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Monday, October 20, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Mirrors


1) Dr. Music; 2) The Great Sun Jester; 3) In Thee; 4) Mirrors; 5) Moon Crazy; 6) The Vigil; 7) I Am The Storm; 8) You're Not The One (I Was Looking For); 9) Lonely Teardrops.

As the band's commercial fortunes started slipping somewhat with Spectres, a shift of direction and environment was thought of as a potential good move. A radical shift indeed — the band not only ditched Pearlman (temporarily) and long-time co-producer Murray Krugman (permanently), but it also betrayed its alma mater — New York City, going to California for the bulk of the re­cordings. The new choice of producer wasn't too bad: Tom Werman, the guy behind several clas­sic late-1970s Cheap Trick albums — but the choice of location certainly was, at least for 1979, the last year of the classic disco era.

Mirrors is not a disco album, but it is certainly one of their most danceable records, going very light on heavy metal riffs (no ʽGodzillaʼ for a hundred miles around) and very heavy on Cali­fornia-style folk-pop and contemporary R&B influences. Technically, it is not so much a sellout as an experimental attempt to plant the «BÖC spirit» into a different kind of soil and see how it works — the songs are still relatively «weird» in construction terms, and the lyrics still contain plenty of the mock-Gothic, ironic-romantic imagery of yore. On ʽThe Great Sun Jesterʼ, they even enter into collaboration with a new familiar face — fantasy goon Michael Moorcock, who probably needed a change from his long-term collaboration with Hawkwind. All in all, this here is not a case of «band on autopilot»: Mirrors is an honest-to-goodness attempt to reinvent them­selves and stay up-to-date while at the same time conserving the old essence.

Naturally, it is a little offensive when a song called ʽDr. Musicʼ opens the album and sounds like a mix of ʽPretty Womanʼ, ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ, and some dinky mid-1970s proto-disco dance number that I can't quite lay my finger on. But it is essentially a comedy number, more of a straight parody on sexy posturing than anything else — Bloom's vocals are quite indicative of that — and condemning the band for this experiment, while trying in vain to get its catchy chorus out of your head, would be as useless as condemning the Beatles for ʽMaxwell's Silver Hammerʼ. It is much easier to condemn the closing number: Lanier's ʽLonely Teardropsʼ, riding on a Clavi­net line not unlike the one in ʽSuperstitionʼ, and taking it a little more serious than necessary (the "Lord I tell you, all I want to do is get back home" bit sounds achingly poignant, but the rest of the track is so dance-centered that the vibes clash and explode).

Yet the album is diverse, enough for everybody to be able to pick at least one or two favorites. I really like ʽThe Great Sun Jesterʼ, for one thing — a fun, exciting lite-prog epic, which I could have easily imagined on a Yes album, exuberantly sung by Jon Anderson instead of Eric Bloom and with a high-in-the-sky Steve Howe solo for the climax, but even in the hands of this here band it still rolls along with a wallop of life-asserting optimism, a little surprising for a song that laments the «death of the fireclown» (a Moorcock fantasy personage), but where there's death, there's always rebirth, you know.

On the other end of the pole, there's ʽI Am The Stormʼ, the album's only seriously rocking cut: a little Boston-glossy, perhaps, but it does rock the socks off, true to its name, with magnificent lead guitar from Buck Dharma and a hyperbolic-exaggerated old-testamental anger at the betrayal of love that we haven't seen since ʽI Can See For Milesʼ. It's a pop song at heart, but they work hard to imbue it with rock fury, and I am quite won over by its theatricality. Heck, I am even won over by the theatricality of ʽMoon Crazyʼ, with its odd wobbling between old-time Kinksy music-hall and new-style whitebread 1970s pop — especially when it goes into overdriven drunken Slavic rhythmics and wild guitar pirouetting at the end.

Quite a bit of the time the record is boring, or somewhat limp: you'd have to be a major fan of the decade's conventional pop balladry, for instance, to get any thrill out of the ballad ʽIn Theeʼ (de­livered way too sincerely to be salvaged by irony), and ʽYou're Not The One (I Was Looking For)ʼ seems to be a very self-conscious effort to write something in the style of that hot new Boston sensation, The Cars, but with those boring power chords for the chorus hook, the song becomes Foreigner rather than the Cars when it comes to climaxing, and gets the death sentence for that. Even so — it is at least interesting to watch it start out so promisingly and then self-de­struct so maddeningly.

