Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots (2011)

ATO Records ■ ATO 0093
Released February 15, 2011

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by David Barbe
Mastered by Greg Calbi


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Do Believe
  2. Go-Go Boots
  3. Dancin’ Ricky
  4. Cartoon Gold
  1. Ray’s Automatic Weapon
  2. Everybody Needs Love
  3. Assholes
  4. The Weakest Man
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Used to Be a Cop
  2. I Hear You Hummin’
  3. The Fireplace Poker
  1. Where’s Eddie
  2. The Thanksgiving Filter
  3. Pulaski
  4. Mercy Buckets

I came in to the Drive-By Truckers at a curious time: I was still working at Borders, and participated in the (extremely limited–about five stores) testing for vinyl sales. It was around 2008-2009, and the selection was largely limited, leaving me unsure of what actually led to titles appearing there. Certainly, it was a store in the Southeast (although a unique town within the state and region), and the Truckers do not suffer the absence of a following there. It did lead to my very mild introduction to Ryan Adams, which has served me well, though I didn’t actually do anything with it for years. I saw our copy of DBT’s 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The art by Wes Freed was intriguing, and the title, too–I was reluctant, as I was still overcoming a lot of my resistance to “twang” in music, and the band’s name was a dead giveaway for containing just that. At some point, I gave in and did pick up a CD copy of that same album, and found myself falling for it rapidly.

It wasn’t long before I was going to see the band and buy all their albums–indeed, in 2010 I saw them play two shows on two concurrent nights, which was quite an experience. But the curious time is something that involves knowing about the band’s history–initially responsible for a pair of interesting but often thought to be somewhat “slight” early albums (Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance), they really broke through and into their own with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed some of the issues that would in some way typify the band as both people and a musical entity–the “holy three” of frontman Patterson Hood’s childhood in Alabama: football, via Bear Bryant, race politics in George Wallace, and music in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some overlap, some confusion, some mixed signals and messages, all adding up to “the duality of the Southern Thing” as Hood wrote on that album. After its release, Jason Isbell joined the band and they released their most acclaimed pair of albums: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South. To this day, many clamour for Isbell (now solo and successful at it, as I will prove here later on) to rejoin, even if only in brief or for a tour, or what have you, but he left after A Blessing and a Curse in 2006–and that’s where 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came in.
I joined the DBT bandwagon after their heyday, completely unbeknownst to me.

The odd thing about it, though, is that it has given me a differing perspective on their career. I appreciate the post-Isbell period because I didn’t know there was that component “missing”–I’ve gone back since then (with my now complete Isbell solo set, of course) and understand what people mean, but I have no issues at all with the Hood/Cooley/Tucker set-up, though one wonders what will come from the now sans-Tucker version.

So, for the purposes of this particular album, the band is composed of: Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, John Neff (who once played for The Two Dollar Pistols), and Shonna Tucker. This is the same band that recorded 2010’s The Big To-Do, which should come as no surprise, considering the two were recorded simultaneously and separated into their respective albums as the first was developed. It comes off something like the Dave Gregory-exit-inducing last two albums from XTC–Apple Venus and Wasp Star–in that one album is composed of the rockers and one of the more relaxed songs, though they released theirs in the opposite order. Go-Go Boots is the lighter of the two albums, containing nothing along the lines of “This Fuckin’ Job” and its uneasy but intensely crunchy, rocking mixture of frustrated anger and despair or “Birthday Boy” and its fumble of shame and stripper’s attempts to comfort set to a solid roar of distortion, though the overall content does have some similarities.

It was only appropriate that I chose the time I did to revisit the record–the time of day, I mean, not the time of year, or time in my life. It’s an album that glows warmly (musically, anyway) like a setting sun. That could be my own preferences inserting themselves of course–though I also like a good rainy album, or a night-time one. Still, the acoustic orientations and the laidback tones and tempos lend themselves to an association with that time of day that many have made in the past on the same grounds, even if not necessarily with this very album.

I think it may be how the stage is set with “I Do Believe”, a song Patterson Hood wrote about his grandmother, starting the album with the a cappella refrain of the song’s title, “I do believe, I do believe, I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair, reflecting in your eyes…” with only a few light hits at the hi-hat from Brad Morgan to hint at the coming sounds. A sweet roll of bass and friendly guitars follows in on Morgan’s expanded beat and a hint of shaker percussion. It should be out of place here–songs follow about murder, heartbreak, self-recrimination, finding the place to hide from family…but it isn’t. It’s an interesting choice, because often the ray of sunshine is dropped at the end of a dark album, so as to relieve whatever weight has been pressed down in the preceding moments. It works even better here, though, as it puts you in a happier place to hear what follows, to shine through the darkness that follows. The two-three..four beat from Brad and the low-jangle of guitars is ideal here, like a breezy trip with the top down (in a Mustang perhaps–just as Hood describes his grandmother, and Wes Freed illustrated her) into a sunset.

The tempo drops to a slow roast for the first of two versions of a real murder that occurred twenty years ago in Hood’s hometown–the title track. It’s a perfect example of one half of Hood’s specialties: the storyteller half. Guitar wails from Neff’s slide, as Shonna’s bass and Morgan’s drums lay down a hardened rhythm. Hood’s voice sways with the beat, and the whole song sounds like the forbidden excitement of the hidden affair that he portrays as partly prompting the sordid, ahem, affair. It’s sleazy and uncomfortable, even as you can hear the shaking head and sigh of Hood as he recounts the tale, not unlike one that made it onto the companion album (“The Wig He Made Her Wear” on The Big To Do, about a vaguely similar, also real murder). This song, though, is just that much more off in that direction, as the whole band is in that sleaze mode, where it was only Neff on the other track. His slide here is just…raunchy. The way the whole thing drips with the fascination/horror with the whole thing is simply perfect in execution.

Shonna was in the band for a few albums before she contributed a full song, her first appearances being “I’m Sorry Huston”, “Home Field Advantage”, and “The Purgatory Line” on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She threw a few on The Big To Do (namely “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”), and “Dancin’ Ricky” is her first appearance on her last album with the band. It’s in keeping with the tracks she brought to the other chunks of the sessions that spawned them (the ones on The Big To Do, that is), being less interested in the verbosity that Patterson in particular tends toward, as well as the smirking wit of Cooley’s contributions. It’s a soul-leaning pop track–in a good sense, if that needs to be stated–and it acts as showcase for some really great organ work from Jay Gonzalez on a B3, some nice little fret slides, and even producer (producer of most of DBT’s output, actually) and ex-Mercyland member¹ David Barbe’s chance to throw bass on a track, what with Shonna covering piano and all.

John Neff whips out the dobro while Morgan mans a bass and snare rim sort of barebones drumbeat for the wiggled eyebrow of Mike Cooley’s first lead vocal, “Cartoon Gold”. He pulls out the banjo Patterson has said he plays in a very specific way, as well as Hood’s favourite line on the album–something he says Cooley is often responsible for, a statement much of their fanbase would agree to. He has a knack for a distinctly different approach that covers ground Hood doesn’t; his play on words is at least worthy of a smile (or, more likely, smirk), if not a chuckle or laugh, but he generally sings it totally straight and shoots a line of emotional truth straight through the whole thing anyway to justify that. “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough…” he starts, and already the man’s way with words is just fantastic. The sense of humour about less-than-positive emotions is like he describes himself at the song’s end: “Sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on”–a drinker slumped not out of inebriation, nor absolute despondent sorrow, but a mood best described as “Well, shit.” I think that kind of sums up the tone of the song, if not its content, in fact–it’s ponderings about the past that don’t seem to add up to much of value for the one pondering, but with a bit of advice for listeners hiding in it anyway–be it good or bad advice.

Side One ends with the heavy piano and sharpened points of guitar of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”, the story of a man who was passed a heavy automatic rifle a friend (Ray, of course) had made him wary of. He finds himself bored and shooting it, only to one day realize he’s testing how close he can shoot at real people in the distance. It’s a funny story because it goes no further–though there’s all kinds of darkness hiding behind it–the friend is a veteran, who was worried about Ray for the very reasons he himself is now finding himself doing almost-horrific things. The song is slow and plunks itself down with Gonzalez’s deep, low hammering at the keys, Neff’s lap steel squealing out a texture of distant loss of control. Hood’s voice is confessional, but not secretive–quiet but not at all whispered. It’s dashed with both self-recognition of horrific echoes and nonchalance at serious things–which carries its own sense of horror.

The Truckers don’t often include covers on their albums–indeed, excluding a compilation of rarities, they hadn’t done it until this album was released², with this next track being the first: Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love”. It was actually initially released on a 7″ (Dangerous Highway – A Tribute To The Songs Of Eddie Hinton Vol. 2–which I, myself, own) with their other cover of one of his songs, “Where’s Eddie?” which appears later on this album. They apparently did so thanks to their pride in the work on both, and that pride is justifiable. Neff is back at the dobro, and there’s a kind of extra-clear recording and production (a hint of echo, and the lightest crackle of perhaps homage-induced anachronistic high-end thinness) on Patterson’s voice. The song slumps a bit, bright with its overall message, but aching with the knowledge of absence–“I used to go around saying I didn’t need nobody/To be happy and belong/Then one sad day I found myself in trouble/Way down, without a friend/Along came the love of a real good woman/Said she’d love me ’til the end…” It’s like a shot of hope, tinged with melancholic doubt, cracking across the surface of it. Truly a great recording, this one.

While Patterson has said they “shouldn’t talk about” “Assholes”, it’s not much to guess who and what it’s directed at–the band switched labels for this pair of records, and the last two for their prior label are a live album and a compilation, usually a dead giveaway for contract fulfillment. It’s driven home more clearly by lines like “And you sicked your lawyers on me/Told them to go for the throat/And you just sat back and watched them/Have a go/And you say that we’re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/While you’re sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road…” Of course, it could be management, or any variety of people–but the context leans one way to my ears. Cooley mans the banjo again, and gives a sort of pokey feeling to the song, which is amusing considering the title, the profane choice of label both appropriate in visceral reaction and funny for its intensity in the music’s context. It’s a shrugging anger, though–whatever rage Hood may have felt (or may still feel) is either filtered or tempered, and it makes for an unusual song about the topic, as compared to some that have come out (like, say, Trent Reznor’s run at TVT with Broken…)

There are clear threads back to older country in the basically simple set-up of “The Weakest Man”, Cooley’s second shot at the record, which maintains the attitude that runs through a lot of his songs, that sense of wry amusement at the world, as a means of dealing with the worst parts of it. The chorus is a one-two punch–the first at the woman he’s leaving, the second at himself: “Leaving you won’t be any harder/Than walkin’ out the door and leavin’ town/But I’ll be leavin’ knowing surving you don’t make me stronger/Than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down…”  It’s also a good showcase for The Bottom Feeders, the backup vocalists who work with the group on the record. Well, they are the group, but it’s a good name for a made-up backing group all the same, and they fit in perfectly on the track.

The absolute winner of the album–sorry to call it so early!–is doubtless “Used to Be a Cop”. I first heard the song at that pair of shows I mentioned–I’d only just picked up their earlier records, so I immediately scoured them for this brilliant track, only to discover it was actually from an upcoming album instead. The studio recording was no kind of disappointment. Where “Go-Go Boots” was a slow burn of sleaze and murder, “Used to Be a Cop” rides Shonna Tucker’s sliding thump of a bassline and the ringing guitars that announce the chorus (of a kind) through a simmering shudder of discomforting stalker-y sociopathy. Another in the great tradition of stalker songs, I suppose! It’s a hefty track, which has a lovely bridge that shines with the past glories of our fired, divorced, short-fused protagonist, until returning to the twitching hypnosis of the bassline and slightly dissonant clang of guitars that represents the present instead.

A track available only on the vinyl version, “I Hear You Hummin'” is a veritable jam session between Neff, Gonzalez, Morgan and author and vocalist Shonna Tucker, recorded, apparently, with a single microphone and live. It’s raw and wobbly, but endearing rather than overly troubled for that fact. 

