Thursday, February 23, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R

Rated R (2000) ****

Adding a heavy dose of psychedelia and more than a smidgen of pop to the Queens' heavy rock formula makes for an expected rise in quality.  First off, this has one element that the debut sorely lacked:  a sense of variety.  Not that the Queens vary too far into the eclectic soundscape - it's still all mid-tempo rockers, heavy and glammy at the same time, with a handful of thrashy goofs for good measure ("Quick and to the Pointless," and the infamous opening track, the pro-drugs "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," both screamed goofily by bassist Nick Oliveri).  The latter manages to be awesomely catchy ("c-c-c-COCAINE!") and rather annoying at the same time, while the "Pointless" lives up to its title.  The production makes the guitar fuzz rather mellower yet still bite-y in a metallized Revolver kinda way; I'm sure heavy ingestations of marijuana were responsible for the oddly cuddly vibe to this heavy rock.  No, I can't avoid drug references when discussing this album - why would I even try?  The band make those stellarly clear themselves, and thus helped usher in the era of "Stoner Rock" as the critics coined and many bands of the genre embraced the label:  rejecting the excesses of '80s glam-metal and '90s grunge, and skipping back to the '70s hard rock ethos but with a more modernized sound.  You know, taking metal back to its roots, when it was tied to gritty rock'n'roll, not the slickly produced technological horror-show for 13 year olds it morphed into in the '80s.  Better songs about such down to earth rock'n'roll topics as drugs and scamming for underage groupies than Corpsevomit and carnivorous erections.  OK, so my biases are clear - I detest the vast majority of post-'70s metal, mostly for the polished production values and wheedly-whee guitar tones that divorce it from what I understand to be rock'n'roll.  Yeah, rock, but it don't roll.  QOTSA actually roll from time to time, perhaps because unlike most metal bands, they don't seem to erase the bass player's parts from the mix - sure, they're as guilty of dynamic overcompression as any modern band, but they have an actual rhythmic groove underneath the guitar parts.

Anyway, back to the album in question, after getting sidetracked (this is a pretty crappy review so far; whatever, QOTSA's second album isn't so important to my life that I feel like rewriting the half hour of my life I've spent so far on this blogpost).  "Autopilot," possesses the shock of acoustic guitars (yeah for sonic variety!  I mean, HELL YEAH for sonic variety!).   Once again Homme makes the mistake of closing the album with a piano ballad, a musical genre for which he has no feel or ability for ("I Think I Lost My Headache").  Fuck no for sonic variety.  "Lightning Head," rips your head off with its heaviness like some great lost Black Sabbath IV outtake - hell, for all I know the riff is a Sabbath ripoff; it certainly sounds familiar, doesn't it, though I couldn't identify the source if Nick Oliveri himself offered to split his stash with me.  Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) offers his soul-grunge vocals for the power-balladic "In the Fade," (actually sorta good - this sonic variety stuff is starting to work out after all).  "The Lost Art of Keeping," is a tightly rocking hard-poppy rocker; "Better Living Through Chemistry," is a spacey drugged-out psych-rocker; and "Monster in the Parasol," has a chorus as disappointingly goofy as you'd expect from the title (sigh, maybe that Blue Oyster Cult influence isn't so cool after all) - but it's a solid tune nonetheless.  There's really not much filler on this record - nearly all the tracks are worthwhile ("Tension Head," only lasts 34 seconds, so who cares?).         

