progressive rock

REVIEW: Rush – Roll the Bones (1991, remastered 200 gram vinyl)

RUSH – Roll the Bones (1991 Anthem, 2015 remaster on 200 gram vinyl)

There was a period in the 1980s when, in some circles, Rush had lost the plot.  Writers such as Martin Popoff have been very critical of this era, with its keyboards and shorter songs.  In 1989, Rush began to turn the ship around with Presto.  It and 1991’s Roll the Bones really ushered in the next phase of Rush, combining new and old.  Fans (and Alex Lifeson) were happy that keyboards were toned down, at least in comparison to Hold Your Fire (1986).

The theme of the album is “take a chance”.  Roll the Bones starts with a punch called “Dreamline”.  Geddy Lee’s pulse pushes this into overdrive.  The chorus goes into hyperspace.  It’s hard to think of too many other Rush songs that are so concisely hot.  “Dreamline” has it all:  hooks, licks, force and grace.

Neil Peart is king on “Bravado”*, a sudden change of direction.  His drumming, always hard, is unusually sharp.  Yet it’s a slow song that might be termed a “ballad”.  Whatever — it’s Rush.  It’s incredible.  It’s powerful in an understated, triumphant fashion.  If you know somebody who says they hate Rush, play this.

The title track and first single is a Rush classic, but that rap section sounds dated today.  That was always the danger of such an experiment, but fortunately the song is too strong for it to matter much.  That’s Geddy rapping incidentally, with his voice lowered and effects added.

Side one also has “Face Up”; fast but not particularly memorable.  But it also has “Where’s My Thing?”, a smashing instrumental featuring Geddy and Alex’s flying fingers.  It’s subtitled “Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy” as a joke on past pretentiously prog-rock titles they’ve employed.  Rush have always had a sense of humour, and also fun.  “Where’s My Thing” is a fun instrumental, kept short and ever so slightly funky.

The second side of Roll the Bones isn’t as consistent as the first.  “Ghost of a Chance” and “You Bet Your Life” are immediate standouts.  An appropriate spectre-like keyboard part enhances “Ghost of a Chance” and justifies the use of the instrument.  The other three songs (“The Big Wheel, “Neurotica” and “Heresy”) are fine for Rush deep cuts, but may or may not appeal to your specific tastes.

This 200 gram vinyl remaster is exquisite!  Keyboard parts previously unnoticed are now audible, as if brand new.  The drums have the punch missing on the old CD, and the bass hits the guts.  Great dynamics and depth.  If you are in the market for remastered Rush, these 200 gram vinyl reissues are pricey but a nice treat.

3.5/5 stars

*At 3:50 of the song, Peart performs a drum roll that I can only describe as pure ecstasy.  Chills up the spine.

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GUEST REVIEW: Rush – “Distant Early Warning” (1984) by Aaron Lebold

I asked Aaron Lebold if he wouldn’t mind throwing in a few words about “Distant Early Warning” for my Grace Under Pressure review.  He sent me 772 words!  So here’s an entire separate post for you — Aaron Lebold on “Distant Early Warning”.

 

RUSH – “Distant Early Warning” / “Between the Wheels” (1984 Anthem)

by Aaron Lebold

Mike has asked me to do a review on the song “Distant Early Warning” by Rush.  When I first met Mike I quickly realized that Rush was one of his favorite bands,* and though he showed me a lot of their work, this song was the one that always stuck out to me the most.

My interpretation of the song may be a bit different now than it was when I first heard it; one of the greatest things about music is that its personal meaning can shift depending on what is going on in your own life.  I find musical interpretation to be completely personal, and what you take from it may be completely different than what the artist even intended.**

I was always reluctant to hear the artists of the songs I enjoyed explain them, as it could feel very crushing if the impact it had on me was not the actual meaning. I will explain what this song means to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m right.  It does mean that I am able to see why it had relevance to me, and if you have found a different interpretation, you are not wrong.

“An ill wind comes arising, Across the cities of the plain, There’s no swimming in the heavy water, No singing in the acid rain, Red alert, Red alert”

To me this is the ability to foresee an event, there is a metaphoric storm on its way, and it is serious enough for us to stop our own distractions, and unhealthy coping strategies in order to prepare for what is ahead.

“It’s so hard to stay together, Passing through revolving doors, We need someone to talk to, And someone to sweep the floors, Incomplete,  Incomplete”

This talks about the separation among us as people to me; we all tend to find our own paths and some of us become relevant to each other, where others become lower class, and we may see them as nothing more than the person who is sweeping the floors for us. This type of discrimination makes us incomplete as a human race.

“Cruising under your radar, Watching from satellites, Take a page from the red book, And keep them in your sights, Red alert, Red alert”

This again is a reference to having greater insight than others may possess. Being able to observe a situation undetected and being able to gather forethought about what the results may be.  The Red Book is a reference to Psychology, and this suggests using that manner of thinking as you move forward.

“Left and rights of passage, Black and whites of youth, Who can face the knowledge, That the truth is not the truth, Obsolete, Absolute, yeah”

To me this makes reference to our way of thinking, and things we may have misinterpreted as priority.  Rights of passage is the idea of moving from one group to another, and relates to social classes and advancement. Separating the races of children is another method of creating a divide.  The truth could refer to the idea that we are all one class and one collective  group of people, and that a lot of our perceptions are obsolete in the big picture.

“The world weighs on my shoulders, But what am I to do? You sometimes drive me crazy, But I worry about you”

To me this means that even though I may have my own problems, and I don’t always agree with someone’s actions, I still care for them and can’t help but notice when they seem to be heading in a bad direction.

“I know it makes no difference, To what you’re going through, But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you”

This basically means to me, that I am aware that my insight does not change your situation, but I can see the bigger picture and it makes me worried about how it may end up affecting you.  The Tip of the Iceberg is of course a reference to the Titanic, and how there is much more lurking under the water than is visible from the surface. The results can be potentially devastating, as they were for the historic vessel.

