progressive rock

REVIEW: Jethro Tull – The Very Best of Jethro Tull (2001)

JETHRO TULL – The Very Best of Jethro Tull (2001 Chrysalis)

Every fan had their first Jethro Tull purchase.  Mine was 20 years ago, with their newly released Very Best of Jethro Tull.  Why not?  I was working at the Record Store when a used-but-mint copy dropped in my lap for only $8 (staff discount).  It was only right of me to ensure it got a good home.

Unlike some “hits” compilations, this one didn’t strike with clusters of songs I wanted to focus on in the future.  Other compilations can do that.  For example I decided to hone in on the Brian Robertson Motorhead album immediately after hearing a double best-of.  With The Very Best of Jethro Tull, I liked it all equally.  I just wanted to get them all, with no particular priority.  It all sounded great to me.

The album is non-chronological and contains some edit versions.  “Thick As A Brick” is cut down from 44 minutes to just three — makes sense.  They chose the first three minutes, which are ojectively the best known.   Other edits are the single versions of “Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die” and “Minstrel in the Gallery”, while “Heavy Horses” gets a new edit bringing it from nine minutes to a more single-like three.  The songs span the 1968 debut This Was to 1995’s Roots to Branches.  Several albums are not represented at all, such as Benefit, A Passion Play, A, Stormwatch, Under Wraps, Rock Island, Catfish Rising, and J-Tull.com.  Justifiable?  That’s up to personal taste.  Several non-album singles are included instead, such as the well known “Living In the Past” and the wicked string-laden “Sweet Dream”.

The album has an excellent flow, only interrupted with the synth-y “Steel Monkey” from 1987’s Grammy-winning Crest of a Knave.  Preceded by the savage “Locomotive Breath” and followed by the tender picking of “Thick as a Brick”, it doesn’t fit in except as a speedbump.  If I may be so bold, I believe “Steel Monkey” was included simply because it would be odd not to include something off that controversial Grammy winner.

While I enjoyed all the songs, the one that stood out particularly strong was “Bourée”. I never heard Bach swing like that before! The diversity of this CD, spanning all styles of rock from progressive to blues to folksy. Yes, the flute can rock and Ian Anderson is the Eddie Van Halen of the instrument.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Crash of the Crown (2021)

“I don’t think Styx will ever top The Mission.” — Me

“I think Styx just topped The Mission.” — Also me

STYX – Crash of the Crown (2021 Universal)

Remarkable!  49 years old, and still putting out some truly superlative records.  What’s the secret?

Like their contemporaries Journey and Whitesnake, Styx have expanded to a seven-member band including new guitarist/songwriter/producer Will Evankovich.  With just as many songwriting credits on the new album Crash of the Crown as Tommy Shaw has, this addition feels appropriate.  James “JY” Young and Chuck Panozzo (original bassist, now part time) are the only links to the distant past.  Styx have not always been the most focused on new music (14 year gap between Cyclorama and The Mission) but it seems like Evankovich has sparked their creativity.  Two albums in a row, Styx have risen to high-water marks, pleasing fans and stunning critics.

If there’s a blatant concept this time it’s not as obvious, but recurring musical themes hint that there might be more going on than just 15 new tracks.  Crash of the Crown is assembled from smaller chunks of music that flow together in one seamless whole, but the individual songs are all under four minutes, including two brief interludes.

Opening with a wicked Lawrence Gowan keyboard bit, “The Fight of Our Lives” is a powerful and catchy intro to this distinguished album.  Tommy Shaw: lead vocals, backed by the increasingly thick Styx choir.  Pay attention to the main guitar theme as it’ll be back.  Beatles-y chords are another recurring affair.  (The Fab Four sound like a major influence on both Crash of the Crown, and the new Dennis DeYoung album 26 East Vol. 2.)

A progressive guitar/keyboard riff brings us to “A Monster”.  If anything it’s a song about the last two years.  “Here’s to the prisoners trapped in their cages,” could certainly be about the current time, “a monster chasing its tail”.  Big guitar solos and hooks make this an unorthodox and complex little winner.

Acoustics ring on “Reveries”, the first Gowan lead vocal.  It has a big powerful chorus and the acoustic base is reminiscent of classic 70s Styx.  But before too long, Tommy Shaw and JY rise up for a massive tandem electric guitar break.  Stuff like this is why they need a third guitarist now, so the rhythm doesn’t drop out live.  “Reveries” flows seamlessly into the dull rain of “Hold Back the Darkness”.  The foreboding tune, like clouds warning to stay ashore, is spare with piano and acoustics forming the basis.

