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Friday, November 28, 2014

Blondie: Parallel Lines

BLONDIE: PARALLEL LINES (1978)

1) Hanging On The Telephone; 2) One Way Or Another; 3) Picture This; 4) Fade Away And Radiate; 5) Pretty Baby; 6) I Know But I Don't Know; 7) 11:59; 8) Will Anything Happen?; 9) Sunday Girl; 10) Heart Of Glass; 11) I'm Gonna Love You Too; 12) Just Go Away; 13*) Once I Had A Love; 14*) Bang A Gong (Get It On) (live); 15*) I Know But I Don't Know (live); 16*) Hanging On The Telephone (live).

In which Blondie go professional, and now there is no turning back — no more «young and inno­cent days» for you once you've passed through the skilled hands of Mike Chapman, master of glossy candy packaging whose previous clients included Sweet, Smokie, Suzi Quatro, and various other acts, intensely groomed and pampered for stronger commercial effect (Sweet were actually the best of the lot — most of the rest were like 100% unlistenable). Blondie's manager convinced them to team up with Chapman, probably hoping that he would be able to hone their best pop instincts without making them completely reject their identity — and on the whole, he was right: Parallel Lines is very commercial, but it does not betray the general spirit that the band had concocted already with its very first songs.

Still, there may be such a thing as «too much perfection», and this complaint does apply to Parallel Lines, as the guys, the girl, and the glossy LA producer so ardently hunt for the ideal sound and forget about some of the band's legacy. Unlike Plastic Letters, Parallel Lines is all about the simple things — girl-and-guys relations, with gender roles accordingly reversed (Deb­bie as the hunter and guys as the game — hell, look at the album cover alone, where they all look like identical dorks and she looks ready to bitchslap you in a moment). That's all very well and suitable and Blondie-compatible, but I do miss all those stories of kung fu girls and giant ants and Red Square spies and youths nabbed as snipers. Where did they go? Well, it's not that easy to make hits out of such ideas, so let us turn to more basic hormonal stuff instead.

But how is it possible to resist temptation when the first two songs on the album are ʽHanging On The Telephoneʼ and ʽOne Way Or Anotherʼ — one of the fiercest, most stunning guitar-pop attacks on the senses since the days when the Beatles roamed the planet? Debbie's a little funny in her attempt to be as sexually aggressive as possible, even going all the way to gather a little phlegm so as to roar out certain lines in both of these songs like some thunder-and-lightning black diva à la Tina Turner — but we can forgive her, because on the whole, she is being very convincing about it (or «about It», to be more accurate. Or «about Id», to be more Freudist). And then there is the music — the mad rush simulation of ʽTelephoneʼ, a perfect musical equivalent of blood boiling, and the unforgettable guitar riff of ʽOne Wayʼ, apparently written by the band's bass player, Nigel Harrison. ʽOne Wayʼ may, in fact, be one of the greatest blends of a typically hard rock riff with a typically pop structure — and, accordingly, the greatest emulation of sexual aggression paired with «pretty looks». Madonna got nothing on this, not even close — then again, who'd ever write a riff like that for the likes of Madonna?

The greatness never stops coming, because ʽPicture Thisʼ, while playing for the third time in a row on the same ideas (if she ain't gonna get this one, she'll get that one, or that one, or that one over there...), adopts a slightly different approach — a bit more lyrical, only gradually revving itself into overdrive, and it is every bit as effective, because sometimes subtlety works better than a straightforward assault. I've never really understood the temporal connection of the lines "I will give you my finest hour..." (future tense) "...the one I spent watching you shower" (past tense), but what sort of a regular male could resist Debbie Harry purring so tenderly reminiscing about watching him shower? Oh, yeah, well, uhm, the melody's quite catchy too, I guess.

