I first heard about Split Lip during their mid-90s heyday, and back then, pretty much everyone was over the moon about them. They had the kind of reputation, both as a live and a studio act, that was better than great. People talked about them in awed, hushed tones, as if these were gods that walked the earth. They were apparently somewhere between hardcore and emo, but kids from both sides of that particular divide loved them. I was equally into both of those styles of music, and the idea of a crossbreed that brought out this kind of reaction in people was nearly impossible to imagine. I thought Split Lip must sound like alchemy, like magic.

Back in those days, you couldn't transmit music over the internet yet. And in fact, although I was aware of the internet, I didn't have access to it. Other than students at certain colleges, I didn't know anyone who did. Because of these things, it was much, much harder to locate music by bands than it is now. You had to hope for a distro getting a record in stock, or it showing up in your local punk-friendly record store (if you even had one of those... Richmond had two, but we were very lucky), and sometimes that took ages. And forget hearing a band before you bought their albums. Back then, if a band's reputation was good enough, or maybe even if their label's reputation was good enough, you just bought the record. You couldn't wait until you heard it and come back, since it probably wouldn't still be wherever you saw it by the time you did hear it (if you ever even did--that was not something you could take for granted). You just bought it.

When I finally got the opportunity to do this with Split Lip, it was their second album, "Fate's Got A Driver", that I came across. And you'd think that after all the hype I'd heard, there'd be no way this record or any other could live up to the expectations set for it. On the contrary, though, this was one of the rare times that they did. Split Lip were brilliant. They knew how to use rhythms and song structuring methods that came from the hardcore scene in the context of writing more melodic songs, and in doing so, wrote some of the most intensely emotional songs that I'd ever heard. "Union Town", "Five Year Diary", and "Her Side Of Sundown" in particular all blew me away--but really, the whole album did (other than the Tracy Chapman cover, which was the last track on side two and could therefore be easily ignored anyway).

All of that was a long time ago. After "Fate's Got A Driver", Split Lip changed their name to Chamberlain and made a couple of Bruce Springsteen/John Mellencamp style heartland rock albums. They were good, but despite the fact that it was all of the same people, they were a different band. And even that band broke up a long time ago. I eventually obtained the first Split Lip album, "For The Love Of The Wounded", and though it wasn't as consistent as "Fate's Got A Driver", it had some great songs on it. In fact, it's one of those songs that I've found myself going back to over and over lately. Track two on side one. "Sleep."

Split Lip still had a bit more hardcore than emo in their sound at the time of "For The Love Of The Wounded." "Sleep" is the most melodic song on that album, and points the way towards what they did on "Fate's Got A Driver". But sometimes the transitional material by a band has its own particular magic, separate both from what comes before and what comes after. Sometimes it's the best stuff they ever did. I wouldn't say that about "Sleep", but it's definitely a unique song in Split Lip's catalog. In fact, lately, when I put on "For The Love Of The Wounded", I more often than not get far enough into it to hear "Sleep" and then have to move the needle back to the beginning again. I play it over and over, because nothing else on that album can compare to it.

It starts out with a driving hardcore riff that is elevated by David Moore's vocal melody into something far catchier. He sings at least an octave above the riff, and the melody hooks into your brain and doesn't let go. There's a great deal of emotion in his voice, and the fact that I can't understand a single word he's saying matters not at all. The chorus has a bit of early 90s hardcore style chugging in its riff, but is mostly melodic; however, it flows directly into a half-speed breakdown that sounds almost moshy, though certainly not in the context in which it's placed. This is followed by another verse/chorus repetition, which is still good, but is overshadowed by the long section that begins directly after the second post-chorus breakdown. This is the part that really puts this song in a class by itself.

The guitars and bass ring on the last chord of the breakdown, and only the drums continue to play, still at half the speed of the verse and chorus. After two measures, during which Moore mutters something mostly inaudible, the guitars and bass come back in, chugging a few times at the beginning of each measure but other than that remaining silent, leaving the drums and vocals to carry the song. As this section progresses, it becomes apparent that the chords the guitars are chugging on are the same basic chords that make up the verse riff in the song, only now it's taking them four measures to get through one repetition of the riff. All of this dramatic chugging and pausing only heightens the drama that David Moore is already creating with his vocal. His singing on the earlier parts of the song is intense, but if anything, this section is even more so, his voice working through a more elaborate version of the verse melody, drawing it out to cover the same amount of time as it's taking the guitars to work through the riff. After two repetitions of this melody, one of the guitarists breaks off chugging to start playing a repeating arpeggio. Before he does this, the riff sounds mostly like a hardcore breakdown, with the thick chugging of the guitars overriding the slightly melodic nature of the riff they're actually playing. However, the arpeggio combines with Moore's vocals to greatly increase the melodic element of this section, and therefore heighten the melodramatic emotional feel that much more.

The amount of tension that's being built here seems designed to quickly reach a crescendo, after which some sort of explosion will occur. But Split Lip have obviously heard this done many times before, and there seems to be a desire to push things farther, to build up the tension even more, before releasing it. Therefore, instead of slamming back into the chorus riff after four repetitions of the verse riff, they keep going with it, but with only the bass continuing to play the basic chords. After two repetitions with the repeating arpeggio, the other guitarist also abandons the chugging chords and starts to play a lead of his own. By now, Moore has been joined by a second track of his own vocals, singing an octave lower than his lead vocal and carrying a completely different melody. I can just imagine that it's things like this that gave Split Lip such a towering reputation in the mid 90s hardcore/emo scenes. Granted, the double-tracked vocal couldn't work live (my theory is that the bass player probably sang this part live--but who knows? I wasn't there), but the layered structure of the music undoubtedly would, and I can't imagine the sheer overwhelming emotion that would have been felt by a crowd of angst-ridden teenagers crammed into a VFW hall or a basement by the time that Split Lip worked themselves up to this point in the song. I can remember bursting into tears at times like that, and not even necessarily knowing why I was crying, but looking around me and seeing that several other kids near me were doing the same thing. That might sound cheesy now--I have no doubt that it appeared cheesy to many people even then--but to me, at the time, it felt important, like barriers were falling inside my heart and mind. I have no doubt that these experiences shaped the person I grew into, and I'm sure many other kids (both then and now) who've had the same experiences would agree. These days, I'm older and wiser, and far less likely to cry at the climactic moment of a band's set. But when I listen to "Sleep", I can still remember exactly why it used to happen. Those emotions are still not very far from the surface, even now.

Split Lip - Sleep
(This is an .m4a file--I hope that's not a problem for anyone. If it is, leave a comment and I can see about converting it and posting an .mp3 version.)



The Con.

A lot of the time, I'm the type of person who prefers a band's early stuff, the stuff they wrote and recorded back when they were still most in tune with the original inspiration that led them to get together. When they explore that initial idea completely and start looking for new directions in which to pursue their muse, I often lose interest to at least some extent. Things just don't sound as passionate and full of purpose anymore. On the other hand, sometimes it's only once a band starts exploring other avenues that they fully come into their own. Some bands don't really hit their stride until they do start mixing various other influences into their original style. Refused is a good example of this, as are My Chemical Romance (so far); with both of these bands, it's their most recent (in Refused's case, their final) album that I like the most.

I could say this about Tegan And Sara, but it would sort of be a lie. You see, I never started listening to them until their fourth album, "So Jealous", was released. Apparently, their first three albums were standard acoustic-guitar singer/songwriter albums--that's what word of mouth has told me, at least. I loved the emotional, electric pop of "So Jealous" so much that I chose not to work backwards into their catalog, for fear that it would diminish my opinion of their more recent work. For all I know, the songs that sound so great with electric guitars, drums, and the occasional synthesizer may sound even better on unaccompanied acoustics. That said, I doubt it. The thought of their earlier material just calls up spectres of Lilith Fair and The Indigo Girls in my mind. So I've never bothered to check it out.

No matter what I might think of the earlier material, though, there's no doubt in my mind that "So Jealous" is an excellent album. Sisters Tegan and Sara, who are supposedly lesbians and definitely look far more like skinny teenage boys who shop at Hot Topic and attend Taking Back Sunday concerts than the Indigo Girls, sing their soul-baring lyrics as if they're the most important words they've ever voiced out loud, which is all the more affecting when you pay attention to the lyrics and realize the kind of vulnerabilities that these lyrics expose. My favorite song from "So Jealous" was and still is "I Know I Know I Know", a song that spends half of its time admitting to jealous, insecure behavior within a romantic relationship, and the other half acknowledging that this behavior is irrational and unfounded, that the other person in the relationship does love and care for the narrator (Tegan? Sara? I don't know which is the main vocalist). Without ever explicitly saying so, this song's lyrics constitute an apology from an insecure lover who has been lonely for so long that she doesn't know how to stop being afraid of loneliness.

