psycho circus

#430: Album Art – Where can it go?

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RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#430: Album Art – Where can it go?

How important is album artwork today?  Still important, I’d argue, though not as much as it was in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  You can tell that artwork is still important, because every major artist produces “cover art” any time they release a single, even if there is no physical product for it to be applied to.  Artists will commission art or pose for expensive new pictures to accompany the new music.

Columbia Records kicked off the era of album artwork in 1938, a full decade before the birth of the LP.  Columbia’s art director Alex Steinweiss is generally credited with the introduction of packaging art.  Before him, 78’s used to come in plain sleeves with very little printing on them.  Some sleeves would have large holes in the middle, through which you could read the label on the record.  After the dawn of the LP, the rest of the record manufacturers in the world had caught up and were using artwork on their LPs in the 1950’s.  The standard size was 12 – 3/8”.

When you think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band today, you inevitably picture that incredible album artwork as well as the songs.  That cover, with its 57 different distinct figures pictured, became a high water mark.  They also included cardboard cutouts inside, a gimmick that Kiss were eager to copy and make their own.  Sgt. Pepper’s artwork cost 60 times more to create than the average album cover in 1967!  It took a band with the success of the Beatles to push the limits in this way.

The Rolling Stones included postcards in their Exile on Main Street (another unforgettable album cover), but they also brought album artwork into three dimensions.  Sticky Fingers featured a working metal zipper, with which you could open the jeans on the front cover, to reveal briefs inside.  It was a level of interactivity previously unseen.  The zipper tended to cause damage to the records and packaging in shipment, but pioneering is a process of trial and error!

Early 90's CD reissue of Sticky Fingers with zipper

Early 90’s CD reissue of Sticky Fingers with zipper

Perhaps Led Zeppelin took LP artwork to its end point, with 1979’s In Through the Out Door.  The record was concealed in a sealed, stamped paper bag that looked like a cheap bootleg, but inside would be one of six different album covers.  You would not know which you got until you tore it open.  The Grammy award winning packaging also included an inner sleeve that one could paint on, just by adding water!  If you wet a paintbrush (or anything, for that matter), you could dissolve paint embedded in it and colour it yourself.  Finding an original unpainted inner sleeve is the goal of a true collector.

Historically speaking, album artwork like this had several purposes.  The first and most obvious would be to identify the product inside (something Led Zeppelin messed with by not including their name on Led Zeppelin IV).  The second purpose was to attract the eye, in the crowded shelves of the record store.  It was noted by many that a brown cover just melted into the background.  Something striking would jump out, and be hard to miss in the racks.  Another job of the cover art was to tie together all the related marketing for the LP.  The artwork could appear in magazine ads, posters, and later on, in music videos.

The purpose of cover art that Kiss embraced was to give value for the money.  Not only did you get killer artwork with loud rock and roll inside, but you also got a cardboard Love Gun, or even masks you could cut out and wear.  Fans drooled over these extras.  For a while, any time Kiss put out an album, you knew that the packaging would be special.  For albums such as Destroyer and The Elder, they even used gatefold sleeves – an added, unnecessary expense for single LP packages.

Album artwork suffered in the 80’s and 90’s.  With cassettes and ultimately CDs replacing the 12.375” width of an album cover, the pictures were smaller and less striking.  You could not pack as much information onto a 4.75” CD sleeve.  Iron Maiden’s artist Derek Riggs was known for hiding secret messages and logos in his album covers, including a mischievous “Indiana Jones was here” and “Wot, no Guinness?” inside Powerslave.  These touches are lost on smaller CD covers.

