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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Dancer And The Moon

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: DANCER AND THE MOON (2013)

1) I Think It's Going To Rain Today; 2) Troika; 3) The Last Leaf; 4) Lady In Black; 5) Minstrels In The Hall; 6) The Temple Of The King; 7) Dancer And The Moon; 8) Galliard; 9) The Ashgrove; 10) Somewhere Over The Sea; 11) The Moon Is Shining; 12) The Spinner's Tale; 13) Carry On... Jon.

The truth is slowly oozing out: Blackmore's Night are going to keep on releasing albums until they have rearranged and re-recorded every single Rainbow song. And since they only do one old Rainbow song per album, on the average, their program seems to be fully set up until 2050, by which time Ritchie will be one hundred and five years old and little children will be calling him Gandalf. Candice Night, of course, will stay young and pretty forever, and be revered as yer average local elf-maiden: beautiful, stately, and boring.

In the meantime, Dancer And The Moon is fifty-three more minutes of treated medievalistic schmaltz, completely obedient to the formula. Just check the song titles — all the keywords are in place: "dance", "moon", "sea", "minstrel", "lady", and even "troika", continuing Ritchie's and Candice's love with a pedestrian-legendary vision of Russia, as thoroughly fake and corny if you even begin to mistake it for «the real thing» as everything else about this duo. "Where the snow lies so deep you can't even see the sun, run, my troika, run". Yeah right. When they incorporated elements of "Polyushko-pole" in their compositions, it was at least imaginative — this approach, however, warrants a giggle at best.

Victims of plunder now include Randy Newman (ʽI Think It's Going To Rain Todayʼ, replete with plastic synth riffage) and Uriah Heep (ʽLady In Blackʼ) — my attitude towards those guys is well known, so I don't mind them using material that was quite corny in the first place, but still, «tell me your choice in covers and I'll tell who you are». There is also a final moody «Euro-blues» instrumental called ʽCarry On... Jonʼ, whose title looks suspiciously similar to Bob Dy­lan's ʽRoll On Johnʼ from the previous year's Tempest — although this particular instrumental, melody-wise, sounds not so much as a potential tribute to John Lennon as, rather, like a poten­tial tribute to the much more recently departed Gary Moore. And it probably goes to show just how stale Ritchie has become in his choice of chords that I find myself far more interested in the brief grumbly organ solo than in Blackmore's guitar work.

Ultimately, the focus here is on the title track — another anthemic gypsy-dance number in the vein of ʽHome Againʼ, modestly catchy, but very clichéd with its hey-hey-heys and perusal of the same light-up-your-senses cuddle that has long since lost all taste — and on ʽSomewhere Over The Seaʼ, taken first as a slow, gallantly waltzing ballad and then immediately redone as an electronic dance number (ʽThe Moon Is Shiningʼ), so as to please grandfathers and grandchildren alike: another cheap, tasteless move on the part of a duo that seems to be losing the last shreds of decency and credibility.

Perhaps these paragraphs have given you the impression that Dancer And The Moon is a total embarrassing disaster next to the relative success of Shadow Of The Moon and other early records — well, not really, because that impression is much exacerbated if you listen to them all in chronological order. Taken on their own, all these albums follow more or less the same musi­cal / artistic philosophy: ultimately, they pander to the «novice attitude» of the pseudo-seeker who pretends, perhaps subconsciously, to be interested in «roots» and «history» and «world culture», but whose ideal understanding of such things is the movie 300. It used to be that, as long as we understood this, Blackmore's Night could occasionally be fun. But now it comes to the point that they have worn out their image, thinned out their ideas, and give us far more of this cheap ersatz than actual hooks, emotions, or viable syntheses of different traditions. The approach was questionable from the start, but it could work — and now it no longer can. Perhaps it is time to pack it in, and as an appropriate remedy, I suggest that Ritchie Blackmore become the resident guitar player for Lady Gaga, whereas Candice Night can earn an honest living singing backup vocals for the likes of Lana del Rey. In the meantime, this album gets a thumbs down — and, most likely, the same will apply to everything that comes next.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Blondie: Plastic Letters

BLONDIE: PLASTIC LETTERS (1977)

1) Fan Mail; 2) Denis; 3) Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45); 4) Youth Nabbed As Sniper; 5) Contact In Red Square; 6) (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear; 7) I'm On E; 8) I Didn't Have The Nerve To Say No; 9) Love At The Pier; 10) No Imagination; 11) Kidnapper; 12) Detroit 442; 13) Cautious Lip; 14*) Once I Had A Love; 15*) Scenery; 16*) Poets Problem; 17*) Detroit 442 (live).

