cassette

REVIEW: Ghost – Impera (2022)

GHOST – Impera (2022 Loma Vista)

Ghost have been pretty consistent over the years.  In all honesty the only album of theirs that I seldom spin is their second Infestissumam.  Everything else has been pretty solid to me so hopes were high for the new Impera.  Tobias Forge and Ghost have steadily evolved since Opus Eponymous in 2010.  From their melodic gothic metal origins, Ghost have gradually shed metal elements and replaced them with pop sensibilities.  Impera is most similar to their last album, Prequelle.  Let’s take a deep dive and analyse what Forge and his Nameless Ghouls have come up with this time.

Inspired by the real life rise and fall of empires, but through the lens of 2020, Ghost seem less interested in Satan while remaining fascinated by the dark side.  The idea had been long-simmering in Forge’s skull:  empires, repeating patterns in history, followed by annihilation.  The opening instrumental “Imperium” sets the stage with acoustic and electric guitars, layered in a way that recalls classic 80s Leatherwolf but far more lush.  Then we are suddenly engulfed not in darkness but in Darkness — the opening guitars sound like the British band, and Forge’s opening scream is a dead ringer for Justin Hawkins!  “Kaisarion” could easily have been a Darkness song.  High speed and instantly memorable, it’s the only song that will have you singing words like “Far away from the stench of the heavens,” this summer.  An immediate triumph, “Kaisarion” has it all from wickedly melodic guitars, deep backing vocals and clever instrumental prowess in all corners.  Can’t wait to road test this on a warm day in the car with the windows down.

“Spillways” might recall Trash-era Alice Cooper, with a tremendous amount of attention paid to the incessant melodies.  One after the other, the hooks keep coming.  Be it the vocals, the guitars or hell even the goddamn drums, “Spillways” is nothing but hard catchy rock they way you remember it from ages past.

The dark single “Call Me Little Sunshine” takes a different turn.  A simple spare guitar lick makes up the backbone of the song, with quiet verses and explosive choruses.  “Call me little sunshine, call me Mephistopheles,” sings Forge going full-Faust.  I’ll call it a song that takes a couple listens but will eventually bore its way into your permanent memory.

The second single, “Hunter’s Moon” follows, an upbeat prowl through dark woods.  (This is the single mix, with a more elaborate version included in the film Halloween Kills.)  While an impressive enough song on its own, “Hunter’s Moon” is over quickly, and overshadowed by the awesome “Watcher in the Sky”, a possible contender for album highlight.  Relentless bass and drums set up the biggest boldest chorus on the album.  The lyrics are hard to pin down, speaking of Machiavelli, bloodlines, and the rot of empires.  Possibly about looking to God for salvation but getting no reply.  Regardless of the dark theme, it’s one of the most party-ready tracks on the album.

The horns that blow on “Dominion”, an instrumental interlude, lead to a shocking transition.  “Twenties” is the strangest song on the album and contender for one of Ghost’s most bizarre tunes overall.  Beginning with a dark Metallica “Through the Never”-ish riff, “Twenties” soon transforms into something completely different.  Indescribable and simultaneously existing in the 1920s and 2020s alike.  Not sure if I like ir or not.

“Darkness at the Heart of My Love” is a pretty epic ballad, with suitably epic accompaniment from harpsichord type keys to angelic sonic backdrops.  Choirs of vocals join by the end, heaped on top of guitar harmonies in decadent fashion.  Brightening the mood, the poppy “Griftwood” returns us to a classic hard rock sound circa 1987.  The lyrics offer a critique of organized religion, but in the brightest musical frame.  Forge has leaned heavily into a specific kind of 80s hook of late, and “Griftwood” is soaked in them like cold gin.

A brief instrumental called “Bite of Passage” precedes the final song, “Respite on the Spatialfields”.  The empire has fallen, and Forge asks “I wonder, did no one hear the distant thunder?”  (We did, but we chose to ignore it.)  This complex track might be called a metal ballad, but it’s more progressive than that.  It has elements of Ozzy, Queensryche, Savatage, Whitesnake and Europe’s “The Final Countdown” all rolled into one.  An epic way to close the album.  “Nothing ever lasts forever.”

Musically invigorating and lyrically thought-provoking, Forge has created another memorable Ghost album for the masses.  While we hope the world doesn’t end too soon, and Forge can continue making albums, Ghost have harnessed the musical and apocalyptic themes of the 80s and brought them forth to the present day.  Job well done.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Hard Skool (2022 CD, cassette, 7″ vinyl)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Hard Skool (2022 Universal CD, cassette, 7″ vinyl EP)

The first new physical music from Guns N’ Roses since 2008’s Chinese Democracy has finally arrived in the form of an EP!  Good enough; we’ll take it.  Beggars (and hangers-on) cannot be choosers.  Considering how scarce new Guns music has been since the early 90s, the new Hard Skool EP almost feels like manna from the gods.