There is no question that the majority of cover art suffered in the 90’s.  Some bands and labels still strove to give the buyer some extra value, but the canvas was now teeny tiny.  Tool are an example of a band who took advantage of the CD age.  Their AEnema CD had lenticular, “moving” cover art, thanks to a special jewel case that enabled 3D images.  You could even swap images by folding the booklet differently, and get a different moving scene.  Kiss copied this, less successfully, for Psycho-Circus in 1998.  Coloured plastic jewel cases were another way to get some attention on the CD racks.  Bands such as Alice in Chains and Collective Soul used coloured jewel cases for their self-titled albums in 1995, but these were fragile and prone to scratching.  The cardboard digipack was another method to enhance CD cover art, but they were not popular with everyone.  Some consumers complained that the covers wouldn’t fit properly into their CD towers, and would scratch up the discs if poorly designed.  And then of course, we had artists such as Garth Brooks who decided to milk the fans by releasing the same album with different cover art, encouraging them to “collect them all!”  His Double Live had no less than seven covers to collect.  That would come to well over $150 total for the collector who had to have each one.

LPs are currently having a second surge of popularity.  Will it last?  No.  Before you cry “heresy!”, remember that in today’s society, convenience is king.  That means portability.  Vinyl LPs are meant to be enjoyed at home.  The future will remain digital, although LPs will probably never die completely.  The advent of digital music has reduced the importance of cover art yet again.  You don’t need a cover, obviously, to enclose something that does not physically exist.  Yet, cover art is still being made.

Some have chosen to take cover art in the digital age to minimalist extremes.  U2’s Songs of Innocence was initially released digitally, with a very plain photo of a white LP sleeve with “U2” stamped on it.  Kanye West embraced minimalism on Yeesus, releasing the CD with no packaging to speak of at all.  A CD housed in a clear jewel case, sealed by a strip of orange tape, and a sticker with some credits – that’s all Yeesus gave us, surprising many by not going completely over the top with it.  It’s still an artistic statement, but is it the kind of art that a fan will embrace and cherish?

I feel that album artwork is currently in a state of flux.  LPs are having their moment again, and with them, lavish packaging that one can handle and enjoy.  On the other hand, simple digital pictures are all kids need today, to be attached to their mp3 files.  I hope that some enterprising, artistic individual, a modern day Alex Steinweiss, will innovate and bring back cover art in a lasting way.  I sure hope, because I do like cover artwork to accompany my music.

YEESUS

REVIEW: Psycho Circus – Scarred (1993)

This was one of the first, if not the first, discs I bought with my staff discount at the record store!  I wonder if Deke remembers these guys?

SCARRED

PSYCHO CIRCUS – Scarred (Anthem 1993)

20 years ago, Psycho Circus were one of the bands hyped as the “next big thing” out of Canada. They originated in Mississauga, Ontario, just west of Toronto.  They signed with SRO management (Rush, Van Halen, King’s X, Extreme) and producer Terry Brown (also Rush) and released a trendy but still unique goth-rap-funk-metal album called Scarred.  They also released a music video for the excellent “Pulsate”.

These guys were hanging out with old dudes way before Our Lady Peace.

The problem with Psycho Circus is their split personality.  On one hand (roughly half the album) they inhabit this cool, dark land I call Diet Faith No More.  Singer Vince Franchi has the lungs and range to emulate Patton’s style on The Real Thing.  Their cool use of keyboards also reminds me of that band, but without the dementia.  On the other hand, there’s a goofy rap-funk side, which does not appeal to me in the least.  I think funk metal got stale very quickly, and the juvenile lyrics render the rapping limp.  “Acid Monkey Junk”, a song about the testing of cosmetics on animals, is painful at time.  “Monkeys in the ocean and fishes in the trees?”

A M.E.A.T Magazine interview by Karen Bliss, from 1993, reveals that the band had already dropped even more irritating material from their live set.  They name a discarded song called “Picky Purple People” as being particularly notable for its silliness.  Glad I didn’t have to hear that one.

 

I prefer the Diet Faith No More side of the band: hard, melodic and dark songs like “Thru the Backbone” (which also features rapping in a non-annoying way).  “Pulsate” is easily the best song on the album, demonstrating Franchi’s impressive vocal range and power.  I’m also fond of the angry “I Know”, the haunting “Leave Me Alone”, and the closer “Goodbye”.  The rest of the album is unfortunately skip-worthy and occasionally irritating to me.

There was also a CD single made for “I Know” featuring an exclusive “Psylicone Mix”.  Although I don’t enjoy the remix as much as the album version, it’s notable for being remixed by Brown and the band, not some outsider.  I happened upon this single within my first year at the record store, and it surely must be one of the rarest discs I have.

