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Monday, December 31, 2012

Bo Diddley: Where It All Began


1) I've Had It Hard; 2) Woman; 3) Look At Grandma; 4) A Good Thing; 5) Bad Trip; 6) Hey Jerome; 7) Infatuation; 8) Take It All Off; 9) Bo Diddley-itis.

Well, we have just very narrowly escaped from making the review for Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time conclude the reviewing season of 2012 — a fairly creepy omen would that be. Instead, we are concluding it with something much more solid, if about three hundred times less known — the finest record that Bo Diddley got to cut in the studio over the third, and most un­der­ra­ted, decade of his artistic career.

By all means, Another Dimension was not a bad album, but neither was it really true to the Bo Diddley spirit, and after it predictably failed to sell, the people at Chess showed enough glimpses of intellect to let Bo go on and do his own thang once again — and that he did. Where It All Be­gan is really a misleading title: usually, we expect them to be reserved for archival albums of early outtakes, or at least for straightforward nostalgic throwbacks. However, if there is a nos­talgic throw­back here, it is not too stretched out — the album returns to the steam-funk of Black Gladiator, and builds up from there. If anything, the title is rather an indirect hint that Bo Did­dley, in 1972, if he really puts his back to it, can be just as kick-ass as he used to be fifteen years earlier. And you know what? I'm almost convinced.

The record is a little more polished and a little less noisy than Black Gladiator, and we see the classic old Bo Diddley beat return on a couple of numbers, so overall, Bo is taking fewer risks here. But the overall sound of Gladiator — heavy, deep, echoey, and quite modern — remains stable, and now it is being supported by cleaner, sharper production; guest appearances by drum­mer Johnny Otis on one track and guitarist Shuggie Otis on another; and fabulous backup vocal arrangements, with Connie Redmond at the head of the team, and she is good enough to even take the lead on ʽA Good Thingʼ — and bury poor little Bo deep in the ground in the process. (The man was careful enough not to let his backup singers take the spotlight most of the time — but every once in a while, still let down his guard).

Each side of the LP is dominated by a lengthy jam: ʽBad Tripʼ, true to its name, is a devoted exer­cise in acid funk, whereas ʽBo Diddley-itisʼ is somewhat more traditional — faster, sloppier, and tribalistic. Both, however, are excellent by their own standards. ʽBad Tripʼ features six minutes of aggressive and surprisingly complex guitar pyrotechnics (courtesy of Bo himself and second gui­tarist Tom Thompson) — if played sufficiently loud, the track compares quite favorably to con­temporary Funkadelic workouts. And ʽBo Diddley-itisʼ is just a wild party freakout — now, in 1972, Bo can finally allow himself to stretch out without any serious limits in the studio, in a man­ner that, in the 1950s and 1960s, had to be reserved for local club gigs.

In between, we have lots of shorter, catchier, sunnier «funk-pop» numbers, often with interesting guitar themes — so interesting, in fact, that one cannot help but wonder how in the world did Bo manage to stay away so completely from exploring new note sequences throughout most of the 1960s. Yes, so ʽI've Had It Hardʼ starts things out on a more than familiar note of «chug, chu-chu-chug-chug, CHUG CHUG», but even there the second guitar plays something more melodic and curious over Bo's basic rhythm, while the girls in the back invent a new way of chanting "di­ddley bo diddley bo diddley bo diddley bo diddley".

Then there is ʽWomanʼ, pinned to a wobbly «post-bluesy» riff that would not be out of place on a Television record (yes, they did something quite similar for ʽMarquee Moonʼ); the fantastically catchy, hilarious ʽLook At Grandmaʼ, again dominated by the girls' harmonies; the gritty twin-guitar jam on ʽHey Jeromeʼ; a not-half-bad take on the sunny soul side with ʽInfatuationʼ; and Bo strutting his macho stuff with ʽTake It All Offʼ — again, a song not at all memorable for its «dirty» vocalization, but rather for the excellent guitar/bass/back vocals interplay.

In fact, amazing as it seems, there is not a single weak cut on the record. Perhaps it cannot really compete in flimsy terms of «relevance» with the big black music of the day — perhaps it is no­here near as far out as Funkadelic, really, and perhaps the rhythms and the riffs are mostly «old-school», because, well, one cannot demand of a Fifties idol that he completely re-learn his craft with every new decade. But on its own terms, Where It All Began shows no signs of weariness — every note is punched out with religious enthusiasm, and the entire team shows wonders of group coordination. A heavily underrated groovy jam masterpiece here — dig it out and learn how to surprise your local hipster parties. Thumbs up.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Britney Spears: ...Baby One More Time


1) ...Baby One More Time; 2) (You Drive Me) Crazy; 3) Sometimes; 4) Soda Pop; 5) Born To Make You Happy; 6) From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart; 7) I Will Be There; 8) I Will Still Love You; 9) Deep In My Heart; 10) Thinkin' About You; 11) E-Mail My Heart; 12) The Beat Goes On; 13*) I'll Never Stop Loving You; 14*) Autumn Goodbye.

Well, I suppose we all saw this one coming, didn't we?

One thing is hard to deny: this is probably the most manipulative album sleeve in record history. Of all the people who ensured this album's 14 times platinum status, I wonder just how many slurped it off the Walmart counter, spellbound by the focused assault of eyes, lips, unbuttoned shirt, and... oh my. Whatever else one might say, the guy who took that photo was the real genius be­hind Britney's career, and should have earned him- or herself a lifelong pass to all of her swim­ming pools and barbecue lawns.

But really, there is no way one could not mention this record in one's story of the rise and fall of pop music, since it almost single-handedly transformed... Madonna into a respectable artist. Once, it used to be that people would blame Ms. Louise Ciccone for having downgraded pop to the state where sex comes first and music comes last. Britney symbolized the next stage of that develop­ment — and once you compare Madonna with Baby One More Time, it immediately becomes clear that, compared to this stuff, the former counts as a brilliant masterpiece of composition, ar­rangement, and artistic expression.

Every once in a while, you encounter opinions — particularly, of course, in the mainstream mu­sical press — that ...Baby One More Time would have still been a monster hit, effective and im­pressive, even without the photos and the accompanying videos. I beg to differ. The only musical justification behind these dance grooves and synth-pop ballads would be a great set of catchy bubblegum hooks, and few of these songs are catchy to begin with. They aren't even particularly disgusting — most of the time, they are simply «invisible». There are no interesting musical so­lutions (except for one, maybe, on which see below), both the live instruments and the electronic keyboards are primitive and rote — in short, if it's dance pop we're talking about, this shit ain't no Prince, and it even ain't no Madonna.

So color me disappointed, because at some point, I almost hoped that the record would turn out to be a «guilty pleasure»: after all, there is nothing wrong per se with the very idea of bubblegum teen pop... well, come to think of it, there is something deeply wrong per se with that idea, but it was always in the power of well-paid musically-endowed corporate songwriters to make us, sometimes, forgive and forget. ...Baby One More Time does not take any chances: it wants us to love it because it is bubblegum teen pop, with a rather transparent nod to Lolita territory, not despite be­ing bubblegum teen pop.

