ABJECTION RITUAL: SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH

(MALIGNANT RECORDS; 2018)

I am the type of person that likes to thoroughly research any artist that I write about, mentioning each band member and any guest musician’s contribution to the particular recording up for review. Finding ANY information about Abjection Ritual is like collecting hen’s teeth. However, after much scouring of various online data bases, I was able to identify the man behind the sounds. Now, after some soul-searching, I have decided that if this gentleman has gone to such extremes to keep his identity a mystery, I won’t blow it for him here. Suffice to say, the man is genuinely disturbed… the kind of disturbed that all true geniuses seem to share. These are the men and women who create the most adventurous and thought-provoking music, movies, literature, art… each a statement on the world, its populace or, indeed, the inner machinations of the creator of said piece. So… with that out of the way, let’s take a look at SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH, the fourth overall release from Abjection Ritual and second for Malignant Records.

ABJECTION RITUAL (publicity photo)

Previous Abjection Ritual releases have tended toward a kind of synthesized industrial metal. SOUL OF RUIN… sees the now-duo moving in a more organic direction, introducing guitar, bass and a live drummer into the mix of industrial ambience and heavy electronics. “Lamentations” is the shortest piece on the album, a droning dirge of an introduction with haunting female… uh… well, “Lamentations” leads right into “Body of Filth.” Tribal drums, eardrum-piercing feedback and an assortment of other evil sounding instrumentation replaces the hypnotic droning of the intro. Screamed male vocals are introduced before the whole thing devolves into a hive of noise, buzzing toward an unresolved terminus. “Blood Mother” is a sinister, Dio-era Sabbath wall of doom and gloom highlighted by ridiculously heavy riffs and ponderous drums. The middle section – a stinging, horror movie soundtrack – features a female voice (Rennie Resmini) and odd sci-fi sound effects before returning to the ominous bass grind of the track’s central theme. Hoarse, sore-throat inducing vocals plead and exhort, delivering what I must assume is the desired queasy effect. Author Christopher Ropes delivers a spoken word intro to “Deathbed Conversion.” The best analogy I can come up with regarding this one is that it sounds like the gates of Hell opening, inviting in the soul of a dying man. The lyrics are virtually vomited out, either Satan or the tortured soul seeking redemption (or condemnation). I’m not too sure about the conversion, but if the next song, “Ruin,” is any indication, things did not go well. The tone is oddly brighter, with a synthesized orchestra (or, is that a chorus?) seemingly offering light to the aura, if not the soul, of the entire record. Even so, the track features some crushingly heavy guitar and two guttural voices manage to give the tune and even more chaotic sound than the first half of the record. A lone voice, almost plaintive, dominates the second half grind.

“Carnassial Passage” is a kind of throbbing fever dream that somehow brings to mind the classic Alice Cooper tune, “Unfinished Sweet.” That may have more to do with the song title and the creepy drills that keep intruding into the mix. I feel fairly certain that this one would probably give even the Cooper boys nightmares. And that, friends, is a high compliment to the damaged minds behind the tune. The album ends with the nine-minute-plus magnum opus, “Old Sins.” It’s a slow descent into madness with heavily fuzzed-out guitar and bass with screamed vocals before the painful squall of a guitar’s feedback jolts you awake like electroshock therapy gone horribly wrong. Oddly effective and provocative, the minimalist drums make the cut intensely claustrophobic, forcing the listener into an unwelcome introspective haze. And we’re just a little more than halfway in; a more traditional approach is introduced at about 5:15 in, with a somewhat standard chord progression from the bass and Fripp-like sonic sweeps of guitar. Seemingly just out of listening range is what sounds like a psychotherapy session taking place. Taken by itself, “Old Sins” is a most effective and utterly disturbing piece of music; taken as a solitary piece of a larger construct, it seems to be the final abandonment of all hope, the dissolution of the final thread of sanity. The emotional turmoil that the song elicits, the journey we are forced to embark upon is exactly the desired effect that Abjection Ritual was aiming for. All good music, literature, art has the ability to lead its audience down a path that will generate a certain visceral reaction from said audience; SOUL OF RUIN, BODY OF FILTH as a whole and, particularly, “Old Sins” by itself does exactly that. I was mentally drained from the experience and, just maybe, a different person for having had that experience. That is the kind of art that one rarely experiences nowadays.


ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

Upon first seeing the name, Adrian Aardvark seemed to me a devouring angel, an agent of the bleakest of Black Metals. Nah… just kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album but, I gotta say, it isn’t at all like anything else I’ve heard before… not even close! I mean, it looks and smells like a rock and roll record, spliced with a fair amount of Americana and not a little bit of angst. Even so, my initial thoughts were leaning toward “Ah! Someone’s rich father has bought studio time for his son and his friends to record an album. Kinda like the Shags, woefully untalented but determined to become a band.” After a couple of songs, however, I began to warm up to, even appreciate, what this motley crew were attempting to convey. Oddly enough, while researching the band for this piece, I was amazed to discover that DYING OPTIMISTICALLY is the group’s seventh release since 2008 (and the first since BONES POSITIVE, an EP released in 2014)! I cannot honestly conceive of how I could have missed anything for the last ten years called Adrian Aardvark, though I am now old enough that such things do escape me upon occasion. Anyway, on to the review…

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee) (photo credit: JERRY CADIEUX)

The first thing that you notice on “Just Us” is alluded to in rather veiled terms up above: Everything (wait… make that EVERYTHING) seems woefully out of tune, with the singer, Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, sounding alarmingly like a drunken karaoke enthusiast. Somewhere around the two minute mark, things almost come together, as a fuzzy bass (or, is it a cello?), insistent drumming and the scraping of a violin keep the thing from totally going over the cliff. Bonus points for – unlike the short prelude/introduction/tune-up that starts the song off – everything ending together. “If Only” definitely sounds like a drunken lament to a litany of “what if’s” in a relationship gone very wrong. Stott-Rigsbee lists his transgressions before admitting, “Yes, I am ashamed of my insecurities/Yes, I am ashamed of my stupid feelings.” Here, the music kinda sounds more in tune and of one mind, occupying a certain feedback/drone frequency that is not unappealing. In fact, the discordant buzz of the whole mess is really starting to grow on me. The cello takes a more prominent spot on “Peace In a Loving Way,” with Shannon Stott-Rigsbee droning away masterfully. The lyrics seem as though they are wedged into a melody that is simply too small to adequately contain them; try, for instance, to fit the first verse into any standard rock format without breaking your tongue: “Through updates, versions and brand new postages/The letters inside remain the same as they travel to/You through signals unseen, speaking words/Floating like waves whisper your way.” It ain’t easy. Even so, at less than two-and-a-half minutes, it feels like you’re in and out almost before you realize that the sound – and, in fact, the entire record – is actually becoming, not only palatable but, begrudgingly enjoyable, as well. The bizarrely-titled “Young Pharaohs and Horses” comes with an equally bizarre video… as it should! Drummer Daz Bard adds a bit of trombone to the proceedings, with Shannon chiming in with a scratchy (whinnying?) violin part; the weird, out-of-place gang vocals, like just about everything else on this album, are no doubt added to merely muddle the lyrical issue. Four songs in and Christopher is starting to come across as more of a true musical genius, as opposed to the offspring of a wealthy Daddy Warbucks type bankrolling his kid’s musical aspirations. “I Don’t Wanna Love No More” is a step back for me. It isn’t necessarily that the sentiments aren’t spot-on in a society of individuals struggling to find their place but, the acapella (aside from three drum rolls somewhere in the middle) delivery – impassioned as it is – just doesn’t do it for me. “Little Girl,” however, is a completely different beast. Despite some rather questionable lyrics: “I am a little girl in a big big world/My dress so clean and my hair is curled” and “Don’t you want to ride with me/Don’t you want to sleep with me” (allusions to Christopher Stott-Rigsbee’s… uh… fluid sexual identity, I know, but… still… ), this is the most fully realized, hardest rocking and most in-tune song so far. A throbbing bass line (Catherine Harrison-Wurster… on the upright, no less) and a frantic vocal performance from Christopher highlight the number.

Creaky Wooden Floor” opens the second half – continuing the strong showing from “Little Girl” – with more weird metaphorical (metaphysical?) lyrics about beets and elephants. The song is pretty nifty, in a New Country kind of way and is delivered, like the previous four tracks, in a short, punk rock fashion. On “Get Gotten,” a chunky guitar riff rides along for a spell before being joined by a very nice violin part; the unmelodic, unnerving howls of Stott-Rigsbee deliver quite an impressive effect. Somewhere about two minutes in, the whole thing shifts gears amidst a beautifully shambolic break before completely collapsing in upon itself at the end. I may have just crowned a new favorite track! There is an insistent hint of didgeridoo (a masterfully understated performance by Christopher) throughout “Horny Wildebeast,” which seems perfectly natural given the song’s title. After a rather rambunctious start, the final four minutes or so seem to settle into a nice mid-tempo with – dare I say? – quietly elegant violin and cello dancing over the top. “Oo Ra Ra” and “The Sun” form a sort of intermingled couplet, with melody, choruses and chanting kinda running through the two-as-one pieces (or, piece, as the case may be). The former is a surprisingly melodic bit of falderol with lyrics somehow befitting the proceedings, such as “Put down the knife, we don’t have to fight/We can make love till morning’s light.” The number eventually devolves into the type of musical chants that the “natives” in all of those old Johnny Weissmuller movies are so fond of. “The Sun” blasts forth from that, a forceful, blistering piece of noise of the type I find so appealing. The lyrics here tend to lean toward a rather cogent warning from everybody’s favorite ball of light: “Feel my heat/Feel the cancer/You can’t be given life/Without being given death.” Oh, Sun, you’re such a kidder! A cool, unexpected blast of the Blues, filtered through various other styles of what has generally become known as “Americana” may, at a mere five-and-a-quarter minutes, prove “Misery Shaker” to be Adrian Aardvark’s magnum opus. Time changes and style shifts glide together seamlessly, held together by the superior percussive efforts of Daz Bird.