For half a good album:

2.5/5 stars

M.E.A.T Magazine

Part 153: Russian Imports

SAM_1771

RECORD STORE TALES Part 153:  Russian Imports

One of the weirder items that we used to see regularly were these Russian import discs.  Their status as official releases was very questionable, the quality was cheap at best, and the guy that sold them wanted top dollar for them all.

His name was Serge, and he was a Russian model.  Seriously.  He gave me his business card one time.  He was a model, and he had the perfect Fabio hair and everything.  On the side, he’d bring CD’s over to Canada from Russia. They would usually come without jewel cases, just the CD and the paper cover art, so he could transport more of them.  The discs often ended up terribly scratched because of this.  He’d bring over “greatest hits” releases from everybody.  Springsteen, Abba, Bon Jovi, even bands that didn’t have greatest hits releases like AC/DC.  Often the Russians would throw on “bonus tracks” from live or solo albums.

The guy was a real pain to deal with, and most of the stuff he brought over was obscure European dance, trance, techno stuff that nobody had heard of over here.  He’d assume he was going to get a lot of money for them, because they were big in Europe.  But if nobody had heard of them in Canada, and they sat on my shelf for a year, no, I’m not paying top dollar for it.   So, eventually Serge stopped coming in.

I bought two albums from him that I’ve never played, but bought just “for the collection”.  One is a Kiss disc called Hit Collection 2000, the other by Europe, called Best Ballads.

Hit Collection 2000 is on a label called “DJ’s Club”.  It does not have the official Kiss logo, just a poor attempt to copy it.  There are some spelling errors on the back — I don’t know where “Detrot Rock City”  is.  The tracklist itself is pretty weird, containing newer songs like “Psycho Circus” and “I Finally Found My Way”, along with one track from each of the four Kiss solo albums.  There are three songs from Dynasty, and three rare live cuts from the Psycho Circus Live Australian disc.  This one came sealed but I didn’t even bother to open it.  Even Serge’s sealed discs often ended up scratched to pieces, I don’t know how that happens because these are clearly factory sealed.

The Europe album, Best Ballads, is notable for not depicting keyboardist Mic Michaeli on the front cover, even though he plays on the majority of songs.  The album contains ballads from Europe’s first monumental self-titled disc through to 1991’s Prisoners In Paradise.  The Russians picked some cool songs this time:  “Words of Wisdom” and “The King Will Return”, from the first album, “Dreamer” from Wings of Tomorrow, and “Coast To Coast” from Out of This World.  As usual there are three “bonus tracks”; “Under the Influence”, “Lord of the Manor”, and “Elsewhere” from Joey Tempest’s 1995 solo album A Place to Call Home.   Not that you would know this from the liner notes, since there are none.  Just a paper sleeve.

In the end I don’t think we missed Serge when he decided not to deal with us anymore.  A lot of his product sat on the shelves.  In fact I tried selling my Kiss Hit Collection CD back to the store last year, and they refused to take it.  Lesson learned!

REVIEW: KISS – Psycho Circus (1998, Japanese and Australian versions)

Part 38 of my series of Kiss reviews, leading up to the release of Monster

 

PSYCHOKISS – Psycho Circus (1998)

I have a really hard time rating Psycho-Circus.  I played it every day when it came out, but I like it a lot less now than I did in 1998. Once I got over the novelty of “finally, a new album by the original Kiss,” I stopped listening to it.  I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Gene and Paul are essentially the only members of the original Kiss on most of it.  That’s the biggest problem.

On all but one song, drums are by Kevin Valentine (ex-Cinderella), a good studio drummer.  Guitars are handled by Tommy Thayer (who fits into the story later) on all but two songs.

The other problem is it’s way too overproduced and I lay that blame at the feet of Bruce Fairbairn, rest his soul.

Fairbairn was a great producer for Bon Jovi and especially Aerosmith in the 80’s, but he was the wrong guy to produce Kiss. I think he wanted to make a dense, lush album as if it were 1998’s version of Destroyer, and he failed miserably. Paul wanted Bob Ezrin to produce…oh, the album that might have been.  Paul and Fairbairn clashed in the studio regularly over the direction of the album.