Underwhelming as the effort is next to Spectres, with the lack of a definitive highlight (ʽI Am The Stormʼ comes close, though), I still give it a thumbs up — if you want to look for something really bland in this style, check out the average Average White Band from the same time period; Mirrors has its own intrigue, diversity, and charming clumsiness when you view it in context and see them try to corrupt all those new influences with their irreverent approach. One of these days we might even forget them the temporary move to California, I guess.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

ABC: Lexicon Of Live


1) Poison Arrow; 2) Stranger Things; 3) When Smokey Sings; 4) How To Be A Millionnaire; 5) Be Near Me; 6) Who Can I Turn To; 7) Show Me; 8) Skyscraping; 9) Rolling Sevens; 10) One Better World; 11) Tears Are Not Enough; 12) All Of My Heart; 13) The Look Of Love.

There is obviously so not much to say about this record that the current Wikipedia entry on it is marvelously laconic, and very much up to the point: «The Lexicon Of Live is a live album released by pop group ABC. Although Martin Fry was the only member left, he had a backing band, and came out in his trademark gold suit». I guess that pretty much says everything a layman needs to know, but just for the sake of I-don't-know-what, let's add a few extra details.

Apparently, ABC never toured all that much while they were still all together, which makes this Skyscraping-era «coming out» with a live album even more of an odd cash-in. On a video, at least, you could enjoy the gold suit in proper lighting, but as it is, all you have to do is sit through a bunch of ABC classics, interspersed with a few selections from Skyscraping, as they are faith­fully and professionally reproduced on stage by Martin and his then-current backing band. It's not as if Fry sounded too disinterested or anything — he gets all of those songs' original strengths through without any problems — but neither is he interested in letting the people experience anything above and beyond these original strengths.

The setlist is respectable, predictably concentrating on Lexicon Of Love material and the most popular hits that followed (ʽWhen Smokey Singsʼ, etc.), and the disappointing Up/Abracadabra period is represented only by ʽOne Better Worldʼ, which at least sounds a little better with real drums, and is also shortened by about a minute and a half. They also take the best material from Skyscraping, so, on the whole, no complaints in that direction. But ABC were so much of a studio band in all possible ways and manners that, paradoxically, only their bad songs would benefit from a live rearrangement — all the good songs inevitably suffer from poor mixing and lack of studio gloss that defines the ABC sound.

For reasons of politeness, we do have to thank the band for being tight, and Fry's backup vocalists for being appropriately sexy, but a live ABC album simply does not compute, let alone a live ABC album that only pretends to be an ABC album (at least it might have been vaguely interes­ting to witness original member Mark White play some guitar on stage). I guess you really have to be into gold suits in order to convince yourself to own it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Blackmore's Night: The Village Lanterne


1) 25 Years; 2) Old Village Lanterne; 3) I Guess It Doesn't Matter Anymore; 4) The Messenger; 5) World Of Stone; 6) Faerie Queen; 7) St. Theresa; 8) Village Dance; 9) Mond Tanz / Child In Time; 10) Streets Of London; 11) Just Call My Name; 12) Olde Mill Inn; 13) Windmills; 14) Street Of Dreams; 15*) Once In A Garden.

It is reasonable to accelerate a bit with these reviews, since Ritchie and Candice are so admirably steady in their approach that stylistic divergences between Ghost Of A Rose and The Village Lanterne (yes, with a final orthographic -e all right, although it may be worth noting that, in contrast, the presence/absence of the article the is oddly fluctuating between various releases) are kept to a barely distinguishable minimum. Perhaps the most curious addition to the lineup here is Anton Fig on percussion, the drummer from David Letterman's house band. This really gives the drums a more fluent, African style (lots of bongos, among other things), which only goes to show how much Ritchie really cares about «authenticity», but it is useful to be reminded every once in a while that this whole project is a multi-colored «fantasy», not some scientific recreation of stark medieval realities. Betcha didn't know Ritchie's boots are really made in China, did you?

