Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review - Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group by Dennis Dunaway

While there have been other Alice Cooper Band biographies (including Alice’s own Me, Alice and No More Mr. Nice Guy by guitarist/songwriter Michael Bruce) I would state that Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group is the definitive biography. It is, after all, written by the bassist of the group, Dennis Dunaway (with Chris Hodenfield) and we all know that bassists are often methodical beasts. Plus he had a journal and many letters written during this time period. In a friendly way, Dennis points out that Alice the man is prone to exaggeration and embellishment and during their heyday if a rumor sprouted up somewhere it was encouraged. For instance the chicken incident. Dennis notes that the band itself brought the chicken and you can see in some film of the event where Alice pulls the chicken from the bag. However it was never the bands intent that the chicken be killed by the audience, though when it happened the controversy was free press.

Dennis also clarifies the origin of many of the concepts and themes that made the band famous, usually attributing them to himself or his wife, who made the bands outlandish clothing on no budget overnight. Being the quiet fellow and thinking that it was a band effort, he usually did not speak up to defend his intellectual property, thinking that in the end it was all part of being in a band. Bass players are often like that. But he also gives mountains of credit where it is due, not only to the individual members of the band but also to their innovative lighting guru, management and roadies. There’s also the matter of how to divide writing credits when one is in a band kicking around ideas. As an example he quoted the original poetry that was morphed by the band into the song “Desperado.” No writing credit for Dennis on that one but there would be no “Desperado” without his initial page of inspiration. It’s refreshing that there’s no bitterness or “I told you so” in his tone, just a telling of how things happened. There are other clarifications throughout the book, though I’ll leave those for the reader to discover*.

Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! is highly recommended. Even though I had heard most of these stories before, from multiple sources, it was nice to hear them again from a more objective viewpoint. As a music junkie it would have been nice to read more stories behind the creation of every album. Yes, I understand that the albums were cranked out about every six months under a dizzying whirlwind of touring and drugs and partying but still... I mean, the School’s Out album has some amazing bass lines on it (amazing songs, too) but the only song Dennis wrote about is the title track. I suppose you can’t always get what you want. Oh wait, that’s another band.

* But I have to say that Dennis puts to rest the idea that Bob Ezrin taught the band to play their instruments. Bob helped tighten their songwriting arrangements but they band was already very adept, as the two Zappa-label albums will attest.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Music Review - Deadweight - Half-wit Anthems

Deadweight is yet another band that found out about after they had disbanded and thus missed out on the opportunity to spread the good word via ”Whatzup*. This band is, as far as I know, unique to the world of rockdom, being formed of a drummer (Paulo Baldi), a violinist (Ben Barnes) and a cellist (the curiously named Sam Bass), the last two running their instruments through distortion and other effects. Whereas many bands with traditionally classical instruments attempt to bridge the world between classical and non-classical music Deadweight ditched all that and went straight for the rock jugular. Except that rock music played on fretless instruments sounds a bit rubbery and off, which suits Deadweight just fine because it allowed their sense of humor and fondness for quirky and funky rhythms to expose themselves.

Any power trio has the challenge of filling the sonic space and the songs off their second** album, Half-Wit Anthems, shows that Deadweight takes the challenge personally. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of multi-tracking so what you get is pretty much how they would sound in concert, which is a massive fuzzy wall of hard alterna-rock sound. Most of the songs, including the exciting opening track, “The Grind”, showcase a crazy-high level of spastic energy. I mean, you almost work up a sweat just listening! Also most of the songs, including the second song, “Sweet Depression”, work in some serious groove into the rhythms so you’re swaying while you sweat. On “Ba Ba Wa Wa” they plug the distorted violin into a wah pedal and things get way out of hand, but wonderfully so. A particular favorite of mine is the frenzied instrumental “Barstool” which douses your ears in gasoline and sets everything aflame while dancing cheerily on the aforementioned barstool. Every now and then, like in the verses of “Josh Song” and “Black and Grey”, they go really nuts and turn off the distortion devices, which only adds to the contrast in the chorus when the effects are kicked back on.

All in all Deadweight write crazily-inventive and yet melodic stuff! The overall feel is untamed and a bit dangerous, like a wild party. One big hindrance for me, though, was that the songs are packed with drug use references. Even if used in a humorous fashion (“I need a toke ‘cause I can’t cope”) it’s not really my thing and it gets tired after a bit.

* Plus make a few bucks.

** It pays to check a Wiki page. I thought this band only had two albums but I didn’t know*** about their first, Opus One, which has now been ordered.

*** I have this tickle in the back of my brain that I DID know about this album but never got around to ordering it.****

**** I got around to ordering it. In fact it’s on the desk right next to me but I haven’t gotten around to listening to it.

Hard Root Beer Review - Root Sellers

Next up in the hard root category is by a company called Root Sellers. They also make a hard birch beer but I haven't ventured that far off the beaten path.

I'll get right down to the punch and state that this is the best hard root beer (not liquor*) that I've had yet. The maker is proud of it's high quality and actually lists the ingredients on the label! These include "botanicals, molasses and pure cane sugar". They are also proudly and staunchly gluten free so Celiacs rejoice!