I can’t recall exactly what drew me to this song when I was younger, and I may have interpreted things differently back then, but the bottom line is that I found relevance and importance in the lyrics.  You may have a completely different take on this song, which is great.  The best thing about music is using it to find our own connections, and get us through our own lives.

Aaron Lebold


* So he thought.  In 1994 I was still a Rush poser.  I only owned Chronicles.  

 

** “Distant Early Warning” was written about the loneliness of someone who worked the DEW Line- a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. – wikipedia

REVIEW: Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

Part one of a two-parter.

RUSH – Grace Under Pressure (1984 Anthem, 2011 Universal remaster)

When Rush followed 1982’s synth-driven Signals, they said goodbye to producer Terry Brown.  The band weren’t satisfied with the sonics of Signals and wanted to try working with different people.  They chose Steve Lillywhite, who wasn’t available, and so used Peter Henderson.  The album Grace Under Pressure was one of their most difficult to make.  Perhaps this is why it has such a cold, dark aura.

Even if Grace Under Pressure has a downer vibe, the first side is excellent.  Few albums have a strong an opener as “Distant Early Warning”.  Rush’s recent penchant for keyboards is front and center.  It also boasts one of their most catchy choruses:  “I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you.”  This single is a perfect storm of hooks, tension and biting guitars.

The album as a whole shows new influences.  “Afterimage” has a contemporary 80s new wave sound, but “Rushified”.*  Alex Lifeson in particular seemed to draw new influence from Andy Summers of the Police.  Reggae and ska became a part of the band’s arsenal, with Lifeson deftly handling those enigmatic chords.  “The Enemy Within” is one track that shows off these tricky new rhythms, in a frantically rocking way.  Synths and sequencers are a part of the picture on “Red Sector A”.  This post-apocalyptic track utilizes robotic rhythms to paint a picture of a future world.  “Are we the last ones left alive?  Are we the only human beings to survive?”  The lyrics are actually inspired by Geddy Lee’s mother, a holocaust survivor.  With the digital pulse beneath, you could just as easily imagine it’s about The Terminator.**

The second side also has memorable tracks such as “The Body Electric”.  This number definitely has a Blade Runner-like future setting.  “One humanoid escapee, One android on the run, Seeking freedom beneath the lonely desert sun.”  And how many songs can you name with lyrics in binary?  A lesser Rush song, “Kid Gloves”, is upbeat but not legendary.  “Red Lenses” is also somewhat forgettable, except for Peart fans who will savour every little moment of exotic and electronic percussion.

Rush saved the longest track for last, “Between the Wheels”, a melancholy but challenging track that reminds of the old school progressive Rush.  Backing guitars are exchanged for keyboards, but Lifeson uses the guitar to make unorthodox sounds.

It’s unfortunate that Grace Under Pressure has a brittle and icy production.  While that definitely works on “Red Sector A” and “Distant Early Warning”, one wonders what side two would sound like if it were a little fuller.

4/5 stars

 

* “Rushified” is a word coined by Paul Rudd in the film I Love You Man.

** Aaron Lebold will return tomorrow to discuss Rush lyric interpretation.

REVIEW: Liquid Tension Experiment – Liquid Tension Experiment (1998)

LIQUID TENSION EXPERIMENT – Liquid Tension Experiment (1998 Magna Carta)

Liquid Tension Experiment is a supergroup on Magna Carta, which should tell you much.

Featuring not one, not two, but three guys from Dream Theater, plus Tony Levin, Liquid Tension Experiment is the progressive fan’s dream band.  Granted, keyboardist Jordan Rudess wasn’t in Dream Theater yet when they did this CD, but that’s where people know him from today.  Drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci are the other driving forces behind Liquid Tension Experiment.

To use phrases like “mind blowing”, “insane”, “incredible” or “the shredder’s wet dream” don’t even begin to touch what the album Liquid Tension Experiment is about.  The liner notes by Mike Portnoy reveal that this project was assembled based on a wish list of players and their availability.  Rudess and Levin were on the list but guitarists just weren’t available, so that’s how Petrucci stepped in.  Together they had six days to write and record this album.  That it turned out so incredibly well says volumes about these guys as musicians.

Liquid Tension Experiment is not just an instrumental album with wicked playing.  The compositions are strong enough to make the album rise well above similar projects.  Magna Carta is loaded with insane projects by the best players in the world, but how many of those albums are good for repeated listenings?  The melodic and tonal sensibilities of Petrucci in particular really keep the album grounded, in a way that even lay people can enjoy.  Levin adds the Chapman Stick and a new agey flavour to the lighter material.  Check out “Osmosis” for a fine example of this.

Most of the album is heavy jammin’. It’s Mike Portnoy, and he does that so well. Together, they create a challenging sound but one with enough hooks that anyone can get into it. You might not realize how many time changes, weird chords and tempos you’re being exposed to, but you are, and you’ll be far better for it.

Together the album consists of nine songs and one spontaneous jam that exceeds 28 minutes! In fact, the tape ran out while recording, so the tail end of the song is from a DAT tape that Portnoy always runs when rehearsing. According to the notes, this piece ironically called “Three Minute Warning” was 100% improvised. “Not a single beat or note was discussed beforehand.” And no fixes or overdubs were made after the fact. It’s over 28 minutes of pure improvisation, and it came out brilliant. Everybody needs some of that in their life, to experience what pure free-form musical genius sounds like.

Must-hear pieces include “Paradigm Shift”, “Osmosis”, “Freedom of Speech” and “Universal Mind”.  It goes without saying that the 28 minute jam is essential as well.

