Categories
Classic Album Review

Record Highlight: Born Again

It is not like any other Black Sabbath album. Like many of their records, Ozzy is not the vocalist. Unlike many others, Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) is. Born Again, the11thstudio album by the Titans was recorded in May of 1983 at The Manor Studio in England and was released on August 7, 1983. It is also different from any other Black Sabbath album, not only because of the inclusion of Gillan but also because of the song structures and the pure sound itself. In fact, originally, the record wasn’t intended to be billed as an offering from Black Sabbath, but as a yet unnamed “super group.” The record company, however, insisted on the established brand.

“His shriek is legendary,” said guitarist Tony Iommi of Ian Gillan. Bill Ward returned to play the drums, and Geezer Butler rounded out the rhythm section on bass guitar. This record, though containing all the original instrumentalists, is utterly different and absolutely nothing like the usual sound of the band. Absent is the normally eerie feel which they’re known for, but (newly) present is an instantly classic record that would go down in history as the best negatively critiqued line-up in metal history!

The ’83 recording was awful, but the album was remastered in 2011, which helped a lot. Iommi’s riffs, though different, are incredible (as usual). Butler is consistent and trustworthy. And Ward’s drumming is some of his best (IMO). But, honestly, it’s Gillan who steals the show (and album). I do not think that there is a record before or since that expresses the brilliance of his vocal abilities as is found on Born Again. 

The controversial album cover, by Steve “Krusher” Joule, has gone down in history, as well, as simply one of the worst ever. Bill Ward hated the cover, Ian Gillan vomited when he saw it, but Tony Iommi liked and approved it. However, for every critic that hated or hates the record, there can be found 10 Metal fans that rank it as the best Black Sabbath record (at least since the original line-up), and you can count me in with them! And other, more famous Metalheads favor Born Again: Chris Barnes (Six Feet Under; former Cannibal Corpse) places it as his favorite Black Sabbath, period. Lars Ulrich (Metallica) ranks it as one of the best from the band. I think that the Vision of the line-up and the track collection was simply before it’s time. This record is meant to be heard today!

Favorite Songs: Born Again; Hotline; Zero the Hero

Rating: 10/10!!!

Stay Metal,

THE SAW

Categories
Classic Album Review

Album of the Week: Deep Blue – Parkway Drive

It was 9 years ago, today (6/25/29), that Parkway Drive released Deep Blue, one of my favorite Parkway Drive records. This was one of the first metalcore albums that I heard when I was first getting into heavier types of music. To me, Parkway Drive has always been a veteran within the subgenres of heavy metal. Parkway Drive evolved their sound with this album and they continue to do so to this day with their most recent release, Reverence. Deep Blue is filled with a lot of breakdowns and melodic riffs.

Although this is one of my favorite records, and some have argued that Deep Blue is their best, it has been criticized by metal blogs for being repetitive and having the same sound. Most reviewers talk about how they over-use basic breakdowns and that it’s generic. But, when doing some research on Parkway Drive and reading interviews with Winston McCall (vocalist), I discovered that Deep Blue was different than their previous albums.

When reading Alt Press’ interview with McCall, he states that Parkway Drive’s sound has not gone through big changes. With Deep Blue, the band wrote everything beforehand and then recorded it exactly the way they wanted it. They experimented with a couple of new things in small doses, just to see if they would work. And to McCall and the rest of the band, it did.

Deep Blue was an experiment that the band created to see if they could evolve their sound. Although their overall sound did not change, musically, they added an atmospheric tone with melodic riffs into their hooks, bridges, and breakdowns. With the atmospheric set, it added more layering and depth to the record.

Overall, I think this is one of my favorite records by Parkway Drive, and some of their most well-known songs came off this album: Unrest and Karma. This record helped them develop their sound even more on their 2012 release, Atlas. Parkway Drive has continued to evolve throughout the years and I don’t see them stopping anytime soon.

Favorite Song(s):  Unrest, Wreckage, Pressures, and Home Is For The Heartless

Rating: 8/10

What is your favorite song off of Deep Blue? What do you think of the evolution of Parkway Drive?

Stay Metal,

THE SAW

Categories
Classic Album Review

ALBUM REVIEW: BLACK FLAG- My War

ALBUM REVIEW: BLACK FLAG- My War

BEST TRACKS: My War, Beat My Head Against a Wall, Nothing Left Inside, Scream

Though Black Flag was already a widely popular west-coast punk band with an affinity for harder, faster, and more experimental music than virtually any of their contemporaries, it was the addition of Henry Rollins that defined the band’s distinct sonic and aesthetic composition.  “Damaged”, the first album with Rollins as frontman, was simultaneously one of the first definitively “hardcore” punk records ever created and the inception of the young movement’s most charismatic frontman. For these first few years at the turn of the decade (“Damaged” was released 1981), Black Flag echoed other hardcore pioneers such as Minor Threat in their rampaged delivery of staccatoed screams under the banner of a disciplined, straight-edge lifestyle.  But just as Minor Threat disbanded in 1983 amid founder Ian McKaye’s realization that playing incredibly fast and loud was limiting, Black Flag was forced to reflect on how the band could move forward without relying solely on uber-aggression (which was becoming increasingly violent). The result: Black Flag became an art punk band. Well, I guess that’s not fair to say. Black Flag was actually always known for their intricate posters and album covers designed by Raymond Pettibond, and they had always demanded that their listeners take their music more seriously than some of LAs earlier punk bands which had become incredibly silly by the end of the 1970s.  But when faced with the crossroads brought on by the end of basic hardcore punk, two distinct voices emerged within Black Flag. Greg Ginn, the guitarist, founder, and only consistent member of the group began experimenting with free jazz and doom metal in what became the invention of the classic “anti-solo”, and Rollins began his descent into poetry and spoken word performance of bleak, basic lyrics hinged on frustration and alienation. Unsurprisingly, the two ended up tearing the band apart with their separate aggro-insistences on the future of alternative music, but the albums that were released prior to this inevitable fracture are some of the most interesting and crucial in any punk library.  And nowhere is that more clear than on “My War”, the punk rock equivalent of Johnny Marr and Morrissey dueling with their equally insufferable voices and somehow creating a musical texture unlike anything else. Ginn and Rollins are rarely in step together, their ideas flowing out from vastly different channels. But, somehow, as if a flash of congruency lined up beneath the band for the recording of the album, “My War” is Black Flag’s magnum opus.