Our contract killer-hiring preacher from “Go-Go Boots” returns in “The Fireplace Poker”, and it’s now enough of a different take to seem as though it’s just a shamefully similar true story of woe instead of the same one. It’s Hood in a rocking chair at a fireplace telling the story with that same shaking head and sigh of bewildered amazement–and quietly morbid fascination. Gonzalez drops a rather simple but poignant set of piano keys on the latter half of the track, delightful in their contrast and simplicity around the thumping constancy of Brad Morgan’s drumming.

“Where’s Eddie?” is the Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritz song the band released with “Everybody Needs Love” as a b-side before the album came out, and it’s sung–as intended, gender-wise–by Shonna Tucker, who pours the full extent of her voice into it, stretching it much further than she usually aims to with her own songs–it’s a country-tinged soul track, melodramatic in its questioning sorrow, but in the best and most appropriate ways–though this partly reflects its age rather clearly, as it was first released as a single by Scottish singer Lulu in 1970.

The band’s single for the album (backed with “Used to Be a Cop”) is a forward-leaning one, on edge and relaxed simultaneously as Patterson describes with both weariness and tension the scene of his family at Thanksgiving–conflicting politics, strange habits and personalities, age differences and everything else that comes with most large gatherings of people. He describes a family member’s project (“Poppa” could be his own father, Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, or it could be his grandfather–familial usage of that title tends to vary) that “will never be finished” but Hood guesses “that’s the point” because it “Gives him a filter and psychological ointment”. Patterson has said that the filter, for him, is actually songwriting–a method of hiding in plain sight from family, as means of dealing with it. It’s a more sane middle step between the saccharine imaginings of large family gatherings, and the hysterically exaggerated negatives of stand up comedy and movie scenes about them. It does have a great kicker of a final verse line, too–“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/Blessed be my family 300 miles away…”

Cooley admitted frankly that “Pulaski” was named simply because he’d been through the town (once) and its syllables, particularly in unison with its containing state, Tennessee, fit perfectly with the song (unlike his own hometown or homestate). It shuffles along on another easy, brushy beat from Brad, and is smaller and more intimate–as is often the case in this contrast–than Hood’s prior one. It has the love for “not even ‘Southern’–American small towns” Cooley occasionally shows–a sense of pride in those small ones and their atmospheres. Of course, it’s not so silly as to pretend the protagonist’s move to California proves the complete inferiority of anywhere else, so much as pointing out that people are often neither better nor worse in that shift, and fantastic representations–as those on T.V.–are just that.

“Mercy Buckets” is, naturally, a play on “merci beaucoup”, the French for “thank you very much”. It’s about as wild as the album gets, Cooley and Neff trading leads, and doubtless a few from Hood in there, too. It’s the final show-stopper, sad, dragging in tempo, but big, expansive, dramatic, and generally huge–cinematic, as the band likes to think of themselves. Each syllable of Hood’s chorus is emphasize: “I will bring you buckets of mercy”, and there’s no question that the scorching peals of guitar are the right way to end the album. Not with some kind of inappropriate huge block of rocking bang, but with the rather slow-moving force of fireworks exploding in a night sky, shooting up on those streaks of lead guitar, but slowing at their explosion and slowly flittering back downward. It’s a release of energy matching what came before instead of entirely defying it.

I was perusing record stores in another state recently on a business trip, and had occasion to speak to the proprietor of one of those stores. We talked a bit about music, particularly the new Jason Isbell which had just been released, and conversation naturally wandered to the Truckers. We agreed there was a bit of searching for either after their split (though I think he meant Creation’s Dark where I meant A Blessing and a Curse, on which Jason did, in fact, play, but released some of his lesser songs with the band), but that both had clearly found their stride by now–indeed, this pair of albums is extraordinarily successful at clarifying what this band is after their rise carrying Isbell and now as the band that they are, the one more exclusively defined by Cooley and Hood, who’ve been together more than two and a half decades now.

I can understand the trepidation some no doubt feel with a band with this name, or an album or cover art like this–I still get those feelings sometimes, much though I now try to subdue them. I can only suggest what I try myself–sample it out. There are some great performances from the band floating around the net, plenty even official. And if you’re really adventurous, Cooley is touring solo, and the band will probably be back on the road together before too long. Give them a shot if you haven’t, though. They may be unabashed in their northern Alabama roots, but that tells you less about them than you might think.

¹I actually just picked up the random compilation of their work, but that’s a pretty meaningless reference except to Athens, GA locals, so far as I know. Still, it was a cool band from what I’ve now heard.

²That said, they covered one of my favourite Warren Zevon tracks (“Play It All Night Long”), though I honestly thought they didn’t quite manage it properly. They did, however, blow the Tom Petty song “Rebels” out of the water on that record (The Fine Print), and contribute one of the better “Like a Rolling Stone” covers out there, and Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, which I’ve never heard the original track to. Hood did cover yet another semi-obscure favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren’s “Range War” on his second solo album–which makes sense. It was on Todd’s second album, too. I mean, if you count Runt as a solo record, which plenty of people (justifiably) do. Including me.

Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock (1970)

Warner Bros. Records ■ WS 1877

Released June, 1970

Produced by Deep Purple

Engineered by Andy Knight, Martin Birch, Philip McDonald



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Speed King
  2. Bloodsucker
  3. Child in Time
  1. Flight of the Rat
  2. Into the Fire
  3. Living Wreck
  4. Hard Lovin’ Man

Ah, Deep Purple “Mk. II”.

Why, out of all the bands that have gone through such monumental lineup changes (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, etc) they are the only ones that seem to have become firmly labeled with “version” numbers is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because the lineup change has such a drastic overall effect on songwriters–we can say “Barrett-era Floyd”¹ and “Peter Green” and “Bob Welch” and so on, to notate the controlling voice’s change. I don’t know–anything would be just a guess, and it’s likely just an indicator of the varying mentalities of fans that Deep Purple’s chose that approach.

Still, “Mark II” has its place highest in the echelons of music, particularly for being so thoroughly entrenched in hard rock when it was rapidly morphing into heavy metal (though most of the albums at the time given that have largely sloughed off that title as it has gained higher and higher minimums of power/volume/aggression/speed/etc over the years). Indeed, if the average person can assign anything to the name “Deep Purple”, it is probably “Smoke on the Water”, their monstrous hit from two albums (and years) farther on, Machine Head. Now, of course, “Highway Star” has gained a measure of fame from its inclusion in Rock Band, so there might be that further connection, but it, too, comes from ’72’s Machine Head anyway.


While I grew up with “Smoke on the Water” as I did with many a classic rock song, it regained strength when I came into my love of Frank Zappa, and the story of the burning casino studio in it. About four or five years ago, I happened upon the 25th anniversary edition of Fireball, the album between this one and Machine Head. The packaging, the tracklisting–it seemed intriguing, and I went ahead and got it. I quickly fell for that album and it’s peculiarities (particularly the romping and somewhat odd “Anyone’s Daughter”, which hasn’t really got an analogous partner on the other two albums, nor the non-album singles), then let myself begin to spiral outward from it and into the other albums from this particular line up of Deep Purple.

Both of the other “Mk. II” albums were indeed released in expanded formats, with Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head bookending the set with the fewest and greatest number of bonus tracks (Machine Head has an entire alternate mix on a whole separate disc). In my inescapable desire to partition albums under schemata entirely of my own invention but apparently quite convincing (to me, at least), there’s a progression that I think of in many bands–a spark of novelty in the first album that establishes a sound clearly and gains a lot of appreciation as a result, a second album that seems to take that sound and throw out any and all boundaries, and then a third that refines everything learned in the first two²–and that tends to, as a result, often determine and define my preferences (I usually like the second album most). Deep Purple ends up no exception to this–Fireball remains my favourite, and I tend to prefer In Rock after that, and Machine Head last, despite the obvious appeal. It’s not defiance, it just seems to work out that way.

Either everyone agrees with me on Fireball or no one does, as I see it least of all on vinyl, though I admit I don’t look too intently. I picked up this rather beat up copy of In Rock on a trip to a used store I frequented less than most others two or three years back, simply because I was in the depths of my affections for Deep Purple at the time. It has a kind of charm for a record like this to look like this–it’s not an ultra rare disc, so it’s nice to see one that was loved for a good few decades, not treated as a hermetically sealed idol so much as a well-loved piece of momentary joy for someone.

And that’s really how Deep Purple works–not that they can’t be placed on any pedestals, but it’s music that demands enjoyment from listening, as it is built heavily on grooves, whether we’re talking about Gillan’s vocals, Blackmore’s riffing, Lord’s vamping, Glover’s basslines, or Paicey’s flood of fills and feel-based drumming. I have a number of records that have that cute instruction: “To be played LOUD” (eg The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), but Deep Purple in Rock I just kind of instinctively turn up–I do worry a bit about the neighbors, but it feels like the kind of thing that your neighbors would either nod sagely at the playing of, or shrug and admit that it at least makes sense to be playing it loud.

While “Anyone’s Daughter” has no equivalents floating about (from the band in question, I mean), the smaller hit “Highway Star” is hinted at when Deep Purple in Rock opens: “Speed King” is another boastful self-descriptive blast of groove and power. I should mention this is the U.S. issue of the album, wherein the introductory flurry of distortion and wild guitar flailing from Blackmore as well as the first snippet of Lord’s organ introduction is omitted (about a minute and a half). That is a shame, let’s be honest–but the real joy of “Speed King” is the riff that just leaps out of the gate, grounded by Glover’s deep bass, and backed by Paicey’s blasting drums. Gillan immediately makes clear the meaning of the witty description of the song in the gatefold (“Just a few roots, replanted”) as his words reference early Little Richard hits. But it’s all filtered through the riff-based power of a band that would come to define hard rock in many of the best ways. The forward movement of the song is what is most allusive if one knows “Highway Star” already–Ian Paice’s drums are fantastically thoughtful without any sacrifice of power and movement, something that is not as apparent in the later song. Lord and Blackmore³ have a brief interlude where they trade subdued and gentle licks, but it’s returned to the relentless pace of the opening, uninterested in anything more than a pause for anything else.

“Bloodsucker” eases the pace a bit, but pumps the “groove” quotient up to compensate. Glover’s bass rides under a tangled lick from Blackmore, but controls the sound, giving the bottom end the motor of the snaking movement of the song. Paice is happy to largely just keep the beat this time, though he continues to do so with great flair. Lord gets to turn the burners back to a simmering feeling, drawing out the emanations of the groove to a stretched, low-slung rest. But he’s not left to just this, as he gets a higher end solo that is turned in for another of the same from Blackmore–neither is overly long, even as they trade back and forth, each just a few bars to show off and flutter at the song’s melody and feel. Gillan’s voice is defined primarily by the stomping shuffle of Paice’s drums, but when he lets loose on that shrieking “Oh, no no no!” (not to be confused with the song “No No No” from Fireball, of course), he really makes his, ahem, voice heard and gives the song his own little inscription.

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising to me that “Child in Time” is the most appealing part of the album amongst the folks I know–either I know people who have no interest in Deep Purple, or I know people who like them whose taste is more readily ascribed to progressive rock bands, at least of the Pink Floyd variety, if not the more nerdy King Crimson set (this should not be taken as insulting–when we get to “K”, we’ll actually have a poll for Crimson, as I own enough). “Child in Time” is something like the amalgamation of hard rock, jam band, and progressive rock: it’s a ten minute epic song, filled with noodling, vamping, and slow, deliberate movement toward intended ends. With the heated coals of the beginning–gentle, sparse ride from Paice, majestic organs that cross the solemnity of church organs with the ominous nature of horror movie kinds–Gillan naturally chooses a lower voice to keep the song in the proper place, Glover and Blackmore largely just following Lord’s lower-pitched left hand. The mood Lord has established for us is borne out in the words Gillan sings: “Sweet child in time you’ll see the line/The line that’s drawn between good and bad/See the blind man shooting at the world/Bullets flying taking toll”. Gillan’s voice increases in power and pitch at the third line, but drops back low again after that, only to climb to an extreme with the next: “If you’ve been bad oh, Lord I bet you have/And you’ve not been it, oh, by flying lead/You’d better close your eyes/Oh! Bow your head…” and then from that extremely passionate warning turns to the shrugging, “If only you’d listened sort of tone,” as he sings “Wait for the ricochet…” His voice is gentle, singing only “Oooh-ooh-ooh…” repeatedly now, as Glover begins to push the band upward with a huge swathe of low end cutting through the track, Gillan’s “oohs” traded for “aahs” (writing really can’t do this justice, you know), which gradually expand and grow with the rest of the track, to shrieking, impassioned, wordless expression–before Paice turns the track martial with emphatic drumming, alongside Lord’s rhythmic pounding of keys. Blackmore slinks in his best solo on the album, soulful and wildly appropriate, as the entire song suddenly takes on a lolloping gait, charging forward instrumentally on the blazing fingers of Blackmore, his lead part like sparks from the flames now risen from those opening coals, the song burning faster, brighter, higher, harder, louder, sharper until it climaxes with a lead from Lord instead, which stops short, and returns to the slow roasting opening instead at just the right moment, but leaves Lord still playing a lead part.
Amazingly, the words I typed above are the only ones Gillan really sings in the song, and he begins to repeat them here, sounding like a revelation–like new lyrics, despite the fact that they are nothing of the kind. The song climbs and climbs as before, until it collapses into a chaos of distortion and sound, a final destruction that emphatically and appropriately punctuates the song and the side.