Winston Churchill’s words form a part of “Save Us From Ourselves”, always a nice touch in a rock song.  It possesses a more upbeat pulse, but no less powerful.  The Tommy Shaw refrain in the chorus is typically bright and rhapsodic.  It builds into something stageworthy, and leads into the title track and single “Crash of the Crown”.  Individually, this song impresses less on the radio.  It belongs on the album, flowing in and out.  It’s a component of a larger piece.  Incidentally it’s the first Styx song with three lead singers.  In order:  JY, Shaw and Gowan, each with completely unique sections.  Stick with it, and a riff from “Fight Of Our Lives” returns to knock you back in your seat.  Then there’s some instrumental wickedness and robot vocoder madness.   It is like three or four songs crammed into one and it’s boggling why it was chosen as a single.  Except to impress the fact that Styx aren’t playing around.

You need a bit of a break after a workout like “Crash of the Crown” and so the folksy “Our Wonderful Lives” is the ideal tonic.  A huge singalong chorus is backed by simple kick drums, acoustics, and accordion.  It’s a beam of hope on an album born from dark times.  Sounding a bit like “39” by Queen, and completed with a blast of Beatles-y horns.

The dark growl of a Hammond B3 transitions into “Common Ground”, slower and thick with the modern Styx harmonies.  It has some very different parts, one pounding with heavy drums and one light and flighty.  While it stands as a song to itself, it also works to transition into “Sound the Alarm”, an RSD single and album highlight.  This handsome Shaw ballad is reminiscent of some of his past best and serves as a bit of a hippy-like anthem.  “There is no future in the way it was,” Shaw sings correctly.  All at once, it has ingredients similar to “Show Me with Way”, “Mr. Roboto”, “High Enough” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)”.  There’s sorrow, there’s hope, there’s bombast and a digital pulse.

The digital pulse leads directly into the drum-heavy “Long Live the King”.  It’s also the most Queen-like, with an absolutely May-ish solo.  Imagine if you tried to build a Queen song on top of the drum beat from Guns N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine”.

Gowan has a brief piano segue called “Lost At Sea” before the proper song “Coming Out the Other Side”.  This calm ballad has a taste of India with the tabla, but manages not to sound like the Beatles this time.  It recalls rebirth, and there’s a killer solo to go on top.  “To Those” goes full-blown upbeat triumphant Styx, a brilliant refrain brimming with adrenaline.  “For those who do survive, find beauty in your lives.  Don’t be afraid of love, stand up and rise above.”

Instrumental segue “Another Farewell” steers into the final track “Stream”, which sounds and reads like an ending to a story.  Whether the band intended to or not, it seems they’ve made another concept album in Crash of the Crown.  “We’ve never been a protest band,” insists Shaw, “We’re more like a gospel caravan trying to send out positive messages wherever we go.”  If that’s the case, then “Stream” must be the happy musical ending, an upbeat drift into the fade.

Perhaps there’s a clue to Styx’s meaning in the packaging.  Morse code hidden in the CD tray reveals the words “WHOS GONNA SAVE US FROM OURSELVES”.

According to the lengthy liner notes, Styx went into Crash of the Crown with no compromises and came out of it with the album they wanted.  With a diverse set of instruments at hand, they clearly had no inhibitions.  The end result is an album less direct the The Mission, but dense with ideas compacted into mere minutes of songs.  Fortunately most of those ideas were really excellent.  Any time a band like Styx makes an album, there’s a fear it will be the last one.  It sounds like this band has plenty more fuel left in the solid rocket boosters.  Whatever the future holds, Crash of the Crown is the kind of triumph any young band would hold as their magnum opus.  With Styx, there is so much history it’s futile to compare.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Jethro Tull – Stand Up (2 CD & DVD Edition)

JETHRO TULL – Stand Up (Originally 1969, 2010 2 CD & DVD Chrysalis Collector’s Edition)

Stand Up, from its wonderful cover art (including a fun Jethro Tull pop-out!) to the music in the grooves, is probably my favourite Tull platter. One basic reason is that it sounds like a transitional album, and I’m often drawn to those. It combines the remnants of the blues jams that they specialized in from the Mick Abrahams era (1968’s This Was), and their growing experimental side. It’s kind of the best of both worlds, and it always sounded great — even better on this new remaster.  Stand Up has since been remixed by the very talented Steven Wilson (2016’s Elevated Edition), but if you wanted a CD copy of the original unaltered mix, this 2010 edition is what you need.  (This mix is available on a DVD in the Elevated Edition, but not CD, and they each contain different bonus material.)