This self-produced album also just sounds incredible.  The sonics are huge, but when the layers are peeled back, you can hear everything so clearly.  The Chapman Stick also adds a huge palette, sometimes heavier than lead and others lighter than a feather.  I’m sure the excellent audio is partly due to the mixing skills of one Kevin “Caveman” Shirley.  Don’t hesitate to pick up Liquid Tension Experiment if you see it.  There was also a second album made called 2, but this is the one to get if it crosses your path.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Deep Purple – “Johnny’s Band” (2017 single)

DEEP PURPLE – “Johnny’s Band” (2017 Edel single)

2017 is the year of Purple. Witness: We have not just their awesome new album InFinite, but also a new live album included with the deluxe box set version.  There is a Classic Rock magazine CD called Limitless including an exclusive version of “Black Night”.  There have been two CD singles (“Time for Bedlam” and “All I Got is You“) each with their own exclusives.  Now, Deep Purple have released their third single from InFinite, called “Johnny’s Band”.  More exclusives abound, making this quite a fun year for Deep Purple fans and collectors.  Have you been keeping up?

If you bought InFinite (and you should, what are you waiting for?), then you know “Johnny’s Band” is one of the most instantly catchy songs on it.  Upbeat and danceable, “Johnny’s Band” is a hoot.  Gillan’s lyrics are witty and honest, and did you notice the musical segue into “Louie Louie”?  “Johnny’s Band” is a much more obvious single than the first two they released, so let’s be glad that somebody thought Deep Purple needed three singles for InFinite.  The lyrics tell the story of a band who hit it big, fell down hard, but keep slogging away in the bars anyway.  In the end, Gillan gives it a positive conclusion.  It is, after all, all about the music.

But hey, it’s Johnny’s Band,
Playing all those wonderful songs,
Making the rounds with that old fashioned sound,
And here we are singing along.

Perhaps there’s a little slice of life in there.

Track 2 is an unreleased studio jam.  “In & Out Jam” focuses on a low key guitar riff as its base, but spreads in other musical directions from there.  The bottom line is this:  Steve Morse, Don Airey, Roger Glover and Ian Paice jamming together is always going to produce something of value.  “In & Out Jam” isn’t a song and probably wasn’t likely to ever become one, but these are ideas from the best brains in rock and enough to make the musician in you weep in sorrowful inadequacy.

Live tracks from Gaelve, Sweden finish off this single.   There are now three different live versions of “Strange Kind of Woman” released this year.  My Deep Purple folder has 27 different versions of “Strange Kind of Woman”!  How much is too much?  Who cares.  “The Mule” is played far more rarely, but there is still another version of it on the deluxe boxed InFinite set.  It’s a thunderous showcase for drummer Ian Paice, who is still one of the greats at age 69.  The years take their toll on everyone, but Paicey does not sound 69 years old here!

The last of the live songs is the newest, “Hell to Pay” from 2013’s Now What?!  This is only the third live version of the song ever released.  It’s a short blast of guitar and keyboard mania, with a chorus on top.  Its most interesting feature is the organ solo in the middle, something you don’t hear on many singles (which “Hell to Pay” was).

Purple are currently on tour with Alice Cooper.  Both artists have put out remarkably strong albums in 2017.  Will wonders never cease?

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Dream Theater – Master of Puppets (2009)

DREAM THEATER – Master of Puppets (2009 Yste Jam)

From Dream Theater’s acclaimed self-released series of covers albums, we have before us Master of Puppets.  This was recorded in Barcelona back in 2002.  Just as advertised, it’s Dream Theater doing the whole album live, in sequence, and pretty authentically too.

Dream Theater are a very different band from Metallica.  This is bound to be interesting.

The most obvious difference is that Metallica have two guitar players, while Dream Theater has one and a keyboard player.  On this, Jordan Rudess does aggressive keyboard solos where Kirk Hammett may have laid down one with his axe.  He also plays the acoustic parts on keys.  From time to time, you forget it’s a keyboard.  In short, Rudess turns the prospect of Metallica with keyboards into a lesson on forgetting your assumptions about keyboards!

James LaBrie fits the silhouette of a young James Hetfield.  He sings a convincing Metallica cover indeed!  He cuts loose and goes for it.  Metallica requires a gritty singer, going for it 110%.  LaBrie handles it.  For Dream Theater, doing these cover albums (from a wide variety of bands in fact) must be a lot of fun.  They would have the chance to sing and play in a way that isn’t the usual for them.  Guitarist John Petrucci does not often get to riff on something for five minutes straight like Metallica do.

Lars haters are naturally going to ask “What do Metallica songs sound like with a real drummer?”  Hey, I’m no Lars hater.  (He can play better than I can…)  But in answer to that question I can only respond “fucking awesome”.

Dream Theater cover Master of Puppets without drawing attention to themselves.  Mike Portnoy does not grandstand and overplay.  Nobody does.  If the effort was to do an authentic version of Puppets, as close to note for note as possible, then I say mission accomplished.  Beat for beat, this is stunningly true to the original album.  The keyboards are the most obvious deviation, and that’s minor.  In anything, Dream Theater draw attention to the fact that these are great heavy metal songs.  Are they Metallica’s best-ever set of songs?  Some prefer Kill ‘Em All, some Ride the Lightning.  Any way you slice it, Puppets is metal immortal, a very important record in anyone’s collection.  Dream Theater painstakingly learned the album front to back so they could play it live for a few thousand people.  They did that because it’s a great album on any day.

Dream Theater’s live covers albums (and many, many other releases) can be found on their own Ytse Jam Records website.  Check out the multitude of stuff available (though some are out of print now) and try not to drain your bank accounts.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Styx – The Mission (2017)

STYX – The Mission (2017 Universal)

Did anyone in 2017 expect Styx to come out with one of the best albums of the year?  Even though Styx have successfully carried on with Lawrence (But You Can Call Me Larry) Gowan on keys and vocals, nobody really predicted this!  Yet here it is:  The Mission, surely one of the best albums of the year so far,* and the best Styx in decades.

Here’s another unexpected twist:  The Mission is a concept album about colonizing Mars!  It has a coherent story and recurring hooks.  In many ways The Mission sounds like a lost album from Styx’s progressive rock heyday.  But you wouldn’t guess that if you only heard the Gowan-sung lead single “Gone Gone Gone”.  Although it’s about a rocket launch, you might not catch that on first listen.  The year is 2033.  “Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!”  This hard rocker came out of nowhere as one of the big surprises this summer.