The one person I would completely refrain from blaming is, of course, Britney herself — who had not even turned 18 at the time and, in all of her Southern girl innocence, allowed her talents to be molded into this piece of trash. Talents, yes, because she really throws herself into this role that the producers thought up for her. She may not show much range in her singing, or any indi­vidual vocalizing techniques, but she does know how to use what she's got — be it the purring and cooing on ʽE-Mail My Heartʼ or the trademark hushy rasp on the title track. She is not quite «nothing» without the looks, and, if you ask me, given the choice between the average «diva», floating on spasmatic waves of melisma, and Britney's far more natural tones (at this early stage — fortunately, quite free from auto-tuning and other electronic treatments), I would rather have to go for the latter. In fact — shudder, shudder — I almost feel real empathy at the way she phra­ses "I was born to make you happy", with its little subtle mix of joy and weeping; quite professio­nal for a 17-year old. And if you fail to feel a small jolt at the way she croons out "forever... E-mail my heart", a quick doctor checkup may be in order (maybe even if you're female).

That said, most of the songs are still atrociously bland and artificial, and the record as a whole never lives up to its opening one second of music — the three ominous piano notes that announce ʽ...Baby One More Timeʼ are arguably the finest moment on here. And while I cannot deny that the chorus of «The Song That Established Britney Spears (And Brought Down Rolling Stoneis somewhat catchy, that does not excuse the robo-funk of the number immediately re-written as the even less interesting ʽ(You Drive Me) Crazyʼ, nor the awful title, lyrics, and hip-hop / calypso mix of ʽSoda Popʼ, nor the abundance of cheap soft / power ballads (ʽFrom The Bottom Of My Broken Heartʼ) that even Mariah Carey could never have resuscitated.

There is one exception-oddity — the last track on the album is an unexpectedly lo-fi, bass-heavy cover of Sonny & Cher's old hit ʽThe Beat Goes Onʼ, replete with «psychedelic» electronic ef­fects, mock-drunk drum outbursts, and lite-spooky echoes. Like Sonny & Cher themselves, this song is just as bubblegummy as the rest of them, but it manages to preserve some of the original Sixties' melodic flair, and Britney certainly does it more justice — it is her element — than she could ever hope to allocate for the unhappy choice of ʽSatisfactionʼ on her sophomore effort. But it is also a song that comes after the croony «finale» of ʽE-Mail My Heartʼ, sort of as a post-scrip­tum specially targeted at the «purveyors of good taste», and in any case, you do not redeem an overall failure of a record by covering fuckin' Sonny & Cher, do you?

The absolute worst thing about this album, though, is the stinky flair of hypocrisy that went along with it, as the media were busy cultivating the «innocent» and even «traditional / conservative» attitude of Britney's straight in the face of all the innumerable innuendos both in these songs and in the accompanying videos — let's face it, at the very least Madonna had always been honest about her sexuality, even if, granted, she had already come of age well before launching her pro­fessional career. From this point of view, future Spears albums might have been just as com­pa­rably mise­rable, music-wise, but at least, starting with ʽToxicʼ and the like, they would become more balan­ced in the «sex vs. music» aspect. Not that the music on ...Baby is particularly sexy — no more so than an inflatable doll or something — but Britney herself is, of course.

In any case, ...Baby One More Time was a pop culture phenomenon in 1999, no doubt about that, but as of today, I would guess that it is probably one of the least listened to mega-best-sel­lers of the past century — and if so, for a very good reason: admit it, if you ever bought it, you didn't exactly buy it for the music, did you? You just didn't have the proper Internet access to download the album photo, or the proper color printer to zoom it and hang it in the bathroom. But in doing that, you (the «abstract» youse, that is) have created the unfortunate illusion that ...Baby One More Time had something to do with «real music», when, in fact, it had even less to do with that than Debbie Gibson in the 1980s. Rating? Forget it — I'm too bored with this stuff to actually allow myself an extra thumbs movement.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ayreon: Actual Fantasy


1) Actual Fantasy; 2) Abbey Of Synn; 3) The Stranger From Within; 4) Computer Eyes; 5) Beyond The Last Hori­zon; 6) Farside Of The World; 7) Back On Planet Earth; 8) Forevermore; 9) The Dawn Of Man*.

Lucassen's sophomore release is probably his least known of all, since it is highly atypical of the man's usual formula. It is not a single-concept «rock opera», but a conglomeration of separate songs, only loosely tied up with a general conceptual framework of the past, present, and future mysteries of the universe. It is much more heavily based on electronics than the rest of his albums (and a new, completely re-recorded version, called Actual Fantasy Revisited and released in 2004, continued and deepened that trend). And it only features the barest minimum of guest stars: two or three vocalists, a lonesome violin player (Floortje Schilt), a couple stray keyboardists, and Ayreon himself providing most of the instrumentation. And, in its original form, it only runs for about 55 minutes — ridiculous­ly short for a guy who would, since then, strictly follow the law: «If it ain't on 2 CDs, it ain't worth a green goblin's crap».

That said, when it comes down to the actual content, the album is no less fun than its predecessor, and in some ways is actually a huge improvement — particularly in the songwriting department. Without being constrained by the needs of operatic storytelling, Lucassen can afford to invest more effort into the search for hard-hitting, if not exactly stunning, musical themes, and present them in a less campy manner (not a «non-campy» manner, mind you, but the lyrics are generally less inane and the vocal deliveries refrain from extra pomposity).

ʽThe Stranger From Withinʼ, in particular, is a fine and dandy piece of lite prog-metal: rhythmic, catchy, with a good balance between the electronic effects and the electric and acoustic guitar soup, and gradually building up towards a surprisingly ferocious climax, where a quasi-Metallica «terror riff» pops out of the ground at 6:18 into the song and very soon blows it up from within. (For some reason, the coda was not made part of the shortened single version — that's the best part of the song, you silly Dutch minstrel!).

Length is generally a problem, of course: Arjen-Aryon presumably deems it an insult both to his un­der­standing of Art and to his slowly growing squad of fans to record anything under six mi­nutes. On the other hand, these are prog epics, and they need to take the time to slowly come to­gether out of the blue, get fleshed out, develop some dynamics... so I wouldn't really presume to use the term «padded» without reservations. It isn't always done well, but that is a different prob­lem — whether we are ready to accept the derivative nature of these works or not.

As I said, the basic themes of the songs are strong foundations, guaranteeing memorability and, perhaps, even a little bit of emotion from repeated listenings — be it the spirit-raising synth fan­fares of ʽAbbey Of Synnʼ, the robotic funk-metal riffage of ʽComputer Eyesʼ, the folk-rock cho­rus melody of ʽBeyond The Last Horizonʼ (that one brings to mind Mike Oldfield in his «pop» days), or the looped Vivaldian violin-led coda of ʽForevermoreʼ. Structurally, however, all of these bits are rather plain and straightforward — I would hardly expect anything but contempt here on the part of hardcore prog fans, and would certainly refrain from praising them as marvels of contemporary songwriting. But compared to tons of other «neo-prog» records that try to battle lack of genius with studious intelligence, Actual Fantasy is, at the very least, not as overtly bo­ring, and the hooks grow hookier with each new listen.

In the end, I give the album a thumbs up. It is honest (the «real thing» for Lucassen himself, at the very least), far from monotonous (the balance between electronics, metal, folk, classical, and psychedelia is very even, almost calculated, I'd say), and does not really contain one single mo­ment worthy of the proverbial cringe reaction (mainly because the vocalists are so wonderfully restrained most of the time, and even for pathetic climaxes, prefer the simple «folk» mode to «mock-opera»). And the arrangements are certainly far from trivial: I believe that the way in which all the electronics are integrated with live instruments commands respect, regardless of how crude one might or might not find the major musical themes. But yeah, this is still fantasy-based neo-prog, and much of it still sounds silly, so it's not as if I didn't warn you.

