Bring Your Friends: Nevermind (And The Alt Rock Revolution) Turns 25

1035x689-20140407-nirvana-06-x1800-1396902825
Standard

There was this time, nearly twenty-five years ago, when the musical landscape of popular culture looked a lot different than it does now.  Rock radio was host to some bands that would still be familiar even today – Metallica was #1 on the charts around the time we’re talking about, after all – but there are many more who are little more than footnotes in rock history.  We’re talking about Poison, BulletBoys, Warrant, White Lion, Whitesnake, and the like – bands that were once the stuff of delinquents smoking in the boys room and massive profits for AquaNet hairspray.  They’re gone now, relegated to VH1 historical pieces and the playlists of Millenials nostalgic for a time they never lived through.  They hung around for a bit as the Nineties grew up, but for all intents and purposes they were dead September 24th, 1991:  the day DGC Records released Nevermind, the second LP from an up-and-coming Seattle punk rock band called Nirvana.

1991-12-07backstage01

It’s easy to underestimate the effect that Nirvana had at the time from our comfortable seat 15 years into the 21st Century.  After all, the entire rock radio world was remade in their image (OK, along with Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains).  Grunge has given way long ago to “post-grunge”, where hacks like Nickelback and Seether continue to lumber along in pretense that they’re still relevant.  That they are, and that they still sell scads of records, is the blessing and the curse of the sound that Kurt Cobain brought in the fall of 1991.

3114_54_pages_05_1283_588x448

One story I remember reading in the Letters To The Editor section of Guitar World magazine was something along these lines:  “The first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio I fell out of my chair and screamed ‘YES! I don’t have to listen to Ratt and Warrant anymore!’.”  It might sound silly, but the effect was the same:  “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the first single off of the soon-to-be-legendary album, represented a radical change in what mainstream FM rock radio was willing to play.  To be fair, there were songs that had been sneaking onto the radio for a few years – a “Man In The Box” here, a “Here Comes Your Man” there – but these were more novelties than anything else.  R.E.M. had just barely emerged from their college rock beginnings to take a stab at the major leagues (Out Of Time was also a 1991 release) but for the rock fans who were into heavier stuff, jangly Southern rockers with a taste for the arcane weren’t going to replace Motley Crue in their regular rotation.

55b119ce1200002c0013b26f

Enter a band with an impressive pedigree in heaviness.  Kurt Cobain, fabled doomed junkie poet from Aberdeen, Washington, had spent some years living under a bridge and being a roadie for the now-legendary sludge-rockers, the Melvins.  After that, he’d lived in Seattle and started his own band, which he’d originally called Fecal Matter.  After being signed to the local Sub Pop label became a real possibility, the name got changed to Nirvana.  Nirvana’s first stuff was the kind of music that Sub Pop was putting out at the time – sludgy stuff with an indebtedness to hard rock in the Seventies (namely Black Sabbath).  That album, Bleach, was never going to conquer the world (although there were a number of future classics contained on it) and afterwards Cobain decided to ignore label dictates and write music that was more in line with the stuff that he liked.  What he liked was a mix between firebrand hardcore punk and the Beatles, and the focus then became abrasive songs with earworm melodies that would stand the test of time – in other words, Nevermind.

nirvana_1991_by_sasukethehotty-d649o5v

The full sound of Nevermind, however, depended partially on another band member who wasn’t present for Bleach.  Cobain and his childhood best friend Krist Novoselic covered the guitar and bass guitar, but the position of drummer was always up in the air.  Chad Channing was the drummer on Bleach, but he took off in 1990 and Cobain and Novoselic were left to find someone else to hit the skins.  As luck would have it, Seattle hardcore band Scream broke up without warning and their drummer, Dave Grohl, was quickly snapped up by Nirvana.  Grohl, one of the greatest drummers of his generation, added a serious weight to the band’s sound that had been missing on Bleach.  Try to imagine any of the songs on Nevermind without Grohl’s artillery-fire snares – you can’t do it.  They wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.

nirvana-1991

So with the drum seat filled (and how) the band developed new music and started looking around for a new label.  Sub Pop was floundering (hilarious, given they’ve gone on to give the world The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Pissed Jeans, METZ, and Father John Misty) and there was some honest major label buzz starting to build under the band on the strength of their 1990 Blew EP.  Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth recommended DGC Records, a cutting-edge imprint of Geffen Records, and so it was that David Geffen would be ultimately responsible for getting the Alternative Revolution underway.

nirvana-west-london

No one was really prepared for how successful “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, Cobain least of all.  He would later state that he wrote it specifically in the style of one of his favourite bands, alt-weirdos The Pixies.  The song’s dynamic – quiet verses followed by crushingly loud choruses – would be the template for alt-rock songwriting forever onward.  The iconic video would help propel some of that popularity (it’s final edits would be done by Cobain himself) and it would shoot up to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The title was, like a large amount of the lyrics on Nevermind, influenced by Cobain’s ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill); Kathleen Hanna (also Bikini Kill) was a little drunk at Cobain’s place one night and wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall.  Cobain took it as a compliment, that he had the sort of restless spirit and voice of youth to fuel his melodic punk rock passions.  Hanna meant that he smelled like Tobi Vail’s deodorant, Teen Spirit.  Kurt, as it turns out, was right.

punksinger1

In the wake of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the massive album sales for Nevermind that accompanied it (#1 in the US, famously knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the charts) the other songs on Nevermind have become cultural touchstones.  “In Bloom”, a song about bandwagoners showing up to Nirvana shows after the release of Bleach, would have an iconic video of it’s own (featuring the band at one point playing in drag); “Come As You Are” outright stole the main riff from “Eighties” by Killing Joke and would feature an eerily prescient line in “I swear that I don’t have a gun.”  “Breed” was a thrasher that, from a high school band standpoint, was a blast to play live.

In fact, story time.  Back in the day I was in a band called Echo Blue and our singer was a guy with the fun and interesting name of Geoff Rae.  Geoff’s voice was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain’s so we ended up playing a lot of Nirvana covers (before he found Jesus and left us, anyway).  At a dead-end gig in Hensall, Ontario, we decided to play “Breed”; the audience in the crowd was about six people, including my girlfriend at the time and her friend.  They started mosh-dancing really close to each other – and some of the career drunks in the audience thought that they would obviously go for some close dancing with them, too.  Before anything untoward happened, however, two of them decided to get into a fistfight with each other over the girls, and all hell broke loose.  Good times.

Fun fact: that girlfriend of mine hated Nirvana, because one of her friends killed themselves in the apparent wave of copycat suicides that followed Cobain’s in 1994.

Anyway, “Breed”, like “Lithium”, “Lounge Act”, and “Drain You”, are about Tobi Vail, which is something people often forget when discussing Cobain’s lyrics on Nevermind.  The beauty of Cobain’s obscure lyricism was that the disaffected millions of youth that listened to his songs, then and now, and read their own hopes, fears, and discomforting experiences into them.  “Lithium”, for example, was a charm for me against the terror of starting high school in 1996.  Some songs were less oblique, of course; “Polly” was a ripped-from-the-headlines account of torture and rape, and “Something In The Way” detailed his time living homeless and under a bridge.  “Territorial Pissings”, the most straight-ahead punk rock of anything on Nevermind, features Krist Novoselic warbling a line from The Youngblood’s hopeful Sixties hit “Get Together”.  It also contains one of the key factors that separated Kurt Cobain from the rock stars that came before him.  The rock ‘n’ roll template from Led Zeppelin onward favoured hyper-masculine, oversexed men who strode the earth using drugs and women with equal abandon.  One of the few exceptions to this archetype was of course David Bowie; it was no surprise when Cobain whipped out “The Man Who Sold The World” on the band’s Unplugged In New York album.  The second verse of “Territorial Pissings” is “Never met a wise man / If so it’s a woman.”  Kurt Cobain embraced feminism (how could he not, with his close ties to the Olympia riot grrrl scene) and he just as importantly embraced homosexuality as something natural and normal.  In 2016, amidst a major push forward for LGBT rights, it’s perhaps hard to remember just how hyper-masculine and toxic rock ‘n’ roll was between the 1960s and 1991.  Kurt was a pioneer for LGBT acceptance in rock music not because he was gay himself but because he was open and accepting; queer punk pioneers Pansy Division would thank him directly for being the most pro-gay major rock star ever to walk the earth.  When he sang the line “Everyone is gay” on 1993’s “All Apologies”, it was a big deal for rock music.  The Sunset Strip hard rock archetype was about banging women, period; gay slurs were still acceptable to use as insults in mainstream society.  Gay acceptance was still a long way off.  While the factors that lead to LGBT issues becoming the new Civil Rights movement are numerous enough to write several volumes on, I like to think that Cobain’s influence on the opinions of Gen’s X, Y, and the Millenials is one of those factors.

ce9b7f5718744901b5cee7f7ab83b6b6

 

Then there’s the cover.  Inspired by a television show about underwater births he watched with Dave Grohl, Kurt bugged the art department of DGC Records until they got him a shot of baby swimming underwater (the dollar bill was pasted in afterward to make the statement that Cobain wanted).  The label wanted to digitally alter the photo to remove the baby penis, but Kurt stated that the only way he was going to let them do that was to put a sticker over the area that read “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.”  I still think that would be funnier, but the album cover is an icon and it’s difficult to imagine it being anything else.  Of course, I’m positive that there are any number of middle school kids who bought the album because there was a penis on it, but whatever adds to the legend I suppose.  There are also vaginas on the back cover, as part of Cobain’s collage that included raw meat, pictures from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and if you squint a little, the band Kiss.

2b4b2daacd3fe38a087c96c23410fe3a

How many times did we spin this album?  How many times did we look up how to play the songs, and formed bands because of it?  When it was altering the destiny of rock ‘n’ roll, “25 years ago” meant 1966:  RevolverPet SoundsBlonde On Blonde.  Those were “classic rock” that was a template for all the other songs we heard on classic rock radio.  Now Nirvana is classic rock, and it fits.  Everywhere I go, there’s always some kid who can’t be any more than 16 wearing a Nirvana t-shirt.  Cobain had long since been consigned to the worms by the time they were even getting around to being born, but they still seek out the symbols and play the songs.  The way music is structured, produced, packaged, and disseminated in 2016 prevents any one album from being able to achieve what amounts to a social revolution in popular culture.   Is This It was likely the last album that could claim that; the internet’s relentless push for free dissemination of information would release the floodgates on popular music very shortly after and fracture everything along genre lines, in essence creating a pop culture Balkanization.  Kurt Cobain’s feat – being the guy that changed seemingly everything – is all the more impressive for the fact that such a feat seems daunting in an era where everyone has a voice and a venue to be heard.

hqdefault

It’s also impressive how blase I’ve become about the album over the years.  The entire alternative revolution that happened after eventually came to colour my opinions on it.  Nirvana and the other first wave groups gave way to Bush, Live, Stone Temple Pilots and Dave Grohl’s own Foo Fighters, and then those gave way to Creed, Days Of The New, and Seven Mary Three.  Still worse were Nickelback, Seether, Staind, and Theory Of A Deadman.  At some point, probably around the time I was falling for Is This It and mocking Nickelback’s “Photograph” every time it came on TV, I got out of the habit of putting Nirvana on. I would go weeks, and then months, without listening to them.  Finally years; I listened to Nevermind for the first time in four years not that long ago and then I was blown away by how visceral and immediate the songs still sound.  Constant exposure has rendered the songs as the background hum of rock ‘n’ roll, but taken fresh they come through as vibrant as anything that Ty Segall or Car Seat Headrest are doing right now.  It’s a great album, one that was in the right place at the right time, to be sure, but still great for that, regardless of the nonsense that has been perpetrated in it’s name.

tumblr_ntgctvg5fo1s78xclo1_500

In the end, what is Nevermind today?  What does it all mean, twenty-five years later?  What part of the collective human unconscious lurks beneath those power chords?  What does any of this mean?  There are French volcanoes?  There was a point to this, but I lost it.  Oh well, whatever.  Nevermind.

Break The Circle And Stop The Movement: A Guide To Black Sabbath, Part 2 (1980-2016)

black-sabbath-evil-live
Standard

The Story So Far:

Using their love of heavy blues music and a newfound appreciation for the vibes and iconography of horror, four working class lads from Birmingham came out of nowhere to bring the darkness to a generation of disaffected and disenfranchised kids in the 1970s.  After five well-regarded albums bridged by an unfocused, messy record (Vol 4) they subcumbed to infighting and substance abuse.  Two more albums followed with the original lineup before the other three got sick and tired of Ozzy Osbourne’s antics and threw him out of the band.  While Ozzy holed up in a hotel room and drank an excessive amount of liquor / snorted an impressive amount of cocaine for three months, the rest of the band swirled in chaos, trying to figure out if they would ever record or be relevant ever again.

 

504

HEAVEN AND HELL

Released April 25th, 1980 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Martin Birch

Peaked at # 9 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Neon Knights” (#22 UK)

Die Young” (#41 UK)

Heaven And Hell

Children Of The Sea

The 1978 Never Say Die! tour was a hard one for Black Sabbath.  They were joined on it by a new L.A. metal band, Van Halen, and it was very clear to everyone who attended that Van Halen was blowing the old guard out of the water.  Eddie Van Halen was flashy and played like quicksilver; David Lee Roth was the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll frontman, a dynamo of sex and flamboyance.  The band played with the strength of youth, and Sabbath just couldn’t keep up.  They were exhausted and drugged-out.  Iommi’s trademark riffs seemed lumbering and sleepy by comparison.  Ozzy was incoherent and seemed like he had completely checked out.  After the tour, they decamped to L.A. to record and spent eleven months doing nothing at all.  Ozzy would skip rehearsals and writing sessions, and when he did show up he was completely out of his gourd.  Eventually enough was enough and they told him to pack his bags.

Unsure of their direction after Ozzy, the band began to splinter apart.  Geezer Butler went through a divorce and Bill Ward’s alcoholism intensified.  Their manager’s daughter, Sharon Arden, stopped by one day to introduce Iommi to a new singer who had made a name for himself with Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow:  Ronnie James Dio.

Dio was a completely different frontman from Ozzy.  His vocal range was much greater and he approached his melodies in pretty much the opposite way.  Instead of singing along with the main riff, Dio preferred to write a complementary melody to the riff that Iommi was playing.  The result is a completely new Black Sabbath, a band that sounded very little like the Black Sabbath of the Ozzy years.  What it sounded like was a fresh, new band at the spearhead of vital new movement in heavy rock music:  The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.  Suddenly, Sabbath were competing with and complementing bands that had grown up worshipping them:  Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang, Mercyful Fate, Diamond Head (whose classic “Am I Evil?” borrowed liberally from “Symptom Of The Universe”), Saxon, Witchfinder General, Girlschool, et al.  Long-time Sabbath fans were put out by the stylistic shift, but a whole new host of fans came in as a result, and so the band not only regained their relevancy but regained a place in the charts.

And why not?  “Neon Knights”, kicking off the album, barrels ahead at light speed and appropriates more than a bit of the speed and attitude of classic Judas Priest.  “Children Of The Sea”, a ballad that turns into a crunching doom rocker halfway through, was originally written with Ozzy during those go-nowhere sessions of 1979 but is made into something chilling and epic with Dio at the helm.  “Heaven And Hell” is the epitome of doom metal circa 1980 and Iommi’s solo in it proves that he had the chops to compete with the rest of the New Wave.  “Lady Evil”, “Wishing Well”, and “Die Young” are all hard, flashy rock songs that Dio cuts through like a stiletto through cloth.  “Walk Away” is the sole misstep here, in that it’s a pretty rote heavy rock song without much to recommend it either way.  “Lonely Is The Word” ends the album on a sprawling epic note with a synth-laden coda and another lengthy metal guitar solo from Iommi.

Heaven And Hell was a massive revitalization for Black Sabbath, an album that not only breathed new life into them but also brought them up to speed with the contemporary rock scene.  While life seemed to be on track at the dawn of the 1980s, they would never again capture the heights of this record.  While they would come close at times, Heaven And Hell is the last truly great Sabbath record and the only bona fide classic released by the Ronnie James Dio lineup.

mob-rules-black-sabbath

MOB RULES

Released November 4th, 1981 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Martin Birch

Peaked at #12 UK, #29 US

Singles:

The Mob Rules” (#46 UK)

Turn Up The Night” (#37 UK, #24 US Mainstream Rock)

Voodoo” (#46 US Mainstream Rock)

Despite the critical and commercial acclaim of Heaven And Hell, not everything was peachy keen in the world of Black Sabbath.  Partway through the tour behind the record, Bill Ward left the band.  This actually is a fairly mild way of putting it.  Soused 24/7 on high-tension booze, missing his former bandmate Ozzy fiercely, and reeling from the death of both of his parents, Ward packed up and called Dio at the band’s hotel to tell him “Well, Ronnie, I’m off then.”  Dio, confused, said, “Well that’s nice Bill, where are you off to?” to which Ward replied that no, he was done with the band, and was at the airport on his way home.  The band quickly replaced him with an American, Vinny Appice, who also is the drummer on Mob Rules.  Thankfully Vinny’s biggest influence was in fact Bill Ward, so the changeover was minimal, but the loss of another original member put an increasing strain on an already fractious band relationship.

