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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Come In Un'Ultima Cena


1) ...A Cena, Per Esempio; 2) Il Ragno; 3) E Così Buono Giovanni, Ma...; 4) Slogan; 5) Si Dice Che I Delfini Par­lino; 6) Voilà Mida (Il Guaritore); 7) Quando La Buona Gente Dice...; 8) La Notte E Piena; 9) Fino Alla Mia Porta.

Since this is not a soundtrack no longer, but rather a good old concept album, loosely (very loosely) based around the theme of the Last Supper, with DiGiacomo returning to his normal place as band frontman, initial hopes of getting another Io Sono Nato Libero are fairly high. But alas, as it turns out after a few listens, the main problem of Garofano Rosso was not in being a soundtrack — incredible as it may seem, the band simply started running out of fresh ideas and basic energy, and Ultima Cena continues that process.

It is still essential for the fans, since at this point, the band does not yet show any signs of «com­mercializing» their sound. Technically, we are still dealing with the same old Banco: a complex fusion of classical, jazz, rock, pop, and «San Remo» influences, formally unpredictable at every turn and aiming for an equally complex mix of emotional / intellectual reactions. Nor is there any technical sign of «slacking»: the Nocenzi brothers and Rodolfo Maltese give themselves no re­spite, churning out riffs, solos, and tonal experiments a-plenty.

Bad news, though: it no longer works so well, particularly in the context of their earlier successes. Banco's musical themes were never all that «catchy» — their approach to music was more in the classical than in the rock vein — and while it paid off well during the early stages, by 1976 the trick was getting stale. There is hardly anything here that they didn't do better on their first three albums — which is especially ironic considering how much there is: just about every single sty­listic twist, technical move, emotional pass, etc., that they were capable of will be encountered on one or several of the tracks. Everything going on at once — and nothing imprintable.

At first, I was afraid it was just me; then I began to find out that many reviewers had the same feelings — for instance, the All-Music Guide review clearly stated that the album «shows signs of breathlessness», although the reviewer was kind enough to let ʽIl Ragnoʼ (ʽThe Spiderʼ) and ʽSloganʼ off the hook for their «power» and «energy». I wouldn't be capable of the same kind­ness. Sure, ʽIl Ragnoʼ has a steady beat, a heavy bass line, and a distorted guitar riff to keep it going, and the introductory part of ʽSloganʼ tries to be dark and ominous... but none of that goes far enough, or, rather, all of it goes too far: not one of the instrumental parts has enough power to impress on its own, and, when taken together, they cancel out rather than strengthen each other. The cogs are grinding with all the required mechanical precision, but somehow, the clock does not run with the necessary effectiveness.

Some small consolation may be taken in the fact that this time around, the obligatory soft ballads are almost completely stripped of that irritating Italian suaveness — ʽE Così Buonoʼ and ʽLa Notte E Pienaʼ are formed by little acoustic-and-flute patterns that are more in the old baro­que tradition than in the «Mediterranean pop» style, and DiGiacomo's vocals sound much less manne­ristic and affected in that setting. Which is not to say that either one is a musical masterpiece of unprecedented depth and power — only to say that, with their presence, Ultima Cena reaches a consistent standard of «uninterrupted mediocrity»: an album that is bound to delight dogmatic fans of «That Classic Banco Sound», wherever it may be found, but is far more likely to disap­point those who rigidly demand «progress» from their «progressive». Because this here is not progress — this is a classic example of stagnation, and (just as it happened with quite a few other «prog» acts) it may even serve as a weak justification for the band's soon-to-be transition to an unabashedly pop stylistics.

Check "Come In Un'Ultima Cena" (CD) on Amazon

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bee Gees: Spicks And Specks


1) Monday's Rain; 2) How Many Birds; 3) Play Down; 4) Secondhand People; 5) I Don't Know Why I Bother With Myself; 6) Big Chance; 7) Spicks And Specks; 8) Jingle Jangle; 9) Tint Of Blue; 10) Where Are You; 11) Born A Man; 12) Glass House.

This is where the «brilliance» starts getting noticeably brilliant. Technically, this may have to do with the fact that the band had much more studio time, donated to them by benevolent producer Ossie Byrne — of course, the final recordings still sound muffled and tinny compared to the sound the band would get in England, but it is more important that they actually had more time to work on the moods, melodies, and harmonies. The result is a record that has its highs and lows, but definitely sows the first seeds of the greatness to come.

The two main singles off the album announce the two main styles in which the pre-disco Bee Gees would excel: ʽMonday's Rainʼ is a romantic slow-burner, with Robin Gibb's «rack-the-goat» vib­rato carrying the gist of the romance (actually, his pitch is surprisingly low on this number), and ʽSpicks And Specksʼ is upbeat piano-pop in the old British music hall tradition. Tasteful Aus­tralian people clearly designated their preferences: the album itself was originally called Mon­day's Rain after the first single, but once the public let it sink and went instead for ʽSpicks And Specksʼ, the record was quickly retitled and re-released as such.

Who knows, actually, how things would have turned out if ʽMonday's Rainʼ were to become a hit — not only could this have delayed the Bee Gees' relocating to England, but it might have raised Robin's early credit higher than necessary, prompting the band to turn into professional crooners when they really had so much more to offer. Not that ʽMonday's Rainʼ (on which Barry and Ro­bin actually share vocal duties) is a particularly bad ballad — the main vocal melody is quite inspira­tional, even if it has to win its way over rather trite doo-woppish backing vocals and a rather sterile backing track, and it does somewhat pave the way to ʽTo Love Somebodyʼ. But for those who, like me, are in a rather complex love/hate relationship with the «nightingale» aspects of the Bee Gees, ʽMonday's Rainʼ will be the first song to fall under this relationship.

Not so with ʽSpicks And Specksʼ, which is fun, catchy, bouncy, and lively, despite the rather de­pressive lyrical message — it is ironic that the song became the band's biggest Australian hit just as they were embarking on the boat to England, so that one could easily interpret lines like "All of my life I call yesterday / The spicks and the specks of my life gone away" as a veiled goodbye to the country that failed to accept the Gibbs as a proper homeland. (That said, the band never failed to play the song on their subsequent Australian tours, so they probably weren't that mad). Here, too, one can see the seeds of ʽTurn Of The Centuryʼ — much tastier seeds, as far as my taste is concerned, than ʽMonday's Rainʼ.

The rest of the songs is a mish-mash, but nowhere near as derivative a mish-mash as on their first album. Now the brothers are already trying to put a more personal spin on everything they do, ex­cept for when they are in a plain giggly parodic mode — ʽBorn A Manʼ, for instance, is a trans­parent send-up of The Animals, right down to imitating Eric Burdon's vocal intonations, parody­ing the «macho» lyrical style of British R&B ("I'm glad I am born a man" — where is political correctness when you really need it?), and mocking the «chaotic» build-ups of that style with some open instrumental tomfoolery and sped-up vocals. It isn't a very tasteful parody, but it is so clearly a parody that it would be sort of silly to take offense at it.

When the brothers are being more serious, they invest into semi-decent Beatlesque pop-rock (ʽHow Many Birdsʼ, ʽTint Of Blueʼ) or folk-rock that makes good use of their three-man harmo­ny skill (ʽPlay Downʼ, ʽWhere Are Youʼ, etc.). It is clear that, had they had their wish, they would just as eagerly have invested in the emerging «art-pop» or «baroque-pop», but the move­ment was still way too fresh for them to get all the basics right, and they were heavily limited in their use of instrumentation: Geoff Grant on trumpets is the only «extra» session musician here, beyond the Gibb brothers themselves, supplying most of the basic instruments, and two guest drum­mers (one of whom, Colin Petersen, would later officially join the band and sail with them to England). So, while most of these songs are kinda nice, they are still only half-way fleshed out, with monotonous, unimaginative arrangements, poor sound mix, and a nagging sense of «we're still only learning how to be hip» dragging it all down.

