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Monday, September 17, 2018

David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel

DAVID BYRNE: THE CATHERINE WHEEL (1981)

1) Light Bath; 2) His Wife Refused; 3) Ade; 4) Walking; 5) Two Soldiers; 6) Under The Mountain; 7) Dinosaur; 8) The Red House; 9) Wheezing; 10) Eggs In A Briar Patch; 11) Poison; 12) Cloud Chamber; 13) Black Flag; 14) My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks); 15) Combat; 16) Leg Bells; 17) The Blue Flame; 18) Big Business; 19) Dense Beasts; 20) Five Golden Sections; 21) What A Day That Was; 22) Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open); 23) Light Bath.

General verdict: An uneasy, but ultimately efficient marriage between Eno's ambient soundscapes and Byrne's funky paranoia.


If there is one particular art in this world about which I understand absolutely and utterly nothing, it is the art of dancing; for all I know, any dancing in the world might be about architecture, or about life insurance, or whatever. Fortunately, in order to enjoy David Byrne's first solo album, one does not at all need to process the information that it was specially commissioned by the famous dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp — for one of her very first and most critically acclaimed Broadway performances. Just like the Heads, Twyla, too, was based in New York, and there is nothing surprising about her interest in Byrne as a musical partner, what with the perfect modern synthesis of brain and body stimuli in the Heads' music.

What is actually more surprising to me is how all these early solo projects were still so strongly intertwined, despite all the alleged animosity between individual band members. Here, we have Jerry Harrison assisting Byrne on several of the tracks, although, admittedly, there are no signs of Chris or Tina — however, Eno is playing bass and keyboards, and then there is the ubiquitous Adrian Belew, who somehow managed to contribute to all the solo projects of the Heads in that very productive year of 1981, before finally picking up his checkbook and making the move to King Crimson territory. This ultimately makes The Catherine Wheel the closest in sound to a bona fide Talking Heads album, although the instrumental and snippet-ish nature of many of the tracks only really allows to place it on the «auxiliary» shelf.

Originally, the album was released in a shortened LP version, which only included most of the long, self-sustained compositions; and in a longer cassette version, which also included all the brief snippets for the suite — in the CD age, the cassette version became the default one, though I would guess there'd be no serious harm done anyway, were you to shear away all the brief inter­ludes. Most of the numbers are purely instrumental, but there is a small bunch of vocal songs, and these typically seem to be the important centerpieces: particularly ʽWhat A Day That Wasʼ, a classic Byrne-style paranoid tribute to our mad mad world and the album's one nearly-complete quasi-Heads masterpiece — something that was so clearly understood, they later went to the trouble of beefing it up with the full support of the band's powerhouse rhythm section (here, the bass and drums clearly sound underwhelming) and including it into the setlist for Stop Making Sense, where it became one of the highlights. (The grim funk rocker ʽBig Businessʼ would also be performed at the same show, but you can only see it as a bonus track on the DVD release).

Overall, however, the main problem of The Catherine Wheel is precisely the same as it was with Harrison's solo debut: it sounds way too much like a slightly undercooked regular Heads album — too much to stir up extra curious interest, yet not enough to make the experience just as exciting as it was with Remain In Light or Speaking In Tongues. Case in point: ʽHis Wife Refusedʼ, a song that immediately brings on associations with ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ by merely having the words "wife" and "house" in it, features an impressive and astounding amount of odd guitar and keyboard sounds in it, sometimes up to the point of sounding like two or three swarms of alien bees from distant planets fighting over new territory. But as a song, it is not particularly memorable — no anthemic chorus, no fresh hook other than David, in his usual tone / style, delivering short bursts of hysterical emotion. There are also severe problems with self-repetition: ʽBig Blue Plymouthʼ, directly stepping on the toes of ʽWhat A Day That Wasʼ, is pretty much the same song, just a little bit louder, but with the same dynamics — a tense-'n'-nervous verse gallop resolving into an anthemic chorus with dreamy back harmonies.

This is why the long version of the album, with all the atmospheric snippets, is actually better: these tiny bits of ambience constitute the record's experimental core and explore an impressively diverse array of styles. Some of the tracks are purely atmospheric, somewhat in the manner of Eno's Another Green World (ʽCloud Chamberʼ, with its nice synergy between clinky percussion and heavenly synth tones); some are in the avantgarde-minimalism vein (ʽCombatʼ, with several simple bass, piano, and guitar lines playing the quirky dissonance game with each other); some can only be described as bits of psycho-pastoral jamming (ʽAdeʼ — possibly named after Belew, though he is not credited for the writing). Nothing is particularly great in itself, but taken together, this little collection of melodies and atmospheres is fun, pleasant, and, most importantly, is a good case of several distinctly talented people pooling their ideas together, rather than sticking to a set formula.