That fractious relationship played out in the songwriting.  Dio took over more of the writing duties, bringing in a lyrical vibe that was much more fantasy-nerd than Butler’s old doom-and-gloom political statements.  The Dio-led recordings make it clear that the band had decided to see if lightning could strike twice and re-made a bunch of the Heaven And Hell songs.  “Turn Up The Night” opens the album up in the same fashion as “Neon Knights”, only not as good.  “Voodoo” makes for a less impressive “Lady Evil”.  “Sign Of The Southern Cross”, on the other hand, is just as good as “Children Of The Sea” was and the title track is a blazing (and, in 2016, sadly timely) warning about following populism into societal destruction.  The first side of the record is good, if not as good as the album’s predecessor.  The second side is a much more ho-hum affair.  “Country Girl” rides a mid-tempo stomp riff into nowhere; “Slipping Away” could have fit into a dozen other contemporary metal records without raising much of a fuss.  “Falling Off The Edge Of The World” is reminiscent of “Heaven And Hell”, although it lacks the latter’s epic doom rock chorus (while still keeping a great riff going throughout, to be fair).  “Over And Over” is a rewrite of “Lonely Is The Word”, complete with another lengthy Iommi guitar coda.

Mob Rules is generally well-regarded, and I’m no exception in this, but I feel as though it’s a weaker, more craven imitation of Heaven And Hell.  With the exception of “The Mob Rules” and “Sign Of The Southern Cross”, there isn’t anything on Mob Rules that wasn’t done better on its predecessor.  They’re all fine songs, but they feel oddly diminished in the end.  The record would be the last studio album recorded with Dio until 1992 and the last relevant release by the band until 1998.

FuqRj

LIVE EVIL

Released January 19th, 1983 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler

Peaked at #13 UK, #37 US

By 1983 Black Sabbath was in a precarious position.  Despite regaining their footing with Ronnie James Dio and putting out a pair of well-regarded albums, they were somehow being eclipsed by their old lead singer.  Their manager Don Arden, hoping to salvage something profitable out of the fallout of the breakup between Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne, sent his daughter Sharon to bring Ozzy out of his debauched funk and get him moving on something musical.  The result was the launch of Ozzy’s solo career.  Blizzard Of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman would be released in quick succession between 1980 and 1981, selling ridiculous amounts of money on the backs of a tight new pop-metal sound that drove the kids crazy.  The madman’s antics would also help propel album and concert sales:  infamous events like the time he bit the head off of the bat, or the time he took a leak on the Alamo would enter the canon of Crazy Rock ‘n’ Roll Tales and build his legend up beyond all reason.

Black Sabbath, meanwhile, were mixing their first live album and arguing over how loud Dio’s voice should be.  The sessions proved to be the undoing of the Dio-era lineup.  Dio was slowly dictating more and more to the rest of the band; Iommi and Butler were annoyed that they were becoming bit players in their own band.  Dio and Appice were doing rehearsals for Dio’s solo album, which neither Dio nor the label bothered to tell the other two about.  Iommi began referring to Dio as “Little Hitler”.  The final straw proved to be when a recording engineer mentioned to Iommi that Dio had been sneaking into the studio at night to push up his vocals in the mix.  A vicious argument ensued; Dio abruptly left the band and took Appice with him.  He would go on to record the classic Holy Diver album later in 1983.

Live Evil, the final product of the Dio era, is the band’s first official live album but their second live album.  The first, Live At Last, was released in 1980 by former manager/perpetual gadfly Patrick Meehan out of concert recordings that he owned the rights to.  Live Evil is obviously a much punchier, more professional affair than Live At Last, but the latter features one thing that puts it over the top:  it has Ozzy singing on the classics.  When Live Evil is on the Dio lineup material, it’s stellar.  The band is at its arguable peak and the songs come out flawlessly.  When Dio gets onto the classic material, however, it’s a different story.  For some reason, he felt the need to go over-the-top and theatrically flamboyant on the old stuff.  His introduction to “Black Sabbath” feels like he’s actually making fun of his band’s older days.  His over-emoting on “Iron Man” ruins the entire song.  “War Pigs” requires no soaring metal melisma, yet here we are, with Dio going operatic over it.  “Paranoid” gets a good treatment, probably because it’s already fast enough to keep up with Dio, and “Children Of The Grave” could be worse.  It’s a middling sort of record – like a lot of live albums – and it seems like a rather perfunctory end to the last truly great era of the band.

bornagaincover1-572x572

BORN AGAIN

Released August 7th, 1983 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Tony Iommi and Robin Black

Peaked at #4 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Trashed

Out went Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice.  In came Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian and a newly sober Bill Ward.  Originally the addition of Gillian was supposed to be for a new supergroup that wasn’t Black Sabbath.  Don Arden, who thinks the average rock fan is so dumb that if they aren’t hit over the head with the name they won’t get it, convinced them to stick with Black Sabbath as the band’s name.  The result was an awkward fit; Gillian was not the sort of frontman that jived well with the Sabbath atmosphere, and beyond his trademark banshee shriek there wasn’t much else that he could do to fit in.  He couldn’t get into the lyrics and had to have lyrics sheets plastered all over the stage during the Born Again tour.  Ward, meanwhile, fell off the wagon by the end of the recording sessions and had to be replaced with ELO drummer Bev Bevan for the tour.  It would be the last album that Ward would record with the band.  That makes it sound like he’s dead.  He’s not.  He’s just in no shape to drum because…well, we’ll get to that in time.

As though the misfit between Gillian and the band wasn’t enough, the tour was a logistical nightmare.  The bit in This Is Spinal Tap about the miniature Stonehenge set design comes directly from the 1984 Born Again tour.  The real set was ridiculously oversized; the designers took Butler’s ideas about a Stonehenge set and ran them wildly out of mind.  The set couldn’t even fit into many venues, was hilariously over-the-top with crying babies, suicidal dwarfs, and black-hooded monks, and was eventually abandoned partway through the tour.  Then there’s the album cover.  To say it’s hideous is to understate it.  It has been long been considered one of the worst album covers in history and Ian Gillian told the press that he vomited the first time he ever saw it.  Kerrang! readers voted it the second worst album cover in metal history and it shows up often on clickbait slideshows of bad metal cover art.  Don Arden, always a charmer, told Ozzy Osbourne that his children (Don’s own grandchildren) looked like the cover of Born Again.

What of the album itself, though?  A large number of critics have trashed Born Again over the years and there’s a lot to trash.  The production is muddy as hell; the band and Robin Black wanted to get a really heavy tone going but what ended up happening was an oversaturation of the low end, such that it can be hard to really separate the lower frequencies at times.  Terrible production isn’t always a killer for albums – see …And Justice For All – but the songs aren’t all that great, either.  The opening track “Trashed” is one to keep, and “Zero The Hero” and “Disturbing The Priest” are okay, but the rest of it is warmed-over garbage, lacking the punch of earlier Sabbath or overwhelmed with the misfit of Ian Gillian’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics.  It’s a bad album that was followed up by a terrible tour, and it marks the end of Black Sabbath being a viable cultural force in heavy metal.

black-sabbath-seventh-star-20130705172214

SEVENTH STAR

Released January 28th, 1986 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Jeff Glixman

Peaked at #27 UK, #78 US

Singles:

No Stranger To Love

When the dust of the 1984 Born Again tour ended, Tony Iommi was the last member of Black Sabbath standing.  Ward went back to trying to dry up, Gillian was only ever a mercenary anyway, and Geezer Butler had finally had enough with the whole thing.  Assuming that the band was more or less finished (save of course for a one-off show with all of the originals at Live Aid in 1985), Iommi set out to put together his first solo album, tapping a crew of studio musicians and poaching another Deep Purple singer, this time Glenn Hughes.  The resulting sessions reveal an experimental mood on the part of Iommi:  these are songs that are much bluesier than post-Ozzy Sabbath were, with inflections of jazz and, on the single, the sort of power balladry that was in vogue on American rock radio at the time.  “In For The Kill” is like pretty much every lead-off track Sabbath had released since Vol 4 – it kicks off in high rock ‘n’ roll fashion, although here Glixman’s production renders it a little too slick and professional, like Iommi had been playing fast-paced rock like this for too long and had gotten it down too well.  “No Stranger To Love” is an out-and-out power ballad, a little more nuanced and gritty than “The Flame”, to be sure, but still in the same league.  “Seventh Star” is a heavy blues song that wants to be the midway point between Led Zeppelin and Whitesnake (that’s a joke, people), “Danger Zone (Chance On Love)” is about as cliche an Eighties rock song as you can imagine, and “Angry Heart” is actually kind of a headbanger.

It’s an okay album, especially when you take into context the time it was written and recorded in.  The big problem of course is that it’s not a Black Sabbath album.  It sounds exactly like what it was recorded as:  a Tony Iommi solo album.  Don Arden, again, believed the average rock music fan to be denser than lead and urged him to keep using the name Black Sabbath so that people would buy the album (also, to back this up with some muscle, he started throwing “contractual obligations” around).  Eventually they settled on “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi”, which is about as bullshit a name as you can imagine.  Isn’t all Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi?  Given he’s the only consistent figure in the band’s history yes, yes it is.  Of course, if it had been a traditional Sabbath record Glenn Hughes would have suffered the same fate as Ian Gillian on Born Again – his voice might sub in somewhat for Ronnie James Dio but it’s nothing like Ozzy Osbourne – so the rather more pop-oriented sound of Seventh Star fits his voice quite a bit better.  Still, if the band was going to keep going – and Don Arden was insistent that it do so, perhaps due to the runaway success of his hated son-in-law – they needed someone who could perform the hits better, and consistently.  Hughes ran into sinus problems shortly into the Seventh Star tour, fell into a worsening drug problem, and then got into a backstage fist fight with the production manager.  He was replaced with Ray Gillen, who finished the tour competently enough.  Gillen, however, proved to be another victim of the constant mismanagement and lack of communication in the band, and left with drummer Eric Singer partway through the recording of the next album.  His replacement would prove to be one of the most dependable characters in the Black Sabbath legend.

521

THE ETERNAL IDOL

Released November 23rd, 1987 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Jeff Glixman, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, Chris Tsangarides

Peaked at #66 UK, #168 US

Singles:

The Shining

After four years of band turmoil, a revolving door of lead singers (and other musicians), and a sharp decline in respectability, Tony Iommi finally stumbled upon something good near the end of the 1980s.  Rock ‘n’ roll unknown Tony Martin was tapped to replace Ray Gillen, who had abandoned the initial recordings for The Eternal Idol partway through.  Working closely with producer Chris Tsangarides, Martin painstakingly re-recorded the vocals Gillen had laid down.  The effect was – for Black Sabbath in 1987 – startlingly solid.  Martin’s vocals are reminiscent of Ronnie James Dio in the best way, only with less of an ego-driven need to dominate the songs.  Propelled by some stability, Iommi churned out some of the best riffs he’d written since Mob Rules.  “The Shining” is a lost hard rock classic, with a guitar line that ranks among Iommi’s best and a stellar example of Martin’s strengths right out of the gate.  “Ancient Warrior”  and “Hard Life To Love” continue in that vein of hard bangers that strike just the right balance of Dio-driven metal hijinks and full-band humility.  “Glory Ride” is exactly what it says on the tin, a high-flying metal anthem complete with standard-fare late-80s guitar heroics.  “Born To Lose” kills the momentum a bit with a ho-hum sort of effort, but the shifting crunch of “Nightmare”, the high-octane push of “Lost Forever”, and the haunting atmosphere of the title track bring the album to a satisfying close.

The Eternal Idol is a great throwback to the Dio era, but the sad fact of it was that by the end of 1987 no one wanted to return to the Dio era.  The album was a complete non-starter, only making it (barely) onto the charts because of nostalgia and name recognition.  Media outlets refused to review it and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the late Eighties were a bad time for the sort of metal that Sabbath traded in at the time.  The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal had faded out into the same sort of tired pop-glory-chasing that marred the Sunset Strip hard rock scene.  Power ballads and urban pop were in; soaring metal vocals and crazy guitar solos were on their way out.  Ironically, the biggest thing going in the underground at the time was the Pacific Northwest grunge scene, which was by 1988 ramping up toward changing the face of rock ‘n’ roll forever.  Many of the bands lumped into the grunge movement – especially Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Melvins – were in part mining Black Sabbath, but it was the Ozzy-era sludge-rock they were after and not the more contemporary Sabbath offerings.  The Eternal Idol, then, gets lost in the shuffle despite it being something of an artistic renaissance for the band.

folder

HEADLESS CROSS

Released April 24th, 1989 on I.R.S. Records

Producer: Tony Iommi and Cozy Powell

Peaked at #31 UK, #115 US

Singles:

Headless Cross” (#62 UK)

Devil And Daughter” (#81 UK)

At long last, after eighteen some-odd years and countless change and turmoil, Vertigo Records dropped Black Sabbath from their roster in 1988.  In swooped Miles Copeland and I.R.S. Records, who were famous at the time for being the home of some of the most influential bands of the punk and alternative movement of the 1980s (most notably R.E.M.).  While they were an odd fit for the label, Copeland had told Iommi that he was confident that Sabbath wrote songs people still wanted to hear and was willing to give them room to do so.  At the same time, Iommi also managed to score drummer Cozy Powell, whose work with hard rock landmarks like Rainbow, Whitesnake, and the Jeff Beck Group had introduced everyone to his signature pounding sound.  He almost got Geezer Butler to rejoin the band, but got beaten to the punch by Ozzy Osbourne, who recruited Butler for his No Rest For The Wicked tour.  Still, the bassist that joined the recording process, Laurence Cottle, was no slouch and the touring bassist after the fact was another Whitesnake alumni.

The album itself is a continuation in the strong style that marked The Eternal Idol, only with a more visceral sound befitting metal production at the end of the Eighties.  The title track kicks off the album with a bang, and stands toe-to-toe easily with anything produced in the Dio era.  A lot of the album is built around top-notch headbangers:  “Devil and Daughter”, “When Death Calls” (which features a guitar solo from Brian May), and the almost poppy energy of “Call Of The Wild” anchor a sound that did the first Martin album, but louder and better.  Critics actually managed to pay attention, and it sold marginally more than before (although it still sold relatively poorly, which Iommi at one point attributed to I.R.S. not sending out enough copies to record stores).  Some have gone so far as to call it one of the best hard rock albums ever made; while that might be going overboard a bit, it is easily the strongest of the Sabbath albums made without either Ozzy or Dio.

 

51pg05vb9rl

TYR

Released August 20th, 1990 on I.R.S. Records

Producer: Tony Iommi and Cozy Powell

Peaked at #24 UK

Singles:

Feels Good To Me” (#79 UK)

Tyr, the band’s second album for I.R.S. Records, turned the lyrical reins over to Tony Martin.  To an extent Martin was involved with the lyrics for Headless Cross, but he constrained himself by writing what he thought was supposed to be “Black Sabbath” lyrics.  This ideal of what the band was supposed to be was gloomy and death-obsessed; while this is exactly what the band’s image was, Iommi and Powell told him to ease off a bit and the result was…a weird song cycle about Norse mythology that was almost, but not quite a concept album.  This was not the only problem that Tyr suffered from.  The band chose to add more keyboard layers into the mix which, along with the drum-heavy production, made it sound poppier and cheesier than anything that was a going concern at the time (even Iron Maiden).  The worst point of this is “The Sabbath Stones”, which suffers from a pace that’s just slightly too slow and a bite that’s just slightly too toothless.  It’s also a slog at nearly seven minutes in length.  Running a close second in this regard is the dashed-off “Feels Good To Me”, an obvious marketing track that the band later admitted was written to be exactly that.  There are good tracks here, like the hard-charging “The Law Maker” and the churning “Valhalla”, but unlike the previous two albums there just aren’t enough of them to make it completely worthwhile.

Tyr takes the sound of the first two Tony Martin albums and tries to cross-breed it with the aforementioned sound of Iron Maiden circa 1990.  The biggest drawback to this is that Iron Maiden circa 1990 was no great shakes either.  It’s a definite lowpoint in the Black Sabbath discography, even more so because of the two promising albums before it, but as the Nineties wore on it became obvious that Sabbath could always go lower.