“A New Day Yesterday” has the task of opening this new era of Jethro Tull on LP, and it maintains the blues direction.  Then immediately, “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” brings on the hippy side, with bongos, psychedlic jamming and the world’s greatest rock flautist.  “Bourée” proves it, as he jams jazz-rock style along to J.S. Bach.  Only Tull can make Bach swing as they do on “Bourée”.  From the upbeat jamming “Nothing is Easy” to the exotic “Fat Man”, this album begins to open up Tull’s diversity.  “Reasons For Waiting” brings on a lush, orchestrated side of Jethro Tull that some would call pompous and others would call delicate and quaint.  But then they just flat out rock — with flute — on album closer “For a Thousand Mothers”.  It’s truly the first diverse Tull album, going from corner to corner to explore whatever their hearts desired.

The Collector’s Edition contains valuable bonus music aplenty.  The first disc alone doubles the length of the album.   It has every bonus track from the previous 2001 remaster, which are the A and B-sides of two standalone singles.  These are the swinging’ “Living In the Past”,  filler “Driving Song”, the powerful (with horns!) and awesome “Sweet Dream”, and my favourite, “17”.   It adds in a mono single mix of “Living In the Past” with some subtle differences.  Two BBC live sessions are included via four live tracks, including “Bourée”.  There are even amusing radio spots. And that’s just the first disc.

The second disc is an entire concert: Live at Carnegie Hall, New York, 4 November 1970.  This would make it a show from the Benefit tour, the album which followed Stand Up.  It includes songs from Benefit, such as “Sossity; You’re a Woman”.  It also previews the future Aqualung classic “My God”. It is, of course, a great live show…it’s Jethro Tull in their youth after all!  Hear Ian Anderson go nuts on the flute solo!

Another highlight is “Dharma For One”, stretched out to 13 minutes to include a bonkers Clive Bunker drum solo.  The wicked slidey guitar on “A Song For Jeffrey” is really hot on these tapes too.  By this time, John Evan had joined as Tull’s pianist which adds another dimension.  Check out the intricate work on “With You There to Help Me”.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, there is a bonus DVD which contains a DTS 5.1 mix of the whole concert — audio only, however!  If you have the equipment to play it, then enjoy. I will usually resort back to the stereo mix on CD but the 5.1 mix offers some additional depth.

For “things you will only watch once” (or twice if you’re reviewing your collection), the DVD also includes a 45 minute Ian Anderson interview from 2010 to check out.  The split with Mick Abrahams is one of the most interesting parts though the story of the impasse is familiar.  It simply boiled down to styles, and Ian didn’t want to be limited to just one.  As such, he considers Stand Up to be the first real Jethro Tull album; the first to tentatively embark on their world-wide musical journey.  Of course Mick had to be replaced, and Ian discusses three guitarists that tried out, including you-know-who.  Martin Barre was chosen of course, given a second chance after a poor first meeting.

Barre’s furious solo work on Stand Up‘s blistering “We Used to Know” more than justifies the choice.

The packaging is gorgeous, coming packed in a thick, sturdy digipack.  Artwork like this deserves a proper showcase, and unless you buy an original LP, this is about as good as it’s going to get.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live (2011)

STYX – The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live (2011 Eagle Records)

Although legacy bands like Styx may not write and record new music as often as they used to, there have been a couple interesting effects from this.  Legendary discographies have been mined by a handful of classic bands, playing rare tracks live that haven’t been played on a stage in decades, if ever.  Sometimes, bands play full albums.  A few even play two!  Styx chose The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight for live resurrection.

Dipping back to 1977 and 1978, Styx picked two of their best records to perform.  Kind of the “sweet spot” between Tommy Shaw joining the band on Crystal Ball, and the drama with Dennis DeYoung on Cornerstone.  There are numerous of songs they never played live with Lawrence Gowan on vocals before, if at all!  They had to re-learn their own songs to put on this concert.  You can’t accuse them of taking the easy way out!

Tommy even tells you where the side breaks come!

