Friday, August 29, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - The Last Temptation

It had to have been 1996 or 1997. I had written off "The Coop" many, many years before and had entered a musical dead zone. I don't think the two are connected but regardless, I wasn't paying much attention to albums. But somehow* I heard that Alice Cooper had become a Christian and his last album was much-Christiany but not in an entirely cheesey-bad way**. Maybe it was due to his infamous appearance in Wayne's World ("We're not worthy!"). Sure the movie came out in 1992 but I was always a number of years behind*** so it's likely I saw the movie on TV and got curious about ol' Alice.

In any case I decided to give the man another chance and procured a physical CD of the album. I'm sure many of his new fair-weather fans were disappointed but 1994's The Last Temptation was a return to form for Mr. Cooper, being heavy but not overtly metal. While not totally mind-blowing awesome the music was quite good. Even better, it was true about his conversion because the lyrics were solidly committed to Christ and yet were 100% only something Alice could write.

The first song, "Sideshow" feels expansive and important, starting off with an almost Who-based intro. This song sets up the album, packing lots of horns in with the heavy guitars, tempering their edge. The lyrics are good but a bit clunky, reminding me a bit of my own lyrics written as a young Christian. "Nothing's Free" is better both musically and lyrically, a statement of human free will set to a heavy guitar riff, but it's the single, "Lost In America", that steals the show. Wry social commentary combines with chuffing heavy rock and Coopers humor to make for one stunning yet disheartening song about a kid with divorced parents who can't go to school because he doesn't have a gun and he can't get a gun because he doesn't have a job and he can't get a job 'cause he can't go to school so he's looking for a girl with a gun and a job. And a house with cable.

"You're My Temptation" is another excellent song, smouldering, sinister and dark with judicious use of the wah pedal and lyrics about struggling to stay away from the unhealthy people and things. The lone guest-star on the album is Chris Cornell**** and he sings his best Sammy Haggar impersonation on "Stolen Prayer", a very strong confessional power ballad the ends with a kids choir that evokes memories of late 70s Cooper albums. "Lullaby" is creepy but a bit, what, childish? Cheesy? Cliche?

Hold on, kids, 'cause the album ends with a solid double punch. "It's Me" is a great power ballad, uplifting without being corny. For some reason this song reminds me of the From The Inside era but I can't put my finger on exactly why. More sonic references to that time period are on the finale, "Cleansed By Fire." Hearing this song again for the first time in years I was struck at how incredible it is and then started wondering why I didn't love it more. Then I realize that it has about a two minute post-logue of sounds that drag the song on. However since this is the digital age it's no problem to skip to the end, or back to the beginning. Problem solved! This heavy slab of awesome has background vocals of "Craaaayzeee" and a nod to Welcome To My Nightmare in the middle section to make us old-timers feel at home. The rest of the song is a mid-tempo rocker that builds slowly to a fiery inferno of angst with Cooper actually mentioning Jesus in a serious of questions intended to make the listener think about the important questions of life*****. It might be his most evangelical song ever.

A three comic series was made by Neil Gaiman from this album. I scored a set one copy at a time off eBay and have only read them once. They weren't that good****** but I haven't sold them off yet. Unlike other albums I don't think I really gave this one my full attention but during the past two weeks I found myself listening to this one again and again, as though I hadn't tired myself of it long ago. I'd say that's a hearty recommendation!

Rank: Essential Cooper

* It wasn't over the internets because this was the era of Compuserve and possibly AOL. Due to lack of funds I didn't have either unless I was able to score a floppy disk with 30 free days.

** Or maybe that should be "Whey."

*** Or a number of years ahead. It sucks being out of step with the rest of the world but it's also a kind of blessing.

**** You can't count Derek Sherinian because, like many artists, Cooper hired him before he became famous. And while you're here allow me to mention that there is only one bass player on this album, a very positive sign.

***** No, I'm not talking about what to order on your pizza tonight.

****** And neither was the comic book based on his From The Inside album, or so I've heard.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Short Story - Wiped

Here's a ditty I wrote this past March. Enjoy!


James had to admit it… he was being followed.  As to why and by who he had no idea.  He was just a twenty year old nobody attending community college who hadn’t broken any laws or slept with anyone’s wife.  But since noticing the white sedan behind him around dusk he had back tracked, driven circles around blocks, blown through orange lights, and generally bent enough driving laws through erratic maneuvers to convince himself that he, Mr. Nobody, was in fact being followed.  It was full night by now and much too dark with the overcast skies filtering out any moonlight but those headlights remained behind him.

Not being able to shake his relentless pursuer, James considered returning to his apartment.  If either of his two roommates were there then… well, what could they do?  And why would he lead this guy right to his home?  It was then that he saw the full parking lot of a local high school, packed for a basketball game, probably a basketball game.  Lots don’t fill up like this for plays or band performances.  “Elementary,” he thought, allowing himself a brief tension relieving smile.  Not sure of what he would be able to do about his pursuer but at least there’d be safety in a large crowd.  He raced through a deep orange light, leaving his stalker momentarily held in check, and turned in to the parking lot, heading towards the front doors, one eye on his rear view mirror.  There!  An empty spot in the third row, vacated by someone who received a sick child call from the baby sitter and left the event early.  James saw the white car just pulling into the parking lot and he cut his engine, turned off his lights.  Briefly considering and rejecting hunkering down in his car, James instead hurried for the front door, hunched low and finding cover behind a small group of adult smokers outside the door, surely breaking some law meant to protect the children.

Inside he found the ticket stand was unmanned so he followed the sounds of the crowd and squeaking shoes to the gymnasium.  Basketball it was and well into the third quarter, according to the scoreboard.  He quickly made for the far side of the court, wishing he had a hat or something to obscure his face.  Fortunately the gym was packed so he might be able to hide in the crowd.

