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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!

TAYLOR SWIFT: THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT

 (REPUBLIC RECORDS; 2024)

“Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift, TAYLOR SWIFT!” Say the name three times, really fast, like the Maitlands did with BEETLEJUICE in Tim Burton’s dark comic drama about hauntings, but instead of Michael Keaton’s titular character suddenly appearing to enact some supernatural nonsense, how about if Taylor appeared to solve your pesky relationship problems? Wouldn’t that be awesome? “This guy is obviously trouble,” the all-wise Swift apparition might say to you. “Get rid of him yourself by NOT responding to his text messages, or say something simple and direct like ‘Can’t trust you after last night. Think I better just tell you good bye right now.’” Or Swift could just quote from one of her many, many songs about spooked relationships, such as the motherlode you’ll find on her new album THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT. It’s fun to imagine such a thing!

TAYLOR SWIFT, Nashville Tennessee, May 07, 2023 (photo credit: JOHN SHEARER/TAS23/GETTY IMAGES for TAS Rights Management)

These days, you only have to say Taylor Swift’s name ONCE, anywhere, and the person next to you will likely voice a reaction. Everything from “Oh I LOVE her music, it’s like a personal soundtrack for me!” to “Man, I just don’t dig that kind of music, and I’m sick of hearing about her!” Taylor has become the most famous entertainer in the world and one of the most awarded of all time; she’s in rarified company, having become a self-made billionaire strictly on the basis of her art. When’s the last time THAT happened? Thing is, when any product becomes TOO successful, the army of detractors is just WAITING to speak up, to NOT participate in the kind of unprecedented enthusiasm that greeted Taylor’s sold-out ERAS tour, the boundary-breaking concert film made from the tour, or the widespread love for her most popular albums such as RED, 1989 and FOLKLORE. And she even won a record setting FOURTH “Album of the Year” Grammy at last year’s ceremony with her tenth album MIDNIGHTS. Commercially it has seemed like Taylor can do no wrong, and Swifties, as they are called, will defend her every move and musical change-up. So this has generated anti-Taylor commentary more and more in recent years, and even if it wasn’t a hateful sort of tone, some listeners have begun to sound jaded or just EXHAUSTED from all the Taylor product out there. Eleven studio albums now. Four remade albums in her notorious reissue campaign to stick it to Scooter Braun so she can own her masters again (you can read about that anywhere), with two more to come, probably. A concert film and a documentary. The ongoing ERAS tour. Alternate vinyl and CD versions of various albums with bonus cuts. Tons of magazines and books (go into any Barnes and Noble and you’ll find an entire display rack with nothing but Taylor publications). Photos appearing EVERY DAY and news updates of an ordinary human being who has to be one of the most TRACKED individuals in the world. You and I can NEVER know what it’s like to be at Taylor Swift’s level of fame. And you or I can probably NOT avoid getting into conversations about her, sometimes, with SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE. In a word, she is omnipresent.

TAYLOR SWIFT, circa 2020 (photo credit: BETH GARRABRANT)

So let me say, at this point, that I AM a fan. I have my own past with Taylor’s music that doesn’t need to be part of this story, but I’ve admired her sparkly pop craftsmanship, her often irresistible melodies, and her truly singular journey through the wilderness of pop music (and culture). I probably became a “Swiftie” when FOLKLORE appeared during the pandemic. That album grew on me quickly, and expanded Taylor’s sonic palette with indie folk stylings, third-person narratives here and there and a much more introspective and melancholy world view. I still LOVE that album and consider it Taylor’s best. It is aging really well. But we’ve had a couple more since, and now here we are in the TORTURED POETS era. This one seemed to arrive out of nowhere, long before the typical “calendar” would seem to indicate it’s time for a new Taylor release. But Taylor follows her own calendar, that’s for sure. So this thing arrived with a big splash, surprising even in-the-know Swifties by coming out, at least digitally, as a DOUBLE album – there being a batch of 15 additional songs announced as THE ANTHOLOGY the very day of release. Were fans ready for another 31 new Taylortunes?. If you read any of the grumblings that greeted the leaked early release, not ALL. Predictably, some listeners (and even a few popular reviewers) chose to vent their “Taylor exhaustion” at this point, and plenty of less than flattering opinions were voiced. This sort of thing rarely matters in the Taylor-verse.

TAYLOR SWIFT (photo credit: BETH GARRABRANT)

And quite frankly, I’m having none of it. As a musician myself and an experienced music writer, all I want to know is, does this new collection of Taylor music stir my emotions and make me think about things from a few new angles? The answer is definitely YES. It’s a more demanding album than some of her others, and there aren’t as many “bangers” (apparently that’s the hip word for an instantly grabby pop confection) as many fans would like. But TTPD is among Taylor’s most contemplative, introspective and melancholy albums. For my personal taste, that works just fine. But let’s get one thing out of the way here. Many reviews and fan commentaries have spent a LOT of space wondering which songs applied to recent Taylor beaus such as Joe Alwyn or Matty Healy from The 1975, given that Taylor clearly DOES write about her love life and LOST LOVE life, and has created a kind of intrigue about these things with her base. But I won’t be taking that kind of approach here. I’m going to discuss other things about some of the songs and how they make me feel. Who inspired them is not particularly important to me.