At the time that I first obtained a copy of "So Jealous", this song hit very close to home for me. After spending the previous four years either completely single or in a pseudo-relationship with someone who refused to commit to me for nearly a year before finally ending things, I was finally in a serious relationship again. I was having trouble trusting the sincerity of the person I was dating, and that trouble was compounded by the fact that the relationship was long-distance (in fact, for most of it, the girl I was dating lived in another country). I ended up putting "I Know I Know I Know" on a mix CD for that girl, but of course it wasn't enough to make a difference--we broke up two months later. I continued to listen to "So Jealous" a lot during the first half of 2005, the time when getting over that relationship was hardest on me. I still liked "I Know I Know I Know", but related more heavily at that point to many of the other songs on the album, which traded that song's sophisticated expression of ambivalence for more standard lovelorn laments.

It's now been nearly three years since all of that went on. Recently, Tegan And Sara released their fifth album, "The Con". Even though it's been years since I played "So Jealous" with any kind of regularity, I was quite interested in checking out their new material, and downloaded a copy of "The Con" as soon as I could. At this point, I'm in a very different frame of mind than I was when "So Jealous" came out. I haven't been in a serious relationship since the aforementioned one, and have barely even dated anyone in the interim. I'm not nearly as lonely as I was in 2004, though. That last serious relationship forced me to step back and take a long look at what patterns I was following when I engaged in serious relationships, and what I had to do differently if I wanted them to stop crashing down around my ears.

Things have also changed in the intervening years for Tegan And Sara. While some of the songs on their new album still land on the pop end of the subgenre known as emo, others are more like electro-pop than anything else, and there are definitely less guitars on this album than there have been on any of their prior releases. Thankfully, their knack for strong melodies and powerfully delivered vocals remain intact. While it's true that I tend to like the guitar-driven songs here the best, even the most electronic songs always give me a strong enough vocal performance to retain my attention.

Their lyrics have changed too. On "So Jealous", the sophisticated lyrical approach of "I Know I Know I Know" was more the exception than the rule, but it seems to have been a sign of things to come, as many of the songs on "The Con" indicate in-depth thought processes that are far from the previously described "standard lovelorn laments". They're still singing about romantic relationships, but not in the way they used to. It seems like maybe Tegan, or Sara, or both of them, have also found themselves in the position to step back and take a long hard look at their own behavior within the context of these relationships. At least some of these examinations appear to take place within the lyrics to this album. For example, the album's title track. The phrase "The Con" is never spoken within the lyrics, but a close listen reveals just what they mean by it. The verses set the context, describing the dissolution of a relationship. The narrator is not the one ending things, and at first she's grasping at straws to try and stop it from happening. "I broke down and wrote you back before you had a chance to", she says in the first verse--and who hasn't been there? Flooding the inbox of a significant other that you fear is soon to be an ex, trying to hit upon that perfect combination of words that will keep that fear from coming true. Then in the second verse, she reaches for acceptance, tries to believe that this is ultimately a good thing: "Spelled out your name and list the reasons: --faint of heart, --don't call me back." But it doesn't really work, and by the end of the verse she's facing "a million hours left to think of you and think of that." None of this is the con, though. That's explained in the chorus, which consists in part of this line: "Nobody likes me--maybe if I cry." When all else fails, reach for the last tool left to you--naked emotional manipulation. The tears probably don't need much coaxing at times like that, but that doesn't excuse them and their use in order to garner a few more hours or days in which one forestalls the inevitable. The last line of the song is "Encircle me, I need to be taken down." That line could have a completely different meaning if it weren't for its last two words. But instead of soliciting hugs or even sex, she's begging to be stopped. The use of tears in that situation is an instinct, but deeper down, in a more rational part of her mind, she's ashamed of it.

"Back In Your Head" is not about the end of a relationship, but instead about problems that arise within a long-term, comfortable relationship. The narrator feels distant from her lover due to "a wall of books between us in our bed", and feels like she's not being seen anymore. "I'm not unfaithful," she says, "but I'll stray when I get a little scared." What's a shame is that it's often very hard to communicate this kind of alienated feeling when one's in the middle of it. In the second verse, she says, "when I jerk away from holding hands with you, I know these habits hurt important parts of you." I myself have been on both ends of this type of thing--the creation of drama where none needs to exist, just to try and draw the other person out, get them to vocalize or otherwise give overt signs of affection that has long since stopped being expressed out loud. It's hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between settling into a comfortable routine and the gradual loss of interest, and everyone wants reassurance from time to time that it's the former and not the latter, but what a hard thing to ask.

The last two songs on the album are a couple of the most powerful. "Dark Come Soon" seems to be an answer to a friend or lover who senses inadequacies. "So what, I lied, I lie to me too. Everything I say, I say to me first," she declares. This may not be a legitimate excuse for bad behavior, but it's nonetheless illuminating, and shows bravery in admitting a nearly universal truth that people generally don't want to face. The fact is, many of us lie to ourselves on a daily basis, whether to make it easier to forgive ourselves for our flaws, let ourselves off the hook for things we're not proud of doing, or just to reinforce our own insecurities and help justify never challenging them. It's something we all do, but again, it's one of the hardest things to speak out loud.

Album closer "call It Off", like the title track, examines a breakup, but this time from the perspective of the person who is ending the relationship. The song begins with the line, "I won't regret this, this thing that I'm saying," which seems to undercut its own certainty with its hesitance to name what's happening. "Call, break it off," the chorus begins, but that's followed immediately with "call, break my own heart." One thing that I've come to realize after my last few years of unattached contemplation is that the decision to end a relationship does not necessarily indicate a loss of feelings for the other person. Sometimes, no matter how much you care about someone, you know that the two of you aren't good for each other, that you're just making each other miserable on a day to day basis, no matter how hard you try not to. These breakups are the worst, for both parties, perhaps especially for the one who decides upon such a course of action. "Maybe you would have been something I'd be good at, but now we'll never know", Tegan and Sara sing together, with what sounds like genuine regret. The next lines make the regret even more palpable, as well as introducing a note of uncertainty: "I won't be sad but in case, I'll go there every day to make myself feel bad. There's a chance I'll start to wonder if this was the thing to do." This last line is a classic; the tendency of a person breaking things off with another is to throw in some tiny shred of hope that eventually, somewhere down the line, things could come back together again. Generally, there's no basis in reality for such a thing, but one feels the need to soften the blow, even if it gives someone false hope. Perhaps their next album will contain a song about how terrible they feel for giving someone false hope at the end of a relationship.

I feel bad for not going into more detail about the musical elements of these songs. The ones I've discussed above are my lyrical favorites, but while "The Con" is also musically one of my favorite tracks on the album, there are definitely others (such as "Hop A Plane" or "Nineteen") that I like far more for their music and their lyrics. In the end, though, it's the lyrics on this album that have really made an impression on me. Musically, these songs aren't all that complicated, and chances are that you'll enjoy them exactly as much as you'd think you'd enjoy an album that straddles the border between the poppier side of emo and the more emotional side of electro-synth-pop. But regardless of what you think of "The Con", I love it, and I'm proud to advertise that fact.

Tegan And Sara - The Con
Tegan And Sara - Call It Off



The Belfast Gypsies.

A lot of times, I sit down to write the first sentence of one of these blog entries and find myself thinking, "Duh, Andrew, everyone who has read this blog before already KNOWS this!" But most of the time, I end up starting the entry the way I'd planned anyway, because, truth to tell, I have no confidence that anyone is actually reading these entries on an ongoing basis. And so, without further ado, I bring you tonight's "DUH!" moment: I love garage rock, in all of its forms. From its beginning as rawly-recorded pre-British Invasion rock n roll singles in the late 50s to its ultimate evolution into the early 70s proto-metal that I've been discussing in recent blog entries, I love it all. I tend to favor the stuff with psychedelic elements, but lately (in the wake of a serious proto-metal overdose), I've been delving heavily into an area of this whole continuum that I usually don't pay that much attention to: freakbeat. This early 60s post-Beatles offshoot tends not to be quite "freaky" enough for me--too chained to R&B conventions of the time, not nearly as raw or loose as the garage bands that came along a year or two later. However, it's lately come to my attention that I just haven't been listening to the right shit where this whole style is concerned. For example, I've recently discovered the first Pretty Things album, and it's raw as fuck. Some parts of it sound like John Lee Hooker with a fuzzbox, other parts remind me of Pussy Galore (no, seriously), and still others sound like contemporaneous Rolling Stones tracks if the Stones had been dragged out of gutters at 2 am with vomit and piss stains on their suits and forced to record them right there, in the alley where they were found. It's brilliant, seriously.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the Belfast Gypsies--a group I read about in an article by the redoubtable Richie Unterberger that ran in Ugly Things issue 23. And that's a whole thing, see, because I could just as easily call The Belfast Gypsies "The Other Them". Let me explain: other than their one constant member (no, not Van Morrison--bassist Alan Henderson. Why yes, this IS going to get confusing!), Them had a constant revolving-door lineup. Their first huge member shakeup occurred right after their first recording session, and to make a long story short (check out the Unterberger article for the convoluted details), two brothers by the names of Jackie and Pat McAuley joined Them, on organ and drums respectively. They stayed in the band long enough to play on "Here Comes The Night" and "Baby Please Don't Go", among several other tracks, but were out by summer 1965, less than a year after they'd joined. By fall of 1965, they'd formed their own band, with guitarist Ken McLeod and bassist Mark Scott. Jackie continued playing organ, but also filled the lead vocal spot. Formed at a time when Van Morrison's Them had once again fallen apart (certainly not for the last time), the members and their smooth-talking manager attempted to parlay the fact that their band contained two former members of the well-known rock group Them into claiming that they, in fact, WERE the new incarnation of Them. Morrison and co. were not amused, and sued the McAuleys, et al, winning their court case and forcing the band who eventually became the Belfast Gypsies to perform under the name "The Other Them". Which they did, at least when they performed live. However, the posthumous album that contained all of their recordings was released under the name The Belfast Gypsies (a moniker bestowed upon them by the one and only Kim Fowley--more about him later). The album in question, though, was entitled "Them Belfast Gypsies", and released with a cover that gave the impression that it was in fact an album by Them called "Belfast Gypsies." Confused yet? If so, you're not the only one--according to Unterberger, retailers have been filing the album under Them ever since it came out. Even the blogger who had posted the mp3s of the album on Rapidshare had it listed on his blog as an album called "Belfast Gypsies" by the band Them.

