Friday, May 29, 2020

Blues: The Devil's Music (2008)

The Complete Brownie McGhee
Long known as the “devil’s music,” thanks to the legend surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson’s alleged deal with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads, “Old Nob,” as he’s known, has become firmly identified with blues music.

The devil is often just a metaphor used by blues singers to describe a cheatin’ woman, a bad boss, or even the evil in the world, and not a literal being. Still, from his first appearance in Clara Smith’s 1924 song “Done Sold My Soul To the Devil,” the devil persists in the culture of the blues. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular blues songs to evoke the devil’s name.

Brownie McGhee – “Dealing With the Devil” (1941)
Recorded during the Piedmont bluesman’s brief incarnation as “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2,” Brownie McGhee’s “Dealing With the Devil” is a classic tale of love gone wrong. Singing that “my woman don’t love me no more,” McGhee goes on to describe a lover that tries to poison him with “salt in his gravy” and “potash in his tea;” she “has a shotgun in the corner” and a “blackjack on the bed;” and he doesn’t understand why she “goes to bed with an icepick in her hand.” Delivered in Fuller’s traditional ragtime-influenced finger-picked style, McGhee’s spry, almost comedic reading of the song belies its seriousness.   BUY!

Charlie Patton's The Complete Recordings
Charley Patton – “Devil Sent the Rain” (1929)
Patton’s “Devil Sent the Rain” is a plain-and-simple song of grief. Although the only remaining recording of this early track is pretty scratchy, as are many old blues 78s from the 1920s, the singer’s feelings are clear despite the ancient recording’s raw sound: his mother has died and he’s going to leave home to wander. Patton sings “Good Lord sent sunshine, devil he sent the rain” in response to his loss, adding “I didn’t know I loved her ‘til they eased her down.”   BUY!

Clutch – “The Devil & Me” (2007)
With an evil blues-metal soundtrack and stunning sandpaper guitars, rockers Clutch delivered one of the most chaotic-sounding songs on the subject with the open flame that is “The Devil & Me.” Turning the Robert Johnson myth on its head, the song speaks of a split between the protagonist and the devil, referring to some shadowy deal with the verse “the devil and me had a falling out, violation of contract beyond a shadow of a doubt.” Singer Neil Fallon doesn’t say exactly what caused the rift between the “best of friends” but the song cleverly name checks Beale Street in Memphis and Skip James’ classic “Killing Floor,” both places where one might run across the Prince of Darkness.   BUY!

Lonnie Johnson – “Devil’s Got the Blues” (1938)
Johnson’s classic song compares the blues to the devil – when one overtakes you, the other can’t be far behind. Johnson sings “the blues is like the devil, it comes on you like a spell, it will leave your heart full of trouble and your poor mind full of hell.” The protagonist is personifying the blues lifestyle, claiming that “the blues will drive you to drink and murder” whether due to heartbreak, poverty, or just good, old-fashioned depression. Johnson’s song includes a fine six-string performance by the influential guitarist.   BUY!

Peetie Wheatstraw – “Devil’s Son-In-Law”
Some time during the 1930s, bluesman William Bunch adopted the name and persona of “Peetie Wheatstraw,” also known as “the Devil’s Son-In-Law” and “the High Sheriff of Hell,” and all but two of his records were released under the Wheatstraw name. Although most historians believe that Bunch took on his diabolic moniker as a marketing ploy – playing up his macho image to sell more records – he penned several songs boasting of his connections to the underworld, including the ethereal “Devil’s Son-In-Law.” A larger-than-life figure that died young (the fate, it seems, of those that fool around with the devil), Bunch/Wheatstraw inspired a character in writer Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man.   BUY!

Robert Johnson's The Complete Collection
Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues” (1936)
The myth behind Robert Johnson’s enormous talent, of course, is that the bluesman met the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi and sold his soul in exchange for his guitar-playing prowess. Oddly enough, Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” has nothing to do with any late-night bargaining with the devil, its lyrics instead describing the singer’s desperation to get home as darkness is falling. With the lynching of African-America men in the Southern United States not unusual during the 1920s and ‘30s, Johnson’s fears were not entirely unfounded. Regardless, the myth of Johnson’s shadowy midnight tryst has endured. The song available on Johnson’s The Complete Recordings set.   BUY!

Robert Johnson – “Hell Hound On My Trail” (1937)
Recorded during his last RCA studio session in 1937, Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail” sounds terrifying. Over a strummed guitar, Johnson wails a desperate tale of a man trying to escape his fate – whether it’s the devil coming to collect on the Faustian bargain made by the singer, or just the police looking to arrest and jail him. Either way, Johnson maximizes the impact of the song through his use of brilliant poetic imagery and a vocal delivery that borderlines on the edge of desperation.

Robert Johnson – “Me and the Devil Blues” (1937)
The last of the fabled bluesman’s devil-related songs, “Me and the Devil Blues” seems to be a standard-issue blues tune about having trouble with your woman. In this case, the devil might personify the singer’s troublesome lover, or it might be a reference to the artist’s belief that the woman’s love would lead him to the grave…or maybe both. Johnson’s final verse, “you may bury my body down by the highway side, so my old evil spirit can catch that Greyhound bus and ride” touches upon the blues tradition of anonymous roadside internment.

Skip James' Heroes of the Blues
Sam Collins – “Devil In the Lion’s Den” (1927)
This song by obscure bluesman Sam Collins offers one of the earliest references to the devil in blues music. The singer, a “motherless child” (another blues tradition), states “yon’ come the devil, we gonna set this town on fire” before boasting of his personal powers (“I got ways like a devil, sleep in the lion’s den”) before letting his woman know that he’ll be “goin’ up the country” when she asks him to stay. Not unlike modern rap songs with their braggadocio, Collins’ “Devil In The Lion’s Den” may be the first recorded tale of the ramblin’, gamblin’ man.   BUY!

