Saturday, August 27, 2016

Throwback Album of the Week: Black Sabbath - Sabotage

Although it was not their last album with Ozzy, Sabotage very much plays as the breaking point for original-lineup Sabbath.  Already the heaviest band on earth, struggles with drug addiction and legal issues with their record label created the perfect storm for their fifth album to reach unheard of levels of volatility, heaviness, and experimentation.  On Sabotage, overblown grandiosity coexists with outright aggression, and unpredictability reigns supreme.  I was about 14 when a borrowed copy from my dad’s vinyl collection became the first rock music to legitimately scare me.  I haven’t been able to get enough ever since. 

Lead song Hole in the Sky is one of the band’s most immediate rockers, and the churning, perpetual rhythm of Symptom of the Universe laid the foundation for the upcoming "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" and is often credited with initiating the thrash metal aesthetic.  These guys had always been scary, but it’s clear from the beginning of Sabotage that now they’re pissed off.  While their earlier material preferred to lurch about in dark atmospherics, Sabotage’s opening tracks are straight downhill; less menacing than they are pummeling and overbearing.  It starts getting weird with the aptly-named side-one closer Megalomania.  The track grinds its way into larger-than-life territory via Ozzy’s coked-out obsession with tracking his vocals several times over and drummer Bill Ward’s similar deal with “backwards cymbal” and other effects.  The band had never sounded more unhinged, yet it all seems to fit.  Megalomania does not surpass a snail’s pace until nearly four minutes in, instead alternating between sullen laments and depraved cries of agony- all seeming to come from unfathomable depths of murk.  By the time the song kicks into gear halfway through, you know you’re at the mercy of a madman.  The band clearly hits a stride though, delivering their familiar aesthetic with bursting immediacy and edge.

Side two opens with The Thrill of it All, which begins as a solid riff-based track but very quickly grows out of itself to the point of pomposity.  The song is okay, it just becomes too bouncy and light for the albums context, sounding much more like what Ozzy would go on to do with his solo career (a trap also succumbed to by later song Am I Going Insane).  However, it gives way to the gloriously devilish Supertzar; a grinding instrumental that immediately restores all of the evilness that Sabbath had built their legacy upon.  Tony Iommi unleashes one of his darkest guitar riffs, only to be dramatically harmonized by a catholic-esque choir.  On a promising album that threatened to blow itself out of proportion, Supertzar is brilliantly placed, taking the top off while simultaneously bringing the band back to its roots in a big way. 

The albums final epic The Writ opens with a droning bassline before giving way to a jarringly hostile verse section; which lyrically seems to depict the wrongdoing of the band’s record label at the time.  Whatever the case, The Writ ends Sabotage in remarkably fitting fashion.  The track plays as much too overblown for the band’s own good, while also devastatingly suffocating in its heaviness.  It should also be noted that during the song’s midsection I used to be absolutely sure that Ozzy was chanting “Matt…” which increased its impact tenfold...  I still choose to believe, though it apparently is “rat”

Due to circumstances in and out of their responsibility, Black Sabbath was clearly a band spiraling out of control in the mid-70s.  This clearly had an effect on the making of Sabotage.  Although the album certainly has its missteps, overall it uses the surrounding tension to forge a new approach which at several points thrusts the band to the pinnacle of their powers.  By virtue of their own personal undoings as well as unfortunate legal struggles, Black Sabbath solidified their status as heavy metal pioneers with 1975's Sabotage, laying the aggressive and suffocating foundation for thrash, progressive, and doom metal music yet to come.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

ALBUM REVIEW: Brian Fallon - Painkillers (2016)

Ten years ago The Gaslight Anthem burst onto the punk rock radar with their no-holds-barred anthems of urgency and desperation.  They played the songs for Kerouac’s mad ones, “mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”.  Five albums and one breakup later, frontman Brian Fallon reinterprets these themes through content nostalgia on his debut solo album Painkillers.  