Yeah, about that--since you can pretty much find any out of print garage-rock album you'd ever have an impulse to download hidden on Rapidshare and linked from one of the thousands of garage-rock mp3 blogs that are out there (ironic sidenote: it's generally easier to locate free, downloadable mp3s of entire out-of-print albums by garage bands than it is to download brand new releases by currently active major label bands. So uh, take that, RIAA? I guess?), I figured I'd go ahead and locate a copy of their lone album online, download it, and burn it to CD in preparation for reading about them. Sure enough, after 5 seconds of Googling (and three hours of waiting for Rapidshare to let my IP address download the second part of a two-part archive), I had a burned copy of the Belfast Gypsies CD cued up on my stereo.

Unterberger says something else early on in his 20-plus page article: this would all just be a footnote to the story of Van Morrison's career if it weren't for the fact that the Belfast Gypsies album is as great as it is. And he's right, as I soon discovered. There are many references in the article to how similar Jackie McAuley's voice sounds to Van Morrison's. That's true to an extent, but what a statement like that misses is just how much more intense Jackie's singing is than Van's. I think it's appropriate at this juncture for me to mention that I've never had all that much use for most of Them's music. I guess that's somewhat made up for by the fact that I consider "Baby Please Don't Go" to be one of the best songs I've ever heard in my life, but still--most of their stuff just doesn't measure up to that song. It's too mannered, too calm. But no one could ever think of applying either of those adjectives to the music of The Belfast Gypsies. Oh good god no. Jackie McAuley's voice sounds like Van Morrison in the same way that "Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five sounds like the Yardbirds--it's the essence of that sound, boiled down to its simplest form and then dirtied up beyond all belief. Jackie McAuley sounds like Van Morrison if you got him wasted and made him sing until his throat was raw. His nasal howling is more ferocious than that of The Troggs' Reg Presley, generally the gold standard of snotty English freakbeat singers, but still manages to maintain a firm command of the song's melody even when he's ripping through it at top volume (in this way, he sort of reminds me of Eric Burdon on the earliest Animals singles, only snarling when Burdon merely shouted). McAuley has the same vocal range and Belfast accent as Van Morrison, but the resemblance is merely superficial, and I can't understand how anyone was ever fooled for more than a second.

But that's OK, see, because I can't imagine, by the time anyone figured out what scam had been perpetrated, that they even cared. Why would anyone want their money back? This record is just too great. It starts with yet another piece of Them-sploitation, a track called "Gloria's Dream" that opens with a really familiar descending three-chord uptempo riff. That's OK, though, because any resemblance to a more popular Them track is outshined as soon as Jackie McAuley's inimitable voice comes in. His evil, cheap-sounding organ propels the band through two verses and choruses, the latter of which feature some great party-style backing vocals that are none too concerned with staying on beat. It's a fun garage rock tune, but it doesn't really approach greatness until the solo. A majority of the songs on this album are produced by Kim Fowley, including this one, and in Unterberger's article, guitarist Ken McLeod notes (with some distaste--whatever, Ken!) that Fowley had stopped him after his first attempt at overdubbing a solo and told him to "do it again, and just play noise." I guess the idea of noise that prevailed in that era was a lot different from mine, because it just sounds like McLeod played a really sloppy and distorted version of the song's main riff, but regardless, Fowley's instincts were dead on, and the solo is perfect. But what's even better is the third verse. After spending the first two verses telling us about a wild and out of control party (interestingly, the lyrics to "Gloria's Dream" never mention a dream or anyone named Gloria), Jackie begins the third verse by commanding everyone to shut all the windows and doors. After he sings the first line, the rest of the band starts making frantic shushing noises, and the guitar and organ both drop out as the rhythm section moves into a hushed vamp. The band quickly moves back into a full-volume chorus, but for the few seconds that the third verse is happening, a truly frightening aura creeps into the song. For those few seconds, I get the same charge from "Gloria's Dream" that I get from my favorite psychedelic garage classics.

This isn't the only place on the album where Belfast Gypsies deliver this sort of emotional charge. "Midnight Train", an extended blues jam that spotlights a wailing performance on harmonica by Jackie, has a constant air of foreboding that grows more intense as the song goes on, even though the band's rhythmic backing grows quieter rather than louder. It's followed immediately by "Aria Of The Fallen Angels", a quiet, moody instrumental adapted from Bach's "Aria In D". It's strange at first to hear a garage rock band playing a song like this, but it fits so well with the mood of the rest of the album that in the end, it's somehow apt. Later, they do a song called "Last Will And Testament", better known as "St. James Infirmary", which gets the proper blues-death-ballad treatment. It soon builds from a calm beginning into a pounding frenzy, much like "House Of The Rising Sun" by The Animals, only with a raw-nerve abandon that Eric Burdon never quite captured.

One of my favorite songs on here is the most obviously Kim Fowley-influenced track, "People, Let's Freak Out." It's a super-simple two chord Bo Diddley beat jam, and Jackie McAuley's voice is pushed to its limit, especially on the choruses. Despite the fact that the lyrics sound like total 60s-era cliches now, this song is still fun, and it definitely makes clear that The Belfast Gypsies were willing to get crazy and push the boundaries of the whole freakbeat thing.

This album isn't perfect, by any means--the tempo of the album drags on side two because of a poor sequencing decision that places two ballads in a row (locating their excellent version of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" after "Last Will And Testament" instead of before would have solved this problem nicely), and "Suicide Song" is not up to the quality standard of the rest of the album (the fact that it's obviously a joke is irrelevant, as it's the music that falls flat, not the lyrics). Worst of all, the five alternate mixes added to the CD as bonus tracks are, to my ears, identical to the album versions (supposedly the French EP mix of "Midnight Train" fixes a mastering flaw, but even if that's true--if so, I can't tell the difference--it could just as easily have replaced the album version), and the sixth bonus track is a filler instrumental that, according to the Unterberger article, wasn't even performed by The Belfast Gypsies. But these are minor quibbles--for the most part, this album is great. It definitely beats out any full-length work I've ever heard by the real Them, and that alone makes it worth seeking out. So hop to it, kids!

The Belfast Gypsies - Gloria's Dream
The Belfast Gypsies - Last Will And Testament



Bonehead Proto-Metal Awesomeness, Part II

I think this is probably going to be the last entry in this series, at least for a while. I'm still enjoying all the fuzzed-out noise that I'm downloading and burning to CDs, but the more of these albums that I collect, the less distinct each individual one becomes, and the harder it is to come up with a unique take on each of them. So, while I'm not ruling out coming back to one or more of these somewhere down the line, I think I'm done with coming up with new capsule reviews of each one as I acquire them. For the record, here is the Decibel Magazine article that started all of this, and here is Part I of this series.

The Litter - Emerge: Holy Jesus. I think I said this about the Randy Holden album in Part I, but fuck it: this is pretty much the shit, right here. For those of you who, like me, only knew The Litter before this list from their excellent contribution to the first Nuggets box, "Action Woman", and were therefore a bit worried when you learned that they'd changed styles on their third album, fear not. Yes, The Litter have largely abandoned the R&B/garage-punk song structures of their earlier work for a more psychedelic sensibility, but the breakneck energy of "Action Woman" is still here, and in spades. The drummer is all over his kit, the guitarists stomp their fuzz pedals and shred their strings with hell-for-leather ferocity, and the singer shouts and wails in a manner that leaves no room for doubt re: his commitment to rock n' fuckin roll of whatever stripe. I got into downloading the records on this list so that I could have something to play when my copies of "Vincebus Eruptum" and "On Time"* hadn't scratched my itch completely. "Emerge" fits that bill to a tee--in fact, it does so better than any of the other albums I've heard from this list so far. Hunt this one down with the quickness. P.S.--Wait til you hear their cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth". Thought that particular hippie-era chestnut was overplayed beyond hope of redemption by decades of moldy classic rock stations? Think again.

