Since this is the month that features one of the creepiest holidays of the year, I figured I'd introduce a frightening reality -- namely, the music releases of 2003 -- before beginning my usual review. Can you name another music season as harrowing as this one? It has literally been one of the crappiest years in recent memory, which is a good sign, believe it or not, that things are beginning to turn around. After all, how long can the media giants (and indies) last without turning out truly compelling product? Literally, other than Mars Volta's De-loused in the Comatorium, no one has been trying. And I dig that some of you may be tired of my trumpeting that band, but find me a better one and I'll buy you a beer. Until then, let's check out some stuff that passes muster, one of which even, in honor of the occasion, features dudes in masks. And another of which, to backpedal from my blanket generalizations, is actually one of the finest discs of 2003.

Los Straitjackets, Supersonic Guitars in 3-D

Thank god for reliability. Whatever you say about the always refreshing Los Straitjackets, they're nevertheless always on time, German-style, with another copious dose of surf and roots rock tunes. Their last couple of albums were amusing detours; Sing Along with Los Straitjackets featured guest vocals from Big Sandy, Dave Alvin, Reverend Horton Heat and more while their previous release, 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, was a celebration of that other commodified holiday, Christmas. But with this latest release, the hardy men in Santo masks have gone back to the well for potent guitar thrashers and bashers like "Time Bomb" and "San Diego Shutdown." The 30-second tremolo fest called "Can You Dig It?" is another enterprising ditty, proving that, yet again, you don't need an effects bank or checking account the size of the Great Wall of China to make a rock album. Pick this baby up and rock around the clock.

Rachel's, Systems/Layers

You might not think that avant-chamber music is the way to go if you're looking to celebrate Halloween, but then again you might not have ever heard of Rachel's. They will definitely put the "haunted" into your house, that's for sure. Which is not to say that the collective is some Gothic nightmare (although this album explores the architectural meanings of all of those previous terms), but rather a brilliant collaboration interested in using improvisation, atmosphere and intellect to craft extended musical masterpieces.

With Systems/Layers (a piece jointly created with SITI, a New York-based theatre ensemble), Rachel's has traveled the urban streets of New York and more to find inspiration for an ambitious opus on the continual flux between nature and manmade environments. Centered around the emotional piano work of the band's namesake, Rachel Grimes, Systems/Layers cycles through mournful violin movements ("Water From the Same Source"), Harold Budd-meets-Chopin loneliness (the album's title track) to frenetic string epics ("even/odd") without missing a heartbeat. You want holiday fright? Listen to Shannon Wright's sorrowful vocals on "Last Things Last" or the dramatic dirge, "And Keep Smiling" on headphones turned up full blast. I guarantee chills. Lots of them. Definitely one the best albums of the year.

Matmos, The Civil War

OK, this will be short and sweet, mostly because this album is far from satisfying. But Rachel's evidently found Matmos, a brainy electronic duo from San Francisco (where the terms "brainy" and "electronic" go together like peanut butter and chocolate), worthy of collaboration, so I will honor that shout-out and pub their latest joint. Even though Matmos' extra-intellectual tweaking may irk some, there is something nevertheless refreshing about two guys using America's most tragic historical moment as a point of departure for an extended experiment in sonic implosion.

Songs like "Regicide" take off with a standard musical structure (in this case, a medieval swell of organs) and deteriorate into a mess. "Y.T.T.E" screws with big band convention, then leaps forward and backward in time to unmoor your listening experience. These guys get an "A" for effort, even if their music is by no means disposable or comprehensible. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, in such a crappy music year you've got to issue style points for bravery. In 2002, Matmos' release would be a failure. In the trash heap of 2003, it actually looks -- and sounds -- worth the money. Trick or treat, indeed.


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© Melt Magazine 2003