There are six tracks in total spread over multiple formats:  two new studio songs, and four live.  The last of the live songs, “Shadow Of Your Love”, shipped in June 2022 on a club-only clear 7″.  The other five tracks are all here.

To the disappointment of some, the two new songs are slightly old:  Chinese Democracy outtakes that have been reworked with Slash and Duff McKagan.  The duo have writing credits on “Hard Skool” along with Axl Rose and former members Robin Finck, Josh Freese, Tommy Stinson and Paul “Huge” Tobias.  Formerly known as “Jackie Chan”, this song comes closest to capturing the classic Guns vibe – think Illusions era GN’R.  Slash imbues the riff with his trademark snakelike style, and Axl is in full-scream mode on the powerful chorus.  The cowbell brings us back to the 80s a bit, but the experimental solo section is more modern.

The other new/old song “ABSUЯD” is much more Chi-Dem, and more divisize.  Formerly known as “Silkworms”, it was largely enjoyed by those who knew it from live bootlegs but thought it should have been on the album.  The keyboard intro has been axed, the riff emphasized and the lyrics slightly modified.  The main hook “What can I do, with a bitch like you?” has been replaced with a refrain of “Absurd!” The words are otherwise just as angry.  “Listen motherfuckers to the song that should be heard!” bellows Axl on the opening line.  “Parasitic demons sucking acid through your heart!”  I wonder who this was written about?  Vocally, Axl’s in the faux accent he utilized on “Down on the Farm” and you’ll love it or hate it.  Interestingly former keyboardist Chris Pitman, who was credited with songwriting on the original “Silkworms” version, no longer has a credit.  It is now credited to Axl, Slash, Duff and Dizzy.  Presumably the Pitman parts were chopped.  At the time of its writing, Pitman said: “It ended up being this incredible track that sounded like Guns N’ Roses 10 or 15 years in the future. It was so far removed from our other songs that we had to put it in this other place. Concept-wise, it didn’t fit with Chinese Democracy. We hope we will have other songs that match that kind of futuristic sound. It’s a really exciting track because it morphs into this crazy sound, but it was out so much in the other direction that we have to let time catch up with it.”  While that was true of “Silkworms”, the version known as “ABSUЯD” is more guitar-oriented.

The live songs commence with “Don’t Cry”.  Slash and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus sound great together on this, but Axl struggles when the singing gets high at the end.  It’s a demanding song, and 1991 was a long time ago.  “You’re Crazy” on the other hand is really good.  Using the slower Lies arrangement, but played on electric, this version is like brand new.  A real cool addition to your GN’R library.

The third live track is exclusive to the 7″ vinyl:  “ABSUЯD”.  Not only do we get new songs on this EP, but we already get one in a live version.  Guns started playing “ABSUЯD” live in 2021 as a surprise before it was released on iTunes.  Axl’s voice is pretty strange here, sounding a bit muppet-ish.  (The screaming portion sounds like tape.)  This live track will take some getting used to.  It’s not that Axl’s voice is bad just…different than what you’re used to.

The 7″ vinyl came with a sticker while the cassette and CD versions come with no extras.  The CD is packed in a slipcase, and the cassette in a cassingle cardboard sleeve.  This got crushed a bit in the mail; a jewel case would have been better.

Completing this tracklist is “Shadow Of Your Love (Live)” on an additional 7″ single, available only by joining a “Nightrain” membership on the official site.  The cheaper of the pricey packages gives you access to the usual online perks such as pre-sale tickets, but your only physical merchandise is the vinyl, a sticker, and a pin.

The cover artwork includes an interesting visual clue.  On a school locker door, the classic Guns N’ Roses logo is stickered overtop a graffiti style logo reminiscent of Chinese Democracy.  Almost a metaphor for what these new songs are.

It’s encouraging that Guns N’ Roses have finally released something new, even if the songs are just reworked tunes from 20+ years ago.  Perhaps they’re clearing the decks before working on truly new material.  It’s all but certain that we will see more, and hopefully a longer release next time.  While some moments on the live tunes are shaky, and the new tunes were not as warmly received by some, the Hard Skool EP is wonderful to hold in hand.  New physical music from GN’R!  About time.

