Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Britain was the spawning ground for many of the most innovative rock groups of the sixties, with an impressive list of bands that virtually changed the face of popular music. Contemporary listeners have little difficulty identifying the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Cream and other giants of that era.
Mention The Gods, however, and you will likely be met with a blank stare.
Notable for reasons other than their output, they had a rotating cast of members that would move on to find greater success elsewhere. Mick Taylor and Greg Lake both logged time as Gods, though they were gone well before the initial recording sessions commenced for Genesis.
Interestingly enough, two fourths of the lineup on this album (Ken Hensley and Lee Kerslake) would be later play a major part in Uriah Heep.
We are now getting ahead of the story. Time to blow the dust off of a forgotten disc.
Progressive rock was in its infancy in 1968, though there were many aggregations who were more than prepared to propel mainstream fare into the outer limits. Psychedelia was still very much in vogue, though the free form jams that were a product of lysergic influences began to give way to more traditional formats. The British blues movement brought long improvisations in line with 12 bar structures. The Gods had been playing the blues, though they went in another direction, embraced the spirit of the times and adopted the trippy sounds of the era.
You can hear the beginnings of what would become the signature, Hammond-driven sound of Uriah Heep in the early 70's, due to the dominant instrumental presence of Hensley. He handles lead vocal chores here as well. The end product is decent and well worth listening to, though it is an unremarkable set. Exceptions are the brilliant "I Never Know", which features a dreamlike mellotron part and "Looking Glass" with vocals that threaten to scrape the stratosphere.
Redolent of the sounds that were prevalent in the late 60's, there are few surprises if you are familiar with contemporary music of that period. You can hear stylistic traces of Vanilla Fudge and Steppenwolf in places.
To their credit, no truly horrible songs spoil the proceedings, although the tiresome, random sound effects that link the tracks do not jell with the music that is presented. There is a feverish imagination at work that carries the material and makes it seem more interesting than it actually is. Again, this is a more of a curio for those who want to trace the early flowerings of the prog movement, though it is a respectable effort.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
HAPPENINGS AND OTHER THINGS
In the past decade, increasing dependancy on digital manipulation, coupled with the advent of bands who sound like they have spent more time in marketing courses than the garage, has contributed to a sorry state of affairs for contemporary music lovers. Prevailing trends being as they are, it is always refreshing to hear the work of an artist who has chosen to swim against the tide
Revolutions are often born out of dissatisfaction with mediocrity. For those who fear for the impoverishment of creativity, help is on the way.
Reno Bo has moved away from a support role (playing bass for Mooney Suzuki and Albert Hammond Jr.) to step into the spotlight with his debut solo album, Happenings and Other Things. Well crafted songs and uncluttered arrangements are the rule, rather than the exception, making this disc an absolute pleasure to listen to. Adam Schlesinger's production job is exceptional, providing sharp definition to each instrument, especially the drum sound, which is reminiscent of the aural punch achieved by John Bonham in the seventies.
There is definite stake driven firmly into the ground from outset on this record, which invites the listener to enjoy properly constructed songs, with verses as strong as the choruses, imaginative bridges and a sympathetic supporting cast of musicians making it all work.
Synthetic noises and vocals that are buried in shallow effects are nowhere to be found.
Indeed, it is only soulful, power pop/rock inflected material that you encounter here and it doesn't come any better than "There's a Light". Kicking in strong, this is the perfect selection for the opening slot with a tightly edited intro that wastes no time moving into the infectious chorus. The turnaround change that leads back into the verses is the icing on the cake.
Successfully channelling Terry Gilliam's cartoon work with the Python troupe mixed with a dash of the stylistic devices used by Heinz Edelmann in the Yellow Submarine movie, the accompanying video was conceived and executed by Bo himself.
Inevitably, there will be comparisons to those acts that have inspired the retro feel that colors this work. Bo is simply carrying on a tradition of making good, straight ahead rock and roll, which is infused with his own particular vision and observations. For those that need a reference point, all of the positive attributes that made Big Star, Badfinger and Led Zep so engaging are present, though it is all filtered through a modern lens.
Vocally, Reno has a laid back style that is all his own, which perfectly suits his creations. Not once does he strain to hit a note or reach outside of his range. More importantly, you are actually hearing his singing, unencumbered by the trendy pitch correction devices that have caused so many current recordings to lose personality. Stellar harmonies also factor in heavily throughout.
Much is to be commended here, ranging from stripped down acoustic performances ("Baby, You're Not Feelin' Me Tonight") to full band ravers ("Higher Tonight", "Shake Me Up"). Masterfully sequenced, the record grabs your ear early on, holds interest and whether by design or happy accident, picks up the pace through the "back nine". There is a palpable adrenaline rush right up to finish line, with a slight downshift on the last track, the excellent "I See Stars".
Solidly stomping, "Sugar Suite Blues" is my personal pick, featuring a killer riff and adroit drum fills that would not have sounded out of place on Physical Graffiti. I mean this as a sincere compliment. In the heyday of LPs, this tune would have made for a killer start to side two. In fact, one thought recurred constantly as I listened:
The vinyl version of this gem would sound incredible.
Overall, Happenings and Other Things makes a glorious first impression, which only gets better with subsequent spins. If this is a harbinger of the coming revolution in music, then sign me up. Reno Bo has created something that will stand the test of time and it is more than evident that there is a major talent here that deserves to be heard. I'm already looking forward to the next one.
"There's a Light" is the new single, released today.
Check out this link to grab your own copy of the album.
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.
Thursday, April 08, 2010
Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols passed away today in Switzerland. He was 64 years old.
Mr. McLaren spent much of the last 30 years trying to explain punk. Here's a clip from "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle"
“I never thought the Sex Pistols would be any good, but it didn’t matter if they were bad.”
Saturday, April 03, 2010
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG RAM
Tight, straight up, late 70's rock and/or roll always goes down better than a second beer and Ram Jam delivered just that with their sophomore disc, which also turned out to be their last.
Their smoking overhaul of Leadbelly's "Black Betty" was a fair sized hit, earning them a profile, so it would stand to reason that a built in audience would be guaranteed for the next release.
Sadly, this would not be the case.
Despite best efforts, the reception for this one was practically non existent, consigning this talented bunch to the transit lounge filled with acts waiting to catch the next flight to further stardom, only to forever remain on stand by.
Perhaps the lack of a standout single was a factor in stalling the album, though that doesn't mean it isn't worthy. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. The playing is impeccable, the lyrics are without pretension and it sounds just as good as any hard rock record of that era. "Runway Runaway" is my pick, just for the lead work alone.
Lost classic? That seems to be the consensus amongst those who have written about it, though to be fair, no astonishing innovation is present save for the clever, Joycean title. Even with better promotion, they probably would have only had modest chart success at best. Echoes of Aerosmith and other purveyors of muscular, energetic riffage make for a decent spin, though. The coked up, leisure-suited set were far too preoccupied with the insistent, robotic charms of disco to take any notice. Rock was becoming the eccentric uncle who had to be told to "keep a bit more to the back" in family photos. Very shortly, the dreaded "dinosaur" tag would be stamped on groups of this ilk and chops would be traded for marketability in video clips.
Commercially stonewalled by an increasingly fickle marketplace, Ram Jam would call it a day after this, chalking up another instance of listener apathy stopping a good thing before it really had a chance to develop.