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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bloodrock: Whirlwind Tongues

BLOODROCK: WHIRLWIND TONGUES (1974)

1) It's Gonna Be Love; 2) Sunday Song; 3) Parallax; 4) Voices; 5) Eleanor Rigby; 6) Stilled By Whirlwind; 7) Guess What I Am; 8) Lady Of Love; 9) Jungle.

I am going against the grain here, including my own old assessment of this album, but I do be­lieve now that Whirlwind Tongues is an ever so slight improvement over Passage where song­writing and impartial self-assessment of the band's abilities are concerned. Not that it matters in the slightest: the Ham-led Bloodrock at their absolute best can only present sufficient interest for historians of the «pretentious pop music scene» in the post-Beatles, pre-punk era, and maybe for a small group of strange people who'd probably scare me shitless if they were to present themselves in person. But still, just for justice' sake: Whirlwind Tongues is weak, but not awful.

The major difference is that this time around, they are not so openly emulating their betters — they still have a serious problem with trying to find their own style, but something is beginning to materialize. Perhaps a sort of folk-rock sound in the vein of contemporary Traffic, but gentler and more sentimental (a.k.a. «sissy»). With an occasional surprise or two, and some basic diversity. No eight-minute epics with bad Moog solos (okay, some bad Moog solos are inevitable, but we could live with these). Mostly boring, sometimes too cute for their own good, but give them a break — they are really trying.

I mean, it must have taken some brainwork to take ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ, speed it up, add flutes, and make it rock, if only ever so softly, right? I must admit that it is a more inventive recasting of the song than Aretha Franklin's, for instance — I much prefer my ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ in a steady tempo, tight, focused, and with flutes than see it turned into a rather chaotic R&B number. Not that the world really needs either of these, but this novelty approach is not at all repugnant. Other than the singer getting a bit too carried away (should have kept it modestly trimmed, without any extra yeah yeah yeahs, I think), it's actually fun.

Other than that, ʽIt's Gonna Be Loveʼ is a solemn soft-rock anthem that suffers from the absence of authentic Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies (and the presence of one of those corny Moog solos); ʽSunday Songʼ is loungey vaudeville that tries to mix sentimentality with humor; ʽParal­laxʼ is like Blind Faith's ʽDo What You Likeʼ with a Jethro Tull-style flute part thrown in; ʽVoicesʼ speeds along with good confidence and has the album's best riff, which would have been even better if they knew it themselves and got it rid of the distracting «flanging» effects; ʽStilled By Whirlwindʼ is too preachy, too long, has too many instances of the word "propaganda" and em­barrassing falsetto harmonies, but is okay otherwise; ʽGuess What I Amʼ is an awful piano ballad that shows Ham's lack of vocal power in all its anti-glory as the man desperately tries to prove that he can do it all, from tenor to falsetto; ʽLady Of Loveʼ is a simplistic serenade, not particularly redeemed by the heavy use of saxes blended into its primitive keyboard riff; and ʽJungleʼ is the band's attempt at doing something darker and weirder, partially successful, as they populate the minimalistic skeleton with «jungle noises».

Whew, at least there was some incentive to briefly namedrop all the songs on the album. That does not mean it merits a thumbs up, but it does mean there was enough diversity and creativity to evade any accusations of idleness and laziness. No talent, sure, but any idiot with talent can be creative — now creativity without talent, that's gotta count for something! In a way, it almost makes me feel sorry that the band finally called it a day soon afterwards — not sorry enough, though, to hunt for one more final LP, recorded in 1975, but shelved and not released officially until 2000 (as part of the rare 2-CD Triptych edition that combines both Ham-era albums with nine more songs, allegedly joined under the working title Unspoken Words).

Although, let us not exaggerate. Bloodrock were not all that outstanding in their prime, merely worth getting to know if you are a sucker for 1970 — and whichever direction Ham could take the survivors in the mid-Seventies would probably be a dead end, so I guess it's all for the better that we did not get to see the Bloodrock Disco Album, not to mention the Bloodrock Hair Metal Comeback, or be subjected to the «Bloodrock Dig Their New Indie Label So Much They Have Decided To Release Two New Albums Each Year For The Sake Of Their Three Fans» reality show. Having run out of blood (and out of rock) back in 1972, at best, they could be opening shows for the likes of Styx, and how much more embarrassment could this world stand?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Secret Treaties

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: SECRET TREATIES (1974)

1) Career Of Evil; 2) Subhuman; 3) Dominance And Submission; 4) ME 262; 5) Cagey Cretins; 6) Harvester Of Eyes; 7) Flaming Telepaths; 8) Astronomy.