Skip James – “Devil Got My Woman” (1931)
Country bluesman Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” is a song of romantic entanglement. James opens the song by singing “I’d rather be the devil, to be that woman man” before blaming the evil one’s influence for his lover’s infidelity, closing the first verse with “was nothin’ but the devil, changed my baby’s mind.” It turns out that the song’s protagonist is not without blame, ‘cause it turns out that the “woman I loved, took her from my best friend,” later adding “but he got lucky, stoled her back again.” Although delivered with James’ typical high wail and accompanied by a haunting guitar track, the song displays an irony usually absent from the bluesman’s repertoire.   BUY! 

Also on That Devil Music:
Spotlight On R.L. Burnside
Lost & Found: Preacher Boy

Vinyl Review: Eugene Chadbourne's Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3 (2020)

Eugene Chadbourne's Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3
Among the handful of elite underground artists toiling away on the fringes of rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps only the legendary R. Stevie Moore has proven to be more prolific than the master of the “electric rake,” multi-instrumental talent Dr. Eugene Chadbourne. How many records has Chadbourne released over a career that now spans five decades? “I stopped counting them a long time ago,” Eugene told me in a 2019 interview for the Rock and Roll Globe website, “one could probably throw out any number above 200 and basically be right.”

Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3 is another worthy addition to Chadbourne’s still-growing catalog, which offers music as entertaining, challenging, and eclectic as any artist in rock’s checkered 60+ year history. Released by the Massachusetts-based independent Feeding Tube Records, which specializes in reissues of subterranean music that refuses to fit into the mainstream pop culture straitjacket, this is the fourth and final volume in a series of live recordings made during the late ‘70s when Chadbourne was in exile in Canada as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Each album has been released in a limited edition of 400 vinyl records, and all four albums in the series were “programmed” by the good Doctor himself and each promises a reckless joyride of musical experimentation.

After a few years in Canada spent playing and recording, Chadbourne returned to the states under President Carter’s amnesty program in 1976 and formed seminal 1980s underground rockers Shockabilly (with fellow sonic terrorists Mark Kramer and David Licht). The trio released a handful of now-legendary albums throughout the decade but once Shockabilly drifted apart, Eugene once again focused on his solo career. He would build a loyal cult following across the U.S. and Europe by constantly touring and releasing a metric shit-ton of records, many for dodgy “fly by night” indie labels. Chadbourne also operated his own basement-based mail order label, selling live recordings, all while developing a following among fellow musicians. He would later record with members of the Violent Femmes and Camper Van Beethoven as well as John Zorn, Evan Johns, and the Mothers of Invention’s Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian in the group”).

Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3

Dr. Eugene Chadbourne
Featuring but four (mostly lengthy) songs, Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3 is nevertheless the most ambitious of the four albums. Although each performance was primarily recorded on solo guitar, in reality you never know what sort of odd sonic gremlin that Chadbourne is going to yank out of the ether and slap into the grooves. The album-opening “Bow” is somewhat subdued, with Eugene making use of light and dark passages to create an aural ambiance, the quietude punctuated when the listener least expects it by flashes of nimble-fingered fretwork. Flurries of jagged notes fly by your ears like jet-powered ninja stars and, when it’s all over (almost eight minutes later), you’re really not sure what you just heard…so cue it up again!

The shortest tune on the LP, “The Bird” is a jazzy treatise that displays Chadbourne’s musical dexterity and knowledge of the form. Sounding like the mutant love child of Charlie Christian and Al Di Meola, Eugene’s lightning-quick fretboard runs are accompanied by a secondary stream of lower, bassy notes that create an unusual (and fascinating) depth to the performance. “Be,” which closes out the album’s first side, is a chaotic roller-coaster ride of unusual sounds, aggressive syncopated rhythms, tortured guitar strings, and scary sound affects akin to what a UFO abduction probably sounds like. After politely applauding the previous song, the audience is shocked into silence by the randomness of Chadbourne’s performance here, its creative cacophony, and the obvious enthusiasm the guitarist brings to his craft.

Side two of Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3 is comprised of one long performance with the inventive (and on-the-nose) title of “Meo Tse Tung Did Not Have To Deal With People Who Were Watching Seven Hours of Television Every Day.” Eugene introduces the song with its title, a gong-like percussion opening the door of perception to all sorts of howling, growling string-play and a menacing croaking noise that sounds like a bullfrog on LSD. A torn-off riff on the bass strings builds a blueprint for a generation of stoner-metal bands to follow. The song creaks and moans under the weight of its own staggering construction, a truly brilliant composition built like a funhouse mirror – you’re never quite sure what your reflection is going to look like when it’s staring back at you.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Chadbourne, a true American underground icon, possesses an extensive knowledge of rock, blues, folk, and country music. But he is also an unusually-curious instrumentalist that has shown a willingness to push beyond any boundaries and into the unexpected in search of one or two shining cosmic notes. In this aspect, he’s a lot like fellow avant garde musical explorers like Sun Ra, James Blood Ulmer, and Captain Beefheart (without sounding like any of ‘em). Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3 is Muzak® for the hard of hearing, challenging and creative music with seemingly endless depths and boundless imagination. Deep into a storied career spent on the outer fringes of pop music, Eugene Chadbourne remains a visionary talent always looking for new ways to challenge himself and his audience. (Feeding Tube Records, released February 21, 2020)

Buy the album from Eugene Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar, Volume 4-1/3

Check out the Reverend’s interview with Eugene at the Rock and Roll Globe

Friday, May 22, 2020

Archive Review: Clutch’s From Beale Street To Oblivion (2010)

Clutch’s From Beale Street To Oblivion
Legend has it that blues great Robert Johnson achieved his mastery over all things musical by journeying to the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi and, standing at the crossroads one dark night, sold his soul to the devil. Now, to be honest, only Johnson and Old Scratch his own bad self really knows what happened that night beneath the shrouded moon, and Johnson might have merely borrowed a good story from bluesman Tommy Johnson, who allegedly struck a similar diabolic bargain as well. Regardless, it was Robert that negotiated the better deal, ‘cause his legend continues to grow while the talented Tommy’s name has sunk into oblivion.

