Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Yngwie Malmsteen - "Rising Force" (LP Review)

Driving through the Ward's Corner section of Norfolk (the corner of Granby and Little Creek) this morning, I saw that the former Tracks record store building had been razed.  Remember them?  I can't even find a good URL to link to for them, not even a newspaper article about them going out of business.  That building eventually became Wherehouse Music, and then most recently it was AJ Gators Sports Bar

I don't think I went into AJ Gators, but I went there several times when it was Wherehouse.  But more importantly, I remember the first time I went there when it was Tracks.  It was probably 1985, and after attending a Friday night (!) Peninsula Atari Computer Enthusiasts (PACE) meeting at NASA Langley with my father, he drove me to the Tracks in Norfolk.  You have to remember that growing up in Denbigh in 1985, Norfolk seemed (to me anyway) like the other end of the world.  I don't remember who brought up going there -- I might have asked, but I don't recall.  And I think there may have been another father/son pair with us, but I'm not clear on that either.  But I do recall that at the time, Tracks had a dedicated "metal" section, with all the imports and other hard-to-find LPs that other stores would not carry.  It was on that trip that I bought Yngwie Malmsteen's 1984 LP "Rising Force" as a gift for my HS (and later, college) girlfriend.  She had told me about him but did not have the LP (remember that the "local" stores did not carry it).  Also, at ~$20 it represented quite an investment for me at the time -- remember when music cost big $?

The LP itself?  It is hard to overstate the importance that it had on shredding, arguably defining it as a stand-alone genre.  Sure, there had been "Eruption" and other amazing tracks on various LPs, but I believe Yngwie was the first to release a popular, metal LP focused only on guitar.  There are two vocal tracks which are best skipped, but the other six tracks form the nucleus of what every other LP in this genre wishes it could be (including later LPs by Yngwie, which were never in the same class as "Rising Force").  Yngwie wasn't the first guitarist to shred, but he arguably released the first shred LP.  (Context: recall that at this time Eddie Van Halen had all but abdicated his throne with the release of "1984" and his pointless fascination with keyboards.  Who thought that was a good idea?!)

Yngwie was the first to really popularize metal as a modern extension of classical music, explicitly namechecking artists like JS Bach and Paganini, as well as using actual harpsichords (not synths) in the songs.  Of course I thought that was beyond cool at the time.  Metal always had the culture of the virtuoso, but Yngwie took it to another level.  Yes, this was dangerously close to Metal Opera, but the mostly instrumental focus of the LP helps curb its worst tendencies.  Prior to "Rising Force", Yngwie had released some forgettable LPs as the guitarist for Steeler and Alcatrazz, on which he had only brief moments to shine (e.g., Steeler's "Hot on Your Heels" intro, which was also used in the radio program "Metal Shop" -- remember that?), but this is the LP where he blossomed as a solo artist. 

I probably still have a tape of the LP in question some where in my stuff, but in an interesting bit of symmetry I also have the CD: I acquired it from Danette, in a box of CDs from a friend of her's that was purging his CD collection after ripping them.  So while the Ward's Corner area has been in decline for quite some time and the planned renovation is welcome, it is with a nostalgic fondness that I recall Tracks, that night with my father, and my excitement at selecting a perfect gift. 

Standout songs: Black Star, Evil Eye, Little Savage, Far Beyond the Sun, Icarus' Dream Suite Opus 4, Farewell

Skip 'em songs: Now Your Ships Are Burned, As Above, So Below

Final score: 9/10.  The LP is hugely influential, but replacing the two vocal songs with something as good as "Black Star" would have made for a perfect LP.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Deep Purple - "Child In Time" (forgotten song)

Jon Lord, the keyboardist and a founding member of Deep Purple, died today of pancreatic cancer.  I was a big fan of Deep Purple growing up, but I've only mentioned them in passing so far (e.g., the "Born Again" and  "Rainbow Rising" reviews).  The various studio LPs were good, but I was especially fond of their 1972 live LP "Made in Japan", one of the sprawling, indulgent live LPs that were de rigurer in the 1970s.  MIJ had two highlights: a 10 minute version of "The Mule" (which we'll save for when Ian Paice dies), and a 12.5 minute version of "Child in Time".

"Child in Time" features a memorable keyboard intro from Jon Lord and then builds into a good workout for the entire band.  It was released as a single in 1972, but it comes from the group's breakthrough 1970 LP "Deep Purple In Rock".  Various Deep Purple songs are still staples on classic rock radio, but I'm not sure I've ever heard "Child In Time" on the radio. 