Cover material this time around includes Ralph McTell's ʽStreets Of Londonʼ (a little over­saturated with woodwinds, but we will assume they are just trying to make it more baroque: Can­dice does a good job conveying the friendly melancholy of the original), and Joan Osborne's ʽSt. Teresaʼ, here transformed into an electric rocker with a much faster tempo, and adorned with one of the album's most blazing (though fairly unexceptional for Blackmore) solos. The most contro­versial cover, of course, will be Deep Purple's own ʽChild In Timeʼ — not only does Ritchie dare to integrate it into one whole with his own merry instrumental dance number (ʽMond Tanzʼ), but he desecrates the holy of holies by actually letting Candice assume the duties of Ian Gillan, which she is unable to do due to the natural weakness of her voice, so, wisely, she does not even try to «scream» the scream-chorus, but instead, just lets all the aah-aahs and ooh-oohs flow calmly and naturally. Even so, there is nothing particularly interesting or newly inspiring about this rearran­gement — and legions of outraged fans, even now as you are reading this, are pouring out their vitriol at its live performances on Youtube, joining the ranks of the freshly formed «Protect The Ian Gillan Legacy From Green-Clothed Ladies With Ample Bosoms» society.

Oh yes, there is also a cover of Rainbow's ʽStreet Of Dreamsʼ here — actually, two covers: one of the bonus tracks is an alternate version with Joe Lynn Turner himself contributing guest (host?) vocals — and this one might even be an improvement on the original, stripping it from the excesses of Eighties' production. Besides, while I'd never take Candice over classic-era Gillan, taking Candice over the cheap bathos of Joe Lynn Turner is a far more seductive proposition. In fact, re-recording the entire post-Dio Rainbow catalog with Blackmore's Night would, on the whole, be much more useful than doing the same with the old Deep Purple catalog.

As for the originals, there are a few catchy folk-rock creations here like the galloping ʽI Guess It Doesn't Matter Anymoreʼ and ʽJust Call My Nameʼ; a couple nicely harmonized ballads like the opening ʽ25 Yearsʼ and ʽFaerie Queenʼ, the latter with a special dance coda; a stupid-sounding drinking song (ʽOlde Mill Innʼ — where ʽAll For Oneʼ was about drinking, fighting, and dying, this one is just about drinking, drinking, and drinking some more); and some more of those pretty and thoroughly interchangeable acoustic Blackmore instrumentals. For those who have been waiting, the goods have been honestly delivered as expected. For those who have not, no reason to begin now, unless you have a fever, and the only prescription is more shawm. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Black Crowes: Warpaint


1) Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution; 2) Walk Believer Walk; 3) Oh Josephine; 4) Evergreen; 5) We Who See The Deep; 6) Locust Street; 7) Movin' On Down The Line; 8) Wounded Bird; 9) God's Got It; 10) There's Gold In Them Hills; 11) Whoa Mule.

The internal construction of the word warpaint seems to suggest that when you put on this kind of paint, you are expected to go to war. Consequently, when you begin to play an album called Warpaint, you might expect to hear something that could be associated with war-like emotions. You know — aggression, bravado, ferociousness, that sort of thing. And even if you are not a big fan of The Black Crowes, you just know that they are a band well capable of all those emotions. And, in fact, once every few years or so they are even capable of hanging them on a powerful hook, which is where they are at their very best. It's not much, but it's something.

Alas, we have some bad news, folks. Warpaint is not a war-like album — it ain't even a proper rock'n'roll album. Instead, it's a big ol' full-o'-soul album of «Americana» — a melting pot of blues, country, and various forms of hillbilly music, played Black Crowes-style, but without the arrogant cockiness of old. Yes, it's been seven years since their previous studio experience — and in that time, the Robinson brothers have Discovered Wisdom. Now, instead of churning out over­loud headbang fodder, they offer you golden bales of hay straight from the meadows and fields — lying in one of which, with not a care in the world and a pair of headphones around your head, would probably be the perfect setting for enjoying an album like Warpaint. That is, if there actually were anything to enjoy.

The band had suffered further lineup changes along the way, so that by the time they came around to recording this, the newest members were relatively young musicians — children of the Seventies, younger than the Robinson brothers by about a decade: Adam MacDougall on key­boards and Luther Dickinson (of the North Mississippi Allstars) on guitar. Obviously, both are professionals, and the Robinsons went out of their way to praise Dickinson's skills to high hea­vens; problem is, to my ears he just sounds like a faithful disciple of the old school, doing his country-western schtick honestly, but without an ounce of inventiveness. Considering that brother Rich is also no great genius when it comes to composing guitar melodies, it is no big surprise that a large chunk of this album... well, perhaps it does not exactly sound like Garth Brooks, but it feels every bit as tedious and worthless as your average country-pop album.

