90’s rock

REVIEW: Loudness – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips DVD

Part Four of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Buddha Rock 1997-1999 Music Clips (1999 Rooms DVD, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The complete Buddha Rock 1997-1999 set comes with the three Loudness albums from that brief era, and also a bonus DVD with the accompanying music videos.  On the back some are listed as “full size” and others “short size” — let’s find out what that means and what Loudness videos looked like in the late 90s.

“Ghetto Machine” opens, with Loudness including a shaven-headed Akira Takasaki performing in a darkened room.  The added static interferance reminds us we are in the 90s when bands like Loudness didn’t have much budget and covered it up with tricks like this.  Masaki appears cold with his big fur hat, but it’s fun to see this version of Loudness on video.  “Evil Ecstasy” has cleaner production, but this is one of the “short size” videos — it’s only about 90 seconds of a pretty cool song.  Too bad because this video is much more watchable.  The funkier “San Francisco” is also one of these short versions, as is “Creatures”.  All of these videos appear to be taped at the same time.  The section of “Creatures” used focuses on the guitar solo.  That’s cool at least.  “Katmandu Fly” is the “full size”, but it’s also only a minute-long instrumental so to call it “full size” is kinda cheatin’.

Moving on from the Ghetto Machine album, all the rest of the videos are “full size”.  From Dragon, it’s two of the best tracks:  “Dogshit” and “Crazy Go Go”.  This time Loudness are playing in a huge, uber-clean garage.  As “Dogshit” demonstrates, Akira was now into his “fly sunglasses” phase.  It looks like the band are having fun here, which makes it an enjoyable watch.  Great song too.  “Crazy Go Go” is more straight ahead, with lights and struttin’ stage moves instead of goofing around.

Apparently they only did one video for the final Masaki album, Engine.  “Black Biohazard” is that song; not a tune that impressed on prior listens.  (Also strange how “Black Biohazard” is the only song not in capital letters on the cover.)  This video is made from grainy outdoor concert festival footage.  From this we can ascertain that live, Masaki was a capable frontman with a cool rock star stage persona.

At 25 minutes, this DVD can not be considered more than a bonus for buying the Buddha Rock box set.  It is not the main draw.  The fundamental reason to get Buddha Rock is to acquire the three albums Ghetto Machine, Dragon and Engine in one place with ease.  As a bonus feature, the Music Clips disc does what it does.  “Dogshit” is the best video by a wide margin, and it remains unclear why “short size” videos were included, unless that’s all that was ever made for those particular songs?

The Buddha Rock box set also comes with photos, complete lyrics (in English) and liner notes (in Japanese).  It’s the obvious way to go to cover those years, an era which ended with the Engine album in 1999.  At Masaki’s urging, Akira Takasaki reunited the original Loudness lineup and released Spiritual Canoe with Minoru Niihara at the microphone.  That put an end to the Masaki Yamada era, which started with member turnover before solidifying on these three albums with Naoto Shibata and Hirotsugo Homma on bass and drums respectively.  Great musicians both who helped Loudness explore new and weird directions at the end of the 90s.

Music Clips DVD:  3/5 stars

Buddha Rock 1997-1999 box set:  3.5/5 stars  (the sum of the whole is greater than its parts)

REVIEW: Loudness – Engine (1999)

Part Three of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Engine (1999 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

The Masaki Yamada era of Loudness ended with the 1990s.  Masaki felt (correctly) that Loudness would be best off reuniting with its original lineup in the year 2000, and so Engine is the last album to feature Yamada, drummer Hirotsugo Homma and bassist Naoto Shibata.

As with the previous two Loudness albums (also included in Buddha Rock), Akira Takasaki’s penchant for experimentation is at the forefront.  “Soul Tone”, the opening instrumental, makes that much clear with its atypical exotic guitar drones in place of a song.  Then Akira cranks up the string harmonics on the bizarrely rocking “Bug Killer”, a 90s song if there ever was one.  He must have been listening to Rage Against the Machine.  The track descends into guitar mayhem by the end.  It’s incredible to think how Akira transitioned from an 80s guitar hero compared to Eddie and Yngwie, to a 90s master borrowing from Morello and the Middle East.