All of which brings us a little bit fast-forward-style to ʽHeart Of Glassʼ, a song that actually began life as ʽOnce I Had A Loveʼ way back in 1975 or so, and which Chapman, from its early syncopated funky beginnings, developed to immaculate disco gloss. In retrospect, the song pretty much destroyed Blondie's reputation — most people who «don't care all that much» probably only associate the band with this song now, and while it certainly does capture some of the essence of Blondie fairly well, there is no way it could make you understand the whole story, or at least prevent you from mistakenly putting Blondie in the same boat with Donna Summer or any of those gazillion Eurodisco bands. But in the general context of all things Blondie-related, ʽHeart Of Glassʼ is, of course, still a masterpiece.

One word of warning to the neophyte, though — do avoid the relatively crappy 5:50 «disco version» with which the bandits at Chrysalis had replaced the original 3:45 cut on quite a few reprints, starting with a vinyl pressing in 1979 and ending with the remastered CD version, be­cause this is a clear case of «longer» not being «better»: all you get is a never-ending repetitive loop of na-na-na's at the end, instead of the fabulous fade-out coda of the original — fabulous, because it featured a set of Clem Burke's most inventive drumrolls in history, as if the man wanted to show us that it was, after all, possible to be an expressive, musically-talkative drummer within a disco setting. That bit is just not there in the longer version, which is a travesty. At least they do not use the bubbly keyboards to hide the guitar riff, which is in itself a masterful blend of funk and pop — and, again, a perfect match for Debbie's vocals in terms of atmosphere: cynical disillusionment at its most light-hearted and «superficially superficial» (but really quite deep).

These mega-monster pop hits tend to swallow up the rest of the record, which is almost a shame, but that's the way life goes — only gradually you come to realize that ʽPretty Babyʼ and ʽSunday Girlʼ may be a little lighter and wussier in style, but are really just as strong melodically as every­thing else; that ʽFade Away And Radiateʼ, with its slow tempo, psychedelic keyboards, enigmatic drum beat, acid guitar solos, and somnambulic vocals, is not the «black sheep», but rather the «white swan» of this record, a moody masterpiece that is every bit the worthy successor to ʽCautious Lipʼ; that the Buddy Holly cover injects young punk venom into the old, somewhat limp rockabilly vein; and that, ultimately, at the very end Debbie gets so sick and tired of all her male counterparts that the only natural conclusion for the album is to tell them all ʽJust Go Awayʼ — when you come to think of it, a hilariously antithetical conclusion to ʽHanging On The Tele­phoneʼ. You mean to say, all that effort wasn't really worth it? I'm speechless...

Comparatively, I cannot say that Parallel Lines is more «consistent» than the other Blondie albums — the one thing that it is, it is more consistently aggressive. Louder, prouder, more force­ful than the rest, with a small bunch of particularly flashy, irresistible highlights, a special chap­ter in Blondie history, but not necessarily «that one Blondie album you have to get if you only get one», because, well, just don't be stupid and get all of them. Major thumbs up, of course, and a major turning point, but Blondie existed before it and would go on to exist after it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Blind Guardian: Imaginations From The Other Side

BLIND GUARDIAN: IMAGINATIONS FROM THE OTHER SIDE (1995)

1) Imaginations From The Other Side; 2) I'm Alive; 3) A Past And Future Secret; 4) The Script For My Requiem; 5) Mordred's Song; 6) Born In A Mourning Hall; 7) Bright Eyes; 8) Another Holy War; 9) And The Story Ends.

If you are not deeply entrenched in the intricacies of the various sub-varieties of heavy metal, you will probably feel that what separates Imaginations from earlier Blind Guardian can be summed up as «small details, shades, and nuances». A bit of a slower tempo here, a bit of a choral over­dub there, same old story on the larger scale. But go visit a Blind Guardian discussion board, and every now and then you will be able to come across a flame war between «speed metal fans» and «power metal fans», extolling the relative crimes against taste or leaps forward in creativity that the band has committed while making the transition to a whole new era.