ADRIAN AARDVARK (Christopher Stott-Rigsbee, Catherine Harrison-Wurster, Daz Bird, Shannon Stott-Rigsbee) (uncredited photo)

As mentioned at the outset, I was totally unprepared for the musical onslaught of Adrian Aardvark and was, initially, taken aback by the complete atonality of the first track but… I must say that I have been richly rewarded by sticking with the program, seeing it through to its brilliant climax. Heck, I may just have to revisit the group’s Bandcamp page and listen to their other releases… after I’ve rested up a bit from this DYING OPTIMISTICALLY experience.


JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS; 2017)

The music of Stratospheerius is a frenzied, brilliant amalgam of the Blues, Progressive Rock, Funk, improvisational Jazz, Classical and orchestral music, along with just about any other genre or sub-genre you can come up with. I’m not sure, but… there may also be a bit of the kitchen sink in there somewhere. Led by virtuoso violinist Joe Deninzon, a man sometimes referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin,” the quartet comes closest in spirit – if not in actual sonic delivery – to the early music (through, say, 1976’s ZOOT ALLURES) of Frank Zappa and his various groups. The resultant sound is a chaotic rush of genuine (and genius) eclecticism. There is certainly more than a little of something for everyone on the band’s fifth release, GUILTY OF INNOCENCE.

JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS (Aurelien Budynek, Joe Deninzon, Lucianna Padmore, Jamie Bishop) (uncredited photo)

The record kicks off with “Behind the Curtain.” With lyrics like “Welcome to the circus/It’s your biggest nightmare/Wear the scarlet letter/Scrutinized forever” and “Put your mask on/And tuck your shirt in/Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the song acts as a sort of catch-all warning against the behind-the-scenes machinations that fuel the music industry or intolerance or political correctness or… You get the point. With a heavy, pound-yer-face-in riff-a-rama approach, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore lay down an exceptionally tight groove allowing Deninzon and guitarist Aurelien Budynek to go crazy with wicked dueling solos. As an opening salvo or as a stand alone piece of music, this one is a near-perfect shot across the bow of accepted norms. “Take Your Medicine” is a nasty little piece of work about “glass houses” and “casting the first stone.” It’s a bass heavy blast of funkiness with Joe’s violin filling in nicely for a full horn section. Guitar, violin and vocals add a rather hard rock urgency to the proceedings, with another dose of wild soloing, a feature that lends a certain Zappa-esque quality to this record. According to Mister Deninzon, the title track (“Guilty of Innocence,” for those with a short memory span) was “inspired by my 2012 stint in jury duty and deals with crime and punishment. I was presiding on a rape trial and the guy who I thought was guilty got off practically scot-free.” Padmore and Bishop lay down a modest Ska-influenced groove, while spastic violin leads and muscular metal riffs drive the tune. The violins and bass take on an almost operatic quality during the break and, just because I enjoy mentioning musical touch-points to give the reader a better idea of what to expect, the song’s chorus has a very Who-like feel, melodically speaking. Piling on to that musical heritage, let me say that if you’re a fan of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones or the previously mentioned Frank Zappa, you’re gonna love this one. “Face” is a sombre little ditty, sort of a slow burn piece with scathing lyrics about people (lovers, partners, friends, perfect strangers) who are more than willing to openly attack you just for the pure enjoyment: “These scars ain’t healing/It’s too late to make amends/I dodge the bullet/Your tongue flies across the room/Build up the callous/’Til I grow numb to the doom and gloom.” A very Hendrix-ian solo by Deninzon adds a certain psychedelic (or maybe it’s “psychotic”) mania to the number. The introduction to the frantic retelling of the Muse hit “Hysteria” features glass-shattering soprano Melanie Mitrano before a warbling high-register vocal from Joe takes over; the latter fits the surrounding chaos of the tune perfectly. There’s a certain “Flight of the Bumble Bee” quality to the always on-point violin work, highlighted by a massive solo, all backed impeccably by the metal leanings of Stratospheerius.

Affluenza” is another funky number with “ripped from the headlines” lyrics about people who believe themselves superior to “the little people” and, therefore, above the law because of that superior wealth and high standards of living. The song has a kind of Living Colour rock vibe happening, with lyrical barbs aplenty over sharp jabs of guitar and violin. Guest performer Rave Tesar adds an oddly appealing set of synthesizer “bloops,” giving the whole thing a cool late ‘70s funk sound. A hard(ish) rocking, progressive sort of pop-metal thing with Queen-like aspirations, “Parallel Reality” is choke full of breathy vocals, an absolutely killer rhythm (and a melody line to match) and, of course, the usual high-minded violin/guitar interplay that makes this band and this album essential listening. “Game of Chicken” starts out sounding like it coulda been an OVER-NITE SENSATION outtake, but then turns into sort of a Kansas prog-pop kinda thing. The playing and soloing remain top-notch and raise the piece out of what could have been a severe abyss of doldrums. The wholly (holy?) improvisational “Dream Diary Cadenza” is a muscular, solo violin freakout rife with flashes of Hendrixisms, Van Halenisms, Beckisms, Zappaisms and any other guitar genius ism that you could ever bring to mind. A brilliant workout from a master technician of his chosen craft. “Soul Food” is a nearly thirteen minute extravaganza with a veritable orchestra of guest artists: Melanie Mitrano, Rave Tesar, guitarists Alex Skolnick (!) and Randy McStine, violinist Eddie Venegas, violist (?) Earl Maneein and cellists Patrice Jackson and Leo Grinhaus. The piece is epic in every musical sense of the word and is, truly, a fitting end to a superb album. You owe it to yourself to obtain GUILTY OF INNOCENCE; you can do so by visiting CD Baby, Amazon or any of the other “usual places” and, naturally, at the group’s Bandcamp page.


DOING MY BEST TO BE BRUCE: THE BRUCE KULICK INTERVIEW

BRUCE KULICK (publicity photo)

Bruce Kulick plays guitar. He has played with everyone from Michael Bolton to Billy Squier to Meat Loaf and, of course, a couple of little bands called Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad, Bruce has shared the stage with some of the best known artists in the world and jammed with some fairly unique bands… just because he likes to challenge himself. He spent twelve years touring and recording as a member of Kiss and just completed seventeen years as a member of Grand Funk Railroad, alongside original members bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer and two other “new guys,” singer Max Carl and keyboard player Tim Cashion. Most recently, he has recorded two singles with his wife, Lisa (the original “If I Could Show You” and the classic holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and is looking forward to further exploring that creative avenue in the still-new year.

In an interview recorded on January 10, in anticipation of an upcoming Grand Funk show in – virtually my own backyard – Effingham, Illinois (at the beautiful Effingham Performance Center), Bruce discussed playing with Kiss members Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Eric Singer over the previous weekend, at the launch party for THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE; a few memorable road experiences with his brother, Bob, and Meat Loaf; the music industry and taxes; and, of course, that l’il old American Band, Grand Funk Railroad. We had penciled in a 15 to 20 minute time slot for this talk; after a few generalities about logistics and such, I realized we had been going at it for 45 minutes. Thanks for the time, Bruce.

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD (Mel Schacher, Bruce Kulick, Max Carl, Don Brewer, Tim Cashion) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: So, obviously, you’ve been a member of Grand Funk for eighteen, nineteen years…

BRUCE: Technically, we just finished seventeen and we’re starting our eighteenth year.

THE MULE: Okay. How did you get the gig?

BRUCE: Well, I was contacted by Don Brewer back in ‘99. It was the middle of the year, I believe. He reached out to me via e-mail and at first I thought it was maybe somebody pranking me, even though I had met him in the past, but I didn’t know him well. He reached out and… I was in New York, actually, helping my parents move to California, but said I’d get in touch next week when I came back. Then, we finally… I thought it would be best to have an actual phone conversation and we chatted about what was actually happening, which was the fact that Mel and Don were going to move forward and they already had a terrific singer, Max Carl, and they were looking for a guitar player and would I be willing to come up to Michigan to do some rehearsal to see what it all kinda felt like, if it would work.

So, I did and, it went rather well. I was pretty nervous because it’s another iconic band that suddenly need a guitarist. But, I really did like Mel and Don and I thought Max was a terrific singer. And, then, from that point, the next time I got together, they had the keyboard player who we’ve had, as well. for all these years, Tim Cashion. And that was Grand Funk Railroad. By the end of ‘99, after us getting together, to rehearse enough, we started to perform. I think we only did one gig in ‘99. Technically, 2000 was our first real year of playing. It’s amazing, it’s been seventeen years, now going into the eighteenth and the same guys. We’re really all getting along very well and we love playing this music. There are some new songs, but generally it’s a lot of the hits from Grand Funk.

THE MULE: I was gonna ask if you’d known Don and Mel before, but you kinda answered in that, so…

BRUCE: Well, I would want to qualify it just by saying that, Mel I never met before meeting him in Michigan. But, Don Brewer… we had a very interesting kind of crossing paths by… I was working with Michael Bolton and we did a tour that opened up for Bob Seger. For many, many tours, Don Brewer’s been the drummer for Bob Seger and, this was 1983. Don had a big beard, I remember. I remembered meeting him and we were on tour, I think, almost three weeks with the guys, so we all got to k now each other a little bit and hang out. And, actually from that tour, Don Brewer wound up meeting his… the woman that he’s married to, because she was actually someone that we were friends with, Michael Bolton and I.

