when i moved to NIGERIA in late 1995 while still in elementary school, i was well familiar with PEARL JAM's TEN (EPIC, 1991) and VITALOGY (EPIC, 1994) records, but somehow missed the boat entirely on the album in-between, VS. (EPIC, 1993). while TEN is an intense album full of psychic and emotional cathasis and VITALOGY more of an sonic experiment into unorthodox song structures, instrumentation and pastiched found audio, VS. has always to my ears been the sound of a band discovering who they are aurally and lyrically.
you get the sense listening to VS. that singer and co-songwriter EDDIE VEDDER was coming to grips with his unforeseen celebrity by diving further into the uncelebrated and largely forgotten lives of ordinary people around him, writing touching vignettes such as "DAUGHTER" and "ELDERLY WOMAN BEHIND THE COUNTER IN A SMALL TOWN." this thread of their songwriting places them in the vein of AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC and the likes of WOODY GUTHRIE, PETE SEEGER, BOB DYLAN and even BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. writing character pieces delighting in the daily struggles of anonymity is something i dont equate with their SEATTLE peers at the time in ALICE IN CHAINS, SOUNDGARDEN or NIRVANA. again, its indicative of a deeper thread of AMERICAN narrative music.
relatedly VEDDER and his bandmates were not afraid of tackling social issues like WHITE PRIVELEDGE / POLICE BRUTALITY and GUN VIOLENCE in tracks like "W.M.A." (meaning WHITE MALE AMERICAN) and "GLORIFIED G." looking back it still feels like a courageous move to make an album tackling such issues on your sophomore release, with all that was riding career-wise on this record. but then again, you get the feeling that with PEARL JAM, much like previous incarnations of the group in MOTHER LOVE BONE and GREEN RIVER, they would rather risk commerciality with authenticity. for better or worse, PEARL JAM has been true to themselves and their beliefs, even when falling on their face. can't fault them for that.
my favorite track on the record is the plodding, slow-paced dirge that is "INDIFFERENCE." its the perfect song when thinking about the meaninglessness and ultimate futility of our individual pursuits and struggles. it is almost BUDDHIST in how it forces you to acknowledge the inconsequential and often false nature of your lived experience to make you see that this moment is all you have. it is the indifference of natural order that gives each moment its spur and passion. choose how you spend them thoughtfully and judiciously is how i always took it. the song is almost a challenge in that sense.
VS. is often forgotten in comparison to TEN, but is well worth revisiting again. definitely worth the effort.
during my 1990s childhood in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, there were two songs i remember hearing on the ALTERNATIVE ROCK station 106.7 KROQ and having absolutely no clue who sang them. in those days there was no SHAZAM app or internet and the only way to learn was if the DJ felt like mentioning it. the first song i learned years later was NIRVANA's haunting "SAPPY." the other was STONE TEMPLE PILOT's laid-back, harrowing cover of LED ZEPPELIN's "DANCING DAYS" on the ENCOMIUM: A TRIBUTE TO LED ZEPPELIN (ATLANTIC, 1995) tribute compilation.
that cover in particular is probably one of SCOTT WEILAND's great performances and showcases a charisma and preternatural ability to shine when the focus very much is on him and his voice. he comes off both assured and insular and transforms a celebratory anthem into something entirely different, something excruciatingly introspective. i should also mention that guitarist DEAN DELEO has some righteous slide work on the track which only heightens that haunting, reflective vibe.
when revisiting this compilation recently, i was struck by the quality of other vocal performances by the likes of LINDA PERRY (4 NON BLONDES), SHANNON HOON (BLIND MELON) HENRY ROLLINS (ROLLINS BAND) and DAVID YOW (THE JESUS LIZARD here collaborating with HELMET), which all point to the dynamic and versatile quality of the songwriting and the poetic lyricism of JIMMY PAGE and ROBERT PLANT. just the fact that this material can be interpreted convincingly by such disparate artists is pretty remarkable. that is not to say that there arent some forgettable, less-than-stellar duds from the likes of HOOTIE & THE BLOWFISH, SHERYL CROW, CRACKER and DURAN DURAN, remember this was put out by ATLANTIC RECORDS with largely its then-current roster of artists. maybe this was a calculated effort to draw attention to LED ZEPPELIN's back catalogue as PAGE & PLANT where reestablishing their recording and touring career at the time as a duo. could be that this compilation was a marketing ploy, but with the solid aforementioned contributions, i dont believe it was a fruitless exercise in the least.
ENCOMIUM is definitely worth checking out if you are a LED ZEPPELIN aficionado or even a fan of SCOTT WEILAND or SHANNON HOON. definitely two captivating performances by the two at a point in their creative careers when they were firing on all cylinders. REST IN PEACE to both.
the self-titled ALICE IN CHAINS (COLUMBIA, 1995) record was a big deal to me when it came out. i was in NEW JERSEY staying with relatives during the summer of 1996 and i distinctly remember getting the new DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (A&M, 1996) record by SOUNDGARDEN as well as EVIL EMPIRE (EPIC, 1996) by RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE. i also hauled away the entire METALLICA back catalogue (as LOAD had recently been released as well). back then it was all about acquiring CDs to take back home to NIGERIA where my family was living and that was a remarkably great summer in that regard.
looking back, what always struck me about the self-titled ALICE IN CHAINS album was how experimental it was. maybe this was partly the result of LAYNE STALEY's addiction (alluded to at with the album cover art of a dog missing a limb) and thus the lesser concern of having to tour the material. this more surreal sonic vibe can be experienced on songs like "BRUSH AWAY," "NOTHIN' SONG," "GOD AM," "HEAD CREEPS," "FROGS" and "SO CLOSE." a big part of that sound is the trademark layered vocals of STALEY and guitarist JERRY CANTRELL which feels even more pronounced on this record than in the past. this unique production technique would carry over into the WILLIAM DUVALL era and interestingly maintain a sonic cohesion to the discography overall.