TAYLOR SWIFT (“Mine” video capture)

You’ve all heard “Fortnight” already; it’s a somber little dark-pop collab with Post Malone, featuring the memorable line “I love you, it’s ruining my life.” Plenty of us can relate to that more than we’d like. The title track memorably addresses the concept of the “tortured poets” Taylor’s self-analytical character and her less than profoundly inspired love interest think they are, by name dropping Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith, something that caused the latter to write Swift a note thanking her for coupling those names together. It has an air of deep sorrow and resignation, but on a personal note, I couldn’t help feeling tickled that some future music list might see me and Taylor Swift paired together because she discusses “typewriters” in the lyrics here, and one of my own best-known songs is “Goodbye Typewriter.” Hey Taylor, proud to be with you in that sure-to-come-someday reference! But anyway… the first tune to really stick with me was “Down Bad,” in which Taylor curiously compares the experience of being swept up by a compelling lover to that of being kidnapped and prodded by space aliens. A low throbbing synth tone holds our ears captive, while additional glowing keyboard sounds adorn other parts of the mix. It’s a pleasantly spacey production featuring regular Tay collaborator Jack Antonoff. Taylor harmonizes with herself throughout, a blend I greatly enjoy, and she also curses a lot in this song. In fact she curses quite a bit on this album overall. I make this point because many pundits try to speak about what a “role model” Taylor is, and how she often portrays what we think a “good girl” is supposed to be like. Does a real lady swear this much? Well, screw all that. She’s a human being and a woman and a visionary artist. No reason in the world why she can’t say “shit” and “fuck” as much as the rest of us. I first noticed Taylor’s freedom to swear on FOLKLORE and it made me grin. This uber successful artist, with all the material things a person could want and more power than any of us could DREAM of, is gonna just go with her REAL emotions, song by song. THAT helps make her more relatable, you see. Remember the lines “Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn?/Does she smile?/Or mouth the words ‘Fuck you forever?’” from the angry tune “Mad Woman”? Or the balls-out tune “Vigilante Shit” from her previous album, in which she sings “I don’t start shit, but I can tell you how it ends.” I guess the point here is that swearing is a pretty natural response to stress for most of us, and you don’t hear it in music lyrics that often outside the world of rap. When Taylor swears, it absolutely commands attention, as it does on the chorus “I’m down bad crying at the gym/Everything comes out teenage petulance/Fuck it if I can’t have him/I might just die, it would make no difference.” I thoroughly GET that this songwriter is putting the full emotion INTO the song. It doesn’t matter if the situation is ruling any part of her life anymore or detracting from her happiness. We’re allowed to experience the full disappointment and angst she expresses IN the composition, IN the sound. That’s when music really grips you and becomes ultimately relatable.

If “Down Bad” is a mostly effective and memorable tune, the first genuine classic here is “So Long London.” The song begins with several ethereal Taylor voices singing that title in a repeated, choir-like manner. Then the stomping beat kicks in with a simple but resonating synth pop reverberation. Whatever you call this style – synth pop noir might work – it sure grabs yours truly. As Taylor unspools lines like “I pulled him in tighter each time he was drifting away,” she achieves a perfection between sound, lyric and mood that had me marveling. The first time I shivered listening to this album was hearing her sing “How much sad did you think I had/Did you think I had in me?/Oh, the tragedy… ” Her voice is clear and upfront, the way I like it (Scandinavian singers typically mic their vocals this way, but it’s not always the case with American singers, who sometimes overdo the production). Taylor rarely overdoes the drama in her vocalizing, and that actually makes her a much more authentic and appealing vocalist than some give her credit for. I absolutely LOVE her weary sounding resignation here, as on this superb verse: “And you say I abandoned the ship/But I was going down with it/My white knuckle dying grip/Holding tight to your quiet resentment.” If you have EVER had a painful relationship or one that failed despite your best efforts, Taylor writes the ultimate soundtracks for such things, and this is absolutely one of them. And I personally relate to the notion of surrendering your attachment to a certain PLACE you liked because of the person you shared it with. In her case, London; in mine, I had a series of amazing times with a woman in Springfield, Missouri some years back, and now I can never experience the town in quite the same way. So you see, the SENTIMENT here is what is hugely relatable… apply “So Long London” to any place in YOUR romantic past, and suddenly this song gains emotional relevance. But it’s simply superb, every second of it, including when Taylor sings certain lines in double octaves, a musical choice we songwriters respond to right away when we hear it.

TAYLOR SWIFT, 81st Annual GOLDEN GLOBE AWARDS (photo credit: STEVE GRANITZ/FILMMAGIC)

“But Daddy I Love Him” is a startling song lyrically, a co-write with the amazing Aaron Dessner. Taylor is fantastic at aiming the camera at herself musically, and freely being self-reflective. She started being more ruthlessly honest on her controversial REPUTATION album, when that whole Kanye insanity had taken its toll and a certain faction of her audience was turning on her. She had to shy away from the spotlight a bit, and it could be argued that the two sublime pandemic albums, FOLKLORE and EVERMORE, were an attempt to shift the focus from her own relationship doings and simply tell stories about people and their experiences, whether mirroring hers or not (sure, they did at times). When the publicity machine got cranked up to “11,” and that gigantic tour started after the release of MIDNIGHTS, Taylor had to be thinking about her level of fame and all the many, many things people were saying about her. Here is a woman, after all, who has her life (especially her LOVE life) under a microscope at all times, dissected to the nth degree. Who can withstand all that without going a bit nutty? And yet by all reports, Taylor is a completely delightful and friendly soul in person, interested in the same topics we all are, and wanting to just live her life as an energetic artist and make her mark on the world. She donates generously to charities, takes good care of her huge staff, has brought incredible economic benefits to every city she performs in, and is more than just “appreciative” of and openly demonstrative to her eternally reverent (and GIGANTIC) fan base. But the constant judgments from strangers surely has to take its toll. Hence, one of the most revealing and self-aware moments she has ever written appears in this powerful song: “I’ll tell you something right now/I’d rather burn my whole life down/Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning/I’ll tell you something about my good name/It’s mine alone to disgrace/I don’t cater to all these vipers dressed in empath’s clothing/God save the most judgmental creeps/Who say they want what’s best for me… ” Just plain WOW. I had to read those lines a few times as I was writing this, marveling at how they appear in a slowly starting tune that appears to be about having to defend romantic choices all the time. Surely exhausting for the most famous woman in the world! And this recurring lyric is a genuine hoot: “Now I’m running with my dress unbuttoned/Screaming, ‘But Daddy I love him!’/I’m having his baby/No, I’m not, but you should see your faces.” A heck of a lot going on in this song, and the more you’re into Taylor, the more you’ll begin to truly appreciate what this kind of revelatory songwriting means in her career trajectory.