Each of these early BÖC albums has its own separate identity, but it is hard to delineate them without resorting to technicalities. If the appropriate keyword combination for the self-titled debut was «ironic mystique» and then Tyranny And Mutation replaced it with «in-yer-face ironic hard rock», well, I'd say Secret Treaties is neither of these things. It is noticeably lighter — still technically «hard rock», but with a stronger nod to pop and, most interestingly, with a certain minimalistic flavor: the riffs are getting more sparse, abrupt, and laconic, occasionally predicting the highly expressive minimalism of AC/DC or even the punkers. Listen to ʽDomi­nance And Submissionʼ and tell me you don't recognize ʽWe're A Happy Familyʼ (incidentally, the Ramones were one of the opening acts for BÖC in early 1977, and the song was on the setlist — how's that for a little detective work?).

As such, I don't know about enjoyability, but they do manage to throw on some extra intrigue after the slight relative disappointment of Tyranny. By calming down a bit and concentrating seriously on musical development and lyrical content, the band produces a «hard-art» record that actually taps into some serious matter — not «proverbially dark» or «theatrically eerie», but snappy in a genuinely disturbing way if you pay sufficient attention. Nowhere more so than on the album opener, ʽCareer Of Evilʼ, a naughty grin of a song that could very well fit onto any Alice Cooper record; all the more amazing that its hyperbolic lyrics, presented from the point of view of the allegorical meanest motherfucker you've ever seen in your life, were penned by Patti Smith (then again, this is the Patti Smith of ʽRock'n'Roll Niggerʼ fame, too). The repeated line "I'm making a career of evil" concludes one of the catchiest choruses in the band's history — so prepare to forever suffer the harboring in your head of a song that threatens to steal wives, inject brains, and "do it to your daughter on a dirt road", yuck. Nasty.

ʽDominance And Submissionʼ hits sparingly, but harsh, its grim simple chords delivering power­ful punches and its lyrics seemingly dealing with the impact of the media on public conscience (I think). The second part of the song (starting off with "In Times Square now people do the polka") is one of the weirdest bits they ever did — the "dominance! / submission! / (radios appear)" sequence is two minutes of sheer delirium, followed by an even more delirious guitar solo, and in combination with all the not-so-innocent references to 1963, 1964, digging ʽThe Locomotionʼ, and questionable rides in backseats with «Susan and her brother, Charles the grinning boy», this is pretty disturbing nostalgia, if you ask me. They overplay it so hotly that, eventually, it becomes more bizarre and/or hilarious than creepy, but fishing creepiness out of the depths of weirdness is a respectable activity in its own rights, isn't it?

They pull the whiskers of public taste even more strongly on ʽME 262ʼ, whose lyrics depict an aerial battle in WWII from the perspective of a German pilot, no less: "Must these Englishmen live that I might die"? Granted, BÖC are an American band, not a British one, and run a slightly lesser risk of being dragged through the mud in New York than they'd run it in London, but still, if you throw in the fact that ʽME 262ʼ is really a happy-sounding barroom boogie number at heart, and that they also illustrated the song vividly on the album cover, that's one hell of a provocative move: "Hitler's on the phone from Berlin, says I'm gonna make you a star...".

As we move forward, it becomes more and more obvious that Pearlman, Meltzer, and Patti Smith have really formed a «secret treaty» to turn Blue Öyster Cult into a critical weapon, launched against public manipulation and sheep mentality — a title like ʽCagey Cretinsʼ speaks for itself, while the ʽHarvester Of Eyesʼ seems to be a metaphor for your TV set. The lyrics are always ambiguous enough to suggest multiple interpretations (or refrain from interpretation altogether), but the «satirical» interpretation complements the music best of all, adding extra depth to these odd riffs, like the «probing claw» mini-melody of ʽHarvester Of Eyesʼ that seeks to implant itself in your brain and take possession of your ears, eyes, and everything else. And the desperately weeping intonations of ʽFlaming Telepathsʼ go together fairly well with the recurrent line — "I'm after rebellion, I'll settle for lies", which is like a funny retort to the Who's ʽWon't Get Fooled Againʼ. It occupies the album's niche for «mini-epic», with Moog, piano, and guitar solos fueling the big pathos furnace until the song suddenly begins to match its ambitions and overwhelm the senses — regardless of whether you understand who the hell are the "flaming telepaths" in ques­tion and whether the lyrics are supposed to be taken socially, personally, or to the incinerator.

My only problem is with ʽAstronomyʼ, which closes the record off on another grand note, but with some pretense at «soul» — as if somebody thought it'd be a good idea to pay a joint tribute to Elton John and Van Morrison at the same time, but ended up sounding like Journey instead, or some other second-rate/hand quasi-prog band. To succeed at this sort of thing, they'd need at least one or two individual geniuses among them, a great vocalist or a super-flashy soloist or two, but their strength has always been in the collective realm, and from that point of view, ʽAstronomyʼ is neither as weird as ʽRedeemedʼ nor as tightly assembled as ʽMistress Of The Salmon Saltʼ. If it is an intentional send-up of «pretentious», «romantic» values, it would be more logical at least to place it in the middle, because using it as a coda aggrandizes it, want it or not, and it does not seem to deserve any proper aggrandization, I think.

