ANCIENT: BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD

(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW

Ancient Cover Artwork

Twelve years after the band’s last release (NIGHT VISIT) and seven years after the latest version of the band came together, Ancient is back with what may be their most nuanced music ever. The album is not without problems, but BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is more than solid enough to keep the group’s diehard fans happy and new listeners – like me – intrigued. The album exists in both digital and CD forms, as well as a two record set, pressed on beautiful gray vinyl (available only from Soulseller Records; EMP has released a marbled blue version); this review follows the latter’s format.

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Thunderous double bass drums explode on the de facto title track, “Land of the Dead,” while the guitars and bass seem to be buried in the muck and mire of a poorly executed mix. The vocals of band founder, Zel (shortened from Aphazel), are of the standard black metal variety: Gutteral, but not in the least bit unpleasant, as some other voices in the genre can be. The guitars begin to distinguish themselves in the second half of the tune, particularly with an odd, short solo that somehow works within the context of the driving hailstorm of noise. “Beyond the Blood Moon” features rudimentary progressive riffing. Once more, the vocals are buried in the mix a bit too much to be REALLY effective; a shame, too, as the lyrics are a cut above: “Chaos, fear, turmoil, despair/Millions dazed, trapped in the snare” and “What lies beyond the blood moon?/Will the end occur too soon?” are just samplings of the song’s bleakness. Plus, bonus points are awarded for fitting “sagacity” and “antediluvian” into the densely constructed wordscape. Okay… with “The Sempiternal Haze,” I’m finally starting to get a bead on Zel’s voice; it falls somewhere between that dude from Venom and King Diamond (though without the latter’s range). The levels seem to be… uh… leveling out, as the gigantic bass and guitar riffs are a bit louder than the drums, without dampening the full-throttle pounding one iota; the vocals seem to be cranked more, as well. A softer, more melodic break – a la Tony Iommi – leads into a nice guitar solo.

The Empyrean Sword” sets a wicked-fast pace from the get-go. The drums sound like helicopter blades decapitating a group of people who forgot to duck; the guitars churn and roil as the bass pounds in rhythm to the breakneck speed of Nicholas Barker’s percussion work. Some very nice guitar flourishes show up, once more, during a couple of slow breaks, the last right before Barker tears into a final, rapid-fire martial beat that would make Thunderstick proud. On “The Ancient Disarray,” another Iommi-esque guitar noodle leads into a downward spiral of chaos. The track features more pronounced guitar and vocals but, in breaking lockstep with Zel’s guitar parts, Dhilorz weaves some fairly interesting bass runs just below and through both the vocals and guitars. The vocals give way to an arcane-sounding incantation which lends a certain sense of authenticity to the whole affair, particularly as it leads to the song’s abrupt end. “Occlude the Gates” finds Zel’s voice taking on an animalistic, demonic air, even as the music assumes a more measured approach. The drum parts seem to be more well thought-out and… musical and powerful, as opposed to speed for the mere want of speed; the guitars hit on a majestic Maiden-like riff progression, sounding quite crisp and on-point. Even though the vocals are harder to decipher here, the song is actually one of the best on BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

The majority of side three encompasses a three part “suite” called “The Excruciating Journey,” an apt title indeed, as themes of darkness and light, good and evil poke a finger in the eye of world politics. As the vocals continue to be brought to the fore in a more aggressive manner, the lyrics seem to become more garbled. However, with the triumvirate’s first movement, “Defiance and Rage,” the charging guitars and perpetual brutality of the drums continue unabated, making the piece virtually impossible to ignore. “The Prodigal Years” shows a softer side of the band… musically, anyway. Here, the lyrics are delivered in whispers, barely audible, which makes the song even creepier. “The Awakening,” the final piece of the triptych, is a return to the musical themes of “Defiance and Rage.” As the trio turns up the heat, Zel gets right to the heart of the matter: “Rot! Grime! Angst and blight!” The second chorus tears the scab completely off the festering wound, intoning, “Just a neverending disarray, can’t avoid going astray/Like a fly in a flushing toilet/Surely seems the end has come.” The music doesn’t become less urgent or bludgeoning on “Death Will Die,” but there is something violently majestic about the guitars and keyboards that make this one a stand out. In fact, with Zel’s voice turning back to the biting growl of the first several tracks, this could just be the best tune on the record.

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Side four opens with “The Spiral.” Powerful and intriguing, the tune’s circular (dare I say, “Spiraling?”) guitar figure offers up the record’s ultimate classic rock riff, referencing Alice Cooper and Deep Purple,as well as the twin-guitar assault of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. As cool as “Death Will Die” is, this track comes in a close second, due to its diversity in approach; for six-plus minutes, the band manages to incorporate not only several styles of metal, but straight-forward 1970s hard rock into the album’s matrix, including a slight slowing of the tempo behind a cool dual guitar part. Again, a more pronounced keyboard presence adds to the overall effect. It seems that band mastermind Zel has divided …LAND OF THE DEAD into two quite different parts. The first five or six numbers are playing to the Ancient base – the long-time fans who are here for the dome-crushing blackened riffs and ceaseless drive of the double kicks; the second is, for want of a better term, more experimental, giving the trio a chance to stretch out and display their talents on a wider stage. “Petrified By Their End” is a perfect example: While maintaining the band’s ultra-heavy roots, it tends to lean toward the progressive. There are four distinct sections to the nine-and-a-half minute piece that will hold even the most cynical listener rapt throughout. In point of fact, the Alice reference comes into play again as, at about the six minute mark, there’s a buzzing beehive guitar solo that reminds me of Glen Buxton’s killer (pun intended) work on “Halo of Flies.” The album ends with a bonus track (but, not really a bonus, as it appears on every configuration and version of the record). “13 Candles” is a cover of the Bathory tune that I’m not sure really adds anything to the original, but covers are always fun. Having just discovered Ancient with this album, I have just one request: Please… don’t wait another dozen years to release your next record.

(UPDATE) After further listens to BACK FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD, I must amend my thoughts regarding the sound quality on the first few tracks of the record. The sound is not as muddied and muffled as I originally opined; seemingly, the problem actually lies with the digitized version I used for this review. So… turn it up and enjoy!


ROB ZOMBIE: THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER

(ZODIAC SWAN RECORDS/T-BOY RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2016)

The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Di

For whatever it’s worth, I was one of those people who could either take it or leave it as far as the wildly, improbably popular band White Zombie were concerned. Why? I don’t know… wrong time, wrong place? Maybe it was the demonic over-saturation at Alternative Radio (you seemingly couldn’t swing a severed head without hitting a DJ playing, having just played or getting ready to play “Thunder Kiss ’65” or “More Human Than Human” between 1992 and 1997 or so). Whatever, I was just never that into the band; however, fast forward a year or two and the release of vocalist/visionary Rob Zombie’s solo debut, HELLBILLY DELUXE, and I was hooked. In the ensuing years, the erstwhile banner-waver for low-rent, science-fiction based shock rock has expanded his influence, taking his playfully bent visions into other media… most successfully in the realms of indie comic books and movies. He’s also become quite the live draw, as well as an in-demand producer and co-writer in certain musical circles, as well as a professional “guest vocalist,” having made appearances on several Alice Cooper albums. When the Coopers were (finally!) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rob did the honors.

Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)

Rob Zombie (John Five, Rob Zombie, Piggy D, Ginger Fish) (publicity photo)

THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK ACID WITCH SATANIC ORGY CELEBRATION DISPENSER (say that three times fast… heck, say that once without messing it up!) marks Zombie’s sixth solo release of twisted boogie metal, and though it would be easy to dismiss this record as just more of the same, it would appear that the living dead man still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Does it sound like Rob Zombie? Well… duh! You see, the thing about an artist like Rob is this: No matter how much someone complains about everything sounding the same, the first time Zombie and his band deviate one iota from the accepted sound and formula, the fans are gonna yell that he doesn’t care about his REAL fans and he has – DUNH, DUNH, DUNH! – sold out. So, THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… sticks to what has worked in the past, while adding just enough “different” to be subversive. “The Last of the Demons Defeated” is a 90-second introduction with Rob chanting/intoning “Electric warlock… electric warlock… electric warlock acid witch” over a massive tribal stomp. The second track begins with a cartoon voice delivering a well-known mantra of those uptight traveling tent revival preachers from the ’50s through the ’80s, decrying rock music as “Satanic cyanide” before erupting with a from-the-bowels Death Metal vocal over a Sabbath-worthy riff before a murderous Zombie relates his story of how rock turned him into a depraved maniac over a swirling cacophony of guitars (courtesy of this record’s secret weapon, John Five); the song’s title, obviously, is “Satanic Cyanide! The Killer Rocks On!” plus… bonus points for fitting the phrase “mohair coffin” into the lyrics. Continuing the insanely long titles, “The Life and Times of a Teenage Rock God” is more to form, with Zombie’s rumbling, staccato vocal delivery; there is a cool “Spaghetti Western” synth break toward the end of the track, provided by Zeuss. “Well, Everybody’s Fucking In a UFO” follows, a weird metal hoedown filled with allusions of getting high (either by smoking some weed or breathing some swamp gas), being abducted by aliens and being… uh… probed. Rob’s whacked-out backwoods voice is hilarious and definitely adds to the silliness. The exquisitely named interlude, “A Hears Overturns With the Coffin Bursting Open,” starts off with a voice repeating “So revolting and yet so interesting” over and over before giving way to a quite pretty acoustic guitar, disturbing in its elegance. The final tune on Side One of the vinyl version of THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… is “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Gore Whore,” is kind of a ’60s-style Farfisa-heavy garage homage to THE MUNSTERS and bad horror movies, featuring such genre-worthy lyrics as “She got Vincent Price tattooed on her thigh/Below a devil bat with a crazy eye” and “So much blood everywhere/And all she wants is more.” The images this number evokes makes it one of my favorites of this release.

Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rob Zombie, OZZFEST (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Side Two” of the record stays the course set by the first half, with “Medication For the Melancholy” playing up the misconception that celebrities have lives far-and-above those of “ordinary people,” steamrolling the more listener-friendly lyric put forth by Mark Knopfler more than thirty years ago with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.” John Five once more delivers a trippy, effects-laden solo and suitably like-minded leads; Ginger Fish’s drumming is… BIG, as always. It would seem that “subtle” is something Ginger doesn’t do well, nor would we want him to. “In the Age of the Consecrated Vampire We All Get High” is more like White Zombie’s syncopated stomp than anything else on THE ELECTRIC WARLOCK… , with an incredible backward solo from John. And, I don’t know if it’s the mix or the playback systems I’ve been listening on but, this is the first time on the album that Piggy D’s bass stands out, a wicked thump and rumble that perfectly fits this song. “Super-Doom-Hex-Gloom Part One” is another short (relatively speaking) interlude with a short spoken-word introduction before evolving into a series of computer blips and a throbbing synth bass, a weird piece of soundtrack music to an even weirder, cheaply produced early 1970s horror movie. With guitars set to stun and effects a-plenty from Zeuss’ keyboard and Piggy’s bass and Zombie’s processed voice delivering a litany recounting his reasons for being (“Well – I was born a rotten freak/Slicking back a widows peak,” “Well – I was born on Hullabaloo/Mind control is what I do”), “In the Bone Pile” is one of the more satisfying tracks on the record. Plus… ya gotta love the images that title conjures in your mind. “Get Your Boots On! That’s the End of Rock and Roll” is truly the only full-tilt rock and roll song here, with pummeling rhythms from Ginger and Piggy and a vicious solo from John Five. The record clocks in at 31 minutes, more or less, with each of the first eleven tracks running an economical 2:58 or less, which makes the final cut, “Wurdalak,” somewhat of an anomaly with a run time of five-and-a-half minutes. It’s all Rob’s phased voice spitting out Lovecraftian lyrics over some spooky music and noises until the final couple of minutes, which turns into a creepy piano coda that sounds right out of THE EXORCIST… somehow a fitting end to the insanity of the last half hour. So, is this the greatest record ever made? Is it the greatest Rob Zombie record ever made? Will it change lives? Will it make the world a better place? The answer to all four questions is, “No.” But, if you ask me if it’s fun, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” And… what more can you ask from a rock and roll record?


DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR

(ISO/SONY RECORDS; 2016)

Blackstar

KEVIN RENICK review:

Things can change just like THAT. One day the reality is THIS, the next it is something very different. That is certainly the case with BLACKSTAR, the newest album from the (unexpectedly) late David Bowie. The narrative should have been (and clearly WAS for the early reviewers) that Bowie was back doing experimental stuff, returning to his glory days of the late ’70s, at least in terms of creative daring, and adding to the thrill of his “comeback” on 2013’s THE NEXT DAY with an even more classic, incredible album. The pioneering artist is back! He’s challenging us again! He’s made another boldly original statement! The tone of some early reviews of this record is painful to ponder now, and in some cases, even embarrassing. David Bowie has died. It was a huge, huge shock. It was anything but common knowledge how sick he was except perhaps to his family and a few close friends, so all of us waking up the morning of December 11 to hear the news were devastated. Bowie? The beautiful conceptual architect behind Ziggy Stardust? The “Thin White Duke”? The “Berlin trilogy”? GONE? Impossible. He was bigger than life, this man, an artist so entrenched in the full history of classic rock from the end of the ’60s to right now that a world without him seems unthinkable. It’s a world greatly reduced somehow, with a music industry wobbling in a more unstable manner. We NEEDED David Bowie… he represented the consummate rock icon, the master of disguises, the ultimate creative auteur who could control his image and take his audience on a wild, unpredictable ride. Bowie was HUGELY influential, often thrillingly weird and original, and the master manipulator of image, fashion, and the entirety of the “rock star game,” whatever that means. He shouldn’t be gone. We should have been better prepared… why didn’t he tell us he was so sick? Except, why SHOULD he? The amazing thing about BLACKSTAR is that it is an incredibly rare example of someone making a powerful artistic statement almost certainly KNOWING they are dying, laying down sounds and sentiments that are not often presented in such a choreographed, “this may be FAREWELL, folks” manner. But Bowie infuses this album with so much mystery, so many unanswered questions, that you hunger for more as you listen. You wonder whether he was suffering as he recorded these tracks… it’s known that he loved to work FAST, but was there added urgency because of his ill health? How much did he know about when the end would come? Were tracks like the title track and “Lazarus” intended as messages to his fans, perhaps intended to be comforting in the coming “after period,” or were they just his latest songs? We don’t know. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer and collaborator, simply said “Bowie did what he wanted to do; he’s always done that” in a recent interview. We don’t know all the things we’d like to know, that’s for sure. Bowie took many secrets to the grave. And the outpouring of grief has been steady since he died, from musicians of all stripes, fans around the world. Not David Bowie. Not HIM! He CAN’T be gone! But… he can be, and he is.

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

David Bowie (photo credit: JIMMY KING)

So, listening to BLACKSTAR now, knowing it’s the last album David Bowie made as the purposeful, visionary artist he’s always been, is an utterly haunting, unforgettable experience. It is a phenomenal album, one that ranks extremely high in the Bowie canon. A friend asked me if I would think so highly of the album if Bowie hadn’t died. Yes… I had heard two of the songs before the news came, and I was riveted. I heard something new, eerie and boldly experimental in those two tracks (including the long title cut) and couldn’t WAIT to hear the rest. What Bowie’s death does to the listening experience is mostly about adding layers of sadness, forcing you to hear a “last testament” in these grooves, a place that Bowie knew he was going to that his fans could not follow, a place he himself had never been. The back cover of the CD jacket, the disc itself and the pages of the insert booklet are all black, with some shadowy photographs inside and the lyrics and credits almost unreadable as they, too, are black. But despite the darkness permeating this entire presentation, the music is vividly, powerfully full of life and wonder. It’s beautiful stuff from start to finish, reminiscent of the Berlin trilogy in many ways, but a new, jazzier kind of experimentalism that represented a new direction for Bowie. The 10-minute opener finds Bowie singing a perfect fifth harmony with himself that is mesmerizing, building a LOW era-vibe that keeps expanding outward, taking you on a journey to an unknown destination. There’s a solemn, minor-key mood that unexpectedly changes after a few minutes to a major key, almost upbeat section that features some of Bowie’s most plaintive vocals EVER, giving chills at the originality of the music. Ironically, though, Bowie sings this widely quoted lyric here: “Something happened on the day he died/His spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/I’m a blackstar/I’m a blackstar.” The word “blackstar” appears throughout this track, along with curious star negations such as “I’m not a popstar… I’m not a gangstar… I’m not a film star,” always followed by “I’m a blackstar.” It’s overwhelmingly unsettling to learn that the term “blackstar” is an oft-used term in medical literature to refer to a kind of cancerous tumor due to its appearance under close examination. This is something missed by the early reviewers of the album… they were looking for a more cosmic, outer-spacey sort of meaning, and perhaps Bowie wanted that interpretation to be valid as well. After all, one panel of the sleeve does indeed show a starfield, with a particularly bright star in the lower left corner. Whatever Bowie meant we can only guess at, but I’m betting that the significance of the “blackstar” concept was very much on his mind as his mortality came more and more to the front and center of his reality, and he had to wrestle with it in his own unique way. It makes this very daring track impossible to forget; it’s a soundscape worthy of immersion on every level. Mark Guiliana’s drums on this track are worth singling out… he’s called upon to do some unusual things, and he matches and holds down the weirdness Bowie himself is putting down on multiple other instruments. “’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore” continues the thrilling art rock with riveting saxophone from Donny McCaslin, one of the musical stars of this record. There are echoes of HEROES, LOW and SCARY MONSTERS in what we get here, but McCaslin plays with atmospheric bravado in a way that Bowie must have been thrilled by. The song rocks, rolls and soars madly, and Bowie sounds like he is having a blast in the studio. On the other hand, “Lazarus,” a song made into a morbid, unforgettable video, is going to be regarded by most of us as some sort of epitaph. With squonking horns again and some of Bowie’s most impassioned singing, we get lyrics like these: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now… You know I’ll be free/Just like that Bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me.” How can fans NOT react emotionally to stuff like this? It’s simply impossible to separate the reality of Bowie’s passing from the immediate reality of what this track does. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a snarling, frenzied rocker that would’ve almost been easy to enjoy for its madness and musicality except that Bowie yells out at one point “Sue… Good bye!” and then you have to deal with truth again. “Girl Love Me” is a pretty weird song, with the repeated refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (a question a lot of us probably ask from time to time, although more about OTHER days, I imagine) and it has an impatient, aggravated sense of ennui that is uniquely Bowie and his vocals reflect it. But the two closing tracks really KILL emotionally… that would be “Dollar Days,” an elegaic ballad and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” In the former, over a plodding rhythm and that McCaslin sax again, Bowie seems to be heading out right before our ears and his voice trails off over these lyrics: “I’m falling down/Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” That penultimate passage is just too much to take in light of reality, and someone is gonna shed tears if they bother to strain their eyes to read the black lyrics on the black page. Finally, in “I Can’t… ” Bowie gives us one last classic, a melodic, beautifully sung gem with a haunting refrain (that title), airy synth, and a band that is in absolute perfect lockstep with him. It sounds like the end of his story, frankly, and I can’t hear it without getting chills. “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent/I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.” That title is in a larger point size in the lyrics… maybe it isn’t as significant as I think. Or, maybe, Bowie was clearly saying to us, “Some things have to remain a mystery. Figure it out yourself. I can’t spell out all my secrets for you.” Whatever the case, he left an astounding final musical statement. BLACKSTAR is a sad, haunting classic, a soundtrack to the final journey of one of the greatest musical adventurers and multi-media artists of all time. We won’t see the likes of the former David Jones ever again, and it’s fitting he went out with one of his greatest recordings. But honestly, I’m feeling pretty LOW that one of our most important musical HEROES is now a true starman in the great beyond. Bowie titled a recent career anthology NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Sadly, that’s not true at all. EVERYTHING has changed with his departure.

