Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse (1997)

Would it be blasphemous to suggest that Year of the Horse is better than Rust Never Sleeps? Neil Young may have been in his prime during the seventies, but Crazy Horse was just getting warmed up. It's true that they were a great band in the nineties. I was listening to Broken Arrow again, and it's interesting - it doesn't have the hooks that Ragged Glory has, but the instrumentation is top-notch.

Well, Jim Jarmusch (I love that he's a fan of Crazy Horse) has accomplished what he set out to do with Year of the Horse - that is, provide a snapshot of the band at that period in time. As bizarre as Rust Never Sleeps was, it was really just a concert video, but Year of the Horse takes a look behind the scenes, and examines the musicians as people, to show where that amazing music comes from. And it gives you newfound appreciation for Crazy Horse as a band, and not just Neil's backing (I love that Neil prefers it "Crazy Horse" rather than "Neil Young with Crazy Horse").

The pacing of the film is really good. Even with the most amazing bands playing the most amazing music, a straight concert film can start to drag on after awhile, as you sit listening to song after song after song. Year of the Horse alternates between showing songs, and delving into the background of the band, with interviews and archival footage. And the songs in this film sound fantastic - plus, they're even more effective because you get to see the band as they play them, and they're really into it. I love that they all huddle together in the middle of the stage instead of being spread out like other bands.

That actually comes up in the bonus interviews included with the film, which are both very enlightening. It's really neat to hear Neil talk about his longevity, and the formula he's used to keep from burning out. He's actively avoided superstar status, because he knows that reaching it is the cause for implosion. And that's why every time he starts to get big, he switches tracks and heads off in a different direction. So every time Neil puts out an incomprehensible record, and people complain about how he's not living up to his potential, and they want another Harvest, and all of that, Neil knows that he's just ensuring his lasting impact by preventing himself from getting too big.

Another thing they talk about in one of those interviews is how they achieved this one shot in the film, during the performance of Like A Hurricane. It opens with the 1996 performance, which was current, and filmed specifically for Year of the Horse, and then a little while after the verse starts, it switches over to a recording from 1976, completely seamlessly. While watching it, I thought to myself, my god that's amazing, it synchs up perfectly! The intro was clearly the later performance that you saw on screen, but the earlier footage was perfectly matched to the sound. I was just blown away, that the performance could be that consistent. But in the interview they reveal that they had switched the audio right before the verse starts, but they leave the visual on the later performance for awhile, before moving back to the earlier footage without changing the sound, and it makes for a remarkably seamless transition. I was really impressed.

Watching this film definitely gets me in the mood to see Crazy Horse live (again). We haven't had a good Crazy Horse record since Greendale (which is going on eight years now). I hope Neil doesn't think he's getting too old for the horse. It sure is an energetic gig, but if the Stones can keep on rocking at their age, it's got to be possible. Depending on Neil's health, of course. The band did say in the interviews that they would keep on rocking as long as they could, but I wonder if they still feel that way some fifteen or so years later.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Framed (1972) & Next (1973)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band is a fascinating find. Stripped down, they are simply a hard rock band, but with a theatricality that is totally unique. And much of that is influenced by Alex Harvey himself, as much a performer as a rock singer. Although if you've seen videos of the band, you'll also notice guitarist Zal Cleminson's clown-like makeup. Right from the start, the SAHB sets itself apart from other bands of the era, in that the band leader, Alex Harvey, was 38 when the band formed. And with his natural skill at performing, he seems to bring an almost gangster vaudeville theme to the act, with songs about soldiers and prostitutes and criminals and prison and so on. But where a lesser band might fold under the potential to be viewed as a comedy act, Alex Harvey plays it straight, and the band backing him demands to be taken seriously. So when Alex sings "there's nothing like a gang bang to blow away the blues", you're willing to believe it.

There are lots of good songs on the SAHB's first two albums, and there's very little in the way of weak links. The title track on Framed is one of my favorites, as is the closing track, St. Anthony, which has a killer riff (plenty of those abound) and a very energetic delivery. Alex Harvey's cover of I Just Want To Make Love To You is unique, but it inevitably pales in comparison to Foghat's spectacular version of the song, released in the same year. I'll admit that I like the heavier songs, such as Hammer Song and Midnight Moses, more than the light-hearted ones, like Hole In Her Stocking or the rather silly (can you tell just by the title?) There's No Lights On The Christmas Tree Mother, They're Burning Big Louie Tonight. But then, that humor is part of the band's charm.

