Friday, October 31, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 16

In the words of Devin Townsend, "Let's finish this!"

Yeah, so I've been slacking on the garden posting. It's not easy to get excited when things are winding down and the vittles get weird spots on them due to cold weather. This here is a picture of the current state of The Worlds Most Expensive Garden. Pretty sad, really.

But let's back up a bit and harken back to about the time I stopped posting. Here's that corn that came out chewy. If you look to the right you'll see some cows giving the corn the eye. Maybe the cows ran into my garden a few times this summer to get corn or maybe they were trying to get away from the stink of their barn. Only the cows know.

A "modern artsy" shot of tomatoes in their glory days. "Ooooh, look at me! I'm only slightly in focus!" Very trendy, so I understand.

That was then, this is now (pea pods, that is), though still just as artsy-fartsy.

This is a picture of me an' the missus. Move along, Peeping Tom.

Odds and ends. A small haul, most of which got eaten. As an aside, my household isn't very good at planning around the harvest (it takes practice and time, both rare in my house) so often a fresh cucumber would slip to the back of the fridge, found much later as a shriveled mummy. Or cabbage would sit and patiently wait for it's moment of glory, like a timpani player, only to have peak freshness pass before we were ready. Or remembered. Also note the playful Tomato People! These are romas and so stand a mere three inches tall although they look much bigger. Memories have a way of inflating things.

Speaking of forgetting, or almost forgetting, is the melon party! An unskilled grower like myself has a window of about six and one third minutes between when a melon is actually ripe (and thus no longer tastes like a cucumber) and when it starts to rot. I rescued these and held them in captivity in the garage fridge. My personal favorite is the white, though it's a crapshoot if you get sweet, sweet heaven or sour cucumber. Ya can't tell by looking.

The carrots have done extremely well, at least the white ones. I found that if you don't eat them within minutes of plucking them from the soil they get rubbery, which is why if you look at the top photo you can see some carrots still holding on tight for their chance to feed us. With yellow, white and orange carrots (I know, I can't believe I forgot purple) we chop them into round slices and make cooked candy corn carrots. They kids have been known to be tricked into eating these as the evening snack... at least the younger kids. But this isn't carrots, it's the sweet tater vines.

And here's the sweet taters dug up. There's a complicated curing process involving 90 degree temperatures and 90% humidity for seven days with the taters aligned north to south and rotated every hour by Scandinavian immigrants. I refuse to participate and am trying method #2 which involves leaven them outside on the ground during daylight hours to toughen their outer skin. Hopefully they don't rot or turn rubbery. In any case, I'm sure it's all just a waste of time and money.

Speaking of money, what's the total for the year? Here's my rough notes... too lazy to format them completely.

Big tomatoes - $10 - eating two every day at work
More marconi and bell peppers that are due - one big black, multi-color pack = 1
black, 3 red. $6 for peppers
Melons (one in fridge now) $3
Melon is a pumpkin! Also, mini pumpkins. $4
Lotta mini-melons - well four. Tried lots. $4
8# green beans - $10
Cucumbers - $1
butternut squash are small and covered with squash bugs- pitch 'em
Put rosemary up to dry - five year supply - $3
4# more green beans - $5
Put sage dried - $2
Drying sunflower seeds - $4
White sweet taters - organic - about 30# - $45
Loads more carrots - about 20# - $20

We froze six pounds of them green beans without washing and blanching. Am I insane?!?!? If you have any doubt regarding the sanity of a man who spends $500 on a stupid garden then I doubt YOUR sanity. I got the tip from this site. I think I'll grab a bag out tonight and see how they taste.

Adding everything up comes to $117 leaving the total cost/profit at $308 in the hole. Get it? Gardening? Hole? Oh well. There are still a few smallish peppers growing and pea pods I really should gather up tonight and two cauliflower plants that did nothing all year except look like freakish palm trees but now are sporting wee tiny cauliflower buds so I'll round down to $300 that I'm out.

But surely I can make it up next year, right? I could if we were going to be living here next summer, which we probably aren't. That's a long story that I doubt my lawyer will let me tell at the moment but chances are good that I will be taking at least a few of my $500 expense with us.

Thanks for reading. Happy garden dreaming this winter, y'all!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review - What I Tell You Three Times Is False - Donald Westlake

Only Donald Westlake could write a deconstructionist novel that contains a discussion on deconstructionism. He not only gets away with this blatant disregard for form but does so in such a casual as to make it look easy. The man is a genius.

If you’re like me, you have (or had) no clue as to what “deconstructionism” is. According to Westlake, it’s the reason Westerns failed. It’s easier if I just quote:

“In each genre there are basic patterns, recurring scenes, stock characters. So with the deconstructionists the story is aware that it’s a story, the characters are aware that they’re characters with a function to fulfill, and the reader or the audience is constantly being reminded that this isn’t real life, this is a pattern, and it’s being presented in a particular way because of various artistic decisions and to further some sort of argument… In a western, the tough but honest foreman is aware that he’s an archetype, that Ward Bond is the basic figure he’s modeled after, and that the purpose he’s been created for is to represent that element of the story and not to live a regular life like a regular human being.”

Whew! That said, in What I Tell You Three Times Is False, written under the pen name of Samuel Holt, Westlake has the audacity to have Charlie Chan, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes find themselves in a mystery. Or rather these characters come in the form of three actors who have portrayed these famous literary characters to the point that the public identifies one with the other. And the actors have begun to identify themselves with the character, or in some cases are fighting against it. These actors are presented with a classic murder mystery scenario: death in a locked room. They just happen to be on an island to film a public service ad for some charity but a tropical storm blew in just after they landed so they are trapped in a mansion, a kind of closed room in itself due to the inability to go outside in the fierce storm. One of them, or one of a small handful of guests and service people on the island, is the killer. And then another murder happens. And then another. One by one the list pares down as they wait for the storm to lift, hoping to solve the murders before they are next.

What I Tell You Three Times Is False was a total blast to read even though I’ve never read a Charlie Chan or Miss Marple book. Good clean murderous fun for the whole family!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Music Review - The Zombies - The Singles Collection

Now HERE'S THE STUFF! What a solid band with too few albums. Dig it, bro.
A few years ago while listening to the oldies station, "Time of the Season" was playing and even though I'd heard this song countless times before, the signature bass line really stood out this time. So began my quest to find out about The Zombies, culminating in the purchase and severe enjoyment of The Singles Collection. The CD contains all fourteen of their singles, both A and B sides (kids, ask your parents if you need this concept explained) covering their entire career. The Zombies only had two or three really big hits but were constant favorites of the critics. Since I'm technically a critic, I'm legally obligated to like them for fear of being disbarred from the union. What set The Zombies apart from the rest of the bands that came over with The British Invasion was their heavy use of keyboards, minor keys, jazzy feel, and their ability to consistently write catchy yet complex songs.

The CD kicks off with their first big hit "She's Not There" a song with some great organ playing that paved the way for The Doors, plus some great interplay between the bass and an inventive drum part. The sound of The Zombies is difficult to capture because they did so many so well. There's the near-Rolling Stones sound of "Woman", the early Beatles feel of "You Make Me Feel Good" and the Supremes R&B of "She's Coming Home". "Indication", a later single, moves along like a speeding semi-truck with a rollicking, fun bass line before ending with a proggish melody on the guitar. In contrast "Beechwood Park" is a gloomy, melancholy minor-key ode to erstwhile days spent in Beechwood Park. "Conversation Off Floral Street", the only instrumental on the CD, flips the beat around like Brubeck's "Take Five" with lots of upbeat organ and a relaxed, pastoral bridge. Of course, The Zombies scored their biggest hit, "Time of the Season" after they broke up. While there aren't any songs on the CD quite like this classic where more is said with what is not played that what is, every song on this album deserves more airplay than it received. The bass is inventive and prominent, nearly as much as the plentiful keyboards, and the songs take unexpected twists, using chords outside the traditional rock repertoire. For those who tread the musical road less traveled, this CD is a lesson in expanding boundaries. For everyone else, it's just chock full-o-great songs.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2001.

