AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET

(ITN DISTRIBUTION/FRIGHT TECK PICTURES/DAGGER 3 MEDIA (104 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

I want to say something straight off the bat. B movies or even Grade “Z” movies should NOT be weighted against big budget or “major” films when they’re evaluated. It’s not fair. There are different tiers to moviemaking, and a low-budget production with unknown actors is NOT in competition with “regular” movies that get wide distribution. Or even a Netflix offering. Such films should be seen as what they are, lower-tier offerings that are either entertaining or NOT. And let them exist on that level for better or worse, while recognizing that they may still stink, or not. We NEED these films, and they can launch the careers of talented people sometimes. Enough said.

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (KateLynn E Newberry, Rob Jaeger, Brianna Burke) (publicity still)

So, this low-budget horror film, AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET came my way, and it survived two immediate tests for me as a viewer. First, it is entertaining. And, being a horror film, it’s actually rather suspenseful. It has some scares, and doesn’t always quite do what you might think. So I give it points for that. The titular Lilith Ratchet was an ill-fated woman who suffered losses during the Civil War (including her head) and vowed revenge for her suffering, via a series of chanted phrases which, if invoked along with her name, will cause hellish torments for those doing the chanting. When an antique shop owner sells the supposedly “shrunken head” of poor ol’ Lilith in a mysterious box many years later (the buyers are two curious young women, Alice Crow and her friend Lauren, a disturbing series of events begin to unfold, especially after Alice (KateLynn E Newberry) and Lauren (Brianna Burke) approach a paranormal radio show host named Hunter Perry (Rob Jaeger), whose show “Beyond the Veil” is immensely popular with the locals. The girls want to know more about this “thing” they bought, and Hunter sees an opportunity to get serious attention if he arranges for a “chanting game” to be done live in a local watering hole on Halloween. The kids can just toss Lilith around, say those phrases, keep pouring drinks, and see what kind of merriment results. I mean, what are the odds that the demonic spirit of Lilith Ratchet (Crissy Kolarik) would suddenly return and start inflicting nasty mayhem on all these fun-loving youngsters? Well, there wouldn’t be a movie if she didn’t, right?

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (Crissy Kolarik) (publicity still)

Lilith is not your garden variety 19th century spinster, let it be said. She has terrible teeth frozen in a murderous grin, beady eyes bent on watching you take your last breath, and black, long, curving fingernails just perfect for slicing through youthful flesh. To paraphrase the Terminator, “she can’t be reasoned with, she can’t be bargained with, and she will not STOP until you are dead.” Hunter thought he was just gonna get some ratings for his podcast, and poor Alice and Lauren, while clearly spooked by disturbing visions and understandable apprehension, try to go along with the proceedings semi-enthusiastically. Nate, Lauren’s boyfriend (George Tutie), is not happy about the big “Beyond the Veil” fiesta and leaves the proceedings early. You can probably guess what happens to him. This Lilith gal, though a little too pleased with herself for her demonic ways, has an agenda, and unless the somewhat smug Mister Perry can suss out what to do, Ratchet will NOT bury the hatchet. It’s best not to get too attached to any of the characters in this film, to say the least. While most of the acting is simply functional, Newberry puts some real energy into her role as Alice and has you believing some of this craziness is really happening. She’s a gifted actress with a slew of credits as it turns out. Jaeger has a kind of generic charisma, and Burke acts like she’s at least trying. As for the nasty Ms Ratchet, her makeup designer deserves as much credit as the actress, although being singularly demonic for over 90 minutes has gotta take some concentration. The guy putting this vision on screen in its totality, however, is writer/director Eddie Lengyel, who has a good sense of pacing and a clear understanding of common horror movie tropes… the jump scare, the build-up, the power of an evil face, et cetera. Although everything in the movie is something we’ve seen before, Lengvel knows the formula well. Certain things are kind of ridiculous: the shrunken head itself, the ludicrous scene where Hunter evades Lilith by hiding in a bathroom stall with the door not even fully closed (I mean, come on… if you’re a demon and you’ve shown your ability to float in and out of EVERY physical space, how would a BATHROOM stall flummox you when you’re victim hunting?), the supposedly “crowded” party which seems to boast no more than a few dozen participants. I also was annoyed at the lack of genuine emotion shown when various characters found out their significant other had bought it. I can’t elaborate without giving stuff away, but come on… you’re gonna cry and be in anguish if your loved one is now history at the hands of a demonic old woman, right? There are a couple of exceptions to this complaint, thankfully.