It was really interesting that… There’s even a little modern connection to that, in the fact that, this past year, we opened, one of the few dates that Seger did before he had that injury, you know, with his back, which he, I believe, is having surgery for and he’ll be back out on the road. But, Grand Funk opened for Bob Seger in Indianapolis. It was very exciting because I know some of the people in that band, as well, for years and, of course, Don’s wife, Sunny came and knows those guys from all the tours. (Laughs) I remember saying to Sunny backstage, in front of Don, “This is really weird!,” because here we are, on Bob Seger’s stage. and this is how we all kinda met each other, in a sense, and here we are all together so many years later and there’s 24,000 people out there. And, of course, the gig was huge success for us and that’s all great. So, that’s one of the wonderful things in the music industry, is that, kinda how you meet someone way in the past and you don’t realize how that… You know, if I met Don in ‘83, it wasn’t ‘til ‘99 that I had the opportunity to actually play a guitar with him. That’s a long time and, then here we are, it’s 2018 and I’m still playing guitar with the guy. It’s really kinda cool, you know? And, in a sense, it’s similar to me jamming with Ace and Gene over the weekend. Which was very surreal, too. But, I love that about the music industry. That’s why it’s always great to keep your connections. You never know.

THE MULE: I remember reading that Grand Funk was kind of an influence when you were just getting into the business. So, what is the favorite part about being in this band?

BRUCE: Well, I always saw Grand Funk, when I was young, as kind of like the American version of the British rock trio, like a Cream but, they were just a little more… hence, the “Funk” word. They were a little more funky. It wasn’t as… They definitely weren’t trying to emulate anything British, they were more R and B, in a way. Hence, hits like “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Locomotion” and stuff like that. But, I did love the rhythm section. Don and Mel… Oh, my God! I mean, Mel was like… he had the original name “God of Thunder,” which was kinda ironic, of course, from my Kiss years with that song. And, Don being just a powerhouse on the drums. The well respected drummer who had the flamboyant drum solo back in the ‘70s.

So, for me, they were really unique because they were American and they weren’t trying to copy anything British but, there they were with all that energy. I think that’s how they were able to sell out Shea Stadium, you know, when they did that gig and broke records at certain times of their big years. So, I was pretty… I remember my first call after Don and I had the chat was to speak to the manager that Kiss was using for some of the years I was in the band, Larry Mazer. I said, “Grand Funk, Don Brewer just called me about being in the band. What do you think?” “Oh, that’s awesome. You gotta do it. That’s great.” I mean, I already knew it was great but, I did want to bounce it off of a business guy. I was always, you know, aware of the band, a fan of the band and quite flattered to asked to be… to have the opportunity to be in the band. It was really quite flattering for me.

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD (Mal Schacher, Max Carl, Don Brewer, Bruce Kulick, Tim Cashion) (publicity phot)

THE MULE: Next year… ‘69. The band’s gonna celebrate fifty years. Are there any plans afoot for a major tour?

BRUCE: That’s a good question. It’s kinda funny that I hadn’t thought of that yet. Obviously, Don and Mel being the original guys and everything, I’m sure they’re very aware of that but, whether or not they have something planned or are trying to coordinate something with the record company or agent, I’m not sure. But, it could make for an interesting story or a great marketing… that’s for sure.

THE MULE: You played with a lot of… I’m gonna call ‘em “over-the-top” personalities throughout your career.

BRUCE: (Laughs) Okay. The music industry lends itself to that.

THE MULE: Are there any that stick out in your mind as, “I can’t believe this.” or, you know, maybe crazy tour stories or anything that you’d care to share?

BRUCE AND BOB KULICK (publicity photo)

BRUCE: Well, I mean, one of the first… I would have to say the first REALLY major artist that I toured with, even though I had some touring experience with some people that had some hits prior to the band I’m going to mention – or the name of the artist I’m going to mention – was Meat Loaf. And, Bob and I, my brother and I played guitar for Meat Loaf. That was for the original BAT OUT OF HELL tour. So, the album was already done. Todd Rundgren and those two guys did the record, Jim Steinman’s songs brilliantly put together with Todd Rundgren. I mean, this thing was quite an ambitious record. It was unique. It wasn’t a real band, it was Meat Loaf and Steinman writing the songs and, yet, you have nine people on stage. Okay. With Meat Loaf, you know, he had to have been over three-hundred pounds and he’s in a tuxedo. You get the picture. And you’re performing on stage with a full rock band of eight other people behind you… two keyboard players, two guitarists, background singers, drums, bass and, you know, it was kind of like a crazy rock opera gone mad and he was very physical. But, I have to say, there were many moments with the Meat Loaf tour where his actions, which were over-the-top theatrical musical art, in a sense, were pretty… In some ways, they certainly were disturbing and in other ways, I realized they’re brilliant. You know what I mean? So, I gotta say Meat Loaf really has always stood out as being someone that was quite… quite special as a performer. I mean, when I joined Kiss it was like “How do I keep up with Gene and Paul onstage?” These guys are incredible showmen on stage. Then I realized I can’t play and even try to move like these guys. I can’t do both and I think the important thing was to play the guitar. But, they were quite outrageous and it was quite exciting, of course, to have these two iconic players be some of the best showmen in rock. So, yeah, I’ve gotta admit, I’ve been blessed with some interesting gigs.

And, even on a band that wasn’t that famous, the Good Rats. Some people know of them, but not everybody. You got the lead singer, Peppi Marcello, he’s performing in shorts and basically looking like someone that would hang out at the ballpark and, you know, he’s holding a baseball bat. He’s running around the stage with that, singing very well songs that he mostly wrote all himself. So, I’ve always kind of… I would say performed with some flamboyant, in very unique ways, each of those artists having their own style of that.

THE MULE: Yeah. Uh… you did mention that you played with Gene and Ace and, Eric was a part of that, as well. Gene once told me that, once a member of the Kiss family, always a member of the Kiss family. That was kind of borne out in you and Eric playing with those two. If Paul and Gene were to make that call, would Bruce answer?

THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE LAUNCH PARTY, 2018 (Gene Simmons, Bruce Kulick, Eric Singer, Ace Frehley) (photo credit: ALEX KLUFT/ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK)

BRUCE: Well, obviously, what happened over the weekend when Gene presented his VAULT, it was the first of many of his opportunities in the fans’ hands that paid for it. That was really organic, how all that happened because, it was very well received, obviously. I know my social media is blowing up from me posting stuff about it. I know that fans love that kind of stuff, so now, it kinda poses that question. In the future, you know… ‘cause everyone’s always wondering when there’ll be the final big hurrah, of which I have no idea of when and if that’s going to happen. But, if it does, I finally… Things feel much more aware that they’re aware that the fans love it! Okay? I was aware that Ace was going to be there that day. I found out earlier in the day, actually. Eric actually told me and I already had a plan with Gene to show up later in the afternoon but, you know, not to be a part of anything other than to say “Hi,” you know. My wife’s never been to Capitol Records, which I’ve only been probably once or maybe twice and that’s such an iconic studio in LA. So, you know, support Gene, show up, say “Hi,” meet the fans. I knew it wasn’t going to be 1,000 people, it was only gonna be a hundred people but, knowing Ace went, I went, “oh, that’s kind of cool. I wonder what’s going on.” I remember texting my friend who bought the VAULT, who got there free, “What’s going on there?” He goes, “Ace and Gene are jamming and telling stories for the past 45 minutes,” or something. I was like, “Wow! That’s unbelievable!”

Then, of course, by the time I got there around six and took some photos with Gene and we talked about the VAULT and all and I said “Hi” to Ace, which was great he was still hanging around. Then Gene asked… Then Eric showed up, because he was rehearsing with Paul, I believe, that day, for this Japan tour. Then, the next thing I know, Gene goes, “Stick around. If you’d like to, you’re here, you should come on up.” (Laughs) It was like that. I was like, “Come up and do WHAT?” You know what I’m saying? I didn’t even know if there was more than one guitar in the building, okay? So, when I use the word “ORGANIC,” I mean it… with all capitals. Because I did not go there expecting to ever hold a guitar, did not go there expecting to be on a stage, of course, to sit up on stage to discuss the album and to greet the fans and talk about why he put it out and stuff like that. So, at that portion of the day, which happened later in the day… I believe Gene’s afternoon was supposed to be all meet and greet with people that bought it. But, with Ace showing up, it became… they took an hour break and wound up on stage chatting with each other and playing. In fact, I was just this morning, watching one of the things that I missed because I came later. But, that whole element of us all coming together was just really organic but, what I love about it the most, even though I… it, of course, it was a big thrill for me, was that I’m very aware that… Gene even got ahold of me the next morning, thanked me for coming down and everything. What my brother and I did on the cruise, everybody loved. I think it’s really evident to the Kiss guys that what you started with, “Once a member of the Kiss family, always a member of the family,” especially if you’re available and functioning in a healthy attitude. Obviously, anger, animosity and lawsuits means you don’t get invited to a party, right? That’s not the way the world works.

So, look, what will happen, I have no idea but, I do know that what happened on Saturday night was something that was very clearly in the right direction of showing the fans that in this case, certainly, that Gene gets along with Ace better than anyone may have thought for feared that he didn’t because there’s been times when they all say things about each other and I’ve always been on great terms with Gene but, I haven’t had many opportunities to be on stage with him. So, Eric and I have done things ourselves but, not with an Ace Frehley, except for UNPLUGGED and that’s why my reaction onstage was pretty funny. I said, “Wow, this is like UNPLUGGED, except 2018.” Of course, we were missing Paul but, still, just the elements of Eric, myself and Ace and Gene was just… I realized that it was like… completely not prepared, not planned, nothing. Maybe that made it more charming, made it more unique. I’m certain, though, it presents a new sense within Gene and Ace that fans want to see this. So, I can only hope that it could happen in the future.