Music Review - Spongebob Squarepants - Theme Highlights

Ah, the good ol' days when I had time to watch TV. Now I realize that it's 99.99% garbage so I'm not missing anything. I wonder if this albums a collector piece now?
Are ya ready kids? I can't hear you! Arrrrrr! As if the neighbors didn't wonder about you already, you can now blast the songs from the show SpongeBob Squarepants out of your high-fidelity stereo system 24/7. Much like it's spiritual father The Ren & Stimpy Show, SpongeBob Squarepants is a very offbeat children's cartoon that often includes humor aimed way above the heads of the obvious child target audience. Further proof is provided by the tracks on this CD, one of which was recorded by Ween and another by Pantera, neither of which are likely to land a guest spot on Sesame Street. Fittingly, the album kicks off with the theme song, sung by the gruff but lovable Painty the Pirate. Ween follows with the chirpy yet instructional shoe-tying song "Loop De Loop." Sandy Cheeks (with Nashville mainstay Junior Brown) croons her "Texas Song", mixing ukulele with lap steel. A few seconds of show dialog introduces "Pre-Hibernation" by Pantera, which is essentially a minute-plus of distorted, heavy trash guitar… very out of place in any other "children's" cartoon but just another day in the SpongeBob universe. A 50's beat jazzes up "Ripped Pants", the finale of the episode that introduced America to sponges in underpants. Like a good brain hemorrhage, "SpongeBob Scaredy Pants" mixes the theme song from The Munsters with sixties surf music into another enticing episode closer. Aside from the theme song, my favorite track is "F.U.N. Song" sung by SpongeBob and the ultimate napoleon complex, Plankton. As the Pollyannic SpongeBob sings "F is for friends who do stuff together / U is for You and me…" Plankton growls "F is for fire that burns down the whole town / U is for uranium… BOMBS!" The worst part about this twisted album is that the seven tracks speed by in a mere nine minutes. Surely the powers that be could have squeezed on another couple of songs or even a minute or two of that great "ukulele played underwater" incidental music. Or more dialog. OR ANYTHING! It's zany, spastic fun as only SpongeBob can provide but at nine minutes, it isn't worth the list price of $7.49.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.

Music Review - Spongetones - Odd Fellows

Ah, the Spongetones. I liked 'em but they don't have a lot of tricks in their bag. I was all set to review their Textural Drone album but didn't. There was just enough of a difference between that album and this to make up 400 words. A few years later I picked up Beat! The Spongetones off eMusic and again, while enjoyable there just wasn't enough to write or get excited about.
After a five year absence, the princes of power pop have released Odd Fellows, an amazing collection of superbly written songs that combine early Beatles merseybeat, hook-filled punchy rock, and classic harmonies. The first impression one has of the Spongetones is that of pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles having been transported to today. This is much more than just mimicry as these fun-loving rockers have captured the spirit of those early albums and updated the sound and style, much like The Rutles but without the cheese and onions.

Opening with the harmonica laden "You'll Come Running' Back", you'll swear it's a lost Beatles track that was left off Anthology 1. "Dark Brown Eyes" combines more of this retro sound with Everly Brothers harmonies and a dead-on Paul vocal style in a gentle love song. More snappy rhythms are to be found in "Eyedoan Geddit", a roaring up-beat party song that shows a big Cheap Trick influence. The gentle "Home" treats the listener with a great singable George Harrison melody backed with some superb finger-picking. As much as I like the Beatles, my two favorite songs on the album are those that show almost no Beatles influence. "Love Song To Mrs. Parker" is a sorrowful piano-driven song about chances not taken with lyrics such as "I would have held her that night / I would have pulled her from the fight / I could have made her smile just once/ In another time." The album ends with my other favorite, "Much Too Slow" with its heavy, punchy, power pop rhythms that remind me of the best of Badfinger. These four gents from North Carolina have soaked up the best of the last few decades of music and spew forth incredible songs as easily as most people breath. With just one album, The Spongetones have converted me to an instant fan!

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2000.

Music Review - Lucas Alvarez - Room Full of Earfuls

Here's a guy I should look up one of these days and see if he's still making music. A local guy who just a bit off his rocker.
Local musician Lucas Alvarez is the musical purist's worst nightmare. Over the course of two albums with the band Someband and six solo albums, Alvarez's flippant brain has become a whirling Quisenart of musical styles. On his latest release, Room Full of Earfuls (available at, Lucas takes the classic ten-song approach, hurtling each track at you from hidden nooks and crannies all over the room. A fifties sock-hop where the squeaky-clean kids are replaced with punks sporting Mohawks, black makeup, and tattoos opens the album ("Renunciation"), followed quickly by rambling, humorous lyrics mixed with a near-metal guitar riff in "You're Not Fat" ("I think you look just fine in that dress.") "Fake It" begins as a stomping rocker but then slows to a more laid back feel after the first verse, which suits the nice vocal harmonies. Jittery organs lend a hint of The Zombies to "Romance Is Dead", an angry diatribe on the politics of romance. Brushed drums and female scat vocals make "Comfort Food" a wonderful jazzy ditty with lyrics sure to amuse those not sated with starchy gustatory delights. An ode to eating "for eating's sake", Alvarez sings "I'd give up eating if I thought you weren't coming back / But baby I trust that you will so I think that I'll have a snack." Leaving the best song for last, "Can't Afford to Call" is the sweet, somber, biographical story of "a dirt poor undergrad" whose university "wants more cash than I've ever had." Soft vocals and acoustic guitar (plus xylophone embellishments) characterize this simple collection of great lyrics that I'm helpless to quote: "I can't afford to call you / 'Cause I've always been cheap / I can't afford to call you / And ease you into sleep / Like I used to do when I wasn't quite so far away / And I lived close to you and the phone bill wasn't mine to pay." This album is full of such great lyrics that perch precariously between novelty and profundity.

Permeating these fine songs is a Chris Knox/punk Do-It-Yourself ethic. The songs are sparsely recorded and although they have a live, raw feel about them they are not aggressive. Recorded at Monastic Chambers, I can't imagine they took more than two takes on each song, such is the carefree enthusiasm. Alvarez plays nearly every instrument here (although his beloved viola is sadly absent from this release) and worse yet, he knows how to write catchy melodies so these songs stick in your mind long after the CD has stopped spinning. True to his punk youth, all the songs are short with a reckless hit-and-run mentality that leaves the listener stunned but smiling.

Originally published in WhatzUp, March 2002.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Music Review - Bryan Scary - Daffy's Elixir

Bryan Scary's 2006 debut blew my leiderhosen off! It's a kaliedoscope of colors and sounds, bouncing off rubber walls with an artistic agility that requires ingesting a full pot of coffee just to follow, let alone write. His 2008 follow-up, Flight Of the Knife, was more of the same, but perhaps a bit less so because I didn't write a review for it. Then I didn't hear anything from Mr. Scary until I saw his third album, Daffy's Elixer, on more than a few "best albums of 2012" lists and I knew that I had likely missed something good.

Well, missed as in "missed the chance to make money on a review that would underwrite the cost of buying said album." I still got to enjoy Daffy's Elixer and now I get to tell YOU about it! The first song is decent, the second is catchy but not his strongest. But when the third song ("Cable Through Your Heart") begins with a whoosh and a bang you know the caffeine has kicked in. This spastic venture has all the energy and jarring yet enjoyable musical changeups as on the first album. The bass line in particular sounds like it would be a blast to play, leaping and scooping all over the place. "The Silver Lake Mining Company" is less frenetic but still jumps like crazy while "Diamonds!" starts with piano and harpsichord but soon shifts into a western vibe before ending on a kind of 8-bit disco rhythm. From the lyrics I'm thinking Bryan is considering proposing to someone.

The song that really got me hooked is "Ballroom Kid". While the version on the album is good this live video of the band belting it out in a small radio sound room is even better, and by better I mean that the bass is fuzzier and louder in the mix.
Is it just me or does Mr. Scary look a bit like Adam Sandler? The rest of the fifteen tracks include a few others that leap into western garb for a few seconds or minutes, while others, like the disjointed "Faintless Moody: Outlaw" refuses to limit itself to a consistent time signature. It's all just crazy, zany stuff that refuses to be confined by genre.

If you define "progressive rock" as music with time and tempo changes, Bryan Scary is for you and how! As a bonus you get enough strong pop melodies to fill three albums. A few will certainly follow you home and beg for kibble. Feed them at your own risk. All in all Daffy's Elixir is a strong return after four years locked away in a ritalin detox program. I'm glad he got kicked out.

Music Review - Bryan Scary - The Shredding Tears

       This is a debut album? The Shredding Tears by 23-year-old Bryan Scary is the kind of astounding album that should come out after 10 years of good-to-great albums, a creative milestone that he forever after attempts to match. The fact that he spent three years laboring over this kaleidoscope of musical fantasies does little to detract from its impact it's just plain amazing!

