Since 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 →
Of 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 →
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 →
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!
As 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
Örebro 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 →
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’sRize 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.
Jangle pop was one of my favorite sub-genres of guitar music even before I knew it was called that. As a kid I spent evenings surfing the radio waves on my shitty AM/FM bedside clock radio. I found one station that offered all kinds of weird stuff on 90.9 on the dial. It was KUNI, an NPR outlet based at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, that also had a transmitter in my hometown. By 1982/83, I started to become familiar with some of the bands amidst the alien sounds, including R.E.M. and The Smiths. Both bands would have a pretty colossal presence that decade for me, my friends and many other in my generation. Others would remain relatively lesser known cult artists, such as Felt, The Monochrome Set, Orange Juice, The Jazz Butcher, The Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera, The Church and Lloyd Cole & the Commotions. At some point in the 80s they became associated with “jangle pop,” which references the chiming sound of the Rickenbacker twelve-string first popularized by The Beatles on “What You’re Doing,” “Words Of Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Ticket To Ride.” The Byrds, The Hollies, Simon & Garfunkle and many others picked up on that trebly, arpeggiated picking style and ran with it. Continue reading →
Damn, what a year. We lost a slew of top tier baby boomer talent, and we’ve all but guaranteed our accelerated demise in really fucked up elections on both sides of the pond. But the show goes on, at least until it doesn’t, and there is, as always, a massive amount of music enjoy for those who bother to look for it. As expected, a lot of the year-end lists and polls look like shrines to the dead and dying. David Bowie’s death looms over everything like massive supernova collapsed into a black hole, sucking everything up in its path. It’s a challenging, fascinating listen that’s more chamber jazz than art rock. Impressive, but not remotely the best album of the year. But considering it is the best thing Bowie had done in 36 years, it’s an impressive achievement. Bowie knew the end was coming due to his illness, and he made it to the finish line, releasing the album a few days before his death, and even made some cool, poignant videos. Leonard Cohen knew the end was coming at some point, and his creative juices were flowing more than ever in recent years, as he was working on yet another album meant to follow up You Want It Darker (which wasn’t especially better than his previous two, but of course it’s getting more attention. A Tribe Called Quest reunited after an eighteen year absence, and Phife Dawg got to lay down his final tracks before his demise. Nick Cave’s latest is simply pure, raw grieving, and a pretty brutal ride. Impressive, but not my favorite of his recent work. Iggy Pop has been saying that his collaboration with Josh Homme, Post Pop Depression, will be his last. I sure hope not. Please don’t croak yet, Iggy. Considering how close the edge he’s probably been (I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t already died a couple times), it’s remarkable that he’s the last man standing among his peers. Continue reading →
Every few years I hear talk that there is a revival of traditional heavy metal. This cycle of going in and out of fashion has churned it’s gears since it became a genre that more bands than just Judas Priest self-identified as a heavy metal band 40 years ago. I’ve been guilty of using unwieldy terms such as the NOWOTHM (New Old Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal) or NRWOTHM. And to hell with calling to “trve metal,” that’s just fascist. I appreciate many varieties and subgenres. This is just what I enjoy seeing performed live and listening to the most often, and I think it’s okay now just to call it heavy metal. There’s no point to call it a revival or wave when it never went away. Yes, metal had been spliced into dozens of subgenres by the late 80s, adding to the early variations like NWOBHM, doom and power metal. But every year there’s always at least a handful of very good to great heavy metal albums. This year was no exception, although for a while it was unclear if 2016 could come up with something to rival last year’s epic Magic Circle and Christian Mistress albums, until the second Khemmis album was released.
That it topped the Decibel year-end list is encouraging, but at the moment, attention is drawn toward the elephant in the room, or perhaps the dinosaur squashing the house — Metallica. It’s amusing to read the reactions to the band’s eleventh album. To a vast number of mainstream listeners, Metallica might be the only metal band they still listen to, while hardcore metal fans dismiss it as garbage. Both extremes are wrong. It’s a very good album, and I’ll get to it soon. But there’s a bunch of albums that deserve attention first.
1. Khemmis – Hunted (20 Buck Spin)
Only a year ago, this Denver doom metal band came out with their promising debut, Absolution. Now with their second album they’ve ascended from an underground traditional heavy metal band to one of the best bands of any of metal’s infinite subgenres. It’s refreshing to see a band not participating in the extremity wars get some attention. While both Zach and Ben have experience playing death and black metal, they bonded over their love of Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy, and worked to create their own signature rock ‘n’ doom sound.
