Friday, February 10, 2023

Buzz Kuts: ADZ, Nick Gravenites, Bif Naked, Napalm Death, Pennywise & Verbena (1999)

Bif Naked's I Bificus
Reviews originally published as a “Buzz Kuts” column, Alt.Culture.Guide™, July 1999

His Master’s Choice

They may not be as well known as pop punk outfits like Green Day or Offspring, and you’ll probably never see them on MTV, but ADZ certainly do get around. Hewing closer to the true spirit of punk rock than any other half a dozen bands you could name, ADZ mix hardcore roots with a healthy respect for good old-fashioned, no frills rock ‘n’ roll. His Master’s Choice is a musical mixed bag of tracks culled from various international compilation discs, ADZ singles and demos and the odd live recording. Due to the variety of sources, the sound quality fluctuates a bit, but not enough to make a difference in the enjoyment level of the collection – just turn the sucker up! Musically, ADZ simply rock, from the album-opening band theme song to a rumbling version of the Jonathan Richman favorite “Roadrunner” to original cuts like the wickedly delightful “Get Bent” or the manic, electric “Tetsuo”. Johnny Cash’s country classic “Jackson” receives a raucous rendering while Little Richard and the Kinks also experience similar treatments. It’s this familiarity and obvious love for music other than hardcore punk that sets ADZ above other bands in their genre – when ADZ thrashes a song, at least they know what the hell they’re doing. The Rev sez “check it out!” (Amsterdamned Records)

Nick Gravenites' Kill My Brain
Kill My Brain

By any accounts, Nick Gravenites owns one of the most impressive resumes in rock and blues music. A founding member of the legendary Butterfield Blues Band, he wrote several of their more notable songs, including “Born In Chicago.” Gravenites has enjoyed a thirty-year career as a songwriter, guitarist and producer, appearing on some 45 albums as a musician. He’s had songs recorded by folks like Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Howlin’ Wolf and produced artists like James Cotton and Mike Bloomfield. So you’re asking yourself, “how come I haven’t heard of this guy if he’s such a genius, eh?” You can cure your ignorance by digging up a copy of Kill My Brain, the first CD in a proverbial month o’ Sundays by Gravenites and his long-time band Animal Mind.
    Released by the small San Francisco indie 2 Burn 1 Records, which usually specializes in some pretty esoteric reggae titles, Kill My Brain is the perfect introduction to this talented and underrated artist. Featuring Gravenites’ trademark electric blues and guitar-driven rock, Kill My Brain is a wonderful collection of songs with enough heart to appeal to your intellect and enough muscle to blow your ears out. Although the title song is a bit of a clinker, with pretty garish backing vocals, the remainder of the disc holds up magnificently. “Didn’t You Used To be Somebody” opens with a somber organ riff and choral accompaniment, leading into a poignant tale of Gravenites’ career and the death of Janis Joplin. “Get Together” presents the classic rock chestnut in a different, bluesier light while “Your Heart’s In the Wrong Place” is a lively, uptempo blues number complete with horns and Gravenites’ soulful vocals. Closing the album with a bang, “I’m Gone” is the sort of high-energy Chicago rave-up that Gravenites used to perform with Paul Butterfield and gang back in the day.
    Assisted by his backing band, Animal Mind, which includes Pete Sears of Hot Tuna and the Blues Project’s Roy Blumenfeld, Kill My Brain also offers guest shots from Sammy Hagar and Huey Lewis. A fine example of what can be done with rock music in a blues context, I’d much rather listen to somebody like Nick Gravenites, who continues to bring new perspective to an old art form, than an Eric Clapton, who coasts on past accomplishments. If you’d like to find out what all of the fuss is about, check out Kill My Brain and discover why Nick Gravenites is one of rock music’s “most valuable players.” (2 Burn 1 Records)

