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JON HASSELL: VERNAL EQUINOX

(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)

Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.

JON HASSELL (David Rosenboom, Jon Hassell in 1977) (uncredited photo)

His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.

JON HASSELL (photo credit: ROMAN KOVAL)

Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.

ARIANA AND THE ROSE: CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE

(12” EP; POOKIEBIRD RECORDS, 2019)

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (or maybe in my head) for Pop music. As a youngster, I had a thing with ABBA, Leo Sayer, even Gilbert O’Sullivan; later, I tended to lean toward Synth-Pop like the Human League, Soft Cell and Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. Now, that soft spot has found a new love: Ariana and the Rose. Remember when Prince was writing songs and producing records for Shiela E, Vanity, or whichever girlfriend he was with on a particular Tuesday? In a thinly veneered nutshell, with a gooey Synth-Pop filling, that is exactly what Ariana’s CONSTELLATIONS PHASE ONE brings to mind. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the EP is available on beautiful, beautiful vinyl (well, actually, it’s wax, but… ). Ariana and her cohorts offer up four catchy, groove-induced tracks with more than a little bit of darkness around the edges… just the thing for this Pop junkie’s needs.

ARIANA AND THE ROSE (Ariana DiLorenzo) (photo credit: LOUIS BROWNE)

Night Owl” starts with a breathy Ariana vocal backed only by a synth delivering majestic church organ swells and fingersnaps (also synthesized?) for percussion. The tune slowly builds into a joyful celebration of the night life, featuring live bass and an energetic groove that’s too hard to ignore as Ariana’s higher range vocals and well-placed backing singers kick the tune up to another level. This one is sure to be hit on the dancefloor. I’m pretty sure that the word “catchy” was created just for “You Were Never My Boyfriend.” The song is the ultimate diss track, a deluxe kiss off and the perfect empowerment tune for taking back your life from someone who doesn’t deserve to have you in theirs, with lyrics like: “Every promise that you never kept/We won’t see Paris, the way we said/You made me think that it was in my head,” “You can’t save what you never had, don’t pretend/You were never my boyfriend,” “I’ve stuck it out through some stormy weather/But you can’t seem to get your shit together/And all my friends say I deserve better” and “Maybe with some time we can mend/But I don’t really wanna be friends/Sorry I was crazy while you were being shady/I guess it’s for the best in the end.” Plus, there’s an undeniably dark vibe that I really like, with an ultra-cool bounce, some really nice backing vocals and more of those synth-produced handclaps. And, all in less than three minutes!

Honesty” is the diametric opposite of the last number… sorta. Along with “You Were Never My Boyfriend,” this is the track that turns Ariana into a true artist, playing the heartstrings like a true lyrical genius: “You fall asleep, so at peace/So let’s live our new life/And everyday that you wake/I can feel myself dying.” If the live shows are anything close to this emotionally charged, she will have transformed herself into more than just a Pop Diva with nice choreography. So, naturally, just to prove that she can still bring those Pop Diva vibes to a song, Ariana drops “True Love” on you. The lyrical chain that binds the four cuts together is still here, just with a little more of the positivity of “Night Owl.” There is a bonus track of sorts in the form of “You Were Never My Boyfriend (Great Good Fine OK Remix).” I don’t usually like remixes and, while this one is better than most, it certainly pales in comparison to the version offered earlier on this set. The original set a slow, almost somber pace with just the right amount of instrumentation and various other accoutrements; here, the additional BPMs and basic feel makes it sound like it was produced expressly for the dance floor. And, that’s okay. I just find the original far more emotionally appealing. As the name of the record implies, this is part of a bigger project that will be released over the next few months and I, for one, cannot wait to witness the continued growth from Ariana into the musical ARTIST that she is quickly becoming.

ADULT CINEMA: TEASER TRAILER

(ILLICIT RECORDINGS; 2016/vinyl reissue, 2018)

North London-born Mike Weston is Adult Cinema. It is Weston’s purpose – some would call it his destiny, considering his familial legacy and musical heritage – to tear down and rebuild classic Progressive Rock in his own thoroughly modern image. TEASER TRAILER is the debut record from Adult Cinema, recently re-released (to coincide with the release of album number two, THIS IS YOUR LIFE) on glorious vinyl. Mike handles virtually everything on the self-produced recording. This approach means that most everything sounds exactly as the artist heard it in his head while writing the album. Also, I’ve gotta tell you that, though the vinyl version is the latest, the track order reviewed here is actually the original CD version. And, so, after getting those pieces of technical info out of the way, let’s look at the music itself, shall we?