“Hundred Million Miles From Home” (vocals by Tommy Shaw) has a funkier 70s groove.**  When the band harmonizes together, it sounds like vintage Styx.   “Hundred Million Miles” is a great song and also fairly accurate.  Mars was 100 million miles away from Earth as recently as the 2012 opposition.  Problems happen on “Trouble at the Big Show” (vocals by James “JY” Young), a slower groove with killer bluesy guitar work.  This moves into the ballad “Locomotive”, about the brave pilot of the ship Khedive.  Shaw pours passion into it, as he does the next one “Radio Silence”.  Just as interesting as the actual music is the spacey backing sounds.  It certainly adds atmosphere to an excellent vintage sounding song.  “Radio Silence” recalls some of Shaw’s 70s hits like “Boat on a River” at times.

Gowan returns to the microphone on the lovely piano ballad “The Greater Good”.  It sounds like quintessential Styx; hit quality material with soul.  Things start to get upbeat again on “Time May Bend” (another Gowan vocal).  If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Gowan, he is not a Dennis DeYoung clone, sounding closer to Steve Hogarth of Marillion.  (He even looks a little like “H”.)  Listen for a subtle musical “S.O.S.” signal in the backing track.

There are musical segues and radio voices between some tracks, but  “Red Storm” is the next full song. It’s a very progressive song with all the trimmings.  It’s based on Tommy Shaw’s excellent acoustic work, and it paints a picture.  The crew of the Khedive must brave a dust storm on the surface of Mars.  “Carry what you can, there’s no turning back, gonna make it to the mothership.”  There are avante-garde flashes of guitar noise that emulates the squeals of a radio, or perhaps metal on metal.  Then a rocking riff and solo…”Red Storm” has it all.

Gowan absolutely proves his mettle on the piano opus “Khedive”.  The blur of piano recalls classical compositions, and the guitar solo is pure Queen.  The minimal vocals continue the story:  “Onwards!  Onwards!”  Then we revisit the sounds of the 80s on “The Outpost”, the triumphant conclusion to the story.  The 80s synth and beats remind of the classic “Mr. Roboto” period of Styx, but it rocks solidly too.  Listen for a reprise of the “Overture” music from the start for the album.  Finally “Mission to Mars” is the denouement, a bright and lively end.

The Mission is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First and foremost — great songs.  You will play The Mission over and over, simply because it has great songs, as good as the days of old.  Second, although Lawrence Gowan has his stamp all over the album, it sounds like Styx and nobody else.  Having Gowan more involved is a good thing.  He has a 40 year career in Canada, and he didn’t have enough time on the Cyclorama (2003) album.  But this sounds way more like Styx than Cyclorama did.  Finally, this album is loaded with incredible playing by all the members.  This is easily the best lineup Styx have had since Kilroy Was Here (1983).***    Fans of the guitar (both electric and acoustic) will find many moments of musical ecstasy.

For Styx, this is mission accomplished!

5/5 stars

* One of the best album covers too.  Is that a port hole, or a turntable?  You decide.  

** Bassist Chuck Panozzo plays the funky bass on “Hundred Million Miles From Home”, his only appearance.  Chuck, the other original member besides JY, is only able to make sporadic appearances with Styx due to his battle with AIDS.  Ricky Phillips plays the rest of the bass parts, meaning Styx have two official bassists!

*** Lawrence Gowan (piano/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips & Chuck Panozzo (bass)

REVIEW: Queensryche – Rage For Order (remastered)

QUEENSRYCHE – Rage For Order (originally 1986, 2003 EMI remastered edition)

Every fan has their favourite Queensryche album.  Whether it be The Warning, MindcrimePromised Land or Empire, there are plenty of great albums in their back catalogue.  I used to seek the warm high of Promised Land when looking to chill with my favourite Queensryche.  Now I look for refuge in the cold, technological sheen of their 1986 album Rage For Order.

Rage For Order was a challenging album in its time and today it is still complex.  In 1986, fans questioned the gothy makeup and hair, not to mention the excessive samples and synths.  Today you can look back and almost call Rage For Order the first progressive industrial metal album.  It certainly has qualities from all three of those genres.  Geoff Tate beat Trent Reznor to the punch by years.  Rage seems to have a vague futuristic concept about a world of technology, revolution, and disconnection.

Although Rage For Order is certainly not an immediate listen, certain key tracks are commercial enough to keep you coming back.  The first is “Walk in the Shadows”, one of the few songs to be played live fairly consistently over the years.  “Walk in the Shadows” could pass as a hard rocking hit.  For the first time Queensryche really proved they were more than a simple metal band.  The slick production was completely different from their first two records, with the edge taken off the guitars and instead given to the computers and sequencers.  They give the whole album a precise, punchy tech sound that is its own form of heavy.  No wonder:  Dave “Rave” Ogilvie was an engineer.

A dense ballad called “I Dream in Infrared” has sorrow, but flowing through the veins of a computer.  Geoff Tate blows minds with his incredible voice and singing ability, layered for maximum effect.  In 1991 it was remixed acoustically for a single B-side, and that version is a bonus track on the remastered edition.  The original was perfect for what it was, but the acoustic mix is more accessible to outsiders.  It ends suddenly and the metallic guitars of “The Whisper” enter, accompanied by clock-like percussion.  Rage For Order has many songs with layered, overlapping vocals and you can hear that on the chorus.  It is a cold, sterile but powerful track.

The strangest song was actually the lead single, “Gonna Get Close to You”.  It was the only cover Queensryche ever put on one of their studio albums, a track by Canadian songstress Lisa DalBello.  In the hands of Geoff Tate, it becomes a creepy song of a stalker with a strangely rousing pre-chorus.  “You think I’m a fool or maybe some kind of lunatic?  You say I’m wasting my time but I know what to do with it.  It’s as plain as black and white.  I’m gonna get close to you.”  Cree-hee-eepy!  Which is the point.  The bizarre samples and synths only deepen the macabre.  DalBello’s original is perhaps even creepier, but Tate’s pompous bravado adds its own slant.  “If you knew my infinite charm, there’d be no reason to be so alarmed…”

As an added bonus, a 12″ extended version of “Gonna Get Close to You” is included in the bonus tracks, but like most extended versions from the 1980s, it’s very choppy and awkward.

