Our Mister Anselmo has been a busy guy over the past couple of years: 2016 saw the return of Superjoint Ritual, redubbed as Superjoint, with CAUGHT UP IN THE GEARS OF APPLICATION; last year, Phil released SONGS OF DARKNESS AND DESPAIR, an EP recorded under the name “Bill and Phil” and featuring horror icon Bill Moseley; now, he’s back with the second album of crushing little ditties from the Illegals, CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS AS A VIRTUE. At the very least, he’s gotta get some type of reward for longest record titles by three different acts.
PILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS (Stephen Taylor, Mike DeLeon, Walter Howard, Phil Anselmo, Jose Gonzalez) (photo credit: JODY DORIGNAC)
This latest offering starts with a black hole of extreme metal that legitimately rocked my actual socks off. That opening salvo, “Little Fucking Heroes,” is a FAR step in a different direction, even for the Illegals. Extreme doesn’t even begin to cover it, there’s a lot of anger and rage here. I haven’t heard this type of rage from Phil Anselmo for a long time, and I have listened to him my entire life. Be ready, because it’s intense: Screeching vocals, insane drumming and guitar, and a not too-veiled message from Anselmo, with lyrics like “ANYONE/With a pair of eyes/Should be able to logically see it/For what it really is/Riding the coattails of infamy/(You) little fucking heroes.” That’s a 10/10 for the first track! The second track, “Utopian,” kind of lost me. It sounds like a bad black metal cover band for the first two minutes, and then it sounds like Phil again. The Illegals are making bold choices on this album, but some just don’t work. The high-scream vocals that Anselmo throws at you at the beginning (and periodically throughout the song) sound just plain bad. No real message to this one, just an attempt at something different that, honestly isn’t worth listening to. I respect the choice, just don’t like the outcome; give it a shot, may work for you, just didn’t for me. “Choosing Mental Illness As a Virtue” is one I have a soft spot for… I love it. It was the lead song off of the album, and I think it encompasses the Illegals’ wheelhouse. It does everything right: Brutal riffing that makes you feel like you are falling into the depths of hell, Phil Anselmo slowing down and making you feel like he is squaring up directly at you, and chaotic time signatures and vocals. Absolute chaos… but in a good way. Everything the Illegals should be is encapsulated in this one song. They are REALLY beginning to come into their own as a band and starting to separate themselves from all of Anselmo’s numerous side projects. “The Ignorant Point” has some filthy riffing in it, but nothing that makes it stand out on the album. Nothing new. Not bad, just not anything you haven’t heard up to this point on the album.
PILIP H ANSELMO AND THE ILLEGALS (Phil Anselmo) (photo credit: DANIN DRAHOS)
“The Individual” is the best song on the album at this point. Absolutely crushing instrumental and the best vocals from Anselmo on this record. If you want vintage Anselmo, you won’t find him here. This is an all new dude, with a new message and a new style, but… somehow the same old Phil we all love. It’s an absolutely killer performance on this song, and kudos to him for being able to throw down vocals this heavy at his age. This song itself is killer, the last 60 seconds are absolute insanity! From here, the album begins to run together a bit. It’s hard to decipher where you are in it. Everything is just much of the same thing; I would have liked to hear a little bit more branching out rather than just the same style over and over again, closer to what they did in the first few tracks. “Finger Me,” with all jokes aside, features Anselmo throwing out a gravely “Walk through Fire” that is totally bad-ass. But, still no different from the last two or three songs. The riff at two minutes is filthy! Unfortunately, there has to be a turd in every punchbowl and, “Invalid Colubrine Frauds” is the one here. The tune is totally skippable. “Mixed Lunatic Results” puts a close on CHOOSING MENTAL ILLNESS… and, I honestly don’t know how you write things like this on guitar. These guitar tracks (by Mike DeLeon on lead, Stephen “Schteve” Taylor and Anselmo himself) are ridiculous… absolutely bonkers! I am a guitar player and I just don’t understand this level of intricacy. Stops, changes in the riffs and key changes, funky time signatures and palm mutes… it’s amazing! Phil delivers vocally, as well, making the closer everything you want in your extreme metal. And then all of a sudden, it changes. It plays you out of the hellhole you just stepped into. All in all, this record isn’t bad at all and worth a listen; I think Phil made some poor choices on some of the vocals, but I understand taking risks.
There was a time about 15 or 16 years ago when everything coming out of Iceland or Scandinavia would excite the hell out of me. Bands were being written about like crazy by lovestruck American scribes including yours truly, and in those post-Bjork days groups like Sigur Ros, GusGus, the divine Mum, Ampop, Trabant, Mugison and many others had me at “Halló, þetta er okkur!” I craved hearing DIFFERENT sounds, DIFFERENT voices, anything that wasn’t predictable American formulaic stuff. And I falsely concluded that anything coming outta the Arctic Circle or thereabouts was gonna be thrill-tronica.