Compared to Byrne and Eno's other joint project from the same year (My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts — previously reviewed in the Eno section), The Catherine Wheel is nowhere near as groundbreaking — not that it was ever supposed to, being, after all, a specially commissioned side project for somebody else — but it is still a piece of work that will be of interest to fans of both Byrne and Eno, because no other record in the world sounds so much like a chemical synthesis of Fear Of Music with Another Green World. Come to think of it, Fear Of Another Green World would have been a much better title for this thing than the symbolic reference to a set of fireworks, even if it may have inspired the name for one of the 1990's most quintessential shoegazing outfits. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Roger Waters: The Wall Live In Berlin

ROGER WATERS: THE WALL LIVE IN BERLIN (1990)

1) In The Flesh; 2) The Thin Ice; 3) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 1; 4) The Happiest Days Of Our Lives; 5) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2; 6) Mother; 7) Goodbye Blue Sky; 8) Empty Spaces; 9) Young Lust; 10) One Of My Turns; 11) Don't Leave Me Now; 12) Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 3; 13) Goodbye Cruel World; 14) Hey You; 15) Is There Anybody Out There?; 16) Nobody Home; 17) Vera; 18) Bring The Boys Back Home; 19) Comfortably Numb; 20) In The Flesh; 21) Run Like Hell; 22) Waiting For The Worms; 23) Stop!; 24) The Trial; 25) The Tide Is Turning.

General verdict: So-so performance, priceless historical document.


On July 21, 1990, hundreds of thousands of people got to watch The Wall live — merely due to a lucky accident in which President Reagan involuntarily quoted the verdict of a character from a rock opera by Pink Floyd. In fact, I was all set to write about how it is actually pretty hard to find artistic parallels between the plot/message of The Wall and the horrible history of a divided Berlin — well, you can if you try hard enough, but most of them will be indirect (by way of Pink mutating into Hitler, etc., and even Hitler had little to do with the Berlin Wall). Still, the fact stands that the Wall show is one hell of a piece of inspirational entertainment, and if it needed this kind of pretext to be resuscitated just this once, what would be wrong with that? Watching the whole thing live was a once-in-a-lifetime event for Berliners (particularly Eastern).

For those people who did not exactly live through this, in time or space, Waters' show will at best remain a historical curio, seriously marred by the circumstance of not really being a true Pink Floyd show, and by Roger's choices of guest stars. Not being able to get mega-stars like Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and Joe Cocker (all of whom had been considered at one point or another), Roger had to settle for second-rate performers — such as the likeable but not very distinctive Paul Carrack on ʽHey Youʼ, or the blandly unsexy Bryan Adams on ʽYoung Lustʼ. It is, in fact, amazing how many wrong or uninteresting choices were made. The Scorpions to play the bombastic arena-rock of ʽIn The Fleshʼ? A vocally failing Joni Mitchell on ʽGoodbye Blue Skyʼ? An obnoxiously unfunny Cyndi Lauper for ʽAnother Brick, Pt. 2ʼ? A sacrificial Sinéad O'Connor on ʽMotherʼ (for some reason, backed up by members of The Band because one thing ʽMotherʼ had always lacked, of course, was Garth Hudson's friendly campfire accordion?).

In the end, I think, the only person who got some acclaim was Van Morrison with his not-too-Gilmouresque delivery on ʽComfortably Numbʼ — but even that is totally spoiled by The Band's backing vocals, which seriously dilute the solo prayer-like attitude and take away from the pool of awesomeness. Because of this, I guess I have no choice but to award top prize to the Red Army Choir on ʽBring The Boys Back Homeʼ, due to both the sheer novelty factor and the fact that you just do not mess with the Red Army Choir.

As for the music, at best the players struggle to reproduce the energy and moodiness of the original tracks; at worst, they fail to capture its subtleties — for instance, the deep corroding sorrow of ʽDon't Leave Me Nowʼ is all but lost on stage, replaced by loudly wailing blues guitars that do not quite pack the same punch. Two solo guitarists on ʽComfortably Numbʼ (Rick DiFonzo and Snowy White) play tastefully and respectably, but still do nothing to bring out the song's cathartic power properly (I actually enjoy their acoustic duet at the end of ʽIs There Any­body Out There?ʼ a bit more — it helps when they do not have to strive to scale those Olympian heights). All in all, though, it is more of a nothing-to-lose, nothing-to-gain kind of case, even if you are watching the video rather than just listening.

We can forgive Roger his little ruse when he sneaks in ʽThe Tide Is Turningʼ at the end of the show — for one thing, it was too good an opportunity to pass in terms of extra publicity for Radio K.A.O.S.; for another thing, here was actually a song that was totally perfect for the political occasion. This sort of singularity does not magically transform ʽTideʼ into a better song, but if you let yourself go, it can feel pretty emotional — even more so than the rest of the show; and at least Roger still properly finishes things up with ʽOutside The Wallʼ, never letting go of the implication that what has come to pass once can and will happen again: a message that was not likely heeded in the optimistic climate of the early 1990s, though.

