As I've combed through the independent cellists of the world, particularly those who step outside of playing as part of an ensemble or as an accompanist and venture away from classical music, I've become aware that "ambient" cellists are not that uncommon, yet they are often snobbish and highly praised. They play the cello and that by itself already makes them better than you. They play their instrument outside of the box (or so they think) which means they are the equivalent of an arthouse filmmaker, which makes them better than you. And they play without a band or orchestra, usually using mixing boards and looping pedals, which means they are an army of one, which means they could kick your ass in the musical arena...which makes them better than you.

What they don't realize is that they are not nearly as unique as they think, and for fans of cello music, they easily start to blur together into an amorphous blob of tired sound. So when I approach the music of an independent cellist, I am always braced for "another ambient cellist." There's almost nothing as disappointing, because you know you're going to want to love it because you do buy into all those reasons they are better than you, and loving ambient cellists makes you almost as rare as those beautiful birds. Oh, goddesses, my review is turning into a psychoanalysis of myself. Newly discovered challenge in writing a review: you can't make the entire thing about yourself! When the hell did I even last mention the words "Max," "Lilja," and "Morphosis"?

Well, I'm going to tell you how Max Lilja sets himself apart from being "another ambient cellist" with Morphosis. (Nicely done...) I am not familiar with Lilja's former cello-metal band Apocalyptica (though it sounds right up my alley) or his first solo album, Plays Electronica by one Cello (I don't know if I have that title right), so I can't offer insights into his growth as an artist or how his latest album compares to any of his earlier work. All I know is that, with the opening track, "Revelation," Morphosis yanked me off my feet into a whole new experience of one of my favorite instruments. The music video accurately indicates that all of these incredible sounds were being achieved by Lilja and his cello, which tainted my whole first experience of the song with utter disbelief. But it wasn't just the sounds that caught me off-guard. After all, the most common and irritating feature of "ambient music" is god-awful, unearthly noise. It's when one can actually structure these sounds into rhythm, melody, and harmony that talent is made evident. This is where Lilja is knowledgeable and often excels. He doesn't just make noise for the sake of noise or record a succession of unique sounds and call it music. Lilja demonstrates that he is a composer, as he constructs overtures, grooves, and crescendos, layering his instrument to accentuate his beats, create bass lines, and weaves rhythms and leads into cohesive structures that are often, wonderfully and undeniably, rock and roll.

I've read that he was initially aiming for more trip-hop to his compositions and I've read a review that labeled his music "industrial-classical." As for myself, I see the industrial in "Revelation," the funk in "Flux," the classical in "Silent Highway," the orchestral trip-hop in "Black Lava," and the obnoxiously noise-oriented ambient in "Trench." There really is no box that the whole of Morphosis comfortably fits into. You could string a half-dozen sub-genres together or, as many modern musicians do, make up some obnoxious new category for an "original" and "fresh" steaming pile of crap, and you wouldn't be accurately describing this record. Whereas with other artists and other records that simply means "doesn't know what the fuck it is," with Morphosis it is a good thing...for the most part.

Lilja perhaps makes one of his biggest mistakes by leading with one of his strongest and most easily categorized songs in "Revelation." It is hugely misleading, preparing you for an industrial record that is nowhere to be found. While it is definitely "single" material and has a barbed groove that hooks you and pulls you into and through an intense and wonderful experience that makes you want to move, it is immediately followed by the quieter, somewhat haunting, more classically oriented "Silent Highway" and then the noise-funk of "Flux," and you find yourself wondering when another track like "Revelation" is going to come along...and it never does, as each track is unique among the others and is almost like flipping pages through a catalog or musical styles.

A prevailing sound throughout the record is, of course, electronic music, as (I imagine) it is not only the techniques that Lilja uses, but a variety of manipulated distortions to achieve his orchestra. Having never seen him play, I am using some guesswork as to how coaxes the sounds of electric basses, guitars, and even none-stringed instruments from his cello. It is undoubtedly impressive to see and probably makes for a hell of a show. But, as Lilja inadvertently pointed out when commenting on a review on his music, it often sounds like the work of your typical electronic keyboard synthesizers...and sometimes, unfortunately, not even very good ones. This is my harshest criticism of this record and what I was most afraid to type, but as it is my honest opinion (and keep in mind that it is my opinion) and this is a review, I feel I must write this. And I mean this as constructive criticism that I hope, if he reads this, the artist will recognize for what it is. With all disclaimers out of the way, I must simply say that his music is strongest when offering unique sounds accompanied by those that are undeniably or classically cello, and weakest when it sounds as though it is all being produced by a typical electronic keyboard. Still, I'd love to see him accomplish all of that live.

Gods, I'm glad to have that out of the way, because I love this record and honestly - no flattery being attempted - see greatness in this man and his art. I am very glad and not at all disappointed that I pre-ordered this record based on only two of its (very different) songs. As I prepared to write this - in fact, as I am writing this - I have been listening to nothing else, getting to know the songs as individuals and loving them as such. The title track is currently playing and I am reminded of Pink Floyd until classical cellos intrude and then rip the song into a synthesized noise that utterly jumps the groove. To sum it up, simply: this is good shit, y'all.

As I wrap this up, I urge all of you on Facebook to track down his musician page, Like it, and go exploring. Like most musicians with any sense who've retained control over their own work these days, he has a Bandcamp page where Morphosis is offered as a digital download, a CD, or both at very reasonable prices. The album is also being promoted and distributed by Fluttery Records which, I must say, looks to be a pretty kick-ass label worth looking I admittedly have...I sent them an email...fingers crossed. Lastly, Max (may I call you Max?) also has an official website where you can find other projects he's featured in and, if you're fortunate enough to live in Finland, the dates of shows where he'll be playing the live set he's been working hard to put together. And I just found out I have until June 12th to find a way to attend a cello festival in New York!

I must also end this segment by mentioning that Max Lilja is not one of those cello snobs I was writing about earlier: he is willing to connect with and is very gracious toward his audience/fans. He may be avoiding discussing a collaboration with me, but this is me we're talking about. We all know I'm a bit of a monster and besides, every cellist I know is avoiding the topic of the c-word with me.

Well, that didn't end up feeling as gut-wrenchingly disloyal as I feared it would, but it was still kind of rough on me to say anything negative about an artist I adore. Y'all can look forward to me doing it again in the future. If, after reading this, he's still willing, my next review is going to include an interview with another fantastic cellist, James Radcliffe, and I'll be living and breathing and then dissecting and criticizing his album Present : Reflections. Fingers crossed about this, too: I spent most of yesterday in contact with him through various forms of social media and he may be utterly sick of me by now. We'll give it a few days.

Until you next read my words, have kind days and pleasant nights. May your inner snails always be resilient and determined. (Gods, Max, what poor animal are you torturing to make that sound?!)