My Operator: The Engineer Who Modernized Reggae


“My Operator” was the affectionate nickname given to the otherwise unsung engineer Sylvan Morris. Also called “The Original Scientist” for his early work in dub, Morris is responsible for the sound of many of the key landmark reggae albums in the mid-70s, including Bob Marley & The WailersBurnin’, Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration. It’s easy to overlook his influence when even reggae scholars like Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton failed to give him credit for his work on albums in their Rough Guide to 100 Essential Reggae albums. Not that they would deny that his engineering work was key to the sound and success of those albums. It’s just that producers traditionally get top billing. Sometimes they did take credit for the work of the engineers. There are thousands of songs out there where Morris’ work is completely uncredited to him.

Growing up in Trenchtown, Kingston, Morris was precocious, building tube amplifiers since he was 12 and fixing electronics for neighbors, and repaired two way radios for a company called Comtech for a year and a half while still in high school. After a brief stint at WIRL (West Indies Records label), that talent and a pitch perfect ear earned the teenager a job assisting engineer Graeme Goodall at Byron Lee’s Dynamic sounds in 1965. He assisted Goodall in updating the studio from two to three and then four tracks. Two years later he spent six months at Duke Reid’s studio, then joined Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, where he would control the board as chief engineer for six years and define the Studio One sound. The studio was actually still only two tracks, and Morris bought another two-track machine to dub more takes, which informed techniques used in dub. Dodd like to take credit for the innovations (despite not even being in the studio much of the time), but very gradually, the truth is leaking out via some liner notes and books like Michael Veal’s Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (2007).

“Plenty of people don’t talk about that engineer. And Sylvan Morris was an engineer and technician all in one. You understand? Is he teach Errol Thompson…” — Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee (Heptones, Night Food liner notes).

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Second Quarter Rundown


Technically I didn’t do a first quarter rundown, but between my Heavy Rock Rundown and Jangle Pop piece, I covered most of my favorites for the first three months of the year, with the exceptions of Ty Segall and Nicole Sabouné. I gotta say, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more out of step with what’s fashionable in music. Looking at other Best of 2017 So Far lists, I’ve listened to and can acknowledge the quality of the Kendrick Lamar, Lorde and Future, even if they’re not what I ever feel like listening to. I think the Fleet Foxes, Japandroids, Mac DeMarco, Syd, Thundercat and Mount Eerie are overrated but not terrible. But Harry Styles, Drake, Ed Sheeran and Father John Misty? Yuck. But thank freaking god that’s not all there is. There is still music that transports you, that’s worth getting excited about. Why is Algiers being ignored? At least Stereogum recognized Slowdive, Pallbearer and Elder, I’ve got ya covered for the rest.

algiers-underside elder-reflections

Algiers – The Underside Of Power (Matador)
Elder – Reflections Of A Floating World (Armagedden)

Sitting atop the pile of this years albums like imperious monster-lizards, eyes half-closed, unconcerned with the mortals and their fleeting trends, are by far the two best albums of the year so far. I go back and forth as to which is my favorite, something I’ll have figured out by December. For now, I appreciate the vast differences between these bands, and the very different reasons I admire them. Algiers can be angry and jarring, yet still transcendent and beautiful. Elder can sound massive to the point of claustrophobia, yet startlingly nimble. See full reviews: Algiers | Elder Continue reading

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Algiers – The Underside Of Power (Matador)