THE MULE: Yeah. That would be awesome, actually, to see you take one more bow with ‘em.

BRUCE: Exactly.

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I just gotta say… no questions or anything but, REVENGE has gotta be my all time favorite Kiss album.

KISS, circa 1992 (Eric Singer, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Bruce Kulick) (REVENGE publicity photo)

BRUCE: Well, thanks. I know, I get asked that question sometimes, “What’s your favorite one?” and, believe me, there’s many I love, all the ones that I was involved with, there’s huge highlights on each album but, I usually just gravitate to REVENGE and, a lot of time when I’m doing my meet and greets, I’m meeting fans, I may sign more ASYLUM or more CRAZY NIGHTS than REVENGE but, either way, I’m very proud of that album, for sure.

THE MULE: Speaking of which, I did meet you quite a while back. You were playing with Union and you signed a Blackjack album for me.

BRUCE: There ya go. I mentioned Michael Bolton before.

THE MULE: Yeah, yeah. It’s all cyclical, I guess. I wanna get into a couple more Grand Funk things but, I also gotta know, what other projects are you working currently on, like on your time off from Grand Funk between tours?

BRUCE: That’s a great question. I generally keep myself busy with whatever seems to come up, so, I know I was really very, very pleased that I was able to actually do a few sessions in December. You know, people reach out to me and say “Could we hire you to play guitar on my project?” Or my song. Or my band. Everything’s a little unique and I never say yes or get any further until I listen to see if they have some talent, what they’re about and what they’re hoping for me to play on. So, those things come out – and they came up often enough in 2017 – that I enjoy. I especially like it when there’s a real challenge to some of the stuff, not exactly what you’d think…

There’s one particularly interesting artist from Sweden who’s part of a band and they do theaters and sell out all the time in that part of the world. But, they’re doing “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” as a four man group and, one of the main singers, Robert Haglund, does his own smooth lounge rock, classic rock kind of thing and I just did a song for him. He actually covered a Peter Criss solo album track. I played guitars on it. But, he did it very unique. I loved… I like the Peter song. I wasn’t really familiar with it ‘til he shared it with me but, then, once I heard how he did it and made it his own, I was like, “This rocks!” You know, because it’s a good blend of Smooth Jazz and a rock song. You know what I’m sayin’?

THE MULE: Yeah, yeah. Kinda like, I guess, that character that Bill Murray played… the lounge lizard kinda guy that Bill Murray played on SNL.

BRUCE AND LISA LANE KULICK (uncredited photo)

BRUCE: Yeah. This is interesting, this guy. But, while things come up like that all the time, I still want to explore more things with my wife, Lisa. We put out a song last April. We actually have footage, a duet video and the two of us… I’ve had, I mean, I’m already looking at taxes for 2017. It’s the time of the year when it’s not too crazy and I get a chance to put things together and I realized that I had a really incredibly busy 2017. I’m very proud of it. And, I know that’s part of the reason I didn’t get to everything I wanted to but, we were able to put out a single and, of course, over the Christmas holiday because we kind of promised each other. We were actually hoping to put out a Christmas EP. Last year, the beginning of the year, we talked about it but, I was too busy with traveling and things like the cruise, the Kiss Kruise, and stuff like that prevented it. Grand Funk had more dates than the usual year, which was very exciting for us. So, I want to explore some more stuff with my wife, Lisa, on a few levels, musically and everything. The Christmas song we did got a great reaction on Facebook, of course.

What else? You know, I put out an interesting product this past 2017, where I did a mini-guitar of one of the guitars that were known from my Kiss years and then actually ordered a very small number of faux guitar from the guitar company and sold them myself. They sold out really quickly and I want to do more things like that in the future, all on a very limited basis. I’m not trying to become a mass-merchandise man, okay? Because I’d like to manage it… I’ve had a few people in the industry tell me, “I guess when you say limited, it really is limited.” I know a certain artist that I collect and I go, “Oh, it says limited. How many that I really make that was limited?” It’ll start out at 500, then it turns into fifteen hundred and you get number fourteen hundred. What happened here? Anyway, there’s a lot of that I wanna look at. But, there’s always stuff going on.

The band that I hired at my wedding, which is another band that’s very, very like Rat Pack but, they do… They’re called Nutty and they do also, like, Jazz versions of classic rock songs by mashing up things. Early last year, late ‘16, we put out… They did “Detroit Rock City” and I sat in with them at a local supper club place here in California and that thing just blew up on the internet. It was great. In fact, I’m going to go see them play tomorrow night and I know I wanna get together with them and try to do a little more experiments, jam with them a few more times over the course of 2018, in some clever way. I haven’t figured them out yet. I probably want to really have a good discussion with them. I really love, you know, just doing other things.

I’m sometimes too busy to do ROCK AND ROLL FANTASY CAMP, which I’ve been a counselor for… God, I’ve been working with David Fishof, who is the promoter of that, and I’ve been doing that since 2005 or ‘06 so, it’s been a long time. Sometimes, since I can’t always do the camps, I’ll wind up… But, I’ll get called up to do one the corporate gigs that David did before. The whole thing, which ALWAYS goes really well. What a thrill! One was this huge accounting company, who obviously have a very successful team that they’re willing to do a big convention and then have us entertain them one day and be a part of their team-building. I got jam with Nancy Wilson from Heart and I was the guitarist. We did “Barracuda” and “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man” and, man, what a thrill that was, along with some other very talented people that you would know their names, like Ian Paice and Tony Franklin, Teddy Andreadis.

So, you know what I mean. It just seems like I go from a Grand Funk gig to, I could jump into a session that week or that month. I’m off to do a corporate gig when I can and, then I’m thinking of merchandise to market that I feel the fans would really love, because if I was a fan of me, I’d love it. (Laughs) You know,,, I always put myself in that position, “What would I think if I was into me.” Because, I’ll always try to get, with anything with my name attached to it, I want really, really high quality stuff. I look forward to 2018 being really exciting and branching out and continuing with this kind of success that the last year proved to me. Very excited about it.

THE MULE: You know, the weird thing, I guess, about… thinking about this current incarnation of Grand Funk, it has been together longer than the original band and that’s including the time with Craig.

BRUCE: Right. That is pretty interesting, for sure. And, you know, it’s kinda like one of those statistics like where Eric Singer has been, of course, the drummer longer than Peter Criss ever was, i you accumulate all of the years. And, he’s probably the third in line with Gene and Paul. Fun facts.

THE MULE: Yeah, that is just wild.

BRUCE KULICK (photo credit: NANCY DAGATA)

BRUCE: The one point I want to make about Grand Funk. The one thing I always regretted is that they actually did kind of stop at times. You know what I mean? They weren’t always moving forward in one form or another, there were periods where they just completely stopped. Which makes our seventeen year milestone, I guess, pretty easy. You know what I mean?

THE MULE: Yeah. Yeah, kinda but, it’s still something to celebrate and look back on. What got me… Grand Funk, loved them since the beginning and, SURVIVAL may be my all-time favorite Grand Funk album but, after BORN TO DIE, they split. They were having arguments and everything during that album and Frank Zappa, of all people, called them up and said, “Hey, would you get back together and make an album with me?” So, that kinda says something about the power of that band.

BRUCE: I know. Look, I’ll run into some of the guys from Van Halen… I remember running into Michael Anthony and Eddie’s brother, Alex, at the Admiral’s Club in Dallas, for American Airlines. You know, I’ve met them through the years, mostly from my Kiss years. “Hey, what are ya doin’?” and I’d see they were on tour and, “Oh, I’m just coming back from a Grand Funk gig,” and, “Oh, my God! Grand Funk! My favorite band! Oh, my God!” I mean, it’s stuff like that that blows my mind, of course. And, look, I’m one of the very fortunate musicians to be able to say that if I meet a stranger and they didn’t recognize me or know anything and say, “Oh, you play guitar?” and, if that came up, “Well, who’ve you played with?” And, I can say, “Grand Funk and I used to play with Kiss. You know, I always get a huge reaction from one of those bands. It’s funny that the Grand Funk one… I actually can say that it’s almost 50/50. Obviously, more people know Kiss but, if they know of those bands and they know music, it’s real interesting how many people react to Grand Funk but won’t react to Kiss or know… Of course, if they used to be a Kiss fan, they probably don’t have to ask me who I’ve played with if they’re a Kiss fan.

THE MULE: With this long history with Grand Funk, I know that Don and Mel are both incredibly creative people and so are you and the other guys in the band, Tim and Max. Will there ever be an album of new material with this current line-up?

BRUCE: You know, it’s interesting. Obviously, kind of longer ago, closer to when we were first getting together, we did put some new things in the set that we still do, because Max is a great songwriter and, of course, Don can write, all of us can write but, we also know that the gigs that we do, it’s… The majority of the reason why we’re booked is the name and the hits that the band had. What was kind of funny was, probably fifteen years ago, even a few years into me playing with them, the record industry was still in flux but, there was still a very healthy record business and, of course, fast forward to now and how everything’s going to streaming and people… Many, many iconic bands don’t bother putting out new records, you know, and that’s why that equation keeps getting challenged as to, even if Don and Mel had the desire to, would they feel, in a business sense, that it was something viable, that they want to do. I mean, I can speak for myself, not them but, my last record was put out in 2010 and I’ve been really hesitant about moving forward with a brand new record, with new material. It’s easy… I can put out a single with my wife. Can I put out a single for myself? That would be a lot easier than a full record.