529

DEHUMANIZER

Released June 22nd, 1992 on I.R.S. and Reprise Records

Producer: Reinhold Mack

Peaked at #28 UK, #44 US

Singles:

TV Crimes” (#33 UK)

Tony Martin took some time off to record his first solo album (1992’s Back Where I Belong) and Iommi decided to make a concerted effort to get Geezer Butler and Ronnie James Dio back into the fold for an album.  Cozy Powell began the recording sessions but then broke his pelvic bone riding a horse (because that’s what British rock legends do) and so the band called up Vinny Appice, cementing the Mob Rules lineup again eleven years after the fact.  Dehumanizer, however, is not as nimble or as effective as that previous album had been.  The overall tone is much heavier and angrier than previous Sabbath albums had been, perhaps in response to the tonal shift that rock ‘n’ roll had taken between Tyr and Dehumanizer.  1989-1990 had been the peak of pop metal, where shiny guitars mixed with keyboards and expansive songcraft had ruled the rock charts.  1992 was a much different era:  in the wake of the atomic blast that was Nevermind, dark and heavy ruled the airwaves.  Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam had replaced Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, and Poison, so it makes sense that the newest Black Sabbath record would at least nod in the direction of them by shying away from the keyboards and flourishes that had characterized Tyr.

The directional shift would produce some decent tracks:  “Computer God” was a headbanging way to start the affair; “TV Crimes” features a great chorus from Dio; “Master Of Insanity” and “I” showcase some great riff work from the newly reunited Iommi-Butler combo.  The album begins to fall apart, however, when many of the songs get examined too closely.  The riffs are mostly good, not great.  The dynamic shifts seem forced, and “Sins Of The Father” seems like a blatant attempt to rewrite something like “Sign Of The Southern Cross” or “Children Of The Sea” without hitting the highwater mark of either.  “After All (The Dead)” has some great guitar lines but the lyrics go over the top with regards to morbidity and disdain.  This is actually a general complaint over all of Dehumanizer.  Dio’s lyrics seem bitter and misanthropic, rather than thrilling and doom-laden, and there is a weird distaste for technology present in songs like “Computer God” and “TV Crimes”.  The latter was echoed by Dio’s interviews during the press junket for the album where he disparaged the use of samplers in music production at the time.  Of the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath albums, Dehumanizer is definitely the worst, although it wouldn’t be the last album from the lineup; in the late Oughts they would reunite under the name of Heaven & Hell and make some very decent heavy rock.  Dio himself would leave shortly into the tour behind the album, after refusing to play shows opening up for Ozzy Osbourne on his “retirement” tour; Dio in fact called Ozzy a “clown” and quit rather than play second fiddle to him.

black_sabbath_cross_purposes_scorpions_send_me_an_angel_artwork

CROSS PURPOSES

Released January 31st, 1994 on I.R.S. Records

Producer: Leif Mases and Tony Iommi

Peaked at #41 UK, #122 US

Singles:

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

By 1994, the old rock ‘n’ roll template that kicked off with Led Zeppelin in 1969 had run aground completely.  In the late 1970s Black Sabbath had been shown up by the flash and youth of Van Halen, but the Alternative Revolution had put the brakes on both bands and the movements they represented.  Ironically, the Seattle grunge movement’s DNA was riddled with Ozzy-era Black Sabbath sounds (the usual formulation is Black Flag + Black Sabbath) but the 1994 iteration of Black Sabbath was hokey and behind the times.  Even the metal underground didn’t really have much in common with the sounds Sabbath were trading in; 1994 was the year that the insanity of Norwegian black metal broke out of its local intrigues and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven redefined what heavy meant in an American sense.

Cross Purposes responded to the times by trying to go in both directions at once.  “I Witness”, “Back To Eden”, and “Cardinal Sin” make for good Eighties-style headbangers while other tracks take strides into the unfamiliar new world.  “Psychophobia” scrapes out the same cross-bred dank sludge that Soundgarden built their early days on, and “Virtual Death” slows the riffs down back to the old days, which if nothing else shows how indebted Alice In Chains was to the Ozzy days.  “Evil Eye” tries to go both ways and the result is unfortunate, an overlong chug through a clumsy Eternal Idol/Headless Cross riff that strains Martin’s skills.  More unfortunate are the tracks “Cross Of Thorns”, “Immaculate Deception”, and “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”, where Martin makes like it’s still the septic days of 1987 and there are hair metal bands on MTV.  They’re tired attempts at recapturing long-gone glory, made even more jarring by the year they were released in.  Most unfortunate of all is the overwrought power ballad “Dying For Love”, which is doubly embarrassing given that power ballads were severely out of fashion by 1994 (ie the year of “Glycerine”).  While the willingness to play with some of the contemporary conventions was nice, their general inability to get out of their Eighties rut was depressing, and the album sold poorly.  The Tony Martin-led lineup of the band still had one more studio album in it, however.  Unfortunately.

tumblr_mg70qwet8c1rrbw8zo1_1280

CROSS PURPOSES – LIVE

Released April 4th, 1995 on I.R.S. Records

Producer: Black Sabbath

The band’s second official live album was released mostly to silence in 1995.  It’s too bad, since (aside from the absence of material from the Heaven & HellMob Rules days) it’s a much better live album than 1982’s Live Evil was.  On Live Evil, Dio seemed to be mocking the old Ozzy material more than anything else, as though he thought he was naturally better than anything the classic lineup had achieved.  Tony Martin, on the other hand, is under no such illusions, and as such he makes it through the material (of which there’s a blessed abundance here) without sounding as though he’s smirking through it.  As such, the classic songs are the real highlight here.  With regards to the newer material, “I Witness”, one of the better songs on Cross Purposes, comes off in stellar fashion, but to balance this there is the presence of “Cross Of Thorns”, which is just as awful live as it is on the studio recording.  “Psychophobia” lies somewhere in the middle, sounding somehow even more Soundgarden-esque in concert.  “Headless Cross” is a nice inclusion, and it actually manages to blend in well with the Ozzy-majority selection of songs.  It’s telling that the single from Cross Purposes, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”, is noticeably missing from the tracklist.  It’s also telling that, aside from “Psychophobia” (which is honestly a pretty good song), every time they turn to the new album Martin introduces it and manages to sound apologetic.

At any rate, it’s a better live document than the first one and (arguably) they next one.  The best thing, of course, is that they put it out on the Cross Purposes tour, and not after the next album.

 

black-sabbath-forbidden

FORBIDDEN

Released June 20th, 1995 on I.R.S. Records

Producer: Ernie C

Peaked at #71 UK

After the Cross Purposes tour, Geezer Butler left the band again, to be replaced by Neil Murray, and Cozy Powell came back in to play the drums, resetting everything back to the same lineup that made Tyr.  With hip hop ascending, I.R.S. wanted to look into ways to bring their venerable rock band more in line with the modern era.  To this end, they contacted L.A. rap-metal band Body Count; guitarist Ernie C was brought in to produce and Ice-T was given a verse on “Illusion Of Power”.  If this sounds like an awful idea that could only produce terrible results, you’re smarter than I.R.S. Records circa 1995.

From the start, it’s rubbish.  “The Illusion Of Power” has a promising enough Ozzy-era type riff, but the sound of Martin ranting, or rapping, or whatever he’s doing in the first verse, is cringe-inducing.  The Ice-T verse is terrible, bringing about the definition of terrible tacked-on rap verses for the sole purpose of trying to be edgy and youthful.  The last minute of it somehow manages to be even less essential than the rest of the song, which is honestly impressive in a horrifying way.  The riff of “Get A Grip” is a dead ringer for “Mr. Brownstone”, and Martin’s vocals get drowned out in the muscular din of Ernie C’s blaring production. “Can’t Get Close Enough” can’t figure out whether it wants to be a power ballad or a generic stomper.  “Shaking Off The Chains” is largely incoherent, and “I Won’t Cry For You” repeats the Cross Purposes mistake of thinking a generic Eighties rock dirge would fly in 1995.  The second side is no better.  “Guilty As Hell” again drowns out Martin’s voice, which wouldn’t be doing much to add to any of the songs even if the guitars were turned down a little.  The solo from “Sick And Tired” comes off as over-wrought and desperate, an attempt to wow the listener into thinking the keyboard-laced trash song is better than it really is.  “Rusty Angels” sounds as though it was a cutting-room floor leftover from the previous album.  The title track is simply tired, a limp attempt at padded power metal, and the closing track “Kiss Of Death” goes on for too long and goes nowhere.

It’s an ignominious end to a lineup of Black Sabbath that held such promise nearly ten years before.  It would be the last album the band would record with Tony Martin; even during the recording of Forbidden there were rumours swirling about an original-lineup reunion, which after the complete failure of the album would coalesce into an actual fact, thrilling many fans of the band old and new and pissing off Tony Martin.

3635

REUNION

Released October 20th, 1998 on Epic Records

Producer: Thom Panunzio and Bob Marlette

Peaked at #41 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Psycho Man” (#3 US Mainstream Rock)

Selling My Soul” (#17 US Mainstream Rock)

Except for about a year or two at the beginning of the 1980s, it was obvious to everyone that the main beneficiary of the breakup of the original Black Sabbath lineup was Ozzy Osbourne.  While the band’s career stagnated after 1982, Ozzy’s solo career skyrocketed.  When Sabbath struggled through a cheesy songcycle about Norse gods, Ozzy was a bona fide world-touring household name rock star.  By the time the third-rate Tony Martin iteration of Black Sabbath ground to a halt on an ill-advised crossbreeding with Body Count, there were swaths of adolescents who worshiped at the feet of Ozzy Osbourne without ever having really heard his old band.  I know, because I was one of them.

Our exposure to Black Sabbath was largely limited.  We knew “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” because the local classic rock station played them, but beyond that was wilderness.  One of our father’s had Paranoid on vinyl, but when we played it we inexplicably set the needle to “Planet Caravan” and dismissed it as “hippie bullshit”.  It wasn’t until an eleventh grade English class (coincidentally, 1998) when the teacher put on Master Of Reality and we were entranced.  Reunion, then, was a real treat – live and in-your-face, a thrilling live document from a band that, to paraphrase the Simpsons, we’d just learned existed.

Over the years, it’s held up okay, although not great.  The band’s playing is top-notch throughout, keeping the exact right pacing and sense of dynamic that informed the studio recordings with such creeping dread.  Iommi’s lead guitar cuts through the murk of the rhythm section like a switchblade in a dark alley, and Butler’s bass has his signature lumbering-yet-weirdly-graceful sound intact.  The problem is, well, Ozzy.  When he sticks to singing, he sounds in good form – maybe not excellent, as he sounds a bit strained here and there.  The problem is his ad-libbing.  He is in full-on showman mode on these songs (understandably, given that they were recorded at a series of hometown shows in Birmingham) and he feels the need to interject random things in during the parts where he isn’t singing.  The worst offender in this regard is “Electric Funeral”, where he inexplicably feels the need to shout “HEAVY!” during the riff.  We get that it’s heavy, Ozzy.  That’s the whole fucking point.  Beside this, he lets out a bunch of “come on!” and “yeah!” and “We fuckin’ love you, god bless you all!” constantly that was probably great in concert but comes off as pointless when recorded.

Still, the man was back in charge, at the head of his old band and sounding just as good as he had twenty years before, if not better.  The Reunion tour wouldn’t lead to a new album – that would have to wait until 2013 – but it would lead to irregular tour dates with the classic lineup until about 2006, when the band shacked back up with Dio and toured under the name Heaven & Hell.  One thing that should be cleared up about this “classic lineup” business is that, except for a couple of dates at the end of the original reunion trip in 1998, Bill Ward doesn’t factor in.  During the rehearsal for the reunion tour, he suffered a heart attack and avoided the band from then on.  He would cite prior commitments, difficult contract terms, and legal wrangling with the other Sabbath members; in 2015 Ozzy called him out in an open letter telling him to come clean about the fact that his ballooned weight, his shoulder problems, and his general inability to survive an extended tour were the real reason he wasn’t playing with the rest of them.  Ward doesn’t even play on both of the studio tracks that were recorded specifically for Reunion.  He’s on the better of the two, thankfully: “Psycho Man”, a harrowing headbanger that for a brief moment made the prospect of a new Black Sabbath album exciting.  The other, “Selling My Soul”, features a drum machine and while the riff is utterly classic Sabbath and the song itself could fit on any of the better later albums, it also feels like it’s exactly calculated to do that, and that detracts a bit from it.

Between 1998 and 2013, the band would release a series of live albums, more to keep income flowing in by cashing in on the nostalgia of old fans who were now approaching – or mired in – middle age.  The first of these, released in 2002, would feature something of a lost relic of the past.

tumblr_mg2391u2jn1rrbw8zo1_500

PAST LIVES

Released August 20th, 2002 on Sanctuary Records

Producer: Black Sabbath

Peaked at #114 US

The first disc of Past Lives, a collection of live artifacts from the band’s glory days, is actually an interesting bit of Sabbath history.  It was originally released in 1980 under the name Live At Last, but it wasn’t released by the band.  The rights to the recordings – split between two days in March at two venues in London – were held by Patrick Meehan, their old manager whose legal shenanigans had caused everyone such headaches during the recording of Sabotage.  They had originally been recorded with the idea of putting out a live album, back in 1973, but the band passed on it after hearing the rough recording quality.  Meehan, who republished everything he had the legal right to under the NEMS Records label, released the recordings as the aforementioned Live At Last, which ended up going to #5 in the UK.  As a standalone album it has it’s flaws, primarily that it’s too short and that several stone classics are missing (“Iron Man” and “Black Sabbath”, primarily) and that a track like “Cornucopia”, an ugly reminder of the bad parts of Vol. 4, is included. As half of a set of artifacts from the crazy days of the Seventies, however, it makes for a great fit.  Aside from “Cornucopia” the band crushes it, and the remastering done to the recording makes it a lot more vibrant and dynamic than the original release.

The second disc is culled from a pair of live recordings that were originally meant for radio – one from 1975 in Asbury Park, New Jersey (say hello to The Boss) and one from Paris in 1970.  The Paris recordings – the majority of the disc – are a top-notch document of Sabbath in their white-hot early days.  The Asbury Park recordings, on the other hand, are sloppy, played a little too fast, and feature Ozzy going out of tune on a number of occasions: proof that, by 1975, the band’s mile-a-minute rock star lives were taking their toll.  It’s hit and miss, to say the least, but it’s only three songs out of the disc, so overall the album still makes for a great live artifact.

black-sabbath-live-at-hammersmith-odeonlive-20130705170600

LIVE AT HAMMERSMITH ODEON

Released May 1st, 2007 on Rhino Entertainment

Producer: Black Sabbath

On New Year’s Eve 1981, New Year’s Day 1982, and January 2nd, Black Sabbath played three shows at the legendary Hammersmith Odeon in London.  The shows were recorded and later released in 2007 in a limited run of 5000 copies.  As far as live albums featuring Dio, it’s better than Live Evil:  both band and crowd are exuberant, and Dio treats the classic material with less contempt than he did on the previous album.  The newer stuff is the clear focus, though, and a couple of lesser-spun tracks from Mob Rules are included -the good-time riffage of “Slipping Away” and the throbbing rhythm of “Country Girl”.  The only real poor moment is when Dio starts to ad-lib something during the air-raid intro to “War Pigs”, an act that seems akin to blasphemy.

black-sabbath-13-album-art

13

Released June 10th, 2013 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Rick Rubin

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

“God Is Dead?” (#145 UK, #7 US Mainstream Rock)

“End Of The Beginning” (#38 US Mainstream Rock)

“Loner”

The first album from the classic lineup (except Bill Ward, anyway) since 1978 is a decent enough album but it suffers from two things:  a poorly ordered tracklist and Rick Rubin.

Originally there had been plans to release a new album around 2001, but due to other projects on the go at the time the various bandmembers never finished making it.  Ozzy ended up doing The Osbournes, which became a reality TV hit that ate up his mid-2000s.  Then Iommi and Butler made The Devil You Know with Ronnie James Dio.  Dio died of stomach cancer in 2010, shelving any further Heaven And Hell albums forever.  Iommi and Butler then decided to give it another try with Ozzy which, after a couple of years, ended up bearing fruit.  There were some difficulties in actually getting the thing recorded.  Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma and so the recording sessions had to be moved to England so he could record and be treated at the same time.  Bill Ward kept on nattering publicly about needing a “signable contract” to play with the band, and how they kept having a “failure to agree” on the terms of his rejoining Black Sabbath, which eventually prompted Ozzy’s 2015 open letter to him.  Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine was brought in to play the drums instead and he while he isn’t quite as agile as Ward, he presents himself competently.