VOK (Einar Hrafin, Andri Mar, Margret Ran) (publicity photo)
Not quite, it turned out. Just ‘cause you have weirdness in your country with midnight suns or a month or two of darkness or the like, doesn’t mean you’re driven to make potently original music. Bland pop can come from anywhere. However, it wouldn’t be fair to call Iceland’s Vok bland. Take the fact they’re from Iceland, with the exceedingly high expectations I’m guilty of, out of the picture and you have an accomplished band with a good strong singer (Margrét Rán), a vibrant enough arsenal of peppy keyboard sounds and tons of production finesse, and you got yourself a more than listenable pop/rock platter. IN THE DARK won’t annoy you or your friends, not at all. But neither is it likely to make you scramble to the web to look up everything you can find about the band. They’re from Rekjavik. They started in 2013. Besides the serious-of-intent Ms Ran, the group sports saxophonist Andri Mar and the multi-instrumentalist Einar Hrafn. This is their second major release, and it’s a decent listen. I looked for details that stood out, and on the title track, onesuch is the tart way Ran sings the refrain “I better toughen up!” That last word comes out at a higher pitch than the previous words, and it gets you. So does this interesting, clearly sung verse: “A creature in the making/Is taking a shape/It’s a form that I’ve seen before/It feels so familiar/But still so rare/Wanna see it but it shakes me to the core.” That’s pretty evocative, and when you consider she’s likely singing about love, you know you got someone with some real artistry here. Guitars are muted, there’s a slow build going on that is refreshing… but it does feel like the sound itself is rather familiar. That impression is reinforced with tracks like “Night and Day” (marked by clean, cool ‘80s-retro keys) and the mid-tempo “Scarcity,” which sounds like, well, “Night and Day.” The first clutch of songs really have a sameness about them which, if you like female fronted synth-pop, you’ll probably enjoy. By the time you get to “Spend the Love,” a bit of ennui may be setting in, although I was grateful the chorus was “spend the love” instead of “spend the night.” Anything for a difference.
Fortunately, there are three stellar tracks on tap. “Round Two” begins with a bit of ominous keyboard, almost alien, then a lovelorn sonic dreamscape unfolds, with Ran’s voice mixed to maximize an edge of heart-piercing vulnerability. “Would you step away with me/And give me everything I wanted,” she sings, with just a hint of Bjorkian eccentricity. Her lyrics here actually remind me of Taylor Swift, but the murky “otherness” of the production kills that impression pretty quickly. The underlying shadows in this song make it a winner; so does Ran’s vocal. “No Direction” is the other mixtape-worthy number, starting with wordless singing and a handclap-emulating rhythmic element before one of the standout verses emerges: “The highway’s leading me the wrong direction/The silhouettes are dragging me down the road/The question is, where am I going?/Better find out than not knowing.” At least that’s what I think I heard, and it sounds an awful lot like my own life. So yeah, this is a nice, showy number. Some film director may get ahold of this one for a deeper than you expect romantic melodrama down the road. “I can wait another day for love” is the chorus line that’ll lodge in your memory, possibly. The surprise but short instrumental “Rooftop Views” is a bit of welcome respite, then we get another standout: “Fantasia.” This is probably the best song on the album, actually. It’s cool, classy melancholy all the way, with Ran’s voice in your face and bigger than life, yet intimate in that chilly Icelandic manner. There’s a minor-key beauty here, coupled with a true sense of purpose at painting a mood of romantic anguish. And this verse is killer: “It coulda been love from the start/We could have been home/Words are a game to you/The only thing you can control/I felt so lonely falling/We had put on a bad show/Too proud to let you know/Too proud to let it go.” Although one more step into production busy-ness could have deflated this one, they kinda get it just right… it’s angsty and musically captivating in about the right blend. If someone is gonna shed tears during Vok’s new release, it’ll be to this song.
VOK (Margret Ran, Einar Hrafin, Andri Mar) (publicity photo)
So it’s like this: IN THE DARK is a perfectly competent, listenable album with a way better than average chanteuse in charge of things. But in a country known for original sounds, it doesn’t break much ground. Ran was asked by an interviewer where their name “Vok” came from. Her response was, “It’s one of those words used to describe something, and it has no equivalent in English.” Most of the sounds on this record have PLENTY of equivalents in the English-speaking world. That doesn’t make it bad, not at all. Just not truly intoxicating except for a song or two.
Sometimes an artist can be quite prolific without most folks knowing who they are. That seems to be the case with Tor Lundvall, an East Hampton based electronica auteur whose largely ambient works tend to be limited editions. He was on a label called Strange Fortune from 2004-2006, where I first heard his evocative works LAST LIGHT and EMPTY CITY, the latter a perfectly satisfying dark-ish ambient platter that worked fine as immersive mood music. Lundvall has categorized his own music as “ghost ambient,” which, while not an official sub-genre in most texts I have read, sums it up tidily. Before the Strange Fortune years, he released a series of seasons-themed platters (something not unsurprisingly common in ambient circles) such as THE MIST and UNDER THE SHADOWS OF TREES. Lundvall is an introspective observer of nature, it seems, and woodlands, fields and changing weather informs his sound rather pervasively. Works for me, as I am a total ambient freak.
TOR LUNDVALL in Washington DC, 1990 (uncredited photo)
Now, however, in one of several retrospective collections he has put out (a couple being very limited-edition box sets), he’s gone back to his youthful coffers to gather up the material that comprises A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999. This does not qualify as ambient, although the evocative and tonally rich keyboards Lundvall plays could certainly serve it up, and HAVE on later recordings. But we get vocals throughout, and unless you’re Elizabeth Fraser or that guy who sang on a track on Eno/Budd’s classic THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR, or any number of nameless ethereal female vocalists who’ve spruced up more heavenly music-style outings than I could name, you don’t get invited to the “Ambient Party.” What Lundvall was doing in yonder years was essentially synth pop, music with two or three well-known IDM type beats, simple but atmospheric keyboard sounds generally mixed upfront, and soft but clear vocals.
