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STAR ZERO: EVERLASTING LOVE

(SELF-RELEASED SINGLE; 2024)

Star Zero is new band formed by five seasoned veterans from San Clemente, California. They have recently released several singles of what has been termed “Nu-Grunge” or “post-Grunge,” which is a not-unappealing melding of Grunge (generally exemplified by artists such as Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) and Nu-Metal (down-tuned-guitar based Metal acts such as (hed) PE, Deftones and Chevelle). The group, channeling the more melodic side of heavy music (Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains immediately come to mind), features Josh Paskowitz, former vocalist for the Flys (1998’s “Got You (Where I Want You)”) alongside guitarists James O’Brien and Billy Murphy, bassist Jeff “Poppy” Poppenhagen and drummer Bernie Sanchez; they are augmented live and in the studio by keyboard player Reggie King.

“Everlasting Love” is Star Zero’s latest single. The quintet continues working with producer Cameron Webb (who has helmed projects by Linkin Park and Motorhead, among others) on a full-length album. The video, as you can see, is an artful, mind-bendingly trippy ode to the Old West; the music is stunningly melodic with gargantuan, beefy guitar and Paskowitz’ incredible vocals, evoking the memories of both Layne Staley and Chris Cornell (with a little Scott Weiland thrown in for good measure). This song, along with “You” and “King Saul,” has me excited for a full-length release! Make it so, gentlemen!

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: KING CRIMSON AT 50

(DISCIPLINE GLOBAL MOBILE (86 minutes; Unrated); 2023)

In the pantheon of so-called “progressive rock” groups, you’ll always find discussion of such bands as Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd and a few other titans of technological trailblazing and trickery. Prog rock has generally been revered and reviled in equal percentages, but that’s no big deal… EVERYTHING is nowadays. Mention King Crimson, however, and I suspect there’ll often be a pause before the expected opinion is uttered. There’s always been something DIFFERENT, something hard to pin down about this Robert Fripp-led ensemble. You can’t just say ONE thing about them. Were they the makers of that outstanding classic rock platter IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, the one with the cover of an enlarged mouth gone wild and the immensely pleasing vocals by Greg Lake? The unpredictable sonic architects of challenging platters like RED? The laboratory where some of today’s finest musicians, such as Bill Bruford, Tony Levin (looking cool as heck in his segments) and Adrian Belew went IN and came OUT as changed players forever? The often tyrannical experiment waged by mad overseer Robert Fripp who expected DISCIPLINE (pun intended), tireless dedication and an impossible sort of perfection from anyone he deemed worthy enough to be part of his ongoing alchemical adventure? The answer: YES. To all of that. And as the amazing documentary IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: KING CRIMSON AT 50 makes clear, there was a lot of suffering taking place to make that art over a half-century’s duration..

“I came back from making some of that music and my hair had fallen out,” said guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew, whom most associate with one of the most fertile and memorable phases of the band, from 1981 to 2009. “It was so stressful to be under the microscope that way.”

“It could be a very bumpy… and lumpy ride,” Bill Bruford offered about his time in the band. “Some people handle being winded, and WOUNDED, better than others.”

Guitarist/vocalist Trey Gunn, part of the band from 1994-2003, provides an even more memorable quote about the KC experience. He compared being in Crimson to having a low-grade infection. “You’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well, either.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (JAMIE MUIR) (screen shot)

Much has been written about King Crimson over the course of their volatile journey, and this documentary does a good job of trying to provide perspective on a fascinating musical story. A common element in any attempt to discuss the band is coming to terms with the uncompromising vision of guitarist/leader Fripp, who, as one of the most innovative guitarists of all time, had the right to pursue his musical goals and listen to what his ego commanded. But that was not always pleasant for the players, to say the least, and Fripp himself has often said he’s not always the nicest guy in pursuit of his musical ambition. Some contributors, such as percussionist Jamie Muir, didn’t last long; his work was mostly confined to the 1973 album LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC.

“It’s a maelstrom of electricity,” he said in a clip from the film. “You’re in the middle of a storm, and you’ve got to stand in the middle of this storm and coherently play music. And a roaring, bellowing, regal animal tries to emerge out of something.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (ROBERT FRIPP AND “THE GREAT SILENCE”) (screen shot)

There are plenty of clips of performances in the doc, although maybe not as many as you might want from the early days. But it’s the honest interviews with the many fabled musicians that make the biggest impression. Some, such as drummer Bill Rieflin, are not around anymore despite a prominent presence in the movie (Rieflin died in 2020 at the age of 59). There are quite a few segments that feature Rieflin, and he’s one of the more affable commentators we see. “Urgency is one of the main characteristics of Crimson music,” he relates. We see that powerful vibe in clip after clip, and Rieflin is among those who apparently thought the relentless challenge of it all was worth it, despite the “constant pain” he was in during his last couple of years. Rieflin was quite a storied musician already, having contributed his talents to bands such as Ministry, Pigface, REM and Swans among others. He was passionate about what Crimson was doing and said he was “made for it” when asked why he stayed when it was clearly so tough. “Music can restore grace, if only for a moment, in a person’s life,” the drummer related. He could have been referring to both the players and the fans. The doc shows us numerous crowd scenes of Crimson fans, clearly enraptured, bobbing their heads or staring at the band in awe. There’s a substantial segment featuring a nun, of all people, expressing her rabid enthusiasm for the band. “It goes over most peoples’ heads,” one pundit declares. “It is quasi scientific. If you get it, you really get it. Something like magic happens. But the conditions have to be so perfect. To get there… it’s so fragile.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (ROBERT FRIPP) (screen shot)

The film does not shy away from showing how bull-headed Robert Fripp often was. He was often quick to get angry, dismissive of early incarnations of the band, and actually somewhat insulting to director Toby Amies. A long and painful moment near the end of the doc shows the director waiting eternally for Fripp to answer a reasonable question. I had to check my screen a couple of times to make sure the image hadn’t frozen… but no, it was just a long, long closeup of Fripp thinking, composing some sort of response. And one of the last scenes is a direct insult, with Fripp obviously NOT quite appreciating the inherent uncertainty of what Amies was trying to do… putting together a sprawling and ambitious doc about one of the most singular and unpredictable bands in the history of rock music. Amies makes a wise decision to feature so many players in KC’s revolving door talking about their experiences… a sense of the genuinely personal and honest comes through, from pride to abject misery at times. “I just started to hate what I was hearing,” admits Ian McDonald, a KC member only in their first incarnation. “The really dark things. I hated inflicting it on the audience.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (KING CRIMSON LIVE AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL) (photo credit: TONY LEVIN)

But as the passing of time (and the countless changes) have shown, King Crimson has a dedicated fan base, who LIKE the “dark things” and the less easily accessible elements of this wild and weird music. Fripp always has an intense look on his face in the doc, like he KNOWS that attaining musical transcendence is possible, no matter the hardships for the rest of the band (and, to be fair, HIMSELF) in trying to get there. KING CRIMSON AT 50 serves the fan base well and does a remarkably balanced job at portraying the tireless pursuit of aiming for the sonic UNKNOWN by a truly ambitious innovator and his band of (mostly) sympathetic comrades. Whatever your opinion of any phase of Crimson’s long career, this well-paced documentary is absolutely worth seeking out.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: As an aside for readers in the Saint Louis area, if you miss Crimson’s “live actions” or just want to see a really good band playing some very challenging music, there is a great tribute band called THRAK performing locally for your listening and dancing pleasure. Check out their Facebook page when you need to scratch that Crimson itch.)

AMBIENT MUSIC: A QUIET PASSION

(IN CELEBRATION OF A GENRE BY KEVIN RENICK, FEATURING A NEVER-PUBLISHED SURVEY)

BRIAN ENO, mid-1970s (photo credit: ERICA ECHENBERG/REDFERNS)

Pretty much everyone has heard of ambient music by now; if asked, the average person will say something like, “Oh, it’s that quiet background music that people use for relaxation and meditation and stuff.” Anyone who follows music or online music sites will likely know that Brian Eno had something to do with the founding/popularization of the genre, and a growing number of listeners may even be able to namedrop some of the more popular artists in this realm, such as William Basinski, Steve Roach, Tim Hecker, Stars of the Lid, et al. Ambient music has been around for roughly half a century (I’ll get to why Brian Eno’s DISCREET MUSIC from 1975 was arguably the first TRUE ambient recording in a bit here), but for most of that time it was very much a cult thing, something that a handful of enthusiasts and enlightened music writers would have quiet conversations about here and there. As the internet evolved and came into widespread use in the mid-to-late ‘90s, the phenomenon of “listserves” and chat groups allowed fellow ambient lovers to find each other and bond over this rapidly growing sonic universe, and it helped that the ‘90s saw some of the most important and influential ambient pioneers of all time releasing major, enduring works… this included such names as Pete Namlook (and his wildly prolific German label FAX), Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London, the Orb and so many, many others. By the early 2000s, specific ambient review pages were springing up all over the internet, and “fan groups” were no longer something reserved just for major pop and rock stars. You could find ambient information pages with just a casual google search by 2010, and virtually any popular ambient artist had a fan page and possibly even a separate Facebook discussion group. The main Brian Eno page on Facebook, “Before and After Ambient,” grew to well over 10,000 members by about 2020, and the genre itself, once a rarefied category, became more and more popular as enthusiasts spread the word electronically and as ambient music began to get used in films more and more. Michael Mann’s HEAT and Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES were just two of many films whose soundtracks were largely ambient (the latter actually featured Brian Eno substantially). And a curious thing happened when the pandemic struck; when people started staying inside more and more, many of them “found” ambient music and discovered it was perfect for this new, nearly apocalyptic age. The drones, tinkles and strange lush chordings of this electronic sub-genre were a darn good soundtrack for a world in which death or detachment might be uppermost in the minds of average citizens. The New York Times itself published a major piece extolling the virtues of ambient for this modern age, and Brian Eno, godfather of the whole ambient universe, finally saw the ideas he generated that were once frowned upon by snottier critics and snobbier listeners, practically enter the mainstream, now fully embraced by an audience that had their minds opened wider by all that was available. Ambient is now here to stay, and most major music sites regularly publish lists of “Best Ambient Recordings,” with PITCHFORK doing an ambitious piece of “50 All Time Best Ambient” just a few years ago; I recall that list generating a ton of controversy because not everyone agreed on the choices. You expect that sort of thing with Rock, of course. But AMBIENT? Causing people to argue over what mattered most? Bet Eno himself couldn’t have seen THAT one coming.

