Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tribute to Course of Empire

If I had to list staples of my music collection, Course of Empire would have to be near the top of that list. Course of Empire is a band that I can never get tired of hearing, which is a rarity for music. Most bands I have to put on hiatus for a while after hearing them for so long, but not Course of Empire. I don't care if I've been listening to them for a month straight, I can pull them out and be amazed by them as if hearing them for the first time. Very few bands can brag that level of complexity rivaled with accessibility, especially ones that have only released three albums, ever, period.

Whenever I describe Course of Empire to the uninitiated, I describe them as the best band nobody's ever heard of. Not saying that they didn't achieve a modicum of success during their brief stint in the music industry. They did tour with bands such as Stabbing Westward, John 5, Nine Inch Nails, Rob Halford, and Sisters of Mercy, and to this day they receive acclaim and promotion from quite possibly the godfathers of industrial metal, Killing Joke. They have enjoyed a large cult following, which, granted, has diminished over the years, as well as had a song promoted on the cult classic B-movie Dark City. So their notoriety could be less magnificient. For instance, they could only enjoy regional success like so many local bands that never take off. Still, serious lack of promotion from independent labels eventually led to their demise.

It's not to say they weren't a gifted group of musicians, or more to the point, one musician. Mike Graff, the guitarist, is a musician whom I would gladly follow for the rest of my life directly through the gates of Hell, he's that good. Some guitar players measure greatness by how much gibberish they can pick how fast across a fretboard, even though it's mostly all pentatonic scales over major and minor chords. Then you have the polar opposite, the shining example being Robert Fripp, who is a truly mindblowing guitarist in that he can switch through complicated and completely unrelated chords as quickly as Yngwie Malmsteen can fly through a single octave. Somewhere between Neil Young and Robert Fripp, however, lies Mike Graff, who possesses all the creative chord contoring of Fripp with the simplistic finesse of Neil Young.

The Nineties were by and large a barren time for good music, with the industry being inundated with grunge knock-offs, trashy rap, and electronic pop. There was very little piped through the radio in the Nineties that wasn't getting old, fast, and most of it was being released by already established bands. If you wanted to find decent music, you had to go underground, and the few radio stations that still played underground music were being squashed like so many bugs, and replaced with shiny, happy, top 40 pop stations that made you long for the acrid taste of a cold, steel gun barrel after hearing the exact same playlist repeated every hour.

Kurt Cobain made the antipop statement about how boring guitar was becoming in modern music, all while playing the guitar. But I digress. I don't think the problem was so much that the use of guitar in rock music was dying, but more that artists simply stopped caring so much about how they played. Yes, it was getting boring, but it wasn't the guitar's fault, but the player's. The metal bands were getting more formulatic and lazy in their playing. They knew all they had to do was come up with one good riff, beat it into the ground, belt out a lightning fast solo, and they would be revered as one of the greats. Mike Graff's guitar work wasn't so much an element of the songs, as it was the backbone of the songs.

Mike Graff started out as an ambient soloist for student films while in college. He knew that his notes had to be chosen wisely to build character as well as fill space. When he and classmate Chad Lovell decided to start a rock band, he experimented with distortion and more powerful riffs, but he never lost sight of how to bring texture, character, and depth to his songs. He experimented a lot with layering to create an overwhelming wall of guitar sound, but make no mistake, he could play fast and furiously enough to translate, all by himself, the layered wall of sound to the stage for live performances. Also unlike most guitarists at the time, he chose to play almost nothing but flat notes, giving the songs a dark, gritty, and angry sound as opposed to the shrill and flamboyant sounds of earlier heavy metal bands from the Eighties.

Mike Graff pretty much was the band. He was the mastermind of the band, as well as the primary instrumentalist. Singer Vaughn Stevenson jotted down most of the lyrics, combining their intense instrumental work with important and intelligent messages of social decay, political corruption, environmental dangers, conspiracy theories, spiritual distress, and above all, self-reliance. While combining the industrial edge of Tool with the political awareness of later Queensrÿche and the attitude of Nirvana, the band also experimented with a wide variety of different styles, and somehow managed to never become a cliché of itself or its genre.

Course of Empire put out their first album well ahead of their time in 1989. It contained a number of exceptional songs, including one ambient hidden track and the percussion-driven "Thrust," during which in concerts, the band would pass around large metal drums so the audience could participate in creating and altering the rhythm of the song. Ultimately, this portion of the act had to stop after the crowds got too big and the audience started throwing the drums at each other in the performance that would wind up giving them their first recording contract. Other choice tracks include "Coming of the Century," "Mountains of the Spoken," "Peace Child," "Sins of the Father," "God's Jig," and "Ptah," which may have an extra verse depending on if you got the original release or the remaster. The album is out of print now, so if you can find it, for the love of all that's pure and holy grab it up. You won't be disappointed.