TOR LUNDVALL in the studio, 1994 (uncredited photo)
“Original One” comes right out of the speakers with a four-on-the-floor dancey beat and a rather distracting male vocal occasionally barking something unintelligible. No lyrics, but… no “ambience” in the classic manor, either. But it’s kinda fun. “Procession Day” is better, centered around a lovely descending minor fourth interval and an airy Lundvall vocal: “From my window, leaves are turning/From my window, I watch the changing world,” he sings, and there are plenty of casual observations like that throughout the remaining tracks. This is genuinely pleasant, however, and may remind you of classic Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “The Clearing” features dual vocal tracks, one virtually whispered, the other a gentle, higher-register vocal that, when occurring in tandem with the other, creates a hypnotic effect. There are three or four different keyboard elements in the mix, so Lundvall was clearly already a master of light electronica, and he has too much serious intent to let any of this approach the shallow side of the electronica pool. That said, much of this music sounds like standard ‘80s synth-pop, something that many of us were listening to in colleges and clubs at the time. “The Melting Hour” has a rather driving rhythm that recalls early Echo and the Bunnymen (Lundvall’s sweet lead vocal sounds like a lyric he sings, “haunted by dreams”), and “Watched” is rather hypnotic in its purposeful airy pop sound, even if you get the sense that this kind of music was and still is being made by any competent electronica musician with the right computer setup.
As the album progresses, though, you realize you are hearing an artist that loves getting lost in the music. “Hidden” has a 1-2-2-1 keyboard phrase that repeats over and over, effectively, while Lundvall’s shy, boy-ish vocal seems to hover between the background and the foreground. There’s a kind of hazy allure to this track that leaves a lasting impression. “The Night Watch” is even better, a cumulatively mesmerizing song offering more of those evocative lyrics: “I see a tree sitting on the field/The twisted limbs, its leaves conceal/The small dark birds fly against the sky/Along the black streets, the shadows try… ” I let this one play three times. “Lessons That Kill” offers bright, pinging electronics that call the French duo Air to mind, and convey a sense of underlying drama that would have made for a fine instrumental. There is a cool shift in the main melody just after the two-minute mark. Lundvall does sing again, though, and the vocals don’t really command attention, even though they are pleasant enough. The closing “August Rain” features cool, fizzy keyboards in the foreground and a dreamlike, half-whispered vocal firmly in the background. The effect is like lucid dreaming… are you fully awake in reality or not? And how important is it to you to even KNOW what the lyrics are saying? These final few tracks raise that question.
TOR LUNDVALL, 2016 (publicity photo)
Ironically, even though this isn’t a Tor Lundvall ambient release, it would sound pretty good in the background at a social event. I can’t imagine this soft, pop-tronica style really bothering anyone. Lundvall has focus and clarity in his music; you could tell he was thinking things over, and trying to direct his sonic assembly to do his artistic bidding. His later work may be more entrancing to those of us into the ambient immersion thing, but A STRANGENESS IN MOTION… , while not particularly “strange” by my reckoning, does showcase an artist making strides towards a promising musical destiny.
Mark Morton (Lamb of God’s guitarist) has released his first solo album. Titled ANESTHETIC, it is far from something to make you fall asleep. This album truly has something for everyone. It has dark, grooving, fast paced metal, soft rock, vocal focused ballads and just about everything in between.
The record starts with “Cross Off,” an absolutely thumping track from Morton and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park, Stone Temple Pilots). The groove heavy track begins with a scream from Bennington reminiscent of HYBRID THEORY (Linkin Park’s first album) as the late singer delivers searing metal vocals throughout, leading into a breakdown that’s impossible not to move to. From “Cross Off,” the album storms into “Sworn Apart,” with Papa Roach vocalist Jacoby Shaddix delivering a solid performance. Once again, Morton offers a filthy groove. “Axis” features Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) and Slash’s favorite singer, Myles Kennedy. Lanegan sounds like he has been gargling gravel for five years. The track slows things down and forces you to listen. And, so, away we go again with “The Never,” featuring Testament’s Chuck Billy. The tune takes off like a rocket launch 2 inches from your head. More filthy grooves and barking vocals littered throughout this track force you to bang that head. The album slows down a bit from here, with tracks featuring Kennedy (“Save Defiance”) and Mark Morales from Sons of Texas (“Blur”). Both are solid efforts, with Morton and bassist Mike Inez delivering solid performances.
MARK MORTON (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)
The record moves on to “Back From the Dead,” a track with Buckcherry’s Josh Todd. A solid, hard punk/metal thing, this is the best vocal performance Todd has given in years. Another highlight is the hard left turn of “Reveal,” featuring Naeemah Z Maddox. This track really shows Morton’s ability with a guitar. He slows it down and delivers a soulful and sweet guitar solo that works seamlessly with Maddox’s vocals. The album moves on to a hard rock track featuring Morton on vocals. He does a really solid job putting the vocals down in “Imaginary Days.” Very surprising, indeed. And, on to the finish… My favorite track of the year so far is “The Truth Is Dead,” featuring Randy Blythe (Lamb Of God) and Alyssa White-Gluz (The Agonist, Arch Enemy). You can already guess what happens here. White-Gluz opens the track with a beautiful singing intro which breaks into Blythe hitting his signature growl. Lows, highs, everything you could want from Blythe. Alyssa comes in at the perfect time to deliver the chorus, with Blythe throwing some clean vocals behind her. They both show off their growls through the breakdown. The album finishes STRONG. You can definitely tell Morton put a lot of time into this and chose carefully who he wanted performing each track. It’s obvious this is a labor of love and respect for the music. ANESTHETIC is highly recommended, as I think the album is killer… absolutely worth a listen.
