Foreigner – Foreigner
Released March 8th, 1977 on Atlantic Records
The death knell of traditional freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll – the last sound to really embrace it before it all shot off in the direction of punk and metal – was the sound of Foreigner. On paper it was one of those regrettable supergroups that pop up continuously in rock history, like Asia or Velvet Revolver or Divine Fits. Mick Jones, friend of the Beatles and guitarist for Spooky Tooth, got together with Ian McDonald (formerly of King Crimson) and Lou Gramm (from the largely unknown and by-then defunct Black Sheep) to play prog-tinged, flashy rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed, and continues to seem, crassly put together by label executives to sell records and get radio play, but it came out at just the right time to cash in before the revolution.
Boston came out in 1976, and it set the standard for slickly produced prog-pop. Foreigner was a sort of response to it, doubling down on the effort to get sticky melodies and traditionally hard guitar in the heads of radio listeners. Boston, Styx, Supertramp, Foreigner – all of those bands that Adam Sandler is always going on about – dominated rock radio by the end of 1977. It’s drivetime commute music, arena rock that lived up to it’s name. McDonald and Jones’ work did the job admirably, of course; Foreigner is one of those debuts that has a number of indelible singles attached to it that will live on until the youngest of the Boomers has passed on. “Feels Like The First Time” and “Cold As Ice” are anchors on classic rock radio, while “Starrider” and “Long, Long Way From Home” show a somewhat deeper side of the band. “Headknocker” showcases the real enduring problem with Foreigner – Lou Gramm. The songs are always well-written, airtight compositions of rock ‘n’ roll that morphs a little with the times in order to fit in on the radio. Gramm oversings them like he actually believes he’s a rock ‘n’ roll hero and not the singer for a radio friendly unit shifter. Consequently, a song like “Headknocker”, which could be a decently gritty rock tune, gets rendered a little ridiculous by Gramm’s hair-in-the-wind Jesus Christ pose. I’ve always wanted to hear Craig Finn’s take on the song, provided the idea didn’t make him a little queasy.
Change was just around the corner, and within three years you couldn’t sell an album like Foreigner if you tried. It encapsulates the final form of a certain sound that had been knocking around the rock milieu since 1969 and it nails it, more or less. First wave punk, New Wave, and the charge of the hair metal brigade would obliterate it in the end, forcing bands like Foreigner to trade in ever-slicker and desperately hedonistic songs before finally collapsing into Power Ballad Hell. The Eighties could be terribly unkind. Before that ignominy, however, Foreigner functions like an artillery blast in the night, showing that maybe the old guard wasn’t dying quite as quickly as anyone might have thought.
Pink Floyd – Animals
Released January 23rd, 1977 on Columbia Records
If Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s extremely successful followup to their legendary breakthrough album Dark Side Of The Moon, contained the first hints of Roger Waters’ growing disgust and misanthropy, Animals is the full-on document of it. Animals is, to put it bluntly, bleak. Waters divides the whole of British society into three categories, in an homage of sorts to Orwell’s Animal Farm: the pigs that rule over society, the dogs that bully society, and the sheep that comprise the rest. The three main suites are lengthy, nihilistic jams that eschew radio-ready hooks for slashing blues guitar, lumbering bass, and vocal lines that sound as though Waters is literally chewing off the words and spitting them out. To say that 10-minute-plus slabs of dark, misanthropic guitar music was rather unfriendly to radio is an understatement. There are two reasons for this change-up in the sound of the band: first, as “Welcome To The Machine” and “Have A Cigar” on Wish You Were Here indicated, Waters and the band were growing sick of the record industry’s increasingly banal demands on the band; second, the underground punk rock movement that had grown throughout 1976 had set it’s sights on “dinosaur rock” prog movements, who were perceived as bourgeois and decadent. The latter is not entirely the case – Johnny Rotten was actually a fan of a lot of prog acts, and his infamous “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt was a sort of joke – it was enough for the band to think that keeping their art separate from industry concerns was probably a good thing.
Animals has remained something of a black sheep in the catalog for many less hardcore Floyd fans, stuck as it is between the (relatively) radio-ready sound of Wish You Were Here and the generational majesty of The Wall. The sound of the latter album has it’s roots in Animals, though, and the concept emerged from the In The Flesh tour the band undertook to promote Animals. The tour was even more of a slog than recording the album had been, with many members of the band at odds with each other and the whole concept of being in Pink Floyd to begin with. Keyboardist Richard Wright, feeling shut out by Roger Waters, feuded constantly with him, at one point flying back to England and threatening to quit entirely. Promoters tried to cheat them out of portions of ticket sales; the inflatable pig they used as a stage prop kept getting filled with a continually more dangerous mix of gases; David Gilmour lapsed into a low point of his professional career after realizing that he’d reached the top with nowhere left to go. Waters, for his part, began arriving alone to the venues and leaving before the rest of the band; as the tour went on he became increasingly more hostile to the audience. This culminated in an incident at the last show of the tour in Montreal, where Waters spit on a group of fans who were irritating him in the front row. Afterwards, he spoke about the utter alienation he felt from the people in the audience and how he would like to build a wall between him and them, “brick by brick.”
Mystery Jets – Curve Of The Earth
Released January 15th, 2016 on Caroline International Records
The English indie band’s sixth album is a distillation of every hat they’ve tried on over the years. What this actually means is that Curve Of The Earth is the mushy middle of English neo-pysch indie rock: a little bit deadpan Pink Floyd, a little bit Bends-era Radiohead, a bit of the Flaming Lips at their least experimental. The guitar tone is definitely in debt to the first in that list; “Blood Red Balloon” feels a lot like an outtake from Wish You Were Here, while “Telomere” sounds like the moment Britpop turned into arena rock. A lot of it tends to blur together; there’s no overarching vision at work here, no particular style that you can point to and say “This is what being Mystery Jets means”. Curve Of The Earth is a collection of songs, mostly derivative, decent enough without being anything special. Great for that person who grumps that no one sounds like their parent’s music anymore, something to put on while you’re cleaning for the rest of us.
The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum
Released January 22nd, 2016 on Jagjaguwar Records
The Montreal-based six-piece The Besnard Lakes have by now a rather lengthy history of putting out solid, if at times uninspired, new entries into the pop-prog canon. A Coliseum Complex Museum is no exception. The band mercifully dials back the song lengths that mired 2013’s Until In Excess, Imperceptible UFO in a swamp of listener fatigue, cutting them down to a sort of fighting weight that they rarely have achieved elsewhere in their discography. Stylistically it’s a throwback to their best album, 2010’s The Roaring Night: “The Bray Road Beast” and “Golden Lion” could both stand beside such luminaries as “Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent Pt. 2” and “Last Train To Chicago” in relative ease. In a way that’s both the ultimate strength and the ultimate drawback of the record. It’s familiar and easy to slip into, like a pair of worn slippers, but they’re slippers that are starting to get a little thin in the sole, a little ratty along the sides. The Besnard Lakes have proven that they can do this sort of thing easily, but now they need to think about changing it up a bit, or risk an ignominious stagnation.