I'll eventually review "Made in Japan", but for the moment we'll have to remember Jon Lord with this song.

Child In Time: studio version1970 Live TV audience version (quite good), 1972 Made In Japan version

Bonus Link: Mick Jones likes "Child In Time" as well; it is sampled at the beginning of BAD's 1991 single "Rush".

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Caretaker - "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World" (LP Review)

A few months ago I purchased the most recent (at the time) LP by The Caretaker, 2011's "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World".  A couple of years ago I reviewed his 2008 LP "Persistent Repetition of Phrases" and I was completely blown away by The Caretaker's entire aesthetic of reprocessed collective nostalgia.  I won't repeat myself here -- read my review of PROP for the necessary context of this work. 

At first listen, AEBBTW is very similar to PROP: if you like one, you'll certainly like the other.  But there are subtle differences that are only apparent on careful listening.  PROP (metaphorically) broadly explored the notion of memory and aging (e.g., with song titles like "Von Restorff Effect" and "Lacunar Amnesia"), while AEBBTW focuses specifically on Alzheimer's.  While the songs draw from the same source material, here they are less processed than the songs on PROP; there is less of a hazy, dream-like quality to them.  There is more looping, frequent abrupt termination to the songs, and a generally less linear feel to the songs. 

An interesting note is that James Kirby (aka The Caretaker) has retired his V/Vm Test Records label and is instead releasing on his newly established label History Always Favours The Winners.   I also recommend the reviews at Altered Zones and pitchfork.com, the latter of which does a good job comparing this LP to other artists with which I'm unfamiliar. 

Standout songs: Picking out individual songs is difficult, but if forced to do so I'd say be sure to listen to "Libet's Delay" and "Camaraderie At Arms Length".  I'm not sure how they'd sound out of context, so fortunately Altered Zones has uploaded the entire LP.

Skip 'em songs: n/a

Final score: 9/10.  While this is an impressive LP, I have a preference for the ghost-like quality of "Persistent Repetition of Phrases".

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Husker Du - "Land Speed Record" (LP Review)

17 songs in less than 27 minutes.  A live, 2-track recording from 1981.  A recording budget ($350) only slightly larger than the capacity of the venue (250 people) where it was recorded.  The seventh release on an independent label.  Song titles like "Guns At My School" and "Tired of Doing Things".  A vaguely political statement for the cover art.  If you don't already know what this sounds like, you haven't been paying attention. 

Released in early 1982, "Land Speed Record" is Husker Du's first LP, and that alone makes it of interest especially since only two of these songs would later be recorded in the studio ("Bricklayer" and "Let's Go Die").  But let's be honest: while the songs are ferocious, the poor recording quality makes them nearly unlistenable.  I'm sure it was a great show to be at, but this is the kind of recording that people claim to love so they can be "very metal". 

I have the SST posthumously re-released 1988 CD version (the band broke up in 1987), which SST did not bother to even segment into separate tracks: just part one and part two.  I love Husker Du and I'm glad I have this CD, but it honestly looks better on the shelf than it sounds coming through the speakers. 

Songs: part one, part two

Final Score: 5/10.   If you want to explore their early catalog (i.e., pre-"Zen Arcade"), it is better to stick with "Everything Falls Apart" or "Metal Circus".

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Black Sabbath - "Born Again" (LP Review)

Black Sabbath's 1983 LP "Born Again" has to be the most unfairly maligned major artist LPs ever released.  Contemporary reviews panned the LP ("one of heavy metal's all-time greatest disappointments").  Few liked the production ("in a misguided attempt to record the heaviest album ever, [they] came away with the muddiest instead"), and nobody liked the cover art, including the person that created it (black-sabbath.com has a nice article with quotes from the artist explaining the cover's origin).  The supporting tour was a comedy of errors (more on that later). 

In late 1982, Black Sabbath was looking to replace its vocalist for the 3rd time in as many years.  Ronnie James Dio had joined the band in 1980, replacing the venerable Ozzy Osbourne, but had left in 1982 in a bitter dispute with Tony Iommi.  The replacement was Ian Gillan, who had been quite successful fronting Deep Purple during their height of popularity.  So you have a set of veterans trying to recapture the magic of 10+ years ago, especially in light of their style of music about to be supplanted by the emerging sub-genre of thrash metal (remember: "Kill 'Em All" also came out in 1983).  Add to this mix a family feud (Ozzy & Sharon Arden vs. Black Sabbath & Don Arden (Sabbath's manager and Sharon's father)), and the result is simply a band trying really, really hard -- perhaps too hard -- to be the heaviest thing out there.