Even though Ace Frehley wasn’t my favorite member of Kiss, I was certainly appreciative of his guitar pyrotechnics (figuratively, if not literally) and, once I heard his first lead vocal on the LOVE GUN track “Shock Me,” his stock shot up dramatically in my estimation; the band now had three very distinct voices (Ace’s other-worldly, Marvin the Martian on helium atonal delivery alongside Gene Simmons’ deep-throated growl and Peter Criss’ gravelly purr) to offset Paul Stanley’s rock star style and front-man proclivities. Frehley’s ups and downs (and ins and outs) with Kiss and his battles with more than a couple of personal demons have been well documented; I won’t waste your time rehashing Ace’s checkered past… I’m just glad to have new music from the man.
ACE FREHLEY (uncredited photo)
SPACEMAN kicks off with the anthemic grind of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a track – surprisingly – co-written by former bandmate Gene Simmons, who also adds some chunky bass to the proceedings. Ace’s vocals, which have taken on a certain world-weary quality, are in top form and a slow-build solo is a much-needed cherry on top; not that the song is bad, it just never seems to catch fire, much less spark, aside from that solo. “Rockin’ With the Boys” is a hook-laden rocker that, oddly, hearkens back to “Beth” with its “No need to worry/I’ll be home soon/’Cause I’m rockin’ with the boys” chorus. The song is quite easily one of the best things Ace has recorded as a solo artist. Proving himself to be “King of the Power Chord Riffing World,” the hooks just keep coming with “Your Wish Is My Command,” Ace continues to turn up the cool factor with each successive tune. Even though Alex Salzman is onboard as bassist, the cut is another Simmons co-write, featuring just about everything that we’ve ever loved about Kiss. “Bronx Boy” has a little harder edge than the previous tracks, but then, the New York borough that spawned Frehley and Kiss tends to be a little harder edged than a good chunk of the United States. Another anthem, “Pursuit of Rock and Roll,” closes the first half of the album, as Ace name-checks some of the biggest names in the history of good ol’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, while visiting upon many of the cliches that the music is founded upon: Power chords, riffs you could caulk your house with, wicked solo after wicked solo, gang vocals and, I’m pretty sure that there’s a chunk of apple pie in there somewhere. Oh, and Anton Fig. Ace’s long time friend (Fig played drums on Frehley’s first solo record way back when) is in there, too. While Scot Coogan and Matt Starr are fine time-keepers, they aren’t always willing to show any flashes of aggressive playing, tending to keep things simple which allows the guy who’s name is on the album cover to show off his prodigious guitar chops; Anton has played with Ace long enough to feel comfortable playing with a more aggressive style.
ACE FREHLEY (photo credit: JAYME THORNTON)
Even though it’s a cover (originally recorded by Billy Satellite, later a hit for Eddie Money), “I Wanna Go Back” fits in well with what could be described as a “developing pattern,” with its lyrics-as-catharsis recalling both the happier times and a life sometimes ill-spent. The song, short on lyrical content (though it does get the point across nicely), is a mid-tempo rock ballad that fades just as Frehley takes flight on another guitar solo. Picking up the mantle envisioned with the album’s title, Ace is off to the final frontier with “Mission To Mars.” It’s another song that somehow feels unfinished; again, the tune’s not bad, just… incomplete. Another fine solo saves the number from mediocrity. “Off My Back,” likewise suffers from an early fade. The number itself feels more fully formed than the previous two cuts, with an aggressively biting vocal and another finest-kind solo. The album’s final track, “Quantum Flux,” is an instrumental track with ebbs and flows that has me thinking that I sure wouldn’t mind hearing an entire record of instrumentals from Mister Frehley; hey, don’t laugh… it has been done before. With a really cool acoustic riff playing underneath, Space Ace delivers some of his tastiest runs on this piece. Even though there are other stellar moments on SPACEMAN, it seems that Frehley saved the best for last. I will admit that many of the problems I mentioned above are merely minor annoyances; something a bit more troubling is the mix on the vinyl version of the record (the version I used for this review). The music seems compressed and muddy, which could have clouded my perception of the players’ (particularly drummers Starr and Coogan) performances. With vinyl making a strong comeback, it’s a shame that many of the mixing techniques that were perfected in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now, seemingly, forgotten. Still, while this album probably won’t get as many plays as DESTROYER or HOTTER THAN HELL, it won’t necessarily be collecting dust on my shelf, either.
(EMI RECORDS/CAPITOL RECORDS; 2004)A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS
So, it’s somewhere around the middle part of 1977 and I’m in the “I’ll buy virtually anything that ain’t disco or Country and Western music” mode that typified my life for several regrettable years (with wisdom and age, I’ve repented/recovered from that dark period, except for the disco… that’ll always suck!). While deciding on which 8 to 10 albums to buy on this particular day, I came across a two record set (one full-length album, one 12″ EP) with a striking black and white cover – a still from the classic silent German flick, METROPOLIS. The price was right, so I was soon the proud owner of LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE by something called Be Bop Deluxe. I’d seen a couple of studio albums by the group, of course, but I just could not get behind that name (or the inexplicably hideous cover art or… perhaps it was a deep-seeded fear of Jazz music, another of my quirky phobias of that bygone era)! But, great googley-moogley, chil’uns! When I dropped the needle on side one, track one (“Life In the Air Age”), my brain nearly exploded! This was great stuff… incredible stuff. “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape.” “Fair Exchange.” “Piece of Mine.” “Maid In Heaven.” These were absolutely magnificent slabs of sonic beauty, propelled by the lush, orchestral guitar style of Bill Nelson, the mad genius behind the quartet’s sound.