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

David Bowie (uncredited photo)

BILL WINER review:

I bought David Bowie’s new album, BLACKSTAR, the day it came out, on his 69th birthday. It’s haunting, adventurous, sonically beautiful… everything you would expect from him and more. Very different from his previous album, THE NEXT DAY, which was his first in ten years. I played BLACKSTAR all weekend, then found out Monday morning, he had passed away after a long battle with cancer. To say I was shocked and stunned would be an understatement. BLACKSTAR is such a wonderful album… now, it has turned into his swansong and his epitaph. The title song and “Lazarus” are the longest tracks and are haunting in every respect. I must also add that his backing band are New York Jazz musicians, including Donny McCaslin, who plays some of the most haunting saxophone I have ever heard on a pop or rock record. Mark Guiliana is a wonderful percussionist and is all over the place with great fills and superb drumming, adding to the sonic depth of the album. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is one of the best rockers on the album; two of the middle songs “Sue(Or In a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me” are very strange; “Dollar Days” is a great piano ballad. The real kicker is the last number, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is Bowie saying goodbye with a wonderful song and he sings his heart out on it. I’ve seen some of the video for “Lazarus,” which is one of the most haunting and bizarre music videos ever. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and his body starts floating away. BLACKSTAR is a must have album and as good as anything he has done. The fact that, now, it becomes his swansong makes it even more important. As Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, said, “His death was no different than his life… a work of art.”


WIZARDS OF WINTER

(December 18, 2015; EFFINGHAM PERFORMANCE CENTER, Effingham IL)

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Wizards of Winter (sound and lights) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY

Let me say this upfront: I do not go in for these big Christmas spectacles. I have never seen the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have never seen Mannheim Steamroller; I have never bemoaned the fact that I’ve never seen either act. The same could probably be said about the Wizards of Winter, as well, so I was perhaps a bit apprehensive when their publicist, Arielle, contacted me to review the show. All I can say is, “Thank you, Arielle!” I came away with an entirely new perspective regarding these types of shows. Not only was the show’s choreography amazing, the narration spot-on and the music both stirring and hard-rocking, highlighting both the Christian and secular aspects of Christmas, but every member of the band and their crew – right down to the bus driver – went out of their way to make me feel at ease and, yes, at home, amongst their little group. Additionally, the management and staff of the Effingham Performance Center made my first visit there as easy and pain-free as any venue I’ve ever worked. Thank you all for making this night’s assignment such a joy.

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Scott Kelly; Guy LeMonnier, Sharon Kelly, Mary McIntyre, Natalia Niarezka; Greg Smith, TW Durfy) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band asked me to try to get a few shots from behind the drum riser into the crowd. The idea sounded good to me; however, the smoke machines were working overtime, which caused problems seeing the front of the stage, much less past the lights into the crowd. It did offer a unique glimpse into the band, though. The show kicked off with the first track from the group’s new album, THE MAGIC OF WINTER. As an overture, the instrumental “Flight of the Snow Angels” had everything you would expect from a holiday show, including heavy metal keyboard bombast, massive soloing from guitarists Fred Gorhau and TW Durfy, flautist Sharon Kelly and violinist Natalia Niarezka and… snow? Yeah, snow. The illusion was pretty cool and set the feeling for the entire evening. The albums “title track,” “Winter Magic,” was next, followed by another instrumental, the relatively quiet piano-dominated “The Arctic Flyer” and the power ballad, “Special Feeling,” which featured some nice dual lead guitar and the introduction of former Trans-Siberian Orchestra vocalist Guy LeMonnier. Both of the numbers are from last year’s eponymous record (and, apparently, an earlier version called TALES BENEATH A NORTHERN STAR). With drummer Tommy Ference pounding away and Gorhau and Durfy trading solos and power chords, it was hard not to get into the spirit of the season or, at least, into the progressive rock monster on stage. Sharon Kelly (co-founder of the group, with her husband, Scott), keyboardist Mary McIntyre and Natalia Niarezka added, not only a touch of beauty but, some nice choreographed flourishes, as well. With “First Snow,” we were presented with the first of several TSO covers (along with a few others).

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tony Gaynor; Guy LeMonnier, Mary McIntyre; Fred Gorhau) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The music could very easily have carried the entire show but, Tony Gaynor’s presence, delivering a loose narrative thread, utilizing the accepted Christian nativity, as well as adding bits of ancient Winter Solstice celebrations and the legend of Santa Claus, was impressive. You are definitely drawn to Gaynor when he’s onstage, hanging on his every word. The first half of the show ended with a retelling of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, highlighted by Scott’s keyboards (approximating a harpsichord and a pipe organ). The song, “Ebeneezer,” was sandwiched between a pair of covers, the pomp of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Nut Rocker” (itself, a cover of a 1962 Bumble and the Stingers recording of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers” from THE NUTCRACKER) and the TSO hit, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” (again, a cover of a cover, as TSO progenitor, Savatge first recorded the medley of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” for their 1995 album, DEAD WINTER DEAD). The latter, coupling a pair of the most well-known and beloved Christmas Carols of all time, was certainly stirring and elicited one of the loudest reactions from the audience.

Wizards of Winter (Tommy  Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Tommy Ference; TW Durfy; Sharon Kelly) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

During the short intermission, someone called the bass player (who I’d been eying all night long as someone I should know) “Greg” and, as the light went on over my head, I turned into the fan-boy that I am, pointed to him and said, “You’re Greg Smith. You used to play with Alice.” Sharon said, “Yeah, and we borrowed him from Ted Nugent’s band for this tour. He gets around.” Suddenly, this whole thing had been elevated a notch in my estimation, as if the spectacle (and the warmth of the band and the crew themselves) hadn’t already made this a great night. As the second part of the show opened, more keyboard and guitar bombast was in the air, with the hard-driving “March of the Metal Soldiers.” It’s obvious that this is a band of consummate – if not virtuoso – musicians, as they exhibited on several instrumentals throughout the evening, including “Gales of December,” which highlighted Sharon’s flute and some killer dual shredding from Fred and TW. A definite highlight of the night came when Mary McIntyre donned a little red Missus Claus costume, heading into the crowd for a spirited “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Another instrumental, “Toys Will Be Toys,” saw the vocalists tossing mini beach balls into the audience, as well as featuring a nice Natalia Niarezka violin solo. Even though all of the vocalists continued to be featured, the metal maven, Vinny Jiovino, was fully in charge of the second set, with his keening vocals falling somewhere between Dee Snider and Mark Slaughter, including a great version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The anthemic “Spirit of Christmas” closed the show proper. “Requiem,” the fifth and final Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover, opened the encore before the rousing, everybody-in finale, “With One Voice.”

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Wizards of Winter (Mary McIntyre; Natalia Niarezka; Vinny Jiovino) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I really cannot say enough about the friendly atmosphere the band fostered backstage and, when I mentioned seeing a young special needs fan in the audience, Vinny and the rest went out of their way to make sure she had a mini beach ball, autographed by the entire band (I’m sure I made a pain of myself in securing the autographs for the young lady). So… maybe next year, not only will I revisit the Wizards of Winter, but add the TSO and Mannheim Steamroller to my winter concert schedule also.