With Todd Sucherman on drums, the songs are naturally heavier here.  Gowan’s voice lends a different sound to them too.  Bassist Ricky Phillips is rock solid as always, but original bassist Chuck Panozzo still comes out to play bass on the odd track live.  His rumble on “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” is nice and prominent in the mix.

The songs have other notable differences, like more guitar solos.  James Young does Dennis’ old spoken word part on “Superstars”.  Some might wonder, “Why listen to this, when you can play the original albums with the original members any time you want?”  It would be unwise to compare the talents of Gowan and Dennis, but why can’t you just be a fan of both?  Some people want to hear Gowan singing “Come Sail Away”, and especially “Castle Walls” which was only played once before in 1978 and a handful of times in 1997.  There are many such songs on this recording.  “I’m OK” (which Gowan sings) was dropped after 1979, until this tour.  “Lords of the Rings” (James Young on vocals) was only played once in 1978.

There are stories, and songs for the diehards.  This isn’t a package for someone looking for greatest hits.  It’s also not the same as listening to an old album.  This is for the Styx fan who loves the past and present equally.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Marillion – Unplugged at the Walls (1999)

On the 25th of June 1998 a strange thing happened.

A group of like-minded people arrived at England’s sea and airports and made their way to a small town on the Welsh border.  The came from Brazil, Mexico, North America, Australia, Japan, Israel, Germany, Holland and Spain.

They came to have dinner.

…they also came to see a band.

 

MARILLION – Unplugged at the Walls (1999 Racket Records – Racket 10)

What’s your favourite acoustic album?

We all know the big “unplugged” performances, but between the cracks fell the web-only release Unplugged at the Walls by Marillion.  Only available via their website, this remarkable album was recorded while Marillion were working on their 10th record Radiation back in 1998.

While recording in Oswestry, Marillion struck a deal with the “best restaurant in town”, the Walls.  Now independent, every penny counted.  In exchange for free meals, Marillion agreed to play some acoustic sets at the Walls.  The idea grew and people came from all over the world to hear new songs and tunes that had never been played acoustically before.  They stripped down and re-arranged songs, added some surprises, and the result is one of the best Marillion live albums ever made.  Out of over 100!

Sampling tracks from the five Hogarth-era albums, no oldies were to be found.  Plenty of singles though:  “Easter”, “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury”, “Hooks in You”, “Eighty Days”, and “Beautiful” which opens the set.

While Marillion have always been top-notch musicians, in an unplugged setting such as this, Steve Hogarth is the standout performer.  Whether whispering or letting it all out, Hogarth is never less than spellbinding.  He is always in complete command, with every ear on him.

The highlights are many, but Marillion’s version of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” may surpass the original.  That’s all because of Hogarth.  Nobody can touch him.  He gets more intense as the song builds.  When he sings “I could blow through the ceiling,” you truly believe it.  The track is so good that they eventually used it as the B-side to “These Chains”.

“Abraham, Martin and John” (Marvin Gaye) is a track Marillion have since released on other live albums, but this gentle version is fantastic.  This one sports some beautifully warm electric guitar tones courtesy of Steve Rothery.  Marillion also cover “Blackbird” (The Beatles, but you knew that) and do a damn respectable job of it.  Instead of birds chirping, you get the sound of diners cheering!

The new songs premiered that night were the already-acoustic “Now She’ll Never Know”, and “The Answering Machine” which, over the years, has been popular both electrically and acoustically.  “Now She’ll Never Know” is the quietest song of the night.  “Answering Machine” meanwhile is one of the most upbeat.

They also tackled the surf-rocker “Cannibal Surf Babe” which did just fine unplugged and stripped to the basics.  “The Space” received a completely new, jazzy arrangement.  They played this version many times over the year, but it’s a bit of a slog compared to the rest.  The closer “Eighty Days” is jaunty and receives a massive response from the crowd, as does “Gazpacho”.  Appropriately enough, the Walls had gazpacho on their menu that night.

Speaking of which, the menu is included as part of the booklet.  It does indeed sound like the best restaurant in town!  “Salad of black pasta with marinated seafood and prawns.”  Wow!