As far as I am concerned, «ideologically» this new outburst of creative energy from the world's most ardent «don't-mess-with-my-fantasy-world» musical sect is as orthodox as orthodox can be. Nine more epic tunes, brimming with power and arrogance, each based on the already fami­liar artistic strengths of Kürsch and Olbrich, and each dealing with a fantasy theme (sometimes a thick mish-mash of fantasy themes, like the title track). Regarding the factor of speed, only three of the songs are relatively slow in their entirety: the largely acoustic ʽA Past And Future Secretʼ is more «epic folk» than metal altogether, and ʽBright Eyesʼ, along with the grand finale of ʽAnd The Story Endsʼ, could not technically be ascribed to the «speed metal» bin, unless you were cheating and playing them at 78 rpm. The rest, while they do accumulate stylistic «ruffles» that make them more palatable for the «artsy-minded» people, are quite conservative in essence.

If there is any serious change at all, it is to be sought in the melodic structures: even the speedier parts are getting more complex, like the brilliant introduction to ʽBorn In A Mourning Hallʼ that preserves the tempo, but replaces the usual «amelodic» chugga-chugga with a series of riffs that, you know, play actual notes and stuff. I am not quite sure that this represents compositional genius — despite increased complexity, the individual melodies are not specifically evocative — but at least it represents hard work, which, when combined with an energetic punch and sincerity of execution, should be respected.

Perhaps it is also to be sought out in increased ambitions. The title track may have been inten­tionally conceived to be the «ultimate» Blind Guardian visit card — lyrically, it summarizes just about every single one of the band numerous fetishes, and offers an explicit justification for their brand of escapism: "Come follow me to wonderland / And see the tale that never ends... But still I know / There is another world... / I'll break down the walls around my heart / Imaginations from the other side" — an optimistic-nostalgic ode to the «never grow up» mindset. It's like a slightly delayed explanation that they feel they owe the world — delivered to the sounds of one of their most bombastic arrangements up to date. Swirling, swooshing, wailing spirits, church bells, gothic keyboards, monstrous metal riff, operatic vocals with ghostly answers — way too heavy, one could remark, for a song whose primary points of reference are Peter Pan, Alice in Wonder­land, and the Wizard of Oz, but then, nobody said childhood was supposed to be a rose garden, and all these books have their classic moments of brutality.

Another super-bombastic tune is ʽThe Script For My Requiemʼ, where grandiosity begins already with the title and never lets go — "Returning of the miracles / It's my own requiem" is even more solemn than the chorus of ʽQuest For Tanelornʼ, and there is even a quick subtle quotation from Jesus Christ Superstar ("crucify, crucify!") that further raises the stakes. In most people's hands, the song would be totally laughable, but Blind Guardian are the AC/DC of power metal — if you cannot override the clichés of this genre, you can at least ride them faster, louder, and brassier than everybody else in the market, which in itself can be considered overriding.

The rest of the songs, as usual, are too stylistically monotonous to deserve extensive comment, so, instead of that, I will just remark that, on an interesting note, the album was produced by Flem­ming Rasmussen, the co-producer on several of Metallica's classic records of the Eighties — not that Imaginations sounds any more like Metallica than any other Blind Guardian record, but it is curious that the increase in complexity does somewhat parallel Metallica's development from bare-bones thrash to «art-metal». I am not necessarily overjoyed by this, because at a certain level, once you start putting too much «intellect» into heavy metal music, you begin killing off its vitality (Black Sabbath is and will always be the ultimate benchmark for me), but, fortunately for Kürsch and company, they are expanding their musical horizons without sacrificing their inner child — indeed, they glorify their inner child, as is obvious from the title track — and this com­bination of increased compositional smartness with endearing, seemingly honest kiddie silliness works well for Imaginations. Respectfully, a thumbs up. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bobby Fuller: KRLA King Of The Wheels

BOBBY FULLER: KRLA KING OF THE WHEELS (1965)

1) Never To Be Forgotten; 2) Another Sad And Lonely Night; 3) She's My Girl; 4) Take My Word; 5) Fool Of Love; 6) Let Her Dance; 7) King Of The Wheels; 8) The Lonely Dragster; 9) Little Annie Lou; 10) The Phantom Dragster; 11) Saturday Night; 12) KRLA Top Eliminator.