Sometimes identified as a «transitional» album, wedged in between the sheer shockin' novelty of the self-titled debut and the stunning pop gloss of Parallel Lines, Blondie's sophomore effort tends to be a little overlooked these days, although back in 1977, it was a much bigger commer­cial success than Blondie, and landed the band their first big chart hit all over Europe. Ironically, that big hit was fairly atypical of the album — ʽDenisʼ was the band's cover of Randy & The Rain­bows' ʽDeniseʼ, a 1963 pop song with elements of doo-wop and Buddy Holly: Blondie more or less drop the whole doo-wop aspect and enforce the Buddy Holly aspect by freely quoting from ʽPeggy Sueʼ where the original had no such thing. The song's popularity, so it seems, was more of an American Graffitti-type of event, except it happened to be more popular in Europe than in Blondie's native US of A — go figure.

Anyway, even tossing ʽDenisʼ aside, had we wanted to, we could build up a very strong case for Plastic Letters as the «definitive» Blondie album, or maybe even the «best» one where these notions are correlated. Here they are still essentially a raw, untamed, unspoiled semi-underground outfit, hanging around NYC's «advanced» musical establishments, but showing an ever-increa­sing level of diversity and wildness of imagination. Arguably, some of the songs aren't quite as catchy as the ones on Blondie, but this is well compensated for by the band coming up with all sorts of «stories» and «situations» — lyrical and atmospheric subjects include mysteries, sus­pense, spy tales, catastrophes, femme fatales, and, of course, lots of character assassinations. At the same time they also stretch out and expand their musical boundaries: due largely to Jim Destri's complex keyboard palette, Plastic Letters, one way or another, covers the whole history of pop music from the late Fifties up to modern times. Doo-wop, rockabilly, Motown, and Mer­seybeat are here in symbiosis with modernistic punk, electronica, and even a bit of the «progres­sive» genre, and it all feels natural, because one thing that ties it all together is fun.

Well, that and Debbie Harry's hormonal activities, I guess — which take up a significant chunk of the album, ʽFan Mailʼ, ʽ(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dearʼ and ʽI Didn't Have The Nerve To Say Noʼ being the ultimate highlights. ʽPresenceʼ is the best realized of the three, and all the more fun when you understand that what they really do here is take that classic Byrds sound and turn it on its head, shedding the solemnity and stately beauty of Roger McGuinn's company and replacing it with sexy playfulness. Then again, I guess Debbie Harry could sing ʽBells Of Rhymneyʼ and make it sound exactly the same way — this is simply in their inborn nature, they can't help being playful. Even when the love thing goes drastically bad, they still deliver the news swiftly and merrily (ʽLove At The Pierʼ, not the catchiest song on the album, but who else but Blondie would finish the song with lines like "Now I go to beaches with my girlfriend / No more love splinters in my rear end"?).

But the Byrds are far from the only musical reference / influence on the album. ʽBermuda Triangle Bluesʼ, in contrast, takes it slow and careful, with a delicate, yet stern-and-solemn guitar weave pattern that might recall stuff in the «epic folk» vein, anything from Neil Young to Van Morrison. It feels unfinished — cutting out just as Destri really begins picking up the heat on that organ and you start thinking that maybe Chris Stein will want to join him in a furious jam or something, just to illustrate the atmospheric pressure over the Bermuda Triangle — yet I would say that a certain portion of the charm of Plastic Letters is that so many things on here sound unfinished: «we saw, we conquered, we moved on without completing». The incipient spy epic ʽContact In Red Squareʼ, for instance — had that song been conceived by such experimental jokers as 10cc (and it could), they would have turned it into a six- or seven-minute mini-opera; for Blondie, two minutes of that experiment (which, if you listen close enough, includes some elements of Russian folk dance muzak for comfort) is firmly enough.

As consistent as the album already is, it actually seems to be getting stronger and stronger as it moves towards its conclusion. The last three songs, in particular, sound nothing like each other, but I don't even know which of the three I like the better — ʽKidnapperʼ, with its «Debbie-as-Elvis» bit, references to Norman Bates and Ray Milland, blues-rock harmonica, and garage guitar solo; ʽDetroit 442ʼ, the heaviest song in the band's catalog (imagine what a ʽLet There Be Rockʼ-era AC/DC song would sound like with one of the Young brothers switching to piano instead of guitar!); or ʽCautious Lipʼ, the album's longest, most heavily nuanced tune that I have no idea whatsoever how to categorize — is it «electronic blues»? «psychedelic swamp-rock»? what sort of mind effect are they going for, anyway? All I know is that the song wouldn't have sounded out of place on Their Satanic Majesties' Request, you know, one of those records.