“The first time it really started to click in that way was when we were writing “Antediluvian.” We got to that middle section, and were just calling it the Iron Maiden section, and we thought, Hey, this rules. So by the time we were writing “Ash, Cinder, Smoke”, it was all Iron Maiden section, and we thought, Hey, yeah, always this!” — Ben Hutcherson, Metal Sucks
With Phil (Criminology) and Ben (Cultural Sociology) working on their Ph.D.s, Zach a head brewer and Dan an engineer who builds bridges, Khemmis are unable to be road warriors. Which makes their January stop at Reggies in Chicago in January all the more a special event. | Full Review
Those who consider Wolf People as following the British folk tradition only have a fraction of the picture. Perhaps it’s the nature imagery and themes that make them out to be folky hippies frolicking in the woods. But to be fair, on Ruins there is no frolicking, because there are no people. It’s more of a post-apocalyptic, post-human landscape where life goes on but some living things, but not all. What once might be considered exceptionally grim can all too easily be considered inevitable now.
Growing up in Bedfordshire playing in bands during the Britpop era, Jack Sharp and Tom Watt sought to do something different by crate digging to assemble beats for a potential path in hip-hop production. They ended up enamored with the obscure British blues, folk, psych and proto-metal records they found, and began the path that lead to Wolf People. There are still moments throughout their third album where Watt’s drums sound like sampled hip-hop beats, such as on “Kingfisher Reprise” and at the end of “Belong.” The product of their explorations is a deep and wide variety of inspirations. Along with Pentangle and Fairport Convention, there’s a bit of Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac, Captain Beefheart, Comus, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash, Trees, Dark, Affinity, Black Sabbath, Scottish Sabbath-era proto-metal peers Iron Claw, and The Groundhogs, and band with a remarkable trajectory that started as one of the premier British blues bands in 1963 and ended up creating some radical hybrids of psych prog and proto-metal. Add in the post-psychedelic dual lead guitars of Television and contemporaries Dungen, you begin to get a better understanding of the three Wolf People albums, plus the scrappy compilation of early demos in Tidings. The dark, murky atmosphere also brings to mind my favorite R.E.M. album Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985), which was produced by Fairport’s Joe Boyd. They share some influences with fellow British psych proggers Syd Arthur, who are the main competition with Wolf People for my album of the year. But while Syd Arthur’s music has become lighter and more tuneful, Wolf People have gotten heavier with sharp corners and gnarled roots. They have moved from folk to a harder rocking sound.
The band also wears their literary influences on their sleeves to the point where they recruited novelist Ben Myers, who’s third novel Pig Iron (2012) was an inspiration during the making of of Ruins, to write the band’s press release bio. In Myers’ folky crime-noir, the English countryside, moors, dales and bogs plays an important role, as it does in 1973 horror movie The Wicker Man and Iain Banks’ dread and violence in The Wasp Factory (1984). I’ll be reading Myers’ new book Turning Blue, which looks like it will also mix well with Ruins, if you’re able to tune out the lyrics while reading like I do. But while lyrics are often a weak point for many bands, because let’s face it, no one besides Dylan (and possibly Leonard Cohen) will ever be up for any literary prizes ever again, Wolf People are at least a step above most their peers. The album opens with “Ninth Night,” which quotes from ancient folklore an incantation used by thieves seeking magical protection from the pickled hand of a hanged man installed with a candle made from human fat — “Oh Hand of Glory shed thy light, direct us to our spoils tonight.” Despite it’s release as a single on Halloween, “Night Witch” is not a spooky horror pastiche, but rather a powerful tale about the Nachthexen, the female Soviet aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment who terrorized the Nazis in WW II. The Germans nicknamed them the “Night Witches” because their Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes would glide in idling toward the bomb release point, with only the sound of wind to give them away, sounding like broomsticks.
“Rhine Sagas,” “Thistles,” and “Kingfisher” are breathtaking evocations of nature’s vengeance, the music finely honed into an eerie, earthy, dark psychedelia that unifies brittle dueling guitars, synths, flutes and funky drums into a unique, modern signature sound that comedian Stewart Lee affectionately called “peat bog superfuzz sphagnum moss sludge.” Like Steeple (2010) and Fain (2013), Ruins is not easily digested in the first sitting. It’s like getting lost in the woods and overwhelmed by all the strange noises in the dark. It’s unsettling, but rewards repeated listenings by gradually unlocking its mysterious gifts, drawing us into a strange world that may be grim, but also alluring. Fans of Game Of Thrones, Stranger Things and the various Nordic Noir TV series would argue that the entertainment form of Television is an all-time artistic peak. Wolf People is about as close as you’re going to get to the musical equivalent in 2016.