Side two returns us to the sounds that opened the album, though “Flight of the Rat” is a bit more at ease than the energetic “Speed King” or the groove-laden “Bloodsucker”. Maybe that’s appropriate–the title does imply a different kind of travel (be it air-travel or escape). Everyone’s a bit more relaxed, oddly, as if this is a palate cleanser following the beauty of “Child in Time”–it’s a more “fun” track, as much of the second side is.  It’s another long track (around eight minutes), but it’s more of a steady one than the rollercoaster of its predecessor, and its introspective lyrics are the opposite numbers-wise–they take up more of the left side of the gatefold than any other song, though this largely reflects the brevity of the lines. The interlude for instrumental show from Lord and then Blackmore (which eventually stops for a pretty great wah-wah “breakdown”) only furthers the feeling that this track is sheer enjoyment in a can, so to speak.

“Into the Fire” is probably the album’s heaviest track, in that more indefinable sense: Blackmore and Glover are crushing with their strings, and chug along with immense weight. Paicey pounds out a thumping rhythm with some semi-Moon-esque fills that give it a great flavour, while Gillan ups the feeling of a relative of “Bloodsucker”, as his words are dragged along in the wake of the song’s rhythm, until that pause at the end of each stanza where he let’s loose: “Into the FI-IRE!” he yells, not the shriek of “Child in Time” or “Bloodsucker,” but a more throat-scorching bellow that seems to belch up flames of its own, throwing smoke and ash into its sound. Just foot-stomping beauty, here.

Lyrically, “Living Wreck” is beyond odd; its witty description relates it back to groupies, while the lyrics themselves imply a groupie fallen all to pieces (“You took off your hair/You pulled out your teeth/Oh, I almost died of fright…”). So far as I’m concerned, it’s best to look past them (or take a bit of humour from them, at best). Blackmore’s riffing, particularly following Gillan’s first stanza, part muted, and hanging out firmly in the mids, is engaging and dirty in the best sense that guitars can be. The bassy bridge (a mix of Glover and Lord at the low end of his keys) booms and shakes the track under a meandering, casual lead from Blackmore, an unusual sound for him on the album, especially with its pinched, thin, mid-range tone that gives a crustier feel to the track on the whole.

The album closes with “Hard Lovin’ Man”, which gives Glover an unusual (but brief) spotlight at open, to slide back and forth on a line that defines the arc of Paicey and Blackmore’s charging feel for the song. A burnt, crispy drone of semi-distorted keys (yep!) emanates from Lord’s fingers, and turns that chugging gallop into something different, banding itself around the other three instruments. It turns into a peculiar, semi-off lead from Lord, that, as per usual, turns instead to a lead from Blackmore, who turns in a typically sparkling performance, one that seems to rustle and shake within a carefully controlled, limited space to keep it tied closely to the song as a whole. The whole thing collapses into absolute chaos, defined by the stereo-panned howls and squalls of distortion from Blackmore.

I have a longstanding affection for the hard rock vein of classic rock, particularly the kind that didn’t explode so completely as to define itself as itself, instead of a component of the whole (I’m looking at you, Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham!) and lose track of where it fit within the grand scheme of rock music–indeed, I have a hunger for the kind of sounds that seem to have fallen out of the 1970s approach to hard rock, lacking in pretension, dripping with fist-pumping kinds of energy and the histrionics and groove that made it so appealing in the first place, so much so that I once wrote about my favourite modern instances, and you can hear some strains of it in the last band I wrote about, Davenport Cabinet.

Deep Purple in Rock (and, to be fair, Fireball) really sate that craving quite well–In Rock perhaps managing it more thoroughly, if not as well, thanks to the “pure rock” approach to the album as a whole. It’s always interesting to gather the different thoughts about bands like this–today, a coworker actually mentioned the band purely by chance, he of an age to know them more as former “contemporaries”, and was semi-surprised to find I’d just been listening to the band. Friends into classic rock don’t bring them up much, but tend to respect them, and my father has one of his “strange” opinions when it comes to them–his preference is for the Rod Evans era, and albums like The Book of Taliesyn, though I suppose this isn’t too great a surprise considering he and I have always differed on the “harder” and “heavier” elements of rock music (we’ll have more fun with this contrast with later artists, I think!).

I think In Rock serves as a good place for anyone to go who has an attitude like mine: I don’t like being coloured by (ie, magnetically drawn to) a familiar single like a gravitational pull–the desire to hear the familiar is strong in almost all of us (if not, discounting extreme willfulness, all of us period), and it makes it hard, sometimes, to get a feel for an artist or an album when there is that point of inevitable attraction in a work. In Rock does have “Child in Time”, but this is both an extremely long track and also only the kind of track you’re likely to be familiar with when crossed fingers at the “progressive” nature’s chances of appealing to highbrow sensibilities encouraged someone to pass it on as “proof” of Deep Purple’s quality. Yeah, I’m kind of cynical–I’m wary of a lot of communities surrounding that word, and the occasional recursive interest in “proving” the value of things.

I think Deep Purple stand pretty well on their own, without the need to prove they aren’t “dumb rock”, nor to prove that anything that is (or could be) is not inherently valueless.

As a final note, though, I hate typing the title of the album. Is it In Rock? Is it Deep Purple in Rock? Obviously, the cover is a sort of pun and requires the whole phrase, but does that mean it was a play wherein the title was attached to the artist to make it work, or the original intention? No, this doesn’t really matter, but these things tend to stick with me anyway.

¹”Barrett-era”–doesn’t that just sound nice, as a phrase?

²This idea has been applied (quite subjectively) to numerous artists over the years. Mostly by me, and no one else. I keep it because I like how it fits together in my brain.

³If you don’t know this–yes, seriously, those are the members’ names. I know it sounds like some kind of fantasy heroes. I’ll admit, too, it’s less fun to refer to them as “Jon” and “Ritchie” respectively.

Day Fifty-Four: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

Earache/Wicked World ■ WICK011LP


Released April 11, 2000

Produced by Piotr Wiwczarek (aka “Peter (VADER)”)




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Winds of Creation
  2. Blessed
  3. The First Damned
  4. Way to Salvation
  1. The Eye of Horus
  2. Human’s Dust
  3. Nine Steps
  4. Danse Macabre
  5. Mandatory Suicide

In discussing metal, I typically refer clearly–at some point, anyway–to my first ever “real” metal band, which was Morbid Angel.¹ Indeed, it was their second album, Blessed Are the Sick that really “clicked” with me finally, once I was able to get used to David Vincent’s vocals (and thus, forever after, the “cookie monster” growling that typifies death metal at large). I actually ordered the album direct from their label, Earache, at the time, back when I was still in high school. Coupled with it were a handful of stickers for other bands, like December Wolves and, well, Decapitated. Because I still knew so little about metal, I took those two names as inspiration for further exploration–and, hey, I was an eMusic Unlimited member at the time (when there still was such a thing), which meant their partnership with Earache opened the door for me to try just about anything I felt like that they recommended.