Still, these are minor nitpicks next to how altogether consistent and stimulating the record is — one of the most intellectually challenging hard rock artefacts of 1974. Which is not saying that nobody should ever listen to the self-titled KISS debut from the same year in the event of availa­bility of Secret Treaties, because Secret Treaties is not a headbanger's delight, it just uses hard rock as a useful tool for something completely different, and it is this difference more than any­thing else that earns it a thumbs up. It rocks, sure enough, but more importantly, it's quirky, and it cannot be easily cracked upon one listen — and it's one of those «meta-rock» albums which should really only be appreciated once you've thoroughly gone through all of the usual biggies. If you're only in it for the rock'n'roll, well, better stay away from records where Patti Smith might be responsible for at least some of the words.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Agnetha Fältskog: A

AGNETHA FÄLTSKOG: A (2013)

1) The One Who Loves You Now; 2) When You Really Loved Someone; 3) Perfume In The Breeze; 4) I Was A Flower; 5) I Should've Followed You Home; 6) Past Forever; 7) Dance Your Pain Away; 8) Bubble; 9) Back On Your Radio; 10) I Keep Them On The Floor Beside My Bed.

Although this record was heavily advertised as «Agnetha's first collection of original material in a quarter of a century!», I would urge even diehard ABBA fans not to get too excited, and take this information with a bag of salt. Sure, it is somewhat nice to see the lady still going strong (on the surface at least) — she looks healthy on the album cover (Photoshop?), she sounds pretty on the songs (Autotune?), and she is engaged in various promotional activities — live shows, inter­views, documentaries — that prove she still got energy (stimulants?).

But there is a serious downside: the songs. These songs are not ABBA (not being penned by Benny or Björn), not typical early Agnetha solo (not being selected «by tender» from a bunch of respectable songwriters competing with each other), and they are not Colouring Book-style grateful nostalgia. Instead, the album has been written in its entirety, as well as produced, by Jörgen Eloffson, the guy best known for writing the first hit single for Kelly Clarkson, and prior to that, the co-author of quite a few songs on Britney Spears' first album; as far as I can under­stand, he has a tight association with American Idol, Pop Idol, and all those people.

Friend or no friend, I have no idea why Agnetha consented to let this guy flood her with his compositions. The album's chief influences are bubblegum pop, boy bands, and diva balladry, with the songs more or less evenly distributed between these three categories — there is also a «retro» category, though, represented this time by ʽDance Your Pain Awayʼ, a credible stylization in classic disco that could even be enjoyable if not for the synthesizers, which have infiltrated the song from the modern technopop era. ʽBack On The Radioʼ is somewhat retro as well, I guess, and inevitably brings to mind ʽThat's Why God Made The Radioʼ — the Beach Boys' creative fiasco from the previous year. But this one's worse, because instead of classic Beach Boys har­monies you get a transparently autotuned delivery. Intentionally autotuned, I'd say, as when you use Autotune not to correct vocal weaknesses, but as a symbolic artistic statement — «well, it's a song about the radio, we gotta have a little interference in there». It's still ugly.

Trying to seek out «niceties» on this album would immediately turn this review into a condescen­ding one, so I am not even going to try — instead, we should probably show our respect to the artist by harshly stating that A is a bunch of crap, and that, no matter how hard she tries (and I don't think she tries hard enough), her generally well-preserved, and still largely beautiful, voice cannot redeem this shallow, by-the-book material. It's better than the Britney Spears songs, I'll give you that, but not by much — certainly not in the production department, which is exactly the same, coating a boring acoustic guitar / piano skeleton with a tasteless mixture of electronic per­cussion, synths, and strings. Its emotional palette is completely predictable, and so are its hooks.

In short, I have nothing against Agnetha slipping into soft, slow, nostalgic «granny mode» — given her age, this would only be natural — but it is the most ridiculous thing in the world to let your «granny mode» be controlled by the guy who makes a living writing for American Idol. As far as I know, Jeff Lynne, Russ Ballard, and Justin Hayward are still living — and maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea, either, to finally acknowledge Elvis Costello and his burning desire to make himself useful to an ABBA member. I mean, the possibilities are really endless, so what the hell?.. Thumbs down, and here's hoping Lady A lives and thrives long enough to get the message. At least, as of 2013, she can still sing, and feel, and think, but she sure as hell doesn't keep herself good company.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Blackmore's Night: Shadow Of The Moon

BLACKMORE'S NIGHT: SHADOW OF THE MOON (1997)

1) Shadow Of The Moon; 2) The Clock Ticks On; 3) Be Mine Tonight; 4) Play Minstrel Play; 5) Ocean Gypsy; 6) Minstrel Hall; 7) Magical World; 8) Writing On The Wall; 9) Renaissance Fair; 10) Memmingen; 11) No Second Chance; 12) Mond Tanz; 13) Spirit Of The Sea; 14) Greensleeves; 15) Wish You Were Here.