It was a VERY long time before I came into contact with another Be Bop Deluxe record (though I did purchase a couple of great imports by the then-solo Bill Nelson) – in fact, the band only managed one more album, DRASTIC PLASTIC, before packing it in. Now, a band of which Nelson says, “I don’t think about Be Bop Deluxe as often as fans of the band might presume,” is given its due with this 18-track “Best of… ” package alongside re-issues of the original five studio albums and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (all with bonus tracks, naturally). Does it sound dated? Not as much as you’d think! In fact, I could think of a few current artists who would be regarded as the next big thing if they had recorded this stuff in the past couple of years.
BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1974 (Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, Ian Parkin, Bill Nelson, Robert Bryan) (photo credit: MICK ROCK)
This 18 track collection starts with the title song of the very first Be Bop Deluxe album. “Axe Victim” is rather a lost gem, full of the lyrical wryness and imagery that became a main-stay of not only this band, but of all of Bill Nelson’s subsequent projects (solo or with the group Red Noise). Of course, the benchmarks of Be Bop Deluxe were always Nelson’s guitar work and the solid interplay between the four men (on AXE VICTIM, Nelson was joined by guitarist/organist Ian Parkin, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan). The second track, also from that debut, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” is fueled by Nelson’s ingenious arrangement (and a smoking guitar solo). The tune would later be retooled for the second version of the band, turning it into an almost orchestral live masterpiece.
BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia) (uncredited photo)
The band’s second album, 1975’s FUTURAMA, introduces drummer Simon Andrew David Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, with Nelson exerting his dominance on all fronts: all lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards are performed by him; all songwriting and arrangements are by him. FUTURAMA is the most well-represented release on POSTCARDS… , with four tracks (“Stage Whispers,” “Sister Seagull,” “Jean Cocteau,” and the wickedly cool “Maid In Heaven”). The wisdom of adding Tumahai and Fox is evident from the first notes of the charging train wreck that is “Stage Whispers.” The funky calypso break merely adds to the insanity, and – if I haven’t mentioned it yet, Bill Nelson can play that guitar thing! “Maid In Heaven” follows. Like “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape” and the song that follows, “Sister Seagull,” this tune became a live staple, taking on a new feel with the addition of Simon “Andy” Clark on keys. Speaking of “Sister Seagull,” again the guitars and the arrangement sets Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe apart from most acts of that time (or, for that matter, most acts that have followed in the 30 years since its release). The final track from FUTURAMA is a jazzy homage to “Jean Cocteau.” The song is a major departure for the group, but the trio show that they are more than capable of pulling off such a change of pace.
BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Charlie Tumahia, Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (photo credit: JOHN THORNTON)
By the time of the band’s third record, SUNBURST FINISH, Clark was well ensconced on keyboards. His impact is immediately felt on another live staple (and quite possibly the one song that you may have heard on the radio at some point), “Fair Exchange.” The interplay between guitarist and keyboardist on this track is a good example of the direction that the band was headed. Plus, it’s just a darn good song! “Ships In the Night” builds on the slightly Caribbean feel that was first explored during the break in “Stage Whispers.” The keyboards are, by turns, grandiose and whimsical… not an easy feat in the same song! “Blazing Apostles” re-introduces us to Bill Nelson, guitar hero. During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Nelson goes from metal crunch to jazzy runs to strident funk to fleet-fingered progressive solos.
BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia, Simon Fox) (publicity photo)
The group’s second release of 1976 (and fourth, over-all), MODERN MUSIC, finds the revitalized quartet performing as a more cohesive unit, though it is still quite obvious that Nelson is pulling all of the strings. “Kiss of Light” could have (should have) been a big hit back then; it would probably be a big hit if it were to be released today, with its rather staccato vocal delivery, especially on the chorus. The title track is as laid-back as Be Bop Deluxe ever got, with a lilting, slightly bluesy sound. “Twilight Capers” continues the orchestral approach that was adopted on the previous record, with guitars and keyboards ebbing and swelling throughout, leading to a short Jazz-inflected guitar solo at the outro. This is the band and the musical vision that Nelson took on the road, with the tour that eventually produced the amazing LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE.
BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (uncredited photo)
And this is where the continuity of this release comes into question: The single tune from the live album, “Life In the Air Age,” the title track, if you will, does not follow “Twilight Capers.” Three songs from the group’s final release, DRASTIC PLASTIC, is wedged between the MODERN MUSIC and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE tracks. The tunes – “Electrical Language,” “Possession,” and “Islands of the Dead” – are fine songs, but it is very obvious that Nelson was tiring of Be Bop Deluxe and guitar-driven rock music. “Electrical Language” is powered more by the vocal performances than by guitar (or keyboards), while “Islands of the Dead” is a rather thoughtful, mostly acoustic piece. “Possession,” of the three, is the closest to what fans had come to expect from Be Bop Deluxe’s grand wizard of the nicely turned phrase (of both word and fretboard).
BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Andrew Clark) (photo ourtesy: GAB ARCHIVES/REDFERNS)
“Life In the Air Age,” a track from SUNBURST FINISH, bears witness to just how great this group was as a live unit. The song itself is a progressive pop masterpiece and the band certainly prove their mettle in bringing it to life on stage. As good as they were in the studio, the fact that they were able to improve on those studio versions is a testament to the combined talents of the four musicians, and the arranging acumen of Bill Nelson, in particular. The final two tracks of the package brings it full circle (another continuity issue), with both the A and B sides of the first Be Bop Deluxe single, the independently produced and released “Teenage Archangel” and an early version of “Jets At Dawn,” a tune re-recorded for AXE VICTIM. The A side is, actually, a fairly standard sounding teenage-angst pop song. The B side, however, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and features some of the most exquisite guitar on this package. I just wish that the single tracks would have been sequenced as the lead tracks on this package, even though they were tack-on, bonus cuts for this version of POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE. Ah, well… you can’t have everything, but you can have a fairly comprehensive Be Bop Deluxe primer to hold you over until the proposed box set that Bill Nelson is reportedly working on.
BE BOP DELUXE (Bill Nelson, on stage November 1976) (uncredited photo)
UPDATE:Bill Nelson’s eight-disc box set, THE PRACTICE OF EVERY DAY LIFE: CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF RECORDINGS was finally released in 2011, featuring 34 choice cuts from the Be Bop Deluxe era. Aside form various compilations and reissues, Nelson continues to set a furious pace, releasing no less than four albums of new music this year alone. The last,DYNAMOS AND TREMOLOS is half synth-pop, half guitar rock, all instrumental.
(KACHINA RECORDS; 2001; 2004)A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS
CINEMATIK (Neal Smith, Peter Catucci, Robert Mitchell) (photo credit: TONY LOEW)
Famed Alice Cooper percussionist Neal Smith has lent his name to many projects since the demise of that storied outfit some four-and-a-half decades ago – from the sublime (Billion Dollar Babies, Bouchard Dunaway and Smith) to the ridiculous (the big noise, hair metal of Ded Ringer) to the ridiculously sublime (Plasmatics and his own 1975 solo album, PLATINUM GOD). I’m not exactly sure where this project falls; it’s kind of a “musician’s project,” with textures generally unexplored in any of Neal’s other work. There are hints of the old Cooper sound, particularly a descending riff that spirals through “Temple Mental,” a tune from Cinematik’s eponymous debut. Much of Neal’s work on the trio’s two albums involves African and tribal percussion instruments rather than the standard “rock guy” drum kit that most of us associate with the “platinum God.”
Though there are touches of the old Neal Smith sound, much of the music is very… uh… cinematic. Neal’s bandmates, bassist/vocalist Peter Catucci and guitarist/vocalist Robert Mitchell, create an almost orchestral feel, allowing the understated percussion to flow through the (mostly) instrumental material of CINEMATIK and ONE FULL MOON AWAY, rather than drive the tunes forward. Occasionally, subtlety and power mean the same thing. That is never more evident than on the beautiful instrumental, “Awake,” a song from the first album. With Peter’s minimal use of the didgeridoo and his quietly throbbing bass and Neal’s less-is-more approach (on what sounds like either a tom-tom or a small hand drum and a tambourine) on the evocative Native American percussion, Robert weaves an elegant, slightly jazz-flavored guitar over, under, and through the tune leaving you spellbound. Peter’s didgeridoo comes to the fore a little more forcefully on the rather loopy, jazzy hip-hop of “Reckon Eyes.” Other high points of the first disc are “Nude Ellie,” the somehow transcendent “African Clay,” and the doom-heavy “Even In Sleep.” Peter Hickey guests on keyboards on “Nude Ellie” and “African Clay,” the latter of which also features a vocal performance by Maximillian Catucci; Grace Loew adds cello to the tune “Grace Beach.” I know that somebody somewhere is going to call the music of CINEMATIK “New Age.” If they do (or even if it looks like they’re thinking it), smack ’em! They deserve it (plus… they won’t hit ya back cuz they’re all peaceful and at one with self and universe… or some mumbo-jumbo crap like that)!
ONE FULL MOON AWAY pretty much picks up right where CINEMATIK left off, but tends to rock a bit more (maybe due to an unsolicited “New Age” tag-line haunting the guys from the first album). “Incognito” borders on rock and roll more than just about anything else on either release, with a “JAMES BOND” kinda vibe and the trio expanding their sound to include – among other things – a sax (provided by Klyph Johnson). Robert adds a little bit of Frippertronics-style guitar sound washes through-out the disc, all to good effect. This album also features more vocal tracks and more harmony and backing vocals than the first. Plus – inadvertent or homage – there are tracks that virtually scream “Alice Cooper!” The hypnotic “Million To One” is very reminiscent of “Halo of Flies.” In a slightly less chaotic fashion, of course. With Robert and Peter splitting lead vocal duties, I’m never quite sure who’s singing what, but I must say that one of the guys has definitely picked up a stylish Joe Walsh kind of phrasing, put to good use on “Unfrozen,” among others. The Native American percussion is back on a track called “Amorak,” but the over-all sound of the track is very spooky… a kind of swirling eddy of darkness. “Euriffodes” (sound it out and you’ll get the little inside joke) is an excuse for Neal to play a standard (if smaller than usual) drum-kit and for Robert to… ROCK OUT! The track is, possibly, the guys showing everybody that Steve Howe and Yes aren’t the only people who can pull off a song like this. Other high spots include the trippy “Murder In the Moon” and the percussion heavy Middle-Eastern fusion of the final track, “Simplas Childernz.” Peter adds the violin, clay flute, and berimbau to his instrumental onslaught, while guest players help to flesh out the sound: Grace Loew returns on cello, Rob Fraboni adds shaker to the goofy “Wolfman’s Holiday,” and Klyph Johnson is all over the place with his already noted sax work, as well as the occasional bassoon.