My gut instinct is to say that Framed is a better album than Next, but when I look at the songs on Next, I have to concede that they're both great albums. The standout track is the epic Faith Healer. I hear it made for a good show during the band's celebrated live performances. Vambo Marble Eye sounds great and is probably the heaviest track on both of these albums. From what I've read, Vambo is apparently a comic book style superhero that Alex Harvey invented as something of an alter ego, in almost rock opera fashion. I do believe there are more songs about Vambo on later albums. Next closes with a rather curious song titled The Last of the Teenage Idols, which (I'm not sure if it's obvious from the title or not) is somewhat dark. At least until the final section, which seems to parody teenage pop idol music in a way that miraculously turns out sounding pretty good. And you'd think it was meant to be taken tongue in cheek, but according to the liner notes, Alex Harvey did actually win a teenage idol contest in his homeland of Scotland. And so, once again, you're left thinking to yourself, "this guy's not joking."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Santana III (1971)

Santana is two things, really. It's the name of a guitarist (first name: Carlos), and it's also the name of a band that that guitarist was in once upon a time. A really good band that performed at Woodstock. I remember popping in a Santana album from somebody else's collection one time and thinking, is this the same guy from that band that played at Woodstock? These days, Santana seems to be little more than a mercenary guitarist, selling his talent to all of today's biggest pop singers. And while he is an amazing guitarist, you're only as good as the musicians you play with. And once upon a time, Santana was a kickass rock band, with a unique jazz/Latino flavor, that could hold their own among the best acts that headlined the Woodstock festival.

The original Santana band only lasted for three albums. Of the three, I could have picked up any one. Their first (self-titled) is closest, chronologically, to their Woodstock appearance, and their second (Abraxas) is sometimes hailed as their best. Their third has less of the songs I already know from the radio, but I picked it for two reasons. One, this special anniversary edition of the album includes a classic live concert on the second disc (a lot like recent editions of Johnny Winter's Second Winter) - which is both highly acclaimed and happens to be the final show at the Fillmore West before it closed down (talk about making history). The other reason is the band's short-lived addition of second guitarist Neal Schon, later to become the backbone of Journey (if you pick up their first few albums, before they got popular, you'll find virtuoso instrumentation in place of sappy balladeering). And few things are more exciting than a solid band with two distinctive lead guitarists.

The music? Does exactly what it says on the tin. You get exactly what you would expect from the original Santana band - plus Neal Schon. Lots of instrumentation, with some lyrics here and there, a Latino flavor, plenty of tribal drumming, and some scorching guitar leads. That goes for both the studio album and the live concert, which includes most of the album in live form. One additional live track that I appreciated was Black Magic Woman (originally on Abraxas), since I'm a huge fan of Peter Green, who penned that song. And I'm not about loyalties here, I think both versions are integral, and worth their existence. The core of the song itself is great, but Santana's instrumentation really brings it to another level. I would call it more of a successful cover than Judas Priest's Green Manalishi, but that would be choosing sides. Other than that, the one song on the album I was previously familiar enough with to really recognize is No One To Depend On, which is a really great song with (surprise!) some really great guitar work. But the quality of the rest of the album stands up as well. If you liked Santana at Woodstock, you'll like this.

Neil Young - Lucky Thirteen (1993)

"Excursions into Alien Territory"

When Sample And Hold came up on my playlist the first time, I thought to myself, "what is this techno crap doing on my playlist?!" Then I realized it was Neil Young. I'm happy to say that the song has grown on me over time, even to the point of getting me to sing along part of the chorus. I can't tell what 90% of the lyrics are, but I get this feeling the song would go well (thematically, not sonically) with the likes of Homegrown and Piece of Crap. Like a satirical depiction of the opposite end of the spectrum - a dystopian society where consumable plastic products are perceived as the ideal. I'm sorry to say that the song Transformer Man hasn't fared quite so well for me.

Lucky Thirteen is an intriguing collection of thirteen tracks that cover Neil's much-maligned eighties output. And while it may not have been Neil's best string of albums (I haven't actually listened to them, yet), one thing you can say for Neil is that good or not, his music is always interesting. And these tracks are really not so bad. A handful of them are live or alternate versions, which may or may not be a contributing factor.