For a long time, The Wall Live In Berlin presented the only chance for people to witness the spectacle live — in either audio or video form. But after the archival release of the 1980-81 tour recordings in 2000, there was little remaining reason to listen to the album; and after Roger managed to resuscitate the show once again for his 2010-13 tour, there were even fewer reasons left to watch the video, unless you really really need to see The Scorpions and/or Cyndi Lauper, or think that Garth Hudson's accordion on ʽMotherʼ gives the song a whole dazzling new direction. As a document from a fascinating era of new breath and hope, though, the whole thing is probably up there with footage from Moscow's earliest rock festivals, or Bernstein conducting the 9th from the Branden­burg Gates — a nostalgic treasure for those of us who did live through this, and a useful history lesson for those who did not. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Angra: Ømni

ANGRA: ØMNI (2018)

1) Light Of Transcendence; 2) Travelers Of Time; 3) Black Widow's Web; 4) Insania; 5) The Bottom Of My Soul; 6) War Horns; 7) Caveman; 8) Magic Mirror; 9) Always More; 10) Ømni: Silence Inside; 11) Ømni: Infinite Nothing.

General verdict: The usual post-Matos Angra delivery — impeccably forgettable power metal whose modest catchiness is no match for its deadpan seriousness.


Before embarking upon this review, I carefully re-read everything I had to say about Angra's previous album, Secret Garden, and now I have a good pretext for keeping this one short and sweet — because nearly everything I wrote about that one applies to this one. There is a serious difference concerning the line-up: founding father Kiko Loureiro finally had enough (and, as they say, went to joing Megadeth, which should probably be counted as a significant upgrade for the man). His replacement is Marcelo Barbosa, a viciously melodic shredder but, as far as I can tell, not much of a songwriter or trend-setter. But that's okay, since most of the songs on the previous record were written by Bittencourt anyway — nowadays, the sole surviving member from the classic original line-up.

Other than that, what we have here is yet another fairly generic — and, as far as generic goes, fairly consistent — power metal opus, this time apparently based on the familiar concept of AI overtaking human intelligence in the near future; the last time I gave a damn about Angra lyrics, though, was on Holy Land, and I see no reason to get involved now. The songs are mostly one speed-riff-fest after another, with plenty of symphonic guitar posturing and ecstatic singing from Fabio — loud and robust, but who is really going to go crazy over Beethoven influences in the main melody of ʽLight Of Transcendenceʼ in 2018?

Occasional oddities begin to attract attention around the third track, which features guest vocals from Brazilian pop star Sandy in the intro and outro, and then, in a startling twist, Arch Enemy's Alissa White-Gluz and her gurgly growling vocals in a call-and-response duet with Fabio — I think this is the first time we encounter growling on an Angra album, and I am not sure it should count as anything more than a novelty; but then, what is really to distinguish one late-period Angra album from another other than novelties? (And, for that matter, a few bars of Alissa's growling are arguably more fun than having to sit through an entire album of Arch Enemy).

Another eyebrow-raising track is ʽCavemanʼ, which starts out with an unusually gruff industrial / math-rock riff punch — but then segues into a bunch of tribal percussion and (presumably) indigenous Brazilian chanting, which clearly brings to mind the style of Holy Land, which the band was indeed eager to invoke. Unfortunately and predictably, the song never lives up to the level of Holy Land, but at least it is an effort to break out of the rut — as is ʽMagic Mirrorʼ with its romantic piano interlude, and ʽAlways Moreʼ, a jazz-folk ballad that completely dispenses with metallic formalities and shows that this band is capable of colorful pop riffs as well.

But all of these elements are still relatively minor: there can be no doubt that, in general, Angra are still happy as heck to work within a safely established formula, and that formula is still not enough to convince me that power metal (or, at least, this particular brand of power metal) could ever be taken seriously — that is, to the point of invoking a cathartic state. If you are already a fan of Angra, Ømni delivers the goods with all the efficiency of a truly loyal customer service; but that's about all the album does. Well, that and it also replaces O with a more difficult Unicode, merely to make things look a bit more Scandinavian... haven't those guys always been from Brazil, though? Took them quite a while to graphically acknowledge their debt to the land of ice and snow, I must say. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Ringo Starr: Goodnight Vienna

RINGO STARR: GOODNIGHT VIENNA (1974)


1) (It's All Down To) Goodnight Vienna; 2) Occapella; 3) Oo-Wee; 4) Husbands And Wives; 5) Snookeroo; 6) All By Myself; 7) Call Me; 8) No No Song; 9) Only You; 10) Easy For Me; 11) Goodnight Vienna (reprise); 12*) Back Off Boogaloo; 13*) Blindman; 14*) Six O'Clock (extended version).

General verdict: A bit too much on the silly pop side, but still fairly consistent and fun as far as silly pop goes. Too bad the «Ringo as Klaatu» idea never got reflected in the music — hey, it could work.


The success of Ringo was a turning point in the man's career — from that point onwards, Ringo adopted the «Magnet Approach» as his primary guideline in creating new music. Namely, Ringo himself would be the magnet, and all sorts of famous musical people, preferably including one or two of his older bandmates, would be the objects of attraction. Even if the approach would not always work, it was pretty clear to Ringo that this would be the only way for his albums to sell, or, if not sell, then at least have some sort of reason for existence. Or maybe it was never all that clear to Ringo, but that is what he did anyway, drunk or sober.