lyrically this record seems very much stream-of-consciousness with themes regarding guilt, shame and death carrying throughout in songs like "OVER NOW," "HEAVEN BESIDE YOU," "BRUSH AWAY" and "SHAME IN YOU." much like with listening to albums by NIRVANA, JOY DIVISION and even LINKIN PARK, it is difficult to divorce this record from the untimely death of the singer and primary lyricist. when i listen to the ALICE IN CHAINS album (and i am definitely projecting here), it makes me get a feel for what the headspace of someone struggling with a profound sense of diminished identity when their agency is compromised. and all the guilt, shame and ideations of death that come with such. i just cant imagine but i attempt to empathize every time i hear this record. it really is quite the gift STALEY left behind with his ALICE IN CHAINS output.
rest in peace LAYNE.
when my family moved to NIGERIA in the mid 1990s we would spend a few weeks each summer staying with a relative in ENGLAND in a suburb north of LONDON. its an era i really look back at fondly and, as it turns out, the timeframe coincided with can argued were the peak years of the BRITPOP movement. undoubtedly the biggest record of the period was (WHAT'S THE STORY) MORNING GLORY? (CREATION, 1995) by legendary MANCHESTER band OASIS. tracks like "DON'T LOOK BACK IN ANGER," "CHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVA," "SOME MIGHT SAY" and of course "WONDERWALL" are celebrated milestones of an era that marker a distinct generational realignment in BRITISH culture and even politics.
there are so many touch points with this record.
culturally (WHAT'S THE STORY) MORNING GLORY? marked a shift away from the decidedly introspective and self-reflective SHOEGAZE movement of a few years prior and provided a more aggressive stance in the wake of NIRVANA and the stateside ALTERNATIVE ROCK movement. this was a record and a band that were unabashedly, uncompromisingly and unapologetically BRITISH. it was also a record that didnt hide behind characters and sophisticated literary ambitions which was the case with BLUR and their equally impactful and era-defining PARKLIFE (FOOD, 1994) album. lyrically what it did have were non-sensical, free-association, stream-of-consciousness lyrics a la THE BEATLES' "I AM THE WALRUS" by songwriter and guitarist NOEL GALLAGHER. the opaque and inscrutable nature of the lyrics counterintuitively for the listener put more emphasis on the performances of singer LIAM GALLAGHER and the melody within the music itself. its an interesting switch and bait.
fairly or unfairly, OASIS politically was effectively the living embodiment of the working class in ENGLAND. this was in contrast to BLUR, who were portrayed as upper-class art school sophisticates. the rivalry was manufactured and kinda bullshit, much like THE BEATLES and THE ROLLING STONES before them, but its an image that survives to this day. LIAM himself was the poster child of LAD CULTURE, which celebrated womanizing, excessive alcohol consumption and soccer hooliganism. so its interesting that TONY BLAIR tapped into BRITPOP and specifically OASIS in order to reach that desired younger and decidedly urban demographic. it worked and the LABOR PARTY regained control of government in 1997 in a landslide. the sight of NOEL at 10 DOWNING STREET in the aftermath is also seen as the jump the shark moment of the BRITPOP movement in general. when what was a youth movement now became BRITISH CULTURE writ large. their is no real analogue to the political significance of this record in an AMERICAN context. not ELVIS PRESLEY, not BOB DYLAN and not BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. its still an interesting topic.
like most people who are OASIS obsessives, what i love about this record are the melodies and song-craft of NOEL and the brash over-confidence and demonic chutzpah of LIAM. its not even up for discussion how powerful this combination of distinct forces found in THE GALLAGHER BROTHERS was during this period. lightning in a bottle. my favorite song on (WHAT'S THE STORY) MORNING GLORY? has long been "MORNING GLORY" with its whirling, siren-like guitar intro to its opening couplet of "all your dreams are made when you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade." when that first chorus crashes in i am never in a bad mood. its empowering and intoxicating to take in. just like it was when i first heard it when i was eleven.
is most definitely worth revisiting and checking out again. and for god's sake THE GALLAGHER BROTHERS need to just make up and regroup already. have COLDPLAY as your backing band, i dont care. the world needs to hear "ROCK 'N' ROLL STAR" in a stadium again!
i always felt that there was a deep spiritual quality to the music of BLIND MELON. a big part of that was due to the free-spirited, ethereal nature of frontman SHANNON HOON and his preternatural ability to give off a feeling of unadulterated joy and wonder about life in his lyrics and in his voice.
the classic self-titled debut BLIND MELON (CAPITOL, 1992) record is a case in point, with tracks like "TONES OF HOME," "CHANGE" and of course "NO RAIN" showing off his emotional range. for what is largely pegged as an ALTERNATIVE ROCK outfit, their music itself feels more aligned to "jam bands" of the period like BLUES TRAVELER, PHISH and even DAVE MATHEWS BAND. the big difference is HOON, who is arguably one of the most charismatic frontman of the period. up there with LAYNE STALEY, CHRIS CORNELL, MIKE PATTON, EDDIE VEDDER, COURTNEY LOVE, SCOTT WEILAND and KURT COBAIN yet entirely a unique entity and feel unto himself. whereas those other "jam bands" in my opinion came off a bit too listless and technical for my taste, with HOON that meandering aural backdrop took on a more searching, INCORPOREAL quality that made it singularly TRANSCENDENT. when i think of him, its almost more along the lines of a shaman than a frontman. his passing has left a void that has yet to be filled to date.
like many kids of the period, my introduction to the band was "NO RAIN" and its genius music video which celebrated individualism and the need for INCLUSIVENESS and EMPATHY to one another. not exactly standard rock fair at the time. it also set the stage for the even more experimental and emotionally wrenching follow-up record SOUP (CAPITOL, 1995) which i hope to review someday after locating a cassette tape. both of those records are unquestionably required listening to get an idea of the full spectrum of flavors of ALTERNATIVE ROCK in the 1990s. it was great time for music.