4/5 stars

All cautions made
Every chance was given
No effort spared to save what we had
All in good faith
I would not hesitate
To extend myself and lend you my hand

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

As tempers fade
And lies forgiven
No cause embraced could break what we had
In its place
A storm is lifting
I would’ve thought you could be more of a man

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

But you had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

You had to play it cool, had to do it your way
Had to be a fool, had to throw it all away
Too hard school and you thought you were here to stay
If that were true, it wouldn’t matter anyway

#968: Go For the Songs From the Electric Heart

RECORD STORE TALES #968: Go For the Songs From the Electric Heart

Trapper is Emm Gryner, Sean Kelly, Frank Gryner and Tim Timleck.  For those who know, Trapper is also one of the best hard rock bands going, if you happen to like that retro-catchy sound done with expertise and skill.  This style of music never died, but it was definitely harder to find after grunge hit the “reset” button.  Bottom line though:  a good song is a good song.  Trapper write and play good songs!

Joe Elliott is a fan. Isn’t that enough?

I have liked Trapper since first hearing about the band in 2015, when they released their first cassette.  I knew Emm Gryner by reputation and quickly became a fan of her solo work.  Of course, I was will familiar with Sean Kelly from his many recordings with Helix, Lee Aaron, the Metal On Ice CD/book project, and so on.  But I missed out on that limited edition tape.  I also missed the five track CD release Go For the Heart, of which 300 copies were made.

I’d been listening to the band quite a bit on the weekend, since getting their newest tape Songs From the Electric North in the mail.  Only 50 were made, and this time I managed to get one!  Sean sent it to me with a nice note.  He’s a great guy.  Not only did he take the time to appear on the LeBrain Train in May 2021, but even before that he was instrumental in helping me identify MuchMusic personalities on my VHS tapes.  I always like adding more of his music to my collection.

And that is the point of this story:  the collector’s disease.  It’s a real thing, and I have the actual receipts.  I decided I wanted “all the Trapper songs”.  I looked on Discogs and much to my amazement, they had a copy of Go For the Heart for $75 plus shipping.  $100 total.  Last copy sold was $71, two years prior.  It had been on my wishlist for some time.  I did the math, and decided this was my best chance to own it.  Go For the Heart has “Grand Bender” and “The Warrior” from the debut tape, so this would get me “all the Trapper songs” in physical form.  Still flush with Christmas money, I decided to pull the trigger.  Collector’s itch:  temporarily scratched.

I felt quite satisfied with my myself!

The next day, I noticed my good buddy Aaron from the KMA had left a comment on my Friday January 14 live show, during which I unboxed my brand new Songs From the Electric North cassette.  “Jealous you got the new Trapper,” he said.  “I only have the one CD here.”

Wait…the CD?  They only have one CD and it’s Go For the Heart.  The one I just paid a hundred bucks for.  And Aaron’s was signed by Emm and Sean!  He paid a buck.

I had to tell Sean this story.  “No regrets!” I said.  And it is true.  I paid a lot — maybe the most paid yet for that particular CD.  But I wanted it.  I wanted it for a while.  I know what the last guy paid, and I paid $4 more.  Will it appreciate in value?  Not the point!  I collect music from artists I like in physical formats.  I wanted it, so I bought it.

Hey, I’m a collector and sometimes we splurge!

REVIEW: Trapper – Songs From the Electric North (2022 limited edition cassette EP)

TRAPPER – Songs From the Electric North (2022 limited edition cassette EP)

One gets the sense that, although Trapper take the quality of their music very seriously, Emm, Sean, Tim and Frank are doing it for the pure enjoyment.  They must be!  Trapper is a top-notch band honouring their 80s roots by writing that kind of catchy rock song with singalong hooks.  Each track on their brand new cassette EP, Songs From the Electric North (limited to just 50 copies!) sounds assembled with great care, and genuine zeal.

Fear not if you missed out on the cassette, for you can download the EP on your iTunes!

Songs From the Electric North consists of four originals and two covers.  The covers,  “Illégal” by Corbeau and “Bye bye mon cowboy” by Mitsou, were previously reviewed here so you can check that out if you want to know more about those two excellent tracks.  In particular, we praised “Illégal” for a beautifully chunky riff that Sean Kelly captured with a nice crunchy guitar tone.  We also singled out Emm Gryner’s lead vocal, with depth, grit, power — the whole package.  This is the first physical release for these tracks.

The four originals vary in flavour, so picking favourites will also widely vary from person to person.  On side A, “Winterlong” opens, hitting the ears on a nice tense Sean Kelly riff with a Campbell-era Dio feeling.  This track has it all, from the powerhouse vocals to thundering drums n’ bass.  “Winterlong” also boasts a lyrical guitar solo, carefully composed and executed.  This track is a rocker!  Heavy as metal, yet sweet as saccharine at the same time.