GAVIN BRYARS, 2018 (photo credit: KATE MOUNT)

So I say all that by way of introduction, but… ambient is a deeply personal and cherished music world to me. And yes, I’m gonna give myself a pat on the back… I was there from the beginning. Listening to TV and movie theme music (STAR TREK was influential for me), and hiking in the woods a lot as a teenager gave me absolute primed receptors for the kind of mysterious, foggy sound world that was about to emerge in the ‘70s. I already knew stuff by Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield and a few others, but I discovered Brian Eno in 1975, and that was momentous beyond words. I bought ANOTHER GREEN WORLD like tons of other fans, but it was DISCREET MUSIC that altered my trajectory as a listener. It came out that same year, with a technical essay on the back cover explaining how the music was made, and a weird almost all-black cover signifying this as an OBSCURE LABEL release. That was Eno’s boutique label in which he produced and brought the world a series of experimental works by new composers who were not necessarily otherwise going to find popularity. Among the prominent releases were works by the great Harold Budd (another ambient pioneer), Gavin Bryars (his THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC was groundbreaking) and even Mister Silence himself, John Cage. My favorite version of his landmark piece “In a Landscape” appeared on the Eno-produced Obscure release. DISCREET MUSIC, however, was the biggie for me. Side One was a 20+ minute piece that featured lulling, goosebump-raising minimalist tones that sounded like they were far, far away, the dreamlike beckoning to a place of peace and beauty that you wished SO much you could get to. But only COULD by listening to this album. I loved it not only as a soothing work of musical transcendence, but oddly, it became my “go-to” album for hangovers, of which I had a few during that era. Something about that gentle, entrancing sound was able to make me forget everything else, even discomfort. It’s influence on me cannot be overstated. But Eno was just warming up. I’d have to write a separate article on the man’s huge, overwhelming impact on my life (I wouldn’t even be a modestly successful musician without Eno’s influence), but for now, it’s worth recounting that just a few years after DISCREET MUSIC, Eno put out a little thing called AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. That was the album where he coined the term “ambient music,” and is generally considered the official START of the genre. PITCHFORK had it as #1 on their widely read list of the classics, and many people have written essays about this potent collection of four shimmery, drifty pieces featuring simple piano melodies, synthesizer and lilting female chorus vocals. I listened to MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS over and over and over, most notably during a time when I was housesitting for my parents’ friends for a six-month period in 1979. But just a year later, came the first of two stellar collaborations with Harold Budd, this one called AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR. Without question one of the most beautiful and tranquil ambient releases of all time, and STILL cherished. And then in 1982, Eno released AMBIENT 4: ON LAND. Sometimes it takes a while for a groundbreaking masterpiece to get its due, for the “new territory” that is staked out to fully get integrated by those who follow in its wake. But I didn’t have to wait, myself. I recognized ON LAND as a breathtaking, visionary leap forward right away; I became obsessed by it, in fact. It was literally a dream come true to experience this album. And so eager was I to thank Mister Brian Eno for what he’d done on this gem of an album, that I wrote him a long, long letter about it. I recall it being nearly 30 pages long. I had a LOT to say. I was in college at the time, and I spent several long sessions composing my letter… about how I’d dreamed of a music that could capture the rich experience of being out in the wilderness, how I enjoyed listening to birdsong and admired how Eno incorporated birds into the sonic fabric of some of his pieces, and how the very mysteriousness of ambient as a form was expanding in bold new ways, far from anything that could be talked about in the same breath as “new age” (which less experienced listeners often did) or the generic “mood music.” Nope, Eno had definitely conjured something brand new here, and my own world would never be the same.

HAROLD BUDD, 2018 (photo credit: MARTIN BOSTOCK PHOTOGRAPHY)

Pleasingly, I was not the only one. While here and there I would run into another Eno fan who was intrigued with his experiments, it wasn’t until the computer age that I began to realize many other people not only loved Eno’s ambient music but in fact, were passionate about the genre itself. It was the late 90s when I learned about “Hyperreal,” an internet listserv for fans of this rapidly growing style of music. As I sit here writing this, I feel overwhelmingly nostalgic about the years I spent communicating with fellow enthusiasts in this group. We regularly exchanged lists of our favorite releases, argued about the difference between “ambient” and “new age,” and turned each other on to new stuff over and over. I learned about Pete Namlook and the FAX label in this group, which was very significant for me personally. And, I hungered for an updated “Most Popular Ambient” list after seeing modest lists done by one or two members in the period before I joined. So, in 2001, I volunteered to do a very intensive “Classic Ambient” survey, in which members would submit their list of ten favorite, or sometimes even twenty favorite ambient recordings of all time. But I wanted it to be even bigger… I decided to also contact some DJs on electronic music shows, and some music journalists who were NOT part of the Hyperreal group. I wanted this survey to really COUNT, for anyone interested in this still “relatively” rarefied type of music. The amount of time I spent on this thing and the good timing of it helped make this one of the most widely read and useful pieces I ever put on the internet. It is STILL online, in fact, though many of the individual pieces other members submitted are long gone, including the entire beautiful 2350.org website devoted to Pete Namlook. But you can still read my 2001 survey right here:

http://music.hyperreal.org/epsilon/info/2001_classic_ambient.html

Having been able to make a small contribution to the contextualization and popularity of ambient made me almost giddy, but I still wanted more. I did another survey five years later that I think vanished into the ether. And then, I repeated my intensive approach for a survey in 2015, right before the “ambient@hyperreal” group scattered in the wind, the victim of a changing world and rapidly evolving internet/social media universe in which there were simply too many groups to even keep up with anymore. The intimacy of Hyperreal and the many friends/colleagues I’d gotten to know there was not to come my way again. Yes, I joined many other groups, and pored through survey after survey of “Best Ambient”, “Most Influential Ambient,” et cetera. There is so much literature on the subject now (though not that many published BOOKS per se), that the connoisseur can just do a google search and find himself with stuff to read for DAYS. I do it often. But the internet – and social media – have taken over our lives these days, in a way that wasn’t quite the case in the early days of the millennium. Something is DIFFERENT now. In those old days, you would learn about what was SPECIAL by talking to a (relatively) small group of peers, checking it out for yourself, and probably buying it. Nowadays, EVERYTHING can be had easily. A millions different web sites will tell you what is truly special, even about ambient. Even REDDIT has ambient pages now, and for deep research, you can go to DISCOGS, which didn’t even exist back in the heady days I spoke of earlier. It’s all available: The music, the opinions, the listings, the “expert” opinions. You just gotta sift through it all yourself. That can be fun still, to be sure. But it can also be really, really tedious.

APHEX TWIN (RICHARD DAVID JAMES), 1994 (uncredited photo)

 

AMBIENT FAVORITES: THE 2015 SURVEY…

Anyway, in the spirit of the old days, I present here, for the first time, the complete unedited 2015 survey I conducted of Ambient FAVORITES. Votes came mostly from the members of Hyperreal, a truly dedicated group of ambient listeners that I miss very much. But they also include votes from music journalists familiar with electronic music. Each listing features the artist, the name of the particular album, and then the number of total votes that album received. As with any genre, ambient has branched out into “sub-genres”, something you quickly start to learn about when you explore this sonic terrain. It is beyond the scope of my little article here to go through all that, but here are a few examples: there is something called “dark ambient” (probably just what you think it is), “ethno-ambient,” “ambient classical,” “environmental ambient” (possibly redundant since it is ALL rather environmental, but the idea here is that such recordings tend to include more nature sounds or field recordings), et cetera. “Space music,” “drone” and even “IDM” (which stands for “intelligent dance music”) are recognized labels that very much can fall under the ambient banner. There’s plenty more, believe me.

STARS OF THE LID, 2012 (BRIAN MCBRIDE, ADAM WILTZIE) (uncredited photo)

I guess in conclusion, I would say that ambient has most certainly evolved into its own musical universe, with a zillion pathways you can explore. You could spend weeks on YouTube listening to stuff that is available without spending a cent, or you can find carefully curated Spotify playlists of splendid ambient selections. Or, you can do it old school, and actually PURCHASE the original discs, something I do proudly. That can be a challenge, frankly, as far too many ambient recordings, including nearly the entire FAX catalogue, were released in strictly limited editions. Yes, stuff is available on Ebay, and by God, a lot is still available on Amazon. But get it from the individual ambient labels if you can or the artists themselves. They put considerable effort into making their specialized music… wouldn’t you feel great supporting them? Sadly, I would say that at least half the ambient music made these days is only available via digital download. I know by direct communication with some artists that they just don’t go to the time and trouble to manufacture CDs anymore. But we loved those little plastic discs back in the days of Hyperreal, and some of us still play ’em. If I want my Stars of the Lid or Tim Hecker or Steve Roach or Biosphere or Harold Budd classics, I just go to my nice little shelves, where it’s all in alpha order. And yeah, I love the artwork, the vibes and reading the credits. It’s all part of the experience.

BRIAN ENO, 2018 (photo courtesy: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As I said, ambient will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. 2022 was Brian Eno’s 50th anniversary as an active musician and recording artist… he was a founder member of Roxy Music in 1972, and some consider the first album he made with Robert Fripp the next year, NO PUSSYFOOTING, to be a progenitor of ambient. By any standard, Eno was the first major “name” in ambient. But that aside, if you have a taste for drifty, dreamy, droney (mostly) instrumental music that can transport you out of the dull doldrums of today’s world, it is well worth exploring what this thing called ambient is all about. And here’s what a bunch of us who love this stuff were wild about back in 2015. I present to you the full survey I did at the time, not available previously in this form…

BY THE NUMBERS: THE TOP 10…

1. Brian Eno – AMBIENT 4: ON LAND (1982) – 34 votes

2. Biosphere – SUBSTRATA (1997) – 27

3. Aphex Twin – SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME 2 (1994) – 25

4. Brian Eno – APOLLO: ATMOSPHERES AND SOUNDTRACKS (1983) – 20

5. Global Communication – 76:14 (1994) – 18

6. Harold Budd/Brian Eno – AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR (1980) –

     17

7. Harold Budd/Brian Eno – THE PEARL (1984) – 14

8. Steve Roach – STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE (1984) – 13

    Stars of the Lid – THE TIRED SOUNDS OF (2001) – 13

10. Tetsu Inoue – AMBIANT OTAKU (1994) – 11

      Steve Roach – MYSTIC CHORDS AND SACRED SPACES (2003) – 11

…AND THE REST

Brian Eno – AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978) – 10

The KLF – CHILL OUT (1990) – 10

Robert Rich – SOMNIUM (2004) – 10

Steve Roach – DREAMTIME RETURN (1988) – 10

Stars of the Lid – AND THEIR REFINEMENT OF THE DECLINE (2007) – 10

Robert Rich & Alio Die – FISSURES (1997) – 9

Harold Budd/John Foxx – TRANSLUCENCE/DRIFT MUSIC (2011) – 8

Future Sound of London – LIFEFORMS (1994) – 8

Robert Rich – TRANCES/DRONES (1984) – 8

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN

       (2011) – 8

Max Corbacho – ARS LUCIS (2009) – 7

Brian Eno – THURSDAY AFTERNOON (1985) – 7

Tetsu Inoue – WORLD RECEIVER (1996) – 7

Pete Namlook – AIR 2 (1994) – 7

Woob – 1194 (1994) – 7

Aloof Proof – PIANO TEXT (2007) – 6

Brian Eno – NEROLI (1993) – 6

Jon Hassell – LAST NIGHT THE MOON CAME DROPPING ITS CLOTHES…

        (2009) – 6

James Johnson and Stephen Philips – LOST AT DUNN’S LAKE (2001) – 6

Lustmord and Robert Rich – STALKER (1995) – 6

Steve Roach – THE MAGNIFICENT VOID (1996) – 6

David Sylvian – PLIGHT AND PREMONITION (1988) – 6

Tangerine Dream – PHAEDRA (1974) – 6

Aphex Twin – SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS ’85-92 (1992) – 5

 