Check "Actual Fantasy" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bad Religion: The Empire Strikes First


1) Overture; 2) Sinister Rouge; 3) Social Suicide; 4) Atheist Peace; 5) All There Is; 6) Los Angeles Is Burning; 7) Let Them Eat War; 8) God's Love; 9) To Another Abyss; 10) The Quickening; 11) The Empire Strikes First; 12) Beyond Electric Dreams; 13) Boot Stamping On A Human Face Forever; 14) Live Again (The Fall Of Man).

Perhaps, after the initial period of happiness at Gurewitz's return had ended, Bad Religion would have withered and died down again — but, as fate would have it, soon after The Process Of Belief came the Iraq war, and along with it, the Bush doctrine of preventive strikes; and there is nothing more effective than a little imperialist warfare to get the old flames reignited up to high heavens when it comes to Bad Religion. Of course, when you are as radically left as these guys, you will always have enough reasons to fuel your fire (at least, until communism comes and your music gets officially banned by the local Party secretary), but still, radical protest under Clinton is one thing, and under George W. is quite another. Suddenly, for a while, everything starts making better sense than it used to, and you might even find grounds for true inspiration.

There are actually a couple of genuine popcore classics here, both contributed by Gurewitz. ʽThe Quickeningʼ ranks with the best they ever did — the speed, the infectious chorus of "to come alive, to come alive", the good old Mötörhead-style guitar solo, all of that stuff is really catchy, fun, and «igniting». And the title track, although much slower, shows great skill in the vocal ar­ranging of the band's major political declaration — "don't wanna live, don't wanna give, don't wanna be E-M-P-I-R-E" with several lines of overdubbed pleading vocals, convincingly striking out a note of utmost black despair.

ʽLos Angeles Is Burningʼ was the single — maybe they calculated that any track titled «[Insert Major City Name Here] Burning», once The Clash set the initial trend, would automatically be a hit, but this one wasn't much of one, and for a good reason: a bitt too slow and lumbering for a proper anthem, and, for some reason, stealing the main riff from the Ramones' ʽBeat On The Bratʼ for the major hookline. (Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & The Heartbeakers' fame adds some guest star guitar for a change, but it does not help much).

Still, cute little hooks can be dug up in other spots as well — they come up with a good chorus for ʽAll There Isʼ, add a strange lo-fi guitar coda to ʽAtheist Peaceʼ, get a fine anthemic triple guitar intro for ʽLet Them Eat Warʼ, invent a gruff dirge-like riff for ʽBoot Stampingʼ... overall, it looks like Gurewitz's return has achieved the impossible — for a brief while, the band seems to be caring about the sonic side of their business almost as much as it continues caring for their public image. Like Alice Cooper says, "it's just the little things that drive me wild", and, surprise surprise, there are enough of these little things on The Empire to make it into Bad Religion's most interesting album of the 2000s, even though — mind you! — this is not saying much. But at least it is enough to fish them out another thumbs up.

Check "The Empire Strikes First" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Empire Strikes First" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso


1) In Volo; 2) R.I.P. (Requiescant In Pace); 3) Passaggio; 4) Metamorfosi; 5) Il Giardino Del Mago; 6) Traccia.

Every «international genre» with a «national flavor» always runs a certain risk of inheriting not only the finest, but also the dippiest features of that flavor. A very good case in point is the early 1970s Italian progressive rock scene. The proud Roman nation loved it all, from Yes to Genesis to Gentle Giant, as so many things there tended to borrow from their own musical traditions — and eventually joined the fray themselves: 1972, in particular, saw the debuts by two of Italy's most renowned prog acts, both with lengthy, flashy names, pompous-sounding to a foreign ear but quite tongue-in-cheek in reality (Premiata Forneria Marconi were named after a bakery, while Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso means «bank of mutual aid», and you can sort of see that in meta­phoric form on the album sleeve).

The biggest problem of both bands, though — and I do understand that many might think the op­posite — is that, being Italian, they, rather naturally, crossed the emerging UK-led school of symph-prog / jazz-prog / «avant-prog» / whatever with the world of Italian pop. In a way, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso is what you get when you cross Emerson, Lake & Palmer with the Sanremo Music Festival. Within Europe, this seems to have been a specifically Italian thing: the small French progressive scene, for instance (Magma and the like), did not see the need to add Charles Aznavour to their influences, but Italians probably thought that there was no way to capture the musical market if they did not, in some way at least, pander to fans of musica leggera, which (no offense to my good Italian friends) is altogether one of the most awful music scenes to emerge in the XXth century, yuck yuck yuck.

Of course, the very emergence of bands like Banco was a step in a healthy direction. This is real progressive music — complex, demanding, occasionally gritty, with a strong will to search for new forms and solutions. The key(board) members are the two Nocenzi brothers — Vittorio on organ and Gianni on piano, forming a sparring duo that remains a relative rarity in the world of European art-rock (Procol Harum comes to mind, of course, but their keyboards were less flashy and more integrated into song-based forms). In addition, Marcello Todaro is a competent guitarist with a serious taste for «hard psychedelia», and the rhythm section of Renato D'Angelo on bass and Pier Luigi Calderoni on drums did their King Crimson homework well enough.

The weakest link in the band is the singer, Franceso di Giacomo. Every time he opens his mouth — and I absolutely literally mean every time — I want to turn this off and never ever hear it again. He has this shaky Italian tenor, quite devoid of individuality, far too cheesy and manneristic to stir up genuine emo­tionality, yet, obviously, far too weak and untrained to match the quality of a great opera singer. Most of the vocal melodies seem slightly tweaked from standard Italian pop clichés, and the resulting «ailing romantic» aura suffers accordingly.

But the good news is that di Giacomo is also the most expendable link in the chain. His vocal bits here and there are more like «solos» — twisted flourishes on top of the pudding, rather than being at the heart of the music. The focal point of the album, for instance, is the 10-minute ʽMetamor­phosiʼ, where he only comes in towards the very end. The other two major compositions — the 7-minute long prog-rocker ʽR.I.P.ʼ and the 18-minute-long prog suite ʽIl Giardino Del Magoʼ (ʽThe Magician's Gardenʼ — hello, Uriah Heep!) — feature him more extensively, but still more like a bit player than an actual frontman. All of which means that the singing is an unfortunate evil side effect that one can learn to cope with in order to savor the real taste of the album. (Besides, if you happen to like Sanremo style...).

Because, in general, Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso is not about wearing your heart on a sleeve; it is about how one can generate a cobweb of jazz, classical, psychedelic, and pop motives in an unin­hibited flight of fantasy. Far more indicative of its overall quality is the introduction to ʽGiardinoʼ, where Vittorio's steady bluesy organ riff is answered by Gianni's sprinkling glissandos — nothing particularly «virtuoso» about either, but the combination is fresh and exciting even for the overall innovative standards of 1972. And when Todaro comes in, doubling the organ with his light-heavy fuzzy tone, the freshness and excitement get reinforced with some much-needed crunch. Later on, we get acoustic guitar, clarinet, and harmonica-imitating clarino parts to add to the di­versity, and in the end, the suite matches its title well — there is an atmosphere of «lite magic» throughout, not exactly one of celestial beauty (the band is relatively unskilled in the technical wonders of «atmospheric» production styles, and it all sounds as if it had mostly been recorded live over several takes), but definitely one of tasteful prettiness.