The title track, though is amazing!   Vintage, anthemic Paul Stanley. The solo is great, also very vintage…but it’s Tommy. I don’t mind Fairbairn’s production here, the circus noises suit the song, however the drums sound way too plastic.  This is the case with almost the entire album.  The drums sound like samples throughout.

Gene’s “Within” follows, which I believe was a Carnival Of Souls outtake. (Two other COS/Psycho-Circus outtakes, “Sweet & Dirty Love” and “Carnival Of Souls” itself ended up on Gene’s solo album.) “Within” is a slow dirgey ditty.  It’s a good song with lots of atmosphere, but it has nothing to do sound-wise with the rest of this album.  It would have been more suited to Creatures or Carnival, but not so much this album.

The cumbersome Paul title, “I Pledge Allegiance To The State Of Rock & Roll” is next. I hate this song. It’s a fast one, nothing special, a little stock, and to me is nothing but pure filler.

Then there’s finally a real Kiss song with all four members playing: Ace’s “Into the Void”. It is definitely one of the best songs on the album, with a riff that only Ace could play and the drums sound a lot better here.  It’s quintessential Kiss.  When I think of Kiss, I thik of songs that sound like “Into the Void”.

“We Are One” is a Gene song, and it sounds a lot like his 1978 solo album. It’s a nice song, I think it’s a tad slow, but it’s got that late 70’s vibe.  Maybe like a “Great Expectations” too.

The second side of the album starts with “You Wanted The Best” which was clearly written by Gene as a Kiss “comeback” song. It’s neat in that all four members sing lead for the first time ever, but really that’s its only selling point. Fairbairn overproduced once again, and the guitars sound a lot more processed than they should. The solo is definitely Ace, though. I think “You Wanted The Best” is another one of those Gene songs that had been presented to the band and rejected from previous albums like “Within” was.

Paul Stanley takes the next track with “Raise Your Glasses”, which is yet again overproduced and also a bit too pop sounding. It sounds like something from Hot In the Shade or that general era.  Paul sings some nice harmonies with himself in the middle, but the demo version of this is better (from the “Psycho Circus” CD single pictured below).

Since Peter Criss’ material was allegedly deemed too poor for this album, Paul and Ezrin wrote I “Finally Found My Way” for him to sing. It was meant to be the next “Beth” but I don’t need to tell you what happened there (nothing). It’s a piano ballad (that’s Ezrin on Fender Rhodes) and it’s a nice song, maybe it is was for Neil Diamond to sing. It’s just too darn soft, and Peter’s voice lacks the rasp.  The rasp would have given it some edge like Kiss ballads of yore.  He sounds great harmonizing with Paul on the bridge though.

Paul and Bruce Kulick wrote the next song, “Dreamin'”, which was ripped off of “I’m Eighteen” by Alice Cooper. It is basically the same song, and I believe Alice beat them in court too.

The most interesting song was saved for last, Gene Simmons’ epic “Journey Of 1,000 Years”. I don’t know what this could be compared to.  Although it wasn’t popular with the Kiss fans I know, I think it’s the best song here. Overproducing worked on this song. It is loaded with strings and who-knows-what, and Gene’s chorus is just mindblowing. “Can you hear me calling, can you hear the sound? Can you hear me calling, or is the voice of the crowd?” If this song was on The Elder, it would have fit in better.  It’s majestic and I think a good example of what Gene is capable of when he sets his mind to it.

Japan got a bonus track written by Gene called “In Your Face”. He wrote it for Ace to sing, so it has become a little bit of special song, a lost Kiss gem. The production is a little more sparse and though it is not a great Kiss song, Ace’s vocal sets it apart a bit. Worth having.

I have a couple versions of this album.  I bought the Japanese version first, for the bonus track, and it was not cheap!  The packaging here is cumbersome, but superior to the fragile lenticular jewel case that North America got. It is a digipack whose front cover opens like doors to reveal the Psycho Circus “clown” inside in 3D. Typical gradiose Kiss and I love it.