Unfortunately, Wilk is buried under Rick Rubin’s production, which is a major example of the problems with over-compression and the Loudness Wars in general.  There’s too much compression on Iommi’s guitar, and it makes it so that none of the old open-air tube-amp type sound rattles out at the listener on 13.  Instead, there’s the same flat, stodgy distortion that every other post-grunge arena band and metalcore pin-up dream has traded in since the dawn of the 21st Century.  There’s no breathing room and so the riffs don’t sound oppressive in the “hand of doom” sort of way, they sound oppressive in the “these riffs ate the drums” sort of way.  It’s too bad, because the riffs are as close to classic Sabbath as you’re ever going to get again.  “Age Of Reason” features a coda that lumbers and stabs with the best of the Seventies material; “God Is Dead?” overextends itself but still manages to pummel the listener into the ground; “Live Forever” is as aggressive and powerful as the best parts of Vol. 4; “Zeitgeist” reminds everyone that Sabbath did, in fact, do stuff like “Planet Caravan” once upon a time.

Opening the album with “The End Of The Beginning” is a bad move, though.  Clocking in at just over eight minutes, the riff is nothing to write home about and the dynamic shifts don’t do enough to move the song forward.  Coupled with another lengthy sludge-rocker, “God Is Dead?” in the #2 slot, and it makes for an awkward sixteen minutes to open an album.  Sabbath has always started off their albums with a bang, even during the ersatz Tony Martin albums, and the crawling pace that 13 opens with is off-putting.  “Loner” or “Live Forever” would have been much better choices to lead off, perhaps saving “God Is Dead?” for later in the album.  Similarly, the twin seven-minute tracks that close the album go on for too long, although “Damaged Soul” has some great lead work from Iommi.  Mixing up the list and having someone on hand to tell the band “no, this is too long without any reason” would have gone a long way into turning this good album into a great one.

556507

THE END

Released January 20th, 2016

Producer: Rick Rubin

Like it says on the tin, this is the end.  The End is a tour-only EP from the similarly named “farewell tour” that is slated to end in February of 2017.  It contains four leftovers from the 13 sessions and four live tracks recorded during the initial 13 tour.  The leftover tracks are decent enough stuff, much as the tracks on 13 were:  not up to the standard set by the initial run of Black Sabbath albums, but more than able to hold their own with modern heavy rock bands and certainly better than anything that has come out of their contemporaries.  The live tracks are what they are: note-for-note recreations of the studio tracks without much in the way of experimentation or difference.  The last two – “The End Of The Beginning” and “Age Of Reason” – were recorded in Hamilton, Ontario, which is neat ; Hamilton is as close to the vibe of Birmingham as you’re going to get in North America, and Canada has always been a white-hot source of Black Sabbath fandom, so it’s nice that the “final two” tracks of Sabbath’s career were picked from a concert there.  Time will tell whether or not it’s an actual “final album” from a band whose lead singer once did a “Farewell Tour” in 1992, but they are all getting older and eventually the Sabbath story has to end.  As of now it is supposed to end February 4th, 2017, but…we’ll see.

Hand Of God Has Struck The Hour: A Guide To Black Sabbath, Part 1 (1970-1978)

Black_title
Standard

The 1960s are a decade that has been largely romanticized by the generations that came after it.  The Boomers that lived through it carry tales about free love and smoking marijuana like we’re supposed to sit and swoon over their vinyl copies of The Beatles.  “Oh,” they say, “we had all this great music come out, and we marched in the streets and we even stopped a war.  It was such a great time to be alive.”  Everyone that comes after is supposed to chew on their envy in the corner, and there are a lot of the children of Boomers that do exactly this.  You know them as the Wrong Generation crowd.  They go onto YouTube videos and leave snide comments about how music was so much better in the Sixties and that they were born into the wrong generation, all their friends are dumb and listen to Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black.

All of this false nostalgia for a time that was never lived through is even worse given that it’s based on a series of lies.

First of all, no one listens to Rebecca Black.  I’m fairly certain that there are more people that have referenced Rebecca Black in asinine comments on the internet than have actually listened to “Friday”.  Somehow she’s become the spokesperson for the music of a generation that also includes Ty Segall, Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, and Kamasi Washington among its legion of artists.

Second of all, the Sixties were a stressful, conflict-ridden time that ended in disaster.

It’s been 40 years and two major new wars since the Vietnam War ended in Communist victory.  The 1960s were the prime time for American soldiers dying for a geopolitical strategy that assumed the viability of preventing Asia from falling to the Communists.  Those Boomers aforementioned marched in the streets to protest the Vietnam War, and where did it get them?  They were kettled, truncheoned, gassed, and disparaged.  In the end, like at Kent State, they were shot and murdered by the forces of the State.  All that happened was that the administration and the military-industrial complex ended the war exactly when they wanted to, at the very last minute before the prospect of victory was completely eliminated.  At home, the decade kicked into gear with the assassination of a sitting President, reeled through the Civil Rights movement, and leaped headalong into the protest movement against the war.  There were fracture lines along race, sexuality, employment, drugs, and virtually every other aspect of modern existence.  It was a stressful time where revolution seemed a shout away – the French uprising in May of 1968 seemed to dovetail nicely with the American unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots at the Democratic National Convention later that year.  Bombs went off, people died, and at the very end of the decade the Rolling Stones held a festival and decided to use the Hells Angels as security.  The concert at Altamont ended up as a drunken mess where a man was murdered by the security forces, and it seemed to be an ill omen that drove in everything else that was waiting just around the corner.

That would be the 1970s, of course, and it would be a heavy economic downturn that would come about as the result of the supply shocks of the OPEC-initiated 1973 oil crisis.  Corporate profits would stagnate, Deng Xaioping would open China up for business in 1979, jobs would vanish forever, and neoliberal economic piracy became the rule of the day.  The rose colouring of the 1960s is the propaganda of the class that made it through the initial death shudders of Keynesian civilization intact or thriving.  The poor and disadvantaged of the Earth have a different tale to tell.

One such poor and disadvantaged area was the city of Birmingham, England.  Birmingham has been charitably described in the past as being an industrial hellscape, and it was dreary fifty years ago, too.  My grandfather escaped the city in order to live in Canada, but for the youth of the late 1960s the opportunities to get out were few and far between.  They worked in blue collar jobs, deadening factory work, and when they got out they drank, smoked, fucked, and listened to heavy blues music.  The paisley folksy bullshit was an offshoot of the old British Invasion but was largely an American concern.  The British kids of the mid-to-late Sixties were into the blues, and the louder the better.  Starting a band was a popular way to beat the dead-end feeling of life in working class Britain.  John “Ozzy” Osbourne was an unskilled labourer with a penchant for petty theft who’d wanted to be a rock star ever since hearing “She Loves You” on the radio in 1963.  Tony Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory (a job that would claim the tips of the fingers on his fretting hand) and was inspired to adapt his guitar style after his accident by a recording of Django Reinhardt.  Terence “Geezer” Butler was a working class Irish Catholic learning to be an accountant who found himself through LSD, Aleister Crowley, and Cream bassist Jack Bruce.   Bill Ward was a lager lad with a love for jazz drumming and the heavier, more primitively pounding work of John Bonham.  They would play in blues bands and knew each other from gigs across the city.  Butler’s first band was Rare Breed, who would also feature Ozzy as their singer.  Ward and Iommi played together in a band called Mythology.  The two groups would eventually split up, and the four would come together in a new band called Polka Tulk.

Polka Tulk began when Ozzy put out an ad at a Birmingham music shop that went “Ozzy Zig needs a gig – has own PA”.  Ward and Iommi answered the ad and, in need of a bassist, Ozzy mentioned his old bandmate Geezer Butler.  The four of them began rehearsing as Polka Tulk before changing the name to Earth (Polka Tulk being a terrible name, after all).  On 1998’s Reunion live album, Ozzy tells the crowd that they at some point decided that Earth “wasn’t a very good fucking name for a band”.  The actual truth is that there was already a band called Earth doing gigs in Britain that was a minor league success.  A name change was thus necessary.

While mulling over their options, the band went across the street to a cinema that was showing Boris Karloff’s 1963 horror classic Black Sabbath.  One thing they noticed and talked about at length afterwards was the idea that people would pay money to get scared; fear and looming doom struck right at the animal part of the human brain, and it produced a weird sort of thrill.  Horror films were always well attended, so what about making horror music?  The seeds were already there.  Iommi’s factory accident had maimed his fingers and left him unsure for a time whether or not there was a point to continuing to play the guitar.  He’d eventually hit upon a solution involving lighter strings and melted plastic fingertips he would use to press down on these light strings.  To reduce the tension and make it easier to play, he would also down-tune his guitar; the result was a much darker, “heavier” sound than was typical among even the heavy blues bands of the time.  This sound, plus the realization that people loved to get scared out of their wits, led to the band changing their name to Black Sabbath, in homage to the movie that had changed their direction – and the direction of rock ‘n’ roll – forever.

 

Black_Sabbath_Debut_Album_cover

BLACK SABBATH

Released February 13th, 1970 on Vertigo Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #8 UK, #23 U.S.

Singles:

Evil Woman

Black Sabbath

N.I.B.

The Wizard

Right from the get-go, Black Sabbath is the sound of the disenchantment of youth exploding into its own bloody birth.  The tritone riff of “Black Sabbath” – inspired, according to Butler, by a movement in Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” – sets the tone exactly.  A thousand years prior to its release, using that kind of interval in music would likely get you burned at the stake, or hung, or at the very least chased out of town.  It’s not just the tritone, though:  it’s the way that Butler’s bass rumbles along with Iommi’s riff, it’s the tension that Bill Ward’s toms add in the fills behind the verses, and it’s the way Ozzy’s keening wail sounds like a ghost mourning it’s own demise.  It’s very rare that a band can sum up exactly what they’re about in the course of a single song, but “Black Sabbath” sets that up for Black Sabbath.  The entire history of metal came after, but I don’t think that there’s ever been a song that’s been heavier.

Of course, there’s more to Black Sabbath than just “Black Sabbath”.  “The Wizard” belies the band’s roots in heavy blues music and their love of Led Zeppelin.  The guitar work on “The Wizard” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” could likely have fit pretty well on Zeppelin’s debut album (one of the band’s favourite at the time, incidentally), but for the fact that they’re played quite a bit slower than anything Jimmy Page would have committed to wax.  It’s the slower tempo of Iommi (and the oddly fleet-fingered lumbering of Butler’s bass) that makes the difference.  Zeppelin’s heavy blues were hedonistic and airy; Sabbath’s were gloomy and filled with dread.

Another band that had a great deal of influence on the early Sabbath was Cream, Eric Clapton’s heavy blues band du jour.  It’s not just the deconstruction of the “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff that you can hear on “N.I.B.” – it’s also the entirety of side two, which is given over to a heady blues jam that may not have the grace and effortlessness of Clapton’s playing but has the verve and tenacity to match it in other ways.  “Wicked World” mines a jazz groove for some rare upbeat finger-popping, and the closing piece “Warning” substitutes raw, blistering tone and form for the innovation and progression that Cream had been famous for in the late 1960s.

Lyrically, Geezer Butler sets the groundwork for the obsessions of heavy metal lyricists for evermore (okay, him and Robert Plant) by channeling his Irish Catholic background and setting against his love of the occult, black magic, and Crowley.  “Black Sabbath” details the soul of a man being run down by the Devil; “N.I.B.” flips that around and has Lucifer fall in love with a human woman and give himself over to her.  “The Wizard” was written with Gandalf The Grey in mind, mirroring the Tolkien love that Zeppelin was also mining at the time.  “Wicked World” would be the track that pointed the way forward, as Butler would eventually get more comfortable as a lyricist and start putting his political beliefs forward more often.  “Warning”, finally, is that rare beast in the early Sabbath catalog:  a regretful love song more in keeping with the traditional lyrical matter of rock ‘n’ roll.

On a side note, I thought for years that the person standing rather creepily on the album cover was Ozzy Osbourne in drag.  As it turns out, the figure is a woman the band vaguely remembers as being named Louise.  No one actually knows anything about her beyond that tiny factoid; there is no public record of her and if she’s still alive she’s apparently taking the secret of her place in rock ‘n’ roll history to the grave with her.  Like the title track, the album cover sets up the tone of the album perfectly, another thing that would be very rare in Sabbath’s career.

5401168206_1f363a5300_o

PARANOID

Released September 18th, 1970 on Vertigo Records and January 7th, 1971 on Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US

Singles:

Paranoid

War Pigs

Iron Man

Fairies Wear Boots

Filling the gap between Cream and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath’s first album was a big success, especially in their native Britain where it went to the Top Ten.  Four months after it’s release the band went back to the studio to record a follow-up, comprised mainly of songs which had grown out of the live improvisations the band did during their endless tours of the club circuits.  It’s arguably Iommi’s peak as a riff-writer:  pretty much everything on Paranoid is iconic and has been celebrated in one way or another in the 45 years since its release.  At the very least, the DNA of a lot of heavy metal that came afterward can be heard on the record.  It’s not hard to imagine the path that leads from the crushingly heavy riff of “Electric Funeral” to Alice In Chains.  The breakneck pace of “Paranoid” would give rise to a much more fast-paced form of metal when bands like Judas Priest (and, later, Sabbath themselves) would barrel ahead full-tilt.  “Iron Man” is the birth of sludge metal while “Planet Caravan” would inspire a legion of band’s bong-laden softer moments.  It’s also not hard to imagine where these songs sprang out of.  “War Pigs” was born out of jamming on “Warning”, and the slam of the main two-chord riff definitely bears this out.  “Paranoid”, written in 15 minutes so that the record label could be assured of a viable single, took a cue from the headalong power of Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”.  “Rat Salad” was a long drum solo much like Bonham’s own on “Moby Dick”.  “Jack The Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots” continues the tradition of jamming two more fragmentary songs together, the same tradition that forms the entirety of side two of their debut.  The jazzy interludes that serve as bridges are in full display here as well – the breakdown in “Electric Funeral” is jaunty, a direct contrast to the main section and “Hand Of Doom” rides a (quite a bit darker) jazz wave into a brick wall of heavy blues riffs in the same fashion that “Wicked World” did.

Lyrically, the album opens Butler up into a much more political bent than he showed on Black Sabbath.  “War Pigs” is a vicious vision of Satan rising up and claiming the souls of the rich war profiteers and politicians and generals that destroyed the world.  Familiarity has perhaps bred out the shock of what a radical call to arms it is, even among other songs of the era.  Butler points the finger squarely at the enemy, without need for metaphor or subtlety:  “Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight? / They leave that role to the poor.”  Before there was Joe Strummer, there was Geezer Butler, who would later talk about how he was into how political Bob Dylan had been but missed his presence in the music scene by the 1970s.  “Paranoid” examines depression, although it’s more just the paranoia of being stoned; “Iron Man” came about because Ozzy cracked that Iommi’s lumbering riff sounded like a “giant iron bloke walking around” but it told a story of a self-fulfilling prophecy of hate and destruction.  “Fairies Wear Boots” was about Ozzy’s encounter with a pack of skinheads one night. “Electric Funeral” channeled the generation’s fear of impersonal nuclear obliteration, and “Hand Of Doom” was one of the few songs of the era to discuss the phenomenon of American soldiers coming home from Vietnam with a habit for sticking needles in their arms.  The Vietnam era in general weighed heavily on the album.  The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs – hence the odd looking soldier with the sword and shield on the front cover – but the record executives decided that the title was too deliberately provocative for the time.

Paranoid made the band huge, and they blew the door open for every disaffected generation after.  It’s not quite hyperbole to suggest that every heavy band that came after the album stems in some way from the sludge that pours out of its grooves.  Grunge is often said to be a combination of Black Flag and Black Sabbath, but Black Flag were listening to Black Sabbath when they made their proto-grunge My War album.  The critics of the time were not kind to it, but retrospective is a powerful drug and the entire movement that has come after tends to colour perceptions a bit more.  The surface Satanic imagery of the songs would also get them on the radar of the religious factions in society, which ramped up quite a bit after a nurse was found dead by suicide with Paranoid still playing on her turntable.

Master-of-Reality-by-Black-Sabbath

MASTER OF REALITY

Released July 21st, 1971 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Rodger Bain

Peaked at #5 UK, #8 US

Singles:

After Forever

Children Of The Grave

Sweet Leaf

After recording the founding document of heavy metal on Paranoid, there was no other real direction for Sabbath to go but heavier.  Master Of Reality is heavier.  Three of the songs feature Iommi’s guitar tuned down to C# and stripped of all reverb, producing a tone that was akin to a black hole swallowing all light.  Butler’s bass is tuned down as well, creating a throbbing rumble that feels like doom approaching.  Ozzy, meanwhile, pitched his wail up even higher, becoming a banshee howling over the apocalypse.  The critics hated it (“monotonous” Lester Bangs called it, and he was among the kindest) but the kids ate it up, and many of those kids went on to form bands:  Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and virtually every other grunge-affiliated band from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Master Of Reality is the birth pains of sludge and doom metal, as well as lighter fare like stoner rock.  “Sweet Leaf” especially is the ultimate stoner anthem, an homage to the band’s love of marijuana during the recording sessions and named after a slogan on a cigarette package.  Those coughs that open up the album are in fact Iommi choking on the smoke from a large joint that was being passed around.