Unless you were there and paid attention, chances are that the only association that the words «Bobby Fuller» could kick up from the depths of your conscience should be "...I fought the law, and the LAW WON!", delivered in a very British rather than American accent by Joe Strummer circa 1979. The song was a hit for Bobby Fuller, but it wasn't even written by Bobby (credits go to Sonny Curtis of the Crickets), and it may convey a very, very wrong idea of Bobby Fuller — namely, that the man was some sort of long-forgotten proto-punk, anti-establishment hero, some kind of a Marlon-Brando-meets-James-Dean-tags-Gene-Vincent phenomenon to which it was only natural that Britain's greatest working-class-hero-band of the punk movement pay tribute, or something like that. At least, it did convey that idea to me, originally.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Bobby Fuller was a nice, clean, well-meaning all-American lad from El Paso, Texas, who, like so many others, caught the rock'n'roll bug from Elvis in his early teens and then developed a passion for electric guitar-based pop-rock. Without any «working class hero» ambitions whatsoever, he merely wished to be the next Buddy Holly — and then, when The Beach Boys and then The Beatles appeared on the scene, he also wished to be a Beach Boy and then a Beatle, too. Is that too much for a simple Texan guy to ask God for — just to be a Beach Boy and a Beatle at the same time?

Bobby's first recordings were made independently as early as 1961, when he was only 19 years old. He recorded with a revolving-door cast of personages, commonly dubbed as «The Bobby Fuller Four» (even though there may have been periods with larger or smaller numbers), the only other constant presence among which was his brother Randy Fuller on bass, and eventually gained a little notoriety after teaming up with Bob Keane's Del-Fi (later Mustang) Records. His first LP was, however, only released in late 1965, after some of the singles began getting serious airplay and slowly ascending up the charts.

Although some of these songs actually date from earlier sessions (circa 1964), and some of the originals had been written even earlier, it is quite clear already from the title that KRLA King Of The Wheels was, for the standards of late 1965, a «nostalgic-conservative» record. Bobby hardly ever shies away from promoting his influences on his sleeve, and the themes of the album are strictly limited to the classic surf-era recipé — Girls and Cars, not necessarily in that order of preference. And not the Girls of ʽGirlʼ fame or the Cars of ʽDrive My Carʼ fame, either (to be accurate, Rubber Soul had not yet been released, but it would probably have made no difference if it were): the emotional / verbal content of the songs is all about those stereotypical «teen sensa­tions». The Beach Boys were no longer writing songs about their little 409 or Little Deuce Coupe by the end of 1965, but Bobby Fuller was, and he was not ashamed.

Whatever. If you are a fan of innocent early-to-mid Sixties pop, there is no way that you will not appreciate at least the first two songs on here — ʽNever To Be Forgottenʼ is an Orbison-worthy little gem (although Bobby's vocals are nowhere near as special), showing how well acquainted the man was with Phil Spector's wall-of-sound technique, and ʽAnother Sad And Lonely Nightʼ seems far more influenced by the Merseybeat scene: more Billy J. Kramer than the Beatles, in that the sound is not very sharp and the hooks are not as piercing, but still friendly and catchy enough for the "another sad and lonely night, another sad and lonely day" hookline to get stuck in your head for no apparent reason.

The band's biggest success from this era was with ʽLet Her Danceʼ, a reworked version of Bob­by's earlier ʽKeep On Dancingʼ (a 1961 Buddy Holly-style composition) that Keane obviously suggested redoing in the style of the Beach Boys' «grand dance» numbers, most notably their recently released upgrade of ʽDo You Want To Danceʼ. Echo on the guitars, echo on the vocals, a bottle-tapping gimmick, heavy use of back vocals — reportedly, Bobby hated the final version, yet it is ultimately more gripping than the original, if only for the non-trivial vocal arrangements (the repetitive "let her dance, let her dance, let her dance, dance, dance..." echoey response that seems to bounce off the instruments in all directions). Almost shamelessly «second-hand», but melodically distinct enough to act as a loving little brother to ʽDo You Want To Danceʼ rather than just a useless rip-off.

