Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Friday, August 3, 2018

Black Sabbath - Headless Cross (1989)

Black Sabbath
Columbia, Maryland
June 4, 1989

Disc 1
1) Ava Satani
2) Headless Cross
3) Neon Knights
4) Children of the Sea
5) Call of the Wild
6) The Mob Rules
7) When Death Calls
8) War Pigs

Dropbox Disc One:

Disc 2
1) Die Young
2) Black Sabbath
3) Devil and Daughter
4) Iron Man
5) Children of the Grave
6) Heaven and Hell
7) Paranoid

Dropbox Disc Two:

I wrote in an earlier review of my introduction to Black Sabbath via Castle Communication’s Greatest Hits collection. The moment came in 1985, near or soon after my tenth birthday, and the mid-eighties soon proved to be slow going for any young kid latching onto Sabbath as an ongoing enterprise. One of my news “bibles” in those pre-Internet days, Hit Parader, remained the only magazine outlet covering the band on even a semi-regular basis and the coverage, invariably, came across with a discernibly skeptical note. My new favorite band, unfortunately, served up plenty of reasons to doubt their viability. Hit Parader chronicled in painful detail the Glenn Hughes debacle, rallied briefly around the band recruiting promising young singer Ray Gillen, covered his eventual departure and dismissive comments on the band’s future with more than a little glee, and called on guitarist and founder Tony Iommi to disband one of heavy metal’s foundational bands.

I stayed a true believer. By late 1988, I was exchanging a correspondence with original drummer Bill Ward resulting from my teenage hubris. There wasn’t any Black Sabbath biography or much attention, at all really, paid to the band’s pivotal role in shaping much of modern heavy music. I saw myself redressing that imbalance and wrote handwritten letters to each original band member, care of their respective record companies, with my proposal and a few questions to get things started. I was thirteen years old. Bill Ward answered and we began exchanging handwritten letters.

Tony Iommi never answered, but I did receive a letter. It was a mailing from the Black Sabbath Appreciation Society, ran by Pete Sarfas. I read the usual prattle about an expensive (for a thirteen year old) membership, but the letter came with news. Drummer Cozy Powell had joined the band and Sabbath had commenced work on a new studio album with the latest singer of record, Tony Martin. As a young fan of 70’s classic hard rock, I knew Powell from his playing on Rainbow’s second album Rising. It came as eye-popping news.

It meant a new round of fighting as well. By 1989, my friends firmly supported newer metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, et al, and urged me to get with the times. If I had to listen to Sabbath, it needed to be Ozzy or else hit the bricks. For me, the heart of Black Sabbath was never the front man, it was Tony Iommi’s guitar and the vocalist needed to hit certain marks and nothing more. My friends derided Dio and new singer Tony Martin as pseudo-operatic nonsense. I didn’t care. I heard a lot on the post Ozzy albums that came off like pure Sabbath for me.

Headless Cross hit. I remember reading about the release in Parader and then seeing the video on Headbanger’s Ball, MTV’s grudging and often frustrating concession to a movement they scheduled for nowhereville on the weekends. I’m convinced an entire generation of heavy music freaks stayed awake for that MTV dribble because they knew, invariably, a gem would slip through the dreck.

I loved it. The thunderous drums, the video’s evocative yet understated atmospherics, and the Martin’s undeniable vocal power immediately impressed me. There is the big Iommi riff, yes, but we likewise hear Tony reengaging with his soloing with an immediacy more hit and miss on the band’s previous studio release The Eternal Idol. Iommi has credited Powell, in a handful of interviews, for inspiring him during a difficult time in the band’s history and their collaboration brought something of the band’s original musical spirit back, albeit in a modern context. Powell understood how juxtaposing his playing against Iommi’s guitar produced make or break opportunities for the band’s musical style and re-interpreted Bill Ward’s approach to playing with Iommi through his own sensibilities. The solo is one of Tony’s best in quite some time, excepting The Eternal Idol’s “The Shining”, and session bassist Laurence Cottle deserves a special mention in the band’s history for the job he does on the album as a whole, but the title track in particular.

I scooped up a cassette copy days later, if that, and the remainder didn’t disappoint. The album’s second song “Devil and Daughter” is more uptempo fare than the album’s title song and has a discernibly stronger commercial edge than recent Sabbath material at that point. It comes from the palpably brighter bounce Geoff Nicholls’ keyboards and Powell’s drums bring to the material, but the chorus also marks this as something very different from, let’s say, “Symptom of the Universe” or “Slipping Away”. It’s much more in the vein of mid to late eighties’ hard rock/heavy metal, but Iommi remains the clear cut link to the band’s past with another signature incendiary solo.

