Monday, January 9, 2017

Wild Turkey - BATTLE HYMN


Battle Hymn is one of those early 70's UK rock albums that seems to be born of another time and place, dotted by semi-heavy riffs here and there that crunch and creak like an old wooden door, dabs of medieval Renaissance faire folk, and schizoid blues caterwauls combining to create a sound that feels weathered and lived-in. A mix of various hard and soft stylings circa '72, there's a definite air of dread and disillusionment at play throughout this disc. And some credit must go to the bulbous, bass rich production by Roger Bain whose knob knowledge steered similar era statements by the likes of Black Sabbath and Budgie. Finally, dig the artwork, a regiment of identical WWI toy soldiers blanked out with a blood red X, their matching graves similarly splayed across the back cover. The gatefold reveals a group portrait of the bummed out hippies who will lead us on this journey, four beards and five frowns against a jet black backdrop. No fun, man, no fun.

Opener "Butterfly" stops and starts in fits of nervous dual lead licks, Injun-stomp riffs and teary, mellowed out respite, a tension filled tale of doom for the titular character. The reaper comes a'knocking on another hard rocker morbidly dubbed "Twelve Streets of Cobbled Black" furthering Wild Turkey's agenda of angst with a set of riffs knotted like the branches of an old tree. A sort of Wicker Man sense of folky foreboding permeates the acoustic "Dulwich Fox," images of English village life soothing yet somehow eerie, an atmosphere that carries through "Easter Psalm" with its images of church bells and processions set to an insistent accompaniment of guitar octaves and shuffling snare drums. Side one closes with "To the Stars," sure enough it's a song of yearning to blast off for another galaxy, delivered via a fairly soft and earthy blend of piano, organ, and fuzz guitar.

Lest we get our hopes up, the post-apocalyptic "Sanctuary" opens side two, furiously strummed acoustics and eastern flavored leads weaving together on this soundtrack to a gypsy caravan rolling through Armageddon. Check out the cool effect that draws a distant vocal closer by rolling back the reverb. A cowbell clunk and wah-wah hearalds the return of light and shade heaviosity to Battle Hymm on "One Sole Survivor" as jolts of electricity pierce the more delicate interludes, a technique that continues through the bleak anti-war sentiment of the title track, a stomping indictment starring cripples and corpses. Harpsichord and Hammond organ are dusted off for proto power ballad "Gentle Rain," a fine lead in to the album's closer, "Sentinel," a from-simian-to-spaceman existential crisis set to a mean-spirited riff and punctuated with some more cranium cleansing cowbell for good measure.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jam of our times: "Abacab"

A big tune off a big album that certainly deserves a full track by track appreciation, but it's the title cut to 1981's Abacab that'll get the spotlight this time around.1 Although the Gabriel freaks may have bemoaned Abacab's continued appropriation of the era's new wave and pop aesthetics, here we've got a song that finds Banks, Collins and Rutherford delivering a dose of paranoia wrapped in synthesized threads that provides an eerily prescient soundtrack to our 21st century fueled by fear and cyber-panic.

The title was originally based on the song's work in progress structure, but in its final form the meaningless grouping of letters "A-b-a-c-a-b" comes to stand for intangible menace, an unknown terror lurking just beyond the edge of perception, a smothering unease that jolts the sleeper into a state of asphyxiated alert (but there's a hole in there somewhere). In "Abacab" we're trapped in a tormented mind as this secret agenda plays out, a helpless observer. 

And the music squarely sets "Abacab" in a tech-infused Tronscape, crackling to life with an incessant electronic bass pulse - robotic, unfeeling, and merciless. It's the unrelenting mechanical churn that'll drive this tune forward, as an icy dagger of lead guitar slices through the intro and enters into a call and response with ghostly bursts of synthesizer. The falsetto vocals on the chorus seem to taunt us with their intoning of the title, Phil cries out in protest but there's no reply at all. It all reaches its apex amidst the tangled circuitry of the bridge, human and electronic voices merging into one amidst flurries of strobe like sythesizer. Back for the final verse an irritating electric chirp keeps time with the hi-hat, the digital world now closing in, impossible to escape.

A woozy, wrung out from the stress synth line leads into the track's extended outro jam, the drums down shifting as we enter the final stages of assimilation. Tony's writes code via sparse, fuzzy blurps, Mike answers back with howls at the moon, the two in consort navigating the nerve net of this new flesh for the final three minutes as some unfathomable creature screeches in the distance.