Since Algiers debuted in 2015 with their inspired blend of post-punk/goth/industrial/art rock with gospel and soul, another band, Zeal & Ardor, has gotten attention for mixing gospel with black metal. They actually predated Algiers’ full length with a 2014 debut, but people have really begun to respond this past six months to music that taps into righteous rage that draws on music that evolved during 400 years of slavery. Algiers’ history goes back a while too, as guitarist Lee Tesche, bassist Ryan Mahan knew each other growing up in Atlanta, to the point where they are not quite clear on when exactly the band formed. We do know that at some point, vocalist Franklin James Fisher joined, Tesche and Mahan departed to London for post-graduate studies, and they released a 7″ single in 2012. While the Algiers debut is brilliant, brimming over with ideas and expanding on innovations by bands like TV On The Radio who initially incorporated doo-wop into art rock, The Underside Of Power sees them continue to explore diverse genres while drilling down into a more focused, seething anger. Their power is aided with the addition of former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong. Like the first album, a vivid focal point (whether he wants it to be or not) is Fisher’s vocals, which boast a loaded toolbox that evoke gothic dread, spitting aggression and even sweet soulful melody. Continue reading

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Elder – Reflections Of A Floating World


Elder is a constantly evolving organism, as all great bands should be. While every album is easily recognizable to me as Elder, and their 2009 debut (which is still great fun) can safely be categorized as stoner doom, their subsequent explorations have cause some confusion. Are they no longer metal? Are they prog? Psychedelic? They are and are not most of those things. While their fourth full-length (but don’t overlook their stellar 22 and a half minute EP Spires Burn from 2012) adds pedal steel (courtesy of guest Michael Samos) and adds Kosmische to their influences, everything is still a frame for guitar. Elder are mainly about guitar worship — the amazing tones that Nicholas DiSalvo can coax from his instrument, and the intricate layers that weave a web that can envelope you in a guitarcentric cocoon should you choose to allow yourself to be fully immersed. And now there’s a second guitar added to the palate via possibly permanent new member Michael Risberg, who also plays with DiSalvo in the Gold & Silver side project. Continue reading

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Martin Popoff – Rush: Album By Album

popoff-rush-albumSince I’ve been reading nearly all books digitally on Kindle devices, it’s a refreshing novelty to hold this coffee table style book in my lap. Rush: Album By Album may not be essential for everyone, but hardcore Rush fans should appreciate the beautifully assembled artifact that can either be read straight through within a day, or browsed piecemeal over a long time period.

Rush had a pretty unique trajectory. Formed in 1968 and influenced by the heavy British rock of The Yardbirds, The Who, Cream and Led Zeppelin, they slogged out local gigs for six years, and self-released their debut album in 1974. Success came fairly quickly when a DJ in Cleveland started playing “Working Man,” and they got signed to major label Mercury records. Original drummer John Rutsey left and Neal Peart clicked with the band right away, with Fly By Night (1975) solidifying their hard rock fanbase, while also branching out into progressive rock with “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” They even won over some admirers across the pond in emerging superstars Queen. They got pretty weird on Caress Of Steel (1975) with the 12:31 long “The Necromancer” and side-long epic “The Fountain of Lamneth” and lost some of their audience, who were not necessarily prog fans. Their label was on the verge of dropping them, and pressure them to reign it in with more radio-friendly length songs. Instead, the band defiantly followed their muse and perfected the approach they took on the previous album, but injecting 2112 (1976) with more fury than pretty much anything released that year, including AC/DC, The Ramones, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rainbow and possibly even Judas Priest. Audiences responded well to the side long epic, while the second side had some of their most polished songs yet, including stoner travelogue “A Passage to Bangkok,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Something For Nothing.” Rush hurdled over pop radio and sold tons of albums and filled bigger and bigger venues. While prog rock was becoming unfashionable, Rush released increasingly complicated and ambitious albums with A Farewell To Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978). Continue reading

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Audiophilia Cultom: Paranormal Sound Worship

axpona-2017-shirtOf all the whackadoo cults out there, what’s better than worshipping giant speakers as cathedrals of sound? Music can be arguably attributed to all kinds of miracles. It’s often the spark that initiates relationships, or revives damaged ones. It can trigger memories, and as recent scientific evidence has shown, even heal the brain! If that isn’t a gift from the audio gods, I don’t know what is.