Fallon’s style has always been of earnest authenticity, and Painkillers allows him to truly stretch his legs as a songwriter.  While upbeat and energetic, these are songs built around acoustic progressions and sparse arrangements which leave Fallon plenty of room to say everything he needs to.  There is a general sense of loss to the album, but no evident grief.  Instead Fallon seems to achieve an almost zen-like optimism, the kind of liberation that shines through when the weight of grieving is relieved.  This is especially cathartic on the barroom stomp-along Smoke (“you just became something like some smoke that I tried too hard to hold”) and mid-album standout Nobody Wins, on which he offers a toast to an old love in case he’s already seen her for the last time.  Painkillers is full of this type of warm, past-tense love song.  Fallon seems to be looking back with a smile at the things he spent a decade singing about aggressively pursuing with Gaslight, which now rest behind him in memory.  This is a man who’s chased enough ghosts to know that you can’t always ‘end up the lucky ones’, and sometimes it’s okay to blame it on the wind. 

It has always been easy to compare Brian Fallon to his fellow Jersey-boy influence Bruce Springsteen.  The likening holds true on lead single A Wonderful Life, with its driving rhythm, layered guitars and percussion, and an absolutely massive “woah-oh” laden chorus.  The remaining tracks however tend to leave the grandiosity behind in favor of more Tom Petty-esque down-to-earth confessionals and simple, breezy accompaniment.  Fallon has always displayed some folk leanings in his songwriting, and without Gaslight’s power his new batch of songs sways towards straight-up Americana.  Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter of personal preference, but there’s no doubting that Fallon is firmly in his own element.  He navigates the rustic, wide-open song structures with his heart on his sleeve; every lyric and twangy electric guitar lead carries weight and meaning.  The presence of familiar elements to his lyrical style (girls, radios, old cars, “bleeding” as a metaphor for passion and emotion) give him an auteur type quality.   

Overall, it’s hard not to feel like Painkillers is the album that Brian Fallon was always destined to make.  After a decade of singing for the aforementioned mad ones, desire has turned to abandonment yet Fallon’s idyllic version of America and rock and roll underdog dreams persist.  Painkillers is an album about coming to peace with the past, and appreciating it for the empowering freedom of remaining true to oneself.  Fallon understands the pain that sometimes comes with having an insatiable lust for life, and his optimistic spirit shines bright for anyone who has found themselves having to go it alone.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Totally Raddest Pop-Punk Albums Ever, Dude [part one]

Within any medium, genre is a dangerous topic.  It exists for a reason and is supposed to just be; its rules and borders clearly stated for our convenience.  While classification may work well in your high school science room, with the meticulously arranged pinned up butterfly corpses, when it comes to art we sure are good at fucking with it.  In the music world talking about genre is akin to performing open heart surgery while wearing oven mitts.  It is an increasingly live-wire topic, because music is more wide-open than it has ever been, and people are not only category driven by nature, but we’re VERY defensive when it comes to our tastes.  In attempt to satisfy both our chaotic nature and our organizational desires we’ve developed an intricate web of genres and sub-genres.  Because that's what we do.
      Among the most divisive sub-genres to emerge form this obsession is “pop-punk”.  Despite its inherent contradiction certain bands took this niche to heart, flooding the airwaves with boy bands wearing tattoos and piercings.  In their wake it is easy to forget that from the time Johnny Ramone first picked up a guitar, lighthearted energy and just plain FUN has been a key element at the very core of punk rock.  Forget about the Hot Topic-manufacured pretty boys on on MTV and the cover of AP, and while you’re at it forget about the diamond studded macho toughguy try-hards as well.  I’m talking about something real, something that when it comes down to it is the heart of punk.  I’m talking about bands that make music that's as energetic and light as it is angsty and aggressive, without any posturing or pretense.  These bands make loud, fast, punk music without ever losing track of the fun of it.  To me, that’s what pop-punk means; and why it will always remain relevant. 