All this said, there is something admirably purposeful about …THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET. It keeps moving, it has a fairly riveting nasty at the center, and it uses music well (some of that supplied by Timothy Smith). And at least a few of the actors rise to the occasion. The biggest “curse” I find in movies like this is usually that they are boring and show stupid people behaving stupidly. I was not bored watching the film, and I didn’t groan that much watching these characters. So hey, let’s give this little fright flick its due. But Eddie, my boy, I don’t think Lilith could really be called a “poltergeist.” Look up the definition. This vengeful bitch belongs in another category; she doesn’t just move objects around. She does some serious slicin’ and dicin’, and in case you decide to do a sequel (there is a hint of that), lose the “p” word. Just a thought…


TOR LUNDVALL: A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999

(DAIS RECORDS; 2019)

Sometimes an artist can be quite prolific without most folks knowing who they are. That seems to be the case with Tor Lundvall, an East Hampton based electronica auteur whose largely ambient works tend to be limited editions. He was on a label called Strange Fortune from 2004-2006, where I first heard his evocative works LAST LIGHT and EMPTY CITY, the latter a perfectly satisfying dark-ish ambient platter that worked fine as immersive mood music. Lundvall has categorized his own music as “ghost ambient,” which, while not an official sub-genre in most texts I have read, sums it up tidily. Before the Strange Fortune years, he released a series of seasons-themed platters (something not unsurprisingly common in ambient circles) such as THE MIST and UNDER THE SHADOWS OF TREES. Lundvall is an introspective observer of nature, it seems, and woodlands, fields and changing weather informs his sound rather pervasively. Works for me, as I am a total ambient freak.

TOR LUNDVALL in Washington DC, 1990 (uncredited photo)

Now, however, in one of several retrospective collections he has put out (a couple being very limited-edition box sets), he’s gone back to his youthful coffers to gather up the material that comprises A STRANGENESS IN MOTION: EARLY POP RECORDINGS 1989-1999. This does not qualify as ambient, although the evocative and tonally rich keyboards Lundvall plays could certainly serve it up, and HAVE on later recordings. But we get vocals throughout, and unless you’re Elizabeth Fraser or that guy who sang on a track on Eno/Budd’s classic THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR, or any number of nameless ethereal female vocalists who’ve spruced up more heavenly music-style outings than I could name, you don’t get invited to the “Ambient Party.” What Lundvall was doing in yonder years was essentially synth pop, music with two or three well-known IDM type beats, simple but atmospheric keyboard sounds generally mixed upfront, and soft but clear vocals.

TOR LUNDVALL in the studio, 1994 (uncredited photo)

Original One” comes right out of the speakers with a four-on-the-floor dancey beat and a rather distracting male vocal occasionally barking something unintelligible. No lyrics, but… no “ambience” in the classic manor, either. But it’s kinda fun. “Procession Day” is better, centered around a lovely descending minor fourth interval and an airy Lundvall vocal: “From my window, leaves are turning/From my window, I watch the changing world,” he sings, and there are plenty of casual observations like that throughout the remaining tracks. This is genuinely pleasant, however, and may remind you of classic Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “The Clearing” features dual vocal tracks, one virtually whispered, the other a gentle, higher-register vocal that, when occurring in tandem with the other, creates a hypnotic effect. There are three or four different keyboard elements in the mix, so Lundvall was clearly already a master of light electronica, and he has too much serious intent to let any of this approach the shallow side of the electronica pool. That said, much of this music sounds like standard ‘80s synth-pop, something that many of us were listening to in colleges and clubs at the time. “The Melting Hour” has a rather driving rhythm that recalls early Echo and the Bunnymen (Lundvall’s sweet lead vocal sounds like a lyric he sings, “haunted by dreams”), and “Watched” is rather hypnotic in its purposeful airy pop sound, even if you get the sense that this kind of music was and still is being made by any competent electronica musician with the right computer setup.