Positioned on the wall farthest away from the door he had entered James tried to blend in with the hooting attendees while keeping a vigilant eye on the door.  Although he had no idea of what his pursuer looked like it wasn’t long before someone entered and started scanning the auditorium.  James quickly stepped back toward the corner, putting the packed bleachers between himself and the man.  He hadn’t been spotted but likewise James hadn’t gotten a clear view of the man’s face, catching only curly dark hair and a closely cut beard, average height and build, no older than thirty.

James suddenly felt very vulnerable.  And trapped.  There were no hallways or doors in this corner of the gym.  Just painted cinderblock.  All that guy had to do was to walk over here and blammo, game over.  Ditto for if he tried to walk across the gym for an exit, drawing attention to himself.  What a stupid move, he berated himself, literally backing himself into a corner.  Looking around he noticed that the bleachers were the kind that pull out from the wall.  Could he possibly hide underneath?  The opening was covered by a kind of blue and gold vinyl tarp, what he assumed to be the school colors, that was attached in some way to the wall and the bleachers themselves.  He took a few steps over to where the tarp met the wall for a closer look.  Velcro.  This far back you couldn’t see the game so the closest people were ten feet away with their eyes courtward.  He quickly pulled a corner of the tarp away, the trademark Velcro sound lost in the sea of noise, and entered into the darkness, reattaching the Velcro as best he could behind him.

The contrast of the bright lights of the gym and the darkness under the bleachers, plus the muffled quiet made possible by the tarp, made it seem almost like he was underwater.  His eyes soon adjusted and he could make out knives of light from where the tarp failed to meet the floor and the accordion scaffolding that stretched out along the entire length of the bleachers.  Inspiration struck and he carefully worked his way to the other side, working slowly to avoid bumping into the greasy supports.  He knelt down to peel away a bit of the tarp so he could check for a nearby door or if the coast was clear of people enough that he wouldn’t draw attention to himself in leaving.  There was a pair of shoes, presumable attached to legs, directly in front of him.  He froze at what he heard next.  The words were difficult to make out through the ebb and flow of the crowd noise but he most clearly heard “What do you mean, ‘He got away?’”

“He got a lucky break and ditched me by coming into this building.”

There were two guys following him?

“I walked through the entire gym, scanned all the crowd.  He isn’t here.  Maybe he’s in the school somewhere but it seems pretty well locked up.  I dunno.”

“Is his car still outside?”

“Dunno.  I’ve been in here.  Why aren’t you outside watching his car?”

“I thought you might need help with…” and here the crowd erupted as the home team scored.  “…losing control… afraid he might know…”

“…want to keep looking for him?  I can stay here while you go search the lot for his car.”

“Let’s call it off.  It’s blown for tonight anyway.  I’ll call Bill.”

The feet walked away and took James’ energy with them.  He started to shake and shifted from kneeling, sitting back against the wall and pulling his knees to his chest, feeling drained now that the immediate threat was gone.  Why were two guys following him?  He was just a regular guy, a sophomore at the local college with a part time job at a pizza place and no enemies.  If it weren’t for what he just heard he might have been able to convince himself that he was just being paranoid, that he had imagined being followed and overreacted.  But there was no denying that now.

“Well, what have we here?”

Disoriented, James looked up to see the kindly face of an old man looking at him, surrounded by light from the recently removed tarp.  “Must have snuck a flask in to fall asleep like that…. Got any left?”

He had fallen asleep.  He had fallen asleep?  Had the clutter of fear and emotions so sapped him that he fell asleep in the muffled quiet under the bleachers?  Embarrassed, James crawled out from under the bleachers and stiffly stood up, knocking his head on a support beam, lending even more support to the janitor’s hypothesis.

“Uh, no, uh, just tired, or something.”  He absently rubbed his head, blinking at the rows of bright fluorescents at an empty gym occupied only by himself and two custodians.  “I’d better go,” he stammered as he went quickly towards the exit.

“Next time bring some to share, kid,” he heard the man chuckle behind him.

He could see through the doors that it was still dark outside so he must have only been asleep for a few hours.  Making an excellent target against the light behind him, James scanned the parking lot, finding only his car.  It’s a good thing they didn’t decide to wait for him, or maybe they did.  He went out into the cool night and quickly stepped beside the door.  No other cars were present and there was very little traffic on the road that ran by the school.  He nearly tiptoed to his car, as if he was afraid he would wake it, and checked the back seat for ghoulies and jackbooted thugs.  Empty.  So they were true to their word and called “it” off for the night, whatever that was.  His mind raced with crazy thoughts fueled by movies, with him gritting his teeth as he started his car in case it was wired to explode.  Driving home was an exercise in paranoia but no one was following him home, his wheels didn’t fall off and he wasn’t surrounded at a red light by a SWAT team.

According to his car clock it was nearly midnight when he pulled up in front of the apartment building three away from his.  Things were as uneventful as they could be at this time of night on a Friday at an apartment complex near a college so he made his way through couples whispering together on benches and mixed groups drinking or smoking in front of the buildings.  No one paid him any attention, making him feel a bit foolish for imagining himself to a ninja stealthily closing in on his prey, apartment 1704.  There were no live hand grenades rigged to blow him to smithereens as he opened the door.  Just his apartment.

He entered the front hall, rounded the corner to the kitchenette and his heart stopped.  There, in his apartment, sat the dark haired guy who was looking for him at the game, eating pizza.  As the jolt of adrenaline faded from his system he realized that it was only Donald, one of his roommates.

“Nice beard, Don.”

“Thanks.  Claudia’s been asking me to grow one for weeks so I thought I’d give it a grow.”