Of course there’s all the other odd quirks that come along with the baggage of religious cults, like chasing down dead-end placebo effects of $10,000 cables and turntables. What is it with post-middle aged white men and their freaky hobbies? If you’ve ever read about weird sex cults or secret societies that perform elaborate blood sacrifice rituals, they’re all creepy, wealthy older white men. That was my impression when I first entered the Axpona (Audio Expo North America) convention on Saturday. It was about 98% white men, the average age probably about 55. I guess it makes sense. Many of them are empty nesters who finally have a little extra money to spend on their hobbies. Ironically one’s hearing is sometimes in rapid decline at that age range, especially if they didn’t protect their hearing throughout their lives. Many have stopped listening to new music 20 to 30 years ago, but are trying to squeeze more and better sound out of their moldy oldies. Music used in the demos was pretty conservative, mostly jazz, blues, classical, opera, classic rock (lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan), and a shit ton of Steely Dan.

But I’m not here to hate. After all, I’m rapidly approaching that age demographic myself, but without the spare money. At least there’s no real harm in the audiophile hobby, no virgins are sacrificed, though a few kids may find their college funds depleted (sorry kid, you should have done better in school and gotten scholarships, enjoy your quarter-mil plus in loans!). In a way, it is a form of paranormal cult. Many in this hobby swear by the almost magical effects of expensive cables and turntable cartridges that defy laws of physics. I may find that aspect of the hobby ludicrous, but more power to them. At least they’re helping fund companies that also produce a lot really solid gear. In a world when music has been devalued and people expect to be able to stream everything for free, and speakers are hidden inside earbuds, computers and walls as if they’re dirty secrets, I think it’s important that there’s some subcultures that still maintain that music is important and valuable enough to worship at the altars of massive sound systems and speakers that dominate a room like large sculptures. Continue reading

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UK Album Charts 1977


I read the 33-1/3 book on Television’s Marquee Moon by Bryan Waterman and thought it kind of remarkable that Marquee Moon made the top 30 in the UK album charts. Thanks to Official Charts you can see the top 60 from each week. This mainly doesn’t include compilations or soundtracks (The Muppet Show was an exception since I was amused to see one of my childhood albums was so wildly successful). I gotta say it’s pretty jarring when it transitions from a The Muppets track to Derek And Clive, which is Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing drunken stream-of-consciousness comedy, peppered with the C-word. Wikipedia says they were “far too crude for a mainstream audience.” Yet 8 weeks on the top albums chart shows otherwise. Also, people who complained about the Muppet Show reboot a couple years ago because it was too “adult” clearly missed the adult humor subtexts in the original. Check out “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Or is it just my own warped mind?

This makes me feel old. If I was writing a similar piece in 1977, I would be reminiscing about music from 40 years previous, 1937.  Continue reading

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Heavy Rock Rundown


That’s a mighty tasty looking batch of album covers, don’t you think? Luckily, their contents are just as fun and colorful as the art. As far as the album releases that speak to me, the first quarter of 2017 has been dominated by hard and heavy rock. Recently I was watching Dr. Strange, and the use of Pink Floyd’s  “Interstellar Overdrive” was a perfect accompaniment to the psychedelic experience of the movie. Now if only if the music producers of these movies would use some of the amazing contemporary hard rock and psych, the films would be better for it. Movies I had trouble getting into, like The Love Witch and Mad Max would have also greatly benefited from the current rock offerings here. No joke, these bands from the U.S., Sweden, Norway, Germany and Denmark that probably collectively will sell less than 100,000 albums this year, with a wise matchup, could nudge a movie into making millions more. Some rock for thought movie people!