Gone were the jazzy interludes that broke up the tracks of Black Sabbath and Paranoid.  Instead, every main piece on Master Of Reality hits like a ton of bricks, “Iron Man”-style.  The opening riff to “After Forever” is breezy enough but the main riff is the ultimate in caveman pounding; Brooklyn hardcore band Biohazard didn’t have to change a thing to get the same effect on the Nativity In Black tribute album some twenty-five years later.  “Children Of The Grave” burns everything in its path, melding chug-a-lug verses into a breakdown that defines what it means for a riff to bang your head for you.  “Lord Of This World” is a more amiable groove than the others, the closest to the original Zeppelin-echoing heavy blues the first two albums mined.  “Into The Void” is the real masterpiece here, though, a searing hypnotic pound through a desperate attempt to flee a war-torn, destroyed Earth.

Master Of Reality can also be considered a beginning of sorts of the hard times that would engulf the band over the next few albums.  Black Sabbath and Paranoid were recorded pretty much live and off-the-cuff; Rodger Bain would set the band up in studio and then record the results, and that would be that.  Master Of Reality was the first album they spent longer on in the studio, and the stress levels were amplified.  The drums on “Into The Void” were especially difficult for Bill Ward to nail, leading to a few outbursts about just not playing it.  “Solitude”, the lone full-length quiet track, was an exercise in multi-instrumental experimentation, with Iommi playing many different instruments and a delay effect added in the studio to Ozzy’s vocal.

The definitive take on Master of Reality remains the 33 1/3 book on the album written by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.  Unlike most 33 1/3 books, which are inflated guides to a single album, Darnielle’s take on Master Of Reality is a semi-fictional account of a young man who has been committed to a mental health hospital and uses the album to try to convey his problems and relate to people.  It’s required reading for anyone interested in the impact that Black Sabbath had on people that weren’t writing music reviews for Rolling Stone or The Village Voice.

black-sabbath-vol-4

VOL 4

Released September 25th, 1972 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Patrick Meehan, Tony Iommi

Peaked at #8 UK, #13 US

Singles:

Tomorrow’s Dream

If weed and booze was the impetus for the band’s first three albums, inspiration took a rather different path when it came to the appropriately titled fourth album.  By 1972 Black Sabbath were a big deal – commercial successes drowning in money and women despite the critical backlash – and as was proper for the time they decamped to Los Angeles to record.  Like every other band that ever recorded in Los Angeles, the members of Black Sabbath were offered increasingly ridiculous amounts of cocaine.  They would do some lines, then they would do some more lines, and then they would get around to writing some songs and perhaps recording them.  As Iommi remembers it, half of the allotted budget went directly to cocaine and the other half was spent staying in the studio doing cocaine as long as possible.  It was very rock ‘n’ roll for the time, of course, but all that continuous substance abuse took its toll.  The band graduated from doing lines to having suitcases (and, later still, speaker boxes) full of cocaine delivered to the studio.  With the band looking to break out of the sludge-rock mould they’d pioneered, they naturally spent their time in L.A. experimenting with their sound.  Unfortunately, the sheer amount of coke being done meant that a lot of that experimentation ended up being somewhat ill-advised.  What sounds great after a few fat lines is rarely actually great while sober (as Oasis post-Be Here Now could likely tell you) and Vol. 4 is definitely that kind of album.  “Wheels Of Confusion/The Straightener” and “Cornucopia” are attempts at progressing beyond the heavy stomp of old, but they substitute sheer volume and trickery for the solid riffs that Iommi and Co. were known for.  “Cornucopia” was also frustrating to record; Bill Ward, addled and paranoid from the sheer amount of drugs he’d consumed, was unable to get his parts right on the track and was afraid that the others were going to get sick of him and fire him.  While this was probably not much of a concern (there are few hard rock drummers as deft as Bill Ward) the band also probably was pissed off at him.

That said, it was a hard time for Ward in general.  He was supplementing the cocaine abuse that he shared with the others with an increasingly heavy dependence on liquor, and his ability to handle it was slipping.  At the same time, he was going through an acrimonious breakup with his wife and his bandmates were continuing to step up their vicious pranking of him.  At one point the band found him passed out drunk in the Bel Air home they’d rented and covered him head to toe in DuPont gold spraypaint, several cans of which had come with the house.  Unknown to them, the spraypaint blocked his pores completely and he began to suffer seizures, necessitating an emergency trip to the hospital.

The only single from the album, “Tomorrow’s Dream”, was spared the confusing mess of the aforementioned tracks by being only three minutes long; it was, otherwise, a song that was almost great but too unfocused to really make the leap.  The same is true for the most part of “St. Vitus’ Dance”, although the short runtime makes for a much more satisfying listen.  Part of the problem was the coke, for sure, but it was a bit more than that.  They’d risen up from being working class folk working dead-end jobs and blowing their brains out with dirty industrial grade blues rock on the weekends to being Their Satanic Majesties.  Now they were in a city awash in money, women, and drugs, being offered anything they wanted and given free rein over a major recording studio.  It’s really the last part that signifies the problem with the record:  there was no outside producer working on it.  Production was largely handled by Tony Iommi, with some minor work done by the band’s manager, Patrick Meehan.  Rodger Bain was able to get a raw, gritty sound even out of the dry, downtuned guitar; Iommi’s work made that same tone muddy and ill-defined.  It’s also why a nothing track like “FX” was allowed to be put on – too much cocaine and too insular a bubble gives rise to terrible decisions.

Still, when Vol 4 is on it is dead on.  “Supernaut” and “Snowblind” are two stone pillars of the Sabbath canon.  The former rides a nimble riff into a blistering vocal from Ozzy, who’s honestly the best part of the entire record.  The latter is the “Sweet Leaf” of cocaine, a heady anthem that manages to sound as glacial as no longer being able to feel your face.  Amusingly, the record was originally going to be called Snowblind but the execs finally balked at that, settling for the much more straightforward and generic title it ended up with.  “Laguna Sunrise” is a beautiful composition by Iommi, written on Laguna Beach after watching the sun come up at the end of an all-nighter.  “Under The Sun / Every Day Comes And Goes” manages to conjure up that old blues-jamming feeling under the heavy sludge, and the out-of-left-field ballad “Changes” manages to bring the entire band together for one heartfelt moment.  Iommi built the keyboard work, Ozzy provided the melody, and Butler fit the words to that melody.  The words were inspired by Ward’s breakup, bringing everyone into the act.

The band would, years later, acknowledge Vol 4 as the point where the constant party stopped being so fun and started to become a drag.  The stress of needing to constantly evolve their sound coupled with the sheer amount of drugs being shoved in their direction made for an unfocused, bleary sound that fell flat after the triumph of their first three albums.  It still sold well, of course, and it for some reason became the moment that critics changed their minds about the band, but it is telling that only a couple of the songs were regular additions to the band’s setlists in the years to come.

Sabbath-Bloody-Sabbath

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

Released December 1st, 1973 on Vertigo Records and January 1st, 1974 on Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Tom Allom and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #4 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

After an exhausting tour fueled by coke and groupies behind Vol 4, Black Sabbath decided that if it wasn’t broken they weren’t going to fix it.  They set up shop at the studio in Los Angeles, brought in Tom Allom to produce, rented another house in Bel Air, and got to work.  Unfortunately, they forgot that it was, in fact, broken in the first place, and it was even worse the second time around.  The problems began at the end of the Vol 4 tour.  Up for days on end and wired on cocaine, Iommi eventually collapsed and had to be hospitalized, necessitating an end to the tour. The band went their separate ways at the end of the tour and tried to regain some semblance of a social life back home in England, but their status as bona fide rock stars made this somewhat difficult.  Butler recalls that they’d been in a sealed bubble of debauchery for so long that when he got home his then-girlfriend didn’t even recognize him.  When they reconvened in L.A. to begin work on their fifth album, nothing happened.  The songs fell flat, the riffs wouldn’t flow, and the band was at their wit’s end.

Defeated after a month of getting nowhere in America, the band fled back to England and set up shop in the old medieval fortress of Clearwell Castle.  Supposedly haunted, the castle was a creepy old building in the middle of a forest that inspires rather dark thoughts.  It was, in other words, the perfect place for Black Sabbath to get their mojo back.  Shortly after setting up in the dark dungeon of the castle, Iommi came up with the powerhouse riff that drives “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the rest of the album flowed out from there.  The difference between Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and its predecessor is night and day.  That riff on the title track beats out pretty much anything on Vol 4 (except maybe “Supernaut”) and is easily one of the five most headbanging tracks the band ever recorded.  “A National Acrobat” and “Sabbra Cadabra” show the power of Iommi’s twisting guitar work in completely different ways.  The latter is actually my favourite Sabbath riff to play, and the lengthy, lumbering jam in the middle of it shows how powerful the Vol 4 songs could have been with proper guidance and production.  The crushing “Killing Yourself To Live” touched on the death spiral that each of the band members knew was going on with regards to their increasingly out-of-control substance abuse issues, especially Iommi, who had basically gone out of his mind on coke by the end of the Vol 4 world tour and Butler, who had to be hospitalized at one point for kidney problems resulting from the sheer amount of liquor he was drinking.  The haunting “Who Are You?” is the result of Ozzy playing around with an early Moog synthesizer (despite his not really knowing how to play it at all) and the soaring finale “Spiral Architect”, a song about the mysteries of DNA and the human experience, featured a gigantic orchestra that necessitated a move to a different, larger nearby studio.

Sabbath still had one truly great album left in the chamber, but Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is where the band really began to unravel.  The group’s serious substance problems were reaching epic proportions and their in-fighting was becoming a big problem as well.  Ozzy was checking out of the group even by 1974, Iommi was annoyed at being left to handle production on the band’s end by the others (leaving him isolated in the studio while the others went out and had a social life), and Butler was aggravated by Ozzy’s seeming inability to pick up the slack on writing lyrics (even though history has proven that he’s obviously much better at it).  The writing was on the wall for the band, but they managed to prove that they weren’t completely out of it yet.

sabbath_sabotage

SABOTAGE

Released July 28th, 1975 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Mike Butcher and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #7 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Am I Going Insane? (Radio)

The last great Black Sabbath album was recorded in a period of time that can be charitably described as a nightmare.  Having discovered that Patrick Meehan was colluding with their record label to cheat them out of royalties, they fired Meehan and were instantly sued by him.  The recording process of Sabotage was marred by a constant litany of visits to lawyers offices, letters delivered to the recording studio, and affidavits needing to be signed, often at the mixing board according to the band. With the constant distractions it’s a wonder that Sabotage turned out even half as well as it did.  Iommi suggested in later years that actually working on music was like a respite from the constant legal wrangling that took place in 1975.  Given that the band had to spend most of their days embroiled in legal shenanigans, the nights were given over to writing and recording.  The process took longer than any previous Sabbath album, and led to grumbling on the part of Ozzy that the whole thing was taking entirely too long.

Still, the band was spot on for the most part.  “Hole In The Sky” was a headbanger second to none, and “Symptom Of The Universe” gave birth to thrash metal.  “Megalomania” expanded the band’s prog reach to its eventual extreme, pushing close to ten minutes and full of shifts between straight-ahead rock and something more approximating a boogie.  “The Thrill Of It All” rode a riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Master Of Reality before launching off into a synth-driven rock ‘n’ roll odyssey circa the middle of the Seventies.  The use of synth – a divisive instrument among the band’s fanbase – would feature heavily in both the oddly orchestrated “Supertzar” and the strange choice of sole single, “Am I Going Insane (Radio)”, a track that would feature very little guitar work at all.  “The Writ” would end the record with another proggy stomper, this one featuring lyrics actually written by Ozzy about his disillusionment with the record industry and with the position the band found themselves in with regards to their former management.

The record is, as I mentioned above, the last great Sabbath album.  Things would unravel from the release of Sabotage onward, and it would culminate in the seeming destruction of the band within four years.  They were holed up in the studio, angry and paranoid, seemingly under siege on all sides and still trying to do everything themselves.  On Sabotage it still worked, but the next two albums would be a different matter entirely.

black-sabbath-technical-ecstasy

TECHNICAL ECSTASY

Released September 25th, 1976 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #13 UK, #52 US

By 1976 the band was in need of a vacation and decided to record the next album in the sunny environs of Miami.  This proved to be a relaxing process for everyone except Tony Iommi, who was forced into the position of producing the whole thing while everyone else took a break.  Butler and Ward drank and snorted and soaked up the sun; Ozzy did the same while plotting breaking off into a solo career.  Iommi holed up in the studio, did a lot of cocaine, and chased after a rock ‘n’ roll game of Keeping Up With The Joneses.  Ozzy recalled that during the recording process Iommi was obsessed with staying modern, chasing after Queen and Foreigner to keep their names relevant.  Therein lies the real issue with Technical Ecstasy.

That issue is that the album is all over the place and at times shockingly derivative.  Derivativeness on the whole is something that Sabbath fans should be somewhat familiar with; after all, the early classics were somewhat indebted to Cream and Led Zeppelin, even if they took those influences in a much heavier, darker direction.  There are parts on this record, however, that are complete head-scratchers.  “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” is probably the most egregious of these, given that it’s a warmed-over Kiss rip-off that comes off as completely unconvincing in the recording.  “Gypsy” recycles a bunch of rock cliches that were well-worn when Robert Plant was doing them, and “She’s Gone” is a go-nowhere sort of ballad that mistakes string sections for depth.  “You Won’t Change Me” repeats the problems of Vol 4 in that it overstays its welcome and prefers to spin its wheels rather than go anywhere useful.

Like Vol 4, however, there are some very solid tracks embedded among the flailings of a band on its way down.  The opener, “Back Street Kids”, is a thundering rocker, the sort of thing that “Wheels Of Confusion” should have been.  “It’s Alright” is an anomaly in the Sabbath catalog in that it features Bill Ward singing (he has a pretty good voice, as it turns out) and it sounds like a Seventies track from one of the Beatles’ solo projects.  “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” is weirdly funky and shows that Butler still had his finger on political concerns (the song is about a transvestite President of the United States and the inherent misogyny of America).  “Dirty Women” is a take on the same vibe that brought out “Snowblind” and has proved to be the most enduring of any of the songs off of this confused, grasping record – it was a highlight of the band’s reunion tour in the late 1990s.

The biggest failure of the album is that it largely abandons what made Black Sabbath work for the previous six years and tries to stay relevant to the contemporary music scene.  On one side, California was knocking with breezy soft rock  – Rumors was less than a year away and, at the same time and in the same studio, The Eagles were crafting Hotel California.  Both would go on to be massive sales forces at a time when Sabbath-esque hard rock was falling by the wayside.  The bands that Sabbath were awkwardly trying to ape – Kiss, Uriah Heep, the heavier parts of Bad Company, etc. – were no longer the cutting edge.  Punk rock was emerging quickly out of England, and within a year The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash would put paid to the sort of bloated rock ‘n’ roll hijinks that Sabbath had gotten mired in.  Hard rock would follow the path of Judas Priest, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal would put Sabbath riffs on speed and evolve into thrash metal, and within ten years bands would be putting on eyeliner, teasing their hair, playing pop songs and calling themselves “metal”.  It would be fifteen years before Sabbath would be a relevant cultural force again, although it wouldn’t stop remnants of the band from trying in that interval.  First, though, they had to fall apart, and the story of that destruction lies in their next album, the final of the Ozzy years.

black-sabbath-never-say-die

NEVER SAY DIE!

Released September 28th, 1978 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros Records

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #12 UK, #69 US

Singles:

Never Say Die!” (#21 UK)

A Hard Road” (#33 UK)

Black Sabbath’s original lineup fell apart for all intents and purposes during the Technical Ecstasy tour.  The infighting, the death of Ozzy’s father, and the exhaustion of doing hard drugs continuously for at least six straight years  prompted Ozzy to check himself into an asylum for a short period at the end of that tour.  Shortly after he formed a new band, Blizzard Of Ozz, and the band replaced him with Dave Walker, who had sung previously with Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac.  A few songs were sketched out with Walker, and there was even a television appearance with him on the BBC, but Bill Ward eventually called Ozzy and negotiated him coming back to record Never Say Die! with Black Sabbath.  They booked a studio in Toronto based on some sales brochures and set out to record the album in the winter of 1978.

As someone who has lived for a few years in Toronto, it’s difficult to overstate the sheer stupidity of this move.  Never do anything in Toronto in the winter.  It’s bleak, depressing, dirty, and exhausting.  It’s no surprise that the recording sessions were a confusing mess for everyone involved.