Fripp and Eno – EVENING STAR (1975) – 5

HIA/Biosphere – POLAR SEQUENCES (1996) – 5

ISHQ – ORCHID (2001) – 5

Pete Namlook – SILENCE V (2001) – 5

Vidna Obmana – LANDSCAPE IN OBSCURITY (1999) – 5

Steve Roach – QUIET MUSIC (1986) – 5

Steve Roach/Vidna Obmana – WELL OF SOULS (1995) – 5

Michael Stearns – PLANETARY UNFOLDING (1981) – 5

Tangerine Dream – RUBYCON (1975) – 5

The Dead Texan – THE DEAD TEXAN (2009) – 4

Deaf Center – PALE RAVINE (2005) – 4

Fripp and Eno – THE EQUATORIAL STARS (2004) – 4

Hammock – MAYBE THEY WILL SING FOR US TOMORROW (2008) – 4

Tim Hecker – RADIO AMOR (2012) – 4

Steve Hillage – RAINBOW DOME MUSIC (1991) – 4

 

Bill Laswell – AXIOM AMBIENT: LOST IN THE TRANSLATION (1994) – 4

Pete Namlook – SILENCE (1993) – 4

Pete Namlook/Tetsu Inoue – 62 EULENGASSE (1995) – 4

Vidna Obmana – RIVER OF APPEARANCE (1996) – 4

The Orb – ORBUS TERRARUM (1995) – 4

Steve Roach – THE DREAM CIRCLE (1994) – 4

David Sylvian – GONE TO EARTH (second disc) (1986) – 4

Tangerine Dream – ZEIT (1971) – 4

TUU – ALL OUR ANCESTORS (1994) – 4

Kit Watkins – THOUGHT TONES VOL. 1 (1990) – 4

Autechre – AMBER (1994) – 3

Autumn of Communion – AUTUMN OF COMMUNION (2012) – 3

Biosphere – CIRQUE (2000) – 3

Biosphere – MICROGRAVITY (1991) – 3

Biosphere – SHENZHOU (2002) – 3

Boards of Canada – MUSIC HAS A RIGHT TO CHILDREN (1998) – 3

Harold Budd – AVALON SUTRA (2005) – 3

Stevie B-Zet – ARCHAIC MODULATION (1993) – 3

Carbon Based Lifeforms – WORLD OF SLEEPERS (2006) – 3

Coil – TIME MACHINES (2000) – 3

Alio Die – SUSPENDED FEATHERS (1996) – 3

 

Brian Eno – DISCREET MUSIC (1975) – 3

Gas – GAS (1996) – 3

Jeff Greinke – LOST TERRAIN (1992) – 3

Tim Hecker – HAUNT ME HAUNT ME DO IT AGAIN (2001) – 3

Tetsu Inoue – INLAND (2007) – 3

Jean-Michel Jarre – OXYGENE (1976) – 3

Thomas Koner – DAIKAN (2002) – 3

Thomas Koner – PERMAFROST (1993) – 3

Thomas Koner – TEIMO (1992) – 3

Loscil – PLUME (2006) – 3

Lustmord – THE PLACE WHERE THE BLACK STARS HANG (1997) – 3

Cliff Martinez – SOLARIS (soundtrack) (2002) – 3

Murcof – REMEMBRANZA (2005) – 3

Pete Namlook – AIR (1993) – 3

Pete Namlook/Tetsu Inoue – SHADES OF ORION 2 (1995) – 3

Pete Namlook/Tetsu Inoue – 2350 BROADWAY (1993) – 3

Pete Namlook/Geir Jenssen – THE FIRES OF ORK (1993) – 3

Pauline Oliveros/Stuart Dempster/Panaiotis – DEEP LISTENING (1989) – 3

Oophoi – HYMN TO A SILENT SKY (2005) – 3

The Orb – ADVENTURES BEYOND THE ULTRAWORLD (1991) – 3

O Yuki Conjugate – EQUATOR (1995) – 3

Jeff Pearce – DAYLIGHT SLOWLY (1998) – 3

Jeff Pearce – TO THE SHORES OF HEAVEN (2000) – 3

Max Richter – THE BLUE NOTEBOOKS (2004) – 3

Riceboy Sleeps – RICEBOY SLEEPS (2009) – 3

Steve Roach/Robert Rich – STRATA (1990) – 3

Steve Roach – DYNAMIC STILLNESS (2009) – 3

Klaus Schulze – MIRAGE (1977) – 3

Klaus Schulze – TIMEWIND (1975) – 3

Shuttle 358 – UNDERSTANDING WILDLIFE (2002) – 3

Sleep Research Facility – NOSTROMO (2001) – 3

David Sylvian – ALCHEMY (1985) – 3

David Sylvian – APPROACHING SILENCE (1999) – 3

Vangelis – BLADE RUNNER (OST) (1993) – 3

Paul Vnuk Junior – SILENCE SPEAKS IN SHADOW (2001) – 3

Yagya – RIGNING (2009) – 3

Susumu Yokoto – SAKURA (2000) – 3

Another Fine Day – LIFE BEFORE LAND (1994) – 2

A Produce – SMILE ON THE VOID (2001) – 2

Olafur Arnalds – FOR NOW I AM WINTER (2013) – 2

Autumn of Communion – AUTUMN OF COMMUNION 2 (2013) – 2

Baked Beans – BAKED BEANS (1993) – 2

William Basinski – THE DISINTEGRATION LOOPS (2002) – 2

Beautumn – WHITE COFFEE (2005) – 2

David Behrman – ON THE OTHER OCEAN (1977) – 2

Biosphere – DROPSONDE (2005) – 2

Thom Brennan – SILVER (2005) – 2

Thom Brennan – VIBRANT WATER (2000) – 2

Gavin Bryars – THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC (1975) – 2

Harold Budd – THE PAVILION OF DREAMS (1978) – 2

Harold Budd – THE WHITE ARCADES (1988) – 2

Bvdub – SONGS FOR A FRIEND I LEFT BEHIND (2011) – 2

Carbon Based Lifeforms – HYDROPONIC GARDEN (2003) – 2

Carbon Based Lifeforms – TWENTYTHREE (2011) – 2

Cluster and Eno – CLUSTER AND ENO (1977) – 2

Max Corbacho – BREATHSTREAM (2008) – 2

Danna and Clement – NORTH OF NIAGARA (1995) – 2

Deep Space Network and Doctor Atmo – I.F. 2 (1994) – 2

Vladislav Delay – ANIMA (2001) – 2

Alio Die and Antonio Testa – REVERIE (2012) – 2

Fennesz – BLACK SEA (2008) – 2

Edgar Froese – YPSILON IN MALAYSIAN PALE (1975) – 2

Future Sound of London – ISDN (1994) – 2

Peter Gabriel – PASSION (soundtrack) (1989) – 2

Gas – KONIGSFORST (1998) – 2

Gas – ZAUBERBERG (1997) – 2

Gas – POP (2000) – 2

Global Communication – PENTAMEROUS METAMORPHOSIS (1993) – 2

Harmonia – MUSIK VON HARMONIA (1974) – 2

Jon Hassell – DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA (1981) – 2

Jon Hassell – THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD

          THINGS… (1987) – 2

Heavenly Music Corporation – CONSCIOUSNESS III (1994) – 2

Tim Hecker – HARMONY IN ULTRAVIOLET (2009) – 2

Tim Hecker – RAVEDEATH, 1972 (2011) – 2

Hecq – NIGHT FALLS (2008) – 2

H.I.A./Biosphere – BIRMINGHAM FREQUENCIES (2000) – 2

Michael Hoenig – DEPARTURE FROM THE NORTHERN WASTELAND

          (1978) – 2

H.U.V.A. Network – EPHEMERIS (2009) – 2

Tetsu Inoue – ORGANIC CLOUD (1995) – 2

Tetsu Inoue – ZENITH (1994) – 2

Tetsu Inoue/Jonah Sharp – ELECTROHARMONIX (1994) – 2

Irezumi – ENDURANCE (2008) – 2

The Irresistible Force – FLYING HIGH (1992) – 2

The Irresistible Force – IT’S TOMORROW ALREADY (1998) – 2

Johann Johannsen – FORDLANDIA (2008) – 2

James Johnson – SURRENDER (1999) – 2

James Johnson/Robert Scott Thompson – FORGOTTEN PLACES (2001) – 2

Journeyman – MAMA 6 (1994) – 2

The KLF – SPACE AND CHILLOUT (1995) – 2

Koda – MOVEMENTS (2004) – 2

Thomas Koner – AUBRITE (1995) – 2

Kraftwerk – AUTOBAHN (1974) – 2

Loscil – FIRST NARROWS (2004) – 2

Loscil – SEA ISLAND (2014) – 2

Loscil – SUBMERS (2002) – 2

Lull – COLD SUMMER (1994) – 2

Marconi Union – A LOST CONNECTION (2008) – 2

An Mlo Production – LO (1994) – 2

Modeste – A MOUNTAIN OF CONVENIENCE (2009) – 2

Pete Namlook – SILENCE II (1993) – 2

Pete Namlook – SPRING (1994) – 2

Pete Namlook – SUMMER (1995) – 2

Pete Namlook/H.I.A. – S.H.A.D.O. (1997) – 2

Numina – SANCTUARY OF DREAMS (2004) – 2

Vidna Obmana – THE SURREAL SANCTUARY (2000) – 2

Vidna Obmana – THE TRILOGY (1996) – 2

Oophoi – ATHLIT (2002) – 2

Oophoi – THE SPIRALS OF TIME (1998) – 2

The Orb – POMME FRITZ (1994) – 2

Stephen Philips – DESERT LANDSCAPES (1998) – 2

Pub – DO YOU EVER REGRET PANTOMIME? (2001) – 2

Robert Rich – BELOW ZERO (1998) – 2

Robert Rich – HUMIDITY (2000) – 2

Robert Rich – NEST (2012) – 2

Terry Riley – A RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR (1969) – 2

Steve Roach – ATMOSPHERIC CONDITIONS (1999) – 2

Steve Roach – MIDNIGHT MOON (2000) – 2

Steve Roach – ARTIFACTS/ORIGINS (1994) – 2

Steve Roach/Vidna Obmana – ASCENSION OF SHADOWS (1999) – 2

Steve Roach/Robert Rich – SOMA (1992) – 2

Steve Roach/Vir Unis – BLOOD MACHINE (2001) – 2

Bruno Sanfilippo/Mathias Grassow – CROMO (2010) – 2

Paul Schutze – APART (1995) – 2

Jonn Serrie – AND THE STARS GO WITH YOU (1988) – 2

Adham Shaikh – JOURNEY TO THE SUN (1995) – 2

Shuttle 358 – OPTIMAL (1999) – 2

Solar Fields – EXTENDED (2005) – 2

Solar Quest – ORGSHIP (1994) – 2

Spacetime Continuum – ALIEN DREAMTIME (1993) – 2

Stars of the Lid – AVEC LAUDENUM (2002) – 2

Michael Stearns – THE LOST WORLD (1995) – 2

Saul Stokes – OUTFOLDING (2000) – 2

Saul Stokes – ZO PILOTS (1998) – 2

Tim Story – BEGUILED (1991) – 2

Sun Electric – 30.7.94 LIVE (1995) – 2

Suspended Memories – FORGOTTEN GODS (1992) – 2

David Sylvian/Holger Czukay – FLUX AND MUTABILITY (1989) – 2

David Tagg – WAIST DEEP IN SEAS OF MILK (2007) – 2

Vangelis – BEAUBOURG (1978) – 2

Vangelis – L’APOCALYPSE DES ANIMAUX (1973) – 2

Various Artists – A STORM OF DRONES: THE SOMBIENT TRILOGY (1995) – 2

Wagon Christ – PHAT LAB NIGHTMARE (1994) – 2

A Winged Victory For The Sullen – ATOMOS (2014) – 2

Woob – WOOB 2 (1995) – 2

Zero Ohms – 369 (2013) – 2

 