RIP SHANNON. you are still remembered and dearly missed.
what i always loved about ICE-T is his AUTHENTICITY. he doesnt hide behind metaphors or character studies to get his point across. he is the very definition of unadorned directness. on an ICE-T (or even BODY COUNT) record, undoubtedly the main character is ICE-T and his street-level worldview. he has made a career on serving up hard truths. i remember reading that CHUCK D of PUBLIC ENEMY once said that "rap is CNN for black people" and i'd put ICE-T on a shortlist of similar acts from that period including MOBB DEEP, ICE CUBE and (of course) PUBLIC ENEMY who repeatedly detailed an unflinching account of the reality on the ground in urban BLACK AMERICA of POLICE BRUTALITY, the DRUG WAR and generational repercussions that come from a lack of access to economic and educational resources.
arguably this sober, no-punches-pulled sensibility found its early peak on his legendary OG: ORIGINAL GANGSTER (SIRE, 1991) album with seminal tracks "NEW JACK HUSTLER (NINO'S THEME)," "THE TOWER," "HOME OF THE BODYBAG," "ESCAPE FROM THE KILLING FIELDS" and, expectedly, "O.G. ORIGINAL GANGSTER." listening to an ICE-T record is an unrelenting experience as he attempt to lyrically to take you through a lived experience, one in which you definitely would not want to experience firsthand. there is a sense that this is the dark underbelly of the AMERICAN DREAM, one that our exploitive capitalist system doesnt want to acknowledge or give air time to. it is the the experience of the forgotten minorities that these systems seek to politically and economically muzzle or culturally disparage when convenient.
while his rhyme-style is a bit staid and repetitive next to the expert flows of peers like RAKIM or KRS-ONE and hasnt aged particularly well, in my estimation this is beside the point. it gets the job done. and unlike most of his contemporaries, ICE-T is still out there and still vital. his longtime BODY COUNT project, which mad its initial appearance on the "BODY COUNT" track off of O.G. ORIGINAL GANGSTER, is very much admired to date tackling current social ills like the seemingly endless senseless murders of BLACK males by racist white people filled with a deeply warped sense of IDENTITY, PRIVILEGE and AMERICAN HISTORY.
thank god this dude is still out there killing it. much respect to ICE-T and O.G. ORIGINAL GANGSTER is the perfect place to look into his catalogue. i'd also suggest the BODY COUNT BLOODLUST (CENTURY MEDIA, 2017) record as a bookend to such.
love this dude. seriously.
i originally got into PATSY CLINE through my mom. she always had a CD copy of her 12 GREATEST HITS (MCA, 1988) compilation (which itself was a re-release of PATSY CLINE'S GREATEST HITS (DECCA, 1967) compilation) playing in the house, especially when she was cooking. its just one of those fond childhood memories i have.
the compilation itself consists of her hits from 1957 until her tragic, untimely death in an airplane crash in 1963. for a long time i was not very much interested in anything related to COUNTRY MUSIC, and probably for good reason. in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA my brother and i had a pair of twin babysitters who were obsessed with then-modern COUNTRY; stuff like GARTH BROOKS, ALAN JACKSON and BROOKS & DUNN. just god-awful stuff. it wasn't until i got into PATSY CLINE and JOHNNY CASH that my world quickly opened up to HANK WILLIAMS, ERNEST TUBB, WILLIE NELSON, DOLLY PARTON, WAYLON JENNINGS, ROY ACUFF, JIMMIE RODGERS and the list goes on.
once you get past superficial trappings of the music (such as the overly orchestrated string sections and rolling tom-tom (often snare drum-less) rhythms and pedal steel guitar), what i always found compelling about CLINE was her voice. it just oozed out authenticity and a sense of lived experience. its almost BILLIE HOLIDAY or AMY WINEHOUSE-esque. there is a sense that there is a real, living person behind those often by-the-numbers torch songs. the fact that she was able to transcend her genre so convincingly puts her on a short list of truly exceptional song interpreters. when i think of analogues again i turn to the world of JAZZ with singers like ELLA FITZGERALD and SARAH VAUGHAN. just so happens that her milieu was early COUNTRY MUSIC.
i find myself returning to her catalogue all the time, especially classic tracks like "WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT," "I FALL TO PIECES" and "LEAVIN' ON YOUR MIND" which paradoxically showcase both a sense of resignation of life's cruelty and bitter loneliness while also having the strength to transcend such. its as if the depths of her pain also reveals the depths of her perseverance.
it is that quality to her voice that makes her a touchstone of artistic integrity and authenticity to date.
i first heard BLUE LINES (WILD BUNCH/VIRGIN, 1991) by MASSIVE ATTACK my senior year of high school during my stay in SACRAMENTO post 9/11. i moved from KUWAIT to live with a relative shortly after the attacks. it was abrupt and highly disruptive but i got through it. luckily my relative lived near a local family-owned record store chain called DIMPLE RECORDS (who sadly went out of business in 2019). KUWAIT as a teenager was not much fun. it was a cultural oppressive and intellectually stunting experience. being a student in that environment was awful.
SACRAMENTO in comparison was just an uninformed suburban backwater. unlike KUWAIT, i never felt physically threatened. at school i was more a curiosity than anything else, so i just did my own thing exploring music, film and literature. i got really into POST-PUNK around that time (WIRE, THE CURE, JOY DIVISION, THE FALL, BAUHAUS) and then i discovered TRIP HOP. specifically MASSIVE ATTACK, PORTISHEAD and TRICKY.
it was serendipitous because within a few months i saw TOOL play SACRAMENTO's ARCO ARENA and TRICKY was the opener.
what drew me to MASSIVE ATTACK was their ability to create soundscapes through collage and really play with meter. the music would flow and bend time like REGGAE and then fluidly introduce breakbeats and angelic vocals. it was all unexpected ear candy. i was smitten immediately. subsequent albums have further incorporated an ever-widening breadth of styles and interesting collaborators as well as moods, from the anthemic and jubilant to somber and outright claustrophobic. they somehow sound eclectic without losing any sense of a cohesive identity. they remain one of my favorite groups of any genre.