The Comsat Angels - Fiction

Fiction (1982) **1/2

Following the oppressive heaviness of A Great Cure For Insomnia, the Comsats make a 180 degree turn into a shocking lightness.  By which I mean production and instrumentation - lots more space in these arrangements (ah, finally some breathing room) - not necessarily the emotional tenor, which is as sullen and gloomy as ever.  The combination of sleek, lightweight musical presentation and oppressively sad moodswingery makes for a startingly odd, and not altogether unpleasant, emotional affect.  However, that's the nicest thing I've going to say about this album.  Once again, the Comsats offer a richly, lovingly textured album of grace and beauty that's long on atmosphere and short on memorable songs.  Oh, it's not as if they aren't penning choruses and littering their songs with elements of hooks - slowly, they're returning to songcraft after the excessively layered texturecraft of the previous album - it's just the choruses are a bit too repetitive and the songs themselves so lifeless:  there's no energy to any of them.  This has the feel of a transitional album, as the band stakes out a new style halfway between the gothy post-punk of their first two albums and the shiny synth-pop they'd spend the rest of the decade pursuing.  As such, it's the last half-way decent album they'd ever release, before completely selling out and morphing into a poor man's Flock of Seagulls.  Guitars still float around prominently in the mix, even if synths are slightly more prominent and drum & bass are once again the clear dominators.  As I said, the sound itself is pleasant enough, it's the songs that are problematic - way more inconsistent than they need to be, and frankly after the lead-off single, "After the Rain," (its self-conscious brightness and lightness a meta-commentary on how, musically speaking, they've emerged into the sunshine from the grey, dark thunderclouds of Sleep No More?), this album takes quite its time in getting going.  Boring song, boring song, boring song....hey, "Juju Money," is nice'n'moody!  Cool brooding chorus, fellas.  Some more boring songs to wade through, and the album only truly wakes up near the end.  "Pictures," isn't much to speak of - musically, it's as dull as most of the rest - but it gets by via the sharply detailed lyrical theme of ripping up photos from a failed relationship and burning them in the fire.  "It's History," the final track, is a fine little pop song on similar theme, and "What Else!" the second-to-last track, is to me the album's most successful track, with its dynamic upbeat arrangement almost making it peppy (in a surly, moody way, of course).

Anyway, this may or may not be my bidding adieu to the Comsat Angels' ouvre, depending on how much of a masochist I am:  like I said, starting with the next album, they were so desperate to sell out that they made A-Ha look cutting edge, and the rest of their '80s output is for all purposes and intents worthless synth-pop dreck.  Oh, and I should mention one bonus track on the reissue, "Mass," which is completely out of step with the rest of the album's sound - it sounds like an outtake from the Sleep No More sessions, which it undoubtedly was.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Fall - Cerebral Caustic

Cerebral Caustic (1995) ***1/2

Like U2 returning to the '00s with their big guitar rock comeback album after spending the '90s losing fans by the droves with their electronic music excursions, so the Fall returned in the mid-'90s with the most direct and hard-rocking material they'd composed in years.  Initially, it comes across as the most exciting Fall album in years - they haven't sounded this invigorated in nearly a decade.  Forget all that dancey disco crap, the motherfreakin' FALL are back where they once belonged, bringing back the noise with a dozen hard-hitting headbangers!  And at ony a dozen tracks, there's practically no filler - all the songs are listenable.  Even the three experimental tracks near the end are highly listenable.  In fact, "Bonkers in Phoenix," is a clear triumph, and I've concluded one of my all-time favorite Fall songs:  structurally resembling "Hotel Bloedel," (from Perverted By Language, remember?), its musical bedrock is an utterly lovely Brix melody that Mark deliberately fucks up to unsettling effect by chipmunk-speeding the vocals and throwing swathes of wobbly noise on top.  Brilliant!  (And oh yes, if you didn't notice, Brix is back.  Maybe that's got something to do with these songs being catchier than usual for '90s Fall.  Anyway, she almost steals the album with her protestations in "Don't Call Me Darling," - post-marital tension, eh?)

This is a fun, fun album, and a highly listenable entry point for newbies - the rock may be hard, but in a non-threatening and clean, non-noisy way:  there's nothing here to alienate the uninitiated (aside from Mark's vocals - can't do anything to change that).  Just raw, hard-bouncing punk.  You could do worse than making this your first Fall purchase.  However, for the non-novitiates, the music is two steps forward in listenability, and two steps back in innovation and uniqueness.  It's an essentially conservative album, retracing the footsteps that the Fall and plenty of other punky rock bands have trod before.  The sound is produced rather thinly, but I can deal with that; more problematic is the slapdash feel of several of these tracks.  "The Aphid," in particular just sounds like sheer slovenly songwriting.  And as much fun as this album can be when it's playing and you're bouncing around to the cute little riffs, the songs aren't nearly as memorable as they should be.  Keepers include the aforementioned "Bonkers in Phoenix," "Don't Call Me Darling," and the opener, "The Joke," an exciting rush of a rocker based on a Milan Kundera novel, apparently (guy in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia makes a political joke and gets sent to a labor camp; Mark changes it to "PC camp," an obvious alusion to political correctness).  A cover of Zappa's uproarious sad-sack satire, "I'm Not Satisfied," is another highlight, but too many of the originals sound like rush-jobs.  This is a very, very good Fall album - a 3.75 verging on 4 star Fall album, in fact.  A good album that could've been a great Fall album if only the songwriting were a bit stronger.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Comsat Angels - Sleep No More

