Friday, March 28, 2014

Journey of 1000 Miles Begins with a Single Step: King's X Gretchen Goes to Nebraska

If there were ever to be a wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for most underrated bands, one of the first inductees would rightfully be progressive metal act King’s X. This trio out of Texas has been trudging the club and small theater circuit since the late 1980s, never really breaking through, though they produced some of the most compelling videos on MTV at the time—when the M in MTV actually stood for “music.” And they are the musician’s musicians, well-respected by other members of the rock-and-roll community, but close to anonymous among the general public—even the head banging subgroups.

At the time, they produced three strong albums coming out of the gate: 1988’s “Out of the Silent Planet,” 1989’s “Gretchen Goes to Nebraska” and 1990’s Faith Hope Love.” Of these, “Gretchen” was overall the strongest. With Doug Pinnick on bass/vocals, Ty Tabor on guitar/vocals and Jerry Gaskill on drums/vocals, King’s X produced a wall of sound that many five-piece combos would be hard-pressed to produce.

Working in conjunction with manager Sam Taylor on organ and piano on some tracks, “Gretchen” has a very clean but unpolished production value that really rings true. It represented quite the antidote to the classic rock radio virus that broke out in the 80s and has ravaged the airwaves ever since. Taylor was a veteran of the ZZ Top organization so he was very familiar working with rocking trios on solid albums. As an allegorical journey, the album “Gretchen Goes to Nebraska” is quite the trip.

The standout track on “Gretchen” has to be “Over My Head” as Pinnick hears music, music, music over his head. While not a gospel-inspired song, it has the feeling of an old time faith revival meeting with the singalong chorus. Tabor really smokes on the guitar solo. To close it out, the three of them shift into fourth gear and push the pedal to the floor.

“Summerland” is a nice melodic mid-tempo number to simmer it down a bit from “Over My Head” with an aching for a forgotten place to which we need to get back. Seems a bit like “Paradise Lost.” You’ll notice that throughout most King’s X compositions there lies an undercurrent of Judeo-Christian figurative language. Fortunately, they don’t take it much beyond that, relying mainly on allusions and symbolism to get their point across to the listener.

An exceptional track on “Gretchen” takes form on “Mission” where the congregation is gathered behind the stained glass windows, but we’re not sure if they know why they are there. It could just be for an assembly of a social get-together. King’s X really makes the indictment that many parishioners simply go to church as an affectation and are not necessarily there for salvation—or could just be scared of hell!

“Pleiades” and “The Burning Down” strike a similar yearning chord. These are the most spiritual cuts on “Gretchen” with the latter one closing it into one of those Easter egg type hidden tracks at the end. It’s sped up and very faint, so you’ll have to crank up the volume to make it out, but the payoff could well be worth it.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Looking Back Through the Southern Exposure: Exposé Greatest Hits

Before there was En Vogue, TLC or a host of other 80s and 90s girl groups there was Exposé. Coming from the sound machine of Miami, these Southern-honed chanteuses taught girls of the Decade of Reagan how to groove on the dance floor and cry on their pillows in the middle of the night. Not that Exposé invented the infectious girl-group sound. They pay proper homage to their predecessors such as the legendary Andrew Sisters, The Shangri-Las and the queens of the girl-group heap, The Supremes, in the liner notes of “Expose Greatest Hits.”

Who hasn’t jumped up from their cocktail at the latest ultra lounge and rushed out to the dance floor when the opening notes of “Come Go with Me” come spinning out of the DJ booth? That seminal dance track sizzles with programmed synthesizers and thumping drum machine beats emblematic of the freestyle dance music sub-genre. But Exposé kept it real with an understated rock guitar solo in the middle. Even nearly 30 years on, the group’s sound seems as contemporary as anything coming from the likes of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. Every guy and girl who works hard all day only to come home late deserves a night out featuring these three gals.

Nearly as equally as good a dance number as “Come Go with Me” is “Point of No Return.” The formula retains its power with the girls sending up the siren’s call coaxing out the shy to lose themselves under the spinning ball and flashing lights. With big hair and big attitude, these divas can pump up a club crowd with the best of them.

But these princesses of the spotlight were no one-trick mares. They were able to put away the sequined gowns, crop tops and Spandex skirts and leggings, drop down and pull out all emotional stops on odes to unrequited and lost love. On “I’ll Say Good Bye for the Two of Us,” a girlfriend cannot stand to see the look in her lover’s crying eyes when she breaks it off. So she has to leave in the middle of the night while he’s sleeping to avoid the heartache. It literally makes me misty-eyed to listen to this powerful song of mourning.