Here's where I stand: this is actually a pretty good LP.  Not a great LP, mind you.  But a good one nonetheless, even if it doesn't hold up to the classic Ozzy-led Sabbath LPs, or even the two Dio LPs.  It is leagues ahead of the last two Ozzy Sabbath LPs (remember "Technical Ecstasy" and "Never Say Die"?  I didn't think so). 
  • cover art: I agree with bassist Geezer Butler, who said of the cover: "It’s shit. but it’s fucking great!"
  • production: Geezer's quote applies here too.
  • Ian Gillan: I love Deep Purple, I love Black Sabbath, and I have no problems with Purple Sabbath (full disclosure: I also kinda liked Glenn Hughes on "Seventh Star", even though that barely qualified as Black Sabbath).
But I'm here to tell you that even if you have never heard of this LP, you should celebrate its very existence for one reason:
It is the cornerstone of "This Is Spinal Tap".
Ok, sure, there are plenty of rock/metal cliches for Spinal Tap to mine, and maybe Spinal Tap would have existed without this LP, but it would not have been as funny.  Here, in increasing order of priority, here are the contributions of "Born Again" to Spinal Tap:
Yes, the "Born Again" tour gave us Stonehenge.  And not just Stonehenge mind you, but Stonehenge with a dwarf, because who doesn't look at the 20+ feet-high trilithons and think "you know what's missing?  a dwarf."  In real life, the Sabbath Stonehenge set was actually too big (because of a feet vs. meters confusion) to fit in most venues instead of too small ("I think that the problem *may* have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being *crushed* by a *dwarf*. Alright?"). Here's a short reflection from Ian Gillan about Stonehenge (transcript).

In summary, this is an enjoyable, but not classic, LP.  And in retrospect, it was Sabbath's last commercially or critically significant studio LP.

Standout songs: "Trashed" (there just aren't enough songs celebrating drunk driving...), "Disturbing The Priest" (and even rarer: songs inspired about interrupting choir practice), "Zero The Hero", "Digital Bitch" (and the rarest rock genre of all: songs trashing Ozzy's wife), "Born Again" (Iommi's guitar sound on this is great), "Keep It Warm" (well-suited for Gillan's style).

Skip' em songs:  none.

Final score: 6/10.  Stonehenge, people, it gave us Stonehenge: "Where the dew drops cry and the cats meow".

Bonus links #1: official videos -- caution: they're really awful and will make you enjoy the songs less:  "Trashed", "Zero The Hero"

Bonus links #2: bootlegs of unmixed demos are floating around the web (illogical contraption, viva les bootlegs).

Bonus image:  The magazine image that became the cover:

Bad Bonus link: The Guardian has an article that points out problems with the timing of Black Sabbath influencing "This Is Spinal Tap": the band's tour and the movie both occurred in 1984.  But that would mean that life imitated art, down to dwarfs and dimensionally inappropriate Stonehenges, and that is just too terrible to contemplate.  I'm sticking with my more comforting ordering of events.

Update: Bad Bonus links #2: Turns out, the Stonehenge bit was in the original, 1982 20 minute demo version of the movie, entitled "Spinal Tap: The Final Tour".  Here is a direct link to the scene, and here is the full demo (parts 1 and 2).  Sabbath would not have known about the 20 minute demo film in 1983/84, so I guess this is like Newton and Leibniz

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Magnetic Fields - "Distortion" (LP Review)

The Magnetic Fields pay homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain.  If your reaction to that statement is "who and who?!", then you're not going to appreciate this LP.  "Distortion" is the 2008 TMF LP that borrows heavily from the aural aesthetic of TJAMJ's 1985 noisy masterpiece "Psychocandy". 

In itself, that's not such a big deal -- lots of bands wish they could make something as good as "Psychocandy".  When TMF does it, it is a big deal.  Not only is their sound more in a synth & folk pop sound, TMF's leader Stephin Merritt has hyperacusis, which explains in part why TMF has typically has a muted and restrained sound (and why the live performances of these songs are not done in the typical TMF style and  TJAMC style).

I think this is a fun LP -- every band should do a Psychocandy homage -- but the song writing does not approach the genius of something like "69 Love Songs".  There are no bad songs and some are quite good, but the production is a bit of a gimmick.  Granted it is a gimmick I like, but this should not be your first TMF LP.

Standout songs: "Threeway" (live), "California Girls" (live), "Please Stop Dancing", "Too Drunk To Dream", "I'll Dream Alone", "The Nun's Litany".

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 7/10.  Essential only for TMF and/or TJAMC fans.

Bonus links: "Just Like Honey", "Taste of Cindy".