IN SEARCH OF YOUR “BLUE DIAMONDS”

STEVE ROACH, 2022 (photo credit: FRANK BEISSEL)

As I stated in my main essay about ambient music, there’s a tendency towards “Best of” lists that seems more suited to this genre than others. Ambient is NOT a universally adored style of music; it’s generally quiet, non-flashy and suitable more for private reflection than the kind of communal involvement prevalent in rock & roll or country, for example. It’s rare to find ambient connoisseurs passionately debating ANY particular issue… most agree Brian Eno was either the godfather or the “chief contextualizer” of the genre (unequivocally he’s the one who NAMED the genre), and you might see the occasional thread about whether it can still be called “ambient” if it has vocals or drums; I remember debates about that back in the Hyperreal days early in the millennium, along with the always fascinating “How does ambient differ from new age?” discussion. I like that one, myself. But fans take this music PERSONALLY, and they love their lists. In the three giant surveys I did in the Hyperreal era, participation was pretty enthusiastic, and everyone wanted to know what everyone ELSE voted for. Nowadays, you can hop on the DISCOGS site or “Rate Your Music” and find lists of global ambient favorites with just a few clicks. Yes, people are still listmaking, and it does my heart good to see that this genre I love so much still has a large following, and even shines a light on obscure or new but maybe under-promoted releases quite often. For anyone ignorant enough of the style to say something like “Isn’t it all just a bunch of droney background noise or synthesizer squiggles?”, well, we enthusiasts will respond “NO!” very aggressively. If you spend any time at all exploring the ambient world, you’ll find startling variety. Sure, synthesizers and keyboards are used routinely, but so are strings (“ambient classical” is a thing), guitars, cellos, brass, field recordings and yes, vocals sometimes. Part of the thrill of being an ambient lover is finding stuff that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. When Eno released the landmark ON LAND, reviewers and fans alike marveled at how you couldn’t even TELL what the instrumentation was at times. It’s often in the MIXING of the sounds that sheer magic would result and prove to be transportive; that is something Eno instinctively pursued.

TIM HECKER, 2016 (photo credit: PAWEL PTAK)

So absolutely NO, it does NOT all “sound alike.” Ambient has crappy, weak recordings just like any other genre, and it also has stone classics like work produced by Eno, Biosphere, Robert Rich, Stars of the Lid, Tim Hecker and many, many others. I tend to think that when a fan makes his list of favorites in the ambient realm, it will consist of albums he’s played many, many times and developed a personal connection to. Ambient GROWS on you if you let it, and it’s adaptable to a wide variety of listening situations. I’ve played it in my car while traveling, in my room while resting or working on a project, and in the old days, I’d offer it as suitable music for small gatherings where everyone wanted something “pretty” or evocative in the background. I had a couple of spectacular experiences in that context when I used to visit friends who lived in Colorado. Ambient can be the ultimate “scenic music” for a scenic setting. And it has the ability to SURPRISE the listener who has an open mind and receptive ears. I love that about this genre, truly.

PETE NAMLOOK (uncredited photo)

 

MY PERSONAL FAVORITES (TODAY)

One more thing to note before I share my list of favorites. Although it seems to be accepted these days, much to the chagrin of some of us, that CDs are no longer the most desirable music format, right up until a year or two before the pandemic they were still the main way that ambient music was sold and “discovered.” There were boutique labels out there like Hypnos, Infraction and the now-defunct but highly influential FAX label in Germany. Some other fantastic labels like Kranky Records in Chicago put out stellar ambient releases along with indie rock and flat out experimental titles; they became the home for Stars of the Lid and many others. Steve Roach, a “superstar” of the genre releases a ton of stuff on the big label Project, as well as his own personal “Timeroom” editions based in Arizona. So you could generally FIND the CDs if you sought them out, but… the limited sales potential of ambient caused many artists to release only limited editions of their work. FAX was known all along for this; label head Pete Namlook realized he could keep his costs down by releasing titles in editions of just 1,000 or 2,000. If they were popular enough to sell out, he had a separate label agreement to reissue such titles. That it happened QUITE often tells you that ambient had its devoted followers, for sure. And in the last few years of Fax (Namlook passed away in 2012, pretty much ending an entire sonic empire), Namlook released editions in a limitation of just 500. Nearly all of those sold out, with almost NO reissues, making many titles highly sought after and ultra expensive on Ebay, DISCOGS and elsewhere. Good luck even finding a lot of that stuff nowadays. The point is, the uniqueness of ambient and the way the internet allowed even obscure artists to be talked about and to get attention, meant that a high “collectibility quotient” was part of what drove more dedicated ambient fans to seek out various titles. I will always be grateful I followed an impulse one day years ago to purchase an evocative sounding limited edition on the Infraction label titled A WARM WOODEN HOLLOW. It was by an Ohio-based artist named Milieu. This release went on to become one of my absolute, all-time favorite “Blue Diamond” ambient recordings. But you simply cannot get it anymore at ALL; the artist himself has no more copies (I know, because I corresponded with him). So, this is the sort of thing that keeps ambient fanatics on their toes. Even a decade after Pete Namlook’s death, fans are seeking out his music and sometimes paying big bucks to do it. Sure, YouTube and other sites have made it possible to listen to a whole universe of ambient music without paying a cent. And virtually EVERY ambient artist either has a BANDCAMP presence or makes their music available as digital downloads quite reasonably. But if you want to OWN the music, on the CD (or in rare cases, vinyl) where you also got the artwork, and have it displayed properly on a handsome shelf, well, that often proved to be the most enjoyable place to have your ambient collection and revisit it in a tangible manner whenever you liked. That’s how I still do it. And I doubt I’ll give up my collection any time soon, because it truly enhances my life.

WILLIAM BASINSKI, 2011 (photo credit: JAMES ELAINE)

In every ambient survey I was involved with, there was some flexibility about how MANY “favorites” you submitted; most people went with ten or twenty, some of them complaining that it was hard to narrow it down to even THAT. On DISCOGS, I routinely see lists of “top 40,” “top 50” and even up to 100 favorites at times. There is a ton of music out there, folks! I saved in my email my own list of “20 All Time Favorites” which stayed fairly consistent after roughly 2012 or so. For our purposes here, I’m only going to share my TOP 10, as I find that a worthy enough challenge, and wanted to see if I’d still argue my case for each of my inclusions. Each is a bonafide gem, a work I not only can listen to any time but positively REVERE. Ambient is genuinely a compelling musical universe to explore if you have that kind of receptivity in your genetic makeup. So here then are some of the greatest titles produced in the genre, according to ME.

BRIAN ENO, 1982 (video capture courtesy BBC TWO RIVERSIDE)

Brian Eno: AMBIENT 4: ON LAND Mysterious, dense landscape music that was so overwhelming to me, I wrote several essays about it and a long letter to Eno himself. The absolute fulfillment of a kind of “dream music” I imagined for years during expeditions out in nature. Eno had already raised the bar so high with DISCREET MUSIC and AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. But ON LAND created its own fresh spooky universe that only a handful of artists have been able to emulate.

Harold Budd/Brian Eno: AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR Eno’s two collaborations with piano visionary and heir to the throne of Erik Satie, Harold Budd (THE PEARL is their second collaboration) are now legendary, and routinely make almost everyone’s list of favorites. You’ll see how high they place on the 2015 survey I did. I could have included either album on my list, but I’m going with this 1981 release for its stark minimalist beauty and the fact that the title track is still my very favorite short ambient piece of all time, which is saying a lot.

Aphex Twin: SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS VOLUME 2 This two-disc set has the distinction of being potent enough to inspire one of those little books in the popular 33 1/3 series, in this case a book by Marc Weidenbaum. Weirdo British electronica whiz Richard D. James has released music under different names for nearly a quarter of a century, and VOLUME ONE of the above title was a more accessible, influential and popular electronica album overall. But SAW II, as we enthusiasts call it, is a massive collection of highly original pieces inspired by lucid dreaming; it’s unsettling, diverse and absolutely devoted to its mission of giving the listener a strange and haunting ambient universe to explore. My experience listening to it through headphones on an overnight train journey out west is something I will NEVER forget.

Milieu: A WARM WOODEN HOLLOW God, do I cherish this out-of-print title. A few times listening to it while driving through winery country endeared it to me on a deep level. It has a blissful “aesthetic vagueness” to it that is perfect for a scenic drive, and Brian Grainger, the wunderkind behind this entity as well as others, including Coppice Halifax, has a knack for conjuring beautiful, unexpected soundscapes that he gives you time to revel in. It’s very hard to describe this brand of ambient. It’s melancholy, yearning and foggy, and unusually original for a primarily keyboard-based sound.

Robert Rich: TRANCES/DRONES Deep, immersive “widescreen” ambient. Rich has been a consistent composer/producer for decades, and his music often achieves a sonic depth that is unparalleled. What you get here are long, dark drones that could be suitable for meditation or a generally restless night. You’ll find yourself floating far away to this stuff, whether you intend that or not.

Pete Namlook: AIR 2 I personally regard the Fax label’s genius founder as the main person besides Brian Eno who truly “understood” the vast potential of what was being called “ambient” music. Namlook was THE most prolific composer/producer of the genre, with several HUNDRED titles to his credit if you include all the collaborations that also bore his name. AIR 1 and AIR 2 quickly became classics of “ethno-ambient,” featuring tribal percussion, French and Arabic sounds often hard to pin down, shakers and rainsticks, and all sorts of other instrumentation. AIR 2 is beautifully listenable and hypnotic, and certain to be unlike anything you’ve ever heard. It’s intended to be a “journey without moving,” although something will sure move inside you when you listen to this masterpiece.

Steve Roach: MYSTIC CHORDS AND SACRED SPACES Roach is the MASTER of modern ambient exploration. He’s the most prolific living composer in the realm, and his Timeroom studio in the southern Arizona desert is now legendary, as are his rare live concerts. MYSTIC CHORDS is a massive four-CD set that includes both short pieces and side-long sonic journeys; it’s completely and totally immersive. And I love it especially for pieces like “Wren and Raven” which use bird calls and other natural sounds in the most organic, hypnotic manner. You probably can’t even get through all this epicness in one sitting, but as a powerful, richly textured ambient journey, it has very few peers.

Stars of the Lid: THE TIRED SOUNDS OF STARS OF THE LID Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride seem like humble, ordinary guys, but together they created a strings-based ambient entity that rapidly earned them a large cult following. They truly created their own style, and largely let their expansive, haunting music speak for itself. This very popular album, a two-record set with a striking yellow cover, has sad-sounding titles like “Requiem for Dying Mothers,” “Austin Texas Mental Hospital” and “The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)”. Whatever you might imagine such music to sound like, chances are it DOES, or goes beyond that. At least a few moments in this set are among the most beautiful moments I have ever heard in ANY musical genre, and the works of SOTL nearly ALWAYS rate high in lists of ambient favorites.