California’s most important contribution to punk rock was birthed in 1976 by father Greg Ginn, in the vein of typical influences like the Stooges, MC5, and, of course, the Ramones.  Ginn’s role as the band’s guitarist and primary creative force meant that there was more of a focus on what Ginn could make his guitar do rather than having it purposefully act as the simple engine for pounding aggression. Ginn quickly established his new band, freshly named “Black Flag” (“Panic” was taken) as distinct from punk contemporaries in the sheer work ethic he required from every member of the band.  While this was partially a conscious effort to avoid the excess which killed off many members of punk’s first wave, this work ethic was also necessitated by LA’s lack of (figurative) underground infrastructure. With no punk-friendly clubs or distribution avenues, Black Flag created America’s most impressive DIY music network. As Ginn boasted a plethora of posters advertising each performance (a minimum of 500), self-booked shows at picnics, schools, and abandoned warehouses, a list of punk-friendly fans who could host the band to stay the night, and a comprehensive map of every all-you-can-eat buffet in within their touring scope, Black Flag as an entity required its members to commit every fiber of their being to punk rock.  And it paid off. Fans all over the country were enamored with what was then the least compromising sound or image of any other American band, and Black Flag’s cult status propelled them to underground stardom sans support from anything that even resembled mainstream music institutions. That’s where Henry Rollins comes in. In 1980, when Ginn’s rotating array of vocalists signaled that it was time to find the newest iteration of Flag’s frontman, Washington D.C. superfan, and Haagen-Daz manager Henry Rollins was tapped to join the band. Packing up his custom-built muscle T-shirt and nothing else, Rollins moved to California so the band could record “Damaged”. The shaved-head muscle bound Rollins was visually antithetical to everything that punk initially promised, in his ratty jeans and vocal abstention from anything vice-related.  But he soon embodied what would become “hardcore punk”. Their second full-length album instantly cemented them among the Gods of the movement’s newest wave with acts like Bad Brains and Minor Threat (led by Rollins’ DC friend Ian MacKaye). The reliance on pure, inflamed rebellion proved unsustainable, though, and rather than become irrelevant or force off their wheels, Black Flag turned to more experimental sounds and, well, lifestyles. While Ginn remained relatively the same whip cracking band leader (albeit with a little more interest in avant-garde jazz), Rollins began his transformation into his most unbearable form. Often performing in just his boxers, Rollins insisted on opening ‘83 and ‘84 era performances with lengthy readings from his journal. He was visibly larger, becoming a devout bodybuilder and frequent aggravator of crowd violence. He would carry around a pool ball that he would grind in his palm for nearly an hour before the set started, staring down the crowd with an ever-more concerning insistence on brute masculinity.  He and Ginn grew their hair out, alienating them from the classic Black Flag skinhead fan base. They no longer committed themselves to hectic live performances focused on pure energy, but would rather let the audience stew in silence while Rollins prowled in near nudity. At the time, it was confusing. And “My War” was the final nail in the coffin which forever broke Black Flag from standard hardcore. The album’s slowed down, meandering, tempo-shifting landscape was hated by fans of the original straight edge scene. However, despite an inevitable backlash brought on by the band’s abrupt shift to more experimental and brooding tones, it is this experimentation and willingness to break from a sound which they helped originally establish for the sake of artistic integrity that makes “My War” Black Flag’s most daring and interesting album.

It’s fair to point out that not every song on “My War” was destined to be placed on a Black Flag greatest hits compilation.  The titular song was a pretty standard Flag romp, with Ginn’s classic mid-drenched overdrive pulverizing a single riff while Rollins peeled his throat to paranoia drenched lyrics like “My War/You’re one of them, you said that you’re my friend/ but you’re one of them.” So, immediately, the greasy shaved head fans of the band’s earlier material were at least momentarily satisfied.  Though the intro may have deviated slightly from “Damaged” era speed-power just because it acted as a pressure build to elevate Rollins’ eventually shriek, it supplemented the breakneck pace of the rest of the song quite well. Great, so this is Black Flag’s new sound? Skinheads could handle their violent tempos occasionally coupled with a dissonant platform for Rollins to thrive if that’s what they needed. But after the album’s titular track, songs begin to drift further from any resemblance of original hardcore punk.  “Beat My Head Against the Wall” is a bizarre combination of classic Sex Pistols abrasion, pop music, and experimental west-coast noise bands like Flipper. Adopting doom-metal tempo shifts, the song shifts between Rollins screaming about ramming his head on a wall before switching to a sugar-coated pop chorus garnished with a heavy Ginn line, before switching again to a blisteringly dissonant free-jazz guitar solo and then leading into a final sludgy riff to end the song. In a span of two minutes, Black Flag recorded what is probably the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life.  But it’s genius. Once the initial disgust has worn off, it becomes evident that to remain relevant within a molting scene, Black Flag was forced to continually subvert expectations even within punk rock etiquette. The result is almost unlistenable at its worst but thought-provoking when it gets it right. And “My War” gets this formula right more so than any other late-stage Flag album. “Nothing Left Inside” is a seven minute, doom metal march of a song where Ginn does his best Black Sabbath meets Miles Davis impression as Rollins groans endlessly of self-hatred and agony. “Scream” takes “Nothing Left Inside” a step farther and, while still relying on slow methodical drum patterns and punk jazz heaviness, features Rollins literally screaming and croaking for seven minutes straight.  If you were to judge punk rock strictly off of how distant it drifted from the Ramones, then Black Flag would certainly be disqualified by this point. But “My War” has the sheer ability to drive every person who listens to it up a wall, something that no other genre drives to do.