Other cute imitations include ʽShe's My Girlʼ (with a ʽHelp Me Rhondaʼ-like key change from verse to chorus), ʽTake My Wordʼ (with handclaps coming straight from the Beatles' ʽI'll Get Youʼ), and ʽFool Of Loveʼ (also sounds as if the Beatles wrote this circa 1959 and donated it to any­one hungry enough to eat it up). The second side of the LP, however, is almost completely dedicated to the «Cars» side of the business, and since «Cars» are generally inferior to «Girls» as a major source of melodic creativity, this is where Bobby falls way too often on direct borrowing (stealing) — ʽKing Of The Wheelsʼ is really little more than a slightly sped up version of ʽLittle Deuce Coupeʼ, and ʽThe Phantom Dragsterʼ is merely an attempt to apply the Bo Diddley beat to the same thematical subject, but can this really work? I mean, «car songs» are supposed to bring on musical associations with car racing, and if I ever had to car-race to a Bo Diddley beat, I'd probably be throwing up most of the way.

A few of the songs on that side are instrumentals in the classic vein of The Ventures (ʽThe Lonely Dragsterʼ, ʽKRLA Top Eliminatorʼ), which gives you the chance to assess Bobby's skills as a guitar player — not bad at all compared with his surf-rock competitors, fluent and expressive, but not enough to push him over into the «greatness» range: the same bluesy chops had already been brought over to a new level by the likes of Clapton, anyway.

Still, on the strength of the simple-and-innocent pop hooks on Side A, the album as a whole qualifies for a mild thumbs up, I think — though not high enough to recommend anybody to search for the entire contents of this LP rather than head straight for a best-of compilation: the fact is that Bobby Fuller simply did not live long enough to show us whether he had a real album brewing inside his head or not.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bob Marley: Natty Dread

BOB MARLEY: NATTY DREAD (1974)

1) Lively Up Yourself; 2) No Woman, No Cry; 3) Them Belly Full (But We Hungry); 4) Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock); 5) So Jah Say; 6) Natty Dread; 7) Bend Down Low; 8) Talkin' Blues; 9) Revolution; 10*) Am-A-Do.

And so Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer split off, and the band becomes «Bob Marley and The Wailers» — forever splitting the fans, too, as some hardcore veterans accused Marley of exer­cising too much of his «I», while others pointed out that this was simply a wise move that helped spread the word of Jah far wider into the world than could have ever been foreseen. Who knows who's right and who's wrong? In the end, all we should care about is the music.

Naturally, Natty Dread is completely different from everything that came before it. While reg­gae rhythms are still its foundation, there is a whole lot of other stuff here — catchy pop choruses, pleasant female backing harmonies, complicated brass overdubs, relatively loud guitar solos from the band's newest member Al Anderson, in short, a whole lot of stuff to take your attention away from the bare groove and draw it to the same elements that, in 1974, you'd be attracted to on various «rock» albums. But the recompense is that almost each and every song here has its own separate face — try and accuse this record of being monotonous; you might just as well apply the same accusation to The White Album.

Interesting enough, only two songs on the album are credited to Bob himself, of which at least one (ʽBend Down Lowʼ) is a playful bit of filler, catchy in a nursery-rhyme way (its main opening theme is somewhat of a cross between Mother Goose and ʽLet It Beʼ), but nothing more. The other one does set a good tone for the rest of the album — ʽLively Up Yourselfʼ opens the proceedings on a «lively», jumpy note, while at the same time being driven by a slightly scary bassline: once the brass section starts doubling the bass, the atmosphere becomes downright threatening, or, at least, solemn to the point that the recommendation to lively up yourself becomes a stern order. "You rock so, you rock so" — yes sir, whatever you say sir.

There are all sorts of speculations as to whether «Vincent Ford», a little-known Jamaican perso­nage, actually wrote ʽNo Woman No Cryʼ or if that was just an act of generosity on Bob's part, giving away a song to the needy (although, in retrospect, it wouldn't become all that famous until next year's Live! version). Its popular appeal is easily crackable — where Marley's lyrics are often obscure to those not well versed in Jamaican cultural or linguistic realities, everybody, including non-English speakers, easily understands what "no woman no cry" and "everything's gonna be alright" is supposed to mean. But singling it out from the rest of the album would be absurd — as good as that organ melody is, its overall emotional power is neither weaker nor stronger than the power of the more overtly political material here.