And on their No. 1 hit single “Seasons of Change” the three women of Expose, Ann Curless, Jeanette Jurado and Gioia Bruno, rummage through an empty beach house packing it up for the low season. Each in turn laments that things cannot remain the same as yesterday. The sacrifice to have their loved ones by their sides today forces them to sacrifice tomorrow. Some may think this type of music shallow and saccharine but these sad stories do tug at the heartstrings.

After going on hiatus in 1996, the world of pop music seems to have mostly forgotten the history-making trio of Exposé. With their debut album “Exposure,” the girls surpassed the record of The Beatles and The Supremes by charting four Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 off their freshman effort. Exposé has since returned to active status in recent years. They can be caught on occasion at special events. So if you feel the urge to go back to the 80s, keep an eye out for dance club flyers on telephone poles. One of them could be about Exposé coming to a venue near you!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Don’t Choke on the Words: Jägermeister Musictour 2007

Unlike many of the other CDs I've been reviewing from the archive of Derek Handova, the compilation “Jägermeister Musictour 2007” is of recent vintage. It’s even from this century: 2007. Also, I can be pretty sure that I saw The Cult in concert in 2007 at The Warfield, San Francisco, when I got this CD. Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy had the good taste to have it handed out as people were leaving the auditorium. Or more likely, the good folks at Jägermeister had it handed out as part of their campaign against underage drinking. Well, I’m not one to choke back my words of thanks. So thanks Ian, Billy and the Jägers! Unfortunately, you cannot find any The Cult tracks on this disc. But there are some interesting cuts by bands that may not have received their proper notice. And a few tracks from veteran metal acts.

The one track that immediately jumps out to the ears is the song “Power Player” by Clutch. Having been around since the 1990s as one of the Stoner Rock acts caught in the shadow of Queens of the Stone Age, Clutch seems to be finally breaking on “Power Player,” showcasing this thumping rocker as their opening number on recent tours. Saying “Get your hands off me, you don't know who I am | I'm a power player, I'm a power player,” the group makes a statement of prowess and attitude. With a driving bass line and strong drumming, they rip through it.

Another mix brimming with defiance is “Hell & Consequences” by Stone Sour. Menacing, they intone, “I will not be afraid” while citing a list of stiff-spined standing-up-to-your enemies mantras. I find myself uttering this snippet under my breath when confronted with oppositions small and large. Playing at fast-forward speed, Stone Sour combines the best elements of nu metal instrumentalism and old school rock storytelling.

A couple of long-in-the-tooth metal purveyors figure prominently on this “Jäger” volume: Big 4 speed metal entry Slayer and uncategorizable Gwar. Except for the aforementioned tracks and some more melodic dirges by Deftones [“Xerces”], Shinedown [“Some Day”] and HIM [“Venus (In Our Blood)], a great many of the tracks take after one or the other of Slayer or Gwar—and that’s probably not a good thing. Slayer offers up “Eyes of the Insane,” which seems just to be another pseudo-satanic meditation for which the band is infamous. I can remember them doing something like this back in the 80s on “South of Heaven.” Gwar is just abysmal with its patented guttural sound on “Eighth Lock.” But you have to give them credit for pretending that a piledriving sonic creation can pass for music in some corridors.

For the most part, for a freebie, “Jägermeister Musictour 2007” is a good selection to pick at random. If The Cult comes around again, I’ll have to check out the 2014 version of their annual promotion platter of new music and new and not-so-new artists.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hey Jimi! First Person from the Sun: Stone Free (Hendrix Tribute)

A funny thing happened on the way to thinking about the artists who covered Jimi Hendrix songs for the 1993 tribute album “Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix.” The more I listened to these artists, the more I thought about Jimi. And the more I thought about how much Jimi thought about himself. Or at least how much he sang about himself. The self-centered pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” seem to recur in Hendrix songs with some regularity. And then he refers to himself in the third person, e.g., “Aw, move over Rover | And let Jimi take over” on “Fire.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most songwriters write about their personal experiences. And so the show must go on!

More than a tribute, “Stone Free” actually strikes me as a celebration of the mastery and mystery of Hendrix’s songwriting, singing and, naturally, out-of-this-world guitar playing. A range of artists gives performances that seem to have been inspired by Hendrix and his songs as opposed to direct covers or even indirect interpretations. The liner notes from the CD confirm that there was a conscious effort to accomplish this.

In that spirit, the CD kicks off with The Cure taking a swing at “Purple Haze,” with a looped sample of the Hendrix riff of the same name just audible in the background. The way Cure frontman Robert Smith intones, “Scuse me while I kiss the sky” brings a plaintive twist to this trippy chestnut of the psychedelic era. Hip-hop duo P.M. Dawn did something even more bizarre with “You Got Me Floatin’”, with many different people saying Jimi’s name before breaking into the lyric of the song title. This strikes me as an excellent example of trip hop.