In the years following “My War”, Black Flag released three more studio albums before calling it quits.  By the end of the legendary Punk band’s demise, Rollins had become drowned in his own ego, forcing too much conflict with Ginn’s long-established control freak attitude.  “Family Man”, “Loose Nut”, and “In My Head” all contained the warring personalities which first butted heads on “My War”, but each suffered more from a bitter disconnect.  “My War” might be an accident in its beauty, but hardcore punk’s transition into darker and weirder territories has never been exposed in its naked horror more than on this Black Flag classic.

– Cliff Jenkins 

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Classic Album Review

ALBUM REVIEW: FLIPPER- Album- Generic Flipper

ALBUM REVIEW: FLIPPER- Album- Generic Flipper

BEST TRACKS: Ever, Life is Cheap, Sex Bomb

It was on a 1983 Bay Area public access television performance that Flipper’s Will Shatter told his increasingly frustrated interviewer that Flipper wasn’t a punk band.  Now, this could simply be relegated to the band being characteristically difficult; after all, they had spent the last hour in their shaved heads and ratty jeans screaming through a comically overdriven bass.  They may have not literally been the Ramones, but sonically and rhetorically, Flipper fit well within the emerging West-Coast scene among Bay Area contemporaries like the Dead Kennedys or the Units and LA bands like X, Germs, and Black Flag.  But Shatter’s prescription can’t fully be dismissed as a punk insistence on outsiderdom. Flipper was different. The core of punk rock insisted on a visceral release of frustration, a direct line from a performing band to its audience and, on a larger scale, the entire surrounding society they were so disillusioned with.  With an insistence on such caustic expulsions, simplicity is required. Any ornamentation would impede the central thesis behind the music’s very insistence, and therefore, punk’s simplicity is indirect. Flipper, however, made this simplicity the main tenant of their musical philosophy. Rather than a necessity placed to prevent collapse under the weight of anger, they distilled and subverted music itself into their own warped, inflamed expression.  Flipper wasn’t a punk band, it was a deconstruction band.

Flipper was born out of 1979’s San Francisco to parents Ricky Williams, Ted Falconi, Steve DePace and Will Shatter. Falconi, a Vietnam vet, distinguished himself as a guitar player through his insanely distorted, mid-heavy, disgustingly compressed tone while Shatter’s bass was almost equally as overdriven while relishing in the uncomfortably trebly territory.  Williams was replaced by Bruce Loose before the band could record anything, and both Loose and Shatter switched between bass and vocal duties. After releasing a handful of singles (most notably Sex Bomb, an eight-minute sludge of Shatter screaming “She’s my sexy bomb, yeah” over and over) Flipper came out with their debut full length, Generic Flipper, on San Fran’s Subterranean Records in 1982.  It was slow; it was sardonic; it was annoying. Today, it remains Flipper’s most recognizable and fully representative work, melding Black Sabbath’s distorted doom into the Sex Pistol’s irreverence and debauchery. Caught in between the two distinct phases of punk which respectively emphasized excess and self-discipline, Flipper existed as a band without a country. The band took no issue with excessive drug use (Shatter died in 1987 of a heroin overdose), yet didn’t romanticize their self-destruction.   They were a crusty group playing crusty music that made even the crustiest fans squeamish and irritable.

In a time where punk was getting faster, angrier, more confrontational, Flipper insisted on slowing down and laughing at the crushing weight of the world rather than trying to move it by force.  In Generic Flipper’s opening track, “Ever”, Bruce Loose belts out mind-numbingly basic, yet frighteningly resigned lyrics such as “Ever live a life that’s real/Full of zest, but no appeal, Ever want to cry so much/ You want to die”.  The bass and guitar are both distorted to oblivion, melting into one syrupy entity and trudging the song along at a tempo that is frustratingly slow.  Do-wop claps are placed behind the horribly mixed drum kit, all culminating in a song mocking every single person who has ever expressed any sort of happiness at any point in their lives.  And the rest of the album continues in this exact same vein. Shatter and Loose take turns being obnoxiously sarcastic, yet it’s hard to believe that the defeat that they so adamantly preach isn’t at least a partially lived-experience. “Life is Cheap” begins with a doom metal riff played with Falconi’s ridiculously cheap sounding tone, and the drums (which sound like they were recorded by a teenager in a laundry room) begin about 15 seconds in to lock the 4-minute long song in a seemingly unending groove.  And Sex Bomb makes another appearance. The eight-minute fart of a song features Shatter screaming at the top of his lungs while his typical sludge infested backing is supplemented by a saxophone of all things. It’s as if Flipper dressed up like the Rolling Stones only to pull down their pants and shit directly on the stage.