Ritchie Blackmore. Most people will remember him for early Deep Purple, some will for early Dio-era Rainbow, still others — shudder — for the later «hit era» Rainbow, but you know what? Listening to this album, the first in a new career and a new life, makes me absolutely convinced that it was not until this transformation from a blazing rock god into a humble minstrel that he had really found his true heart's content. And in the overall context of his life and his deeds, this finding makes me genuinely feel good for him.

Normally, this «neo-medieval» stylistics, the roots of which probably go all the way back to bands like Amazing Blondel in the early 1970s and maybe even further back to God knows where, is about as cringeworthy as a tacky mansion in «medieval» style, erected somewhere on the pro­perty by some tasteless nouveau riche. The melodies are stiff and manneristic, the arrangements tepidly polite, the lyrics overloaded with clichés that betray only a superficial acquaintance with the verbal art of Chaucer's, let alone King Alfred's, times. All of these flaws are vividly present on the first album by Blackmore's Night, and more — obviously produced on a modest budget, the record keeps substituting electronic replacements for genuine instruments. Synthesized trum­pets? Works wonders in the authenticity department, you know.

But then again, who are we kidding? Shadow Of The Moon has nothing to do with authenticity, and if you box Ritchie into a corner, or maybe even if you don't, he will probably admit that him­self. Shadow Of The Moon is simply part of his fantasy, which began with his encounter with Candice Night (Candice Lauren Isralow, to be precise), a young fan born in the year of Fireball, in 1989 — and ended with the formation of this duet, in which Blackmore plays the part of a traveling minstrel (always with his trusty boots on!) and Candice plays the part of his romantic fantasy, whichever it happens to be at the moment (empress, princess, lady in waiting, innocent peasant girl, witchy woman, gypsy, fortune teller, fairy queen — anything, as long as it has nothing to do with the real world).

Ever since they seriously hooked up, I think, they were living this fantasy in real life to some extent, so it was only natural that, eventually, something like this would come out. Fans were expectedly devastated: a Blackmore album without a single Blackmore electric solo? In fact, an album where his role was essentially reduced to that of songwriter and basic accompanist? Him, Ritchie Blackmore of the Huge Ego, which we all had to accept and cherish? Unbelievable, and sacrilegious. Was this Candice Night gal his Yoko Ono, putting him under her spell and making a humble slave out of the world's fiercest electric guitar hero?..

Not quite. There are two kinds of people who always punish Shadow Of The Moon with one-star ratings. The first kind simply wants Blackmore to go on being a guitar god — that's the silly kind, because if you don't want to be a guitar god no more, it's useless to force yourself. The second kind just cringes and calls the music tacky — which it certainly is. Except they are for­getting that every band in which Ritchie has done time has always been tacky, right from the earliest days of Deep Purple. Remember their cover of the Beatles' ʽHelp!ʼ on the debut album? Now if that ain't tacky, I don't know what is.

Yes, like most of this faux-Renaissance muzak, the songs, taken at face value, are stiff, boring, and corny, and not at all redeemed by the technical aspects of their execution — Blackmore's guitar playing (mostly acoustic, although he does not completely shun the electric sound) is intentionally very modest, whereas Night's vocals are pleasantly passable: she is no new Annie Haslam in terms of range or power, and no new Sandy Denny in terms of expression and spiritu­ality, she just sings in a nice tone. Not particularly irritating or memorable. Not much to hate, not a lot to love. Fine wardrobe, though.

Where this album, and most of its follow-ups, really succeeds is in making you understand just how much the both of them dig doing it. Forget the rock god image — this is what Blackmore has really been waiting for all his life: a fair lady companion to allow him to drown his ego in a world of dark shadows, green meadows, magic spells, crystal balls, greensleeves, and mandolins. De­spite the technically unimpressive arrangements, it is clear that they spent a shitload of time working out all the little twists on these songs. ʽMagical Worldʼ, in the middle of the record, is their personal statement of purpose: "...In our hearts / We share the same dream / Feelings so strong / We just must carry on / On to our magical world". Trivial, but true: the dedication with which they approach the construction of this «magical world» is worth admiration.