Along with the technology, there is a theme of loneliness on Rage For Order, and “Gonna Get Close to You” plays into that.  “The Killing Words” contains more heartbreak on the album’s second ballad (third if you count “Gonna Get Close to You”).  Tate’s voice is drenched in pain.  A 1994 acoustic version from the “Bridge” CD single is included as a bonus track.

“Surgical Strike” is a brilliant track, fast and heavy, and working with the technology.  The lyrics are brilliant and quite prescient.

It’s lonely in the field,
that we send our fighters to wander.
They leave with minds of steel,
It’s their training solution.
We’ve programmed the way,
It leads us to Order.
There’s no turning back.

A Surgical Strike.
We’ve taught them not to feel.
performance is their task,
A Surgical Strike,
Its time is arriving now for you.

The plan for the day,
will be swift as the lightning they harness.
The atom display,
It’s not mindless illusion,
At master control, assessment will not,
Be by humans.
There’s no turning back…

It feels like this future is not very far off.

One of the most techy tracks is “Neue Regel”.  Clockwork percussion, strangely computerized lead vocals, and intelligently used samples paint a scene of a future battlefield, complete with bomb-like drum sounds.  The multi-layered chorus is one of Queensryche’s most perfect.  Respect to Geoff Tate.  When the man was at his peak, nobody could touch him, both vocally and as a songwriter.  Of course one must also remember the other side of the equation, which was guitarist Chris DeGarmo.  He has more songwriting credits on this album than Geoff Tate, including two solo credits (“The Whisper” and “I Will Remember”).

The future continues to look cold and dark on “Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion)”.  “Our religion is technology” is one line, and if only Tate knew how right he was!  There is a still a spark of hope and that is the young.  “Chemical Youth” is one of the heaviest tracks on the album, and sonically very interesting too.  The next ballad “London” fades in with a synthy bass line.  Loneliness returns.  “There’s some things in life I could never face.  The worst is being alone.”

The technology slant hits its peak on the brilliant “Screaming in Digital”.  Describing this song can do it no justice.  It is like listening to Queensryche within the gleaming sterile walls of the dystopian sci-fi classic THX-1138.  There is far too much going on underneath it all to absorb in just a few listens.  You will hear new sounds you never noticed before even 30 years later.  Artificial intelligence has never rocked so heavy.

I am the beat of your pulse,
The computer word made flesh,
We are one you and I,
We are versions of the same,
When you can see what I feel,
Don’t turn your back on me,
Or you might find that your dreams,
Are only program cards.

Fucking chilling!

“Screaming in Digital” must be counted on any list of Queensryche’s best music.  It is sheer genius, far beyond what their hard rock peers were peddling.  It was also years ahead of its time.  By crossing digital techniques with heavy metal in such an intelligent way, Queensryche truly were breaking new ground.

“I Will Remember” is the final song, a ballad that seems to tie it all together.  It has the feel of a lonely ballad, while lyrically tying up the technology concept.  “And we wonder how machines can steal each other’s dreams.”  Another Queensryche classic, including a genius DeGarmo acoustic guitar solo.  Shades of the future “Silent Lucidity” too (also written by DeGarmo).

There are four bonus tracks including the three discussed above.  The last one is a 1991 live version of “Walk in the Shadows”, which appears to be a mix of two different performances judging by the credits.  Whatever the case may be, it’s cool to get a live version of this incredible song as a coda to the album.

Queensryche took the conceptual approach to its logical apex next time out with Operation: Mindcrime.  They ditched the technology and went back to guitars and even added an orchestra.  For that reason, Rage For Order is very unique in the collection.  It was a sound they have never repeated.  Operation: Mindcrime had a sequel, but Rage For Order never will.

5/5 stars

 

 

 

RE-REVIEW: KISS – Music From the Elder (1981)

The KISS RE-REVIEW SERIES Part 20:  

  Music From the Elder (1981 Casablanca, 1997 Mercury remaster, 2014 Universal vinyl)

Kiss had gone as far as they could go in the pop direction that they travelled on Unmasked.  The band’s stature was in jeopardy.  The image was outweighing the music and they suffered their first member defection.  As discussed in chapter 18, Peter Criss was out, but he was replaced by an energetic young drummer henceforth known as Eric Carr.  His abilities put sounds in reach that the band weren’t able to do with Peter Criss.  The smartest move, albeit the safest, would be a return to the band’s hard rocking roots.  Songs were written and demoed, including “Don’t Run” (Frehley/Anton Fig), “Every Little Bit of My Heart” (Stanley), “Deadly Weapons” (Stanley/Simmons), “Nowhere to Run” (Stanley), “Feel Like Heaven” (Simmons) and an instrumental called “Kix Are For Kids”.

Based on what we know of these songs today, Kiss easily could have turned them into a classic sounding album.  Whether it be ego, fear, ambition or sheer hubris, Kiss scrapped the demos and aimed instead to shoot in another direction.  That is, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and manager Bill Aucoin changed direction at the protest of Ace Frehley.  Eric Carr had no say, being an employee.  Playing on the strengths of Kiss’ larger than life comic book image, Gene concocted a fantasy story that they wanted to turn into a concept album.  If that was successful, they could spin the album off into sequels, a tour and a movie.  And who else would be better to produce a concept album than Bob Ezrin?

The addition of Ezrin was another grievance for Ace Frehley.  It was Bob Ezrin who replaced him on 1976’s Destroyer album with Dick Wagner on “Sweet Pain”.