DOYLE/ELEMENT A440/HUNG LIKE A MARTYR/THE SUPERMEN

(November 21, 2015; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

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So, this is the second metal show I’ve seen in the past five days and, like the Amaranthe show at Pop’s, this one had its fair share of drunken yahoos and intolerable idjits; in fact, several of the drunken yahoos and intolerable idjits from Pop’s were performing the same functions at the Ready Room. Even before the lights went down and the first band took the stage, a woman who seemed relatively sane five nights previous (her twelve year old son was with her then) was already so sloshed that she was slurring her words and was unable to navigate her way across the floor to the rest room, but we’ll get into more specifics as we go through the evening’s festivities, beginning with…

Supermen (Jimmy All-Dick; Valiance Jack; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Supermen (Jimmy All-Dick; Valiance Jack; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Supermen, an unrepentant mish-mash of punk, metal, misogyny, soft-core porn, comedy and wrestling from the StL. This band is pure, mindless mayhem and their stage show had so much happening that it was hard to find a focal point; I’m sure that a majority of the males in attendance spent most of their time focusing on the barely-dressed dancer/dominatrix who, according to the Supermen’s Facebook page is called (Hail the New) Dawn and is listed as “Property.” For the ladies, there was Tiger Mask IV, the male counterpart to Dawn, who is the group’s “Lead Partier” and was, likewise, barely dressed, sporting a Luchidor mask, wrestling trunks and boots. The rest of the band have also adopted wrestling gear and names (Maxxx Loads, “the Prom King,” plays bass; Valiance Jack, “the Promiscuous Protomartyr,” plays drums; Jimmy All-Dick, “the Alpha Male,” plays guitar; Gaius Julius Sensei Almighty is the singer; and the “manager” is Osama Bin Erickson, the Dean of Debauchery). Musically, think early punk laced with liberal doses of Motorhead-style metallic speed; lyrically, look to bands such as the Cramps or Dwarves for like-minded reference points (translation: Don’t try to read too much into what’s going on with the Supermen; they don’t take themselves too seriously and neither should you). Even though the look and songs do, in fact, border on the cartoonish, don’t miss out on the fact that these guys are actually really good players. The band’s twenty-minute, ten song set included such instant classics as “White Women In Distress,” “Live Punk Sex Act,” “I Kill Everything I Fuck” and their call-to-arms anthem, “Blood, Honor and Pussy.” A fun time was had by all, except for a fellow cameraman, who was continually hit or shoved from behind by (surprise, surprise!) a drunken tool who would wander to the back of the room and then charge to the front, yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” to whoever happened to be on stage at the time. Music reviews should not focus so much on the audience’s behavior, but when that behavior actually hinders your enjoyment of the music, it must be addressed (in an effort, hopefully, to curtail such incidents in the future for the enjoyment and safety of everyone involved).

Hung Like a Martyr (Mark Nicol; Bruce Morrison; Paul Dontigney) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Hung Like a Martyr (Mark Nicol; Bruce Morrison; Paul Dontigney) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Another local act, Hung Like a Martyr (who, coincidentally, have opened for Doyle’s old band, the Misfits), offered more of a straight metal sound that was not unappreciated by yours truly. Bruce Morrison’s voice has a certain Vince Neil quality, but carries the emotional weight of a John Corabi (thus embodying both Crue singers in one), though the actual music was heavier than the Crue’s pop metal. The dual guitars of Erik Spiller and Paul Dontigney reminded me of the Phil Campbell/Wurzel two-pronged guitar attack of Motorhead’s mid-’80s to mid-’90s period… rough, fast and insanely melodic; the rhythm section of bassist Adam “Adamned” Fuchs and drummer Mark Nicol managed to keep things brutally heavy while never giving up their funky groove. The set built from the frustration of watching this country crumble under the weight of internal strife and increasing violence, as well as attacks from without, with the opening song, “Bent,” a battle cry that lets everyone know that we may be bent but we’re not broken; “Kill Your Own King” and “Watching the World Burn” are laments to the fact that America is so divided that we can seemingly no longer find a common ground on which to come together; “The Reaper” and “Nuclear Salvation” follow the same apocalyptic message. The final number, “Dead Body Dumptruck,” is basically a dark hymn to what we have to look forward to if we don’t get our act together: Death from within and annihilation from without, leading to a sort of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD zombie apocalypse of rotting corpses in mass graves. The songs – while very much in the horror/science fiction vein – had an angry spark of truth, delivered with a conviction and energy that was hard to ignore… even the drunks and idjits behaved during the set. All of the tunes, aside from “Bent,” are from earlier incarnations of Hung Like a Martyr; with a new record eminent, I, for one, am excited to see where new vocalist Morrison leads the group, lyrically, from here.

Element A440 (Kat; Halo; Katt) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Element A440 (Kat; Halo; Katt) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Though I’m not really into the “Anti-Christ Superstar” imagery and lyrics of groups like Marilyn Manson, I must say that Element A440 serve up their version with something that Manson frontman Brian Warner could never offer: Talent. Add to that a genuine conviction for what they’re doing (a seemingly concerted effort to not just shock or offend for the sake of being shocking and offensive… I mean, this FEELS real coming from this group) and, whether you agree with their stance or not, you have the makings of a fiery, evil set of industrial metal that is hard to ignore. Where the band does appear to be pandering to the lowest common denominator is the over-the-top attempts to titillate with sophomoric pornographic lyrics and visuals; a shame really, as the horror and religious elements of their set are what drives the narrative. It would appear that vocalist Halo (who also does programming and plays guitar… at least in the studio) is the mastermind behind the look and sound of Element A440… he is the sole songwriter and, I would guess, the visual designer of the band’s appearance and onstage set-up; the set was structured with a smart ebb-and-flow at the beginning, eventually ramping up to a chaotic close with the entire band donning some of the creepiest half-masks this side of the original Slipknot… the only thing we didn’t see was Halo’s fire-breathing (a matter of strict fire laws and low ceilings, I would guess). The musicians – guitarist Graven, drummer Kat and bassist Katt – were tight and scalpel-sharp, delivering their brutal, misshapen pop with a glee that never quite matched Halo’s but… that didn’t keep them from trying, pushing each other (and their manic leader) to ever harsher heights of musical mayhem. The songs that had the most impact, for me, included “Dance Dead,” “Wasted,” “Godless,” “Freak” and, I suppose, “Porn Star,” though for different reasons than you would think. I would definitely like to see a full Element A440 headlining set with the group pulling out all of the musical and effects stops… perhaps outdoors at Pop’s? Naturally, the drunks were back from their sabbatical during the last set, as the “Hey! Hey! Hey!” guy was back, seeking the acknowledgment from the stage that would validate his coolness and, the seemingly sane mother from five nights ago was all but molesting a couple of young men in the front row.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein; Alex Story) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein; Alex Story) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With a new band, a new album and a tour with Glenn Danzig highlighting the last few years in the career of Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, the Misfit guitarist is building on those successes with a headlining run through the States. Doyle (the man and the band) brought their ABOMINATOR TOUR to the Ready Room on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and absolutely destroyed! Doyle’s signature slash-and-burn style of guitar playing meshes well with the howling, growling vocal gymnastics of Alex “Wolfman” Story (he of Cancerslug fame) and, with bassist Left Hand Graham and drummer Brandon Pertzborn laying down a rhythmic bottom end denser than a graveyard fog, the crowd hung on every note, every scream. The set, as may be expected, was heavy on music from ABOMINATOR (ten tunes) and classic Misfits (eight songs). In fact, until the final four numbers, the group alternated three Doyle songs with three Misfits numbers; that pattern was broken up by a cover of KISS’ “Strutter,” which we’ll discuss later.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein with Brandon Pertzborn; Doyle) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein with Brandon Pertzborn; Doyle) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking off with Abominator,” the band proved their metal mettle (sorry… couldn’t resist), with Doyle already stalking the stage and hammering his guitar mercilessly. As much as I enjoyed Story’s vocals throughout, it wasn’t until the fifth song, the classic punk of “Ghouls Night Out.” I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that our screamer did change up the act a bit for the headliners; his mantra now became, “Doyle! Doyle! Hey, Doyle,” which at the beginning of the set was directed at Alex Story. The inebriated Mom, cajoled and egged on by this goof between bouts of yelling his lungs out at the band, even made it onto the stage, a little to the right of Graham, where she just kinda swayed to the music until the tour manager took her arm and led her off, at which point, I assume, she began cozying up to the brothers who had been fending her off the entire evening. So, anyway, after “Skulls” (from the WALK AMONG US album), it was back to new material, including the wickedly awesome “Dreamingdeadgirls” and Love Like Murder.”