       The album opens with "Stab at the Sun," a pop symphony in the vein of Pet Sounds with elements of Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles, ELO vocals, and Jellyfish parading through an array of musical scenes, each one a playful pageant that begs for more.

       "The Lessons I Learned" weds a sad waltz to a nostalgic McCartney melody, a bit more relaxed but just as incredible. Heavier theatrics come into play in "The Ceiling on the Wall," mixing falsetto vocals, breezy melodies and clever lyrics with bits of 10cc, Queen, Self and a recurring muppet chorus of "Marbles! Marbles!" Endearing vocal choo-choos make "The Little Engine Who Couldn't (Think Straight)" both childlike and engaging, while textured synthesizers, clever sound effects and Pink Floydian vocals make "The Up and Over Stairwell" a treat for lovers of melodic gems. Retro guitars and a sticky melody germinate "The Blood Club" into an infectiously memorable disease, bringing to mind the best of Fort Wayne's own Kevin Hambrick. Another winner is "Misery Loves Company," which begins with vocoder vocals menacingly looming over staccato piano until halfway through, when a retro groove introduces "Shine a little light on me, baby." There are 15 songs on this album spanning just over an hour ... and there's not a bit of filler in the bunch.

       While enjoying this album time and again I was often reminded of Klaatu and how they playfully romped through an amusement park of memorable hooks and dynamic arrangements, happily smiling with a knowing wink in their eyes. As with many solo albums cooked up in the studio, The Shredding Tears is a bit self-indulgent, but in a very good way. There's so much going on with so many layers and colorful sounds that it would take many listens to catch it all. The level of detail and sophistication is downright impressive, bringing to mind classic albums such as O.K. Computer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper's and Dark Side of the Moon. Even if he didn't have the remarkable ability to evoke the vocal ghosts of Lennon and Harrison, Scary is able to conjure up the best of the past and blend it into a refreshing cocktail of modern sonic delight.

Music Review - This Heat - This Heat

And so it happened one day that I learned that the song "S.P.Q.R.", an entertaining ode to ancient Romans, was not written by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum but was rather penned by an influential experimental rock band named This Heat. This happens from time to time, me stumbling across an "influential" band I had never heard of but at the time I had some loose change in my pocket and decided to gamble via Amazon with the first of their two and only two albums. It was uncreatively titled This Heat.

Perhaps I should have listened to the 30-second samples a few more times or perhaps I should have purchased their second album, which contained "S.P.Q.R.", or perhaps I'm the kind of guy who likes more "rock" and less "experimental" in his experimental rock. Perhaps I should have realized that they likely put more thought into the above blank album cover than they did the music within. In any case, I find the album practically unlistenable. The "songs" are electronic goofing around, like some friends bought a Groupon for studio time even though they didn't know how to play any instruments. Yes, I'm likely being too harsh but still I'd like my money back.

"This Heat" came out in 1979. Other albums that came out that year that I'd rather listen to include:

Spirits Having Flown - The Bee Gees
Breakfast In America - Cheap Trick
Reggatta de Blanc - The Police
The Wall - Pink Floyd
Armed Forces - Elvis Costello
Discovery - E.L.O.
George Harrison - George Harrison
Appalachian Melody - Mark Heard
Johnny's Cafe - John Fischer

Okay, maybe not The Bee Gees.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Music Review - The Elms - Truth, Soul & Rock & Roll

It appears that a great deal has happened to this little Christian band since I reviewed their second album back in 2003. They got a major label release and toured with big names and ultimately decided to pack it all in after a fourth album. I just heard their shrewdly titled "Back In Indiana" song, which got licensed for basketball or something, and it sounded like what I remember of The Elms: well played but mostly generic rootsy rock.

Hailing from Seymour, Indiana, The Elms caused quite a stir among Christian music critics with their 2001 release The Big Surprise. That ghetto is unfortunately known for generating a sterilized copy of whatever is hot this week among the major leagues, so when a band like The Elms comes along, a band that so fully incorporates its influences as to make a unique sound, bored critics ruin computer keyboards in droves with excess salivation.

Their follow-up, Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, exhibits the same qualities as their debut: guitar-driven alt-power-pop played by a very tight band with lots of energy and polish. Lyrically they skate the fence, being spiritual enough for Christian radio and ambiguous enough to appeal to fans of their myriad non-Christian influences.

The classic stadium rocker “Speaking In Tongues” starts the show with an obvious Skynyrd guitar lick and an upbeat George Thorogood feel. As this is the radio single, heavy gospel choir and organ are added to temper the raw rock as a kowtow to make the song palatable for Christian radio formats. The second single, “You Saved Me”, keeps these same musical elements but in a slower anthem format. Here, as in other slow songs, the vocalist sounds like a cross between Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish and PFR, in other words, strong, clean and appealing.

With the label-required two radio songs out of the way, The Elms break loose with “All The While Having Fun!,” dispensing with the choirs and organs and going heavy with the guitar-driven, punk-inspired British rock sound of their first album. Simple yet solid song construction, tasty vocal harmonies and a melodic guitar solo highlight this song. “Burn and Shine” is a breezy smile with shimmering, clear melodies and a tinge of late 60s flower music … a perfect feel-good song that would make even Mr. Magoo crack a smile. Heavy on the Oasis influence is “The First Day,” a melancholy ballad fleshed out by orchestral strings supplied by The Lovesponge Trio. Fans of Queen would likely enjoy “Come To Me” which finds the vocalist sounding similar to Freddie Mercury before exploding to a big, big Brian May sound with a blinding flash of lights and guitars. Gentle acoustic guitar and relaxed vocal harmonies characterize the Nickel Creek-ish “Go Toward The Glow,” and solid rock guitar is to be found on both “Through the Night” and “Happiness”. The final track, “Smile At Life Again,” is a quiet closer with acoustic guitars, a bittersweet melody, encouraging lyrics, and an impressive, vulnerable performance.

While firmly set in the school of All-Things-Beatles, The Elms are able to bring in enough of the raw Rolling Stones and classic rock sounds to give their songs a unique and diverse twist. While not the best Christian music I’ve ever heard. I have no doubt these Hoosiers could make Jars of Clay eat Indiana clay any day of the week.

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Paul Westerberg - Stereo/Mono

How many albums do I need to revisit? I recall liking this one but it was really, really rough.

Before a good friend recommended this album to me the most I’d ever heard of The Replacements was through the They Might Be Giants song “We’re The Replacements.” I knew of the legendary band but didn’t know that they practically invented both grunge and alt-rock in the mid-80s, unfortunately dissolving the way bands often do while others rode their invention to fame and lucre. While originally a democratic band, the group later came to be dominated by singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and his penchant for writing loud, sloppy, enthusiastic, punk-inspired rock and countrified ballads.

Stereo/Mono combines both of these disparate musical worlds by surgically splitting them onto two discs.

“Mono” is recorded by Paul’s altar ego, Grandpaboy, an ornery, beer-on-cereal, aging rocker who specializes in straight-ahead rockers full of raw, bluesy yet melodic songs. Known for his disdain of modern recording technology, the 11 ragged tracks of “Mono” were recorded in Paul’s basement in mono, usually with Paul unconscious upstairs with a concussion arising from a scratched guitar to the back of the head. Everything is run through an old Fender amp, according to the liner notes, “recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands.” Grandpaboy’s made-for-rock’n’roll voice and garage band guitars bang through a rough set of crunchy guitar riffs that capture the energy and inspiration of Tim-era The Replacements. Favorites include the intense and instantly likeable “Between Love & Like” and “High Time,” where a disconcerting echo gives the impression G-boy pointed his lone amp straight at a concrete wall and cut loose.

As unpolished as “Mono” is, it’s nothing compared to “Stereo.” Missed lines, room noise, tape running out in mid-verse and more, Paul started the tape rolling and captured the invigorating excitement of the first take. In the place of rowdy rock the listener is treated to sparse, soul-baring ballads containing the kind of dark, melancholy hooks and crusty, tearful vocals only Westerberg could write. “Baby learns to crawl watching daddy’s skin” is merely world-weary voice, guitar and a gentle accordion. “Only Lie Worth Telling” is a resigned confession of love, or perhaps not, with a single guitar and two-part vocal harmony. With song titles like “Dirt to Mud,” “No Place For You,” “Call That Gone?” and “Let the Bad Times Roll,” this is obviously an album to accompany heartbreak and loneliness.