Nevertheless, Spicks And Specks still deserves its thumbs up, if only for containing the band's first excellent song and no true stinkers (ʽBorn A Manʼ could be one, but only if it is erroneously taken seriously). Also of note, by the way, is the B-side to ʽSpicks And Specksʼ, which never made it on the LP — ʽI Am The Worldʼ, arguably Robin's proudest moment in the Austra­lian stage of the band's career; he does his best to match the title with some stunning vocal aerobics on the chorus, which deserve respect even among those for whom they do not generate admiration.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Billy Preston: Billy Preston


1) Do What You Want; 2) Girl; 3) Bells; 4) I've Got The Spirit; 5) Ecstasy; 6) Bad Case Of Ego; 7) Take Time To FIgure It Out; 8) Let The Music Play; 9) Simplify Your Life; 10) Let's Make Love; 11) When You Are Mine.

A self-titled album that comes in the middle of an artist's career is usually taken to signify a «re­boot» of sorts — «please allow me to re-introduce myself», «now I'm twice the man I used to be», that sort of thing. And indeed, Billy is photographed on the cover in an introductory pose — in a new and, frankly speaking, rather disturbing light. With the huge Afro hair cut away to make room for the brand new top hat, the setup suggests Vegas glitz, and the chronological context suggests disco-rama. In this context, even the familiar tooth gap begins to look corny, rather than reassuring, as it always used to be.

Next, a brief glance at the track listing shows that at least three of the tracks are re-recordings — one number from That's The Way God Planned It (ʽDo What You Wantʼ), two more from Encouraging Words (ʽLet The Music Playʼ and ʽWhen You Are Mineʼ). More cause for worry­ing: since it would clearly be hard to improve on these songs' melodic genius, it is more likely that they were singled out for experimental treatment — restructure and polish the grooves to fit the spirit of contemporary dance pop. And what do you know — that is exactly what they were singled out for, as becomes evident from the very first seconds.

Essentially, Billy Preston is a lite-disco album, reducing most of Billy's traditional sides (social message-oriented soul, party/booty-oriented R&B, heaven-bound gospel, and a little bit of senti­mental balladry) to one single invariant. There are a couple exceptions, but for the most part, this is all just one non-stop crystal ball wave of entertainment. It doesn't sound awful at all — behind all the disco «smoothing» of the old funk grooves, Billy's backing band is still playing live and having fun, and it even sounds like Billy himself is having fun, even with the top hat on. But, as could be expected, there is next to nothing to distinguish it from its multiple brethren.

Guest stars are mostly wasted — supposedly, Merry Clayton (of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame) is some­where here adding hardly noticeable background vocals, and if you pay close attention, you will witness Jeff Beck playing a really mean, revved-up fusion solo at the end of ʽBad Case Of Egoʼ, almost completely buried under the horns and vocals. Horns, by the way, are provided by Tower Of Power, which usually means quality, but it's not as if anybody took real good care of the arran­gements here — everything is fluent enough, but completely passable.

There is but one instrumental this time around, and it's probably the best of the lot — the slow orchestrated «blues-waltz» of ʽEcstasyʼ, with tense, wailing synth and guitar solos, goes rather brusquely against the prevailing disco grain. Unfortunately, it has no autonomous, overriding theme to it, but it is still a serious piece of work, the only one here that I wouldn't mind «antholo­gizing» if Billy's post-1975 career is ever considered to qualify for selection. (Most people would probably slobber over ʽBad Case Of Egoʼ just because it has Jeff on it, but at least on ʽEcstasyʼ you can actually hear the guitar, even if it is only played by Steve Beckmeier).

That said, I will not denigrate the album even further with a thumbs down, not this time, either, because any record that has a cheery, lively feel like that, generated by one of the cheeriest guys in the business, is OK by me. Going disco may have killed off any serious aspirations that Billy's mid-1970s career could contain (what with all the Stevie Wonder collaborations, etc.), but it did not exactly kill off his spirit — just singed off some of his hair.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bo Diddley: Live At The Ritz


1) Road Runner; 2) I'm A Man; 3) Crackin' Up; 4) Hey! Bo Diddley; 5) Plynth (Water Down The Drain); 6) Ooh La La; 7) They Don't Make Outlaws Like They Used To; 8) Honky Tonk Women; 9) Money To Ronnie; 10) Who Do You Love.

Bo's recording activity throughout the late Seventies and the Eighties was about as high as any activity you'd expect from a bear in prolonged hibernation. He did record and distribute several cassette-only albums, produced in his own home studio in Archer, Florida, and fairly hard to locate these days (al­though they are sometimes offered as digital downloads): Ain't It Good To Be Free («...ain't it a bummer that nobody really cares?») in 1983, and Breaking Through The B.S. («...because Ol' Man Bo can still do better than goddamn Pump!») in 1989. I have not heard them, know next to nothing about them, and have a deep suspicion that neither is a masterpiece — but that suspicion don't amount to no fact, so you might wanna be on the lookout if you think an Eighties' album from Bo Diddley looks like a sufficiently kinky proposition.

The only Eighties' record with Bo's active participation that is readily available today is this concert album, recorded in New York in November 1987 by the short-lived «Gunslingers» pro­ject, involving Bo Diddley and Ronnie Wood. Considering that 1987-88 was the only period in the history of mankind during which The Rolling Stones had «ceased to be», the project actually had a theoretical chance at longevity — purely theoretical, that is, because already the first expe­riment showed that the matching was far from perfect.

Technically, Live At The Ritz may, and should, be included into both artists' discographies, but I prefer to review it under the Bo Diddley section, because (a) Bo's the older one, (b) the ratio of Bo to Ron songs here is approximately 3/2 (and only if we formally count ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ as a Ronnie Wood song; ʽMoney To Ronnieʼ, despite the title, is a semi-improvised blues jam with Bo taking control), (c) Bo starts off the show as well as closes it, (d) the event was clearly of more importance to Bo than to Ronnie — it's one thing to simply fool around on the stage with one of your idols, and another thing to get your first major label record out in twelve years, even if you have to share it with some grinning clown from England who prefers to jump around the stage rather than actually play guitar (okay, so it wasn't nearly as bad in 1988 as it is now).

The problem is that a good live Bo Diddley show needs a good live Bo Diddley backing band — and the people assembled on that stage had fairly little to do with that. The rhythm section, con­sisting of Debby Hastings on bass and Mike Fink on drums, is fairly flat-footed (they can't even set up a proper Diddley beat on ʽHey! Bo Diddleyʼ); the keyboard player (Hal Goldstein) occa­sionally switches from regular old piano — the only keyboard instrument suitable for this kind of event — to state-of-the-art synthesizers, killing most of the joy on ʽCrackin' Upʼ; and as much as the presence of two of the Temptations (David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, the latter also play­ing harmonica and occasional keyboards) could adorn the show... it didn't.

Above all else, the mix is quite poor: Bo's own rhythm playing is rarely elevated from anything other than background din, and Ronnie's leads (some, if not many, if not most of them actually supplied by third guitarist Jim Satten) are sometimes barely audible against the huge drum sound (remember, the late Eighties were a drummer's paradise — everybody used to think that ampli­fying the drum sound gives you complete, absolute power over the listener). All in all, the ambi­ence just isn't that great for a real sweaty rock'n'roll show.