“When Death Calls”, a later mainstay of the tour’s live set, is one of the finest achievements from this era in the band’s history. It’s cast, superficially, in the same vein of other Sabbath “ballads”, but given a fair darker and heavier tilt than what we’re accustomed to with tracks like otherwise crunching light and shadow classic “Children of the Sea” and “The Sign of the Southern Crosses”. Martin benefits from some atmospheric production in the song’s first half, but takes over in the uptempo coda with real authority and conviction. A rare Sabbath guest spot comes here as Queen’s Brian May delivers a solo late, but ratchets up the intensity with claustrophobic and spot on lead work.

“Kill in the Spirit World” is another track where modern and retro Sabbath meets with frequently satisfying effect. The verses are guided by nice, striding drums and guitar oriented hard rock aspired to circa 1989, but the arrangement mixes in some minor key embellishments recalling the band’s earlier work. The song has an underrated chorus and Martin turns in another in a string of strong vocal performances. “Call of the Wild” isn’t a terrible song, but it’s a tone deaf misstep for this particular band. One of their contemporizes, Deep Purple, included a song with the same title on their 1988 release House of the Blue Light and it still stands as one of the more painfully veteran attempts to find hard rock relevancy in the later 1980’s… because it’s so utterly out of character. This is a song practically announcing how it’s written to formula; it’s a mixed blessing, however, that the song so successfully realizes that formula. The lyrics tackle familiar tropes – but they do with a turn of phrase all their own.

The album’s penultimate tune, “Black Moon”, frequently makes lists of neglected Sabbath classics for good reason. Buried on an unjustly neglected non-Ozzy album, this drum driven barnburner benefits, as well, from some fiery Iommi lead guitar. The production is key to the song’s success, however, thanks to the theatrical setting given to both Powell’s drumming and Martin’s vocal. The finale “Nightwing” is a dramatic curtain closer for the original release. It opens with one of the best Iommi acoustic pieces in his recording career while, predictably, alternating between light and heavy. It’s another of those aforementioned sleeper tunes in the band’s long history and Iommi’s sensitively rendered solo puts an exclamation point on the tune unlike anything else in the band’s discography.

Tony, Geezer, even you Ozzy… I forgive you. I don’t expect you to understand. When Bruce Springsteen inducted Bob Dylan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he described hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time. The Boss compared it to someone kicking open a door in his mind. Yes, Dylan eventually affected me in a similar way, a lot of your contemporaries did as well; music has given me much. Before all of that later music though, there was a band who gripped me musically like nothing else and Headless Cross rewarded the faith I placed in them.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Deep Purple - Fireball (1971)

Band as well oiled beast best describes Fireball era Deep Purple. The breakthrough success of In Rock emboldened the band, individually and collectively, with a confidence level heretofore unknown. We must remember the path to continued success is assured for them at this point – road rot hasn’t quite set in yet and maintaining momentum requires them to reproduce In Rock, frankly not a tall order for this lineup at its peak power, and nothing more. There’s swagger galore permeating this release and a practically gleeful inclination towards upending listener’s expectations.

The album opens with a bracing salvo reminiscent of In Rock’s power. Title songs are usually tucked mid way through an album’s track listing and reserved for numbers in some way representative of the band. It became a staple of the live set and returned to prominence following Blackmore’s 1993 departure from the band. Ian Paice’s drums are propulsive and swing in a way few of his contemporaries ever matched – when intelligent and well intentioned music devotees want to slather John Bonham’s memory in laurel leaves and anoint him King of Rock Drummers, they’re counseled to remember Paice’s contributions before declaring the matter settled.

“No No No” is what happens when Ritchie Blackmore listens to Shuggie Otis. We get some lyrics of the era decrying the tyranny of the Man’s hold over the outsider, but Gillan gives the song stakes it wouldn’t otherwise have with a lung-busting vocal. Paice and bassist Roger Glover ride a potent groove for Blackmore’s fiery licks to fill in. We’re back in solidly rock territory for “Demon’s Eye” and Gillan distinguishes relatively pedestrian lyrics with a vocal fully dramatizing their possibilities, Blackmore’s lead guitar is especially biting and well tailored with this cut.