This album was reissued in 2018, giving everybody a chance to get one.  You should.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick (1972, 25th Anniversary “newspaper” CD edition)

“Quite hard to play, and a lot to remember.” — Martin Barre

JETHRO TULL – Thick As A Brick (Originally 1972, 1997 EMI 25th Anniversary CD)

Some albums are more famous for factors other than the music.  Chinese Democracy, for example.  Anyone reading this can say “that’s the one that took Guns N’ Roses 17 years to make.”  Meanwhile, the same can be said for Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick.  Even if you have never heard the album, you probably know “that’s the one that came with the newspaper inside”.  You might even know that it’s only one, long 44 minute song.

All true.  You had to flip the song midway on the original LP, and that side break still exists on CD as the song is split into two tracks.  The 1997 Anniversary edition replicates most of the newspaper too, and though you will be wary of completely unfolding it and getting it back inside the case again, it is still a marvel.  With campy articles, crosswords, horoscopes, ads and news stories, you could read this paper for as long as it takes to listen to the album.  It is certainly among the most fabulous extras ever included with any release, LP or CD.  Top ten album packaging list?  Somewhere near the top.

The main feature of the newspaper is the “fake news” story of Gerald Bostock, the fictional author of the “Thick As A Brick” lyrics.  After an “epic” reading of the words on the BBC one night, a flood of complaints rolled in, and young Gerald was disqualified from the poetry competition.  The concept of the album is that you are to think you are hearing this controversial poem that raised such a ruckus.  Of course, the words were really written by one Ian Scott Anderson.

It’s also one of the most storied Tull lineups to go with the epic album:  Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, and Barriemore Barlow with Dee Palmer.  Barlow was the new guy, replacing original drummer Clive Bunker.  The piece is credited solely to Anderson.

Opening with delicate picking, it is soon joined by light flute.  Then drums, electric guitar and piano, building bit by bit.  The first three minutes have been used as an edited version for compilations.  They are probably the most accessible three minutes of the song, but it is well worth hanging on!  A jazzy rhythm here, some wailing guitar there.  Sections of beautiful piano melody.  Absolutely stunning flute playing.  Vocals return, stronger and more forceful.   This holds together for a long time as a pretty singular work, with lengthy instrumental sections between the vocals.  Then 12 minutes in comes the organ solo.

The song bounces back and Ian returns to the front, ranting about class.  It’s a surprise when the familiar opening guitar figure returns, but it is all one song after all.  This ushers in a folksy section, which eventually comes back to the power of progressive Tull.  A loud, rhythmic guitar outro takes us to the end of the first side with a hefty serving of organ.

The second side could not possibly open with as much panache as the first, nor should it, being the middle of a song.  After a brief respite, we are back into the heavy progressive Tull, and then a drum solo.  Exotic melodies dominate the first few minutes, when the drums do not.  The acoustic guitars return as they eventually must, and the song resumes a path like the one that it began with.

From moment to moment, Tull are not at all shy of showing you how smart-guy they are.  Those who adore challenging rock music will be right at home, drinking in every sudden time change and rippling solo.  The second side is thick with daunting rock.  Those who find this too pretentious to take seriously are already out of the room.  They’ll miss the thundering timpanis and cascading organ/flute duos.  Their loss.

 

What makes Thick As A Brick special is not the packaging.  From section to section, the song remains compelling.  Every part has some kind of hook or performance that draws you back.  By playing the 3:03 version, you are missing too much action.  You can’t pretend that such an album isn’t ostentatious.  You either like it (usually admiring and aspiring all the while) or you are repulsed by it.

The 25th anniversary CD comes complete with a 12 minute live rendition from much later, in 1978, from New York.  That means it’s John Glascock on bass, as Hammond had left in late 1975.  This abridged version has some of the majesty of the album, coupled with the excitement of the live stage.  Finally there is a 16 minute interview with Anderson, Hammond and Barre.  They explain the organic construction of the music, and the painstaking process of the packaging.   Though you can also get the 40th anniversary boxed set remixed by Steven Wilson, if you are just looking for the original album on CD, this edition is the obvious one.

5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Styx – Cornerstone (1979, coloured vinyl reissue)

STYX – Cornerstone (Originally 1979 A&M, 2020 Universal red vinyl reissue – limited to 1000 copies)

With Cornerstone, Styx were on their fourth album in their most successful incarnation:  Dennis DeYoung, James Young, Tommy Shaw, and Chuck & John Panozzo.  Shaw was the newest member and a fierce creative force in songwriting, on guitar, and with his own lead vocals.  Styx had a string of hits with this lineup including Crystal Ball, The Grand Illusion, and Pieces of EightCornerstone would be their biggest yet.  Though imperfect, it’s loaded with memorable songs and dynamite performances from the poppy-pretentious-prog-rock quintet.