So, your question is even bigger than just “Can Grand Funk do a new record and put it out?,” it’s just what’s going on in the music industry. I think it’s where Don and Mel before might have been, “Well, we do a few new things in the set and we just wanna be this touring band” and, it’s not about trying to put out a new product or whatever their kind of desires are about where they see the Grand Funk brand going. But, it’s kinda funny, at the time, in the years when it was probably a lot easier, they really didn’t choose that route and, now, I think it’s even more, kinda like, most people do the PledgeMusic to sell their music, if they have the desire to do that. I don’t know. I gotta read this article I saw. Something about “Music Industry Is In Trouble” by Paul McCartney. I wanna read what that’s about because it;s gonna be really interesting. Beause I think Paul McCartney has put out some really good full records in the past fifteen years and I doubt if any of them are gold and… Could you have a more famous person? I doubt if Ringo sells very, very, very well. I mean, he’s the most iconic drummer in the music business and a Beatle.

But, I don’t know what to tell you when it comes to, “Will you put something out?” I get posed the same question about me, too. It’s always really, kind of a frustrating thing to an artist to kind of wrap their heads around it. Wow… we’ll see what happens. Touring, thank God, is healthy because people like to see live music and, when I’m onstage, I am thrilled to be performing. The travel part, I don’t love. You know, I love to go to different places and meet the people. But, it’s always, “Thank God people still have the desire to see live music!” Of course, with their cell phone in their hand (Laughs), recording every moment of it!

THE MULE: So, what can… the people and their cell phones expect in Effingham on the 27th? What kind of show are you going to give ‘em?

GRAND FUNK RAILROAD (Bruce Kulick, Mel Schacher, Don Brewer, Max Carl, Tim Cashion) (publicity photo)

BRUCE: Well, it’s going to be interesting, because actually, in 2017, we started to tinker around with the set and bring out a couple of things we hadn’t played in a while. We did a New Year’s date, which went very well, in Minneapolis at a casino up there but, it’s kind of exciting now that I never know… Are we including the new ones, are we only doing one, do we do both? We only did one at that show but, I don’t know. And, maybe Don has some ideas about some others, too, that we might be looking at. I think, in that way, I’m giving you kind of a little… What I’m saying is that Grand Funk always puts on a very entertaining show with many hits that everybody knows. It’s really interesting how we’ve created some sets and, even though we adjust the set from time to time, that there’s not really a… It really builds excitement throughout the evening and, no matter what condition people are from the first song, we know they;re going crazy by the encore and, generally, more likely going crazy much, much sooner, like in the middle of the show. It’s gonna be a lot of really, in a way I can call it good time rock ‘n’ roll.

And, the vocals that these guys pull off are incredible. Max is the perfect lead singer and, then you’ve got Don and, Tim sings like a bird. So, the three of those guys, it’s incredible what the vocals are. I’m always so blessed to listen to that. Then, there I am playing with that rhythm section of Mel and Don, who are top-notch and admired by many of the musicians that cane after them. I’m doing my best to be Bruce, who wants to put a little bit of whatever the Grand Funk sound was attached to who I am, which is, I’m brought up on good ol’ classic rock guitar, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and all of that… and, Jimmy Page. I just rock out. I do rock a little harder, I would say, than what Mark Farner did but, always with a lot of respect for Mark’s riffs and how Mark helped craft those songs. It’s quite a show. I mean, people really, really, really enjoy it. I can’t believe how many of my Kiss fans that, high in mind, maybe knew the name but, they didn’t realize… “That’s a Grand Funk song? I didn’t know that!” I always get that reaction from the people that I know were at the show, they either write me or email me after the show or something.

So, the band’s terrific, something I’ve been very proud of all these years. So, if you’re anywhere near there and, I know that’s a good venue because I know a lot of bands, I’ve heard from the guys that have performed there. I’m really hoping for the people to get the opportunity to come see us because, it’s memorable.

THE MULE: It is a great room. Really, I mean… it’s awesome!

BRUCE: It’s a little far from everything (Laughs) but, we’ll make due.

THE MULE: The staff there, they are so accommodating. It’s just amazing. You’re gonna love it.

For more information about the Effingham show, check out the Grand Funk tour page and, for all things Bruce Kulick, go here or here.


EYE OF NIX: BLACK SOMNIA

(SCRY RECORDINGS; 2017)

So… what to make of this Eye of Nix thing? Noise! A lot of noise. Glorious, glorious noise. The kind of noise that makes you thankful for ears. On their second full-length release, BLACK SOMNIA, the more experimental aspects of the band’s curious brand of metal fuel the spooky, Gothic feel created by the lyrics and vocal prowess of Joy Von Spain. You know that you are in for something special from the moment the needle drops and the opening surge of “Wound and Scar” slithers and bores deep into your shattered psyche. Von Spain alternately sings, screams and growls over the roiling mix of droning guitars, a thrumming, distorted bass and some quite violent percussion. While there is no apparent melody here “Wound and Scar” is, nonetheless, a wickedly impressive cacophony and a brilliant opening salvo. “Fear’s Ascent” sees the recently-departed Justin Straw piling on the primal pounding, while Nicholas Martinez supplies layers of abrasive, discordant guitar noise as Masaaki Masao plays the mad alchemist with various samples, keyboard effects and, just for good measure, more guitar. All the while, Joy’s hauntingly beautiful vocals lay, virtually buried beneath the din, before erupting into a frantic, inconsolable wail about halfway through. This all, almost inconceivably, makes for a much more structured sort of violence than that heard on the first cut. Side One’s final track, “A Curse,” is a rather surreal soundscape, with whispered, frenzied vocals, skittering guitar and – a now seemingly obligatory feature – thunderous drums; snaking under and through the track is the sublime bass work of Gerald Hansen, another now-former member of the group. I really like this newly reimagined behemoth from 2013… it sounds almost Siousxie-like when the vocals come in and the chaos intensifies.

Eye of Nix (Nicholas Martinez, Masaaki Masao, Joy Von Spain, Zach Wise, Luke Laplante) (photo credit: SEER PRODUCTIONS)

A gently strummed guitar, an impressive bass part and – believe it or not – almost understated drumming highlight the first two-and-a-half minutes of “Lull,” the Side Two opener. As the nearly operatic voice of Joy Von Spain is introduced into the mix, the strumming turns into majestic power chords while Hansen and Straw attack their chosen instruments with a sudden sense of urgency. “Lull” is the most melodic, straight-on rocker on BLACK SOMNIA so far. What can I say about Toll On?” It features more of the same overpowering intensity and emotionally draining experimental metal/operatic vocals that have informed the first four numbers, while instrumentally, the song remains crushingly heavy. The softer middle section of the tune is beautifully suffocating, rather like a watery grave; as the music regains steam, the voice takes on an almost punk or No Wave aspect. “A Hideous Visage,” as the name implies, plays as a soundtrack to a fever dream, rising and falling to create an inescapable blackened nightmare landscape. Like the music, there are also a disquieting ebb and flow in Von Spain’s voice, from soft and pretty to harsh and haunted. The eight-and-a-half minute horror-inducing piece is certainly a fitting way to end what is a very solid third offering from Eye of Nix. One can only imagine the heights this band can reach with the recent infusion of new blood, as Zach Wise and Luke Laplante take on the formidable challenge of replacing the rhythm section of Hansen and Straw. I, for one, can’t wait!


FRANK ZAPPA: QUAUDIOPHILIAC

(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?

Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)

QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!

Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)

A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.

Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)

The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more than willing to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.


GREGG ALLMAN: SOUTHERN BLOOD

(ROUNDER RECORDS/CONCORD RECORDS; 2017)

SOUTHERN BLOOD is a fitting last release for the star-crossed survivor, Gregg Allman. Allman was quite ill and he knew that this would be his last record, a final goodbye to his fans, a love letter to family and friends. As his son, Devon, writes in the liner notes. “What you hold in your hands is our father’s last statement. He wanted to leave you a most poignant, soulful and deep parting gift as he left us all.” The album is filled with great tunes – most of them covers – done in that inimitable Allman style, with that whiskey voice and Southern growl, maybe a little weaker due to his failing health but unmistakable, nonetheless. That style made him a true rock legend, alongside his brother, Duane, and their prototype for Southern Rock and Blues, the Allman Brothers Band. His band – Steve Potts and Marc Quinones on drums and percussion, Ronald Johnson on bass, Peter Levin on keyboards, a horn section of Jay Collins, Marc Franklin and Art Edmaiston and musical director Scott Sharrard on guitar – offer just the right tone and backing for such an important project.

GREGG ALLMAN (photo credit: PATRICIA O’DRISCOLL)

The covers range from Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” and Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” to Bob Dylan’s, “Going Going Gone” and Lowell George’s “Willin’,” songs that leave the listener with a bitter-sweet feeling, as they all – in one way or another – deal with endings and loss and loneliness. One of the most powerful songs on SOUTHERN BLOOD is the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” as Gregg sings “I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And dream me a dream of my own.” What an emotional, draining song, with a mournful pedal steel part provided by Greg Leisz. Jackson Browne guests on his own “Song For Adam,” possibly the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful lament as, according to producer Don Was, “Gregg always loved this song because it reminded him of his brother, Duane. When he gets to the line ‘Still it seems that he stopped singing in the middle of his song,’ you can here him choke up and falter.” Was says that they never got to finish the song’s last two lines and feels that it was a “poetic way for him to make his exit.” Definitely a fitting end to a storied career and a final album.