As the album progresses, though, you realize you are hearing an artist that loves getting lost in the music. “Hidden” has a 1-2-2-1 keyboard phrase that repeats over and over, effectively, while Lundvall’s shy, boy-ish vocal seems to hover between the background and the foreground. There’s a kind of hazy allure to this track that leaves a lasting impression. “The Night Watch” is even better, a cumulatively mesmerizing song offering more of those evocative lyrics: “I see a tree sitting on the field/The twisted limbs, its leaves conceal/The small dark birds fly against the sky/Along the black streets, the shadows try… ” I let this one play three times. “Lessons That Kill” offers bright, pinging electronics that call the French duo Air to mind, and convey a sense of underlying drama that would have made for a fine instrumental. There is a cool shift in the main melody just after the two-minute mark. Lundvall does sing again, though, and the vocals don’t really command attention, even though they are pleasant enough. The closing “August Rain” features cool, fizzy keyboards in the foreground and a dreamlike, half-whispered vocal firmly in the background. The effect is like lucid dreaming… are you fully awake in reality or not? And how important is it to you to even KNOW what the lyrics are saying? These final few tracks raise that question.

TOR LUNDVALL, 2016 (publicity photo)

Ironically, even though this isn’t a Tor Lundvall ambient release, it would sound pretty good in the background at a social event. I can’t imagine this soft, pop-tronica style really bothering anyone. Lundvall has focus and clarity in his music; you could tell he was thinking things over, and trying to direct his sonic assembly to do his artistic bidding. His later work may be more entrancing to those of us into the ambient immersion thing, but A STRANGENESS IN MOTION… , while not particularly “strange” by my reckoning, does showcase an artist making strides towards a promising musical destiny.


MARK MORTON: ANESTHETIC

(WPP RECORDS/SPINEFARM RECORDS; 2019)

Mark Morton (Lamb of God’s guitarist) has released his first solo album. Titled ANESTHETIC, it is far from something to make you fall asleep. This album truly has something for everyone. It has dark, grooving, fast paced metal, soft rock, vocal focused ballads and just about everything in between.

The record starts with “Cross Off,” an absolutely thumping track from Morton and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park, Stone Temple Pilots). The groove heavy track begins with a scream from Bennington reminiscent of HYBRID THEORY (Linkin Park’s first album) as the late singer delivers searing metal vocals throughout, leading into a breakdown that’s impossible not to move to. From “Cross Off,” the album storms into “Sworn Apart,” with Papa Roach vocalist Jacoby Shaddix delivering a solid performance. Once again, Morton offers a filthy groove. “Axis” features Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) and Slash’s favorite singer, Myles Kennedy. Lanegan sounds like he has been gargling gravel for five years. The track slows things down and forces you to listen. And, so, away we go again with “The Never,” featuring Testament’s Chuck Billy. The tune takes off like a rocket launch 2 inches from your head. More filthy grooves and barking vocals littered throughout this track force you to bang that head. The album slows down a bit from here, with tracks featuring Kennedy (“Save Defiance”) and Mark Morales from Sons of Texas (“Blur”). Both are solid efforts, with Morton and bassist Mike Inez delivering solid performances.

MARK MORTON (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

The record moves on to “Back From the Dead,” a track with Buckcherry’s Josh Todd. A solid, hard punk/metal thing, this is the best vocal performance Todd has given in years. Another highlight is the hard left turn of “Reveal,” featuring Naeemah Z Maddox. This track really shows Morton’s ability with a guitar. He slows it down and delivers a soulful and sweet guitar solo that works seamlessly with Maddox’s vocals. The album moves on to a hard rock track featuring Morton on vocals. He does a really solid job putting the vocals down in “Imaginary Days.” Very surprising, indeed. And, on to the finish… My favorite track of the year so far is “The Truth Is Dead,” featuring Randy Blythe (Lamb Of God) and Alyssa White-Gluz (The Agonist, Arch Enemy). You can already guess what happens here. White-Gluz opens the track with a beautiful singing intro which breaks into Blythe hitting his signature growl. Lows, highs, everything you could want from Blythe. Alyssa comes in at the perfect time to deliver the chorus, with Blythe throwing some clean vocals behind her. They both show off their growls through the breakdown. The album finishes STRONG. You can definitely tell Morton put a lot of time into this and chose carefully who he wanted performing each track. It’s obvious this is a labor of love and respect for the music. ANESTHETIC is highly recommended, as I think the album is killer… absolutely worth a listen.