every subsequent MASSIVE ATTACK record has been a revelation and an innovation from its predecessors. discovering their music really got me through that final year of high school intact. it really encouraged me to keep digging and staying awake and receptive to new sounds and ideas.
in the most unlikely of places: SACRAMENTO. who knew?
along with THE OFFSPRING and NO DOUBT, GREEN DAY was the soundtrack to my post-NIRVANA youth, especially once my family moved to NIGERIA from SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA in the mid 1990s. obviously DOOKIE (REPRISE, 1994) was a landmark record not just for popularizing POP PUNK (and defanging the self-destructive aspects of SEATTLE-based ALTERNATIVE ROCK), but also for just being a great pop record.
in a sense, the follow-up INSOMNIAC (REPRISE, 1995) proved that such success was not a fluke and proved the genre itself viable for all that would follow suit (i.e. BLINK-182, FALL OUT BOY, NEW FOUND GLORY, SUM 41, PARAMORE, A DAY TO REMEMBER). technically not a sophomore album, as the band had made several records for indie label LOOKOUT! RECORDS, INSOMNIAC was a major label follow-up that basically double-down on the formula of simplified riffage, rolling kinetic drumming and memorable bass-lines that made GREEN DAY such a powerful power trio to begin with. in many ways i always associated the band sonically more with POWER POP and BRITISH INVASION bands than PUNK ROCK in general. GREEN DAY in my mind was always a GARAGE band with really great songs, with the PUNK thing being more of an aesthetic based on their EAST BAY roots. in fact the feverishly independent GILMAN STREET scene out of BERKELEY was surprisingly open-minded in terms of musical styles supported (this despite their reputation for having ideological opposition to anything and all things corporate), which included SKA hybrid bands like OPERATION IVY and proto-ART METAL like NEUROSIS in the mix.
this predilection for simplified yet effective songwriting would flourish on WARNING (REPRISE, 2000) years later, but i see it in an embryonic stage on INSOMNIAC in songs like "GEEK STINK BREATH," "BRAIN STEW/JADED" and my favorite song off the record, "WALKING CONTRADICTION." other standout tracks like "86," "ARMATAGE SHANKS" and "STUCK WITH ME" are raging, start-stop, barn-burners that come off like vintage GREEN DAY. today i feel that BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG could write songs like this in his sleep, but here they are in full display. perhaps to get it out of his system or maybe not to risk alienating DOOKIE fans. im glad they transitioned out of this phase and took the real risks tha today they are known for.
who knew a rock opera was in their future. or a giant middle finger to the government when others cowered and shrank. now that is PUNK.
L.A. WOMAN (ELEKTRA, 1971) by THE DOORS is one of those quintessential albums that in essence culturally defines the complex seductive allure and devastating depravity that is the city of angels in the hearts and minds of many. the two standout tracks in that regard are the title track "L.A. WOMAN" and "RIDERS ON THE STORM."
the beauty of "L.A. WOMAN" is how JIM MORRISON personifies the city in that of a young female. there has always been this duality about living in LOS ANGELES whereby you are confronted with the end result of the hopes and dreams of people seeking to make it in the entertainment industry are met with the reality of failure. the optimism and delusional thinking of the daytime and the cruel, stark reality of lonely night-time reflection has been a trope utilized since noir films of the 1940s and 1950s to describe LOS ANGELES, and MORRISON does the same here in "L.A. WOMAN" when he asks "are you a lucky little lady in the city of light, Or just another lost angel, city of night." in MORRISON's hands, LOS ANGELES as a woman is fundamentally a false hope as her optimism and future hope leads to "motel money murder madness, Let's change the mood from glad to sadness." for me, that strange duality of hope and delusion, allure and depravity, camaraderie and jealousy is something that is intrinsically LOS ANGELES and very clearly showcased in this song specifically.
"RIDERS ON THE STORM" and its existential tale of a murder in the desert find THE DOORS at their experimental peak in terms of sonic and lyrical exploration. slow and prodding, it feels like a lonely car ride through a desert with a sublime storm on the horizon making one reconsider their life's path with existential dread. is the storm coming to wash away the world or its sins. hard to tell. again for me this song is also very much about LOS ANGELES, especially the experience of driving through the desert towards neighboring NEVADA or ARIZONA where it feels like civilization has been pulled back leaving you with a raw, harsh, almost elemental landscape devoid of people or responsibility, bother personal and moral. driving there is almost like being in a state of moral flux, where the rules dont matter. its a great metaphor for the city itself, which seems to thrive on an OUROBOROS-like ability to auto-cannibalize on itself, eating its inhabitants, spitting them out on its streets as disfigured and degraded versions of themselves. only to be met with new faces on a daily basis. the family murder on the road in "RIDERS ON THE STORM" always felt to me evocative of the then-recent TATE-LABIANCA murders by CHARLES MANSON and his followers, turning the idea of spiritual connection, hope and shared familiar affection on its head. what was beautiful about AMERICAN optimism (perennially evoked in the cultural image of LOS ANGELES) was now baseless physical cruelty and moral degradation. its a great song.
i have long been a fan of those two songs, which make L.A. WOMAN well worth revisiting and checking out again.
