Friday, July 21, 2017
Seizing an opportunity to spend more time on recording their third LP, Black Sabbath invented a genre of music that has been widely copied (though never matched). Detuning his guitar to C sharp on a handful of tracks would prove to be a masterstroke for Tony Iommi, giving the band an aural fingerprint unlike anything that had come before. Master of Reality was released on July 21st, 1971, though it has aged quite well. From the opening cough that announces "Sweet Leaf" through to the last section of the brilliant, multi-part "Into the Void", there is an unshakeable confidence in every aspect of the disc. Bands like Kyuss built entire careers from this template. The one weak spot is "Solitude", which could have easily been replaced with something more representative of the other monsters that inhabit side two. The production is quite dry, which only serves to hammer home the dark tone that pervades all subject matter presented. Following the tribute to inhaling left handed ciggies, which is interrupted by an inspired, three-piece instrumental melt-down at its midpoint, there is the synthesized drone that heralds "After Forever". Burrowing into the deepest part of the frontal lobe before the riff kicks down the door, this startling composition sports lyrics celebrating liturgy and light. Quite a jarring juxtaposition to the sonic blast crater that the musicians create. Darkness takes back center stage with the crushing advance battalion of guitars that storm your speakers in "Children of the Grave". Another instant classic, which speaks to the escalation of the nuclear arms race and the fear stoked by the mere threat of using such weapons. Bill Ward's timbale assault helps to create nervous tension, though that creepy audio deployed toward the run-out grooves is unnecessary.
The two long form pieces which grace the second side that are not called "Solitude" are sublime. While the shockwaves they produce will loosen fillings, liquify your brain and soften the hardest of arteries, melodic figures remain a key ingredient. Personally, I would rank "Into the Void" as one of the best things that the quartet ever committed to tape. Hats off to Geezer for his storyline involving humankind deserting a battered Earth in the hope of finding a more hospitable world.
Is this an important release?
Absolutely. Like it or not, they brought something new to the table in terms of listening experience. Rather than continue to mine the blues based seam that they enjoyed in their early development as a gigging entity, the group (led by Iommi) went a step further. The first six Sabbath discs should have a place in any decent music collection, though Master of Reality is the turning point that truly made them unique in their era. Taking a much different approach on Vol. 4 the claustrophobic, gloriously sludgy sounds found on this record would begin to vanish.
Friday, July 07, 2017
Born out of a mutual admiration society that was formed by two musicians of estimable talents, Sacred Songs is inspired. Daryl Hall set out to make his first solo album unencumbered by expectation, inviting Robert Fripp to handle production duties. Their pairing works like a Swiss watch. Hall is the main composer/bandleader, though Fripp also plays guitar throughout, has a co-wrting credit on "NYCNY" and contributes an austere, Frippertronic instrumental ("Urban Landscape"). Record company executive meddling syndrome (RCEMS) nearly relegated this stellar disc to the vaults back in 1977. Fortunately for listeners, reason prevailed over crass commercial interests.
Conversational marker on that point for a moment.
Opening in conventional territory, the title track would slot in comfortably amongst the power pop gems that Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds turned out in the late seventies. Pub rock with soul. Turning a corner, "Something in 4/4 Time" is sublime, with a great hook and peerless vocal performance that makes it stand out from the pack. Subversive, bitter wit sums up the ultimate compromise in sacrificing artistic ambition to grab the attention of the masses.
You're selling yourself and that's a matter of fact/Your love is your life and your life is your act
Unwittingly, you are being primed for the 180 degree jolt that follows with "Babs and Babs". Fading in on the bass line that anchors this spectacular tune, a lyrical conversation is set up. Fripp takes a solo and then the entire production lifts off the ground, heading for the stratosphere in a brief interlude of ethereal "Tripper"-tronics, supported only by the drums which are heard faintly from the clouds. Snapping back to reality, we return to the narrative with trippy soundscapes creeping like fog, enveloping the track through to the outro. Startling in execution, there is a brief respite in the form of the aforementioned "Urban Landscape" which provides a soft landing pad before the onslaught that is "NYCNY". Nervous tension is built in a tight, guitar centric wig-out with time signature shifts out of a prog wet dream and outstanding vocals from Hall. Brilliant in all respects, it is a fitting closer to a very ambitious side one. The second side is heralded by the co-mingling of keyboards and guitar loops that suggest psychedelic sunrise, dissolving into the brief, yet lovely, snippet that comprises "The Further Away I Am". The rest of the program floats gently back to recognizable ground, while maintaining the quality that permeates every groove here. "Why Was it so Easy" is one of Hall's most underrated creations, boasting a beautiful melody, wistfully open-ended lyrics and per usual impeccable vocals. There are subtle interpolations of Fripp's signature sounds in "Survive" and the closer, "Without Tears". Displaying dizzying heights with vocal range, while supporting himself on piano, Hall fully commits to a piece which seems to end before it begins, trailing off with a musical question mark. Fitting for a disc that delivers surprises at every turn.