*--Yes, it's true, I now have a vinyl copy of "On Time." I bought it last weekend, FOR A QUARTER, AT A SIDEWALK SALE. I only wish I could have seen the look on my own face when I found it.

Glass Harp - Glass Harp: Well. If there's anything about this album that caused it to make Decibel's list, it was definitely not some element of heaviness. This isn't proto-metal by any stretch, and its even somewhat heavy moments are few and far between. None of that's to say that I don't like it, though. Quite the contrary. This album won me over from the first track, "Can You See Me", which is a 6 and a half minute psychedelic epic, complete with a string quartet and a layer of acoustic strumming beneath the electric guitar leads. This song brilliantly evokes the same morose pastoral feel that I got from The Poets a few weeks ago. It's the perfect soundtrack to a rainy afternoon at an English countryside estate, and therefore probably makes those who are inclined in that direction feel the urge to smoke weed. The rest of the album is rather eclectic, and ranges from totally acoustic, drumless acid-folk tracks to the heaviest tracks here, relatively speaking, which still aren't very heavy but have a really nice San Francisco 1967 psychedelic rock sound to them. Nothing else is quite as awesome as the opening track, but there's no noticeable dropoff in quality either, and I'd therefore recommend this record to anyone who isn't just here for the proto-metal.

Damnation of Adam Blessing - Second Damnation: Oh damn. The first song on this album, "No Way", kicks it off in about as fine a fashion as is possible. A thick, funky bassline over syncopated drumming that has that same fine 60s analog production that made Don Brewer's simplistic beats sound amazing and brilliant on Grand Funk Railroad's "On Time." These beats aren't any more complicated than Brewer's--both drummers are blessed with a heavy bass foot, but that's about all they've got to make them stand out--but they sound great, as does Adam Blessing himself, vocalist of this quintet, who has the chops to do both heavy blues singing, as he does on this opening track, and prettier melodies, as on tracks like "Everyone", which have more of a San Fran psych feel. The group alternates between these two styles pretty much throughout the album (though bassist Ray Benich's lines always sound thick, which gives this record a heavy edge at all times), and since they're good at both, it stays enjoyable throughout. Nothing quite stands up to that first track, though. Holy crap.

Peter Green - The End Of The Game: I had heard some of this guy's work from back when he was leading the original incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, and it was good bluesy stuff, so I was in no way prepared for what I got when I put on this album. The thing in the Decibel story about Peter Green going down a steep cliff and just falling and falling and falling is pretty goddman accurate, really--I just wouldn't have known how to interpret that. Now that I've heard it, I can tell you what they mean: this album is entirely instrumental, and consists of 6 songs, most of which are between 5 and 10 minutes. Said songs all occupy the territory that exists in the space between Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" and pretty much everything I've ever heard involving Helios Creed. So: basic rhythmic backing while Peter Green unspools long, drawn-out guitar solos that don't really seem to be going anywhere in particular. I have enough respect for Peter Green to really cringe at the idea of calling this directionless noodling. But rest assured, if I'd never heard of the guy, I would have said that right up front. You should probably avoid this.

Three Man Army - A Third Of A Lifetime/Gun - Gunsight: I'm lumping these two together because both bands were driven by the Gurvitz brothers, Adrian and Paul. Apparently Gun came first, and the version of their second album, "Gunsight", that I found was paired with their debut album, "Gun", on one CD. I can certainly understand why it was that Decibel recommended the second album rather than the debut--"Gun" is not all that great for the most part, and on first listen to the two-fer disc, I found myself thinking "this is really not very good." But then it made the switch from the first to the second album, and there was a noticeable improvement.

Before we go any farther, I have to admit something. Fact is, it's getting a bit harder to write these reviews, because a lot of these bands sound very similar, and it's hard to point out elements that distinguish them from the others--especially when there aren't really any to speak of. But that's not to say that "Gunsight" is boring or mediocre. It's a pretty good heavy-blues/proto-metal album, with occasional acoustic slide guitar blues intervals that actually are reasonably unique. However, I can't really say that anything in particular about this album stands out. If you've already checked out all of the albums I've highly recommended and you still want more, by all means, grab this one.

But before you do that, you should probably grab the Three Man Army album. It's their debut release, which makes it the next thing that the Gurvitz brothers did after "Gunsight". And "A Third Of A Lifetime" is just as significant of an improvement over "Gunsight" as that album was over the self-titled first Gun album. "A Third of a Lifetime" kicks off with an uptempo rocker called "Butter Queen", with a catchy and amusing chorus ("If your name is Barbara, how come they call you 'Butter Queen'?") that will get stuck in your head all day. Admittedly, this is the album's strongest song, but there are others here that are worth your time, and that give ample demonstration of the reasoning behind Decibel's praise of Adrian Gurvitz's guitar skills. Interestingly enough, the album features, in addition to the Gurvitz brothers on guitar and bass, a revolving cast of superstar drummers, including Buddy Miles and Carmine Appice. None of them distinguish themselves as anything other than solid timekeepers, but they serve their purpose, which is about all one can ask. By the way, allmusic will tell you that neither of these albums is very good. Ignore them. Remember, boneheadedness is a virtue.

Dust - Dust: Some more nice proto-metal slide-guitar rockin that doesn't distinguish itself as unique but certainly proves its worth. Decibel mentions "From A Dry Camel", a ten-minute dirge epic, but I'm a lot more excited about the higher-energy stuff on side one. Also, it's interesting that this is Marky Ramone on drums (he's certainly doing a good bit more with his drum parts than he did on the classic Ramones tracks he's famous for), but it's singer/guitarist Richie Wise who really dominates the proceedings here, and dude rips off some really fine solos in a lot of places on this record. This is a fine addition to my growing list of stuff to put on when I've already played "Vincebus Eruptum" and "On Time" and still want more of the same.

Road - Road: Far be it from me to ever pretend that Jimi Hendrix's best work (i.e. his three albums with the Experience) were only good because of what he himself did. In fact, I can't imagine there's anyone out there who has ever heard those albums that won't admit the importance of bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell to the greatness of those records. For that reason alone, I was excited to hear this album from Noel Redding's post-Experience project. It's not Hendrix, of course, but it's not bad. The songs have that same epic-quest feel that I get from a lot of Led Zeppelin's more pastoral moments (think "Over The Hills and Far Away" or "Ten Years Gone"), but much like Zeppelin, Road manages to retain the heavy rock feel even as they explore more melodic territory. Guitarist Rod Richards (ex-Rare Earth) sings on some of these songs, and he has a better voice than Redding, but Redding's songs, especially the bluesy "I'm Going Down To The Country", which features a lot of acoustic slide guitar, are still good. This album is as good a place as any to bring up one other thing: the preponderance of drum solos on early 70s proto-metal albums. They seem to have been almost obligatory in the wake of Cream's "Toad" and Zeppelin's "Moby Dick", and it's kind of a shame, because nothing ruins the flow of an album quicker. Often, it's the second-to-last track that contains the drum solo: "Friends" here, "T.N.U.C." on Grand Funk Railroad's "On Time," "Future Of The Past" on The Litter's "Emerge", etc. I kind of wish this wasn't the case, but what are you gonna do?

The Litter - Feeling
Glass Harp - Can You See Me
The Damnation Of Adam Blessing - No Way
Three Man Army - Butter Queen



Latest complaint.

You know, sometimes I hate superhero comics.

Warren Ellis has a book of essays about the comics industry called "Come In Alone", and I think I've mentioned it in this blog before. In it, he talks several times about how a lot of the reason that superhero comics have such a stranglehold over the comics industry is because so many comic fans continue to buy them no matter how good or bad they are, irrespective of who writes them. I've read that book twice so far this year--because I liked it so much the first time that I wanted to read it again within a few months--and both times, I thought long and hard about how complicit I myself am in what Warren's talking about. I do buy a decent amount of superhero comics, it's true. And sometimes I kind of hate it. I would really rather be reading more stuff like "Scalped" or "Criminal" or "DMZ". Fact is, though, it's just not out there in all that great a quantity. And when guys who write series like that also turn around and write superhero tales on a regular basis, can I really be blamed for wanting to buy those comics too?

Lately, I've been lucky: the titles I tend to buy without regard to who is writing them have been very good. Daredevil and Batman both have A-list writers at the moment (Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison, respectively), and Detective Comics, while less consistent than Batman's main title, has mostly been written by Paul Dini lately, and Dini's very good at coming up with single-issue Batman stories that stay intelligent and creative even as they hew closely to (somewhat tired) conventions of comic plotting. They make a nice contrast to Morrison's more high-concept work in recent issues of Batman.