But, take the tracks from Old Ways, for example. Depression Blues is Neil in his country mode, which is probably one of my least favorite of his modes (ranking just above techno mode) - but even so, it's a really pretty song, with a gentle melody. And to be honest, while it's not really my preferred style of music, I've caught myself singing along to the chorus of Once An Angel.

The live tracks with The Shocking Pinks are a bit more up my alley. Get Gone, albeit with a curious introduction by Neil, kinda falls flat - feeling like an uninspired rehash of some sort of Bo Diddley riff. But Don't Take Your Love Away From Me sounds fantastic, and is probably one of my favorite tracks on this collection. I heard a live bootleg recently from Neil in the eighties, and I don't remember what the year was - whether it was with the Shocking Pinks or the Bluenotes or someone else - but this is the sort of music I remember hearing, with some good lead guitar, and I would love to hear more like it.

Coming to the Landing on Water tracks, I really like Hippie Dream. It's the first track on the album that jumped out at me. It's got a good, kind of angry, sound. Pressure, on the other hand, is a little bit less interesting, I'm afraid. Hit/miss seems to be the theme of this collection. Turning to Life, Around The World is alright, but I like Mideast Vacation. That's another one that jumped out at me, particularly the way that the song tells a story. I love the line, "when they burned me in effigy, my vacation was complete." Wow, does that sound wild or what? I want to vacation with that guy!

The album closes with a couple live tracks with the Bluenotes. Ain't It The Truth sounds good, in spite of the horn section, and is reminiscent of a Booker T. & The MG's style jam, with some nice lead guitar, which always improves a song in my ears. And then you have This Note's For You, which is, of course, a great song, and a classic among Neil's repertoire, in spite of its genesis being during his "experimental" period (as if his entire career isn't littered with experiments).

Roy Buchanan - Live in Japan (1978)

I've read that Live in Japan was Roy Buchanan's own favorite of his records. It's always interesting to find out what part of an artist's own repertoire he likes best. I wonder if American Axe: Live in 1974 was released before Roy's tragic and untimely death - I think not. That one's still my pick for best live Roy Buchanan album, largely on the merit of its unrivaled version of Roy's Bluz, and probably the best version of Roy's signature The Messiah Will Come Again that I've heard. But Live in Japan is also fantastic, and it's everything you would expect from a live Roy Buchanan record.

If you don't know who Roy Buchanan is at this point, then look him up. He was an unsung guitar hero that rivaled (some would say surpassed) the best (and more celebrated) axe-swingers of his day. And he was a pioneer of many totally unique guitar techniques - some that still haven't been used by anyone nearly as proficiently as Roy. And he was a master of blues guitar - not just because he could play, but because he could make you feel, the way he played, better than anyone else.

Live in Japan opens and closes with two different instrumentals, both of interest. The closer, Sweet Dreams, is a bit sweeter and more introspective, and is one of the few tracks Roy is semi-known for (it was recently used at the end of The Departed - talk about a pleasant surprise!). But the opener, Soul Dressing, is a bit more upbeat, with some nice organ work to counter Roy's guitar. We also get another live rendition of Hey Joe - perhaps the best one yet. Roy was a big fan of Jimi, as so many guitarists are, but unlike most others, he does justice to Jimi's talent here not by matching the guitar god's exploits, but by taking the song and truly making it his own (just as Jimi did himself). In fact, what Jimi did to the song was slow it down and make it soulful, and Roy does the same - he makes it even slower and even more soulful, while giving it his unique stylistic touch. Blues Otani is also quite nice, a good medium-paced blues that stretches out to a comfortable length, with yet more organ work that recalls for me Mike Bloomfield's collaborations with Al Kooper and Barry Goldberg. And there are some more up-tempo tracks to round out the show, as well.

This is a good collection of live tracks, and if you like Roy Buchanan, you're gonna want this album. Roy's in-the-studio experiments are said to be a bit spotty at times, not always capturing the extent of his genius (although what I've heard so far has been well worth hearing), but in a live context, you know you're getting a good show of Roy's talent. And that's just what you can expect from Live in Japan.