Most of the songs are Blackmore originals (with occasional lyrics from Candice), with two ex­ceptions: ʽOcean Gypsyʼ is a cover of an old Renaissance tune (a predictable choice), while the closing ʽWish You Were Hereʼ is a cover of... no, not Pink Floyd and certainly not Badfinger, but a 1995 single by the Swedish band Rednex, whose members were neither rednecks nor neo-medievalists, but somehow this lonesome ballad got stuck with Blackmore's Night anyway. But on the whole, listing individual highlights is a pointless endeavour — the «originals», employing mostly traditional folk phrasing, smoothly roll on without much stylistic change or musical de­velopment. You'd have to be a serious fan of baroque music to spot the differences — and then, if you were a serious fan of baroque music, you'd probably have no reason whatsoever to entertain yourself with an album like this, when you could be listening to Lully or Telemann instead.

None other than Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson in person makes a welcome guest appearance on ʽPlay Minstrel Playʼ, cheering up the stage with some rousing flute solos; and none other than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in person has a cameo on ʽWriting On The Wallʼ, the corniest number on the entire record — for some reason, not only did they have the strange idea to begin it with a synthesizer quotation from Swan Lake, but they also decided to deck the rest of the ballad with a speedy disco arrangement, about as appropriate in the context of the album as a skyscraper in the middle of a Papuan village. Maybe at the last moment somebody had the bright idea that it would be wrong for the artists to stay completely out of touch with modern reality, so they threw on «one for the nightclubs» at the last moment. Not good for the vibe, and the vibe is pretty much the only reason one could care about the record in the first place.

Additionally, the album is just too damn long — over an hour, with most of the songs sharing the same magical-mystical mood; as happy as they must have been making it, it is not certain that the average listener would necessarily subscribe to this «let the magic never stop!» ideology. Trim­ming the record at the expense of some of its «samey» numbers might have made me pay more attention to its individual components — as it is, I'm forced to treat it as yer average fairywood mushroom muzak. I totally get this escapist vibe, and I like how it is presented with reserve and humility, but recommending this album for somebody who is not fascinated with the spirit of Ritchie Blackmore would be an impossibility. I guess Candice Night could be called «kinda hot» in recompense, but when it comes to witchy women and gypsies, I guess I'm more of a sucker for Stevie Nicks in the end. Candice just looks way too healthy for my tastes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Black Crowes: Three Snakes And One Charm

THE BLACK CROWES: THREE SNAKES AND ONE CHARM (1996)

1) Under A Mountain; 2) Good Friday; 3) Nebakanezer; 4) One Mirror Too Many; 5) Blackberry; 6) Girl From A Pawnshop; 7) (Only) Halfway To Everywhere; 8) Bring On, Bring On; 9) How Much For Your Wings?; 10) Let Me Share The Ride; 11) Better When You're Not Alone; 12) Evil Eye.

Hey, hey, it is only natural that the first album on which The Black Crowes start showing the first signs of getting into a real focused groove and — horrors! — learning how to shape their chord-picking into vaguely memorable forms, should get the cold shoulder from fans and critics. A sur­prisingly large number of them seem to love the first two albums, be sympathetic or ecstatic towards Amorica, and treat Three Snakes And One Charm as «the beginning of the decline». Decline? Where? In order to «decline», you actually have to shift your position — I mean, it's not as if the Crowes went techno here, or doom metal, or drum and bass (much as I'd love to see them try out any of these things). Or you could start writing worse songs, but from that point of view, it doesn't get much worse than Amorica, really.

Honestly, the first song, ʽUnder A Mountainʼ, is such a traditional mess of power chords, slide guitars, and lumpy mid-tempo drum pummelling, that I was expecting the album to be a carbon copy of its predecessor. But lo and behold, there are some signs of life, beginning circa track three: ʽNebakanezerʼ (what is this, a specifically Southern realization of Nebuchadnezzar?) sub­jects itself to the implantation of a distinct, important riff (even though its authorship hardly be­longs to the Crowes — it's a rather common chord sequence for roots-rockers), and, at the very least, becomes nicely fleshed out as a heavy country-rock song with a poppy chorus.

Maybe this is exactly what the fans are holding against the band — that it is trying to «sell out» by writing songs that one can, you know, whistle, as opposed to simply «dig that sound». Fortu­nately for the fans, the band is only succeeding at this task part-time: about half of the album con­sists of the usual drab mush. But ʽOne Mirror Too Manyʼ, ʽLet Me Share The Rideʼ, ʽEvil Eyeʼ, and particularly my favorite — ʽBlackberryʼ, these are songs that are, like... songs. Well, maybe not all of them. Maybe some. Maybe just one or two. Still, that's, like, progress.

They are even trying to be weird on occasion: ʽHalfway To Everywhereʼ, opening with a nice wah-wah lead, tries to bridge the gap between funk and boogie and has the Robinson brothers mess around with their vocals, making funny noises that I hope is not their take on scat singing, but is just a way of monkeying around to break up the pattern of endless boredom. It's not much, but it's much more than it ever used to be.