ʽR.I.P.ʼ shows that they can rock out as well, also in «lite» mode, but keeping up a respectable tempo, allowing the drummer to show some muscle, and coming up with gruff, mean-sounding bass lines against the background of which even quiet, mumbling jazz-rock «noodling» acquires an ominous sheen. But it is ʽMetamorphosiʼ that really represents the quintessence of the classic Banco sound: sounding almost as a free-form jam session, flying from one tempo and theme to another, with the piano, organ, and guitar conducting a lengthy trialog on several different sub­jects — including whether they like Bach more or less than Chopin, or Robert Fripp more than Dave Gilmour. For my ears, there are neither any passages of breathtaking beauty here, nor any moments that rock out to high heaven, yet it still sounds attractive, and all of the influences are combined creatively, rather than as direct, unimaginative rip-offs.

As far as my intuition is concerned, the album is very strictly «second rate» in terms of finding one's own voice, and the situation is further exacerbated by the lameness of the lead singer (who is absolutely not needed here at all) and the superfluous «conceptual» mini-links between the large opera, with boring atmospherics, pompous declarations, and dated sound effects. But none of that prevents it from getting a firm thumbs up — what the Nocenzi brothers lack in terms of technique and genius, they effectively make up for simply in terms of sticking together, and look­ing for various ways of making their instruments talk to each other, fight with each other, and sometimes fuck each other, in both the good and the bad senses of the word. All in all — a curi­ous, pleasant experience, and about as 1972-ish as it ever gets.

Check "Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Band: Jericho


1) Remedy; 2) Blind Willie McTell; 3) The Caves Of Jericho; 4) Atlantic City; 5) Too Soon Gone; 6) Country Boy; 7) Move To Japan; 8) Amazon (River Of Dreams); 9) Stuff You Gotta Watch; 10) Same Thing; 11) Shine A Light; 12) Blues Stay Away From Me.

Ironically, even though Robbie initially planned for The Band to simply quit touring and become a studio outfit (possibly hoping to recreate the conditions for the Sgt. Pepper experiment), fate had it that «The Band» — without Robbie — came back together in 1983 exclusively as a touring outfit, spending an entire decade as an oldies act, during which they had to outlive the tragic sui­cide of Richard Manuel, unable to cope with his alcoholism and other problems.

Maybe if tragedy did not strike so soon, we might have had ourselves a «Band» album from the 1980s — were such a thing able to prevent Manuel from his rash decision, I might even agree to endure it — but as it is, it is actually very, very good that «The Band» waited until the early 1990s, when the elec­tronic boom had passed and live instruments came into fashion once again, to make their first move. Because, even though Jericho adds nothing whatsoever to their repu­tation, it also does not make any serious detractions.

«The Band», reconvening to further the legend for the appropriately biblically titled Jericho, in 1993 retained but three old war horses — Danko, Helm, and Hudson — with new members Jim Weider and Richard Bell respectively taking the places of Robertson (guitars) and Manuel (key­boards), and Randy Ciarlante adding extra percussion; furthermore, there are about a dozen guest musicians emerging here and there on saxes, fiddles, mandolins, steel guitars, you name it — a little surprising, actually, because in the past, it was the band members themselves who would eagerly supply all that instrumental variety. This is already suspicious, but then there is the song­writing: of the twelve tracks, only two involve real Band members (Helm and Danko) as co-writers, with the rest either being covers of old / contemporary material, or special commissions from some of the guests (the complete list of songwriters, both living and dead, amounts here to a whoppin' 23 names altogether).

Nothing great could come out of such a huge melting pot, and nothing did come out. Of course, the vocals, the laid-back rootsiness, and the complexity of the instrumental layers reveal Jericho as a proper Band album — in form and style, at the very least. But the album has no real point to make. It is neither a proper continuation of «Encyclopaedia Americana», nor a nostalgic look back at how they left the Encyclopaedia without completion, nor even an attempt to create some­thing — anything — and prove to the world that «The Band» still has a finer grip on reality than the average random band playing for pennies on your local street corner. What Jericho really is is merely a friendly get-together. Wanna play something? Yup, why not. Okay then, let's play. Got nothing better to do anyway. Beats playing poker till dawn.

So they play — Bob Dylan's ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ, and Bruce Springsteen's ʽAtlantic Cityʼ, and some old stuff from Willie Dixon, and a Jules Shear song because Jules Shear happened to be passing by, and an Artie Traum song because Artie is such a nice guy and cares about the envi­ronment and stuff, and a bit of this and a bit of that, and it all sounds nice on the surface, but bland, shallow, and boring once you try to take a dive.

The slow tempos of the songs bring the average running time of each number to about five mi­nutes, so that Jericho drags on and on and on — above all else, it is poorly sequenced, with the most generic, comatose song of all, the formulaic 12-bar ʽBlues Stay Away From Meʼ occupying the final six minutes like an extra ten pounds of excess body fat. Only twice in all do they engage in an attempt to speed up the tempos, and only once does it sound even remotely fun and funny, on the sarcastic ʽMove To Japanʼ, where, to the merry sounds of Hudson's trusty accordion, Levon sings about the advantages of relocating one's life to Tokyo since we are all so used to Japa­nese stuff in our life already (a point that had already been well stated by John Entwistle in his ʽMade In Japanʼ twenty years earlier, actually). The song itself is little more than an average piece of fast honky tonk boogie, though.

The whole album has this laid back, on-the-porch atmosphere — lazy, inoffensive, and absolute­ly devoid of serious interest. Even Hudson, who used to be so involved in finding non-trivial solu­tions for arranging The Band's early classics, has nothing in the way of fresh ideas. ʽAtlantic Cityʼ is a lukewarm, energy-free take on Bruce's classic, which the romantic mandolin part is unable to compensate for in any way. Artie Traum's ʽAmazonʼ reflects the guy's New Ageisms, with an «atmospheric» keyboard arrangement by Garth who, alas, is no Enya when it comes to riding that train. The old blues covers (ʽStuff You Gotta Watchʼ, ʽSame Thingʼ) kick about as much ass as a skeleton — for comparison, check out any live version of ʽSame Thingʼ played live around the same time by the Allmans — but if you are not really in the mood for ass-kicking, they might go down relatively easy with a cold beer after a hard day's work.

As a «memento», Jericho also hauls out Manuel's last archival recording with the band — a dus­ty cover of the hit country single ʽCountry Boyʼ; having been cut in 1985, it is the lone example of what an «Eighties Band» could have sounded like, and apart from Manuel's vocals (which are always lovable and, so it seems, were relatively unharmed by the man's predilection for Grand Marnier), I don't think there is anything about it that strikes me as subtle or tasteful.

Of course, it would be all too easy to euthanize the lame dog by saying «See, there's your Band without Robbie Robertson!» — problem is, the best Robbie Robertson could have done in 1993, were he on talking and working terms with the rest of them, would be to saddle the boys with a few long pompous ballads about the heavy plight of the Native American, and, more likely than not, it would have all sounded equally plodding and tedious, because nowhere on here is there anything even remotely reminiscent of a spark. I have no idea why they made this record — money, boredom, drunken bet, whatever — but this particular Jericho is clearly past the point of the walls tumbling down. Recommended for major fans and enthusiasts only; thumbs down for everybody else on the planet.