Harvey Mandel - Shangrenade (1973)

For every Harvey Mandel album I get, it becomes harder to write a review without repeating myself (not that I ever promised I wouldn't). The material is all pretty samey, so you're either gonna like it or not. As if to drive that point home, Shangrenade features a sequel to a song from Baby Batter (two albums ago) - it's called Midnight Sun 2. As instrumental music, these songs work effectively in the background, but as a result, if you don't make an effort to pay attention to them, they tend to pass under your radar. The one track that potentially avoids that fate is the aptly-titled Frenzy, a somewhat dissonant jazzy piece that sounds like you would expect, knowing the title.

I don't suppose any of this can really be considered high praise, but the fact remains that Harvey Mandel is a very talented guitarist, and you just might like his music if you're into instrumental guitar-based jazz rock. I still remember the first time I heard him (consciously), his leads were transcendent in the context of the Barry Goldberg and Friends band ("Friends" also included Michael Bloomfield on that album, Recorded Live from 1976). But I guess once you delve into the world of Harvey Mandel, you begin to forget how unique his style is compared to everything else that's out there. Perhaps I should start thinking about getting a hold of some of his work outside the solo realm, with other bands - Canned Heat, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Charlie Musselwhite, and hey, even a track or two with The Rolling Stones!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jeff Beck Group (1972)

This is the fourth album headed by Jeff Beck since his departure from the Yardbirds, and the second with the second incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group. No more Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass. Here we get a different collection of talents, somewhat less popular. Bobby Tench takes over the vocals.

In all honesty, there is no surprise to me that Jeff Beck was never as big as, say, Led Zeppelin. There are arguments about who was the better guitarist - Beck or Jimmy Page - and while Beck's stint in the Yardbirds was a bit more fruitful than Jimmy's (I still think Jimmy's stint is overlooked and underrated, though), there's no doubt why Jimmy became more of a household guitarist over the years. Regardless of who's a better guitarist (as if that wasn't subjective), there are other factors to consider, and Jeff just didn't have the band that Jimmy had. I suspect that another factor is that Jimmy was a rock guitarist, and Jeff ventured into a more experimental - jazz/fusion - territory, which simply isn't as popular (or as accessible) as rock n roll is.

I'm still in the process of "discovering" Jeff Beck. Some guitarists are easier to get into than others. I wasn't even really impressed by Jimi Hendrix at first, but that changed in time. And Jeff Beck was never as exposed as his peers. I have yet to dig into his later material, after he ditched the "group", but for now, his early stuff is what I have to go on.

Jeff Beck Group, the album, has kind of an R&B flavor. And there are a lot of covers, from the likes of Bob Dylan (Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You), Carl Perkins (Glad All Over), and Stevie Wonder (I Got To Have A Song). There is a strong piano presence, and while I'm not much of a piano person, it sounds really good here. However, it does give the album a certain kind of flavor, as you might expect.

I anticipated the standout track to be Beck's cover of Going Down, credited to Don Nix, originally recorded by blues master Freddie King - which, I'll tell you a little secret, is the primary reason I decided to grab this album. I love Beck's treatment of the song. The meandering instrumental parts, and the false stops, it's very rock and roll. And again, the piano sounds great, despite giving it that piano-y type of sound. My only complaint is that I want it to be even heavier. I know a local band that does a really kickass version of this song, just like Jeff Beck's (minus the piano), but even harder, and it sounds fantastic. It's the perfect blend between Beck's instrumentation and King's attack.

For favorites (in addition to Going Down), I have to pick the opening track, Ice Cream Cakes, for the guitar work (of course). But it's the instrumentals that really shine - I Can't Give Back The Love I Feel For You, and the Beck-penned Definitely Maybe, which finishes the album. The latter is a moving piece with some impressive and emotive guitar playing, that at points recalls, for me, the tone of Eddie Hazel's guitar on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain (one of the greatest guitar moments in recorded history). I'd love to hear Jeff Beck do more stuff like that.

Black Sabbath - Past Lives

I'm not really a metalhead, but there's something very satisfying about listening to heavy music. Even without getting up and thrashing about the room, it's a great way to vent your frustrations. And nothing is more certain in life than that there will always be frustrations to hound you, and impair your ability to be happy. And that's where heavy music comes in to play.