The problem: Spider-Man. See, I don't buy the less relevant secondary and tertiary Spider-Man titles (by which I mean Sensational Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. I DO buy Ultimate Spider-Man, and most of the Ultimate line, in fact, but... well, more on that later). I can keep up with Spider-Man's main storyline, which is written by the talented (if not quite A-list) J. Michael Stracynski, and feel like I'm getting my Spider-Man fix. If someone brilliant was working on one of the other titles, I might actually start picking it up, but thus far that hasn't happened. Apparently, a lot of other people think the same way I do, because Marvel has recently come to the realization that Amazing Spider-Man sells about three times as many copies as their other Spider-Man book. And this has led them to pull a really dirty trick. To wit: in a few months, they are cancelling the other two Spider-Man titles, attaching their creative teams to Amazing Spider-Man, and making that title a tri-monthly. If that is the right term. What I'm saying is, it'll be coming out three times a month.

This really pisses me off. You see, I wasn't born yesterday. I am well aware of what Marvel are doing here. Evidently, someone in their sales or marketing department took a look at the success DC comics had with their weekly title 52, and are evidently continuing to have with its successor, Countdown, and said "It's been proven that they'll buy a comic every week if it comes out every week. So fine--if they won't buy three Spider-Man titles a month, we'll put out ONE Spider-Man title THREE times a month! Then they'll HAVE to buy three Spider-Man books a month, or they won't be able to follow the story at all!"

Now, I love Spider-Man. In fact, out of the three superheroes I love the most, he is probably my favorite. I have explained my reasoning to many of my friends, but I don't think I've ever mentioned it here, so I'll elaborate. See, as a kid, I could understand everything Spider-Man went through. I think it's fitting that Stan Lee bestowed spider powers on a high-school-age nerd. Peter Parker was a brilliant kid, just like me. But he found that it cut no ice in the rest of his life--he had few friends, was a constant target for bullying, and girls didn't know he was alive. When he gained the spider powers, he could do all kinds of wonderful things that benefited society, and in fact felt obligated to do so, but a significant portion of the population of New York thought he was just as bad as the criminals he fought. And even if everyone had loved Spider-Man, it didn't help Peter Parker at all. He and his aunt struggled with money problems in the wake of his uncle's death, and later, when Peter moved out of his aunt's house, he had financial struggles of his own. Girls still didn't know he was alive for the most part (Mary Jane Watson didn't become Peter's steady love interest until years after I started reading Amazing Spider-Man on a regular basis). And he still had to put up with teasing and bullying from the kids he went to school with, because they still just saw him as an awkward nerd. You'd think that being Spider-Man would have meant that Peter Parker's troubles were over, but the fact was that it didn't do him a damn bit of good. This, to me, was a nearly painful reminder of my own life. Like Parker, I was a brilliant yet socially awkward nerd, with few friends and no attention from girls. When I grew up and realized that I had no interest in the sort of prosperous middle-class lifestyle that society wanted for me, I ended up struggling with money in the same way that Peter always did. Reading Spider-Man, both as a kid and as an adult, was a way to read the struggles of a superhero that was, in many ways, just like me. I liked Spider-Man then, and like him now, because I relate to him.

Oh gosh, I've gotten pretty far afield of what I was trying to talk about. Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that I love Spider-Man. But I don't know if I love him enough to buy a Spider-Man book every week. Fact is, it was Brian Michael Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man that got me back into reading comics a few years ago (after hardly picking any up from puberty until my late 20s), and it's that title that gives me the most Spider-Man-related satisfaction these days. The characters and conventions of the title are the same as they are in the original Spider-Man title, but there's very little backstory baggage to deal with in the Ultimate title. Furthermore, Peter and Mary Jane have been married for years in the original title, and I just can't relate to his happy romantic life. In Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter's still in high school, and constantly struggles with romantic issues. Hate to say it, but this has more relevance to my life than a guy who is my age and has been married for years. And you know, to top all of this off, Bendis is a better writer than any of the writers who've worked on Amazing Spider-Man in the time that I've read it. I realize that Stan Lee's work on the first 100 or so issues is probably the best writing he ever did, but that doesn't mean it's really all that great. Stan was an idea man. His plotting is contrived, his characters wooden, his dialogue unrealistic. I can enjoy his work on the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, but a lot of that is probably due to nostalgia. If I came upon it for the first time now, I would probably find it hard to sustain interest in--and can you blame me?

So--I'm considering dropping Amazing Spider-Man from my pull list, for the crime of going to a 3 issues a month release plan. That's reasonable, right? You might think it's less so, though, after I make this next revelation: I bought every issue of 52, and am currently buying every issue of Countdown. And that's not the worst part. This is the worst part: I still haven't read the last 6 or so issues of 52, and I haven't even begun Countdown. I started buying 52 because Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen were working on the title, and while I enjoyed it at first (especially the Renee Montoya sections--I was a big fan of Gotham Central), I lost interest after a while, and began shuffling every new issue to the bottom of my to-be-read pile. At this point, I've got a stack of maybe 15 or so issues down there. Maybe even more. And before I can get into them, I'm going to have to refresh my memory of the prior issues of 52, which will probably involve starting over from the beginning, considering that it's been nearly four months since I read any of them.

It's this kind of shit that drives Warren Ellis crazy--I know. And I feel guilty every time I think about it. But rather than dropping Countdown from my subscription box, I keep paying for it every week. There's a rationale for this; I always think, "But what if I get around to reading all of those issues I bought but haven't read, and they're good? I'll want the rest of the issues then." It's a legitimate point, but rather than continuing to pile up comics that cost me $3 a week, I should probably just make it a point to sit down and read through them all, so that I know for sure. You want to know a secret? I kind of don't even want to. At this point, it seems like a big pain in the ass, and when I have stacks and stacks of unread comics that I could read instead--most of which I'm sure I'll like better than 52 and Countdown--it's hard to force myself to do it. So far, I haven't managed.

And I'm sort of afraid that, for this reason, Marvel's nefarious plan will work. I might let Amazing Spider-Man stack up for weeks and weeks, or I might read the first few three-issue months and find the quality level drastically lowered. Or maybe both will happen. If so, will I be able to pull the plug, when I haven't been able to do so on Countdown? Or will I keep buying a mediocre comic title in the hopes that it'll get good again? This is why I hate superhero comics sometimes. Not because they suck, but because they put me in awkward positions like this.

Because see, sometimes they're really good. The work-for-hire terms that allow the big two to treat their creative teams as interchangeable, and to value long-running characters over writers and artists, are so terrible that it's sometimes surprising that any half-decent writer or artist will bother to work on superhero comics at all. Then you remember the reality of the comics business. To wit: superhero comics outsell non-superhero comics by at least three to one. And while losing the rights to one's work forever to a faceless company is a truly shitty thing, the truth is that superhero comics pay far, far better than smaller, creator-owned titles. Bendis and Ellis and Brubaker, among many others, may be geniuses, but even geniuses have to put food on the table. So they keep working on superhero comics, and I therefore keep buying them. Sometimes, these purchases are far more rewarding than they have any right to be. For example, in this month's issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed's New Avengers: Illuminati mini-series, the first five pages are devoted entirely to a discussion about women between the members of the Illuminati (Charles Xavier, Prince Namor, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, and Black Bolt of the Inhumans). It starts out serious and downbeat, but quickly turns hilarious, and does much to reveal the different personalities of each character--the kind of thing that was almost never bothered with for much of the history of the medium. By the fourth page of the comic, I was holding my breath with excitement at the prospect of an entire issue devoted to a conversation between the Illuminati about what women want. When an actual plot was introduced on page 6, I was disappointed. The rest of the issue was good, don't get me wrong. But those first five pages were absolute brilliance. And as long as superhero comics continue to present me with moments of brilliance on that level, I'll keep buying them. No matter how much I sometimes hate them.



I can hear the grass grow.

Back when I first got the second Nuggets box set, The Move were one of the first bands that caught my attention. It probably helped a little that their song was within the first half-dozen tracks on the box, but mostly it was just the sheer brilliance of "I Can Hear The Grass Grow" that piqued my interest. It's obviously the story of a young mod walking around his hometown while tripping on acid, and the musical backing to this story is catchy and distinctive; perhaps a touch more melodic than the average garage-rock track of the era, but still retaining plenty of kick (especially in Ace Kefford's thick, menacing bassline) and making up for the slight pop edge with plenty of trippy details gained through unconventional instrumentation and strategic reverb on the vocals. This song has made plenty of mixes over the years, and I'm sort of surprised that it's taken so long for me to actually obtain anything by The Move (actually, though, I downloaded all of their albums at one point last year, but before I could familiarize myself with them, my computer crashed and I lost everything I hadn't backed up--which was a lot).