Koda: MOVEMENTS If there is such a thing as “friendly, reassuring ambient,” this disc might be a good example. The music here is not headed for outer space or darker realms of the imagination; instead, it is grounded, ethereal tonally accessible music for what’s here and now, observable right in front of you. It soothes, whereas an artist like Aphex Twin or Lustmord might terrify. Another gem on the always reliable Infraction label, this summation from the Amazon page should suffice: “MOVEMENTS is a work of drifting, beautiful and ethereal soundscapes with a lightly classical leaning and it really does do the job in style… there’s a deeply enthralling tone to the whole work.”

James Johnson/Stephen Phillips: LOST AT DUNN’S LAKE I’m not sure how available this one is anymore, but I’m choosing it because it SO captures the feeling of being in a remote cabin on the shore of some northern lake while a consistent rain falls. Repetitive, moody and delicate, this is a good example of ambient’s ability to totally capture a specific mood and setting. Back in the Hyperreal glory days, the members would exchange recommendations and often write lovely things about their favorites. A guy whose name I can’t remember wrote an incredibly haunting description of this album and how it took him back to days of camping with his father when he was young, somewhere in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Wish I could find that passage. It was perfect to convey the sleepy, nostalgic mood of this “lost” ambient classic.

TEN YEARS AND KICKING: THE INITIAL KICK INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

INITIAL KICK (Steve Ojane, Frankie Schaffer) (publicity photo)

Angel is one of my all-time favorite “progressive” rock bands. The first time I heard “Tower” on the radio, I was hooked… went out and bought the debut album immediately. While I never saw the original band live, I did see them probably twenty-five years ago, when singer Frank DiMino and drummer Barry Brandt put together a short-lived version of the band. I had given up on ever hearing from the band again when it was announced that DiMino and the band’s incendiary original guitarist, Punky Meadows, were working on new material as Angel. Not long after, I had the opportunity to see this reconstituted band play live. This new Angel line-up was more in line with what the original band sounded like. Each member of the group was a stand-out musician, but I continually found myself focusing on the bass player, one Steve E Ojane. He had that beefy, muscular sound that drove most hard rock bands of the 1970s, including Angel, particularly the albums with Mickie Jones’ replacement, Felix Robinson. Steve recorded two albums with the group, RISEN and ONCE UPON A TIME. Recently, it was announced that Felix Robinson would be returning for select shows and that other players would be filling in on bass. Ojane’s time in Angel was apparently over. On the same day that I read the news about Felix, I received a promotional download of PLAYS WITH MERCURY by Steve’s new/old band, Initial Kick. I immediately requested an interview, the result of which follows…

ANGEL, circa 2022 (Charlie Calv, Billy Orrico, Punky Meadows, Frank DiMino, Danny Farrow, Steve Ojane (publicity photo)

THE INTERVIEW

THE MULE: So, the two of you formed Initial Kick about a decade ago… quite a while before Steve took up the bass duties with Angel. Steve, why did you decide to set IK aside and play with that iconic band? How has that experience influenced your work here?

STEVE OJANE: First off, I just want to thank you for talking with us today, Darren. It’s a pleasure. To answer your question – I was a big Angel fan since my early teens. Angel was five days shy of being my first concert. (The Meat Loaf BAT OUT OF HELL tour was my first, just five days earlier.) I had all the Angel albums, had their posters on my walls, et cetera. When this opportunity presented itself all these years later, there really wasn’t any question. I had to go for it. Frankie completely understood the decision to put Initial Kick on the back-burner temporarily. It would have been a bit too much performing live in two touring bands at the same time. But since we started recording the Initial Kick album before I joined Angel, we continued the recording and mixing during the interim.

THE MULE: Did Angel’s connections with Starz lead to Richie Ranno’s participation on PLAYS WITH MERCURY or did you know him before Angel?

STEVE: I met Richie through the shows we did with Starz and he’s been a good friend ever since. He’s a terrific guy and an incredibly melodic guitar player. His style blended perfect with the material on the Initial Kick album, and we are thrilled he generously offered to play on two of the tracks – “Tomorrow and Forever” and “Rock and Roll Saved My Life.”

THE MULE: Frankie, while Steve was touring and recording with Angel, how did you keep busy? Did you do any writing or work on other projects? Did Initial Kick continue to play and record during Steve’s downtime from Angel?

FRANKIE SCHAFFER: I’m so glad Steve got to live his dream and tour the world with Angel. That said, I’m very happy Initial Kick is back now and firing on all cylinders! The past few years for me have been filled with life, work, and lockdowns. Ha. Actually, I played in a Ramones tribute band for a while that was a lot of fun, and I’m always in the studio messing with things. Steve and I were always in communication and, although we placed IK, the live band, on hiatus for a bit, we continued working on making the record the best it could be. And we’re working on the follow-up now which, if you like the first record, you’ll love the next one!

INITIAL KICK (Steve Ojane, Frankie Schaffer) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve been listening to the album and there’s a certain… smoothness to the sound, particularly the vocals. I think that this approach serves the material quite well, especially on the singles. “Tranquilizer” is jarringly tranquil… not at all what I expected. And, the cover of “Sugar, Sugar” is a blast. First, is the sound a natural extension of working together or is it an intentional attempt to do something just a bit different within the confines of Rock and Pop music? Second, obviously, the Archies were next level cartoon performers – on par with another like-minded band, the Beatles – but have rarely been covered. What prompted you to cover the national anthem of Pop confection and how much fun was it to record? Is there a cover of the Groovie Goolies in IK’s future? Or, the Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Banana Splits, Jabberjaw and the Neptunes or Evolution Revolution from LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP?

STEVE: Maybe that “smooth” vocal sound you refer to is simply because I don’t have a particularly loud voice. So I would say it’s not a deliberate thing, just the way I sound I guess. Of course I belt it out on the heavier tunes. As for the bubblegum possibilities… I don’t know. Frankie, Is “Yummy Yummy Yummy” on deck for the next album? Ha!

FRANKIE: Steve and I both love upbeat, fun music and I’m a big fan of the original bubblegum genre – 1910 Fruitgum Company, Ohio Express, Bay City Rollers, Sweet, et cetera. I think it was Steve’s idea to cover “Sugar Sugar” and I was instantly onboard 100%. It’s just a great song and fits well on the record. I’m not sure about the Banana Splits but I do see some Partridge Family in our future. Ha ha!

THE MULE: Steve, I saw Angel a couple of years ago (at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, IL) and was quite impressed, not only with your playing but with the tone of your bass. That is the sound that I grew up listening to, with bands like Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Bad Company and so many others… a truly classic sound. Are you playing bass on the new IK album and will you play the parts live or are you concentrating solely on the vocals?

STEVE: Thank you, Darren. Yes, that classic bass sound is deliberate. That sound we all grew up on is still in my heart as the classic bass tone. I did play bass on the album but don’t play bass while singing live with the band. I’d rather be free to just sing, and I have limited attention bandwidth! Ha ha!

STEVE OJANE on stage with ANGEL, November 3, 2021 (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

THE MULE: Tell us a bit about the songwriting process within the band. How do the tunes come together?

STEVE: Since you brought up “Tranquilizer,” that’s a good example. I had half an idea kicking around in my head for a while for a 3/4 timing song that spoke about finding relief for the things in life that ail ya. Then one day, Frankie started playing this sweet wah-wah guitar part that was perfect for the song. We fused those elements together into what became one of the standout tracks on the album. It was even used in a movie soundtrack – BOXANNE, directed by Brian Wild.

FRANKIE: Most of the material on the first record are songs, ideas, and melodies Steve had written over the years. I liken it to ice cream. Steve is the ice cream on this record. I am the sprinkles. Ice cream is great, but ice cream with sprinkles? Forgeddaboutit!!

INITIAL KICK (Alexx Reckless, Steve Ojane, Johnny Zabo, Frankie Schaffer) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve mentioned Richie Ranno. Who else plays on the album? Aside from the two of you, who else would be a part of a touring Initial Kick band? Have you considered putting together a permanent version of the band outside of the core? What does the future hold for the two of you and the band?

STEVE: In addition to Richie Ranno, we also have Charlie Calv (keyboards) and Billy Orrico (drums) from Angel playing on a few tracks. Also, Damian MonteCarlo and Phil “Mad Dog” Roberts make an appearance. As far as the live band, we have our original drummer, Johnny Zabo, back on board and we’re looking to start performing live again early next year. In the mean time, like Frankie said, we’re actually working on the second album. It’s really a one-two punch. We had so much material that we couldn’t fit it all on one album. So we split the material in two and, for the complete Initial Kick experience, you’ll have to check out the follow-up album which will be released in 2024!

FRANKIE: There’s a bit more collaboration writing-wise on the next record. In reality, we have so many songs to choose from, it will be interesting to see what makes the cut. Just looking forward to the next single off of PLAYS WITH MERCURY and moving forward. IK2 is in the works!

THE MULE: Finally, Steve, I’ve seen posts from the Angel camp stating that Felix Robinson will be returning for a few shows on their next run and that others will be filling in, as well. Does this mean that you have officially parted ways with the group or is this merely part of a push to get Initial Kick into the public consciousness?

STEVE: I’m thrilled that Felix is back in the fold. He’s a great guy and of course – a phenomenal musician. I’ll be in the front row cheering him on! This is actually what I’ve always hoped for. Although I love the time that I spent in Angel, I was always hoping it would serve as a catalyst for getting the original members back together. This is a great first step, I think. Who knows what the future has in store but, for now anyway, I am no longer in Angel and I’m really enjoying writing, recording, and performing my own music.

THE MULE: Thanks, guys. Oh, yeah… one last thing: Please tell me there’s going to be a vinyl version of PLAYS WITH MERCURY.

FRANKIE: Ha ha! It’s in the works!

THE REVIEW

INITIAL KICK: PLAYS WITH MERCURY

(DEKO ENTERTAINMENT; 2023)

Guitarist Frankie Schaffer and singer/bassist Steve Ojane, for all intents and purposes, are Initial Kick and their debut album, PLAYS WITH MERCURY, has been a long time coming. The original band formed a decade ago, taking a six year hiatus while Steve toured and recorded with one of his favorite bands, Angel. Realizing that the time was right, Ojane stepped away from his Angel duties to finish what he started with Schaffer and Initial Kick. So, was the delay worth the wait? Well… DUH!

 

INITIAL KICK (Alexx Reckless, Ray Ray D, Johnny Zabo, Steve Ojane, Frankie Schaffer) (photo credit THE MUSICIANS ROCK NETWORK)

“On the Inside” gets the proceedings off to a bombastic start with a bit of “stun guitar” from Frankie and Steve’s effortless vocal style. “Tomorrow and Forever” features a chugging rhythm and some very nicely-placed tack piano by (Steve’s former Angel bandmate) Charlie Calv occasionally pushing its way up from the depths of the mix. The lead work and solo (from Frankie and Richie Ranno from Starz) are of the type that one would expect from an Arena Rock band from the latter Jurassic Period (late ‘70s and early ‘80s), but tweaked just enough to make it fresh and new. With pounding drums from Steve’s battery mate in Angel, Billy Orrico, and a riff that would make Chuck proud, “Wish You Well (Once Upon a Time)” could be the ultimate “kiss off” song of all time… kind of the biggest “I loved you, you broke my heart, I’m so over you” song ever written. Plus… COW BELL! The first single from the record, “Tranquilizer,” was featured in the Brian Wild movie BOXANNE. It’s about keeping the demons in your head in check and chugs along at a dizzyingly lethargic pace even after the drums pick up over the last half of the tune. A chorus with lyrics like “Give me a tranquilizer/To steady my head/To feel good instead,” certainly makes it an odd choice for a lead single, but… it works. You almost believe that the drugs are working when Steve sings “I will be good/The way that I should.” It ain’t a toe-tapper but, it sure does get stuck in your head.