Feel Your Eyes” gets things off to a very nice start, with a general approximation of early Steely Dan, some Doobie Brothers vibes, a Brian Eno era kind of Roxy Music psuedo-prog and just a sniff of early Gilmour period Floyd. The song features some great guitar, bass and a Hammond organ owned (but not played here) by a certain Mister Winwood. Adding to the atmosphere is some quite nice piano and Weston’s laconic, somewhat breathy vocal performance. Much of this album was originally released on a self-titled promotional/demo record before TEASER TRAILER was unleashed upon the world-at-large. Such is the case with the next song (as well as the opening track). Here, “Flowers” is presented in what I must assume is either a re-recorded or remixed version parenthetically called “Fallout Version.” I like this tune so much that whatever Mike wants to call it is fine with me. The number starts out as a very nice acoustic thing for the first couple of minutes before heading deeply into a Floydian psychedelia, complete with very Syd-like vocals. The track continues to mutate with a great hard rock ending, putting one in mind of early Uriah Heep or Hawkwind. “Asleep At the Wheel” is very trippy, with another solid dose of spacey Hawkwind noises, not a tribute to Ray Benson. The tune features a great bassline, while the piano and organ are very prominent throughout. Guest performer Paul Nelson’s guitar has a rather metronomic quality to it, adding to the late ‘60s psychedelic vibe. “Dreamt the Other Night (Prog Version)” would not sound out of place on DARK SIDE OF THE MOON or WISH YOU WERE HERE. Acoustic based, the song features understated guitar, powerful bass and a nice, simple drum pattern. Short and sweet, “Dreamt… ” really pulls you in. The album’s first half ends with a dramatic, sorta Styxian shanty, “We Sailed Across the Ocean.” The multi-layered vocals reinforces the Styx reference. There’s a thumping, swirling break before the tune begins ramping up with a slightly heavier organ sound and a dive-bombing bass pattern. This heavier turn is very Deep Purplish, save for a far lighter guitar sound (which is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way). The twist and turns in styles, if not genres, make the track a personal favorite.

ADULT CINEMA (Mike Weston) (photo credit: KENT MATTHEWS)

Got To Prove Myself Today” features a far more powerful vocal approach than the previous cuts on the album, matching the heavy feel of the song. Nelson returns, with an intricate guitar weaving its way through the organ and above the massive bass and drums that underpin everything. It all gives way to an acoustic guitar and piano coda that drives home the tune’s intent. In sort of an English Folk meets Country way, “My Tangled Mind” is filled with a nice acoustic guitar lead, some solid bass, pretty vocals and some darned fine whistling. The beauty and simplicity does the memory of the Beatles and, in fact, the entire British Invasion sound quite proud. “Rowboat” is featured in two versions on the original 2016 CD of TEASER TRAILER. The first (and the one featured on the vinyl reissue) is the original. Trippy, watery machinations of Paul Nelson’s guitar and a lugubrious bass runs throughout the mostly instrumental tune. The vocals are purposely buried in the mix but, checking the lyric sheet, it would appear that the story revolves around a troubled individual who, apparently, has killed and disposed of someone in a watery grave. The second version, offered as a “bonus track” on the CD, is called the “Southend Version.” It’s definitely a heavier take, featuring some serious Hammond organ. The vocals and the number’s true meaning comes into finer focus on this longer version (more than two minutes are added to the original’s 3:47 running time). With the guitars, bass and drums pushed to the front, the studio trickery is gone until the end of the song. If I had to choose one version to listen to on repeat, it would most assuredly be the latter. “Witches” is a rollicking kind of Dancehall Jazz, with some nice period drums from Andy Russell, Nelson moving over to upright bass, a player piano and a traditional Jazz trio featuring Weston’s Dad, Tony, on clarinet. The piano coda from “Witches” wanders back in on “La La La La La,” a rolling kind of tune delivering the tune’s sole lyric, “La” over and over again. The birds chirp, the guitar dips in and out of the mix, cementing a rather pleasant end to what is a better than average album. Head on over to Mike Weston’s website to get a free download of TEASER TRAILER and, while you’re there, pick up a copy of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, too.

LAMB OF GOD: ASHES OF THE WAKE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

(EPIC RECORDS/LEGACY RECORDS/PROSTHETIC RECORDS; 2019)

What is there to say about Lamb of God’s third release, ASHES OF THE WAKE, that hasn’t already been said? By FAR one of the greatest metal albums of all time; COMPLETELY changed metal; nominated for a Grammy! See what I mean? What else can I say? This fifteenth anniversary edition (vinyl and digital only) has some demo tracks and an unused track that absolutely belongs on the album.