Australia got a 1999 reissue with a 6 song bonus disc called Kiss Live.  It contains 3 classics and 3 newbies.  So, in other words, you can get versions of these songs played by the original lineup.  This is worth having.  Track list:  “Psycho Circus”, “Let Me Go, Rock and Roll”, “Into the Void” (with guitar solo), “Within” (with drum solo), “100,000 Years”, and “Black Diamond”.

When you hear Psycho Circus, you can’t help but think that Kiss blew a monumental opportunity to create history. In the end, it’s “just another Kiss album”, and not a particularly great one. It certainly inferior to the first 7 studio albums at best.  It has a leg up on some of the 80’s records, but it just doesn’t rock hard enough!  The right producer could have made this sound like Kiss, not Aerojovi.

3/5 stars

Part 77: Psycho-Circus

RECORD STORE TALES Part 77:  Psycho-Circus

If you think back to the late 90’s, the hype surrounding Kiss was enormous.  They’d just completed their successful reunion tour to rave reviews, what was left but an album?

I was excited too, but not as excited as “Kiss Man”….

I don’t remember his name and I never heard from him again, so heartbroken was he.  My staff had a habit of telling annoying customers, “Hey, if you really want to talk about Kiss (or insert-band-name-here) then you should call back and talk to this guy Mike.  He loves Kiss.”

One time, they told a lady I was interested in buying her original Whitesnake cover art painting.  Which I wasn’t.  Anyway, back to Kiss.

This guy had come in talking about Kiss with somebody, and they told him to call me.  So he did.  With two of my bosses standing in front of me, I blindly anwered the phone.  To the best of my recollection, this was the conversation.  Imagine two of my bosses standing in front me alternating between glances and glares.

Kiss Man:  Hi, is this Mike?

Mike:  Yes, speaking.

Kiss Man:  Oh hi, I was speaking with (insert whoever’s name it was) a couple days ago, and they told me you were a massive Kiss fan?

Mike:  Yes, yes I am…

Kiss Man:  Like really big Kiss fan?  Like they said you have the dolls.

Mike:  Yes…I do have some action figures… (the bosses both looking at me now)

Kiss Man:  Are they the vintage ones?

Mike:  Uh, pardon?

Kiss Man:  Are they the vintage ones from the 1970’s.

Mike:  Oh, no.  They’re just the MacFarlanes.

Kiss Man:  Cool, still.  So do you know anything about the new Kiss album coming out called Psycho-Circus?

Mike:  (thinking he was now asking when it was out, how much we’ll be selling it for, etc)  Well, it’s out in a couple weeks, and there’s some kind of special edition cover, and we’ll be trying to get that one in. 

Kiss Man:  So how many times did you see them live?

Mike:  Uhh, just once…I don’t really go to a lot of concerts…

Kiss Man:  Just once?  Like on this tour?

Mike:  No…just once.  I wanted to see them on the Revenge tour though.

Kiss Man:  Have you heard the new single, “Psycho Circus”?

Mike:  No, I haven’t yet.

Kiss Man:  On Q107?  No?

Mike:  No, I…

Kiss Man:  Wow, and they said you were a big Kiss fan.

That one hurt, admittedly.

I eventually brought the conversation to a close, got shit for taking a “personal” call, explained to my bosses that I really didn’t have a clue who that was, and then later interrogated the staff to find up who set me up with the Space Ace.

When I found out, they were disappointed that the conversation didn’t go well, as if they were trying to set with up with a new buddy.  “He’s probably really sad now,” they said.

“Yeah.  He’s probably never going to come back into the store again, because of you,” they helpfully added.

Yeah, well.  It was a lose-lose situation and I definitely lost that time!

Part 12: The Pepsi Power Hour

RECORD STORE TALES Part 12:  The Pepsi Power Hour

I’m going to take you back in time a bit.  Back to a time before the record store….

I remember back to the 80’s and early 90’s when MuchMusic was king. Back when there was no Jersey Shore and they played actual music videos.  There was no internet at that time, so you had to go to the store to buy your music (more often than not, on cassette). To hear new bands, you watched videos on Much and listened to the radio. There was no YouTube.