RED HOT + BLUE: A TRIBUTE TO COLE PORTER (CHRYSALIS, 1990) was a compilation album spearheaded by the RED HOT ORGANIZATION that raised funds for worldwide AIDS research, relief and awareness efforts.
and im not gonna lie, the reason this compilation stands out to me almost 30 years after its release is DAVID BYRNE's cover of "DON'T FENCE ME IN." growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, my early musical memories revolve around car rides with my father in which he would play MORRISSEY / THE SMITHS, THE KINKS, THE STRANGLERS, THE BEATLES and TALKING HEADS. DAVID BYRNE's former band is most definitely a formative influence for me and this rendition of the COLE PORTER standard with its heavily syncopated LATIN (BRAZILIAN?) rhythms was another example of BYRNE's ability to organically utilize textures from global traditions without sounding paternalistic or hokey (like say PAUL SIMON).
i was in KINDERGARTEN when this compilation came out and it was my introduction to the idea of AIDS, and really just the concept of disease in general. i remember my parents explaining to me how it was raising money to help people for a disease with no cure, which was pretty heavy for a little kid.
going back and revisiting the compilation there are several standout performances from the likes of KIRSTY MACCOLL with THE POGUES as well as NENEH CHERRY, DEBBIE HARRY with IGGY POP, U2, TOM WAITS, k.d. lang, and the JUNGLE BROTHERS(!). its hard to imagine now how talking about AIDS was at one point taboo, but it was. and its pretty amazing that these artists, all pretty seminal in their own right, took a stand for an underserved community that was suffering and in need of help and destigmatization.
if you havent already, RED HOT + BLUE: A TRIBUTE TO COLE PORTER is definitely worth revisiting. just goes to show the quality of the songwriting of COLE PORTER, which really is a surprise to no one. there is a reason he is so celebrated among musicians of all genres.
in my mind RIDE THE LIGHTNING (MEGAFORCE, 1984) by METALLICA is the best THRASH METAL record of all time (sorry SLAYER). it may even be the best METAL record as well. the jump in technical proficiency and song-craft from the KILL 'EM ALL album released just a year earlier is quite remarkable.
for me it is all about "FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE," "RIDE THE LIGHTNING" and "CREEPING DEATH" which are virtuosic exemplars of brutality, musicianship and song-craft without losing a sense of urgency and focus that happens when technically gifted musicians seek to show off their proficiency. it really hones in on the intention and drive of HARDCORE with the next level savage riffage and aggression of NWOBHM in a hybrid that has been copied but not matched (again, in my estimation) since. these three songs also tackle disparate subject matter regarding the likes of NUCLEAR WARFARE, CAPITAL PUNISHMENT and the BOOK OF EXODUS which showcases a progression in broader interests beyond that displayed on KILL 'EM ALL, which was a METAL record largely about, well, playing METAL.
RIDE THE LIGHTNING is also the first METALLICA record where the band consciously sought to throw a curveball at its audience by including, gasp, a ballad. albeit it is a ballad about suicide. "FADE TO BLACK" is a now a long-running staple of their live shows that foreshadowed similar fare like "WELCOME HOME (SANITARUIUM)" off of MASTER OF PUPPETS and "ONE" off ....AND JUST FOR ALL which similarly utilize a sophisticated sense of extreme song dynamics to carry a narrative. fairly or unfairly, i identity this fearlessness to buck listener expectation with CLIFF BURTON, whose musical lexicon and appreciation far exceeded the METAL genre. the dynamism of "FADE TO BLACK" and the instrumental "THE CALL OF KTULU" are a testament to such.
my middle school band in NIGERIA also covered the ERNEST HEMINGWAY-referencing "FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS" so that opening dual guitar-line will always have a special place in my heart. at the time the lyrics that dealt with complicated themes regarding organized violence and state motivations for war were beyond me, but those riffs were not. viscerally i cant still visualize playing this song publicly and getting a reaction from the crowd in the cramped gym. so yeah, im a bit biased.
one other thing i want to mention is the classical influence on RIDE THE LIGHTNING. when i first heard this record in the mid 1990s that sense of sophistication in the arrangements and even orchestration of parts sonically differentiated this record. when "FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE" kicks in it really punches because of how its unrepentant aggression contrasts with the opening orchestrated prelude. that trick will be repeated to similar effect with "BATTERY" and "DAMAGE INC" off of MASTER OF PUPPETS. that classical influence gave this record, as well as the aforementioned follow-up MASTER OF PUPPETS, a distinct feel and sophistication that resulted in the pronounced aggression and heightened lyrical themes hitting that much harder.
i cannot recommend this record highly enough. easily one of my favorite METAL records of all-time. if only they left off "ESCAPE."
HELMET to me equals riffs. those precisely jagged, start-stop verse riffs that juxtaposed with ringing open chords create an aural sense of space not to dissimilar to a FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT structure. WRIGHT loved having tight, claustrophobic hallways that led to grand high-ceilinged parlors and family rooms. it was part of his artistic lexicon.
i feel that PAGE HAMILTON has a similar songwriting aesthetic when crafting his songs, especially those on MEANTIME (INTERSCOPE, 1992). his ability to mine contrast in his songs, through abrupt tempo and time-signature shifts is progressive without sacrificing aggression and intention. when i listen to songs like "UNSUNG," "BETTER," and "IN THE MEANTIME" there is a cathartic sense of push and pull, catch and release that is sonically very satisfying on a compositional level. in a sense his songs almost feel like JAZZ music or CLASSICAL MUSIC in that there is a definite form and structure that creates tension and then resolves itself, almost like a SONATA. in a SONATA you start in one key, go to another, maybe another, and then return to the original key. like a sunday drive through the countryside. HELMET's music is anything but an evening stroll, but it works on the same level in that no matter how exotic or unforeseen the sonic texture or tempo shifts are, they do ultimately resolve themselves in a thoroughly satisfying way. the other band for whom this is a trademark in my opinion is TOOL. but they are way further on the progressive rock side of the coin, HELMET is like a PROGRESSIVE ROCK version of HARDCORE.
ive been fascinated with the riffs of HAMILTON since childhood and he has been criminally underrated for years. i mean, if none other than DIMEBAG DARRELL of PANTERA steals your riff ("UNSUNG" riff on "RISE" from VULGAR DISPLAY OF POWER), you must be the real deal. MEANTIME is a classic record and should be celebrated and revisited often much like those of their contemporaries from the ALTERNATIVE ROCK explosion of the 1990s.