At the very least, the Barrett brothers and Rita Marley show that they can be every bit as cool at songwriting as Mr. I-And-I himself. My personal favorite on the album is actually Rita's ʽSo Jah Sayʼ, a song whose stern bass and Mount-Sinaic brass simply breathe the Old Testament down our backs — every time I hear that introduction, it makes me want to prostrate myself before His Presence, whoever He might be (the Great God of the Left Speaker, or was it the Right one?). On that one, genre considerations simply melt away, and you are no longer aware of what you are listening to — reggae? R&B? soul? gospel? Essentially, it is the genre of «solemn musical pro­phecy». You can shake your body to these sounds, sure, but it will be a shamanistic kind of shaking, not just a fun dance kind of thing.

Another good one is Aston Barrett's ʽRebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)ʼ, a lengthy song that knows how to gain in intensity by rising the pitch on every next chorus of "aaaaaaaaah, rebel music!", reaching new levels of desperation while the harmonica blasts add a «swampy» atmos­phere to the proceedings. Better than most songs on here, it manages to convey the impression of a world where danger might be around every corner, and where people's brief moments of happi­ness are constantly interspersed with a «watch-your-back» sense of vigilance. Every now and then, we are told to "forget your troubles and dance" (ʽThem Belly Fullʼ), and we do, but "I've been down on the rock for so long / I seem to wear a permanent screw" (ʽTalkin' Bluesʼ).

This idea of a «permanent screw» is actually important in that Natty Dread, even despite taking good care of its individual components, still works better as a whole entity. Now that Bob has the full weight of the band on his shoulders, as well as the responsibility to bring The Message to every new-fangled fan of ʽI Shot The Sheriffʼ, he has to uphold a thematic unity and maintain a serious tone throughout the album on a whole new level, and he totally rises to the occasion: other than ʽBend Down Lowʼ, each song is tied to the ones around it with one uniting idea — end the suffering. Other than the man's conviction that Heaven can be found on Earth, the rest is so totally in line with early Christianity that sooner or later, you'll figuratively begin looking for figurative traces of stigmata on the man's figurative hands. Is that emotional manipulation? If it is, it's one of the highest order — bring it on, I like to be manipulated that way, even if there's no chance convincing me of the Second Advent where I have enough trouble with the First already.

Anyway, a great record whose total is so much more than its parts. One can only wonder what it would have sounded like if Tosh and Bunny decided not to split — but something tells me they would have objected against all the colorful overdubs, and I cannot imagine these songs without Al's weeping-and-wailing lead guitar, or without those brass parts that add a symphonic compo­nent. So, cutting it short, just put your hardcore worries behind your hardcore back, all you great lovers of Lee ʽNo­thing But Scratchʼ Perry, and join Mr. Marley on his last and grandest ride through the mid- and late Seventies as reggae's, Jamaica's, Haile Selassie's, and all the oppressed and suffering people's messenger to the world. Thumbs up.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Club Ninja

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: CLUB NINJA (1986)

1) White Flags; 2) Dancing In The Ruins; 3) Make Rock Not War; 4) Perfect Water; 5) Spy In The House Of The Night; 6) Beat 'Em Up; 7) When The War Comes; 8) Shadow Warrior; 9) Madness To The Method.

Hello, I'm Leonard Pinth-Garnell, and welcome to «Bad Rock Music». As I throw a sideways glance at the calendar, I happen to notice that we are, indeed, right in the middle of 1986, and as every true connaisseur of rock music is liable to knowing, 1986 is a year well famous for pro­ducing — indeed, festering, as some might say — some of the absolutely worst rock music ever known to man, woman, kitten, or door-to-door salesman. As we have only just found out, the year was no exception for once popular and creative, ever so slightly post-modern rock act «Blue Öyster Cult», who have confirmed the rule with their newest LP, one that sports no less than one of the absolutely worst LP titles in the business — Club Ninja — and contains some very, very, very bad songs that seem almost custom made for our show.