“Black Biohazard” chugs unremarkably just like much of the 90s did.  Leaning on a groove, “Twist of Chain” has certain 80s delicious metal elements hidden under the distortion.  It’s the kind of song that makes these lost albums really worth hunting down.  Similarly, “Bad Date/Nothing I Can Do” buries its hooks under vocal distortion.  Unfortunate that they didn’t just let it loose.  “Apocalypse” fails to build on this with a forgettable alterna-dirge.  “Ace in the Hole” has more going on, with a menacing far East vibe.  The guitars are like razor blades.

 

A sudden left turn on the partly acoustic “Sweet Dreams” almost sounds like a great lost Stone Temple Pilots song from some unknown era.  “Asylum” focuses on the bass, as a lot of the album does, choosing a heavy psychedelic feel.  A long guitar solo section is the track’s highlight.

Without warning, the oddly titled “Burning Eye Balls” goes to acoustic exotic Zeppelin territory.  This refreshing change is followed by “Junk His Head”, a pretty straightforward headbanger that does away with the distorted vocals.  Hirotsugo Homma lays down a killer beat on this one.   The penultimate instrumental track “2008 (Candra 月天)” doesn’t have any particular hooks to relay which is unfortunate since previous Loudness instrumentals have at least been interesting.  This leaves it to the closing track “Coming Home” to make final impressions, of which it makes few.  It has echoes of the old Loudness track “So Lonely” but without much of the feeling or structure.

These three final Masaki-era Loudness albums all have some cool tracks; enough at least to assemble a good single-disc compilation.  Owning all three is for fans only.  It is fun to sit and listen to a band evolve, and watch them try on all kinds of different hats.  If that’s your obsession too, pick up Engine and check out the complete Buddha Rock box set while you’re at it.

2.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Loudness – Dragon (1998)

Part Two of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

 

LOUDNESS – Dragon (1998 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

Lucky 13th album for Loudness?  Maybe not, but it is an uptick from the prior release Ghetto Machine.  The band just kept on going, with only Akira Takasaki remaining from the original lineup.  Their third singer Masaki Yamada was on his fourth album with Loudness, and by now they had established a heavy alterna-metal 90s sound.  It is the strongest of the three albums of the Buddha Rock era.

Loudness had become fearless, blending thrash and funk together on “9 Mile High”.  Those who don’t enjoy Masaki’s growling style won’t be turned around here.  Those who like it fast enough to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs will not have a problem.  It skips between thrash and funk without warning.

The appetizingly titled “Dogshit” could only have come from the 1990s.  Harmonic drones are substituted for a main riff, and Masaki’s vocal is closer to rap metal.  Yet there’s something irresistible about it.  “Dog shit on my bike boots!” sings Masaki with a heavy guitar backing him.  And that’s why Loudness could get away with doing this kind of music.  It’s the guitar.  Akira Takasaki is one of the best in the world, but he’s more fearless than Yngwie and can play just about anything.  With a virtuoso like that, it’s unlikely you’re going to sound like dog shit.

“Wicked Witches” is heavy, detuned, and it grooves to the max while drilling into your brain.  There’s even a little bit of early Van Halen in the riff.  That leads into “Crazy Go-Go”, a single and album highlight.  Foregoing the nu-metal, this one is wah-wah heavy and just plain rocks!  Flat out, kick ass, rock and roll.  “Backstage go-go babe, like a circus after school, playin’ my guitar like a country horse.”  (Country horse?)  You get the picture!  It’s about groupies!  (Akira makes his guitar whinny like a horse!)

Drummer Hirotsugo Homma gets to have some rhythmic fun on “Voodoo Voices” which is one of the most bizarre tracks Loudness have ever done.  Voodoo voices indeed, as the vocals are buried, ethereal in the mix.  It’s trippy and trip-hoppy.  The instrumental “回想” (“Kaisō”) is made up of backwards guitars playing quietly and hypnotic.  Then suddenly it’s a metal riff on “Babylon”.  Masaki eschews the growl and goes for psychedelic singing.  “Crawl” features a chugging Akira riff, and then some pulsing synth?  This album goes everywhere.

“Forbidden Love” is pretty cool, coming closer to the spirit of 80s Loudness.  Then go for some more 90s funk metal on “Mirror Ball”, which is as hot as Anthony Kiedis’ arm pit.  Another stunning instrumental emerges in “Taj Mahal”, which is not about the shredding but entirely about atmosphere.  A variety of unique sounding guitars are accompanied by exotic percussion and bass.  Unfortunately that leads into a little bit of a dud for an album closer.  “Nightcreepers” doesn’t make an impression.