Power ballad territory ahead!  Perhaps “Almost Forever” is in the vein of ‘87-era Whitesnake or albums of that direction?  Whatever your inkling, “Almost Forever” is memorable, and done to perfection.  It’s a hard sound to get just right.  The keyboards and especially Emm’s melody put it exactly in the right ballpark.  A winning song, that you will be coming back to again and again when you want a new ballad with that nostalgic feeling that sends you back in time.

Opening side B, “You Need An Angel” has a nice chunky rock groove.  Here Kelly reminds me at times of Ratt’s Warren DeMartini in tone and feel.  Another fabulous classic rock composition, laden with hooks and punchy drums.  And completely different in direction from the other tunes.

The last of the originals is the pounding metal of “New Year’s Day”.  This track has an epic quality, harder to describe, except to say it’s different again from the previous songs!  Solid riff/groove combo, with Emm delivering a vocal that just divebombs you with hooks from the sky!  How’s that for a description?  Just listen to it.

I’m very grateful to score one of the 50 copies of this tape.  To give you an idea of demand, Trapper’s first cassette “Grand Bender” / “The Warrior” was limited to 100 copies and never turns up for sale.  Their CD EP, Go For the Heart, runs about a hundred bucks total with shipping these days.  I should know, because I bought the last one!

You can get your copy on iTunes, so head on over and get rocked by the Songs From the Electric North. 

5/5 stars

#891: Condition Critical

RECORD STORE TALES #891 Condition Critical

Allan Runstedtler was looking at my tape collection.  This was something kids did.  Every kid had a few tapes.  Maybe they even had a nice tape case to put them in.  I started the year 1985 with only one tape case.  It held 30.

Allan reached for my Quiet Riot.

Condition Critical?  What’s that?  I only know ‘Situation Critical’ by Platinum Blonde.” said Al.

I was never one of the cool ones.

There was this kid from school named Kevin Kirby.  One day I was in his neighbourhood and he introduced me to a friend of his.  Kevin asked me to tell him what my favourite band was.  I answered “Quiet Riot” and they both laughed.  I still liked Quiet Riot?  They were so 1983.

Not much time had passed, but Quiet Riot were already toast.  I felt cool for all of 3 months when Quiet Riot were big.  Metal Health was my first hard rock album.  I loved that album.  I still love that album.  I was the anomaly.  All my classmates (the few that liked Quiet Riot in the first place) had moved on.  Platinum Blonde were huge.  And rightfully so.  Standing in the Dark was a great album.  Their followup Alien Shores was also successful, going to #3 in Canada.  Platinum Blonde, however, were not for me.  They were not a hard rock band.  I didn’t even consider them to be a rock band.  I labelled Platinum Blonde with the same label I used on everything I didn’t like.  These loathsome artists were all dubbed “wavers”.  There was no greater insult to me than “waver”.  You were either a rocker or a waver.  There was nothing else in my eyes more wretched than “New Wave” music.

Quiet Riot were not wavers, they were rockers.  They had songs like “Party All Night” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”.  But they had made a “Critical” blunder.  They followed Metal Health with an inferior carbon copy in Condition Critical.  It was a collection of leftovers and it was obvious.  It even included a Slade cover like the prior album.  It still went platinum.  But Metal Health sold six times that.  It was seen as a critical and commercial failure.  Dubrow earned Quiet Riot no favours when he decided to trash other bands in the press.  That stunt misfired, gloriously so.

No wonder Allan had never heard of Condition Critical.  I tried to get him into some of my music.  I showed him the video for “Death Valley Driver” by Rainbow, which I thought was really cool.  He wasn’t as impressed as I was.

Going back a bit, I received Condition Critical for Easter of 1985.  Almost a year after its release.  I can remember a conversation with my mom about what kind of gifts I would like, and I answered “the new Quiet Riot, because I want to have all the albums by a band.”  Hah!  I had no idea, none whatsoever, that Metal Health was their third, not first.  In Japan, Quiet Riot and Quiet Riot II were released in the late 70s.  These featured the late Ozzy Osbourne guitar wizard Randy Rhoads on lead guitar, but I had yet to learn all these important details.  I wanted to have Condition Critical so I could have a “complete” Quiet Riot collection.  Something I’m still attempting to have.