To begin with, it must be noted that, while this band had previously been known to write the majority of their material themselves, and harvest some verbal help from the likes of acclaimed celebrities and pop-culture-intellectuals such as Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman, Patti Smith, and Michael Moorcock, Club Ninja is their first record to have a mind-blowing four songs pro­vided by completely outside songwriters — corporate songwriters, one might add. With contri­butions by Larry Gottlieb (who had also written songs for Marie Osmond and Kenny Rogers that very year), Bob Halligan Jr. (a hard rock singer who'd written a couple of tunes for Judas Priest), and another song taken over from the Leggat Bros., there is little reason to doubt that Columbia Records played the usual trick on the poor fellows — saddled them with «commercial» material in order to have a hit on their hands. Unfortunately, what worked for Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and even Eric Clapton (in terms of popularity, not artistry) backfired for Blue Öyster Cult, who simply lost their reputation without any financial gains to compensate for the shame.

In the midst of this utter travesty, it remains almost unnoticed that the band also lacks their keyboardist, Allen Lanier, now, temporarily replaced by Tommy Zvonchek. This might even be for the better, because the keyboards are not so much at the center of the sound now as they were on the previous albums — but what is at that center? Rotten, faceless pop metal guitar, for the most part, acting primarily as a monotonous background for the band's pop metal gang choruses. If you thought "B-O-C! You can be whatever you want to be!" was bad enough, wait until you hear "ROCK NOT WAR! Make ROCK NOT WAR!" or "BEAT 'EM UP! BEAT 'EM UP!" (the latter song, courtesy of Bob Halligan Jr., also features probably the worst verse in BOC history, which simply must be quoted: "You take a lickin', keep on kickin' / This fight we both can win / We'll stop sockin' when you stop rockin' / You don't give up, you just give in" — the idea, of course, is that you are supposed to deliver these words while keeping a straight face, which was probably only possible circa 1986).

The biggest disappointment is Roeser, who finds himself very much a part of this travesty — for instance, handling the lead vocals on ʽDancing In The Ruinsʼ, the Larry Gottlieb song that was supposed to become a hit for the band but did not, perhaps because the song never manages to properly let us know if it is «romantic» (Roeser sings it that way) or «apocalyptic». In any case, the great American nation much preferred to be ʽDancing In The Darkʼ at the time, so Buck Dharma's effort to make this boring piece of schlock come to life was doomed artistically and wasted commercially. The problem is, his own contributions are not much better: ʽSpy In The House Of The Nightʼ does not even reach the catchiness of ʽBurnin' For Youʼ, and I really hate the way he drawls out the word "rendez-vous", as if he were a Vegasy crooner for a second.

Arguably the only song on the entire record to merit somebody's attention is ʽMadness To The Methodʼ, a seven-minute final epic where the band suddenly remembers that their «bad boys of rock and roll image» is supposed to be an ironic front, after all. Had the album been a commercial success instead of a flop, the P.M.R.C. would probably have had a thing or two to say about such totally gross lines as "it's the time in the season for a maniac at night" or "there's a lot to be said for a blow to the head", but, of course, the song really just pokes bitter fun at the «violence men­tality» of rock music, or, at least, it definitely reads that way when it is not «drunk caveman» Eric Bloom taking lead vocals, but «quiet melancholic» Donald Roeser. Even so, the song never truly grips the senses — musically, it is a rather generic, monotonous New Wave-style rocker that sounds tired rather than inspired. Ironically, it is Mr. Zvonchek, the band's new keyboardist, who provides the best bit with a beautiful piano solo at the end — probably wanted to make a real good impression for his first time.

