Friday, April 16, 2010
CHEAT THE GALLOWS
Horrific new trends in music surface every few months, though they usually fizzle out (mercifully) after a short run of insane popularity with the masses. This cycle of madness is usually pretty reliable, though there are some forms of entertainment that return on cue after a period of exile and are welcomed back warmly, simply because the blueprint was designed to cheat the bounds of time.
Quietly, with an unerring sense of majestic timing, the weathered ship that flies the flag of heartfelt rock and roll regularly sails back into port, bowsprit encrusted with the build up of countless nautical miles logged in far flung waters. Each return arouses the same stirrings of excitement in people as it had the last time around.
Only you know the answer to that one.
Please allow me a moment to make a tired point by picking on the music of the late eighties.
In short, it was completely putrid, with garbage genres piling up in a fetid heap. Clattering, synthesized sludge befouled the airwaves and if you wanted to hear a rock band, most were trying to balance a fucking poodle on their empty heads while channeling embarrassing, third rate Van Halen, with little of the panache that the maestro himself injected into his own great, early records. Too harsh? Dust off some vintage glam-metal circa 1988 and we'll see how long it takes before you reach for a sharp object to perforate both of your ear drums, thus making it go away.
Along came Masters of Reality, who essentially distanced themselves from these train wrecks by indulging in the sounds of the early seventies. Getting down to basics, they made a stellar rock LP (with Rick Rubin in the director's chair) that was redolent of a time when quality sold the song, though they explored very little new territory. Didn't matter one iota, as it was real.
Fast forward twenty years.
Thanks to the auto tuner and a severe dearth of creativity, today's "hit-makers" make most of the idiot groups from that period sound like Mozart by comparison.
Which brings us to the curious case of Bigelf and their most recent (2008) offering, Cheat the Gallows. Apropos of Masters of Reality's 1988 debut, Bigelf have turned the same trick by embracing the sounds of a bygone era in a sea of contemporary drivel. To say that these guys sound like (insert classic band name here) is akin to giving a five hour dissertation on the health benefits of regular breathing to an assembled group of seasoned medical professionals.
Much thought and work went into the production of Cheat the Gallows.
Raising the ghosts of previous grandiose epics with stylistic tips of the top hat to just about everyone, they blend the Beatles, Floyd, Sabbath, ELP, Uriah Heep and Alice Cooper with a host of other styles into a a song cycle that feels cartoonish at times, yet you will appreciate every nuance that the animators are tossing at you. Remarkably ambitious, this disc grabs your attention very quickly and never allows for a moment where you might want to run off to make a sandwich in lieu of checking out what might happen next.
Honing their act, under the radar, since 1991, Bigelf have released a couple of discs, undergone lineup shuffles and built a fan base, though I had not heard of them until recently.
Better late than never.
Great song writing, chops to spare and the employment of recording techniques that hark back to the golden age of analog are charms that prove very difficult to resist. If you have listened to a wide variety of "heavy" acts from the 70s and like them, then Cheat the Gallows will slip easily into your collection. Coming close to the wealth of fine ideas that Iommi and company were knee-deep in during the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath/Sabotage era, there is much to celebrate here. "Hydra" and "The Evils of Rock and Roll" both bear the stamp of those LPs, though there is much more going on.
What works best over the course of these ten, tightly arranged songs is the lightning pace at which motifs change, often at several intervals within the same tune. There is no time allotted to become glassy-eyed by any overlong theme. Providing much comfort food for those whose formative years were shaped by bands that actually gave thought to treating an album as a continuous performance, Bigelf adopt the approach of the concept piece, albeit with a wink. Conjuring up Floyd's salad days, you can almost imagine Richard Wright all over the keys in "Money, It's Pure Evil" with layered harmonies on those big choruses.
Big is the operative word.
Elsewhere, the bombastic elements of Queen surface in mini-operatic form, with multi-part suites flying in every direction. None of these interludes ever overstay their welcome. The set is book ended with a grand entrance and closes in an almost jokey, music hall style. Though the "goodnight folks" is handled in a clever fashion.
Gripping from start to finish, this is a recording that begs to be listened to in the way that it was likely intended: vinyl format. It is easy to play the "that sounds just like" game with this material, however, I would recommend simply enjoying the ride.
Nothing new under the sun, though this is a very pleasant surprise.