Doyle (Alex Story; Alex with Left Hand Graham) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Alex Story; Alex with Left Hand Graham) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The musical merry-go-round continued with three of the best tracks from EARTH AD, “Green Hell,” “Bloodfeast” and “Devilock.” Now, of course, hearing all of the great Misfits songs, when I sat down with Doyle after the show, I had to ask the question that has been on every Fiend’s mind since the original group broke up nearly 35 years ago: “Are the reunion rumors true and, if so, where do things stand now?” Doyle tells me, “I’m workin’ on it. I’ve got two fuckin’ bulls to deal with, ya know? One dogs lookin’ this way, one dogs lookin’ that way and this guy’s sayin’, ‘What do you want from me?’” What more can we hope for? Well, for one thing, a second album from Doyle, the band but, more immediately, the final round of ABOMINATOR songs, including the heavy, atmospheric Mark of the Beast,” and the graveyard mysticism of “Cemeterysexxxand “Drawing Down the Moon.” This was the point where the guys broke the cycle, tearing into “Strutter.” It’s also the point that the two drunks actually managed to get Doyle’s attention; the woman was attempting to lift her shirt up, an occurrence that the gentleman just couldn’t let pass without alerting the guitarist: “Hey, Doyle! Doyle! Doyle! Look at these!” In mid-solo, without missing a beat, Doyle replied, “I don’t wanna see those nasty old things.” Crest (breast?) fallen, the duo were utterly lost, put in their places by the one guy in the whole building you didn’t want to cross. With a smirk on his face, Alex introduced the final two – and possibly the two most well-known – Misfits numbers, “Last Caress” and “Die Die My Darling,” which has attained legendary status among fans and punks everywhere. Closing with “Hope Hell Is Warm,” Doyle, Alex, Brandon and Graham left the crowd with ringing ears and memories of a great night of punk and metal.

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Doyle (Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Before leaving this review, I should probably explain why I spent so much time relating the actions of two very drunk people. The reasons are really simple: First, your actions made you a part of the show to the group of people around you, ruining what may have been their only night out for the entire month (or longer… considering the economy, live shows are very much a luxury nowadays). Second (and most important), there is no way that being fall-down drunk before the show even started can be construed as “just having fun,” miss… you have a serious problem that could endanger your life; please, take your actions into consideration, as you have a twelve year-old son to think about… how would you react if a stranger old enough to be his mother spent the night hitting on him? Plus, to both of you (and anyone else who decides to drink to excess), I don’t want to be on the road, worrying if you’re behind the wheel of one of the vehicles in my general vicinity. I understand that we all need a little release from time to time, a chance to let go and have a good time but, please, remember that there are others who have to put up with you and your drunken shenanigans and… please, don’t be the fatal statistic who crashed and burned on their way home from a killer night of Rock ‘n’ Roll.


AMARANTHE/BUTCHER BABIES/LULLWATER

(November 17, 2015; POP’S, Sauget IL)

Amaranthe Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

From the outset, standing in line and listening to the various comments, it was obvious that the majority of the people at Pop’s on the evening of November 17th were there to see Butcher Babies; I even heard comments and questions like, “I have never heard of this Amaranthe band. Do you know anything about them?” I can kinda understand that… while both acts play metal, they take very different approaches: Amaranthe play a symphonic, well-orchestrated and choreographed style of progressive metal, while Butcher Babies blur the line where punk and metal meet. I am all for diversity and can and have enjoyed bills featuring several different musical styles. Unfortunately, I tend to be part of an ever-shrinking fan base that enjoys listening to a myriad of genres and styles in the course of an evening of live music. So, with that as a backdrop, here’s how this night shook out.

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening act Lullwater was a total surprise. The Athens, Georgia quartet play the type of hard rock that I grew up on, though steeped in the early 1990s sound of the Seattle scene; there are touches of Alice In Chains and Nirvana, as well liberal doses of Stone Temple Pilots (yeah, I know they weren’t from Seattle, but… ) and Soundgarden. As Southern boys, there’s plenty of good ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd and Seven Mary Three style rock and roll. With their new album, REVIVAL, barely a month old, they were determined to make an impression. And, make an impression they certainly did! It didn’t take these guys (vocalist/ guitarist John Strickland, bassist Roy “Ray” Beatty, drummer Joe Wilson and lead guitarist Brett Strickland) long to win over an early crowd hyped to see Butcher Babies.

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Strickland’s imaginative guitar licks are certainly hard to ignore, particularly on the stinging “Oddline,” from the band’s 2013 self-titled debut, as well as its cousin, “Evenline,” from the new record; the pair’s biting style is further enhanced by Beatty’s bass, which is tuned to a higher register (a trick also used by the Who’s John Entwistle), adding to the buzzsaw tone. Roy’s style also lends itself well to the Southern rock “guitar army” feel on songs like “Broken Wings,” allowing Brett and John to soar on an extended harmony part. Wilson’s playing demands attention, though it is never overbearing or dominating… as has been said many times before, it ain’t always the notes you play, sometimes it’s the spaces between that make a performance special; make no mistake, though, when he hits those notes, it is with power and precision. John’s chameleon-like vocals draw from most of the bands listed above, though mostly, he tends to sound like a tasty three-meat stew of Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Seven Mary Three’s Jason Ross. From front to back, Lullwater delivered the type of high energy, flat-out rock ‘n’ roll show that you very rarely get a chance to see anymore… I just wish they could have played a longer set.

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, though I’ve heard quite a bit – both pro (usually from avid fans) and con (usually from music journalists like myself) – about Butcher Babies, this was my first time to experience the live bludgeoning. The band are obviously fans of the Plasmatics and their enigmatic vocalist, Wendy O Williams; I mean, the group’s name is an homage to the Plasmatics’ very first single from way back in 1978. You can also plot the progression of Williams’ band from anarchic punk noisemongers to heavy metal behemoth through Carla Harvey’s near-gutteral screams and Heidi Shepherd’s more melodic, sultry wails. And, even though the ladies’ stage attire was rather tame on this night, most images and videos show they have a proclivity for, at least, a mildly titillating form of exhibitionism. Shepherd and Harvey are twin balls of kinetic energy, in motion virtually from the time they hit the stage for “Monsters Ball” until their final exit during “Magnolia Boulevard.” The three-piece band – guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chrissy Warner – are a well-oiled, if predictable, industrial punk metal machine; their sound falls somewhere between the Plasmatics’ NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED punk overload and COUP D’ETAT metal mayhem, with more than a touch of Nu-Metal around the edges.

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The group highlighted material from their latest release, TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, including their approximation of a power ballad, “Thrown Away.” As well received as tunes like “Monsters Ball,” “Jesus Needs More Babies For His War Machine” and “Gravemaker” were, when the ladies introduced “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” a cover of a fifty-year-old pop hit by Napoleon XIV, the crowd erupted. I will say that, even though I was a tad under-impressed, this group must be doing something right to have such a loyal following (a couple of guys – one sorta laid back and cool, the other more of the rabid “Hey… look at me! I know their bus driver! Wooo!” kind of guy – were in from Kansas City for the Tuesday night show). Considering the solid musicianship of Lullwater and the symphonic sheen of Amaranthe, it may have been a case of Butcher Babies being the wrong band at the wrong time; as such, I’m willing to hold further opinions until I can see them in their natural habitat, with more like-minded groups (and, yes, I realize that goes against everything that I said in my opening paragraph but, like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rule).

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I was actually pleasantly surprised when it became apparent that a large number of the folks on the floor remained there for Amaranthe, although there was considerable turnover at the front of the stage. This, of course is where I get all curmudgeonly and tell you how much I dislike being around drunks; as I bid adieu to the laid back guy from KC, a couple of excitable drunks pushed in front of my spot and began documenting EVERY freaking moment of their time at the front of the stage with their phones… all with me trying to shoot pictures either over or through them. I usually let people around me know that I’m working and that I am only allowed to take pictures (I use an actual camera, for which I have obtained a photo pass, as well as permission from the band’s management to use) for the first three songs of any set and they’re usually cool and let me work, trying to avoid getting in my way or obstructing my view; these two were having none of that… I took close to 150 shots of Aramanthe, a hundred of them starring either at least one of the pair’s phones or the gentleman’s cap. If that weren’t bad enough, they compared notes on virtually every image or video they captured in an approximation of the English language that I can only refer to as trailer park rustic (my apologies if I’ve offended any of the millions of fine people who live in trailer parks but, I’m sure you know what I mean), loud enough to annoy more than just this humble cameraman. Okay… with that out of my system and, as I’m sure you didn’t come here just to hear me vent about my job, let’s talk about the real reason you’re here: Amaranthe.