Since Goodnight Vienna was recorded in more or less the same circumstances as Ringo — still in Los Angeles, still accompanying John Lennon on his «lost weekend», still featuring the same player line-up — one would expect it to be comparable in quality to its predecessor, and it is. Yet at the same time, there is a slight overhang of the balance towards the whimsical vaudeville side, and I would make a guess and blame this on the absence of one particularly important and crucial friend: Marc Bolan. The heaviest and most seriously-sounding song on the CD edition of Vienna is ʽBack Off Boogalooʼ, a single-only rocker that had actually been recorded in 1972 and was still heavily influenced by Marc — not just because of the lyrics ("boogaloo" was one of Bolan's favorite words), but because of the overall bombastic, snapping, snarling approach; Harrison's slide guitar playing, coupled with some of the loudest and fiercest drumming in Ringo's entire career, is a classic example of the no-holds-barred principle.

Compared to that heavy (but still fun) stuff, Goodnight Vienna is a bit of a letdown if you come looking for maniacal energy and party wildness. It is still a party album, but it looks like the party is winding down — if Ringo captured the guests in full heat, then Vienna is that late hour thing when it is not quite time to go yet, but the heavy stuff is already starting to wear off. So there is less heavy rock and more flat-out pop, less flashy guitar and more honky-tonk piano: Bolan is on his way out, but Elton is still in, with ʽSnookerooʼ sounding like something out of the ʽLove Lies Bleedingʼ textbook, only in a clown version this time.

The one song that most people probably remember from the album is the ʽNo No Songʼ, though it was really a cover — Hoyt Axton's original was a little more blatantly Caribbean-stylized, both in the singing and the musical arrangement, whereas Ringo's band goes for a more straightforward pop angle. There is a bit of self-irony in listening to Ringo consequently renounce all of Earth's nasty pleasures in the middle of a recording studio in 1974 Los Angeles ("ten pound bag of cocaine" — how could one refuse a ten pound bag of cocaine under those circumstances?), and the irony is further increased with a vocal and instrumental melody that would make the song perfect for Sesame Street... well, it's never too late to teach kids about the harmful side effects of heavy drugs, I guess. The whole thing may be dumb as heck and even sacrilegious if you want to think in those kinds of terms, but damn is it ever catchy, and Ringo is the perfect guy to sing it. (Though it is also a good incentive to check out more of Hoyt Axton's stuff — nobody ever remembers the guy, but he did record quite prolifically in the 1960s and beyond, and wrote some good songs that we usually know from other performers, such as Steppenwolf's ʽPusherʼ).

Other than that, most of the material is enjoyable and forgettable. The Lennon-written title track is a novelty toss-off — ʽI'm The Greatestʼ was at least swimming in irony, whereas ʽGoodnight Viennaʼ is just drunken nonsense sung against a banging piano riff that John might have thrown out while recording his version of ʽYa Yaʼ or something. Paul and George are no longer present; instead, we have the bright New Orleanian sound of Allen Toussaint (ʽOccapellaʼ), the Nashville sludge of Roger Miller (ʽHusbands And Wivesʼ, a fairly poor choice because Ringo very much sucks at slow, sentimental country waltzes), and the melancholic balladry of Harry Nilsson (ʽEasy For Meʼ — which you can hear on Nilsson's own album anyway, so there is really no reason to hunt down a Ringo version). All nice enough, but without quite the same atmosphere of total craziness that permeated Ringo.

Still, compared to the late Seventies' slump that would follow, Goodnight Vienna is quite a salvageable record. If we agree that we like to have Mr. Starkey clowning around as long as he understands that he is clowning and lets us in on the joke, then this album perfectly fits the concept. It rarely, if ever, tries to be serious; rarely, if ever, demands for any exceptional singing feats to be performed; totally respects the quality-pop laws of catchiness and professionalism; and still has that slightly dimmed (and, by now, a bit forced) party feel. You do get the impression that, perhaps, a nasty hangover would be just around the corner, and it was; but as of late 1974, the party was still on, and it is never too late to join in, not even in 2018.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Jerry Harrison: The Red And The Black

JERRY HARRISON: THE RED AND THE BLACK (1981)

1) Things Fall Apart; 2) Slink; 3) The New Adventure; 4) Magic Hymie; 5) Fast Karma / No Questions; 6) Worlds In Collision; 7) The Red Nights; 8) No More Reruns; 9) No Warning, No Alarm.

General verdict: A «Remain In-Lite» for those who prefer Diet Coke and nicotine-free cigarettes to, you know, the real bad thing.


In order to measure the amazing amounts of genetic and social diversity on planet Earth, you could dig deep into the world of genetic samples and anthropological studies. Or you could take a trip around the globe, not forgetting all the important spots such as the Kalahari Desert or Papua New Guinea. Or, to save yourself time, money, and brain cells, you could take a quick look at some Internet reviews and see that there are real people on this planet who consider Jerry Harri­son's solo debut, The Red And The Black, to be a better album than Remain In Light. And I think to myself — what a wonderful world!