The other side of the business is, of course, that Ronnie has no business taking part in Bo's stuff, and Bo has no business whatsoever to strut along on Ronnie's material. As good as all that mate­rial is on its own, I fail to see where it is that the two actually help out each other — unless we begin to count harmony singing, and I'd rather we don't (everybody knows that Ronnie is the only person in the world who sings even worse than Keith Richards, and using Bo Diddley as the re­sident «Auto-Tuner» is hardly a good solution to the problem). Ronnie gets a few of his trade­mark bluesy slide leads, e. g. on ʽI'm A Manʼ, but Bo Diddley songs are not solo guitar vehicles, and the leads aren't stunning enough to justify turning them into such vehicles. And whether Bo is actually doing anything on Ronnie's numbers, I have not been able to find out.

The Ronnie-led chunk part of the album is actually better than the Bo-led majority part, if only because the backing band is so clearly geared towards more «modern» numbers than the oldies. The performance of Ronnie's ʽOutlawsʼ, for instance, approaches first-rate barroom-boogie rock­'n'­roll, and he gets in a rough, but expressive slide-fest on ʽPlynth (Water Down The Drain)ʼ, which also incorporates contrasting bits of ʽAmazing Graceʼ and ʽProdigal Sonʼ. (The decision to also include ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ was either due to audience pressure — or, perhaps, Ronnie always had that secret craving to finally wrestle the classic solo away from Keith. Spoiler bit: Keith is still the winner).

Still, this is never really «bad» — it is saddled with too many problems to reach «classic lost gig» status, but both of the gig's protagonists clearly had themselves some fun; it simply failed to be perfectly captured on the recording. Historically, it was important for the effort to drag Bo, a little bit at least, back into the spotlight and show that, at the age of sixty, he personally had not lost it at all: guitar chops intact, powerhouse voice still well-powered. A little more sad is the realization that he was actually dragged out of a deep freeze — having him play on that stage with all those people is like watching some resuscitated pre-historical mammal put in a cage with its modern descendants. But, on the other hand, he doesn't seem to mind, bother, or show any serious dis­comfort about this — so let us not look at this from pessimistic angles, either.

Check "Live At The Ritz" (CD) on Amazon

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Britney Spears: Blackout


1) Gimme More; 2) Piece Of Me; 3) Radar; 4) Break The Ice; 5) Heaven On Earth; 6) Get Naked (I Got A Plan); 7) Freakshow; 8) Toy Soldier; 9) Hot As Ice; 10) Ooh Ooh Baby; 11) Perfect Lover; 12) Why Should I Be Sad.

It is hard not to admit that the «Britney team», no matter how cheap, crass, or cynical it may get (and standards are constantly rising), at least has a sense of crude (exploitative) humor: Blackout is probably the perfect title for a new Britney Spears album in 2007, in the light of — or, should we say, «in the blackout of...»? — everything that we know of Britney's public, and not-so-pub­lic, life over the preceding three years. As the demon that she had foolishly let her mentors unleash on her during the In The Zone sessions predictably entered her offstage life as well, I remember the whole thing almost beginning to take on the shape of a medieval moral tale — sell your soul to you-know-who, and here comes the retribution.

Blackout came right in the middle of the turmoil, recorded in the midst of drug-related scandals, broken marriages, trials, psych wards and what-not. For some people, these situations actually act as creative catalysts — great art coming out of great suffering and all that — problem is, since «creati­vity» and «Britney Spears» never belonged in the same sentence, all we could hope for is somebody else getting catalyzed by Britney's ordeal and creating something to match. Clearly, certain such efforts had been made. The results, however, are somewhat puzzling.

Blackout is very different from In The Zone. This is a much darker, colder, sterner album — in certain respects, more mature, and definitely more cynical. As a cohesive atmospheric piece, it actually succeeds — where In The Zone was the sound of a wild, no-holds-barred, try-every­thing-once party, Blackout is the hangover effect, and even though the party as such is over, the ef­fect is every bit as disturbing because it seems irreversible. With all the icy, IDM-inspired syn­thesizers, techno beats, and processed vocals, Blackout opens the «robo-phase» of Britney's ca­reer, and, coming straight off the heels of In The Zone, there is no getting rid of the implied fee­ling — this is where too much sexploitation actually gets you. In other words, «one fuck too much» and the senses start shutting down. (Isn't that what happens to porn stars?)

On the level of individual songs, Blackout does not work one tiniest bit. Its opening single, ʽGim­me Moreʼ, forever tied to a disastrous «live» MTV performance that introduced the «new-look Britney», is hardly memorable for anything other than the opening "it's Britney, bitch" — and only in the function of «least convincing line in a Britney Spears song ever». The rest is a mess of synthesizer sirens, morose Gregorian chant-inspired vocal harmonies, and atmospheric attempts to turn the message of ʽMe Against The Musicʼ on its head — give it a cynical edge, let the mind show some condescension towards the body — but there is no hook, and dark atmos­phere alone does not suffice, since, after all, this is still dance-oriented electropop for the masses, not a Dead Can Dance record or anything.

Then there is the obligatory anti-media rant — ʽPiece Of Meʼ is probably one of the few «sticky» bits on the album, and also one on which the heavy use of Auto-Tune is fully justified: the very idea is that, on this song, the listener who wants a «piece of her» will have to deal with the robo­tic casing, installed by the security system. If it only weren't so predictable, or so hypocritical (don't say they didn't warn you, Brit!), I could almost say that it works: there is something vague­ly Kraftwerk-ian about it, reminding of the good old days of Man Machine. In any case, it clear­ly stands out from the rest of the tracks, be it in a good or a bad way.

Because the rest is... well, even compared to the production values of In The Zone, everything is pretty bland. Auto-Tune, electro beats, processed background vocals, no curious or even vaguely interesting overdubs, and an atmosphere of total robo-stupor — depressing and boring at the same time. It is not even quite clear to me how the album could appeal to Britney's established fanbase, what with its near-total lack of the «let's have fun» message. As you slide down to the promises of the track called ʽGet Naked (I Got A Plan)ʼ — a title that should presume some giddy Prince-like bawdiness — you find that, in its essence, the song is more like a dirge than a sex an­them, and that its repetitive message of "get naked, get naked, get naked, take it off, take it off" sounds more like something you'd expect to hear in a doctor's office rather than in a strip club. So much for all the sex symbolism.

ʽToy Soldierʼ, masterminded by hip-hop producer Sean Garrett, is probably the closest that this amorphous mass ever gets to a bit of chaotic crazy fun — martial rhythms, burlesque mood, and a «drunk-off-my-head» vocal part that has Britney coming out of her robot shell for once (or, per­haps, more like borrowing a hyperactive emotional chip for three seconds). But even on that song the «fun» in question is not real fun — merely the side effect of a mechanical spring failure in the orgasmatron, with unpredictable results (for once).

Overall, the only reason why this is called Blackout and not Meltdown is that the latter excludes the possibility of recovery — here, it was immediately implied in the title that Britney's suffering is deemed temporary. It is also implied that Britney's career as such had nothing to do with it: it's all about the over-demanding fans (ʽGimme Moreʼ), the evil media (ʽPiece Of Meʼ), and that shit­head of a husband (ʽWhy Should I Be Sadʼ, closing the album on a «touchingly» personal note). It is also a nice preventive cop-out in case the album were to become panned — give the lady a break, after all, she clearly isn't in a state to produce her masterpiece. But who are we fooling? As usual, the album has very little to do with Britney herself — and this time around, they did not even bother about raising the enthusiasm bar in the studio: In The Zone might have been state-of-the-art dance-pop when it came out, but Blackout seems to be slacking in that respect. As an attempt to save a bit of face, it isn't that awful — but to say that Britney is «way past her prime» here would be a gross understatement. On the other side, she probably should have been grateful to still have a record contract under the circumstances.