i was pretty shielded from DRUG CULTURE funny enough as a kid living in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. that all changed in sixth grade when my family moved to NIGERIA in the mid 1990s. NIGERIA and specifically LAGOS where i lived was a major node in the global narcotic trade. it was also there that i was introduced to the seminal DIRT (COLUMBIA, 1992) album by SEATTLE ALTERNATIVE ROCK icons ALICE IN CHAINS through a friend a few years older than me. this album really served as an introduction to the physical and psychic costs of ADDICTION and it still resonates as such for me all these years later. in my mind it put context around the choices of others i was witnessing at the time, people dabbling in HEROIN and other OPIATES.
specifically i am referring to songs like "JUNKHEAD," "SICKMAN," "GOD SMACK," and "DIRT" which deal with the pain and throes of ADDICTION directly as well as "RAIN WHEN I DIE," "DOWN IN A HOLE," and "HATE TO FEEL" which get at the self-loathing and social consequences of maintaining such. the fact that the production (courtesy of TOBY WRIGHT) is so lush and the blended vocal harmonies of LAYNE STALEY and JERRY CANTRELL so intoxicating make the bleak subject matter palatable, although i would not go so far as to say it romanticizes it. if anything, STALEY is relaying his truth in one of the most transparent records about the damage wreaked by narcotics this side of NEIL YOUNG.
i would be doing a disservice if i didn't mention that "THEM BONES," "DAM THAT RIVER" and "WOULD?" are three of the most propulsive and catchy songs the band ever came up with. the CANTRELL penned ode to his father's VIETNAM service in "ROOSTER" is also highly affecting and puts context to their once strained relationship with empathy and courage. and ultimately i think that sense of empathy (towards other and themselves) is why DIRT is such a landmark record years later and doesn't fall into ROCK AND ROLL cliches regarding the subject. there is no real message other than a presentation of their experiences and that of people close to them (MOTHER LOVE BONE's ANDY WOOD being focus of "WOULD?" being an example). it lets the listener decide upon how to interpret and self-identify with subject matter, not the other way around.
this empathetic, humanizing approach would continue even in the years after STALEY's passing in BLACK GIVES WAY TO BLUE (VIRGIN, 2009), an ode to their lost friend and bandmate which is similarly focused on themes of loss and self-destruction as well as renewal and hope. in my mind that record bookends DIRT. all these years later and when i hear DIRT it still reminds me of the numbing interiority and loss of agency that comes with ADDICTIONS of any sort and makes me stop to be more empathetic to another's personal battle. as a child it gave me context to a world i was just witnessing for the first time. that sense of empathy for me that is the legacy of this record.
as i mentioned before in my FACE IT book review, my brother works at a big box electronics retailer and within the past year had an older customer come in about her phone. my brother started looking over the phone and asked the customer "are you?..." to which she said "yes." at that point he went in a back room with the phone to begin repairing it and told an associate "that's pretty wild that DEBBIE HARRY is outside" to which his coworker asked "who's DEBBIE HARRY?"
well, DEBBIE HARRY is the legendary singer of BLONDIE, one of the most iconic NEW WAVE bands that came out of the original PUNK ROCK scene at CBGB's in the late 1970s that also famously nurtured TELEVISION, PATTI SMITH, SUICIDE, THE DEAD BOYS, TALKING HEADS and, of course, THE RAMONES. i know there is much debate about what specifically constitutes a PUNK band versus a NEW WAVE band and where BLONDIE fits into that schema. such talk never really interested me. all i know is that PARALLEL LINES (CHRYSALIS, 1978) is a great pop record with all that entails: great hooks, powerful performances, thoughtful lyrics and sheer charisma. there is a reason that HARRY is so beloved and has been a touchstone for everyone from JOAN JETT, ELASTICA and MADONNA to GARBAGE, R.E.M. and NO DOUBT. i dont want to get away from the obvious fact that DEBBIE HARRY is a female cultural icon in the vein of MARILYN MONROE. there is a reason ANDY WARHOL did portraits of her during the last decade of his life. but i think that image also has an underbelly and such is that she is criminally underrated as a singer and a recording artist due to her commercial appeal and status as a pre-internet celebrity.
PARALLEL LINES often gets attached to the PUNK and NEW WAVE movements, but in my estimation the movement that should be referenced is the POWER POP movement that sought to modernize the modern classicism of THE BEATLES. This is evidenced in the excellent covers of THE NERVE's "HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE" and BUDDY HOLLY's "I'M GONNA LOVE YOU TOO" as well as all the CHRIS STEIN written/co-written tracks such as "PICTURE THIS," "SUNDAY GIRL," and of course "HEART OF GLASS." all showcase a way with a memorable pop hook that was not attached to their more experimental brethren at the time. that sense of melodic appeal and pop sheen has been a sore spot for many when compared to the likes of PATTI SMITH, TALKING HEADS or THE RAMONES, but in my mind they all carved their own lane. why do they all need to sound the same. it is the same case when one realizes that GREEN DAY and NEUROSIS came from the same EAST BAY scene and where admirers of one another. life is complicated, get over it.
Perhaps my favorite moment on PARALLEL LINES is "ONE WAY OR ANOTHER" written by HARRY and based on her experience with a stalker. the song is from the perspective of the perpetrator and the lyrics really counteract that celebratory upbeat vibe of the music. its an interesting juxtaposition that subverts listener expectations and showcases the psychological complexity of a deranged mind focused on the object of his/her obsession. it many ways this voyeurism is mirrored in the deification involved in celebrity culture, something i am almost certain was not lost on HARRY who was the object of said attention.
i want to close by mentioning that guitarist CHRIS STEIN is also criminally underrated as a songwriter. his sense of melody, structure and arrangement is often overlooked among his peer group. i feel the influence of BLONDIE on modern music is as much his legacy as HARRY's, who obviously was the public-facing member of the group. on top of that he is also a talented photographer.
definitely check out PARALLEL LINES and take in its sublime pop bliss. and then listen to THE RAMONES.
i dont even know where to start with TROUT MASK REPLICA (STRAIGHT, 1969) by CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND. in an era, the 1960s, that was known for expanding the lyrical and sonic possibilities of ROCK N ROLL, this record stands alone for its experimental embrace of idiosyncratic sonic textures and rhythms, not to mention a complete discarding of traditional arrangements and recognizable song structures.