INITIAL KICK (Ken Mondillo, Steve Ojane, Alexx Reckless) (uncredited photo)

Another great riff, a catchy melody, an appearance by original IK drummer Johnny Zabo and more of Ojane’s old-school bass style highlight “Sotheby’s Wasteland (It’s a Mall World After All).” The tongue-in-cheek lyrics are merely icing on the cake of another excellent mid-tempo rocker. The opening guitar on “Me and Rock and Roll” is somehow very reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” and the lyrics could be and updated version of “Beth” by Kiss. Given the name of the tune, both of those comparisons are quite apt. The guitars bite in a very laid-back way (as dichotomous as that sounds, that’s what I’m hearing). Frankie offers up another nice solo at the end. “Sloan Road Kids” is one of the more rockin’ tunes with a cool, almost familiar riff. With Steve, Frankie and the boys leaning into the Power Pop sound, it has a certain Cheap Trickesque magnificance. The instrumental harmonics of “’93” add a certain… here’s that word again… familiar warmth to what is the only actual ballad on PLAYS WITH MERCURY with a killer acoustic lead. The sound oddly brings to mind an old T Rex hand-clapper – especially the final minute or so – as the tempo picks up a bit, bringing a good song to a nice finish.

“At Home With the Animals” is an absolute rager compared to everything else here. And, like everything else here, it features solid licks, a cool solo and powerful though understated drumming. A true standout track among an album of standout tracks. I’m a sucker for cover tunes, the stranger the better. That, in a nutshell, is IK’s take on “Sugar Sugar,” that saccharine piece of bubblegum pop by the Archies, a cartoon group based on the ARCHIE comic books. In 1969 and 1970, it was almost impossible to escape the infectious song. Initial Kick adds a hard rock edge to the syrupy number, with rather tribal drumming and some stingingly awesome guitarwork. Of course, Ojane’s bass shines throughout and his smooth vocal delivery is almost a mirror of Ron Dante’s original. “Big In Singapore” is another lyrical gem, a track about the travails of a working rock band trying to find an audience in the good ol’ US of… in the 2020s. After quite a nice, melodic guitar intro, the lyrics take hold. With lines like “Thinking we passed the test/Then we get an F” and “We found our home abroad/Our US plan was a little bit flawed,” you hear a tinge of frustration, but also the ring of truth about the fickle state of the music industry (and its consumers) in this country. Steve gets bonus points for the line “Get your ass caned if you misbehave.” With a cool organ intro by Charlie Calv, aggressive power chords (are there any other kinds?) and the bass and drums as powerful as anywhere else on the album, “Rock and Roll Saved My Life” seems the antithesis of the previous number, extolling the healing properties of music and Rock music in particular. This is as close to a nod to Steve’s time in Angel as any of the previous eleven tunes. The song also has a snotty kind of guitar solo by Richie Ranno that fits perfectly here. Much like “On the Inside” was the perfect track to open PLAYS WITH MERCURY, “Rock and Roll Saved My Life” is the perfect set closer.

INITIAL KICK (Alexx Reckless, Ray Ray D, Steve Ojane, Johnny Zabo, Frankie Schaffer) (uncredited photo)

It only took ‘em ten years, but Frankie Schaffer and Steve Ojane have finally delivered the near-perfect debut album. Here’s looking to record number two. And… hopefully, a tour? What do ya say, boys?

NINEFINGER: BETWEEN EVERYTHING ELSE

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2023)

Ninefinger is a hard rockin’ band from North Hollywood (that’s a mythical place in a made-up country called “California,” I believe) that actually has twenty-nine fingers (20 belonging to guitarist Joshua Picard and drummer Buddah, the other nine adorn the hands of vocalist Mike Whinny); if you count Ian Shea (the band’s touring bassist), the finger count jumps up to thirty-nine. Though the band will not divulge how Whinny actually became the band’s namesake, I am convinced that it was an unfortunate Lego mishap… prove me wrong! The trio (quartet-in-the-making?) splash in the same pool as classic hard rock acts like Black Sabbath and newer (though no less classic) artists like Stone Temple Pilots (Mike sounds like nothing if not the second coming of Scott Weiland) and Soundgarden. Now, that’s some pretty heady comparisons to bandy about and some pretty big shoes to try to fill but, in this case, the comparisons are apt and the band is definitely up to the task of filling those shoes (no mention of a wonky toe count, so that makes it easier).

NINEFINGER (BUDDAH, JOSHUA PICARD, MIKE WHINNY) (uncredited photo)

Ninefinger’s recent four-song EP, BETWEEN EVERYTHING ELSE, kicks of with a swirling, grungy piece called “Breeze.” It’s a mid-tempo number that somehow manages to rage like a category 5 twister. When Mike sings “Maybe the winds will change/Maybe the winds still remain/Maybe the winds stay the same/Either way, I’m freezin’,” you just wanna grab a coat, hunker down and pray for the storm to pass. Picard has a beefy, fuzzed-out, “heavy strings” approach to playing (the master of that sound, Tony Iommi, would definitely approve) which almost makes his actual bass guitar parts unnecessary. That sound is on display throughout the four tracks here, but may be best exemplified on “Can’t Catch Her.” Buddah’s pummeling drum sound on “Breeze” is replaced here by a more nuanced thrashing, with the snare giving a satisfying crack beneath Joshua’s monster riffs. “Stop Trying” comes closest to an epic Sabbath/Soundgarden mash-up (something that you may not have known that you needed – nay, craved – until the second that Whinny’s vocals assail your aural sensibilities). The stifling heaviness of the tune nearly crushes you beneath its weight, matched only by the doom and gloom admonitions to “Stop trying to save the world.” Caught somewhere between the controlling, masochistic overtones of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” and the violent, possessive obsessions of the main character in the twisted Netflix series, YOU, “Threw It All Away” is the Nirvana song that all of Kurd Cobain’s fawning fans wish he could have written… in your face, forceful and visceral to the point of becoming uncomfortable. It’s almost like witnessing something so horrible that you know you’ll have nightmare images of the thing until the moment you stop breathing, but you still can’t turn away. There is an unfettered anger and an unspoken threat of violence in Mike Whinny’s lyrics and in his voice that, coupled with the thunderous (and infinitely catchy) backing from Josh and Buddah, would have anyone in his vicinity looking over their shoulder, waiting for the inevitable hammer blow to drive home the point. This tune would have fit in perfectly on any mid-to-late ‘90s Alternative or Extreme radio programming, nestled comfortably between STP and Soundgarden.

BETWEEN EVERYTHING ELSE is a raging slab of perfection that hits on cylinders (even if it is only a four-banger),leaving these ears straining for more. When can we expect a full-length, boys?

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT/COOL COOL COOL

(February 22, 2023; THE FACTORY IN THE DISTRICT, Chesterfield MO)


I have always been a huge Talking Heads fan, right from the beginning of their CBGB’s/weird art-punk days. I listened obsessively to their debut album when I was working at a record store, was thrilled beyond measure when my musical and creative hero Brian Eno started working with them on their second album MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, and was literally ecstatic by the transcendent weirdness of their artistic peak with FEAR OF MUSIC and the colossal REMAIN IN LIGHT. I could write pages about how much I adored those two albums, but… this is a concert review, so I gotta be disciplined here. But I’m just stating unequivocally how much David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison have meant to me as a music fan and still do. I saw the Heads twice in their heyday but never got to see the REMAIN IN LIGHT stuff performed live, until Harrison and Adrian Belew put together this amazing touring show with former members of Turkuaz, now renamed as Cool Cool Cool. I could not pass this show up, and although I had some personal circumstances that were daunting, I soon found myself venturing to the Factory in far St. Louis County for the first time. I was eager to see how these performers were going to make up for the lack of vocalist David Byrne and killer rhythm section Chris and Tina, one of the best EVER.

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (ADRIAN BELEW, JERRY HARRISON) (photo credit: MICHAEL WIEINTROB/REMAIN IN LIGHT)

Cool Cool Cool opened the show with their expansive ensemble rhythmic funk, impressing with sterling musicianship that include a three-piece horn section, two percussionists and the delightful high-energy vocals of Sammi Garett and Shira Elias. It was a pleasant danceable mix, and the audience responded with enthusiasm. But there was definitely a feeling of anticipation in the air about what everyone had come here to see. Jerry Harrison had planned a “REMAIN IN LIGHT” celebration since before the pandemic, when his plans with Belew were derailed by an industry-halting nightmare. Once things returned to relative normalcy, the two legends revived their inspired plans, and you could be forgiven by perhaps thinking that doing something like this without Heads leader David Byrne might be a daunting proposition. But two key factors made this an absolutely thrilling show. First, Harrison and Belew were aiming to recreate some of the feeling of the legendary STOP MAKING SENSE tour that Jonathan Demme captured so amazingly in his film, where an extended cast of players could add layers and layers of sonic details to the blend both vocally and rhythmically… as well as the notable 1980 concert in Rome that a huge audience blissed out to and that the Heads themselves have pointed out as a career high point (Belew was part of that show, and it’s still available to see on YouTube). Secondly, the smart decision was made to have different musicians taking lead vocals depending on the song and who sounded best on it. Hence Belew sang lead on “Psycho Killer,” a surprising “Drugs” and a genuinely riveting “Life During Wartime,” which gained obvious rich thematic resonance due to the savage ongoing war in Ukraine. Harrison sang lead effectively on “Houses in Motion,” which was fab. But maybe the biggest surprise of the night was the strength of the vocals by “Cool” member (and baritone sax man-handler) Josh Schwartz, a tall bespectacled fellow at stage right who didn’t “Byrne it” so much on lead vocals as he “interpreted energetically” on songs like “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Born Under Punches” and the utterly transcendent classic “Once In a Lifetime.” These three songs transported me somewhere I haven’t been in years: I wrote in my notes “shivers of joy,” as such were traveling up my spine especially on the latter two songs. Besides the effectiveness of the insistent rhythms we were treated to, I cannot say enough about the hypnotic backing vocals of Sammi Garett and Shira Elias on these and other songs here. Whether it was their repeated “I’m STILL waiting” on “Crosseyed…, ” or the unbelievably transfixing phrases like “All I want is to breathe,” and “and the heat goes on” in concert high point “Born Under Punches” and the insistent “letting the days go by” and various water references in “OIAL,” these two ladies absolutely killed it musically. As a fan of backing vocals and repeated refrains and a recording artist myself lately, I just LOVE this aspect of music, and part of the true GENIUS of the album REMAIN IN LIGHT is how much of that kind of thing listeners were treated to, courtesy of the Talking Heads’ evolved aesthetic by that point and the crazy machinations of producer Eno in the studio. The gals also had their bigger than usual moment on “Slippery People,” a gospel-flavored workout in which they essentially sing lead on much of the song. Truly wonderful. It was also wonderful to hear “I Zimbra” from the FEAR OF MUSIC album, another chance for Schwartz to take the lead at the mic, even though this is certainly a group-based number, with its singular challenge of chanting made-up lyrics over tribal-sounding sonics.

JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (JERRY HARRISON) (photo credit: REMAIN IN LIGHT)
JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT TOUR (ADRIAN BELEW) (photo credit: REMAIN IN LIGHT)

Okay, we gotta pause and single out Adrian Belew here. Holy effing shit. This guy is one of the most distinctive and trailblazing guitarists in the history of rock, and his leads are very much present throughout REMAIN IN LIGHT. Everything you were probably hoping to hear him do in this concert was firmly on display. I was writing down phrases like “great piercing lead by AB” in my notes on “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Houses in Motion” and others as fast as I could scribble, noting the smile on Belew’s face so much of the time, which I could see through my binoculars. Belew nodded to his long tenure with King Crimson by performing the band’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet” and sidling up to the fetchingly attired, chorus-sharing Garett, who was clearly having a ball all night. So was I, for sure! I was a happy man to be able to experience such tunes as “Cities” and my mega-favorite “Once In a Lifetime” and pretend I was approximating the joy any true fan must have felt experiencing the Heads at their performing peak. As for Harrison, he did a great keyboard solo on his own tune “Rev It Up” and served up the “quirk” on “Slippery People” and others. Harrison doesn’t always get credit for the delightful flavoring his insistent repeated keyboard parts added to the Heads’ oeuvre, and certainly classics like “Once In a Lifetime” wouldn’t have attained their legendary status without his work.

COOL COOL COOL (SHIRA ELIAS, CHRIS BROUWERS, MICHAEL CARUBBA, GREG SNADERSON, SAMMI GARETT, JOSH SCHWARTZ, CRAIG BRODHEAD) (uncredited publicity photo)

A spirited “Take Me To the River” found the whole ensemble wringing every bit of iconic juice out of a song that we all know extremely well, with the ladies adding drama by repeating the two-line refrain over and over, singing it more and more quietly (which the audience was noticeably riveted by) and then kicking up the volume at the end for a glorious climax. On both the floor and the balcony, contingents of people were dancing happily. There HAD to be an encore, of course, and Belew said “Are you sure?” to the audience when the ensemble was summoned for their expected callback. I was CERTAIN the song would be “The Great Curve,” the only RIL classic not already played, and I was right. It was thrilling, powerful and very much the rhythmic and danceable classic of its original incarnation. What an ensemble! What a show! Many people have listed REMAIN IN LIGHT as one of their “ten favorite albums of all time,” myself included. I was thinking about that in the waning moments of the concert, WHY that album made such an impact. Was it the reinvented afrobeat sound for a modern audience? Talking Heads leaping beyond their quirky art rock to another dimension? The timeliness of that album and its hit “Once In a Lifetime” finding a fresh audience at the dawn of MTV? Sure, all of that. But my own phrase is “transfixing weirdness,” captured on the album like few others at the time. Hearing Harrison, Belew and the very inspired members of Cool Cool Cool doing powerful justice to a beloved album which is unlike anything else ever released… weird, life-affirming, body-moving and consistently challenging and mysterious… made me very happy. Kudos to these immensely talented musicians for coming up with a great idea, and then carrying it off so thrillingly.

AVA TOTON: CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2022)

So, what were you doing when you were twelve years old? I started my twelfth year as a seventh grader and ended it as an eighth grader… worrying more about what was for lunch and what was on television that night than anything else; I was just getting into rock and roll. Ava Toton, at twelve, was writing and releasing her second (!) EP of hard rock, a destructive sonic force called CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT. The set features three blistering rockers, in the same basic vein as the Runaways (probably the most apt comparison, though they were four and five years older when they recorded their first album, with a lot of help from Kim Fowley and a bunch of other writers). I even find vocal comparisons to Cherie Currie… if Cherie had started smoking two packs a day and slamming a fifth of Tennessee bourbon at the age of five. Obviously, the point I’m trying to make here is that Ava has a husky voice that definitely suits the style of music that she plays.

AVA TOTON (photo credit: LAURA POORMAN)

The title track is a snotty, punky number that puts the listener on notice: This isn’t the type of girl that’s gonna play nice with the other, poppier kids. “I’m not like you/I’m gonna scream and shout/Won’t play by your rules/I’m a charm school dropout.” And, this doesn’t sound like someone PLAYING at being snarky and self-determined; it sounds like someone who knows what she wants to do and how she’s going to accomplish it. “I Told You So” is more straight-ahead hard rock, as Ava and her band (bassist and producer Jacob Light and drummer Gideon Berger) eschew the punkier sound without giving up the attitude. Ava has a beefy guitar style (bolstered by Light’s bass) that echoes back to the early and mid-1970s. And, that ain’t a knock! Some of the best and purest guitar rock was produced during those years. The track also features a moody middle section that leads into a short solo that puts an exclamation point on the tune. The next song, “Wake Up the Neighborhood,” offers a snarling vocal and displays a band going full-out, particularly Ava’s guitar and solo and Gideon’s drums. As the title implies, it’s a song about “partying like a rockstar.” I’m not sure how the now-thirteen-year-old parties but… she certainly sings the song with conviction. The final track is called “Take Me With You,” an acoustic number with accompaniment from Jacob on piano and Yoed Nir on strings. It’s an oddly appealing song about aliens and a need to be elsewhere because things are just too strange here on the home planet. Ava’s voice seems a bit strained at times, but not enough to distract from the overall vibe of the piece.

CHARM SCHOOL DROPOUT is more mature and focused than a lot of records by people a lot older than Ava Toton (I’m looking at you, Motley Crue!) and it is definitely worth checking out. You can do so at avatoton.com, where you can learn more about Ava and her music and get your very own (CD or digital) copy.

BILL EVANS: YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING

(CRAFT RECORDINGS/CONCORD MUSIC GROUP; 2021)

As you may be aware (as am I… painfully!), I don’t write a lot about Jazz. As such, this may very well be the first ever heavy metal Jazz review. So, let’s drop the needle on this thing and see what happens.

BILL EVANS (photo credit: ARNOLD NEWMAN)

YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING is widely considered to be pianist Bill Evans’ magnum opus. Evans most often worked in a trio situation and this album is no different: Bill is joined by bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund, each adding – sometimes by subtraction – just the precise amount of notes that the individual pieces of music required to work. Evans, Zigmund and Gomez entered Hollywood’s Capitol Studios at the end of August, 1977 to begin work on the seven tracks with producers Helen Keane and Tommy LiPuma. With the album ready to go, LiPuma left Warner Brothers and, rather than offer up YOU MUST BELIEVE… to the masses and wait for it to run its productive course, Keane (who also managed Evans) opted to hold it for the end of the very lucrative new contract that had just been signed. The album was shelved in favor of NEW CONVERSATIONS, AFFINITY and WE WILL MEET AGAIN before finally seeing the light of day in February, 1981… five months after Bill Evans’ death.

BILL EVANS (EDDIE GOMEZ, ELIOT ZIGMUND, BILL EVANS) (photo credit: PHIL BRAY)

Evans wrote “B Minor Waltz (For Ellaine)” for his common law wife, Ellaine Schultz, who committed suicide in 1973. The piece is mostly Bill’s piano with backing from Gomez and minimal use of cymbals from Zigmund. Intricate and inspiring, it sets the mood perfectly for the rest of the album. Michael Legrand’s “You Must Believe In Spring” sees Bill stepping back in the midsection, allowing Eddie to solo as Eliot offers a few brash strokes before falling into a nice groove with Gomez. Evans comes charging back to finish the number, evoking the sound and feel of spring showers; the light touch at the end comes like the sun peeking out of the clouds as the rain subsides.

BILL EVANS (photo credit: BRIAN MCMILLEN)

Gary’s Theme,” was written and recorded by Gary McFarland, a recurring signature on his 1969 album, AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL (AN ACCOUNT OF ITS DISAPPEARANCE). Its another pastoral piece, with Evans’ deft, airy playing giving as much weight to the notes not played as to the ones played. Written years earlier for his brother, “We Will Meet Again (For Harry),” Bill would re-record it in 1979, following his brother’s suicide (it seems odd, in retrospect, that the second version saw release before the original). Here, Evans offers a more forceful approach to his playing and, again, Gomez and Zigmund command the middle section.

BILL EVANS (BILL EVANS, EDDIE GOMEZ, ELIOT ZIGMUND) (photo credit: A FORSTER)

With “Peacocks,” you can almost hear the birds strutting in their finery with every note of Evans’ playing. Eddie offers beauiful – though minimal – support while Eliot colors the sound with light brushes and splashes, making the Jimmy Rowles tune a definite highlight. Even though Zigmund is virtually nonexistent on Sergio Mihanovich’>s “Sometime Ago,” it might just be the most Rock ‘n’ Roll song that ANY Bill Evans Trio ever recorded. The tune is bright and happy, just like a spring day; it’s exuberant, just like a child enjoying the sun and the warmth after a long, dreary winter.

BILL EVANS (photo credit: PHIL BRAY)

The album ends with “Suicide Is Painless,” better known as “The Theme From MASH.” At the beginning, it seems as though Evans is turning the bouncy Johnny Mandel piece into a dirge, but after a few seconds, the spry, jaunty tune we’re all familiar with comes to the fore. This is perhaps the only time that the trio played as such; obviously, the piano still leads the charge, but Eddie Gomez absolutely lets loose on bass and Eliot Zigmund’s playing is some of the most straight-forward on the whole record. The track is the second longest on the album… just under six minutes, but it seems to end about 20 minutes too soon. I wonder what sorts of improvisations these three talented musicians would have offered up over an extended piece. Though Bill Evans wasn’t around to see the release of his masterpiece, we can be thankful that it wasn’t lost in the shuffle that was (and is) a part of the record industry. As for me, I’m thankful that labels like Craft Recordings exist to breathe new life into classic releases like YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING.

FINDING A WAY TO ROCK: SARAH BORGES LIVE PREVIEW

We were all hit hard by the COVID-19 lockdown. Even if we managed to stay healthy, we all know at least one person who was sick; if we were lucky, we didn’t lose anyone close to us. Being separated from loved ones was tough, having to rearrange our lives because of this virus was maddening. A lot of people were forced to say home, work remotely or, in extreme cases, lost their jobs, their livelihoods. One of the worst hit industries was entertainment: We couldn’t go see a live show, they couldn’t play live. A working musician’s “bread and butter” is playing live, meeting the fans; selling their merchandise (T-shirts, CDs, albums… ) makes up a very large part of a touring musician’s income. The need to play and create new music is built into a musician’s DNA. So it was that Sarah Borges recorded her new album, TOGETHER ALONE, released earlier this year, working with longtime producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and several bassists and drummers remotely. The cohesiveness of the album’s ten tracks is testament to the drive and determination to create.