I snagged Winds of Creation readily back then, and found myself pleased (December Wolves did not go over so well, but that’s largely because they were not and are not strictly death metal, which is what I was looking for at that time–in fact, they were triggered-drum-heavy black metal, which was still a very foreign thing to me). I picked up 2002’s Nihility as well, eventually even ordering it on the massive 220g vinyl that I also ordered Slaughter of the Soul on, at the same time. Winds of Creation ended up on one of my “I want to blast this metal” CDs (most of them paired with other albums) I burnt in those days, but Nihility eventually took over for me, largely on the back of the album’s single “Spheres of Madness”–which, let me emphasize, has an absolutely killer main riff. Of course, if you wander around and compare ratings (such as those at the stupendously comprehensive Encyclopædia Metallum²) you will find Winds consistently receives the highest ratings out of all of their albums (and note that The Negation slips significantly after Nihility, and that the last two albums get passable scores at best).
Truth be told, Winds of Creation is a superior album overall. I still have a soft spot for Nihility and will often claim it as favoured personally, but I have to admit that the production, in particular, gives Winds the edge (Nihility is comparatively “dry” in production–intensely so, in fact). It was with this in mind–as well as a personal desire for ownership–that I ended up snagging Winds of Creation only a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to give the album more spins, simply because it doesn’t have a song that completely breaks up the feel like “Spheres of Madness”, so there’s not as distinct a hook. Throw in the fact that it was actually issued on vinyl (this happened in 2010) and on coloured vinyl at that, and it was a given.
While I’ve never noticed as strong a hook as the riff in “Spheres of Madness”, the opening of Winds of Creation, the title track, is a fantastic opener which doesn’t rely on the studio-based radio fuzz that opens Nihility. Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka’s drums are absurdly precise, and create a distinct and rigid backing for his older brother Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka’s guitar riffs, before he unleashes his frighteningly rapid double-kick, which eventually launches the album into the stratosphere and makes room for the lean, muscular riffs of Vogg to streak up the sides of the song. Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz has a wonderful growl: his vocal rhythms are strange and hard to follow, and masked somewhat by his rather distinct Polish accent (when you can match his words to the written lyrics, you can hear it easily, and it became more clear in Nihility where his voice was more clear in general). The song is pummeling and serves as a fantastic introduction to the band, who had previously recorded only demos, some of which were released on the compilation Polish Assault previously, but otherwise unreleased publicly. The finale of the song returns it all to the breakneck pacing it saw only briefly earlier, and allows Marcin “Martin” Rygiel’s bass to appear for one of the only times it is audible on the record (an unfortunately common truth particular to extreme metal subgenres), that gives the song some very clear punctuation.
“Blessed” almost eases into place after the title track, with the actual playing speed undiminished, but the feel of the tempo seeming to connote a lesser emphasis on it–which does actually make Vogg’s riffs all the more blinding for their solitary choice of speed. Vitek and his brother blurr into a chaotic whirlwind as the first verse is introduced, Sauron’s voice blurring into the low end of the song fantastically. Vogg is given the briefest of spotlights, alone in the left channel, to which Vitek responds with deep thudding finality. After a low-end focus in the second verse portion, Vogg’s riffs seem to flash alongside as if they are the flames licking the sides of a rumbling engine–be they painted or real. There’s a wonderful breakdown of riffs that seem to stretch instead of chugging independently, buoyed by Martin’s matching bassline. Shifting tempos and movements are defined by a variety of riffs and drum beats. The ending speeds the song through a clearly locked snare and then charging riffs. Vogg drops a brilliant solo composed almost entirely of bends, that finally claims to an apex of bends. The way Vitek lays splash, ride, and snare over his rumbling engine of double-kick is something to behold, as if you could see him speeding beyond his bandmates, utterly unaware as they would seemingly need to struggle to ever catch up.
Also given as the name of the compilation of their demo recordings (which also contained a version of the song, as well as numerous others later re-recorded for this album), “The First Damned” washes in like a thickened tide, building from Vogg’s isolated guitar to a full-stereo sound from him and Vitek. The main riff comes along and it’s a long stretch of tremolo picking that gives that wonderful “appearance” of a single strike being held (almost). The pacing is actually reduced in large part for this one–Vitek does not actually drop to simple blast beats, but his beats are less dominated by double-kick then they have been to this point. The second riff is lovely and bendy, seeming to pose itself as a question in response to Sauron’s vocals. The track has the most “normal” solo on the album, in that it is not defined primarily by the “tap” method of playing (wherein the player taps his or her fingers on the strings of the guitar using the picking hand, rather than picking them with plectrum or fingers). It’s a delightful solo, which seems to act as a sudden spike in the established riffing, increasing speed and range, even as it, too, seems a bit “slow” as compared to the rest. The leads are also a bit more melodic in the track, though they give way to another isolated, left-channel riff that acts as herald to the forward rush of the song’s full return. It’s also unusual in its ending, allowing a sustained hold to ring, rather than fading or stopping abruptly.
Somewhat inexplicably, the lyrics to “Way to Salvation” are not printed in my vinyl or CD copy of this album, but that doesn’t reflect on the song itself. A nice balance of hand and foot drumming is marked by a scrabbling of riffs from Vogg. His guitar is practically unleashed as Sauron’s voice enters the track, seeming to splay and rush in all directions. The lead is one of the best full leads on the album, climbing to higher pitches than Vogg normally favours, and being possibly even double-tracked for a semi-harmonized stereo effect that is exaggerated by the guitar track’s absence in one channel prior to this effect. Vitek gets to throw in a fill that shows off his skill without breaking up the song, even as it does bring the song to a slowed tempo as if pulling at the reins–Vitek’s drumming is slowed for what might be the only time on the album, as is Vogg’s solo, which seems to be throwing in the exertion of a very steep climb as it makes its way along, occasionally stopping at a “plateau” for a seeming aside to listeners, sounding just slightly like the “Egyptian” tones of Nile for a moment, but regaining its own spirit, which has the slight pinches and squeals of Azagthoth-style³ soloing hidden in it. A semi-hypnotic, still slowed ending follows from this and is allowed to simply fade out, which seems only appropriate for the turn it has taken.
“The Eye of Horus” follows a similar path to the title track, with Vitek’s drums acting as a very strict skeleton for Vogg’s riffs at open, but filling in tendon and sinew as his double-kicks enter the fray. It’s one of the thrashiest tracks on the album, Sauron struggling to spit out his words in time. The haltingly descending riffs Vogg lays down after the first verse are absolutely fantastic, and hint at the usage a similar one will see later on in “Nine Steps”. There’s a peculiar and spiralling, chunky mid-section that ends each of Sauron’s following lines, seeming to circle itself to avoid tripping, eventually finding its gait and slinking along on the smooth tremolo we heard in “The First Damned”. Vogg’s solo is distorted and strange–perhaps even more Azagthoth-y, for its vague dissonance and experimental nature, though as is true of most, it maintains just a bit more melodicism than Trey’s usual blasts of “lava”. The outro is another fade, but it manages to include some flashes of lead we don’t hear a lot of in a single-guitarist band.
“Human’s Dust” seems to be designed to prove that the band has been holding weapons in reserve–the song drops out of the sky fully formed and thick with riff and drum, but breaks itself apart to a bare bones snare-based interlude that turns it to a near black-metal blastbeat-styled passage. Never ones to make their time signature changes and tempo shifts obvious or clumsy, the song seems to shift and change them more readily and constantly than the entire rest of the album, allowing for a solo that combines elements of all the previous ones–perhaps an apex in style, if not flavour. It bends, taps, squeals, and slides along into airy blasts of tremolo arm modulated gusts. 
Ah, “Nine Steps”. The only rest we’re given before it is the pummeling pounding of Vitek on toms and snare, which lead into a similarly isolated riff from Vogg that is dragged into the maelstrom by Vitek’s slide in on the ride cymbal. The song takes off, Vogg racing over the top of it with his amalgamated lead and rhythm riffing, a few hints of Slayer-esque riffage that are then buried into a more Decapitated-signature sound. There’s a sort of skating riff over an unusual drum beat composed of tight hi-hat rhythmic hissing, which is completely unexpected at this point, yet utterly fitting. But in all of this, the lead is to the best riff on the album: at about two minutes in, the song climbs ever upward and then zooms off, building intense energy that isn’t clearly anticipatory, seemingly resolved by the booming of Vitek’s drums announces the high end tremolo riffing of Vogg. He lays out a stupendously blurred solo that seems to slow the song down to a chugging riff that repeats to only the hiss of ride before the briefest of pauses, hovering on the brink, then leaping off to zig-zag from channel to channel as it descends. The riff is a sudden change in feel and that brilliant moment before it drops down only serves to make the drop that much more delicious, ending the song on its third repetition, quite abruptly.
As is often the case with metal bands, “Dance Macabre” appears at the end, not unlike “The Flames of the End” appearing at the end of Slaughter of the Soul, though this more closely resembles the booming, ominous synthetic inclusions of black metal bands, such as the earliest moments of Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. It functions best as an outro, of course–it would come off strangely, at best, in the middle of the album. It is a nice vent for the heat the album has built to this point though–moody, spooky, like a cult horror soundtrack (hence the association with “The Flames of the End”).
The vinyl includes the previously international-only (don’t ask me which international–maybe their home Polish version lacked it, or Earache’s home UK, or the U.S. version, or maybe none of them–it’s not a genre prone to meticulous record-keeping, to be honest) cover of Slayer’s 1988 South of Heaven track “Mandatory Suicide”. Our Polish boys speed it up only slightly, and give it the more full crunch of death metal–somewhat “thicker” than the mid-high orientation of late 80s metal production and thrash metal in general. Sauron’s voice continues to be an interesting surprise, especially when compared to the already somewhat higher pitches of Tom Araya–nevermind when compared to the booming rumble of our young Polish lad. As “bonus tracks” go with covers–there’s not much to say beyond the quality: it’s a nimble and appropriate cover, that manages to blur their style in with the original, neither laying an overt kind of mutated claim to it, nor merely servicing it.
Decapitated’s biggest claim to fame I have thankfully left out until now: At the time of recording, Sauron was 17 years old, as was Vogg. Martin was 15. And Vogg’s little brother? Vitek had just turned 15 himself. As if that wasn’t “bad” enough, they recorded and released their first–very professionally performed–demo two years earlier.
This is a ridiculously professional, well-played, well-recorded, and well-written album–it can easily stand next to seasoned professionals, and clobber almost any starters. It doesn’t make a big deal out of its technicalities, nor fail to achieve them in the first place. If, indeed, it’s not so complicated as it sounds to my unprofessional ears (though that is one thing I’ve never heard contested about the band, even by the snobs), it’s still well done enough that it sure as hell sounds like it. And that’s an unbelievable strength, especially in a sub-sub-genre like “technical death metal”. And no, I didn’t make that up. It’s occasionally crossed with (indeed, sometimes synonymous with) “brutal death metal”, a designator that generally indicates the unfamiliar should be wary, as much of what I’m still wont to call “wankery” is likely to be present–that is, the masturbatory self-indulgences of proving technical skill. While Decapitated may prove they have exactly that, they don’t do so at the expense of songwriting at any moment on the album.
I may have softened to the idea of “brutal” or “technical” death metal in general–or, perhaps, Decapitated helped it to grow on me in the first place. Certainly, it was because of Sauron’s constant appearances in Immolation shirts that I eventually picked up that incredibly excellent band that occupies the same genre-space–even rendering my favourite “tech-death” album of all: Close to a World Below. They also helped to refine my taste in death metal, to direct me somewhat toward what I would like later, and away from the sinking notion that, in my limited ability to explore (as well as the handful of recommendations I had to receive then), I was stuck with the “gore-porn” lyrics that once defined death metal (I’m not a Cannibal Corpse fan, though I do love the heck out of Carcass). Despite the name, Decapitated effectively never touched on this–their album titles as well as their song titles seem to make that clear, but I’ll state it openly here as well. They’re lyrics that reflect–well, misanthropy and nihilism, perhaps most explicitly stated in the title track from their second album: “Nihility (Anti-Human Manifesto)”–there’s no sense of elitist dismissal of others, so much as full-on, general misanthropy, and blame laid at the feet of an all-too-deserving human race.
I also can’t say enough about Sauron’s voice: it defines much of what I want out of a death metal vocalist, as he sounds somewhat inhuman, but not as if it’s a strain so much as a shift in gears for him. Some vocalists grate, others are ho-hum, but Sauron’s perfect blend–sometimes criticized for this–manages to insinuate itself more completely into the band’s music and function perfectly on that level.
I know, as always, my endorsement of a metal album is meaningless to metal fans and worse to those who hate the genre, but this album receives my highest recommendations all the same. The band wandered into entirely different territory that was hinted at with The Negation and fully realized after Sauron was replaced by Adrian “Covan” Kowanek for Organic Hallucinosis, furthered yet by the exit of all but Vogg for 2011’s Carnival Is Forever. Of course, the interceding years were distinctly unkind to the band: in 2007, a bus accident left then-vocalist Covan in a coma, and killed the 23-year old Vitek. Sadly, this is now the new face of the band’s immediate introductions. Would that we were still just talking about how young they all are.
In any case, if you are willing to look into a full-fledged metal album and its aggression, give this one a spin–if you’re open to the idea, there’s no way it could disappoint.
¹Interestingly, Vogg auditioned to be the second guitarist for Morbid Angel, after Erik Rutan left to take on Hate Eternal full time. Funny, these “full circle” things.
²If you stop and peruse those reviews: welcome to the online metal community. Never will you find more harsh critics determined to convince others of the quality of their taste, and their superiority to almost any offering. Strict personal rules are applied vindictively, and no leeway is given to…anything. I didn’t last long, taste-wise, in such communities. I never do. Still, you will find that, barring the absurdly negative reviews of Nihility, it ends up just below Winds of Creation. Their (adjusted) scores are approximately 86% and 93% respectively, which also lines up with anecdotal experience of opinions. But, seriously, I don’t recommend dealing with the self-important nonsense that bleeds into that community endlessly. It’s tiresome posturing and pissing contests in almost every internet incarnation. When I saw Decapitated live, however, it was the most polite show I’ve ever been to, despite them playing along with Suffocation–unlike the more popular forms of aggressive music, everyone was given space and allowed to go about things in their own way. 
³Trey Azagthoth (aka George Emmanuelle III, no I’m not kidding) is the guitarist for Morbid Angel. He refers to his solos as “lava”, at least with respect to the compilation of them entitled Love of Lava.

Day Fifty-Two: Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones

ANTI-/Werewolf Heart Records ■ ANTI 87047-1

Released October 6, 2009

Produced by Tim Anderson¹






Side One: Side Two:
  1. Intro
  2. Dead Hearts
  3. In the Room Where You Sleep
  1. Buried in Water
  2. My Body’s a Zombie for You
  3. Pa Pa Power
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Young & Tragic
  2. Paper Ships
  3. Lose Your Soul
  1. Werewolf Heart
  2. Dead Man’s Bones
  3. Flowers Grow Out of My Grave
It’s always a puzzle, how to present this band.

It’s difficult to throw out a description of the band itself and get people to stop long enough to listen–two amateur non-musicians write strange, semi-macabre songs that they sing and play with a children’s choir. A novelty, maybe, or a curiosity–but more likely, it sounds like something you wouldn’t want to listen to.

And there’s that other thing.

