If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.
Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…
(99) LUCIFER: BLACK MASS
(UNI RECORDS; 1971)
One look at the name and cover of this record generally sent parents to their clergy, asking if an exorcism may be required to save little Billy or Sally from the hellish claws of Old Man Scratch. Despite the name and the tons of negative karma (it seems that the name alone was enough to cause it to sink from public consciousness almost before it was even released) that accompanied the release of BLACK MASS, the album is no more evil or Satanic in its scope or intent than the soundtrack to one of those great Hammer horror movies from the ’60s and ’70s. So, then, why should you care and why should the record rate as one of my 100 greatest of all time? Well… because, despite the name, the album is no more evil or Satanic in its scope or intent than the soundtrack to one of those great Hammer horror movies from the ’60s and ’70s. Oh… and it sounds really good and there are parts of it that still manage to scare the crap out of some people when I play it for them. Oh, and… it was one of the first ever electronic albums, by a true pioneer of the genre, Mort Garson (the guy who wrote “Our Day Will Come” for Ruby and the Romantics, as well as theme songs and incidental music for a bunch of game shows).
Mort Garson (publicity photo)
Garson became a disciple of the Moog synthesizer early on and a guru of electronic music upon the release of the 1967 album, THE ZODIAC: COSMIC SOUNDS (a couple of years later, he would expand this idea with twelve full-length records, each featuring music inspired by the individual signs of the zodiac). By the time BLACK MASS was released in 1971, Garson was well ensconced in the world of experimental electronic music, utilizing the synthesizer and other cutting edge sound inducers. “Solomon’s Ring” opens the album with some now-standard Emerson, Lake and Palmer/BRAIN SALAD SURGERY synth blasts (a couple of years before that record was released); somehow, though, those sounds are more beastial, more seductive here. The track reminds me of one of those movies where a virgin is sacrificed to the Dark Lord or Daniel Emilfork (look that one up) or some such totally evil atrocity. There’s chanting, singing, various “jungle noises” and tribal percussion laced throughout the slinky, oscillating groove of “The Ride of Aida (Voodoo).” “Incubus” is a trippy kind of BARBARELLA romp, complete with synthesizer-produced moans and groans. Despite some deliciously dark moments evoking the title demon, this song is pretty light sounding and fun. The titular number features tolling bells, chanting, wind blowing, a cathedral organ and a whole slew of creepy electronic noises. Even with all of the amazing technological advances in instruments, equipment and electronic music over the past forty plus years, I’ll still stack “Black Mass” up against just about anything since. The record’s first side closes with “The Evil Eye,” which is sort of a continuation of “Incubus” that quickly turns into the science fiction equivalent of a Voodoo curse.
Side two opens with “Exorcism.” The track has a kind of urgency and chaos (in a very organized sort of way) that lends a certain credence to its title, even if the odd, pastoral middle section does seem rather out of place. There’s a wicked sense of playfulness on “The Philosopher’s Stone” that belies the evil intent of the music. “Voices of the Dead (The Medium)” is kind of a lullaby for the criminally insane. If this cut makes you uneasy, you probably don’t qualify as a member of that very select group. Except for the creepy electro-percussion middle section, “Witch Trial” could have come from the soundtrack to one of those cheesy early ’70s made-for-TV movies about witch habitations or haunted lawn gnomes… heck, maybe it did come from one of those infernal things. The basic theme is a classical piece that I’ve always been too lazy to look up. The very short (less than 30 minutes) BLACK MASS ends with “ESP.” The track sounds kind like a swarm of wasps in flight or, maybe, the inside of an active hive; at just over a minute in length, though, it’s hard to make more than a general assumption.
Mort Garson, manipulated (photo credit: GUY WEBSTER)
Of all of Mort Garson’s releases, this one remains the holy grail (the unholy grail?). It has only been reissued three times since its original release – in 1973, when Uni’s parent company MCA moved all catalog releases under the umbrella of the mothership; 1977, when MCA launched a short-lived budget label called MCA Coral; and, finally, in 1980, when they moved everything back under the MCA tent. I’ve had several copies of the MCA versions of this record, so I have never actually seen a Uni version, but I understand it came with a custom inner sleeve with liner notes giving descriptions (and the reason behind the titles) of each piece. I have no idea who currently holds the rights to this masterpiece of electronic music (Garson ceased to exist in 2008, at the age of 83), but it definitely deserves a proper reissue on CD. Call your elected officials and demand they pass a law forcing the release of a definitive version of the 99th greatest album of all time!