UPCOMING: 20TH ANNUAL TRIBUTE TO STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN

(24 November, 2018; THE PAGEANT, Saint Louis MO)

It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan has been gone for nearly thirty years. Vaughan, who reached legendary status in the 1980s for his fluid, fiery guitar playing with his own band, Double Trouble, and on David Bowie’s LET’S DANCE album, was killed in a helicopter crash near Aspen, Colorado in 1990. The man who was at the forefront of a serious Electric Blues revival in the United States was a little over a month shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. His importance and his influence are still felt in the music played by artists across the country and, in fact, the world.

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (photo credit: EBET ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES)

That influence is particularly abundant in Saint Louis, as guitarists like Steve Pecaro and Tony Campanella seemingly work overtime to keep the music alive in a city that is known for the Blues. In fact, Pecaro and his band have hosted an annual STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN TRIBUTE show for two decades; the 20th anniversary show, sponsored by Pecaro’s Guitar Shop and radio station KSHE-95, will be happening on Saturday, November 24 at the Pageant. I know that a lot of so-called “tribute” bands are currently cleaning up in a market that seems perpetually stagnant. However, this show is not what most of us have come to think of as a “Tribute” show. Not even close! This is a celebration of the life and music of one of the greatest rockin’ Blues players of all time. With Pecaro, Campanella’s band and another Saint Louis mainstay, Mike Zito, are also scheduled to appear, along with special guests. If the below video is any indication, the Pageant will be packed and rockin’ all night long. Tickets remain for the all ages event, available in advance at the usual outlets for twenty bucks or $22.50 on day-of-show at the venue’s box office, with 21 and up balcony seats available for $25. The doors open at 7:00 PM, with Mike Zito taking the stage around 8:00.


BE BOP DELUXE: POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE… INTRODUCING BE BOP DELUXE

(EMI RECORDS/CAPITOL RECORDS; 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

So, it’s somewhere around the middle part of 1977 and I’m in the “I’ll buy virtually anything that ain’t disco or Country and Western music” mode that typified my life for several regrettable years (with wisdom and age, I’ve repented/recovered from that dark period, except for the disco… that’ll always suck!). While deciding on which 8 to 10 albums to buy on this particular day, I came across a two record set (one full-length album, one 12″ EP) with a striking black and white cover – a still from the classic silent German flick, METROPOLIS. The price was right, so I was soon the proud owner of LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE by something called Be Bop Deluxe. I’d seen a couple of studio albums by the group, of course, but I just could not get behind that name (or the inexplicably hideous cover art or… perhaps it was a deep-seeded fear of Jazz music, another of my quirky phobias of that bygone era)! But, great googley-moogley, chil’uns! When I dropped the needle on side one, track one (“Life In the Air Age”), my brain nearly exploded! This was great stuff… incredible stuff. “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape.” “Fair Exchange.” “Piece of Mine.” “Maid In Heaven.” These were absolutely magnificent slabs of sonic beauty, propelled by the lush, orchestral guitar style of Bill Nelson, the mad genius behind the quartet’s sound.

It was a VERY long time before I came into contact with another Be Bop Deluxe record (though I did purchase a couple of great imports by the then-solo Bill Nelson) – in fact, the band only managed one more album, DRASTIC PLASTIC, before packing it in. Now, a band of which Nelson says, “I don’t think about Be Bop Deluxe as often as fans of the band might presume,” is given its due with this 18-track “Best of… ” package alongside re-issues of the original five studio albums and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (all with bonus tracks, naturally). Does it sound dated? Not as much as you’d think! In fact, I could think of a few current artists who would be regarded as the next big thing if they had recorded this stuff in the past couple of years.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1974 (Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, Ian Parkin, Bill Nelson, Robert Bryan) (photo credit: MICK ROCK)