What a terrific song “Lights” still is, with that big fat keyboard lick and Tommy Shaw’s delicate lead vocal.  You can hear why the punk rockers sought to eradicate the likes of Styx and their contemporaries.  But Cornerstone went to #2 in the album charts, and “Lights” was one of the singles released in Europe.  It’s a song about performing on stage, something that most of us will never be able to relate to.  But there’s something in its sincerity that is just charming.  “Give me the lights, precious lights, give me lights.  Give me my hope, give me my energy.”

Another single follows called “Why Me” (which wasn’t intended to be a single, but we’ll get into that).  A head-bopping light rock delight.  One of those tracks where you say, “Yeah, decent song.”  You might forget about it later; you might forget which album it’s on.  But it’s cool, especially when a blistering saxophone solo hits the speakers.

The big hit is in the third slot:  legendary power ballad “Babe”, Styx’s only #1.  Its strength is its pure corniness.  Surely, it must have been corny in 1979 too.  Yet a word comes back to me – “sincerity”.  Dennis DeYoung sounds completely sincere singing, “Babe, I love you,” like he means it.  Indeed as I research the album, “Babe” was written for Dennis’ wife.  You can hear it.  And if I was writing a song for my wife, you’d find it corny too.

A natural follow up to this Dennis-fest is a solid Tommy Shaw rocker called “Never Say Never”.  One of those album tracks that couldn’t stand on its own as a single, but has a perfect slot on side one after the big ballad.  That is an important slot for any rock band’s side one.  You have to get the blood pumping and the circulation back into the extremities with something that has some pep.  Because before you know it, the side will be done.

And side one closes on an epic:  Tommy’s mandolin-inflected “Boat on a River”.  Shaw on mandolin, guitar and autoharp.  Dennis on accordion, Chuck Panozzo on double bass with a bow.  Although fully acoustic with no electric, “epic” is the best word to describe it.  Perhaps it is a precursor to the the current popular “sea shanty” trend.  Well, Styx did one in 1979.

Side two kicks off with a blast:  “Borrowed Time”.  It’s amusing to hear Dennis start the song by saying, “Don’t look now, here comes the 80s!”  But this fun romp will be almost completely forgotten when you are suffocated by “First Time”, one of the most syrupy ballads ever foisted upon us.  Too syrupy, though the string section is a nice touch.  And it would have been the second single, had Tommy Shaw not objected.  “Babe” was a smash, and so “First Time” was selected to follow it.  Tommy expressed concern at two ballads in a row for the first two singles, and threatened to quit the band over it.  Things got so nasty that Dennis DeYoung was briefly fired and then re-hired over the issue.  And thus “Why Me” was chosen as second single instead.  Probably for the best…though you never know.

What do we need now?  A James Young rocker!  “Eddie” is his sole writing and singing credit on Cornerstone.  And it rocks hard, James pushing the upper register of his voice.  You wanna talk deep cuts, well “Eddie” is one of the best.  Interestingly it’s also one of those songs where the verses are slightly better than the choruses.

The closing slot on Cornerstone is left to Tommy Shaw’s “Love in the Midnight”, an interesting choice, echoing the side one closer when it opens acoustically.  It is the most progressive of the songs, featuring an absolutely bonkers Dennis keyboard solo and suitably gothic “ahh-ahh-ahh” backing vocals within a section with odd timing.  Things get heavy and punchy.  Definitely going out with a bang and not a whimper on this one.

This transparent vinyl reissue looks and sounds nice. It’s a gatefold sleeve with lyrics, pictures, and moustaches.  Not as cheap as buying a vintage vinyl or CD…just a lot nicer to look at.

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Marillion – Fugazi (2 CD remastered edition)

MARILLION – Fugazi (1998 EMI 2 CD edition, album originally released 1984)

Fugazi: Military slang meaning “fucked up situation”, coined during the Vietnam war.

Or: The making of Marillion’s second album.

After rolling through a couple drummers including Jonathan Mover, Marillion finally settled on Ian Mosely, the British veteran who is still in the band today. They settled in to record the “difficult” second album, which was dubbed Fugazi. It is a challenging listen, probably the most challenging of the original four. As such it tends to fall by the wayside today, despite the inclusion of the excellent single “Assassing”.