It’s kind of like trying to present Brother Ali and skip over the fact that he’s a white albino Muslim rapper. It’s a lame pigeonhole, but it gets people’s attention, and his skills generally hold him up past those facts. That’s the sort of thing that should happen here, as well, but because we aren’t talking about simple, concrete facts that we may even deal with ourselves, it becomes different. But, of course, I can’t properly discuss an album the way I do and constantly write [redacted] for one of the two “founding” members.
So let’s just get this out of the way: the gentleman on the top far right of the cover in the waistcoast is Ryan Gosling. Yes, that Ryan Gosling. Now, we know that actors in bands usually lead to things like hilarious 80s references (I’m looking at you, Willis and Murphy), or embarrassing attempts to use star power to boost a mediocre band (it would be difficult to name all of those), or hobbies and passions unintentionally elevated simply because of that star power–in any case, it tends not to go well. That isn’t the case here, and Ryan generally disappears into the music, utterly separated from his sex symbol actor-y-ness (though you wouldn’t guess it from comments on Dead Man’s Bones videos on YouTube).²

I’m sure it was my long-lived love of Gosling’s acting (a chance happening upon 2001’s The Believer planted his name in my head long before The Notebook really, really broke him) that did direct me toward the group, but I can’t actually be sure. I believe it was in the days I was still wobbling between Facebook and MySpace as means of connecting with people and–especially–bands. I know the first thing I ever saw was a live recording of Ryan and partner-in-crime Zach Shields performing their song “In the Room Where You Sleep” on piano and simple drum set up, backed by their regular co-conspirators, the youthful Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir (all dressed for Halloween, though I’m not sure it was even recorded in October). It was a surprise–it didn’t make any (ahem) bones about Gosling’s semi-nascent star power, indeed his face is scarcely visible, though not deliberately hidden either.

This album actually came out on a heavy new release day for me, back in the Borders days. I remember the day quite well, as I was also out shopping for a gift for an important birthday, and listening to the album as I made that trip–though I also had a new Mission of Burma, a new Mountain goats and a new Powerman 5000 album with me as well. (Curiously, this previously-reviewd album and a few others I’ve purchased in the interceding years were also released that day–quite a day, so far as I can tell) I remember being quite pleased with it, though a bit disappointed in the differing sound of the track I knew alone, and quite focused on it and my new favourite track from the album.

It actually starts with a simple intro, the crack of thunder and howl of wind in the distance, a woman’s voice reciting a poem about leaving a dead love, the mention of the afterlife accompanied by those environmental sounds to really establish the tone of the album.

“Dead Hearts” has a mild heartbeat in it, but is shaped largely from haunting “Oooh”s, gently strumming acoustic guitars, and the airy vocals of Zach and Ryan. The heartbeat begins to pound faster and faster, timpanis pounding loudly but intermittently, and establish the one more completely for the album by weaving it into the music. When a glass shatters, and then more follow it, vague screams and distant choral voices that all lead us back to the subdued and insubstantial vocals we started with, I’m left with remembrance of Bob Drake (don’t worry, I think that’s a meaningless association for almost everyone else in the world). The song breaks down and dissipates almost completely, becoming little more than haunted house-like sound effects–it’s a ghoulish, but cheerfully so, kind of sound, and the one that actually defines the album and the group as a whole: it’s not grand guignol-type horror, it’s not quite Universal horror, it’s not even Hammer horror. It’s something like a tongue-in-cheek, knowing-but-sincere version of the German Expressionist horror most exemplified in Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens or Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. It embraces the ghoulish aspects, and perhaps even the “scary bits”, without the 1970s (and later) infusion of gore.³

Modified from its first public incarnation in video form, “In the Room Where You Sleep” is now marked by a move from piano to organ (or at least keyboard mimicking one) for the keys, giving a bit more sting to the chords it is built on. It sounds something akin to the theme from The Munsters–not in terms of its actual melody, but in the campy horror sense. Shields’ drums are simple in both play style and recording (very “live”), though they are quite deliberately “enhanced for stereo”, engaging in a bit of panning left and right. The handclaps further engage the sensibilities of the song, keeping it in the sort of “campfire ghost story” range of horror. Ryan’s vocals are an appropriately campy croon, the kind that you might have expected in previous decades to result in a ridiculous video of him dressed in horror host style with heavy vampire makeup. It’s a simple song, but it charges along courageously, despite the limitations of our two primary bandmates. It has a moody outro of reverberating keys that lay the groundwork for the following track.

“Buried in Water” is all piano at open, ominous and dramatic in that Phantom of the Opera sense (not necessarily Webber’s, mind you, just that same kind of not-focused-on-scary approach), but it eventually becomes just solid chords, still heavily sustained, joined by the voices of the Children’s Choir, singing “Like a lamb to the slaughter/Buried in water”. It feels like the kind of practiced-but-not-a-distinguished-professional playing of a choir director, as ever confident behind the willful but uneven singing of young voices not groomed for professional vocal work. It would not be out of place in a school musical production–which is interesting, as this is actually the feel Ryan and Zach said they were going for in the entire project. When Ryan’s voice enters, it’s that of someone who knows of the town that is “buried in water”–he may be the ghost of a resident, or the one responsible, or just the guide informing us of it, though there’s the strong sense that he has a supernatural and not-entirely-cheerful aspect about him that implies that, if he is the guide, he is the guide responsible, or the undead guide from that town. The kids’ voices are used in a more expansive, normal (unquieted) fashion that lets them function more like a chorus in the background to our solo guide. The most unsure, young, and unsteady voices end the song, as if they are the final voices to be heard from that town.

The title implies it already, but “My Body’s a Zombie for You” is one of the more peculiar songs on the album (which is peculiar enough as an album–let’s be honest here). It lurches like the undead, but it’s tambourine, handclaps, bass, stomps and the semi-novelty inflected vocalizations of “Dum da-dump, ba bum bum bum bum…” And the kids answer with a similarly appropriate “Woah woah-oh…” that tells us this one is going to be a throwback to doo wop, if anything, and so it is. When the piano enters, it’s that steady, high-end hammering that marks midtempo tracks from that time frame and genre, but the voice Ryan uses straddles that and the subject matter at hand, the voice you might expect from a crooning zombie in the 50s–if somehow that seemed like something that might have happened then. Like the humourous tone of that film rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back” (wherein he was back from the dead) but stuck into the frame and more serious performance of the original song, though a lot more downtempo. The kids just yell their line, which is exactly the title, and no more (or less). It’s all ended with a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, spelling-based chorus (“I’m a Z-O-M, B-I-E–Zombie!”) from the kids–reminiscent of schoolyard chants.

There’s no question or argument: “Pa Pa Power” is my favourite track on this album. It rides a groove the rest of the album isn’t even interested in laying down, and let’s Zach’s voice take the lead. He plays a simple drum beat that comes somewhere near sounding like the album’s fetish for handclaps, but isn’t. A synth and key hook runs throughout the song, primarily an insistent, low-end one but occasionally enhanced by the plinking fall of high-end notes that are light on their feet. The kids are used quite purely as backing vocals, but the song is dominated by the keys more than anything else, though Zach’s vocals have their place, with the rather obscure lyrics: “Burn the streets, burn the cars/Pa pa power. pa pa power…” As in many other instances: if your intention is to ignore the album, make an exception for this track, at least. It’s excellent.

There’s only one track the kids get to sing “solo”: “Young and Tragic”, the track that opens the third side of the record. It sounds like it could be something from one of the 1970s electronic artists at first, all synths oscillating and tonally blended keyboard playing, but there are lupine howls to betray its place on this album. Galloping drums take us into the song proper, but it suddenly drops when we get there, droning, funereal, somewhat bombastic. “I wish that we were magic/So we wouldn’t be so young and tragic”, the kids sing, and it’s like the sun rising warmth of a downer musical ending on a note of hope–acoustic guitars and drums, but returning us to the synthesizers. It slowly fades off, peeling off instruments and softening in general to gentle steel drums.

Returning us to the long abandoned art of the doo wop nonsense syllable, “Paper Ships” has no shame in starting with “Da dooby dum dum, dooby doo wa”, a backing melody of “Oooh” and gentle near-ukulele-pitched guitar.  Zach sings of being a ghost ship, of his love’s graveyard–the only hints as to the subject at hand, otherwise completely lost musically. The song shifts into an upbeat acoustic guitar for the chorus, which is sung by the kids with a full-fledged “Fa la la la la, fa la la la la–a ghost ship on the blue”. Ryan joins him following this, in a return to the shuffling pseudo-uke melodicism of the opening verses and their nonsense. Quavering, camp-horror keys wander around, as does a rather somber and serious cello, both of which are cast off for the outro chorus.

A good solid clippedy-clapping sound defines “Lose Your Soul”, with a rather hand-drum like feel to the rest of the percussion–dry, thin, nearly overpowered by the low-end poundings of piano keys that fill in the gaps to increase the pace without actually changing the tempo. Howling winds and expanding drums, synthesized accordion–it makes room for Ryan’s voice to begin an exceptionally low croon, uninterested in anything but the fact of his claim: “Oh, you’re gonna lose your soul–tonight”, with a lovely upswing on the final syllable. His voice is that of a ghost shrugging–it wobbles and wavers like a ghost’s is thought to, despite the lower-than-expected-for-a-ghost pitch of it. The heavy rhythm of the clapping keeps the song moving, and gives out a floor for the kids to turn in their best chorus, which rumbles along more like kids singing together than directed–feels a bit more natural to them as kids. There’s also a fantastic set of synth keys that are somewhere between clear electronics and woodwinds, used almost purely for texture. The whole thing suddenly turns shambling as it shudders to a stop.

“Werewolf Heart” sounds the most modern at first–pinging piano keys and acoustic guitar, even the addition of bass and drums doesn’t feel like it’s covering any peculiar territory. Apparently the basswork is producer Tim Anderson’s, and it’s the most obvious on the album, with a good deal of swing and professionalism. But when the voices enter? Ah, the first line is: “You’d look nice, in a grave”, and it gives a sort of gothic, macabre feel, despite the complete nonchalance, and the somewhat insubstantial approach to it. A female voice¹ does appear–the same one as in the intro to the album–and recites a few dark lines, and then begins to trade off verses with the two men who originated the project. She ends her appearance with one line: “Cause if the full moon comes/Our love is done/So forever/Towards dawn/We ride”, which signals the song to shift gears entirely: castanets and insistent acoustic chords (the kind often married to castanets) are met with the howls of wolves, screams, creaks, a growing background synthesized moan–both the hunter and the prey rising in the background–clattering, pounding, roaring, swirling–and the song ends.

I’ve always had a semi-silly affection for the semi-silliness of a self-titled song on a self-titled album (see also: Bad Company, et al.), and “Dead Man’s Bones” continues that. “Dig a hoooooole”, Ryan sings, thin, dry drums and muted guitar crunches that are expanded by a climbing bass. “Oh dead man’s bones!” sings the group of men, like a bunch of drunkards in a bar telling the newcomers of a local threat (if you’re thinking An American Werewolf in London, so am I–though this is far more cheerful as a warning, less, “Get out!” more “Oh, let me tell you a story, boys…”). Their voices lose any sense, need of, or desire for tunefulness, becoming very like speaking voices. The song rambles along, with the weird quirk of something like mid-to-latter Tom Waits or extra peculiar Nick Cave arrangements (almost more Birthday Party, perhaps). A woman crying, a sort of wail, delicate piano–and an undersung rumble of thunder bridge the gap between their verses. The lead vocals take on a very Cave-like delivery, before finishing on a mono-syllabic run of increasingly frothing words: “Six. Feet. Deep. Bones bones bones bones!”

There are just crickets and a faint acoustic guitar behind Ryan’s voice–speaking, telling a story of death and undeath (of course!), booming drums, a tambourine, and a sort of low singing-saw enter, with “Oh, oh, oh, woah-woah,” from female voices, establishing this as another doo wop fusion, replete with the short monotone repetition of keys that climbs only after numerous repetitions. “When I think about you oh-oh-oh-oh”, the kids sing almost Buddy Holly-style, and the drums and acoustic fill the song out, ending with the title: “…Flowers Grow Out of My Grave”, which seems to end it but for the sound of a probable studio error of dropped items, laughter and clapping. They fade in a repetition of the kids’ line, but seem to abandon it in favour of sustained synthesizer chords, overwhelming and reverberating which stop abruptly.

As frustrating as it is to try and explain the point of the band to someone while not latching on to the Gosling element, it’s almost more difficult to realize what a lost cause this is–as I’ve mentioned, if you go anywhere it’s almost a given that the focus is going to be on Ryan’s role in the project, and how amazing he is and so on and so forth. All of this may be true, but you never get the impression from interviews that this was his brainchild or anything, moreso that this was a truly collaborative effort between at least the two of them if not everyone that ended up working on the album.