SARAH BORGES live with KEITH VOEGELE (photo credit: BRYAN BOLEA)

Now, with Sarah coming to Off Broadway, one of Saint Louis’ coolest (and my personal favorite) venues, we spoke to her about what we can expect on August 24. “Well, you know, we’re touring in support of our newest record, which is called TOGETHER ALONE. It came out in February. And we recorded the record pretty much remotely during the lockdown portion of the pandemic so, luckily for me, the guys who play bass and guitar on the record, which are Keith Voegele from the Bottle Rockets and “Roscoe” Ambel, who produced all those Bottle Rockets records… they’re in the touring band, too, so… and, it’s rounded out by our drummer Kenny Soule. But the way we work it is, I play some songs from the record and then Roscoe will sing a few, play ‘em… we kinda trade back and forth during the show, lots of harmonies, lots of banter in between. It’s really fun, ya know? I kinda feel like, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m so grateful to still be doing it. Every show is fun.”

SARAH BORGES (photo credit: LIZ LINDER PIX)

Packing in tunes from Sarah’s eight albums, as well as music from Ambel’s bands, the Del-Lords, Roscoe’s Gang and the Yayhoos and… maybe a few surpsises, the evening should be a good one! With traces of the Beatles – especially George Harrison – wandering through the remotely recorded TOGETHER ALONE, the new songs have a friendly, poppy sound that really allows Sarah to get into the vocal arrangements without being too in-your-face. I, for one, am looking forward to hearing these new tunes performed live. Nick Gusman opens the show. Tickets are available at offbroadwaystl.com, at the door day-of-show and from the usual ticket outlets; more information is also available at the venue’s website. See you there!

FINGERPRINTS: WHERE THE BEAT GOES ON

(BLACKBERRY WAY RECORDS; 2022)

You may not know this, but Fingerprints were a big deal… a VERY big deal. The Minneapolis five-piece formed in the mid-1970s and, after a few line-up changes, emerged as one of the first three bands signed by the soon-to-be heavily influential Twin/Tone Records (original home to such punk and post-punk bands as the Replacements, Pere Ubu, Babes In Toyland, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and the Mekons). Fingerprints released three seven inch records (FINGERPRINTS, DOWN and SMILES FOR SALE) between 1978 and 1979 and appeared on the legendary BIG HITS OF MID-AMERICA, VOLUME 3 compilation album. Between April, 1978’s DOWN and September’s SMILES FOR SALE, guitarist Robb Henry exited the band. His replacement, Jeff Waryan and the rest of the group – Mark Throne (vocals and saxophone), Steve Fjelstad (bass), Kevin Glynn (drums) and Mike Owens (guitar and vocals) entered Blackberry Way Studios (founded by members Owens, Glynn and Fjelstad) to record their debut full-length in 1979. The album was nearly completed when the band broke up and the project shelved. Now, more than forty years later, Owens and Blackberry Way Records have gussied up 24 tracks – including most of the tunes from the original Twin/Tone releases – and given us WHERE THE BEAT GOES ON, featuring both recorded versions of the band. To say that this collection is anything less than essential is like saying that Prince was an “okay” guitar player.

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1978 (Kevin Glynn, Steve Fjelstad, Robb Henry, Mike Owens, Mark Throne) (publicity photo)

Don’t Wanna Talk” kicks things off in a very ‘80s lo-fi Minneapolis Rock and Roll fashion. Fjelstad’s rumbling bass and Glynn’s unexpected and decidedly heavy drum sound underpins a simple but incredibly catchy guitar part that leads to some very nice interplay between Owens, Waryan and Throne’s sax. And, so, we’re off to a great start. Next up is one of seven tracks to feature Robb Henry, “(Now I Wanna Be a) Space Girl,” the lead track to the first Fingerprints 7” record released on Twin/Tone. It’s really hard to describe the beauty of the song without making a couple of oxymoronic observations: First, there’s a very non-guitary guitar running throughout; second, the sound is very post-punk before punk was pre-anything else; finally, the guys were in and out in an economically Ramones-tight fashion (less than three minutes). “Prisoners” features some nice backing vocals to bolster the enigmatic vocals of songwriter Mike Owens and a little piano-noodling from guest Harvey Ginsberg. There’s an actual guitar solo (and a right tasty one it is, too) which I’m going to attribute to Jeff Waryan, although Owens could more than hold his own in that department. The overall sound of this one is a bit of envelope pushing, ala the Replacements or Husker Du. “Boogada Bigadus (Big Reggie’s Theme)” is a little slice of meaningless surf music that is absolutely fraught with meaning. The instrumental again offers some wicked guitar and a Throne sax part that fades in and out of the mix and, all of this in a mere 2:10! Link Wray or Dick Dale woulda been proud… heck, maybe they were! The title track to the group’s final Twin/Tone 7”, “Smiles For Sale” features a more out-front screaming sax along with another cool guitar riff that punctuates one of the weirdest vocal performances ever (from Mark Throne or any other presumably human entity). At this point, everything is starting to take on a certain random simplicity and odd sameness in its brilliance… just like most of the great punk records of the era. Owens adds piano to his instrumental repertoire to the next track, as a simple, jangly guitar riff and massive drums punctuate “Illusions of Love,” a bizarre little ditty that forms an odd one-two punch with the like-minded “A Place In My Heart.” This one’s an oddly sentimental song that could be about jealousy, murder, an unhealthy obsession or a late night booty call… maybe all of the above. Throne’s vocals take on an eerie, otherworldly quality that is not unappealing. “Kind Affection,” featuring a cool Jeff Waryan vocal (he also wrote the thing) is one of the catchiest tunes in the first third of this collection and another in a series of the band’s odd take on love and its many shades. Once again, there are some great guitar parts that caress the listener’s ears while Kevin Glynn’s drumming threatens the sanctity of said listener’s eardrums. What’s more Rock and Roll than that, right?

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1978 (Kevin Glynn, Robb Henry, Mike Owens, Steve Fjelstad, Mark Throne) (publicity photo)

All manic drums, frenzied guitars and unhinged vocals (plus Mark making an appearance on the piano), “Uptown” might be a retelling of a secret liaison, a secret life or a tragic death. This band seems to have excelled at open-ended, ambiguous lyrical narratives. I like that! They were also good at delivering a memorable riff, a simple but effective backbeat, completely upbeat melody and vocal delivery for a rather maudlin subject. Such is the case with “Down,” an absolutely hummable tune that bores into your earholes and takes up residence in that little corner of your brain that – for better or worse – continually hits replay on the last catchy tune you heard. This one first made an appearance on the Twin/Tone double album BIG HITS OF MID-AMERICA, VOLUME 3. “Whose Side Are You On” offers a jackhammer guitar and drum sound, more great interplay between guitar and sax, a rumbling bass and an actual solo from Waryan, who wrote and sings the piece . Even a seemingly pedestrian song like “Hey Johnny” has something unique and unexpected to offer. In this case, more inventive six-string work (thanks to Mike Owens and Robb Henry) with an actual dual lead part that turns into a trio with the addition of Throne’s sax mimicking the twin guitars. Apparently giving the creators of SEINFELD the seed of an idea, “Nothing To Say” has a great riff, a great melody, and minimal lyrics (which fit the title perfectly). Just for kicks, Mike adds some organ to the mix. And all in a concise little package at just over 1:20. This song about nothing was originally released on SMILES FOR SALE. “Shake ‘n’ Roll” may be the truest punk song of the collection, with a snotty guitar solo courtesy of Owens and an indiscriminate use of the splash cymbal. Simply stated, it is pure fun for pure punks. A meaty psuedo-metal guitar intro leads into a moody “Young Love,” the oldest track here, predating Robb Henry’s coming. With another dose of ambiguity, the track could be about a stalker or a child molester or… Donny Osmond. Whatever the subject matter, the tune is creepy beyond belief! Mark Throne’s vocals sound particularly sinister over the grinding rhythm guitar (by Throne himself), Owens’ wah-wah laced leads and monstrous drums. It’s one of the longest tracks here, clocking in at nearly three-and-a-half minutes. A kind of Middle Eastern vibe is elicited from guest sax players Lynn Seacord and Peter Napoleon Barbeau and the tablas of Gary Waryan on “We Can’t Get In.” That rumbling bass and those forceful drums propel the swirling, mid-tempo number along at a Speed Metal pace. Dichotomous? Indeed. But, then, that’s what these Fingerprints were so good at!

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1978 (Robb Henry, Steve Fjelstad, Mark Throne, Kevin Glynn, Mike Owens) (publicity photo

A circular rhythm and repeating guitar lines drive “You Have To Push Them Over,” an instrumental from SMILES FOR SALE. There’s a lot going on here, with a slide guitar diving in before a nifty piano solo (compliments of the returning Harvey Ginsberg); a great kind of frantic guitar solo from Mike makes an appearance, joined by the return of the piano and the saxes of Barbeau and Seacord throwing down a few forceful notes just before the number ends. Robb Henry is back again for “Wasted On You.” This one has sort of an early U2 vibe with a very un-Edge like solo. All-in-all, it sounds very ominous… in the best possible way – I mean, “I was waiting for the world to die.” How much more ominous can you get? Mike Kearney adds some atmospheric sax, as well. “Must Be Me” has a nice, pedestrian chuga-chuga guitar riff that’s double timed by a steady, racing bass groove and imaginative lead guitar and another solid solo from Owens. Waryan’s vocals are nice and gritty and, all the while, Ginsberg’s piano hammers away just below the surface What a great little dose of power pop! Speaking of which, “Burn Those Bridges” is a very Who-sian piece in both depth and scope, with Townshendesque guitars (by Owens and Henry) and a lyrical bent to match. This is a solid effort from all involved, if a little weak on the backing vocals. Glynn’s drumwork on “Will You Be the One” features some absolutely massive fills (in fact, the drum parts are almost all heavy, muscular fills!). It’s one of the few songs to feature a sustained Mark Throne sax solo, who also delivers what may be is best vocal performance here, evoking Bowie. And, I shouldn’t have to mention it this far into a review, but the guitars are once again absolutely fantastic! “Made In the Shade” pumps the brakes, slowing down the tempo, which makes the Bowie comparison even more evident. Steve and Kevin find a nice pocket that allows the guitars (Robb and Mike, finishing off this set together), keys and voice to shine on what is a really nice tune. There’s an oddly pleasing little sax part that comes out of the woodwork toward the end of the four minute plus (!) track from the band’s debut EP. Next is “Back On the Street,” another four minute rocker. While I like the shorter, punkier stuff, I find myself wondering where those songs could have gone if they would have been fleshed out and extended like these two. This one offers a cool riff and a couple of really great guitar solos, the last one being somewhat diminished… lost in an overly long fade. The final track, “Half Past Zero,” almost seems like an afterthought or a simple work in progress. Another possibility is that it’s a demo that never really sparked anything creatively past the repeating riff. I know the guys have been playing around a bit lately and I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing a more fleshed-out version with vocals and solos and such.

FINGERPRINTS, circa 1979 (Mark Throne, Steve Fjelstad, Kevin Glynn, Jeff Waryan, Mike Owens) (publicity photo)

So, there you have it… what is, I believe, the entire recorded output of one of the most influential bands that you’ve never heard of. Fingerprints were there at the cusp of that great Minneapolis Rock scene of the early ‘80s but, unfortunately, didn’t stick around to grab some of the spotlight that shone so brightly on other groups like the Replacements, Soul Asylum or Husker Du. Ah, what could have been! WHERE THE BEAT GOES ON is available on CD and digitally here or at your favorite music dispensary.