TAYLOR SWIFT, Sydney Australia February 23, 2024 (photo credit: DON ARNOLD/TAS24/GETTY IMAGES for TAS Rights Management)

I’m not that impressed with “Florida!!!,” a much ballyhoo’d collaboration with Florence and the Machine. It’s catchy, sure, but not really one of the album’s highlights. By the time you get to “Guilty As Sin,” you are probably becoming aware that many songs here are mid-tempo in nature, and there’s a “familiarity” setting in. That is what was probably happening with some of the early comments about this record – Taylor has found her chosen groove and is mostly going to stay with it. Production-wise, much of the sound is shaped by frequent collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, and you can find some longtime fans grumbling that Taylor needs to work more with others. Personally, I LOVE what those guys add to her music. The trick here is, as a LISTENER, you also have to “stay with it.” These songs are multi-layered and rather sophisticated; they don’t always totally grip you on first listen. It’s worth it to give them repeated plays, and you’ll come to realize you are truly listening to an evolved artist, one of our finest songwriters, who is in an introspective mode that occurred at the same time she was outwardly experiencing the biggest successes of her career. And having to let go of TWO failed relationships while welcoming the promise of a NEW one – that being Travis Kelce, of course. It’s an awful lot, don’t you think? And these songs represent Taylor’s mindset over the past year and a half, maybe longer. They have depth and detail, and yes, they are worth your patience going through them all, if you’re a fan.

TAYLOR SWIFT (uncredited candid photo)

Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” is another very self-aware Taylor song, more interesting lyrically than musically. But various lines from it will stay with you. “You don’t get to tell me about sad” is one of them. And this one had me pausing a bit to reflect: “I was tame, I was gentle ‘til the circus life made me mean.” Not to mention her repetition of that title, which at least a few times, she answers with “You SHOULD be.” Hey, this is a woman who got unprecedented revenge on former label boss Scooter Braun by going to the trouble and expense to RERECORD the albums she originally did for him, just so she could own the rights to her own masters. Don’t MESS with Taylor! That’s a message that has been coming through in various songs of hers since 2020, and TTPD is full of moments revealing that Taylor is pretty dang clear about who she is.

TAYLOR SWIFT (photo credit: BETH GARRABRANT)

A sparse, sinewy and rather sombre production is given to the short song “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can),” done with Jack Antonoff. I like Taylor’s lower-register voice on this one; it sounds like it could have been on FOLKLORE or EVERMORE. It has some of that kinda vibe. So does the piano-centric “loml” (an acronym for “love of my life”), co-written by Aaron Dessner. This is a beautiful, epically sad piece that is going to make some fans cry. It’s full of regrets and the full-on confrontation of romantic failure, something a bit too easy for me to access if I let it. Lines like “I wish I could un-recall/How we almost had it all” and “Our field of dreams, engulfed in fire” are unambiguous, signature observations of love’s sad failings. “Love of my life” too often turns into “LOSS of my life,” which this song seems to point out.

TAYLOR SWIFT (uncredited publicity photo)

Taylor saves three of this album’s best songs for the final stretch; each one is a bona fide classic. “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” is the genuine “banger” on this record, a Tay gem. It seems to perhaps be about Taylor’s ability to convey an upbeat, celebratory attitude to her public while knowing that darker emotions are churning inside. She sings it with real joie de vivre, over a positively zippy keyboard run and a catchy rhythm. “I can read your mind,” she says, “‘She’s having the time of her life/There in her glittering prime/The lights refract sequined stars off her silhouette every night/I can show you lies.’” Doesn’t all of that but the last line sound like how the audience likely perceives her each night of the sold-out ERAS tour? But something else is clearly being expressed here. As the song reaches its conclusion, the most famous woman in the world sings, “You know you’re good when you can even do it/With a broken heart/You know you’re good, I’m good/Cause I’m MISERABLE!/And nobody even knows!/Try and come for my job.” Man, that last line is killer. Really, the whole song is. It’s one of Taylor’s greatest, most honest and revealing songs. An instant classic, probably. Fans will be talking about this one forever.

TAYLOR SWIFT, Nashville Tennessee, May 06, 2023 (photo credit JOHN SHEARER/TAS23/GETTY IMAGES for TAS Rights Management)

If you have read any reviews at ALL of TTPD, you’ll know that “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is one of the most talked-about songs here. It’s another Dessner co-write, and it begins with an audible sigh by our girl, like she KNOWS she’s about to lay down one of her most potent vocal and lyrical workouts ever. Doesn’t matter to me WHO this song is about; it’s plainly devastating, Taylor at her MOST wronged. “I would’ve died for your sins/Instead I just died inside/And you deserve prison, but you won’t get time/You’ll slide into inboxes and slip through the bars” is just one of the unforgettable verses here. While primarily a delicate and lovely piano composition, it soon builds into a dark synth-pop classic that reaches a pounding climax featuring such lines as “Were you sent by someone who wanted me dead?” and “Were you a sleeper cell spy?” I’m not sure anyone is writing better songs about betrayal and romantic deceit in the current musical environment than Taylor Swift. Songs like this simply KILL, and if you have even a HALF open mind, this one is gonna stick with you. And like millions of her regular fans, you’ll be wondering “who the fuck was that guy?” Taylor sings those very words in this classic.

