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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Roger Waters: Amused To Death


1) The Ballad Of Bill Hubbard; 2) What God Wants, Pt. 1; 3) Perfect Sense, Pt. 1; 4) Perfect Sense, Pt. 2; 5) The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range; 6) Late Home Tonight, Pt. 1; 7) Late Home Tonight, Pt. 2; 8) Too Much Rope; 9) What God Wants, Pt. 2; 10) What God Wants, Pt. 3; 11) Watching TV; 12) Three Wishes; 13) It's A Miracle; 14) Amused To Death.

General verdict: Conceptually solid, but musically dissatisfying — just a 70-minute lesson, delivered in lite-Floydian, that teaches you to learn to hate your TV

I suppose that on some sort of pretend-to-be-objective scale, Amused To Death should rigidly count as Roger Waters' best solo album. Long, witty, walking a reasonably thin line between crude political banality and astute social philosophy, well-produced, stocked with recurrent leitmotifs, wisely utilising its session players, ending on a sour, but sentimental note — this is like all the good sides of both Pros And Cons and Radio K.A.O.S. brought together and stripped of their accompanying ugliness, such as the ridiculous concept of the former and the Godawful production values of the latter.

Even so, Amused To Death remains a fairly tedious listen. By the early 1990s, baby boomer geniuses were beginning to come out of their middle age crises and to rise above weird industry de­mands of the Eighties — Roger was no exception to the rule, and he finally came out with a record where his artistic/intellectual personality overcame the layers of silliness and technophilia, and his message to the world could finally be taken more or less seriously. However, as a side effect, that same personality also overrode the musical component. While neither the melodies nor the arrangements for these melodies could clearly be labeled «bad», nothing here reminds of the classic Floyd sonic inventiveness. Most of the time, Waters simply relies on stock-owned blues-rock and folk-rock phrasing, sometimes to the point of inadvertently ripping off a classic (ʽThe Bravery Of Being Out Of Rangeʼ, for instance, takes its chorus directly from Dylan's ʽIt's All Over Now, Baby Blueʼ, without batting an eye).

Naturally, I am not supporting this claim with any serious musicological analysis, but something tells me Roger himself would not mind — recycling traditional musical structures was hardly a sin for him here as long as it would serve a greater good, namely, functioning as the background for a long and winding story about the detrimental influence of the media on each of us as indi­viduals and on humanity as a whole. Not a tremendously original idea, for sure, but one that a rock poet of Roger's caliber could, at least in theory, realize sharply and deeply, with all that experience behind his back; and if you throw in tasteful production and some first-rate musical guests in the studio (like Jeff Beck — probably a welcome change for all the hip people who prefer him over Eric Clapton), your chances go through the roof.

Unfortunately, Amused To Death works better as a collection of rock poetry than a thrilling musical experience. Seventy minutes of music, mostly consisting of slow, ponderous, drearily advancing melodies with a knack for New Age and lite-jazz trappings — musically appealing about as much as late period Camel albums. Energy appears only sporadically and mostly in the form of rather leaden and pompous arena-rock, like the already mentioned ʽBraveryʼ and parti­cularly ʽWhat God Wantsʼ, the album's centerpiece that Roger liked so much that he reprised it as ʽPart 2ʼ and then wrote a completely different song and called it ʽPart 3ʼ (but nobody noticed anyway). For everything else, you have to rely on the magic of the voice, the words, and the sonic gloominess, which the man still provides in spades by means of bass notes, echoes, whispers, synthesized textures, and just the subconscious understanding that if you are listening to Roger Waters, you have to be prepared for sonic gloom at all times anyway.

Any serious review of the album will concentrate on the concept, whose sprawling realization will give you plenty of points to latch on to — like, for instance, praising the man for that bittersweet obituary for an anonymous girl dying in Tiananmen Square (ʽWatching TVʼ), or chiding the man for an undeservedly vicious swipe at Andrew Lloyd Webber on ʽIt's A Miracleʼ (come on Roger, is Phantom Of The Opera really that much worse than Ça Ira?), or reflecting on the continuing relevance of "the shelf life of a teenage queen" from the title track. But this is not a serious review, and if there is one thing that its author is really confused about, it is the reason why all this depth and tastefulness never awakens the same kind of emotional response that something like The Wall always does — even if, let's face it, Roger's social reflections here are significantly more mature than the simplistic-clichéd portrayal of Mr. Pink.