This 18 track collection starts with the title song of the very first Be Bop Deluxe album. “Axe Victim” is rather a lost gem, full of the lyrical wryness and imagery that became a main-stay of not only this band, but of all of Bill Nelson’s subsequent projects (solo or with the group Red Noise). Of course, the benchmarks of Be Bop Deluxe were always Nelson’s guitar work and the solid interplay between the four men (on AXE VICTIM, Nelson was joined by guitarist/organist Ian Parkin, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan). The second track, also from that debut, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” is fueled by Nelson’s ingenious arrangement (and a smoking guitar solo). The tune would later be retooled for the second version of the band, turning it into an almost orchestral live masterpiece.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia) (uncredited photo)

The band’s second album, 1975’s FUTURAMA, introduces drummer Simon Andrew David Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, with Nelson exerting his dominance on all fronts: all lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards are performed by him; all songwriting and arrangements are by him. FUTURAMA is the most well-represented release on POSTCARDS… , with four tracks (“Stage Whispers,” “Sister Seagull,” “Jean Cocteau,” and the wickedly cool “Maid In Heaven”). The wisdom of adding Tumahai and Fox is evident from the first notes of the charging train wreck that is “Stage Whispers.” The funky calypso break merely adds to the insanity, and – if I haven’t mentioned it yet, Bill Nelson can play that guitar thing! “Maid In Heaven” follows. Like “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape” and the song that follows, “Sister Seagull,” this tune became a live staple, taking on a new feel with the addition of Simon “Andy” Clark on keys. Speaking of “Sister Seagull,” again the guitars and the arrangement sets Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe apart from most acts of that time (or, for that matter, most acts that have followed in the 30 years since its release). The final track from FUTURAMA is a jazzy homage to “Jean Cocteau.” The song is a major departure for the group, but the trio show that they are more than capable of pulling off such a change of pace.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Charlie Tumahia, Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (photo credit: JOHN THORNTON)

By the time of the band’s third record, SUNBURST FINISH, Clark was well ensconced on keyboards. His impact is immediately felt on another live staple (and quite possibly the one song that you may have heard on the radio at some point), “Fair Exchange.” The interplay between guitarist and keyboardist on this track is a good example of the direction that the band was headed. Plus, it’s just a darn good song! “Ships In the Night” builds on the slightly Caribbean feel that was first explored during the break in “Stage Whispers.” The keyboards are, by turns, grandiose and whimsical… not an easy feat in the same song! “Blazing Apostles” re-introduces us to Bill Nelson, guitar hero. During the four-and-a-half minutes of the song, Nelson goes from metal crunch to jazzy runs to strident funk to fleet-fingered progressive solos.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1976 (Andrew Clark, Bill Nelson, Charlie Tumahia, Simon Fox) (publicity photo)

The group’s second release of 1976 (and fourth, over-all), MODERN MUSIC, finds the revitalized quartet performing as a more cohesive unit, though it is still quite obvious that Nelson is pulling all of the strings. “Kiss of Light” could have (should have) been a big hit back then; it would probably be a big hit if it were to be released today, with its rather staccato vocal delivery, especially on the chorus. The title track is as laid-back as Be Bop Deluxe ever got, with a lilting, slightly bluesy sound. “Twilight Capers” continues the orchestral approach that was adopted on the previous record, with guitars and keyboards ebbing and swelling throughout, leading to a short Jazz-inflected guitar solo at the outro. This is the band and the musical vision that Nelson took on the road, with the tour that eventually produced the amazing LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE.

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Simon Fox) (uncredited photo)

And this is where the continuity of this release comes into question: The single tune from the live album, “Life In the Air Age,” the title track, if you will, does not follow “Twilight Capers.” Three songs from the group’s final release, DRASTIC PLASTIC, is wedged between the MODERN MUSIC and LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE tracks. The tunes – “Electrical Language,” “Possession,” and “Islands of the Dead” – are fine songs, but it is very obvious that Nelson was tiring of Be Bop Deluxe and guitar-driven rock music. “Electrical Language” is powered more by the vocal performances than by guitar (or keyboards), while “Islands of the Dead” is a rather thoughtful, mostly acoustic piece. “Possession,” of the three, is the closest to what fans had come to expect from Be Bop Deluxe’s grand wizard of the nicely turned phrase (of both word and fretboard).