“It doesn’t quite look like you, older, maybe.”

“That’s what Rich said.”  Rich was the other roommate.  All three worked at the pizza place near campus.  Rich and Don were both seniors and needed a new roommate about the time James decided that living in the dorms was for kids and removed their “roommate wanted” ad off the pizzeria bulletin board minutes after Rich pierced it with a thumbtack.

“There’s pizza if you want it,” an inside joke.  There was always pizza, either one not picked up by a student or “accidentally” made with the wrong ingredients.  James realized that he was famished and sat down at the table, taking a slice from the box open in front of him, a supreme with extra black olives if ever he saw one.  It was still warm.

Why was he asleep again?  Why couldn’t he wake up?

“He came out of it way too early this time.”  It was Don speaking.  James tried and failed to speak, to move his arms, open his eyes, anything.

“You can say that again.  Never even made it to his destination.  Bill’s not happy.”  That was Rich speaking though James had no idea who Bill was.

“I wish Bill would let us cut him free and start on someone else.  Something just isn’t working with this one.”

“We’re the last installation and Bill needs this operation to go forward,” said Rich.

“So we wipe him again?  Geez, I hate that part, when he screams.  How many times do they think we can wipe a guy before he’s a vegetable?  Before he never comes back?”

“You’re not losing your stomach, are you?”

“Of course not, Rich, just that the last time the neighbors called the apartment manager.”

“And he bought our story.  Problem solved.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  So how far back this time?”

“Not much.  Twelve hours should be enough for him to forget us tracking him down.  Let’s cause as little damage as possible so we can start to prep him to try again tomorrow night.  I may even double the dose tomorrow if the wipe is clean.  That should take care of him coming out to early again.  We’d better get started.”

“Tomorrow?  Bill must be in a hurry.”  A pause.  “The poor schmuck won’t even know what he’s doing in that theater until he comes to with a hot gun in his hands.”

If James could open his eyes he would have seen Rich give Don a hard look.  Showing compassion for the subject could mean that he was losing his stomach and would have to be handled.  Later.  “Make sure the door is locked and then get me the kit from my room.  It’s time to wipe.”

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 15

It's harvest time! Or rather, it should be but the extreme mild weather we've had this past August has put a huge crimp in the size of me produce, especially the failed melon patch which will forever go down in infamy.

Here's the first, silverline, I think. It should be about twice this size but it was done cooking. Note the Pet Shop figure for scale. Not much meat there, just enough for one small taste for the curious of the household... tasted like cucumber. There are two more of about this size still on the vine but that's it. Three tiny melons.

Next up is your traditional watermelon, Black Mountain something, I think. There was a second melon that I kept waiting on and when I went to get it found that it had split and bugs got in and, well, it was pretty ucky. Now this here melon should be at least five pounds, according to the seed packet, but it weighed in at two. Like the one above it tasted like it needed to ripen more. Booo!

However there are still some melons growing so I haven't given up hope. These are two of the largest with the dark green one being a freebie from the compost pile. My fingers are crosses but overall it's been pretty disheartening as most of the melons are about softball size.

Even peppers haven't done well this year. This is a Giant Marconi. Normally a single plant chugs out peppers like tomato plants pelt out their stock but this year I only got two per plant. My bell peppers (not pictured) are likewise wimping along at three or four per plant. Also most of my onions barely grew, the broccoli all went to flower (except for two or three decent-sized heads). It's enough to make a man hang up his shovel.

One good thing is the beets. I didn't plant many but surprisingly the younger kids love 'em! The also like seeing if they've eaten enough to change the color of their liquid output!

Then there's the corn. We got a measly five full heads out and the corn itself was chewy, like frozen corn. Oh well, the seeds cost me a quarter but next year I think I'll leave corn growing to the professionals. Go through all the trouble of hand pollinating a small stand or buy ten ears for $3 from some farmer with a stand in his front yard? No contest!

What else? Oh, the sunflowers FINALLY have flowers on them! I've been seeing sunflowers in yards on my drive to work for weeks and wondered why mine were so shy. Good times...

Because hope springs eternal (and next spring, after a long Indiana winter, I'll probably have forgotten all my grief and be anxious to get outside and plunge my hands into some dirt) I put in a large-ish fall crop of sugar snap peas. Yum!

Close your eye's if you're squeamish but here are some country-type things. Yes, a giant yellow and black spider (the body is about 1.5 inches) and two grasshoppers who decided to get kinky and do it on our rocking chair. Somehow I don't have a picture of the two-inch long water beetle that showed up in a five gallon bucket full of rain water, though my fearless daughter didn't mind picking it up with her hands. Also not pictures are many spiders with big, fat, squishy looking bodies (which my daughter did NOT pick up), thankfully all living outside.

So what's the total look like? We last left it at $445.
1 zucc - $1
1 cucumber - $1
Pepper - $1
Melons - $1
Beets - $2
Pictured above - $3
Lots of tomatos - $7
Carrots - $1
Mini-Cabbage - $2
Corn - $1
Which brings the total cost down to $425.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Music Review - Fernando Ortega - Home

Well, it turns out that this album DID collect quite a bit of dust in my house. I'll have to give it another listen to see if I was just being nice in the review or if I've been missing out.

If I had known Fernando Ortega was coming to town a few weeks back, I probably would have listened to, and reviewed, this album to coincide with the concert. To be honest, this album has sat on my shelf for quite some time. I bought the album partly because a good friend whose musical tastes I admire counts Ortega among his favorites (along with such riff-raff as David Wilcox and John Gorka) and partly because another friend played bass on half the tracks. Originally I listened to only the tracks my friend played on with a "Yep, that sounds like Tim" mantra and promptly shelved the CD. Truth be told, the songs were pretty mellow and as of late (the last twenty or so years) I've have this strong urge to, well, rock. But seeing the recent press, I took the CD to work and gave it a few listens. And a few more. And now I see why my friends rave about this artist.