So a fractured Kiss went into separate studios to record the concept album.  Ace stayed in his new home studio in Connecticut and recorded his guitar parts there, painstakingly taking his time to get just the right crunch.  Much to his chagrin, Bob Ezrin used only bits and pieces of what he was sent.  Bob was dealing with a severe drug problem, and had isolated himself so that the only lines of communication regarding the album were Kiss and Bill Aucoin.  Nobody outside of the circle heard a note until they were done.  There was talk of a double album, but it made sense to do it one at a time…just in case it didn’t sell.  Hence the title, Music From the Elder.  Like Star Wars, this was meant to be only a part of the whole story.

A word about the running order.  When Music From the Elder was first released in North America, the story didn’t make much sense.  It was supposed to begin with the instrumental “fanfare” and then the acoustic strumming of “Just a Boy”.  Instead the record company shuffled the song order to start with something heavier:  “The Oath”.  But the concept never made any sense.  In 1997, Mercury released the Kiss remastered series, and restored the original intended track order.  They even restored a snippet of “lost” music, a Gregorian chant bit between the first two tracks.  The original Japanese pressing came with the tracks in the right order, but was missing one overall (“Escape From the Island”).  The Japanese version also came with a neat full cover obi with pictures of the band — something fans missed out on with the normal release.  (When fans did finally see pictures of the 1981 Kiss, they were taken aback by the modern hair and image.)  The current 2014 LP edition on 180 gram vinyl also has the restored track order.

The album begins quietly (and pretentiously) with strings and woodwinds of “fanfare“, credited to Ezrin and Stanley, and based on the melody of second track “Just a Boy”.  “Who steers the ship through the stormy seas?  If hope is lost then so are we.  While some eyes search for one to guide us, some are staring at me.”  The Elder is the tale of a reluctant hero known only as “the boy”.  He is the archetypal “chosen one” selected by the mysterious and powerful Council of the Elder.  “When the Earth was young, they were already old,” reads the liner notes.  He must face the evil Blackwell, but he can’t believe there is anything special about him.

Although “Just a Boy” is a deep cut loved only by those with Kiss infecting their blood, you can hear its charm.  It sounds nothing at all like Kiss, and its soft acoustics don’t even sound like a rock band.  Paul sings the chorus in an insane falsetto, which he also utilizes elsewhere on the album.  The powerful guitar solo is all his, and one struggles to hear Ace Frehley on the track at all.  “Just a Boy” is a good song, with structure and dynamics and thoughtful composition.  It isn’t something that could be performed well on stage, and the production leaves a muddy haze over the lead vocals.  It’s hard to hear 50% of Paul’s lyrics.  Fortunately, the 2014 vinyl reissue comes with something the 1997 CD did not:  a lyric sheet.  With that in hand, you can follow the story.

In fact, it must be recommended to listen to The Elder on vinyl at least once to fully appreciate the album.  Something about sitting there with a gatefold jacket open and following a story on a record sleeve works as a sort of time machine.  It’s truly an experience that you cannot feel with CD alone, and the only way to do that with the songs in the proper order is with the 2014 vinyl reissue.

Kiss have thrown obscure covers on their albums before, but it’s strange to see such a thing on a concept album.  “Odyssey” by Tony Powers fit the story at this moment, although nothing could sound less like Kiss.  It is a fully orchestrated song and it doesn’t even have Eric Carr on it.  Ezrin didn’t think he was getting the right vibe so he brought in Allan Schwartzberg who also played on Gene’s solo album.  “Odyssey” is as overblown and pretentious as a song can get, as if Kiss suddenly became the Beatles and this was their “Hey Jude” moment.  This many soft, un-Kiss like songs right off the bat is a good way to throw listeners, so the record label ended up moving it to side two.  Paul Stanley has disowned the song, but what Paul failed to appreciate is that though campy, “Odyssey” is also incredibly fun.  It has no place in the Kiss canon, but there it is, and it’s hard to forget that delightfully pompous orchestra.

The first appearance of the mighty demon Gene Simmons is “Only You”, a choppy and spare guitar number that is the first rock moment on the album.  It’s an attempt to be progressive and rock, and it more or less works.  It’s simple and blocky, but it shifts into a few different sections including a reprise of the “Just a Boy” theme.  Paul also guests on a verse as the boy character, questioning his destiny:  “I can’t believe this is true, why do I listen to you?  And if I am all that you say, why am I still so afraid?”  The Elder respond, “In every age, in every time, a hero is born as if by a grand design.”  In an interesting twist, Doro Pesche later covered this song with completely different lyrics.

According to their self-written Kisstory (volume 1) tome, Eric Carr expressed some doubt as to the band’s current direction.  In response Gene challenged him to come up with something of his own, so Eric provided the beginnings of “Under the Rose”, on which he also plays acoustic guitar.  “Under the Rose” became his first writing credit on a Kiss album, with Gene Simmons.  “Under the Rose” is soft/heavy, soft/heavy, and features an ominous choir on the chorus.  But through this, Ace Frehley’s presence cannot be felt.  Such an important part of the Kiss sound before, now relegated to the sidelines.  Ace had only one lead vocal on The Elder, a song based on a riff written by Anton Fig.  Their “Don’t Run” demo was re-written by Gene Simmons and Lou Reed, yes Lou Reed, to become “Dark Light”.  In context of the story, “Dark Light” warns of coming evil.  Ace’s presence is welcome, providing some much needed rock foundation and a brilliant guitar solo.  Unfortunately “Dark Light” is probably his weakest in his Kiss career, a disappointing followup to prior classics like “Talk to Me”, “Save Your Love” and “Shock Me”.

Lou Reed co-wrote the lyrics to the single “A World Without Heroes”, which originated as a Paul Stanley ballad called “Every Little Bit of My Heart”.  Reed came up with phrases like “a world without heroes is like a world without sun.”  These clicked with Gene and Bob Ezrin who completed the song.  Paul plays lead guitar on a somber single that, again, sounds little like Kiss.  Kiss had done ballads before and even had hits with them, but nothing like “A World Without Heroes”, one of their darkest songs.  Strangely, it ended up being covered by Cher.