Not that The Red And The Black is a worthless effort or anything. It is simply a clear-cut attempt on one guy's part to bite off more than he can chew. Where Chris and Tina deliberately chose a different, almost antithetical route to Byrne's vision, Harrison made a record that just as deliberately claimed direct descent from the musical and general artistic stem of both Fear Of Music and Remain In Light. The funky rhythms, the avantgarde solos, the alarmingly alarmed mindset, the worried-and-or-ominous vocals, the cryptic lyrics — everything is here in more or less the same dosage as you would see on traditional Talking Heads records. The big difference is that the only Talking Head here is the head that rarely talked: Jerry himself.

He does invite some of the same people that played an important role in the greatness of Remain In Light: the ubiquitous Adrian Belew on guitar, Nona Hendryx on backing vocals (she also contributes some of her own lyrics), and, although that does not quite count, Bernie Worrell on keyboards (who had already joined the Heads' touring roster after Remain In Light was released, and would stay on with them for the next several years). But there is no Tina, no Chris, no David, and, last but definitely not least of all, no Brian Eno to work the same magic for his songs that he did for the Heads. Instead, the album is co-produced by Jerry with Dave Jerden, Remain In Light's sound engineer — technically close, but no cigar.

The difference is felt as early as on the first track. It has a nicely suitable title (ʽThings Fall Apartʼ) and a suitably paranoid mood, but the whole thing is just not too exciting. A slightly slower tempo than required. A fairly simple, metronomically-oriented rhythm section. A lilting funky guitar rhythm that is, without explanation, pushed so far back in the mix it hardly even begins to matter. Vocals that try to sound ominous but are neither deep enough to be spooky nor jerky enough to be unsettling. Moderately catchy, but not amazing hooklines. In other words — a good imitation of the real thing, but the spirit just isn't there, really.

In a way, the lyrics to the second track, ʽSlinkʼ, are self-explanatory. "Don't you rush it, don't you push it, don't you shove it, don't you lose control — you must keep it cool, keep it smooth" is the chorus recipe, and while it is obvious that our man Jerry here is simply giving you some good advice on how to survive in the insane modern age, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that the same applies to his own music as well — The Red And The Black being a non-rushing, non-pushing, non-shoving, never-losing-control reply to Remain In Light, what with ʽSlinkʼ itself built upon a steady, semi-tight ska rhythm with a perfectly normal, not-too-agitated guitar riff running through it and a perfectly normal melodica part cheering up your spirit. Besides, do you really want Jerry Harrison to give you reasonable psychological advice — and, in the process, confirm himself as the boringly sane counterpart to David Byrne's psycho persona? Next thing we know, you will be siding with Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader or something.

But enough with the criticisms. While all the songs on the album suffer from the same problems, most of them also have their virtues — Harrison is not the last person in the world when it comes to moods and hooks. ʽMagic Hymieʼ, for instance, is a lot of fun, a sort of cartoonish funky take on the vibe of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ (I have no idea who is meant by ʽHymieʼ, but the song paints a credible picture of how it feels to be pushed to the brink). ʽWorlds In Collisionʼ, starting off with a threatening sonic vibe not unlike the one in ʽMemories Can't Waitʼ, is Jerry's grim-faced post-punkish revolutionary update of the message of ʽTimes They Are A-Changin'ʼ, with Adrian supplying most of the real revolution while Jerry is mainly busy shouting out ominous slogans ("all you mothers, show your children you're not afraid to die!"). There is even some odd charm in the neo-Chuck-Berry-like proto-rap of ʽNo More Rerunsʼ, though there is little to distinguish it properly from a hundred other similar New Wave tracks.

By the end of my third listen I was actually liking the album or, at least, the effort that went into making it. If anything, it does show that Jerry Harrison was not just a replaceable cog in the Heads machine, but a serious contributor to the global whole, with a very modern vision that was very different from Byrne's, but not at all incompatible. But it also shows that Harrison was essentially a normal guy, interested in exploring new avenues but not at all willing to run down them like crazy, with no shoes and no shirt on. Indeed, some people like such characters better — these are the ones willing to say that The Red And The Black is superior to Remain In Light — yet these are the people to whom I would rather entrust driving cars than making critical evalua­tions. Bottomline: The Red And The Black is a worthy effort that sheds some much-needed light on the persona of a most important «man in the shadows», but it does not really stand out on its own — only in the overall context of Talking Heads' history.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Syd Barrett: Opel

SYD BARRETT: OPEL (1988)

1) Opel; 2) Clowns & Jugglers; 3) Rats; 4) Golden Hair (vocal version); 5) Dolly Rocker; 6) Word Song; 7) Wined And Dined; 8) Swan Lee (Silas Lang); 9) Birdie Hop; 10) Let's Split; 11) Lanky (part I); 12) Wouldn't You Miss Me (Dark Globe); 13) Milky Way; 14) Golden Hair (instrumental).

General verdict: A generally unsatisfactory collection of outtakes — unless you have a very special feeling for Syd at his most stripped-down.