NEAL SMITH (photo credit: JIM SIATRAS)
Listening to the albums back-to-back, I’d have to give the nod to CINEMATIK on atmosphere alone, though the more up-tempo ONE FULL MOON AWAY definitely is worth obtaining, as well. It has been a while since these albums were released (they are copyrighted 2001 and 2002), and the three members have all gone on to other projects (most notably, Neal’s return to the rock arena with Joe Bouchard and Dennis Dunaway and Peter’s work on the Garrison Project album). However, the music that these three men make together is truly amazing. I, for one, am hoping for a third release from Cinematik.
In 1988, Geffen Records released an album of pop music with haughty (some would say pretentious) rock overtones by a band called 3. That band featured two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (the sixty-six percent that wasn’t Greg Lake) and multi-instrumentalist journeyman, Robert Berry. The partnership was an attempt to play the more melodic style of progressive rock which had given Palmer and Berry (with Asia and GTR, respectively) some successes in the previous few years. Maybe the impetus grew from Keith Emerson’s desire for a wider audience than he ever experienced in the Nice or ELP; a growing need to be accepted. Whatever brought the three together, the resulting record, … To THE POWER OF THREE, was well received. With the band doing well on the road, Keith began to feel stifled by the record company’s insistence that they strike while the iron was hot, virtually demanding that they return to the studio to begin work on album number two; Keith’s answer was simple: He quit. Fast forward to 2015. Robert found himself in conversations with Italy’s Frontier Records regarding a new project from 3; After consulting with Emerson (but, apparently, not Carl Palmer) regarding the possibility of resurrecting the band, the two began writing and demoing new material, scheduled studio time, signed contracts with Frontier and… as quickly as it began, it was over: Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Reeling from the loss, Berry set aside the project; after a time of grieving and reflecting, Robert decided to once again resurrect the project – utilizing songs and snippets of ideas that he and Emerson had shared – as a final farewell to his friend and band-mate. Working as a one man band, he began work on what would become THE RULES HAVE CHANGED under the name 3.2. Does it work? For the most part, I think so. The record is split fifty-fifty with new Berry compositions and pieces that he and Keith had been working on before the latter’s death. Still, Emerson’s larger-than-life character and overwhelming musical sensibility are felt throughout what Robert has accomplished here.
3.2 (Robert Berry) (publicity photo)
“One By One” starts with a magnificent, cinematic piano piece before a grandiose, symphonic blast of power propels the song into the first verse, where Mister Berry’s pop leanings are on display front-and-center. Here, the number takes on the feel and scope of an Asia-like progressive ballad; the instrumental passages convey a blend of piano-driven Jazz and Classical phrasing, which informed much of Emerson’s career. Time changes and sudden shifts in style over the tune’s seven-plus minutes, while off-putting at first blush eventually come into focus as the ultimate tribute and a heartfelt homage to Keith Emerson. On “Powerful Man,” the original intent of the group is brought into sharper focus, with what could be considered a more radio friendly sound within a simpler – by comparison – more compact and focused five minute rock song, led by Robert’s Emerson-inspired keyboard work. This certainly would not sound out of place nestled between the poppier works of GTR, Asia or even Trevor Rabin-era Yes. With the title track, the pomposity almost crushes the feel of what the artist was trying to convey, lyrically. The song is a double-edged sword, as the words could be taken as a betrayal by a lover or, more deeply, it may also be construed as an open letter in which Robert attempts to heal the wounds torn open by Emerson’s suicide. Perhaps “The Rules Have Changed” would have been better with a more stripped-down approach but, then, Keith Emerson was never known for his subtlety. Referencing many of Emerson’s most well-known riffs, “Our Bond” is, finally, Robert Berry’s soul stripped bare over the loss of a dear friend. Likewise, the music is stripped of any pretensions of grandiosity. This, the third of four numbers written solely by Berry, brought a shiver to my spine, particularly the perfect, lone piano that closes out the piece. It is, by far, my favorite track thus far.
“What You’re Dreaming Now” has the unmistakable mark of Keith Emerson and the glory days of ELP (as well as a bit of ELPowell ‘80s bombast) all over it; Berry’s vocal phrasing even shares a certain quality, if not timbre, with Greg Lake while his drumming exhibits the power of Cozy Powell along with the finesse of Carl Palmer. It may not be the strongest composition on the album, but for sheer progressive physicality, it’s hard to beat. The playful, almost joyful sound of WORKS-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I’m thinking something like “Tiger In a Spotlight” from …VOLUME TWO) are in full effect on “Somebody’s Watching,” with a pumping bass and a guitar set to “power chord stun.” The keyboards sound as if they could have been recorded by Emerson at any time over his illustrious career; as Keith has a co-writing and co-arrangement credit on the tune, one does wonder if Robert used a snippet of a demo that Keith had provided and built the track around that unfinished framework. “This Letter” starts off as beautiful ballad, with a nice acoustic guitar lead and hints and echoes of piano playing around and beneath a ragged vocal; an synth-derived orchestra plays in as the pace begins to quicken at about the halfway mark. All well and good but, the piece begins to morph into a sort of gypsy parody of itself shortly after the introduction of a ragtime piano and we are soon witness to the number devolving into something so far afield from where it began that the joy – for me, anyway – is sucked right out of it. It’s as if Berry has taken two very different songs and jammed them together in an attempt to… what? The first half borders on exceptional while the second half borders on theatrical overkill. Things are definitely back on track with the final track, “Your Mark On The World,” with power chords aplenty and the return of the Emerson penchant for verbose noodling on every keyboard he could get his hands on. As much as I dislike the second half of “This Letter” for that same verboseness, it works in the context of this more upbeat number. Oddly enough, the thing seemed to end way before it was actually over – at 5:20, Robert just… stops! It really felt like it could have and should have gone on for another two minutes, at least. Oh, well… such are the vagaries of Rock and Roll and, if it took me almost an entire record to find something to complain about, I’d say that Robert Berry has done Keith Emerson proud. Well done, Mister Berry!