BE BOP DELUXE, circa 1975 (Simon Fox, Charlie Tumahia, Bill Nelson, Andrew Clark) (photo ourtesy: GAB ARCHIVES/REDFERNS)

“Life In the Air Age,” a track from SUNBURST FINISH, bears witness to just how great this group was as a live unit. The song itself is a progressive pop masterpiece and the band certainly prove their mettle in bringing it to life on stage. As good as they were in the studio, the fact that they were able to improve on those studio versions is a testament to the combined talents of the four musicians, and the arranging acumen of Bill Nelson, in particular. The final two tracks of the package brings it full circle (another continuity issue), with both the A and B sides of the first Be Bop Deluxe single, the independently produced and released “Teenage Archangel” and an early version of “Jets At Dawn,” a tune re-recorded for AXE VICTIM. The A side is, actually, a fairly standard sounding teenage-angst pop song. The B side, however, clocks in at nearly seven minutes and features some of the most exquisite guitar on this package. I just wish that the single tracks would have been sequenced as the lead tracks on this package, even though they were tack-on, bonus cuts for this version of POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE. Ah, well… you can’t have everything, but you can have a fairly comprehensive Be Bop Deluxe primer to hold you over until the proposed box set that Bill Nelson is reportedly working on.

BE BOP DELUXE (Bill Nelson, on stage November 1976) (uncredited photo)

UPDATE: Bill Nelson’s eight-disc box set, THE PRACTICE OF EVERY DAY LIFE: CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF RECORDINGS was finally released in 2011, featuring 34 choice cuts from the Be Bop Deluxe era. Aside form various compilations and reissues, Nelson continues to set a furious pace, releasing no less than four albums of new music this year alone. The last,DYNAMOS AND TREMOLOS is half synth-pop, half guitar rock, all instrumental.


SUPERJOINT: CAUGHT UP IN THE GEARS OF APPLICATION

(HOUSECORE RECORDS; 2016)

Superjoint (formerly Superjoint Ritual) is a hardcore/extreme metal/punk supergroup, formed in the early ‘90s by Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, Jimmy Bower (Eyehategod, Crowbar) and Joe Fazzio. Their latest effort, CAUGHT UP IN THE GEARS OF APPLICATION, opens with what I can only describe as controlled chaos, in a way that only Anselmo and company can deliver. It’s a pretty relentless romp into dark themes and heavy grooves. There are some glimpses of their previous sound throughout, but all in all, this is a fresh sound with new ideas for the band.

SUPERJOINT (Kevin Bond, Jose Manuel Gonzalez, Phil Anselmo, Jimmy Bower, Stephen Taylor) (photo credit: DANIN DRAHOS)

The first half of the album is a sonic explosion, with Phil roaring nasty vocals in over-expertly crafted starts and stops in a way that exudes extreme deliberation, and you can tell that serious time was put in to writing the music. Despite the obvious age in his voice, Anselmo still has a vocal style unique to only himself. The opener, “Today and Tomorrow,” is a pretty good indication of what you’re getting into when you sit to listen to the album as a whole. “Burning the Blanket” is the gem of the first half, having extreme groove, and Phil screeching filthy highs over the latter half of the song.

The record really picks up during the second half, with “Clickbait,” which, in my opinion is the best song on the album and the best representation of the band’s new sound. The album closes up with “Receiving No Answer To the Knock,” which is a solid song and just goes to show you that although the record is over, Superjoint intends to kick your ass until the last second of it; the use of a dark, descending melody on guitar coupled with Anselmo’s best performance on the album let you know that they are not going anywhere anytime soon. Overall, CAUGHT UP IN THE GEARS… is an incredibly solid album and, if you have the time, you should really listen to the whole thing, as I think the totality of its eleven tunes plays better than any single track.


SLEEP NO MORE

(RLJE FILMS/INCENDIARY FEATURES/ARCANUM PICTURES (91 minutes; Unrated); 2018)

On paper, SLEEP NO MORE (also known as 200 HOURS, the working title) looks like a cool, ingenious sci-fi thriller; in fact, I was kinda hyped to check it out. I can’t say that the viewing experience made me wanna dig my eyes out (a not-so-veiled reference to an early event in the flick) but… I can tell you that the basic plot, cliched storytelling, unlikable characters and flat, cardboard acting (by some very good actors, by the way) left me feeling that I had just wasted an hour-and-a-half of my life.