I am not sure why it took Harvest eighteen years to release this collection of outtakes from Syd's solo recording sessions — even less sure why they finally agreed to do so in 1988, which was a bit earlier than the «archival craze» that hit the labels in the advanced CD age — but the fact remains that Opel is a problematic, but legitimate final chapter to Syd's career. Altogether, there are eight songs here that had never been officially released before; six alternate raw takes on the previously published originals from The Madcap Laughs and Barrett; and, if you get the 1993 reissue, six more alternate raw takes to satisfy your hunger for bloody Barrett meat.

The actual value of this LP, however, will sorely depend on how much you love Syd Barrett as the blisteringly badly tortured demented soul that he was around 1968–70. Some people love that kind of Syd Barrett more than their own, so disgustingly sane and rational, fathers and mothers; such people are fully in their right to claim that the rawer it is, the better, and therefore these embryonic, even-sloppier-than-usual takes on ʽDark Globeʼ and ʽOctopusʼ (here given in its original title, ʽClowns & Jugglersʼ) are actually preferable to the «overproduced» versions, where Syd's pure, pristine vision was contaminated by the likes of Gilmour, The Soft Machine, Malcolm Jones, Peter Jenner, and whoever else. Or that ʽOpelʼ, whose six minute-long acoustic strum is technically reminiscent of the first bars of Dylan's ʽIt's A Hard Rain A-Gonna Fallʼ, is actually the quintessential confessional Syd Barrett song, a prolonged, intense, straight-in-your-face call for love, help, and sympathy.

From that kind of perspective, it is Opel, not the older records, that constitutes the perfect ideal for the indie singer-songwriter — I would go as far as to say that I hear the echoes of Opel the album (and ʽOpelʼ the song) in every hipster icon from Jeff Mangum (passable) to Conor Oberst (abysmal). Truly and verily, these outtakes are Syd Barrett at his rawest, and I could never bring myself to calling them unlistenable — after all, he isn't that sloppy on his acoustic guitar, and even in that totally wasted state he could generally hold a note once he'd started it, so that all the drawn-out "I'm liiiiiiiving, I'm giiiiiiiving..." wails on ʽOpelʼ reach the mark.

However, that one reason why The Madcap Laughs still holds up after all these years is that, no matter how crazy and wasted the artist was, at that point he was still a songwriter. It is all too easy to forget that Syd Barrett not only had a soul and a vision — he also had talent, and he could think of touching, intriguing, and diverse melodic twists on a regular basis... except when he was too stoned, too sick, too catatonic to concentrate on more than one or two finger movements. And as far as «rawness» is concerned, Syd was never the «loner genius with an acoustic guitar» — he loved loudness, distortion, psychedelic effects, and a general fullness to the sound, meaning that «Syd and his guitar» were very much just a technical inevitability at the stage where Syd himself was no longer capable of adding extra layers to his sound.

Consequently, when it comes to the salvaged outtakes laid out on Opel, I cannot share the opi­nion that they represent «true Syd» and could in any way be considered superior to what we already had available before that. I find ʽOpelʼ (the song) to be an ambitious, but failed, epic, whose six-minute length is not in the least justified by its allegedly mesmerizing capacity. I think that ʽDolly Rockerʼ is a bare skeleton of something that could be a lively and exciting pop rocker in an alternate dimension, but, as it is, is not even saved by such lyrical lines as "she's as pretty as a squirrel's nut". I insist that ʽWord Songʼ is three minutes of gibberish that would be of more interest to a psychiatrist than an average listener.

In fact, I believe that the only track here that even begins to approach an «accomplished» status is the grim blues-rocker ʽSwan Lee (Silas Lang)ʼ — perhaps because, unlike the others, it features a few extra overdubs, including a sly little slide guitar flourish that makes all the difference; or perhaps because there is a little bit of impassioned role-playing going on, as Syd weaves a mock-Indian epic that almost seems to predict the future solo career of Nick Cave (I think the song would have fit in perfectly on any of Nick's early albums). Actually, I stand corrected: another song with multiple players is the instrumental jam ʽLanky (Part 1)ʼ — five and a half minutes of quiet psycho-blues noodling that has no reason to exist in between the legacy of, say, Cream, and, say, Grateful Dead. If this was some sort of attempt to awaken Syd's classic demons — the ones that used to turn the UFO club into a daughter branch of Purgatory — it can only be classified as an unfortunate failure. More likely, it was just a warm-up. At any case, it is at least better than the unreleased ʽLanky (Part 2)ʼ, which is allegedly said to consist of two drum tracks running over seven minutes. (Not that it wouldn't fit on this album, mind you).

In the end, it is probably best to think of Opel as simply an archival add-on for completists, rather than a record that could stand on its own — an accidental collection of outtakes, regardless of how much it might remind us of certain brands of indie songwriting that do this kind of crap intentionally. But, like any such archival add-ons, it is good to have access to it if you are at all interested in the strange and inscrutable ways in which one sick person's affected mind might work. Like everything that Syd has ever done, it is capable of eliciting a mixed admiration-cum-pity reaction from the listener — except this time around, there is clearly much more pity than admiration.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Amorphis: Queen Of Time

AMORPHIS: QUEEN OF TIME (2018)

1) The Bee; 2) Message In The Amber; 3) Daughter Of Hate; 4) The Golden Elk; 5) Wrong Direction; 6) Heart Of The Giant; 7) We Accursed; 8) Grain Of Sand; 9) Amongst Stars; 10) Pyres On The Coast; 11*) As Mountains Crumble; 12*) Brother And Sister; 13*) Honeyflow.