“Anyone’s Daughter” dizzies casual listeners. We go from the muscular rock posturing of “Demon’s Eye” into the shaggy dog country blues of this song with nary a blink and Gillan’s vocal plays it coolly straight-faced despite the lyric’s potential for mucking things up. He shows an expert stand up comic’s instinct for playing a joke with just the right amount of deadpan and it makes this all the more enjoyable. “The Mule” is largely an Ian Paice drumming showcase, but there’s some wicked good Blackmore guitar and contributions from Jon Lord woven into the song’s fabric. Gillan’s brief vocal signals a turning point of sorts in the song, but nonetheless hits its intended mark.

“Fools” is my favorite Deep Purple song. The patient build, orchestrated in just the right way, breaks out into the sound of Purple n full swing quite unlike anything else in the band’s catalog. The album vocal isn’t even the best – the set Listen, Learn, Read On included a scat vocal, lyric not quite fleshed in, which ranks in my mind as one of the best rock vocals ever, from anyone. He brings some of that same fearlessness to this performance and it makes for one of the band’s greatest moments. Blackmore’s guitar during the song’s second half is among his finest recorded moments.

Roger Glover’s insistent bass pulse begins “No One Came”, Ian Gillan’s deliciously cynical spiel about the perils of pursuing rock and roll success and the inevitable crew of leeches glomming on. It’s another cut where Gillan’s charisma carries the day every bit as much as his lung power and Blackmore responds with a scorching old school rock and roll guitar part ratcheting up its temperature. In Rock is the template realized, Machine Head is the formula refined. Fireball, however, is the DNA of Deep Purple, laid out regardless of other considerations, and charged with once in a lifetime confidence.

Led Zeppelin - Presence (1976)

I am far from Led Zeppelin’s biggest fan. There’s little they’ve done I haven’t heard and, while their best material and performances deserve ranking among the best in popular music history, I never sustained the same emotional connection with their music I enjoyed with their contemporaries like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, among others. There are exceptions.

The band’s penultimate studio album, Presence, stays with me years after first hearing it because I think it’s the most personal, desperate recording in Zeppelin’s catalog. The mounting costs of the band’s colossal success chipped away larger and larger chunks from an once virtually impervious rock and roll juggernaut and self-doubt announced itself louder in band affairs. John Paul Jones nearly walked during this period. Robert Plant broke his leg in a car accident and contemplated bolting as well. The band’s six string maestro Jimmy Page sank deeper into substance abuse and rock star excess while John Bonham’s drinking raged on at a fiercer clip than ever before. This dire three in the morning mood infused the band’s material and performances with a back against the wall feel.

“Achilles Last Stand” is Page’s last major guitar epic with Led Zeppelin and one of the band’s top five tracks, full stop. Presence’s opener outstrips, in terms of imagination and compositional drama, the band’s previous forays into their sort of cinematic scope like “Stairway to Heaven”, “The Song Remains the Same”, and “Kashmir”. Plant creatively frames the mythological material in first person narration, making the ancient a little more familiar for listeners. Zeppelin’s rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Bonham turn in a tour de force outing undoubtedly inspiring Page’s playing to even greater heights. “For Your Life” finds the band’s subject matter in much more every day circumstances much in the mold of Physical Graffiti’s Sick Again – Plant paints a grim picture of dissolution that, coupled with the arrangement, rates as one of the band’s true sleeper gems. The remaining members proved their own regard for the track by giving it a live debut at the 2007 “reunion” – the only track accorded such a honor.

“Royal Orleans” goes in a completely different lyrical direction. This fragmentary narrative of sexual misadventures in the New Orleans French Quarter is reputedly based on some of John Paul Jones’ personal experiences on tour. The writing and performance alike represent a new benchmark of sorts for the band. Keith Richards once remarked that The Rolling Stones’ initial efforts with a country music influence often came off as parodies because the band didn’t believe themselves properly equipped to do the sound and feel justice to begin with, so they played it as a lark. He continued that it transformed the songs once the Stones gathered the necessary confidence to play in that style. You can draw a clear line from Houses of the Holy’s “The Crunge” and this track. Tackling a funk/soul template with the former song, Zeppelin paid loving and winking homage to their American musical heroes and it results in a self-conscious performance. “Royal Orleans”, instead, gets in listener’s face with a brittle, cutting funk edge and locks into a whip tight groove cut with just enough rock confidence.