Like the mildew of the basement where recorded, these intentionally unfinished songs need time to grow on you. The first listen or two might not sink in, but suddenly one lyric with speak to you and then a flawed guitar melody will remind you of sadder times and before long you realize that this coarse collection contains the dangerous nucleus of rock n’ roll, quivering and bloody from it’s birth, and you can’t help but to love this wretched runt.

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Welcome To My Nightmare (Remastered)

I remember well riding the bus in junior high, blasting "Department of Youth" out of my jambox while enduring the confused and scornful looks of my peers. Since it was 1985, and "Department" was released as a radio single in 1975, the reaction is somewhat understandable. Although I happened upon Welcome To My Nightmare, the album from which "Deparment" was culled, 10 years after its release, the songs retained a timeless quality I've found common in well written music.

Now 1975 is 27 years in the past, and the loving folks at Rhino records have remastered and re-unleashed this classic album to feed upon the masses. I'm pleased to say that despite a few pre-disco touches, the songs continue to hold up amazingly well, a testament to this loosely-formed concept album that inspired such classics as Kiss' Destroyer and Pink Floyd's The Wall.

For those not versed in musical history, Alice Cooper was the lead vocalist in the early 70s for the band Alice Cooper, a group which spawned a number of albums that only grow in my esteem for their musical punch and imaginatively macabre lyrics. In 1975 the man known as Alice Cooper took a respite from the group to focus on his penchant for rock theatrics, resulting in the band breaking up. The solo album that resulted was Welcome To My Nightmare, and the accompanying sideshow, er, concert was packed with vaudeville, theatrics, drama, gore, monsters, skeletons and other undead things, all without sacrificing the song.

And the songs! As is true with many of my favorite albums, the styles are all over the place. The opening and title track is an ode to Jim Morrison, a raucous horn-filled funkfest that introduces the rest of the album. "Devil's Food," "Escape" and "The Black Widow" all foreshadow pop-metal with blaring, yet melodic guitars and heart-pounding rhythms. The ballad "Only Women Bleed" is home to a full string section, and the raucous "Cold Ethyl" is a gritty and humorous homage to necrophilia. The creepy "Some Folks" hints at the pinnacle of the album, the psychologically freaky trilogy of "Years Ago," "Steven" and "The Awakening," a grandiose orchestral masterpiece in which the mentally disturbed Steven awakes to find that he's murdered his wife, the blood dripping from his fingertips echoed in an arhythmic piano figure.

Remastering-wise, I can't tell any difference between this CD and the original release I bought 15 years ago. Bonus tracks are nicely included, however. These are alternate versions of "Devil's Food," "Cold Ethyl" and "The Awakening," taken from the ABC TV special which aired in 1975. The slightly altered lyrics on these versions give a somewhat more rounded view of the songs, while fans of Vincent Price will enjoy the ending narrative where he warns the listener "bedrooms are only temporary sanctuaries from nightmares."

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - George Harrison - Brainwashed

While his solo music was never my favorite of the four I certainly do admire his acerbic wit and how he calls it like he sees it.

My first conscious experience with “George Harrison the solo artist” was with the video for “All Those Years Ago,” resulting in possibly my first album purchase (so young … so impressionable). It was a pleasant album with nice songs in what I would come to learn is the classic George Harrison style, but aside from the radio/video single, none of the tracks really lept off the vinyl as likely to sell five million singles. Such is the case with Brainwashed, Harrison’s final album, posthumously produced by Jeff Lynne and son Dhani Harrisonand and his first since 1987’s well-received Cloud Nine. Instead of flash and the material trappings of success, Harrison continues his quiet quest for personal peace. The 10 original songs (plus one cover) on this final outing are filled with sincerity, wisdom, humor, warmth and personal insights. For the most part, Lynne and Dhani were astoundingly true to Harrison’s style and vision, although now and then you can hear a double handful of Lynne’s fairy dust that remind you he’s behind the mixer.

The album kicks off with George asking “Give me plenty of that guitar,” a wry smile in his voice, and the music kicks in with “Any Road,” an apt celebration of life that simultaneously reminds us “If you don’t know where you’re going / Any road will take you there.” The joyous upbeat shuffle propels along with “plenty of that guitar,” Harrison’s trademark slide guitar, and an instrument called a banjulele. Melodic slide guitar is in the forefront of the dreamy instrumental “Marwa Blues,” a peaceful, reflective piece that could have easily been composed while pursuing his love of gardening.

Never one to pull punches, the title track is an assault on the false gods of our society, going after everything from politicians to mobile phones and the stock market. Harrison backloads this punchy song with a call to God, slowing the song considerably for a bit of tabla and a reading from the Hindu text “How to Know God.” Likewise “P.2. Vatican Blues” is a scathing address to the Catholic Church set to a standard 12-bar blues progression.

The highlights of the album are definitely the more personal songs such as the single “Stuck Inside A Cloud.” Here Harrison yearns to extricate himself from the fodder of life with lyrics that could also allude to his cancer such as “I made some exhibition / I lost my will to eat” with a relaxed, emotive vocal surely among the best of his career. Deep emotions also boil to the surface in “Pisces Fish,” another contemplative song about the joys of “mundane” life most of us miss, comparing himself with “I’m a Pisces fish and the river [of life] runs through my soul.”

While this album shot to No. 1 in Japan, it’s been largely ignored in this country of staunch radio formats. While disappointing to some, the quiet Beatle was never about success and would have surely taken such news with a quiet smile. Instead these charmingly modest songs full of melodic guitar leads and personal lyrics exist in relative obscurity, availing themselves to those who would seek them. Like his personality, they are in turn funny, spiritual, serious, critical and philosophical, yet somehow always remaining light and upbeat. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a George Harrison album.

First published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Music Review - Frost* - Experiments in Mass Appeal

True to it's name this album is less proggy than the debut album but still filled with great (and in a few cases downright amazing) songs. BUY IT NOW!

A few years back this bloke named Jem Godfrey decided to take a break from producing megahits for Britain's pop music industry. His antidote was a studio band named Frost* and the album Milliontown, a dazzling, invigorating masterpiece where progressive metal met symphonic pop packed with bright melodies, dark rhythms and some amazing sounds. It didn't hurt that one or two of the songs were about zombies.

Given the side-project nature of Milliontown, I didn't expect a follow-up. Like Toy Matinee, this was going to be one of those one-off albums that exists in solitary brilliance. Fortunately, Jem still had some kinks in his system that needed to be worked out, resulting in Experiments in Mass Appeal.

Instead of grabbing you by the ear, yanking you off your feet and pulling you along while they giddily speed past at 80 mph, as on Milliontown, this time it's a bit more tempered. Just a smidge, though, as it's still an exhilarating ride with quite a bit of good fun to be had amongst the whopping helping of excellent music. Of special note are "Pocket Sun" and "Dear Dead Days." "Pocket Sun" starts with an almost industrial guitar sound before the pace skyrockets and some amazing drums come in, playfully tossing around driving yet angular guitar rhythms that will certainly get your feet moving. The vocals here, as on most of the album, are very similar to Foreigner in that they are clear and crisp, never going shrill. A giant blast of keyboards in a roaring flurry of anticipatory arpeggios opens "Dear Dead Days" before becoming a downer with dour vocals and piano. Fear not, for soon a pounding staccato pulse enters, leading the way to an invigorating and vivid chorus full of instantly appealing pop luster akin to those found on the classic 80s Yes album 90125. "Toys" is another astounding song crammed with gooey radio goodness and the kind of positive power pop energy stolen from Cheap Trick that will hook you like a kid after his first cotton candy.Â

For whatever reason Experiments in Mass Appeal failed to strike home with me as much as Milliontown. Each of the 10 keyboard-driven songs on this album is impressively strong, packed with emotion and performed with jaw-dropping skill. While I'm listening to each song I find my brain and heart engaged, as well as my feet, much to the chagrin of my office mates. I love the radio-friendly 80s prog-pop songs by bands such as Asia, Yes, and Genesis, and this album falls right in line with these giants, albeit pushing the sonic boundaries into more modern waters. But for whatever reason, once the album ends it ends. There's no pleasantly finding a vocal melody or instrumental passage bouncing around my brain later in the day, just an album of really great songs – a very respectable nine following in the footsteps of an 11.