General verdict: Is «stagnating in pomp» a better way to go than «stagnating in humility»?


We interrupt our regular schedule of events to bring you this brief update: as of May 2018, the band Amorphis is still very much alive — and not only that, but with their old bass player, Olli-Pekka Laine, returning in the place of Niclas Etelävuori, this is the first time in more than twenty years that the original lineup has reconvened in its entirety (with the continuing addition of Tomi Joutsen on vocals). In all honesty, though, I cannot think of any serious theoretical conclusions to be drawn from that fact — except that old-time fans will probably be happy for the live shows. Because other than that, Queen Of Time is just another Amorphis album.

Re-reading my brief account of Under The Cloud, I am (not) surprised to see that all the brief notes made on it apply equally well to Queen Of Time. Again, it is produced by Jens Bogren. Again, it has a significant proportion of growling vocals, mixed in with clean singing, and again, there is a female guest on one track — this time, they involve no less than Anneke van Giers­bergen (of The Gathering), but in the context of the album, she is really no better or worse than Aleah Stanbridge. Again, there is a straightforward hybrid between melodic death metal and pipe-led Celtic dance tracks (ʽMessage In The Amberʼ), and more such motives crop up in the intros and intermissions of other songs as well (ʽWe Accursedʼ). However, in contrast with the previous album, there are no piano-dominated tunes at all, and not a single title coincides with the name of a Taylor Swift pop hit — can you believe this?

It is quite telling that even the most positive accounts of the record that I have consulted have little, if anything, to say about the individual aspects of any of the songs — at best, it is all written in a «yes, it is Amorphis, you know what to expect, if you like that style, you will like the album» style. At the very best, it is, «oh wow, look, there is a guest saxophone player on ʽDaughter Of Hateʼ!» (spoiler: he is audible for about fifteen seconds out of six minutes). But I am in an okay mood today, and so I will confirm that at least the production and playing are totally professional and that there are no technical grudges of any sorts that I could throw against any of the songs. It is simply that the record in no way added anything to my knowledge, understanding, and enjoy­ment of Amorphis.

Tom Tom Club: Tom Tom Club

TOM TOM CLUB: TOM TOM CLUB (1981)

1) Wordy Rappinghood; 2) Genius Of Love; 3) Tom Tom Theme; 4) L'Elephant; 5) As Above, So Below; 6) Lorelei; 7) On, On, On, On...; 8) Booming And Zooming; 9*) Under The Boardwalk.

General verdict: Funky synth-pop for Eighties kiddos with open minds and senses of humor — the KISS equivalent of Talking Heads, and yes, that's a compliment.

I bet it is a fairly common thing for all those who watch Stop Making Sense for the first time and keep forgetting to unglue themselves from the screen and then ʽGenius Of Loveʼ comes along and we are, like, "EH????" I mean, depending on your general feel for such music, you may be delighted with Chris' and Tina's performance, or you might feel totally embarrassed by it, but one thing is most probably certain: the appearance of Tom Tom Club in the middle of the regular Talking Heads setlist is like The Osmonds interrupting a Rolling Stones show, or, more accurate­ly, the appearance of a juvenile J-pop act in, say, a Peter Gabriel performance, while he is busy changing costumes or digging in the dirt.

Personally, I fall in the category of people who found it embarrassing (and I am still trying to unsee the image of Tina doing the squat dance); in fact, I used to suspect that it was a wicked plot on Byrne's part, to have the band do a Tom Tom Club number while he was busy diving in the Big Suit, just so that the people would clearly understand: without Byrne, Talking Heads are instantly reduced to a bunch of nonsense. And despite the immense reputation of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ as one of the most heavily sampled tunes in history, it is obvious that I was not in a hurry to check out the remainder of the catalog.

But in the end, it is all about the context. Essentially, Tom Tom Club was just a lightweight (and totally unpretentious) diversion, a way for the happily united couple of Frantz and Weymouth to have some fun while on vacation from their main business — after all, the very name of the band comes from a dancehall in the Bahamas, so how more carefree can you get? And the first album released by the group is a charming, if typically early-Eighties, exercise in what could only be called «twee-funk»: a mixture of involving (and not always simplistic) dance rhythms with mock-infantile lyrics and nursery vocal melodies, sung in everything from English to French to Japa­nese (or pseudo-Japanese). In fact, I would dare say that the aesthetics of Tom Tom Club, although it borrows plenty from Blondie, comes much closer to Japanese kawaisa than to any­thing associated with Talking Heads — the saving grace being a sense of humor and irony that shows that the band is quite serious about not taking themselves seriously.