Musically the album is on the mellow side but there a number of upbeat tracks. While the music is gentle, it is definitely not bland. This musical craftsman knows how to turn a musical phrase and weaves many catching melodies into his tapestry. Mix in some folk, some easy listening, a touch of Nashville, a bit of contemporary jazz, and you might be getting close to his sound. Lyrically there is immense sensitivity, charm, and insight. After being on the road for so many years, Ortega and his wife purchased a house and many of these songs were birthed on the road, born out of the desire to be home with his wife and children. "Lonely Road" is a perfect example of this classic homesick-on-the-road song with the lyrics "There's a chill tonight/The late year lies down/While the crickets call outside my hotel room/ By a firelight / She is waiting for me." Of course, my favorites are the more energetic songs. "This New Day" opens the albumcelebrating a new day amidst a rollicking tempo while "Virginia Rose" is a song written for his daughter complete with a trademark roving Tim Chandler bass line that I imagine captures the unending energy of this little girl. Through it all Ortega's voice brings these stories to the listener in a clear and soothing tone. While I would definitely recommend this album to fans of James Taylor or David Wilcox, I can see how these gentle, and gently rocking, songs could appeal to just about anyone who appreciates a good song. I'm not exactly a Korn-head or a frequent attendee of raves, but I prefer my music challenging and if at all possible, heavy. And yet this album draws at me with each listen in a way I haven't felt in years. You can count on this CD not gathering any more dust in my house for quite some time.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2001.

Music Review - P.O.D. - Satellite

This album didn't convert me to a P.O.D. fan.

Long a mainstay in the underground ghetto of Christian rap-core, P.O.D. (which stands for Payable On Death) made some sizable waves with 1999's The Fundamental Elements of Southtown, waves that look mighty puny compared to the tsunami of Satellite, their latest release. Their first single, the anthemic, energetic "Alive", has more than paid off their collective mortgages. For those unfamiliar with P.O.D., this song is a good example of the groove-laced, hard rock-based songs on Satellite. Those who've followed the heavy, infectious rhythms of this band will find them departing somewhat from past albums, incorporating more melodies and actual singing (as opposed to rapping and/or screaming). The more gray hairs congregate on my scalp, the more I'm thinking this is a good thing.

Of the fifteen tracks on this lengthy release, a number of them seem primed for the radio while still retaining enough musical meat to keep the term "sell-out" at arms length. "Thinking About Forever" opens with a dizzying guitar melody and rapped lyrics before the heavily harmonied chorus and tantalizing melody steal the show. With "Set It Off" longtime fans will find the expected heavy guitar rhythms, shrieking vocals mixed with rap, and enough angst for even the most jaded whippersnapper. While "Youth Of The Nation" is the be their next single, I personally find the inclusion of a children's choir a bit corny and find myself unable to keep myself from thinking of Alice Cooper's self-deprecating "Department of Youth." A couple of the tracks, such as "Ridiculous" incorporate reggae into the mix, which actually works better than one might expect. Aside from the aforementioned choir and strings on "Anything Right", the production is more stripped down and crisp than on past albums. Just guitar, drums, bass, and vocals, all played by hands tempered by years of experience. There is enough variety in styles and sounds to keep your attention, assuming you don't mind many of your styles being overtly heavy.

Lyrically P.O.D. is not as "in-your-face" as many Christian metal bands. You won't find any Styperish cheese here, just positive lyrics that allow the listener to interpret them with a spiritual bent or to take them at face value… a pinch or two more "explicit" than Creed but nothing even remotely heavy handed. While the music is the kind of hyper-aggressive, rap-inflected rock that many under the age of majority are currently embracing, the encouraging, intelligent, proactive lyrics are a nice change from the "I hate everyone because you all suck" lyrics so prevalent in much of today's music.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2002.

Musici Review - Vivaldi - The Meeting

Yet another album I need to dust off. I recall this one as being pretty whacked, especially for Vivaldi.

Baroque music with drum solos. Who can ask for anything more? To most, Baroque music (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi), is somewhat stuffy, unemotional music that chugs steadily along until it (gratefully) ends. Lorenzo Arruga, originator of this project, knows that when this early music was written, much of it was improvised and dynamic, concepts that were not easily conveyed in the limited musical notation that was then in its infancy. Inspired by a story which involved Vivaldi, some friends, an enthusiastic neophyte percussionist, and musical improvisation, Arruga enlisted ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo to join a small group of friends to capture the improvisational spirit of the original baroque performances. For this adventure, Arruga chose passages from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and the operas "Ottone in Villa" and "Orlando Furioso", exploring the improvisational possibilities in these pieces with a great sense of imagination, while remaining true to the intent of Vivaldi. The result is a fresh way to look at the music of this genre. Though one might expect the drumming to stick out like a penguin at Headwaters Park, Lombardo's playing is always appropriate, ranging from tastefully restrained to full out drum soloing. "La tempesta D'estate" is a joyous romp between oboe and flute with a steady, excited flurry of even-tempo drum beats in the background. Later, organs, harpsichords, and vocals are thrown into the mix, adding to the aural experience. At times, the music is almost jazz-like in it's free style, openly capturing the carefree mood of the participants and the music they are playing while elsewhere the music is true to the original notation, more subdued but with unexpected flourishes. While this disc could easily have become a mere novelty recording, the enthusiasm, creativity, and professionalism of all involved have produced instead a work of great beauty and strength, one that is sure to spend many hours in my own CD player.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 1999.

Music Review - Lorin Maazel - Works for Violin, Flute, & Violoncello

This is some good stuff, Maynerd!