While this Dragon is an experimental one, not afraid to mess with expectations or traditions, it is still rooted in that 90s nu-metal dungeon.  That is something that dates the disc to certain period in time.  When it rises above that, as it does on “回想”, “Crazy Go Go” and “Voodoo Voices”, it transcends genre and goes somewhere unique.  There are just enough of those moments to make this album a keeper.

3.25/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Ghetto Machine (1997)

Part One of Four – Buddha Rock 1997-1999

LOUDNESS – Ghetto Machine (1997 Rooms, from the box set Buddha Rock 1997-1999)

1997:  Masaki Yamada, the third Loudness singer, was now on his third Loudness album.  Besides founding guitarist Akira Takasaki, the rest of the band was new.  Ghetto Machine is the first with bassist Naoto Shibata, and second with drummer Hirotsugu Homma.  The 90s were chaotic even for Loudness, just like it was for bands in North America.  In Loudness’ case, they now had more original E-Z-O members (in Masaki and Homma) than original Loudness members.  Like most Loudness albums from the 90s onwards, Ghetto Machine was released only in Japan.

The album was self-produced by Takasaki, recently converted to Buddhism, and he fearlessly dove into the 1990s.  Opening with the title “Ghetto Machine”, the riff is low and grinding.  Masaki takes on a growly lower tone, and in place of hooks there is only groove and the drone of guitar.  This is far removed from the regal metal of the earliest days, but seems sincere given the freedom for Loudness to do whatever they wanted.

Track two, “Slave” features an unusual droning riff, with the thrash metal tempos of early Loudness.  At least 90s Loudness didn’t forego guitar solos like some bands.  Akira’s here is as interesting as any he’s done.  “Evil Ecstasy” opts for a nice groove right in the pocket.  Although the riffs are simpler, Akira always does something interesting, either with tone or technique.  Though 90s Loudness seems to be less focused on songwriting hooks, sonics are treated with care.

“San Fransisco” isn’t outstanding, though the guitars always are.  Nice wah-wah on the solo.  Zeppelin seems to be one of many influences on “Love and Hate”, but at this point of the album it is clear that Masaki Yamada will not be delivering much in terms of melody.   “Creatures” has a stinging little whiplash of a riff and biting vocals but little that you can sing along to.  A cool funky groove called “Hypnotized” is preceded by “Katmandu Fly”, a short atmospheric instrumental.  I almost get the feeling that the chorus riff to “Hypnotized” is a twisted variation of “Smoke on the Water”, though it could be my imagination striving to find any kind of hook.

Some crooning during a slow psychedelic jammy break in “Dead Man Walking” is the only melody in that song.  The albums takes a turn back towards melodic at the end.  Second-to-last track “Jasmine Sky” starts the change up.  It’s slow and sparse, and sounds like lead vocals by Akira.  It’s one of the only tracks with an actual vocal melody from start to finish, and sets up “Wonder Man” as a final blowout.  This monolithic riff is accompanied by exotic guitar soloing and a Masaki vocal you can sing along to.  It crawls to a vaguely Zeppelin-y ending.

Ghetto Machine brings me back to that unhappy time in the 90s, when classic bands did what they had to do to adapt, and while the new albums had merit, they were clearly missing…something.  The ’92 Loudness album with Masaki was awesome and represented everything good that the 90s could do to a rock band.  Ghetto Machine is the slide afterwards.

2.75/5 stars

REVIEW: Catherine Wheel – Adam and Eve (1997)

CATHERINE WHEEL – Adam and Eve (1997 Mercury)

The 1990s presented a slew of new bands that, while not hard rock, did rock.  Some of them had connections to heavy metal.  Catherine Wheel had more than a few.  For example, Iron Maiden.  Managers Rod Smallwood, Andy Taylor, and Merck Mercuriadis (listed as a member of the band on this album) also handled Iron Maiden.  Singer Rob Dickinson has a cousin in that band.  For even more rock royalty, Bob Ezrin has a production credit as does Gggarth Richardson.  (With credits like those, you won’t be surprised that the album was partially recorded in Canada.)