1. [yeah, talking about the full 7min LP version, not the criminally edited single release.]

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Set the time on half past tilt: TO THE HILT


Joining Golden Earring here already eleven albums deep into their recording career, one that began way back in 1965 - but To The Hilt was only the third released on these shores, the US not coming on board until '73's Moontan and that album's hit "Radar Love." And yeah, if these guys remain defined by said cut (and later on "Twilight Zone") in the minds of most passers by, it's a shame because digging deeper one discovers these albums rise above the seventies second-tier bin they're often tossed in.

Case in point: To The Hilt, an album that rocks mightily in its own idiosyncratic way, peddles an odd brand of narcotic Euro-funk, and fills in the lines with unexpected instrumental flavors, all while serving up a dose of morbid, fatalistic lyrical imagery (dig the Hipgnosis designed cover) that really stirs the senses. Yeah, immerse yourself in the greyscale yet groovy world of To The Hilt and one comes away a little flush with the excitement of a Seventh Seal-style contest of life vs. Death, chess board replaced with a dance floor from which we peer over the edge into the abyss.

"Why Me" opens with the prevalent Golden Earring guitar riffery that will rev the engine of most of these tunes, one a touch too detached and determined to be labeled mere 'boogie', as a contrasting synth line offers a small source of warmth in this already chilly world. Barry Hay gives us an oblique tale of love gone wrong then redeemed, sprinkled with foreboding and violence, as the band swoops in with ghostly backing falsettos on the chorus. Acoustics come out for "Face Dancer," an ode to beauty, manipulation and eventual corruption, again synths coming in to soften the edges of the guitar lines, the song ending in a lush analog glow.

The album's title track ponders the thoughts racing through one's head as it is about to be decapitated by an oncoming train or consumed alive by a swarm of ants, concluding a life lived "To the Hilt" is the only one that's gonna make these grotesque exits go down without a hint of regret. Sort of a Who-styled slammer, straight ahead with the sing-songy, slightly mocking vocals perfectly delivering those great lyrics. Side one closes with "Nomad," the life on the road tale treated to an interstellar chug by the Earring, sweetened by truly 'phat' synths and dissolving into an extended, defeated dirge, guitarist George Kooymens offering an abstracted blues as Barry signs off with a pleading "We've got a dream in common."

Flip To The Hilt over and a loopy filtered bassline introduces "Sleepwalkin'," the Earring paralyzed by the beat as Hay finds himself at the losing end of some romantic encounter on the deck of the Titanic - outta nowhere blasts forth a sax to lift us into the cold arctic night. And yeah, we're sorta transported for a moment from the psychiatrists office to the disco on this and the meat of side two, "Latin Lightning." Just a total blast, "Latin Lightning" stands in awe of some charismatic hombre as he tears it up, "spinnin' a cyclone, man alive, and a' kicking." True to the tale this one whirls you into oblivion with it's rhythmic strumming and an extended guitar and keyboard duel that leaves nothing but a pile of sweat-stained polyester in its wake.

Finally, "Violins," its menacing blues lick portending trouble - and sure enough we're dropped into a weird scene with Barry dishing out his most cracked poetry yet, comprising a Paganini film, murder, and albino monkeys in Barcelona. Essentially a two part tune, the clenched fist choruses of the first part setting up a lengthy outro where credits roll as Hay sobbs "forever, forever," strings arriving and getting more and more discordant until suddenly - nothing. No fade out, just a hard cut into total blackness. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Seeing only binds the vision to the eye: MICROCASTLE / WEIRD ERA CONTINUED


Diving into double album waters here for the third album from Atlanta's Deerhunter - but wait! A little research reveals this one comes with a convoluted release history across multiple formats, the second LP recorded later and sorta intended as a bonus for those who bought the physical release following an internet leak. Strange days indeed. Anyways, regardless of what was intended, to these ears this album feels a little incomplete at the halfway mark, a sense of fulfillment only setting in once you've hit the runoff groove on side four. 

And what you've got here (in double album tradition) is a lengthy collection of little pieces, interludes, straightforward digestible tunes and a couple big blowouts anchoring each end, all united by a prevailing aesthetic that places primary value in texture and atmosphere, blending beauty and unease.