Originally published 2009 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Frost* - Milliontown

Eight years later and I'm still loving this amazing album! A third album has been started and/or completed and possibly an album 2.5 but all traces of this band has disappeared, including Jem's hilarious video updates.

The album was halfway over, mere background noise pulsing past my uncaring ears, when suddenly a fishhook caught in my ear, causing me to stop my day job and actually listen. The song was "Black Light Machine," a 10-minute ditty that opens with a hint of Pink Floyd drenched in Asia and schooled under Flower Kings that rises to a rather heart-brightening chorus before blending into one of the most tasteful and passionate melodic guitar solos I've heard since Stream of Passion. The part that got to me was an intensely creative instrumental mid-section, their specialty it seems, where the previous mainstream power ballad gets turned on its head, using some great sounds to spin the song 540 degrees into a heart-inciting manic clavinet funk-fest.

There have since been many such illuminating instances when listening to Milliontown, the debut album by Frost – so many that it has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year. The opening track, "Hyperventilate," is an instrumental orchestral prelude, giving a taste of things to come with it's mashing, flowing melodies and invigorating rhythms that weave into lush symphonic passages as good as anything done by Spock's Beard in their prime. A tranquil water-drip piano, accenting sounds of a woodwind trying to speak and laconic vocals make "Snowman" a brilliant offering for Chroma Key fans. In "No Me No You" your emotions collide with merciless drums and a dark huffing guitar that opens to half-time in the chorus before adding a string section while singing

"You're Killing My Love for You" is a gripping, desperate melody that can't help but to build hope. As if personifying the state of the relationship, the song crashes into a dissonant breakdown section that is both terrifying and beautiful. Kevin Gilbert is resurrected from the dead for "The Other Me," varnishing the entire piece in elastic guitars, walls of vocals, buzzing tones and stuttering Chroma Key digital dropout effects. The crowning composition is the title track, which zooms in at 26 minutes. During this time the mood switches from heartfelt angst (via an emotionally searing two-minute guitar solo by John Mitchell) to a calming Pink Floyd bit to a pulse-quickening funky rhythm section where every note is in the pocket to Spock's Beard-styled orchestration – all done to perfection with a half-hour that passes faster than some musicians can tune their instrument.

Spearheaded by British studio guru Jem Godfrey, who assembled musicians from Kino and IQ (British progressive bands whose recent albums knocked my boots off), Milliontown is more than a technical spree of progressive rock. Rather, it's a rare combination of the heart and mind, balancing the passion of heartfelt music with the muscle of rock in an intelligent format that is so well written that – like any Schoolhouse Rock song – you're enjoying the music so much that you don't realize until it's too late that there's quite a bit of meat beneath the surface. If you liked the commercial prog of Asia, Yes's 90125, Spock's Beard or Kevin Gilbert, you owe it to yourself to add Milliontown style='font-size:11pt;line-height:120%'> to your collection.

Originally published in 2006 in WhatzUp.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Penguin Point - Pointerburgers

The opportunity provided itself. So did the coupon. Yes, it was time to try two of Penguin Point's signature Pointerburgers (for a tiny price of $5.55). They have three on their menu and I could only pick two. One of the burgers is Jalapeno and Swiss so this was a no brainer because, as my wife would tell you, I have very wimp taste buds. This woman once ate an entire habanero and lived to tell the tale. I filmed (well, videoed) the whole show. It's on YouTube but I'll let you dig for the link because I'm mean that way.

Two burgers, each with a single quarter pound of beef. As the paper wrapped sammiches weren't labelled I picked one at random. It was the Western burger. Dig all those stringy onions! The pickles with the BBQ sauce is a nice touch, a very good tasting sweet sauce, I should add. Why is it that BBQ places in the south provide dill pickles but up here they don't? It's a perfect match! Anyway, there were a lot of onions on this burger. This tasty burger was good, I'll admit, a nice combination of toppings and my favorite of the two.

Next up is the Onion Burger, or rather "The Works." Again, look at all them onions! Shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, mayo, cheese. It's hard to go wrong with this classic sandwich... wait a minute! Where are the pickles?!?!? Oh well, I chewed this one up and let it mingle with the pickles from the Western burger in my belly.

As usual, Penguin Point food is good but doesn't have any kind of unique taste signature. When you eat a McD quarter pounder it tastes like a McD quarter pounder, something which it reminds you of for hours after eating it. On the plus side, there were no hours-later Pointerburger-flavored burps after eating this duo.

Music Review - Probot

Was this really ten years ago? I recall the music as being not quite my thing and only passably good but at the time my wife was a huge Dave Grohl fan so I reviewed the album. She liked it even less than I.

Like Pat Boone did with In A Metal Mood, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters/Nirvana/Queens of the Stone Age fame is trying to connect an audience drawn to his pop-based heavy foo music to a genre in which they might not normally dare to tread, in this case metal. Now we’re not talking Motley Cr¸e, Dio, Poison or even Metallica kind of metal; this is the dark stuff, the pure hardcore stuff that even I somehow managed to avoid: Napalm Death, Celtic Frost, Sepultura, Venom, Motorhead, King Diamond and others.

Over three years in the making Grohl wrote all the songs, played nearly all the instruments and invited all of his dark metal heroes to sing, one per track. Each song seems tailor-made for each vocalist, often being styled in homage to the vocalists own band. While no one would argue that Grohl is one of the premier rock drummers breathing oxygen, his guitar chops are a bit sludgy and belie his punk origins. But any lack of technical prowess is more than made up for in enthusiasm with nearly all vocalists delivering amazing performances.

Hardcore punk meets thrash metal in “Centuries of Sin,” where Cronos from Venom growls and rages through Grohl’s grinding riffs. “Red War,” sung by Max Cavalera of Sepultura, is menacing in its crushing wall of guitars and a melody that would make the bravest soldier turn tail and run. Motorhead’s Lemmy weighs in on “Shake Your Blood,” an excellent Motorhead clone. The blazing “The Emerald Law,” sung by Wino, has strong foundations in Queens of the Stone Age, while “Dictatorsaurus,” featuring Snake from Voivod, could easily be a heavy Foo Fighters song - go figure! One of my favorite tracks is the hidden “I Am The Warlock,” sung with intestine-rumbling intensity by Jack Black.

My wife Melynda, an avid Dave Grohl fan, should not mistake this review to state that I don’t think Probot is brilliant and thus consign me to the couch to rethink my views. Nay, this metal tribute album is boatloads of fun for the whole family and it’s only the lackluster and repetitive King Diamond track that I can’t stand. The variety of each song, in the guitar and drum sounds to the vocal delivery, makes this album bear up under repeated listens. But I’m left wondering how much better it could have been had some of these amazing and legendary guitarists (and bassists?) accompanied the singers to the recording sessions. Like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop, the world may never know.

Originally published 2004 in WhatzUp.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Music Review - OSI

I had no idea who any of these guys were when I received this CD but it totally blew my mind. I became an avid appreciator of Portney while watching him playing drums on a "making of" video... what a blast!

The debut release from O.S.I. is a dream for fans of heavily produced heavy music and a nightmare for the unfortunate soul who must categorize it. Crushing guitars collide with lush synthetic soundscapes that fall away to acoustic excursions, all with overdosing amounts of studio wizardry. As the band is formed of Fates Warning guitarist and figurehead Jim Matheos, Dream Theater drum legend Mike Portnoy and Kevin Moore of Chroma Key. you might think the album would lean towards progressive metal, which would have been the case had not Kevin Moore been so heavily involved, imbuing the project with legions of intriguing sounds.

“Head” is a perfect example of the perfection this band can achieve. Sitars and tabula open, weaving a light hypnotic trance in the verse before a meaty and angular guitar riff interrupts the dream with a massive groove. Then, amazingly, oil and water mix as the two extremes coexist in the same sonic space. In “Hello, Helicopter,” laconic vocals overlay Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd acoustic guitars set to a throbbing beat. The nightmarish and emotional “shutDOWN” features vocals by Porcupine Tree’s Steve Wilson, alternating between murky “Signify” sections and purely evil sounding, Black Sabbath-influenced bits that will certainly raise goosebumps. The title track is four minutes of controlled chaos, with fat synth tones speeding alongside a thick guitar riff that crashes into the opening acoustic guitars of “When You’re Ready,” a song which never fails to bring a smile to my face. The melancholy vocals hide deep in a forest of metallic sounds and amazing production ideas, mostly directed this time at the drums, which should be pointed out are simply astounding throughout. Another impressive song is “Memory Daydreams Lapses” which is a driving underworld dance beat enshrined in more amazing percussion prowess and ends with the chillingly delivered lyric of “You hated your friends best of all”

There are so many influences wrapped up in this album that our feeble minds are boggled as to how it all holds together. In addition to Fates Warning there’s Pink Floyd, NIN, Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, Flaming Lips, Peter Gabriel, Eno, Tool, David Bowie, Dream Theater and Moby, all peacefully coexisting in the same creative space. Yes it’s progressive but not in a Rush/technical way. These songs have souls, and the melodies creep into your cranium, smuggled in through inventive, artistic production techniques and astonishing yet unpretentious musicianship. This is good gravy just like grandma used to make. Make sure your ears are gravy boats!