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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ayreon: 01011001

AYREON: 01011001 (2008)

1) Age Of Shadows; 2) Comatose; 3) Liquid Eternity; 4) Connect The Dots; 5) Beneath The Waves; 6) Newborn Race; 7) Ride The Comet; 8) Web Of Lies; 9) The Fifth Extinction; 10) Waking Dreams; 11) The Truth Is In Here; 12) Unnatural Selection; 13) River Of Time; 14) E = mc2; 15) The Sixth Extinction.

I am ashamed to say that, this time around, I did not even bother looking up the basic contours of the story. It seems to be something of a cross between the, ahem, «realism» of Human Equation and the sci-fantasy of Universal Migrator, all having to do with machines overtaking man, when everybody starts thinking and acting binary (or, at best, hexadecimal), and somehow conceptually tied in to every other Ayreon album ever released — you gotta give Lucassen some credit, his megalomania never got in the way of accurately tying together all the little loose ends.

The problem is, this time around the music never really stimulated me into looking up any details. If the first half of Universal Migrator worked moderately well as a «musical picture gallery» of sorts, and Human Equation, de-padded and properly filtered, had a psycho-thriller sheen to it, then this follow-up, being every bit as large and pompous, hardly offers a single fresh idea. Se­ven­teen singers in total show up for the project — at this point, it seems that contributing to an Ayreon prog-metal-opera turns into an obligatory clause in every power / symph / doom-metal band frontperson's contract, and they are all standing in line on his front porch on a daily basis. (Gotthard, Blind Guardian, and King's X are among the more notorious acts this time). And they all blow it on this mastodont, quite mediocre even for Ayreon's usually questionable standards.

Of course, there is no questioning the technical side of it all. Every note is in place, all the acous­tic, electric, and electronic overdubs meticulously tested and adjusted to each other, each singer and singerine wined, dined, coached and poached to perfection. We could hardly expect anything less of a guy who has never sullied a single one of his fantasies with overt sloppiness. Extract it from its context, forget about every other Ayreon record ever released (better still, forget about every other record ever released, period), and 01011001 will be a monumental achievement in its own rights. As it is, it is about as exciting as the sequence of zeroes and ones that constitutes its true title (the letter ʽYʼ, short for either YAKETY-YAK or YARDBIRD YAWN, depending on your current state of mind).

In utter frustration, I cannot think of a single track here worth a specific mention. It seems as if Lucassen was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people he got to act in his next play that he subconsciously fell back on his old musical stock, recycling all of his «meat-and-potato» ideas (folk, metal, electronic) without bothering to find any new combinations. Even the presence of one or two ʽLosersʼ or ʽShooting Companiesʼ could have already made a big difference, but no, these hundred minutes run on without a single ripple on the surface.

Obviously, this criticism makes little sense if we are simply supposed to like Ayreon as a musi­cal phenomenon. One does not criticize something like, say, Haydn's symphonies for (frequently) soun­ding indistingui­shable from one another, so why should this be different with Lucassen? Yet, first of all, it does not hurt to remember that 01011001 is Lucassen's first, and only, musical of­fering in four years (how many symphonies could Haydn have come up with in the same inte­rim?), and even a hardcore fan could be entitled to something that did not sound exactly like a rearranged/restructured medley of past successes (and failures).

And second — this is where personal taste comes in — Ayreon's music has always been cheesy, humorless, padded, bloated, and emotionally monotonous. It was only during those select, happy, cherished moments where Lucassen was able to break through these walls that I felt like there was something to gain (and there really was). «Generic» Ayreon material has no reason to exist in my world («poor man's Rush» could be a good description), and I wouldn't want to recommend it for anybody else's, either. Hence, decidedly a thumbs down here, and here's hoping that the next Ayreon release will be more creative and let us learn something that we didn't already know, and wished we never knew in the first place.

Check "01011001" (CD) on Amazon

Friday, January 25, 2013

Accept: Stalingrad


1) Hung, Drawn And Quartered; 2) Stalingrad; 3) Hellfire; 4) Flash To Bang Time; 5) Shadow Soldiers; 6) Revolu­tion; 7) Against The World; 8) Twist Of Fate; 9) The Quick And The Dead; 10) Never Forget; 11) The Galley.

Considering the generally warm welcome for Blood Of The Nations, a quick follow-up was most like­ly inevitable, and almost as likely predictable. With its Teutonic balls, nerve, and verve so finely displayed for all to see, could they have lost it in but two years' time? They probably could, if they saw some reason to change the formula; but the early 2010s did not exactly spear­head a revolution in heavy metal values (or in any other values, for that matter), so what you get is another piece of work in full accordance with the spirit of Metal Heart.

The title might make one think of some conceptual «metal opera» revolving around World War II — but, in a way, the majority of German metal bands have always revolved around World War II one way or another, and the only song here that addresses the topic directly is the title track, re­plete with Hoffmann's kitschy guitar recreation of the melody of the Anthem of the Soviet Union in the coda section. Otherwise, Stalingrad is just the current code name for the general atmo­sphere of merciless brutality and the world's dog-eat-dog nature which supplies 90% of the re­quired oxygen for Accept. (Together with the album sleeve, it also looks and feels suspiciously like the packaging to some strategy-based video game — somebody in the band must have had registered for a crash course in modern marketology in the interim).

In terms of energy, precision, volume, instrument mix, and other technicalities it all sounds exact­ly the same as Blood Of The Nations — some fans point out that Stalingrad is somewhat more «melodic», which I decode as «it has some slower songs on it», but slow or fast, it's all heavy and brutal anyway, no pandering whatsoever to the metal balladry sector. Riff, gang chorus, riff, gang chorus, solo, gang chorus, build-up to final blow-up, repeat formula eleven times with minor vari­ations — nothing new.

Alas, nothing new also in the sense that the main problem stays the same: just like Blood Of The Nations, Stalingrad does not have even one fresh riff — most are minuscule variations on what already used to be. Some of the gang choruses are catchy (at least, when you look at the title of ʽHung, Drawn And Quarteredʼ or ʽAgainst The Worldʼ, you immediately remember how they went), but the melodies have not improved. The only thing that saves them is the classic crunchy Accept guitar tone — as long as Hoffmann sticks to that tone (and it looks like he will be carrying it off to Heaven, or Hell, when he goes), I cannot complain while the music is on.

Come to think of it, Metal Heart did not have a ton of great riffs, either — that album, too, rode primarily on the strength of its choruses, which might be the reason why Hoffmann explicitly chose it as the «role model» for this next stage in the band's career. Wrong as I may be, it seems to me that to come up with something like one little intro to ʽBalls To The Wallʼ takes far more genius than it takes to come up with an entire Stalingrad — where, so it seems, newcomer Mark Tornillo has completely taken over the function of «emotional jackhammer» from the resident guitarists. But it is also evident now that Tornillo is even more of a one-trick pony than Udo used to be — capable of functioning only in the scream register — and as good as he is at it, the show does begin to get tedious after a while.

As usual, speed saves, so if you want to get a rewarding taste of the record, go for the faster num­bers first — ʽHung, Drawn And Quarteredʼ, ʽFlash To Bang Timeʼ, ʽThe Quick And The Deadʼ, etc. — then check out the Soviet National Anthem for a quick laugh, and then go back to your old copy of Restless And Wild, unless you are a modern production freak (in which case, get your old copy of Restless And Wild and have it remastered). On the positive side, at least this ain't no sellout — and now we have an active countdown going on on how many more years (decades? centuries?) this band will continue to retain its holy integrity.