“I am the assassin, with tongue forged in eloquence. I am the assassin, providing your nemesis.”

It was a pointed statement at the ex-drummer Mick Pointer, from his former friend, lead vocalist Fish.

Lyrically, Fugazi represents the very best of Marillion of any era.  Both “Jigsaw” and the included B-side track “Cinderella Search” contain lyrics of great depth, beauty, emotion, and layers upon layers of interpretation. I like Fish’s use of homonyms, such as “Swam through the nicotine seize”.

Musically, this is a dense album that takes multiple listens to appreciate. Side one of the original album was catchier, with the two singles (“Punch & Judy” being the second) and the lullaby-like “Jigsaw”. Side two was more challenging, with longer heavier songs: “She Chameleon” and “Incubus” are good examples. Incidentally, Fish considered “Incubus” to be his greatest lyrical achievement, once again using homonyms. “I, the mote in your eye.”

The bonus disc contains the stellar B-side “Cinderella Search”, a song that goes through multiple sections before culminating with its powerful ending. “I always use the cue sheets but never the nets, never the nets, nevertheless.” Other B-sides include a remix of “Assassing” and the re-recorded version of “Three Boats Down From The Candy”. (I prefer the original.) This disc is rounded out by four demos of some of the more challenging songs.

The cover art is loaded with brilliance courtesy of Mark Wilkinson.  He put just as much thought into the art as Fish did into the lyrics.  Wilkinson and the band provide enlightening liner notes. You’ll want to make sure you read them. Did Mark Kelly really see a ghost? Find out inside.

5/5 stars

Fugazi is expected to be upgraded to a multidisc deluxe edition including 5.1 mix this summer- 2021.

REVIEW: Frank Zappa – Strictly Commercial: The Best Of (1995)

FRANK ZAPPA – Strictly Commercial: The Best Of Frank Zappa (1995 Rykodisc)

There are many versions of Strictly Commercial available in different territories, but the North American Rykodisc edition is familiar to most.  The beauty of Strictly Commercial is that it can appeal to anybody.  For those who are not ready to stomach a full Zappa album proper, Strictly Commercial compresses some of his most appetising music into a tight 77 minute listening experience.

With a flourish, “Peaches En Regalia” opens the disc as it did 1969’s Hot Rats.  “Peaches” is one of Frank’s most accessible compositions, with clear melodic themes.  This instrumental courts jazz rock fusion while projecting images like a cue from a movie soundtrack.  The horn section is both goofy and dignified at once, and the percussion is out of this world.

Great googly moogly!  Speaking of goofy, it’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (a single edit) which never fails to put a smile on the face.  The twisted storytelling is as clever as it is ridiculous.  Jabs of brilliant lead guitar act like aural illustrations.  Brilliant guitar on this one, as is the single-ending xylophone solo.  Into “Dancin’ Fool”, Zappa then lampoons a guy who can’t help but hit the disco even though he stinks at dancing.  Social suicide indeed!  Classic, memorable Zappa with a beat you can dance to.  “San Ber’dino” is more rock than blues but certainly has ingredients from both.  This is an easy entry point.

All the songs flow into the next, and “Dirty Love” has a slow rock groove and a blasting wah-wah solo.  This is a suitable lead-in to “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama”, one of Frank’s catchiest numbers.  A classic rock composition, it must be pointed out how perfect Jimmy Carl Black’s beats are.  They are hooks unto themselves.

“Cosmik Debris” has more blazing guitar, and a healthy dose of scepticism for the mystical.  “So, take your meditations and your preparations, and ram it up your snout,” sings Frank with a sly smile.  Then back to 1966 and Frank’s debut album Freak Out! with “Trouble Every Day”, the socially conscious track that is still relevant today.  With a beat-blues bent, Frank croons “Hey you know something people?  I’m not black but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white.”  Frank Zappa — triggering people since 1966!

Disco people fall victim to the Zappa wit once again with “Disco Boy”.  “Leave his hair alone, but you can kiss his comb.” It certainly recalls scenes from Saturday Night Fever.  “Fine Girl” is about a girl who isn’t so fine, but it has irresistible elements of soul mixed in with a little bit of everything.  Then the purely instrumental “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” lets us just enjoy Frank soloing for three and a half minutes.  Here he becomes the expert bluesman, with adventurous twists and turns that only a Zappa could muster.

“Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is essentially comic opera, a silly number with munchkin voices that never fails to raise a smile.  It’s over quickly enough so we can get back to more electric guitar nirvana.  “I’m the Slime” is funky horn-laden fun.

If Zappa’s music has been too performance oriented for your tastes with not enough hooks per minute, then “Joe’s Garage” will do the trick for you.  As one of Frank’s most immediate songs, it draws from 1950s doo-wop.  A track that fits in any music collection.  It gets heavy on “Tell Me You Love Me”, perhaps the closest song Frank has to metal.  So of course that had to be followed by the story of a dental floss tycoon with “Montana” (single version).  Brilliant xylophone is only overshadowed by Zappa himself.

Spoken word tracks can have a limited lifespan to the listener, and for many people that’s “Valley Girl”.  Moon Unit Zappa’s performance as the titular character is brilliant but quickly worn thin.  It could probably stand to lose its last minute or so.  Focus on the playing (especially that wicked bass by Scott Thunes).  Doo-wop returns on the lovable “Be In My Video”; sax solos galore!

Finally, Frank answers that age-old question:  cupcakes, or muffins?  Certainly one of Frank’s most charming songs, “Muffin Man” ends the disc.  Yes, there is a clear preference and plenty of wicked guitar playing too.  Captain Beefheart on “vocals and soprano sax and madness”!  Goodnight Austin Texas, wherever you are!

Strictly Commercial might not be the album that convinces you of Frank Zappa’s mastery of guitar, or of composition.  But it is carefully designed to lure you in and whet the appetite for more.  From here you can explore many more of Frank’s in-depth albums, or just enjoy this brilliant run through his most fun and easily enjoyed.

5/5 stars

#862: Strictly Commercial & Adventures in OCD

GETTING MORE TALE #862: Strictly Commercial & Adventures in OCD

When I was working at the Record Store, I was even pickier about the condition of my CDs than I am today.  Everything had to be pristine, including the case.  No scratches on the disc, and few to none on the jewel box.  I’d wanted some Frank Zappa for a while, but was never satisfied with the condition of those unique light green Rykodisc cases.  As trade-ins, they were always scratched, cracked or completely broken.  You never saw the obi strip on the top intact in a used copy.  Tired of waiting for one that met my exacting standards, I decided to buy it new.

It was fall in the late 90s, and I had the house to myself that weekend.  Everybody else was at the cottage.  This was during a time when I’d rather be home than at the lake.  I preferred to stay in town, hang out with T-Rev, hit the malls, watch some movies and listen to some music.  Not just new music, but new bands for my collection.  Along with Frank, I decided that I needed to add Journey to my collection that weekend.  It was going to be a great couple days off.

I’d already heard plenty of Zappa in-store and from buddy Tom up in Waterloo.  He was getting into Läther, a recent Zappa triple CD set designed to replicate a four record box set that Zappa originally envisioned back in 1977 but was forced to release scattershot instead.  Specifically I remember Tom hyping over “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary”, a 21 minute track about a pig.  I absolutely needed an artist like Frank Zappa in my collection if that’s the kind of thing he was about.  How could the girls resist me if I put a song like that on the stereo?

I knew HMV at Fairview mall would have Strictly Commercial: The Best of Frank Zappa in stock.  They always did.  T-Rev didn’t understand why I had to do this.  “I have a copy here right now,” he told me on the phone.  “There’s nothing wrong with it.  It plays fine, it’s in great shape.”

“But it doesn’t have the green case or that little obi strip that goes on top,” I countered.

“I guarantee that you cannot listen to a green case,” said T-Rev simply.  He was right.

But I was determined; there was nothing he could do to talk me out of the much more expensive new copy.  So that day I plunked down my $21.99 plus tax and bought my first Zappa.  With green case, unscuffed, and obi strip intact.

Trevor was right that I couldn’t listen to that green Ryko case, but there was also a certain satisfaction in seeing such a pristine one in my collection.  I made sure to protect it by carefully cutting the cellophane in such a way that I could slide the case in and out.  Although the cellophane has ripped a little in the two decades plus since then, it still protects the pristine green Ryko case beneath.

Although I do have a couple more green Rykodisc cases in my Zappa collection today, Strictly Commercial (review tomorrow) is the only one I insisted on buying new.  Having one was enough.  I was content to have less-than-perfect Zappas for Hot Rats and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch.  You have to be practical about such things after all!