Sleep No More (1981) ***

This is the densest and most impenetrable album I've ever heard.  I say that without exagerration:  the keyword here is oppressive, as according to fact (not legend) they obtained the booming drum sound by recording the drums in an elevator shaft and miking the six floors adjacent the drum kit.  The effect is almost literally crushing:  the sound waves across as thick as a fog of quicksand pea soup, enveloping the ears from all corridors from which there is no escape.  Talk about wall of sound:  this is as heavy as Black Sabbath's osmium, though in a totally different genre and vein.  Drums and impossibly deep-throated bass lines are the weapons in the Comsat's arsenal, doomily building layer upon layer of deeply oppressive atmosphere that chokes the listener into bewildered submission.  If you're morbidly claustrophobic, avoid this album at all costs (me, my primal fear is of heights).  And in contrast to classic metal, the Comsat's post-punk aim is an atmosphere of morbid, gloomy sadness and alienation, rather than morbid aggression.

As such, this album is a highly influential, five-star landmark of '80s post-punk goth-gloom; the Cure were obviously listening closely, as they ripped off the basic sound for Pornography the subsequent year.  However, on after try after try after try (lost count - more than seven, less than a dozen listens) I've given up trying to make my way out of this labyrinth of sound:  it's easy to get lost in these thickets, but once you've emerged for breath, the only impression taken away is of the overall sound.  These songs lack anything so mundane as hooks and choruses:  as so often sadly is the case for albums with a startingly unique and original sound, the band coasts far, far too much upon that sheer sound, and forgets to write memorable songs to accompany the atmospherics (and it goes without saying, not bothering with any song-by-song analysis I am - the sheer uniformity of sound is bludgeoning).  The songs are bottom-heavily rhythmic and for the most part as oppressively slow as they are oppressively heavy, with meekly detached, declaimed vocals and shards of ghostly synth-lines floating above the rhythmic bed for color and melody (what little there is of that).  Naturally a commercial flop, with no singles even attempted to be pulled from this morass - in an unusually perceptive move, both the band and the record company realized that no way in hell did any song on this platter remotely possess any commercial potential, so they didn't even bother.  Some singles were released concurrently with this album, however, and have accompanied the album proper as bonus tracks on reissues.  They're considerably more immediately involving than the album tracks (hell, anything would be) - some could even be called catchy.  "Eye of the Lens," stands out:  imagine the album's gloomily oppressive atmospherics applied to the dynamics of an actual song, and you have a masterpiece:  the CD reissues' highwater mark, and possibly the career of the Comsat Angels as a whole.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Queens of the Stone Age - s/t

Queens of the Stone Age (1998) ***1/2

The secret to QOTSA is that they play heavy metal as if it were rock'n'roll again - real metal, not boppy hair-metal bullshit:  dry, heavy, complex, lyrically non-interested in standard boy-porks-girl fare.  Equal parts Sabbath, Hawkwind, Metallica, Blue Oyster Cult, Stooges, Hendrix, Kyuss (lead guitarist/vocalist and for all intents and purposes [as would be made clear on subsequent releases] dictator of these Queens, Josh Homme's former band), QOTSA do have a glammy side, but not nearly as much as their name and unfortunate LP cover might imply.  (God, I've got to review something, anything immediately after posting this review, simply to get that unsightly blemish off the intro to my site.)  Oh, and throw some Meat Puppets into that influence mix, willya?  I have no idea if Homme, bassist Nick Oliveri, and drummer Alfredo Hernandez (only here for one LP!  Catch'im while you if you care!) actually listened to the Kirkwood Bros. or not, but their music has the same red-eyed, dry, dusty feel as those other scions of the lonesome desert.  No doubt geography influences musical style, as 18th century ethnographers surmised that the skin colours and humours of the races of man were influenced by their native environments.  Having only heard one Kyuss album in glancing that left no great impression on me, I've been told that Homme's former band was more experimental and expansive, not to mention also including both Oliveri and Hernandez, which means that the only major lineup change was ditching Kyuss' douchebag singer.