3.2 (Robert Berry, Keith Emerson) (uncredited photo)
(PLAY PEN MUSIC/RHINO RECORDS/WARNER MUSIC GROUP; 2018)
After a brief dalliance with the late Chester Bennington, Stone Temple Pilots (drummer Eric Kretz and the brothers DeLeo, guitarist Dean and bassist Robert) are back with a new record and a new singer (Jeff Gutt) in tow. Unlike the recent stale, rather listless return of the Layne Staley-less Alice In Chains, this band had me intrigued the very first time I heard the advance single, “Meadow,” on the radio; this is not an “all new, all different” STP, this is an extension of those early albums that thrilled us throughout the ‘90s. With the ghosts of both Scott Weiland and Bennington floating in and through this music, we are pummeled by the realization of just how great this band are. Gutt – lyrically and sonically – is on virtually equal footing with Weiland (even if he does kinda remind me of Layne physically).
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS (Robert DeLeo, Dean DeLeo, Jeff Gutt,Eric Kretz) (photo credit: MICHELLE SHIERS)
“Middle of Nowhere” is as straight forward a rock ‘n’ roll tune, with a ballsy Led Zeppelin riff and a snotty sorta solo, as anything from the band’s original run with Weiland. The music does sound a little compressed to me, but that could just be Dean’s guitar being tuned a little bit toward the lower side of things… a sound that is not entirely unappealing to these ears. We are definitely starting things off on the right foot here. On “Guilty,” Jeff displays a certain violent swagger, much like the dangerous edge that defined many of Weiland’s lyrics: “You’re gonna pay the price/You’re gonna pay tonight.” Robert’s bass is quite prominent in the mix, highlighting just how good he is… something that I somehow missed on those classic records. The compressed sound continues, an artifact I’ve learned is unique to the vinyl version of the album; again, it sounds pretty good to me, a little more bassy, which I like. I must admit, though, it is a bit nettling to think that this may not have been the sound the group was aiming for but, you know… VINYL! The first single, “Meadow,” is steeped in the classic STP sound and could very easily be mistaken for an early outtake or a B-side from PURPLE or TINY MUSIC… SONGS FROM THE VATICAN GIFT SHOP. A staccato guitar and pumping bass are indicative of that signature sound, as well as some multi-layered vocals from Gutt. “Just a Little Lie” burns low, a near-stately pace that finds the band hitting on all cylinders. More of Jeff’s brilliantly oblique and illusory lyrics lend the tune a rather melancholy feel even as he invites the listener to sample this new Stone Temple Pilots: “Step inside the maiden ride/It helps if you don’t breathe/Patronize and criticize/And welcome to the scene.” Dean DeLeo offers a trippily laid-back solo that perfectly fits the mood of the number. A short, potent stab of near-perfection, “Six Eight,” plays out as a weighty piece of psychedelic Blues of Zepplinesque girth and Hendrixian breadth. The lyrics, again, are at once fraught with a multi-leveled complexity yet given over to the simplicity of a well-turned phrase… and here I thought it was only Rock ‘n’ Roll! “Thought She’d Be Mine” is a magnificent ballad as only STP can deliver. There’s a certain power-by-subtraction approach to Eric’s drum work, as he concentrates his efforts on the vibes, underscoring the chiming quality of the guitars. Though he’s more than proven himself through the first five tracks, this is the best indication so far as to the superb lyrical and vocal abilities of the new guy.
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS (Jeff Gutt, Robert DeLeo, Dean DeLeo, Eric Kretz) (photo credit: MICHELLE SHIERS)
Side two (or, for those of you who don’t speak “record,” the second half) kicks off with “Roll Me Under.” The song kinda makes me think, “What CORE woulda sounded like if it had been recorded by some strange mash-up of Pink Floyd and Guns ‘n’ Roses.” As far as that statement goes, Gutt’s lyrics may answer the assertion best: “Do with me what you will.” “Never Enough” is a strolling piece of mid-’60s British Invasion Mod, with a nod to Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton-era Humble Pie and Robert’s bass part has a definite Entwistle quality to it… I can almost see the Ox’s nimble, fleet-fingered hands working this one out. The melody line on “The Art of Letting Go” reminds me – believe it or not – of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Melissa.” Obviously, with that comparison, the tune is another solid ballad. The kinda open-ended lyrics could be about a lost love or the band’s two previous singers; it works nicely either way. And, of course, after the Allmans where can you go but to the Beatles? There is just something about the vocal melody line of “Finest Hour” that keeps screaming “McCartneyism!” to me. The song features the usual solid work from the musicians, especially Dean’s guitar and Kretz’s drums. “Good Shoes” is STP playing Rockabilly filtered through a rough punk groove. While maintaining the Rockabilly feel, Dean also supplies the record’s most stinging, snotty guitar along with a very Rock God solo. “Reds and Blues” is the type of song that Alice In Chains should have gone with for their return. As is, it makes a great album closer for STONE TEMPLE PILOTS and bodes well for the future of this group. While the four members of STP embrace their history and the memories of Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington here, they are also forging a path forward that should excite their fans, both old and new.
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.