Black Sabbath is a really great band. The thing I like the most about them, I think, is the way that Tony Iommi's riffs sound. They're just so heavy, and powerful, and they hang in the air. They're really unrivaled, at least for its time. Other bands played heavy music - Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, etc. - but none of them could compare to the meatiness of a good Black Sabbath riff. And there are so many of them. Black Sabbath has a ton of great songs, the majority of which don't get the radio play they deserve.

Past Lives is a collection of live recordings from the seventies, during Black Sabbath's initial (and classic) stint from 1970 to 1978, with Ozzy Osbourne at the helm. The liner notes are a little bit ambiguous, but with the help of Wikipedia, I've managed to determine that this double disc album consists of three general periods.

The entire first disc is compiled from two shows in England in 1973. This would be about the adolescent period for Sabbath - their best/most legendary material (everything on their first four albums, including, of course, Paranoid) has been released, but it's still relatively fresh, and the band is still young. Of the nine tracks included, three are from Vol. 4, two from the band's third album Master of Reality, one from the upcoming Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album (Killing Yourself To Live, which is a great track), two from Paranoid - including the title track as well as War Pigs, which is very interesting to hear them do live - and one from their self-titled debut album. That last track, Wicked World (a song with some especially great riffs, by the way), is stretched out to an almost twenty minute long jam, with shades of Into The Void, and Supernaut thrown in the middle, which appropriately recalls the style of the band's first album, which contains a lot of instrumental noodling, and tossing of various songs together into single tracks (the album has five tracks, but at least ten songs or musical pieces).

The first part of the second disc of this live compendium is a show from 1975. Apart from including another great track from Paranoid (Hand of Doom), it takes advantage of its later status by including three tracks from the band's latest album at that time - Sabotage. Megalomania is a great song. The rest of the second disc is an early show from 1970, demonstrating the band in a much younger state. You get to hear three tracks from their debut album - of which, I'm particularly interested in Black Sabbath, the song that named the band, since I like it so much. In addition to that, you get two tracks from Paranoid - Iron Man, and the album closer, Fairies Wear Boots.

There is a lot of noise about Black Sabbath being a great live band, and it's true, they sound great on these live tracks. I'm sure the effect is even better in person, as it usually is. I think that, on the other hand, Black Sabbath is a band that also benefits from the clean production of the studio, where their riffs can make a full impact with minimal distraction from unwanted elements. Plus, Ozzy does sound better in the studio, I have to be honest. So some of these songs, like War Pigs, for example - while they sound great live, I still think I prefer their studio counterparts. But it is interesting, after all, to hear the band do these songs live - especially for me, as a performing musician, to see how they accomplish certain things on stage that aren't as easy to pull off without all that studio magic.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Stevie Ray Vaughan - The Sky Is Crying (1991)

It's surprising how good this album is, considering it's a posthumous release. It contains some of Stevie's greatest and best known tracks - particularly his inspired instrumental reading of Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing, and his rendition of the title track - The Sky Is Crying; which, despite being a blues standard that everyone has covered, Stevie manages to make his version the definitive one. When he ironically sings "you're gonna miss me the day that I'm gone, cause I'm leaving in the morning, and I won't be back at all" in the blues Empty Arms, the significance of this release having followed the unfortunate and untimely death of one of the greatest blues guitarists in history really hits home. May I Have A Talk With You also smokes in Stevie's trademark, and oh-so-good, slow blues style. The intriguing Chitlins Con Carne sets a mellow mood, and the guitar work in So Excited is a real treat. This album right here is blues canon.

Cold Chisel (1978)

Cold Chisel is an Australian "pub rock" band that made their record debut in 1978. All indications are that they weren't very popular on a global scale (or even just in America) - unlike, say, AC/DC. Which is a shame, because they are a very good rock band. I sampled their entire discography recently and went to painstaking effort to compile a selection of my favorite tracks, which included material from throughout their career, including their 1998 reunion. Their debut is possibly their strongest offering, but its main attraction is a song called One Long Day, which is a strong contender for my top favorite track. It seems to capture well the frustration and ennui of having a steady work schedule (I presume :p) in a medium tempo, minor-flavored tune that has enough changes to keep it fresh throughout its 7+ minutes (which is just long enough to make a statement without overstaying its welcome).