Rock ‘n’ roll owes its existence to the deal struck that night in the Mississippi Delta; if not for the 30-something-odd songs cut by Johnson during the late ‘30s, and the fame afforded his efforts by his supernatural patron, there is a distinct likelihood that we never would have had Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Cream, Led Zeppelin…hell, even the White Stripes. Robert Johnson, and by extension, the blues, has had an enormous influence on the history and evolution of rock music. These days, however, the deals are being made on the streets of Memphis, New Orleans, Miami…anywhere the mojo is right…but certainly not at some rural intersection in a small town without even decent cell reception.

Clutch’s From Beale Street To Oblivion

It’s a wicked world, to be sure, and heavy metal, more than any genre of rock ‘n’ roll, owes its soul to the Devil, and the two have enjoyed a long and surprisingly lucrative association. If the blues was the “devil’s music” of the 1920s and ‘30s, metal was just as firmly identified as such during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Somewhere along the line, however, heavy metal shed its blues influences in a blur of stylistic mutations – death metal, black metal, thrash, Goth, power-and-prog, speedcore, grindcore, hardcore, aggro – all carrying Robert Johnson’s original blue¬print to extremes that even the fiddle-playin’ maestro of Charlie Daniels’ nightmares wouldn’t recognize. With its 10th studio album, From Beale Street To Oblivion, Clutch has embraced metal’s blues roots and kicked out an album so damn stinkin’ dirty wit’ the hue that the long-interred ghosts of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, and Son House all have to be grinnin’ from ear-to-ear.

For nigh onto sixteen years one of the metal underground’s best-kept secrets, Clutch has long traveled down the highway to the beat of the band’s own different drummer. In this days and age when metal bands are trying to out duel each other with LOUDER and more ABRASIVE sounds, trying to see who can take extreme to the EXTREME – vocalist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult and crew have stripped metal down to its blues-influenced vox-guitar-drums basics, with just a little Gospel-tinged keyboards for flavor. Clutch has always embraced a more organic, soulful sound than most of its contemporaries, and From Beale Street To Oblivion merely builds upon that flirtation to create something truly magnificent in all ways.

This ain’t yer daddy’s heavy metal, that’s for certain – From Beale Street To Oblivion has more in common with ‘60s vintage, psychedelic-fueled, blooze-obsessed knuckle-busters like Sir Lord Baltimore, Leafhound, May Blitz…even Black Sabbath…than it does with a bunch a New-Wave-O-British-Wankery washouts or nu-metal pretenders. Sounding nothing so much as something lurking in a dark alley off of Beale Street long after the daytime touristas have fled for safer environs in Tunica, these songs leap out of the shadows to strangle your ears with an assault of guttural vocals, larger-than-life riff-mongering, and rhythms so loudly funky that they’ll have yer eardrums crying “uncle” in no time.

The Devil & Me

Jumpstarting From Beale Street To Oblivion like the muzzle-blast from a .45, “You Can’t Stop Progress” is intro’d by a deceptive Glam-rock drum fill nicked from the Sweet, or maybe T-Rex, before a riff blessed-by-the-grace-of-Saint-Tony blindsides you, and Brother Neil starts sermonizing like Rob Tyner raised from the grave. Singing something clever about “felonious behavior” and “substantial compensation,” the song seems to be a call for anarchy in an unjust world…or maybe it’s just about petting bunnies in the park…either way, Fallon sounds like he’s waiting for a seat on Savoy Brown’s “Hellbound Train” and the rest of us poor souls are just shit-outta-luck while the band burns down the house.

With “The Devil & Me” we get to the meat of From Beale Street To Oblivion, a down-and-dirty feud between heavy metal and the Devil where neither side wins, and the line “he got to cross my house on the other side of the street” tells the tale. The schism is seemingly permanent, and whether it’s the music or the musician headed back down to the Bluff City to haunt “Beale Street and oblivion,” we’ll never know. But the song’s blustery vocals and blistering guitarwork, coupled with some of the funkiest rhythms you’ll hear this side of the Big Muddy, rise to the fervor of a tent revival before the straight-spiritual keyboards trail off to end the song...

The rest of From Beale Street To Oblivion is equally nasty, the songs peppered with brilliant imagery and dark vibes, crushing riffs that hit like a sledgehammer, bass guitar that will squeeze yer skull and drumbeats that hit like a drunken prize-fighter. Some of this sounds like early Black Sabbath jamming on the Howlin’ Wolf songbook; other tunes leave nothing but scorched earth in their wake, like some sort of musical plague that all the black-clad death-metal bands in Finland couldn’t muster. All of the songs evince a dark humor and extreme intelligence, and even the most obtusely metaphorical of them – “Mr. Shiny Cadillackness,” a fire-and-brimstone commentary on modern life – can’t help but thrown in a bit of absurdity with the line “Tell me, why Dick Cheney underneath my bed? Hell no, that ain’t cool!”