It doesn’t help anything that it occupies a strange and unique place in general, being most closely related in my mind to The Skull Mailbox and Other Horrors that my dad passed me over my affection for the horrific things in fictional media (I guess?), which is one of the many truly random items that floats around my collection of music (and my movies are not too different for similar reasons). It’s quirky, campy, macabre, fun, ghoulish, strange–but really, there’s one word (and it’s one I often cast in a very positive light) that really shapes the joy of the album: sincerity.

Read any interview with the two of them, or any article about the album, and inevitably it comes up that they set out rules to restrict the production, performance, tweaking and other “niceties” of modern recording when they put this together. They are not professional musicians, limited their number of takes, and performed most instrumentation themselves (most places say “all”, but I’m inclined to agree with the listing below that gives roles to the people thanked in the liner notes). It shows, but not in an awful way–it makes things very real, live, and organic, and gives the whole thing an appropriate charm for what it is. And I suppose that’s what it all hinges on: whether you can appreciate the intent behind it, the sense of discovery, experimentation and clear-headed desire that drives a peculiar project right out of the park–but it’s the park they chose, and it’s a bit out of the way, and it’s a little weird, and not many people go there, and isn’t it haunted?

Yes, I think it is.


¹As is often the case for me, I find myself fumbling around for details on a release and getting distracted. Someone, somewhere, put together complete credits for an album that otherwise, honestly, doesn’t mention them. The interior of the gatefold (whether it’s CD or DVD) shows the choir, Zach, and Ryan, with first names only for each. Tim appears (as with the others, labeled only “Tim”), but some of the other people mentioned are thanked in the notes that run around the edge. Others have no record (ahem) of their appearance whatsoever, either in fuzzy profile photo, by name, or any other means. However, the matching of those names, the awareness that Ryan and Zach are both male and the choir is composed of children means I do know some female voice(s) appear in the album, and that they are, thus, otherwise unidentified. I’m not even going to try too hard to sort this out.

²There’s one other actor-infused group that hits on a sort of similar note–not as stylistically out there, but similarly averse to star-attachment, and built on a duo that seems like an honest pairing, rather than a forced grouping, and that would be Ringside. Otherwise, so far as I can recall, “actor turned musician” tends not to turn out as well as “musician turned actor”. Though I do listen to 30 Seconds to Mars as well, and what I’ve seen of Leto suggests he very successfully made the transition to charismatic frontman, rather than heart-throb actor. Maybe it’s indicative of that burbling level of fame he and Gosling both inhabit, or maybe I’m just trying to find patterns where there are none. Again.

³I’m not trying to build a case for some kind of overarching, pretentious cerebral aspect of this (nor encourage the notion that I am delving into some deeply intellectual secret myself), this is just how I actually hear the music. I am a movie fan, as I’ve mentioned in passing, and I am rather big on horror, but should not be mistaken for an expert, much as I shouldn’t in music.

Day Forty-Eight: The Cult – Love


Beggars Banquet ■ BEG A 65

Released October 19, 1985

Produced by Steve Brown
Engineered by Steve Brown and Mark Stent



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Nirvana
  2. Big Neon Glitter
  3. Love
  4. Brother Wolf; Sister Moon
  5. Rain
  1. Phoenix
  2. Hollow Man
  3. Revolution
  4. She Sells Sanctuary
  5. Black Angel

Despite being a band I remain cursorily familiar with (at best), I actually wrote about The Cult twice on the last blog, once in bite-sized form regarding their fourth album, Sonic Temple, and very early on regarding the Beggars Banquet “Omnibus Edition” releases, which included this very album. I still have no idea what to make of them in more “global” terms than my own personal one, but I’ve found myself gravitating more and more regularly to their work, as proven by my eventual acquisition of this record (another of my more excited purchases from Hunky Dory. It is, so far as I can tell, actually a UK original from ’85, but I’ve never been too fussed about such things (even if I do find the thought neat and vaguely exciting).


“Nirvana” opens the album with a simple drumstick count from Mark Brzezicki (of Big Country), but Billy Duffy (though still credited at this time with the more officialese William H. Duffy) fans out a single chord from the guitar with the immediately pulsing bass of Jamie Stewart, Brzezicki now matching that pulse with hi-hat and off-beat snares. Duffy slashes guitar melody over this, big and broad, Ian Astbury descending from above with some simple “Oh, oh, oh yeah!” that seems to turn the band toward the verse as a whole, Brzezicki now embracing primarily snare and bass kick, Duffy’s crunchy riffs muted but escaping at the end of each of Astbury’s lines. Astbury’s voice is broad, wide and big, in keeping with Duffy’s guitar stylings, gnarling up in their unmuted freedom with a hook of a riff that builds up the tension–“And when the music is loud”, Astbury sings, and then it is just that: the initial melody was that of the chorus, and now his voice soars over the riffs Duffy started the album with, but held back a bit to let Astbury control that chorus like nobody’s business. At the midpoint, a start-stop bridge, emphasized largely by Brzezicki’s drums, but sounding best in the slippery, open riffs of Duffy. Billy goes into a coiled chug of muted riffing with the most delightful little branches of released strings that slowly manages to morph into a rising, rising, and rising solo that eschews the sense of “show-off” completely, being utterly appropriate for the song’s movement.

“Big Neon Glitter” is not bright and sparkly as one might think, single-picked, muted guitar strings with relatively light distortion echo just slightly, and are undercut by a sliding bass from Stewart that seems to fade down as it slides off of its notes, Brzezicki rolls into snare and bass hits, which slowly increase Duffy’s confidence, finally cementing it with a snare build that releases the strings, putting the same riff into a more complicated pattern, one that makes use of open strings for space,. Brzezicki, too, opens up, pounding the skins with a more primal–though just slightly restrained–force, before Duffy reaches into the heavens with another shining, high progression. “Drag me back/Drag me back drag me back drag me back” Astbury enters to say, seemingly repeating himself in a sense somewhere between hurrying the slow-moving and sinking into relaxation. Duffy’s guitars become more spaced apart, Brzezicki pushing the song forward, but Astbury making his notes count at the speed he feels appropriate, which isn’t always the tempo Brzezicki is setting. The bridge sees Brzezicki putting four on the floor, Stewart’s bass sliding up forcefully then back down with energy expended, Duffy’s guitar running tight circles around the rhythm section, Ian only briefly fading in with rhythmic vocalization that leaves as fast as it comes.

The title track makes for one of the best cases for the value of Billy’s overdubbing of guitars on the album–or, at the very least, one of the most apparent cases. He starts alone, playing a riff that goes on four beats and stops cold, but is picked up with a bending lead lick that overlaps just slightly with the riff’s return. The riff stays steady, while the higher lead lowers itself over a few steps, and then becomes a much more spacious, lower one that paves the way for Ian’s voice. Stewart mostly follows that standing riff, but fills the gap after its second run with a few beats and a downward slope. Ian keeps the power in his voice, but tunes it more toward a small crowd than the far reaches of a field, his words now leaving to let Duffy’s guitar lead return, experimenting further with its own range. A monster tom beat keeps the forward movement under Ian’s lengthy “Oh…” and lets Billy’s lead just burn and sail on through the rest of the track. The latter half of the car encompasses Astbury’s second lyrical set, half-desperate repetitions of methods of escape set to the varied poundings of Brzezicki and Duffy’s steadily high lead. A wah-wah warping of his lead carries it out through the end, Astbury improvising more and more steadily alongside him.

“Brother Wolf; Sister Moon” is the most explicit acknowledgment of the Native American aesthetic Ian favoured (actually, I think he still favours it). Duffy plays a low, arpeggiated chord over and over, joined subtly by bass kicks from Brzezicki, but most apparently by the flickers of mournful wailing that come from another of his own performances. It’s the kind of track you’d at least half expect to half spoken word lyrics, but Ian continues to make the most of his voice, his lyrics not even going in the story direction you might expect from the music and title, instead running on his favoured approach of a set of lines that are repeated in a fashion that is not always distinctly verse-chorus-verse. “And blow my fears…” he pauses, then sings “…away,” and Brzezicki drops his drums more strongly into the track–still a simple, steady and slow beat, but the snare drum echoing, and Stewart’s bass quietly rising up to join it in volume, too. It’s a hypnotic track, a slow fuse, but a burning one; when Duffy takes up the reins from Astbury and begins a solo that doesn’t much violate the song’s tempo, he doesn’t take that fuse and explode, so much as burn it brighter, Stewart’s keyboard part adding the most expectation to the track, high in the track and repeated with a melody that implies an eventual release, Ian repeating his lyrics before he pauses again, this time his word returning the song to its origins, a recording of an actual thunderstorm blanketing the track in one of the most musically appropriate moments for one I can recall.

Released as a single shortly before the album itself, “Rain” riffs more like “Nirvana”, though the steady four-on-the-floor from Brzezicki is given a speedy feel by his eighth note responses on the hi-hat. At open, Duffy’s guitars play as slowly picked chords on the one hand, but rising wails of lead. Mark releases his grip on the rapid beat slightly when the introduction ends, though, a subtle tambourine maintaining the eight notes, but most of the beat stuck to bass-snare-bass-snare pulsebeats. Duffy’s lead fades for the verse, his riffing turning to partly muted chugs, that open back up (though quietly) with Ian’s voice, which leaps along the tops of Billy’s high-reaching chorus lick. The return of the rapid opening beat allows Stewart’s bass to make itself known, before it gives way to the martial drumming of Mark and the shattering, tightly knit riffs that launch the song back into its chorus as the song finds its close.
Wah-wah is the order of the day in “Phoenix”, apparently a technique Billy picked up simply because there was a pedal in the studio, and not one he normally kept in his repertoire. He lays down a warbling riff, to which Ian replies “Yeah!” and Brzezicki adds a pair of kicks and then a steady beat to. Duffy’s lead burns off into the atmosphere and leaves behind a more restrained riff that mirrors Stewart’s bass, before it finds itself unable to be controlled and begins to spiral out from that simpler base, as Ian repeats “Fire, fire, fire…” in a way much calmer than he would do a few years later in “Fire Woman”. The wah allows Billy to wrestle out a song-length lead that gets neither boring nor too showy, and never stable and repetitious. It gives the whole thing a sort of “tougher” sense, not quite aggression but just pure strength.
“Hollow Man” is built on a steady foundation of  Stewart’s bass, one that ties down the free-floating riffs of Billy just long enough for Brzezicki to wrest control away and pull Duffy back down to earth for a riff that locates Ian’s voice and brings the song into a more distinct form that it carries onward. While a few songs on the album have backing vocals, they are most apparent here, in the only instance where they are the voices of Duffy and Stewart, echoing the words of Ian, at a vocal expression more of us can wrap our heads around. The lead riff Duffy follows with is like a rising flame that burns the rest away to leave nothing but a slightly tremolo-quivered ringing chord, and a bass-kick, snare-rim tap, which is itself burnt away with that same flaming riff, and leaves the verse’s structure intact in its wake instead. Billy’s lead begins to become wiry and aggressive in its bonds to the rest of the song, fighting more and more until the final beat of the song is let go.

Downtempo in a style very different from “Brother Wolf; Sister Moon”, “Revolution” has a thumping bassline and another of the more steady beats Brzezicki lays down. Duffy’s guitar is relatively subdued, though it doesn’t starve for volume or presence. Ian is similarly restrained: not quiet, not restricted in power, but kept at a reasonable medium largely, though his singing style doesn’t lend itself significantly to this approach and he throws a few tricks in here and there. At the chorus, though, he sings out into the distance, “There’s a revolution!/There’s a revolution!” with a kind of clenched-fist passion, though he spends most of the verses questioning the nature of revolution, the meaning of images, and the strength of either. It’s anthemic in an entirely different sense form “Nirvana” or “Rain”, which is exemplified in the deliberate pace of Duffy’s solo–it’s a fist raised more in solidarity, a glimmer of hope in rain, than it is a fist raised to punch at the air, or as a symbol to represent an undimmed effort despite exhaustion. The Soultanas (who are responsible for the album’s other backing vocals) appear with choral “Ahhs” and repetitions of the title word, all of it seeming to imply a non-specific revolution–not a theme song for a particular one, or maybe even any of them, yet not far off in tone from what one might be.