Every chord sequence tried out here is tired and old. Every vocal melody begs for the single question — why am I wasting time on this? Is there at least one new emotional touch generated here, at least one fresh feeling, rather than just fifty minutes of recycled cud? Neil Young, Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allmans, Emmylou Harris, The Band, Gram Parsons — is Warpaint adding anything worthwhile to that legacy? Am I supposed to worship at the sight of Chris Ro­binson's beard just because he's aged a little bit, calmed down a bit, found his peace with the world and drowned in earthy sentimentality — or, perhaps, should that require a little more effort in the songwriting department?

I guess that, from a certain point of view, Warpaint could invite comparisons with Exile On Main St.: it seems to trigger the same half-lazy, right-to-the-ways-of-the-world atmosphere. But the difference is that the Stones were actually recording their album on the brink of self-destruc­tion, and its music is permeated with that feeling. Warpaint, in comparison, plays it completely safe and sound. The Black Crowes, as pictured on this record, are a generally happy, healthy, self-sufficient band of individuals who know just what it takes to make the «right» music. "Let's take it easy to avoid any snags", states the opening song, called ʽGoodbye Daughters Of The Re­volutionʼ, and in between that line, that title, and the fact that the rhythm and lead lines of the song are all great in tone and poor in expression, this tells you all you should really know about the album, unless you need your everyday fill of bland Americana like a high fiber diet.

If you are looking for something that «rocks», you won't find a proper choice until track 9, ʽGod's Got Itʼ, and even that one is a fairly repetitive «Christian blues-rock» number (with a touch of irony, I hope), riding on boring muffled rhythm crunch and conventional slide licks. (For that matter, I think that Paul Stacey's production style is at least partially responsible for sucking the life out of these tracks — a different mix, bringing Dickinson's slide guitar higher up, might have somewhat improved the impression). If you are looking for a real soulful, broken-voiced, salt-of-the-earth ballad, check out ʽThere's Gold In Them Hillsʼ. It does not touch my soul one bit, but who knows, it might touch yours. I think it's all a bunch of unimaginative clichés, and I don't think Chris Robinson sounds too convincing when complaining that "all I have left is this grey in my beard" (not that that ain't much — have you seen the size of that beard?), but wasting time on looking for scientific proof of that is not a good idea, so let's just assume I may be wrong.

Anyway, three listens into the album, and nothing ever stuck, which is why I suppose that the songs on Warpaint are fairly worthless unless they are your first exposition to the world of dusty, age-sanctified roots-rock. Then again, I also suppose this is predictable — if The Black Crowes as a young band were third-rate imitators of kick-ass Stones/Aerosmith/Led Zeppelin, then why should The Black Crowes as an old band be anything but third-rate imitators of their rootsy pre­decessors? It all fits. No big surprise here, and a friendly, light-hearted thumbs down all the way down Chris Robinson's beard. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Björk: Biophilia


1) Moon; 2) Thunderbolt; 3) Crystalline; 4) Cosmogony; 5) Dark Matter; 6) Hollow; 7) Virus; 8) Sacrifice; 9) Mutual Core; 10) Solstice.

I think that the title of the album is somewhat misleading. Biophilia is a (relatively simple and, when you come to think of it, rather self-obvious) idea of life being attracted to life — a natural inborn empathy towards organic entities, which is why, by default, we happen to like kittens and hippos better than rocks. (Not sure if the theory also works on the Ebola virus, though). This project of Björk's, however, pursues an even loftier goal, professing love and metaphoric exploi­tation towards just about every corner of the universe, from sub-atomic particles to planet move­ment and natural electrical phenomena — so, for the sake of accuracy, she would probably have been more justified to call it Cosmophilia. Then again, she probably wants to treat everything in the universe as a living thing. How artistic-pantheistic of her, again.

One thing you really have to respect the lady for is how she is still managing to keep in touch with the modern world: relatively few artists manage to escape «fossilization» and condescending rejection of modern values by the time they hit 45 — yet Biophilia is, in every respect, a record that just screams «the 2010s are upon us!». Not only was most of the music, according to Björk's own statement, composed on a tablet computer, but the album itself is not just an album: it is a sprawling, arch-trendy multimedia project, accompanied with visuals, educational applications, specialized live performance, and, on the whole, first billed as a «3-D scientific musical» and then as the first ever «app album», so now it can compete with Lady Gaga and Angry Birds at the exact same time: how smart is that?