At this point of the story, the boy agrees to fulfill his destiny and become the hero.  This happens on the most heavy metal song on the album, “The Oath”.  This is the track that opened the original released running order of the album, completely destroying any comprehensible plot.  You can still understand why they did this.  Its metal riff and impressive drums are the intro that the album really needed.  Paul sings in falsetto again:  “Now inside the fire of the ancient burns, a boy goes in and suddenly a man returns.”  The song was performed live once in 1982 on a TV show called Fridays.  Although the performance seemed sloppy and awkward, Ace burned up a couple wild guitar solos.  If this is the kind of material that Bob Ezrin cut from the album, it was a big mistake.

So the boy has taken the oath, and it’s time to meet the evil one. Gene and Lou Reed wrote “Mr. Blackwell” about the character, who doesn’t seem to be too worried about the discovery of the chosen one. “Here’s to the kid, a real man among men,” mocks Blackwell in the lyrics. (The song also contains the phrase “rotten to the core”, which was a song title Gene had been batting around since the mid-70s.) Musically, “Blackwell” is spare and revolves around the words. A bumping and thumping bass is the main feature of a song that is more words than music.

At the exact moment that you need Ace Frehley to come back and save the album, he does with the instrumental “Escape from the Island”. Co-written with Eric Carr and Bob Ezrin, “Island” delivers the thrills and action-packed guitar action. Because it’s an instrumental it’s hard to determine exactly how it fits the story, except it sounds like an action scene. Perhaps Blackwell launched a preemptive strike on the boy, who escaped. Ace’s guitar attacks the surroundings, chopping them down with fatally loud riffs.

The final song (on all versions of the album) is the single “I”. Gene and Paul split lead vocals on this Simmons/Ezrin song, but once again Eric Carr was secretly replaced on the recording by Allan Schwartzberg. The story is wrapped up with the boy now proclaiming he believes in himself and is ready to take on the evil. The end of the album, yes, but clearly intended as only the first chapter of something bigger. Gene spoke of a heavier sequel album called War of the Gods which would depict the conflict. Instead, “I” serves as the ending, and at least it’s a kicker. Like vintage Kiss, the riff and chorus meld into one fist of rock. The lyrics are suitably uplifting. “I believe in something more than you can understand, yes I believe in me!” That’s pure Kiss in a nutshell right there.

A short hidden track following “I” provides the only dialogue on the album (over a reprise of “fanfare“), although more was recorded. The hidden coda reaffirms that the Elder have found the right kid. “He’s got the light in his eyes, and the look of a champion. A real champion!”

There are two ways to listen to The Elder.  If you want the whole enchilada and would like to hear the story in its correct order, pick up a remastered edition of the album either on CD or vinyl.  If you’d like a more even listening experience that is the same as that of fans who dropped the needle on the album in 1981, then go for the original CD or vinyl release.  But if you’re a Kiss maniac, you simply must do it both ways.

Music From the Elder is a flawed album, mostly marred by sonic muddiness.  It has an uncharacteristic quantity of ballads and un-Kiss-like songs, so fans stayed away in droves.  What they missed was a decent concept album for Kiss, a band that never should have attempted a concept album in the first place.  Because the album failed to sell, Kiss’ ambitious tour plans were scrapped and the band stayed home.  Aside from the three songs played on the Fridays TV show (“The Oath”, “A World Without Heroes” and “I”), Kiss never played any songs from The Elder live until their 1995 acoustic Konvention tour.  The lack of a tour meant Kiss’ momentum was all but halted.  The new drummer that fans barely knew only ever played one show in North America!

A bigger problem was brewing, and that was a bitter and disenfranchised Ace Frehley.  Once again, fans were not aware of the problems brewing in Kiss, but The Elder was the last album Kiss Ace played on until 1998.  It was a repeat of the Peter Criss situation only two years prior.

If Kiss had stuck to their plan of recording a hard rock album again, perhaps things would have played out completely differently.  We’ll have a chance to check out some of the songs they were working on in upcoming chapters for they would not stay buried long.

Today’s rating:

3.5/5 stars


Uncle Meat’s rating:

2/5 steaks 

Meat’s slice:  Some of my favorite records ever have been “concept” records.  Operation: Mindcrime, Misplaced Childhood, 2112, Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes From a Memory, El Corazon; to name just a few of many.  When it comes to The Elder, my one sentence review of this album would simply be:  Some bands should not make concept albums.  Bob Ezrin came straight from The Wall to record this mess.  I read somewhere recently, and it may even have been in the comments here perhaps, but Ace Frehley hates this album.  Which completely makes sense considering he had been on such a roll until it halted with this record.  It’s kind of a hard album to break down individually, but some quick notes:

“The Oath” – Very chuggy heavy song.  I think the [domestic] album starts off with the best song.  Song begins as if it’s Manowar meets Kiss.  More reminiscent of Creatures of the Night than this record.  Perhaps some bombastic Tenacious D-like moments.

“Just A Boy” – Starts off like early ELP and first reaction is that Paul Stanley could never come close to singing this song again.  Solid song.  Overall I get a Wishbone Ash feel. 

“Dark Light” – As mentioned earlier, Ace’s roll slows down with a dull track.  I do like the guitar solo over the bongos though.

“Only You” – An even duller track that starts with Gene singing, and morphs into Stanley singing with some stupid effect on his voice.  Right producer, wrong band.   (That could be another one sentence review of The Elder)

“Under the Rose” – This clunker doesn’t flow for me.  Gregorian Monks?  Bah….

“A World Without Heroes” – I thought it was lame then and it’s only slightly less lame to me now.  Could have used more Lou Reed.

“Mr. Blackwell” – Funky novel track.  Dancy and quirky but one of the strongest songs on The Elder for me.  One of the only songs for me that has a great hook to it.  Unmasked this album is not.