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

At first, I couldn’t fathom what the heck was taking place on stage; there were no amplifiers, there were no monitors. It definitely made it easier for the band’s three-pronged vocal attack to maneuver around the stage but… it just looked SO weird! All six band members wore ear monitors, something that is generally only done by the singer; as mentioned above, I am usually at the front of the stage, which means that most of what I hear comes from the stage monitors. Without those monitors, those of us situated up front, between the speakers on either side of the Pop’s stage had kind of a muffled sound, especially on the vocals; I’m sure that to those a little farther back on the floor, the sound was as pristine as the stage looked. This was merely a minor annoyance and, other than louder-than-they-shoulda-been pre-recorded keyboards and having to strain to catch some of the lyrics (especially from Elize Ryd), did not hinder my enjoyment of this highly technical (not to mention high-tech) Swedish outfit. The group was obviously enjoying themselves, as well, mugging for the legions of I-phones and I-pads, posing for the occasional selfie with a fan; at one point, Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund (the “dirty” vocalist) took the phone away from a young man behind me and began videoing himself and the other members of the group before handing it back to the excited fan. These moments are the things that I’ll remember long after Jethro and Minnie have been forgotten.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

So, here’s where I’m gonna talk about the audience again, okay? Two of the new faces that joined me at the front of the stage before Amaranthe’s set included a young woman with a face that had me thinking that I should know her from somewhere and her daughter; as it turns out, while we had never actually met, we do frequent some of the same stores and shops in our respective home towns (we live in two small communities, eight miles apart). Anyway, I noticed that, not only was the daughter (eleven year old Danielle) thoroughly enjoying herself, she was singing along to ALL of the songs. Eventually, all three singers (the other clean singer – aside from Elize – is Smash Into Pieces vocalist Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye, who was filling in for co-founder Jake E Lundberg) noticed her, as well, and began coming over to take her hand or make eye contact. After a set that began with “Digital World” and included “Invincible,” “Massive Addictive,” “Afterlife” and “Electroheart,” the band – which also features musicians Olof Morck (guitarist and chief music-writer; Lundberg and Ryd handle most of the lyrics), Johann Andreassen (bassist and encore break MC) and Morten Lowe Sorensen (drums) – kicked into their theme-song, “Amaranthe.” After singing a verse and a chorus, Elize came over to Danielle and asked her if she knew the song; Danielle answered in the affirmative and sang the next verse into Ryd’s microphone. After a final song, “Call Out My Name,” the group left the stage.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

But, of course, Amaranthe weren’t finished yet. After a brief break, Andreassen was back to pump up the crowd (allowing the others to towel off – it was HOT in the venue and even hotter under the stage lights – and for Elize to affect a costume change). The rest of the band joined Johann, charging into “The Nexus,” the title track from their second album. The night ended, three songs later, with Englund asking Danielle, “If I were to say, ‘Drop Dead,’ what would you say?” Without hesitation, she replied, “Cynical” and the band tore into the very danceable, heavy pop of “Drop Dead Cynical.” Before leaving the stage, the three vocalists and Olof took time to greet, not only Danielle, but just about everybody in the first couple of rows. Amaranthe is a band that gets it; they understand that without fans like Danielle and her mother (and even the overbearing couple in front of me), they wouldn’t be able to do what they love to do. I enjoyed the set more than I thought I would; I just hope that before I see them again, they figure out that sound system.


VOODOO GLOW SKULLS/PHENOMENAUTS/PINATA PROTEST/SNOOTY AND THE RATFINKS

(September 30, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)

VGS

It has certainly been a long time since I’ve been to an honest-to-goodness punk rock show and it had been a good ten years since I had seen the campy space-abilly of the Phenomenauts and longer since last I witnessed the full-on Ska-rnage of the fabulous Voodoo Glow Skulls; there was no way I could pass up both on the same bill. Toss in the provocatively named Pinata Protest and last minute additions, Snooty and the Ratfinks, and we had ourselves a punk rock party at the unlikeliest of venues: Off Broadway, a place most recently known as the favored stopping point for straight-ahead rock and roll, roots rock and Americana acts. As the afternoon turned to evening, it was beginning to look like it would be even longer before I would see another honest-to-goodness punk rock show. With doors scheduled to open at seven o’clock, it was a little after five that Pinata Protest pulled up to the place. With nary a Glow Skull or Phenomenaut in sight, the San Antonio band decided to do a little site-seeing; as a couple of their entourage had never been to the Lou before, they were off to observe the wonder that is the Gateway Arch. With time ticking away, the headliners made their appearance roughly a half hour before doors; the Protest returned from their sojourn a short time later, just about the same time the Phenomenauts’ ship pulled into view. Amazingly enough, the bands managed to load in, with the Glow Skulls actually having time for a quick sound check.

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Jared Pitonak) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Jared Pitonak) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As local boys Snooty and the Ratfinks took the stage (fashionably late), it was starting to look like the only people to show (aside from myself and one other photographer) would be their family and friends. Thankfully, others soon began filing in, ready for the madness to come. The Ratfinks played a modified kind of Ska, somewhere between the Specials and the evening’s headliners, with guitarist and primary vocalist Jared Pitonak leading them through a short and randomly sloppy (the good kind of sloppy, though) set, highlighted by the antics and running commentary of bassist AJ Jernigan. Like most bass players from the area, Jernigan has a sound and style distinctive to Saint Louis – a sort of funky fluidity that stands out in any genre.

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Ian Buschmann and Andrew Hopwood; Neill Wolf) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Snooty and the Ratfinks (Ian Buschmann and Andrew Hopwood; Neill Wolf) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Found amidst the unique set of tunage was a short blast of snotty punk bluster called “Poppyseed Avenue,” a heavy Blues thing with a wild guitar solo called “Ukulele Blues” and “Meet Me In My Treehouse,” a bizarre sort of surf thing written and sung by trumpeter Andrew Hopwood. As the set progressed, the sound became a bit more… I suppose “experimental” would be the best term to use and, by the last song, I thought that the band had hit on a sound that really suited their talents – kind of a sludgy heaviness, lightened by the use of a horn section (saxophonist Ian Buschmann did stellar work throughout) and a rhythm section (Jernigan and drummer Neill Wolf) with a funky, almost Motown-like vibe. To be honest, I wasn’t initially impressed with what I heard but, as the crowd started to fill out and the band hit a solid groove, I was feeling the music and wouldn’t mind seeing what kind of set the guys could put together with a little more notice.

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The wild card in the night’s deck was definitely Pinata Protest, a Tex-Mex punk band that blends traditional Tejano music with straight forward punk. It was apparent from the first note of “Vato Perron” that these guys were somewhere left of center and that was enough to draw me in (of course, spending time with them before the show, discussing the similarities of San Antonio and Saint Louis, as well as haunted houses and the Lemp family suicides had already made me a fan). Vocalist Alvaro Del Norte is as charismatic onstage as anyone in recent memory; besides his voice, his chosen instrument is the accordion (and, on a tarted up version of the traditional Spanish folk song, “La Cucaracha,” a pocket trumpet). The accordion and Alvaro’s reckless style adds a depth to the music that can only come from the Lone Star State.

Pinata Protest (Marcus Cazares; JJ Martinez) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Marcus Cazares; JJ Martinez) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The band performs tunes written in both English and Mexican Spanish, highlighting their origins and heritage. I had no idea what they were singing about (well, I kinda had an idea, but without an actual translation, I was mostly lost) on numbers like “Que Pedo,” “Campesino” and “Cantina” but, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of what was coming from the stage. Songs like “Jackeee,” “El Valiente” and “Life On the Border” touched on the usual punk themes of not fitting in and distrust of the government (any government, really). New guitarist Jose Morales seemed particularly inspired to be playing in the Lou for the first time, blasting power chords or picking more notes per second than should be humanly possible, each more tasty than the last. JJ Martinez on drums and Marcus Cazares on bass kept everything tight, allowing Morales and Del Norte to go off on wild tangents with some wicked solos.

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Pinata Protest (Alvaro Del Norte; Jose Morales) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I’m sure that, like me, many in the crowd were experiencing the Protest for the first time, as many couldn’t decide whether the band was for real or not. The jokesters on stage were only too happy to add to the confusion and, in some cases, the uncomfortable feeling that something… uh… illegal was taking place. Cazares’ Pancho Villa cum Frito Bandito mustache, with his bass slung low, bordered on a caricature that had a couple of folks checking for the clearest route to an exit. Alvaro’s introduction to “DUI” was funny, as was the song, allowing the crowd to loosen up a bit. At one point, I seemed to be the only person camped out right in front of the stage; Del Norte nudged the crowd, exhorting them, “Hey, you can come closer. We’re not here to steal your jobs. We might steal your girlfriends, though!” That seemed to do the trick, as there was soon a nice little bit of activity on the dance floor. I had so much fun with these guys, I cannot wait to see Pinata Protest again; Jose and I have made tentative plans to visit the Lemp Mansion on the band’s next trip through… should be a blast.

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Jimmy Boom; AR7) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Jimmy Boom; AR7) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The intergalactic tour ship Hawking Cruiser and its crew, led by Commander Angel Nova, reached escape velocity, leaving the Phenomenauts Command Center (located at a secret government installation in Earth’s Capital… Oakland, California), landing just down Lemp Avenue from Off Broadway. In their fifteenth year of an ongoing mission to bring “Science and Honor” to the masses, the Commander’s crew has undergone several reassignments, with only Major Jimmy Boom remaining from Nova’s original mission; current Phenomenauts crew members include the robotic Lieutenant AR7, Chief Engineer Atom Bomb and Mission Specialist Ripley Clips, who came on board only six months before this mission to Saint Louis. Unbelievably, more than a few of the people I spoke to before the show and between sets seemed to be oblivious to the Phenomenauts and their mission. By the time Commander Angel and the other crew members took the stage, those false humans had been replaced by the real deal, as those surrounding me were dancing, singing along and interacting with the (mostly) human musicians of the Hawking’s crew.