All in all, Plastic Letters is that one Blondie album I can never see myself getting tired of — there is simply so much going on here, in all directions, that every time you put it on, you will discover yet another splatter of creativity on your jacket. Smart, hip, playful, diverse, stimulating, not particularly profound, perhaps, but never as dumb as an unexperienced novice's first listen to ʽDenisʼ could make the band seem for a moment, either. Like all great artists growing up on «pop trash», Blondie could take that slice of culture and viciously send it up for all of its clichés, while at the same time declaring undying love for it — as expressed in the energy, inventiveness, and wild combinatorics of the music. Their pop hooks would only become genuine weapons of mass destruction with the next two albums, but they'd never again make a record as, well, witty as Plastic Letters, and for this it deserves a thumbs up rating every bit as enthusiastic.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blind Guardian: Tokyo Tales

BLIND GUARDIAN: TOKYO TALES (1993)

1) Inquisition; 2) Banish From Sanctuary; 3) Journey Through The Dark; 4) Traveler In Time; 5) The Quest For Tanelorn; 6) Goodbye My Friend; 7) Time What Is Time; 8) Majesty; 9) Valhalla; 10) Welcome To Dying; 11) Lost In The Twilight Hall; 12) Barbara Ann.

Blind Guardian's first live album is exactly what you'd probably expect of Blind Guardian's first live album — terrific, powerful, energetic, ripping, and completely expendable unless you are capable of putting it on, turning the volume all the way up, closing your eyes, and mentally trans­porting yourself to Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo, Japan, on the fateful night of December 4, 1992. With several thousand stark-raving-mad Japanese fans accosting you from all sides, singing all of your favorite anthemic choruses in complete unison. Power!!!

But my problem is predictable: there is just no way these here songs could sound more powerful played live than when recorded in the studio. So you get the same mad tempos, the same metal hero vocals, the same super-fluent, intelligently constructed metal-Paganini solos from Olbrich — yes, amazing how they can recreate all that so perfectly-flawlessly on stage and all, but hardly warranting more than one listen. Serious fans will, no doubt, discern and cling on to minor vari­a­tions, yet I have only noticed that they offer a much louder rendition of ʽLord Of The Ringsʼ — electric, with a big drum sound in the climactic finale, and it hardly makes the song any better, though, of course, it is more suitable for an arena setting that way.

The setlist mainly draws upon Tales and Somewhere Far Beyond, with only ʽMajestyʼ retained from the debut album and only ʽBanish From Sanctuaryʼ and ʽValhallaʼ from the second one; it's all okay, although I sort of miss ʽAshes To Ashesʼ and ʽThe Last Candleʼ. Hansi is playing the Big Barbarian Boss for the audience, occasionally encouraging them to join him in his pagan chest vocalising — the effect can be irritating, but that's how you play this game, and at the very least, he does sound like he drinks his enemies' brains right from their freshly cracked skulls at breakfast, so he's a winner at that game regardless of whether you play or not. Nothing to com­plain about in any of those departments, really.

Technically, the album was sewn together from bits of two different shows, so it's a little patchy with all the fade-ins and fade-outs; and the decision to include ʽBarbara Annʼ in their live show might irritate genre purists (I am not irritated, but I do have to remark that if this was a gesture of the «we are really not that serious» variety, it was still a little misplaced — I mean, normally, you either have a sense of humor, in which case it shows up rather regularly in many of the things you do, or you do not have a sense of humor: this «two extra minutes of fun for the sake of proving we can be fun» feels somewhat contrived. Anyway, somehow it worked better in the studio). So these may be minor flaws if you need any. Sound quality, however, is perfect (Tokyo factor strikes again, those Japanese accept nothing less), no flaws here. Oh, and, for the record, if I am not mistaken, the band likes double-tracking their guitars in the studio, so if you dislike that simple trick, here's at least one minor reason to seek out the live versions instead. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black Sabbath: Past Lives

BLACK SABBATH: PAST LIVES (1970-1975; 2002)

CD I: 1) Tomorrow's Dream; 2) Sweet Leaf; 3) Killing Yourself To Live; 4) Cornucopia; 5) Snowblind; 6) Children Of The Grave; 7) War Pigs; 8) Wicked World; 9) Paranoid;
CD II: 1) Hand Of Doom; 2) Hole In The Sky; 3) Symptom Of The Universe; 4) Megalomania; 5) Iron Man; 6) Black Sabbath; 7) N.I.B.; 8) Behind The Wall Of Sleep; 9) Fairies Wear Boots.