“She Sells Sanctuary” is a track the band was originally inclined to omit from the album, as it was released months earlier as a single, and was recorded with their then-drummer Nigel Preston, whose undiagnosed mental illness left him out of the band due to increasingly erratic behaviour. It’s chopped down from the lengthy runtime of the single (6:59 to 4:22), but still has a big sound that belies its comparatively short running time (it’s also now the second shortest track on the album, after “Rain”). The watery, ethereal guitar that starts it turns quickly to the burning rock of the song’s primary riff, which is expanded by the use of a clean guitar’s sound on the same riffs. Ian’s voice is in top firm, his mouth, his lungs open wide for every word. Nigel’s drums are steady and consistent, as is Stewart’s pulsing bass, but the Billy and Ian trade their energies throughout, soaring vocals for soaring leads, occasionally overlapped but never treading on each other. It briefly morphs into a vaguely psychedelic passage backed by steady 4/4 kicks, but it finds itself immediately becoming a final anthemic run through the verse and then a slow devolution into that watery opening guitar again.
The rapid song-end strumming that opens “Black Angel” is a complete distraction from what it becomes, a more clearly defined but still rapid riff is suggested, but replaced with a sped-up funereal clean guitar line that the distortion matches in volume, melody and rhythm. Reverberating chords let ring at the beginning of each measure suggest a desert’s desolation. Ian sings at his most gentle and quiet, but the kicks Brzezicki places behind him open his voice: “It’s a long way to go/A black angel at your side”…it’s a chorus that trudges with its words–it’s a long way to go, his voice says, not suggesting giving up, even sympathetic, but not just stating the facts, though maybe with a hint of confidence in the ability to finish the trip anyway. Of course, this is a trip with death, if “black angel” didn’t make that clear enough, the line is sometimes clarifed to “The reaper at your side”, nevermind “Journey on to the eternal reward”. It’s the theme of a journey, too intimate to be relegated to soundtrack status, but it would not be out of place there all the same–a cloaked figure pushing on through winds and sand, the hazy mirage of a black angel waiting off to the side. Brzezicki turns to a martial beat, implications of a steady march, and Duffy lays it over with his prettiest lead, which weaves around keys from Stewart, the mournful sound of a long journey that nears end but is still far off enough to be distant. “It’s a long, long, long goodbye” Ian begins to sing, and then it all wraps suddenly.
If you’re wondering, the symbols next to each song’s description are those that are placed in the back cover’s  tracklisting, as well as interspersed in the lyrics. If you actually blow up the picture of the cover in my hand, you’ll find that, oddly, the two sides are “reversed”: Side Two is above the central Cult wings, just below the band’s logo, and Side One is below and above the album title. Oddly, the back cover also shows the symbols in a row–and they’re reversed in the same fashion. Other pressings undo this choice, but I’m left wondering if it was intentional or accidental. I also wonder a bit if the symbol for “Hollow Man” is intended for “Black Angel”, though there are certainly enough death symbols in Egyptian mythology that that might be one as well (it’s not one I can place, so I’m not sure, myself–and perhaps it’s not so obvious as that). Each is of course drawn in the oblong shape that indicates a cartouche–but more than one is clearly taken from other cultures (a yin/yang appears in the one for “Revolution”, for instance).
The Cult has an interesting sound, and they’ve got a weird reputation. All the reviews included in the Omnibus edition prattle on about how they seem to be trying to bring back the ’60s, and other such tripe, and use this “against” them, despite the fact that it is not inherently good or bad, and Billy himself comments on realizing this, saying that he learned that Pete Townshend, for instance, was not automatically a boring old dinosaur just because Steve Jones (of the Sex Pistols) said he was, and that he had to “unlearn” a lot. I found all of this quite endearing: I’ve never been one to truck much with the reaction of punks as purely relevant to all music, much though I appreciate the shakeup–music can always use that.
What they actually sound like, though, is vaguely influenced by their imagery and their name: it’s music that carries on long enough and in fashions that use enough repetition that it could easily be thought of as mantra or chant, the kind of sounds and words that could fit with a darkened room lit only by large flames–not as a means of pretension or silliness, but as the right atmosphere for the sound. And sometimes it’s too big and loud and janglingly bright to fit in that space, but it seems right anyway. 
Indeed, this seems to be why “gothic rock” is attached to them as a label, at least in their early days (notwithstanding lingering associations from prior incarnation Southern Death Cult, which is a pretty cool name, you have to admit)–but they’re often pictured at the time (including inside the gatefold) in endless necklaces and paisley for Duffy, or the same excess jewelry and a leather jacket for Ian. There’s a sort of flowingness to their aesthetic as people that gives an oddly believable metaphysical sense to their image and sound. Astbury’s lyrics help this, but most importantly, none of it comes off as contrived or overtly naïve, it just comes off as aged, goth-y mystics who like to play rock. That might sound silly to some, I suppose, but it tends to work quite well for me, considering how they carry it off–neither taking it too far, nor seeming to chafe at its implications.
It’s nice, if nothing else, to see a band that is willing to create their own sound, not deny the past, and still come out of a scene (and a label) more known for the peculiar and “arty”.
  • Next Up: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi




In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.


■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.

Day Forty-Four: Converge – Axe to Fall

 Deathwish Inc. ■ DWI98

Released October 20, 2009

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Kurt Ballou
Mastered by Alan Douches




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Dark Horse
  2. Reap What You Sow
  3. Axe to Fall
  4. Effigy
  5. Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast
  6. Wishing Well
  7. Damages
  1. Losing Battle
  2. Dead Beat
  3. Cutter
  4. Slave Driver
  5. Cruel Bloom
  6. Wretched World

I’ve always been wary of the “hardcore” scene, such as it has been described and defined for the last, oh, decade and a half. What once was Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and D.O.A. was now something else entirely–something that was often difficult to relate to the music that first bore the name. Hardcore at this time was also plagued with clichés readily pointed out–the inevitable breakdowns, where the pace slowed and the riffs chugged and boomed to encourage the sense that the bottom had dropped out and all hell had broken loose, which is a difficult thing to do constantly to any real effect. At the same time, I didn’t listen to many of those bands in any detail, either. But it meant that when the name Converge was mentioned, I tended to leave them to their fans, stuck a bit in my own metal pseudo-elitism. I would periodically hear of them in a tone of reverence even from those who were more active in their criticism of this new “hardcore”, which I filed away in the back of my mind and left be for some time.

It wasn’t until I, for some reason, had “Dark Horse” dumped in my lap that my ears perks quite suddenly. I didn’t care what this was “supposed” to be according to other people–this sounded great. I actually made a trip out to a semi-distant Borders (the source, thanks to my then-employee discount, of much of my music at the time) to pick up a copy of this very album, Axe to Fall on CD. I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I ever thought, no longer left with the impression that most of the bands associated gave me–the feeling of enthusiastic but amateurish attempts to work songs into territory that was “cool”, as most clearly defined by the idea of “breakdowns”. Converge not only didn’t break down, they didn’t seem to have any of the lumps or uneven points that came along with bands that seemed to really, really want to recreate their favourite sounds, but make them their own.

I picked up their earliest albums as I ran across them, and eventually even filled out most of the gaps that came between those and Axe to Fall as time went on. About a month ago, I picked up All We Love We Leave Behind, their latest album (about three months after it was released). This record, though, I found on one of my excursions into the record stores that are (not all that) close to where I live now. I was casually flipping through the metal records and saw the distinctive cover, and the small sticker in the corner that said “Yellow Vinyl”. I’m nothing if not a sucker for picking up an album I already like when I’m told it’s on coloured vinyl–for good or ill, that often gets me immediately. Because it was used (if briefly, or perhaps even not much at all), it was in an open sleeve. When I saw this bright, radioactive, translucent colour, I knew I was going home with it regardless–and so I did. Because it came around in the middle of my transition between homes, I didn’t get much chance to spin it. Even more so, I was spending most of my time at my parents’ house, as they lived in the area I’ve since moved into, and it allowed me to establish myself job-wise while I worked out the living end of things–and playing Converge in a home that you know isn’t going to appreciate it, well, it just tends to seem rude.

The most amusing review I ever read of the album was one that suggested that the first time you listened to the album, “Dark Horse” might make you feel that you’ve suffered a mis-mastered CD, or some sort of malfunction in your player, one that has caused it to play a good bit too fast. And that’s not unfair, really: Ben Koller’s drum intro seems like it’s trying to prove itself to those nearby–“I’m fast, guys, I swear!” only it has the unsubtle tinge of actually being not just fast but clean and tight, contrasted especially with the distorted wobble of absurdly low (downtuning is nearly endemic in metal or metal-influenced musicians) bass from Nate Newton. A single note rings out from Kurt Ballou’s guitar, his pick slides back down the neck, and then his fingers fly. “Dark Horse” has one of my favourite-ever heavy riffs, a reasonably high-pitched, tremolo-picked flurry of fingers that seem to be finding the strings beneath them too hot to stay at any point for more than a moment, trying leaps as large as they can to prevent too severe a hot “foot”. Jacob Bannon’s vocals are shouted at a seeming distance, somewhat hidden in the mix as is not unusual for much of heavier music, but actually relatively clear: “For all those born to serve/And all those that chose to hide/Let their sadness be our blessing/Let their losses lead the way”, and then Kurt works up to a precarious precipice, teetering and then falling off–but not to anything like a breakdown, unless one were to forget that these typically imply a slowed pace. Now roaring, Bannon continues (“The dark horse will one day come/To free the light from all of us”), as Koller pummels the bass kicks in rapid succession. The band then sounds like the sheer power and energy of their work is trying desperately to make a u-turn back to the initial riff without slowing any or at all–there’s a short moment of scattered, slightly slowed guitar, like the beast is braking just enough to make that turn, and then they are off into that lightning run again. After the chorus–the roaring and double-kick–plays a second time, the pace actually does slow, Koller mostly hitting a steady 1,2,34 on the hi-hat, the 1s punctuated with a chord from Newton’s bass and Koller’s kick, Ballou’s guitar at only double that speed, high and jagged, slashing up and down in a zig-zag that is all peaks and valleys and no trips toward them. Koller’s snares and bass and Ballou’s guitars gradually work the song back upward, until a massive moment of breakdown that doesn’t let up the energy or force of the song to this point dissipate in service of a “moment” for the audience: it’s the crush of the song itself manifest, not a contrivance.

If you aren’t listening carefully or paying attention, the whinging feedback of Ballou’s guitar as it bleeds into “Reap What You Sow” might not clearly delineate the move into another song, even though the rapid hi-hat tapping of Koller suggests a sort of count-off. When Ballou’s riffs come in, it’s a sudden onslaught, lurching forward and balanced or propped by a rapid series of all snare hits from Koller–this is not a common sound in this kind of music, and does belie the origins in the hardcore punk segment of music, less brutal aggression of extreme metal and more the impassioned anger of hardcore punk. On an album loaded with guests, the first makes his appearance here: Sean Martin, briefly in Hatebreed, takes on the lead guitar part and backing vocals. A lovely tom fill from Koller spins the song into the verse where Martin’s guitar makes its voice heard, racing along a thin vein beneath Jacob’s roar, which sounds here–as in most places–like someone shouting full-bore into cupped hands around a microphone (no small wonder this is how he is most often seen performing). The song is most fascinating because it doesn’t seem to relate strongly to any familiar structure at all: the initial riff and snare hits suggest something that is being held just barely in check, not the beginning of a song, and the way it races under Martin’s lead after that feels normal until it’s broken into more distinct strikes, Koller’s drums trying to slow the juggernaut down as the guitars rise in pitch, pushing against the attempted slowdown. And then the lead falls down in a smooth arc back into the racing lead–which again is left to fight against the drums’ attempt to slow things down. A brief pause for a blur of otherwise solo, steady snare hits turns the song to a gallop that features Martin’s solo. A final pummeling assault that gradually gains the emphasis of relentless double kicks, roaring from Martin and Bannon and the screeching encouragement of guitars turns again to squeals of feedback.