LAMB OF GOD (Randy Blythe, Mark Morton, John Campbell, Willie Adler, Chris Adler) (photo credit: MICK HUTSON/REDFERNS)

Lamb of God does what only they can do on that tune, “Another Nail For Your Coffin.” Absolute brutality with Randy (that’s Mister Blythe for the uninitiated) hitting pure aggression with his screams. Mark Morton shines with a blistering solo about three quarters of the way through. This track has everything you could ever want, melody, guitar solos, brutal screams, awesome lyrics. Why it was left off of the original release is a mystery.

The rest of the bonus material (side four of the double vinyl record) are demos of cuts from the original release. The first is “Laid To Rest.” It sounds almost the same; the lyrics are the same, just a little less production value, so you can REALLY hear Randy’s raw vocals. Sounds great… just shows you how talented this band really is! Next up is “Ashes of the Wake” that again, just shows how badass Lamb of God are: Tight, solid and brutal. Blyhte sounds absolutely awesome on the final cut, “Remorse Is For the Dead.” His presence here is palpable; you can feel it all the way through! The highs he hits about a minute in are just amazing, while the lows at two minutes in are just… evil. Randy is on fire.!

LAMB OF GOD (Chris Adler, Mark Morton, Willie Adler, Randy Blythe, John Campbell) (publicity photo)

ASHES OF THE WAKE is one of my favorite albums of all time and the addition of the extras is really cool. This is one album that should be in everyone’s library and playlists. It’s one of the best ever. Check it out!!

ACE FREHLEY: SPACEMAN

(eONE MUSIC/ENTERTAINMENT ONE; 2018)

Even though Ace Frehley wasn’t my favorite member of Kiss, I was certainly appreciative of his guitar pyrotechnics (figuratively, if not literally) and, once I heard his first lead vocal on the LOVE GUN track “Shock Me,” his stock shot up dramatically in my estimation; the band now had three very distinct voices (Ace’s other-worldly, Marvin the Martian on helium atonal delivery alongside Gene Simmons’ deep-throated growl and Peter Criss’ gravelly purr) to offset Paul Stanley’s rock star style and front-man proclivities. Frehley’s ups and downs (and ins and outs) with Kiss and his battles with more than a couple of personal demons have been well documented; I won’t waste your time rehashing Ace’s checkered past… I’m just glad to have new music from the man.

ACE FREHLEY (uncredited photo)

SPACEMAN kicks off with the anthemic grind of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a track – surprisingly – co-written by former bandmate Gene Simmons, who also adds some chunky bass to the proceedings. Ace’s vocals, which have taken on a certain world-weary quality, are in top form and a slow-build solo is a much-needed cherry on top; not that the song is bad, it just never seems to catch fire, much less spark, aside from that solo. “Rockin’ With the Boys” is a hook-laden rocker that, oddly, hearkens back to “Beth” with its “No need to worry/I’ll be home soon/’Cause I’m rockin’ with the boys” chorus. The song is quite easily one of the best things Ace has recorded as a solo artist. Proving himself to be “King of the Power Chord Riffing World,” the hooks just keep coming with “Your Wish Is My Command,” Ace continues to turn up the cool factor with each successive tune. Even though Alex Salzman is onboard as bassist, the cut is another Simmons co-write, featuring just about everything that we’ve ever loved about Kiss. “Bronx Boy” has a little harder edge than the previous tracks, but then, the New York borough that spawned Frehley and Kiss tends to be a little harder edged than a good chunk of the United States. Another anthem, “Pursuit of Rock and Roll,” closes the first half of the album, as Ace name-checks some of the biggest names in the history of good ol’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, while visiting upon many of the cliches that the music is founded upon: Power chords, riffs you could caulk your house with, wicked solo after wicked solo, gang vocals and, I’m pretty sure that there’s a chunk of apple pie in there somewhere. Oh, and Anton Fig. Ace’s long time friend (Fig played drums on Frehley’s first solo record way back when) is in there, too. While Scot Coogan and Matt Starr are fine time-keepers, they aren’t always willing to show any flashes of aggressive playing, tending to keep things simple which allows the guy who’s name is on the album cover to show off his prodigious guitar chops; Anton has played with Ace long enough to feel comfortable playing with a more aggressive style.