The Microcastle half opens with "Cover Me (Slowly)," a wordless intro inducing visions of a cathedral collapsing in slo-mo, with fluttering angelic vocals, widescreen reverb, and slowly rolling guitars all conjuring the specter of death that will haunt this journey. It collapses right into "Agoraphobia," where true to its title a desire to turn off and tune out comes cozily wrapped in lightly ringing post-soft-rock textures and steady rhythms. The fitful dreamer "Never Stops" has the clockwork click of vintage Andy Summers, the chorus blossoming with howling feedback, more hooks in abundance. A disturbing tale of pyromaniac tots, "Little Kids" ambles with a jagged chug before swells of sound lead to its grand, glowing conclusion.

The fragile "Microcastle" continues, it's first half a strained and sickly drift that unexpectedly bursts into a buzzing rocker halfway thru. It sets up a mini suite of three short songs that carry across to side two, "Calvary Scars," "Green Jacket" and "Activa" all musically and lyrically sparse, contemplative, and the perfect preface to act one's highlight, "Nothing Ever Happens." This one tears away the gauze from our eyes with a taut drum and bass intro, some shimmering Townshend chords, the riff then tossed aside and replaced. Cool thing here is how the song is totally linear, moving from the verse to a one time chorus then taking off for an extended solo serving as elevator ride, finger tapped fuzz guitar punching your ticket on this stairway to the stars.

A jagged, deconstructed blues lick carries "Saved By Old Times" which, in maintaining this album's penchant for forward movement and transformation, is abandoned in favor of an extended chiming outro. "Neither of Us, Uncertainly" plays like a heat-stroked waltz, soupy and repetitive, its atmospheric residue floating into LP one closer "Twilight at Carbon Lake." Straight out of Twin Peaks this one, with a creepy 50's vibe that crescendos in a pounding, squalling climax, one that signals a stopping point but, yeah, it feels like there should be more to this story.

So Weird Era Continued picks up back in touch with the cosmic om on the droning drill bit "Backspace Century," which carries in to the slack syncopation of "Operation," a hooky number that shifts time into the unfolding flower petals of it's chorus. The brief reverse loops of "Ghost Outfit" preface the prickly "Dot Gain," another track that morphs into a whirring freefall before it's over. The drum build up to "Vox Celeste" promises a burst of light but instead a claustrophobic cacophony of dense fuzz is delivered, one beautiful but impenetrable. Instrumental "Cicadas" is pure atmosphere, fluttering drums and distant echoes, before The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" drum intro to "Vox Humana" starts and electric piano bells surround an impressionistic monologue. "VHS Dream" closes side three with hazy, driving rock and the electric arc of sustained guitars.

"Focus Group" heads into the home stretch, head still in the clouds with it's unwavering beat, relentless picking and obscured vocals. Up next comes three brief instrumentals, "Slow Swords" coming into view with tinkling percussion and strummed acoustics building to a hypnotic peak before "Weird Era" plugs in for an injection of feedback wails, "Moon Witch Cartridge" then returning from this no man's land with a short but grounding bit of bouncy piano and eerie vocal/guitar blend. Then comes the closing number, "Calvary Scars II / Aux. Out," the spaces in the first rendition now filled in with bubbling electronics and chimes, drums entering to suddenly drive it into blast off mode where the sonic detritus of the tune congeals into one quivering mass, the rug then pulled out leaving us floating in the aftermath of a new age thunderstorm.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gotta help me juke it, baby

Exemplified on those pillars of heaviosity from the ground zero year of 1970, In Rock and Very 'eavy, Very 'umble, organ driven hard rock litters the eras releases big and small. One tune I keep coming back to is Boomerang's "Juke it" from their self titled 1971 LP. Boomerang's organist Mark Stein helped start it all as a member of Vanilla Fudge in the sixties, and formed Boomerang following the Fudge's break up.
"Juke It" announces its arrival with a lead lined boot kicking down your front door, and we're thrust headlong into a juggernaut of a guitar/Hammond riff, one that struggles to negotiate each beat as the weight of every note seems to drag down its forward movement. Jo Casmir intones the sorry state of his sorry existence, one on the verge of collapse lest his woman lend a hand and help him "juke it," the tune building up and spilling over via a tumbling phrase that sounds like the guitar and Hammond are engaged in an electric whip battle.

"Juke It's" extended bridge finds guitarist Richard Ramirez1 in full stranglehold mode on the neck, first via a descending lick that pierces the meaty underbelly of the rhythm section, then a meandering solo that steps on the wah-wah for some expressive note wringing, howls of nickel plated pain summoned forth. "I know you'd feel so warm inside" bellows Casmir, now in the full throes of carnal frustration, Boomerang propelling the song back home to it's finale, one that finds that lashing lick dismantled, reassembled and repeated in a psychopathic attack on the listener. Oh, the humanity!