The Ramones were the first punk rock band.  What often goes unacknowledged however is that when the buzzsaw guitars and "Hey-Ho, Let's Go"s broke the doors open for the American punk movement; Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy also became the creators of POP-punk music.  What the Ramones did was take everything that was great about pre-Beatles rock n roll, condensed it into distorted guitars, bass, and drums, and delivered it with lightning speed and youthful recklessness.  What seems to get lost in their legacy is the undeniable melodicism that they maintained through all of the speed and aggressiveness.  Sure they were fast, hard, and a bit vulgar, but the Ramones weapon of choice was always the two-and-a-half minute pop song.  For them it was often downright silly, and was never NOT fun.  

Over the course of 18 months after bursting onto the scene in 1976, The Ramones released two more albums that further crystalized the pop-punk sound with such immortal tracks as Pinhead, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Cretin Hop, Rockaway Beach, and Teenage Lobotomy.  Especially on their third outing, 1977s Rocket to Russia, the heart of the band was early Beach Boys style pop played on distorted guitars at warp speed; quite literally in the case of their lightning fast cover of Do You Wanna Dance.

It is nearly impossible to talk about any post-70s music without bringing up The Ramones, and this topic places them firmly on the throne.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that nobody has done pop-punk better since.  That said, its nearly universal appeal and “anyone can do it” aesthetic has certainly brought us a handful of gems.  

Green Day - Dookie (1994)

I don't want to talk about how this album simultaneously changed the faces of both punk music and pop music as we know them.  That is a discussion for another time.  The fact of the matter is that Dookie is one of the very few straight-up, all-things-considered masterpieces of BOTH pop and punk music.  This album is a rapid-fire collection of 14 songs that are so immediately catchy and accessible, yet at the same time so aggressive and energetic that it leaves you wondering what the hell you've just been hit by- and why you cannot get it out of your head.  This is the sound of a band that had honed its punk chops in basements and warehouses before finally making their headlong charge into the mainstream.  They weren’t timid in doing so, unleashing hostile onslaughts and quasi-ballads alongside the now hit singles.  While their ensuing success lead to their exile from the scene that raised them, Green Day made the important statement that even in the grungy early 90s, punk rock could still be a damn good time.  

Jawbreaker - 24 Hour Revenge Therapy  (1994)

Sometimes considered among the early forefathers of "emo" music, Jawbreaker is certainly a bit more serious than many bands in the pop-punk spectrum.  Songwriter Blake Schwarzenbach penned extremely thoughtful, literary lyrics, and was never afraid to address depressing subject matter head-on.  His droll ashy voice and mid-tempo style is a breath of fresh air in the genre (oddly enough, as merely listening to him makes you feel like you’d just smoked a pack of Marlboros).  Jawbreaker’s entire four-LP catalog is great, but 24 Hour Revenge Therapy represents the perfect middle ground between their abrasive early years and their melodramatic burnout.  As ground-zero for a number of now prevalent stylings, listening to this album is like going back to the pure and simple basics.  Perhaps Schwarzenbach himself best sums it up best with the opening lines of Boxcar; “I’m not a punk, and I’m telling everyone”.   

Blink 182 - Dude Ranch  (1997)

Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket are probably better albums overall, but nowhere in Blink's catalog is their relentless energy and humor on better display than on their final pre-breakthrough record.  With the exception of Dammit (which is probably their best ever song) there isn’t much in the way of singles here.  These songs are unrestrained and much less calculated than what would later make them superstars.  The same catchiness and accessibility is there, but never wrapped up in shiny pop packages- Dude Ranch is brash, in-your-face, and obnoxious from start to finish.  The driving power chords hardly let up for the albums entire 45-minute runtime; intertwined with Tom DeLong’s hyperactive pseudo-shredding and punctuated by he and Mark Hoppus’s razor witted tagteam vocals.  Travis Barker’s drumming virtuosity is missed, but Scott Raynor does a fine job and his comparatively amateurish style fits well with the album’s vibe. 

Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady  (1979)

In a certain sense, the way that the Buzzcocks stand up to The Clash and The Sex Pistols is a microcosm of how pop-punk bands in general stand next to their more 'hardcore' brethren.  While their late-70s English contemporaries launched a full-on assault on social norms and broken political systems, all The Buzzcocks wanted to know was why nobody would fall in love with them.  Unlike Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten, Pete Shelley never seemed set out to provoke change, he only demanded acceptance.  The urgency of his earnest and relatable songcraft would serve as a baseline for generations to come.  

Lillingtons - Death By Television  (1999)

Hailing from the vibrant punk rock community of Laramie, Wyoming (…), the Lillingtons play(ed) simple, fast, bouncy, and fun Ramones-style songs, with a brilliantly creative twist.  The lyrical subject matter of their masterpiece Death By Television is themed entirely on retro science fiction b-movies.  By undermining the usual seriousness of songwriting the Lillingtons bring us immediately to their side as they rock out to apemen on the moon, evil robots, and brain control.  Their whole approach plays as an enjoyable, rockin’ send-up to the melodramatic, tongue in cheek nature of pop-punk.  Musically this album is built on momentum, perpetuated by a well-oiled power chord machine and Bad Religion-esque deadpan vocals.  The two worlds collide to form an album that is as about as close to perfect as it gets. 

The Ergs! - Jersey's Best Prancers  (2006)

Since their inception in 2000, New Jersey’s The Ergs! have been omnipresent in the pop-punk scene; playing basement shows as regularly as they serve as the opening act on big-time tours while simultaneously releasing a constant stream of singles, EPs, splits, etc.  Even following their 2008 breakup, their immortality has prevailed.  Mikey Erg is possibly the most efficient songwriter on this list.  His matter-of-fact, almost nerdy vocal style is the perfect delivery system for his clever lyrics; always vaguely jokey and (possibly) satirical, yet never coming off as silly.  Stir consistently with the band’s ultra-distilled, Ramones/Buzzcocks-esque hook-laden approach, and you’ve got a winning formula.  

Screeching Weasel - Boogadaboogadaboogada  (1988)

As the obvious (and well-documented) main influence behind early Blink-182, Chicago’s own Screeching Weasel can rightly be considered the instigators of modern pop-punk’s irreverent sense of humor.  Ben Weasel and company not only employ standard subject material of girls and mental illness, but regularly go out of their way to apathetically hit on hot-button social and political issues.  All the while, of course, the rhythms bounce on and shimmering, upbeat guitar leads steal the show.  It’s all so rudimentary, but when it’s this hooky and enjoyable, you’d be the fool to care.  

Teenage Bottlerocket - Total  (2005)

Comprising the rest of that Wyoming scene… Teenage Bottlerocket shares Lillingtons guitarist Kody Templeman to craft another near perfect pop-punk record with Total.  While the subject matter is a bit more real life than their Laramie contemporaries; Total tends to focus on girls and relationships, shitty jobs, and the coolness of music; the energy and hooks are still here in spades.  The faux-crooning, stuttering vocal delivery is not only reminiscent of The Ramones, but at times nearly Elvis-like.  Despite its seemingly limited repertoire, Total plays through dynamically the way that an album should.  Best encapsulated by the start/stop rhythms of Crashing, this is a band that knows when to hold off and when to go full steam ahead.  Oh yeah, this album includes the absolute best ode to all pissed off food-industry workers of the world- Blood Bath at Burger King.

New Found Glory - Sticks and Stones  (2002)

Sticks and Stones was a perfect album for its time, hitting right at the pop-punk peak while simultaneously hinting just enough at the oncoming heavy breakdowns and obnoxiously angsty lyrics of an over-commercialized subgenre.  It was with this album that the kenetic musical energy that defines pop punk met the contrived whiny-voiced angst and pretty-boy posturing that the genre would become; but because the songcraft is so authentic, the momentum so perpetual, it all just seems to work.  

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