That said, my money is still riding on that silly cock rock anthem ʽBlackberryʼ (of course, these days it would rather be perceived as an anthem to a wireless handheld device, making the line "Hey Blackberry, look at my bumblebee" somewhat incomprehensible). It is short, tight, crunchy, safely pinned to a distinct riff, makes good use of stop-and-starts, employs the organ as a «tease» device, and does not begin to overload our ears until the proper climactic part, so it's even got some development to it. Formerly, some of the songs could have one or two of these elements, but not all of them at once.

All in all, I'd say that the somewhat cooler ratings and reviews for the album were triggered by the world's getting tired of the Crowes — the slight change in sound may have been used as a pretext, when in reality they were only trying to get away from the «vibe-based» approach to the «hook-based» approach, if only occasionally so. The usual problems all remain, including the bland vocals of brother Chris and the total lack of genuine inspiration on softer numbers (ʽGirl From A Pawnshopʼ is a Van Morrison-worthy title, but the song wouldn't have been saved even if they got Van to sing on it — it's simply one more big fat nothing). But the good news is that, regardless of whether they keep on loving their mush or not (and I guess they do), they are not content to stay soaking in it forever, and every attempt at modifying and diversifying the formula on the part of these guys is okay with me in advance.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Björk: Homogenic

BJÖRK: HOMOGENIC (1997)

1) Hunter; 2) Jóga; 3) Unravel; 4) Bachelorette; 5) All Neon Like; 6) 5 Years; 7) Immature; 8) Alarm Call; 9) Pluto; 10) All Is Full Of Love.

Doctor, we're losing her. If you want to call Homogenic the pinnacle / zenith / Olympus of all things Björk-related, you can make a great case for this, but even you will have to admit that the lady is getting a little... distant, perhaps? The cunning little sprite of Debut and Post has matured into a full-blown Lady of the Mountain, who no longer wishes to be playful and innocent, or is no longer capable of it. These songs are still gorgeous, and, to some extent, still accessible, but the production, the lyrics, the singing style, everything has evolved to the state that you are not sup­posed to «enjoy» these songs — you're supposed to kowtow. I mean, how is it even possible to look at that Alexander McQueen-designed sleeve photo and not kowtow? That sure ain't no frickin' Cio-Cio San staring you down from the front cover.

Still, I guess it had to be done, because no other album in the world sounds quite like Homogenic — and besides, if we're talking pretentiousness justified by atmosphere, I'd rate this over OK Computer in a jiffy, my usual predilection towards guitar music over electronic music notwith­standing. It is usually said that the album was mostly a tribute from Björk to her native Iceland, but it certainly goes well beyond that, and not just because of the extra Japanese motifs on the album sleeve. The soundscapes throughout are «icy» indeed, but due to the constant pressure of electronic texture, this «iciness» is more of a sci-fi, astral nature, so when you take your first listen to ʽHunterʼ, you might get a glimpse of the singer zipping through space, or, rather, as it happens, freezing space and time all around her so that it might be easier for her to go out hunting. There is a local reference in there as well ("I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandina­vian of me"), but it is of no crucial importance, nor are the lyrics in general of any crucial impor­tance — if you try and go for a more or less literal interpretation (transformation into a hunter = gaining of personal independence and self-sufficiency), it becomes way too boring.

What is not boring at all is admiring all the overlays — the overdriven martial pummelling of the programmed drums, the silky psychedelic cobwebs of the electronics, the strings adding a mid-Eastern vibe, the ghostly harmonies — this is a soundtrack to something completely different, the invention of an alternate world with alternate musical (and God knows what other) values, over which Björk has crowned herself freedom-organizing queen. You probably don't want to live there unless you're seriously deranged — too cold, too spooky, too unpredictable — but you are given the option to take a look from afar, and that's plenty already.

The Amazing Exploding Percussion on ʽJógaʼ (don't forget the accent sign, since the song has nothing to do with yoga, being named after one of Björk's personal friends) is said to be a tribute to Icelandic volcanic activity, but, once again, nobody is forcing anybody to narrow down the vision: she is singing about "emotional landscapes", after all, not "geographical" ones, and the famous chorus — "state of emergency, is where I want to be" — can hardly be related to Iceland, a country where people are said to be rather rarely found in a state of emergency (unless one of the volcanoes does erupt, I guess). What matters is the cathartic height of that voice, the soaring strings, and the electronic base all combining in an anthemic chorus that speaks this bizarre language, combining familiar sounds in such unusual ways. «Strange beauty» indeed, a fitting spiritual anthem for the era of the quark and the quantum.