i put this record up against LOU REED's METAL MACHINE MUSIC (RCA, 1975) as records that are more about the process than the end result. whereas METAL MACHINE MUSIC is an exercise in dissonance, discordance and complete sonic disarray in the vein of STRAVINSKY or PENDERECKI, TROUT MASK REPLICA is steeped in the BLUES, yet utterly warped. this was done partly by BEEFHEART having his musicians record on multiple instruments they were not familiar with. it is a record composed by BLUES musicians intimately familiar with the form, yet not "biased" by the traditions and techniques of their instrument. the fact that the record even comes off coherent is really a testament to their musicality, despite its seeming naïveté.
i almost feel that the nearest analogue to TROUT MASK REPLICA is not even music, but OUTSIDER ART. people like HENRI JULIEN FELIX ROUSSEAU or HENRY DARGER who impulsively manipulated their canvases based on pure instinct, without resorting to the techniques and artificial prejudices of the public or educators. despite their naïveté, what shines through is a purity of intent.
everytime i hear TROUT MASK REPLICA i am challenged to rethink the purpose of basic melodic elements and how limited our collective musical imaginations really are by what we listen to in the WESTERN TRADITION. for me this record is a line in the sand to expand my musical horizons and challenge myself to experience alternate forms from other cultures, traditions and musical communities.
if this dude was able to subvert BLUES in such a profound manner, there must be a world of truly alternative soundscapes out there just waiting to be discovered and cherished.
to be honest i was not a fan of this JAY-Z record when it came out.
when VOL. 2... HARD KNOCK LIFE (ROC-A-FELLA, 1998) was released i was attending middle school while living abroad in NIGERIA and was surrounded by peers that were into CYPRESS HILL and the recently deceased TUPAC SHAKUR and THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G., as well as NYC HIP HOP groups like A TRIBE CALLED QUEST and WU-TANG CLAN. i distinctly remember returning to NEW JERSEY and having trend-chasing, FUBU-wearing cousins that were into more mainstream stuff like P DIDDY, MA$E and later JA RULE. so that was my initial bias against JAY-Z and this record.
i've come around since then. sort of.
i think HIP HOP was in an interesting phase at the end of the 1990s, with SOUTHERN HIP HOP acts like OUTKAST not emerging as a cultural force quite yet and the mantle of top MC was still up for grabs after the untimely murders of the aforementioned TUPAC and BIGGIE. if this record comes off commercial and anthemic with lots of R&B-affected beats and song structures (a la "HARD KNOCK LIFE"), that was absolutely intentional and by design. with production credits by the likes of TIMBALAND, SWIZZ BEATZ, DJ PREMIER, THE 45 KING, IRV GOTTI, JERMAINE DUPRI and KID CAPRI and guest appearances by DMX, TOO $HORT, JADAKISS, JA RULE, MEMPHIS BLEEK, FOXY BROWN and BEANIE SIGEL this record definitely stood out from its predecessors for its sonic variety, (which basically discarding the more minimal beats utilized previously) and its abundant use of upcoming and established MCs.
for me its a mix-bag record, a definite downgrade from his debut in REASONABLE DOUBT (ROC-A-FELLA, 1996) and not in the same league as later career highlights like THE BLUEPRINT (ROC-A-FELLA, 2001) and THE BLACK ALBUM (ROC-A-FELLA, 2003). there are two absolutely killer tracks in "NIGGA WHAT, NIGGA WHO" and "CAN I GET A..." that stand up there with anything in his discography, but too often trite, reductive faire like "MONEY, CASH, HOES" and "RIDE OR DIE" is what this record relies on. too me it almost feels like a warped feedback loop that is very common in modern country music whereby an artist writes about his/her life in a manner that is meant to chase a desired audience and then that audience takes that message to heart, only perpetuating it further and providing more of an incentive for similarly themed future tracks. it just comes off inauthentic because it appears to come from a place of clout-chasing. but you have to remember that back in the late 1990s there were no internet music blogs or social media, so the only way to gain marketshare was through being commercial. so i get the dilemma he was facing in attempting to claim the mantle of top MC. it makes sense. at the same time its difficult listening back to corny JAY-Z songs dealing with DRUGS, SEX and VIOLENCE during this period. later he will become more personal and i would argue, more compelling as an artist and a cultural figure. he does get better.
obviously this is not that peak period in his career quite yet so its an interesting moment in time to revisit. for my money during this period it is better to check out the work of NAS or OUTKAST maybe even slightly later records by DEAD PREZ.
back in the mid 90s when i was living in NIGERIA i had a copy of USE YOUR ILLUSION II (GEFFEN, 1991) by GUNS N' ROSES that i taped off a friend's CD. it's funny because the first record i knew in depth by GUNS N' ROSES was this record, not their seminal debut APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (GEFFEN, 1987). previously growing up in SOUTHER CALIFORNIA you couldnt help but hear "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE" or "PARADISE CITY" on regular rotation on 106.7FM KROQ, but strangely i have no memory of ever hearing anything off of either USE YOUR ILLUSION records.
i distinctively remember listening to my tape of USE YOUR ILLUSION II on a family trip to COTE D'IVOIRE. i can remember flying through the clouds when first hearing the epic multi-part track "CIVIL WAR" as well as the sublime heroics of SLASH's guitar solo on "YOU COULD BE MINE." and to be honest, at least in terms of their recordings, my love of GUNS N' ROSES is really based on an appreciation of their rhythm section. DUFF MCKAGAN's bass-playing absolutely rips, especially on tracks "LOCOMOTIVE" and "PRETTY TIED UP." dude is absolutely underrated. he is definitely from the FUNK school of bass playing, providing a propulsive, kinetic groove for SLASH to launch himself into outer space upon.