Very smart, but, I am afraid to say, not very engaging. Personally, I am not very much interested in «multimedia artistry», and I am definitely not interested in watching somebody who used to be a terrific musical artist try and make a transition to a state where music ceases to be the major attraction and becomes «just one side of the story». From a certain point of view, this falls under the definition of «sellout» — in order to fit in better with the times, you sacrifice some of your strengths in favor of «what the market demands». These days, the market demands dazzling interactive visuals, so we play a game of «construct your own universe from elementary particle scratch» or «build a drum machine from a combination enzymes» (no kidding, this is exactly what the app associated with ʽHollowʼ is supposed to do). Yay, nice and cute and a good way to kill time for scientifically-oriented kids who hate reading books, but there is a downside to that: the more effort you spend on these things, the less effort remains for music.

And the music on Biophilia is disappointing — in fact, it is so disappointing that it just does not work as a self-standing album at all. Where Volta, for a while, returned Björk to the world of «art-pop», Biophilia takes us back to the wild experimentalism of Medúlla, only using electronic textures in the place of that record's multiple vocal overdubs — and using them to paint almost completely static pictures, with very few hooks and no musical development whatsoever. The typical recipé for a Biophilia song is — set a programmed groove and let the singer rave and rant against it for three to five minutes. Considering that the grooves are not of jaw-dropping quality, and that the singer's raving and ranting is simply all too familiar, what's a poor boy to do but inescapably turn his attention to the accompanying apps? At least pushing some buttons and learning to be the Master of the Universe will keep you from getting bored.

Ironically, reading about the album shows that the particular songs on here contain the largest doses of meaningful musical symbolism so far present on any single Björk record. The musical cycles on ʽMoonʼ echo the shifting of lunar phases; the electronic arpeggios on ʽThunderboltʼ symbolize lightning; ʽSolsticeʼ relies on pendulums; the fussy chimes on ʽVirusʼ represent viral activities within the cell, and so on. Disentangling all these combinations of ideas is truly a nerd's paradise — and here, indeed, is a «math-rock» album where «getting» the actual math is a real possibility, rather than an exercise in frustration.

Oh, if only the record would have a small pinch of emotional content in it — but alas, neither within its «applicational» context nor without it can I assess it as anything other than a purely formal, rationalized, carefully crafted, but ultimately soulless piece of work. Yes, there are lyrical themes here that tap into the personal, and any major Björk fan will see that, if we restrict our­selves to the words, she is actually using all that «scientific» imagery as simple metaphors for relations and feelings — like ʽVirusʼ, for instance, is really just a plain love song: "Like a virus needs a body / As soft tissue feeds on blood / Someday I'll find you, the urge is here". But the music that she writes is not indicative of any of those feelings. The music is more in the vein of Autechre — technologically-oriented «nano-grooves» that are much better rationalized and intellectually admired than intuitively enjoyed. And this even concerns the acoustic tracks like ʽMoonʼ and ʽSolsticeʼ, where Björk's beloved harps replace the electronics, or ʽCrystallineʼ, for which she invents a new instrument, «gameleste», a cross between a gamelan and a celesta. It's a cool, «crystal» sound, for that matter, but the instrument is used for sheer symbolic atmospherics, not for any sort of breathtaking melody that you could cherish in your heart forever, like the more traditional, but oh so much better resonating strings of ʽBacheloretteʼ, for instance.

I respect the work that went into the album and all its surrounding hoopla, and I recommend hearing it — it was one of the major artistic events of 2011, after all — but I also give it a thumbs down, because, like Medúlla, I consider it a failed experiment that preserves the formal principles of a «Björk record» without offering any genuine substance. As an accompanying piece to some fancy-pants Apple or Microsoft or TED multi-media presentation (of the «what a wonderful world...!» variety), it will work great. As a worthy follow-up to the grandiose/subtle beauty and joy of Debut, Post, Homogenic, and Vespertine, Biophilia does not stand a single chance — not in my book, at least. Next to these triumphs, there is nothing too new here, nothing too memorable, nothing too heartbreaking or heartwarming; and, worst of all, it sort of seems like the cheap designer thrills of the 21st century have finally gotten the better of a formerly unique and independent artist. Then again, there's nothing too unpredictable about this, either. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Black Sabbath: Cross Purposes


1) I Witness; 2) Cross Of Thorns; 3) Psychophobia; 4) Virtual Death; 5) Immaculate Deception; 6) Dying For Love; 7) Back To Eden; 8) The Hand That Rocks The Cradle; 9) Cardinal Sin; 10) Evil Eye.