ACE FREHLEY (photo credit: JAYME THORNTON)

Even though it’s a cover (originally recorded by Billy Satellite, later a hit for Eddie Money), “I Wanna Go Back” fits in well with what could be described as a “developing pattern,” with its lyrics-as-catharsis recalling both the happier times and a life sometimes ill-spent. The song, short on lyrical content (though it does get the point across nicely), is a mid-tempo rock ballad that fades just as Frehley takes flight on another guitar solo. Picking up the mantle envisioned with the album’s title, Ace is off to the final frontier with “Mission To Mars.” It’s another song that somehow feels unfinished; again, the tune’s not bad, just… incomplete. Another fine solo saves the number from mediocrity. “Off My Back,” likewise suffers from an early fade. The number itself feels more fully formed than the previous two cuts, with an aggressively biting vocal and another finest-kind solo. The album’s final track, “Quantum Flux,” is an instrumental track with ebbs and flows that has me thinking that I sure wouldn’t mind hearing an entire record of instrumentals from Mister Frehley; hey, don’t laugh… it has been done before. With a really cool acoustic riff playing underneath, Space Ace delivers some of his tastiest runs on this piece. Even though there are other stellar moments on SPACEMAN, it seems that Frehley saved the best for last. I will admit that many of the problems I mentioned above are merely minor annoyances; something a bit more troubling is the mix on the vinyl version of the record (the version I used for this review). The music seems compressed and muddy, which could have clouded my perception of the players’ (particularly drummers Starr and Coogan) performances. With vinyl making a strong comeback, it’s a shame that many of the mixing techniques that were perfected in the ‘70s and ‘80s are now, seemingly, forgotten. Still, while this album probably won’t get as many plays as DESTROYER or HOTTER THAN HELL, it won’t necessarily be collecting dust on my shelf, either.

THE DICTATORS: THE NEXT BIG THING EP

(REAL GONE MUSIC/EPIC RECORDS/SONY MUSIC; 2015)

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In a perfect world, the Dictators shoulda been the next Big Thing in rock and roll when their debut album, GO GIRL CRAZY, was released in 1975; instead Andy “Adny” Shernoff, Handsome Dick Manitoba and the rest were relegated to the bargain bin of what coulda been, with Ross the Boss Friedman showing up a few years later in a wooly mammath diaper as a member of Manowar. For whatever reason (the ridiculous – now legendary – cover shot may have done it, but such song titles – taken out of context by my then-sixteen year old brain – as “Master Race Rock” and “Back To Africa” could have played a part, as well), I never purchased that first album. I did, however, fall madly in love with the ‘Tators second release, MANIFEST DESTINY… to the extent that, before my shift at the local record store began, the other employees would try to hide the promo copy from me. I have, more recently, listened to GO GIRL CRAZY and thoroughly enjoyed it (MANIFEST DESTINY is still IT for me, though, as far as this band goes). In advance of an expanded Fortieth Anniversary edition of the first record, Real Gone Music – through the auspices of Epic Records – has released a six-song 10” red vinyl EP as a Black Friday special. And… there’s that ridiculous cover again, modified with a picture of Andrew WK, of which, more in the following paragraph.

The Dictators, 1975 (Ross the Boss Friedman, Stu Boy King, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Andy Shernoff, Scott Top Ten Kempner) (publicity photo)
The Dictators, 1975 (Ross the Boss Friedman, Stu Boy King, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Andy Shernoff, Scott Top Ten Kempner) (publicity photo)

The first three tracks (Side One) come from the GO GIRL CRAZY album (when Shernoff was the lead singer and Manitoba was the band’s “secret weapon”), but have been remixed and “re-imagined” by the previously mentioned Andrew WK. Though Andrew’s credits also say “over-produced,” the cuts – “The Next Big Thing,” “Two Tub Man” and “Weekend” – have more of a raw sound than the high-gloss sheen that Murray Krugman and – especially – Sandy Pearlman are so well known for. The final three tunes (you guessed it… Side Two) are early takes or unreleased songs from the Krugman/Pearlman sessions for the record. “Backseat Boogie” is listed on the cover sticker as a “newly-discovered recordingbut, the song – at least a version of it – appeared on a Norton Records compilation from 2007 called EVERY DAY IS SATURDAY. It’s a raucous piece of Stones or Dolls like trash with slightly over-modulated vocals from Andy, some truly over-the-top guitar from Scott Top Ten Kempner and Ross the Boss, with Ross laying down a biting, proto-metal solo. A heavy, extended bass/drums intro heralds an alternate take of “The Next Big Thing.” This version has an over-all heavier sound than the one that made it onto the original album, Shernoff’s vocals included. On this take, the tune is a massive gut-bucket shot of neo-punk. Finally, there’s a fairly straight-forward take of “Weekend,” minus the vocals. Shernoff’s bass-playing prowess really stands out on this instrumental take, which, oddly enough is the one immediately following the version used on the final version of the album. According to a new release listing for the 40th Anniversary edition of GO GIRL CRAZY, two-thirds of this EP will be featured… everything except Andrew WK’s remix of “The Next Big Thing” and the Instrumental version of “Weekend.” I gotta say, though, that I am particularly pleased with my little slab of vinyl.