I Bificus

Beneath the body mod, gen-x sex appeal and punkish attitude, Bif Naked is, in her heart, a classic rock vocalist in the manner of a Pat Benatar or Ann Wilson. I Bificus, Naked’s debut disc, is full of soaring vocals, rugged musical hooks, and big beat dynamics that are at once both quaintly charming and breathtakingly exhilarating. Naked is a hell of a vocalist, capable of running in a few seconds from a kittenish growl to a full-blown shout within the same song. I Bificus shows some of the signs of the “debut jitters,” small missteps and minor flaws that slightly tarnish an otherwise very solid work, but the album also showcases some pretty nifty flourishes, as well. “Twitch” starts with a riff straight out of the Dave Davies songbook before tilting into a slightly skewed tale of a very strange relationship while “Spaceman” is a passionate plea for extraterrestrial intervention. The album-opener “I Died” offers some clever wordplay among its vivid imagery while “Moment of Weakness,” with its engaging chorus, has “hit single” written all over it.  In the end, however, it is Naked’s wonderful voice and the overwhelming personality that she brings to the material that propels these songs to great heights. Everything else is just icing on the cake… (Atlantic Records)

Bootlegged In Japan

Grindcore noise merchants Napalm Death simply refuse to go quietly into that good night. The typical critic’s worst nightmare, Napalm Death is virtually ignored in the various encyclopedias and guidebooks to rock music, snubbed by all but the hardcore metal press. Nonetheless, they’ve carried the torch for extreme metal for going on two decades now, their influence easily found in bands ranging from Pantera and Metallica to Korn and Limp Bizkit. Bootlegged In Japan came about when the band received an anonymously taped performance from their 1996 tour of Japan. Feeling that it pretty well represented what the band was about, they decided to officially release the show on CD. I can see why such a decision was made – in a live setting the band is able to fan the flames of their sonic overkill from the studio smolder to a raging inferno. This is exactly the case with Bootlegged In Japan, a four-alarm fire of a performance, capturing Napalm Death in all of their sheer molten metal glory. With enough tortured, guttural vocals, jackhammer guitars and skull-splitting rhythm to satisfy even the most hardcore metalhead, Napalm Death’s Bootlegged In Japan is musically akin to washing your face with steel wool and bathing with barbed wire and broken glass. This is two-fisted music for rockers who like it hard and fast – if you ain’t got the balls, pal, don’t go near the stereo… (Earache Records)

Pennywise's Straight Ahead
Straight Ahead

One of the more popular bands on the Epitaph roster, Pennywise mix old-school punk with a bit of raw hardcore speed and more than a few taut, metallic riffs. Straight Ahead is fairly formulaic, the band slapping together some heavy rockin’ rhythms and tough guitar licks with which to punctuate their socially conscious lyrics. Straight Ahead offers its share of lyrical cliches, but beneath the bluster lies some important content, Pennywise having more in common with former bandmates Bad Religion than with, say, popular punk outfits like NoFX or the Offspring. For Pennywise, the message and the music are one in the same, songs like the anarchistic “My Own Country”, the social commentary of “American Dream”, or the insightful title cut preaching a philosophy of self-empowerment, freedom of choice and individualism. In these times, when every aspect of being young is under assault, the cultural Cassandra’s dismiss the aggressiveness and language of punks like Pennywise as part of the problem. They’re dead wrong, however – Straight Ahead, with its themes of alienation and anxiety, hope and frustration, is part of the solution, a thought-provoking touchstone for youth in search of identity, adrift in a sea of mass-produced, homogenized corporate waste matter. They may not be blazing any new trails, but Pennywise, with Straight Ahead, makes the best use of the familiar paths. (Epitaph Records)

Into the Pink

The pundits – this one included – have declared grunge and the much-vaunted “Seattle scene” to be a dead fish. Obviously, somebody forgot to tell Verbena, whose debut Into the Pink rocks with a sonic abandon unheard of since the first shouts out of Pearl Jam or Nirvana almost a decade ago. To cop something another band told me a decade or so ago, Verbena “make a lot of noise for three people.” Into the Pink is filled with small triumphs, musical mischief like “Baby Got Shot” with a hypnotic, recurring riff, “Pretty Please” with its pretty vocals and rhythmic cadence, “Monkey, I’m Your Man” with its menace and its glare or the chainsaw hardcore attitude of “Depression Is Fashion.” Produced by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, who certainly knows a thing or two about dirty ambience, Into the Pink may well be the last gasp of grunge. But rather than a dying whimper, Verbena deliver a full-blown, defiant and powerful rage against the light. They may go down with the ship, but they’re going down swinging. (Capitol Records)

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