There are subtle stylistic nods to production tricks that were deployed on some very English records forged at EMI in the late sixties. The hypnotic riff of NYCNY is snapped off mid-bar to end side one abruptly, while "Don't Leave me Alone With Her" has a full fade with seconds of silence before it comes roaring back to play out. Blink and you may miss both of them, though someone was clearly having fun with the final mixes.
Play it backwards, man...
With respect to that conversational marker, this disc was held back from release for three years before RCA finally gave it the green light in 1980. Apparently, the reason for initial executive indisposition toward putting this out when it was ready in '77 was the perceived lack of a hit single. Shame on them.
Much is made about great "lost albums" that send collectors into frenetic searches, only to find the chase more romantic than the catch when they finally sit down with their acquisition.
Sacred Songs is a different story.
Mixing art with accessibility is always a tightrope act, though Hall pulls it off. Given the speed with which these songs were recorded, there had to have been a very easy dialogue amongst the musicians in support. The playing is spotless, production is clean and Hall's vision for his compositions is clear. It is a pity that a follow up was not undertaken as this partnership had great promise. If you find Sacred Songs on vinyl, grab it. Guarantee that you will return for repeated listens.
Monday, June 12, 2017
Joseph Bridge has unveiled a very clever, engaging song cycle featuring a cast of characters that are infused with invention, wit and warmth. Stunning in execution, the music supports flights of fantasy that incorporate luscious vocal harmonies, blistering solos and shifting time signatures. Clocking in at one hour Bridge manages to take some very complex paths, yet maintain accessibility in approach. Marvin's Sanitarium allows you to follow the central character (Marvin Penn) musically through 16 songs and a surreal 24 hours. Though he is physically confined, his mind is unfettered. There are multiple chambers to be explored here in the twilight, dawn and dusk...
"Brenda and the Breadheads" is an absolute stunner, serving up several head-spinning, stylistic shifts. Delicate guitar and bass interplay give way to staccato delivery in the verse that breaks out into an uplifting refrain.
It's morning time, in gingerbread land
Rays of sunlight make their way into every corner now, gently waking all and sundry. "Mr. Waterpump" uses the opportunity to get out and take a stroll, embracing the day enthusiastically. Acoustic guitar accompanies him, with otherworldly, layered vocals providing a subtle, psychedelic shiver to the proceedings on the chorus. Morning is filled with both promise and routine. Marvin watches "Phyllis the Parking Meter Lady" on her rounds from a tiny window in cell #85. She represents the workaday world and a semblance of order. Punchy guitar and drum figures push the track, while soaring vocals ice the cake. Decorative trumpet reinforces a clever hook.
Cheery optimism in the form of endless blue sky is suddenly broken by a single cloud in the form of "Warning".
The ice age from the sky is here this morning/could it be the first and final warning?
While furious drum rolls whip up a torrent of guitars, violins and mayhem, there is an exhortation to take a little time to get away, seek shelter underground from the returning fire in the sky. It is a powerful jolt away from the peaceful start to Marvin's day. Foreboding, this perfectly frames the next encounter. Inhabiting cell #118, the beady-eyed "Weaselman" is not to be trusted, yet leaves a perpetual mess in his wake. This weasel wonderland is one of illusion and his thin veneer of charm is expertly directed at those who are easy prey.
Sitting on a wooden spoon, in the afternoon
Our protagonist, now in an introspective mood, contemplates what has to be done ahead of the impending tidal wave of inner turbulence that threatens to inundate all. Preparation is necessary, with the only recourse to sanctify and thus purify "The Mind's Eye". This self talk then rolls into "Welcome to the Neighborhood" with the resident, friendly lunatic in the role of tour guide. Resigned to being the "welcome man" in this labyrinth, he decides to get on with it, albeit with one foot on the ground, the other in the clouds.