But recently, I located a 29-track deluxe reissue of their first album. The original album doesn't include "I Can Hear the Grass Grow", but it was added as a bonus track along with several other non-LP singles from the same era. Now, I've often heard people praise the later work by The Move more heavily than the work of their original mid-60s mod/psych lineup. However, I look upon this praise with skepticism--after all, it's apparently the later work, after Jeff Lynne joined the band, that points most clearly to Lynne and original Move guitarist Roy Wood's eventual formation of ELO, a band I completely and totally hate. Plus, if there's one thing that this deluxe reissue has made clear, it's that "I Can Hear The Grass Grow" is not an isolated incident. Nope, The Move created a lot of catchy psychedelic pop songs during their initial era as a band, all of which retained a significant portion of garage-rock heaviness. There are a few string-laden duds here, such as "The Girl Outside", and even one obvious example of the whimsical sense of humor that would later overtake the band and point the way for ELO--a 50's doo-wop pastiche entitled "Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart", which definitely does not hold up to repeated listenings.

Fortunately, these questionable tracks are outnumbered by the essential tunes on this album, which begin immediately with "Yellow Rainbow", a song that begins with a distorted guitar riff over backwards drums. Both of these drop out after only two repetitions, at which point Ace Kefford comes in with a thudding bass intro that moves into the main body of the song. As with "I Can Hear The Grass Grow", the chorus of "Yellow Rainbow" is undeniably catchy, with its melody driven by falsetto backing vocals, but with Kefford's thick bassline and rolling tom fills from drummer Bev Bevan keeping things driving forward. "(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree" is much more unabashedly pop, with tinkling electric piano overtaking the bass (which is already much louder and more upfront in the mix than the softly strummed guitars) on the singsong choruses, and a string quartet on the song's bridge, but nonetheless it distinguishes itself due to the tenacity of the chorus, which will stick in your head all day. "Weekend" shows a 50s influence in a similar manner to "Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart", but it's a much more serious song, which mixes the garage/psych elements of The Move's sound with the rockabilly swing of 50s stars like Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins to create an excellent synthesis of these two similar but distinct styles. And closing track "Cherry Blossom Clinic" also manages a synthesis, this time of The Move's two different standard styles. It begins with the standard thudding bass and snarling guitars of their more garage-rock tracks, and this sound dominates on the verses. But as the choruses come in, strings and horns rise out of the murky mix and take the entire song into a much more orchestrated pop direction. By the end of the song, Ace Kefford's bass and Trevor Burton's distorted guitar are every bit as loud as the strings, horns, and Carl Wayne's pretty vocal track. But rather than fighting for dominance, these two sounds achieve harmony, in much the same way that the two distinct sides of The Move find harmony over the course of the entire album.

There are many more great songs here, from the single "Fire Brigade" to the non-LP B-side "The Disturbance" (which outshines its original A-side, "Night Of Fear", and raises the question of why the band would have released the songs in that order, instead of flipping them--perhaps because of "The Disturbance"s chaotic, disturbing [no pun intended] ending?) and the catchy, poppy album track "Flowers In The Rain"--which, if you listen closely enough to the lyrics, seems to come from that same secretly-tripping perspective as "I Can Hear The Grass Grow". And there are even more than that, but really, if I'm going to list them all, we'll be here all day. Suffice it to say that my further exploration into the music of The Move has been a thoroughly enjoyable endeavor. I'm less enthused about checking out their later records, since Trevor Burton and Ace Kefford left before their second LP, with Carl Wayne also departing immediately after that one--all of which leads me to think that their later work was that of a decidedly different band. However, I'd recommend the self-titled debut Move album to anyone, especially the deluxe edition, as many of the unreleased songs included on it are just as good as the LP tracks.

The Move - Yellow Rainbow
The Move - Cherry Blossom Clinic

More boneheaded proto-metal awesomeness coming in a day or two.



Boneheaded proto-metal awesomeness Part I

Apparently the most recent issue of Decibel Magazine is devoted to stoner-rock. Now, I myself am not the hugest stoner rock fan. Although I've got my faves from the genre (Kyuss, Cavity), I don't typically get all that excited about it, and with it becoming so trendy over the last few years, I've actually been downright sick of it at least half the time lately. However, as has been discussed (or, perhaps more accurately, belabored) on this blog in the past, I do love 60s era garage/psych/proto-punk as a genre more than almost any other, and I'm always on the lookout for new gems of that particular stripe. So when Decibel, as part of their stoner-rock theme, ran a feature that listed 50 of the best late 60s/early 70s proto-metal albums that time forgot, it was a rare but welcome case of my own interests dovetailing nicely with those of the type of people who'd be excited about a stoner-rock theme issue.

Decibel immediately scored points with me by placing Grand Funk Railroad's "On Time", an album that was introduced to me by my father, and that I've loved since my high school days, at #2 on their list. Figured I, "if the rest of these albums are even half as good as that one is, I'm doing myself a disservice by not hunting all of them down with the quickness." So, with some help from my friend Brandon (who still has access to the peer-to-peer file-sharing network Soulseek, something I haven't had since moving into a house with no internet last fall), I began hunting these albums down with the quickness. At this point, I've obtained nearly a dozen of them, and have absorbed a bunch of them fully enough to give my own opinion on them. I will do so at this juncture.

Atomic Rooster - Death Walks Behind You: I've known about Atomic Rooster for a while, having read a review of three of their albums in an issue of Ugly Things a few years ago, and having encountered organist/bandleader Vincent Crane's work in the short-lived psychedelic trio The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. In fact, I even downloaded a best-of compilation by them around the time I read the review in Ugly Things, but for whatever reason, it didn't hit me right, and I went away from it thinking that Atomic Rooster weren't that great. However, since all I'd heard was a best-of comp, I went ahead and grabbed this album anyway (in my experience, my idea of what an artist's best tracks are is usually pretty different from anyone else's, so I've learned not to trust best-of's). I'm glad I did, because it's turned out to be pretty fucking outstanding. Before we go any further, let me clear the air about one point: some of you may have heard that Carl Palmer, the P in ELP, began his recording career in this band. It's true, but Palmer only played on Atomic Rooster's first album. "Death Walks Behind You" is their second. The original Rooster trio was rounded out by a bassist/vocalist, but he also departed inbetween the first and second Rooster albums, and on this record, he's replaced by a similar-sounding vocalist, who plays guitar instead of bass. I haven't heard the first Rooster album, but based on the awesomeness of the guitar/organ interplay on this one, it was a good choice. As Decibel points out, it's hard to get past the sheer creepy intensity of the opening title track, but for those who do, there are plenty of treats here. "Sleeping For Years" has a dark groove worthy of early Black Sabbath, mixed with the kind of duelling organ/guitar fireworks that The Doors only wish they could have pulled off. Meanwhile, "I Can't Take No More" is Blue Cheer/Grand Funk-style bluesy thump, with Vincent Crane switching from his usual organ to piano for part of the song with no loss in vitality. Atomic Rooster remind me of Black Sabbath in other ways, too; there's an overwhelming darkness of mood here, present in all of the songs, that has only really stood out to me on a few other albums I've heard in my life, chief among them being Black Sabbath's debut album. Not so coincidentally, another dark, creepy album this one reminds me of is The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's sole full-length. Without Arthur Brown's over-the-top shrieks, funky arrangements, and Blake-esque Satan-fixated lyrics, "Death Walks Behind You" is less over the top than that album, but this only lends gravity to its persistent dark mood. It may not surprise you, upon listening to this album, that head Rooster Vincent Crane suffered from persistent mental illness, ultimately committing suicide in 1983.

Armageddon - Armageddon/Captain Beyond - Captain Beyond: Maybe the fact that both of these bands featured drummer Bobby Caldwell is not reason enough to lump them together in a single overview, but I also noticed a good deal of musical similarity between these two acts, so it feels appropriate to me. Of the two, Armageddon's 1974 LP holds more historical value, as it was the last album recorded by former Yardbirds vocalist Keith Relf before his untimely death due to electric shock. However, Relf isn't nearly as dominant of a presence here as one might expect--guitarist Martin Pugh is the star of the show. His complex, note-heavy riffing is ahead of its time for 1974, presaging the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and giving this album a decidedly more modern flair than most of the albums from this list that I've heard. With three of the album's eight songs stretching out to more than eight minutes in length, it's probably no surprise that Relf's vocals occupy a much smaller percentage of the total time than do Pugh's guitar workouts, but when they do show up, they're still obviously the work of a talented singer--though they are quite a bit different from what he did in the Yardbirds. What will lead the listener to recognize Relf's Yardbirds pedigree, if anything, is his harmonica playing, which adds a welcome texture to many of the longer jam sections on this record. Captain Beyond are far less prone to launch into long jam sections; in fact, they fit 13 songs into the 37 minute duration of their self-titled album (compared to Armageddon's 8 songs in 41 minutes), and no song goes on longer than 4 minutes. With more standard three and four chord blues progressions taking the place of Pugh's guitar histrionics, Captain Beyond have a much more solid riff-rocking sound, which is still somewhat similar to Armageddon for all of that (probably due to similar rhythmic structures). These guys are more into rocking hard than jamming out, and do so with panache on tracks like "Raging River Of Fear" and the opening "Dancing Madly Backwards (On A Sea Of Air)". In the end, I couldn't tell you which of these albums I like better; both have their charms, and both are worth getting.

