Friday, July 7, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: William Topley, Bad Religion, Jason & the Scorchers, Tron DVD (2002)

William Topley's Feasting With Panthers

William Topley doesn’t receive much radio airplay, nor are gallons of ink spread on paper to champion the British artist’s music. Topley may not be a household name, but while better-known, lesser talents are dominating the charts, Topley quietly makes intelligent, beautiful music. Feasting With Panthers (Lost Highway) is Topley’s fourth album and one that finds the artist experimenting with differing musical forms and styles. Long-time fans have nothing to fear – Feasting With Panthers still contains plenty of the Tennessee Williams-steeped, Southern-fried blue-eyed soul that Topley is best known for. For these songs, though, Topley has expanded his artistic pallet, adding elements of island rhythms to songs like the reggae-tinged “Excuses” or the Cuban-inflected “La Habana.” The band is a top-notch group of professionals and Topley’s deep, passionate vocals caress his lyrics like a lover’s kiss. The best current artist that you’ve never heard, Feasting With Panthers is a great place for a newcomer to discover Topley’s music.

For over two decades now, Bad Religion has helped define the direction of punk rock. Although they may not have the sales of, say, Green Day or Blink 182, or even the hip cache of Rancid, Bad Religion’s influence on the genre is undeniable, and every album released by the band leaves its mark across the entire spectrum of punk rock. The Process of Belief (Epitaph Records) is no exception. The Process of Belief represents not only a reunion of Epitaph label owner and guitarist Brett Gurewitz with the band he left in 1994, but also a return to the ranks of the indie music world that Bad Religion played a major part in creating. The CD certainly won’t disappoint even the most hardcore punk enthusiast, jumping from 0 to 100 mph in seconds with the opening track, “Supersonic.”

From this point, it’s sheer sonic thrills and chills as Bad Religion runs through fourteen fast-and-furious tracks. “Bored & Extremely Dangerous” is a delightful take on alienation while “Kyoto Now!” assails the current administration’s environmental policy. Bad Religion might wear their social consciousness on their collective sleeves, but no other rock ‘n’ roll band brings as much intelligence and erudition to its material, and no vocalist other than Greg Graffin could cram so many syllables into a verse. With The Process of Belief, Bad Religion extends their legacy and raises the bar for other punk bands to follow.

Jason & the Scorchers' Wildfires + Misfires
Cowpunk pioneers Jason & the Scorchers enjoy a lofty standing within the indie rock ranks. They’ve received a minor degree of fame, with a series of critically acclaimed albums and hundreds of dynamic live shows beneath their belts. They made the jump from their own indie label to a major label back when a band’s credibility wasn’t instantly in question, later going bankrupt due to excessive label expenses. After a brief early ‘90s hiatus, the Scorchers returned to the indie world with a handful of brilliant, if underrated albums for Mammoth Records. Now they’ve come full-circle, releasing music on their own Courageous Chicken imprint through North Carolina indie Yep Roc Records. For these Nashville rock icons, it’s been a long strange trip, indeed.

This trip is partially documented by the recently released Wildfires + Misfires (Yep Roc). The disc is a collection of Scorchers’ obscurities, demos and alternative versions that provides listeners with greater insight into the band’s creative process. It documents the Scorchers’ evolution from brash young punks into one of rock’s most talented, if overlooked bands. The set kicks off with the demo version of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” that won the band a major label contract and also includes red-hot unreleased live tracks like “Tear It Up” with legendary guitarist Link Wray and crowd favorite “Lost Highway.” Rarities like “Too Much Too Young” and “Break Open The Sky” present the band in a different light while alternative takes of familiar songs like “If Money Talks” showcase the Scorchers’ range and abilities. Rather than a prurient look at a band’s past, Wildfires + Misfires is a vital collection of material that rewards loyal fans for their incredible dedication while presenting a living document of a work still in progress.    

Back in the early 1980s, Disney was desperately trying to remain relevant in the face of increased competition. The studio hadn’t broken new artistic ground in a decade and was in danger of becoming a minor league player in the entertainment world. They rolled the dice on director Steve Lisberger’s pet project, and the film Tron (Disney DVD) was created. Although this radical, computer-assisted film was a relative disappointment at the box office, barely breaking even, it would prove to be an incredibly influential work of art. Watching Tron again on DVD, twenty years after its initial release, is a revelation. True, many of the effects look dated in the face of more recent computer-effects breakthroughs like The Matrix, but Lisberger and crew were there first, blazing the trail for others to follow.

A typical tale of good vs. evil, hacker/programmer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) finds himself trapped inside of what we now call cyberspace by nasty corporate CEO (David Warner) and a rogue software program. With the help of a defensive program named “Tron” (played with steadfast Dudley Doright bravery by Bruce Boxleitner), Flynn successfully competes on the “game grid” and defeats the dictatorial “Master Control” software. The effects are breathtaking, especially the computer-generated lightcycles, and the geometric design of the computer world is mind-boggling. The collector’s edition DVD includes an informative “making of” feature with interviews, storyboards and more information than you could ever want. Tron is an important movie milestone and well worth checking out for anybody interested in either science fiction or computer animation. (View From The Hill, April 2002)

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