Flavor-wise it's got a good, strong root beer flavor up front with a bit of odd aftertaste on the tail end, though not enough to put one off the trail. This stuff is obviously not flavoring added to beer which makes me wonder if this after-taste is a natural part of brewing hard root beer. There are some nice nuances of vanilla but the flavor isn't overly complex, though it is very authentic. It also isn't gaggingly sweet, like you're drinking candy. There's also just enough carbonation to keep things interesting.

Root Sellers puts this 6.7% product in generously-sized pint cans, selling for about ten bucks for four pints. Not as pricy as imports of delicious dark British stout but still...

* R.I.P. Blackmaker

Monday, December 14, 2015

Music Review - The Choir - Chase the Kangaroo

Somewhere I read that when it came time for The Choir to record their fourth album, and for Adam Again to record their second (Ten Songs By Adam Again) that they went to the record executives with a deal*. Instead of paying some studio ten grand each in studio time, why not give these two bands the twenty grand and they’d build their own studio. After all, Derri had official engineering experience, and probably the same for Gene. Amazingly the studio went for it. What a bargain! Gene went on to start The Green Room and upped the ante on the quality of Christian music while Derri and company hunkered down for six months to self-produce their first masterpiece, Chase the Kangaroo.

Even before you hear a note the album cover tells you that something is different. Christians are “supposed” to be clear and have exact, understandable answers based on thoroughly systematized theology. Instead we get a dark, blurry photo full of indistinct shapes, a perfect representation of the music within. Speaking of, let’s dig in, shall we?

The opening track, “Consider”, was written last because the record company wanted something radio friendly. I can’t imagine this song being played on an of the all-vanilla-praise stations in my town… how far have we fallen? This song has a deep, spongey bass tone, thick sheets of shimmering guitars and an intense, eager drum beat. Even though this was a tip of the hat to “the man” the song is packed with energy, a wonderful blend of shoegazer and melodic rock. In “Children of Time” each piece of the band (drum, bass, guitar and vocals) fit together like a puzzle, stringing together unsettling lines like “The cosmonauts were first in space / To look for God and find no trace” before ending with a brief, wild sax solo. “Clouds” opens with ominous low synth strings and an inventively panned repeated drum part that forms a hypnotic spell before Derri sings “The blood remains as red / That colors our spirits white.” This here is a classic Choir song, an experience and a journey as much as a song, following the darkness of the tone with the unlikely dark lyrics of “Clouds are round about you / Shadows veil your eyes.” Remember, kids, we’re supposed to be the light in a dark world and have all the answers. Umm… yeah. Around the three minute mark the song melts into a froth of reverb, leaving only shadows of the original signals in a glorious artistic display of studio experimentation. Before leaving this song I’d like to comment on the bass line. It’s simple but perfect, like a constant heartbeat holding together the complex interchange of instruments and reverb.

Written in response to a miscarriage, “Sad Face”** is packed with gorgeous chiming guitars, stuttering low guitars and a lovely round drum pattern in the verse that sounds like its being played on a dark and cloudless night on the thin hope that some ray of relief will shine through. There are lots of misty instrumental passages where Derri bounces cascades of guitars off each other to create a most intoxicating listen and then around the five minute mark the song transitions to a passage containing light strings over a reverse vocal section of “Clouds” and someone it works. The guitars on “Cain” sound urgent***, almost dangerous while lyrics like “Love raised a white flag” add complexity to the mix, although the abundance of piano makes me think this song would have fit in well on Diamonds and Rain.

Side two starts with The Choir getting even more experimental with “The Rifleman” where a sparse guitar part plays while whoever walked into the studio speaks lines concerning an old television show, often overlapping, before drums and a fretless bass make their appearance. The chorus is sung, forming a foundation and amazingly the song comes together splendidly before fading into the chorus of “Render Love” from Diamonds and Rain. There’s so much to love about “Look Out (For Your Own)”. There’s the drum part in the verse that switches around the beat, the unusual instrumental mid-section with echoing saxamaphone, and the crazily inventive bass part which is minimalist and so unlike anything I’d heard before. A final capper is Gene Eugene singing background vocals in the chorus… it’s always great to hear his golden voice. RIP, Gene. “So Far Away” is a stark love song about missing those you love while being on the road with artful glimpses of domestic life such as “I saw your note about the pilot light / Didn’t I fix that thing before?” and “I won’t be there to dry your eyes / So please don’t cry /When I’m so far away.” “Everybody in the Band” is a nice little ditty but it’s not fleshed out and never was meant to be. It’s kind of like a demo you get for no extra charge. The album closes with the title track, a song inspired by the fact that Steve had to get a construction job**** in order to make ends meet. Starting with a chuffing beat and eerie backward-like vocals, the song is classic Choir in that it takes mundane events and explodes them into a spiritual analogy, in this case digging deep for truth. Two thirds of the way through they open up the throttle and the song really takes off. And keeps going upward, building in intensity through the chorus and closing with a final melodic instrumental exploration.