And if it wasn't you, it would be someone else, another one to take your place
And if it wasn't you could you be somewhere else, the other half is lost in space
Here in cell # 61 we have Gregory Hawson. His crime? Setting fire to the bakery that he's been dismissed from. Best of all, the stories of all personalities that are woven into the lyrics actually come to life via musical narrative. Your imagination is all that's required as the wordplay is robust enough to paint a vivid picture. Similarly, "Ricky the Mouse" is befriended by Marvin, who at first comes in search of food and stays on to start a family in Marvin's room. Realizing their connection, the fact that they live together in harmony isn't lost on Marvin. Another delightful and resourceful member of this diverse crew, Ricky is welcomed rather than targeted as a pest. The tune is spectacular.
With the passing of the afternoon, shadows slowly begin to lengthen, intruding on the light-hearted moments. Dusk brings a slight chill as preparations are made for internal battle. Startling feedback heralds war inside against the outside, as a massed army of guitars dominates the sonic landscape of "Landmines". Tension builds as the message is delivered:
So off you go to find your land mines, deep and hidden
Drilling down into the fabric of your psyche, what will it take to illuminate these metaphorical land mines? Can these past shadows be deactivated for good?
WORLDS AWAY IN THE EVENING
This is the point in Marvin's day where he is lifted far beyond the boundaries of earthbound concerns. "Worlds Away" kicks this set into the sublime centre of consciousness itself. Highlights are plenty, though the monster lurking here in the "back nine" is the towering "Triangle Clouds", with fret-melting soloing that perfectly complements the melodic heaviness of the piece. Marvin's journey ends with his feet back on the ground, though that firmament consists of the cottony triangle clouds. The juxtaposition of light and shade are evident, though the need to balance both is Marvin's ultimate quest. Night is falling, bringing next a gentle musical landing pad in the haunting "Winter Blues", which rivals any musical statement made about those short, gloomy days where the simple joys in life are scarce. Curiously, there is an equation of seasonal change as the light fades on his day.
Marvin says the things that he had to say/Could it be that he only has just one more day to find a way?
Or is this "Goodbye"?
Teasing potential outcomes to Marvin's day, it is ultimately left up to the listener to decide what happens next. (Is he closing the door behind him on the sanitarium? Bidding farewell to internal conflict?) Out of all of the melodic, top class work to be found on Marvin's Sanitarium, "Goodbye" stands tall. Dynamic and crackling with electricity, it is a powerful punctuation mark to a head-spinning day. Ending with the exquisitely orchestrated instrumental, "Ireland's Dream", Marvin ends his day and finds rest in deep sleep as a contented feline. Strings are soothing and uneasy all at once, with a nervous tempo that is broken up by tiptoeing guitar figures. There is now time to contemplate where you have been inside of the sanitarium, without words to distract. The question remains: Was all of this real? There is no better way to find out than to go back to the top. With each spin, further nuances will be uncovered.
Simply put, this is a must hear.
Purchase it now and find out more about Joseph Bridge right here
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Today marks the 48th anniversary of the release of Tommy. It was a grand statement for Pete Townshend and The Who. Roughly seven years ago, I did a series of reviews that covered all of their discs up to Who Are You.
Feel free to check out my take on this iconic double LP here
Feel free to check out my take on this iconic double LP here
Friday, May 19, 2017
Light years ahead of its time, Close to the Edge represents nothing less than the high watermark of the prog period. The second (and last) Yes album to feature the Anderson/Squire/Wakeman/Howe/Bruford lineup is their masterpiece, though the sessions were reportedly far from carefree.
Three long form pieces are presented, two of which feature four part suites.
Opening with the gentle sound of a burbling stream, the 18 minute title track is soon overtaken by an intense rush of guitar/bass flourishes with precision drumming that straddles time signatures. Bruford
couples solid foundation work with flash and Squire's bass tone is spectacular. There is dirt in the attack on his Rickenbacker where needed, switching on a dime from roller coaster runs to smoother expressions. Special mention goes to Rick Wakeman with the nimble fingered, mind-blowing virtuosity he demonstrates in the “I Get Up I Get Down” section. According to Steven Wilson, who did the 5.1 mix:
"They went to a church [St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London], recorded the church organ in isolation, and then came back and spun it back into the multitrack. I didn’t know that at first, but it’s such a glorious, kind of overpowering sound. And you know what? That’s pretty much the way it is on the tape. All of the reverberation is the natural reverberation from the church where it was recorded..."
This high wire act continues with meticulously layered vocal parts.