TAYLOR SWIFT (“Safe and Sound” video capture)

The final “regular” song on TTPD is another major piece of Swiftian musical craftsmanship called “Clara Bow.” Utterly sublime. Over a potent four-note descending bass line, the lyrics explores the “It girl” phenomenon that has chewed up and spit out hot female stars for literally decades. The promise of fame and attention that talent scouts have lured young starlets with (the titular silent era actress being an early example), telling them how “special” they really are until the NEXT one comes along, is an undeniably oft-told story. The bridge is just a killer: “Beauty is a beast that roars/Down on all fours/Demanding ‘more’/Only when your girlish glow/Flickers just so/Do they let you know/It’s hell on earth to be heavenly… ” I felt a terrible ache inside listening to the song, pondering all the excited young women in pop culture history who were noticed and elevated to a special level of fame. But eventually abandoned. Taylor addresses this topic with searing insider wisdom, and the music is poetic and timeless enough to deepen this major tune’s four-star impact. And you want more classic Tay self-awareness? Dig the last verse, but picture some cigar-chomping Weinstein type about to address an eager new nubile actress or singer saying this: “You look like Taylor Swift/In this light/We’re loving it/You’ve got edge she never did/The future’s bright/Dazzling.” The music ends suddenly after Taylor sings that last word. The impact is profound. We’ve just heard yet another classic Swift song, and it’s NOT about an unfaithful boyfriend, or a lover who won’t commit. It’s about a potent reality for female stars in today’s entertainment industry, both aspiring and established. And how the biggest star in the world right now can take a moment to contemplate the whole phenomenon and make us feel its sadness and inescapable nature in three minutes of riveting modern music. That is part of Taylor Swift’s particular genius… enabling us to relate to things that feel HUGE and inevitable, but like we could sit and talk to her about them easily. Or to our friends. Because being a vulnerable human being MATTERS, it’s true for all of us. And couldn’t we ALL strive to do better in our relationships, and how we treat others? Taylor’s songs always have such questions lurking in the background, even if the answers sometimes prove elusive.

NOTE: In this review, I did NOT tackle the full set of songs contained in the digital ANTHOLOGY. Most of those songs are quiet and introspective, not dissimilar to Taylor’s two pandemic albums. But they deserve a close look of their own, which I may do at a later date. What I covered in this review is the material on ALL standard versions of Taylor’s THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT release.

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.

THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG, SEASON ONE

(PALOMAR MEDIAWAN/BRON STUDIOS/AMC+/RLJ ENTERTAINMENT (419 minutes; Unrated); 2022)

So, when the first episode of the AMC+ series THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG debuted, I watched it two or three times. Each time, I found myself more confused about what was going on. I mean, I understood the basic concept: Ruthless bounty hunter, unscrupulous and corrupt sheriff, random horse-thievery, even more random drug use… a lot of death and mayhem, all in a wild homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I think that one of my problems with the episode, brilliantly titled “A Head Weighs Less Than a Body”, is that two of the main characters – bounty hunter Red Bill (Douglas Booth) and the severely put-upon farmer, Steve (Christian Cooke) – look enough alike to these tired old eyes that I had a hard time following their separate stories. Now, with the entire first season available on DVD and Blu-Ray, I’ve been given the chance to revisit that first episode and, well… it still confused the heck out of me! But, one must soldier on and, I must say, the series as a whole did not disappoint.

THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG (DOMINIC COOPER, BENJAMIN STENDER, DANIEL CALTAGIRONE, IVAN SHAW) (photo credit: STEFANO C MONTESI/AMC+)

Right out of the gate, it was obvious that this was different kind of Western; Red Bill had hunted his bounty to a remote mission, where the hunted man had killed every person in the church, stealing not only the offering money, but the money and valuables of his victims. Bill meets him as he is leaving, his grisly work done. Bill throws a bag (yeah… that one, though it’s a lot cleaner at this point) at his prey’s feet and, when the outlaw draws on him, disables his gun hand. With the bounty lying at his feet dying, Bill pulls out an ax and decapitates the man and places the head – you guessed it – in the bag. From there, things get a bit more… confusing. With proof of the death of the outlaw, Bill goes in search of the sheriff of the bone-dry former boomtown of Greenvale, a place that hasn’t seen rain in five years. Water is scarce and, of course, there are a couple of ingenious entrepreneurs who charge premium prices for the little they have. The sheriff, McCoy (played with understated relish by Dominic Cooper), enjoys pouring water onto the floor (or the dirt street or wherever he happens to be) to make a point: “I am the law here and you are here only because I say you can be here.” He, naturally, refuses to pay the bounty on Bill’s capture so Bill, naturally, walks out of the saloon where he found McCoy and takes the sheriff’s horse. That’s certainly a lot to unpack and it’s all in the first 20 minutes of that first episode! Over the course of the first three episodes, we see lies, deceit, murder (in a particularly disturbing scene, McCoy shoots a slow-witted teen – who only wanted to please the lawman – in the back), kidnapping, backstabbing (both metaphorical and literal), an odd sidestep featuring a vengeful serial killer, a secret sect and, hey, just for kicks, let’s toss in some random cannibalism in episode 4.

THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG (ROSE WILLIAMS) (photo credit: STEFANO C MONTESI/AMC+)

A viewer’s review on IMDb says that things pick up and start to fall into place after Episode 4, which is called “Genesis” and, as the name would imply, is a prequel of sorts for everything that’s happening in the other episodes: How McCoy came to be the villain of the piece and what set Bill on the path to becoming Red Bill. Anything past the halfway point, I’m not gonna touch because I don’t want to give too much away. However, here’s my takeaway from the first three episodes: Just about everyone has a deep dark secret.

THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG (DOMINIC COOPER, NIV SULTAN) (photo credit: STEFANO C MONTESI/AMC+)

First, Steve, the pious and extremely unlucky farmer (who had his plow horses stolen at the beginning of Episode 1) has a couple of secrets that he’s keeping from almost everyone: First, he’s discovered gold on his land. Secondly, the only person he’s told is his mistress, Eve (played by Niv Sultan), who runs the local bordello and is one of two people who have access to whatever water that’s available… even his wife doesn’t know. Eve has a secret of her own and the only person that knows is, of course, our pious farmer friend. What’s the dreaded secret that she holds? Eve is bald which, apparently, is a big turn-on for Steve, not so much for the Sheriff. Speaking of, McCoy has some secrets, too. First, as we see in “Genesis,” he has had a fairly circumlocutious journey toward his position as Greenvale’s chief law enforcement officer. Second, he and his right hand man, Kurt (Ivan Shaw as the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense voice-of-reason to his boss’ hotheaded, brutally extravagant flights of fancy), had a wagon-load of money belonging to the Federal government drop into their hands quite by accident: The wagon’s guard thought that they were there to steal the money and was about to open fire on the pair before McCoy blasted him out of existence. Kurt, likewise, must have something that he knows about McCoy and is holding it over his head because every time the sheriff gets mad at him and threatens to kill him, he just laughs and walks away. Finally, Nathan (Benjamin Stender), another of McCoy’s minions has a couple of secrets, as well. Since his wife’s death, he has frequented Eve’s establishment, the Red Lantern, looking for love; he has found that love in Symone and has asked her to be his wife. The mistress is less than pleased at the prospect of losing one of her best workers and refuses to allow Symone to marry. The problem here is that Nathan promised his very young daughter that he was bringing her a new mommy. As Nathan confronts Symone about her decision not to become his wife, he lets slip that he has promised his Mary a new mother. Symone is mildly amused, telling her insistent beau that she was not mother material for which she receives a brutal beating (as all beatings tend to be here). When Eve sees his handiwork, she takes matters into her own hands, making sweet little Mary an orphan. And, of course, the whole time, Red Bill’s dirty black bag gets dirtier, blacker and now, with another head added to the collection, heavier.

THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG (DOUGLAS BOOTH, DOMINIC COOPER) (photo credit: STEFANO C MONTESI/AMC+)

So, without spilling any beans about the second half of the season (or how that second head ended up in Bill’s bag), just know that there is much more deceit, backstabbing, blood, guts and general mayhem to be had. As the previously mentioned IMDb reviewer said, things do become clearer after “Genesis,” with everything kind of tied up in a nice, big bow named Bronson (Guido Caprino). It’s gonna be fun seeing where the story goes after this season, as the series is currently mapped out to go three seasons of eight episodes each.

THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG (GUIDO CPRINO) (photo credit: STEFANO C MONTESI/AMC+)

TARANOYA: BECOMING

(SOUND AS LANGUAGE; 2021)


I have been writing about ambient music for many years, as it is the still under-appreciated genre I MOST find myself able to get immersed in. From those heady early days decades ago when Brian Eno contextualized a new sound that could function as either foreground or background and that would serve as “a tint, an atmosphere,” as he put it, rather than something you had to experience in a traditional listening mode, to the myriad of variations the genre sprouted in the modern age (Ambient Jazz, Ambient Classical, Ethno-Ambient, Dark Ambient, space music, et cetera ad nauseum), I’ve been riveted by the endless universe of sound that the misleading term “ambient” can encompass. I honestly can’t think of another musical banner, excepting maybe “indie rock” or “art rock,” that will accommodate so many types of music. It’s because of how the music is supposed to FUNCTION for the average listener, the fact that it needs to be workable as background music, but also to reward close listening, that helps it to live up to Eno’s definition.

TARANOYA (promotional image)

Imagine my delight, then, to come across the Iranian born, Portland-based female composer/vocalist/producer Taranoya (Taraneh Schmidt), whose new release
BECOMING is just about the most enthralling thing I have heard this year. It’s all dreamy, drifty, ethereal soft vocals, most of it essentially wordless although there ARE some intended lyrics, floating through beds of gentle droney synthesizer. Reference points don’t immediately come to mind… some of Liz Fraser’s aesthetic on the Cocteau Twins’ VICTORIALAND disc in particular would be one door in. I also was reminded here and there of a Kranky label artist named Jessica Bailiff, as well as scattered tracks from other ambient artists who’ve utilized feather-soft female vocals in the background. But what we have here is an entire album’s worth of this sumptuous sound, and it’s pretty singular in my view. And singularly PRETTY, without ever being vacuous or saccharine. That’s no mean feat, and it speaks wonders for Taranoya’s soulful, deeply contemplative vibe. I am almost shocked at how blissfully haunting this recording is, and how it manages to avoid nearly every cliche of the genre. Releases in this sonic terrain can sink rather rapidly if the lyrics are too upfront and take you out of the dreamy web you want to get stuck in, or if the instrumentation veers too much into the “new age” realm. Without wanting to irritate fans of new age (and I have some records that would fall under that banner myself), I am experienced enough with this kind of stuff to be able to tell the difference between New Age and Ambient, something that connoisseurs used to argue about on the net, back when these things were viewed as more consequential. What many of us viewed as new age seldom stood up to late-night scrutiny, as it aims for the lightest and most undemanding of moods while being generally quite restricted in its ambition, with some exceptions. Taranoya’s BECOMING, my friends, is very definitely AMBIENT music, and that’s a compliment. It’s lush, lulling, pastoral dream music conjured by a woman who seems to intuitively know that heading right for your subconscious, the place you inhabit when your intellect is turned off, makes for a far more satisfying sound experience than adhering to the parameters of the more typical offerings in this ballpark.