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

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Garofano Rosso


1) Zobeida; 2) Funerale; 3) 10 Giugno 1924; 4) Quasi Saltarello; 5) Esterno Notte; 6) Garofano Rosso; 7) Sugges­ti­oni Di Un Ritorno In Campagna; 8) Passeggiata In Bicicletta E Corteo Dei Dimostranti; 9) Tema Di Giovanna; 10) Siracusa. Appunti D'Epoca; 11) Notturno Breve; 12) Lasciando La Casa Antica.

A soundtrack to an obscure Italian movie on the rise of fascism in the 1920s, this usually counts as a «proper» entry in the Banco discography — not only does the album incorporate several in­strumentals that were not actually featured in the movie, but most of them do not really sound much like «movie muzak». The only tangible reference to the movie theme is in ʽ10 Giugno 1924ʼ, at the beginning of which an angry crowd keeps chanting "Assassini! Assassini!" (refer­ring to the assassination of a socialist leader by fascists on that day) — but if you were listening to the album without any knowledge of its background, you wouldn't be able to guess what the hell this soundbite is doing there, other than to add a little whiff of the ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ spirit, perhaps (which would not be true: avantgarde sound collages were never on Banco's agenda).

The good news for those who, like me, are not awestruck over DiGiacomo's vocal powers (and, conversely, the bad news for those who are), is that the album is completely instrumental, with the focus placed exclusively on the Nocenzi brothers. The bad news is that it is still cursed by the typical soundtrack curse — although there are no attempts whatsoever here at «dumbing down» the sound, and from all points of view the album qualifies as rigorous symph-prog, it still fun­ctions primarily as background ambience. All the themes are tasteful and range from «pretty» to «ominous», but I was not able to spot any particularly resonant motifs. Except for one — the dark ascending piano pattern that first appears on ʽEsterno Notteʼ and then is re-introduced in ʽTema Di Giovannaʼ. Creepy, doom-laden, and... essentially, borrowed from The Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ, once you come to think of it (the fact that they changed the last note, which only makes it less effective, only confirms the suspicion).

Overall, this is fairly mellow stuff: forty minutes of witnessing a slow, time-taking competition between the piano and the organ / synthesizer, played out according to an almost baroque code of combat. It does not strive to reach previously unexplored ground — adequately enough for a mere soundtrack, made on order — and there are no moods here that these guys had not already built up to better effect on their previous albums.

The title track, beginning with a bit of free-form «self-adjustment» and then stabilizing into a steady blues-rock jam, was deemed important enough by the band to become incorporated into their live shows — but this is really the kind of number that the Allman Brothers would have done with more spice (and more guitar! that «pastoral synthesizer» thing does get tedious after a while!) on a good day. And it is only overcome in length by ʽSuggestioniʼ, which has almost no noticeable changes in dynamics throughout its eight minutes. Ambience!

«Pleasantly boring» is what I call these kinds of records — acknowledging, at the same time, that obstinate fans of the symph-prog genre could still find plenty of minute delicacies to savor here. Unless you are really obstinate, though, don't bother — your time might be better spent reading a book on the history of the fascist movement, little as that has to do with the actual spiritual con­tent of this particular «quasi-soundtrack».

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bee Gees: Barry Gibb & The Bee Gees Sing And Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs (1965)


1) I Was A Lover, A Leader Of Men; 2) I Don't Think It's Funny; 3) How Love Was True; 4) To Be Or Not To Be; 5) Timber; 6) Claustrophobia; 7) Could It Be; 8) And The Children Laughing; 9) Wine And Women; 10) Don't Say Goodbye; 11) Peace Of Mind; 12) Take Hold Of That Star; 13) You Wouldn't Know; 14) Follow The Wind.

The «real» Bee Gees did not seriously register on the world's musical scene until they relocated to England in 1967 — but The Bee Gees' 1st, with all of its stunning achievements, did not appear out of nowhere, and even technically-officially, it was The Bee Gees' 3rd, since they already had two LPs out by that time, not heard outside of Australia, where they grew up and missed a good chance of becoming that nation's Easybeats. Presumably, tough-guy Australia deemed them too sissy for its own pop market.

Anyway, «Barry Gibb & The Bee Gees», including Barry's underage twin brothers Maurice and Robin, had really been releasing singles as early as 1963, and a big bunch of them was put out in 1965 as their first LP whose name basically says it all. Including, that is, pointing out the band's two major strengths, already well worked out: (a) that Barry Gibb knows a thing or two about catchiness; (b) these are some dang good, unique, harmonies — kinda like the Everley Bros., but three instead of two, which adds extra power, joyfulness, and sometimes even — dare I say it? — «spirituality». I mean, "My heart cries, ʽTimber! Timber!ʼ" — is that spiritual, or what?

Since there was nothing better to do in Australia anyway, the Gibb brothers spent a lot of time listening to the radio, and it shows. At the same time, at a very early age, they (or at least big brother Barry) understood that writing songs, rather than covering others, was the way to go — not only is it more profitable in the financial department, but you can also find awesome ways to pass other people's ideas for your own. (Not that this is a Bee-Gees-specific jab, but maybe the Bee Gees deserve to be jabbed a bit stronger than others, given as how the LP title puts such a strong em­phasis on «Barry Gibb songs»).

So just about every song on here sounds like an adolescent at­tempt to emulate somebody else without directly ripping off the somebody else (not that somebody else would bother — takes a long way for the subpoenas to reach the faraway land of Oz). The Everleys, with their lightly rock'n'rolled take on the suave folk vibe, are one of the main inspirations (ʽI Don't Think It's Fun­nyʼ, ʽHow Love Was Trueʼ, etc.), but there are also nods to Motown, to the Merseybeat scene, to the new-and-upgraded folk-rock scene of the Searchers, of the Byrds (ʽAnd The Children Laughingʼ), and the brothers were not even above an occasional listen to some «cruder» boogie and garage-rock (ʽTo Be Or Not To Beʼ).

It is hard to say what exactly is so «wrong» with this album: in a way, there are no problems here that would not be characteristic of The Bee Gees as a whole — near-complete inability to come up with, let alone innovative, but simply «idiosyncratic» ideas of their own: from the beginning of time and until the very end of it, Barry and his brothers could only really work in other peo­ple's backyards. And these here songs aren't really much worse, on their own, than second-rate work by the Everleys: catchy, sing-along-ish, pleasant, with impeccable harmonies. Guitar-based instrumentation is a bit monotonous, but what wasn't back in 1963-64? Production is a bit scruffy, but what could we expect from a cheap Australian studio at the time? The hooks on the upbeat songs are a bit kiddie-like, but why wouldn't they be, with the songwriter himself only having turned 17 when the first of them was released? And he did write a song called ʽClaustrophobiaʼ at the age of 18, didn't he? Not every 18-year-old knows what that means. (On second thought, checking out the lyrics makes me wonder if Barry really knew what it means. Oh well, not every 18-year-old knows that it actually exists).

In the end, it might simply be the fact that the brothers were not quite ready yet, nor was the time quite ready for them. Even in their prime, they would almost always be writing and performing in the confines of a genre or style, but here they are still writing and performing in the confines of particular bands or artists — so much so that, if you already have the Beatles, there is no reason to cherish an inferior imitation of Lennon/McCartney such as ʽYou Wouldn't Knowʼ, and if you already have your Manfred Mann, ʽPeace Of Mindʼ will be just an infantile copy of their already juvenile approach (and at least Manfred Mann, in their early days, were accomplished musicians intentionally targeting the «innocent teen» market with their singles — the Bee Gees could only do so much as provide the basic instrumental backing for their compositions).