Though tracks like "The Peddler" and "Cynthia Fever" come close, the remainder of Boomerang fails to reclaim the might of "Juke It," slipping in too many soul ballads and some flaccid funk that strangely predicts Deep Purple's own stumbles on Stormbringer, even employing a dual lead vocals that are a dead ringer for Coverdale/Hughes.

1 yes you read that correctly, but I'm assuming this is an unfortunate coincidence and not a young Night Stalker on guitar?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sadness kills the superman: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH


While I expect most folks' point of entry into the world of Black Sabbath came through the radio staple studded Paranoid or possibly the We Sold Our Souls For Rock 'n' Roll compilation, I came in the side door via a TDK-90 dubbed with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath on side one and Sabotage on the reverse (today I still anticipate the tape garble that existed on that copy's "Symptom of the Universe"). I don't remember much about the guy in my 10th grade art class who made the tape for me, other than that he wore a Slayer cap every day which he refused to remove. I think we initially bonded over a shared affection for Ummagumma though, so it makes sense that he chose these kaleidoscopic albums from the middle of the Ozzy years rather than the aforementioned Paranoid or perennial catalog favorite Master of Reality to crack open my cranium to the Sabbath oeuvre.

One thing missing from that tape and well worth taking a look at is Sabbath Bloody Sabbath's killer cover art from illustrator Drew Struzan. A guy on the front is about to be consumed by demons while another on the back is dying or recently dead in bed surrounded by loved ones - but I've always seen it as the same guy, from different perspectives. The original gatefold (reproduced in the 1996 CD booklet along with lyrics and requisite live shots) features the four Sabsters in weird poses superimposed over what appears to be the bedroom of some old manor house. Mysterious, creepy stuff that really adds to the character of the album.

"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" opens things with a towering grinder of a riff that could only emanate from the hands of Iommi before the track unexpectedly slips into an arid chorus of jazzy acoustic picking, a harbinger of the light and shade sensibility permeating the LP. Lyrically Geezer has the listener staring down a gun barrel of clinical depression, "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" serving as an incantation for the band's loyal army of dead end kids lost amidst this world of deception - extra points for Ozzy's defiant "You bastards!" pre-solo time. Even on this clear remaster the frothy low gear chording of the tune's second half serves as glorious sonic quicksand leading into its frantically whirlpooling end. 

Stately and ominous, "A National Acrobat" follows, it's harmonized main theme lending gravity to words of wisdom from a disembodied soul destined for eternal reincarnation - "the unborn child that never was conceived." Wild stuff. The track closes with a rapid succession of contrasting movements, like a crash course in Sabbath riffology. The instrumental titled "Fluff" could be seen as just that, featuring only Butler and a ruffle-cuffed Iommi laying down multiple overdubbed acoustic guitars, piano and harpsichord. It's a simple moment of pillowy beauty that at the very least gives the eardrums a chance to recover, though I hear it as an essential ingredient to the album's overall flavor profile, helping to draw out those other moments of ornamental eloquence that pop up throughout.

Amps buzzing again, "Sabbra Cadabra" begins life as a sweaty boogie rocker straight from the Foghat/Humble Pie playbook (if one given an extra malevolence when rendered by the Sabbath gang) before Rick Wakeman drops a sheet of Moog conjured ice all over the song's minor key breakdown for a sudden shift in atmosphere. "Sabbra Cadabra's" groovy finale has some buried electronically treated vocals that I mistakenly heard as a flute solo on my old cassette copy.

"Killing Yourself to Live" opens the album's second half steady and confident despite its burned out theme, Iommi's guitars bubbling underneath with a light tremolo effect, Ozzy's stereo panned "smoke it... get high!" ushering in a tempo shift into a rolling phrase that slowly peels back the blinds of reality. A bluesy shuffle that could've been lifted from the band's first album carries the tune home with some mad licks from Tony. "Who Are You?" may be the album's most unique number, replacing guitars with a layered, automated synthesizer melody that plods along like a sci-fi death march. Directed at some unseen god/overlord/oppressor, the tracks electronic foreboding extends through the moonlit piano/mellotron interlude inserted in its center.