All "classical" music was composed by guys who have been dead for over a hundred years, right? Wrong-o, Jimbo! The three pieces of Works for Violin, Flute, & Violoncello were all written in the last five years. They must be that awful a-tonal stuff that sounds like a traffic accident, right? Wrong again, Phenergan! While this music isn't exactly for frail old ladies, it is a far cry from the harsh sounds one normally associates with "new" classical music. Composed by internationally revered conducted Lorin Maazel, the three pieces on this disc are all one movement program pieces written in sections, complete with liner notes by the composer that help illuminate the meaning of the music without forcing the listener into one strict interpretation.

The first piece is "Music for Violoncello [cello] and Orchestra". Dark, foreboding, and absolutely nightmarish, this piece owes a lot to Bartok and his "night music", with the frightening sounds of some great, unseen evil lurking just outside the reach of the camp fire. The listener is taken on a Geigeresque joy-ride through "the vulgarities, horrors, and capriciousness of 'real life'" that is both scathing and exhilarating. "Music for Flute and Orchestra" (with the flute played by James Galway) is a little more joyous with a tranquil, flowing, and beautifully mysterious solo flute song that hold the entire piece together (that is, before it is brought crashing to the ground in heart-wrenching reality by the orchestra). "Music for Violin and Orchestra" finds Maazel showcasing his own talents on the violin as this small, passionate violin tries unsuccessfully to bring down the massive orchestral monster, only to end up bruised and changed by the battle.

Thematically, you won't find a lot of optimism on these pieces as Maazel seems to write exclusively on the futility of life. For all it's darkness, though, his experience as a master conductor shines through in the expansive tone colors. Unorthodox instruments such as the harpsichord, tuned bongos, Indian rain tube, and accordion all add their unique sounds to these unorthodox pieces. While you won't find catchy melodies, you will find real angst, sorrow and pathos in these nightmare visions, and perhaps you'll find a favorite composer.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, March 1999.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Music Review - Synergy - Cords

There's nothing like finding that you reviewed an album twice. This one is from 1998 for pay and the second is from 2013 for my own site so I guess I'm excused.

Originally released in 1979 on clear vinyl, Cords by Synergy gained a cult following among the rare few who knew of its existence. Created by electronica pioneer Larry Fast, keyboard player extraordinaire for Peter Gabriel, the Synergy project encompassed a series of all-synthesizer recordings in the late 70s and early 80s. The last recording was in 1987 and since that time, recordings from this series have become increasingly difficult to find. That is, until March of this year when Polygram reissued the entire set on compact disc, a medium, arguably, for which this all-digital music was destined.

"But hold on," you may be tempted to think to yourself. "Why would I want to listen to computer bleeps from the seventies?" Were these the standard fare of this album, you would be justified. However, twenty years after their creation, the Synergy recordings still sound suprisingly fresh and original. Far from being novelty music full of electronic bleeps and burps, Fast has composed classically based compositions embedded with elements from jazz and rock. The synthesizers do not attempt to mimic the sounds of a conventional orchestra but they do work together to create a unique yet full, orchestral sound.

Cords is composed of ten movements that are related by musical ideas, or cords, that run throughout the recording. Opening with "On Presuming To Be Modern I", Fast creates a thematic center for the rest of the work. Sounding like a 21st century string section, the movement is both expansive and heroic. The following piece "Phobos and Deimos Go To Mars" is a baroque-like, percussive, angular piece. "A Small Collection of Chords" is an intimate chamber piece. Simple and pretty, the bell and woodwind timbres create a delicate mood. "Full Moon Flyer" is an adventure in contrasts, one moment sounding like a gentle drifting through the night sky, the next an eerie, percussive dance. "Trellis" is an energetic, intricate weaving of melodies that play off each other in harpsichord-like tones. Of this album, my favorite piece is "Disruption in World Communications", a bit of program music that I have long wanted to arrange for marching band. Starting with a sweet, dainty melody on bells and flute, everything is fine and orderly until you hear a short, ugly glitch. The music ignores this intrusion, continuing merrily on its way, adding more instruments and parts to the communication system. The glitch multiplies, infecting the various parts of the "orchestra" until the whole of the "world communications" is seething in a chaotic mass of dissonance, pounding away with the theme of the original glitch. The work ends with a final "On Presuming to be Modern" which combines musical quotes from the other pieces into the original theme, bringing the piece to a satisfying close.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 1998.

Music Review - Yngwie Malmsteen - Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra

I think I'll give this one another listen RIGHT NOW!

It was Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen who made me take the plunge into the mysterious waters of "classical music" by recommending that all aspiring guitarists study Nicolo Paganini's piece 24 Caprices for Solo Violin. Although I was not a guitarist, I enjoyed Malmsteen's music and wanted to hear what might have influenced him. So it was off to the local Wooden Nickel for a shiny black platter (CDs were still a year or two away) that would lead to my immersion in the classical realm.

It is only fitting that Yngwie would eventually release a classical album of his own. This is not a collection of classical music covers such as the excellent CD by Accept-guitarist Wolf Hoffmann, but original compositions for a real orchestra with solo guitar. Overall, he succeeds. The opening track is based on one of my favorite Malmsteen compositions, "Icarus Dream Suite" from his first album. Here the main melodies are taken and transformed to the symphony, themes that were quite symphonic when played by a rock band over a decade ago and are right at home with a full orchestra. "Prelude to April" is another fine piece with lots of arpeggiated chords and chromatic runs against a soft string and choral background. In fact, this piece would be an easy fit on one of his rock records just by replacing the simple orchestra part with keyboards. The listener will find some nice horns melodies (most of the album is comprised of just the string section and guitar) in the tenth track which is very dramatic and compelling and although part of the concerto, it is a self-contained piece.