Well, at least it's an improvement over TZR. As Dio and Appice left once again to pursue their own destinies and Tony Martin with Geoff Nicholls are brought back to the family, you'd think the band would automatically sink back to the level of 1989-90. Fortunately, the experience of Dehumanizer was still fresh in the band's mind, and, very importantly, they still had Geezer with them — as long as at least half of the original line-up is in place, the Sabbath spirit is still there somewhere, and it takes more than a second-rate vocalist and a generic keyboard sound to suf­focate that spirit.

Perhaps some of the songs might have been leftovers from the Dehumanizer sessions, or, at the very least, Iommi just happened to like that doom-growl and tried to provide Martin with more of the same. In any case, there are some decent riffs here — ʽImmaculate Deceptionʼ, ʽPsychopho­biaʼ, ʽBack To Edenʼ and, most importantly, the downtuned album closer ʽEvil Eyeʼ are all quite on the level of the 1992 album. Again, the riffs usually sound like inferior variations on early classics, and each of these songs has a bunch of better prototypes (ʽEvil Eyeʼ, I think, is a sub­conscious attempt to echo ʽSabbath Bloody Sabbathʼ), but they are competently composed riff-rockers with their own melodies — and thank you very much, Mr. Iommi, for letting Mr. Butler step in with that little bass interlude in the middle of ʽEvil Eyeʼ, just to remind us one more time of how it used to be in the good old days.

Even better than ʽEvil Eyeʼ is the opening tune: ʽI Witnessʼ is not simply fast, it is riffaliciously fast, and I can only imagine how much better it may have sounded with Dio still at the wheel, adding deep growl to where Martin can only offer shallow, shrill screaming. Special mention must be made of drummer Bobby Rondinelli, who, coincidentally, was also originally from Rain­bow, but whose lighter, less mastodontic style of drumming actually suits Sabbath better than Cozy Powell's thud (remember that Sabbath never thrived on really heavy drumming — Bill Ward's parts always relied on expressiveness rather than brute force).

Alas, about half of the album still consists of boring atmospheric mysticism à la Headless Cross: in fact, usage of the word "cross" for these guys should probably be banned forever, because ʽCross Of Thornsʼ is one of the album's worst tracks, only surpassed in that category by the sentimental ballad ʽDying For Loveʼ (you wish), and the next in an endless series of ʽKashmirʼ / ʽStargazerʼ tributes called ʽCardinal Sinʼ. And I still remain undecided on the album's oddest track: ʽVirtual Deathʼ shows that somebody in the Sabbath camp was clearly keeping an eye open on the latest developments in the grunge camp — with its sludgy tempo, hyper-distorted guitars, and hushed multi-tracked vocals, it sounds as if it belonged on an Alice In Chains album rather than an Iommi-led one. Probably a bad Alice In Chains album, though, like one of those post-Staley reunion crapfests. Curious curiosity, but neither Iommi's riff nor Martin's vocals are able to convey a genuine impression of «virtual death» for the protagonist.

I seem to remember that Geezer was particularly unhappy with the final results, and quit the band once again right after the ensuing tour freed him of any further obligations. The disillusionment is easy to understand, but secretly I think that he just did not get along well with the lead singer. Indeed, time has changed little about Tony Martin, whose style is still lacking any sort of inte­resting perso­nality — he tries, he really does, but he is simply unable to come up with a special angle at which to deliver these lyrics. Remember, some of the songs here have real potential, they just had to be served under a different sauce (I would certainly pay something to see Dio try out ʽEvil Eyeʼ and ʽI Witnessʼ). If you are a major sucker for Iommi riffs, Cross Purposes will make the grade — if you only want A+ quality riffs, though, or if you think that Sabbath should never be reduced to just the riffs, stay away. You've been warned by Geezer.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bo Hansson: Music Inspired By Watership Down


1) Born Of The Gentle South; 2) Allegro For A Rescue; 3) Legend And Light; 4) Trial And Adversity; 5) The Twice-Victory; 6) The Kingdom Brightly Smiles; 7) Migration Suite.