Easter of ’85 was spent in Ottawa with my mom’s Uncle Gar and Aunt Miriam.  We all stayed in their house.  They were amazing people.  Uncle Gar was injured in the war, but always had a smile on his face.  He didn’t like my growing hair or my rock music, but I think he was happy that I turned out OK in the end.  I stayed in a little spare bedroom.  I brought my Sanyo ghetto blaster and my parent’s old Lloyds headphones.

I hit “play” on Quiet Riot not expecting to like every song, and I didn’t.  I enjoyed the two singles, “Party All Night” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now”.  I thought the lead track, “Sign of the Times”, as as strong as the first album.  But I didn’t think much of “Scream and Shout”, “Bad Boy” or “(We Were) Born to Rock”.  And the ballad?  I was not a ballad kid, and I thought “Winners Take All” was even worse than “Thunderbird”!

I’ve softened on the ballads since (pun intended), but it’s true that this is just an album of soundalikes.  It’s not outstanding.  I knew I’d have to give it a bunch more listens, but even then I knew a “sequel” when I saw one.  Similar.  More of the same of what you like.  But not as good.

I kept giving them chances, though.  I had to.  They were the first band I wanted “all” the albums from.  When my buddy George told me that Quiet Riot were back with an awesome new song called “The Wild and the Young”, my excitement was restored.  “Kevin Dubrow even looks like Paul Stanley in the music video,” he told me.  Cool!

Of course we know how that ended.  A sterile, keyboardy comeback that fizzled out with Dubrow’s ousting.

There are bands I have given up on and never looked back.  Yet I keep buying Quiet Riot, loyally, album after album.  If they release another, I’ll buy that too.  And it’s all because of what I told my mom when she asked me what I wanted for Easter.  “The new Quiet Riot,” I answered, “because I want to have all the albums by a band.”

 

#886: Hand Me Downs

RECORD STORE TALES #886: Hand Me Downs

It’s funny.  Though my music playback setup today is completely different from my first, even today there’s still one thing they have in common:  both setups featured hand-me-down audio components from my parents.  And I hope one of those components continues working forever.

In Getting More Tale #796: Improvisation, I explained that we kids of the 80s didn’t have the luxury to buy whatever stereo equipment we wanted.  We had to make due with what we had, and improvise.  And that’s exactly what we did.  When I first started collecting music, I owned it on two formats only:  LP and cassette.  The classic duo.  Compact discs existed only in Japan.  We hadn’t even heard of them.  All that existed in our world were the vinyl record and the compact cassette.  That’s all I needed to be able to play.

Around 1985, my parents realized they weren’t going to be listening to records or 8-track tapes anymore.  The living room needed to be renovated and there was no more room for that giant Lloyd’s stereo system.  The 8-track player didn’t work anymore, but it was a single unit combined with a radio receiver and amplifier, which still worked fine.  The Lloyd’s record player could still plug into it and play normally.  I snapped them up.  Only George Balasz and myself were lucky enough to have record players in our bedrooms.  Everybody else on the street had to use their parents’ systems.

Don’t get me wrong:  it didn’t sound great.  I took my parents’ hand-me-downs and plugged them into my Panasonic ghetto blaster, which essentially was both my tape deck and speakers.   Not ideal, but good enough for a 13 year old.  I recall the sound was rather tinny.  But it worked after a spell.  If my mom wanted me to tape her old Roy Orbison LPs, I could do that.  (Spoiler:  my mom really abused her LPs.)

I used that setup for many years.  The Lloyd’s receiver lasted seven more.  It finally blew a circuit in early ’92.  A few weeks later, I replaced it with a small, affordable preamp.  It didn’t have a lot of power, but it enabled me to continue listening to records.  Of course, that old Lloyd’s turntable wasn’t in the best shape anymore.  The needle had never been changed, and I had really abused that thing, playing records backwards and trying to make funky sounds.  It was cool though, because it had four speeds:  16, 33, 45, and 78.  I didn’t own any 16’s or 78’s.  But I could play them.  And I kept it for well over a decade.  I only replaced it when I did a complete stereo system overhaul in the late 90s.  T-Rev and I went to Steve’s TV, and I picked out new everything.  Canadian made PSB speakers, a new Technics dual tape component, a Technics receiver to go with it, and a brand new Technics turntable.  Good enough for me, who had been living with a Frankenstein system his whole life.

The only thing I didn’t need to buy was a CD player.  And this is the last piece of hand-me-down tech incorporated into my still-current system.  (I actually have two systems today:  my 7.1 setup in the main room with blu-ray, and my stereo “man cave” with all my analog stuff.)