Check "Jericho" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Jericho" (MP3) on Amazon

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Billy Preston: Music Is My Life


1) We're Gonna Make It; 2) One Time Or Another; 3) Blackbird; 4) I Wonder; 5) Will It Go Round In Circles; 6) Ain't That Nothing; 7) God Loves You; 8) Make The Devil Mad; 9) Nigger Charlie; 10) Heart Full Of Sorrow; 11) Music Is My Life; 12*) Slaughter.

Heavier on the Afro hairstyle, but somewhat lighter on sharp funk, Music Is My Life is neither a very interesting title for an album, nor a very good album as such. It does, however, establish the basic formula of a «typical post-gospel Billy Preston hit single»: a cheery, colorful, brass-aided R&B dance number, impressive in form, lightweight in spirit. That is ʽWill It Go Round In Cir­clesʼ, heavily derivative of the early, nonchalant, happy days of Sly & The Family Stone, well-rounded and catchy, but not at all meaningful, as illustrated by the lyrics already: "I've got a story, ain't got no moral / Let the bad guy win every once in a while / Will it go round in circles? / Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?". Nice lines, good spinning groove, but the fact that it became one of only two of Billy's songs to hit No. 1 (and that the second one would be appropriately called ʽNothing From Nothingʼ) is rather telling.

It is the best song on the album, though — and the second best one is a little slower, a little more New Orleanian in style, and called... ʽAin't That Nothingʼ (go figure): almost as if some subcon­scious pressure was driving Billy to acknowledge that he has grown up to become a master of amicable, innocent, sometimes even charming «R&B-fluff» whose faint magic is hanging on little other than his amicable, innocent, charming personality. Well, that and a few memorable-through-quirkiness brass flourishes every now and then.

In comparison to this «fluff», attempts at getting somewhat more serious every now and then are not necessarily rotten, but generally fail to impress. The full-bodied funky arrangement of ʽBlack­birdʼ is creative, with a well-arranged mish-mash of guitars, organs, and harpsichords, but it also illustrates the «less is more» principle — the song hit far harder when it was just Paul and his quiet acoustic guitar, whereas here all the focus has been dissipated, with the noblest of aims, perhaps, but the feeblest of results. The funk-gospel numbers (ʽGod Loves Youʼ, ʽMake The De­vil Madʼ) are tepid, hard-to-scale grooves. The ballads (ʽI Wonderʼ) are sort of second-rate Al Green without a great vocalist to propel them upwards.

And then there is ʽNigger Charlieʼ, a song apparently written in «honor» of the then-current blaxploitation movie The Legend Of Nigger Charlie (two stars from Ebert, in case you're in­ter­ested) — six minutes of an «ominous» funk jam, with generic «black pride» lyrics alternating with some very boring piano / guitar interplay. I mean, either you are really into hot funk, and then you got to make that wah-wah guitar loud, screechy, drunk-off-its-head, or you are into mo­ralizing, and then you do not make a song like this run over six minutes. This is neither a good groove nor a successful message — what were you thinking, Billie?

Bottomline: other than the two friendly danceable numbers, the only other thing worth of minor interest on this album is the title track — not so much a proper «song» as a pseudo-improvised «musical credo». Just Billy at the piano (sometimes jumping over to the organ), playing snippets of various melodies in various genres and humming to himself about how music is... well, a gas and all that. Again, nothing phenomenal, but charismatic to boot (and the whole enterprise pro­bably inspired him to plan his next album, which, as an album, would be far more interesting than this here collection of a few mild successes and many languid misfires).

If you do insist on getting acquainted with Music Is My Life because music is your life, be sure to get the re-issue that adds the single-only ʽSlaughterʼ from 1972 as a bonus track — that one is a genuine «hard-funker», with a mad, outta-this-world bassline, a proto-industrial synth grind pat­tern terrorizing the listener, and an aggressive, tear-down-the-wall organ «slaughtering» from Billy. God only knows why he never managed to get that angry while recording the LP. Friendli­ness is all right and all that, but a rock'n'roll artist has just got to go angry-crazy every once in a while, even if he happens to be the famous Billy Preston, «The Positive Vibe That Delayed The Beatles' Split». Hence, a thumbs down for the album as a whole — but if Billy wants me to say that I really like him, no problem. I really like him. Swell guy.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bo Diddley: Another Dimension


1) The Shape I'm In; 2) I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know; 3) Pollution; 4) Bad Moon Rising; 5) Down On The Corner; 6) I Said Shut Up, Woman; 7) Bad Side Of The Moon; 8) Lodi; 9) Go For Broke.

We might quibble all we want about the money-talks attitudes of record industry bosses, but from a certain angle the behavior of the guys at Chess was beyond reproach: despite Bo Diddley being an utterly miserable seller for almost a decade now, somebody was still out there thinking and thinking — trying to come up with ideas that would at least justify continuing to grant him studio time, let alone help him raise a profit. Dressing the man up as The Black Gladiator did not work — the funk audiences of James and Sly were not amused. So the next move was planned — saddle the man with some contemporary material. «Bo Diddley Sings All The Great American Hits» and the like.

Would that work? With Muddy and his psychedelically tinged Electric Mud two years earlier, it did not. There was hardly one chance in a thousand that it would turn out for the better with Bo. Then again, occasionally it did work — Ike & Tina Turner did manage to appropriate CCR's ʽProud Maryʼ, and then there always were Ray and Aretha, capable of turning other people's gold into their own platinum, or at least vice versa. And ol' Bo Diddley — well, at the very least, he always seemed kinda smart: who knows, he just might have that magic touch.

Allegedly, Bo himself had no intent of doing a cover album, but had to play along in order to ap­pease the bosses. If that was the way it was, though, he certainly went to the limits of his loyalty for Chess: there are very few, if any, signs of disinterest here. On the other hand — Another Di­mension is a success of a curiosity rather than a failure. Not only do you get to hear melodies and arrangements on a Bo Diddley record that you would never have gotten otherwise, but he does his best to get into the spirit of each covered song, and shows an impressive emotional range that goes way beyond the usual clowning.

For instance, I would never in a million years have bet that he'd be able to pull off Al Kooper's ʽMore Than You'll Ever Knowʼ — this is so much not a Bo Diddley song at all, he might have had better luck with Beethoven's 9th, right? But he offers a soulful, respectable delivery that hits all the right chords anyway: rougher and grittier than the original, perhaps, which was all dren­ched in romantic tragedy, and thus nowhere near as chillin' to the bone — but the fact is, most people in the world could not do justice to that song (including most of the lead vocalists for Blood, Sweat & Tears themselves), and Bo almost does. It is at least worth it just to hear him do it from beginning to end, rather than just switch the stereo off in horror.

Much the same applies to much of the rest. Three CCR covers might seem like overkill (unless it was all done in a «I'm The Man, I'm not going for just one wimpy cover like that Turner couple»), but other than the glammy female backup vocals, they are all done good. ʽThe Shape I'm Inʼ, se­lected for single release, might seem like a particularly bizarre choice — but Bo nails down the unhappy insecurity in Richard Manuel's voice very well, and the replacement of Hudson's mo­dernistic synth soloing with a more traditional R&B-ish brass section is not a bad idea either. Much weirder, probably, is the cover of Elton John's ʽBad Side Of The Moonʼ — not only be­cause it is the only overseas cover on here, and the only one selected from a fresh new arrival (Elton was barely just a year or so into his stardom), but also because Taupin's cryptic lyrics are a particularly tough nut for poor old Bo to crack. Still, the band gets a good groove.