Bill Ward's snare rolls drive along the music-biz lament "Looking for Today" which features an appropriately catchy melody, and like the title track eases into an acoustic chorus, this time featuring a flute in the distance. The lyrically rich "Spiral Architect" is set up with a brief classical guitar intro before electrics and acoustics combine on the songs vibrant main riff, one that signals the album's grand finale is underway. Tympani and strings appear and create an air of expansiveness swirling around the songs central theme of grounding oneself in a world gone mad, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath closing out with a break in the clouds, a final push forward to continue the fight.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

WIRED: original motion picture soundtrack (an alternate history)

The following blurb appeared in the January 1975 issue of "Variety":
Peter Hyams directs John Cazale in his first starring role in the new Twentieth Century Fox film WIRED.  Along with short-fused partner Peter Boyle, they are out to bust vicious Harlem drug kingpin Yaphet Kotto.  Linda Haynes offers fine support as the strung out hooker with a heart of gold who provides Cazale's connection into Kotto's sinister underworld.  Small, but pivotal roles from Allen Garfield as informant "Fatso" and the lovely Joanna Cassidy as Cazale's suffering wife.  British rock guitarist Jeff Beck provides the instrumental soundtrack to this gritty, fast-moving picture.
The tale of Frank Tescado (John Cazale), a self-destructive NYC detective who's own smack addiction threatens to sabotage his pursuit of Kgosi (Yaphet Kotto), the city's biggest drug lord, the vibrant street scenes of Wired were propelled by the insertion Beck's rippling funk and molten-hot fusion cues. However in a bizarre twist, the LA studio where the film was being edited was entirely consumed in a freak sinkhole - all the footage vanished and the project was abandoned. Still retaining his master tapes, Beck decided to release the music as his next album but removed all references to the film, save for the title. Recently I sat down with Wired's director and a copy of the LP, recording his recollections on how each track fit in to the film.

"Led Boots"
PH: Physical Graffitti was burning up my stereo in early '75, and when viewing rushes of the opening credits/chase sequence where Tescado and Huff (Boyle) run down Fatso (Garfield) and threaten him into becoming a snitch, I heard "Trampled Underfoot" playing. But there was no way in hell Zeppelin would license the track. I asked Jeff to come up with something equally groovy, but heavy and mean, and I think he did a blockbuster job. I know he always wanted a little revenge after Page ripped off the first Jeff Beck Group LP all over Led Zeppelin I, anyways.

"Come Dancing"
PH: You hear this when Kgosi first enters the sleazy Harlem strip club he uses as a front for his operation. A deal goes bad, resulting in a gunfight where bunch of patrons and dancers have their brains splattered across the dump's walls. That wild harmonizer sound on Jeff's guitar solo perfectly complemented the carnality and violence of this sequence.

"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"
PH: Hanging out with Jeff one day, I heard him fooling around with this Mingus tune and immediately knew it would be perfect for the scene where Cazale is shooting up on the floor of his bathroom - the ecstacy and agony was all there in Jeff's fingers. I demanded he record an arrangement for the film.

"Head For Backstage Pass"
PH: Originally titled "DV Blues" (cop slang for a domestic violence call), this one played under a scene where Cazale took out his frustrations on Joise (Cassidy). An intense scene, but both actors gave their all. They're pros - I expect no less. Tasty intro by Walden/Bascomb, yeah? 

"Blue Wind"
PH: The pivotal scene where Calazale goes undercover wearing a wire for a meeting with Kotto. But the sarge had just thrown in him detox and his nerves are on fire - he needs a fix bad and can barely hold it together. So there's the double-meaning in the title, get it? Anyways, Jeff came up with a simple, but intense melody that mirrors Tescado's struggle for control while sensing it could all fall apart at any second.

PH: Originally "Sophie's Theme," a musical sketch of the complex forces at work in the character, wonderfully realized by the beautiful Linda Haynes. A delicate outer shell hides the manic energy at the heart of this one, danger cloaked in desire.

"Play With Me"
PH: Whenever Cazale and Boyle hit the streets, this provided the soundtrack. Jeff and Jan's harmonized playing buzzes with a neon-hued verve, and the tune swings like a mutha - it says "I own this block," from the top of the skyscrapers down to the gutter.

"Love is Green"
PH: The film's love theme, with Jeff and Jan moving over to acoustic instruments. The track really ebbs and flows, Jeff composing to a rough cut of the Cazale/Haynes love scene, which incidentally would have run about 15 seconds longer on the European release. But yeah, a real lovely tune I think. 

(Special thanks to BC and SES for their invaluable assistance.)