Interestingly, the feedback that opens “Axe to Fall” is not of the kind that steamed out at the end of “Reap What You Sow”, but is instead the anticipatory kind that projects a just-turned-on amp, which lasts less than a moment before everyone follows the deliberately separated syllables of Bannon’s words: “Wai-ting for the axe to fall/Wai-ting for the axe to fall“, Koller’s drums again coming out at the end like brakes on the frenzied guitar. Ballou turns in a more subtle feat of finger-dancing, a lower, less apparent series of fretboard histrionics. Experiencing the first distinct tempo shift, the latter half of “Axe to Fall” is the closest to an actual breakdown the album experiences, but it doesn’t trade the rough edges of violence present previously for clarity and rhythmic emphasis.

“Effigy” brings in the work of Cave-In (recorded five years prior, before their hiatus began–one that ended the year this album was released), the band named somewhat strangely for a Codeine song. While Cave-In were at the end of their more accessible “space rock” phase that included a major label appearance, it was quickly turned aside for a return to their post-hardcore/metalcore roots when this was recorded, and it shows. J.R. Connors throws a more snare-oriented drumming style at the bass of the band, while Steve Brodsky and Adam McGrath use a more clean (but still appropriate) style to burn out blistering leads over the throaty yells of Bannon.

A few moments in the album are distinctly different from the short-lived (consistently under three minutes, occasionally under two) style that defines much of hardcore, and “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” is the first of these. A slightly dissonant but intensely distorted guitar riff plays at what now feels like a ponderous pace, creeping along to a sharpened peak, hanging and holding with threat and warning. Holding at the last, Koller, Newton, and Bannon join Ballou for a now meaty, crunchy version of the same: the pace has not changed, but now each note is bearing the weight of bass and drums behind it, Bannon’s voice the only thing not so clearly aligned with the otherwise magnetic thrum of that rhythm. Lingering distortion marks the first clear trade in vocals: taking on a rather Neurosis-style vocal, Ballou howls over flams from Koller, even and slowed. Between his lines, they all pound out a rhythmic forward movement, the second line followed by Newton, Ballou, and Bannon all expelling the words of the title in unison, pausing after each as no word is swallowed or given only half an effort. The sludge/doom sound is let free after this, Ballou’s guitar suddenly almost clean, pretty and melodic, but the pounding of toms from Koller turns them creepy, as Ballou and Bannon begin to whisper/sing (!) quietly: “The worms will find a way/The rats will find a way…” Ballou’s distortion is unleashed, as Bannon’s voice grows to its dry shout, and Ballou’s follows it shortly, the tension building and building into a final few strikes that Koller drums into a brief continuation, repeating this loop as if to prolong things, before it all turns slowly downward in pitch.

I don’t know how Ballou creates the guitar sound he does to open “Wishing Well”, but I’ve heard it a few other times, and it’s a great sound: a quavering, feedback-laden sustain, one that it appears can’t be completely steadied as it twists around itself. Allowed to play it in isolation, he is suddenly joined by Koller’s tension building snare hits, before a bass-thumping punk-style rhythm sets the song off. Former Entombed and current Disfear (a band which is currently fronted by Tomas Lindberg from At the Gates) guitarist Ulf “Uffe” Cederlund raises sheets of tremolo-picked wash over the throbbing toms of Koller, and joins Bannon for the chorus with his own voice.

Dry, palm-muted, unusually calm riffing only periodically accentuated by a sudden thrum of bass and an unintrusive drum beat mark the opening of “Damages”, implying a continuation of the kind of pace that typified “Worms Will Feed”. Koller starts the song off though, and Ballou’s briefly freed strings are turned to aggressive, more open, chunkier but still muted riffing, now anchored with the steady swinging strokes of bass on similar notes. An icing of higher, semi-harmonic tones branches out over it, and we’re left with a song that actually falls somewhere in the middle of previous tempos. Tim “Trivikrama Dasa” Cohen takes on lead guitar duty, and the feel is that of a machinistic deliberation, tempered only by the vocals of Bannon through the beginning, and those of Ballou when the song becomes a more low-end chugging toward the end, belching black smoke and menace, despite the decreased tempo. Dasa’s lead slips and slides and squeals over the final moments of the song, and of Side One, a final sludge of thudding riffs and drumming pounding out to the final note and only the brief ring of feedback.

“Losing Battle” lets Koller really shine with a complicated and interesting, shifting and rapid drum pattern, Ballou’s riffs grinding in the front but not matching the interesting drumming Koller lets loose, even when it changes briefly to a simpler and then a more rapid but still comparatively simple one (largely blast beats–snare-bass-snare-bass). Bannon snarls over the top (“Nothing left to lose”) and Ballou occasionally answers (“When I’m losing you”), the song charging ever-forward, before the final refrain of Bannon ends it: “Losing the battle/Losing the war”, and they crunch out two riffs to bring it to a dead stop.

There’s a hint of the very opening of “Dark Horse” at the start of “Dead Beat” in Koller’s frantic drumming, but Ballou’s almost chiming lead gives the lie to that notion. A brief moment of martial drumming (albeit that of troops that must be related to Barry Allen) transitions the song into its vocal portion, where Bannon’s voice is unusually melodic, calling to mind some weird amalgamation of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi–the shout of MacKaye, the melody of Picciotto (all else aside, it’s not a mystery why his first band was considered emotive hardcore), with an actual sound that falls somewhere between them, too. Ballou’s guitar is melodic, too, and less abrasive than previously. When Koller catches them up in his snares (heh!), it’s only to throw them into the heat of Bannon’s shouts and the swirling aggression of more meaty riffing, the higher pitches back to dissonance and pierce. It’s very subtle when it slips back to the more melodic approach on both their parts, though–almost unnoticeable.

With a guest only on backing vocals (a la “Axe to Fall” earlier), “Cutter” is from the point of view of someone who would be described as exactly that, with the words simple and to the point, describing the emotions that actually motivate this behaviour in empathetic but unapologetic terms, not falling into the simple trap of finding it a dangerously stupid act so much as the reaction of someone unsure what else to do to find relief. The rumble of riffing is largely arranged around kick-heavy drumming from Koller, Bannon’s voice describing the thoughts behind cutting as John Pettibone growls “No way out”, Ballou allowing for thrashy flurries of squealing lead–not in Slayer territory of atonality, but brief and tight. “One way down/No way out” Pettibone shouts as the song rockets forward to its end.

The last purely Converge track, “Slave Driver” has a white noise of distorted guitar that manages to make the impossible possible: because he’s the only one playing an instrument oriented around melody, Newton’s bass is suddenly more apparent, rumbling out both the melody and deep, thumping accent to Koller’s drumbeat, though a low guitar comes along with him (mixed just below his bass, though, just fattening the sound). Bannon sings in his old school hardcore voice briefly, even, which only serves to make the cries of “No longer feel anyone/No longer fear anything” that much more frighteningly nihilistic and depressed. The song accelerates to and end of repeated abbreviation: “No longer feel/No longer fear!”

Quite unexpectedly, piano and acoustic guitar (Ballou in both cases) open “Cruel Bloom”, the first voice we hear actually that of Steve Von Till of Neurosis, effecting his best warm and twisty postAsylum (records, not mental institution) Tom Waits. The howling of electric guitar works its way in until it most clearly overlays the choral vocals of Von Till with The Rodeo, Chris Taylor, and Aimee Argote: “Lifelong victims pound and claw at the ground/Searching for a way out of their skin/Writhe in the cruel bloom”. It’s actually a rather pretty, though somber and dark chorus, especially with the emotive guitar punctuating their words. When Koller and Newton join after this chorus, the sense of Tom Waits (or a severely mutated version of Neurosis that eschews their more long-winded and progressive elements) is exaggerated. Newton’s bass is clean, thumping to the deliberate pace of simple 4/4 patterns from Koller. It’s almost like a weighed down, depressed form of Dead Man’s Bones–just to make a completely useless comparison, as that band is not exactly a familiar one to most. Von Till holds the second repetition of “Bloom” alone, his voice gaining the grit that marks the heavier side of Neurosis, as Ballou comes crashing down¹ with a roar of distorted guitar. Von Till’s voice becomes its own hoarse howl, the guitar’s own turning instead to a throaty wail. A slow of the crunchy riff and the wailing guitar extended end the song on a hanging note.

Continuing the peculiarities of the album for this band (some silly folk felt these two tracks should have been left off), “Wretched World” is largely contorted by J.R. Connors (of Cave-In) and Brad Fickeisen (of The Red Chord) on drums, Hamilton Jordan, Mookie Singerman, and Michael Sochynsky (all of Genghis Tron, on guitars, vocals and keyboard, and keyboard respectively). Chiming distorted harmonics act as a sort of clock announcing the hour throughout (it’s actually quite a neat sound and a nice effect). Electronically distorted voices murmur in the background, Newton’s bass allowed to ring heavily, before beginning to slide methodically around. Forlorn, sliding guitars wander the background, the drums only entering at the two minute mark, Singerman’s voice coming in with the nasal tinge of Mastodon’s cleaner ones (I’d say Brent Hinds’ voice if pressed). It’s a ponderous song, the drums largely toms pounding out large, emphatic beats. The advent of distorted guitars takes four minutes, but they are not used for aggression so much as the washing reverberation that distortion brings when allowed to ring out. Losing out to the chiming harmonics, Bannon’s voice enters and roars out only briefly alongside Singerman’s, the riffs now allowed to hang in the air, the song slowly fading away more completely to just the chiming harmonics, until it all falls to sustained keyboard, the holding noise of distortion and a slow fade.

The most important aspect of a metal band is not the simple obvious things–aggression, speed, the ability to “mosh” to it, so on. Of course, it may be for some people, but if those are the only necessary factors for quality, almost anything categorized as such qualifies, and some quality material is lost. But then, I suppose the same could be argued for my philosophy. In any case, some bands are labeled consistent with a sort of half-hearted but sincere thumbs up: a good four-out-of-five slapped on and a day called, whenever they release a new album. There are strong bands in this category, and then there are bands in all the wild branches of metal and metal-esque music that are something else. I can call to mind a few that are thought of this way, but those thumbs ups aren’t half-hearted, and the fours turn to fives, and the consistency is not a solid mark, it’s an outstanding one. Converge has had this reputation almost without exception for the entirety of their career. There’s the sense that their albums aren’t just well-written, well-performed sets of songs tossed out as they reach a tipping point in number or total length–the sense that, instead, they are worked and refined, until even the breakneck paced blasts of hardcore aggression themselves feel like thoughtful choices, not simple repetitions.

The appeal of Converge lies in their ability to create music recognizable as this new breed of hardcore (tinged with metal, in almost every case), but that surprises and innovates as it does so. The rhythms, the patterns and structures of the songs: they are fascinating when broken down, because they are so atypical. Even at an auditory “glance”, too, there’s a different feeling to these than comes from a lot of rather ho-hum material released under this banner.

Maybe it’s the influence of engineering and production talent in Ballou guiding the group musically. Maybe it’s the influence of art school graduate Jacob Bannon in fashioning lyrics that may tread similar ground but manage to avoid cliché or clumsiness–as well as stunningly effective and striking artwork that has graced their work from the beginning. It’s stylistically striking and distinct, like that of Baroness‘s John Dyer-Baizley, but more gritty and reminiscent of graffiti or screenprinting (which I think does factor into his method), managing to feel well thought out, designed and carefully articulated despite the immediate impressions of “simple” techniques. The cover to Axe to Fall and its colour scheme, simple and limited in palette, are appropriate and clear, and, despite their dark tenor, quite beautiful. Opening a gatefold of Bannon art is breath-taking in that real sense, as may be even better illustrated by the monochrome cover of All We Love We Leave Behind, which becomes vibrant and overwhelming when opened.

I’ve found that Converge deserves their reputation as not just consistent but consistently excellent, though, like much of metal, they require a willingness to be patient and listen carefully, to hear the way that the sounds are married into what may at first sound like a raging, rabid frenzy of untamed aggression. Their music may, in fact, be somewhat more impenetrable for the fact that it has left behind few of its roots in the barked, abrasive stylings of hardcore–even when it was punk, much of it fit this rubric. But it’s worth doing.

  • Next Up: Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces

¹I’mt not going to pretend it’s incredibly clever, but this is a subtle nod to an early Converge album, and I feel like that won’t be apparent unless I point it out. Which doesn’t reflect well, of course, but there it is.