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Angel Nova; Ripley Clips) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts (Atom Bomb; Angel Nova; Ripley Clips) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The rowdy rocketeers kicked off with “I Don’t Care Whether Earth Is the Best (I Love It Anyway),” an anthem in the truest sense of the term, with our Commander barking the lyrics as AR7 shredded his stringed device, daring – nay… demanding – the rest of the crew to match his Stooges-like ferosity. Major Boom, Specialist Clips and Engineer Bomb were more than up to the task; in fact, Jimmy played with an intensity that would have made Marky Ramone or John Bonham blush… I’m just not sure that “subtle” is a word that crops up in discussions with the drummer too often. The band’s set was full of ebb and flow, kinda like those schlocky sci-fi flicks from the 1950s, with a lot of fun moments throughout.

Phenomenauts' Commander Angel Nova seranades the local fauna (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Phenomenauts’ Commander Angel Nova seranades the local fauna (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Highlights included an intense sci-fi thrasher from the new-ish ESCAPE VELOCITY album called “GI581-5,” with Atom taking lead vocals and Nova on “stand-down” bass; a modified sorta doo-wop number called “It’s Only Chemical,” which began with AR7 and Angel alone on stage (the former on keyboard accompaniment and harmony vocals, the latter singing) before Angel went into the crowd for a twice-around-the-room up-close-and-personal. Nova and the rest of the band came back to the stage to end the number in rocking fashion, with Ripley taking on guitar duties; “Rocket Soul” is a straight out punk rocker with a definite Ramones vibe and a very cool Link Wray-like guitar solo; “Broken Robot Jerk” had AR7 on lead vocals as he led the crowd in a spastic new dance craze; “One In Seven Billion Girl” was classic ’50s pop ‘n’ roll, with sci-fi keyboards and guitar and Angel once more in the crowd, sounding very Presley-esque on one knee, serenading the ladies. Aside from the great music, the usual Phenomenauts stage tomfoolery was afoot… just on a slightly smaller scale; a lot of fog machine action, space-age laser looking lights and a lot of dancing from Mission Specialist Clips (she is particularly adept at doing the Carlson… if you don’t know what that is, Google it). One of the primary weapons in the crew’s arsenal is the dreaded atomic-powered toilet paper launcher, wielded tonight by Ripley; unfortunately, the volatile blaster misfired several times before Clips unjammed the firing mechanism, unleashing chaos and mayhem. Bottom line here, kids, is this: If you didn’t have fun during this set, you’re either dead or in serious need of having that large foreign object removed from that orifice you keep behind your front!

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Jorge Casillas; Frank Casillas; Eddie Casillas) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Jorge Casillas; Frank Casillas; Eddie Casillas) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Casillas brothers – Frank on vocals, Eddie on guitar and Jorge on bass – along with drummer AJ Condosta and brass section Dan Albert (trombone) and Mark Bush (trumpet), doing business as Voodoo Glow Skulls, have been at the forefront of the Orange County punk Ska movement for the better part of three decades. What can one possibly say that hasn’t already been said in the past 27 years? So… that’s it; we’re done here.

Voodoo Glow Skulls (AJ Condosta) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (AJ Condosta) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Yeah… not so much! As much as the audience was into Phenomenauts, the Glow Skulls managed to crank the enthusiasm up to eleven, blasting right out of the box, with Frank sporting his now-traditional luchidor headgear for “Voodoo Anthem,” a wicked chunk of hardcore metal Ska. Barely slowing down to suck wind, the band tore through a pair of tunes from THE BAND GEEK MAFIA, “Human Pinata” and “Symptomatic.” The monster set also included “You’re the Problem,” “Land of Misfit Toys,” “Closet Monster,” and their absolutely brilliant cover of the ancient Coasters hit, “Charlie Brown.” Of course, the biggest reaction came when Frank introduced “Fat Randy,” and mayhem ensued from the first note of the raging behemoth about the unwanted party guest who is… well… a raging behemoth. Later in the set, the group dedicated a couple of Spanish language songs to openers Pinata Protest, “El Mas Chingon” and the charging, insane “El Coo Cooi.” The Skulls rarely wore out a song’s welcome, they were in and out, like a precision surgical military strike. Solos, as may be expected were few and far between and short in duration. That doesn’t mean that Eddie, Mark and Dan weren’t on-point musically; Eddie, in particular, delivered sheets of metallic power from the get-go.

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Dan Albert; Frank Casillas; Mark Bush) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Voodoo Glow Skulls (Dan Albert; Frank Casillas; Mark Bush) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

It’s particularly hard to pin any one member of the band down for too long, as even the horn players and drummer Condosta were seeming whirling dervishes the entire set. Everyone on stage, as well as everyone on the floor, were drenched after the show. Which brings me to a point about mosh pits – circle pits, especially: I have made comments in more than one review about the Neanderthalic tendencies of most Saint Louis pits, noting that these idjits wouldn’t know a circle pit if they were tossed into one; all they understand is chaos and the attempt to inflict injury on others. These are generally large, gorilla like beings, intent on doing as much damage as possible to those in the crowd wishing to remain on the periphery of the action (the people who just wanna watch the show and not be a part of any action on the floor). I must now applaud the few (but loyally intense) CIRCLE pit dancers, all of whom were considerate to, not only each other but, those of us around them not really wanting to be a part of their celebration. Was I (and others) jostled a few times? Sure… but that’s to be expected. The point is, these dancers were not out to see anyone hurt and, in the end, everyone on the floor had a great time. And, that’s the feeling that you should have when you leave a Voodoo Glow Skulls show… “Wow! I really had fun tonight!” Mission accomplished, boys!


RASPUTINA/DANIEL KNOX

(August 9, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

The place to be.

Pretty much everybody has a bucket list. The bucket lists of people who write about music looks a whole lot different than other such lists; my list probably looks unlike anyone, anywhere, in any profession. Unfortunately, at least two-thirds of my list would require a time machine, so… what about that other third? Well, on a Sunday night in August, I was able to cross one item from my list: Rasputina live, with yours truly front and center. I have, occasionally, been disappointed after accomplishing something from my list; this one more than lived up to my expectations. The fact that the show took place at Saint Louis’ Old Rock House was a bonus.

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Daniel Knox (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A second bonus was the opening act, Daniel Knox, a quirky, disheveled singer/songwriter with a pen tucked behind his left ear and a penchant for rummaging through a stack of crumpled notebook paper, looking for the lyrics to his next song. It wasn’t hard to keep track of how many songs Knox performed… you just had to follow the bouncing wads of paper. You see, as he finished one song, he would crumple the lyrics and drop the paper at his feet. Accompanying himself on electric piano and the occasional backing track or kazoo (on “You Win Some, You Tie Some”), Knox relied heavily on his new, eponymous third album, offering up the new single, “Blue Car,” a song about a near-deserted mall in his hometown (Springfield IL) called “White Oaks Mall” and a “song about my imaginary friend… my Mom wouldn’t allow him in her car, he wasn’t allowed in the house” called “David Carmichael.” Daniel’s odd, mumbling stream-of-unconsciousness intros were almost as good as the songs themselves. He introduced “Blue Car” as, “A song about time travel. I wrote it when I was ten… ten years from now.” The lyrics to another, called “Chasescene,” includes the macabre couplet “I love you in the ground/Your naked and cannot make a sound.” As stark and bleak as the studio versions tend to be, they take on a whole new creepiness with the minimal, solo approach, especially stuff like “Get To Know Your Neighbors” and “Ghostsong.” This performance was totally unexpected and very much the perfect table-setter for the headliners.

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Melora Creager may forever be linked to Nirvana as the cellist on the European leg of their IN UTERO tour (the final tour, a couple of months before Kurdt shuffled himself off this mortal coil) but, to an ever-growing fan base, for the past twenty-some years, she is the musical and visual mastermind behind Rasputina. Creager’s backward-looking, forward-thinking music and fashion-sense glorifies the forgotten women and near-apocalyptic events of history, primarily highlighting the Victorian Age; her aesthetics have been a major contributor to the rise of the Steampunk phenomenon. And, of course, her music and Rasputina fill a big hole for people who miss the anything-goes quirkiness of the mid-to-late 1960s. A quick look around the room shows that the enigmatic three-piece reaches everyone from old hippies to young alt-rock punks, all of them rapturously soaking in the sounds of the past two centuries. Melora’s current bandmates – Carpella Parvo, who also plays cello, and Luis Mojica, who adds some well-placed keyboard elements and anachronistic beat-boxing – are equally important in bringing her vision to the stage. Covering a wide range of material (from 2002’s CABIN FEVER! to the recently released UNKNOWN, as well as some cool covers), Rasputina’s set was a slow-burn affair, relying more on lyrical emotion than musical crescendos, though there were enough intense moments and interaction between the players (especially Creager and Parvo) to keep the uninitiated (including me) involved and captivated by the show.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Carpella Parvo) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The majority of the material came from the last three Rasputina releases, with four from 2010’s SISTER KINDERHOOK and three each from 2007’s OH PERILOUS WORLD (including the frigid set opener, “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” which name-checks Mary Shelley – the inclement weather forced her and her friends to stay indoors, where Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS during the prolonged exile – among others) and UNKNOWN. A frantic Holocaust of Giants” kicked off a trio of …KINDERHOOK tunes, followed by an operaticSweet Sister Temperance” and “Humankind, As the Sailor,” which featured Mojica’s persistent Native American percussion to great effect. An oddly appealing cover of Goldfrapp’s “Clowns” put an end to the first portion of the recital.