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

There’s nary a bad song in this bunch – just good and great – and to dismiss the album as mere “heavy metal” is to completely misunderstand the yin-and-yang of the blues-metal dichotomy. This is frightening, nearly-supernatural shit, Clutch channeling the spirits of long-dead bluesmen with a Biblical fervor. I don’t care what indie-rock discovery Pitchfork is shil¬ling for this week, From Beale Street To Oblivion is destined to become one of the two-or-three best albums released this year. This here be real rawk ‘n’ roll, far out on the blues edge – scarier than your worst job, meaner than your mother-in-law, and hitting between the ears like an IRS audit. Hell yeah! (Weathermaker Music, released July 20, 2010)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from Clutch’s From Beale Street To Oblivion

Archive Review: Blue Öyster Cult's Imaginos (2008)

Blue Öyster Cult's Imaginos
One of the most commercially successful and critically-acclaimed rock bands in American history, Blue Öyster Cult created the perfect fusion of 1960s-era pop and ‘70s proto-metal that would have a profound influence on the evolution of both hard rock and heavy metal in the decades to follow. Intellectual, but reveling in their counter-culture roots, lyrically the band mixed elements of mythology, the occult, and contemporary literature with science fiction and horror film trash culture in the creation of a new musical paradigm that celebrated high-and-lowbrow culture equally.

The earliest roots of the band lie in the relationship between two students at Stony Brook College on Long Island. As far back as 1967, Sandy Pearlman and future rock critic Richard Meltzer had plans to conquer the rock ‘n’ roll world. With Pearlman managing the band, and both he and Meltzer writing lyrics, they put together a group that included the core of the future BÖC – guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, keyboardist Allen Lanier, and drummer Albert Bouchard – known as Soft White Underbelly.

The Roots of Blue Öyster Cult

Signed to Elektra Records, Soft White Underbelly recorded an unreleased album and subsequently changed the band’s name to Oaxaca before settling on being called the Stalk-Forrest Group. A second album recorded for the label was also buried in the vaults, although a single was later released under the Stalk-Forrest Group name. Dropped by the label and shuffling personnel, they changed their name once again to Blue Öyster Cult and signed with Columbia Records, which is where the BÖC story really begins.

The band’s self-titled album was released in 1972 and scraped the bottom of the charts. This must have been good enough to partially satisfy the label, as they were attempting to promote BÖC as their very own homegrown version of Black Sabbath. The debut album’s fortunes were helped by the media-savvy promotional efforts of Pearlman and Meltzer, as well as the creation of the band’s ubiquitous hook-and-cross logo, an important precursor to the imaginative logo designs of heavy metal bands in the decade to follow.

Tyranny & Mutation followed in 1973, and Secret Treaties in 1974, each album experiencing higher sales numbers. The powerful live double-album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, was released in ‘75, but it would be the following year’s effort, Agents of Fortune, that would prove to be the band’s commercial breakthrough. Yielding a Top 40 single in “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” the album would be the first in a string of Gold™ and Platinum™-selling discs that culminated five years later with 1981’s Fire of Unknown Origin.

The band stumbled badly, however, both commercially and creatively, into the new decade. Original members had left the band, or been asked to leave, and weak studio albums like 1983’s The Revolution at Night and 1986’s Club Ninja alienated long-time fans. With only Dharma and Eric Bloom left from the band’s original line-up, BÖC continued to tour. Released in 1988, the band’s 14th album, Imaginos, would also be its last at the time.

Blue Öyster Cult's Imaginos

Back at the dawn of the ‘80s, however, Imaginos was originally planned by former BÖC drummer Albert Bouchard to be a solo work, a concept album based on a song cycle created by Sandy Pearlman back during the late ‘60s. Almost six years in the making, Imaginos includes instrumental contributions from several of Bouchard’s NYC friends, including bassist Kenny Aaronson and guitarists Joe Satriani, Aldo Nova, and Robbie Krieger of the Doors.

When Bouchard was nearing the finish line with Imaginos, he found out that the record label wasn’t exactly enamored of his efforts. They would only agree to release the album under the Blue Öyster Cult name, so the master tapes were sent to Pearlman and the band overdubbed vocals and instrumentation. Thus, the incorrect appearance that BÖC had reformed with its original line-up, including Albert Bouchard… but it was all on paper, folks. Met with confusion by fans and critics alike, and under-promoted to death by the label, Imaginos was deemed an overall failure. BÖC was subsequently dropped from Columbia after an almost 20-year association with the label.

Long out-of-print, and the subject of no little discussion by Blue Oyster Cult fans through the years, thanks to the good folks at American Beat we have a reissued/remastered version of Imaginos to judge on its own merits. Musically, the album-opening “I Am the One You Warned Me Of” spanks-and-cranks with typical period metal overtones, with heavy riffing, clean ringing guitars and Bloom vocals that sound eerily like Secret Treaties-era BÖC. Slower-paced than the band’s early ‘70s brain-bashers, the song is no less menacing. “Les Invisibles” is more contradictory, featuring some delectable, deliberate skull-bashing fretwork and rhythms…but the constant refrain of “seven, seven, seven” is more irritating than an itchy straitjacket, and as unnecessary to the grand design of life as ticks and garden slugs.

“In the Presence of Another World” is a vintage BÖC face-burner, opening with elegant six-string plundering before kicking into some sort of sci-fi soundscape with soaring vocal harmonies and crunchy riffage courtesy of Mr. Dharma. “Del Rio’s Song” offers up some fine lead vocals but little in the way of substance; lacking distinctive instrumentation (or else it’s buried too deep in the mix), it’s a pleasant diversion and nothing more. “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle At Weisseria” is as epic and long-winded as the song’s title. Sounding like an outtake from a Ronnie James Dio album, the song showcases Joe Satriani’s scorching six-string leads. The song kind of grows on you, as blustery as it is, and it’s an excellent example of early prog-metal overkill.