The other three selections are relatively original — relatively, because ʽI Said Shut Up Womanʼ is, as expected, a direct sequel to ʽShut Up Womanʼ, building on the same one chord sequence, albeit in a more distorted, noisy manner this time. ʽPollutionʼ is an original funk-rocker that finds Bo worrying about the environment (move over, Marvin Gaye), but, more importantly, puts up a hot load of sharp guitar tones — again, something that is fairly atypical for Bo, generally used to far «sloppier» playing, but delivered with pure kick-ass honesty. And then there is some more lite-acid funk on the instrumental ʽGo For Brokeʼ, with complex beats, jazzy piano, brass fills, acoustic funky rhythms, and psychedelic guitar soloing — so much of it happening at the same time that the piece definitely warrants extra listens.

The worst thing one can say about Another Dimension is that it is not really a Bo Diddley album. ʽShut Up Womanʼ and maybe some vocal fills on ʽPollutionʼ are classic Bo; the rest is chame­leon attitude. That is a pretty bad thing. But for anybody interested in Bo Diddley «as a whole», with the smallest bit of curi­osity as to how the man's «up» and «down» periods hold on to each other, Another Dimension is a must-hear. On its own, it is, at best, just a moderately pleasant listen; in the overall context of Bo's career, it reveals some important things about the man that may seri­ously correct one's perspective on «The Originator». In fact, sometimes, every once in a while, it helps if «The Originator» briefly becomes «The Copycat» — I believe that Bo's take on ʽMore Than You'll Ever Knowʼ, in particular, says much more about the man here than would yet ano­ther remake of ʽHey Bo Diddleyʼ or ʽI'm A Manʼ. Thumbs up.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Amy Winehouse: At The BBC


1) Know You Now; 2) Fuck Me Pumps; 3) In My Bed; 4) October Song; 5) Rehab; 6) You Know I'm No Good; 7) Just Friends; 8) Love Is A Losing Game; 9) Tears Dry On Their Own; 10) Best Friends, Right?; 11) I Should Care; 12) Lullaby Of Birdland; 13) Valerie; 14) To Know Him Is To Love Him.

More often than not, the barrel-scraping process these days involves the BBC and their obsession to press the «Record» button every time somebody crosses the threshold into one of their studios. More often than not, the results are only of serious interest for hardcore fans of the somebody in question. With Amy Winehouse, this is somewhat different: she never had the time to release an official live album in her lifetime — and, moreover, her reputation of a live artist was seriously soiled by all the scandalous reports on drunk performances and embarrassed walk-outs towards the tragic end of her career. Essentially, we have next to no reminders of what it really was that launched that career — her inspired and creative performances in small London jazz clubs.

Hence, this rag-taggy collection of live recordings from various local gigs, taped by the BBC (At The BBC is a somewhat misleading title: most of the tracks come from festivals such as «T in the Park» or TV shows such as Jools Holland, so The BBC Presents would have been more appro­priate), anyway, this collection is an essential purchase for everybody who has no problem with recognizing Amy as a major artist of her generation. The package consists of a small DVD with six performances from a small church-held gig in 2006, and a CD with material scattered from 2004 to 2009 — the «golden age», during which Amy's rule over British R&B remained uncon­tested. Hits and classics are interspersed with little-known obscurities and covers, bits of stage banter and radio host dialogs are included for authenticity, and the recording quality is predic­tably flawless — this is the BBC, after all.

Like every seasoned R&B performer, Amy always comes across as loose and free-flowing when performing live, sometimes coming so close to «chaos» that you almost start wondering just how influential booze and other substances must have been in that particular moment. But apparently they weren't: on each and every one of these recordings, she is actually in complete control, al­ways picking herself up and shooting back into space just as she seems almost ready to hit the ground. Take a listen to ʽRehabʼ, for instance — her phrasing on this live performance takes far more risks than the studio original, with surprising modulation decisions and an idiosyncratic «stut­ter» that sounds amusing rather than annoying. Of course, she is really working based on the pattern of the average great jazz vocalist, searching for a one-in-a-million vocal style that would walk a tight balance between «natural» and «ohmigosh, what is that?», but many people do not succeed in that register, coming out with laughable results — with Amy, it is always her that gets the last laugh, no matter how much fun one might poke at her «heroin-addicted toothless old hag» impersonation.

Most of the tracks performed come from the first two albums (and are not limited to major hit singles — ʽOctober Songʼ and ʽJust Friendsʼ are two very welcome inclusions), but towards the end you also have the lady sharpening her teeth on old pop standards (ʽI Should Careʼ, ʽLullaby Of Birdlandʼ) and on Phil Spector (ʽTo Know Him Is To Love Himʼ), all of which sound predic­table, but pleasant in «Amy Winehouse mode». Still, nothing beats ʽRehabʼ and ʽYou Know I'm No Goodʼ (the latter gives me one more pretext to lament the misuse of that wonderful bluesy bass­line in the intro — how come its kickass potential was wasted after the first couple of beats?): it would be strange if Amy were less emotional and convincing on her own personal stuff than an old Phil Spector love ballad.

Possibly, a full-fledged live album representing a single event would have been a better choice for release, and I have no doubt that a whole bunch of these will be coming up — plenty of stuff has already been released on DVD or showed up on YouTube, and Amy's nimble backing band is always a delight to hear — but this particular assortment, without necessarily turning into a cheap «greatest hits live», shows the overall scope, and could even work as a perfect introduction to Amy's values for the uninitiated (a «classier» introduction, in fact, than any best-of collection). Thus, although I am no big fan of oversaturating the market with archival residue, so far, every­thing seems pretty reasonable; big delighted thumbs up here.

Check "At The BBC" (CD) on Amazon

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ayreon: The Final Experiment


1) Prologue; 2) The Awareness; 3) Eyes Of Time; 4) The Banishment; 5) Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy; 6) Sail Away To Avalon; 7) Nature's Dance; 8) Computer-Reign (Game Over); 9) Waracle; 10) Listen To The Waves; 11) Magic Ride; 12) Merlin's Will; 13) The Charm Of The Seer; 14) Swan Song; 15) Ayreon's Fate.

Everybody get out your cheese forks, the fondue is steaming hot and waiting for you. Meet Arjen An­thony Lucassen, «Aryon» for short, a long-haired, mind-twisted Dutch guy who spent so much time reading Ursula Le Guin, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and listening to Eloy and Hawkwind that one actually wonders how in the world did he have any left to learn to play his instruments, or compose his mega-epics.

Actually, before going solo, he'd spent a whole decade playing in a metal band called Vengeance, which never managed to achieve success, but gave him time to hone his chops and understand that heaviness for heaviness' sake was simply not his thing. His thing, apparently, was to explore the corny side of progressive rock — finish the dubious task of merging symphonic rock with pocketbook fantasy, something that early Uriah Heep and early Rush were so deep into, but even­tually decided to advance to a more «serious» level. Fuck them pretentious, obscurantist creeps, Arjen Anthony Lucassen said: I am getting into this the right way, and I am never getting out of this once I'm in. Pledging complete allegiance and loyalty to wizards, unicorns, and damsels fair.