To put it shortly, if the first thing that a warning against amusing ourselves to death does to us is bore us to death, it is not a good sign. I agree with some of Roger's views and disagree with others, but I would gladly listen to the most outrageous outbursts of ultra-leftist propaganda on his part, were they to be delivered with the energy and creativity of classic Floyd. The worst thing about Amused To Death is that this is a record that should supposedly be brimming with anger and bursting with sorrow, but not a single second of it actually made me feel angry or sad — well, except for being angry at having wasted so much time and sad that quite a solid bunch of really good lyrics went to waste. And it is still Roger Waters' best solo album.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Arch Enemy: Will To Power


1) Set Flame To The Night; 2) The Race; 3) Blood In The Water; 4) The World Is Yours; 5) The Eagle Flies Alone; 6) Reason To Believe; 7) Murder Scene; 8) First Day In Hell; 9) Saturnine; 10) Dream Of Retribution; 11) My Shadow And I; 12) A Fight I Must Win.

General verdict: Like somebody asked them to make a progressive death metal album, only they took the wrong meaning of the word «progressive».

When it comes to death metal, there is a really fine line between entertaining corny spectacle and unbearably miserable self-parody — the two opposite ends in between which we lodge about 95% of everything ever produced in this genre (I cautiously allocate about five percent for the kind of death metal that demands to be taken seriously). In many cases, it is nigh impossible to tell whether that line has been crossed or not. But every once in a while, you see an artist inten­tionally going for a decision that is SO GODDAMN WRONG that it is hard to imagine how even the most tolerant fans could embrace him for this blunder.

War Eternal may not have been Arch Enemy at their very best, but the injection of fresh young (virgin?) blood worked well for the band, and, as I said, the quasi-punkish energy of Alissa White-Gluz managed to rub off well on the rest of the band, helping to cope with the departure of founding father Christopher Amott. A little later, they compensated for this loss by adding Jeff Loomis, another guitar pro from the Norwegian prog metal outfit Nevermore; and it may have looked like the future was really bright for these guys. And then it happened.

Actually, I do not even know what happened; you could say that warning signs might have been picked up on any of their previous three or four records, but for all that time, the band was still seriously bent on safeguarding its core values. Will To Power, in stark contrast, is not so much a death metal album with an occasional pop flavour as it is a punk-pop album dressed up in death metal clothes — well, maybe not yet the equal of Babymetal, but quite possibly influenced by its likes. Its vast bulk consists of optimistic songs of hope, incorporating catchy, sing-along choruses whose main problem is, of course, that they are still delivered through growling vocals.

After the usual brief instrumental introduction (ʽSet Flame To The Nightʼ — an odd mix of motives from Beethoven to the Soviet patriotic anthem), the very first song already sounds like it was commissioned by The Obama Foundation: "I heard there was a place / Where we're all one race / Color, gender, age never could dictate", says Alissa White-Gluz... except that she says this in her usual Satan's voice, which would logically imply that she is conveying a message from Hell, but if Satan himself stands for equality and multi-culturalism, then I'm confused. "We're alive! Abolitionists rise!" she roars later on, supposedly projecting herself into the Civil War era, albeit with a questionable «Lucifer for Black Freedom» message. Meanwhile, the insane tempo and the poppy intonations of the chorus suggest the influence of preachy hardcore punk acts like Bad Religion — an influence that keeps cropping up over and over again (amusingly, the deluxe edition of the album even includes a cover of an old Charged GBH hit, ʽCity Baby Attacked By Ratsʼ). Welcome to the progressive era.

It is not that the band's message is wrong or that their goals are not noble; it is just that some things do not mix by nature — staying within the stylistic limits of death metal while trying to borrow your substance from a completely different genre is something that cannot work properly by definition. And ʽThe Raceʼ is not even the worst example of that: the honor goes to ʽReason To Believeʼ, a song that shares its title and some of its sentiments with the Tim Hardin classic, but is otherwise completely ridiculous — a power ballad, featuring the only clean singing on the album (the opening acoustic bars with Alissa almost crooning over them are actually pleasant) but ultimately landing in the same ditch: few things in this world are as embarrassing as hearing "THERE'S A REASON TO GO ON!" thrown in your face by some fiery demon lord from Heroes of Might & Magic (one second before he tears you to shreds).