“Astronomy” should be familiar to any BÖC fan; originally included on Secret Treaties, the song sits perfectly at the intersection of the band’s science-fiction fantasies and fantastic metal proclivities. “Magna of Illusion” has delusions of grandeur, but it also includes some nifty Robbie Krieger guitar noodling, so I’ll begrudgingly swallow the song’s hackneyed lyrical aspirations. “Blue Öyster Cult,” the song, bites down hard; a re-working of the original tune “Subhuman” from Secret Treaties, which was derived from “Blue Öyster Cult” to begin with (calling M.C. Escher), this is one limp biscuit nonetheless.

I’ll call the title track a draw – although it could have sorely benefited from some big-lunged Eric Bloom vocal expertise, it kicks in with some tasty licks and keyboard riffs that rescue it from oblivion. Bloom is absent without leave from much of Imaginos, leaving the bulk of the vocal weightlifting to the capable Buck Dharma. When any of the guest vocalists kick in on a song, it’s either cringeworthy, or as slight as to be as easily forgotten as last week’s hangover.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

As stated before, Imaginos is a conceptual song-cycle, something about a big-haired meanie that travels through time to stomp on our hopes and dreams, or some other late ‘60s lysergic-fueled narrative. Much like early Voivod albums, you have no idea what the hell they’re talking about – you just sit back and try to enjoy the ride. By the Reverend’s count, you have five bona fide BÖC gems on Imaginos, three whiffballs, and one plea of “nolo contendre.” That’s close enough for rock & roll in my book, and certainly a better batting average than many of today’s pud-pounding corporate rockers. (American Beat Records, 2008)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from Blue Öyster Cult’s Imaginos

Friday, May 15, 2020

Archive Review: Saga’s Worlds Apart Revisited (2007)

Saga’s Worlds Apart Revisited
There are “musical legends,” and there are bona fide “Musical Legends,” and it would suffice to say that Saga falls into the latter category. While punk was being rediscovered and the “Class of ‘77” anointed in England, Saga was forming in Toronto, part of the late ‘70s prog-rock movement in Canada that spawned bands like Rush and Triumph. Saga fit into the same mold, albeit with slightly more of a pop edge.

The band released its self-titled debut album in 1978, toured constantly, and subsequently cranked out a new album every eighteen months or so through the end of the ‘80s; thirty years after forming, the band still creates vital, spellbinding music. Among the some 20 albums in its extensive discography, Saga has continued to show enormous growth in artistic vision and technical proficiency as a band, making them one of the most respected and popular of the second wave of prog bands with hardcore fans.

Saga’s Worlds Apart Revisited

In 1981 Saga released its major label debut, Worlds Apart, just in time to take advantage of a music revolution partially fueled by the creation of MTV. The album showcased an infectious prog-pop sound that was influenced by Genesis and Gentle Giant, but also displaying a great deal of originality. Beating the subsequent wave of similar-sounding, but geographically-named bands like Asia and Europe by a good year or two, Worlds Apart yielded an AOR-radio hit in the song “On the Loose,” with its accompanying video among the first to be broadcast on the new music video network. Reaching a lofty number 29 on the Billboard pop chart, the album’s success would put Saga on firm footing during the new decade.

In December 2005, around Christmas, Saga appeared onstage in Prattein, Switzerland to perform Worlds Apart in its entirety, almost 25 years after its original release. The performance was recorded on both audio and video with an eye towards future release on CD and DVD, both of which have been delayed but should be released later this year. Since the Reverend was lucky enough to get his greedy little music-loving hands on an advance copy of the two-CD Worlds Apart Revisited set, let me tell you that if you’re a fan of pop-oriented prog and melodic rock, this Saga CD should be placed on your “want list” post-haste.

As stated above, Worlds Apart Revisited features a complete performance of the original album. With much of the same crew in tow from back in ’81 – the foursome of vocalist Michael Sadler, guitarist Ian Crichton, bassist Jim Crichton, and keyboardist Jim Gilmour have played together for better than a quarter-century – these songs sound much like they might have when Saga originally played them at the dawn of the ‘80s. The band’s famous guitar-keyboard interplay is still very much prominent in this performance, the chemistry between Crichton and Gilmour as incredible as that between Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman back in the glory days of Yes. The rest of the band remains equally impressive musically, while Sadler’s vocals are every bit as powerful today as they were when he first cranked up the pipes in 1977.

Alongside well-loved chestnuts like “On the Loose,” “Framed” and “Time’s Up” from Worlds Apart, this two-disc set includes an abundance of vintage material from the band’s first three albums – “Ice Nine,” “How Long” and “Humble Stance” from 1978’s Saga, “See Them Smile” and “You’re Not Alone” from 1979’s Images At Twilight and “Careful Where You Step” from 1980’s Silent Knight; as well as “Scratching the Surface” and “The Pitchman” from Heads Or Tales, the 1983 follow-up to the band’s commercial breakthrough. There’s also a bit of more contemporary material to be found among the 22-songs on Worlds Apart Revisited, including “Keep It Reel” from 2005’s excellent Network and “The Runaway” from 2001’s House of Cards. All of the performances can boast of Saga’s legendary instrumental prowess and progressive musical arrangements.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Prog-rock is still painfully disrespected in the United States, no band so much as Saga. Representing, perhaps, the last of the ‘70s-era progressive bands, Saga has survived numerous musical “revolutions” – from punk and new wave to nu-metal and grunge – with its sound and dignity intact. The band has retained a loyal following for three decades, both in the states and in Europe and Asia, by playing well and staying true to their original vision. Worlds Apart Revisited is a testament to both Saga’s longevity and dedication to their craft. (Inside Out Music, released 2007)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Archive Review: Ministry’s Greatest Fits (2001)