While the music in general is surprisingly good, there are a few shortcomings. By definition, a concerto is a solo instrument interacting with the orchestra. While there is some of that here, the majority of the music feels like Yngwie soloing over an orchestral background, not interacting with it. His trademark clean, lean Strat sound is a bit thin when trying to play against a full orchestra... it tends to get lost at times. But these are minor complaints for a project such as this. Yngwie is a big fan of Bach and Vivaldi and so the music is very influenced by the Baroque era. If you are a fan of Malmsteen's guitar playing, his instrumental pieces on his solo albums, or even a fan of Bach, this unique album deserves a place in your collection.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2001.

Music Review - This Train - The Emperor's New Band

I have absolutely no memory of any songs on this album and it isn't in my collection. Sure seemed like I liked it, though.

Started as a diversion from their "real" bands, This Train soon surpassed the popularity of their respective bands with its rockabilly-based sound and humorous lyrics. The previous release, Mimes of the Old West, was hailed by critics as an instant classic, bringing many new fans into the fold. The Emperor's New Band attempts to build on this growing public awareness with mixed results.

While difficult to categorize due to the many styles includes on the CD, rockabilly is perhaps the base of most of the songs. "I Wanna Be Your Man" opens the album with a feel of a very early Beatles song mixed with Chuck Berry. "We'll Leave the Light On" draws on a big band sound with heaps of horns, although I can't listen to it without thinking of Motel 6. The title track breaks with the jazz-based sound, going instead to light rock with a tinge of country and "She's A Rocket" is a wonderful mix of full-out rock with big band horns! Most of the songs are very well written and withstand many repeat listens, being based on solid writing and not using rockabilly as a gimmick.

Lyrically, the range is from painful honesty to cynical sarcasm, often within the same line. Kudos (did I just say "kudos"?) for giving me a belly laugh with an unexpected Kiss reference in the song "Monstertruck 2000" through the line "Beth, I know you're lonely". Unexpected is probably what you should expect when it comes to the lyrics. The title track is about the thrill of playing music "before it … paid all yours bills" with references to VH-1, open mic nights, Betty Ford, and ex-wives who "need some closure." "Jazz", essentially a diatribe about the definition of real jazz, is definitely the strangest track and possibly the worst. "The Magic Bean" is an ode to coffee and "a protest song against decaf." Going beyond the hooky pop phrases, This Train has created a good, diverse follow-up to Mimes that is full of fun and definitely hits more than it misses.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2000.

Music Review - Coyle & Sharpe - Audio Visionaries

Not exactly a "music" review but an early guerrilla comedy album.

When Tom Green was just an unfertilized egg in his mother's ovary, Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe roamed the streets of San Francisco working their special brand of guerilla improvisational comedy. "Disguised" in business suits with a tape recorded hidden in a briefcase, these two would assault strangers with unusual requests and suggestions, capturing their reactions. Some of the best of these recordings are forever captured in the digital pits of Audio Visionaries, recordings that were originally rejected by the record company that signed Lenny Bruce as being "too sick."

Each of the hysterical vignettes on the CD starts with the duo posing an almost plausible question and then slowly leading the victim down the path to absurdity. For instance, on one track they offer someone an interesting job where they work in a pit. The person is interested and as the discussion continues, flames, bats, maniacs and almost certain death are added to the mix as the interviewee continues to consider the job offer. Another track finds Coyle and Sharpe drafting a third person into a new religion called "Three-ism" where three individuals join together and make decisions as one. They follow this man onto a bus, determining where and what they will have for dinner that evening, overriding any objections this man may have with a two-to-one vote. Elsewhere, they try to persuade people to implant a microphone in their brain in order to hear their thoughts before they think them, to trade a valuable word ("you can use it all day") for a cake, and attempt to persuade a woman to grow feathers as a fashion statement. Amazingly, most of the participants are taken in by the honest-sounding Sharpe and the dead-pan master Coyle. While most of the recordings on this CD are from 1963, they are not dated. In fact, many of the absurdities suggested to the unknowing victim have basis in the reality of 2000. If you enjoy The Daily Show correspondent segments, The Upright Citizens Bridge, Monty Python, or Tom Green, you must hear the insanity on this little silver platter.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2000.

Music Review - Super Furry Animals - Guerrilla

Their first album was sung entirely in their native Welsh tongue (a sample: "Gwir a chelwydd sydd mewn plisgyn") and it's only gotten better from then. Guerrilla, the third album from British post-alternative band Super Furry Animals finds an album with a manifesto, sucking in and regurgitating musical genres with an alarming alacrity. Punk, power-pop, techno, dance house, calypso, folk, and progressive rock are all thrown into the pot, simmering into a tasty stew, a new psychedelia for the new millennium. The song that first drew me to this band is "Do or Die", a literal two minute explosion of guitar punk/pop energy. I soon found other songs creeping into my consciousness, such as "Northern Lites" with it's steel drums, Caribbean brass, and salsa rhythm. "Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy", with its "Penny Lane" beat and celestial lyrics is a direct descendant of Klaatu. The chaotic party feel of Pere Ubu infiltrates "Night Vision" which segues into the techno/dance house "Wherever I Lay My Phone (That's My Home)", an ode to cellular technology. "A Specific Ocean" gives the listener a breather from this excited atmosphere with its ambient, beautiful, slow groove. Sonically, this album intentionally destroys the concept of "genre", gleefully crushing it under its furry foot. Quiet waves of synthesized sound are replaced with punk fuzz guitar and heavy drums which in turn are overcome with thick choruses replete with what can only be described as super furry animal voices (think Muppets on steroids). The music is imaginative, wigged out, abstract yet melodic, and totally fresh.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 1999.