I certainly do not deny the hilarious aspects of this process; only problem is, I do not think they were intentionally going for hilarious. A song like ʽThe World Is Yoursʼ is a preachy anthem, with a pompous symphonic chorus, and the accompanying video has Alissa in one of her trade­mark posh «metal cool» outfits gurgling the lines "if you want the world, use your mind, take control" in your face with such puffed-up enthusiasm that it becomes clear: they are actually using this space for fuckin' educational purposes now. If we live in a world now where even death metal fans prostrate themselves before their idols to receive a lesson in self-empowerment... can I please requisition another brick in the wall?

With this new agenda in place, the few decent songs there are on the album are ultimately lost in the haze; quickly going over the tracklist one more time, I think I could salvage ʽBlood In The Waterʼ (although now I do believe I cannot tell the difference between Arch Enemy and Amor­phis any more!) and maybe ʽFirst Day In Hellʼ... but no, not really. A few riffs here and there are nice, but overall, this mix of hardcore, progressive, pop, and preachy elements is a total failure. It is one thing to break out of the confines of a formula, especially one as weirdly limited as death metal; but to try and imbue that formula with inappropriate content makes about as much sense as trying to drink good wine from an unwashed bottle of ketchup. All I can say in consolation is that to watch Alissa White-Gluz in one of her videos, or in concert, is to contemplate a bizarre work of visual art in itself. But preferably, this should be done with the sound off. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

George Harrison: Dark Horse


1) Hari's On Tour (Express); 2) Simply Shady; 3) So Sad; 4) Bye Bye Love; 5) Maya Love; 6) Ding Dong Ding Dong; 7) Dark Horse; 8) Far East Man; 9) It Is ʽHeʼ (Jai Sri Krishna).

General verdict: As long as you can come to terms with a man singing against the doctor's orders, this will forever remain the truly underrated "dark horse" in George's catalog.

All four Beatles went through moments of dark personal crisis in the Seventies — ironically, while Paul was arguably the first, shattered and hurt by the breakup of the band at the same time that John and George were triumphant in their newly-found freedoms, by 1974 the tables had turned: Paul was busy re-conquering the world with his new band on the run, whereas John and George were suffering from various degrees of disillusionment, watching their family life crackle and crumble, and drinking themselves under the table. Consequently, Dark Horse was released at what might arguably have been the lowest point in George's adult life — his marriage was breaking up, his litigations seemed unending, and he was seeking refuge in a very material world of alcohol, drugs, and seedy parties.

All of that is reflected, one way or another, in his third studio album — to such an extent that history had no choice but to put a solid curse on it, one that I will be unable to lift even despite having liked the record for all my life. Chief reason for this is George's voice: shot to hell by a combination of self-inflicted and natural damage, it sounds brutally robbed of at least half of the required frequencies — more like a hobo in the last stages of TB than a distinguished, if not exceptional, singer from one of Britain's finest vocal bands, particularly on the title track (which was recorded shortly before the start of George's infamous North American tour, where his vocal problems translated into complete disaster).

I will, however, dare not to urge you to «look past the obvious problems with the voice», but rather to try and make you embrace the voice. Even when I first heard Dark Horse completely outside of any context, knowing absolutely nothing about Patti Boyd or about the drinks and the drugs, it was crystal clear that something really painful was going on — that this was not an album by a nice person deeply upset about the world's troubles, as was All Things Must Pass, but rather an album by a deeply unhappy, thoroughly depressed person about troubles that were his own and nobody else's at the moment. A song like ʽSo Sadʼ might not, technically, be more of a «downer» than ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ, but in the latter, Harrison sheds a tear for the whole world, while here he is trying to express his personal pain — and in some ways, it cuts much sharper when you allow yourself to relate to it. The key breakthrough happens in the "and he feels... so alone... with no love... of his own" bridge — it is impossible not to feel the tension in his voice and palpitation in his heart, an almost suicidal outburst after the relatively quiet and brooding acoustic verse. And that coarse, hoarse, feverish voice is the perfect conductor. (It also does not hurt that Nicky Hopkins is credited as the piano player on this track).