I call this CD player “the Tank”.  It is a 30 year old Sony five-disc changer and I more or less confiscated it from them when I moved out.  Once they had a DVD player, I didn’t think they needed a CD player anymore, so I made the executive decision to liberate it.  It wasn’t exactly a covert operation.  The Sony had been in my bedroom setup for a while.  I liked a numbers of its features.  It had a fader!  I could fade tracks in and fade out, which was perfect for recording live albums.  The timer was also a nice extra — you could use it to monitor the time remaining on a track, or even album.  This was great for tape-making.  It was also painlessly easy to program.  So I stole the Sony!  When I moved out, I just said “I’m taking this CD player.”  Mom grumbled a bit, but…here it is.  I successfully abducted my parents’ CD player with no casualties.

I’m glad I did.  Though the five-disc gimmick doesn’t work so smoothly anymore, the Tank can play any CD I throw at it.  That might not sound like a big deal, but it is.  You’d be surprised how many CDs you’ll have problems playing in your computer today.  Some players, and many computers, still won’t play weird stuff like DualDiscs.  I have an old DualDisc by The Cult that will not play properly in any computer ever invented by mankind.  Even regular CDs can be weird.  I have a Cinderella disc (multiple copies even) that no computer from PC to Apple will play correctly.

So I need the Tank.  Just recently, I was listening to a fantastic live album by King’s X given to me by Superdekes.  The last song (an acoustic version of “Over My Head”) refused to rip to my PC.  I booted up the laptop and ran into the same problem, same spot.  I didn’t need to try a third computer to know that this would be futile.  Only the Tank could play my King’s X.  I examined the CD up close for damage and saw nothing.  (Good thing too as copies today run just shy of $100!)  Deke sent me a good disc (and thank you once more for that!), but CDs can be fickle.

No issue with the Tank.  I powered up the Sony, inserted the King’s X and played the song through.  No issues!  I got a good recording of it in Audacity and exported the audio into the King’s X album folder.  Seamless!

Thanks mom and dad for giving me, and in some cases, allowing me to steal your stuff.  I kept it all working — I even still have the remote!

#885: Mono (II)

A sequel to Record Store Tales Part 215:  Mono

RECORD STORE TALES #885: Mono (II)

I don’t know how I got mono, but it happened it the 8th grade.  Everybody was getting ready to graduate and move on to highschool, which was something I could not wait for.  I also can’t remember how long I was sick for.  I was home from school for a long time.  Weeks?  Felt like months.  I almost missed graduation.  I made it back to school for the last few days of the year.  I remember everybody was nice to me when I came back.  That was a first.  I only managed half a day upon my return, but felt well enough to do a full day the next time.  Then it was all over.

I didn’t mind having to stay home from school.  It kept me away from the bullies.  There wasn’t much to do except watch music videos on the Pepsi Power Hour.  That’s how my “music collection” grew, song by song.  One of the defining songs from that period in my life is “Rough Boy” by ZZ Top.  MuchMusic played that video a lot, and I captured a really good recording of it that I played incessantly.  I didn’t own any albums by the artists I was recording.  Anvil, Dio, Hear N’ Aid, Loudness — but I added the songs to my life.  “Metal On Metal” was what I craved.

The limitation here was that I could, in theory, only listen to these songs on the TV in the basement.  Like most people, we had an ordinary mono VCR and a TV with only one speaker.  It was a strange JVC machine, with a dockable remote.  I can’t find any pictures online of the exact model.  It looked cool but it had a potentially fatal flaw.  It was that dockable remote.  It was the only set of controls.  If you lost the remote, you were in trouble!

Like all kids, I wasn’t allowed to spend all day in front of the TV, even when I was sick.  But I wanted my tunes.  Songs like “Let It Go” by Loudness.  “Shake It Up” by Lee Aaron.  “Lay It On the Line” by Triumph.  I was just a kid; I didn’t have money to buy all the records.  I had enough to start collecting the core bands I loved, like Maiden and Kiss.  Not outliers like Loudness or Dio.

My buddy Bob taught me how to improvise.  I had a box of primitive wires and connectors.  At a very early stage, I realized I could connect the single “audio out” port on the VCR to one of the two “stereo in” jacks on my Panasonic dual tape deck.  This meant that the mono signal from the VCR was really going to be in mono on my tape deck.  One speaker only.  Left or right, it was my choice.  Neither was ideal.  But I could put my music from the Pepsi Power Hour onto a cassette, which could then be enjoyed in my bedroom.

I saved my allowance and my parents took me to Steve’s TV so I could buy a Y-connector.  It was a cheap, grey cable with one RCA connector on one end, and two on the other.  It split a mono signal into a fake stereo, which is exactly what I needed.