By the early 80s, punk was getting faster, angrier, more macho, obsessed with self-discipline and abrasively bettering the world.  But Flipper was decidedly not that. As the Black Flag’s sped up to explore the capabilities of what punk could mean, Flipper insisted on slowing it down, making it increasingly unpleasant and wholly nihilistic.  They were hated and probably rightfully so. However, whether intentional or not, Flipper was responsible for generations of noise and sludge expressions which defined American post-punk alternativism. Generic Flipper was a brutally simple collection of noise paired with often juvenile pessimism. It can kind of be looked at like the piece of modern art that’s just a white canvas.  You could have done it, but you didn’t.

-Cliff Jenkins 

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Classic Album Review

CLASSIC REVIEW: THE GERMS- GI

CLASSIC REVIEW: THE GERMS- GI

BEST TRACKS: Communist Eyes, We Must Bleed, Manimal, Lexicon Devil, Richie Dagger’s Crime

By the time the Ramones had condensed rock and roll into its brattiest possible unit, punk’s death was already long set in motion. Though “punk rock’ was not a magical intervention by a sympathetic God tired of listening to Fleetwood Mac, the ultimate cultural amalgam that became the genre’s first (and arguably “purest”) wave burned incredibly hot and equally fast.  And all by design, of course. So if one were to grab their leather studded microscope to set distinct barriers within punk’s seemingly never-ending canon, the Ramones’ first “1,2,3,4!”s at CBGB are finalized through the Darby Crash’s 1980 suicide. Through his band, the Germs, Crash brought punk’s ethos to the end of its first crescendo by making it harder, faster, and, most importantly, without any apparent control. Though the rise of hardcore punk following the Germ’s demise was faster and harder by technical standards, this was a controlled catharsis.  In fact, the highly disciplined blasts of noise made famous through bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, and Rollins-fronted Black Flag, were at least partially in response to punk’s initial reputation of being so decadently caked in debauchery. But whatever catharsis is found within the Germs is chaotic, almost accidental. As the logical conclusion to a genre founded on white-hot excess, they were possibly the most extreme practitioners of debauchery. Their sole studio album, “GI”, is an absolute mess of feedback-riddled guitars, frantic drumming, and incoherent snarls of anti-authority.  It is every promise of punk rock fulfilled, and because of that “GI” is a horrifying record. By the time it’s thirty minutes are up, you realize that this is it. As Darby Crash burned out in a wild thrash against every perceived establishment, so did the first wave of punk rock.

Jan Paul Beahm was born in Venice, California in September 1958.  Moving to West LA by the late 60s, Beahm’s troubled childhood was patterned with episodes like his brother’s drug overdose/murder, his mother’s frequent bouts with psychosis, and the abrupt death of his stepfather.  An avid reader, Beahm was enrolled in Innovative Program School, an LA alternative high school which combined Erhard Seminars Training and Scientology. It was here that Beahm met Georg Ruthenburg, and the two frequently took LSD on campus.  Fearing that the boy’s increasing novelty as spaced out cult-esque figures within the school was brainwashing other students, Beahm and Ruthenburg were kicked out of IPS before graduation. They decided to form an incredibly raw, amateur band in the vein of proto-punk acts like the Stooges or MC5 and began purposefully recruiting unskilled musicians for their chaotic project. Eventually settling on the name “Germs” (after others proved too long and therefore expensive to print on T-Shirts), Beahm and Ruthernburg became Bobby Pyn and Pat Smear, respectively.  After being joined by bassist Lorna Doom and drummer Donna Rhia, the Germs recorded their first single, “Forming”, a minute and a half pounding, meandering expulsion in 1977. Soon after, Bobby Pyn was rechristened Darby Crash, and the Germs began their infamous circuit within LA’s burgeoning punk scene.

Crash, the clear frontman of the group, would spend shows loaded on booze, painkillers, and heroin while babbling his song’s lyrics seemingly everywhere but the microphone (which apparently had to be taped to his hand at one point).  But it was punk; the Germs embodied a pure disorder that LA’s underground was craving by the late 70s. Live performances were often violent, with Crash frequently confronting members of the audience while stumbling about, rarely confident in his ability to stand.  Eventually, the band’s notoriety blacklisted them from every club in the city, forcing them to perform under the moniker GI (Germs Incognito). And perhaps not coincidentally, this also was the name of their first/last studio album; a record which has now been bestowed a legendary status for fans of punk akin to “Never Mind the Bollocks” or “Damaged”.  For an LA who had only witnessed the germs through their increasingly messy live performances, 1979’s GI was a moment of clarity that forced every listener to sit back for a second and think “holy shit these guys are actually talented musicians”. Smear was finally given a stasis upon which he could clearly show off his incredibly tight and fluid guitar playing, while Crash’s songs could actually be consumed as, well, songs.  But what was most surprising were Crash’s lyrics which, up until the recording of GI, were largely impossible to comprehend through hectic live shows. Under his dyed hair, broken teeth, and skin often sliced by glass on stage, he was a poet obsessed with his own inevitable destruction. At once, it became clear that Darby Crash knew he was the final fetid breath escaping his movement; he knew his anarchy was destined to end soon.  And it did. After GI’s recording, the Germs found it even harder to perform live within the city, as the LAPD would often come to violently disband crowds which they saw on the edge of a riot. Crash appeared to know the Germs were not sustainable, becoming increasingly removed from the band before purposefully administering himself a fatal dose of heroin December 7, 1980. LA’s most notorious punk band was over. Don Bolles, the band’s final drummer, went on to join a handful of other LA punk bands while Pat Smear eventually joined Nirvana, as a touring guitarist, and the Foo Fighters, as a full-time member.  