Although the complete list of credits for Dark Horse mentions over twenty people, many of them are limited to just one or two tracks — the final results were culled from a variety of sessions — and on the whole, the album has a fairly minimalist feel compared to 1970–73: no soaring strings, no bombastic walls of sound, no armies of nameless felt-but-not-heard guitarists, typically just your basic rock band setup with some keyboards, saxes, and woodwinds. The setup is risky, since it exposes George's weakened voice like never before; but if you are going to make a deeply personal record about your deeply personal pain, why conceal it behind an ocean of soundwaves anyway? Besides, this offers a good opportunity to show off a few tasty instrumental bits that would have never caught one's ear otherwise.

A good example is the much-maligned cover of ʽBye Bye Loveʼ, far from a masterpiece, but still much better than most critics are willing to admit. Some are actually offended by George's added lyrics that turn the song into a personal artistic vendetta against Eric and Pattie ("I hope she's happy, old Clapper too") — let us just hope these people never find themselves in the position of watching your wife leave you for your best friend. Personally, I find it more interesting how George completely re-wrote the song in a minor key, actually providing real substance to the words "bye bye love, bye bye happiness" — and he also plays a mean bass guitar on the track, with the bass supplying most of the melodic content and most of the grim atmosphere. Think of it as an impulsive, regrettable, petty act of instantaneous revenge if you wish, but there is no denying that a lot of work and a good pinch of musical inspiration actually went into it, the same way that John's ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ is completely redeemed by its musical content.

On the whole, George's songwriting instincts here are fairly intact, despite all the troubles: as usual, each song is catchy in its own way, even the opening instrumental ʽHari's On Tourʼ, led in by an unforgettable twin slide-sax riff delivered by George in unison with Tom Scott (the backing band is the jazz-rock outfit L. A. Express, known mostly for backing Joni Mitchell in the mid-Seventies). A seriously underrated long-time favorite of mine is ʽMaya Loveʼ, a lyrical throw­away with a special kind of instrumental coolness — the best parts are actually in between verses, where Andy Newark on drums and Billy Preston on piano compete in who can hit harder and harsher, while George's slide guitar quietly and attentively lies in waiting. ʽFar East Manʼ, a collaboration with Ronnie Wood, is a touching plea for mercy and sympathy, with Tom Scott's saxophone playing once again a true highlight.

Only a couple of tunes display a kind of sluggishness that makes them look sillier than the rest. ʽDing Dong Ding Dongʼ, a set of slogans set to a fairly repetitive melody, is uncomfortably optimistic; perhaps it might have worked better in an authentically All Things Must Pass-ish setting, with an even more bombastic arrangement and with George in better vocal form. That said, it is nothing compared with the awkwardness of ʽIt Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)ʼ, essentially just a generic mantra, completely devoid of personality — a long, long way away from the depth of ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ, and certainly not aided by the use of the wobble board, which just makes it seem as if George were simultaneously busy cooking up some stew in a large cauldron. Unless we agree to treat it as an intentionally comical finale to an otherwise seriously tragical record, it is quite an anti-climactic way to go, compared to ʽHear Me Lordʼ or ʽThat Is Allʼ.

Still, there are some people out there who like it, too, and, in fact, the funny thing about Dark Horse is that most of its detractors tend to agree that it is a shit record with one or two really good songs on it, yet nobody ever manages to agree on which particular one or two songs are really good — a classic case of «underrated» in my book. It is definitely a problematic album, yes, but it has a raw, aching sincerity to it that would become much harder to find on subsequent records: it might, in fact, be the last close-to-great album George made before his Cloud 9 come­back in 1987. As a matter of fact, it charted surprisingly high in the US, though just as surprising­ly low in the UK; but it is true that he did shoot himself in the foot both critically and commer­cially here, and that, perhaps, it was totally unintentional — it is simply that his 1974 lifestyle prevented him from foreseeing that a release like that would be disastrous at the time.

Whatever the circumstances might have been back then, though, nowadays, in an era when indie singers sometimes sound as if they were born with laryngitis, Dark Horse should be given its due as a deep, honest, and musically interesting account of personal misery — not as intense or angry as John's Walls And Bridges, of course, but then George himself was never as intense or angry as John (or, at least, not typically so). And I cannot lay enough stress on the «musically interesting» bit: whatever sincere emotion there is in these songs, it is carried almost exclusively by the melodic phrasing of the slide guitars, saxes, and pianos — a feature that would become too smoothed out in the man's subsequent output, but is still going strong on Dark Horse.

Monday, September 17, 2018

David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel


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


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


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.