I cannot bring myself to turn the thumbs down, since I had no problems whatsoever listening to this — quite «charming» in its own way — celebration of «crass naïveté», but I do hereby con­firm that the album is only of serious value for major enthusiasts of either the Bee Gees or that «wonderful early Sixties sound, when all the people were still little children playing in the grass» and «bad» music was impossible in principle. Technical detail: although both this record and its follow-up are thoroughly out of print (and seem to have never been released on CD per se), all of the songs, and much, much more, including non-LP singles, demos, outtakes etc., are available on the 2-CD collection Brilliant From Birth (not really, I'd say, but everybody is welcome to check it out and form one's own opinion).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Billy Preston: It's My Pleasure


1) Fancy Lady; 2) Found The Love; 3) That's Life; 4) Do It While You Can; 5) It's My Pleasure; 6) Song Of Joy; 7) I Can't Stand It; 8) All Of My Life.

The balance is a little upset here: compared to The Kids & Me, Billy's follow-up only has eight compositions on it, and you can guess why that is — either out of a general lack of ideas, or be­cause the dance attitude of the age prevailed so heavily, many of the songs are cruelly stretched out, usually way past the point at which they have anything to say to anything but your limbs.

No, actually, scrape that from the record: ʽI Can't Stand Itʼ, one of the album's longest numbers, is not about dancing at all — it is a slow, moody, pensive instrumental that could have been brilliant if not for the fact that all of its brilliance is immediately unveiled in the first twenty-five seconds; from then on, it is all either an infinite number of repetitions or a few sidetracking, distracting solo passages. That is Billy Preston in a nutshell for you: one good idea makes the man so happy that he smears it all over the plate until it ends up looking... well, kinda thin for an idea.

There is also a more pronounced emphasis on synthesizers throughout, although Billy strictly ad­heres to the Stevie Wonder formula, preferring a guitar-like sound to his electronics rather than using them to emulate strings and organs, like many (if not most) of his contemporaries. This makes the album somewhat dated, but not in an ugly way — the instruments sound live enough and sufficiently emotional, much like Billy himself, whose optimism and energy was still pulsa­ting — perhaps boosted somewhat by the success of ʽNothing From Nothingʼ.

Other than ʽI Can't Stand Itʼ (which should have been compressed to three minutes), the main highlights here are: ʽFancy Ladyʼ, a bouncy-catchy duet with Syreeta Wright (marking the begin­ning of a long-term partnership: apparently, a fancy for synthesizers was not everything that Billy inherited from Stevie Wonder — his ex-wife and partner, too, had made the grade); ʽThat's Lifeʼ, the album's disco-est number that is simply infectiously enthusiastic; and the almost surprisingly moving solo piano ballad ʽSong Of Joyʼ, elevated from fodder level to something higher by the unexpected bass twist at the end of chorus — just as you become assured that this is just one of those «thank-you-for-all-the-happiness» songs, the melody swerves and enters darker territory, with a big question mark that might make you want to revisit it some other day.

Still, there are serious disappointments, such as the drastically overlong ʽDo It While You Canʼ, a rather pointless soft-funk jam that is not particularly salvaged by Stevie Wonder's harmonica parts, as the song never really decides what sort of mood it is aiming for. The rest of the tracks, too, are somewhat non-descript, and given how few of them there are overall, It's My Pleasure shows the curve going down again — not a bad record by all means, what with the creative synth sound and the esteemed guest stars (and I haven't even mentioned a certain «Hari Georgeson» adding guitar ornaments to ʽFound A Loveʼ), but where The Kids & Me had Billy in full adequate control of his element, this here is yet another pretext to showcase his limitations. And so I'd like to give it a thumbs down, but «officially» I won't do that — there is so much worse to come.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bo Diddley: The 20th Anniversary Of Rock'n'Roll


1) Ride The Water (part 1); 2) Not Fade Away; 3) Kill My Body; 4) Drag On; 5) Ride The Water (part 2); 6) I'm A Man; 7) Hey! Bo Diddley; 8) Who Do You Love; 9) Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger; 10) I'm A Man.

A very strange record. Apparently, upon leaving Chess, Bo Diddley went into complete commer­cial retirement, as far as any toying with major labels was concerned. Yet, in 1976, he was still «invited» by a guy called Ron Terry to guest-star on a special RCA release — according to the title, supposed to celebrate «the 20th anniversary of rock'n'roll», but even if, out of general nice­ness, we decide to agree that rock'n'roll was indeed invented in 1956 and not one year earlier (or later), it is still not clear why (a) of all the early rock'n'rollers, the 20th anniversary of rock'n'roll should be primarily and exclusively associated with Bo Diddley; (b) why, instead of letting Bo Diddley himself mastermind the project, they made him sing a bunch of Ron Terry songs on Side A — and then let a bunch of other guys cover his material on Side B.

Never mind, we should probably blame it on the overall craziness of the mid-1970s — any time period that produces the likes of Lisztomania is bound to contain ten times as many «odd» pro­jects as it contains «insane» ones. This is one of the curious oddities, and it is not even particular­ly bad: it is merely inadequate to its purpose, and it is the first album in Bo Diddley's discography which really, genuinely loses Bo Diddley as a bit player among the general ambience.

Speaking of ambience, you would be pressed real hard to find a better application for the «too many cooks» line than this album. The roster includes, among others, such names as Leslie West, Elvin Bishop, Joe Cocker, Roger McGuinn, Keith Moon, Albert Lee, and even Billy Joel (!). But instead of bringing them out, one by one, and making this into some sort of studio-based Last Waltz celebration, Ron Terry goes for broke and crams them all together — at least, that is how it is on the 16-minute jam that occupies all of Side B (supposedly, they are not all there at the same time on Side A).

The results are predictable: the jam is extravagantly overproduced, so much so that it is impos­sible to latch on to anything in particular. There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but you can never really tell if it is really like that or if it is just because there are so many players and singers out there at the same time. And in the end, it's all just the same old Bo Diddley stuff — maybe Albert Lee's guitar makes it flow more smoothly and with many more flourishes than the original versions, but the question is whether these versions need this smooth flow. As far as I understand it, turning Bo Diddley songs into «academic-style blues-rock», even with superb play­ers at the helm, kinda drop-kicks the initial purpose of these songs.

As for Ron Terry's songs on the first side, they are odd, too. He must have written them with Bo in mind, and particularly, with Bo's predilection for the sexy funky sounds of the decade. But these here are not so much straightahead funk grooves as creepily suggestive «swamp blues» with a funky undercurrent. ʽRide The Waterʼ, opening and closing Side A, would probably be better suited for the likes of a Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who could have, perhaps, given an appropriately spooky, joker-ish performance against these slow tempos, repetitive wah-wah chords, and mini­malistic bass punches. Mr. Bo Diddley just ain't evil enough for the swamp — let alone for an attempt to take Buddy Holly's lightweight, amicable ʽNot Fade Awayʼ and infect it with the devilish swamp blues virus as well.