GREGG ALLMAN (photo credit: MATT BUTLER)

Like David Bowie before him, Gregg Allman knew this would be his final statement and he put everything – his heart, his soul – into it. It will stand as a great, lasting testament to Gregg and his phenomenal legacy. His life and his legacy can best be summed up in the record’s opening cut, an original called “My Only True Friend.” If these lyrics don’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will: “Keep me in your heart/Keep your soul on the mend,” “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul/When I’m gone,” “I can’t bear to think this might be the end” and “Still on and on I run/It feels like home is just around the bend/I got so much left to give/But I’m running out of time, my friend.” Rest well, friend. Enjoy that reunion with Duane and Barry.


50 SUMMERS OF LOVE

(October 13, 2017; THE FAMILY ARENA, Saint Charles MO)

When this show was announced, I was excited at the prospect of seeing two of my favorite performers – the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders fame – doing some of my favorite songs in solo sets, a la the HAPPY TOGETHER packages of the past. After speaking to Lindsay about the show, I was even more excited, as I learned that this was a full-on production that features both vocalists onstage together, sharing songs, stories and memories. I previously likened the concept to the early live work of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; meanwhile, in a recent interview with the Mule’s Kevin Renick, Dolenz said, “It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.” And, I suppose – if you suspend all disbelief and squint your eyes just right – a case could also be made for the Bonos (circa THE SONNY AND CHER COMEDY HOUR). However you look at it, the “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” aspect of a show starring Mark Lindsay and Micky Dolenz is a dream come true for any child of the 1960s.

THE FAB FOUR (Ron McNeil as John Lennon) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Opening the show was the Fab Four, hailed as “the Ultimate Tribute,” performing to perfection a set of Beatles tunes that the lads never performed live. Decked out in the Beatles’ SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND attire, the Four looked and sounded like the originals as they played and quipped their way through a packed 40-minute set. Led by founder Ron McNeil as John Lennon, the group – quite naturally – focused on material from the groundbreaking 1967 album, including (of course) the title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” (the non-album single from the same recording sessions, as well as its equally brilliant B-side, “Penny Lane”) and the heady, atmospheric “A Day In the Life.” All of George Martin”s studio trickery and embellishments, by the way, were performed live by the quartet, via the keyboard work of McNeil and Doug Couture’s George Harrison… no mean trick, that. The group also visited REVOLVER for “Got To Get You Into My Life,” and the brilliantly dreary “Eleanor Rigby,” one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes. Nestled in the middle of all of this amazing music was “Yellow Submarine,” along with another of my personal favorites (but then, aren’t they all?), “Day Tripper.” What a great way to kick off the night!

Micky Dolenz and Mark Lindsay (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short intermission, the Fab Four were back onstage… this time in Raiders costumes. McNeil introduced the headlining duo, Mark Lindsay first, then Micky Dolenz, as the band launched into “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” a song recorded by both the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Mark told Micky, “I recorded it first,” to which Micky replied “I had the hit.” The hits came fast and furious from there, with the duo performing their own songs, as well as each other’s. The Raiders tune “Steppin’ Out” gave way to the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville,” a tune that had the revved-up crowd up and dancing. The Raiders’ first “woulda, coulda, shoulda” non-hit, “Louie, Louie” (the Kingsmen recorded the song around the same time they did and rode their version to the top of the charts) followed hot on the heels of that one.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

While the sound was generally solid, it was not without problems; some of the between-song banter (mostly Lindsay’s) was lost to the cavernous rafters of the Family Arena; as the sound tech worked out the kinks, their were sudden over-modulations of bass or guitar. But, those minor issues aside, the group of musicians onstage (including Micky’s sister, Coco on vocals and his “personal” guitarist, Wayne Avers) sounded phenomenal. Coco’s vocals, in particular, caught my attention, as she added that one extra layer that pushed the proceedings from a solid recreation of the songs we all know and love to a “Holy crap! This sounds just like the record.” level. From a rocker’s standpoint, the backing band had a harder edge. And, that’s not a bad thing… these songs are fifty years old and the relative youth of the Fab Four has infused both the songs and the singers with a new vitality. Tunes like “Hungry,” “Good Thing” and Mike Nesmith’s “Mary Mary” crackled and ignited under the pure weight of the Rock ‘n’ Roll offered up by the players, pushing Micky and Mark to ever greater heights.

Mark Lindsay (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As we knew they must, the reflections soon turned to this dynamic duo’s time on the small screen, with Lindsay ribbing Micky about “hanging out behind a circus tent with Cheetah and Tarzan,” in reference to Dolenz’ childhood role as CIRCUS BOY in 1956. After a little back and forth, the band launched into the theme song from WHERE THE ACTION IS, the Dick Clark vehicle that propelled Lindsay and the Raiders to superstardom, followed by the theme to THE MONKEES, which ended with a sort of modified “Monkees walk” by the pair. An outrageously bizarre video from WHERE THE ACTION IS featured Dolenz and fellow Monkee, Davy Jones, disrupting and dismantling a performance by Paul Revere and the Raiders. Laughing, Micky said, “I really don’t remember that… at all!” Of course, I think we all knew that someone would eventually broach the subject of opening acts. There was mention made of the Rolling Stones in regards to Paul Revere and the Raiders before Lindsay asked Micky about a certain short-lived opening act on the Monkees’ first major tour. “Yeah,” quipped Dolenz, “this is what Jimi Hendrix sounded like opening for the Monkees… ” as the group pushed into the opening of “Purple Haze.” Two lines into the vocals, Micky began screaming, “We want the Monkees! Where’s Davy? Where are the Monkees?” As the saying goes, “mistakes were made, people were blamed.” Somewhere along the way, Mark noticed that there was something off about the Fab Four’s Raiders’ outfits and produced a feather-adorned tri-corner Colonial hat for the only “Raider” not wearing one, Ron McNeil as Paul Revere; with his back to the band, Lindsay continued his spiel, as Micky quietly replaced Doug Couture’s (not absolutely positive, but relatively sure of the name) hat with a green wool cap, a la Mike Nesmith. A small thing, to be sure, but it definitely registered with the gleeful crowd.

Doug Couture and Wayne Avers (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

How can you qualify the sheer quantity of great music that came out of the mid-to-late ‘60s, many by the two legendary figures onstage tonight? I mean, “Kicks,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Him Or Me – What’s It Gonna Be,” “I’m a Believer.” Toss in the lesser-known (though no less impressive) “She,” “Randy Scouse Git” and the psychedelic Blues work-out of “For Pete’s Sake” and you have not only an incredible set list for this show, but along with the Fab Four’s set, you have the soundtrack to the lives of many a baby boomer. Highlight upon highlight drove the performers and the audience to give a little bit more as the evening progressed. Things bordered on transcendent for me when Lindsay and Dolenz discussed their heritage, leading into the spine-shivering intro to “Indian Reservation.” I say again that both vocalists were in top form throughout the show, but it just seemed to me that Mark kicked things up a notch for what was Paul Revere and the Raiders’ biggest hit… a protest, an anthem, a song for the ages.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

After a final, brilliant turn by Micky Dolenz on “I’m a Believer,” it was over. Well, not really… I mean, you know how these things work, right? After a very short break, the band returned, with McNeil introducing Mark and Micky back to the stage for the encore, which included one of the Monkees’ most beloved tunes, “Daydream Believer.” The night ended with a rousing “Twist and Shout,” an early hit for the Beatles, with Dolenz delivering the first couple of lines before turning vocal duties over to “John.” As the lights came up, the buzz in the air wasn’t from the amplifiers; it came from the excited, appreciative crowd. And, why not? They had just witnessed two of the greatest performers and purest voices of the Rock era put on the show of their lives.


MICKY DOLENZ: CHATTING UP MY FAVORITE MONKEE AT LONG LAST

KEVIN RENICK is one check closer to completing his bucket list.

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)

Micky Dolenz (photo credit: KAY TUOHY)

Micky Dolenz was always my favorite Monkee. They all had their charm, of course, but Micky seemed to me to be the most knowing, the most IN on the joke and the most determined to have as much fun with it as possible. The initial “joke,” of course, was that this quartet of Beatlemania-aping youngsters – three Americans and one Brit – would produce a madcap TV show in the mid-’60s that would hopefully yield a non-stop string of radio hits penned by the likes of Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart and many others. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider definitely seemed to view the whole thing through the lens of satire, and hired hand music producer Don Kirshner felt it was his job to feed the music through the hit machine he was in charge of, and to NOT let the boys get too cocky or assertive. Let’s have FUN, kooky visuals but slick, well-constructed pop tunes for the ears… that seemed to be the mandate. And Micky was the singer on a majority of the band’s hits… “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and many more. He wasn’t the “cute one,” that distinction went to Davy Jones. And Mike Nesmith was the group’s quirky intellectual, the one who had a discernibly broader agenda and undeniable charisma. Peter Tork was arguably the group’s most polished musician. But Micky Dolenz embodied the spirit of the Monkees thing better than anyone – he delivered his lines with the most sass, he had nonstop energy (throughout the many reunions as well), and, frankly, he had the best voice, one which has probably been underrated through the years. Micky can SING. And his natural ability to be a professional showman, an audience pleaser, has probably been the most anchoring element of this group in its different incarnations. It’s impossible to imagine the later Monkees successes – the ’86 comeback on MTV, the later trio tours, the wildly successful 50th reunion album and tour – without Micky’s boundless energy. You really HAVE to thank him for the band’s durability all these years later; he’s a gamer, plain and simple. And by the way, that “joke” I mentioned above? Well, the real joke – and triumph – was that the Monkees were damn good. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame be damned – these guys showed a staying power that no one could have predicted, thanks to fabulously catchy songs, the early determination to prove they could actually PLAY their instruments (and even write songs!), and a gift for both re-invention AND nostalgia stoking, which meant that every time they “came back” from seeming oblivion, a huge audience was waiting. One that included the rabid older fans and ever curious NEW fans. Hey hey, they’re the Monkees! But they didn’t monkey around when it came to delivering what fans wanted, time after time.