It is interesting that, although the very idea for the band was inextricably tied to the Caribbean and there are at least two major reggae musicians invested in the recording and production of the album (keyboardist Tyrone Downie and engineer Steven Stanley), Tom Tom Club vehement­ly oppose reggae mechanics and aesthetics — guitar duties are largely handled by Adrian Belew, who was never much of a reggae fan himself, and, from the opening bars of ʽWordy Rapping­hoodʼ, prefers to do his trademark chicken-scratch funk. Most likely, this has to do with the fact that Tom Tom Club's job is to make defiant, in-yer-face pop music, celebrating the simple joys of life with a whimsical spirit that may indeed be found in the Caribbean environment, despite all the troubles that the region is notorious for (twenty five years later, by the way, both the pain and the whimsy would be perfectly encapsulated in Arcade Fire's ʽHaitiʼ). And as long as this thing is done right, who really cares where it is done?

As far as the album's hit singles are concerned, I actually find the first one, ʽWordy Rappinghoodʼ, more interesting than ʽGenius Of Loveʼ — and think that a live performance of it might have fit  better within the general context of Stop Making Sense. It is deliciously funky (a solid and very Talking Head-ish weaving two-guitar pattern runs its way throughout), it has Tina doing a funny «nursery rap», it glues together Moroccan, American, and Japanese nonsense for the silly catchy chorus, and it actually carries a message — the continuous refrain of "what are words worth?" can be understood as either satire or a way of self-positioning (since words are not worth much in any context, should we actually care what we sing about?). Next to this, ʽGenius Of Loveʼ's reve­latory "who needs to think when your feet just go?" feels a bit embarrassing in comparison, and the song's constant suck-up references to funk, soul, and reggae heroes reek of misguided product placement. Which is not to say that the song's message of "what do you consider fun? — fun, natural fun!" comes across convincingly; but the atmosphere of light-headed jubilation that the tune conveys is way too thin and see-through for the song to make a lasting impression.

Anyway, I may never get over my personal bias against ʽGenius Of Loveʼ, but I like almost everything else on here — precisely because almost every other track has at least a tiny strip of weirdness, not allowing the record to be qualified as pure vapid entertainment. ʽL'Elephantʼ, behind its kiddy French-pop vocal melody, actually tells a serious story with a moral, and keeps up a good balance between the ska-like boppy rhythm and Belew's «keep-the-motor-running» guitar solos (I am also thinking that the concept behind the song is Belew's, given his well-known love for African fauna that he would carry over to his King Crimson career as well). ʽAs Above, So Belowʼ gives you a bit of darkness in the form of Tina's broken-up, merciless bassline and ice-cold declamation of the title in the chorus — the lyrics may largely be mystical crap and the whole thing may be completely in jest, but dark-tinged jests are always more exciting than bland light jests anyway. ʽLoreleiʼ introduces a slightly psychedelic twist with its thin webbing of keyboard and guitar overdubs; ʽOn, On, On, Onʼ shows the band trying its hand at an invigora­ting twee-rock anthem ("on and on we will come, there are scores of us!"); finally, ʽBooming And Zoomingʼ ends the album on a decidedly non-joyful note — this is another seriously Belew-ish track detailing a plane crash with a chilly radio voiceover while the keyboards and guitars are busy impersonating the erratic behaviour of a flying machine in its last minutes.

If anything, this is an impressively diverse collection of songs — more diverse, in fact, than any early Talking Heads album, reflecting the band members' wildly eclectic circle of musical and literary influences. Add to this that Tina turns out to be a surprisingly sexy singer, that her two sisters contribute conveniently sexy backing vocals, and that Belew and Stanley try to keep that up by using smooth tones and keeping the dissonance to a minimum, and Tom Tom Club becomes one big «adorkable» musical purr where specific virtues or flaws of individual songs do not matter all that much behind the general aesthetics — so I can easily allow myself, for instance, to go on shunning ʽGenius Of Loveʼ but digging the album in general. That said, it must be stressed, over and over, that if there is any lasting charm to Tom Tom Club, it all has to do with that wispy, barely detectable thread of weirdness, irony, and occasionally over-the-top absurdism wriggling its way from beginning to end. Shallow entertainment hardly ever gets better than this, when its main ingredients are siren singing, African percussion, post-punk guitar, and Jamaican synth-pop. The only thing that befuddles me, no matter how hard I try to wave it off, is that this stuff is made by the exact same Tina Weymouth who first entered pop music lore with the decimating look given to David Byrne during a live performance of ʽPsycho Killerʼ, popping out bullet-bass notes with the intensity of a Stalingrad defender. Tom Tom Club was, I think, the first time that the people at large got to see her softer side — even though there is still enough of the old icy bitch in this newborn sex kitten.

Too much of the old icy bitch, perhaps, as this is the only reasonable explanation for why, on some editions of the album, the ominous lead-out track ʽBooming And Zoomingʼ was replaced by their thoroughly purry cover of ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ — another charting single, to be sure, but not much of a lasting achievement, other than demonstrating how old-school poppy R&B could be adapted to modern playing and production standards. (Spoiler: it could, but in 2018 those standards might seem more dated than the ones of 1964). Which, in a way, predicts the eventual downfall of Tom Tom Club — the success of this little game is still directly dependent on how much personality, rather than technology, you imbue in the material. Fortunately, the self-titled debut at least proudly stands that test.