For my money, I think Adam and Eve is Catherine Wheel’s best album.  It’s an argument that can be made, for it is a big dense emotional listening experience that plays out like a concept album.  The acoustic intro certainly lends the feel of a complete, framed work.  “Let’s get started…let’s get started…”

Blowing in like a cold wind, “Future Boy” quietly continues.  Droning guitars blend in as the song builds, and breaks into a beautiful acoustic verse.  Sonically layered, droney and feedbacky music, hits you wave after wave.  Rob Dickinson’s emphatic vocal melody is the initial hook, but there is so much more going on with “Future Boy”.  An utter masterpiece.

Then we suddenly careen into a poppy blast of fun called “Delicious”.  Simple in structure, but with hidden hooks in the mix.  A guitar blast, a brilliant chorus, and plenty of shimmer.  An easy single.  A piano interlude (further adding to the conceptual feel of the album) breaks into another single “Broken Nose”.  This one slams a little harder.  A stream of building music.  There’s a quiet break and then it’s back to hammering guitar.  There’s also depth — bells, organ, subtle guitar melodies.  Another real masterpiece.

Into epic territory.  “Phantom of the American Mother” bleeds acoustics, electrics, organs, percussion, and plaintive vocals.  “How you gonna feel if Superman and Sonic Youth are fairy tales?”  It’s a trip in and of itself, full of deep emotions and musical genius.

On a personal level, “Ma Solituda” is and probably always will be my favourite.  There’s a delicate sadness, but with a hopeful shine…and cello.  A gentle acoustic strum is paired with a defiantly powerful chorus.  It’s a vocal tour-de-force for Rob Dickinson.

“Satellite” has a pop feel, with an upbeat guitar hook.  Crashing cymbals, an unbelievable chorus, and loud guitars.  “Satellite” was not a single but should have been.  The refrain of “When you and I were young,” will ring in your brain for hours afterwards.  A slew of guitar solo noise is like frosting on top of a very loud and sweet dessert.  The mood turns on “Thunderbird”, a long but undefeated number with its own peaks and valleys of emotion.

Between “Thunderbird” and the next track, “Here Comes the Fat Controller”, the album becomes more of a slow burner.  The previous poppy firecrackers gave temporarily given way to some tracks that are more…mountainous.  They take time to climb.  “Here Comes the Fat Controller” is one such song, but a rewarded exercise.  Listen for tinkling piano in the back, adding even more colours to the palette.  “Sing, sing,” and enjoy.  “How do you feel?”

You can really hear Bob Ezrin’s influence at this part of the album.  The music gets muffled as someone gets in a car and closes the door, shades of “Detroit Rock City”.  The mood changes again on “Goodbye”, like a lullaby for a hangover.  It also feels like that a song that belongs near the conclusion of an album like this one, with its cinematic nature.  There’s still “For Dreaming”, the longest song and the climax to a pretty intense album.  That still leaves the denoument, which is the soft untitled outro.  With minimal accompaniment, Rob Dickinson ends the disc.

I’m gonna phone,
Everyone that I’ve known,
Through the downs and the ups,
And who I suspect have written me off…
As an insensitive fuck…
And say good luck, and goodbye.

Like a favourite movie, Adam and Eve feels like a story with a beginning, middle and end.  With conflict and resolution.  With character growth, and avoidance of cliches.  With light and shade, nuance and allusion.  Roll all that into a rock album and you have a hell of a way to spend an hour.

5/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Psycho Circus – Psycho Circus (1992 cassette)

PSYCHO CIRCUS – Psycho Circus (1992 indi cassette EP)

Psycho Circus put out their one and only album in 1993.  They were a talented band who avoided grunge cliches and instead dove into funk-metal and a darker Faith No More sound circa The Real Thing.  The album was split down the middle between the two sides.  Decades later I found an earlier indi cassette, released after they signed with SRO Management, the team behind Rush.

It’s quite clear this band had musical chops.  Opening track “Picky Purple People” is killer.  Faux-horns, massive bass and busy drums are relentless.  This is a goofier side of the band, but well executed.  If the Chili Peppers and Faith No More had a baby, it would sound like “Picky Purple People”.  Next is “Funk in Our Souls”, a track that was re-recorded for the album later.  The cassette version sounds more bass heavy.  It’s more enjoyable for that reason, not to mention the smoking guitar solo.  “Can You Feel It?” was also re-recorded for the album, but this is one of those darker songs that eschew the funk.  Singer Vince Franchi hits unreal notes.  His voice is versatile.  It’s Faith No More without the twisted mind.