SLEEP NO MORE (Stephen Ellis, Keli Price) (publicity still)

So, here’s the premise: The year is 1986 (or thereabouts) and a group of grad students are taking part in a “sleep study” at a prestigious university somewhere (they’re ALWAYS somewhere, aren’t they?). The study theorizes that if one can go 200 hours without sleep, that person will reach “lucidity” and will be free of the constraints of sleep. All of this, of course, is dependent upon an experimental drug called cogniphan. When one of the test subjects (played by Lukas Gage) goes off the deep end, the funding for the project is rescinded and the plug pulled. As this happens right before summer break, the remaining subjects, wont to abandon the study volunteer to remain at the research facility for the two weeks necessary to obtain “lucidity.” Dale (Stephen Ellis), one of the four, is leery of staying on after witnessing the gruesome end of their fellow guinea pig but, having the hots for Holly (Christine Dwyer), decides to stick around and becomes the group’s control subject. The dominant force among the students, Joe (Keli Price), is – to use technical terminology – schtupping Doctor Ella Whatley (Yasmine Aker), the faculty advisor, so he doesn’t fall to the circumstantial evidence that she may have – uh – exaggerated the truth about animal tests that may or may not have been used to further advance the testing into human territory. And, from there, things become a bit murky.

SLEEP NO MORE (Brea Grant, Keli Price) (publicity still)

Seemingly, the only semi-intelligent scientist in the bunch is Frannie (Brea Grant) who lays her cards on the table, folds her hand and gets the heck outta Dodge after Dale accidentally ingests a vial of the no-dose drug. Everything and everyone begins to devolve from that point. Of course, she’s pulled back into the insanity by Joe mere hours before his scheduled “lucidity.” Why? Because the hallucinations that they all experienced turned out to be real manifestations from the dream world, ticked off that they ain’t got nowhere to go what with no one doing any sleeping. Makes sense to me. I mean, I tend to get very cross if I don’t have anybody to play with for a few days. Anyway, without blowing the ending for you if you’re still interested in sitting through SLEEP NO MORE, I’ll just say that there is no happy ending here. That phrase actually has a dual meaning here. Hopefully, the first is rather obvious from my brief descriptions; the second, however, comes from the fact that the ending leaves things wide open for a sequel. I can honestly say that I would have to be severely sleep-deprived to sit through another one of these things. But, I’ll just leave this trailer right here so you can make your own decision about watching (or not watching) SLEEP NO MORE:

The movie is available on DVD, Video On Demand or as a digital download. It does feature some harsh language, several graphic scenes of violence, the usual gratuitous nudity (via a video of an obscure slasher movie from the ‘80s) and equally gratuitous 1980s British pop confectioneries. You have been warned!


3.2: THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2018)

In 1988, Geffen Records released an album of pop music with haughty (some would say pretentious) rock overtones by a band called 3. That band featured two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (the sixty-six percent that wasn’t Greg Lake) and multi-instrumentalist journeyman, Robert Berry. The partnership was an attempt to play the more melodic style of progressive rock which had given Palmer and Berry (with Asia and GTR, respectively) some successes in the previous few years. Maybe the impetus grew from Keith Emerson’s desire for a wider audience than he ever experienced in the Nice or ELP; a growing need to be accepted. Whatever brought the three together, the resulting record, … To THE POWER OF THREE, was well received. With the band doing well on the road, Keith began to feel stifled by the record company’s insistence that they strike while the iron was hot, virtually demanding that they return to the studio to begin work on album number two; Keith’s answer was simple: He quit. Fast forward to 2015. Robert found himself in conversations with Italy’s Frontier Records regarding a new project from 3; After consulting with Emerson (but, apparently, not Carl Palmer) regarding the possibility of resurrecting the band, the two began writing and demoing new material, scheduled studio time, signed contracts with Frontier and… as quickly as it began, it was over: Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Reeling from the loss, Berry set aside the project; after a time of grieving and reflecting, Robert decided to once again resurrect the project – utilizing songs and snippets of ideas that he and Emerson had shared – as a final farewell to his friend and band-mate. Working as a one man band, he began work on what would become THE RULES HAVE CHANGED under the name 3.2. Does it work? For the most part, I think so. The record is split fifty-fifty with new Berry compositions and pieces that he and Keith had been working on before the latter’s death. Still, Emerson’s larger-than-life character and overwhelming musical sensibility are felt throughout what Robert has accomplished here.