Musically, it can be hard to differentiate between every track on GI.  Within each two-minute snot-fest one will find a crispy guitar, loose and pounding drums, and a Darby crash snarl (of course!). But the third, fourth, or maybe fifth time scratching your head while attempting to consume this spoiled rotten album will elucidate a surprising amount of depth. For instance, “Manimal” opens with a simple yet devastating Smear riff which sounds akin to early Black Sabbath, demanding attention while Doom’s fat, rounded bass acts as an anchor before dissolving into Crash’s fiery yelps.  “Manimal” also contains Crash’s most explicit recognition of his otherness and ultimate destiny outside of civilization with “I came into this world/Like a puzzled panther, waiting to be caged/but something stood in the way, I was never quite tamed”. “Lexicon Devil”, the groups most well-known song, is revamped with a new penchant for barreling speed, with a four-chord, percussive guitar lead doubling Crash’s cultish growls which entice the listener to surrender to the Germs and all of their promised damage in lines like I’m a lexicon devil with a battered brain And I’m lookin’ for a future, the world’s my aim

So gimme, gimme your hands, gimme, gimme your minds”.  “Richie Dagger’s Crime”, probably more playful than any other track, is shockingly optimistic.  Smear’s crunchy, aggressively uncompressed blues leads weave between Crash’s sputtered autobiography of a boy who exists purely to rebel against every person he meets. “We Must Bleed” is the Germs’ most concentrated display of their inherent bend towards deconstruction, is a simple four-chord descent into nothingness which holds both the beginning and end of the Germs within it.  The song goes longer than its peers, though Bolles drums become quickly resigned to a tribal thump which Crash spouts “We Must Bleed” over and over again. As it thuds on, the song destroys everything around it, and when even the air begins to fall around Darby Crash he begins to bellow “I want out now!” as his band becomes looser and rattles into oblivion.  Crash runs out of things to destroy, and in the terror that follows he realizes that the only thing left to fall is his own body.

The Germs existed for only five years.  But in their attempts to become the most vicious and unhinged bands in Los Angeles they cemented a legacy as the final, and brightest, flame of 1970s rock music. After a culmination of disenfranchisement, drugs, and snottiness birthed punk in New York, a trajectory was set that could have only ended with the Germs.  And through GI, the germs have left a permanent record upon a movement which was dangerously close to only witnessing them in their brief shenanigans while still on this Earth. In my opinion, Darby Crash is the unheralded king of the punks, and GI is the contract which bestowed his domain.

-Cliff Jenkins

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Classic Album Review

ALBUM REVIEW: ELLIOT SMITH- Elliot Smith

ALBUM REVIEW: ELLIOT SMITH- Elliot Smith

BEST TRACKS: Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Coming Up Roses, Alphabet Town, St. Ides Heaven

While it’s true that Elliot Smith burst upon Soundscape SuperhighwayTM with “Miss Misery”, which played during the end credits of 1997’s “Good Will Hunting”, Smith’s 1995 eponymous album is clearly his best work.  I’m absolutely serious. There’s absolutely no question. Any piece of Smith’s musical legacy found itself originally fully realized on this album.  Thin, croaking vocal lines; meandering guitar plucked by spindly digits; a gloom which rests on delicate instability; it’s all here. And by no means am I disparaging his later work.  Either/Or, XO and Figure 8 still employ everything that distinguishes Smith’s incredibly unique songwriting, but it’s through “Elliot Smith” that this was first done with full confidence. Here, Smith is momentarily plateaued in all of his strengths; stuck in a moment where his songs operate as an extension of him with perfect efficiency.  So, I admit, the soggy singer-songwriter in 2019 is a little played out. But in 1995, Elliot Smith perfected it. I guess if you like that stuff, you might want to steer clear of this album. Otherwise, everything else will fall tragically short.

It’s hard to say whether Elliott Smith fits ridiculously well into the niche of mid 90sdom or invented it.  Smith, while still playing with his INDIE ROCK band Heatmiser, had released his debut acoustic album “Roman Candle” in 1994.  On it, Smith first made evident his ability to blend inconspicuous yet incredibly intricate guitar parts with a wire-thin vocal line spouting perplexingly intimate lyrics.  And beyond that, Smith was able to manipulate all of these assets by simply layering lo-fi single mic recordings. Now that’s what I call DIY. To no surprise, Smith quickly gained a following in Portland (Christ this has to be the fourth album I’ve reviewed that’s included Portland being really into something before everyone else) despite extremely limited success anywhere outside of the city.  Smith’s first encounter with, albeit limited, success came when Mary Lou Lord happened upon one of his shows and was understandably blown away. She immediately asked him to tour with her, and he was subsequently signed to Kill Rock Stars. So what does an up-and-coming, yet under-appreciated, mid 90s sad guitarist/singer who recently got signed on an alternative label following a groundbreaking live performance do, you ask?  Well, write an insanely depressing album of course. And so, “Elliott Smith”, the album, was born.