High Tide - Sea Shanties: Based on what I'd read in Decibel about this band, I was a bit put off at first by what I got when I listened to their album. I wouldn't expect anything described as "ludicrously loud and violent" to feature vocals that remind me of nothing so much as Jim Morrison. In fact, one thing this list has taught me is that The Doors were a much bigger influence on their contemporaries than I ever would have expected, based on the way they're looked at today.

See, the thing is, I like a lot of the music that comes from the late 60s and early 70s, which is often thought of as "the classic rock era". But I don't tend to like many of the bands from that time that are critically acclaimed and remain in heavy rotation on classic rock radio today. The bands that are singled out for that kind of praise (which can at times verge on totally uncritical worship) seem to receive their status based on qualities that aren't the same as the qualities I enjoy in the bands from that era. Specifically, we're coming up on the explanation for a word I used in the title of this post: "Bonehead". No matter the intelligence level of the performers (certainly not something I'm in any position to ascertain), the music from that time that I like the most tends to have in common a certain element of glorious ignorance (not to say stupidity). A lot of these musicians who had records out at the time were untutored teenagers who'd bashed on instruments for a year, maybe two at the most, in their parents' garages, then gotten a record deal and knocked out some singles and/or albums. Most of them had regional hits at best, never attaining the kind of stardom received by the groups that are critically revered today. Today, listening back to groups from that era, I find myself using that stardom as a bullshit detector, often writing off groups like The Doors, Cream, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, based on just how popular they continue to be. Sometimes, an eventual honest reappraisal of the music of these bands makes me feel like I was justified all along (The Grateful Dead). Other times, I berate myself as a fool for wasting any time not appreciating a band's sheer brilliance (Cream). Mostly, though, I find that things aren't so cut and dried--that all of these bands have both good and bad moments (though sometimes the bad far outnumber the good). And no matter what I find, I certainly can't ever hold it against a band from that same time period if they took influence from one of these currently worshipped bands. After all, how could High Tide have known that The Doors would come to seem odious in their ubiquity, nearly 40 years after they made an album that showed a marked influence from that band?

Besides, when I went back and listened to the High Tide album a second time, I enjoyed it a lot more. Being prepared for the vocalist's resemblance to Jim Morrison allowed me to look past it and appreciate them on their own merits, which are considerable. After all, they don't sound that much like The Doors. Maybe if Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had replaced the rest of their band with the original, "Vincebus Eruptum"-era lineup of Blue Cheer, and then added the electric violinist from pre-Crazy Horse band The Rockets, it would be somewhere close to this. But they didn't, and that left things wide open for High Tide. They do resemble The Doors quite closely on the quieter tracks here, but the 15-minute opening one-two punch of "Futilist's Lament" and "Death Warmed Up" really does approach ludicrous levels of violent volume, which is more than enough to make up for the occasional sidetrip into ballad territory.

MC5 - Starship: Live At Sturgis Armory: I've actually been looking for this one for a while, as the MC5 are a big favorite of mine, and I've read about them sufficiently enough to be well aware that their debut album, "Kick Out The Jams", was heavily weighted towards the most commercial aspects of the MC5's diverse live sound at the time of recording. "Starship" begins with Rob Tyner gasping, "Kick out the jams, motherfu-fu-fu...", then BANG! Dennis Thompson hits his snare drum once, and the band launches into their signature tune. I find myself missing "Rambling Rose", which begins the debut album, but hey, if I do want to hear that song, I still have a vinyl copy of "Kick Out the Jams" that I can put on anytime. Nearly every other song from that album is here, along with a good many of the MC5's live staples that were left off of it--another free jazz cover (Pharoah Sanders' "Upper Egypt", which joins the title track, a Sun Ra cover), a medley of James Brown covers, including "Cold Sweat" and "I Can't Stand Myself", and the notorious "Black To Comm", an original composition that ended MC5 sets for years but was never officially released, and which, for all of my MC5 fandom, I'd never heard prior to acquiring this CD. It's basically what I expected--starts out as a simple blues riff, ends up turning into feedback/amp destruction by halfway through. That doesn't make it, or this CD as a whole, any less awesome. If I have any quibble, it's that I wish this CD was recorded as clearly as "Kick Out The Jams" was. But hey, I'll take what I can get.

Pink Fairies - Kings Of Oblivion: The Pink Fairies are another band that I heard about long before I heard, originally because of The Rollins Band covering "Do It", and later because of the involvement of Mick Farren and Twink. About 6 months ago, I downloaded their first album, "Never Neverland", and found myself underwhelmed. For a little while, I figured that maybe the Pink Fairies were overrated, but then I read an Ugly Things review of several reissues of theirs, and learned that "Never Neverland" was widely considered to be spotty and mediocre, and that the Pink Fairies reached their peak on this, their third album. Sounds about right to me; where the first album bogged down quickly, this one rocks, moving more quickly than most of the others on this list and featuring a lot more catchy melodies. Guitarist Larry Wallis, who apparently joined the Pink Fairies for this album, wrote many of the songs here. This includes the excellent opener "City Kids", which he took with him several years later when he became Motorhead's founding guitarist. Really, though, this album reminds me more of stuff like The Flamin' Groovies than anything I would have expected from the list I found it on. That said, that's certainly fine with me.

Randy Holden - Population II: Another one I've been looking for for years. I discovered Randy Holden due to his brief tenure in Blue Cheer (he played guitar, sang, and wrote the three songs on side two of their third album, "New! Improved!"--an album title that only would have been accurate had Holden remained in the band for longer than one side of an album), and while his work in that band was quite different than that of the original lineup, it's still awesome. That said, word has always been that it's nowhere near as awesome as this album is. I wasn't sure whether to believe that or not, but one listen to opening track "Guitar Song", and I was converted. This shit is ridiculous. The first time I listened to it, I was at work, and I had to keep turning the store boombox down, because of just how piercingly loud the lead guitar work on this album is. "Guitar Song" is a great example, in fact; over a slow, plodding backbeat, Holden sings a verse or so, then launches into the stratosphere, blasting his fiery leads out of eight Sunn full-stacks with the aid of a mysterious silver gain pedal that apparently doubled his volume without adding any distortion (see Holden's chapter in Richie Unterberger's "Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers" for more on this). Drummer Chris Lockheed is the only other performer on this album, and his minimal beats do little more than keep the songs moving. This is Holden's show, and throughout the album, he demonstrates that any additional collaborators would only hold him back. Nowhere is this more obvious than on "Fruit And Iceburgs", a song that originally appeared on "New! Improved!" The version here sounds like the Blue Cheer version on steroids. Unfortunately, Holden's label did such a terrible job of releasing this album (some accounts have it that it was never officially released until sometime in the 90s) that he quit music in frustration. But thankfully, revived interest in Holden's music within the last decade has led to its official (re)release, and now everyone can enjoy this slab of brilliant guitar noise.

Leigh Stephens - Red Weather: Unfortunately, the other Blue Cheer guitarist on this list doesn't put in nearly as good a showing on his solo effort. Opening track "Another Dose Of Life", while not retaining the sheer pulverizing power of "Vincebus Eruptum", is nonetheless a pretty great proto-metal rocker. However, things trail off sharply from there, with most of the rest of the album being devoted either to pointless instrumentals or acoustic hippie twaddle. Sometimes it's both at the same time. How disappointing. I'm going to keep listening to this one and hope that it reveals its brilliance eventually, because at this point I'm unable to accept that Leigh Stephens, who is responsible for one of the most idiotically brilliant moments in garage/psych/proto-metal history (I am referring, of course, to the duelling guitar leads on Blue Cheer's version of "Parchment [sic] Farm", which have nothing to do with each other and are barely even in the same key) could less than two years later produce as boring an album as this appears to be. However, I'm not hopeful.

Sam Gopal - Escalator: Man... I really wish I could like this more than I do. See, this is the first album Lemmy ever played on. He sings and plays lead guitar, and was apparently the main songwriter in this particular ensemble. And nothing that Lemmy does here bothers me. The problem is Sam Gopal himself. He's the bongo player. And no, that doesn't mean he plays auxiliary percussion alongside a full-kit drummer. That means that there are no full-kit drums on this album--just bongos. And no matter how good the songs are, hearing them with bongos instead of regular drums just seems to pull the rug out from under them, every time. This isn't a terrible record, by any means. But it's just not all that good. And I doubt that either of us will listen to it very often. Oh well.

Valhalla - Valhalla: Here I am, all set to write about how this album was disappointing too. And now I'm listening to it again, for the third time, and it's sounding a lot better than it did on the first two listens. On those two listens, I thought this sounded a good bit more like The Doors than High Tide did, to a point where I wasn't comfortable with the influence. This time, though, I'm hearing a good bit of Hawkwind. Maybe I'm not actually ready to judge this one yet. Or maybe it'll start wearing on me after I've listened to a few songs. But as it is, I don't think I can offer a completely reliable opinion on this album right now. Points in its favor: heavy guitar, pounding rhythms. Points against it: dominant organ, somewhat wimpy vocals. I'll get back to you on this one.