Their second album, titled Initiation, is also out of print, and quite frankly, it's my favorite of the three. It's a solid listen from start to finish, save for the distorted track, which I'll explain in a moment. This album, taking five years in the making, really highlighted the band showing their versatility. There are a number of songs on this album which are adapted into strong rock tracks from at the time non-traditional sources including
ska, rap, and Spanish flamenco. They also effectively simulate an insect infestation using percussion as the introduction to the song "Infested!".

The disc also features two impressive Easter eggs which exhibits the band's technical skills in the relatively new medium. While most people were orgasming over a band's ability to hide a short track after fifteen minutes of silence at the end of a disc, Course of Empire created two technological breakthroughs on Initiation that I have yet to ever see repeated by any mainstream band to this day. One is that they recorded an acapella song and buried it under several minutes of distorted guitar noise leading into "The Chihuahuaphile." The acapella recording can only be heard when played in mono, which suppresses the distortion and brings the acapella to the forefront. The other is, to me, even more impressive. If you put the CD in the player and press the backward seek button from the beginning of Track One, and you'll find a six-minute ambient song called "The Running Man" which leads directly into the explosive first track, "Hiss." I'm sure other artists have made effective use of the pregap, but if there were any in 1994, I'm fairly certain they were few and far between.

1998's Telepathic Last Words was my introduction to the band. Course of Empire was one of the two bands that I picked up completely on-spec and were thoroughly impressed with, the other being Killing Joke. When I first heard the explosive introduction of "
New Maps," I had the sinking feeling that it would be too good to be true. You don't know how many songs I'd heard incredibly impressive introductions to back in the Nineties, only to have them turn into some pussified whine-fest or gut-engorging, growling death vocals. So I was floored when this awesome introduction continued in its intensity through the rest of the song and was joined by an actual competent vocalist and intelligent lyrics. I was hooked from the start, and I have kept the same awe-stricken, childlike admiration for the band for nearly ten years straight now. Telepathic Last Words also included such gems as "Persian Song," the upbeat "Kaptain Kontrol," and an honest-to-God techno song peformed with drums, bass, vocals, and guitar without a hint of computerized percussion or keyboard samples.

Unfortunately, Telepathic Last Words was their final album. The band announced their break-up at a local pub in their home town of Dallas, Texas only months before I happened across their album, and about five years before I would be living just two hours up the road from Dallas. If you listen to the album's intended final track, "Respect,"
their take on Tool, you can tell from the epic feel of the second half that they knew it was the end for them before the album was finished.

In the time since, I have collected every scrap of music I could from them, perusing the fan sites for mp3s, searching Napster for live audience recordings back when Napster was predominant, and of course, collecting every single album, single, DVD, and etc. I could find from them. In 2004, Mike Graff collected a bunch of fan recordings from their final show to make one posthumous live CD, Phone Calls from the Dead and DVD collection, Hiss . It was truly a labor of love from him, using his own money and recording equipment to remaster the songs from, quite frankly, some truly horrible recordings. I've heard several of them before they were remastered for this album, and "impressive" does not begin to describe the comparative audio quality. My only regret is that he chose not to include "New Maps," one of my absolute favorites which had an awesome live solo and militaristic introductory percussion. He did include the live performance of "Persian Song," which I'm including a
sample of just to give a taste of what Mike Graff could pull off live in a sort of improvisational, acid rock solo. Yes, it is just him playing with no overdubs.

I've been wanting to make a proper tribute to one of the greatest bands to barely make a blip on the radar for a while now. If I've prompted any of my legions of readers to hunt down any Course of Empire albums or songs, I would encourage doing so possibly to the point of injury or insanity, then cling to them with the ferocity of a mother clinging to her child. As long as someone remembers them, they'll never completely fade away, and unlike so many artists who were exposed to the spotlight that Course of Empire so richly deserved, Course of Empire doesn't deserve to fade away from the public consciousness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This band was the final spearhead of an arts movement in Dallas that lasted from the mid-70's to the early 90's. It too, is gone, forgotten, and unappreciated, just like all good art usually is. They had one crime...they "wondered" and it was good, but, you will always find what you are looking for.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They were really good. It's a shame the labels did bad by them.

9:12 AM  

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