Similar to “Roman Candle”, this album perfected the lo-fi, single microphone in a room approach which Smith’s music is usually automatically associated with.  Expanding upon simply double-tracking his vocals while plucking a guitar whose leads gasp from being drowned by an open-string drone, “Elliott Smith” manages to further manipulate this sparse pairing by weaving the two together in incredibly subtle ways.  “Needle in the Hay”, the album’s opening track, is the pinnacle of Elliot Smith’s art of master production. I’ll try to do this song justice here but I can’t make any promises that I will. Smith begins strumming down on five chords that have been stripped of all but their bare essentials, building a tension which creeps up your spine as Smith barely mumbles out the melody which has been placed directly on the listener’s ear.  It’s unsettling, to say the least. But right as you think you’ve found a center to the song, a stasis in its delivery, the chorus begins seemingly out of nowhere. Smith’s classic double-tracked vocals slide into to layer above what first appeared to be a standard verse. It’s a deeply disturbing song which most exemplifies Smith’s ability to articulate a soul in decay. Christian Brothers and St. Ides heaven manage to accomplish a similar feat, though through a more straightforward approach.  Christian Brothers, especially, highlights Smith’s use of barren, inverted chords and hauntingly beautiful vocals, with its chorus whispering with a careening falsetto. Coming Up Roses offers a more upbeat sampling of Smith’s songwriting prowess, but still reverberates with the same energy of defeated instability that blankets the entirety of the album.

Elliot Smith’s second album is definitely the darkest, emotionally raw output of a career which unfortunately ended abruptly. Though Smith’s 2003 suicide(?) should by no means be romanticized, it’s impossible to remove this album from an artist who was clearly disturbed.  Listening to it sometimes sucks, because Elliott Smith does such a good fucking job of making music about absolute desolation.

-Cliff Jenkins

Categories
Classic Album Review

CLASSIC REVIEW: Ariel Pink- The Doldrums

CLASSIC REVIEW: Ariel Pink- The Doldrums

BEST TRACKS: Let’s Build a Campfire, For Kate I Wait, Among Dreams, Don’t Think Twice (Love)

When first listening to The Doldrums, you might find yourself asking, “is this a joke”.  And to answer your question, dearest reader, yeah. Or maybe not. But how could it not be? If it is a joke it’s a really good one in the sense that it’s really funny, but an absolutely moronic one when taking into account how much Ariel Pink put into its setup.  So as of now, we’ll look at it as something in the middle, a comment, if you will on, say, society. Even then I’m probably giving it more of a serious analysis than it deserves, but at the end of the day, it’s an album. A really fucking good album, one that makes you question why you even like music.

So it’s 1999 at CalArts.  One Mr. Ariel Pink is disillusioned with the entire concept of art school, is heavily in the midst of a drug binge, and has his Senior Project coming up.  So what does he turn in? Well, his debut album of course. Well, we should call it what it really is: an anti-album. Concocted deep within the infamous, denatured Pink brain, The Doldrums sounds like an assortment of samples taken from daytime television that Ariel recorded him singing on a whim after returning home shitfaced.  But the instrumentation is his. Placed far behind his vocals, Ariel reverbs and generally distorts his self-made backing tracks to shellac over them an air of dissociation and lethargy akin to when you watch too much TV in the middle of the day. But at the end of the day, the compositions sound good and are written well. So when Ariel cries over them in a mocking falsetto it’s confusing: who is he making fun of if not himself and music itself? In all honesty, it’s probably both.  And in case you were wondering, Ariel set up a booth that he sold his CD out of for his senior project. There’s no word on well he did academically, but the CD eventually made its way to Animal Collective, who subsequently signed him.

It’s really difficult to actually analyze the songs on this album.  First of all, the “mixing” melts together synths, guitars, knee-drums, random chirps, TV samples all into a honey-lacquered stew that doesn’t quite sit still within the belly.  Secondly, The Doldrums goads you to take a deeper look into it, only to eventually point and laugh at you once you’ve already spent hours dazed in its taunting sweetness. That’s the most infuriating part of this album.  It’s really clear that Ariel is making fun of saccharine stock music, cheesy love songs, and just popular music as a whole. But he does it with really amazing melodies. “Among Dreams” and “For Kate I Wait” strike me as the easiest examples of this, though not the best.  I mean this in that they benefit from a mix which favors Ariel’s vocals so my point is most readily available. Both live in a rounded synth line that blankets everything but Ariel’s falsetto delivering some of the catchiest melodies I’ve ever heard. Occasionally, the listener may get confused into thinking they were just listening to a lo-fi pop song, but then there’s something up there in the corner of your ear.  What is it? Well, it’s a three-stringed guitar of course, or maybe some knee slap drums. Ariel Pink does not give a fuck about this music, it just springs forth effortlessly. Songs such as “The Ballad of Bobby Pyn” only suffer in that Ariel draws them out too much, stringing along a drowsy atmosphere for over ten minutes while occasionally delivering some half-sung half-line. And just as you go to get mad that you’ve been listening too long, you realize that that’s the point. You’ve been duped.

 – Cliff Jenkins

Categories
Classic Album Review

CLASSIC REVIEW: CALEB FRAID- The Old Rugged Me

CLASSIC REVIEW: CALEB FRAID- The Old Rugged Me

BEST TRACKS: 50/50, Anxious to Live, Vertical Blind

 

Fine, fine, this isn’t what would regularly be denoted as a “classic”.  But there’s something in this album which I haven’t found within really anything else.  It isn’t clear whether this is a result of a personal absence of knowledge surrounding this genre or simply that I have stumbled upon a long forgotten masterpiece (there’s a good chance it’s the former), but The Old Rugged me contains such a distilled spirit of creativity and self reliance that it manages to make me feel wholly lacking in every creative endeavor I’ve ever attempted.  While Caleb Fraid’s 8-track gem has been, to the extent of my knowledge, widely ignored, I would argue the (in)famous Velvet Underground quote is equally applicable to this album. Every person who listens to The Old Rugged Me is guaranteed to start a band.