Unlike its closest compadres in the early days of heavy metal, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath were never a «great» live band — they pretty much gave it their all in the studio, where they sounded every bit as heavy, raw, and «Satanic» as they could sound on stage, and even more so (for instance, that genuinely mind-melting guitar tone that Iommi had himself for Master Of Reality was never properly recreated live). They were also limited by their skills: Ozzy's vocal flexibility, unlike Plant's or Gillan's, was mainly restricted to ad-libbing stuff like "come on you fuckin' fuckers, I wanna see that fucking roof come fuckin' down!", and Tony's «iron fingers», while empowering him in his regular Sabbath schtick, prevented him from fully exploring the capacities of his guitar.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that such a legendary band has to have a proper live docu­ment to its name — and up until the 21st century, the only such document to capture Black Sab­bath in their alleged prime was Live At Last, a record released without the band's consent in 1980. They'd recorded the tapes themselves during several UK shows in March 1973, but even­tually left them lying around, unhappy with the results; its eventual release was really more like an act of revenge on the part of their former manager, Patrick Meehan. Sound quality was bad, the performances were no great shakes as such, and everybody was unhappy except for the buying public, who still managed to send it up the charts.

Fast forward to 2002, and lo and behold, past wounds have been healed, and now the band mem­bers have no problems with the album as long as it's been cleaned up and remastered. Not only that, but half of the second disc is filled up with tracks from yet a second aborted attempt at a live album, this time, recorded in August 1975 in Asbury Park — and then, to round things out, five more tracks are added from an early show (December 1970) in Paris, which had also been filmed and is these days available as the earliest detailed glimpse of a very young, very heavy, very ex­uberant heavy metal band in their prime.

Naturally, the recommended order of listening would be chronological — start off in the head-spinning era of Paranoid, then leap forward to the drug-heavy, artistically confused period of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and finally make the transition to the last days of Black Sabbath as a seriously creative, trend-setting unit in the era of Sabotage. There won't be too much difference (technically, the sound on the 1970 tracks is noticeably muddier, but we can live with that): you'd expect Ozzy to gradually deteriorate through these years, but I wouldn't bet my money saying that these particular recordings can be used as proof of that. There is only one song here where he comes close to completely losing it — the fast part of ʽMegalomaniaʼ; but this is really not so much due to his being high or anything as it is simply due to the fact that it is, on the whole, a pretty hard song to sing for a singer as «lumpy» as Ozzy. He flounders on the high notes of the chorus, struggles with them bravely, then mentally says «fuck it» and finally just shifts to a much lower range. No wonder ʽMegalomaniaʼ only lasted for, like, several weeks in their setlist, before being jettisoned once and for all.

That said, in the historical and basic-emotional sense the tracks from 1970 are the best of the lot: just as Led Zeppelin's early concerts are usually preferable to their «jet set» period from 1973 on, so it is that Sabbath, in 1970, was not yet spoiled by stardom (not to mention drugs) and certainly not yet bored by the necessity to reproduce the same old hits over and over again. Ozzy, in particular, only begins to display the first signs of his irritable stage antics, and Bill Ward is playing like a madman rather than an experienced professional. It is only the wise Tony Iommi, keeping cool and distanced, for whom time has been beneficial rather than detrimental, as his guitar playing skills only improved through the Seventies (alas, the same cannot be said about his riff-generating genius).

In the Live At Last set, the most interesting piece is an eighteen-minute jam centered around the old song ʽWicked Worldʼ, where, instead of mere improvisation, Tony is weaving in parts of other compositions, for instance, the opening riff of ʽInto The Voidʼ, or a large chunk of ʽSuper­nautʼ. Apparently, after a brief period of toying with «getting musical ideas out of thin air» in the early 1970s, he'd finally settled upon the simple truth — some people are born to improvise, and some people are born to deliberate, and who's to tell who's wrong and who's right? This way, at least, you get to be thrilled by trying to guess what will come next. Or, for instance, trying to guess whether the coda to ʽHand Of Doomʼ will include all of ʽRat Saladʼ, together with Ward's drum solo, or just the cool riff part? (Answer: just the cool riff part. But they may have edited out the drum solo — besides, there is a drum solo in ʽWicked Worldʼ already).