There is no reason to hunt for this curio, unless obsession has already gotten the better of you — but if you do come across it, a spin or two won't hurt. The «Bo Diddley jam» might actually work if you play it real loud without stopping, all the way through — who knows, at some point all the innumerable instruments and voices might eventually fall together, blow a hole in your soul and make you see the light. And the first side, well... this is the last time you get to hear a still rela­tively young Bo Diddley sing some original material — the next twenty years would be spent in occasional touring, serious relaxation, and some home studio recording sessions, but no official releases. So that might be reason enough to regard this disc as a little «farewell gift from the boys», and get acquainted with it as a little piece of history.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Britney Spears: In The Zone


1) Me Against The Music; 2) (I Got That) Boom Boom; 3) Showdown; 4) Breathe On Me; 5) Early Mornin'; 6) To­xic; 7) Outrageous; 8) Touch Of My Hand; 9) The Hook Up; 10) Shadow; 11) Brave New Girl; 12) Everytime.

All right — this is where the shit really hits the fan. Be it out of sheer bare sociological curiosity, every­body needs to hear this album, or at least its most significant «conceptual» streak that be­gins with ʽShowdownʼ, ends with ʽThe Hook Upʼ, and reaches apocalyptic-evil levels on the ʽBreathe On Meʼ / ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ / ʽToxicʼ sequence. It is not every day that playing just three songs in a row gets you a-thinkin' about the ultimate fate of man- and womankind, and you cer­tainly do not expect that from a Britney fuckin' Spears album — but the last time I remember my­self walking away from a musical record with a comparable feeling was Aerosmith's Get A Grip (incidentally, released a round decade earlier — watch out, 2013!).

With Britney now well over 21, and the industry still red-hot yearnin' for another smash, the next move from Britney's ʽI'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Womanʼ was obvious: the fans had to be shown that the girl finally is a woman, and a real woman, «as all men know», lives in constant need of sensual pleasure and in permanent search of sexual conquest. Ain't too sure? Ask Madonna. In fact, don't ask Madonna — better still, invite Madonna to sing a duet with Britney on the opening track and provide her with a motherly blessing and a protective French kiss. Never mind if ʽMe Against The Musicʼ matches its title so well, given that there is so much of «me» in this track and so little actual music — just a regular hip-hop beat. The really important thing is that they got Madonna here to sing "C'mon Britney, lose control, watch you take it down", and this truly creates the illusion of «passing the crown».

There are, however, a few problems. For all of the obvious criticisms of Madonna as an artist, there was never any question of her being (a) an independent soul, (b) a modest, but occasionally impressive, vocal talent, (c) an above-average songwriter who could easily pen a catchy tune or, at least, recognize one (ʽInto The Grooveʼ alone should be able to dispel any doubt). And there is quite a hint of trickery in that recommendation — for all we know, Madonna herself never ever «lost control» over a single second of her professional life. Now cut to Britney, pampered from the Mickey Club get-go through the rose-candy bubblegum ickiness — and now, all sex-dolled for the next stage of her career: «if you loved In Bed With Madonna, you're going to be really, really pleased as Britney takes you to the next stage».

And yes, this is the next stage — in humiliation, first and foremost. It had been heavily propaga­ted that In The Zone was the album on which Britney allegedly took control in her hands (heed­less of Madonna's call?), and, to prove that, we now have her name added to nine out of twelve songs — kinda suspicious, though, that most of them feature at least three extra songwriters. But more importantly, the image that comes together through these songs can have nothing to do with the natural development of a 22-year old girl from Kentwood, Louisiana, who only recently was spotted talking about saving up virginity for marriage. I can believe in artistic independence for the likes of Taylor Swift — singing her monotonous bores about princes on white horses until the end of time — but Britney Spears herself behind something like ʽTouch Of My Handʼ? (It's not that I doubt the touching aspect, mind you — only the writing).

Anyway, that whole stretch I was talking about, once we get done with the lacklustre Madonna number and the even less inspiring Ying Yang Twins collaboration (lesson one: never collaborate with anyone who cannot even properly spell yin-yang), is quite demonstratively evil. Not «bad» as such, since it does feature at least a few really creative musical moves, but «evil», as Britney falls under the heavy press of sexploitation. She does know how to sex up her voice properly — she might even know that better than Madonna, preferring to take lessons from Donna Summer instead, and doing it in different ways: sensual purr on ʽBreathe On Meʼ, breathy hush on ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, aggressive horniness on ʽToxicʼ, paranoid rutting on ʽOutrageousʼ, post-orgasmic re­covery on ʽTouch Of My Handʼ (what else have we missed here?). But when all of it is taken together, the overall impression is that the girl had been placed under heavy, I mean REAL hea­vy drugs — most of the songs pile on the trance atmosphere so densely that you can almost feel the presence of some invisible manipulative hypnotizer behind the girl's back.

ʽBreathe On Meʼ and ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, in particular, are really creepy — not even minding the ly­rics (which sometimes actually border on questionable irony: "Monogamy is the way to go / Just put your lips together and blow"), they give you what you've always wanted: Britney the sex pup­pet (insert coin and wind up for your pleasure), protected by the illusion of «sexual liberation». All the more creepy, that is, given that no less than the great Moby himself — always happy to play the Joker for an unsuspecting mainstream crowd — masterminds ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, giving it a spooky, dark, psychedelic twist with a gruff «rotating» bass pulse and swooping electronic strings as we are told that "it don't stop till the early morning / passed out on the couch I'm yawning".

The centerpiece of the album has always been, and still is, ʽToxicʼ — musically, the most inven­tive number on here, not only because it manages to fuse Bollywood strings with James Bond-ian surf guitar in a completely natural manner, but also because it gives us three different Britneys (verse, bridge, and chorus so totally different in tone and mood), with «unlawful carnal delight» as the only unifying theme. If the vocals weren't buried so deep under production make-up, one could even say that this is the only song on the record where we could perceive Britney having some genuine fun — but this is not about real people having real fun, after all.

By the time we are through with Britney's imaginary sex life and get to the ballads (only two of them this time — power crap on ʽShadowʼ, romantic piano crap on ʽEverytimeʼ), it is hard not to wonder if the famous breakdown, with a complete — at least temporarily — collapse of her per­sonal life in the ensuing three years, was not a direct consequence of the recording of In The Zone, or, rather, the whole shenanigan (recording, touring, calculated need to «uphold the image» etc.); even worse, far be it from me to start moralizing, but I wonder just how many young peo­ple's lives were, in any way, influenced by this stuff.

Because, clearly, reasonable adults can take this for what it is — unabashed musical pornography — and put it to the appropriate use. Brit­ney's teen or post-teen audiences are another matter — they could very easily be deluded into taking this for a decisive statement of «sexual liberation», maybe even a «feminist» one (even despite the fact that most of the corporate songwriters and producers behind the raciest moments here were all men), and restructure their life in accordance with the spirit of ʽBreathe On Meʼ, ʽEarly Mornin'ʼ, and, of course, ʽTouch Of My Handʼ, the song that does not justify masturbation, but glorifies it ("Into the unknown, I will be bold, I'm going to places I can be out of control..." and, of course, the completely immortal line "I'm into myself in the most precious way"!!!) — oh yeah, we've gone a long, long way from ʽPictures Of Lilyʼ and even ʽShe Bopʼ.

Even if I tend to exaggerate here — after all, it's just a run-of-the-mill dance-pop album, wouldn't it be too much honor to accuse it of raising the sexploitation bar to such hideous heights? — there is no denying the fact, it seems, that ultimately, it is all very cheap. Yes, the involvement of Moby and the inclusion of a few really neat arranging ideas (ʽToxicʼ, first and foremost) does raise the stock value of In The Zone a little bit, but if you take it as a whole — not just the melodies, but the lyrics, the vocal message, the accompanying videos, the racy tour antics — the worst thing about it is that there is nothing here that is truly, genuinely «sexy», it's more like a musical equivalent of a tasteless, boring old peepshow (watch this and tell me if I'm wrong). There is just no getting away from the fact that, no matter how big the size of the image-making army might be, here or in the future, ʽOne More Timeʼ was still the apex of Britney's sexuality — I mean, what fun is there, really, when she's so goddamn legal already?