TARANOYA (promotional photo)

I personally LOVE music that appeals to a sort of “half asleep” state, and has a quality of being totally removed from mundane or stress-induced concerns, the kind we all battle daily. “Accidents” is eight minutes of beautiful keyboard drone that invites you to get comfy, serves you a fruit-infused beverage like nothing you’ve imbibed before, and then puts you at rapt attention as your charming host murmurs things to you that you can’t quite hear but you don’t care… her voice hypnotizes you and pulls you right into a place you would be happy to just never leave. “Heavenly” is an overused adjective in the ambient world, but… this IS heavenly, mes amis. What Taranoya’s voice does between 4:27 and about 4:43 on this track may be the single most beautiful moment I’ve experienced in a piece of music this year. The whole track is a wonder, really. A little bit of spoken word at the end adds to the feeling you’re in a partial dream state sitting in a cushioned chair at the airport or something. “You’re Only Breaking Down” is an even longer track, commencing with a Cocteaus-style flourish before Taranoya goes full feminine vocal allure in the middle of the mix. It’s like hearing your favorite cat purring happily, with neither one of you inclined to move even a smidge from where you’re currently located. And I was awestruck by the artist’s discipline to keep the keyboard sounds so subtly in the background, never showing off for even a moment. The dream state rules here, aesthetically. Works for me!

“Thinking About You” does get a shade more familiar initially, with the main synthesizer being not too far removed from the odd Tangerine Dream release or even early Pink Floyd. But from about the two-minute mark on, the sort of “otherly” ambient strangeness we fans always hope for kicks in, and Taranoya proves once again she’ll opt for originality and the sonic multi-verse over any formula or “non-genre” tenets. I was fully spellbound by the time this track was over, and knew I’d be a fan of this gal from here on out.

TARANOYA (promotional photo)

On “Let the Air,” the vocals are the most “conventional”; you can just about hear some actual words and there’s a touch more normalcy if that’s what you prefer (love the ending, though). And “Do I Return” has what is clearly a piano, not some obscure synth setting stumbled across in the wee hours of the morning when otherliness rules in the studio. It’s still very pretty. But the long track “Wake Me Up Rush” returns to the killer combo of Taranoya’s ethereal voice and the airy synth settings she tends to favor, with a low-frequency drone entering stage left at about the four-minute mark that adds some unexpected gripping energy. Subtle variety in a tapestry of sound that is uniformly lulling, is what makes this set something of an ambient classic, ethno-femme division (“fembient”? “womenbient”? What moniker should we give, exactly, to characterize the sub-genre of ambient where a deeply compassionate and yes, angelic female presence, is at the center of the sound? And is that even worth pursuing?). I’m in love with this music, and I thank this spellbinding artist for truly forging some new territory on BECOMING. Taranoya strikes deep… into your life it will creep, if you decide to check this out and float away among the clouds of bliss that this very visionary and wondrous artist has to offer.

TARANOYA (promotional image)

(BECOMING is currently available as a limited edition of 100 cassettes, as well as the obligatory digital download)

MICK FLEETWOOD AND FRIENDS CELEBRATE THE MUSIC OF PETER GREEN AND THE EARLY YEARS OF FLEETWOOD MAC

(BMG MUSIC GROUP; 2021)

A majority of people in the good ol’ United States of… believe that Fleetwood Mac began with (maybe even started BY) Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham; most of the rest of the world knows that the Mac had been around for at least 70 years before the Buckingham/Nicks tandem joined in 1974 or so. Actually, Peter Green left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1967, taking drummer Mick Fleetwood with him to form what was originally called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac; Bluesbreakers bassist John McVie would follow later that year. Drug use and a mental collapse led to Green exiting the group in 1970 and the game of musical chairs (so to speak) with guitarists began. Now, Mister Fleetwood is never one to forget upon which side his toast is buttered and, more importantly, who made it possible for him to pay for not only the bread and the butter, but also the knife to spread the butter and the house in which he sits at the table buttering that toast. That incredibly confusing run-on sentence is just a bored writers way of saying that Mick Fleetwood gives credit where credit is due and pays tribute to those who have made his lifestyle possible. So it was, that on Tuesday, February 25, 2020, Fleetwood and his hand-picked, suitably impressive “house band” (alongside an equally impressive lineup of friends) took the stage of London’s legendary Palladium to celebrate the music of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. As it turned out, the very next day, England was put on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The performance has been released in several formats: The video documentary has been making the rounds on various streaming platforms, as well as being released on Blu-Ray in a package that includes two CDs and a deluxe package that also features four slabs of vinyl; of course, the double CD and four LP versions are available separately, too.

MICK FLEETWOOD (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Things get off to a fine start with “Rollin’ Man,” from the Mac’s second album, MISTER WONDERFUL. It features Mick’s specially chosen musicians – Andy Fairwether-Low, Jonny Lang and Rick Vito on guitars with David Bronze on bass and musical director Ricky Peterson on keyboards; Vito takes the vocals, as he did during his short time as a member of the Mac. Lang takes over the vocal duties on “Homework,” an Otis Rush tune played live in the earliest days of the band, while the final member of the group, the Who’s Zak Starkey joins in, keeping the beat alongside Fleetwood on drums for most of the evening. If there were any questions regarding the Blues pedigree of the original Fleetwood Mac, these opening salvos should dispel them. The first “friend” makes quite a splash as Billy Gibbons (yeah, one of the beards from ZZ Top) tackles “Doctor Brown” as only he can. As hot as the backing band was on the first two numbers, they somehow seem even more energized here.