The 1975 set is interesting in that Sabotage had not yet been released, and thus, they are «pre­viewing» the songs — for instance, only the speedy proto-thrash part of ʽSymptom Of The Uni­verseʼ is played, and despite the obvious inconveniences for both Ozzy and Tony (the song really demands two guitars for the coda at least, and do we actually hear backing tapes with recorded synthesizers? Talk about the Quadrophenia effect), I am sure glad they got to include ʽMegalo­maniaʼ with its Gothic atmosphere, so cool and refreshing next to all the basic metal monsters.

In its current status as the only official live Sabbath release from the «prime» era, could this whole thing be better? Perhaps. Hardcore fans, well educated in bootleg studies, tend to point out various small flaws in the Live At Last section and, sometimes, to heavily put down the Asbury Park recordings as well. But I seriously doubt that the «live magic of Sabbath» could be pushed up to a significantly higher level than this. Setlists and sound quality could be better (in theory; not sure about how much we have in practice), but not the overall presentation style. From that point of view, Past Lives deserves a modest thumbs up — yet I can still recommend it, like any other Black Sabbath live album from any other period, only to very serious fans of the band.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bob Marley: Burnin'

BOB MARLEY: BURNIN' (1973)

1) Get Up, Stand Up; 2) Hallelujah Time; 3) I Shot The Sheriff; 4) Burnin' And Lootin'; 5) Put It On; 6) Small Axe; 7) Pass It On; 8) Duppy Conqueror; 9) One Foundation; 10) Rastaman Chant.

Once something has caught fire, it then usually proceeds to burn — a simple truth that, until 1973, found no expression in a succeeding line-up of album titles, though. But clearly, the underlying idea of Burnin' was to dispel the popular myth of the Rastafari movement as just some local Jamaican version of the hippie wave. As per Bob Marley, reggae people may be friendly and pacifist, but that does not mean that they completely reject forceful activity or even violence in their behaviour and their music. Branding and condemning Babylon is noble enough, but there's nothing like watching Babylon burn, really.

The sociopolitical ferocity of Burnin', reaching such levels of energy, passion, and explicitness that all of the Wailers' previous efforts seem like Tiny Tim in comparison, has arguably led all the politically correct people to somehow overrate the album. Technically, it was recorded in a bit of a rush, forcing the Wailers to fall back once more on their back-stock from Kingston (at least three tracks are re-recorded from earlier times), and this time, there are no overdubs from addi­tional session players, so the sound returns to Spartan standards. (Still, there is no Lee Perry any­where in sight to rev up that bass: the Wailers would never again return to the same «skeletal» type of sound they'd been awarded on Soul Revolution).

Most commonly, Burnin' is known and revered for its rebellious classics — ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ, ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ, to a lesser extent ʽSmall Axeʼ as well — and almost certainly, much of that knowledge and reverence has been stimulated by the Eric Clapton cover of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, which became a major hit in 1974 and probably made millions more people aware of Marley and reggae in general. To be fair, Eric Clapton singing ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, a song very much rooted in the realities of Jamaican life, is as awkward as if Jimi Hen­drix decided to put his stamp on ʽLa Donna E Mobileʼ, but he does always play a mean guitar on that song, so let us not be too harsh on the «white boy perversion» that did help bring reggae to a larger audience, and ended up making the world a better place (we hope!).

ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ is not so much rebellious, though, as it is fatalistic: the gradually descending melody of the verse is like the grim pull of destiny, swirling and spiralling and eventually cutting the thread in one final desperate flash. The lyrical matter is pretty much the same kind of stuff you can find in so many folk, blues, and country-western songs, but Bob sings it in the first per­son (Clapton once pressed the man into telling him whether the story was true or not, and Marley said that parts of it were, but he wasn't going to say which ones), and the effect is intimately haunting. It's all simple and accessible and unforgettable — the falsetto harmonies on the chorus may take some getting used to (mainly because that kind of voice has become so firmly associa­ted with disco, post-factum), but they do provide the important hookline that helps draw your attention towards the rest of it (and, come to think of it, the verse part of this song is far more emotionally resonant than the catchy chorus).