 

Picture this, it’s the mid 90s, cassettes still reign supreme simply in their pragmatism.  Wow, what a time! Of course, I won’t try and make the classic “I was born in the wrong generation :,(“ argument, but the music environment facilitated by mid-90s technology is still really fucking cool.  Though the advent of the internet has virtually eliminated 90% of distribution costs, making everything DIY an actual possibility, the inherent magnitude of the World Wide Web makes this distribution infinitely more diffuse.  With cassette tapes, the distribution wasn’t presupposed. As such, not only was the content itself DIY, but so were the means by which it was sold, advertised, and shipped. So what does all of this actually mean you ask? Super localized tape scenes where labels often simply consisted of a handful of bands recording songs on a boombox and then having their stuff advertised in a mailer and shipped out from some dude’s house.  Labels like Shrimper, Amateur Anarchy, and Asswipe all existed as “companies” which refreshingly removed barriers between artists and consumers, and built an underground (hell yeah) music scene which attracted musicians whose creativity could be fostered on something as simple as something like an 8-track. And that’s where Caleb Fraid, a Houston native, comes in. While perusing BandCamp like a certified cool man, I came across FraidAid: a decent collection of lo-fi songs.  Admittedly, I wasn’t blown away. But then I looked at what else Fraid had released and, to my surprise, found over 100 tapes recorded between the mid 80s and early 2000s. Most of the covers were plastered with doodles Fraid appeared to have drawn on napkins. And so I finally came upon The Old Rugged Me, a collection of tracks whose minimal production quality initially mask the startlingly good songwriting beneath it. But don’t be fooled, this album is genius.

 

The funniest part about The Old Rugged Me is that it doesn’t really sound that far off from the Beatles’ White Album. No, no, I’m serious.  Fraid obviously isn’t concerned with clever recording techniques; rather, he spends two to three minutes using his limited resources to display his phenomenal songwriting.  And it is phenomenal. 50/50 offers us a horribly thin guitar line coupled with Fraid’s double tracked vocals that occasionally diverge to weave in and out of harmony before returning to the binary drone by the chorus. I swear to God, it sounds just like the Velvet Underground.  And the production here actual begins to work to Fraid’s advantage, turning a pretty standard sounding blues-rock track into a playful build which can only be described as a guy playing singing and playing guitar at himself. Similarly, “Anxious to Live” and “Vertical Blind” find their tenderness significantly boosted by its rawness. Whatever may exist within Fraid’s mind for these songs is probably impossible to decipher, but there is no mistake that it’s genuine.  Honestly, it’s difficult to choose a handful of songs to highlight on this thing; every song is a rotation of impulse which sees Fraid’s sparse, yet intricate songwriting ultimately speak for itself.

 

This album is the pinnacle of everything classified as DIY.  Devoid of pretension, The Old Rugged me exists as an entirely pure expression of an artist who is clearly fully invested in what he makes.  

 – Cliff Jenkins

Categories
Classic Album Review

CLASSIC REVIEW: ATARI TEENAGE RIOT- Delete Yourself

CLASSIC REVIEW: ATARI TEENAGE RIOT- Delete Yourself

 

Atari Teenage Riot’s 1995 Masterpiece “Delete Yourself”  sounds as if a punk modified with a synthetic heart and iron lungs was pumped to the seams with amphetamine.  It’s political, it’s blunt, there’s no camp in its rawness. In a decade which saw punk reinvented as a handsome nihilism,  “Delete Yourself” returned the genre to its roots in political panic and aggression. Every song rotates through a handful of ingredients: thrash guitar, screamed one-liners, maybe a movie samples, and a simple techno drum sample.  But it was through this simplicity that ATR captured the essentials of punk’s vigor without a hint of nostalgia (or punk for punk’s sake). There is no close-reading with “Delete Yourself”. It is a pure, volatile reaction.

 

ATR, a trio consisting of Alec Empire, MC Carl Crack and Hanin Elias, combined elements of hardcore punk, thrash metal and breakbeat with, often extreme, anti-fascist lyrics. The result was Digital Hardcore; a far-left subculture pioneered by ATR which quickly spread in reaction against rising neo-nazi subcultures in Berlin’s electronic scenes.  The genre’s namesake is derived from Digital Hardcore Recordings, a label set up by Empire which signed similar acts such as EC8OR, Sonic Subjunkies and Christoph de Babalon. For eight years, ATR reigned supreme in the Digital Hardcore scene before the subculture’s eventual decline at the turn of the millennium. In 2000, Crack was found in his apartment, dead at age 30 from a drug overdose.  With that, Atari Teenage Riot disbanded: Empire continues to release experimental electronic compositions and Elias has established a career as a solo artist and created her own label: Fatal Recordings.

