STONE TEMPLE PILOTS: STONE TEMPLE PILOTS

(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.


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.


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.


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.


RINGO STARR: GIVE MORE LOVE

(ROCCABELLA RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP; 2017)

There are a mere handful of people that are readily recognizable by just one name: Cher, Liberace, Siegfried-and-Roy (Which I believe was actually the name of a white tiger that had a very successful show in Vegas until some German sap stuck his head in its mouth and it bit down… hard), Madonna and, apparently, Ringo… some dude that, aside from having one syllable more in his name than Cher (who’s primary claim to fame was from a line in a song by the Tubes: “Oh, God! More beautiful than Cher!”), but one less than Madonna and falling far short syllable-wise to the other two, is the father of a fairly successful rock drummer. Okay… I guess I have to come clean and tell you… I have absolutely no idea who this guy with the large proboscis actually is! Well, other than the drummer for, arguably, the greatest band to ever trod this earth. And, oh, yeah… he can sing a little and he’s not a half bad actor. Other than that, a real nobody! Aaand… I think I’ve got all of the stupid jokes out of my system for this review, so…

RINGO STARR (photo credit: GARY MILLER)

GIVE MORE LOVE kicks off with “We’re On the Road Again,” which features a spendly, snake-charming lead guitar from Steve Lukather (yes, THAT Steve Lukather) and bass from that other guy that Ringo played with back in the 1960s. Ringo is his usual rock solid drummer-type, nothing flash but spot on, nonetheless. His vocals are nice on this song, utilizing a standard rock and roll lyrical tool: We’re on the road and we’re coming to your town. “Laughable” is a pretty solid rocker with another nice guitar part, this time from Peter Frampton. Benmont Tench turns out to be the song’s MVP with some quite effective keyboard coloring, while the bass player (either Sir Paulie or background vocalist Timothy B Schmitt) also delivers a stand out performance. One of the more memorable songs from the album (and, just maybe, from Mister Starkey’s recorded output for the past twenty years or so). “Show Me the Way” is Ringo’s love song to either McCartney, his legions of fans or, – more likely – wife Barbara Bach. The “growing old together” theme is one that only a human who has lived through as many years as this artist can pull off with any kind of conviction. It’s a modest little mid-tempo rocker that definitely hits the mark, proving once again, why we love this guy so much. Lukather again gives us a rockin’ little guitar part; Jim Cox’s organ borders on the exquisite. (That last part didn’t come out quite right, but… it is what it is.) “Speed of Sound” is not the Wings tune, but a rather out-of-character “gotta get away” sentiment from Ringo. There’s quite a nice melody line from Ringo, a gentleman who always seems to deliver the perfect vocal for someone with his limited vocal prowess. Lukather and Frampton shine on guitar and co-writer Richard Marx (who, coincidentally, is NOT dead) offers some nice acoustic backing. “Standing Still” is Ringo revisiting the Country sound of his 1970 album, BEAUCOUPS OF BLUES. The vocals are far more forceful here than on any of the more rocking tunes on this record. A name from the very distant pass – Gary Burr – gets a co-writing credit and adds a bit of acoustic guitar to the proceedings, while Steve Dudas plays the electric and Greg Leisz takes the lead on the dobro, all of which adds up to a most impressive tune!

RINGO STARR (publicity photo)

After a pause to flip the record (there’s just something so exciting and special about turning over a slab of vinyl to get to the rest of the recording, isn’t there?), we’re on to side two. “King of the Kingdom” is co-written by yet another music legend, Van Dyke Parks. The tune features a cool wa-wa guitar lead from Dave Stewart and some tasty sax work from Edgar Winter. The newfound Starkey swagger returns, at least lyrically, though it’s tempered by the punchline, “But, she’s the King of the Kingdom.” The brilliant Nathan East continues his stellar bass playing, introducing a little bit of a Reggae feel to the number. You just knew that Joe Walsh was gonna show up somewhere on this record, didn’t you? Well, “Electricity” is that spot. The Starr of our show is definitely having fun with this one, both vocally and percussively. Tench is back with Don Was pitching in on bass and co-writer Glen Ballard offering up some Fender Rhodes. Another Country number, “So Wrong For So Long,” proves that a bit of tongue-in-cheek goes along way. Stewart, Cox, East and Burr return in various capacities, as does Leisz, this time on the pedal steel. Honestly, as much as I like the rock stuff here, I certainly wouldn’t mind another full-blown Country record from this old fart. “Shake It Up” is Ringo playing Carl Perkins (as he did on “Matchbox” way back when), Edgar supplies some finest-kind rolling boogie-woogie piano. Toss in a spot-on Rockabilly solo from guitarist Dudas, and this one may just be my favorite track on the whole record. The album’s title track and closing number, “Give More Love,” is another echo from the past, with a late ‘50s/early ‘60s atmospheric teen idol kind of tune, the type of song that made Ricky Nelson my sister’s favorite singer. Dudas’ bassy guitar sound is perfect for the song, with the Bissonette brothers (Matt on bass, Greg on percussion) adapting their heavier sound to the proceedings with great success. Ringo in the role of Ringo is, per usual, very Ringo-like and that ain’t a bad thing. This is certainly a nice way to end a record from a guy who’s main claims to fame is as the father of famed drummer Zak Starkey and as the lead in the snubbed-by-the-Academy feature film, CAVEMAN.