Likewise, ʽBurnin' And Lootin'ʼ is more of a philosophical mourning, or a bitter justification of Jamaican violence, than a direct call to action. As if to enhance the understanding that the chorus is not to be taken too literally, the Wailers expand upon the initial "that's why we gonna be bur­nin' and a-lootin' tonight" with the metaphorical "burnin' all pollution tonight, burnin' all illusion tonight" — for those who want to hear it, of course. The slow, gently swaying groove is nowhere near «aggressive», either: the chorus sounds more like a cross between a lullaby and a funeral march than anything «punkish» or genuinely violent in nature. At the same time, you do have your "how many rivers do we have to cross / before we can talk to the boss?", which, as has been previously noted, is like a clever retort to Jimmy Cliff's ʽMany Rivers To Crossʼ, and implies that real burnin' and real lootin' is not a totally excluded solution, either.

The most aggressive and militant song on the album, of course, is ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ — one of the few songs in the Wailers' catalog that could really be called a revolutionary anthem, and one that would certainly have rallied plenty of troops around the banner of Jah in case of need. For the first time, Bob is properly and intentionally feeding upon negative energy, learning how to throw thunderbolts, and even Peter Tosh, replacing him for one of the verses, is adding an angry vibe to his formerly epic, but peaceful tone. It is more of a sermon than a song, instructing people to search for Heaven on Earth rather than wait for a time when "Great God will come from the skies, take away everything and make everybody feel high". But it is set to one of their most tightly focused, clenched-teeth grooves ever — just as lyrically it disbands the myth about Rastaman people «feeling high» all the time and not giving a damn about much of anything else, so, musi­cally, it can dispel the myth of reggae being «relaxed», «lazy-sounding» music. ʽGet Up, Stand Upʼ has as much rocking power as ʽSuperstitionʼ or ʽSatisfactionʼ, if «rocking power» is to be understood as the impulse that shoots extra adrenaline into your brain and makes you feel as if you could take on the world with your bare fists.

In between these particular landmarks of class struggle reflected in music, the rest of the tracks on Burnin' veers between hit and miss. Side B, in particular, has always felt like a relative letdown to me: the «socially relevant» material there seems to lose some of the energy and focus, either degenerating into too much monotonousness (ʽRastaman Chantʼ — with its ʽLouie Louieʼ-ish musical attitude, this one does feel like everybody finally got high at the end of the sessions) or swerving into too much pleasantness (Tosh's ʽOne Foundationʼ is way too friendly in comparison with the first side's barn-burners). On the other hand, Side A reaches near-perfection with the addition of the gospel-reggae chant ʽHallelujah Timeʼ and the hypnotic feel-them-spirit mantra of ʽPut It Onʼ — also monotonous, but it does convey a good impression of somebody being taken over by a benevolent spirit and busily merging the manly and the godly in one's own person.

It is hard to tell whether the legend of Burnin' owes more to the quality of the music or the loud­ness of the expressed social feeling — I would personally suggest that, from a sheerly musical point of view, Catch A Fire contains more original and exciting ideas, but about half of the songs on that one are love songs, whereas Burnin' is completely dominated by tunes «with a message». But then again, this is reggae we are talking about, where the power of the groove is always more important than any melodic hook, and in terms of power, the first side of this album easily trumps Catch A Fire and would not, in fact, be matched until the appearance of Exodus. So let us just call this another relative triumph, give it a thumbs up and, just in case somebody stupid lands on this page, remind one more time that Bob Marley and The Wailers are not advocating violence, and that they'd rather you burn up your illusions than anything physically flammable. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: The Revölution By Night

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: THE REVÖLUTION BY NIGHT (1983)

1) Take Me Away; 2) Eyes On Fire; 3) Shooting Shark; 4) Veins; 5) Shadow Of California; 6) Feel The Thunder; 7) Let Go; 8) Dragon Lady; 9) Light Years Of Love.

Rule of thumb: if you go to the producer of Loverboy, who has only recently completed produc­tion of a multiplatinum album by Loverboy — do not be surprised if your album ends up sound­ing like Loverboy. That is, of course, provided your original plan, for some reason, was not to have your album sound like Loverboy — but for all we know, the 1983 edition of Blue Öyster Cult, replete with new member Rick Downey on (mostly electronic) drums, wanted to sound like Loverboy. See, the whole idea behind Blue Öyster Cult was that they had to override this «cult» status — had to be super-bizarre, post-modern, ironic rockers of stadium, rather than small club, caliber. And if you need stadium-size audiences, you gotta hang on to stadium-size commercial success. So off you go and find yourself one of the hottest new things in town: Bruce Fairbairn, the guy who would very soon not only be the guy behind Loverboy, but also the guy behind Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet and Aerosmith's Permanent Vacation and Pump.