The epicness reaches its peak on ʽBacheloretteʼ, a song that begs for you to envision Björk on the top of a tall, narrow cliff rising into the epicenter of a snow storm, but maybe that imagery was deemed too pretentious to be incorporated in the accompanying video. It is a damn risky song, taking so many chances that it teeters on the brink of crashing under its own weight, and, in fact, every time I see Björk doing it live, I can't get rid of a funny thought like "what's a little girl like this doing, singing a huge song like that?" But it works — it chooses all the right notes, tones, and overlays to show that the ʽIsobelʼ of Post has finally transformed from some po­tentially dange­rous, but rather amusing and cuddly entity into a demonic, tragic, and presumably lethal creature — or, at least, inaccessible. Who'd want to connect or relate to "a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl", or a "path of cinders burning under your feet"? The strings wail with such desperation, and the bass keys rumble with such a sense of doom that there are only two ways to go — hate this crap as an overblown theatrical put-on, or kowtow. For now, I'm kowtowing.

These three big singles are probably the pivots around which we launch the smaller satellites, but the album is definitely consistent. Some of the more personal, intimate moments are to be found within its folds — ʽUnravelʼ is a song of longing and yearning, an emotional state so tailor-made for Björk's voice that one wonders why it is not generated more often; ʽ5 Yearsʼ boards us back on the train of «I hate indecision and indecisive people!», with arguably the best bit of roaring on the entire record (at least, roaring that is not electronically enhanced, as it is on ʽPlutoʼ); ʽImma­tureʼ is a self-reprisal for a moment of weakness in which — fancy that! — the protagonist makes the awful mistake of relying upon somebody else, with a masterful vocalization on the chorus, each syllable of it getting its own flourish (no melismata, though, thank God).

But the coda, calming us and smoothly bringing it all back home after the wild sonic ravage of ʽPlutoʼ, is still an anthem — the Beatles had ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ, implying a certain shortage of the stuff, and Björk has ʽAll Is Full Of Loveʼ, implying, in a rather pantheistic twist, that one only has to know where to look. The problem is, she is not being very convincing, because so far, she's given us everything except for the understanding of whether she actually has a clue about what love really is. Is there at all a thing like a «Björk love song»? Whatever be the case, her idea of «love» and how to express it in music is so far from conventional, you'd think it wasn't really love she was talking about. The music of ʽAll Is Full Of Loveʼ is meditative, soothing, and hypno­tizing, but putting the listener in a transcendental state is not quite the same as conveying a sense of pleasure or interpersonal affection. Then again, you wouldn't really expect Ms. Isobel-Bachelorette to share the average person's layman interpretation of love, would you? All I am saying is that ʽAll Is Full Of Loveʼ will probably not leave you feeling warm and cuddly all over, but it might manipulate you into realizing that all is full of Björk (or, if you are of the cynical persuasion, that Björk is full of... never mind).

A great, epic album, but also a tragic one, since it is always sad to see a human being cease being a human being and begin being an alien entity of questionable organic constitution — the album title being a good indication of this: Homogenic, not Human. From here on, Björk's further career can almost be predicted, with all of its highs and lows, as her conscience set out on a journey all its own, rarely crossing paths with basic human nature. But in the long run, it was worth it — anybody can choose a cut-off point in following any particular artist, and even if one were to argue that Homogenic destroyed Björk (which is not quite true, but looks good on paper), it would still be one of the awesomest self-destructions in the history of popular music. You are basically witnessing the nirvanization of a person, as she melts into little streaks of particles and vibrations right before your eyes on the ʽAll Is Full Of Loveʼ finale. When she returns back from the other side, she'll never be the same again. A thumbs up rating does not even begin to do this weird pantheistic record proper justice.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Black Sabbath: Seventh Star

BLACK SABBATH: SEVENTH STAR (1986)

1) In For The Kill; 2) No Stranger To Love; 3) Turn To Stone; 4) Sphinx (The Guardian); 5) Seventh Star; 6) Danger Zone; 7) Heart Like A Wheel; 8) Angry Heart; 9) In Memory.

We should not really take as an excuse that bit of historical trivia which says that Seventh Star was not supposed to be a «Black Sabbath» album, and that the decision to present it as such was thrust upon Tony by his management, in a publicity move that was even more dishonest than with Born Again (at least Born Again featured three original members of Black Sabbath — Seventh Star features one) and introduced a new brand of linguistic euphemism into the world: «Band X featuring artist Y» = «Artist Y who used to be in band X».

We should not take it as an excuse, not because somebody had the gall to discredit and dishonor a sacred brand, but simply because «that which we call a turd by any other name would smell as sweet». Wait, did I say «turd»? I meant to say Seventh Star, an album that introduces formerly great musical guy Tony Iommi to the pleasures of generic mid-Eighties pop metal and, along with Alice Cooper's Constrictor, has to count as one of the year's hugest disappointments, and a good reminder to all of us how those years used to bring out all the worst in rock dinosaurs, as the softer ones embraced adult contemporary and the harder ones were swallowed up in hair metal.