LIARS: TFCF

(Mute Records; 2017)

Liars have managed an unprecedented feat in my music world. The art punk band that, until their new CD was the work of duo Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, have now made 8 albums in a row that I have loved. In the past 30 or so years, no other artist has made that many consecutive albums that knocked me out. Radiohead and Wilco were in the running, but then each made an album that failed to floor me. So Wilco stalled at 7 in a row. That leaves Liars in this unique position… a band I love who have never made an album I didn’t find thrilling. Their debut in 2002, the bizarrely titled THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP, was responsible for one of the most memorable listening experiences I’ve ever had on the road, with a 30-minute closing track that absolutely marked them out as authentic weirdos. The follow-up, THEY WERE WRONG, SO WE DROWNED, was kind of a song cycle about witches and witchcraft, with some seriously spooky stuff on it, and some willfully perverse anti-commercial compositions that dared you to like them. I did, though… something this band was doing sounded like no one else, and seemed to be the product of an aesthetic that was hard to pin down. Their music combined chants, tribal percussive elements, odd fragments that could be haunting for a spell and then disappear, ambient passages and, sometimes, kick-ass driving rockers. Through it all, the voice of Angus Andrew, which sometimes he’d use to actually sing and sometimes he’d employ in the service of controlled atonality or spooky asides, served as a sonic trademark; Liars established their sound early on, one that was never less than intriguing and that featured fascinating stylistic variations each time out. It was weird, hypnotic, rhythmic and mysterious. It wasn’t for everybody, but so what? It was for ME, that’s all that mattered. In just 15 years, this eccentric band have made 8 albums I love. That’s a damn good track record!

LIARS (Angus Andrew) (uncredited photo)

But when I heard that Hemphill had left the band before this new CD, I was seriously worried. My first reaction was anger.… what, Aaron, being in one of the most fascinating bands of the new millennium wasn’t enough for you? Was Angus too controlling? Was your own muse being stifled? Not enough records being sold? I really wanted to know WHAT happened, and in the pre-release publicity, I read that Andrews wasn’t too happy about the departure. He went back to his native Australia after shuffling around multiple locations between the US and Europe, and set about making TFCF on his own. He remarked that he felt like a “bride being left at the altar” or somesuch, and indeed, the unsettling cover photo shows a dejected looking Andrew sitting by himself wearing a bridal gown, an uneaten cake nearby. It’s the most off-putting Liars cover, but in context, it makes sense and it’s quite sad. As a fan, going into this record, you had to be wondering if this was going to be the first Liars album to fall short – if the departure of Hemphill was gonna reveal that Andrew REALLY needed someone else to rein in his weirder artistic impulses, of which there were many. What were we in for, anyway?

The answer, miraculously, is another great Liars record. Here is proof positive that Angus Andrew is a true visionary, a singular composing talent who has enough adventurous ideas and experimental willfulness to keep the Liars sound fresh and flowing. One big surprise is the prevalence of acoustic guitar on this album. “The Grand Delusional” begins right away with a bit of sombre picking… haunting and evocative. “We said we would ride/We said we would take them out to sea,” Andrew sings, and it could be a reference to his ex-bandmate or a metaphor for something else. It doesn’t really matter; it’s lovely and cryptic. There are two songs that have a specific recurring line that must surely have something to do with the pain of Hemphill’s departure. “Staring at Zero” is short but it has a fairly typical ominous Liars rhythm track over which Andrew sings “Why can’t you shoot me through the heart?… We both were broke right from the start.” Sounds like admitted self-pity to me, and when it segues into some singer/songwriter-y acoustic guitar again right away, the effect is not typical Liars at all, and yet startling in that Liars way. Fascinating stuff. On the memorably titled “No Tree No Branch,” one of several songs that has echoes of Radiohead (past albums had even more songs somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke and company), the recurring lyric that sticks in your head is “If you listen you’ll hear that sound right there in my mind.” It’s true, we DO hear that sound and the rapid, demented keyboard bit over which it’s sung is captivating. This goes right into “Cred Woes,” possibly the most quintessential Liars track on the album. With a truly insistent simple percussion track and an ascending synth line that is sort of an earworm for those of us into this kind of weirdness, Andrew goes on about something obviously important to him but you won’t necessarily make out all the words. You also may not be able to read them in their tiny white type over green background flora as presented in the CD booklet. No matter; something compelling is being presented here, something dramatic and original. It has never mattered to me personally if I could understand everything Andrew was singing on Liars recordings. Some of the most memorable moments are slow and contemplative here: “Ripe Ripe Rot” is like an Eno-esque, slightly sour ambient track with a subdued Iggy Pop-style vocal. “You don’t remember what I said/And it’s time again to explode your heart/Yeah it’s time again to let go,” Andrew sings, with a resigned sadness. This dissolves into a big slice of ambient drift that would be pure hymn-like afterthought if not for the repeating dissonant machine sound that laces it, but maybe that’s the point. Andrew is still carrying on, still indulging his sense of sonic wonder… but his brain is surely hurting, and he’s up to something more than prettiness. In fact, he’s always been up to something partially inscrutable, something where others may not go gently. Liars albums take WORK, and I’m glad this one is no different. It’s one of the shortest Liars discs, but a worthy successor to 2014’s MESS. Sorry about your bandmate, Angus, but hell… you’ve proved you don’t need ANYONE, right? You’re one of the most interesting guys in rock, and I for one plan to follow you wherever you go.