mastodon-emperorAs expected, Mastodon’s seventh album, Emperor Of Sand has hogged the attention this past week. And for good reason, from 2002-09 Mastodon released four nearly flawless metal albums, some of the most influential of the past decade and a half. Since then, they have moved on from progressive sludge and explored a more polished hard rock sound on The Hunter (2011) and Once More ‘Round The Sun (2014). Compared to those last two, they have become both more pop and more prog, while still maintaining an epic, ambitious approach. Conceptually I’m all for that. However, I’m not impressed by their execution. For example, “Show Yourself,” while it has a decent vocal melody, reminds of Queens of the Stone Age, but filtered with an approach more like bland mainstream alt rock. “Precious Stones” goes even more in that Stone Temple Pilots/Alice In Chains direction. I’ve never liked either band very much. By trying to anchor these songs on vocal hooks, they are revealing their greatest weakness — their vocals. Their musicianship overall is still tip top, making the album definitely worth hearing. But in striving to throw in some variety and pop accessibility, they failed to have much variety in dynamics. Meaning it’s a very dense, busy mix, and ultimately too fatiguing for me to make it through all 51 minutes in one sitting. If they can learn put a little air in the arrangements in the production and give up on the boring mainstream vocals, they just might have another masterpiece in ’em. As it is, there’s at least 13 other hard and heavy rock albums out this year so far that do a better job.


Troubled Horse – Revolution On Repeat (Rise Above)

So far my hard rock album of the year is the second album from Sweden’s Troubled Horse. A week and a half since it’s official release, I’m still waiting for my CD to arrive. Such is the limitations of the UK label Rise Above, lead by Lee Dorrian. They boast one of the best rosters of any indie label, but have not gotten the hang of properly promoting, let alone distributing, their bands in North America. Since their debut in 2012, they have been one of my favorite current bands alongside Graveyard, Witchcraft, The Hidden Masters, Wolf People, Spirits of the Dead and Syd Arthur. Highly recommended. | Full Review

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Troubled Horse – Revolution On Repeat (Rise Above)

troubled-horse-revolutionÖrebro Sweden’s Troubled Horse take their sweet-ass time recording music. It took them a decade until they released their stunning debut, Step Inside (Rise Above, 2012). Another half decade later and they’re finally unleashing their second album. The common descriptor as a 70s influenced hard rock band doesn’t even scratch the surface. Their influences really span several decades, including country, folk, blues, garage psych, NWOBHM, doom metal and desert/stoner rock. It was  the country-soul twang that really set them apart on the first album, especially on their most powerful songs. They have largely moved on to a more driving, aggressive sound on Revolution On Repeat, which bristles with energy and anger. Case in point, “The Filthy Ones,” where Martin Heppech’s disgust is palpable when he spits, “Haven’t you heard? The future’s for the wealthy ones…Don’t you know that there’s no future for you?” The band proceeds to give the rich parasites a symbolic beat down. Continue reading

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Teen Judge – Teen Judge (Berthed Futurist)

Teen Judge - Teen Judge (Berthed Futurist, 2017)From a first glimpse of the cover art for the debut album from Teen Judge looks like it could be a long lost Scandinavian psych prog record with the murky image of a couple longhairs gazing into a bubbling stream while a sinister robed figure emerges from the dark woods. No, it’s not a newly discovered Kebnekaise album, but something better. It’s the first full album to feature John Kimbrough’s songs and blazing guitar playing in nearly 20 years. His 90s band Walt Mink put out four consistently excellent but underrated albums, and a live album released after the band broke up in 1997. While they never quite reached the level of acclaim they deserved, the band’s scorching live shows were legendary among a not-so small contingent of fans who reliably packed venues throughout the band’s lifetime, and even after. Spurred by bassist Candice Belanoff’s desire to shake off the dust and rock, the band has played a handful of shows over the past decade. Kimbrough has been busy writing music for film and TV (winning a couple Emmys), producing (Tenacious D’s Rize Of The Phoenix) and contributing some songs and guitar heat to power pop band Valley Lodge. With a nagging creative urge to record another full album, Kimbrough built a garage studio (Janky East) and found some stellar musicians to work with, including guitarist Stein Malvey, drummer Jay Skowronek (Maxine, Turbulent Hearts) and bassist Tim Lefebvre (Tedeschi Trucks, David Bowie’s Blackstar band). If you watched the Grammys, Tim was the tall dude with the hair accepting a Grammy with his bandmates on behalf of Bowie.

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