And the rest of the album is a well-executed document of rock proficiency that strikes a good balance between musicality and pop appeal, in my opinion. My only complaint - and I presume this is due to the modern remastering - is that the sound of the album is kind of loud and shrill to my ears. And to those who like their music to be abrasive, the reason it bothers me isn't because of some obtuse technical argument that hinges on musical integrity (which I am capable of making, however), but simply because it's much more likely to give me a headache. But that's only on occasion, and it's certainly not an argument against the music on this album, which is top-notch rock n roll that I recommend you listen to - even more so because it seems not to have garnered the international attention that it deserves.

Rush (1974)

I'm kind of surprised I'm not into progressive rock more than I am. Because I like intellectual fantasy music, and I don't mind the pretension one bit. But I guess the more varied instrumentation leaves less space for the hard-rocking guitar, which I am primarily drawn to. In the case of Rush, I have to admit that I'm not especially fond of the vocalist (Geddy Lee)'s style. It's just one of those things. And I'm not terribly impressed with their poppier tracks that get played most often on the radio (with one exception). Naturally, I have to wonder what the rest of their music is like, because bands are all too frequently misrepresented by their hits. I can tell that they're a good band, but they don't really capture my interest, which is ultimately a matter of taste.

That having been said, a lot of bands pioneer one type of sound, only to grow into a different style later on - the one that finally catches on. Like Journey, for instance. And Rush's first album has a straighter hard rock edge than their later prog excesses. For the prog fans, this is naturally a disappointment, but if you ask me, comparisons to Led Zeppelin are a good thing. Rush is clearly no Zep - not even here - but their debut album is an enjoyable collection of rockers. The standout track is obviously the closer - Working Man (which is the exception I mentioned above). That song actually made it onto my very first compilation of radio tracks back when I was first getting into classic rock. But Here Again, which happens to be the longest track on the album (just barely exceeding Working Man's track length), is also worth mention, despite being more of a minor ballad than a ballsy rocker - though, this was back in 1974, when ballads were still good. The rest of the tracks on the album are good, mostly simple rockers. This album doesn't exactly break ground - like, say, Zep's first album did - but it's a good, fun, rock n roll record.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Slumber Party Massacre Collection

In the mood for some classic slasher sleaze, I settled in for a Slumber Party Massacre Marathon, and here are my thoughts on the "Driller Killer Thrillers":

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

This is really a great classic slasher film. I liked it the first time I saw it, and I think I appreciated it even more this time. Because of the subject matter (read: it plays up the sex side of the sex and violence equation), this one is easily written off as not a serious title among slasher canon. But while it doesn't rise quite to the cinematic level of Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm St, and the original Friday The 13th, it does take itself seriously (but not too seriously), and it's a very entertaining movie that I am not ashamed to mention in the same breath as those other esteemed classics.

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

SPM2 is really a terrible movie. But it has this crazy style to it, that you can't help cracking a grin, despite how bad it is. The Driller Killer returns in the tormented nightmares of one of the survivors of the first Slumber Party Massacre. For some reason, the killer is now a guitar-shredding rockabilly rebel freak complete with black leather fringe and greased sideburns. He wields a ridiculously spiky red guitar with a huge drill attached to its head, and quips rock n roll themed one liners while killing without conscience - yet plenty of style. No explanation whatsoever is given as to how he manages to cross the barrier from dream world to real world.

The movie doesn't take itself seriously - and neither should you - and is very conscious of its genre (the two police officers' names are a blatant homage to Freddie and Jason). The balance is (unfortunately) tipped back over to the violence side of things, though sexual innuendo remains a central theme. But this time around, the whole thirty-year-olds-playing-teenagers is actually starting to get embarrassing (and now we're supposed to believe Courtney was only twelve in the first movie!?). As I said, it's really a terrible movie, but the killer is so ridiculous you have to give him a nod. Anyway his stylized drill-guitar could be just the perfect icon for this blog!

Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)

It's interesting watching these three movies, because it's like watching the evolution of the slasher flick through three "generations". The first one is the pioneer, plays things straight, and manages to feel fresh. The second one is self-aware, just for fun's sake, and doesn't take itself seriously. And then the third one swings back toward being a serious horror movie, but by this time, the premise is laid bare, and the formula has been worked through so many times that it begins to become tired and drawn out. SPM3 isn't as good as the first one, but it manages to be a much better film than the second one. It has its share of flaws, but the entire final sequence is pretty exciting, and genuinely horrifying. And the movie overall has enough sex and nudity to possibly balance out the violence (now I'm wondering how much of the perceived imbalance in most other films of this type is because of the ratings board censoring the sex and nudity more than the violence - it wouldn't surprise me).

I'm not convinced by the villain in this one, though. There are so many good, legitimate reasons to be antisocial and lash out against society and your peers, I fail to be impressed by the stereotypical fantasy depiction of the traumatized psychopath. Not to say that that angle is completely off the mark, but I feel like it could be played a whole lot more effectively with a little more care and realism. Alternatively, I suppose we're too often afraid to consider the possibility that a rational, intelligent man with a sane mind could calmly reach the conclusion that killing people is a good idea. (Talk about horror).

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ted Nugent (1975)

It's almost hard to believe that Ted Nugent was the driving force behind The Amboy Dukes, a psychedelic band whose claim to fame was the trippy 1968 hit Journey To The Center Of The Mind. But when he finally struck out on his own in 1975, the Motor City Madman dropped the acid and pioneered his own unique brand of rock n roll swagger.

Ted's self-titled debut kicks off with Stranglehold, which I hesitate to call his all-time best track - only because doing so would imply that it's nothing but downhill from there, doing the rest of his catalog a disservice. The entire album is consistent, full of high energy rockers; I'd name all the good ones, except that I'd be liable to end up rattling off the entire tracklist. But I will mention Stormtroopin', only because I think it's a really infectious and energetic song, that also works well as a live opener.

"Stormtrooper's comin' - get ready!"

And speaking of live, the bonus tracks included on my copy of the album show what a force of nature Ted must have been in concert back in the seventies - and perhaps even still to this day. He just goes mad on Motor City Madhouse, and it makes for a real exciting performance.

On a related note, I like Ted as a vocalist, and I think his vocal attack is consistent with his violent approach to playing guitar. However, I like his collaboration with Derek St. Holmes (a decidedly more traditional rock singer), on Ted's first few albums. I think the contrast between them is dynamic, and it's nice to have both - some of Ted's energy here and there, with Derek's sweeter sounds filling in between.

And there's no question in my mind why the outtake Magic Party was originally left off the album. A fun little number perhaps, but it doesn't hold up to the album's consistent high-energy guitar-driven hard rock attack - with the one exception of You Make Me Feel Right At Home, which is a quirky tune that, ironically, doesn't quite feel at home (it would hold better company with the outtake).

But Ted Nugent is definitely a great rock album, and a deserving classic.

Howard The Duck (1986)

A renegade laser fired from an astrophysics lab on Earth accidentally pulls in an unwilling extraterrestrial traveler from a parallel world where men evolved not from apes but from ducks. He befriends the singer of an all-girl rock band called Cherry Bomb (no fooling), and then fights to save the universe when instead of sending him home, the laser ends up bringing one of the dark overlords of the universe to Earth. Did I mention this was a live action film?

I remember this film from my childhood, but I probably hadn't watched it in at least fifteen years, before tonight. I'm surprised it's only rated PG. I'd think it would be at least PG-13 for "thematic content", and sexually suggestive material. God, how protective we've become. The eighties fashion is strong in this movie - and wow, if I didn't know any better, I'd think Earth in the eighties was a different planet. Lea Thompson (who played mom in Back to the Future) looks great as the rock singer, though. She even gets a surprisingly sexy scene in her underwear, half-jokingly trying to seduce Howard (yes, the duck).

Seems there's a lot of talk about this being one of the worst movies ever made but it's mostly hype. You know how people like to joke about those things. It's an absurd premise, absolutely. But it's not a bad movie, it's just an absurd movie. If you go into it expecting a talking space duck's adventures in Cleveland trying to save the universe from an evil monster, then you're bound to enjoy it for what it is.

And for what is more or less a comedy, I really enjoyed the dark overlord twist. The sushi bar scene, when the transforming scientist goes ape with his newfound superpowers, is exciting, and even the cheesy fx are effective. And when the overlord reveals his true form - it's incredibly terrifying. It's not as sleek and stylish as the Alien Queen, or as Lovecraftian as The Thing (in John Carpenter's adaptation), but the fact that I'm even making those comparisons is significant. Everybody loves CGI these days, but I still think the old-fashioned ways are more entertaining. This creature is a whole lot scarier than, say, the Cloverfield monster, for example. I'm tempted to leave you in suspense, but the fact that this movie is already twenty-five years old, and that you're probably not going to go watch it anyway, if you haven't already, means that it's probably safe to just show you the monster here.

Truly, the stuff nightmares are made of.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Earthless - Live At Roadburn (2008)

Earthless is unique, in my listening experience. What they play is solid rock n roll, but with something of a jazz philosophy - long instrumental passages that weave in and out and generally just keep on chugging along forever. I've heard that they're much better live, and I'm sure they must be seen in person to get the full effect - their format seems made for it. Live At Roadburn is 90 minutes of nonstop rock energy, split across two discs. There aren't even any breaks between songs; I have no idea where one begins and another ends (except between the discs). Although their songs are long to begin with - only four titles are given on the packaging. It's surprising that even after 90 minutes, the music doesn't begin to feel repetitive. It must be a real workout for the performers - a traditional bare bones power trio. This band is essentially the modern equivalent of what Cream was doing back in the 60s with their extended instrumental jams. Give them a listen sometime, I recommend it!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Godspeed You Black Emperor! - f# a# oo (1998)

f# a# oo opens with a quiet, pulsating drone. An emotionless but grim voice that conjures up the image of a Native American begins to describe, perhaps with sympathetic irony, the collapse of modern society.

the car is on fire and there's no driver at the wheel
and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
and a dark wind blows

the government is corrupt
and we're on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn

we're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
and the machine is bleeding to death

the sun has fallen down
and the billboards are all leering
and the flags are all dead
at the top of their poles

it went like this:

And then Godspeed You Black Emperor! proceeds to depict, sonically, the dissonant harmonies of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Long, sorrowful passages erupt into panicked fear-driven crescendos that die away amidst field recordings seemingly salvaged from a shattered world. From time to time there are even brief moments of joy and whimsy, held in check by the widespread devastation of the surrounding sonic landscape, but all the more meaningful by contrast.

East Hastings is my favorite track - particularly the movement titled The Sad Mafioso contained within. It has the controversial distinction of being the one song used for commercial - though tasteful - placement in the post-apocalyptic zombie film 28 Days Later. However, there is no better song for that scene, and were it not used in that film, I would never have discovered this band, which I rate as one of my favorites (and the epitome of post-rock).

But Godspeed You Black Emperor! is not about songs; they are a sonic experience, their ethos and atmosphere is contained in every movement they play. I read that f# a# oo was titled after the keys of side a and side b of the original vinyl, as well as the final piece which was a closed loop, thus rendering its play time effectively infinite. According to the wiki, the movements are shuffled a bit on the CD release, but in addition to Dead Flag Blues and East Hastings (each nearly twenty minutes long), there is a thirty minute piece titled Providence to round out this bleak, uncertain, yet ultimately beautiful aural experience.

I don't suppose post-rock is a genre that would be appreciated by just anyone, but for those who do, this is as good as it gets. And it is good.

Also highly recommended is everything else Godspeed You Black Emperor! has ever recorded. ;-)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Deep Purple - In Rock (1970)

Deep Purple In Rock is the band's first album with the Mk II lineup, which, two albums later, produced Machine Head, the album that boasts the immortal Smoke on the Water. That's the first Deep Purple album I ever got into, and it's a really solid album from start to finish. In Rock doesn't have the radio hits to rival Machine Head, but it's another really good, solid album from start to finish, and certainly blows Fireball (which followed In Rock and preceded Machine Head) out of the water.

In Rock kicks off with a classic Deep Purple rocker - Speed King - but the extended intro which never gets played on radio enhances the impact of the song, and emphasizes the power of the entire album to come. Child In Time has always been one of my favorite Deep Purple songs, both epic and atmospheric, with a nice slow build to a crashing crescendo. Flight of the Rat, reaching a jamming near-eight minutes, is great fun. The organ in Living Wreck is downright fierce. And the album closes with Hard Lovin' Man, a kickass track that is becoming one of my new favorites. Plus, all the tracks in between maintain the mood and power of the album. This is definitely one of Deep Purple's best albums, and a great showcase for hard rock.