Ministry's Greatest Fits
The new generation of metal bands owes an undying debt of gratitude to Ministry. After all, the partnership of Paul Barker and Al Jourgensen pioneered the entire industrial metal genre, mixing extreme showmanship and hard-edged dance rhythms. While the kids in bands like Godsmack, Slipknot, and Sevendust were still in diapers, Ministry’s gruesome twosome were overseeing a musical empire that included a handful of bands (Lead Over Gold, Revolting Cocks, etc) that served as creative alter egos. Ministry has always been their primary outlet, however, and during their halcyon days, 1988-1992, the pair cranked out some loud, obnoxious and wonderfully raucous tuneage, some of which is collected on Greatest Fits.

Ministry has never served up music that is easy to swallow. Their unique recipe of molten riffs, random samples, industrial-strength beats and dark-hued lyrics paired the acid-fueled trances of bands like Throbbing Gristle and Joy Division with the plodding metallic K.O. of Black Sabbath. The result was tracks like “Stigmata” and “N.W.O.,” aggressive musical fever-dreams which used found vocals from folks like George Bush or Adolph Hitler as another instrument in the song’s aural assault.

Greatest Fits ignores the pre-Barker incarnation of Ministry in favor of the manic pairing of talents that began with 1988’s Land of Rape and Honey. It includes a couple of songs from that landmark album, as well as a trio of songs from the platinum-selling Psalm 69, including the chaotic, driving “Jesus Built My Hotrod” with Gibby of the Butthole Surfers. A couple of unreleased tracks are also included, such as a wicked cover of Sabbath’s “Supernaut” and a powerful live version of “So What” from 1994. “What About Us?,” written by Jourgensen for Ministry’s appearance in the movie A.I. jumpstarts Greatest Fits with a megavolt rant and rave.

Their one lone best-selling disc aside, Ministry has always been an underground band, dancing perilously close to the edge while bringing together metalheads, punk rockers, and hardcore dancefloor waifs together under one big tent. Their influence on everybody from Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson to Slipknot is indisputable, if largely uncredited. If you’re a young fan of any of these Ministry adepts, you owe it to yourself to go to the source and check the band for yourself. As an introduction for the uninitiated, Greatest Fits is a great way to become acquainted with the sound and fury that was Ministry. (Warner Brothers, released June 19, 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2001

Buy the CD from Ministry’s Greatest Fits

Friday, May 8, 2020

Archive Review: Various Artists - Sucking The 70’s (2003)

Sucking The 70's
It’s a pretty cool concept, really – take a bunch of bands that you’ve probably never heard of and have them revisit classic schlock rock of the hallowed 1970s. That is the premise behind Sucking The 70’s, the most offbeat tribute disc of the past year and, without a doubt, more fun than a listener should be allowed to have. The set offers 35 songs stretched across two discs with detailed liner notes providing info on the original artist, the band actually kicking out the jams, and web site info for the cyber-inclined. As me dear old grandpappy used to say, “it don’t mean squat if it ain’t in the grooves” and the Reverend is glad to inform both of his readers that Sucking The 70’s delivers the hot-n-greasy cheap thrills that we all crave.

Sucking The 70’s

Since some of the bands on Sucking The 70’s are so obscure that not even their mothers have heard them play, we’ll outline the usual suspects for you first. Raging Slab punch out an acceptable reading of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” while Clutch manhandle Jethro Tull’s “Cross Eyed Mary” with gleeful recklessness. The Last Vegas do a fine job with Ted Nugent’s “Free For All” and the members of Five Horse Johnson have obviously listened closely to their Mountain albums, hitting the band’s “Never In My Life” almost lick for lick. Alabama Thunderpussy – a band actually recommended to the Reverend by one of his many email correspondents – manage to grab onto Tull’s “Hymn 43” with both hands, ripping through the magnificent bastard like a grizzly with a fresh salmon.

On the other hand, you also have a bunch of minor league riff merchants on Sucking The 70’s that are itching to play with the big boys and are using this forum to make their case for indie rock stardom. The Glasspack slice-and-dice the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye” with such style that even Iggy would have to smile while Throttlerod lay the smackdown on Leadbelly via Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” You can almost hear the kudzu growing during Tummler’s performance of Skynyrd’s “Working For MCA” and Fireball Ministry brings the hard rock shuffle back with UFO’s “Doctor Doctor.” Puny Human pulls off a neat hat trick, rolling through CCR’s “Travelin’ Band” and, just as the band is hitting on all cylinders, roaring into overdrive with a Ramones tribute and big finish.

An International Affair

Sucking The 70’s is a truly international affair, the album’s crackerjack production team bringing some import bands to the table to lively things up. U.K. band the Heads turn “For Madmen Only” on its...well, head, with blazing psychedelic guitars and more fuzz than a cat-scratch sweater. Australia’s Warped tackle AC/DC’s “Dog Eat Dog” with a raw fury and Argentina’s Los Natas take Hawkwind’s “Brainstorm” on a trip over, under and upside down. Sweden is represented by no less than three bands, Backdraft the most notable with a scorching cover of Whitesnake’s “Child of Babylon.”