The final track didn’t make it onto the CD.  “Psycho Circus” opens with traditional circus music, a full six years before Kiss did the same thing with their own song called “Psycho Circus”.  Maybe they should try suing Kiss?  It would be fun to see!  That’s the only similarity.  This is another funky track, and though the circus music is a bit silly, the chorus rocks.

The tape comes with a nice J-card and full lyrics.  In a way it’s a better listen than the album.  It doesn’t have as many great songs, but it also has less filler.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Tonic – Lemon Parade (1996)

TONIC – Lemon Parade (1996 Polygram)

“If You Could Only See” was both the song the put Tonic on the map, and the one that put the bullet in their career.  If you’re over a certain age, you remember the powerful and tasteful ballad from when it hit the charts in 1997.  I had the album already.  I bought it when it first came out, after reading a glowing review in the local paper and seeing a used copy pop in at the Record Store.  Finding Jack Joseph Puig’s name in the producer credits got my attention too.

Tonic’s debut Lemon Parade is a great sounding CD, thanks to Puig and the richly arranged guitars of Emerson Hart and Jeff Russo.  When the guitars are center stage, all is well.  The opening duo of “Open Up Your Eyes” and “Casual Affair” have the punch that people don’t always associate with Tonic.  These guys could play.  “Casual Affair” in particular has angst and emotion ripping out of those six-strings.  When they get heavy, like on “Wicked Soldier”, there is always something bright and chiming going on with backing guitars.  Check out “Celtic Aggression” for a fine example of their guitar expertise.  Emerson Hart has an emotive voice, whether rocking out or serenading the ballads.

It’s the ballads the people remember, and you have to admit that when you break it down, “If You Could Only See” is a fantastic song.  Layers of chiming, chugging and sliding guitars are right there beneath the core melodies.  On the mandolin-infused “Mountain”, plus “Soldier’s Daughter” and “Lemon Parade”, you can absolutely hear old-tyme southern influences creeping through.  Tonic have traits that sound as if from another era, in many ways.  These are actually quite great songs, largely forgotten because of that one hit.

There are only a few songs that don’t score top marks:  “Thick” (no hooks), “Mr. Golden Deal” & “My Old Man” (both too sleepy).  The rest is pretty solid.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Nuno – Schizophonic (1996)

NUNO – Schizophonic (1996 A&M)

Man, the 1990s were hard on rock bands.  Those that could not survive broke up and fragmented.  Those fragments metamorphosed into new and sometimes interesting configurations.  Image changes, name changes, hair cuts…rock artists did whatever they had to do to make a living.  Even the talented ones.

When Extreme fell apart in 1995, it was obvious that guitarist Nuno Bettencourt wouldn’t just disappear.  Instead he re-emerged on his old label A&M with a 90’s-style stripped down album and a single moniker: “Nuno”.  With Nuno dressed in drag on the front, there was nothing to indicate that this was the same guitar wizard who made jaws drop just six years prior.

Writing, singing and playing virtually everything himself, Nuno’s solo debut Schizophonic was received coldly by some fans.  With 15 short and basic pop rock tracks and ballads but running over an hour in length, Schizophonic is a chore to finish in one listening session.  All the flavours of 90s rock are present:  drony riffs, drum machines, and distorted vocals with a de-emphasis on instrumental finesse.  The first track “Gravity” possesses all of these qualities, but also has Nuno’s knack for melody.  You can all but hear him and Gary Cherone harmonizing on it.  Shame that never happened because this could have been a great Extreme track.  “Gravity” is not bad, but there certainly is a sensation of the potential for more.

“Swollen Princess” is a great track.  Real drums, less distortion, and Nuno’s way with a melody make it a much better recording.  You can see why a guy like Nuno had to try and be more anonymous in the 1990’s.  If this track was on a new band’s album, it could have been a pop punk hit.  Put it on an album by a guy from an 80’s hard rock band, and nobody was going to pay attention.  Some will also enjoy “Crave”, a very very very 1996 rock song with light verses and hard choruses.  Sounds like Nuno was listening to a lot of Weezer.  Great song, but not for everybody.  I also dig the Spacehog-like “Got to Have You”.