BTW, ever noticed how "I Was a Teenage Hand Model," sucks?  I understand that a slice of quirky piano pop may seem like a necessary change of pace when all the other songs on the album sound exactly the same.  Well, not quite the same, but sonic variety this album has it not (aside from the general flow of starts-off-really-good but the material on the second half starts growing noticably weaker - the best songs are all frontloaded).  Some of the songs are faster (and therefore better) even if none of them chug along faster than mid-tempo, with the exception of "How to Handle a Rope," which is quite speedy and uncoincidentally by far the album's best song.  And some of the songs are slower and therefore draggier and therefore suckier.  Except for "If Only," because the riff and its interplay with the rhythm section are so darn interesting.  In fact, none of these riffs are, generally speaking, all that interesting in and of themselves:  it's the band interplay that elevates these heavy rockers to great rock'n'roll.  Have I mentioned how tight this band is?  Have I mentioned that they can play?  Well, maybe that's because every reviewer does.  Facts are facts.  These guys R-O-C-K in an objective sense.  If QOTSA don't make you, through sheer involuntary act of will, curl your fingers into a devil sign and nod your head in a banging rhythm like a slow motion epileptic fit, then I question the validity of your nervous system.  Facts are facts.  However, that's all QOTSA do or seem capable of, and if you're looking for something other, or more than headbanging heaviosity with impressively complex arrangements and jaw-droppingly tight playing, then seek ye elsewhere.    

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Fall - Middle Class Revolt

You're sleeping with some hippie halfwit who thinks he is Mr. Mark Smith

Middle Class Revolt (1994) ***1/2

Hey, this ain't half bad!  And half-good is roughly accurate:  Fall fans may not agree on much, but they seem to agree that about half the songs here are a return to prime Fallform, while the other half range from the disposable to the crap to the band's-a-phonin'-it-in.  Which makes for a much better album than you'd expect, as with 15 tracks you'd expect at least a mild amount of dross.  I say tracks not songs because "Symbol of Mordgan," is perhaps the most useless of three minutes committed to a Fall tape, consisting of nothing more than guitarist Craig Scanlon and John Peel discussing football.  And unintelligibly, too boot.  It's the pro forma "experimental" track.  "The experimental is now conventional!"  Remember when you uttered those words in 1980, Mark?  So please spare us these "experimental" tracks that are not , in fact, experimental, but merely nothing more than tired old ways to annoy.

There are three covers, none of which I have heard the originals:

1) "War" (Henry Cow) - Weird!  Weird!  I'm not sure if I like it but I like it!  Mark adds a whole bunch of lyrics.

2) "Junk Man" (Groundhogs) - Sucks!  But I guess so does the original.   What I'm saying is that what've heard of the Groundhogs sucks.

3) "Shut Up!" (Monks) - Another Monks cover? Haven't the Fall done half a dozen of these?  This one's great fun!  They bring cheesy Farfisa up to the cheesy electronica age!

Of the originals, the openers, "15 Ways," and "Reckoning," are practically the same song - oh, different songs, with different lyrics and melodies and all, but performed in the same laidback jangly-pop style with nearly the same arrangement.  The first is about leaving your lover and the second is about your lover leaving you.  I assume both are autobiographical.  "15 Ways," was the MTV hit (they played it a couple of times on 120 Minutes at 1:15 A.M., Standard Eastern Time).  "Hey! Student," is the punkiest they've rocked in years, albeit in a clean, punchy, totally noise-free way (but very very rhythmic - feel that bass slap you upside the head).  No surprise - it's a rewrite of a '77 Falloldie, "Hey! Fascist".  They save three of the strongest tracks for last.  I've already mentioned the techno-carnival version of "Shut Up!" which closes the album on a nitrous oxide note.  The Zappa-esque "The $500 Bottle of Wine," comes across as a bit fratboyish in its drunken singalong chorus, but it is a catchy fratboy chorus, and Mark's closing admonition to, "Get down the fucking liquor store, boy," makes the tune.  Then there's the album's strongest and most musically forward-looking track, "City Dweller," a protest concerning Manchester's aborted Olympics city host bid, that in a more open-minded world would be dropped by progressive-minded DJs at clubhouses from Singapore to Southampton.