The Final Experiment, recorded in 1995 with approximately a dozen guest vocalists and a dozen session players (mostly little-known Dutch musicians), was formally credited to «Arjen Lucas­sen»: «Ayreon» was the name of the rock opera's protagonist, with whom Lucassen empathized so much he ended up borrowing his name for the rest of his life. The album was rejected by seve­ral record labels — «unicorn bands are on their way out», so they said — but Ayreon persisted in a most medieval way, eventually got what he wanted, and the world has never been the same ever since. Now let me quote:

This is the voice of Merlin. Listen well, for it concerns you. This chronicle commences in the year 2084 A.D. Mankind has virtually destroyed itself. Its survival depends on The Final Experi­ment. Scientists from the 21st century have developed a new computer program called ʽTime Te­lepathyʼ. By using this technique they have sent visions of humanity's decline back in time. These transmissions have been received by the mind of a blind minstrel who lives in 6th century Great Britain. His name is Ayreon... It shall be Ayreon's quest to sing of these visions and thus warn the world of its impending downfall in order to change its future into a long and prosperous one...

...okay, you get the drift already. Now the important thing here is neither make the mistake of trying to take it too seriously nor immediately laughing it off without giving it a decent chance. The concept itself, per se, is neither good nor bad; it is frequently dragged down by primitive ly­rics (Merlin: "Ayreon, you are an evil stranger / Ayreon, you have become a danger / Your words are all but a lie / I vow that ye shall die"), but the lyrics are entirely secondary here: Lucassen is primarily a composer. It could have helped, probably, if he'd spent some of the money wasted on guest stars to hire a proper English librettist.

The music, though, is surprisingly not bad. The emphasis is on a rich, diverse, fully fleshed-out sound — well, as fully fleshed-out as it can be when your budget is sort of stretched and you can­not allow yourself a decent orchestra. But in addition to synthesizers, where Lucassen comes ac­ross as a diligent, if not particularly gifted, disciple of Wakeman, there are acoustic and electric guitars, pianos, cellos, flutes, woodwinds — definitely a far cry from the monotonous «art metal» sound of bands like Queensryche. And, most importantly, the guy knows how to use them for proper atmospheric purposes.

All the melodies are strictly traditional. There is the expected medieval folk (ʽThe Awarenessʼ; ʽYe Courtyard Minstrel Boyʼ — sheesh!); the ʽKashmirʼ-ian mid-Eastern vibe (ʽEyes Of Timeʼ); the synthesized horn-dominated progressive anthem (ʽSail Away To Avalonʼ); the melodramatic rock opera flash with guitar pyrotechnics (ʽWaracleʼ); even a multi-part prog-rock suite going from soft acoustic to fast'n'furious rocking bits (ʽThe Banishmentʼ) — Lucassen is being quite honest with you: he is not pushing forward any boundaries or making any bold statements, just trying to put his own stamp on a whole musical direction that he clearly adores. Even the «pom­pous» message seems more like an honorary tribute to Rush than a genuine attempt on the part of «Ayreon» to warn his listeners of the impending doom.

And some of these melodies are quite good, really: at the very least, any fan of the whole «neo-prog» schtick should try this out — they are not nearly as complex as, say, anything by Ängla­gård, but they are generally catchier, and they all make sense within the story, as silly as the story might be. Nothing on an Ayreon album can be emotionally «gripping» for me (I can be moved by parts of Lord of the Rings, for sure, but it takes a certified Professor of English Language And Li­te­rature to achieve that effect; Arjen Lucassen is nowhere near as well-trained), but much can be curious and intriguing. It is all a bunch of high-quality B-level trashy fun. Some of the singers, including «Ayreon» himself, tend to oversing, but we are not dealing with twenty-four-hour-a-day operatic bombast here — the vocal parts are as diverse as the melodies.

The production is far from ideal: there is too much echo, too many electronic effects on the drums (sometimes drum machines are used altogether), and the synth-strings and synth-horns are way too strongly associated with washed-up art-rock dinosaurs so as not to sound seriously dated to­day. But there was probably no alternative to this anyway, certainly not in the mid-Nineties when «Ayreon» was still a relative nobody. Besides, not even the best studio, or the best session play­ers, or the use of the finest symphonic orchestra in the country could have removed the inevitable campy flavor. I refrain from giving the record any sort of judgement — its philosophical flaws and emotional stiffness are beyond doubt, but so is the musical boldness and professionalism that it took to put the record out. And then there is always sheer curiosity. After all, want it or not, this whole project is a weird one.

Check "The Final Experiment" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Final Experiment" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, December 21, 2012

Bad Religion: The Process Of Belief


1) Supersonic; 2) Prove It; 3) Can't Stop It; 4) Broken; 5) Destined For Nothing; 6) Materialist; 7) Kyoto Now; 8) Sorrow; 9) Epi­phany; 10) Evangeline; 11) The Defense; 12) The Lie; 13) You Don't Belong; 14) Bored And Extremely Dangerous; 15*) Shat­te­red Faith.

No more Todd Rundgren, but a whole lot more Brett Gurewitz, back full time not only as guitar player, but also as one of the two chief songwriters — although, frankly speaking, decades of li­ving either under or in the shadow of the Bad Religion banner has pretty much neutralized the styles of the two: I am not strong enough to easily discern between Brett's and Greg's signatures. Lyrics-wise, Graffin tends to be more issue-specific than Gurewitz and more prominently show off his educated intellectualism in his radicalism, but musically, these melodies are almost totally interchangeable between brothers-in-arms.

Anyway, the reunion, the sacking of Rundgren, and the label move from Atlantic to Epitaph re­sulted in some predictable nano-changes. The ensuing album is a little less pop, a little faster, and a little crunchier in terms of guitar tones. Select opinions — and with each passing year, opinions on Bad Religion's new albums become more and more «select» — suggested that here was a deli­berate move in the backwards direction of Suffer. Who can really tell without a microscope? All I know is, the production still sounds 2002 rather than 1988, with the guitars all muffled rather than «trebly», and what other difference could there be?

As usual, let us talk in terms of singles. ʽSorrowʼ managed to become a minor hit, but the only interesting thing about it is that it starts out as a reggae number — the band's first foray into the genre thus far — before quickly shifting gears and launching into the usual «folk-punk» mode à la «Woody Guthrie goes hardcore». ʽBrokenʼ is a tune about human relationship between actual humans (no shit!) that switches to near-complete acoustic backing for the verses — another first? Not too memorable otherwise. ʽSupersonicʼ is classic quintessential Bad Religion: as fast as the title suggests, energetic, and kinda meaningless: "I gotta go faster, keep up the pace / Just to stay in the human race" — is that why they keep on releasing a new album every two years?

Best of the bunch is probably ʽThe Defenseʼ, for which the band cooked up a little atmosphere: backward guitars, Mid-Eastern / symph-metal chord changes (well, maybe not quite), a far more tricky than usual vocal architectonic structure, and a suitably apocalyptic set of lyrics. Without over­rating its complexity or effectiveness, I could safely say, at the very least, that it is just a good song, and that it stands out on its own — something that you very, very rarely get on any given BR album (I mean, unless you are a religiously devoted fan, how many different BR songs can you actually single out from the rest and remember as individual entities?).