On the other hand, I will admit that, drugged or not drugged, she does at least sound like she is still alive on most of these tracks — if you have some interest in an actual human being on the verge of being replaced with a piece of machinery, In The Zone is your last bet. Everything else, metaphorically speaking, represents the post-lobotomy period. And yes, I'd like to say that I pity the poor girl, but is she really in need of my, or anybody else's, pity? After all, the sales weren't all that bad — three million copies sold in the US alone, and how much coke can one score with those numbers? Even if you have to share with all the ten thousand producers?

Check "In The Zone" (CD) on Amazon
Check "In The Zone" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ayreon: The Human Equation


1) Day One: Vigil; 2) Day Two: Isolation; 3) Day Three: Pain; 4) Day Four: Mystery; 5) Day Five: Voices; 6) Day Six: Childhood; 7) Day Seven: Hope; 8) Day Eight: School; 9) Day Nine: Playground; 10) Day Ten: Memories; 11) Day Eleven: Love; 12) Day Twelve: Trauma; 13) Day Thirteen: Sign; 14) Day Fourteen: Pride; 15) Day Fifteen: Be­trayal; 16) Day Sixteen: Loser; 17) Day Seventeen: Accident?; 18) Day Eighteen: Realization; 19) Day Nineteen: Dis­closure; 20) Day Twenty: Confrontation.

By now, we all should know: Arjen Lucassen is really «The Flying Dutchman», that is, he is ac­tually trying to officially enshrine himself as the Wagner of rock music: writing nothing but ope­ras, using fantastic settings to reflect universalist messages, and ensuring that only the strongest, with the biggest attention spans and the most time to burn, will survive. Unfortunately, the com­parison is hard to elaborate — unlike Wagner's librettos, Lucassen's lyrics are not only preten­tious but, for the most part, childishly crafted, and he has yet to find his own Tristan chord. The main problem of Wagner's music is, however, shared with fidelity — each of the «operas» is hor­rendously pad­ded out. Music of such ambitious stature cannot deserve being spread across less than two CDs, after all. Yeah, there used to be a time when the Beatles could sum up the state of the world within the five minutes of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ, but they were just summarizing — Ayreon is here to present you with a detailed account balance. Or, at least, such might well be Arjen Lucassen's personal philosophy.

What is interesting about The Human Equation is that, for once, Lucassen decided to break up the series of fantasy tales in favor of something more «mature» — a bizarre Freudian opera about psychic convalescence through a twenty-day-long period of re-experiencing one's accumulated traumas in a comatose state, or something like that. In fact, this is nothing less than Ayreon's own personal version of The Wall: here, too, you will find abusive schoolteachers, carefree parents, abandoned lovers, and a climac­tic scene of «disclosure» where... anyway, I am not going to pretend that I am unwilling to spoil the plot for you, given as how I am not sure I got it all right in the first place (and I never really bothered much about the second one).

Does it help make the music any better? Absolutely not. Arjen Lucassen knows not the meaning of the word «subtlety», and has never heard the expression «less is more», or, if he has, he must have understood it the other way around — this is why no Ayreon album is ever going to threaten the shelf status of The Wall, even relative to modern kids who practice the «never trust anybody any art piece over thirty» ideology. Frankly speaking, you'd only understand the deep substantial difference between Universal Migrator and Human Equation if you started checking on them armed with a lyrics sheet — and I wouldn't advise you to do that. "It's time to leave your shel­tered cage / Face your deepest fears / The world is against you / You're fighting back the tears" is about as profound as it ever gets. Oh well, could be worse.

Lucassen did get some top-notch vocal talent for this Psychodramatic Masterpiece, though. The protagonist («Me») is voiced by Dream Theater's own James LaBrie, one of the major anta­gonists («Fear») — by Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, and another one («Rage») — by Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad: again, not much ground for practicing «subt­lety» with these steel-throat war machines, but oh the masculinity of it all! And, matching the good old Aryan, uh, I mean, Ayreon manpower are the ladies — lead singerines from the little-known bands Elfonía (Marcela Bovio) and Mostly Autumn (Heather Findlay), the latter of which, playing «Love», can go from a Sandy Denny lament to a Kate Bush purr whenever she wants to. Nifty, if not exactly breath­taking.

But interesting musical ideas have decidedly given way to being a bit too much focused on the operatic components. Although Lucassen is no longer segregating his «progressive» and «metal» sides — meaning that there will be no fifty-minute long unbroken stretch of bland power metal — the re-blending is sorta sour, with way too many tracks simply fusing together the grumbly chugga-chugga and the strings-supplying synthesizers (see ʽSchoolʼ, for instance): so many, in fact, that the good bits have to be fished out like dumplings from a broth, over the course of re­peated listens. This means work, and who likes being driven to work by pretentious long-haired Dutch potheads? There you are.

Cutting to the chase, here are some tasters that might — or might not — convince you that The Human Equation is not utterly worthless. Actually, all of them were cleverly released as singles. ʽDay Seven: Hopeʼ, re-titled for single release as ʽCome Back To Meʼ, is a somewhat touching, well-written art-pop song, carried by a catchy organ pattern. ʽDay Eleven: Loveʼ has a somewhat annoying power metal chorus, but the main melody is a surprisingly sexy waltz (the major attrac­tion here are Heather Findlay's alluring Kate Bush-isms).

Weirdest of all is ʽDay Sixteen: Loserʼ, which might be the first track I know of to combine the sound of an Australian didgeridoo (played by Jeroen Goossens) with that of an Irish jig — and then lay some mammoth metal riffage over both. If that is not enough for you, try waiting until the end of the song for a ridiculously over-the-top death metal rap to put the cherry on top. Oh, and how could I forget the added bonus for Uriah Heep fans? Ken Hensley himself wanders into the studio to play an old-style ʽGypsyʼ-like psychic organ solo. The oddest thing of all, it seems to work — the song is so utterly baffling that, at some point, it transcends «hilarious» and starts sending out schizophrenic waves all over the room.

Other than the singles, Equation has quite a respectable finale — ʽDay Twenty: Confrontationʼ builds up genuinely spooky atmospherics with cleverly piled up loads of phased and echoey gui­tars, processed organ, and «metal slide» riffs saved for the chorus. With all the vocalists coming together and the song eventually speeding up, it does seem to be headed for some sort of Wagne­rian finale — unfortunately, the abrupt ending is sort of anti-climactic, but I guess Ayreon just had to ensure himself some continuity with the rest of his oeuvres, which explains the superfluous reference to the «Dream Sequencer».

None of this should conceal the fact that a large, large, large chunk of the material is quite non-descript (and the problem would only get worse with the next release), and can only appeal to big fans of power metal vocalization. But then, come to think of it, such is the fate of 90% of operas ever written — not only is it impossible to keep the genius afloat for two or three hours on end, but you are not even really supposed to try. What is really bothersome is that so many of the tracks stretch out past acceptable limits, and that so many of the themes are rather monotonous variations on each other — not just «boring», but «boring in the same boring way». On the other hand, this might simply be an invitation to make your own Human Equation: I'm sure that most of us could trim this down to about forty minutes of interesting and even inspiring music. Start off with the singles, then think about whether you need the rest. The singles are good.

Check "The Human Equation" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Human Equation" (MP3) on Amazon