I recorded all my MuchMusic videos (the ones I didn’t own on album) to cassette in this way.  When I got around to buying an album, I wouldn’t need the recorded songs anymore.  I didn’t like to waste valuable cassette space, so I would record over any redundant songs.  I still have all these tapes, but the tracks today are a mish-mash of different years of recording and re-recording.  When we got a stereo VCR in early 1991, I was able to put the Y-connector back in the box for good.  No more need for fake stereo.  Now I had the real thing for every music video I recorded going forward.

Having so many great songs recorded in mono (often with truncated beginnings and endings) gave me a real appreciation for buying the albums later on.  Listening to my tapes made me want the really good songs that much more.  When I finally got them, in full stereo cassette glory, and I heard the songs come to life, it was like going from black and white to full colour.  Or 2D to 3D.  Albums versions were often longer than the edited video versions as well.  Buying the album was always rewarding.  But there were so many songs, and only so many dollars.  I had to pick and choose what to buy.  Sometimes I wouldn’t get around to them for years.  Or decades.

You just read a story about a kid with mono, listening to music in mono.  You can say you’ve done that now.

 

REVIEW: David Lee Roth – Big Trouble Comes to Toronto – Maple Leaf Gardens 10/31/86 (bootleg cassette)

DAVID LEE ROTH – Big Trouble Comes to Toronto – Maple Leaf Gardens 10/31/86 (bootleg cassette)

This cassette is a second generation, recorded from a buddy (with good equipment at least) in 1992.  My first bootleg.  It opens with a Van Halen-era interview with David Lee Roth about “precision rock”.  The crackle of original vinyl is audible.

A nice fade-in brings Steve Vai’s guitar to the fore, and then it’s wide open into “Shyboy”.  High octane, even though it’s just an audience recorded cassette with not enough volume on the guitar.  Without pause they rock into “Tobacco Road”. Gregg Bissonette’s toms a-thunderin’.  Vai certainly needs no help in hitting all the guitar hooks that he baked into the vinyl, just with more flair and energy.

Dave has never shied away from Van Halen hits or deep cuts.  “Unchained”, “Panama” and “Pretty Woman” are the first three.  The bass rumblings are unlike anything Michael Anthony played on the original.  The backing vocals are far more elaborate.  Like in Van Halen, “Unchained” is interrupted part way, but this time it’s so Dave can ask what you think of his new band!  Pretty hot.  After “Unchained” he stops to talk to a “pretty Canadian girl”.  “Panama” sounds a little odd with Brett Tuggle’s keyboards so prominent in the mix.  And it’s also way way way too long, with Dave trying to figure out who is reaching down between whose legs, but that’s Dave.  You don’t go to the show just to hear the music.  You go to see the whole schtick.  You put in the quarter, you gotta let the jukebox play the whole thing out.

“Pretty Woman” is zipped through fairly quickly (with one audience participation stop), going into Dave’s rabid “Elephant Gun” and the slick “Ladies’ Night in Buffalo?”  “Elephant Gun” features solos galore that would have been pretty awesome to see up close.  It sounds like there’s a vinyl side break before heading into “Buffalo”.  Vai’s guitar is the star here, in an extended solo backed only by Tuggle.  This turns into a dual bass/guitar call-and-answer.

When Bissonette starts on those tribal beats, you know it’s Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”  This great version includes a drum solo.  Next it’s “On Fire” from the Van Halen debut.  Dave asks for the guitars to be turned up – we agree.  “On Fire” with keyboards and Vai noodling is a different animal.  After Dave’s original “Bump and Grind”, it’s time to flip the tape.

Side two opens with some of Dave’s acoustic strummin’, and a story called “Raymond’s Song”.  It’s just an excuse for him to say “Toronto” a whole lotsa times before introducing “Ice Cream Man”.  Which completely smokes.  Vai puts his own space-age spin on it, and Tuggle adds boogie piano, but this is one wicked version!

Dave’s solo track “Big Trouble” has plenty of atmosphere and fireworks for the Toronto crowd, but “Yankee Rose” is just nuts.  Nothing but the hits from here on in:  “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, “Goin’ Crazy!”, “Jump” and “California Girls”.  The heavy riff of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” sounds great in Steve’s hands, who doesn’t go too crazy with it.  Of course there has to be another long break in the middle (too many breaks at this point now).  This time it’s so Dave can get Stevie to make his guitar say “Toronto kicks ass, because the chicks are so fine”.  The rest of the songs are somewhat fluffy, the pop stuff, and rendered a little sweet with the added shimmer of Brett Tuggle.  “Jump” misses the deeper tone of Eddie’s Oberheim OBXA.