Originally published 2004 in WhatzUp

Music Review - OSI - Free

A very strong follow up to a masterful first album. Most artists couldn't have come back half as strong!

There will never be another album like the debut by O.S.I., as its songs were formed out of an unknowing situation that, like a quark, if attempted to be recreated would collapse under its own self-knowledge. This 2002 album came about when guitarist Jim Matheos (Fate's Warning) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre) came up with a fairly standard 17-minute progressive song. Then Kevin Moore (Dream Theatre, Chroma Key) came in, weary of the whole "progressive epic" thing, and chopped the song into 10 standard length songs. Well, more than "chopped." He rearranged, overdubbed, pureed and added his luscious organic synth tones, laconic vocals and enough creative production touches to fill 15 albums. The result was a textured, layered collection of emotion-packed songs that schizophrenically jumped between light and dark, heavy and soft with astounding alacrity, making it the most original album of 2002.

With Free this "supergroup" heads back into the studio under a slightly different format. This time Matheos and Moore composed the songs with Portnoy being brought in later in the process. If there is a weakness in these songs it is that Portnoy was not utilized further. Like most people I used to view drums as a utilitarian timekeeper, more beat than music. On the first O.S.I. album Portnoy showed me just how musical and inventive drums can be, and I'm forever grateful. That said, everything else is just as top-notch as the first time out: dead-tight songwriting skills, astounding musicianship that rarely calls attention to itself, eerie melodies sitting alongside gut crunching rhythms, an immense palate of tone colors and imaginative production that elevates the studio to an equal instrument.

Space prevents me from gushing about each of the 11 songs as much as they deserve. "Bigger Wave" is currently playing on my headphones, and the defeated verse ("But now I‚m worried there's a bigger wave just behind this one") just kicked into a frothy 5/4 explosion of gritty guitars. The opening track, "Sure You Will," could be a Rob Zombie song, if he still wrote eerie melodies packed with beefy angsty rhythms. "All Gone Now" starts with a hypnotic finger-picked acoustic guitar backed by subdued techno drums and most unusual studio-stuttered vocals that peak in a musical passage highlighting a synth sound so textured you can feel it, like a 50s movie reel burned by acid. Portnoy gets his chance to shine on the cinematic post-apocalyptic "All Gone Now," superbly playing under a chilling tone in odd meter. The band somehow evokes music out of buzzing noise in "Better" as lyrics like "Things got better when you left / Your friends always say that" lead into a striking section of scalding bass, drums and vocals. Fuzzy static, a sonar "pling," fuzzed out bass, more killer drums (no fuzz) and an Adrien Belewish guitar part make "Simple Life" a study in the daily grind ("I can sleep, sleep, sleep / Or maybe I'll just sit in the car"), while "Once" is almost cheerful despite morose lyrics of "Once / You looked so happy together." The album ends with "Our Town," featuring a Gilmour-esque lead guitar, classic rock organ, acoustic guitar and banjo. Expect the unexpected.

Like many of my favorite albums Free grabbed me right from the start and then backed off, slowly reaffirming and rebuilding our relationship to new heights. Yeah, I know I need to get a life – but with music this good it's difficult to get out of the house. How often does one get to hear intelligent yet heavy rock music so original that outside influences are difficult to detect? There may never be an album like their first, but Free comes wonderfully close.

Originally published 2006 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - OSI - Blood

Still my least favorite of their four.

The good news is that the new Chroma Key album is here! The bad news is that it was supposed to be the new OSI album.

OSI began when Mike Portnoy, the phenomenal drummer from Dream Theater, and Jim Matheos, the guitarist from Fates Warning, decided to get together and do a prog-metal side project. They wrote a typical half-hour proggy song and then brought in Kevin Moore, former keyboardist of Dream Theater who left because he was sick of the typical progressive metal excesses. Moore took their work, chopped it up and rearranged it into four-minute songs, adding mountains of his organic synth tones to create an amazingly compelling album. Moore was there from the beginning for their second album, while Portnoy seemed to take a back seat. The album was quite good but seemed to be softer, lacking a bit of the muscle of the debut album.

For the band’s third and most recent album, Blood, Portnoy has ducked out completely, and Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree has taken his place. No slouch on the kit is he. Once again, however, the music slips more and more toward that of a Chroma Key album, the name Moore uses for his solo albums. There’s less of the innovative, hard-hitting magnum opus that was their debut. Thankfully, a few of the tracks manage to maintain the energy of the original, namely the opening number, “The Escape Artist.” This tune is six minutes of mysterious chiming guitars colliding with a massive groove in an unorthodox meter (14/4 for those who care) with room for a brief guitar solo and slower passages of Moore’s sonic tinkerings. “False Start” is a great prog-rock song with double kick drums a-flyin’ and gutsy guitars belting out low riffs sure to get your blood boiling. “Radiologue” is perhaps the closest to the original merger of prog-metal and avante-garde world music synth-pop that graced their debut. Here, too, are passages that repeatedly build up the intensity and back off, only to come at you from another angle.

The rest of the album is pretty much laid-back Chroma Key. I really like Chroma Key, so it’s no great shakes for this reviewer. “Terminal” has lots of squiggly synth sounds and the same quivering, watery keyboards Zeppelin used in “No Quarter.” Plus, there’s a melodic bit that sounds like a hooting owl being stretched like a rubber band. No, really – it sounds good. “We Come Undone” and “Microburst Alert” are full of bell-like synth tones and ring-modulated sounds zooming around the stuttered, studio-processed drums. Minimal guitars provide contrast. Guest vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth brings a refreshing change with “Stockholm,” his voice less forlorn than Moore’s usually melancholic delivery. Most of this song is mired in tranquil keyboards, but at the last minute they drag out the chunky and stuttering distorted guitars to end with a bang.

I guess it’s not exactly fair to say that this album is entirely a Chroma Key release. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a double EP from both Chroma Key and OSI. There really isn’t a dud on Blood if you like adventurous rock music and unique sounds lovingly coaxed from synthesizers. So here’s three cheers for the new OSI/Chroma Key album, Blood. (Jason Hoffman)

Originally published 2009 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - Deadwing

Once again I'm trying to find a sequel to the amazing in absentia and being disappointed.

With its dark, brooding sound full of massive riffs, wispy vocal harmonies, and transient Floyd-esque space rock, the last Porcupine Tree album, in absentia, absolutely knocked me on my flabby white buttocks. It was as accessible and commercial as it was creative, a very rare commodity. But that was three years ago.

With Deadwing the tenured band returns for more of the same ... and some of the old. While not nearly as dark or heavy or creepy as the last album, Deadwing sounds like a cross between in absentia and their previous albums, which were just as adventurous but lacked the crunch of heavy guitars. It’s almost as if this album should have come between their prior work and in absentia, somehow getting lost in the shuffle of time and being released five years after its inception.

The ambitious 10-minute title track is a compelling mix of prog, alternative and crushing metal, with guest Adrian Belew adding a quirky signature guitar solo. “Shallow” is easily the heaviest song the band has ever recorded, with fierce guitars grunting to a poppy chorus melody. In the words of author Steve Wilson, it’s “the equivalent of a big, dumb rock song, but in the way that people who are not dumb would do.” A similar song is “Open Car,” where muscular riffs in the verse contrast with spooky, clean vocals in the bridge, taking on the guise of a straight-forward rocker. Atmospheric, acoustic, and melodic, “Lazarus” is a gorgeous pop tune, a throwback to their earlier albums and a nice respite from the distortion.

“Halo” picks things back up with a full, round bass driving this groove-laden fest of frenzied guitar, symphonic rock, NIN-influenced industrial, and funk. The dreamy “Mellotron Scratch, “ in which acoustic guitars bash with electronic explosions, will appeal to Pink Floyd fans, as will “Glass Arm Shattering,” which features haunting washed-out vocals over Gilmour guitars and spacey keyboards.