There was this frickin’ awesome show on Much back in the day — you remember it. It was originally only on once a week (Thursdays at 4 if I recall) and was hosted by one John “J.D.” Roberts. Yeah, the CNN guy. After he left, the hosting slot rotated between Michael Williams, Steve Anthony, Erica Ehm and Laurie Brown and then finally the late Dan Gallagher. Despite his long hair, Dan didn’t know a lot about metal — he didn’t know how to pronounce “Anthrax” and had never heard of Ratt. But that show was by far the best way to hear new metal back in the day.

That show was THE POWER HOUR.

It was so popular that they eventually had two a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4, which was awesome for me since by 1989 I was working every Thursday at Zehrs.  I could still catch one a week, usually.

I remember tuning in, VCR at the ready to check out all the new videos and catch onto the newest bands. There was this band called Leatherwolf that I found via Hit Parader magazine and first heard on the Power Hour. I loved that band. There was another band called Sword from Montreal. Psycho Circus. Faith No More. Skid Row. Armored Saint. Testament. You could always count on the Power Hour to have Helix on. That show rocked.

They had some of the best interviews as well.  Usually they’d have someone come in and co-host for an hour.  They had everybody from Gene Simmons to Brian Vollmer to Lemmy.  In depth stuff too, at times.

Then in 1990 something else cool happened. I discovered a magazine called M.E.A.T (the periods were for no reason at all, just to look cool like W.A.S.P. but eventually they decided it stood for “Metal Events Around Toronto”). M.E.A.T was awesome because it was monthly, free, and had in depth articles clearly written by knowledgable fans. There was no magazine with that kind of deep coverage. Even Slash loved M.E.A.T, at a time when Guns hated rock magazines! I loved M.E.A.T so much I eventually sent them $10 to subscribe to a free magazine.  I did this on a yearly basis.

I discovered a whole bunch of great bands via that magazine. I Mother Earth, Slash Puppet, Russian Blue, Jesus Christ, not to mention they were way ahead of the curve on alternative. They had a Nirvana concert review back in 1989. They got behind Soundgarden way before they were cool. And you could count on them hanging onto the oldies. They’d put an indi band from Toronto on the cover one month, and put Black Sabbath on the cover the next month.  Next issue they’d have an in-depth interview with Kim Mitchell.  They’d talk about bands that nobody else did.

Their CD reviews were my bible! My music hunting was probably 90% based on their reviews, especially since by then the Power Hour had changed into the 5 day weekly Power 30 hosted by Teresa Roncon, and sucked.  The started playing too much thrash and grunge and never gave the old bands a shot anymore.

Things have changed so much now. I never get into new bands anymore, back then I used to just eat them up. I guess new bands just don’t interest me anymore. I like my old time rock and roll. I did buy the new Sheepdogs, twice.  The last new band I got totally and 100% excited about was The Darkness, and that was, what…2003?

Yet I can’t get into these new metal bands. The music sounds so sterile to my aging ears. The rock has lost its balls. The album I have been most excited about in 2012 was the new Van Halen — a band that is approaching 40 years old. But my God does it rock.  Kiss and Black Sabbath both have new records coming out, and I’m excited about them, but I could two shits about the new Nickelback.

In a lot of ways, it’s a better time for music now.  With eBay and Amazon I’ve managed to fill nearly every gap in my music collection.  There are some bands that I now have complete sets of, and others that I am achingly close.  I’m missing 4 Maiden EP’s and 1 Deep Purple import, for example.  Back in the 80’s you didn’t have access to this.  You didn’t even have access to an accurate and complete discography.  It wasn’t until the internet that this kind of information was even available.

Aside from that, today kind of sucks for music.  Sure, it’s easier to find new bands now, but we did OK in the 80’s.  M.E.A.T turned me on to lots of bands, and they were always giving away sampler cassettes.  Much played all the new videos by all the  metal bands at least once, basically.  You had to work a little harder, but we only appreciated the music more.  It wasn’t disposable.

And there were a lot more new bands around that just plain rocked!