After all this, minor questionable trivia (such as the infamous Howard Stern reciting the spoken-word introduction to ʽWhen The War Comesʼ) are of no importance, and all that remains is to issue the predictable thumbs down and deposit the unfortunate LP in the specially designed trash bin. The worst thing about this, though, is that we cannot even say «This is no longer Blue Öyster Cult», because it is — the band's fascination with all things BÖC-ish is still very much in place, you know, darkness, vampirism, sci-fi, heaviness, «rock warriors in po-mo garb», whatever. It has simply mutated into a totally gross, grotesque, faceless form. And, ironically, it is also their first record in a while for which Sandy Pearlman has returned as a producer. Boy, did he ever produce a mess. Bad, bad rock music.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Bears: Rise And Shine

THE BEARS: RISE AND SHINE (1988)

1) Aches And Pains; 2) Save Me; 3) Robobo's Beef; 4) Not Worlds Apart; 5) Nobody's Fool; 6) Highway 2; 7) Little Blue River; 8) Rabbit Manor; 9) Holy Mack; 10) Complicated Potatoes; 11) You Can Buy Friends; 12) Best Laid Plans; 13) Old Fat Cadillac; 14) Girl With Clouds.

Although this album is a little longer than the first one, it gives the impression of being even more formulaic. No attempts at walls of sound, no brass section anywhere, just a very basic, very tight pop-rock sound. Two guitars, one bass, and a drumset. Of course, with Adrian Belew con­stantly honing his skills as a «guitar-orchestra person», this means that there will be numerous overdubs where his six-string will sound like a one-string, a two-string, a no-string, or a little bird twirping away high up in a tree, but eventually, you get used to the predictability of it, too.

The first five songs here really just go past through me like a knife through warm butter — mood-wise, there is nothing to tell them apart, and when all of your hooks look like they've been passed out from the assembly line, there is no reason to call them «hooks» as such. Pleasant, same-sounding midtempo pop with buzzing or meaouwing guitars (sometimes buzzing and meaouwing at the same time, courtesy of Adrian's never-ending tone variation effects) and friendly choruses. The album does not even try to begin to steer a different course until ʽLittle Blue Riverʼ, which slows down the tempo, adds a pinch of tender folksy harmonies, and tops it off with a psychede­lic coloring for the lead guitar part.

Further on, things become more interesting with ʽRabbit Manorʼ, a quirky avantgarde-funk work­out with a feel of not-too-dangerous suspense and a touch of classic Belew paranoia; ʽComplica­ted Potatoesʼ, with Belew (or is that Fetters?) adding some distortion to his sound; and ʽBest Laid Plansʼ, with a mystical-hypnotic guitar line dominating the verse (for the chorus with its ques­tionable pun — "the best laid plans never get laid" — they shift to the usual power-pop mood). But arguably the best song, and the only one that made it over to Adrian's solo career (you can find a live version on 1993's The Acoustic Adrian Belew) is ʽOld Fat Cadillacʼ, for which he came up with a more «New Wave»-y guitar pattern and a memorable riff.

The overall arrange­ment and performance of ʽCadillacʼ does suggest that this is more of an «intimate Adrian Belew moment» than a collective Bears tune, and this, in turn, suggests that there was a certain reason why The Bears were put on hold after Rise And Shine, like its pre­decessor, failed to interest the public: namely, because the most interesting songs on here are the ones where «the band» is not intentionally striving to sound like «a band», but more like «a back­ing band» for the chief personality. When it's de-personalized rhythm guitar and group harmonies, they are neither the epitome of heavenly beauty nor a wallop of unstoppable energy — but on ʽOld Fat Cadillacʼ, Belew's individual emotionalism comes shining through.

Besides, the original novelty and excitement of it all had worn off, and now they sound a bit too much like a relatively mindless pop factory (good taste and all) where songs like ʽMeet Me In The Darkʼ and ʽNone Of The Aboveʼ were honestly more fun. Style-wise, I have no problem with the record, but it just feels too much like one of those «let us get together and make a guitar-based pop-rock album with no purpose other than showing how much we like guitar-based pop-rock» ventures, and we've probably all had our fair share of these already. And what's up with that big old hinomaru on the album cover? Was that a surreptitious attempt at sucking up to the Japanese market? Bizarre, but I'm not even sure the album got a Japanese release in the first place (much as the Japanese love to release and re-release everything, especially if it got bonus tracks).

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.