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


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.




Released February 13th, 1970 on Vertigo Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

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


Evil Woman

Black Sabbath


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.



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

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US



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.



Released July 21st, 1971 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Rodger Bain

Peaked at #5 UK, #8 US


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.



Released September 25th, 1972 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Patrick Meehan, Tony Iommi

Peaked at #8 UK, #13 US


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.



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


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.



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

Producer:  Mike Butcher and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #7 UK, #28 US


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.



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.



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

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #12 UK, #69 US


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


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.



Released May 28th, 1991 on Caroline Records

Peaked at #195 US



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

Released July 27th, 1993 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #10 US


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

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

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


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.


Pisces Iscariot

Released October 4th, 1994 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 US


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.


Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

Released October 24th, 1995 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #1 US


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 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.



Released June 2nd, 1998 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #2 US


Ava Adore” (#11 UK, #42 US)

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


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.


MACHINA/The Machines of God

Released February 29th, 2000 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #7 UK, #3 US


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.


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.



Released July 10th, 2007 on Reprise Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #2 US


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

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.


Volume 1: Songs for a Sailor

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


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.


Volume 2: The Solstice Bare

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


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.




Released June 19th, 2012 on EMI Records

Peaked at #19 UK, #4 US


The Celestials” (#45 U.S. Rock)


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.


Monuments To An Elegy

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

Peaked at #59 UK, #33 US


Being Beige

One And All (We Are)

Drum + Fife


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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)

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)


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


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


04/08/2016 on Dine Alone Records

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

The Lumineers


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″


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


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.



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.



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.



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.


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


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.


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.


#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.


#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.


#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”.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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 .


#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.


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


Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 1


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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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?


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.



M83 – Junk


M83 – Junk

Released April 8th, 2016 on Mute Records

My wife and I keep Sirius XMU, the “indie” satellite channel, on in the car pretty much all the time.  One consequence of this is that, when the blogger guest DJs come on, things can get pretty random.  One day, during what might have been Brooklyn Vegan’s set but was probably Gorilla Vs Bear’s, the subject of vaporwave was brought up.  Sort of.  Whomever it was referred to what they were playing as “weather-channel-core”, as in “the sort of music that you’d hear played over the weather channel as it flips through various local and regional forecasts.”  This is pretty similar to the concept of vaporwave – where the dulcet sounds of late 80s/early 90s training video music (along with every other uncool musical movement of the era) are reconstructed into something bizarrely post-modern.  Either way, it’s taking the sound of music that was never really meant to be listened to actively and ensuring that the listener has to do so.

The genre has had some limited success, mainly online.  Macintosh Plus (or Vektroid, as she normally goes by) had a lot of people on /mu/ convinced with Floral Shoppe that vaporwave was their life.  Saint Pepsi has bubbled around alt-indie radio and Oneohtrix Point Never celebrated his signing to venerable Warp Records with R Plus Seven, a heavily vaporwave-influenced album.  Still, in a year where everything sounds like Drake (because everything on the charts has Drake on it, natch), it’s hard to imagine people grooving to adult contemporary saxophones, smooth jazz sounds, factory-preset synth voices, and those hollow, echo-laden drums that scream “cheap Eighties power ballad”.  And yet, here is Junk.

Of course, if anyone was going to “go vaporwave”, it was going to be Anthony Gonzalez.  His M83 project may have kicked off with a couple of hard-synth albums that appropriated the bombast of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness for an uncertain new age, but his sound came into its own on Saturdays=Youth, the soundtrack to the dream John Hughes movie that only ever existed in your head.  It was unabashedly influenced by the Eighties, to the point where the person inside you that desperately wants to be cool feels uncomfortable listening to it at times.  Hurry Up We’re Dreaming followed this up with a sprawling double album of synth-rock heroics, dream pop bliss, and more of that Breakfast Club soundtrack vibe.  Junk is not like that.  Junk takes Gonzalez’s love of 1987 and dives in full-force.  This is the smooth jazz-AOR-proto-diva-power-ballad-hybrid album that has been lurking inside of his head since forever.  “Go!” has one of those searing guitar solos that used to anchor pop songs (like Eddie Van Halen’s wailing on “Beat It”); “Walkway Blues” has some texture-treated sax (or synth-sax, possibly); “Moon Crystal” is pure VHS nostalgia – an advertisement for a spa, or some other feature you’d watch on an internal hotel channel.  “For The Kids” is the sappiest family movie ballad that was never released in a glut of bad straight-to-video movies, although “Atlantique Sud” comes close.  “The Wizard” adds in the thin-tape of cheap commercial grade VHS sounds, like a training video that’s been watched too many times over thirty years.  “Sunday Night 1987” closes out the album with exactly what the title promises, a smooth, nearly edgeless bit of calmed-down soulful balladry with those Casio-preset piano noises and reedy late-period Billy Joel saxophones.

Junk has all of the trappings of vaporwave except perhaps for its politics.  The artists that originally started piecing together the disparate parts that make up the genre intended to offer a satire or critique of modern consumer culture and the disturbing habit of throwing away everything that is even the slightest bit old.  It’s meant to reveal the cracks in the golden facade of capitalism by ironically remixing music that was only intended to be a backdrop to sales tools, or to cynically fill in places in art that was only ever intended to make someone along the chain some money.  Does Junk fulfill this?  Not particularly.  It seems to function instead as an homage to Gonzalez’s youth, much as his previous two albums functioned.  It uses nostalgia to make nostalgic art, rather than critique the past and future.  It’s done in such a deft and seamless way, however, that I can’t really count that apolitical status as a fault.  Instead, it’s a tribute to a time and a sound that most people would rather gloss over or ignore.  You can see that reflected in the reaction to the album; most people don’t seem to know what to make of it, thinking that there must be some hidden ironic agenda going on that they’re not in on.  The cheese is sincere, however, and celebratory.