Yes, after the eventual and inevitable implosion of the Gillan-fronted version of Black Sabbath, whereupon, for a few years, it was thought that the band had finally been done in for good, Tony did really want to make a solo album, and Don Arden did persuade him that sales would be higher if it were billed as a «Black Sabbath» release. In any case, Black Sabbath did already go through three different incarnations, where Tony and Geezer were the only constant links, and with the advent of Dio and Gillan as full-time lyricists Geezer's role in the band was steadily diminishing away, so it could be said that in 1986 Tony Iommi was Black Sabbath, de-facto. And is Seventh Star really so different? If albums like Paranoid, Heaven And Hell, and Born Again are all Black Sabbath — despite sporting such different musical ideologies — why not Seventh Star? It's a heavy metal album, after all, little doubt about that.

A horrible one, though. Iommi's riffs, already quite questionable for the past decade, are not getting any better, whereas the production and commercial orientation are getting much worse. The Dio and Gillan-era records still had some «shock value» to them: doom-laden and snarling with Ronnie, as Mephistopheles went on the prowl, «drunk-evil» with Ian, as Mephistopheles settled down in a pub with a black eye, whining about how life's tough and all. These songs, how­ever, with a few minor exceptions, are completely user-friendly: singalong arena-rockers and power ballads that owe as much to Journey and Bob Seger as they do to classic Sabbath, if not more. Yes, I guess Tony wanted to try something new for a change, but I just have to wonder how the heck a guy whose art was formerly in such stark opposition to «user-friendliness» could allow himself to be duped into adopting this stylistics? Not that he was the only one, and it is also true that, with heavy metal gradually gaining mainstream acceptance, the values were being com­promised regardless of one's intent, but still, ʽNo Stranger To Loveʼ? Gimme a break.

The other cause for running and hiding is the backing band. The drummer, Eric Singer, was from Lita Ford's band (later on, he would join KISS and become really famous). The bassist, Dave Spitz, looked like a spitz, was nicknamed ʽThe Beastʼ, and went on to join Great White. The key­board player was Geoff Nicholls, who had originally played on the Dio-era albums and was brought back for his ability to master the synthesizer (so he is responsible for all the stuffy, plastic-soulful overdubs on the record). And the singer — oh God! — was Glenn Hughes.

Now since we are on the subject, let me make this remark: there seems to be a very important, very crucial difference between «power metal» singers like Dio (or Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickin­son, for instance) and Glenn Hughes (or David Coverdale, both of which were known to converge upon and destroy Deep Purple in the mid-1970s). From a certain point of view, they do more or less the same things — present the closest possible approximation to an «opera singer» in a heavy rock context; but since they are not actually «opera singers», the effect is corny and laughable unless they compensate by making their voice echo the brutality of the music. Dio and Dickinson do that all right, but Glenn Hughes just sounds like a pompous windbag, and now that the pomp is laid right over the lifeless Eighties production, the effect is unbearable.

A few of these songs could have been okay in a different world — ʽIn For The Killʼ, despite the unimaginative title that Budgie had already exploited in a much better way, has a hell-raising machine-gun hard riff; the 12-bar blues ʽHeart Like A Wheelʼ is surprisingly effective for a band that almost never does 12-bar blues (similar to the manneristic, over-expressive, and sometimes uunintentionally parodic style of Gary Moore, but with Tony's dark metal preferences redeeming the atmosphere a bit); and ʽTurn To Stoneʼ is at least fast, breaking up the mind-numbing depres­sion of crap metal ballads like ʽNo Stranger To Loveʼ and the title track (oh, actually, the title track tries to be some sort of stately mystical anthem à la ʽKashmirʼ, but with that production and Geoff Nicholls' rather pathetic attempt at incorporating a mid-Eastern flavor, it doesn't have much in the way of competition).

But ultimately, there is no sense trying to rescue and remedy any of these tracks in your imagina­tion, unless one day somebody actually does that in real life. So there are only two further re­marks to accompany the unfortunate thumbs down: (a) apparently, there is a 2-CD deluxe edition of this bunch of crap (actually, the second disc is just a recording of a 1986 live show, with Ray Gillen replacing Hughes; but still, the word «deluxe» shouldn't be caught dead near the title of this album); (b) the oh-so-1986 video for ʽNo Stranger To Loveʼ is notorious for featuring a slightly younger Tasha Yar from Star Trek TNG — naturally, with the requisite big hair, so if you're a fan of Star Trek (or a fan of big hair), you should probably check it out. Actually, they all have big hair in the video. It's a good thing Tony's was always a bit curly by itself — he's the only guy in the band to mostly keep his own.