With so much of today’s corporate-flavored “modern rock” and nu-metal seemingly cranked out in cookie cutter fashion, hyped to the top of the charts and destined to be discarded as yesterday’s relic, it’s a joy to find something that truly stands out. Toxicity (American Records), the sophomore effort from Los Angeles favorite sons System Of A Down, sounds like nothing that you’ve ever heard before. The band’s members are all of Armenian descent, and their shared cultural heritage sharpens the edges of Toxicity with an undeniable Middle Eastern flavor. Throwing raga rhythms on top of muscular speed metal, System Of A Down are a thinking man’s hard rock band. While tuneage like “Prison Song” or “Deer Dance” showcases the band’s decidedly left-leaning political side with powerful riffs and growled vocals, songs like “Psycho” highlight a more playful, surrealistic side of the band. Singer Serj Tankian possesses a unique, operatic and slightly off-kilter voice that can be both menacing and comical while axeman Daron Malakian mangles the strings with a fervor unparalleled by most of his peers. Equally influenced by hardcore punk and thrash bands like Sepultura, Toxicity proves that System Of A Down will be a musical force to reckon with for the foreseeable future.
Bill Kirchen comes by his honky tonk credentials honestly, making his bones in the seventies with the groundbreaking rockabilly rebels Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. As shown by Kirchen’s latest solo release, Tied To the Wheel (Hightone Records), the underrated guitarist hasn’t lost a step in thirty years, throwing out hot licks with the best of them. Mixing up roots-rock, rockabilly, western swing and Southern California-flavored country honk, Kirchen continues to bring new energy to familiar musical territory. A never-before-released Commander Cody tune, “Truck Stop At the End of the World” kicks off Tied To the Wheel, setting the stage for a raucous collection of tunes set in a world populated with truckers, smoke-filled bars, hard liquor and fast women. Nashville hasn’t inspired music like this in years, but there’s a lot of highway between Music Row and Bakersfield, and that’s where you’ll find Bill Kirchen, burning up the blacktop with his friendly vocals and red-hot guitar, attacking every song on Tied To the Wheel with reckless abandon.
Scotland’s Beta Band is one of the more enigmatic outfits to hail from the British Isles. For their second album, Hot Shots II (Astralwerks Records), the band blends electronic beats and drums-n-bass rhythms, painting them on top of an ambient aural landscape that sounds like Brian Eno jamming with Kraftwerk. The result is an engaging, textured and multi-layered sound that is equal parts Britpop and avant-garde experimentation. Stephen Mason’s otherworldly vocals float above lofty harmonies provided by the other band members while DJ John MacLean adds samples, synths and a vague dancefloor feel to a collection of songs that appeals as much to the listener’s intellect as to their ears.
Denise Sullivan understands this rockin’ reality, exploring an alternative music world in her latest book Rip It Up! (Backbeat Books). Sullivan profiles twenty artists who, throughout their careers, made a difference even if many of them never worked their way onto the charts. Working from her original interviews, Sullivan fills out the profiles with career timelines, lists of recommended recordings and plenty of photos. From well-known artists like the Kinks, Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads to alt-rock cult faves like Camper Van Beethoven and Julian Cope, Sullivan brings a fan’s enthusiasm to the material. Profiles of country legends the Louvin Brothers, folk veterans Utah Phillips and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and R&B groundbreaker Ike Turner are also included, evidence of Sullivan’s diverse musical tastes and knowledge. An entertaining and informative read, Rip It Up! is a great addition to any music lover’s library. (View From The Hill, August 2001)