Curiously, all four singles were credited to Gurewitz — maybe in a fit of gratitude on Graffin's part. In fact, the songwriting is evenly split in half, but out of Graffin's material, I could only say something about ʽBored And Extremely Dangerousʼ ("With nothing better to do / I woefully con­clude / To take it out on you" — aw come now, Greg, you have been taking it out on us for twen­ty years now), which has a few seconds of «non-music sounds» interrupting the flow to further impress us with how bored everyone really is; and about ʽKyoto Nowʼ, which is the only straight­forward pro-Pro­tocol piece of propaganda dressed in the form of popcore that I know of (there must be others, I guess), but has no other merits to speak of.

Okay, so that's about it. Faster, louder, crunchier than they used to be over the past several years, so if you're only in it for the ass-kicking, The Process Of Belief might be right up your alley. But the usual problems won't go anywhere any time soon, either, and now that they have entered the middle age of dynamic compression, this is not going to be the Bad Religion of old. So yes, it does matter whether you are buying The Process Of Belief or Against The Grain as your intro­duction to America's chomskiest rock band.

Check "The Process Of Belief" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Process Of Belief" (MP3) on Amazon

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Aerosmith: Music From Another Dimension!


1) LUV XXX; 2) Oh Yeah; 3) Beautiful; 4) Tell Me; 5) Out Go The Lights; 6) Legendary Child; 7) What Could Have Been Love; 8) Street Jesus; 9) Can't Stop Loving You; 10) Lover Alot; 11) We All Fall Down; 12) Freedom Fighter; 13) Closer; 14) Something; 15) Another Last Goodbye; 16*) Up On A Mountain; 17*) Oasis In The Night; 18*) Sunny Side Of Love.

Word of the day is «tedious». Seven years in the making, during which the band almost came to a complete halt (as Joe Perry started spreading rumors that Aerosmith would go on with a new lead singer) — eleven years, actually, since the world's greatest rock'n'roll band, MTV-style, graced us with their last all-original collection of tightly polished, relentlessly professional, thoroughly washed-up rock-a-pop. And now — not only are they back, but what they are offering us is Mu­sic From Another Dimension. Sure thing, guys. Any dimension in which Diane Warren may be residing at present is definitely another by me.

If, like poor deluded me, you ever thought that the not-particularly-inspired, but still relatively tough, blues-drenched, Honkin' On Bobo gave a weak hint at salvation, and that the subsequent live release so strongly reminded us of what was ever so great about Aerosmith in the first place — forget all hopes even before you put the record on. The album cover is cheesier than ever, and once again, they fall back on their corporate songwriter squad: Marti Frederiksen! Jim Vallance! Desmond Child! Russ Irwin! And, oh yes, Lady Di in person, with a brand new power ballad and she's not afraid to use it. If you thought these guys were long since packed in naphthalene, you got another think coming. Another dimension has opened up, and the living dead are upon us.

Except that even the living dead, as it turns out, are not immune to aging. Where «classic late pe­riod Aerosmith» managed to become an outrageous offense to good taste while still retaining a serious level of energy and catchiness, Music From Another Dimension is nowhere near as of­fensive (it is not altogether «mentorial», with neither the carnal nor the humanitarian save-the-world side of these guys over-emphasized as usual) — it is simply dull. Long, overdrawn, repe­titive, monotonous, and deadly, mind-numbingly D-U-L-L.

No one has bothered writing a single new interesting riff. At best, you get rehashes of ʽLast Childʼ, ʽDraw The Lineʼ or even ʽWalk On Downʼ, and at worst, you just get the basic wall of stiffly produced sound that Aerosmith can produce in their collective sleep, having built up so much experience since 1987. Yes, it all sounds like Aerosmith — why should it all sound like anybody else? — and it all sounds tired. Of course, they are old men, and one has to lower the ex­pectations in proportion to age. Or has one, really? With a million and one bands in the world still punching out loud rock'n'roll, why settle for somebody just because they are — just because they used to be — Aerosmith?

Take my advice, if you wish, and make your decision based on the very first track, since most of the rest will sound more or less the same way. Loud, compressed, based on a blues-rock melody taken directly from the stockpile, and featuring multi-tracked vocals from Tyler that finally show serious signs of aging — he is quite consciously sparing his throat after the surgery performed in 2006, and avoids overtaxing the larynx. Obviously, he cannot be blamed, but it is just as obvious­ly clear that, without Tyler's vocal antics, Aerosmith is going to look no happier than the three-legged dog on the cover of an Alice In Chains album. (For honesty's sake, Steve can still hit his famous high notes, but he only does this in exceptional cases now — mostly saving it up for the «climactic» moments of the album-closing ballad, ʽAnother Last Goodbyeʼ, and, actually, it isn't all that pretty any more). And then there are the air-brushed lyrics, no longer dripping sexy sweat as they used to, but somehow it seems that the taming is more generally due to the overall aura of political correctness flowing in the air than the wise decision to finally «act their age»: "Love three times a day, love your life away... there ain't no other way, it's in your DNA" — sounds like a Viagra commercial to me, don't you think?

In terms of general «musical philosophy», the album continues the line of Just Push Play, subtly erasing the line between «rocker» and «ballad» and throwing on poppy lines and psychedelic hugs every now and then — but it also cuts down on the most overtly «Beatlesque» moves of that album; on a purely formal basis, Another Dimension rocks harder (on an intuitive basis, it does not rock at all). Will this please old-time fans? Not sure. Even with the fast-moving songs like ʽStreet Jesusʼ and ʽLover A Lotʼ, there is really no feel that these were recorded with any other purpose than «hey, we still have to prove that we can do another ʽToys In The Atticʼ». Forget it. They can no longer do even another ʽFeverʼ.

Then there are the genuinely dorky bits. The album's equivalent of ʽBack In The Saddleʼ, for instance, is ʽOut Go The Lightsʼ, with the sexual bravado culminating in a chorus that will just have to go down the annals — or the drain, one of the two: "If you wanna take a lookie cookie / Tonight might be your lucky". And ʽCan't Stop Loving Youʼ is a duet with American Idol winner Carrie Underwood — and the song sounds like it belongs on American Idol, one of those «neo-country» pieces of garbage that even a post-Permanent Vacation Aerosmith should be ashamed of being associated with.

And it's loooooong. Sixty seven minutes of one non-descript piece of muzak after another (occa­sionally my brain even fails to register the pauses between the tracks). In this totally draggy at­mosphere, there are almost no high- or lowlights: even the Diane Warren ballad is no better or worse than everything else. Perry gets two lead vocals, including the one on ʽFreedom  Fighterʼ, a perfunctory anti-war rant that sounds as if made on order; it ain't even no ʽWalk On Downʼ — back in the days of Get A Grip, you could at least count on old man Perry to strike out some old-timey rock'n'roll excitement as an antithesis to the band's generally glossy sound, but here there is no difference: the glossy sound has worn off some of the gloss, and the exciting bits have lost some of the excitement. It's all just one big gray blob of sonic murk.

Music From Another Dimension! is not a general offense to good taste (at least, not until the Ameri­can Idol woman enters the studio): even if they still wanted to, Aerosmith simply no longer have it in them to spearhead the «MTV taking over the world» movement. But, much like every bit of original material that their forefathers, The Rolling Stones, recorded in the 21st century, this is first and fore­most merely a reminder — that this here band, Aerosmith, is still with us, whether we like it or not. Naturally, they have every right to issue a reminder like that — and we have every right to remind them that this is nothing more than just a reminder. By giving it a certified thumbs down, for instance.

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