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The three new songs made up the set’s middle section, with a tale of a famed lady-in-waiting in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Bridget Manners,” “Indian Weed,” which allowed Melora and Carpella a bit of a break, with Luis looping the rhythm part of Creager’s cello, and a fever dream paean to Melora’s poltergeist called “Psychopathic Logic.” The latter led into a very cool take on Ray Davies’ “I Go To Sleep,” an early demo of which appeared on a “kitchen sink” compilation called GREAT AMERICAN GINGERBREAD. Other highlights of the evening – of which there were too many to tell you about – included the final SISTER KINDERHOOD number, the fragile “This, My Porcelain Life,” another historical piece called “Rats,” which recounts the time Bolivians asked the Pope to declare the vermin to be fish to alleviate starvation and featured a squalling, slide guitar-like solo from Melora and fan favorite, In Old Yellowcake,” which not only featured hauntingly visual lyrics about the vagaries of war but, rocks pretty hard, too, with a fairly awesome instrumental section with the cellos coming in with a rather dissonant sounding counterpoint before sliding into a nice harmony bit. And, of course, what Rasputina recitation would be complete without their brilliant take on Pink Floyd’s ode to broken friends, “Wish You Were Here?”

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Rasputina (Carpella Parvo; Melora Creager; Luis Mojica) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I will admit that this was an exceedingly different show than I usually go in for but, by the end of the night, I was taken by the sheer theatricality of Melora Creager’s music and lyrics and the performance of all three members of Rasputina. Luis Mojica, in particular, comes across as a sort of super utility player, with his beat-box percussion, his use of the occasional hand drum and other percussive instruments and, naturally, the variety of instruments programmed into his simple keyboard. As in most great musical pieces, this performance proved that it isn’t only the notes played but, sometime, it’s the notes not played. Even though I can now cross Rasputina live off my bucket list, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t revisit that particular item if given the opportunity.


WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 2

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…

14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…

15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.

16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1″ in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.

17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.

18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.

19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.

20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.

21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.

22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.

23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL' CHOPPIN' BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.

24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!

TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:

NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:

ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!


NEAL SMITH: KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2014)

GreenfireEmpire-Front

As I’ve undoubtedly mentioned elsewhere, anyone who has read any of the various publications that I’ve been involved with over the past twenty years, knows that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan; anyone who has known me personally for the past 42 years (give or take), knows that I have a particularly soft spot for the band, especially drummer Neal Smith. I own a copy of virtually every recorded project that Neal has been a part of. Most recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (class of 2011) has recorded the KILLSMITH trilogy, including the slutty KILLSMITH: SEXUAL SAVIOR (2008), the slightly more approachable KILLSMITH TWO (2011) and the final installment, the brand-spankingly new, progressive-leaning (in a totally non-political, musical sense) rock opera, KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE. The album shows an amazing growth in the writing and arrangement skills of the solo Neal Smith entity, with keyboards, ballads and even a Christmas-themed tune to close the proceedings. Neal has expanded his own instrumental involvement on these albums, too, adding guitar and keyboards to his standard repertoire of percussion instruments and vocals.

Neal Smith's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Blessings and Curses” introduces the character of Diablos, the Emerald King, a South American drug lord from lowly beginnings who discovers an ancient drug known as GreenFire, as deadly as it is addictive. The song itself is full-on Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies (the band), PLATINUM GOD down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Neal’s gravel-throated voice has aged quite well over the course of his solo career and, of course, he is THE man as far as rock drummers go. The guitars (Doug Wahlberg on lead and Smith on rhythm) definitely have that old Buxton/Bruce fire that made those original seven Alice Cooper records so great. Neal steps out of the spotlight for “Good Morning Blue Soul Land,” casting Hubert Martin, of the What Up Funk Band, in the lead as a ’30s crooner. The track is a very cool and unexpected divergence from the hard rock that the boys from Alice Cooper are best known for; think “Crazy Little Child” (from MUSCLE OF LOVE) without all the crime and death. It has it all: A bluesy tack piano (courtesy of Pete “Keys” Hickey), some doo-wop style vocal backing and a snaky Joe Meo sax part that comes in for the last minute or so. “Screaming Bloody Murder” features a chiming, piercing Wahlberg lead, a direct contrast to the heavy, pounding drums and dark subject matter, with a chorus of “Screaming bloody murder/It was a murder, murder Christmas/Screaming bloody murder/For Christmas.” The song ends with Neal intoning those famous words of ol’ Saint Nick himself (well, kinda): “Merry Christmas to all and to all, a deadly night.” Listen for a wonderfully sloppy solo (Wahlberg again) as it slices and dices its way through the bridge.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

With “The KillSmith Overture,” Neal shows his guitar-slinging chops with a reverb-drenched intro that also features some very cool flamenco guitar from Mister Hickey, who also adds some very progressive sounding synthesizer parts. Neal provides the castanets and Lady Elizabeth Dellinger (of the upstart soul/jazz conglomerate Snooty Garland) offers a dream-like vocal intonation, somewhere between humming and scatting. There are points where the cut almost has the feel of a field recording, with wind, thunder and rain intermingling with the music. This is definitely one of the more effective pieces on the album. The showers that end “The KillSmith Overture” bring new life on “Palacio de Esmeraldas,” with birds, frogs and crickets all chirping away. Despite the exotic name, the song is far less Latin sounding than the previous track; there’s a distinct Blue Oyster Cult vibe, with tales of a lost South American treasure, voodoo spells and zombie slaves. Neal’s vocal growl is back out front, with his heavy, chunky rhythm guitar and rock-steady drumming driving the tune. And, lest we forget, there’s another great solo from Wahlberg. “Greenfire Born of Poison” is total ’90s hair metal bombast, with absolutely brilliant soloing from Doug and Kevin Franklin (on loan, like Hubert Martin, from the What Up Funk Band)… think of a heavier version of Damn Yankees. The tune features a typical Alice Cooper meltdown at the end, as everything collapses in on itself.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Gigantic, Leslie West worthy power chords open “I Want Money” before Smith’s massive drum sound comes in; Lady Elizabeth is back on vocals, dueting with a slightly subdued Neal. Pete Hickey’s synth is featured more prominently here, with a weirdly effective solo dropped in mid-song. This tune is where we learn the Emerald King’s true motives behind the decisions he’s made in his life: “I Want Money.” On “Pandemonium,” the frantic drums, frenzied feedback-heavy guitars (this time, with leads by Rick Tedesco), and heavily processed vocals really do have the sound of the number’s title; sound effects and a crazed, backward Tedesco solo add to the vibe. Even though we haven’t called his name yet, the bass work of Peter Catucci (who has become Neal’s rhythm section partner of choice, as Dennis Dunaway has increasingly busied himself with other projects) is the rock that anchors the groove here and throughout the record; the bass/drum interplay – especially here – actually rivals that of Dunaway/Smith… no small feat.

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

A beautiful acoustic guitar from Tedesco opens “I Remember Blue Soul Land,” with a much more subdued Smith vocal (showing that his voice is much more than the growl we are most familiar with… the guy can actually SING!) and Hickey’s piano adding to the overall balladic sense of the song. As the drums, bass and electric guitars are introduced, the track takes on more of a metal power ballad feel; the number really takes a stratospheric leap with the introduction of a choir (compliments of a synthesizer, perhaps?), led by Catucci’s solo voice as a counter to Neal’s lead and a Wahlberg guitar solo that’s definitely worthy of the great Dick Wagner/Steve Hunter tandem from Alice’s early solo career. “Death To the King” is a kind of slow blues with Lady Elizabeth again sharing vocal duties with Smith; while Neal sings, “Hail to the king,” Lady E counters with “Death to the king.” This is the song where Diablos gets his just desserts, as a vengeful “subject,” KillSmith, takes revenge for the death of his wife, Noelle. Aside from a great Joe Meo sax line weaving in and out of the mix, this is a classic type of early ’90s HEADBANGERS’ BALL tune, with power chords, sound effects and keyboards aplenty. All in all, a catchy little number. I went to great extremes to tell you the name of the wife from the last cut because it directly relates to the final piece of the album, the Christmas song, “Noelle No Wonder.” It would appear that Neal really was paying attention to those first two or three solo outings from Alice, as he softens the feel with an orchestra (synthesizers again), a very nice piano lead by Pete Hickey and not a lot else… except, of course, those drums! I think that Neal’s decision to feature Peter Catucci as the lone vocalist was brilliant, as Peter delivers one of the greatest performances you’re likely to hear on a Christmas song this year. Billion Dollar Babies could have rode this one to the top of the charts about 35 years ago, though I’m not sure that Michael Bruce could have done it justice, vocally.

KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE is available at nealsmithrocks.com, in CD and digital versions. Neal has also written a story of the exploits of KillSmith, available in a limited edition 30 page book that also includes the CD version of the album; he personally autographs each copy of either version of the CD purchased from his site.