The most ambitious track is the 12-minute “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here.” Skillfully jumping through a variety of styles, the band manages to pull it all together, creating a pastiche of dapples of light and dark, heavy shadows that pay tribute to Rush, Black Sabbath, Radiohead, early Genesis and even a bit of Zeppelin. Although Wilson intones “Never look for the truth in your mother”s eyes,” few would deny the truth that this song packs a very satisfying emotional wallop.

While it”s difficult to follow the perfect 10 of in absentia, Deadwing is a very respectable nine, mixing various shades of metal with art rock and atmospheric Floyd in a way that few can match. It’s heavy, it’s light, it’s proggy, it’s poppy, it’s just a big ol’ hootenanny for the ears.

Originally published 2005 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - In Absentia

I sure do love me the contrasts on this album, how the crushing metal guitars collide with walls of cotton candy pop vocal harmonies and melt into acoustic instruments. Some of the lyrics give me the creeps now as they can be mighty dark and icky.
Twenty-two seconds into my first listen of this album my ears perked up. “What’s this? A mysterious intro followed by angular metal riffing? Now there’s a relaxed acoustic guitar topped with melodic verse vocals (real singing) and … no … a catchy chorus complete with rich harmonies, similar in feel to that first album by Asia … now more metal and …” I was hooked.

Although relatively new to the states, Porcupine Tree have been around since 1987, exploring various avenues of musical creativity, earning the moniker “What Pink Floyd would sound like if Pink Floyd were making good albums.” On In Absentia these talented veterans lean toward metal and modern rock, drawing many comparisons to Radiohead and, as evidenced from their video, Tool. Given the luxury of full artistic control on this outing, they have created 12 works of contrast, mixing a slightly dark edge in with the metal and rock, brightening the pot with shimmers of pop and a slice of progressive.

“Trains” strikes this delicate balance often evident in these songs, starting with plaintiff, fragile vocals and acoustic guitar akin to Zeppelin’s acoustic work. An instrumental section near the end incorporates both banjo and handclaps before jumping back into a heavier fray of guitars, all without breaking stride or feeling disjointed. Although written with a 7/4 time signature in the verse, “The Sound of Muzak” is one infectious hook aching to show radio what real music sounds like. The video song, “Strip the Soul”, is a creepy number about a man who bumps off his family, clocking in at a mere seven-plus minutes. While the verse and chorus are appropriately moody, it’s the inventive instrumental section that wins my vote. Aggressively played acoustic guitar with a Fripp-like solo (all in 3/4 time) the song goes into a 5/2 instrumental buildup that dissolves into a bare, chilling cello before the band crashes back in with heavy guitars. Another lengthy track is the 6:33 instrumental “Wedding Nails” wherein, like King Crimson’s “Red,” the crunchy guitars career along at breakneck speed throughout, only stopping for a brief period to explore some chunky rhythm ideas midway through while accompanied by stimulating guitar sounds. “The Creator Has A Mastertape” is a nervous drum and bass song that spookily intones the story of a man who “captured and collected things” and “raised a proper family / So he could tie them to a bed”.

More contrast is found in the relaxed “Prodigal” where leader Steve Wilson sings “I tried the capsule and I tried the smoke / I tried to aid escape like normal folk / But I never seem to get the joke” while surrounded with Crosby, Stills and Nash vocal harmonies. “Lips of Ashes” is reminiscent of Floyd’s “A Pillow of Winds” with ethereal, spacey sounds. Former XTC member Dave Gregory provides lush string arrangements for the minimalist “3” and the delicate “Collapse The Light Into Earth” which is simple piano, floating vocals, reedy organ and strings, an appropriately haunting album closer.

Porcupine Tree expertly manage to mix pounding rhythms, spacey sounds, acoustic journeys, pop-tinged harmonies, menacing guitars and thoughtful lyrics into a thoroughly engaging album that continues to reveal more of itself with each listen, haunting your subconscious with it’s imagery and sounds. As a music freak, you hope to find three or four albums per year as good as this. A nearly perfect album!

Originally published in 2003 in WhatzUp

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet

I need to revisit this one. I recall that it was enjoyable but perhaps a bit less aggressive than I had expected, which threw me.

       Steve Wilson and Porcupine Tree are back with Fear of a Blank Planet, a six-song collection of dark, moody songs dealing with the bleak future of children raised on MTV, X-Boxes and the Internet. The whole package runs about an hour, exploring murky ambient territory with a healthy dose of big metal guitars and melancholic vocals, dredging up atmosphere at every turn. While Wilson is incapable of putting out a weak album, he unfortunately isn't really breaking any new ground this time out.

       Which isn't to say that the album lacks substance. Compared to most of what's out there it ranks a very well. Take, for instance, the title track which opens with an insistent acoustic guitar part that unnervingly picks away at your sense of ease before a solid rock beat invades. The music itself is quite invigorating at times, but it's the lyrics that suffer, a usual Wilson reliance on cliche that is almost embarrassing compared to the intricate music. One example: "My friend says he wants to die / He's in a band / They sound like Pearl Jam / The clothes are all black / The music is crap." Not exactly poetry. Telling the story of a boy struggling to overcome messed-up parents, "My Ashes" is more tranquil with dripping synths and pulsing tones, raising the lyrical bar as well with "And my ashes find a way beyond the fog / And return to save the child that I forgot." "Sentimental" is likewise soothing, almost bringing hope to the album with a piano backed by a cathartic vocal melody which realizes "that you can't blame your parents anymore," eventually leading up to an emotional breakdown that borrows a bit from In Absentia's excellent "Trains."

       "Way Out Here" plays with dynamics, starting with a New Age soundscape compliments of King Crimson's Robert Fripp before seamlessly building to a psychedelic metal jam sure to satisfy the black leather-wearin' crowd. The creepy "Sleep Together" closes the album, incorporating industrial elements from the best of Nine Inch Nails and orchestral strings that lift the song to a climatic finale. But the strongest song is the 17-minute "Anesthetize," which opens with a moody Pink Floyd passage that heats up with growling guitars and echoing keyboards to a massive syncopated riff that plays with stereo perception, leading up to an exceptional guitar solo by Rush's Alex Lifeson. The song deftly continues through many changes and moods, rarely staying on any section long enough for boredom to grow, fully exploring an alternative realm where thrashing guitars peacefully coexist with spacey keyboards and lush vocal harmonies.

       IÕm wanting to get excited about Fear of a Blank Planet, the latest album by Porcupine Tree, but something fails to move me. On the surface it has all the same characteristics of 2002's In Absentia, a landmark album that hit me hard, showcasing Wilson's ability to perfectly merge metal, industrial, goth, pop and prog. The follow-up, Deadwing, was good, but failed to hit the bulls eye. Fear of a Blank Planet is unfortunately even farther off the mark, sharing more with Porcupine Tree's earlier, more ambient albums. While some may prefer that style, I personally find it a bit sterile and remote. While the album deals with disconnected youth, I doubt it's what Wilson had in mind.

       But then again, maybe it's all a matter of having spent too many years on this warm globe to feel the alienation that is required to fully appreciate Fear of a Blank Planet. (Jason Hoffman)

Originally published in 2007 in WhatzUp.

Music Review - Porcupine Tree - Signify

Sometimes you love an album and dig back into their catalog and find gold. Other times the music just sits there lit congealed gravy. Totally loved In Absentia... still do! This one, though, is just meh.

After drooling profusely over Porcupine Tree’s recent In Absentia, an album I highly recommend for everyone who would not be caught dead with a Jimmy Buffet record, I decided to do a bit of disco-graphic backtracking. Fortunately, their 1996 album, Signify, has just been re-released, thus allowing for my purchase to be counted as an expense against my vast whatzup earnings!

Signify signifies (sorry about that) a change from Porcupine Tree being a lone fellow, Steve Wilson, to a real, full, working band. While I can’t tell you about the solo years, this release clearly shows the potential and direction of a band that would one day release the darkly disturbed In Absentia.