Ozzy came back but he was far from sober.  The Madman Himself was nearing the peak of his Madness and his antics drove the rest of the band mad along with him.  He refused to sing any of the melodies or lyrics that the band had written with Walker.  The band put their foot down about “Swinging The Chain” and when Ozzy refused to sing it Bill Ward stepped in and did it himself.  The winter was particularly bad in Toronto in 1978 and it dragged everyone down with it.  They would write songs in the daytime, record them at night, and patch things together at the end.  As a result, there is a peculiar feeling of the record being disjointed.  All of the finished songs are longer than they need to be, and no one seems to be willing to make an effort throughout.  The tempos are too rote, and the riffs are pastiches of other band’s riffs.  The leadoff track/lead single “Never Say Die!” retools a Kiss amalgamation into something workable, and “Junior’s Eyes” and “A Hard Road” contain the structures of much better songs.  The album version of “Junior’s Eyes” tacks on another two minutes to the version that the band played with Walker on the BBC and does nothing with them.  “Johnny Blade” awkwardly marries airy synths with stabbing hard rock chords and features a very tired-sounding Ozzy Osbourne.  “Air Dance” and “Breakout” are surprise jazz-fusion numbers that showed the experimentation that Iommi wanted from the band (and that Ozzy absolutely despised).  “Over To You” and “Shock Wave” are lethargic hard rock numbers that are easily forgotten when they’re over (although the former features some vaguely interesting piano trills embedded within).

Ozzy would go on to get fired from the band for being a drunken, drugged-out clown and in 1981 would call the album “disgusting”, but it’s not as bad as that, if we’re going to be fair about it.  The bones of very good songs are present throughout, but they’re buried under exhaustion, ego, and hazy drug-fueled self-indulgence.  There are people that actually really like it – Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, for example – and there’s a rough charm to most of it.  It isn’t actively awful.  It’s just a poor execution of decent material, and as such it’s a lowlight of the band’s catalog and an ignominious ending for Ozzy’s tenure in the band.

 

Your City To Burn: A Guide To The Smashing Pumpkins

maxresdefault
Standard

There’s a documentary floating about that follows Sonic Youth on their 1991 European tour. It features, amongst other bands, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland, and The Ramones. It’s called 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and there’s a lot of truth to that title. The Nineties were, if nothing else, a massive reset to the rock and roll mythos, a rejection of the template that had been hammered home continuously since the twin Zeppelin albums of 1969. The joke, at least by 1996, was this: How many hair metal bands did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kill off? All of them.

It’s nigh on impossible to imagine a single song having such a universal generational impact in the fractured music scene of 2016, but there it was. On one side of the divide, the mainstream music culture was listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Warrant, Motley Crue, Bulletboyz, et al, while a whole host of college rock heroes were toiling away behind the scenes. On the other side, punk rock suddenly became mainstream culture. Nirvana was surreptiously introducing a cohort of suburban teenagers to Black Flag, and while there was more than a whiff of metal to contemporary bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, it was a much darker, heavier metal than people were used to seeing on MTV. Gone were ubiquitous power ballads and raunchy pop songs dressed up with wild hair and shred guitar. Suddenly being dour, hopeless, and ironic was in. As the decade wore on, punk became even more obviously mainstream. Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring broke in 1994; suddenly even kids in rural Ontario were blasting the latest offerings from Eptiaph Records in their pickups on the way to a mud run or motocross. Fifteen years prior, to paraphrase Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, if you showed your face in normal society with blue hair, or a mohawk, or piercings, you would get your ass kicked by frat boys, or the local football team. By 1996, the frat boys and the football team would be joining in, going to Warped Tour, sporting mohawks, and chanting along with NOFX.

Still, there was something to be said for the classic rock icons that the Alternative Revolution had cast aside. Underneath the heavy layers of cheese, the attractive qualities of the Sunset Strip template remained, cribbed from Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Styx, and the rest. Big drums, big guitars, searing lead guitar solos, thumping basslines – these were all components that remained seductive long after the grind of four power chords in three minutes lost its novelty. Given the proper treatment, and a reverence for the right icons of the past, it was inevitable that someone would try to rearrange the pieces to fit the new Alternative Era. Enter The Smashing Pumpkins.

The Pumpkins begins and ends with it’s founder, and currently its last remaining original member, William Patrick “Billy” Corgan Jr. Billy Corgan’s father was a Chicago blues guitarist; despite this, he had to teach himself to play the guitar (his family dynamics were troubled) and to do so he studied the Classic Rock Canon: Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Queen, Boston, ELO, Rush, and Black Sabbath. Later in high school he got into gothic underground rock, namely Bauhaus and The Cure. This combination should sound familiar to you – it’s pretty much the basis of his band’s first three albums. At any rate, after high school he tried forming a band in Chicago, didn’t find anyone to his liking, and moved out to St. Petersburg, FL, to form a goth-rock band called The Marked. There are demos available for that band on YouTube, but they’re largely inessential. From 1985 to 1988 The Marked played small shows in and around St. Petersburg, and then disbanded. Corgan returned to Chicago in 1988, played briefly with Wayne Static in Deep Blue Dream before Static left for California and Static-X, and was then on his own.

Corgan got a job at a record store and met James Iha. The two of them began recording little goth-pop demos with a drum machine. After doing a few of these, they met waitress/bassist/tragically doomed D’Arcy Wretzky outside of a Dan Reed Network show. This trio began playing shows with a drum machine at various Chicago clubs, calling themselves The Smashing Pumpkins. The actual Smashing Pumpkins, the band whose sound would become iconic, wouldn’t truly be formed until October of 1988, when they recruited a drummer named Jimmy Chamberlin in order to get a show at the Cabaret Metro. While they went into practice with Chamberlin as a brittle goth-pop band, they soon realized that A): Chamberlin had never heard of any of the bands they were into, and B): They sounded way cooler as a heavy rock and roll band with Chamberlin pounding the skins in a serious way. With their new sound catching their interest, they released the singles “I Am One” and “Tristessa”. These caught on with the rock fans of Chicagoland and Caroline Records signed them to a deal in 1991.

8e03273d7797674cfd5280cb88744e05

Gish

Released May 28th, 1991 on Caroline Records

Peaked at #195 US

Singles:

Siva

Rhinoceros” (#27 US Modern Rock)

I Am One” (#73 UK)

The first full length Pumpkins recording kicks off with Jimmy Chamberlin laying down a serious hard rock groove; contrary to the popular wave at the time, “I Am One” showed a band that was ready to admit to its love of classic rock.  From there, the band walks a tightrope between massive dream pop, psychedelic post-Hendrix guitar work, and hazy, shoegaze-esque sequences.  “I Am One” and “Siva” are a gigantic one-two punch of hard rock, but not hard rock as the kids of 1991 knew it.  In a time of transition between Motley Crue and Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins went in neither direction, preferring instead to dial rock ‘n’ roll back to the late 1970s.  Holed up in Butch Vig’s studio in Madison, WI, Corgan and Vig played off of each other and drove each other to more intense heights.  The drums had to be tuned just so, and had to be recorded unprocessed; the guitars were dialed to what would become Corgan’s signature tone; the overdubs had to be layered in the fashion of ELO and Queen.  Neither Iha nor Wretzky played much on Gish, a fact that caused heavy resentment from both – resentment that would not abate as the years went on.  At least Iha went on to write some songs on future Pumpkins albums; after her winsome vocals on “Daydream”, D’Arcy Wretzky would largely disappear from studio Pumpkins work.

Regardless of who played what, the album made a name for them. It became a local favourite of the Chicago press and earned them scattered fans across the United States. While most wouldn’t catch on to the album until the band’s big success a couple of years later, those that were listening dubbed it “The Next Jane’s Addiction”. Certainly there are similarities – Jane’s Addiction was mining the more out-there aspects of Led Zeppelin to create a Big Alternative Rock statement, and the Smashing Pumpkins were doing the same but with ELO, Black Sabbath, and Jimi Hendrix. The point, however, must be made that Hendrix is in that latter mix. Dave Navarro and Billy Corgan were playing in the same league, but Corgan was more willing to fill in the quiet moments with slippery riffs, and to reach for a twisted lysergic heaven in a split-second switch.

siamese-dream

Siamese Dream

Released July 27th, 1993 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #10 US

Singles:

Cherub Rock” (#31 UK, #7 US Modern Rock)

Today” (#44 UK, #56 US (#4 Modern Rock))

Disarm” (#11 UK, #48 US (#8 Modern Rock))

Rocket

Those drum rolls that open “Cherub Rock”, and thus The Smashing Pumpkins’ sophomore album, are iconic, of both the band and the era. They also very nearly didn’t happen. The pummeling drum work on that song, especially, were part of an intense recording session where Corgan made Chamberlin play and replay the track until his hands bled. The story of why is just one part of the circus of problems that surrounded the recording of Siamese Dream.

Following the immediate release of Gish in 1991, the press outlets that reviewed it compared it to Jane’s Addiction. By the time 1992 rolled around, of course, Nirvana had opened the floodgates of the Alternative Revolution, and one of the bands caught up in the rising tide was The Smashing Pumpkins. The appearance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio changed the landscape entirely, and the band went from being tipped as “the next Jane’s Addiction” to being “the next Nirvana”, a label that put everyone involved under incredible pressure to succeed. Chamberlin responded by getting hooked on heroin. Iha and Wretzky responded by breaking up their romantic relationship. Corgan became depressed, put on weight, developed writer’s block, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

When the time came to record, the band fled to Georgia, in part to avoid the distractions of familiar faces and places, and in part to try to cut off Chamberlin from his heroin contacts. Anyone who knows an addict, of course, knows that new contacts are always going to be found unless you decamp to rehab (and even then it’s not a sure thing). Thus, for much of the recording process you had the following scene: Wretzky locked in the bathroom not speaking, Iha moping around the studio not speaking, Chamberlin missing for days at a time on heroin jags, and Corgan in the studio with Butch Vig trying to put a major label breakthrough album together with his bare hands. He ended up recording all of the guitar and bass parts himself, since the others could rarely perform at a level he was comfortable with. During this time Corgan began to fantasize about suicide, planning out his funeral in his head. “Today” is about this time, outlining the moment after he’d actually decided to kill himself; ironically, it was a self-recorded demo of this song that convinced a troubled Virgin Records that there was nothing to the rumours of band dysfunction and that everything was going according to plan.

The guitar and bass parts – as well as the fantastical amount of overdubs of those same parts (“Soma” has 40 overdubbed guitars) – were one thing, but Corgan eventually had to put his foot down with Chamberlin. He forced Chamberlin to record the parts on “Cherub Rock” until his hands bled, and then convinced him to check into rehab. When the whole thing was finished, it was $250,000 over budget and shockingly late. This would have normally posed a problem for such a relatively unknown band, but it shot up the charts immediately upon release and peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 (#4 in the UK), eventually being certified quadruple-platinum. Before Siamese Dream, they were a band on the verge of implosion; after, they were superstars.

And why not, really? Siamese Dream is easily one of the ten best records of the 1990s, a tour de force that brings together everything the band had attempted on Gish and makes it succeed. The guitar pyrotechnics of “Cherub Rock”, “Today”, “Quiet”, “Hummer”, “Rocket”, “Silverfuck”, and esepcially the barnburning motherfucker “Geek U.S.A.” brought in the fans of the post-Hendrixian work Corgan had displayed on Gish, but it is in the quieter moments that Siamese Dream really leaps forward. “Disarm” is the track that everyone remembers, with it’s strident acoustic strumming and it’s bells, but it’s the most obvious and least interesting quiet part on the album. The first half of “Soma” feels like a dream sequence, as though the listener is adrift in a sea slowly going night-black. The intro and outro of “Mayonaise” features odd tuning and graceful, clean guitar lines; the acoustic pleading of “Spaceboy”, a song written for Corgan’s autistic half-brother, hits more emotional levels than anything else on the album. The closing track, “Luna”, is the most unabashedly romantic song they’d done to date, a declartion of love for Corgan’s girlfriend and future wife Christine Fabian, featuring soft guitar, softer Mellotron, and an abundance of earnestness in a self-consciously ironic era.

71SxLxx5N-L._SL1300_

Pisces Iscariot

Released October 4th, 1994 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 US

Singles:

Landslide” (#3 US Modern Rock)

Two albums into their career, the band had enough B-sides and one-offs to gather together an entire album, and had an audience hungry enough for new Pumpkins material that the album went to #4. Unlike a lot of B-side material, there’s little here separating these songs from their album-included big brothers, rendering Pisces Iscariot an honest-to-god professional album in its own right, albeit one of reprints. “Frail and Bedazzled” would have fit right in on Gish, “Obscured”, “Whir”, and “La Dolly Vita” would blend in well both on Siamese Dream and the later Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. “Starla” was an epic rock and roll guitar jam that should have shut up any of Corgan’s naysayers, but of course didn’t. Two covers were included. One, The Animal’s “Girl Named Sandoz”, was an interesting psychedelic nugget. The other, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, became one of the most cherished moments for the band and a track that radio would eventually latch on to.

c0faaf7462520681ed11b64d13d22f2286f4be10

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

Released October 24th, 1995 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Bullet With Butterfly Wings” (#22 US (#2 US Modern Rock))

1979” (#16 UK, #12 US)

Tonight, Tonight” (#7 UK, #36 US (#5 US Modern Rock))

Zero” (#46 US (#9 US Modern Rock))

Thirty-Three” (#21 UK, #39 US (#2 US Modern Rock))

Muzzle” (#8 US Modern Rock)

The most ridiculously ambitious moment of the band’s career was plotted out as the apex of their musical arc.  Corgan would later call it “the last manouvre of that high-flying psychedelic rock band, the Smashing Pumpkins”, but at the time he described it in interviews as “The Wall for Generation X”.  While the overarching conceptual work that Pink Floyd created in 1979 would not be exactly like what Mellon Collie achieved, in terms of musical reach and sprawling epicness it’s a close cousin.  That said, of course, the overall theme of both albums is largely the same:  youth, and the wearing nature of stardom.  What Mellon Collie has (and what dour Roger Waters lacked) was an enduring belief in the power of love.  Mellon Collie is studded with songs that are just as – if not more – earnestly romantic as “Luna”, from Siamese Dream.  “Tonight, Tonight” is the one everyone could probably name, a power ballad from outer space driven by strings, punk-esque guitar strums, and those heavy hard-charging drums.  “Love” was a stylish, pulsing number that suggest the emotion boiled down to “who you know”; “Cupid de Locke” skipped in a foppish manner while “Galapagos” ruminated in a slower, more gentle fashion.  “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” was the epic love guitar jam, plucking out a long, spacey section of lush opiate dreams before getting crunchy and squealy.  “Thirty-Three” touched on getting older, while “Thru The Eyes of Ruby” is as fine a ballad to both getting married and to everlasting youth that I can name.  For that matter, everything that comes after “X.Y.U.” on the second disc is light, gentle, and full of love.

This was only half of this sprawling album, of course. In fact, with a bit of creative reshuffling, you could easily make two separate albums out of this 28-track set. The first would be the yearning songs of love and youth (of which “1979” would be the centerpiece). The second, of course, would the really loud, really bombastic, near-metal songs – “Jellybelly”, “Here Is No Why”, “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Fuck You (An Ode To No One)”, “Muzzle”, “Where Boys Fear To Tread”, “Bodies”, “Tales Of A Scorched Earth”, and “X.Y.U.”. This collection is as heavy as the Pumpkins ever got; Corgan’s first attempt at a comeback in 2007 would try for this vein of songwriting but fail to strike at exactly how it came out so well here. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that new producer Flood took one look at how the initial recording process was coming about and put a stop to it. Butch Vig had allowed Corgan to rule everything; Flood made sure that the band turned out a bit more democratically. James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky were allowed much more input than they had been previously; Iha actually has songs with both credit and co-credit here, and they show him to be a gentle, hushed songwriter.

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was my first rock n roll lover. Before it, I was a kid who was sort of into the singles I heard on the radio, which in Seaforth, Ontario, meant things like “Lightning Crashes”, “Big Bang Baby”, and “Woman From Tokyo”. After getting into “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” in a big way, I borrowed the album from a friend and engaged in some of that home taping that was once fingered to be killing music. The tape – which I still have – obviously couldn’t hold the whole album; on side one it went from the title track to just before the big dynamic shift in “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”, and on side two it went from “Where Boys Fear To Tread” to the first piano notes of “Beautiful”. I listened to that album so much I would be surprised if it still worked, over and over until I could literally recite the entire album. It spoke to me like no other album could, and I felt as though I were kin with it: both of us were angry and enamoured with big guitars and apocalyptic death rock, but we were both willing to give everything over for the youth-singularity of eternal love. In a way it’s quite painful to listen to, since it’s bound up in my mind with people, places, and events that are long since consigned to the winds, but which I remember with a desperate longing.