The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)

The Monkees (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones) (screen shot)

I realized a long time ago that if you give the audience what they want, which is those hits they like, you can just about do anything else you want,” said Dolenz during a long-awaited phone interview recently. “And in my case, every time I do a show, I liken it to someone throwing me a birthday party. The audience is so excited to hear those songs. It feeds you! It feeds the fire.”

Dolenz was responding to my question about how an artist mostly associated with an “oldies” type act, can keep singing the same songs over and over, and still be engaged. How do you keep the experience fresh for yourself?

I can only speak for myself. I can’t speak for Mike or Peter or David,” he said. “After the Monkees, I sort of bailed out on that part of the business for a while. I moved to England, and for about 15 years I was directing and producing television shows. I did no Monkee business. And when I came back in 1986 for that reunion, it all felt very new to me again! I never really made a major attempt after the Monkees to have a solo career. Not as an artist or writer. I don’t write that much, you know… I had done a couple of little things here and there, but I was never really a writer or anything.”

So for Dolenz, performing those eternally popular songs was not a problem. “Pleasant Valley Sunday?”

Oh, that is definitely one of my favorites. I always favored Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s stuff.”

The concert favorite “Goin’ Down?” “Yeah, that’s a great one.” More on “Goin’ Down” in a moment, but the point is that Dolenz was perfectly happy fulfilling audience expectations.

I wasn’t trying to do all new material,” he said. “I’m not one of those performers who says ‘I’m not gonna do any of my old hits.’ But again, I can only speak for myself.”

I mention that nostalgia is actually a good thing in music, it provides added resonance for listeners who grew up with a certain kind of music. People WANT to relive great moments from their youth, and what’s wrong with that?

Sure. And another reason I have no problem with it is, I have done other things in my life. I’ve done musical theater (his credits include AIDA, PIPPIN and a London stage production of HAIRSPRAY in 2010). I’ve gotten great reviews, and I’ve played great characters. So if I go out and do a Monkees concert or a Mickey Dolenz concert, it’s not the only arrow in my quiver. It’s not the only thing I’ve done. But it’s certainly the thing I’m most remembered for.”

Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz and Joyce DeWitt in a 2014 production of COMEDY IS HARD! (uncredited photo)

Any baby boomer can recite favorite moments from the first phase of Monkee mania: that inescapable theme song from the TV show, the irresistibly catchy early hits like “ …Steppin’ Stone,” “I’m a Believer,” “She” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” the frenzied energy of the show, a pioneering experiment in the concept of music video. Some people may even remember the unlikely, limited tour that featured Jimi Hendrix as an opening act, something I did NOT have a chance to ask Dolenz about. I was more interested in talking about their music, and though I didn’t get to bring up all my favorite songs, I DID ask about “Goin’ Down,” easily one of Dolenz’s finest hours as a vocalist. Over a jazz-laced romping arrangement that expanded the group’s sonic palette rather significantly, Dolenz sings a rapidfire, tempo-challenging lyric that would be far beyond the ability of most vocalists. The case for Dolenz as one of the finest pop singers of the era was made right then and there, and that was way back in 1967. I tell him how extraordinary the track is.

The story is, there was a song that Mose Allison, a jazz singer, had done – it was called ‘Parchman Farm,’” Dolenz begins. “It was an old bluesy/jazzy kind of thing. I don’t even know if he wrote it (Kevin’s note: he didn’t). It was only three chords. And I always wanted to do it. Peter had done it in the Village when he was coming up, he liked it also. So Mike and I and Peter and Davy laid down a track… it had no melody, just basically this three-chord progression. And when we finished, it was so hot, but then Mike said, and rightly so, ‘I love Mose Allison, and I love that song… but why would the Monkees cover Mose Allison? It’s just a three chord progression! Let’s have someone write some WORDS for our track.’ So we gave it to Diane Hildebrand. And she came back with the song… and the first time that I routined it with her, we played the track. And I had the lyrics in front of me. So I sang it, (Dolenz sings a few lines of the song to me first at the familiar rapid tempo, then at the sluggish tempo he employed when first rehearsing it.) And Diane goes ‘No, No, it should be TWICE that fast!’ (he laughs) And I said ‘What?’ So I rehearsed it, obviously, and then laid the vocal down. Yeah, it’s a big one.”

I tell Micky my poignant story about “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which in a nutshell, is simply that my good friend and musical colleague, Rick Haegg, whom I had a lot of music plans with, died before we could get ourselves on video significantly. The performance of us doing the Monkees song live at Lindberg’s, in Springfield, MO, is destined to be the only YouTube clip of us out there. Micky used my mom’s expression “Oh, wow” in response to this story. But what I had LONG wanted to ask Dolenz about was, of course, Neil Young. Dolenz did a gentle cover of Young’s “Sugar Mountain” on his 1991 collection of pop lullabyes, MICKY DOLENZ PUTS YOU TO SLEEP. But more significant is the fact that it’s still not widely known among casual fans that Neil played on three or four Monkees songs, including “You and I” and the gorgeous “As We Go Along,” from the legendary HEAD soundtrack.

Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees' 2014 tour (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz, soundchecking on the Monkees’ 2014 tour (uncredited photo)

Oh, God,” Dolenz exclaims at the mention of that song. “Absolutely one of my favorites.” The shimmering acoustic guitars of the track and another stellar Carole King lyric (in collaboration with Toni Stern) propel Dolenz to what might be his most romantic vocal ever. “Give up your secrets/Let down your hair/And sit with me here by the firelight… Why think about/Who’s gonna win out?/We’ll make up our story as we go along.” Those are beautifully evocative lines that, when combined with the exquisite tune and a sweeping performance by Dolenz, can induce genuine chills. And yes, Neil Young plays guitar on it. But just HOW did ol’ Neil get involved?

Well, he was just around, like everybody was at that time,” Dolenz replied. “I think he had a close relationship with Carole King, and so that’s why he might have been on that one. But everybody was around. Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles, Carole. It was a pretty small community. Everybody sort of hung around at everybody else’s house. Neil was around all the time. It could’ve been the producer, Jack (Nicholson, a co-producer of the soundtrack). Or Ry Cooder, he was the other guitar player on that. It’s also well known that not only us, but everyone was using the Wrecking Crew. Have you seen that documentary?”

Dolenz was referring to an acclaimed 2008 documentary about the legendary group of studio musicians who played on countless major recordings in the ‘60s. I felt guilty that I hadn’t seen it and told him I’d make an effort to do so.

You should watch it. Yeah, the Wrecking Crew… it was Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell. Glen Campbell. Lots of others. They played on everybody’s stuff. A lot of the Beach Boys stuff. In fact, the story goes that there isn’t one Beach Boy on ‘Good Vibrations’ except for the singing, of course. They played on a lot of early Byrds recordings… the Association… Mamas and Papas. In those days, that’s what you did. Lots of stuff. I’m so glad they are finally getting recognition.”

I asked about Glen Campbell, since he’d died quite recently. What did Micky most remember about him?

Oh, I have lots of memories. We became really good friends. He was in the Wrecking Crew. We kind of just hit it off. We both had families at the same time… in fact, our families hung out. We had barbecues together. One day Glen said, ‘Do you remember your first recording session? Before the Monkees?’ I vaguely remembered it. I was singing around LA at the time. I didn’t know much about recording at all. There were four or five musicians there at the session. I was maybe 19 or 20. So we did the recording, and then the Monkees thing happened. And Glen Campbell said ‘Well, I was your guitar player.’ It was the Wrecking Crew! The song was called ‘Don’t Do It.’ Glen played on it. And Joe Osborn on bass. We did another one called ‘Huff Puff.’ Yeah, Glen was just a great guy.”

Dolenz had also been friends with another legendary songwriter, Harry Nilsson. For the 50th Anniversary of the Monkees, a remarkable set of circumstances came together to spark a new Monkees record, GOOD TIMES, in 2016. It’s a fantastic and surprising recording, which got some help from the discovery of some half-finished Monkees tunes in the vaults, one of which featured Nilsson.

The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)

The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) (publicity photo)

It all came together pretty quickly when we were discussing what we were gonna do for the 50th anniversary,” Dolenz explained. “We had some unfinished tracks from the ‘60s, songs written by Carole King, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. And there were vocals on some, like ‘Good Times,’ the one that Harry wrote. That was obviously gonna be for me to sing on eventually. Harry had put down a pretty hot vocal as a guide vocal. And I thought, Wow, I could do a duet with my old friend Harry Nilsson! So we ended up calling the album GOOD TIMES, that was my idea. And that was the title track.”

Then all sorts of famous songwriters came out of nowhere to be part of this project, right? You discovered that the Monkees had fans in high places!

What happened was that the record label and producers reached out on their rolodex, and all of a sudden we get songs submitted by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge (from XTC). Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. Ben Gibbard. It just exploded and took off. I am very grateful and flattered and proud of the album. We got great reviews, too. Even ROLLING STONE gave us a good review, and they were never so into the Monkees before!”

I mention how unprecedented it is for a band to have a top 20 album 50 years after the fact. Compilations or hits collections might make the charts later in an artist’s career, but for that to happen with a NEW album? Truly remarkable!

Yeah, it occurred to me,” Dolenz began with a laugh. “The equivalent in 1966, back when the Beatles, Stones and the Monkees were around, would have been for an act from 1916 to now have a top 20 album. It would have been something by Al Jolson or Enrico Caruso!” We both laughed loudly.

Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz, 2014 Monkees tour (uncredited photo)

But there was something truly remarkable in the strength of the songs on GOOD TIMES. Mike Nesmith sings “Me and Magdalena” with a delicacy that truly elevates the gorgeous melody to a transcendent level (Dolenz provides harmonies). Peter Tork is at his very strongest on “Little Girl” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” And no one could have anticipated the luscious psychedelia and beautiful joint vocal performance of Nesmith and Dolenz on the Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller co-write, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster.” Such musical surprises led ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK to declare that “the fact that there is a new Monkees album in 2016 is miraculous enough, but that said album, GOOD TIMES!, is nothing short of a masterpiece is astounding.” Fans like yours truly were genuinely amazed.

It’s obviously very gratifying,” said Dolenz. “It took the three of us… well, actually the four of us, because even Davy has a song on there (“Love To Love”). But everything just came together… It had a lot to do with the producer, Adam Schlesinger, who really was enthusiastic. We just kind of caught lightning in a bottle.”

Is there any chance of another Monkees record happening in the future? After all, Micky said that even the notoriously reluctant Mike Nesmith loved making this record.

Well, nothing is in the works right now. We are still riding the crest of the wave off GOOD TIMES. It did pretty well. In my solo show, I even do three songs off that album. The general consensus was that we didn’t want to try to follow that up right away with GOOD TIMES 2. But down the road, you never know.”

Speaking of “the road,” Dolenz performed no less than 60-plus concerts last year, which took him and Peter Tork to four countries. And this summer, he’s been doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour with Mark Lindsey (from Paul Revere and the Raiders) and the Beatles tribute band, the Fab Four. Solo, duo or the odd theatre gig, Dolenz seems to never rest. How does he keep up the stamina for so many shows?

To answer your question, I DON’T,” he laughs. “I get beat up pretty hard. There’s a saying we have, ‘You don’t get paid to sing, you get paid to travel.’ The singing is FREE. I don’t travel very well, it’s hard on me. Probably the hardest thing about doing this.”

Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

Micky Dolenz performing at the Davy Jones Memorial show, 2012 (photo credit: CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

Nonetheless, Dolenz is having a good time doing the 50 SUMMERS OF LOVE tour, and I asked him what it’s like performing with his old chum, Lindsey, whose parent band was big around the same time as the Monkees. This show features them performing together.

Yeah, this is not like a typical compilation show, where one act comes out and does 20 minutes, then the next act comes out,” he said. “The unique thing is that we do the whole show together. We’re both on stage the whole time. He sings on some of my songs and I sing on some of his. We talk in between and do some schtick. We open with ‘ …Steppin’ Stone,’ and we talk about it. He recorded the song, and he’ll say, ‘You know, I did it first.’ But I’ll say ‘Yeah, but I had the hit!’ It’s quite interesting. The set list is based on the SONGS, not who is singing them. It’s a little bit like a Rat Pack thing.”

Dolenz talks about how both he and Lindsey were on the ‘60s TV show WHERE THE ACTION IS, which I tell him I remembered watching. We also talk about enthusiasm for the Monkees’ music in England, Australia and Japan. And the participation of his sister Coco in the latest touring Monkees show (vocals and percussion), and how his daughter, Georgia, just graduated from the Groundlings improve comedy school, and how she and her pop run a furniture business together, called Dolenz and Daughters Fine Furniture. It seems there are constant surprises in Micky Dolenz’s career, and nary a dull moment. It’s plenty of work, and not much “monkeying around.” He knows he’s a beloved pop legend, though, and is grateful for his unlikely and diverse career. I had a zillion more questions I would have liked to ask him, and felt like I had barely scratched the surface in our short chat. But he’s a super busy guy, and was nice enough to give me some time despite an illness in his family. I try to express a level of admiration that would cover how I grew up with him, found myself astonished by the many Monkees reunions through the years and by that amazing new album, and how he’d been on my bucket list of desired interviews. I couldn’t say it all. Micky Dolenz! Wow! But even though I am hardly the first to tell him I’m a devoted Monkees fan and that he is truly one of the most underrated singers ever, I am happy to say it to him personally, anyway.

Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)

Micky Dolenz in his Dolenz and Daughters workshop, 2014 (uncredited photo)

Thank you very much,” is his modest reply. And then I went along, with a HEAD full of impressions…


ANCIENT VVISDOM: 33

(MAGIC BULLET RECORDS/ARGONAUTA RECORDS; 2017)

Once again, my life has intersected with the occult band Ancient VVisdom, led by lyricist, vocalist and Satanist, Nathan “Opposition” Jochum. The group has released three previous albums (including my introduction to the group, 2014’s SACRIFICIAL), as well as a notorious single-sided split with Charles Manson. Yes… THAT Charles Manson. The guy who is rumored to have written a tune or three with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. So, with a name like that and lyrics like that and a pedigree like that, their new record, 33, should be heavy enough to have its own gravitational pull. And, it is that heavy… except in the delivery. Antithetical to SACRIFICIAL, this is an album of mid-tempo, near-folk Gothic rock with acoustic guitars aplenty, minimal percussion and an almost soothing vocal performance. Sure, there are plenty of recognizable metal tropes on 33, with enough reference points to keep any headbanging historian ooh-ing and aah-ing but, the heaviness doesn’t come from any crushing musical fury; rather, the true heaviness comes from Jochum’s belief in what he’s singing. Whether you are – like Nathan himself – a true believer in the power of Lucifer or – like yours truly – a follower of Christ, you can feel the man’s fervor and… well, love for the subject matter. And, wherever you fall within that wide spectrum of beliefs, that emotional connection between Jochum and his own belief system makes for a very heavy – and very real – listening experience.

The genesis of the album is a fairly simple one. As Nathan explains, “33 is a master number. It is also the age Christ was crucified. 33 is the age of the peak of existence. It is the age I am. 33 is the answer.” With that concept in mind, Jochum – along with his brother, guitarist Michael (the Dark Angel) and new bass player, Connor Metsker – created his ultimate peaen to the Dark Lord, the first new music from Ancient Vvisdom in three years. Admittedly, it may sound a little strange to hear love songs to Satan but, again, with Nathan’s fervent beliefs laid bare, the lyrics aren’t as disagreeable as you might think. The album opener, “Ascending Eternally,” is a minor key piano piece which serves as a short, atmospheric intro to “Light of Lucifer,” a kind of space hippie, semi-acoustic dirge that – more than anything else – recalls very early Pink Floyd. With nearly whispered vocals, a wicked, droney vibe and the underlying philosophy of “less is more,” the track definitely gets the record off to a great start. “In the Name of Satan” has a Sabbath-like riff that’s dense enough to caulk Tony Iommi’s entire house. And, yet… even with that heavy riffage on display, as well as some rather hefty percussion (Nathan, again proving that less is indeed more, offers nothing more than a lead foot – or, perhaps, a Led foot? – to the pedal of a kick drum to produce the perfect percussive part for the song) and some Maidenesque twin guitar leads over the top, the number seems to be a near-balladic love song. Hearkening back to the last album, Jochum’s vocals are a nasally cross between Klaus Meine and Ozzy Osbourne. With the band seemingly working its way through every conceivable metal touchstone, “True Will” is Metallica’s “One,” with all of that band’s angst removed… just to prove it can be done! It features more of Nathan’s fine acoustic work floating through some great lead work from Michael. If possible, the vocals are even more understated than on “Light of Lucifer,” making the track that much more powerful. “The Infernal One” is very groove-oriented and much more of a ‘90s alt-rock sort of thing – it comes off as an oddly appealing cross between Soundgarden and Manowar, with kind of a ‘70s arena rock guitar solo thrown in for good measure. It’s actually not a bad song at all, though it seems a bit short at less than three minutes.

Ancient VVisdom (Connor Metsker, Nathan Jochum, Michael Jochum) (publicity photo)

The bass-heavy slab of Sabbath-cum-Metallica-cum-Gothic instrumental moodiness, “Summoning Eternal Light,” gives Connor Metsker a chance to shine (no pun intended). Like similar tracks from Geezer and Cliff, it works well as a stand alone piece or as an intro to the next number. Here, that number is “Rise Fallen Angel,” which features still more Sabbath crunch with Dio-like lyrics of mysticism and spiritualism, while visions of the mighty Priest (along with Cirith Ungol, Diamond Head and Night Demon) dance in your head. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is close. “33is the one where the group (and, in particular, Nathan Jochum’s vocal performance) revisits that weird Blue Oyster Cult/Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser world of heavy ballads. The only thing missing is an actual drummer; far be it from me to question such decisions but, that one missing factor could have possibly pushed the entire album over the top. As is, though, the return to the heavily BOC-influenced SACRIFICIAL sound may also make “33,” lyrically, the most powerful song on the record. Having stumbled upon the BOC comparison, I am now hearing more evidence that the Jochum boys owe more than a fleeting nod to that august court. On “The Great Beast,” the vocals have settled into a nice pop-rock niche, while the music adds a wickedly cool swamp vibe to the proceedings. This track is definitely in the running for my favorite on the album. “Lux” starts off with a languid, melancholic slice of Americana before the song proper kicks in, a languid, melancholic slice of Americana, with self-affirming lyrics and a chorus that pleads – or warns – “Don’t give yourself away.” I gotta say that the further I head into 33, the better it sounds. A short, chilling piano piece called “Dispelling Darkness” closes the album. Echo-drenched and sustain-heavy, the thing may be the single most disturbing piece of music I’ve heard this year. I wonder how it would have sounded if it had been fleshed out into a full band arrangement with suitably maudlin lyrics. Ah, well… one can dream, can’t one? 33 may not be Nathan Jochum and Ancient Vvisdom’s magnum opus, but… it is one fine record.