The album opens with a 50s-sounding sample (which are used sparingly throughout between and within tracks), inviting the listener to “kick your shoes off … and join us in enjoying some very quiet and relaxing music.” The energetic instrumental title track then commences with a restrained metal-proggish guitar riff and lots of strange solos made by torturing unknown instruments with God-forsaken devices. The intoxicatingly depressing “Sleep of No Dreaming” begins with tenuous organs and the lyrics “At the age of sixteen / I grew out of hope.” The song further opens into a nostalgic psych-rock song with instant appeal. “Intermediate Jesus” is another spacey instrumental with a mesmerizing Barrett-era-Pink Floyd wash of guitar tones centered around a repeating bass line that had me thinking “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” “Light Mass Prayers” is indeed a voiceless mass, but its dark, ambient, creepy moanings are anything but light.

Both “Darkmatter” and “Every Home Is Wired” are comatose songs, the former with airy and emotional guitar leads, the latter with spooky slide guitar parts destined to haunt your head. “Sever” is heavy and dark, nearly atonal, sounding almost like a warning from the grave to the living with frightening vocal effects and experimental overdubs cascading in from the great beyond. My personal favorite track is “Waiting phase one,” a prodding yet mellow song based on an achingly fragile vocal melody that blossoms with harmonies as the song progresses. The lead solo on this song easily equals David Gilmour in his prime.

By borrowing from the stylings of ambient, classic rock, trance, psychedelic, metal, and prog, Porcupine Tree created a dark, experimental, spacey sequel to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The multi-dimensional production and skilled song-crafting make this an album that grows with each listen, quickly making it clear why this unknown classic was re-released in the hopes of it finding a wider audience.

Originally published 2003 in WhatzUp.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Music Review - The Church - Parallel Universe

Aside from their late 80’s hit “Under The Milky Way,” The Church is one of those esoteric bands who are better known for the more popular (and better selling) bands they inspire than for their own albums. But after two decades of creating innovative music, they have forsaken all attempts to please the fickle average music listener and instead work to please themselves.

Their last album, the aptly-named After Everything, Now This, was a new collection of songs that seemed to sum up their entire musical history and position them for future endeavors. With the release of Parallel Universe, listeners receive a double dip of Church goodness in the form of a two CD set. The first disc contains remixes of each song from After Everything, reworked through some kind of gothic ambient filter by

the loving hand of producer/drummer Tim Powles. Although always known for creating textured, neo-psychedelic excursions, the addition of metallic vocals, fat synth sounds and extended samples pushes their music into new territory, further stretching the distended borders of melodic space-pop. The second disc contains six tracks that were recorded during the After Everything sessions but not deemed worthy for the original album, also (mostly) reworked. Of greatest merit are “1st woman on the moon,” an 11-minute “no overdubs” atmospheric jam that fully reveals their talent at creating a tapestry of sounds and “radiant 1934 remix,” a swirling, grinding journey of gurgling guitars juxtaposed with ethereal sweeps and supersonic chirps.

The tracks on this release somewhat defy deep analysis as they tend to cascade over the listener, hypnotically drawing you in with waves of sound that shimmer and float like the waning memory of a dream upon waking. It is lush, intricate, elegant, moody, deliciously melodic and of a mature caliber one can only expect from musical veterans. It is music you simply enjoy for the experience it provides. While some might be inclined to call the music of The Church arrogant, my overly sensitive anti-pompous radar has yet to pick up such snobbish vibes. Self-indulgent, yes, but after putting in two decades of effort, The Church has earned the right to make music as they hear it. And the way they hear their brand of shoe-gazer art-rock is nothing short of brilliant.

Originally published in 2003 in WhatzUp

Music Review - Lili Haydn - Lili

Boy, there was egg on my face with THIS review. Normally the rule is to review an album within a few months of it's release, the sooner the better. For this one I was way out of bounds... the album was released in 1997 and I wrote the review in 2003. It got published and someone wrote a funny yet scathing letter to the editor calling me out. After this I was more careful.

Lili Haydn has lent her silky violin tone to the likes of Tom Petty, Hootie and the Blowfish, The Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman and even playing the classic “Kashmir” for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in concert. On Lili, her debut album, Haydn does her best to mix her classical background with her love of rock, pop and dance music. For the most part and much to her credit, Haydn not only wrote the majority of the songs but also played violin (well, duh!), sang, produced and handled some of the programming.

The result is a mixed bag filled mostly with tasty treats. The sour apple, for me, is the lyrics. “Stranger” has a great, funky beat with lots of violin accents, but the lyrics tell the story of a “pretty teenage baby [who] has a baby of her own” and who “strips for strangers to keep her baby satisfied.” Gee ... never heard that platitude before! Then there’s the pretentious and cloying single “Take Somebody Home.” While the song is full of sonically pleasing textures, pop-rock melodies and a very cool Mideastern- meets-symphonic feel, the lyrics are rife with politics and social hand-wringing about the homeless, making me wonder how many homeless people have enjoyed a stay at the Haydn household. And then there’s her voice ... it’s nice, but despite lots of obvious work done, it really is a bit thin to compete with all the dazzling aural delights whirling about these tracks.

But that’s the bad, at least for a crusty geezer like me. Now for the good. “Someday” mixes a quirky oriental melody augmented by pizzicato strings with nice cello and a wall of distorted guitars. Weird bass and chunky, distorted guitar highlight “Real,” a song which culminates with a mysterious and powerful instrumental orgy of rumbling bass, violin, and eerie guitar. Violin accents abound in the haunting ballad “Baby,” and the dramatic “Daddy” is perhaps the pinnacle synergy of classical and rock on this album, ending in a glorious symphonic mini-movement. Also very good are the two instrumentals. “Salome” allows the violin to finally step to the forefront, floating in melody above an ethereal façade of dark dreams and regrets. Much more classical in tone is “Wants Deep,” a six-minute violin and piano duet that opens with lugubrious violin and ends with a passionate and striking flair.

Overall this is a very solid album. The musicianship is dead-on and the arrangements are quite inventive. Unlike the mind-bending debut album by 100 Watt Smile, where the violin is integral to the song, socking it out with the guitar in bow-to-pick trench combat, the violin parts on these sophisticated rock songs are more for added color. Still, those bored with the radio should find plenty to enjoy off this creative debut album.

First published in 2003 in WhatzUP.

Music Review - Event- Scratching The Surface

I quite enjoyed the first major label release from Event, basking in the mathematical, progressive turns and unique, mechanical sounds. It wasn’t the greatest thing since the Garden Weezul, but it was most certainly different, a good different. With Scratching At The Surface this band has given their elegant robot a soul. Like any complicated machine there are many things going on at once resulting in a true “everything and a double kitchen sink” production. It also helps that these Berklee School of Music grads are in complete control of their own music, providing ample time to fine-tune and tweak each of the multiple layers inherent in each song. Those with Attention Deficit Disorder will find many shiny objects to distract the mind and yet, it’s tasteful … often full but never busy.

Event have continued their search for unique sounds. While you would think from listening that you hear electronica and synth sounds, the band insists that all the sounds start with guitars and that effects boxes, and computers are used to create the flurry of aural delights. But all the gizmos in the world can’t make up for a poorly written song. Event has that covered as well, taking obvious influence from King’s X and Alice In Chains, meaning melody is king and vocal harmonies are queen.

“Make Your Way” explodes the jewel case open as the opener, making it very clear what this band is about: raw energy polished by the crush of heavy guitars in a bed of melody. Heavy on groove, “Under My Skin” makes up for the lack of feel from the first album. The vocalist apparently worked at making the vocals emote, and along with the body-moving groove the listener is hit over the head with buzzing guitars while their body moves uncontrollably to the beat. Nearly an ode to later King’s X is “All Too Real” which delights in a chunky, hammering guitar riff that is unbelievably solid. “Live Life Love Breed” walks the dangerous line of Nine Inch Nails industrial with a pure rock motor, never once falling into cliché. Fans of progressive will enjoy the 7/4 meter of the creepy “Won’t Come Loose” and the 14/4 off-kilter sound of “Siren” that jumps to an orchestral bridge before swan diving into a pleasing 4/4 chorus, all with their usual plethora of engaging sounds. The album ends in a frenetic ride known as “Too Much,” one minute careening out of control with stuttering guitars a la Sevendust and the next floating on a melody coated in vocal harmonies before gleefully plummeting again into the cacophony.

I know this music isn’t for everyone and will probably never get on the radio … just another crime against the arts because this music is so well done, so inventive not only in melody but also in sound and form that I have no doubt that every musician and studio guru could learn at least a few new tricks from this release. Highly recommended for lovers of heavy melodic and headphone music.

Originally published 2003 in WhatzUp.