The real weirdness of the situation does not begin to come out, though, until you realize that substantially, fundamentally nothing has really changed. The band is still working with Meltzer (ʽVeinsʼ), Pearlman (ʽShadow Of Californiaʼ), and even Patti Smith (ʽShooting Sharkʼ). They are still writing songs about darkness, thunder, dragon ladies, and all sorts of sordid subject matters, and are still willing to play their «grinning gods of rock» game with anybody still willing to stick around and listen. They do not seem to realize, as it is, that something vital has gone out of their sound with this transition to a new style of playing and production — they probably think, like so many of their contemporaries, that it's just a matter of stylistic progression.

And back in 1983, it might have been, but in retrospect, that «stylistic progression» turns out to have been a near-complete loss of face. Songs like Gregg Winter's ʽEyes On Fireʼ are little more than instantaneously trashable synth-rock, devoid of grit and decent melody — but when they try to preserve the grit, the results are even more pitiable: no matter how much ʽFeel The Thunderʼ begs me to obey its title, all I have to say in response is «I have no true feel for Rambo Metal», regardless of whether I hear it on Alice Cooper's Constrictor or any other record. Get rid of those ugly keyboards first, and then we'll talk — maybe.

Production, occasional bad ideas, and poor outside contributions aside, Revolution By Night (can I be spared the task of pasting in yet another of these gratuitous Umlauts?) has its share of «decent beginnings» — ʽShooting Sharkʼ and ʽShadow Of Californiaʼ are both solid epic tracks that deserved a much better fate. The former is a collaboration between Buck Dharma and Patti Smith, a dark, smoky ballad of love gone bad with a touching vocal performance, a catchy funky bassline (courtesy of guest star Randy Jackson — Joe Bouchard does not have a knack for this funky shit), and moody lead guitar and sax parts: somewhat monotonous, perhaps, but still one of those ʽReaperʼ-type songs where Roeser's melancholic-romantic personality makes a temporary break from the band's usual tongue-in-cheek attitude prison.

On the contrary, ʽShadow Of Californiaʼ is completely tongue-in-cheek, a hilariously spooky portrait of a band of Hell's Angels as a Satanic symbol of the West Coast — apparently, Pearlman still hasn't quite managed to exorcise his demons, or satisfy his fetish, since the days of ʽTrans­maniacon MCʼ. With a memorable riff, evocative guitar work that does resemble a swarm of bikes casting a shadow that "will grow to cover California", it could be that perfect devilish anti­dote to the angelic ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ that all of us cynics had been waiting for — if not for the production, which predictably sucks a couple pints of blood out of this organism. Dammit, why couldn't they have written this circa 1976 or 1977?

Alas, but in addition to these problems, there are further embarrassments: ʽLet Goʼ starts out promisingly punkishly, like a deconstructed take on ʽI Can't Explainʼ, but quickly degenerates into lameass stadium football chants ("B-O-C! You can be whatever you want to be!") that rank among the tackiest things this band has ever stooped to. And the closing ballad ʽLight Years Of Loveʼ makes ʽAstronomyʼ sound like the epitome of refined profoundness and complexity in comparison — not only are the lyrics here completely pedestrian ("our love is like the shining sea?" — come on guys, we know you can do better than that), but they are delivered by Joe Bouchard in such a pathetically whiny manner, and accompanied with such a stiff guitar tone, that the song has no life whatsoever, and I have no idea who the hell it was meant to woo over — early Eighties' teenagers? bored housewives? certainly not the veteran fan guard.

We almost forgot to mention the opening track and lead single, ʽTake Me Awayʼ, but that is only because there is very little to mention: it is just another leaden, lifeless, stillborn arena rocker from Bloom and his Canadian friend Aldo Nova. There's an embryonic silhouette of a good riff somewhere at the end of the chorus, but other than that, it's pop metal mess personalized. All in all, thumbs down seems to be the only reasonable solution — a pity, since I'd almost gotten partial to ʽShooting Starʼ and ʽShadow Of Californiaʼ, but two good songs (one of them overlong at that) do not a recommendable record make. Blame it on the Eighties if you will, but really, given the band's evolution over the Seventies, we all saw this one coming, I guess. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Bears: The Bears

THE BEARS: THE BEARS (1987)

1) None Of The Above; 2) Fear Is Never Boring; 3) Honey Bee; 4) Man Behind The Curtain; 5) Wavelength; 6) Trust; 7) Raining; 8) Superboy; 9) Meet Me In The Dark; 10) Figure It Out.