So there you go: that's 10 out of the 50 albums on that list covered (and if my prevaricating comments on Valhalla make it not count, then my unqualified endorsement of Grand Funk Railroad's "On Time" can stand in for it). I'm already copping other albums from the list (Dust, Bob Seger System, and Groundhogs are all on my hard drive, with more on the way if it's at all possible), so there'll at least be one more round. Watch this space.

Atomic Rooster - Sleeping For Years
High Tide - Futilist's Lament
Randy Holden - Guitar Song
Pink Fairies - City Kids
Sam Gopal - The Dark Lord




No, I'm not talking about the musician, who plays in the Dirty Three and Grinderman. Don't get me wrong, that guy's awesome and all, but he'll always be the OTHER Warren Ellis in my mind. THE Warren Ellis is the writer. Of graphic novels, mostly, which might be why some of you who read books regularly don't know who I'm talking about. But I don't like the idea of calling someone who writes graphic novels... all right, COMIC BOOKS, a "comic book writer". As if I need to differentiate them from REAL writers, or something. They ARE real writers. Warren Ellis is a real writer. An awesome one, in fact.

But he may need an introduction to many of you, since (other than Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman) most writers of the graphic form are not widely known anywhere outside of the (unfortunately) rather well-insulated comic book culture. So, very well: his original claim to fame came from the launch of several brilliantly provocative, originally conceived comic book series during the late 90s, the best of which, for my money, was Transmetropolitan. Imagine, if you will, Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson avatar born maybe three-quarters of a century later than his real-life counterpart. Having retired at the height of his notoriety to seclusion at his compound in the woods, he is called back after the better part of a decade due to some unfulfilled commitments (the wages for which he'd already long since spent). He returns to city journalism and finds a dystopian cyberpunk near future not too dissimilar to that of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. That's the framework for Transmetropolitan. Ellis proceeded to build brilliantly upon it, filling around 100 or so issues with Spider Jerusalem's rants against the corruption and decadence of this alternate universe--most of which parallel that of our own world to an uncomfortable extent.

More recently, Ellis has been pushing the envelope of what is possible in comic writing and publishing with his Image title Fell, which retails for $2 in a $3-plus comic world, and which features a 16-page self-contained tale in each issue, thereby allowing even the most casual, poverty-stricken comic fans and curious onlookers an opportunity to check out a comic without making some huge commitment to the backlog of a series or even an entire publishing company (as so many other comics require one to do). What's more, Fell is almost entirely free of ads, and instead fills its few remaining pages with detailed discussions by Ellis of his writing process, and the details and nuances of the stories he tells. I've always been a sucker for this kind of thing, which might be why Fell persuaded me to check out numerous other Ellis writings. These days, I'm slowly accumulating a complete collection of trade paperback reprints of Transmetropolitan, as well as being on the pull list for every title he writes, from the mainstream Marvel-continuity title The Thunderbolts to DC/Wildstorm's fascinating espionage title Desolation Jones... and Fell, of course.

I even checked out, at the recommendation of horror writer and fellow comic fan Brian Keene, Ellis's book-length collection of comic-related columns that originally appeared on the Comic Book Resources website, entitled Come In Alone. Based on Transmetropolitan, I already had my suspicions that Ellis was the type of guy who, if asked (or maybe even if NOT asked), could offer lengthy extemporaneous discourses on what exactly was wrong with the world, and what could be done to change it. I learned from Come In Alone that, at least where the comic book world was concerned, this was absolutely true. Ellis struck me as a creative, non-linear thinker with tons of expertise in many different areas from which to draw. He seemed like the type of guy who could make a connection between two seemingly-unrelated facts from completely different fields of study and, in so doing, gain insight into issues that would suddenly appear in a completely different light just based on an offhand statement. People who can think and talk in this manner are my favorite type of people, and I strive to be one of them myself. Not only did Ellis navigate this particular evaluative approach to the world with ease, he did it with such charismatic fervor that it made me want to take up arms and follow him into battle. I certainly did a fair bit of re-evaluation when I finished Come In Alone, where my own comic-reading habits were concerned. For a couple of weeks I even found myself wondering why I was wasting my time with so many super-hero titles (I did drop a few, but careful reconsideration led me to realize that I was really only purchasing the ones I considered well-written, for the most part).

I figured Ellis probably had more things that he felt strongly about than the state of the comic industry, and caught broad hints in this direction, chiefly from Transmetropolitan and Fell. But it wasn't until last week, when three new Ellis titles all hit my subscription box at the same time, that I really felt like I was getting the full perspective on where ol' Warren's head is at these days.


OK, technically Black Summer began a month ago, with a $2 preview issue numbered 0. And the sample of art from this title that I will reprint below actually comes from issue 0, page [#]. But I'm accustomed to seeing #1 as the beginning, so who can blame me for feeling like things are only REALLY starting now? Also, issue #1 is twice as mindblowing as #0. Brief plot summary so far: former American superhero team Seven Guns have been disbanded since not long after 9/11 (which they failed to prevent). An explosion killed one of their number, and another was murdered by corrupt police. One team member, John Horus, has remained in the good graces of the US government, while another, Tom Noir, pretty much just sits at home and drinks these days, having lost a leg in the aforementioned explosion. At the beginning of issue #0, Tom is watching a presidential address on CNN as it is interrupted by John Horus, who kills the president just before he is set to go on, then goes on in his place. Horus explains that, to his mind, the US government has become incurably corrupt, and... well, here, I'll let him tell it.

Crazy, huh? I figure that's all the setup you need on this one. It's obvious what Ellis is trying to say about America, the UK, and the general state of our pampered first-world culture with this one. All that remains is to see how crazy the whole thing gets before it's over. And it will be over soon--this is a 7-issue monthly limited series. For the record, it is published by Avatar, which is either a completely new company or a company who've had a much lower profile up until now. They appear to be following the Image template to a certain extent. There's almost no advertising in their comics, and what little there is comes after the end of each story and is generally for other Avatar products. Also, they seem to be going after A-list talent--Garth Ennis and Mark Millar, among others, have upcoming or just-starting Avatar series, and Warren Ellis has his own imprint called Apparat.

It's Apparat who brings us the second of these Warren Ellis prodcuts, a short original graphic novel called Crecy. This book narrates the battle that took place between English and French forces in the French town for which the book is named, in the summer of 1346. According to the back cover, this was England's finest battle of all time, and changed military strategy for hundreds of years. Interesting? Well, honestly, no, it doesn't sound like it, not to me. I really only picked it up because I pick up everything with Warren Ellis's name on it. But, it turns out, I needn't have worried. The story of the battle is narrated to us by a random English longbow carrier, one of the infantry grunts of Edward III's army. He narrates it with full knowledge of we the readers' great remove from the time period, and does not spare us the colorful language and cheeky prejudices of an English peasant from the time period. As a result, what could have been a stultifying treatise on warfare becomes a light, joyous romp through one of the more obscure tangents of Warren Ellis's wide-ranging intellectual interest. I mean, how can you not love a comic that produces gems like this?

Seriously, pretty much every page is like that. Pick this up--it's a real treat.

The final product Ellis has unleashed for the week (by the way, all of this stuff came out LAST week--I didn't pick up my comics until the day before the next batch of new comics were due in. So if anyone's paying enough attention to be confused, that's why I seem to be a week behind) is a much tougher nut to crack than either of the previous two titles. Doktor Sleepless is obviously every bit as serious in nature as Black Summer, and takes place in as dystopian a near-future as did the much more lighthearted Transmetropolitan. But as far as plot goes... I must confess that I'm somewhat clueless at this point. Which is not to say that I'm not enthralled--I am. The brief glimpses of the world in which this comic takes place, and the characters which inhabit that world, that we are given in issue #1, are enough to pique my interest. No, check that, they are enough to leave me fascinated, even transfixed. Apparently there is a website devoted to this title already, a website that Ellis has set up in the form of a wiki, and already contributed background information to. I haven't checked it out myself, but I will be clicking on that link as soon as I finish posting this entry. Like Fell, Doktor Sleepless ends with a section Ellis calls "Back Matter", but unlike Fell, that of Sleepless will apparently focus less on the writing process and more on the fleshing out of concepts that will be introduced in the main plot of the book. Those concepts are amorphous at best right now, but they both intrigue and vaguely frighten me, as this page should illustrate:

One thing on that page that I can explain--instant messenger operates through contact lenses. Another--Heavenside is the city where this all takes place. And a possible third--I'm assuming the reference to Eschaton is to the fictional game David Foster Wallace invented within the pages of his novel Infinite Jest. There are references elsewhere in the title to Beckett's "Waiting For Godot" and the occultist Colin Wilson, as well as multiple Biblical references--and this is just the first issue. It seems Ellis has big plans for this particular series, and I for one am along for the ride for as long as it takes. You'd be well advised to jump on yourself, before the bandwagon gets so crowded that back issues start skyrocketing in value.