Some of the album’s contributors wanted to show the depth of their rock ‘n’ roll knowledge, choosing obscurity over familiarity in their selection of songs. In this one-step-from-the-glue-factory horse race, the Reverend would have to go with Broadsword’s power-sludge cover of Sir Lord Baltimore’s “Woman Tamer” as the winner, a musty, metallic blast from the past that only one out of a thousand listeners would nail without an encyclopedia. Scott Reeder’s choice of Sugarloaf’s “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” wins the one-hit wonder award with Roadsaw’s axe-happy reading of “Vehicle” the runner-up. Kudos also to Novadriver for the band’s choice of T Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and to Milligan for its appropriately thorazine-drenched reading of those Cactus boy’s Link Wray knock-off “Rumblin’ Man.”

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

ZZ Top, the Marshall Tucker Band, Rush, Barnstorm (Joe Walsh), Neil Young, Black Sabbath, and Steppenwolf are among the other stars of the decade revisited on Sucking The 70’s. One has to wonder where covers of “Stairway To Heaven,” “Freebird,” and “Angie” are hiding (all three are noticeable by their absence). Regardless, Sucking The 70’s is a solid collection of righteous tunes – surely the ‘70s couldn’t have sucked that badly with rock ‘n’ roll this tasty. (Small Stone Records, released October 22, 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

Archive Review: The Music's The Music (2003)

The Music's The Music
They’re one of the hot shit bands of the moment right now in England, burning even brighter than the Strokes or the White Stripes but hell, the wankers couldn’t even come up with a decent name. The Music, indeed – it’s surprising that they didn’t name the band’s debut “The Album” or something equally awe-inspiring. Slap this tasty lil’ sucker on yer box, however, and you’ll soon find out that there is nothing bland or generic about the Music.

The Music’s The Music

The band’s full-length debut opens with “The Dance,” a ramble-tamble trip down Alice’s rabbit hole into a lysergic fantasyland of swirling guitars, rapid-heartbeat rhythms, explosive drums, and turbocharged electronic noise. Vocalist Robert Harvey sounds like a cross between Geddy Lee, Dino Valenti, and Skip Spence; guitarist Adam Nutter is no novice at six-string noodling, tearing off razor-sharp leads while building massive waves of sound. Bassist Stuart Coleman and drummer Phil Jordan keep up a steady stream of cacophony, driving each song forward with the final force of a Mack truck.

The rest of The Music snaps and crackles in a similar manner as “The Dance,” the band’s mutant hybrid of British pop, ‘60s-styled psychedelica, and clashing electronic rhythms a refreshingly original brew concocted from familiar ingredients. It’s the tunes on The Music that define the band’s passion, however, crisp pairings of obtuse lyricism and instrumental miasma that mesmerize the listener. “Human” begins with an eerie guitar line that leads into haunting, echoed vocals and finishes out with crashing cymbals and ragged riffage.

“Float” pairs the space music/techno dance sound of the Orb with a taut guitar lead that slices to the bone, vocalist Harvey dancing around the lyrics like James Brown at the Apollo. “Turn Out the Light” plays all blueslike, Nutter picking out a Gary Moore lead (circa Skid Row) while Harvey spits out the “ba-ba-baby” style lyrics with a fire that Steve Tyler long ago forgot. Harvey hits the high notes like Robert Plant in his prime on “Disco,” his vocals matching the staccato instrumentation note for note while the band drives the (hellbound) train right off the freakin’ cliff into insanity.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Much of The Music hits yer ears like an inspired pairing of the Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The Music have created an exciting new sound that takes half a century of rock ‘n’ roll history and distills it into messy, noise-drenched and utterly fascinating three-and-a-half minute slices of chaos and charisma. How a major label came to release an album this daring and, gasp...shall we say “different”…in this day and age is beyond this humble scribe. If this is the future sound of rock ‘n’ roll, we could do a lot worse, ‘cause with the fire and passion these young Brits bring to the stage, the Music are going to be huge! The Reverend sez check out the Music, the band, and their delightfully rocking self-titled debut before everybody else gloms onto them. It’ll stay our little secret until then… (Capitol Records, released 2003)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2003

Friday, May 1, 2020

Archive Review: Tommy Womack's Stubborn (2000)

After listening steadily to Tommy Womack’s debut album, Positively Ya-Ya, constantly for over a year I’ve finally figured it out, put my finger on Womack’s place in this great rock ‘n’ roll whatsis. The recent arrival of Stubborn, Womack’s brilliant sophomore effort, reinforces my conclusion: Tommy Womack is the new Harry Nielsen! Now, now, stay with me here – much like that maligned and often-overlooked pop genius, Womack is capable of performing in a number of musical genres, from rock and blues to country and everywhere in between.

Both artists write great songs with slightly skewed lyrical perspectives, and both have a keen eye for skilled sidemen. Whereas Nielsen would enter the studio with various Beatles in tow, Womack records with the cream of Nashville’s underrated rock music scene, talents like Will Kimbrough, George Bradfute, Mike Grimes, Ross Rice, and Brad Jones. Womack may have a more southern-fried perspective than Nielsen, but the parallels are obvious. 

Tommy Womack’s Stubborn

Womack’s Stubborn opens with the chaotic “Rubbermaid,” a short stream-of-consciousness rant similar to Captain Beefheart or John Trubee, backed by syncopated drums and flailing harmonica. It jumps from there right into “Up Memphis Blues,” an energetic rocker with a blues edge that includes some tasty slide guitar courtesy of Al Perkins. “Christian Rocker” is a hilarious interlude with fantastic imagery dropped in between songs while “I Don’t Have A Gun” is an angry blues tune featuring appropriately tortured vocals from Womack and some southern rock styled six-string work from Womack and George Bradfute.