Close to the edge, down by the river
Down at the end, round by the corner
Seasons will pass you by
When the downshift occurs, it is mesmerizing. The listener is coaxed back to the pastoral soundscape that started the trip (and it is a journey), wrapping side one.
"And You and I" is the audio equivalent of a solar eclipse. Howe excels with acoustic figures that are as fine as the melody itself.
"Siberian Khatru" sees every member of the team contribute memorable passages, creating their own category in a way that seems effortless, though painstaking hours went into every recorded minute. Being a product of the analog era, there was no recourse to the easy digital solutions that are at the fingertips of contemporary engineers. Watch the creativity as it flies through the air. Going to tape was an entirely different process, yet magic was made.
Gliding high above these amazing arrangements is the voice of Jon Anderson. What else can you say? For the uninitiated, this is an album that you will happily never get to the bottom of. Easily remains as futuristic music upon this writing.
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Upon its release in June 1989, this record was greeted far more warmly than anything McCartney had done since Tug of War. There was sound reason for such sentiments. Following Tug of War, his output during the decade of MTV was patchy and not terribly focused.
Pipes of Peace had the same basic ingredients as Tug of War (George Martin handling production, superstar duet action on two tracks) yet much of the material was weak. After hearing "The Other Me", it put me off from purchasing anything bearing his name for several years.
Give My Regards to Broadstreet had nothing new to offer, save for "No More Lonely Nights". The soundtrack to a poorly received feature film recast Beatles, Wings and (oddly) recent solo stuff with a ton of big name session players lending their talents. Overall, it was a fairly pointless exercise.
The "Spies Like Us" single begged the question: What happened to the guy who wrote "Live and Let Die"?
Press to Play, despite the promise of teaming with Eric Stewart, failed to make much of an impression and was seen as another misstep. Reportedly, endless tinkering in the studio drained the content of any initial spark that was present during writing sessions. More effort should have gone into song craft and the final product was met with commercial indifference.
One of the most successful artists of the 20th century was again at a crossroads. He had been written off before in the early 70s. Those who had underestimated his ambition were pleasantly surprised by Band on the Run, a subsequent run of hits and the enormous success of the Wings Over America tour.
Would he have enough left in the tank for a third act?
ALL THE BEST
Compiling a retrospective hits package for issue in November of '87 was the first step back in the ring. He also included a song ("Once Upon a Long Ago") which had been submitted to director Rob Reiner for use in The Princess Bride. Though rejected for the film, McCartney deemed it worthy to put out as a taster single to help promote All The Best. For the first time in nearly five years, I went out of pocket for a new McCartney record. Flipping to the B-side for a listen, there was a little gem called "Back On My Feet" that immediately caught the ear. Co-written with one Declan McManus, this was the first road test of a new writing partnership that would spawn some very fine songs.
Still have that single.
Though it is purely coincidence, the lyrical subject matter would suggest the mindset of someone who is temporarily down but has the resolve to rebound.
Give me your hand again/'Til I land again
Fast forward to late May of '89...
"My Brave Face" is 45'ed and shipped out to tease the upcoming Flowers in the Dirt. Backed with a great tune called "Flying to My Home", both had been co-written with Elvis Costello. Spinning a narrative around a character who is missing their partner, the melody is solid. The hook is bolstered by a well placed guitar figure that echoes the verse. No doubt inspired by having a wordsmith like Costello to bounce ideas around with, it amounts to his sharpest work in years. There are more than a few nods to his past in the arrangement, though it comes across fresh and still holds up quite well.
As for the rest of the pack, there is much to be desired. Exquisite melodies ("Distractions", "Put It There" and "Don't Be Careless Love") mix effortlessly with punchy pop ("This One", "Figure of Eight"). In fact, "This One" could very well be the highlight of the set. Catchy, confident and riding on an infectious chorus, it bears all of the hallmarks of what this gifted man is truly capable of. For balance, "You Want Her Too" brings a bit of shade to the table with Costello playing sarcastic counterpoint to McCartney's hopeless romantic. His influence is a steadying presence here. Though he does not contribute to "We Got Married", he likely kicked Paul in a direction that freed him to craft a minor-key, dramatic storyline around a long term relationship that is not viewed through the usual rose-colored lenses.