 

When first dissecting Delete Yourself, one should familiarize themselves with ATR’s first single, which happens to also appear on the 1995 LP. “Hetzjagd auf Nazis!” (“Hunt the Nazis!”) can be examined as a microcosm of ATR, exemplifying their urgent simplicity and unadulterated fury.  An overdriven three note synth line layered over a breakbeat with Empire screaming “go” over and over for five minutes, “Hetzjagd auf Nazis” descends further and further into ambient obscurity as it progresses. Undeterminable echoed noises fill the space surrounding the mid-heavy synth line which, along with the repeating beat, grounds the track while its peripheral components drift further into madness.  “Speed” begins with a speed metal guitar sample which stands solitary for a mere moment before being swept up by the beat. From here on it’s only a breakneck barrel towards the finish, Empire sputtering out unintelligible lines like News, Drug abuse to the future and the hypocrites cry: Who dies next? while Elias bellows out the song’s half-melody hook. There’s no room for breath, no room for contemplation; there is only an immediacy of terror which ATR thrashes again in futility.  Even slower cuts like “Sex” embrace a gritty tinge of cyberpunk, as Elias delivers spoken word over a wet-reverbed breakbeat coupled with droning ambience. As if the band were lying face up underwater, occasionally able to grasp a breath before being flooded back down, “Sex” embodies Delete Yourself’s thesis of titanic cyberpunk anxiety.  Atari Teenage Riot knows it’s too late; the powers which will overcome all of us are too large to stop.  And Delete Yourself is trying to, even if just for a second, outrun our doom.  

Delete Yourself does not exist to meticulously explore art as enrichment.  Its lyrics are a simple, grotesque indictment of fascism, technology, and the institutions we have created which now rule us.  It finds relevance today among those who feel alienated and exploited by every facet of their existence through its direct plea for individual uprising. It is a rebellion in its purest form.  

Categories
Classic Album Review

CLASSIC REVIEW: WIPERS- Over the Edge

CLASSIC REVIEW: WIPERS- Over the Edge

Best Tracks: Doom Town, So Young, Romeo, No One Wants an Alien

 

Wipers weren’t the first to fuse punk and introspection.  They weren’t the first to rely on atmosphere above blunt force.  And they certainly weren’t the first to rely on raw production to communicate desperation. But Wipers put all of this together in what became a necessary precursor to alternative music as we know it today.  Nowhere is this more clear than on their third album, 1983’s Over The Edge: an album which bellows out a simple, singular message.  Doom.

 

I know, I know, of the first two classic reviews I’ve pumped out, both are 80s alt-punk born out of the Northwest.  But I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately, the double edged sword of being adjacent to Kurt Cobain means that while bands that otherwise would have been long forgotten have received a decent amount of a spotlight, that spotlight is still dwarfed by the shadow of Nirvana.  And Greg Sage’s rotating cast punk rock trio, AKA Wipers, deserves so much more than that. In mixing the ferocity and simplicity with lo-fi, feedback driven atmosphere, Over the Edge lies bathed in an eeriness which trudges the listener into Sage’s desperate pleas.  It’s a simple dread which seems to speak universally of alienation.

 

Wipers were, effectively, Greg Sage.  Sage, a wiry native of Portland, was pretty old at 25 to form a punk band in 1977.  And so, he had an edge on his younger, primal counterparts. He grew up on classic guitar heroes such as Hendrix and Clapton, and while Sage certainly wasn’t a proponent of theatrical face-melters, he understood that a guitar had the potential to convey abstract, monolithic human expressions.  When first conceptualizing what would become Wipers, Sage originally planned for his band to be an exclusively studio act. Sage, notoriously self-disciplined, would record the songs and they would be subsequently self-released sans any promotion. While I’m personally glad this plan wasn’t actualized, since it probably would have inhibited the still-limited fame Wipers see today, they would admittedly be the best candidates for this treatment.  Sage’s songs sound as if they’ve been pulled out of an ether; a despondent catharsis in the face of an impending doom. When they fully formulated Wipers by the late 1970s, Sage and an amorphous combination of bassists and drummers decided to release their 1980 debut Is This Real? on Park Avenue Records in an attempt to gain some semblance of a following. And it worked.  Is This Real? became an instant cult hit while Wipers gained notoriety in Portland through their live shows.  And with that, the American Northwest had their first punk band.

 

While Is This Real? offers a wholly solid introduction to Wipers’ doom punk, Over The Edge is a complete fulfillment of driving introspection.  The album’s opening three songs; Over the Edge, Doom Town and So Young, are all constructed around the same four chords.  But they somehow circumvent repetition. I honestly haven’t fully figured out how Sage managed to make these songs sound so different; maybe it’s the blunted bass subtly moving beneath a thin overdrive, Sage’s simple and ephemeral guitar leads, or his reverbed croon which varies from a gravely plea to a panicked shout.  Romeo offers the first break from standard three-chord punk with a fuzz-coated rockabilly trudge coupled with Sage’s lyrics of absolute isolation and longing which eventually erupt into a singular screech.  No One Wants An Alien is an exploration into variation in that it appears unconcerned with any motif established by the preceding cuts.  Opening with a surprisingly clean guitar carrying a tidy, yet rough melody, the song churns out three minutes of new-wave which could have easily been found on an early New Order album.

 

Though Greg Sage likely did not know at the time how influential his choice to chimera punk rock and dread-heavy vulnerability would ultimately be, it’s impossible to omit Wipers from the canon of American alternative music.  So as someone who works for a college radio station, I feel pretty obligated to recognize how crucial Wipers were in my current employment. Without Wipers, the Northwest alt-punk underground may have been horribly crippled; something which would have surely impacted the Grunge explosion which current indie rock necessitates.  So to all of you DIY, baby jeans wearing kids out there: take the time to thank a Wiper.