3.2 (Robert Berry) (publicity photo)

“One By One” starts with a magnificent, cinematic piano piece before a grandiose, symphonic blast of power propels the song into the first verse, where Mister Berry’s pop leanings are on display front-and-center. Here, the number takes on the feel and scope of an Asia-like progressive ballad; the instrumental passages convey a blend of piano-driven Jazz and Classical phrasing, which informed much of Emerson’s career. Time changes and sudden shifts in style over the tune’s seven-plus minutes, while off-putting at first blush eventually come into focus as the ultimate tribute and a heartfelt homage to Keith Emerson. On “Powerful Man,” the original intent of the group is brought into sharper focus, with what could be considered a more radio friendly sound within a simpler – by comparison – more compact and focused five minute rock song, led by Robert’s Emerson-inspired keyboard work. This certainly would not sound out of place nestled between the poppier works of GTR, Asia or even Trevor Rabin-era Yes. With the title track, the pomposity almost crushes the feel of what the artist was trying to convey, lyrically. The song is a double-edged sword, as the words could be taken as a betrayal by a lover or, more deeply, it may also be construed as an open letter in which Robert attempts to heal the wounds torn open by Emerson’s suicide. Perhaps “The Rules Have Changed” would have been better with a more stripped-down approach but, then, Keith Emerson was never known for his subtlety. Referencing many of Emerson’s most well-known riffs, “Our Bond” is, finally, Robert Berry’s soul stripped bare over the loss of a dear friend. Likewise, the music is stripped of any pretensions of grandiosity. This, the third of four numbers written solely by Berry, brought a shiver to my spine, particularly the perfect, lone piano that closes out the piece. It is, by far, my favorite track thus far.

“What You’re Dreaming Now” has the unmistakable mark of Keith Emerson and the glory days of ELP (as well as a bit of ELPowell ‘80s bombast) all over it; Berry’s vocal phrasing even shares a certain quality, if not timbre, with Greg Lake while his drumming exhibits the power of Cozy Powell along with the finesse of Carl Palmer. It may not be the strongest composition on the album, but for sheer progressive physicality, it’s hard to beat. The playful, almost joyful sound of WORKS-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I’m thinking something like “Tiger In a Spotlight” from …VOLUME TWO) are in full effect on “Somebody’s Watching,” with a pumping bass and a guitar set to “power chord stun.” The keyboards sound as if they could have been recorded by Emerson at any time over his illustrious career; as Keith has a co-writing and co-arrangement credit on the tune, one does wonder if Robert used a snippet of a demo that Keith had provided and built the track around that unfinished framework. “This Letter” starts off as beautiful ballad, with a nice acoustic guitar lead and hints and echoes of piano playing around and beneath a ragged vocal; an synth-derived orchestra plays in as the pace begins to quicken at about the halfway mark. All well and good but, the piece begins to morph into a sort of gypsy parody of itself shortly after the introduction of a ragtime piano and we are soon witness to the number devolving into something so far afield from where it began that the joy – for me, anyway – is sucked right out of it. It’s as if Berry has taken two very different songs and jammed them together in an attempt to… what? The first half borders on exceptional while the second half borders on theatrical overkill. Things are definitely back on track with the final track, “Your Mark On The World,” with power chords aplenty and the return of the Emerson penchant for verbose noodling on every keyboard he could get his hands on. As much as I dislike the second half of “This Letter” for that same verboseness, it works in the context of this more upbeat number. Oddly enough, the thing seemed to end way before it was actually over – at 5:20, Robert just… stops! It really felt like it could have and should have gone on for another two minutes, at least. Oh, well… such are the vagaries of Rock and Roll and, if it took me almost an entire record to find something to complain about, I’d say that Robert Berry has done Keith Emerson proud. Well done, Mister Berry!

3.2 (Robert Berry, Keith Emerson) (uncredited photo)


ADRIAN AARDVARK: DYING OPTIMISTICALLY

(EPIFO MUSIC; 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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


JOE DENINZON AND STRATOSPHEERIUS: GUILTY OF INNOCENCE

(MELODIC REVOLUTION RECORDS; 2017)

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

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

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

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