Strength follows strength throughout the program with a few exceptions. "How Many People" and "Motor of Love" should have been elbowed as they lack the quality of all that comes before. Closing honours rightfully belonged to the majestic "That Day is Done". Similarly, in the spirit of revision to improve the overall listening experience, I would have put "Flying to My Home" in place of "Rough Ride". It is a far superior construction. The production, while considered top class for that period, tends to unjustly date stamp much of what drifts out of the speakers. Part of the problem is "too many cooks" syndrome with no fewer than four big names (plus McCartney himself) occupying the directors chair during the gestation period of this disc. That said, the result exceeded all expectations, setting the table for McCartney to return to the business of touring for the first time in a decade. More importantly, he would be doing so behind a a stellar new album.
"When I'd got the call to say Paul wanted me to write some songs with him for his next record, I didn't know what to expect, but as his last cowritten hit had been with Michael Jackson, I wondered whether I should be taking some dancing lessons."
These lines from Costello's book, Unfaithful Music, (which is a terrific read) are a glimpse into the wit and way with words that likely brought about this pairing.
He was not a contemporary of McCartney in the sense that they did not come to prominence in the same era, though he had long established his own style, had success and respect from his peers. Well aware that he was not in the same class as McCartney in terms of the business (few could make that claim) there would always be a sense of being a junior partner in the arrangement. His talent would never be in question and Elvis brought out the best in his co-writer. Neither man is known for their ability to suffer fools, yet the two were very productive during the time that they set aside to write together. Though it was fleeting, some magic definitely happened. The missed opportunity was a full blown, joint project. You can read about it elsewhere, though differing opinions on the overall production direction roundly dashed ice water on the plan to have Costello quarterback the project.
Luckily, Paul is a thoughtful curator of his recorded legacy and the recent addition to the ongoing Archive Collection offered all of those pristine demos along with a remastered version of Flowers in the Dirt. Unlike some material of this nature, these songs are an absolute pleasure to listen to. All are of very high calibre and tease what an alternate universe iteration of this LP may have sounded like. While the full band treatment of "My Brave Face" adds crucial elements to it that aren't fleshed out in the embryonic take, the stripped down approach still works. "Don't Be Careless Love" in skeletal form beats the album cut by a country mile. Again, with minimal retakes and bare bones augmentation this disc would have been one hell of a surprise had it been followed through properly. The consolation prize is that we have it here (in part) in excellent fidelity. Highly recommend adding this one to your collection.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Reflecting on George Harrison's Cloud Nine LP. This iconic musician would have been celebrating his 74th birthday today.
At that point in time, his last outing (Gone Troppo) had clocked in at roughly 30 minutes, contained a number of excellent songs ("Wake Up My Love", "Circles") was woefully under-promoted and failed to make a dent in the charts upon release in 1982. Harrison saw little value in chasing what was trendy or even trying to compete with the disposable pop that began to dominate the airwaves as the MTV craze snowballed. Spectacle now ruled in terms of music PR, twisting a barrage of images around the collective optic nerve of television audiences 24 hours a day. Understatement in song craft and musicianship now had very little traction with the masses.
George downed tools for a few years to spend time on other pursuits, though the urge to create pulled him back to his home studio in January of 1987 to start work on what would be termed as a "comeback" record.
Not that anyone was going to forget who he was
Having gathered a group of high profile friends to contribute to this project, the end product is tightly edited, well paced and the production (handled by George and Jeff Lynne) is pristine. Vocal harmonies and hooks abound, the quality of the material is top class. Among the best of the pack are "Fish On the Sand", "This Is Love" and the in-joke filled, "When We Was Fab". There is some fantastic six string interplay between Harrison and Eric Clapton on the title track. Listening to my vinyl copy (which I snapped up way back in November of '87) while scribbling these lines, it is impressive to hear the attention to detail that went into layering guitar parts. You also get the sense that George reigned in Lynne's tendencies toward throwing a ton of augmentation into the arrangements. Similarly, the pairing with Lynne helped Harrison simplify his approach toward song structure. The overall mix is superb, still sounding fresh nearly 30 years on.
This song is just six words long
The biggest surprise of the set was the inclusion of an obscure tune by Rudy Clark ("Got My Mind Set On You") which tore up the charts as a leader single and gave the album a massive boost from a commercial standpoint. Speaking of videos, this one and the clip that accompanied "When We Was Fab" both received heavy rotation on MTV, bringing his famous face into the purview of another generation who had missed him in his first incarnation as a pop star back in the sixties.
Ringo shows up to grace the skins here, as well.
Cloud Nine arguably paved the way for the Traveling Wilburys aggregation the following year, which itself was a massive, yet unexpected, hit.