Music Review - Super Furry Animals - Rings Around The World

Wild, wacky stuff, those Super Furry Animals. However their videos and anti-Christian lyrics stopped my purchases after two albums.

I was recently reading an interview with legendary producer Bob Ezrin (KISS Destroyer, Pink Floyd The Wall, the upcoming Jane's Addiction) where he lamented the current music industry trend where people are afraid of failure and thus stick to the proven, albeit tired, formats. One band that's not afraid to leap recklessly into the unproven void is Super Furry Animals, hereafter referred to either as Ted or SFA.

Fabricating a whirling kaleidoscopic blend of punk, prog, pop, electronica, folk, country, and rock, SFA have created a true headphone album full of shimmering textures and schizophrenic sounds. At times dreamy, experimental, driven, and bizarre, they remain grounded in some of their strongest melodies to date on their fifth release Rings Around The World, the first album ever to be released simultaneously on DVD with each song having its own animated video.

"Alternate Route To Vulcan Street" is a perfect opener and introduction to this band with crisp solo piano that melts into a wash wavering guitars and dreamlike vocoder vocals, all complimented by a lush string section and creaky noises in a cross between mellow XTC and Radiohead. Rich vocal harmonies similar to Crosby, Stills and Nash along with acoustic guitar begin "No Sympathy" with the haunting line "You deserve to die." While the song begins in folk, it ends in full-out polyrhythmic techno hysteria and the seamless transition between these two extremes simply must be heard to be believed. The hypocritical answer to "No Sympathy" immediately follows with "Juxtaposed With U" which revels in its sugary Love Boat strings and pop melody lyrics of "You've got to tolerate all those people that you hate."

In a more rock vein is "Sidewalk Serfer Girl" where ingeniously tuned rattling sounds give way to heavy guitar riffs, sonic squeals and an explosively catchy chorus. Retro handclaps pervade "Receptacle for the Respectable" which encapsulates nearly every side of SFA in under five minutes. Fun loving, catchy, jangly pop becomes melancholy country which ramps up to heavy techno with the title gruffly shouted above a din of guitars and keyboard noise. Another standout track is "[A] Touch Sensitive" which is a hypnotic instrumental of squishy synth tones and symphonic string figures that banter with orgasmic instrumental groans.

In Rings SFA manages to wrap sad, beautiful, crazy, chugging, experimental, luxurious soundscapes around psychedelic Beach Boys pop with teasingly warped imagery and wit. For those bored with the sameness of radio, Rings Around the World is the perfect antidote.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Music Review - Dave Thomas and foreigners - Bay City

For some reason, the music of Dave Thomas stands out in my memory in a curious yet endearing way. Around 2002 or so I would review almost every album sent to me by this New York firm (who has now gone completely modern jazz) and this was one of them. There is a haunting, nostalgic quality about this music that everyone should experience at least once. The album opens with a sharp, popping snare and bass drum, reminding me of the song "She Drives Me Crazy". But not for long. Instead of echo-laden piercing vocals of Fine Young Cannibals, the listener is lulled into a trance-like state by the singers subdued voice. David Thomas, of Pere Ubu fame, has created another intriguing collection, painting a cohesive picture in music and poetry, an entire lifetime captured on a single compact disc. The subject is Bay City, a fictional American city which is both affluent and morally debased. Against a backdrop of percussion (played by P.O. Jorgens), clarinet, vibraharp, and acoustic guitars, Thomas sings stories of regret and loss, his full, mellow voice perfectly evoking the feel of a hot Mississippi night by the river, the smell of mud and the lure of forbidden pleasures thick in the air. As with his last piece, Mirror Man, this album needs to be eaten whole. There is a cohesiveness to the CD, with each song setting the mood for the next, with loneliness being piled atop isolation. Opening with "Clouds of You", the main character sings of the history and spirit of Bay City with such haunting lines as " I hear the bones buried in the hills / I hear my brothers, my brothers still." Clarinets abound in "White Room" and Thomas's voice mirrors their sound, breaking in yearning as he sings to be free of the pull of Bay City. The music behind "Nobody Lives On The Moon" is a mixture of jangling swamp rock and African tribal drums... very unusual. "Salt" mixes in a health dose of sultry, steamy jazz while another track, "Shaky Hands", is almost experimental in nature with creative sound loops augmenting the instruments, but still keeping with the overall dark and musty feel of the album. Play this album and you'll be instantly transported to a dingy, muddy city on the outskirts of New Orleans, caught in time as the haunted lives of those both familiar and alien are unrolled before you.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2000.

Music Review - Splender - To Whom It May Concern

This band is the bomb-diggity! Only two albums but it's full-on power pop with an emphasis on power and melody. I still listen to this album 10+ years later. For about two years I regularly checked the web site of a new band the bassist started, a site that promised a new album soon but which never materialized. I would highly recommend this album to Adam Sherwood.

Fans of guitar-driven pop rock are dancing in the streets with the release of To Whom It May Concern by Splender, the follow-up album to their 1999 debut Halfway Down the Sky. While the world has changed quite a bit in the last two years, Splender has not, returning with essentially the exact same sound as before, which is good if you like consistency or their first album, not so good if you expect a band to grow and progress. Personally, I'm ambivalent and a ding-dang proud of it!

Splender's niche is well-executed modern guitar rock with dark, cynical lyrics delivered by a powerful vocalist. As before, the melodies are plentiful and often accompanied by aggressive guitar hooks and luscious vocal harmonies. Simply put, it's an angry boy band with guitars and talent.