Even after ʽRabbit Musicʼ, the furry bunnies from Richard Adams' novel still plagued Bo's mind so terribly that he had to dedicate his entire next album to the little guys, making this his second record completely «inspired by» a literary work. The original Swedish release was called El-Ahrairah, after the name given to one particular trickster rabbit in the book, but for the interna­tional market, it was apparently thought that a more explanatory title was in order — or perhaps  the record industry people thought the name sounded too Arabic for the eyes and ears of the Western public, and would trigger visions of hijacked planes and terrorist attacks.

Regardless, the album never charted even with a «safe» title, and its total lack of commercial suc­cess was one of the factors responsible for Bo's subsequent withdrawal from the music scene. Indeed, given that the age of prog rock's «coolness» was long gone, in 1977 you had to conform or combust, and it is quite evident from these tunes that Hansson had no wish whatsoever to set aside his personal muse and suck in any of the arena-rock, disco, or New Wave influences. In­stead, he just used up the last drops of credit he'd earned from the success of Lord Of The Rings to do the same thing as always — and then faded away.

The few tepid reviews I have seen of this album were mostly dismissive, with «nothing new» being the most often repeated motive. This is surprising, because, from a general point of view, ever since making his mark with the Tolkien tribute, Hansson had kept on making «nothing new» records on a steady basis, and if we are to maintain accuracy, El-Ahrairah actually sounds more different from Attic Thoughts than the latter does from Magician's Hat. For one thing, the com­positions tend to be a bit louder, angrier, and more relying on electric guitar playing than ever before — possibly to capture some of the dynamic spirit of the book, but possibly also because he wanted to brush away the illusion of creating «progressive elevator muzak», and put together some tunes that would force the listener to pay more attention.

Indeed, on the opening multi-part suite ʽBorn Of The Gentle Southʼ, the composer pulls all the stops — tempos, tonalities, moods shift constantly like the wind, going from slow soul-burning Floydisms to spinning polkas with psychedelic guitar solos to grand gospel passages to vicious blues-rock blasts to whatever else is imaginable. Whether all these ingredients are cohesive enough to form an impressive whole is up to you to decide; personally, I happen to feel that none of the ideas are given enough time and space to blossom properly, but then, I could probably say the same of quite a few classical concertos and symphonies, so let's just say that I find the suite easier to pay attention to (because of its dynamic jumps), but just as generally unmemorable as any average Hansson composition on the previous albums.

The best tracks, in my opinion, are ʽLegend And Lightʼ, where there is an interesting contrast between Bo's solo piano passages (merging music hall with avantgarde jazz) and the grand an­themic reso­lutions in the «chorus» parts, making the track a «teasing» experiment worthy of Zappa; and ʽThe Twice-Victoryʼ, whose main stately theme, slightly reminiscent of the spaghetti western style, is probably the most successful stab at grandiosity on the album — too bad it is never given enough time and space to bl... oh, okay, never mind.

Unfortunately, I am at the disadvantage of not actually having read the source novel (there's only so much fantasy that I can digest, which is not very much), so it is hard for me to understand how these musical themes truly relate to that entire rabbit business. Even more unfortunately, it is hard for me to visualise any concept to which this music, as a whole, would be applicable. There is Bo's usual strain of sorrow and melancholia stretching throughout the entire work (those are some fairly morose and somber rabbits indeed), but that is not nearly enough to blow one's mind — although I have to admit that out of all four albums, this is easily the one that tries to invoke the spirit of grand tragedy on the most regular basis. If only these invocations didn't usually end up sounding like «Pink Floyd lite», the album could have been 1977's dark masterpiece — as it is, it's more like 1977's dark coffee-table.

Bo Hansson did make one more record later on in his career: the Swedish-only Mitt I Livet came out in 1985, never got an international release, never came out on CD, and remains a little-heard ob­scurity (so I have no way of ascertaining whether it is in the same style or if he finally decided to make a transition to synth-pop). Twenty-five years later, he died, and to this day, he remains generally revered in a small circle of connoisseurs — a curious figure, capable of inspiring chi­valrous devotion and agonizing boredom, sometimes at the same time. Whatever be the case, he may not have written the best Tolkien soundtrack ever, but one thing is certain: he did manage to forever change my casual perception of rabbits.