Sleep Cycles

04/08/2016 on My Animal Home Records

That Kickstarter Josh Dibb did initially to crowdfund this album?  He donated most of that to charity.  Kickstarter is problematic.  Sleep Cycles is a good album though, one that approximates the bare essentials of his Animal Collective day job without getting into the high-flying lysergic excesses.

Peter Wolf

A Cure For Loneliness

04/08/2016 on Concord Records

The former singer for the J. Geils Band tries to pretend that thirty years of history hasn’t happened and that he can still get away with lite-rock AOR music.  It’s always fun when you can guess exactly where each song is going to go from the minute it starts.  Did I say fun?  I mean sleep-inducing.

Ben Watt

Fever Dream

04/08/2016 on Universal Music

Like an actual fever dream, it goes in many strange directions and there’s very little to grasp onto once you wake up.

Future Of The Left

The Peace and Truce Of The Future Of The Left

04/08/2016 on Prescriptions Records

I just want an album that’s as rich, over-the-top, and powerful as Travels With Myself And Another.  Admittedly, this comes pretty close.


Brilliant Sanity

04/08/2016 on Moshi Moshi Records

One of those indie albums that sounds an awful lot like all the other indie albums.  Except for “Dusseldorf” and “Glory Hallelujah”, though:  both of those are stellar tracks.



Parquet Courts – Human Perfomance


Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Released April 8th, 2016 on Rough Trade Records

Parquet Courts are a lot of different things.  A little bit Modern Lovers, a little bit Guided By Voices, the odd bit of Pavement, some old-world post-punk, the poppier moments of Swell Maps – it all rides a certain smoky nonsense, something borne out of the septic days of the Velvet Underground.  I asked them recently on Reddit if they were kidnapped, locked in a room, and asked at gunpoint to choose between Pere Ubu and Swell Maps who their choice would be.  Frontman Andrew Savage responded that first, this was an odd outlet for aggression, and second that he would have to be a patriot and choose Pere Ubu.

Parquet Courts are a post-punk band, but they’re an updated iteration of that exploration of what punk rock means.  What does Wire and Swell Maps fronted by a deadpan, jittery Stephen Malkmus sound like?  It sounds like Human Performance.  The opening track, “Dust”, extends a Pink Flag era type riff while capturing a narrative out of the anonymous textures of everyday life.  The title track lives on the edge of its own churning emotions, for sure, but it kicks off with one of the most succinct descriptions of love:  “I know exactly where I was when I first saw you the way I see you now, with these eyes.”  From there Andrew Savage tries to figure out exactly where it all went wrong, with regards to his relationship with both girl and city.  Tracks like “Outside”, “Steady On My Mind”, song-of-the-year candidate “Berlin Got Blurry”, and “Keep It Even” tackle the former subject.  More interesting are the songs that wrestle with Savage’s hot-and-cold relationship with NYC:  “I Was Just Here” wonders fiercely where that Chinese restaurant got off to so quickly; “Captive Of The Sun”‘s Dylan-esque word vomit models the bustle and restlessness of the street; “One Man No City” examines the loneliness of the uncaring hordes; “Two Dead Cops” uses a real double-homicide of police officers in Bed-Stuy in 2014 to talk about the seemingly random and impersonal violence that crops up constantly in urban situations.  The loneliness of a failing relationship is thus juxtaposed against the loneliness of the impersonal big city and a constant back-and-forth connection can be established between the two.

Parquet Courts have been on an upward trajectory of, if not maturity, increased awareness of their position as “artists” and of the art that they are creating.  Light Up Gold was a mile-a-minute cross between pop punk, post-punk, and early Nineties indie rock a la Pavement and Guided By Voices.  Sunbathing Animal followed suit, but on Content Nausea they got jittery, angular, and all of those other words we used to describe post-punk inspired indie rock with in the early Oughts.  Monastic Living doubled down on that path, giving us a solid minute and a half of melody before spewing noise for the remainder of the EP.  Human Performance brings it back around to the beginning, but with a heavy dose of that dreaded word I disavowed above:  “maturity”.  The noise terrorism is kept to a judicious minimum and the tempos have lost some velocity, and in this is the structure of a brilliant album.


Frightened Rabbit

Painting Of A Panic Attack

04/08/2016 on Atlantic Records

“Get Out” is a great track and having National pedigree on production is promising, so why does this album fall so goddamn flat?



04/08/2016 on Reprise Records

So you can’t go home again, as it turns out.  Gore kind of sounds like the past glories of Deftones, if you take out things like edge and excitement.

PJ Harvey

The Hope Six Demolition Project

04/15/2016 on Vagrant Records

While not being as wall-to-wall brilliant as 2011’s Let England Shake, the veteran’s newest album manages to bring her politics local again, while getting off a few good shots.  “The Wheel” happens to be a particular classic, and “The Ministry Of Defence” brings it all back around to Rid Of Me.

Mike & The Melvins

Three Men And A Baby

04/01/2016 on Sub Pop Records

The gods of Sabbath riffery were supposed to do this album with underground Mike Kunka 16 years ago, and it shows.  Like most Melvins collab albums, it’s only as essential as your sense of completion requires it to be.


Lost Time

04/01/2016 on Hardly Art Records

Breezy, fun pop-punk from the Seattle heirs of the riot grrrl movement.  Doesn’t differ all that much from their debut, but then again it probably doesn’t need to.