“What You Want” will be skipped by many.  It adapts the riff for “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley into something new and noisy but not especially appealing until the mellow chorus.  “Fallen Angels” is all loops and programming; not enough groove.  “2 Weeks In Dizkneelande” is a cool title, exposing a heavy fast grunge-punk-thrash hybrid. Nuno’s drumming on this is quite impressive actually, and his brief guitar solo smokes. The shredding on this album, what little there is of it, is still impressive. It’s just in shorter, more diverse spurts.

Gary Cherone co-wrote a couple tunes. “Pursuit of Happiness” is a nice, folksy song that would have been a good single for Extreme. It has the same campground singalong quality that they had success with before.   “Fine By Me” has a similar singalong quality, in the guise of a pop rock track a-la the 1990s.  Cherone also co-wrote, and sings on “You” which is as close to Extreme as we were going to get at the time.  As a singer, Nuno is fine, but Gary is a real vocalist.  Having them together on “You” is a return to the sound that made them famous.

It’s a bumpy, uneven ride. The worst track is the electronic rock of “Karmalaa”. I know — he should have named it after Kamala, the Ugandan Headhunter.  I can’t help but think of “Karmalaa” as a frantic, poor-grade Adore outtake by the Smashing Pumpkins.  The other contender for worst track is the closer “Severed” which might answer the question, “What would Weezer sound like if they were an electronic band?”  Not good.   “Confrontation” is slow and forgettable, though not without its moments.  “I Wonder” is a tender, thoughtful song, but just not good enough.  There’s some tasty talk box on “Note on the Screen Door” but not enough of a song to go with it.  That’s the problem with Schizophonic overall.  There are instrumental thrills, some great parts and melodies here and there, but not enough cohesive, memorable material.

It’s a hit and miss affair.  I had one customer, Shane, who never trusted my opinion again when I told him it was good.  Buy at your own risk.

3/5 stars

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#475: If You Could Only See (Where are they now?)

A multi-site feature on “Where are they now?” bands from the 1990’s.

Geoff at 1001 Albums – Gin Blossoms
Aaron at KeepsMeAlive – The Refreshments
James at KeepsMeAlive – Crash Test Dummies
Boppin at Boppin’s Blog – The Pursuit of Happiness
Deke at Stick it in Your Ear – Paul Laine

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GETTING MORE TALE #475: If You Could Only See (Where are they now?)

In the 1990’s, folks liked to make fun of all the old, outdated one hit wonders from the 80’s.  Whether the name of your band was Winger or A Flock of Seagulls, few were spared the torment of being teased.  It seemed for a while that the only bands that could be considered relevant were not from the 80’s (except for a couple that people always conveniently forgot actually were from the 80’s — Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails).

Today, we like to look back upon the music of the 90’s and do the same thing.  Those terrible post-grunge bands, the awful flannel, and groups with names like Hootie or Spin Doctors…always ripe for the pickings!  We all do it, don’t we?  It’s not like it’s an accurate reflection of the decade.  Even beyond the “big” bands, there were some good and some great 90’s groups who lacked longevity, even though their album output wasn’t bad at all.

Scan_20160323One such band was Tonic.  “If You Could Only See” was their hit ballad, which of course did nothing to hint at the rock and roll on their album, Lemon Parade.  That song actually took a long time to finally hit.  Heavier singles like “Open Up Your Eyes” and “Casual Affair” preceded it, but obviously did not have the same impact.  So, Tonic became one of those bands closely identified with a ballad and not much else — usually the death knell for a group.

I tweaked onto Tonic early. The Record Store that I managed was opened up in April of ’96. A promo copy of Lemon Parade rolled in shortly after.  We bought it from the customer for $6 (which was pretty much the going rate for a brand new release back then) and put it on the shelves where it sat for a while.  I recognized the album in the Kitchener newspaper’s music section, where they gave it a glowing review. It was produced by Jack Joseph Puig, who also produced my favourite Black Crowes album, amorica.  The review claimed that Tonic were clearly influenced by the sounds of the 70’s rather than the 90’s, so I decided to pop it in the player at work and check it out.