CHRISTINE MCVIE (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

While I can find no indication that Fleetwood Mac ever recorded or even played the Otis Rush track “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” in a live setting, I’m sure that Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie played it many times during their respective tenures in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. That somehow makes it the perfect tune for Mayall to join the festivities, supplying both vocals and keyboards. Mick introduces his former boss with, “Please give a grand, grand welcome to our mentor, Mister John Mayall,” as the band rips into a killer version of the tune. If you are unfamiliar with the music of John Mayall, first of all… WHY? And, second, the man sprang from the womb (in 1933, making him 83 years old when this concert took place!) wailing the Blues! Steven Tyler late of some band called Aerosmith delivers his version of “Rattlesnake Shake,” one of Peter Green’s and the Mac’s best known early songs (from THEN PLAY ON) in his inimitable over-the-top fashion. Tyler sticks around to add flavor and harmonica to “Stop Messin’ ‘Round,” the third of five tracks from MISTER WONDERFUL, the album that introduced Christine McVie (then, as now, “Perfect”) to the world of Fleetwood Mac. Since the group’s ascension to the Pop Rock hierarchy, we’ve known Ms McVie as the gruff balladeer, in contrast to Stevie Nicks’ wispy, ethereal flights of fancy; here, she shows that she can hold her own with just about anybody, belting out the Blues that the early band was known for.

RICK VITO (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Not one to ignore a good thing, Fleetwood keeps Christine around for “Looking For Somebody” from the group’s first album. The memorable drum intro leads into a re-imagined version of the song with McVie trading vocal leads with Rick Vito. “Sandy Mary” comes with a strange pedigree: Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac had been performing the tune live at least as early as 1969, with the song appearing on various records of rather dubious origins. It wouldn’t see an official release until LIVE AT THE BBC in 1995. Jonny Lang’s soulful vocals make the song hard to forget. Vito takes over on vocals for “Love That Burns,” a slow-burning Blues number with a great slide lead and organ solo. It’s hard to imagine the rest of the album being as good as this side.

PETE TOWNSHEND (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Next to the stage is one of the Gallagher brothers, Noel, whom (along with his equally distasteful brother, Liam) I dislike on general principals, though I must admit to liking some of their band’s earlier stuff. Noel actually acquits himself quite nicely on the stripped-down acoustic Blues of “The World Keep On Turning.” He hangs around for a more rocking “Like Crying,” a Danny Kirwan song from THEN PLAY ON. Overall, Mister Gallagher has taken steps with this performance to – if not endear – overcome my disdain for his earlier abhorrent behavior. He may be inching closer to gaining a certain respectability but… nope! I still don’t like the guy. Vito, Lang, and Fleetwood take center stage on Chester Burnett’s “No Place To Go,” a song that appeared on the first Fleetwood Mac album. A rolling kind of rhythm underpins some nice slide guitar (maybe it’s a dobro… credits on this thing are somewhat lacking) and some impassioned “church meetin’” vocals from Rick and Jonny. Pete Townshend makes a magnificent Who sound on “Station Man,” a great track from the first album after Peter Green’s departure from the band, KILN HOUSE. It seems that Townshend’s presence has re-energized the band, as they’re hitting on all cylinders throughout the Danny Kirwan/Jeremy Spencer/John McVie barn-burner. This may be my favorite single track up to the midway point of the set.

DAVID GILMOUR (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Neil Finn, one of the newest members (and current co-winner of the guitarist musical chair game) of Fleetwood Mac, performs a nice version of the 1969 single, “Man of the World.” His voice isn’t unappealing and his guitar work is a thing of simplistic beauty. Just when you think that the song is gonna go on too long, it ends at just the right time; such a tune should never outstay its welcome. Billy Gibbons and Steven Tyler return for one of the Mac’s most well known tracks, “Oh, Well (Part One).” The pair trade vocals, with Billy playing his usual crunchy-mean guitar and Steven wailing (as one does) intermittently on the harmonica. The band finds a heavy groove to fall into before it smooths out for “Oh, Well (Part Two),” featuring one David Gilmour on guitar. By the reception, I must assume that a fine time was had by all.

ZAK STARKEY, RICK VITO, JONNY LANG (photo credits ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Jonny Lang proves he is a bonafide practitioner of the Rhythm and Blues that set Fleetwood Mac off on their fifty-plus year journey with a Gospel-tinged version of Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad.” The vocals, the guitars (including a solo that would make BB King weep) and Ricky Peterson’s almost mournful Hammond organ all but scream the Blues. Rick Vito steps to the mic again for “Black Magic Woman,” possibly the greatest hit that Santana ever had. This version, obviously, owes more to the Mac’s original version than it does to the cover by Carlos and his boys. Fleetwood and Zak Starkey on drums and Dave Bronze’s work on the bass prove to be a formidable rhythm section, especially on the extended jam that ends the tune. The special guests are great – and a great tribute to Peter Green – but the power and passion of Mick’s hand-chosen band is monster and not to be slighted.