The-Smashing-Pumpkins-The-Aeroplane-Flies-High-Deluxe-Edition-Remastered1

The Aeroplane Flies High

Released November 26th, 1996 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #42 US

In the wake of the two-disc insanity of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and the lengthy tour that accompanied it, the band issued a sort of stop-gap box set that proved that the only person more prolific than Billy Corgan in the Nineties was Robert Pollard.  The Aeroplane Flies High is five discs, each one headed up by one of the singles from Mellon Collie:  “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “1979”, “Zero”, “Tonight, Tonight”, and “Thirty-Three”.  The rest of the discs are B-sides from the original singles, as well as covers of songs from Corgan’s New Wave youth.  As a compilation of non-album tracks, Pisces Iscariot is better, but Aeroplane is still a worthy addition to anyone’s Pumpkins collection.  Be aware, however:  the original box set is long enough, but the 2013 reissue adds in a series of demos and live tracks that caused even this old Corgan fanatic to go into Pumpkins shock and reach for some Sonic Youth.

61ggCLFwo3L._SL1300_

Adore

Released June 2nd, 1998 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Ava Adore” (#11 UK, #42 US)

Perfect” (#24 UK, #42 US (#3 US Modern Rock))

Crestfallen

To Sheila

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was an ending of the first phase of the Smashing Pumpkins in a number of ways, but the central ending event happened during the band’s massive world tour. On July 11th, 1996, in New York City, Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin were shooting up heroin in a hotel room when Melvoin overdosed. Despite the efforts of both Chamberlin and emergency attendents, Melvoin died. Fed up with Chamberlin’s drug-addled antics, Corgan fired him; the incident would later prompt Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes to call Corgan “the most corporate man in rock and roll”. In conjunction with the loss of the greatest drummer of his generation, the band intimated in interviews that they were growing bored with rock music as the band’s sole genre; Iha went so far as to say that the future was in electronic music. On a personal level, Corgan’s mother died, and he went through a divorce from his wife, Chris Fabian.

Before release of their fourth album, the band released a pair of high profile soundtrack songs:  “Eye“, on David Lynch’s weirdo opus Lost Highway, and “The End Is The Beginning Is The End” on the regrettable Batman & Robin.  Of the two, “Eye” would be the most telling; with it’s electro beat and it’s gothic atmosphere, it was a solid harbinger of what was to come.  Devoid of Chamberlin’s services, the band – who am I kidding, Billy Corgan – opted to go with drum machines and studio drummers to fill the gap.  Given that Chamberlin was the impetus behind their beefy hard rock sound in the first place, the band reset back to their brittle gothic pop origins.  Gone were the metallic rumblings, the squealing post-Hendrix guitar solos, and the black leather rock n roll rush.  Adore presented instead acoustic songs of loss, reflection, and love, garnished with electronic influences and anchored by mechanical beats.  Mellon Collie used piano with pomp, but Adore used piano as a central element, as integral as Corgan’s guitar and considerably more used.

Adore was in a way akin to an album released six years prior – R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People. Both are albums created by bands looking to hit the reset button after a contentious rise to the top; both trade loud bombast for quiet acoustic contemplation. Neither band would reclaim the heights they once held, although R.E.M.’s reset would at least garner both sales and accolades. The critics loved Adore but the public slept on it; the radio didn’t keep anything beyond “Ava Adore” in rotation for very long, since by 1998 it had moved towards ska, R&B, and teen pop.  Still, there are a number of truly great tracks found within.  “To Sheila”, “Crestfallen”, and “Once Upon A Time” are all heartbreakers, although “heart-shatter-ers” would be closer to the mark.  “For Martha” and “Tear” bring a breathtaking sense of minimalism to a band that had been known for being thick and anthemic; “Pug” and “The Tale Of Dusty And Pistol Pete” channel the pop hopefulness that ran through “Thirty-Three” but manage to elevate it to a more adult level.  It’s a shame that sales were poor and it remains a largely ignored piece of the Pumpkins catalog, because it proves something that became somewhat dubious in the following years:  that Billy Corgan could write great, mature songs with or without his signature searing electric guitar lines.

91WWXOvJSKL._SL1300_

MACHINA/The Machines of God

Released February 29th, 2000 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #7 UK, #3 US

Singles:

The Everlasting Gaze” (#4 US Modern Rock)

Stand Inside Your Love” (#23 UK, #2 US Modern Rock)

Try, Try, Try” (#73 UK)

By 1999 the band decided to part ways. Rather than simply break up, they reunited with Jimmy Chamberlin and plotted out one final blowout album to end everything on. It would be a big, loud concept album about the outsized attention towards a band of their level, a Bowie-esque rock opera about a rock star that hears the voice of God and embarks on a radical transformation and ascendency. Partway through the recording process they embarked on a small tour to celebrate their reunion with Chamberlin, but when the tour ended D’Arcy Wretzky chose to quit. Corgan took back the reins and reworked the album, consciously choosing to strike a balance between pop sensibilities and art rock.

The problem with “pop sensibilities” – and MACHINA itself – was that by 2000 its rock ‘n’ roll associations were with the likes of Matchbox 20. Thus the production has a sheen that sounds uncomfortably like the guitars are drowning in flanger and U2-esque delay. “The Everlasting Gaze”, “Heavy Metal Machine”, and parts of “Stand Inside Your Love” attempt a return to the heavy psych that marked their most successful albums, but the results are mixed. “Heavy Metal Machine” plods on for far too long, and “Stand Inside Your Love” tries to stretch out into being an anthem and falls awkwardly short of the goal. “Raindrops + Sunshowers” marries a fairly pedestrian lyric to a bad pastiche of Millenium arena-rock tropes: guitar processed to the point of being unrecognizable from keyboards, too many effects on everything, and a drum loop that may as well have been copy-pasted from a free sample disc. “I Of The Mourning”, “The Sacred And Profane”, and “This Time” suffer from the same problem, falling into the self-created trap that Corgan must have had wherein he felt that the part of Smashing Pumpkins fans most identified with were his alien voice and his lyrics. “Glass And The Ghost Children”, a central piece of the concept (apparently), shows some of the old Mellon Collie level of experimentation with form and structure, and tracks like “Try Try Try”, “The Imploding Voice”, and “With Every Light” are among the more effective songs he’s ever written. “The Crying Tree Of Mercury” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears” add some nice Cure-esque pomp to the end of the album, but it’s not enough to save the ship from sinking. As a supposed “final statement” from the band, it wasn’t exactly going out on a high note, but it was, at the very least, a decent enough effort.

69221a1b627c0a387197eae36f3cb7ab

MACHINA II/ The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music

Released September 5th, 2000 on Constantinople Records

MACHINA, their planned valedictorian effort, was originally supposed to be a sprawling double album that summed up everything that was great about Smashing Pumpkins.  Once Adore plummeted off of the charts in rapid fashion, however, Virgin Records told Billy Corgan that he could take his grand ambitions and shove them, because they weren’t paying for it.  So instead of that mythical second Mellon Collie, we got a half-baked album of overproduced schlock that approached the melodic brilliance Corgan was rightfully known for but had none of the raw verve or high-flying hijinks that informed their best work.

Billy Corgan, meanwhile, has never been the sort of person to accept being told where his ambitions are supposed to end.  So the band returned to the studio after MACHINA to record the rest of their material, or at least as much as their limited budget would allow.  The results were put together with 3 EPs of outtakes and B-sides and released – sort of.  In terms of physical release, only 25 copies were actually made of the album (as Corgan called it, “a final fuck you” to Virgin Records).  This “fuck you” was furthered by the note included with each of the copies, exhorting the owner to freely disseminate the music on the Internet.  These owners ended up being high-ranking fans on various Pumpkins forums – let it never be said that Billy Corgan doesn’t care about his fans.

MACHINA II, as it turns out, is much, much better than its predecessor, and part of the reason lies in the relatively unprofessional nature of the production.  That irritating glossy sheen that covered every last inch of MACHINA is gone, replaced with that raw guitar sound that the band had been using since Gish.  “Ghost And The Glass Children” would have been much more palatable with “Glass’ Theme” to leaven it; the inclusion of tracks like “Cash Car Star”, “Speed Kills But Beauty Lives Forever”, and “Dross” would have made the slower parts of MACHINA (all of it, basically) much better.  Cut out “I Of The Mourning” and “The Sacred And The Profane” and replace them with “Real Love” and “Saturnine” and suddenly you’re approaching classic status.  The alternate takes of “Try, Try, Try” and “Heavy Metal Machine” do nothing to improve upon or redeem the originals, respectively, but the “heavy” mix of “Blue Skies Bring Tears” makes the song leaps and bounds more acceptable.  Including “Let Me Give The World To You” and “Here’s To The Atom Bomb” honesty might have saved MACHINA from being a dud in terms of sales, as they’re two of the biggest hits the band never released to radio.

Still, it was a thank you to the fans, and the band was done.  Sort of.

cb7d64f8c0934cde5bbf3d7d7eec15ac

Zeitgeist

Released July 10th, 2007 on Reprise Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Tarantula” (#59 UK, #54 US (#2 US Modern Rock))

That’s The Way (My Love Is)” (#94 UK, #23 US Modern Rock)

In the wake of the demise of the Smashing Pumpkins, the bands members kept busy in their own various ways.  James Iha joined Maynard James Keenan’s project A Perfect Circle, a gig he maintains to this day; he also released some solo work and formed a label, Scratchie Records, whose signings included Fountains Of Wayne and Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes.  Jimmy Chamberlin formed an alt-jazz group, The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.  Before that, however, he and Billy Corgan formed Zwan, who released Mary Star Of The Sea before Corgan pulled the plug, alleging sex, drugs, and bad behavior regarding other members of the band (David Pajo from Slint, incidentally).  D’Arcy Wretzky was arrested for possession of crack cocaine shortly after the band broke up; although she was eventually cleared of these charges, she has largely disappeared, showing up only twice since 2000.  The first was for a bizarre impromptu radio interview in 2009 where she explained that she was living on a farm and that her fiancee had died at some point in the past.  The second was online in 2014 in a series of postings that seemed to express concern for Billy Corgan and questioned his whereabouts; while there was no resolution to any of whatever she was talking about, she also posted some pictures of herself that seem to show that she had taken up an interest in amateur botox injections.  Corgan has mentioned in the past that after the success of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness Wretzky descended into “insanity and/or drugs (take your pick)”.

At any rate, following the debacle of Zwan and the middling response to a solo album (2005’s TheFutureEmbrace), Billy Corgan took out a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune to announce that he was putting The Smashing Pumpkins back together.  That is to say, he and Jimmy Chamberlin were confirmed to be getting back together to play music as The Smashing Pumpkins.  After getting up to speed, they began playing shows in 2007 and then announced a new album, Zeitgeist.

Zeitgeist gets a somewhat unfair reputation.  The album came out to rather negative reviews, but too many of those reviews focused on the idea that, because Iha and Wretzky weren’t participating in the reunion, it wasn’t really Smashing Pumpkins.  Anyone who knows the history of the band knows how laughable this complaint is; Corgan and Chamberlin recorded the album pretty much themselves, and they noted as they did so that it was exactly what they used to do in “the old days”.  They also pissed off the audio engineers they worked with and, to a lesser extent, the brass at their new home of Reprise Records.  The engineers by 2007 were not used to recording a band that didn’t use a click track or do a lot of editing; Corgan and Chamberlin did neither, preferring to record live and leave it at that for the most part.  Reprise suggested Rob Cavallo as producer; Cavallo had produced Green Day’s massive comeback American  Idiot and they thought the same might come true for the Pumpkins.  The band instead went with Roy Thomas Baker, an old hand who had produced The Cars among other great albums, and who (more importantly) was willing to record in analog rather than digital.

The results are pretty middling, although it’s definitely a Smashing Pumpkins album.  The best moments:  “Doomsday Clock”, “That’s The Way (My Love Is)”, “Tarantula”, and “Shades Of Black”, are all heavy, bombastic Pumpkins songs in the vein of Mellon Collie‘s “Bodies”, right down to the relentless rhythm.  Other tracks recall less savoury memories:  “United States” is as long as “Ghost And The Glass Children” (or “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”) but not even as interesting as the former; “Bleeding The Orchid” and “Bring The Light” recall the more mediocre parts of MACHINA; “Starz” feels like a Mellon Collie B-side and “Stellar” could have been an outtake from Pisces Iscariot, in that it would have originally been left on the floor altogether.  “Death From Above” is oddly jaunty, though, and both “Ma Belle” and “For God And Country” recall the gentle, fragile melodies of Adore although with unfortunately more testosterone.

The real problem running through Zeitgeist is the lack of an integral part of the older albums:  the “Pumpkins Reset”.  For their best albums, the heavy metal barnburner tracks nearly always featured a dynamic reset that left the listener in freefall, accentuating the dream pop underpinnings that drove the band.  “Geek U.S.A.” from Siamese Dream is the best example of this – a motherfucker of a riff mined for three minutes that leads up to a spacey section that feels exactly like gravity has cut out and your feet have left the ground.  There is nothing like “Geek U.S.A.” on Zeitgeist; instead, as I noted above, there is a lot of stuff like “Bodies”, where the difference between the verse and the chorus is an extra layer of guitar and a vague sense that things are going faster.  Part of this is the insistence on live-in-studio recording:  “United States” could use some edits, and definitely a dynamic shift at some point, given that it’s ten minutes and the only real movement is relentlessly forward.  Part of it, though, is the need to prove that the band was back, and to remind people of how powerful the band could be both in studio and live.  I wasn’t completely convinced of the former, but I saw them live in 2008 and I was utterly convinced of the latter.  Billy Corgan is a guitar god, maybe the best of his generation, Steve Lukather be damned.

Teargarden_by_Kaleidyscope_cover

Teargarden By Kaleidyscope

By 2009 Jimmy Chamberlin once again exited the band, and Billy Corgan linked up with a young drummer named Mike Byrne and decided that the future was not in album making.  Instead, they planned out a collection of 44 songs that were to be released individually over the internet in intervals over several years.  The original plan was the put the maximum amount of concentration into each song, in a process that Corgan likened to painting.  The first track released in this project was “A Song For A Son“, on December 8th, 2009, followed shortly by a pair of EPs, and then two “albums within an album”, which will be dealt with in turn.

610VpLLBN9L

Volume 1: Songs for a Sailor

Released May 25th, 2010 on Martha’s Music/Rocket Science

Singles:

Widow Make My Mind

Songs For A Sailor makes tentative strides towards the future for the Pumpkins.  “A Song For A Son” is pretty good overall, although there’s more than a whiff of Led Zeppelin contained within.  The same can be said for “Widow Make My Mind”, which is a good song that could have been made great with a bit more grit in the studio.  “Astral Planes” is messy and frankly annoying, but “A Stitch In Time” is a classic Corgan acoustic song.  On the whole the first EP strives for art and ends up somewhere in the higher end of the commercial section.

teargarden-by-kaleidyscope-vol-2-the-solstice-bare

Volume 2: The Solstice Bare

Released November 23rd, 2010 on Martha’s Music/Rocket Science

Singles:

Freak” (#27 US Alternative Rock)

“The Fellowship”, which kicks off this second EP, is one of the best songs Corgan had written in a decade.  “Freak”, which follows it up, trumps it by being the best song he’d written since Adore (or, if we’re comparing apples to apples, since Mellon Collie).  If “Tom Tom” and “Spangled” seem disappointing in the aftermath, it’s only because of the preceding two tracks; “Tom Tom” would have been the best song on MACHINA and “Spangled” is a more electric take on a sort of “Sweet Sweet” type of song.  A stellar effort, and one that showed that the band wasn’t quite out of contention.

smashing-pumpkins-oceania

 

Oceania

Released June 19th, 2012 on EMI Records

Peaked at #19 UK, #4 US

Singles:

The Celestials” (#45 U.S. Rock)

Panopticon

Following the two EPs was the announcement of an “album within an album”, a full-length recording that would nonetheless be under the auspices of the Kaleidyscope project.  How this reconciles with Corgan’s idea to spend a great deal of time on each song is anyone’s guess; certainly there is less painting going on here and more rock ‘n’ roll sketchcraft.  The album kicks off with “Quasar”, and it’s a great way to open Oceania up:  an acidic rock gallop reminiscent of the Siamese Dream sound, a nod to various gods, and then into it.  The rest of the album never quite lives up to it but – importantly – it comes very close.  Take a track like “My Love Is Winter”.  It has the sort of cringe-inducing lyrics that Corgan has been trading in since MACHINA and at first it has the same boring arrangement that album would have presented as well.  Then all of a sudden a strange little keyboard riff comes in, some dynamic shifts occur, a heartfelt guitar solo opens up a soaring final chorus, and at the end you realize that there’s an honest-to-God great song there, clunky wordplay be damned.  The effect is such that when the weirdly out-of-place “One Diamond One Heart” comes on afterwards, with it’s bizarre mix of sub-chillwave and vaporwave sounds, you just roll with it, because you remember that this is what Billy Corgan does.  He’s a psychedelic guitar god who actually really wants to be Dave Gahan and this odd duality sums up not only his career but the entirety of Oceania as well.  “Pinwheels” is another great example of this:  the acoustic sections are pure “Superboy” or “Disarm”, but there’s that galloping synth arpeggio, and that clean late-80s guitar line near the end, and a big thumping bass drum that manages to hold it all together.