“Escape From the Island” – Good solid rocker.  Great drumming.  This would have been a great live jammer, but I’m doubting they have ever played this live.   LeBrain?  [Nope]

“Odyssey” – WTF?  Was this Paul’s tryout demo  for Phantom of the Opera?  This song alone is an unforgivable sin, and just another reason why this album should have been aborted in the womb.

Favorite Tracks”  “The Oath”, “Mr. Blackwell”, “Escape From the Island”

Forgettable Tracks:  Take your pick….


To be continued…

Original mikeladano.com review:  2012/07/26

REVIEW: Deep Purple – InFinite (2017 deluxe box) Part 2 of 2

This is Part 2 of a double-sized Deep Purple deluxe InFinite box set review!  For Part 1, click here.

DEEP PURPLE – InFinite (2017 Edel deluxe box set edition)

When we last met, we took a solid look at Deep Purple’s fine new album, InFinite.  Because the year is 2017, InFinite is available in multiple editions.  The most logical to buy is the deluxe box set.  This includes:

  • InFinite on CD
  • From Here to InFinite – a full length documentary DVD
  • InFinite on a 2 LP set in its own double gatefold
  • The Now What?! Live Tapes, Vol. 2 – an exclusive live album included on three 10″ records
  • A T-shirt
  • A poster
  • Five lovely photo cards
  • A sticker

That’s a lot of goodies for a reasonable price, and it all comes housed in a sturdy box.

The included DVD is a very intimate look at the creation of InFinite from writing to overdubs.  Narrated by Rick Wakeman (you read that correctly), it also looks at the moments that Steve Morse and Don Airey joined the band.  Much attention is given to the shocking departure of Ritchie Blackmore in 1993, and the acquisition of Joe Satriani (who is interviewed for the DVD). However, Joe had commitments and couldn’t stay long.  Deep Purple couldn’t wait for him, so they had to look for someone else.  They had a list, and the first name on it was Steve Morse.  Almost instantly they found themselves rediscovering the joy of music.  The atmosphere and attitude of the band did a complete 180.   When Jon Lord’s passing is discussed, there are a few teary eyes and sincere words.  Moving on to InFinite, it is remarkable to watch the band pluck ideas from the air and mold them into songs.  Bob Ezrin is a huge part of the process, with his own ideas and preferences.  His reputation as a taskmaster is reinforced by the band, but it seems like a very easy collaboration.  They have the same goals and desires, and trust each other’s musical instincts.  There is also a shockingly frank discussion with Steve Morse, about the osteoarthritis in his picking hand.  His technique has, over the years, worn out his wrist to the point that there is bone-on-bone contact.  The pain has grown so severe that playing the guitar required him to completely change his picking technique, while wearing a wrist brace.  Meanwhile Don Airey gets 20 “Cool Points” for wearing both a Rival Sons T-shirt, and a Winnipeg Jets sweater.  Canucks will also be pleased to know that Ian Gillan recorded his vocals at Bob Ezrin’s studio in Toronto.

The DVD can be had in a CD/DVD set, so the real reason for fans to choose this box set is The Now What?! Live Tapes, Vol. 2.  Vol. 1 was included on the “gold” reissue of their last album Now What?!  Vol. 2 is, as it states on the sleeve, “100% live!  100% unreleased!”  There are some obscure tracks on here, making this live album very enticing indeed.  You don’t have to sit through more versions of “Smoke on the Water” or “Black Night”.  Even better, or perhaps best of all to the vinyl nerds, are the lovely records that comprise The Now What?! Live Tapes, Vol. 2.  Three 10″ records, each in their own coloured sleeve, and each on coloured vinyl!  White, clear, and clear blue.

“Après Vous” (from London) commences the proceedings.  This newby from Now What?! has a lot of life on stage, and the long instrumental section sounds kinda like the old days.  Then an oldie:  “Into the Fire” (Milan) from 1970’s Deep Purple In Rock.  Ian really strains his voice on this one, but somehow pulls it off with style.  Back to London for “The Mule”, a song featuring Ian Paice’s busiest drum work.  No problems from Paicey.  Indeed, on the DVD Paicey says he hasn’t experienced much physical difficulty in continuing to play the way he wants to.

The second record starts with Purple’s recent “Green Onions”/”Hush” medley (Gaevle, Sweden), a cool way to inject new life into one of Purple’s earliest singles.  The interplay between the four musicians during the jam section is remarkable.  Even though most of the originals are long gone, it sounds sorta like Purple circa 1969.  Another medley showcasing Steve Morse (“The captain of the skies, the Aviator”, says Gillan) occupies side two.  “Contact Lost” (London) is Morse’s short instrumental tribute to the crew of STS-107, known to most as the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.  This merges into Purple’s majestic song for Jon Lord, “Uncommon Man” and finally Steve’s instrumental “The Well-Dressed Guitar”.

One more record to go.  The excellent single “All the Time in the World” from Now What?! comes from Aalborg, Denmark.  It’s a slick and laid back jazzy rock groove.  Purple always seem to find a great groove, and “All the Time in the World” is unlike previous ones.  “Highway Star” (London) is like a polar opposite.  Though you know they will hold it all together, “Highway Star” still sounds so fast that it could come off the tracks at any time.  1971’s “Strange Kind of Woman” (Aalborg) is a long-time favourite with fun vocal-guitar interplay.  Back to London for the last track, “Space Truckin'”.  What can you say about “Space Truckin'”?  Not much except that Ian Paice still kicks it, and hard!

Purple fanatics who still love what the band is doing today will need this box set.  It will be indispensable to them.  Wear your T-shirts with pride!  For the casual Purple fan who just wants to check out the CD and DVD, that edition will suffice.

To InFinite and beyond!

4/5 stars

 

Further reading on more Deep Purple InFinite related releases:

DEEP PURPLE – Time For Bedlam (2017 Edel EP)

DEEP PURPLE – All I Got is You (2017 Edel EP)

DEEP PURPLE – Limitless (2017 exclusive CD included with Classic Rock #234, April 2017)

DEEP PURPLE – InFinite (2017 Edel)