While no one song on this album hits as satisfyingly as "I Don't Understand" or "Yeah, Whatever" from their debut, the songs are all well written and effective. "Happier This Way" opens the album with a muscular guitar riff that segues into an upbeat chorus of denial. The radio single, "Save It For Later", while not even close to being the best track has a singable chorus, a bit of U2 feel and was most certainly picked by the most focus groups for radio-friendliness. The bridge of this song, with the lyrics "And the best part of my life / Is the worst part of your day" reveal just one example of the bright music combined with dark lyrics that gives this band their appeal. Most of the songs follow this format of darker verse combined with bright, harmony-laden chorus but two stand out. "Maybe Someday" builds and relaxes with stacks of overdriven guitars and creamy vocal harmonies, constantly dangling your feet over the edge, laughing at your fear. "No Big Deal" stands out because it's just plain different from the rest of their recorded work. Unabashedly reveling in its anger, the vocalist barks in a near rap-metal style with big, buzzing guitars vehemently searching for vengeance. Somehow through all this, catchy melodies surgically implant themselves in your ear. Such is the skill of this band.

For all its charms, To Whom It May Concern falls a bit short of the high mark set by its predecessor. There just doesn't seem to be as much breadth and the ten songs only add up to thirty-six minutes. Even at that, the production is so compressed and pushed that my ears tired of the constant assault halfway through. Don't get me wrong… the album is good, possibly very good, and my cochlea definitely likes. However, with a little growth this band can easily reach greatness and because they don't reach that here, one is left curiously disappointed.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2002.

Music Review - John Lennon - Double Fantasy

A grand album I first owned on cassette tape. I understand it a whole lot more as an adult than I did as a twelve-or-so year old kid. Originally released in 1980 after a five-year absence, Double Fantasy was presented as a "dialogue between men and women, and their fantasies" with the tracks alternating between Lennon and Ono penned songs. Released just a month before his tragic death, Double Fantasy was Lennon's final album. Now digitally remastered and with three bonus tracks, this odd mix of Lennon classics and Ono experimentalism is again available for public consumption. The original artwork has been retained and enhanced with additional photographs from the era. While this album contains three classic Lennon songs ("Starting Over", "Watching the Wheels" and "Woman"), the strength of his writing only contrasts more strongly with Ono's, ahem, songs. Back in 1980, I had to either listen through the Ono tracks or try to fast forward through them just enough to get to the next Lennon song. Thanks to the miracle of these new-fangled compact disc players, you can program just the Lennon songs, resulting in a much shorter, but in my opinion a much more enjoyable, album.

In addition to the well-known Lennon trio of classics, there's also "Cleanup Time", a great bath time song for kids that begins with Lennon mumbling about bubbles before the jazzy horns and fairy tale lyrics kick in, and "Beautiful Boy", a song used to contrivance in Mr. Holland's Opus. On the Ono side there's her orgasmic groans on "Kiss Kiss Kiss", a barely post-disco "Give Me Something", and her strongest track, the palatable vaudevillian "I'm Your Angel." I had forgotten the two-song cycle of "I'm Losing You" and "I'm Moving On" which uses the same instrumentation and similar musical ideas to effectively contrast the two sides of a deteriorating relationship… fun for the whole family!

The first bonus track is a roughly recorded Lennon demo of piano and vocals, framed by humorous Lennon chatter. "Walking on Thin Ice" is the Ono track that was completed on December 8, 1980 just hours before Lennon was assassinated. There are quite a few interesting timbres but again, the classic Ono monkey-wails detract more than they add. The final bonus "track" is a mere seventeen seconds of dialogue between Lennon and Ono. Despite the fact that I find nearly half the tracks unlistenable except with a morbid curiosity, Double Fantasy stands as a classic album with many songs worthy of your time.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2002.

Music Review - Dog Fashion Disco - Anarchists of Good Taste

I remember really liking the music on this one and wanting to search out later albums but the subject matter and constant cussing has kept me away.

And now for something completely different. This debut by Dog Fashion Disco is quite a trip. Think Korn meets Mr. Bungle in a blender operated by Zappa with more mood swings than any politically correct analogy can capture. For instance, "9 to 5 At The Morgue" goes through four different intense changes before the song is thirty seconds long. In the middle of the song a flute part lulls you into a false sense of serenity before plunging down a 90-degree incline on a roller coaster run by evil clowns in S&M gear. With song titles such as "Leper Friend", "Cartoon Autopsy", and "Pour Some Urine On Me" the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek (although the tongue is pierced and so is the cheek) albeit rough and crude and only sometimes humorous. A brief sample: "Don't fall asleep or we'll mutilate your genitals" followed by demented muchkin singing. "Vertigo Motel" is quite appealing, beginning with a soft piano which changes to a bit of Super Furry Animals that turns into samba for about six seconds then some heavy angst and later a John Zorn-inspired sax and piano duet. Elsewhere, keyboards are used to enhance the wicked-carnival feel with lines seemingly borrowed from members of the Adams Family. This aberration of an album also helped me answer the burning question of how many times I can stand to hear someone shouting "Shut the f**k up you maggot" (Answer: A lot less than is supplied in "Corpse is a Corpse"). Musically I'm all over this album. Each song is a carefully choreographed obstreperous donnybrook with enough energy and musical changes to keep even the most Ritlin-deprived youngster interested. There's funk, jazz, metal, classical, rock, classical rock, ska and much that defies description. Lyrically, well, maybe I'm getting older. I was a hard-core Alice Cooper fan so humorous gore in lyrics is nothing new to me... I just don't like having the camera plunged into wound again and again with such reckless glee. Those with strong stomachs and extremely adventurous tastes (or the curious rubbernecker who slows down to look at bloody accidents) would do well to investigate the hardcore nu-metal circus of Anarchists of Good Taste. If you're not a fan of autopsy specials, you might want to see what The Black Crowes have been up to lately.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2001.