Stuck somewhere in the cracks between Adrian Belew's tenure in King Crimson and his mildly successful solo career is that particular part of his life which was spent as a member of The Bears — not a very small part, either, considering that they managed to put out four studio albums, one live record, and dedicate quite a bit of their lives to touring. Unfortunately, they generated next to no publicity: apparently, people were more prone to perking up at the words «Adrian Belew» than willing to listen to a band called «The Bears».

Too bad, because there is some delightful pop music to be found on these records. As it turns out, The Bears were the first proper polygon upon which Adrian dared to test out his pop instincts. Originally, they were not The Bears, but «The Raisins», a Cincinnati-based pop group that in­cluded Rob Fetters on guitar, Bob Nyswonger on bass, and a couple other guys who didn't make it further: Adrian, who was at the time still an active part of the KC lineup and also fiddled around with the first, half-pop, half-avantgarde stage of his solo career, befriended them and produced their first and last LP in 1983. After it flopped, the band fell apart, and out of the ashes of The Raisins, with the addition of drummer Chris Arduser, rose The Bears — a band in which Adrian Belew, the famous inventive-progressive guitar-wiz kid, would feel right at home going «all-out pop» without the fans snickering or spewing behind his back.

Now there is nothing all that special about this particular brand of guitar-based pop that The Bears profess — but let me tell you that these songs, all ten of them, are every bit as solid as any random lost-genius «power pop» band from the Eighties, mussed and sused over by the retro-hipster crowds. In fact, it might even be better than most, considering how consistently strong the hooks are: the vocal melodies, provided by Adrian and Rob Fetters, always latch on to some emotional center or other, and although they are rarely supported by equally strong instrumental hooks, the overall guitar sound, produced by the regular Adrian Belew Sound Factory, is always tasteful and creative.

More than that, The Bears pride themselves on writing mildly intelligent, easily understandable, decidedly «un-artsy» lyrics, usually with a social message, and delivering them in an easy, down-to-earth manner that should be quite seductive for all those who fidget at the sight of pretentious­ness or «intentional inaccessibility». The very first song, ʽNone Of The Aboveʼ, is a manifesto of sorts: "Top ten well dressed men... epitome of taste... always willing, always hot, all these things I am not". Fetters' thin-voiced "none of the above, none of the above...", wimpy and sarcastic at the same time, echoed by Belew's equally thin and evilly cackling guitar line, reminds me of some of Pete Townshend's solo material, except The Bears, by definition, are unable to convey the same heartfelt pessimism and bitterness as Pete does — they're too cheery by nature to do that, and even their anger always comes with a smile.

Instrumentally, they are gifted enough to set up a friendly funky groove, as on ʽFear Is Never Boringʼ (a re-recording of a mini-minor hit they had in 1983 as The Raisins), and sometimes add a brass section to fatten up the sound (ʽHoney Beeʼ, ʽFigure It Outʼ), perhaps as a tribute to the long-gone glam-rock era or because somebody just wanted to play some sax, I dunno. If Adrian wants to, he can provide plenty of guitar overdubs for an «epic» sound (as he does in the intro­duction to ʽTrustʼ), but ultimately, the idea is to depart from «pop» as rarely as possible — and when they do it, it is usually in order to indulge in Ade's psychedelic soloing (said ʽTrustʼ inclu­des a lengthy and quite melodic passage constructed out of backward-recorded notes).

Ultimately, the one thing that separates The Bears from Adrian's solo career is that most of the choruses, and even many of the verses are sung by Belew and Fetters in unison, and sometimes they are also joined by the drummer (and sometimes there may only be one of them, but he's double-tracked anyway). This seems to be intentionally done in order to give the album a more «group» feeling, à la early Beatles and all, but the two gentlemen are not as expertly synchro­nized in tone and mood as Lennon and McCartney, and the combination of their overtones does not result in anything noticeably better than their individual tones. Had they worked more crea­tively on their vocals, this might have given the record a kick in the diversity area — as it is, its economic 34 minutes paradoxically feel much longer, a problem not atypical of the usual retro-pop approach, in the Eighties or at any later date, but one which a guy of Belew's level of intellect and giftedness might have easily avoided. Then again, he probably did not want to avoid it: The Bears were set up as a bona fide «niche band», and The Bears is appropriately a «niche album», and you have to take it or leave it, and under these circumstances I most certainly take it, and gratefully award it a friendly thumbs up.