There are some other songs on this disc, and some of them are kinda good, but I'm too bored to discuss them.  Like most late-period Fall albums, there's way too much too much - 15 songs?  I could've done with half those.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Sound - Propaganda

Propaganda (1999) ***

Formed out of the ashes of the Outsiders, who released one of the first independently released punk albums in 1977, emerged the Sound, still a punky guitar band but edging toward artiness.  These late '70s demo-ish recordings, apparently recorded in Borland's parents' basement or garage or toilet, are remarkably tight and professional sounding given their origins, and the fact that the band were just forming as musicians learning how to play their instruments.  Anyway, perhaps the most amazing thing is how exactly this sounds like Warsaw.  Remember Warsaw?  Joy Division the punk band before they transmuted into Joy Division?  The ultra-stiff guitar and drum interplay, the menacingly plodding tempos, The Man Who Sold the World era Bowie influence (music closer to stiff plodding acid metal with a touch of punky kick), the dour grey overtones.  Borland also flouts a noticable Iggy fixation on the vocals, particularly the Stooges-ish "Physical World".  The band rock out heartily on quite a few tracks, and plod along on a few others, which is to say the material on this compilation is a bit hit and miss; and likewise, the band seem to be fumbling their way to their own unique sound without quite finding it - in other words, 'formative', is the key adjective (as if you'd expect it be any other way for a collection of early pre-major label demos).  So it's essentially an album for fans only, but for true fans, it's essential:  about half the songs here are more than worthy appendages to the Sound's studio catalogue.  And doesn't "Quarter Past Two," sound just like the Cure's "10:15 Saturday Night," in both lyrical theme and that opening guitar line - dry and chiming, could've leaped off Boys Don't Cry (as does "One More Escape," which adds some Roxy-esque clarinet)?  The title track also employs horns, but to an unpleasant '80 faux-funk effect.  Much better is the apocalyptic opener, the plodding thudder, "No Salvation," which direly bespeaks of the collapse of the Church and nuclear war.  There are several early run-throughs of songs that would later be retooled for their 1980 debut ("Night vs. Day," "Words Fail Me," and "Missiles") none of which are all that drastically different from the polished final versions, only rougher:  they had a pretty clear vision of what they wanted to achieve even at this stage. 

Caveat emptor:  this platter is not quite complete.  Of the band's 1979 debut Physical World EP, only the title track makes it way to this comp.  The non-synth version of "Unwritten Law," (bettered on the album debut) probably isn't an essential listen, but the lead-off cut of that three-song debut single is.  You've never heard "Cold Beat"?  It's likely their best early punk-era Sound track.  Why did they leave "Cold Beat" off this compilation?!  And yet they found room for that slice of phlegm, "Music Business"?!  Scratching my ears at this inexplicability.

The Sound - Thunder Up

Thunder Up (1987) ***1/2

Perhaps the most tragically ignored swansong in history, and I mean ignored - the AllMusicGuide doesn't even warrant this a review, and good luck finding many other reviews round the net, dear readers (so aren't you lucky that I'm here with ears).  The tragedy is that this by no means sounds like a typical swansong:  the band does not sound weary or self-consciously elegiac, and certainly do not seem to be running dry at the well of ideas, enthusiasm, and inspiration.  It's simply a startingly abrupt end to a brilliant career - "Huh?  You mean they didn't put out any more records?" - as if a band were rudely cut off right in the middle of their prime.  The natural inference is that the band called it quits for that simple reason:  they were ignored.  Not because they felt they'd run out of steam and had nothing more to say.  But because the world just didn't seem interested in what they had to say.

Ironically, this is the most polished and accessible mainstream pop album the Sound ever released.  There's very little that a casual MTV viewer of the period would not have found to his or her liking, at least in regards to the more upbeat, poppy singles such as "Hand of Love," "Iron Years," and "Prove Me Wrong," the latter a clear highlight with its upbeat lyrical gambit.  Fast rockers (actually closer to hyper-tempoed pop than rock) like the opener, "Acceleration Group," and the aptly titled "Kinetic," keep the pace varied, along with the sole downbeat number on the first side, the vaguely reggae-tinged, "Barria Alta."  The second side, however, returns us to more typically moody and darker-tinged Sound territory, and is naturally more compelling if less pop-accessible.  Only the overwrought "I Give You Pain," which comes off as a failed Doors-y epic (Borland's Morrison-esque bellowing doesn't help) flops; but the epically moody "Shut Up and Shot Down," and "Web of Wicked Ways," more than make for that one misfire.  And the final track, "You've Got a Way," is the album's triumph, a bite of goth-pop that stands as the album's tastiest morsel, with the guitar and piano chiming like chinks of sunlight into Borland's veil of gloom.