Sunday, November 9, 2014
Game Theory's "Blaze of Glory": Music Review
His music stands for his time, but (I admit that I am nearly identical in age to Miller, so this deepened my interest in his career) it does not date it for me. Too clever for the masses, Miller listened to a wide variety of musical genres and, in subversive and entertaining manner--and sometimes disturbingly so--he challenged them. The jolt of Miller's unexpected death last year spurred his devoted fans and colleagues to move forward. Once again, or at last, attention is being paid to him.
Omnivore Records kicks off their re-releases of Game Theory's long out-of-print albums with this expansion of their first LP, Blaze of Glory. Miller was making indie music since his teens; Alternate Learning, formed in Miller's native Sacramento in 1978, shows on the live version of "Aliens in Our Midst" already the guitar attack, the command of dynamics, and the vocal confidence belying the young age of Miller and his fellow musicians. The first two bonus tracks fit neatly, almost seamlessly, into the sound of the college-era band that would succeed them, Game Theory. As future Gamester Donnette Thayer observes in the oral history which serves as most of this CD's liner notes, Miller had written some of that band's first material while still in high school. Childhood friend and Game Theory bassist Fred Juhos affirms what fans may have long suspected: "It was clear from the beginning that it was Scott's band." I find a comparison to Mark E. Smith of The Fall appropriate. I recognize the admiration musicians may admit for an autodidact, a stubborn muse who from his teens refuses to let his dream of how his rock songs must sound be warped by compromise or by sellout.
Admittedly, as with many such band's initial efforts, the results (even for admirers like me) must be judged as promising rather than fully accomplished. This is fitting, after all, for musicians learning how to play, recording at home. I had heard much of this as replayed over by a band assembled under Miller, and re-produced by him as Distortion of Glory (1993). There, the songs emerged as brighter, if more brittle CD cuts. They felt jagged, if sometimes very ethereal. Perhaps that also proves Scott Miller's ability to combine the sunny and the shadowy, imaginatively. Here, by contrast, these 1982 originals favor a slushier, muddier mood. I like both styles, but as earlier tracks (as a vinyl LP, it came wrapped in a garbage bag) had never been issued digitally, this 2014 remastering captures a less baroque or fussy feel. This attitude compliments rawer, or more delicate, live recordings and demos made by Alternate Learning, and Miller solo, among these fifteen bonus tracks generously added.
Highlights do shine, although this will mainly appeal to fans of Game Theory, whose later works burst with the potency evident as they gestate here. The starter "Something to Show" sparks with energy. "Mary Magdalene" introduces the inverted chords and offbeat progressions typical for Miller's blend of mildly psychedelic atmospheres to cloak his stories of failed love and persistent longing. Fred Irwin's drums power "The Girls Are Ready to Go" to show the band's affection for party tunes. Nan Becker's keyboards churning under "Sleeping Through Heaven" typify Miller's preference for catchy New Wave rhythms, played under or at angles against his erudite, stoically wry lyrics. These, full of references to high culture and pop dreck, drew comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. (I speculate why Miller did not seek to cover some of Pynchon's own archly demotic, oddball lyrics, matching them to Game Theory's power-pop experiments. I suppose that elusive author remained so.)
The remainder of this reissue also intersperses four snippets, audio of hijinks from "Scott Miller Testing Laboratories Record Tests"; yes, as the disclaimer advises, some of the material is "for historical purposes only." However, it's fun to hear Miller and his bandmates--some of whom appear as once or future members of the band (shades again of The Fall)--letting loose in live versions of many of Miller's early songs. Alternate Learning had gained its reputation live, in the college scene near Sacramento. Now, listeners can appreciate the impact Miller and his bandmates were making while still at the University of California, Davis. Game Theory calculated its impact and sharpened its range. They bore down, as Miller became even more ambitious, combining studio skills with intellectual craft. Omnivore's future releases should convincingly chart the lasting legacy of his band.
(Spectrum Culture 10-5-14)