The Tenuous and Highly Anecdotal Neil Young Award for Best Grindcore Record
By Robin Smith | 10 December 2013
Cloud Rat :: Moksha
A week ago, Reprise put Live at the Cellar Door up for stream, a live record capturing one of Neil Young’s pre-Carnigie Hall, post-After the Goldrush shows from 1970. It is not the live record you would expect of Young in 2013, though it might just be the one you want, comprised of solo performances on acoustic guitar and enough slowly-descending, emotionally weighty piano renditions of classics like “Birds” to paralyse an entire crowd. For me, it caps a weird year for Neil Young, who has done pretty much nothing to make it so, but who has hung heavy around it anyway. For everyone else, Live at the Cellar Door is probably quite disposable, a monetized bit part role in a legend’s vast history that ran for a day on music blogs before dipping out of life forever. Uh, I guess it’ll be released at some point? After two albums and a hell of a psychedelic resurgence last year, this is definitely one of Young’s artifact years, and Cellar Door is as sweet and momentary an artifact as they come.
Even if you only hear it once, though, you might encounter Cellar Door’s spooky value. For whatever-the-fuck-generation-I-was-born-in fans of Young, it is more than just a memory trip. It’s an opportunity to demystify an artist now known for combining arena rock flag-raising with Boris-level drone worship. It’s a chance to hear Young perform as a full-time folkie rather than the augmenting, fifteen-minute-per-set sweetheart who’s doing that stuff just for you. Cellar Door is a live album from so long ago that it doesn’t need to reunite Young under one banner. This is just the dude who made sparse singer-songwriter songs in 1970, with none of the dude who wishes he could eat feedback for dinner in 2013.
That’s cool, in a way, but also damaging. It shatters every perception of Young I once had. Everything about this record is so not the show of Young’s I caught this year, a windy night of guitar freak-outs and blistering but impenetrable noise (supplemented with a crystal-clear performance of the truly dreadful, chant-along “Fuckin’ Up”). Even for the type of performance he’s giving here, it’s the premature version, a roadmap for the shows it acted as the rehearsal for. The crowd is sparse, somewhere between disinterested and curious, and watches with the quiet reverence Young’s music asks of them. Young himself isn’t all that talkative, committed only to his songs; relative to his humourless murmur of “Hi folks,” as a way of introduction, the crowd’s laughter is rousingly disproportionate. I guess you could say this shit is thoroughly bizarre; it’s a Neil Young album and it reminds me of my university bar’s open mic nights.
In 2013, this is all pretty surreal to begin with, because Young is done making beautiful, intimate folk songs. But something like this, six months down the road from After the Goldrush, can surface anyway, and act not only as a memory piece Christmas present, but also as a way to desensitize a fan like me to his history. I doubt I’ll listen to it again, but like hearing Before the Flood (1974) after _Blood on the Tracks_(1975), it’s given me a weird vibe for Young’s authorial intent. To know these solo sets exist is a blessing, a history lesson, and… part of my year?
While no one’s looking, Cellar Door weirdly commits the biggest act of musical appropriation of 2013, a year that’s had its handful of paradigm cases: in one that’s given us vaporwave plunderers like SAINT PEPSI, who Adam can’t put down because it’s just pitch shifts; in one that’s given us Yeezus and made the politics of dubious sampling its topic sentence; in one where Robin Thicke is getting his ass sued over plagiarising a whole genre, and on a related note, fuck Macklemore, or something? In a year where I feel the artist’s intention has simultaneously been built up and torn down, Cellar Door is Reprise and Young conspiring to go DIY with the whole thing, to steal from themselves and churn out a rehearsal like it’s a best of. Which it kind of is—it has “The Needle and the Damage Done,” you know?
Moksha, by the way, is another record that Young didn’t make this year, that exists this year, that nobody else cares about, with “The Needle and the Damage Done” on it. I’m kind of inclined to think Cloud Rat’s version of the song is better than Young’s, though it’s understandable he wouldn’t be able to make the changes they do. Cloud Rat aren’t making folk rock, after all, their brand of grindcore arguably as sparse and occasionally graceful as it—count the piano chords and elucidating poetry readings—but, um, a lot more ferocious. When it’s going at it, Moksha moves faster than anything this year; when it doesn’t, it has the slow crushing brutality of Converge’s All We Love We Leave Behind (2012), along with its precise tactics on a slow punishment. Either way, Cloud Rat have little time for respite. Their record rhymes Used with Abused and nestles up next to near-blastbeats and murky guitar tones.
Moksha is one of the best-made records I’ve heard this year, a hefty chunk of grind crafted with meticulous structure and a lot of care. That only makes the moment when “The Needle and the Damage Done” rolls around that little bit more majestic. Young’s Cellar Door rendition is true to the affections he wrote the song with, but Cloud Rat refuse to take time out of their shit-kicking, instead gnawing the song up and spitting it out like it’s getting in the way of their intestinal violence. The opening riff is treated with a dose of gross reverb, and then there’s that scream, the “DAMAGE DONE,” that pierces Young’s story and turns it into something truly gruesome.
I doubt Cloud Rat meant anything with their “Needle” cover, considering it slots into a year that’s brought about plenty of mindless covers of potent songs with originally unflinching motifs—Franz Ferdinand on “Oblivion,” take that elsewhere—but something about it feels like a righteous theft, a shock-value cover that actually makes me grin. Without devaluing Moksha from being the visceral minor masterpiece it deserves to be recognised as, “Needle” is grind karaoke, skramz you can sing in front of the mirror with a toothbrush mic. I was worried about nearly everything that happened to music this year, in some way—I was even scared of Neil Young and his ability to change my version of history—but Cloud Rat were the only band to ease those anxieties, to exact a “fuck it” moment of any legitimacy. To think that it happened on a record as gut-wrenching as this? I don’t care; I love it.