It’s worth noting that Roth closes with “California Girls”, not “Jump”.  His solo career is the point, not Van Halen, he seems to be saying.  This is the cherry on top.  Roth hands it to his new band several times in the show — he knew they had to deliver, and they did.  And he wants people to know that he has a band that can compete with his old group.

The show is complete,  and apparently Dave didn’t play “Just a Gigolo” on this tour.  The opening act in Toronto was Cinderella, supporting Night Songs.

Sometimes you wish Dave would get on with it and play the next song, but that’s only because this is a cassette bootleg being played on a Technics RS-TR272.  If you were there in Toronto on the Eat ‘Em and Smile tour, you’d be eating up every word Dave laid down.  He is the master of the stage.  Sure, it doesn’t always translate to tape but that’s the nature of Dave’s live show, isn’t it?  It’s precision rock — visually and audibly combined.

4.5/5 stars (for what the show must have been in person)

 

REVIEW: Max the Axe – Bodies of Water (1995 cassette)

MAX THE AXE – Bodies of Water (1995 independant cassette)

This has to be one of the rarest items I own.  I have acquired the only remaining cassette copy of the first Max the Axe release, a five song tape called Bodies of Water.  In a rare move, the cassette had the bonus track rather than the CD.  Back in 1995, Max the Axe didn’t have a drummer so the drums on this release are programmed.  That lends it a streetwise but quaint mid-90s nostalgia.

Opening intensely with “Hard Drive”, Max the Axe’s music defies genres from the first track.  Heavy sludge riffs, flute, saxophone, a keyboard orchestra!  Lead vocals on this track by Pam Hammond leap beyond expectation as she bellows powerfully over the complex track.  You get more sax (courtesy Rockin’ Randy Harrison) on “Where’s Pablo?” featuring Mickey Straight on lead vocals.  This has a cool, dirty street vibe groove.

The  cassette bonus track “Guns To Iran” is dead center, and features “Max the Swinging Axe” on distorted lead vocals.  Pure metal on electronic steroids.  I’m immediately reminded of “Manic Mechanic” by ZZ Top, but a thrash metal version.

“I’m Glad Now” has another singer, Tim Rolland, and a completely different vibe.  Straight noctural, memorable melodic hard rock with a growly singer.  But then the screamer “Fair Ophelia” ends the cassette on a seriously heavy note.  Pam Hammond and Max the Axe return on vocals, assaulting the ear with aggressive heaviness.  Max does the metal grunting while Hammond sings in classic screamin’ metal style.

This is good stuff and surprisingly well preserved 25 years later.  Max’s sharp jabs of guitar solo adrenaline still rock the speakers with intended impact.  Maybe the Axe will remaster and reissue his early tunes so the rest of you can hear them too.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Black Sabbath – The Best of MusikLaden Live at the Beat Club

BLACK SABBATH – The Best of MusikLaden – Live at the Beat Club (1970 television performance)

When Black Sabbath released their Black Box in 2004 featuring all the original lineup’s studio albums in remastered form, they also included a bonus four-song DVD.  This disc was the oft-released television broadcast of a German show called Beat Club (later MusikLaden).  Sabbath made two appearances in 1970, and the Black Box was the most official release of them.  Before upgrading to the Black Box, I owned an earlier, unofficial DVD release.  I taped that DVD to cassette, and that’s what I’m listening to right now.

“Black Sabbath” is torrential, as intense as the young band was able.  Ozzy sounds as if possessed, truly terrified and warning us that something foreboding and terrible is coming.  “Paranoid” is strangely echoey and distant, but still as incendiary as 1970 Black Sabbath should be.  Interestingly, in this version it really does sound as if Ozzy is singing “end your life” instead of “enjoy life”.  A sparse “Iron Man” announces its arrival with evil Gibson guitar sonic bends.  This version of “Iron Man” is a little stiffer than others, but not for long.  Towards the end, Geezer Butler unleashes the hordes and the song stampedes to a close.

Finally and most notoriously is “Blue Suede Shoes”, a performance pretty much everybody has since disowned.  It’s not terrible, although it’s certainly uncharacteristic.  It’s as if Black Sabbath were suddenly encroaching upon ZZ Top’s territory.  Tony’s speedy solo is interesting if not typical, and the band really stepped it up.  I get why some would mock it; it’s kind of goofy and definitely not as impressive as the Sabbath originals.  But it’s…fun?  Is Sabbath allowed to be…fun?

3.5/5 stars