I liked it enough to play it a few times, and eventually buy a copy myself.  I found it to be pleasant rock.  Nothing too hard, but edgy enough.  “Casual Affair” for example has an angry groove to it, though it was certainly not going to challenge the Smashing Pumpkins for heaviness.  It had a spare, real production.  It’s all about guitars; layered in the grand tradition of Page and Hendrix.  When it’s quiet you can hear people breathing while strumming.  The key thing with Tonic, to me, was the musicianship.  I had grown weary of the bands who clearly didn’t give a shit about learning how to play.  Tonic were not one of those bands.  The busy basslines grooved with a variety of guitar sounds (including lots of slide) and a wicked drum sound to form a modern but rootsy whole.  Band leader Emerson Hart was a short-haired dude with big cool mutton chop sideburns.  I liked him immediately.

TONIC_0001In ’97, “If You Could Only See” was released as a single and the band finally saw some serious chart action.  Unfortunately the ballad resonated with the kind of people who tended to buy an album for one song, and not give the rest a real chance.  They started coming back used regularly.  The album sold 1.3 million copies, but how many of those are in people’s homes today?  Their second album Sugar (1999) was miles and away better than Lemon Parade, but failed to make a lasting impact on their careers.  By the time they hooked up with Bob Rock for 2002’s Head on Straight (their third LP), it was too late.  Proving that the Grammy Awards don’t know their elbows from their asses, that lukewarm CD was nominated for two awards.  Like a death knell, the band went on hiatus a short while later.

During their hiatus, the band members worked on music separately but Emerson Hart’s Cigarettes and Gasoline was close enough to Tonic to keep the core sound alive.  It contained some deeply personal music — Hart’s father disappeared (like completely vanished) when he was young.  Still, a solo album is not the same as a band album, so Tonic reformed in 2008.  Their Best of album (2009) contained a number of acoustic and live rarities, and a full album simply called Tonic emerged in 2010.  It continued where they left off, plying Tonic’s signature sound based on rootsy guitars and melodies.  Sugar remains their high water mark, but the band have been relatively quiet since the reunion began…until now.

In March 2016, Tonic announced that for the album’s 20th anniversary, they would be recording an acoustic version of Lemon Parade.  This should be worth checking out, but most importantly we hope a trip to the studio will eventually inspire some brand new Tonic songs!

REVIEW: Live – Throwing Copper (1994)

LIVE – Throwing Copper (1994 Radioactive Records)

20 year ago.  It seems like such a long time, but it’s true: There was an era when the top of the charts were dominated by the likes of Hootie, and Live. Kids today might not know Live, but many of these songs are still radio staples today: “I Alone”, “Lightning Crashes”, “All Over Me” among others.  8 million copies sold, and although you can find it used quite easily today, a lot of people hung onto their copies of Throwing Copper.  I am one.

I began working at the record store in 1994, and I used to tell my customers, “You’ll probably know all these songs.” I said that for a few albums back then, such as Purple by Stone Temple Pilots and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Not only did Throwing Copper have five hit singles, but virtually every album track was getting played somewhere. That’s how strong this record is.

The legacy of this album is its influence. I will maintain that without Throwing Copper, there would be no Matchbox 20, and certainly no Daughtry. Unfortunately all those bands learned from Live was bombast, and they turned it up to 11. They learned nothing about song craft, nothing about expression, nothing about restraint.

Throwing Copper has bombast in spades. It’s there in Ed’s vocals, but it’s also there in the rhythm guitar parts and the noisy Neil Young-esque solos. It’s there in the rolling bass lines and the thundering drums. But Ed Kowalczyk also knew how to use his voice quietly (“Lightning Crashes”), which amazingly was still as expressive. He names Michael Stipe as a huge influence, and you can hear R.E.M. and even U2 between the grooves.

Personal fave song:  “Shit Towne”.

Production by Jerry Harrison is stunning. The drums are some of the best, most natural sounding drums recorded in the 90’s and the bass is strong without dominating. This CD is in no need of a remastering, it sounds just fine as it is.

It’s kind of a shame that Live never did anything this good again, or with this kind of impact. While I have listened to every Live album since, I never bought any of them. This is the only one I bothered buying, and I liked it so much I bought some of the singles when I could find them. The domestic single for “White, Discussion” has a great acoustic version of “I Alone”.

If you need some 90’s nostalgia, and don’t have this album, you absolutely need it. If you’re too young to remember the 90’s but love bands like Theory of a NickelCreed, then you need to find out what real music sounds like. Throw out your Daughtry discs and pick up Throwing Copper.

5/5 stars

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There is also an unlisted track after “White, Discussion” known as “Horse”.