Oceania is an album that finally gets Billy Corgan back into a proper songwriting groove.  All of his work from MACHINA up to Oceania have been marred by his idea that he should be writing Smashing Pumpkins material and his seeming inability to do so.  Oceania fixes that; these are undeniably songs from the same vein of material that informed his classic albums, although they don’t quite match the quality of those classics either.  Still, it has high-flying rock ‘n’ roll moments, pretty chimey ballads, gothic synth lines, and enough guitar work to satisfy any curmudgeonly old grunge holdover.

monumentstoanelegy

Monuments To An Elegy

Released December 5th, 2014 on Martha’s Music/BMG

Peaked at #59 UK, #33 US

Singles:

Being Beige

One And All (We Are)

Drum + Fife

Run2Me

Another “album within an album” for Kaleidyscope, another lineup shuffle.  Gone was drummer Mike Byrne and long-running bassist Nicole Fiorentino; staying was guitarist Jeffrey Schroeder and coming in as drum mercenary was Tommy Lee, best known for playing the skins with Motley Crue, his bizarre take on rap-metal with Methods of Mayhem, and fucking his then-wife Pamela Anderson on camera during their honeymoon.  This wasn’t the oddest thing about the Smashing Pumpkins circa 2014, of course.  By then, Billy Corgan’s increasingly whacked-out politics were becoming more open, bolstered by the growth of the alt-right movement that emerged from the utter failure of the American right to unseat President Obama in the 2012 election.  A mere week after the release of Monuments To An Elegy he would go on Alex Jones’ batshit Infowars radio show to talk about how much he suffers as an artist especially at the hands of “dinosaur media” like Anderson Cooper and claim himself as “dangerous” due to his status as an “awake citizen”.  Not content to rest on his laurels, he would go on the show again last April dressed as a homeless man and spouting off about the evils of “SJWs” in America and how people like him need to combat their “brainwashing”.

It’s sad if not uncommon to see rock ‘n’ roll artists descend into vacuum-sealed nuttery; Ted Nugent claimed he would be “dead or in jail” if Obama won the 2012 election (he’s neither, for the record), Gene Simmons advocated for the corporate takeover of America, and Dave Mustaine opined a few years ago that Obama staged the Aurora, CO cinema shooting as a move to ban guns in America.  Unfortunately, much like the aforementioned three, the outing of their more obnoxious beliefs coincides with a decline in the quality of their output.  Monuments To An Elegy is a definite decline in quality even when compared to its immediate predecessor.  Oceania played with the conventions that Corgan had spent his career forging – metal barnburning, brittle goth synth lines, sweet acoustic balladry, post-Hendrix psychedelic guitar work, a healthy trust in the power of Eighties cheese.  Monuments goes half-ass on all of these, putting up just over half an hour of compact, airless alt-rock that sounds professional as hell but utterly boring.  Where “Pinwheels” succeeded as a ballsy sort of prog-ballad, “Run2Me” strips out all the grudgingly great parts and leaves the most godawful alt-ballad, the epitome of all the horrific possibilities to his songwriting that he began to reveal on MACHINA.  “Being Beige” and “Drum + Fife” both run on autopilot, seemingly more meant to be filler tracks on alternative radio playlists than the sort of “every song is a painting” type of track that they are ostensibly supposed to be a part of.  Tommy Lee does nothing to elevate these songs, either; where Jimmy Chamberlin would add in a nimble, hard-jazz inflection to give these tracks shape and character, Tommy Lee just bashes away in rhythm with Corgan’s dictates, as flat as the songwriting and just as disappointing.

To be fair, there are only a few key players from the Nineties that are still important and relevant today:  Radiohead, Beck, Bjork, Sleater-Kinney, maybe the Melvins if you stretch the definitions of “important” and “relevant” a little.  The problem here is that Corgan’s ego refuses to let him believe that he is no longer as important and relevant as he might once have been.  The self-important art projects, the full-page ads to announce the return of his band, and the multiple appearances on nutjob media all point to it, and while the outbursts are understandable they are no less of a bummer, especially taken in context with the apparent decline in songwriting.  For all of its many faults, at least Zeitgeist had some verve and life amongst the clunkery.  Monuments To An Elegy has neither, preferring to live in a weird alt-rock half-life, neither alive nor truly dead.

 

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

image-12
Standard

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Released May 13th, 2016

During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear.  Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.

Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised:  a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion.  Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid RapColoring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people.  “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole.  It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets.  The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place.  Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails:  he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it.  He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.

Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent.  He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas.  Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape.  It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”:  “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”.  Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive.  Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book.  They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.

Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al.  He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else.  In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.

AND THE REST…

A$AP Ferg

Always Strive And Prosper

04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music

The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.

Wire

Nocturnal Koreans

04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records

Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP.  As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.

Greys

Outer Heaven

04/22/2016 on Carpark Records

Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part.  In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs.  While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact.  Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.

Plants And Animals

Waltzed In From The Rumbling

04/29/2016 on Secret City Records

A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue.  Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.

The Jayhawks

Paging Mr. Proust

The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career.  Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.

White Lung

Paradise

The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album.  It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old.  At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Danny Brown Is On Warp Records and OMG That First Single

dannybrown
Standard

So, of all the music news that would set my heart into palpitations it would be that Danny Brown, the oddball Detroit rapper willing to put himself out there big time in terms of experimentation, has signed to venerable electronic-weirdo label Warp Records.  Yes, Warp, home of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Mount Kimbie, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, TNGHT, Flying Lotus, Gang Gang Dance, Bibio, Gonjasufi, and a billion other brilliant artists, has added Danny Brown to the lineup and it’s already paying off.  Here’s the first single, “When It Rain”:

Holy fuck.

The song itself is a lysergic footwork-tinged nightmare, with Brown going all in and the tension on the beat ratcheted up to the breaking point.  The video is just as unsettling:  it crosses a traditional rap video with a love letter to the same parts of Detroit that It Follows wrote to and heaps on a whole lot of /r/FearMe-esque insanity.

XXX and Old were superb albums, fitting just the right off-kilter beats to Brown’s hectoring, needling voice (a voice akin to Cypress Hill’s B-Real, but with a rapid fire flow that might stop your breathing if you’re not careful).  This new album is going to be off the wall, more so now that Brown has found a home that’s no stranger to out-there experimentation.

Absurd Rap Beef Du Jour: Nick Cannon vs. Eminem

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 24:  Nick Cannon appears on The Morning Show at The Morning Show Studios on March 24, 2014 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic)
Standard

Imagine saying to someone “Not only will I give you a free $100,000, I will let you publicly humiliate me.”  It seems like the sort of thing you’d be insane to say; at the very least, you’d need a wicked public humiliation fetish to pull it off well.  Yet here we have Nick Cannon, American impresario, rapper, and media personality whom you’d likely say “Ohhhh that guy from America’s Got Talent, okay, I wondered why he hung around” if you saw him.  Fresh on the heels of rumors that he’s dragging his heels on his high-profile divorce from estranged wife Mariah Carey, Cannon has issued a $100,000 rap battle challenge against  Detroit hip hop legend Eminem, a man who once filmed a blockbuster movie about how his prowess as a battle rapper led to his astonishing and enduring fame.  If this seems like a foolhardy waste of time to you, I can only say “Welcome to Nick Cannon.”

There is no word yet on whether Eminem will accept the challenge, and it would probably be best for him not to.  What would the point be, after all?  Nick Cannon is obviously going through some issues right now and the worst thing Em could do would be to involve himself in that nonsense.  At the same time, of course, the Marshall Mathers LP 2 was by and large terrible, and it would be interesting to see if the skills of Em’s fiery youth still held up today.  Of course, this isn’t the first time Cannon has gone after Em.  In 2009 Mariah Carey released a song called “Obsessed” that took aim at Eminem.  Em fired back in typical fashion with “The Warning“, a track that gets downright nasty and shows that anyone who thinks that Nick Cannon has even half a chance in this supposed “battle” is probably just delusional.

I’m looking forward to it if it actually happens, though.  It doesn’t get much funnier than that.

 

Extended Roundup (More April Stuff)

CanadaPro1
Standard

Because there aren’t any albums in this list I want to take the time to commit more than 300 words to.

Woods

City Sun Eater In The River Of Life

04/08/2016 on Woodsist Records

The veteran Brooklyn lo-fi folk group plays it safe on their latest album – entirely too safe.  Everything here sounds like Woods, even when it’s trying hard not to.

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals

Call It What It Is

04/08/2016 on Fantasy Records

Ben Harper’s first album with his Innocent Criminals backing band since the first Obama election is a solid return to form, a slick and professional amalgam of his styles:  funk, rock, soul, reggae, and old school R&B.

The Dandy Warhols

Distortland

04/08/2016 on Dine Alone Records

The poster children for diminishing returns approach the singularity.  Why even bother at this point?

The Lumineers

Cleopatra

04/08/2016 on Dualtone Records

The band doubles down on their folky Americana tracing, with a graver tone than the first time around.  The best that can be said is that at least they didn’t just go full-on Coldplay like a certain other indie-folk band of saps.

Royce Da 5’9″

Layers

04/15/2016 on Bad Half Entertainment

The veteran Detroit rapper isn’t gunning for radio singles or memorable street bangers here.  Instead, he leans on his top-notch lyrical skills to deliver a solid, message-driven album that also happens to feature some great hooks.

The Liminanas

Malamore

04/15/2016 on Because Records

The French psych-garage band combines a variety of European traditions – Italian giallo soundtracks, French ye-ye music, Spanish guitar melodies – with hard-hitting American psychedelic garage rock.  Features New Order bassist Peter Hook in an obvious cameo on one track.

The Coathangers

Nosebleed Weekend

04/15/2016 on Suicide Squeeze Records

Like Drew Storen, The Coathangers are a once-reliable outfit that has lost its velocity and therefore it’s meaning by 2016.  They try to develop some new tricks but, also like Storen, it remains to be seen whether they can pull that off in the long-run.

Kevin Morby

Singing Saw

04/15/2016 on Dead Oceans Records

The former Woods bassist puts out a lush album of moves cribbed from the Bob Dylan playbook.  Not exactly essential, but not a throwaway album either.

Suuns

Hold/Still

04/15/2016 on Secretly Canadian Records

A sort of lazy-eyed post-punk, like if Thom Yorke fronted an underground band.  There’s nothing here that reinvents the wheel or even improves upon an aspect of their influences, but it passes the time well enough.

Surgical Meth Machine

Surgical Meth Machine

04/15/2016 on Nuclear Blast Records

After putting Ministry to bed with a trio of albums that all said the same thing (“George W Bush sucks”), Al Jourgenson returns in 2016 with a project that blends industrial oblivion with the blurred effect of speed metal.  It doesn’t have the hard-hitting punch of his Ministry days but it’s funnier than anything he’s done in years, and the latter half of the album has more hooks than a bait shop.

Sam Beam

Love Letter For Fire

04/15/2016 on Sub Pop Records

The Iron & Wine frontman teams up with Jesca Hoop to put together an album of rich country-tinged folk ballads that I can’t remember a blessed thing about as soon as they’re over.

Kowton

Utility

04/15/2016 on Livity Sound Recordings

When it comes to electronic music meant to get you moving, Utility is competent.  That’s not really a compliment but it’s not altogether denigrating either.  You could do worse.

Susanna

Triangle

04/22/2016 on Susannasonata Records

An effective blend of the baroque majesty of Joanna Newsom and the cutting-edge mystique of St. Vincent.  It would be a much better album if it wasn’t so overly long.

Dalek

Asphalt For Eden

04/22/2016 on Profound Lore Records

Dense, thick, and lo-fi, the hip-hop group’s first album in six years (with new members) hits all of the right notes from their previous, critically acclaimed efforts.  Noisy without being willfully so, and brief without being truncated.

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 2

dirtybeach
Standard

Special Friday Edition!

Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music.  Ha.  Ha ha.  Well, they try, that’s the important thing.

If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist:  I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is.  In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right.  Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above:  it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.

Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.

Anyway…

June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”

Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton.  Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before.  In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.

A

#2:  Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”

Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song.  Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set.  Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.

B+

#3:  Beck – “Wow”

Ah, the new Beck track.  The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album.  Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness.  Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion.  Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.

B

#4:  The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”

The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead.  My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick.  Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.

C

#5:  A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”

Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names?  Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging?  Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth?  Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?

Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.

F

#6:  The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”

Okay, show of hands.  Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback?  Anyone?  Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ.  Wait, this is actually sort of good.  I…I kind of like this.  Noel Gallagher co-wrote it?  I suppose that explains some things.

B+

#7:  Portugal.  The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”

Who gave the indie kids access to the internet?  They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great.  It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act.  You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up.  Good work, Reddit.

C+

#8:  Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”

The rest of the post title literally reads:  “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.

Who are you trying to fool, anyway?  We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.

Decent tune though.

B

#9:  Link Wray – “Rumble”

Link Wray  poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino.  At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .

B+

#10:  Joywave – “Nice House”

Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden.  The outro is rather nice though.

C+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  B- (Not bad, Reddit!)

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 1

Screen-Shot-2014-11-10-at-1.52.27-PM
Standard

And now for a new sequence, brought to you by the…ahem…”tastemakers” of Reddit’s infamously awful /r/music community.

It’s often said that Reddit has shitty taste in music.  Granted it’s usually 4chan’s /mu/ community saying that, but let’s be serious here.  Whether it’s the constant love of Queen and Foo Fighters that makes me roll my eyes or the circlejerking over how superior they are because of their love of Tool, /r/music is a bottomfeeder in terms of music communities.

Or is it?  I’ve decided to start an ongoing series where I listen to the top ten songs posted to /r/music in a 24 hour period and assign them completely subjective ratings based on my own insane whims and thought processes.  Then we’ll see if /r/music’s taste actually sucks as badly as I’ve always thought.

Without further ado, I give to you:

June 1st, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Rancid – “Ruby Soho”

The most poppy and milquetoast of all of the Clash-rip-off’s poppy and milquetoast songs.  /r/music loves punk rock, but only if it’s from Le Nineties and it’s been beaten to death on the radio since then.

 D+

#2:  The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”

The first time since 2001 that Australian sample-stackers The Avalanches release new music AND it’s fucking stellar?  You win this time Reddit.  You win this time.

A+

#3:  Dethklok – “I Ejaculate Fire”

I’d say something snarky about how the only way metal gets to the top of Reddit is in cartoon form but I can’t hate on Dethklok.  This isn’t completely dildos.

B+

#4:  Johnny Cash – “Rusty Cage”

The best that can be said of this is that at least Reddit took a break from jerking off over “Hurt”.  At least with “Rusty Cage” I don’t have to read about how “REZNOR TOTALLY SAID THAT SONG BELONGED TO JOHNNY CASH NOW BECAUSE THE COVER WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!1!11!”.  In fact, one of the top comments is the exact opposite.  Thank you, Jesus.

C+

#5:  The Distillers – “The Young Crazed Peeling”

Man it has been a long time since I thought of Brody and The Distillers.  It still sounds like Courtney Love fronting Rancid to me, and as the years have gone by that prospect appeals to me exponentially less.  Also, those fucking spikes.  Jesus Brody, how much money did you shell out to get that look down just right?  How punk rock of you.

C-

#6:  Huey Lewis And The News – “If This Is It”

Jesus Christ Reddit, Bret Easton Ellis was being ironic.  What the hell is wrong with you?

F

#7:  Lagwagon – “Island Of Shame”

Apparently it’s awful pop punk day on Reddit.  Lagwagon was that band that was there for you if Pennywise was too edgy for you.  Completely indistinguishable from anything else on Epitaph in the mid-90s.

D

#8:  Grand Funk Railroad – “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”

GFR got a lot of hate back in the day from critics because, well, they’re not really that good on average.  Still, they were capable of moments of brilliance, and “I’m Your Captain” is one of those.  For more on Grand Funk Railroad, consult your local library.

A-

#9:  Men At Work – “Down Under”

Goofy Eighties pop rock from the Gowan of Australia.  I often wonder who posts these sorts of songs.  Kids nostalgic for a time they never had to live through?  Adults putting on rose-coloured nostalgia glasses?  Mouthbreathers who listen to bland Mix FM stations at work?  At least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.

C-

#10:  The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (aka The KLF) – “It’s Grim Up North”

Reddit’s sizeable school shooter community comes through in the clutch.

B+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  C+