my favorite song on the record has long since my teen years been "ESTRANGED" which has some of the most lyrical soloing of SLASH's career to date. as ive mentioned numerous times before in this blog, i had the pleasure to see GUNS N' ROSES play METLIFE STADIUM a few years ago and they were incredible. seeing him pull off "ESTRANGED" on that scale took me back to surreptitiously listening to this record in my middle school library during lunchtime. again, the only way i can describe it is sublime. the video is also one of the most ridiculously bloated ego-trips of all time and is highly entertaining. especially all those dolphin special effects.
regarding AXL ROSE, the dude is an acquired taste. he is a legendary frontman and a massively talented yet still oddly underrated songwriter. i think some of his best work is on USE YOUR ILLUSION II which sadly also marked the transition period whereby thereafter he went into complete egomania that led to the demise of the core of the original lineup as a working, touring outfit. im glad that in recent years theyve pulled together again and my hope is that the new record theyve been working on take off where this record only hinted at.
i wouldnt count them out.
despite growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA and actively listening to the massively influential local ALTERNATIVE ROCK radio station 106.7FM KROQ out of LOS ANGELES, i didnt come across BAKERSFIELD's KORN until i was living in NIGERIA shortly after their second album LIFE IS PEACHY (EPIC, 1996) came out.
the three things about this record that stood out to me as a preteen were the self-scathing, almost T.M.I. lyrics of JONATHAN DAVIS, the pronounced bass of FIELDY that served more of a percussive than melodic function and the down-tempo, down-tuned dual guitar attack of guitarists HEAD and MUNKY. i think the sound of KORN can be described as a brick wall falling on top of you; it is one cohesive, machine-like unit repeatedly pummeling your senses with wave after wave of claustrophobic yet strangely hypnotic massive grooves. examples of this on LIFE IS PEACHY include "GOOD GOD," "NO PLACE TO HIDE," "TWIST," and "ASS ITCH." a big reason for the visceral impact for these songs is the aggressive production work of ROSS ROBINSON, who is historically celebrated for his ability to motivate (or coerce) stellar performances from his clients. along with KORN's debut, LIFE IS PEACHY is another defining example of this ability, especially with regards to DAVIS.
i have always had an odd appreciation for DAVIS' work since (much like his peer KURT COBAIN) he is definitely not playing it safe in his role as a METAL frontman or falling into cliche tropes of aggressive masculinity the genre is famous for. if anything, his aggression is aimed inward and his lyrics and performances are almost public sublimations for the immense pain he went through growing up an artistic kid in the conservative cultural backwater that is BAKERSFIELD. on later albums this scatting style of singing he trail-blazed on the first two KORN records comes off a bit forced, rote and even hackneyed, but on LIFE IS PEACHY it still carries a compelling sense of authentic ethos and aggression. like other GENERATION X icons like BILLY CORGAN, it is a bit disappointing to see DAVIS degenerate into a conservative parody of himself as a closet conservative since he was a bit transgressive and progressed the METAL movement forward with his lyrical subject matter (which included topics like CHILD ABUSE, SELF-LOATHING, BULLYING, SUICIDE, DEPRESSION and SELF-ISOLATION).
listening back i can look past the more cartoonish tracks on this record (like "PORNO CREEP" and "A.D.I.D.A.S.") and see an emerging group influenced by hybrid bands like FISHBONE and FAITH NO MORE trail-blaze new sonic terrain that propelled the band its peers forward for the rest of the decade. LIFE IS PEACHY is most definitely a record worth revisiting.
i remember the moment i first heard PORNO FOR PYROS in middle school in NIGERIA at (oddly enough) my own surprise birthday party a NORWEGIAN female classmate threw at her parents' apartment. another classmate that was DANISH had brought GOOD GOD's URGE (WARNER BROS, 1996) on CD and i was blown away by the vocals on "TAHITIAN MOON." just utterly gobsmacked by how pure and angelic that voice sounded to the point that it almost defied gender. or even being human i had no idea that this was PERRY FARRELL, the same singer i heard in LOS ANGELES on the radio from his previous band JANE'S ADDICTION. i had utterly no clue about who FARRELL was or either PORNO FOR PYROS or JANE'S ADDICTION, i just knew that this was something unequivocally different than what i was used to.
and i've been going down the rabbit whole ever since.
GOOD GOD's URGE was the second record by PORNO FOR PYROS, who themselves are arguably the most prominent splinter group of JANE'S ADDICTION, made up of frontman PERRY FARRELL and STEPHEN PERKINS. the outfit was rounded out by the classically-trained guitarist PETER DISTEFANO. the other two members of JANE'S ADDICTION, bassist ERIC AVERY and guitarist DAVE NAVARRO, formed the short-lived ART ROCK project DECONSTRUCTION before moving on to other projects. lyrically GOOD GOD's URGE covers themes related to love, rebirth and renewal and was written largely on surf trips to POLYNESIA. the record features MIKE WATT on bass and special guests DANIEL ASH, DAVID J and KEVIN HASKINS (a.k.a. LOVE AND ROCKETS) as well as NAVARRO and FLEA on selected tracks. standout songs include the aforementioned "TAHITIAN MOON" as well as "PORPOISE HEAD," "KIMBERLY AUSTIN," "100 WAYS," "WISHING WELL" and "BALI EYES." the general vibe is relaxed with lots of tasteful ambient electronic production layered over acoustic tracks that young could totally imagine being sung at a campfire after a day of surfing in TAHITI or BALI. its a real departure in texture and mood from its predecessor which seemed about more about the claustrophobia, excess and cycles of exploitation that come with living and working in LOS ANGELES. GOOD GOD's URGE finds FARRELL in a more reflective, spritual headspace which is something he explored more in his later solo recordings and other groups like SATELLITE PARTY and KIND HEAVEN ORCHESTRA.
i remember hearing a rumor years ago that after his survival from cancer that there was a chance of PORNO FOR PYROS regrouping with DISTEFANO. that they even recorded material. my hope is that their reemergence will happen at some point. the band was totally underrated and are absolutely as seminal an ALTERNATIVE ROCK band as JANE'S ADDICTION.