“Nobody’s Fault but Mine” re-envisions Blind Willie Johnson’s desperate atonement to God in song as a stark, impassioned Robert Plant catharsis. It flows into Plant’s harmonica playing, his scat singing with Page’s guitar, and every elongated note. It’s another Bonham showcase, as well, and his masterful way building drama through timing alone makes this song all the more powerful. It’s, without reservation, another of the band’s greatest moments in the studio and culminates with an impassioned, eloquently phrased Page guitar solo. The woozy rockabilly vamp of “Candy Store Rock” sounds like a speed freak babbling away about their high, but the band shifts into secondary passages with a distinctly stronger rock thrust. What should be an otherwise unbridled ode to the joys of getting it on is colored with a kind of weariness that’s unannounced and unexpected.

“Hots on For Nowhere” achieves the same mood via different means. The inventive quasi shuffle arrangement gives John Bonham another forum, as if he needed it, to illustrate his importance to the band’s sound and he navigates the tempo changes with the sort of spot on fidelity you couldn’t fake as readily in the 1970’s. Page’s reverb drenched “lead guitar” break is either desultory or artfully dissonant, depending on your level of generosity, but there’s a number of similarly styled flourishes he brings into the song that add much needed color. “Tea for One”, a rare addition to the Page/Plant tour but otherwise neglected live, still has its definitive reading on Presence. Loneliness looms over this song and the whimpering, downcast guitar lines Page brings to bear accentuate the atmosphere without ever laying on a single extraneous note. It’s a note perfect, elegiac curtain for this often neglected or unjustly maligned Zeppelin album.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Pop, synth pop, whatever label you want to assign to Astronomique, it still rates as some of the most across the board compelling music released on the indie scene today. Their artistic vision slants towards the substantive end of the creative spectrum driven by the creative partnership of lead singer Logan Andra Fongemie and guitarist/vocalist Sean Hogan coupling a psychedelic flavor with popular culture imagery and a penchant for artsy, top shelf synth pop from the 1980’s. The music for Sharp Divide, the band’s longest collection yet, is a physical release whose music involves listeners from the first, but the songwriting engages listeners intellectually as well and appeals to the imagination in satisfyingly individualistic ways. The band’s influences are apparent, but they slip free of imitation or pastiche with an approach and style recognizable, but all their own.

The intense bass pulse thudding in the heart of “Forefathers”, the album’s opener, tethers the song’s foundation to earth and allows Astronomique’s synthesizer lines flash like quicksilver over the fat backbeat. There’s some tasty dynamic shifts recurring throughout the song and atmospheric interplay between Fongemie’s keyboard playing and guitarist Sean Hogan’s echo laden guitar near the song’s conclusion is worth hearing the song for alone. “Side of Your Mind” has a more overt pop attack than the opener and the sprightly rhythm shifts listener’s attention away from the opener’s pace. There are some imaginative twists scattered throughout the arrangement elevating this above your standard synth pop fare and Fongemie’s vocal performance, treated by some light post production effects, comes across every bit as command as “Forefathers”, albeit manifested in a very different way.

The digitized beginning to “Losing Our Control” establishes the initial outlines of a simmering groove soon filled out by another potent rhythm section performance from bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings. Sean Hogan’s taut, nervy guitar playing drops some funky, often shimmering fills throughout the track and the band contributes some tasteful backing vocals to enhance another fine Fongemie performance. The title song’s moody march has an almost spectral quality thanks to a ghostly Fongemie vocal and more spartan but effective Hogan guitar. Guitar players often possess a tendency to flash their skills in brief displays of pride, sometimes longer than brief, but Hogan’s playing throughout Sharp Divide as an orchestral bent – he’s an important part of the tapestry, but ultimately a key thread in a larger mosaic.

Fongemie’s synth once again opens a song with the track “Smoke” and the rhythm section distinguishes themselves again with a chest rattling performance and the album’s overall production wisely highlights this strength from the first. “Smoke” has some of Sharp Divide’s strongest melodic ideas and fine lyrical content. There’s more of a hard charging quality at the heart of “Bleed Me” than we hear with a lot of the material on Sharp Divide, but the band retains their capacity for nuance despite the music’s insistent push. The nice gallop in the rhythm section’s performance, never pronounced, gives the song an added sense of urgency. The cheerfully entitled “Heading Nowhere” has a much more deliberate pace and a strong focus on guitars and synthesizers instead of the rhythm section. It has some of the album’s best atmospheric touches, particularly thanks to Hogan’s six string contributions, and it is a satisfying final curtain for Astronomique’s Sharp Divide. This is synth pop with an artistic agenda and they accomplish everything they set out to do with sophistication, sincerity, and polish.