MICK FLEETWOOD, JEREMY SPENCER (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of Fleetwood Mac (he stayed with the band through 1970’s KILN HOUSE album) is joined by former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman on a couple of Elmore James tunes. Mick introduces Wyman before adding, “The last time I shared the stage with this dear friend of mine was 50 years ago,” as an introduction to Spencer. First is a killer version of “The Sky Is Crying,” which Jeremy sang during the early band’s live set. With Mick holding down the drum stool and Bill laying down a solid bassline, Spencer’s somewhat reedy voice and brilliant slide work are allowed to soar over the rock-steady band. Things slow to a near-stroll pace for “I Can’t Hold Out,” with an even more impressive slide lead from Jeremy. Obviously, having another original Mac on board was a surprising treat for the ticket holders and he did not disappoint. The presence of a Stone was equally impressive, as was his playing.

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett straps on Peter Green’s beloved 1959 Les Paul for another well-known tune, “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown),” though probably a large percentage of America will credit the song to Judas Priest, who famously covered it on their 1979 live record, UNLEASHED IN THE EAST. The tune proves that Kirk has a little bit more to him than just “loud, fast rules.” ZZ Top’s Mister Gibbons joins the fray once more on vocals and guitar. David Gilmour returns, this time on pedal steel, for what can only be described as a lilting, stately take on one of the original group’s biggest hits, “Albatross.” Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” closes the show, with a free-for-all that sees the entire cast return to the stage. The highlighted musicians and singers include Rick Vito, Ricky Peterson, Steven Tyler, Andy Fairweather-Low and John Mayall.

PETER GREEN, circa 1969 (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

Amid a haze of psychedelic drug use and mental collapse – diagnosed as schizophrenia – Peter Green walked away from the band he founded in 1970. His body of music during the course of those three-plus years as the group’s primary songwriter, vocalist and guitarist is quite staggering. The legendary BB King once said of Green’s playing, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Peter’s near fifty-year career as a professional musician began in 1961 and didn’t officially end until his death on July 25, 2020 at the age of 73, just five short months after this monumental tribute. The show and the music are particularly bittersweet as he was unable to attend what must have been one of the proudest moments of his life.

LYKANTROPI: TALES TO BE TOLD

(DESPOTZ RECORDS; 2020)

Clearly I have GOT to get myself to Scandinavia. I’ve known that for a while, but it was mostly based on my passion for a few Norwegian acts specifically. But the more I hear of bands influenced by the apparently endless deep forests of Finland and especially Sweden, the more I want to see that influence for myself. Apparently those endless woods make musicians of the region want to write brooding, proggy song cycles about life, love, hours contemplating the meaning of it all, and yes, “tales to be told” in music. That’s the title of this brand-new album by Lykantropi, a group sewing up good reviews and a fast-growing fan base due to their ‘70s rock evoking brand of psych, which is delivered in a perfectly comfortable ensemble guitar, flute and mixed-gender vocals. You need know NOTHING about Nordic spells or landscapes to appreciate this stuff. But it helps if you like Jethro Tull, Blue Oyster Cult, the Moody Blues and yep, even prog kings Yes, since the sounds on TALES TO BE TOLD bring all of those legends to mind.

LYKANTROPI (OLA RUI NYGARD, MARTIN OSTLUND, TOMAS ERIKSSON, MY SHAOLIN, ELIAS HAKANSSON, IA OBERG) (publicity photo)

Martin Ostlund and My Shaolin trade off on male-female lead vocals and often combine for strong harmonies that will remind you of lots of stuff you grew up on in the ‘70s. That’s no slight; it’s a brisk and invigorating sound when combined with the thoroughly confident guitar riffing on tracks like “Coming Your Way,” “Mother of Envy” and “Axis of Margaret,” which is a good solid tune to sample if you’re in a hurry. On “Coming… ,” the repeated simple chorus of “Close your eyes before it’s too late” tends to stick in your mind, and as much as I’d like to ask the band specifically what they MEAN with that lyric, I’ll just take it at face value. The sturdy and melodic title track and the showcase tune “Kom ta mig ut,” which has a striking accompanying video. show a band that is impressively disciplined, one that has obviously heard a few Yes and Genesis albums, yet they rarely indulge in guitar solos or anything at all that could be called “ponderous.” They seem to be purveyors of a surging sonic current that moves forward, but always provides just the right framework for the two vocalists to be heard over, and for the atmosphere to envelop the listener. I really like the accessible arrangement on “Mother of Envy” and the expansive but breathing normally space of “Varlden gar vidare,” which yes, is sung in Swedish but it doesn’t matter. It’s the whole landscape of the piece that draws you in, not individual lyrics. The instrumental work here is exemplary, with Lo Oberg’s flute work deserving special mention. If you want lyrics you understand to sink your teeth into, go with “Coming Your Way” or “Spell On Me,” which made me listen a few times to catch the lyric “”The only time I feel all right is when I’m by your side,” and its slight variation. Others can discuss if the Kinks tune “All Day and All of the Night” and the similar lyric may have been in the heads of the songwriters, but it’s more likely that this universal expression of love and existential angst gripped the pens of Lykantropi’s songwriters same as it does for us Yankee types. Even if they do have better forests and more precise language skills over in Scandi-land.

TALES TO BE TOLD isn’t all that groundbreaking; you’ve heard this sort of psych-y, proggy idiom before. But it’s unquestionably more self-assured and sincere than the umpteen generations of American bands that have been trafficking in this sound since the halcyon era of the ‘70s. And I’ll take the Swedish focused cool and inter-band solidarity we get here over any number of second-rate progsters garnering column inches elsewhere. Three or four albums in, Lykantropi seem to know what they’re doing, and they have the lineup and dedication they need to stay in this for the long run. Give ’em a listen, and then listen again. If, like me, you have all the reference points in you already, the sense of familiarity will be welcome and even a bit emotional.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE

(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.

We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (SICHAN SIV) (publicity still)

Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.

When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”

We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (publicity still)

It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”

This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (GILBERT TUHABONYE) (publicity still)

One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”

Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand