Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Warning! This review contains spoilers from the first two books of The Hunger Games trilogy. For a spoiler-free introduction to the trilogy, see my review of The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games continues in book two of the trilogy. After the excitement of the first book, I was curious (though not doubtful) to see if the second book could successfully continue the momentum of the story. It starts off relatively slow (with a few punctuated moments of excitement), even as the first book did, but picks up to at least as exciting a crescendo as the first book, if not more so.

In the beginning I was wondering what this book would cover, since in the first, we had already been treated to an occasion of the Hunger Games. That's when the Victory Tour came in, and I was thinking, oh, hey, this'll be a great opportunity to introduce each of the districts! But the author didn't quite have that in mind, and instead, moved quickly through the Victory Tour and on to even more exciting events that follow it.

Nevertheless, the scene where Katniss speaks to District 11 was one of the most touching in the book, and the following public execution of "the whistler" was one of my favorite scenes, as it so brutally - and for me unexpectedly - brought home the point that hey, the Capitol is ruthless and dangerous, remember? In the first book, there was almost a sense of distance between the Capitol's residents (some of which, like Cinna and his crew, were actually likable) and the brutality they sponsored (i.e., the Hunger Games themselves), that you almost couldn't reconcile the two, and you had to ask the question, if these people are generally decent, how can they possibly support the Hunger Games? It didn't quite add up.

Here, in Catching Fire, you get to see more of the bureaucracy, particularly in President Snow himself, who personally embodies the calculated brutality of the games, and he at least offers some explanation for the Capitol's support of the games, in that the subjugation of the districts is required for the entire nation to continue running smoothly. However, of course, you have to be skeptical of the tyrant's word, and consider that he probably just relishes his power - forcing the poor districts to labor for the convenience of the rich Capitol - as well he probably has a sadistic streak that he enjoys being able to get away with exerting. But then, of course, you come to the conclusion that the majority of the Capitol residents are probably not so brutal or politically minded, and have probably been duped by censorship and propaganda, and bought off with the comforts that the twelve district's labor laboriously produces.

Which brings us to the interviews for the Quarter Quell. But before that, I'll admit that I was shocked when it became clear that Katniss would go back into the arena. When the topic of the Quell came up, I thought, oh, hey, there's an idea, there'll be another Hunger Games in this book! And since it's this "Quarter Quell" thing, it'll be even more bombastic than the last one! But I still didn't think Katniss would return. I figured she'd probably mentor, and the President would probably do something specific to torture her, like force Prim into the arena this time. But, as it becomes clear by the end of the book, Snow's overconfidence in his own power, leading to the decision to put previous Games' victors back in the arena, was a huge mistake.

The interviews before the Games have always managed to be surprisingly climactic, and while the last games' interviews were spot on, these ones for the Quell were unbelievable. Totally brilliant, the way they managed to turn the Games around, and play off their (especially Katniss & Peeta) popularity to practically turn the Capitol's residents itself against the Capitol. So totally inspiring. And even though they still had to go back in the arena (quite exciting once again, and with a very different flavor than the last Games), in the end their solidarity paid off.

It's funny, but as I was getting towards the end of the book, and the Games relentlessly continued on, I started thinking to myself, there's only so many pages left, there's no way they can wrap up the Games that fast, unless something drastic is going to happen. And then, as the other tributes failed to die off quickly enough, I started worrying that maybe Katniss was actually going to die in these Games, and that would be the abrupt ending of the book. A horrifying thought, and though that isn't what happened, the ending to the Games was indeed abrupt, but very exciting.

And now the shit has really hit the fan. The rebellion is on for sure. I love the symbolism of the mockingjay, even as Katniss has spent so much time blissfully ignorant of its meaning, and the significance of her part in the whole 'game' (the rebels' game). And the idea that the mysterious District 13, the alleged secret underground base for the rebels, used to deal in nuclear development is too exciting to write off as the hopeful delusion of the desperate. I'm confident that the final book in the trilogy will offer an exciting and fitting conclusion to this story, but it remains (to me) to be seen who will survive and how the world will fare, for better or worse, when the dust clears.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

It only took me over a decade to jump onto the Harry Potter fandom bandwagon, and only just in time to catch up with the series before its triumphant finish (that is, the film series' triumphant finish). Then again, with all of its momentum (seven titles in the series, at least four of the books over 600 pages in length), "jumping into" Harry Potter in the middle of its reign over popular culture was a commitment requiring considerable (albeit rewarding) effort. Well, now another popular book series is being adapted to the silver screen (premiering in March!), and with just three modestly sized titles, it's much less daunting. So I'm getting in while it's fresh, though largely at the behest of my brother who rates it as one of the best series of books he's ever read, up there with Harry Potter.

Naturally, you're gonna have some expectations with hype like that, and since I respect my brother's taste (and recommendations), I had no fear of being disappointed. But opening up The Hunger Games, the first book in the series, I couldn't help issuing a silent challenge to the book, akin to whispering into its leafy pages, "show me what you've got!" And I still wasn't disappointed. There's very little to criticize about The Hunger Games. It's well written. It's a very engaging story, with characters you can relate to, and a tempered love affair that feels - in spite of its context - far more real than the typical romantic fiction of death-do-us-part passion. It's got lots of action, but none of it is mindless. In fact, the story is driven by an intellectual backbone of socio-political commentary, but in a matter-of-fact way that is not the least bit pedantic. It doesn't drill its morality into you, it merely presents an immoral world and allows you to position yourself by your reaction to the effects it has on its very human inhabitants. There's plenty of pathos here - more than one section had me genuinely tearing up. And the length and pacing is comfortable; the book spends enough time on personal and cultural details to bring you into its world, but is constantly moving towards the next great scene or revelation, which is always (to an impressive extent) impeccably engineered.

In sum, it's a whole lot of fun to read, and it doesn't require a huge time commitment. As such, I would heartily recommend it to just about anyone. Unless, I suppose, you're the type of person who would cringe at the very mention of a fictional society that would enthusiastically (and sadistically) rally around a sporting event that pits children (technically, adolescents) against each other in a brutal fight to the death while simultaneously braving the elements of a deadly wilderness arena. It's Survivor meets Battle Royale, where the futuristic dystopia recalls echoes of the gladiators of the Roman Empire. The Hunger Games drops you into an unbalanced society where the lower class inhabitants of twelve outlying Districts scattered across what was once North America are so oppressed that, while struggling daily for survival, they can do naught but sit by and watch as the wealthy, technologically-advanced Capitol remorselessly slaughters their children for entertainment. But rather than condoning these "hunger" games, the narrative follows the perspective of one of its unfortunate contestants, who is nevertheless uniquely poised to give the Capitol a show they won't soon forget. And as the story finally builds to its inevitable climax, I am left wanting to know: what will part two of the trilogy have in store - both for us, and for the unfortunate inhabitants of this frightening world?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Reading up on the movies I watch inevitably leads me to ever more movies to watch. And so it is that in the wake of watching The Company of Wolves, I was directed to Ginger Snaps, another werewolf movie that plays on the symbolism of sexual awakening - specifically, the onset of puberty. Unlike the former movie, this one is less an exploration of themes and more a standard narrative. Early on it plays up the similarities between lycanthropy and the changes initiated by menarche, and blurs the appetite for flesh with sexual desire (setting up at least one really good "infection" joke), but instead of maintaining the symbolism, it veers more towards traditional horror fare later on.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. When the movie started, my immediate impression was that it feels like a cheap modern movie (in contrast to the classic and cinematic feel of The Company of Wolves, which is from the '80s), but it turned out, to my delight, to be actually highly watchable. Much of that is probably due to the dual leads, two teenage sisters, who, as gothic outcasts, are eminently likable (and ironically, much more attractive than the "popular" girls they are bullied by). One of their first orders of business in the film is the presentation of their school project, consisting of photographs of elaborately staged suicides by the both of them, as their response to the theme of "Life in Bailey Downs" (which is the name of the neighborhood they inhabit). Seriously, these girls raise suicide to the level of high art, and the teacher's moral indignation is especially egregious because any true artist with integrity would see - not just the talent of the girls' work - but the genius of their artistic vision.

Anyway, there's a mysterious beast loose in Bailey Downs, that's been knocking off the neighborhood's dogs in gruesome fashion. We never find out where this beast came from, or why it's stalking Bailey Downs, but one of our girls, named Ginger, gets bitten (in)conveniently on the night she gets her first (belated, at the age of 16) period. As it goes, gushing blood, strange desires, hair in unusual places, and monthly frenzies are par for the course for any lycanthrope - or adolescent girl. The rest of the movie deals largely with Ginger's gradual transformation into a confident and sexy young woman, albeit with an unusually violent temperament, and her more sensible sister Brigitte's difficult attempts to stick with her, while often having to clean up after her sister's impulsive messes. The movie grows to a rather tense - if a little drawn out - climax, leading to a sad and heartfelt ending. Ginger Snaps doesn't inspire quite like The Company of Wolves did, but it is entertaining nonetheless, and worth watching for fun.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Company of Wolves (1984)

The Company of Wolves is my new favorite werewolf movie. Being based on The Little Red Riding Hood, it's more of an allegorical fantasy than a horror movie - which a lot of other werewolf movies are - yet it still manages to be genuinely terrifying. It actually succeeds at conjuring an atmosphere where wolves stalking the woods outside of a village are actually scary again. The cinematography is fantastically dreamlike, which becomes quickly apparent in an impressive nightmare sequence near the beginning of the film.

The story-within-a-story (within a story) structure of the narrative places an emphasis on the themes presented - the symbolism of the wolf as sexual desire, and the anxieties of a young girl entering puberty - rather than the whats and the whys of the characters' lives, which is an element that has attracted criticism from some viewers, but earns my enthusiastic support. Angela Lansbury stars as the old-fashioned grandmother, intent on warning her granddaughter about the wolfish desires hiding within every man. Sarah Patterson (who is remarkably actually 12 in this role) plays the pretty young girl who eventually dons the red hooded cape, with a confidence and curiosity that belies a strength and uncertain knowledge that Granny's outdated perspective on gender relations can't comprehend.

"If there's a beast in men, it meets its match in women too."

In fact, this seems to be one of the themes of this treatment of an ages old tale, which is rife with potential sources of symbolism. The morality is troubled at best, as even though the wolves (those that are hairy on the outside, as well as those that are hairy on the inside) are characterized as a threat, they are at times sympathetic, and almost human. This could perhaps be a statement on the ambiguity of feeling that accompanies one's sexual awakening - that one is taught to fear their animal desires, yet maturity necessitates taking ownership of them, and realizing that one's anxieties often exaggerate the perceived traumas of reality. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is an inspiringly deep wellspring of creative thought, and while no adaptation can comprehensively explore every facet of its interpretation, The Company of Wolves crafts a beautiful, haunting, and thoughtful meditation on some of its central themes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Black Country Communion - Live Over Europe (2011)

I'm a fan of Black Country Communion, and I've been following Joe Bonamassa's career for the better part of the last decade, so you'd expect me to get a kick out of this band's first concert DVD. Even so, I was actually surprised by how much I dug it - it's just that good! This is a fantastic band, and they're really tight, so I wasn't sure they could really improve on their formula on stage. They don't really need to, but watching these guys at work - and it's very clear that they enjoy playing in this band - totally rubs off on you.

I can't believe how much Glenn Hughes drives his voice, it's a wonder he's not hoarse after three songs. Clearly, he's a consummate professional. And being the elder statesman of the group, having played in Deep Purple back in the '70s, he takes control as the frontpiece for the band. Meanwhile, beside him, Joe wails on that guitar. For once the focus isn't entirely on him (as it is in his solo career), and his virtuosity is just one piece of the overall musical experience, yet he's my main draw to the band. Joe Bonamassa is a real role model, not just because he's the greatest guitar player alive today, but because he's also the hardest working guitar player alive today. Filling out the group are the son of the legend, Jason Bonham on drums, and the understated keyboard stylings of Derek Sherinian (known for his work in the band Dream Theater).

I hate to compare BCC to Led Zeppelin because really, they're two very different bands, and any comparison of a "revival" group to one of the legends is bound to come off as insincere hyperbole. But even aside from the fact that Zeppelin's drummer's son is in Black Country Communion, you have to note that there are some similarities. They've got two hard rocking albums under their belt in less than a year, due in no small part to the spontaneous charisma they have together as musicians. But Kevin Shirley deserves mention, too, as the band's producer, and the man who helped put the project together, like directing a river towards the sea. His vision was to create a band that produces the kind of music that so many people still love to listen to, but isn't really being made today - that is to say, contemporary classic rock that is not so much a nostalgia trip (cue endless dinosaur tours) as fresh insight from the same perspective that drove the musicians of ages past. As Glenn Hughes likes to say, it's not about the past or the future, but the present.

Live Over Europe is culled from a handful of shows across Europe, which gives the performances some visual variety that is nice and refreshing from a live DVD. The band plows through many great songs from their not huge but just big enough repertoire, with very little need to borrow songs from other sources. Highlights for me include a balls to the wall version of Beggarman (which is a kickass song to begin with), some inspired soloing on Song of Yesterday, one of the band's songs that sounds most similar to Joe's solo work, and the heartfelt Cold, which Glenn introduces as a song about the friends we've lost that we never had a chance to say goodbye to. These songs are all very tight, but room is made for some inspired jamming here and there.

In a couple places I heard some familiar riffs - like Rock and Roll, and one of the songs opens with a drumbeat that channels When The Levee Breaks, and Derek leads one song into a coda that is an unmistakable homage to The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again. But these are brief and exciting moments that only emphasize how strong the band's original material is, that they spend very little time deviating from the original and nonderivative music that comes naturally out of the four of them playing together. Even when Joe brings in The Ballad of John Henry from his solo catalog, he makes it sound unique, with less recycling than ever (not that I hate recycling; Joe is, after all, as accomplished a cover artist as he is a songwriter). And though the concert ends with a rousing encore of Burn (written during Glenn's days in Deep Purple) that totally got me hopping in my seat, the credits leave you off with another song from the band almost as if to remind you that hey, this is Black Country Communion you're listening to, and nobody else.

And it all works because the music is just that good. And seeing how much the band loves playing it, and how honest and straightforward the BCC project is, you can't help getting even more enthusiastic about it. I don't know what's in the cards for this band's future, but I am looking forward to hearing what they do next. And maybe if I'm lucky, I might get a chance to see them live, if they do an extensive tour of the States some time in the future. I'll tell you what, though, these guys are seasoned pros (Kevin Shirley most definitely included). So unlike that last great new rock band that I got excited about, that was chewed up and spit out by the music biz, I know these guys know what they're doing, and whatever they do, it'll be exactly the right thing for them - and that's the best thing for us, the fans, too.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Gary Moore - Blues For Greeny (1995)

Gary Moore, who tragically passed away only just this past year, was a phenomenal blues rock guitarist who had the unique flexibility to be able to wrench both soulful blues leads as well as insane metal shredding from his guitar. He's the type of talented musician who had that curious tendency to fly under the radar, a big fan and performer of the type of blues-based rock that was popular in the '60s and '70s but whose own most notable material is weighted towards releases in the '80s and '90s. Perhaps his most well-known hit was the [excellent] song Still Got The Blues, released in 1990 (on the album of the same name), but he also had a history playing with Thin Lizzy off and on in the '70s, recording the album Black Rose with them in 1979.

But Gary Moore's history goes back even further than that, most notably in my mind, to the days during the '60s when John Mayall's Bluesbreakers recruited Peter Green to replace Eric Clapton on lead guitar - and Gary Moore was in the audience when the Bluesbreakers played in Moore's home country of Ireland. Moore became not just an avid fan of Peter Green, but they developed a working relationship over the years, with Green acting as a sort of mentor and friend to Gary, ultimately leading to Green's decision to sell his coveted Les Paul (the one he performed and recorded with in Fleetwood Mac) to Gary Moore after Peter had reconsidered his dedication to the business of performing as a professional musician.

Then, in 1995, Gary Moore decided to record a tribute to Peter Green - a full album of covers of Green's songs from his days as a Bluesbreaker, and in the band that he had formed, Fleetwood Mac. As a huge Peter Green fan, myself, this is an exciting album, not just because it features Green's music, but because it's performed by a very talented musician that I also admire, and, in an almost mystical or poetically just manner, the music is performed on Peter Green's own old guitar. And the result is amazing.

Some people say that the point of a cover isn't to duplicate what the previous artist has already accomplished, and there is merit to this view. But Moore's album Blues For Greeny isn't so much about the influence and inspiration that Peter Green's music had on him - that's demonstrated in much of Gary Moore's other recordings. This album is a tribute to who Peter Green was, and the beauty of his talent as a songwriter and a performer. And because of this, it is very faithful to Green's original recordings. There have been moments when I've had this album on, and I've forgotten that I'm listening to Gary Moore and not Peter Green, and that's really the highest compliment I could give it (and reminds me of the times when I've been listening to Peter Green, and momentarily forgotten that it wasn't B.B. King I was listening to).

It is in Moore's voice where you can most easily notice the difference between the artists, but Moore's guitar work perfectly evokes Green - and while it would be foolish to discount Moore's own talent and dedication to the musician (and his music), it must be said that his use of Green's own guitar (which possesses a unique tone that is said to have been the result of a flipped pickup) surely facilitates the imitation. However, Gary Moore inherited Peter Green's guitar for good reason, both because of his talent and his connection to the man. This is, then, a very fitting and endearing tribute to the legacy of Peter Green, as well as an impressive demonstration of Gary Moore's own abilities as, even though the music is not original, it is accomplished and warrants listening to even independent of the source material.

And speaking of that material, Gary Moore does an excellent job of selecting songs for his tribute, choosing not just from Green's more notable repertoire with Fleetwood Mac, but also from his influential (though short-lived) days as a Bluesbreaker. This includes, for example, The Supernatural - a sublime instrumental that is well-suited to Gary's penchant for holding out long, sustained notes, which makes one wonder if this is not the sort of song that inspired him to develop that talent in the first place. But from the Fleetwood Mac days, you get excellent, and all but forgotten, tracks like Looking For Somebody and Merry Go Round from the Mac's first album, the slow blues Love That Burns, that is one of my favorite Peter Green songs, as well as the romantic Need Your Love So Bad, the slide guitar showcase Showbiz Blues from the album Then Play On, and the surprise selection Drifting (not an original album cut, from what I know), which is a fantastic guitar workout.

In spite of the great selection of tracks, Moore doesn't try to be comprehensive - as he couldn't possibly be on a single album. He leans more toward the bluesier tracks, and you won't find here every single great song Peter Green ever recorded (like the more rocking Rattlesnake Shake, the popular Black Magic Woman, or Green's tortured metal opus, The Green Manalishi, all absent from this disc), but that shows Moore's dedication to theme. Undoubtedly, there is plenty more to be impressed by that came from Peter Green, and this album is certainly not meant to be a definitive statement on the musician - for that, one would hope that this album encourages you to dig deeper, if you're not already familiar with the genius output of Peter Green. But as a tribute album, Blues For Greeny is a huge success, and an impressive accomplishment - rare, also, for one musician to so wholly dedicate a project to another musician, not unlike, perhaps, the way Peter Green has recently dedicated an album or two to blues legend Robert Johnson (and he's not the only one). I maintain that Peter Green is every bit as worthy as Robert Johnson to have tribute albums dedicated to him, and in that, it appears I have something in common with Gary Moore. Well done, Gary.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Michael Bloomfield with Nick Gravenites and friends - Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West (1969)

Michael Bloomfield was a uniquely gifted guitarist in the '60s and '70s, coming out of the Chicago blues revival scene, who nevertheless managed to avoid the spotlight, ensuring that he would not become a household name. He played behind Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival when the folk bard who was the voice of a generation grabbed an electric guitar and hailed (to mixed reactions) the revolution of electric rock music. Yet Bloomfield's name is all but forgotten, because he never played in a superstar rock band, or put out a lasting record, or cut a hit pop song. He was more authentic to the blues than perhaps many of his contemporaries who preferred a rougher, more rocking approach to blues revival, but his talent as a guitar virtuoso, particularly in the context of playing a soulful blues lead, is self-evident - the only problem is that few get the chance to hear him.

I discovered Michael Bloomfield years ago while I was a radio DJ delving into the hidden treasures of the classic rock era, and once wrote a comprehensive Amazon guide to help people discover this forgotten legend. I dedicated one of my radio shows to Bloomfield and the many musicians he played with, and in the process of researching for that show, I scoured Bloomfield's recorded history. It's a shame, but it's true that Bloomfield's genius as a guitar player was hard to capture on record, whatever the reason. But one of the greatest recorded live albums in Bloomfield's discography was this show at the Fillmore West, from 1969. I'm only getting my hands on it now because it's only recently been released on CD. At the time of researching for my radio show, I had to resort to tracking down a vinyl copy of the LP - and I remember sitting in an office in the library on campus that my friend was working at, using their device to record the LP to digital format, so I could play those tracks more easily on my radio show (and to listen to in the future).

A few of the live tracks recorded did not end up on the original Fillmore West LP, and those were released by request on Nick Gravenites (a singer and friend of Michael Bloomfield, who appears at this concert)'s album titled My Labors. The new CD release of Fillmore West attempts to combine those tracks with the original LP's tracklist, but unfortunately falls short of being comprehensive by excluding the (rather long) Wintry Country Side, instead adding (quite unnecessarily) a track from a different live album from a different tour (the song Mary Ann from The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper). It's a shame they couldn't fit that one last track on there, because now you'll still need to pick up My Labors if you want the whole concert (and Wintry Country Side, while slow to start, is a real burner). The only other complaint I have is that the false start leading into It Takes Time has been removed. I understand this can be viewed as a mistake, but I'm used to hearing that song with the false start (the band kicks into the song, stops after just a few notes, then starts right over from the beginning), and frankly I think it's a rather charming start to the song.

But that's a minor complaint, and even the exclusion of one track doesn't mar my enthusiasm for finally being able to have the remaining tracks (not released on My Labors) from this concert on CD, and on a CD that is, if not comprehensive, now the definitive version of one of the greatest recorded concerts representing Michael Bloomfield's elusive legacy.

Lance Lopez - Live (2007)

Lance Lopez is one of the artists I discovered via Grooveyard Records (which has an internet radio station now), an independent record company dedicated to, as they describe it, "outstanding total guitar music" (in other words, it's right up my alley). Lots of it is blues-based rock guitar virtuoso type of stuff in the tradition of Jimi Hendrix, which is just the way Lance Lopez could be described. The other artist I latched onto via a Grooveyard Records release was none other than Joe Bonamassa, who has been decidedly more prolific in the past decade than Lance Lopez. Nevertheless, I was blown away by the first Lance album I picked up - Wall of Soul - and it kept me coming back for the subsequent releases of Simplify Your Vision and Higher Ground. Now, as you've probably guessed, I've got my hands on his live album.

My first impression of Lance's live set is that his voice is a whole lot rougher than on his studio albums, and unfortunately not in a good way. However, his guitar work is absolutely top notch, and he scorches on this short collection of numbers divided nicely between the harder rockers (like Hendrix's Spanish Castle Magic and Howlin' Wolf's Killing Floor, or, more interestingly, the Lopez-penned There Is Love and the insane second half of Walk It) and, on the other hand, the searing blues (such as the remarkable Mr. Rattlesnake, and I'm Doin' Fine, which totally cooks). But the highlight of the disc would appear to be a twenty-three and a half minute long jam on the Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque slow blues Everytime I Turn Around - except that it's only a 12 minute long jam (though still very impressive), hiding a 12 minute hidden bonus track that turns out to be Hendrix's I Hear My Train A Comin' (always an exciting song to hear).

I have to wonder why they stuck these two tracks together. I'd suggest that they wanted to hide it in order to avoid royalty issues, except that there's already another Hendrix track listed on the disc. At any rate, they could have kept the bonus track hidden (as a pleasant surprise, I guess, or possibly to downplay the emphasis on Hendrix), and still given it its own separate (unlisted) track. As it is, sticking the two songs together is not only misleading (when I saw the track length, I was anticipating a 23 minute long jam), it also makes it more difficult to isolate those tracks for playing individually out of context of the rest of the album. But it's a minor quirk, and it doesn't change the quality of the material on this disc. His vocals might be lacking, but on guitar, Lance is at the top of his form. Fans will not be disappointed with this live album.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Rolling Stones - The Brussels Affair (Live, 1973)

It's hard to believe that it's taken this long for a live album from The Rolling Stones' prime era to be released officially by the band - if only in digital online format (this concert can be purchased exclusively from The Rolling Stones Archive website). Considering the band's penchant for releasing live albums to commemorate the tours in support of their later albums from the '80s onward, long after the band had reached their peak, you'd think they might be more enthusiastic about demonstrating the power and energy they had when they were still young and contemporary and their reputation as the world's greatest rock n roll band was still fresh and self-evident. Granted, we've had Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! from 1970, but that's like Led Zeppelin's Royal Albert Hall compared to Madison Square Garden. It's good, but this new concert from the Stones' 1973 tour benefits from more of their best material (including tracks from Exile on Main St and Goats Head Soup), while the band is still in their stride, and before Mick Taylor left to be replaced with Ronnie Wood. The tracklist from this concert is fantastic, and the quality of the performance is sublime. If I had to choose only one Stones concert to demonstrate the band's classic stage presence, I would not hesitate for a second in picking this one.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Explosions In The Sky - How Strange, Innocence (2000)

Explosions In The Sky is a post-rock band more or less in the vein of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Post-rock is my favorite contemporary genre, as it marries the instrumentation of orchestral music with the rough energy of rock n roll, often producing hauntingly beautiful soundscapes (with minimal, if any, lyrics) that could easily provide the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic landscape (as was the case when one of Godspeed's songs was begrudgingly allowed to be used in the soundtrack to zombie apocalypse movie 28 Days Later - the moment I became a post-rock fan).

The aptly titled How Strange, Innocence is effectively Explosions In The Sky's demo tape, recorded before their first large-scale album release, and later re-released due to fan demand. It is not quite as smooth or polished as the other Explosions album I own, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, recorded a few years later. However, the rough nature of these tracks seems to lend itself to emphasizing the dynamic range of these songs - in essence, the transition between quieter and louder sections of music that is my favorite staple of the post-rock formula. Sometimes these transitions are rapid, even unexpected, and sometimes they are very gradual (which is more often the case with Explosions' music). From this album, the song Time Stops best encapsulates the sort of build and grandeur that I associate with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which is in my opinion the best post-rock band.

Another thing about instrumental music that I find so fascinating is that the mood of the piece is determined more by the sound (and harmony) of the instruments, than the lyrics the vocalist is singing (as is often the case in pop music). A lot of times, the mood of a piece matches the lyrics - i.e., a song about heartbreak will be either angry or melancholy depending on the singer's mood. Other times, you have songs whose mood seems poorly matched to the lyrics (and sometimes, even, the lyrics don't make much sense and leave you guessing), which could either work in the song's favor, or to its detriment, depending on what sort of effect the artist is going for. But with instrumental music, it's all about creating moods and feelings without resorting to words. How do you make someone feel sad, or happy, or anxious, or calm, or frightened, without telling them that's how they should be feeling?

I think it's a fascinating question, one that I've struggled with myself as a musician, and something that a post-rock band has to be able to accomplish in order to be any good. On a related note, I love the freedom of coming up with curious song titles for instrumental tracks. Songs with names like Glittering Blackness and Remember Me As A Time Of Day (and countless excellent examples from other albums and other post-rock bands) inevitably and intentionally set the scene for an instrumental passage to play out in, and also give a short glimpse into the mind of the artists who created that passage, what they were thinking, and what they feel the passage means to them. It's very much like abstract impressionism. And I admire that open-endedness of interpretation, especially set against a title that, unlike "Love Song No. 9" or something of the sort, gets you thinking before the music even begins.

Jethro Tull - Aqualung (1971)

Aqualung is one of those quintessential classic rock albums, and it's actually surprising that it's taken me this long to own it. But Jethro Tull has always been the sort of band that's hard to pin down, and while I appreciate their frequently hard rocking edge, the inclusion of Ian Anderson's flute gives their music a poetic, almost folksy flavor. So Aqualung fell through the cracks in my music collection, and the longer I went without owning it, the stranger I felt about going back and picking it up. I recently changed my mind because I sat down to learn how to play the title track on guitar, and I figured it was a good time to finally get my hands on the album.

I remember borrowing the album from my dad's collection several years ago, and listening to it then, in its entirety. Of course the songs Aqualung (with a kick-ass riff and a truly epic guitar solo) and Locomotive Breath (which features a plodding rhythm and the meanest flute solo I've ever heard in a rock song), and to a lesser extent Cross-Eyed Mary, registered in my mind as they were songs I'd heard, and enjoyed, on rock radio. But my most novel discovery was the song Wind Up, which closes the album, and covers one of the main themes of the album - the distinction between God and religion, as it's been described - a theme I can absolutely relate to.

"I don't believe you, you have the whole damn thing all wrong:
He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays."

The band vehemently denies (almost too strongly) that Aqualung is a "concept album", but even if it was not intended as such, it certainly works well as one, after the fact. The second half of the album focuses on the religion topic, with several songs that attack the hypocrisy of organized religion, such as the vitriolic My God, and the haunting Wind Up. The first half of the album is a collection of songs which could easily be mistaken as a series of character sketches, that has probably done just as much to encourage the rumor that Aqualung is a concept album as the cohesion of theme on the second half. The album opens with the title track, which describes the titular character that is depicted on the cover - a "letching grey", a perverted and homeless old man, in dubious health. He even makes a cameo in the next song, Cross-Eyed Mary (who is a schoolgirl prostitute), in almost rock opera fashion.

So you see, confusing Aqualung for a concept album is an easy thing to do. However, learning that it's not intended to be one - or a rock opera either, for that matter - was actually a relief, because I was having a hard time tying together the themes and understanding what Aqualung, the character at the beginning of the album, had to do with the anti-religious sentiment that invades the second half of the album. My resulting impression is that, as far as quintessential classic rock albums go, Aqualung isn't on the level of Led Zeppelin IV or Dark Side of the Moon or what have you, but then, I wouldn't rate Jethro Tull on quite the same level as Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Still, they were a unique band with a hard-to-duplicate sound, that put out some good songs (not all of which have found radio popularity), many of which can be found on this album.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Soundtrack] (1975)

Only just a few months ago I finally introduced myself to the cult sensation that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I like to conceptualize it as a rock opera (perhaps because I like rock operas far more than I like musicals), but as a friend remarked to me, it's a much better experience watching the film (even without the audience participation) than just listening to the soundtrack. Still, the quality of the songs are pretty good for a musical, and I'm happy to have them on CD/mp3 for the occasional reminder of how much fun the Rocky Horror Show is, and to be able to refer to them in the future for various potential purposes. I'm disappointed, however, that the Sword of Damocles song that Rocky sings as soon as he comes...to life isn't included on the soundtrack - I kind of liked that song. Maybe I should have got the more recent version of the soundtrack, although judging from the reviews, despite how comprehensive it's supposed to be, it still suffers from a few small but frustrating flaws.

Journey - Look Into The Future (1976)

If my interest in Fleetwood Mac is any indication, I seem to have a thing for bands that were - musically - very interesting before they hit the pop charts with new members and a more user-friendly format. Journey became an absolute sensation in the '80s after hiring the crooning balladeer Steve Perry (and I admit, he's got a very soothing, romantic voice), but they were formed in the '70s from members of Santana (back when it was a jam band, before Carlos Santana began pimping his talents out to the pop singers of the day). Guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Rolie from Santana teamed up with drummer Aynsley Dunbar, and gave birth to Journey, which began as an instrument-driven progressive rock band that released three albums before selling out (for better or worse, depending on your opinion) with the addition of Steve Perry to the band.

One thing that strikes me about early Journey, aside from the vastly different sound they had compared to their later pop ballad style, is how epic their music is. They don't piss around building up pleasant melodies, they just barrage you with power and accomplished instrumentation, and aren't afraid to go off on a jam that has little to do with anything related to commercial song structure or anything of the sort. If there's a drawback, it's that their songs aren't catchy in the sense that they have hooks that get you to remember them, and enable you to distinguish them from each other. But in my mind, that's a small cost for such consistently impressive musicianship across the disc, and there's lots of interest to be found hidden within some of these songs - including a portion during I'm Gonna Leave You that sounds eerily similar to an important riff that features in Kansas' Carry On Wayward Son (released in the same year, curiously). Fans of pop-era Journey may not like this, the band's second album, but if you dug the sound on their debut album, I'm certain you'll like Look Into The Future at least as much.

Fleetwood Mac - Kiln House (1970)

Kiln House is the first album Fleetwood Mac released after the departure of founding member Peter Green. Remaining were the other two core members, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (on drums and bass, respectively), as well as the two guitarists/vocalists that filled out the band: Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan.

The album doesn't have any major surprises; it's basically a collection of the sort of songs Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan were playing while Peter Green was in the band, including their "vaudeville" imitations of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the like. Spencer's highlight is the rocking track Hi Ho Silver (which recalls Honey Hush from their BBC Sessions), but it's Kirwan's melodic and soulful tracks that better echo Peter Green's more introspective songs from previous albums.

Tracks like Station Man and the instrumental Earl Gray, or Jewel Eyed Judy and the rocking Tell Me All The Things You Do, are the kind that may not make a greatest hits compilation for the band, but are intriguing deep album cuts that could fascinate an unsuspecting listener who is not familiar with the complicated history of Fleetwood Mac. It seems clear to me that the departure of a driving force like Peter Green opened the door for a more eclectic (and unfocused) sound for the band, and paved the path for an evolution that would culminate with the introduction of a new driving force (in the form of the Buckingham/Nicks partnership) several albums later, that would bring the band fame with a more pop-friendly sound.

Also of note is that Christine Perfect, longtime friend of the band, provides some backing vocals on this album (uncredited), and would soon marry into the band officially as Christine McVie. She also drew the artwork on the album cover for Kiln House, which is a very beautiful fold-out illustration in bright colors, depicting a boy and a girl heading towards the titular Kiln House, in a scene that is cheerful on the surface, yet subtly creepy when you take a closer look. (Why are they headed toward a "kiln house"? Will they, perhaps, meet a fate not unlike the kids who stumble upon a gingerbread house deep in the woods?)...

Rush - Feedback [EP] (2004)

While not having the status of rock bands like Led Zeppelin and progressive acts such as Pink Floyd, Rush has a strong and committed following. My own feelings towards Rush have been pretty lukewarm, so in lieu of singing their praises, I choose to respectfully defer you to other, much bigger Rush fans. I've never been particularly impressed by the popular tracks that get played on the radio, and as much as I hate to judge a band by its singer, I've never warmed up to Geddy Lee (and that's purely a matter of taste, as I'm fond of other unconventional singers, like Neil Young, or Mick Jagger). What's more, I haven't found their less accessible and more progressive tracks to be all that exciting, so far (compared to, say, Yes' classic recordings).

However, Working Man is one of the best songs I've ever heard on the radio, and it's not surprising that it comes from the band's first album on which they've been said to sound more like Led Zeppelin. I got that album last year, and this year, I turned toward the band's [relatively] recent EP of cover songs. Feedback is something of a tribute to the songs that inspired Rush in their formative years. The song selection is excellent - two songs by the Yardbirds, two by the Buffalo Springfield (including Mr. Soul), and a few by The Who (with a nod to Blue Cheer) and Cream. And impressively, the songs sound really good in their cover versions. Not surpassing the originals, necessarily, but good enough to enjoy listening to in their own right. That gives me the impression that Rush is an exceedingly competent band - just that the style of music they usually play isn't entirely in tune with my palate.

Black Sabbath - Heaven And Hell (1980)

Heaven And Hell marks Black Sabbath (the band that invented heavy metal)'s debut in the '80s, with their new vocalist Ronnie James Dio filling the space that Ozzy Osbourne left when he went solo. It's a new Black Sabbath for a new decade, but apart from the voice, it's not all that different.

The music is still consistently good, though perhaps with less hard-hitting epic riffs and songs as in their earlier days (the title track being one obvious exception). Though it's possible that the songs are simply less memorable or catchy somehow, because if you listen to them, they are good.

I still maintain that Dio is one of my favorite metal vocalists - he's got a distinctive voice that seems well-suited to heavy music (even if that's coming from someone who prefers metal bands to employ singers rather than screamers) - but there's something about the Black Sabbath brand that's missing without Ozzy on vocals. Even so, this is good music, and I can't imagine a more competent and fitting replacement for Ozzy. If you're concerned about the quality of Heaven And Hell as a Black Sabbath album (released a decade after their debut and without their original singer), you need not fear, this album can sit proudly beside the best of the band's earlier releases.

Iron Maiden - Edward The Great (2002)

Before I ever listened to Iron Maiden, I had them contextualized as one of those quintessential metal groups from the '80s. Being more of a rock fan, with a much greater interest in music from the '70s (as well as the '60s), I didn't think they would necessarily be my cup of tea. I don't remember now what made me decide to start listening to them (several years ago), but when I did, I found I really liked their music, which, in my opinion, has more in common with AC/DC than Metallica.

Structurally, it has a metal feel, with lots of speed, a hard driving beat, and frequently horror-themed lyrics. But it's lacking the sort of raw heaviness that, in my mind, characterizes the distinction between hard rock and heavy metal. Plus, the lead vocalist (Bruce Dickinson) opts to sing rather than scream (or worse yet, growl) the lyrics, which many rougher metal bands are guilty of doing, which usually turns me off.

It's a wonder I haven't heard more of Iron Maiden on rock radio, considering how big they were, and how contemporary rock radio stations seem to be in bed with the '80s. Edward The Great is a satisfactory greatest hits compilation, which I chose among others largely because I liked its album cover, and I wanted a collection of songs that could fit on one disc - not necessarily comprehensive, but enough to sate my infrequent appetite for good quality '80s metal.