In Chase the Kangaroo it seems like that the band knew that were at a turning point in their career where the odds were that they would likely to be sent home packing. So instead they doubled down and gave it everything they had, and then some, and as a result recorded a pivotal album that has inspired bands such as Switchfoot, Sixpence None the Richer and Jars of Clay to make their own musically and spiritually rich music. Their first of several classic albums!

* Per Tim Chandler, while some of the money for the album may have gone into Derri’s studio this whole story has no basis in reality. I have no clue where it originally came from although I wouldn’t put it past my brain to have made it up.

** An embarrassing aside… I recall being at home with in college and singing this song to a female friend (nothing more) over the phone. A cappella. It makes me cringe on many levels just thinking about it.

*** As well they should as the song deals with the hurt of personal betrayal.

**** Which to me seems a bit comical in itself because Steve’s build is not big ‘n’ burley.

Hard Root Beer Review - McGillicuddy Liquor

Upon cracking the cap of Dr. McGillicuddy's Root Beer Liqueur my first thought was "It's Barq's!" which isn't necessarily a bad thing as I've always viewed Barq's as having the most complex flavor of all the big-bottler root beers. Granted there isn't much nuance but at least there's a little.

As for taste, well, it's no Blackmaker but it's also not syrupy sweet. It also lacks any of the weird after-tastes that beer root beers seem to have, which makes sense in that you're just adding flavoring to a neutral spirit. The flavor itself was good but lacked much in the way of depth, kind of like a root beer barrel candy but a good root beer barrel candy, perhaps something made in small batches and sold with pride at farmers markets. But now I'm just making things up.

This stuff is 21% octane and about $12 a bottle so it won't break the ol' bank. It's good enough to drink by itself (with some ice, of course) although apparently most people mix it with something else to make fancy mixed drinks with itty bitty umbrellas.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Music Review - Soen - Tellurian

I decided that for 2015 I should get back into the game and write more CD reviews, shooting for one a month and hoping that this would lead to the discovery of some great new music. The first album I reviewed was this one and it didn't cost me a dime 'cause I just listened to the full album on YouTube a few times. My how the times have changed.

The debut album by Soen sounded more like Tool than Tool sounded like Tool on their last few albums. Since Tool’s music doesn’t wind my gears, neither did Soen’s debut album. Their second album, Tellurian, is a different story. Sure, the Tool influence is there but it’s mixed with mid-90s Opeth. I’m a finicky lad so to my ears Opeth’s first few albums were too raw and their albums after Ghost Reveries seemed to be lacking oomph so I’m left with a small handful to enjoy. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the drummer for the Opeth albums that I like (and not the drummer for the albums I didn’t like) is Martin Lopez, also the drummer for Soen. I never would have imagined that a drummer could exert so much influence over the style and sound of a band but perhaps I’m just ignernt.

What does such a Tool/Opeth love-child sound like? At times it’s light and airy and others it gets downright heavy, progressive but never overly complicated (like some King Crimson), often melancholy and atmospheric but not downright dark. And vocalist Joel Eklöf, to his credit, never goes Cookie Monster on us, even though there are times when I feel that a little vocal gravel would have been appropriate. So while at times the music will burst into a frenzy of distortion and tumbling rhythms, the vocalist remains as tranquil and smooth as his cue-ball head. Some songs, like “The Words,” hypnotize you with soothing melodies, only occasionally bringing in the distortion as a kind of background noise, while other songs like the angular “Ennui” kick off with a bang and only let up long enough to make sure the next punch lands in the right spot. None of the songs are going to rip your head off, though there are quite a few times when your pulse should quicken. Rather, the music is almost artful and, dare I say, delicate, but in a masculine kind of way (he says scratching himself in a manly manner). Going back to Opeth, the album is mostly sedate like Damnation, never coming even close to the frenzy found in parts of Blackwater Park, and yet there are times when the songs pulse with the energy that only distorted guitars can provide.

Now about that cover. Look at that, will ya? It’s an anthropomorphic rhino eating little humans. Unsual, yet artfully presented. Tellurian is a bit like that: a little bit artsy, a little bit monstrous, and a little bit human.

Hard Root Beer Review - Sprecher

Next up is Sprecher's Hard Root Beer, an "adult" version of their regular root beer.

The first word that came to my mind upon the first taste is "weird." It's not quite a root beer flavor but it's not quite NOT a root beer flavor. It's definitely not a beer flavor. There's lots of foam when you pour it into a glass but there's no carbonation in the actual drink, which makes for a disconcerting mouthfeel where the flavor makes you believe you should have some tingle but there's no tingle. Unlike Father's this one isn't overly sweet, which is a mark in its favor. But it isn't overly good either. A quick check of the label shows that they pretty much just took malt liquor and added their normal flavoring (with natural and artificial flavors, which can mean just about anything except it's made with 100% roots and berries).

And so another one bites the dust. I won't be purchasing any more Sprecher's Hard Root Beer, although I'm curious now to try their regular root beer to see if it's as bizarre tasting as their hard version, or if it's actually good. I figure it must be or else how would it have lasted this long on the grocery shelves?