As part of our pre-Roadburn Festival coverage we decided to ask some of the people involved in the festival about the 3 records that has shaped them into the music fans they are today. In this feature we turned to JJ Koczan, who is the main man behind legendary music website The Obelisk, but also hugely responsible for Roadburn’s daily zine, Weirdo Canyon Dispatch.
I firmly believe an essential part of living is crafting the narrative of our lives – the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as people. I’ve been remarkably fortunate to have been able to base so many of my stories around pursuits of passion, both my own and those of others. This began at a young age and continues to this day, and while I could easily be accused of self-indulgence and often level that at myself – pretty much hourly – I also recognize I would not be who I am without music in my life, and for better or worse, that I have been shaped in many ways by my experiences of and with creativity. Not everyone is so lucky.
With deep appreciation for even being asked, here are three works that hit me not only in particularly enduring ways, but at crucial moments to be a piece of that ongoing forging process. I’ll go chronologically. These are the stories I tell myself about these albums:
Alice in Chains – Dirt
I owned Dirt before I owned a CD player. Truth. When I was circa 10 years old, Alice in Chains’ second full-length was one of a handful – also included: Suicidal Tendencies’ The Art of Rebellion, C.O.C.’s Blind, and Rollins Band’s The End of Silence – I swiped from my older sister’s collection, and a quarter-century later I still believe it’s one of the darkest pop albums ever made. Around a theme of drug use that is perhaps even more relevant in the age of fentanyl than it was during heroin’s ‘90s revival, Alice in Chains, for me, proffered a mode of expression that I in no way at that age had the vocabulary to define, but which I continue to see as being essential to the notion of a work as “heavy.”
At the same time, to listen to Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley harmonize over songs like ‘Junkhead’, ‘Down in a Hole’ and ‘Hate to Feel’ – the latter an anthem of my preteen angst along with the subsequent ‘Angry Chair’ – it’s so accessible. There’s no loss of honesty in what Dirt says for the fact that it says it with irresistible hooks, and its tone, atmosphere and raw depth completely separate it for me from the rest of what we think of as having come out of the “grunge” movement.
It was the right album to hit me at just the right moment. I dug Primus a lot, I was into Nirvana, I spent an awfully long while digging into Beatles bootlegs. And while I actually think on a critical level their 1995 self-titled was more of an accomplishment and at this point if I’m going to put the band on at all, it’s probably going to be their Sap EP, in terms of making an impression, Alice in Chains’ Dirt legitimately changed my life.
Amorphis – Tuonela
In high school, I worked at KB Toys store #1051, at the intersection of Routes 10 and 202 in Morris Plains, New Jersey. Since closed. I was a good enough stockboy that they eventually made me a cashier, a manager, and so on, but while I was there, in addition to learning harsh lessons about how people treat those in service industries – tip your waiters/waitresses, tip your bartenders, be kind to those who help you find the things you need or want – I began to discover what underground music was.
Along with Anathema’s Alternative 4, which was released the year prior, Amorphis’ Tuonela was an essential part of this process. I want to go back in time and bludgeon Teenage Me for some of the absolute shit he missed out on while listening to the mediocre, well-publicized metal of the day. I’ll still put on Type O Negative, because I’m an East Coast boy at heart and no regrets, but some of the stuff I listened to in the era of nü metal. Woof. At least I had the courtesy to be stoned.
The refrain goes, “And then I heard Amorphis.” It’s something I’ve said more times than I can count, and it’s actually how I measure the development of my taste. There’s before Amorphis and after, and Tuonela – not the crucial preceding 1996 outing, Elegy – was my introduction to the band. There I go, doing 55 in a 30 in my red-interior 1988 Ford Bronco II while blasting ‘Morning Star’. When I heard the sitar and deathly growls of ‘Greed’ bleeding out of the hum that finishes the title-track, I was utterly consumed.
I wanted it to be so loud it obliterated me, and moreover, Tuonela was the record that finally led me to wonder if I was missing out on something this awesome while blasting Pantera’s ‘Becoming’ on endless repeat, what else was out there waiting to be discovered? As an adult, I actively engage as much as I can in finding out the answer to that question, and not a springtime goes by that I don’t break out Tuonela at least once, like the pattern of some migratory bird except it’s me now in my shitheel Buick still speeding like a teenager singing off-key to ‘Rusty Moon’ and ‘Summer’s End’ while only knowing about half the words.
YOB – Catharsis
14 years past its release, I can’t listen to this album without getting swept up in the emotion of it. If Alice in Chains taught me that music can relate to something I feel inside myself and Amorphis taught me about the process of discovery, then YOB’s Catharsis taught me how rewarding that discovery can be. Catharsis came into my life as I was finishing a mostly-miserable undergraduate career, still in New Jersey. By then, I was working at the college radio station and as part of developing what was called a “specialty show” dedicated to stoner rock and doom, I binged for months on finding new bands to play.
This was much easier than it would’ve been earlier because of the proliferation of music on the internet, but the point is that while I loved and love records I found around the same time like Colour Haze’s Los Sounds de Krauts, Neurosis’ A Sun that Never Sets and 16 Horsepower’s Folklore, YOB’s Catharsis touched something deeper. The level of sincerity in its presentation, the scope and the crushing weight of it and the sheer hypnotism of its 23-minute title-track taught me a new form of what “heavy” could mean. It defined it for me. Still does. Frankly, it’s one of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard, on any level you might want to name.
Of course, I’ve been a YOB fan ever since, and I consider them arguable as the best American band of their generation, but when I think back to sitting at the WSOU studio and playing ‘Catharsis’ in its entirety over the air, week after week, the arrival of that chorus, and the way the volume the band conjured seemed to be as much a spiritual exploration as an expression of heavy influences, my memory of it is less even about the sound than the humanity.
In just three songs – granted those three songs nearly hit 50 minutes between them – YOB taught me that something that seems cruel can also be gorgeous, that pain is something to be embraced because we’re lucky to feel anything at all, and that true creativity can work to refine previously-established boundaries in its own image. I was fortunate enough to see YOB play Catharsis in its entirety at Roadburn 2012 and it remains among the most resonant live performances I’ve witnessed and a genuine moment of communion, which if you’ve ever had one you know is a rarity.
These are by no means the only records that have hit me in a deep way. If anything, it’s barely scratching the surface, but piecing together our own plotline involves choosing where to pick and end chapters. Each of these was the beginning of a chapter for me, and that is something I will honor about them for as long as I have a story to tell. Thanks to you for reading, and to Echoes and Dust for the opportunity.