“For The Battered,” a song from Womack’s old band and Southeast legends Govt. Cheese, is recycled here as an electric blues with some wicked, dark-hued slide guitar from Will Kimbrough supporting the story. It’s the most powerful musical statement that I’ve heard on domestic violence and I still get chills every time the asshole girlfriend beater’s karma catches up with him. Stubborn’s lone cover is of the Kink’s “Berkeley Mews,” a somewhat obscure Ray Davies gem offered here in a fairly straight-forward rendition that says as much about Womack’s sophisticated musical tastes as it does about his ability to pull the song off on record.

Intelligent Lyrical Bombs & Poetic Explosives

Most critics, when writing of Womack, praise his songwriting abilities, pointing out the numerous characters that live in his songs. They’re really missing Womack’s strongest skill, however – any hack can people their songs with junkies, whores, and ne’er-do-wells of various stripes (listen to any heavy metal lately?). Womack’s strength is in his composition of memorable lines, clever and intelligent lyrical bombs often thrown into the middle of songs to infect the listener’s consciousness days after hearing a song. Witness some of the poetic explosives hidden in the songs on Stubborn: “I’d crawl back in the womb right now if Jesus would show up and point the way.” “Gonna find me a woman who won’t fall apart on the witness stand.” “I want to be a Christian rocker but the devil’s got all the good drummers.” “She was a Presbyterian in a porno picture, tossing her values aside.” “You can all go straight to hell, you’d better cut and run, get on your knees and thank the lord that I don’t have a gun.”

It’s a skill that separates Womack from the mundane “Music Row” factory writers in Nashville even as it marginalizes him from the whitebread world of radio and mainstream music. It also shows his Southern heritage as religious tradition and rock ‘n’ roll yearnings clash for the soul of the songwriter with the resulting imagery creating some of rock’s best rhymes. Among southern rockers, only Jason & the Scorchers’ Jason Ringenburg and, perhaps, Alex Chilton match Womack word for word.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The material and performances on Stubborn sound more confident, Womack’s talents sharply honed by a couple of years of live shows and collaborations with other artists. A gifted storyteller, an amazing songwriter and an energetic performer, Womack is one of Nashville’s best and brightest. Although an indie rocker in style and attitude, Womack’s work deserves the widest audience possible, distribution and promotion that only a major label could provide – if any of the corporate A&R geeks could get their collective heads out of their respective boss’ rear ends long enough to listen. Personally, as long as Womack gets to keep making records like Stubborn, I’ll be happy enough. (Sideburn Records, released February 22, 2000)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2000

New Music Monthly: May 2020 Releases

Maybe May will be the month that this damn Covid-19 crapola goes the way of the do-do and we can all get out again to the clubs and record stores and imbibe on our favorite tunes. Distribution woes aside, the month promises an impressive slate of new tunes, including albums by American Aquarium, Willie Nile, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, Marshall Chapman, and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, among many others! For those of you who dig the sounds of the past, check out the six-disc live set from Todd Rundgren's Utopia or the more affordable two-disc live set from Richard Thompson. No matter your taste in music, there's something here for everybody...

Release dates are subject to change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy!

Todd Rundgren's Utopia - Benefit For Moogy Klingman

American Aquarium - Lamentations   BUY!
Built to Spill - Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston   BUY!
The Psychedelic Furs - Made of Rain   BUY!
Todd Rundgren's Utopia - Benefit For Moogy Klingman [six-CD live box]   BUY!

Richard Thompson's Live At Rock City: Nottingham 1986

Airborne Toxic Event - Hollywood Park   BUY!
Lamb of God - Lamb of God   BUY!
Mark Lanegan - Straight Songs of Sorrow   BUY!
John Stewart - Old Forgotten Altars: The 1960s Demos   BUY!
Richard Thompson - Live At Rock City: Nottingham 1986   BUY!

Willie Nile's New York At Night

MAY 15
Marshall Chapman - Songs I Can't Live Without   BUY!
Ruthie Foster Big Band - Live At the Paramount   BUY!
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Reunions   BUY!
King Buzzo - Gift of Sacrifice   BUY!
Magnetic Fields - Quickies   BUY!
Moby - All Visible Objects   BUY!
Willie Nile - New York At Night   BUY!
Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip   BUY!
Weezer - Van Weezer   BUY!

Steve Earle & the Dukes'  Ghosts of West Virginia

MAY 22
The 1975 - Notes On A Conditional Form   BUY!
Steve Earle & the Dukes - Ghosts of West Virginia   BUY!
Iron City Houserockers - Have A Good Time...But Get Out Alive!   BUY!
Throwing Muses - Sun Racket   BUY!
Woods - Strange To Explain   BUY!

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard's Chunky Shrapnel

MAY 29
Mick Hayes - My Claim To Fame   BUY!
The Killers - Imploding the Mirage   BUY!
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard - Chunky Shrapnel   BUY!
Static-X - Project Regeneration   BUY!
Vandenberg - 2020   BUY!

Iron City Houserocker's Have A Good Time...But Get Out Alive!

Album of the Month: Tough choice, what with new music from personal faves like Willie Nile, King Gizzard, Jason Isbell, and Steve Earle this month, but I'm gonna have to go with an oldie-but-goodie that has endured for 40 years now – Iron City Houserocker's Have A Good Time...But Get Out Alive! Originally released in 1980, the sophomore effort from these Pittsburgh rockers is even more fierce the band's debut and this two-disc deluxe reissue includes the original LP as well as a bonus disc comprised of 16 previously-unreleased demo tracks including cool covers of "Rooster Blues" and "Doo Wah Diddy." Co-produced by Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, and Little Steven the album features a batch of original Joe Grushecky songs guaranteed to rock yer turntable! A vinyl version will be released in June with a download card for all the bonus material. The Rev sez "check it out!"