The entire “Stone Free” project was not all experimental. Rock ‘n’ roll heavyweights including Eric Clapton, Paul Rogers (of Bad Company), Jeff Beck and Slash (of Guns N’ Roses) gave it their all on their respective Hendrix renditions. Clapton roars ahead on the title track because he’s “got to got to got to get away” as he sizzles like always playing his own Stratocaster, Blackie, with his “Fender’s fingers.” Beck and Seal teamed up for a cover of “Manic Depression”—so glad they hadn’t started to call it Bipolar Disorder until much later. Beck sounds incredibly like Hendrix on “Manic,” and Seal gives a yeoman’s effort of channeling Jimi’s vocals. Seal is the much better singer but limits himself to tap into the emotional potency of the song.

Possibly, Slash and Rogers have the most intriguing entry on the disc joining two of Hendrix’s rhythm section from the Band of Gypsies, Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Going through the paces of “I Don’t Live Today,” Slash, Rogers, Cox and Miles give life to this powerful barnburner that gave energy to the birth of the hard rock to come.

Overall, I find “Stone Free” extremely enjoyable and accessible. Some of the past—well it’s all in the past now—some of the present and some of what may yet be the future.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Darkest Before the Light—Nativity in Black (A Tribute to Black Sabbath)

As I've written in earlier blogs, tribute albums have had a nice run for the last couple of decades. One of the albums that may have had a hand in starting the whole phenomenon is “Nativity in Black: A Tribute to Black Sabbath” (1994). Twelve selections are on “Nativity” from some of the leading heavy metal acts of the early 1990s and also from what were perceived to be up and comers and a couple of groups specially assembled just for this occasion.

Heavy metal veterans Megadeth and Bruce Dickinson (from Iron Maiden) turned in the most stalwart interpretations of Sabbath songs. Dave Mustaine lead singer/lead guitarist of Megadeth really brings it on “Paranoid,” taking the tempo of the original up a notch and giving it his patented machine-gun-style speed metal treatment. He does the vocals homage as well with that menacing growl that is so beloved by fans near and far. The funny part at the end is classic with the song ending and the drummer continuing as Dave yells out “Nick. Nick! Nick!!” before he stops. Bruce Dickinson (w/ Godspeed) takes up “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” in his own operatic style, paying the most tribute to Ozzy by not trying to ape him. When Bruce sings “When you ask the reasons why | They just tell you that you’re on your own | Fill your head all full of lies |You bastard!” drawing out the last line to a full soprano crescendo, you want to pump your fist and holler “Yeah!”

What’s interesting is that Ozzy and two other members of Black Sabbath put together separate appearances on their own tribute album. Ozzy w/Therapy? gives a standup sendup of “Iron Man” pretty comparable to the original, though there is no reproducing the licks the way Tony Iommi plays them. Meanwhile, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward joined up with Rob Halford from Judas Priest to form Bullring Brummies to perform their magic on “The Wizard.” Halford shows great restraint and contains himself to enunciate each word clearly and paint the picture of a beneficial magician spreading good tidings.

The CD closes out with Type O Negative offering an interesting tone poem cut of the band’s eponymous “Black Sabbath.” You won’t be uttering, “What is this that stands before me?” as your ears will be mesmerized being drawn in deeper and deeper. The sinister and slow drumming intro harkens back to something a coven of witches may have been casting as an incantation around a pyre.

All in all, this disc does justice to the mighty Sabs. This tribute album may have been the first salvo in resurrecting the band’s image and putting them on the track to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The dark poetry of four lads from the industrial north of England has a message for us all: Don’t fear the dark. Embrace it and make it your friend.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Blinded by the Light: Living Colour’s Vivid Shines Bright as Ever

A very important milestone recently occurred in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: the 25th anniversary of the debut album “Vivid” (1988) by Living Colour, the first all-African-American crossover heavy metal act. To mark the occasion, the original lineup of the group toured extensively playing the whole album cover to cover—The Catalyst in Santa Cruz had the honor of hosting one of the Bay Area gigs by this legendary ensemble. And I had the unique privilege of having been there before Living Colour broke out and also there to celebrate their legacy. They were amazing in 1989, playing at a very intimate place called Bogart’s nightclub in Long Beach, Calif., which sadly is no more.

The group was as Greek gods descended from Mount Olympus, sculpted out of pure obsidian. Corey Glover, the lead singer, fresh off co-starring in director Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film epic “Platoon,” looked a black Adonis in his Body Glove getup strutting and jumping around the stage, all the while giving the anthem “Cult of Personality” its just due from the bottom of his leather-lined lungs. Dictators such as Stalin and Mussolini never stood a chance. I was in awe, sitting in the front row. Just to think, a few months later Living Colour would be opening for the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour at the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Some say that Mick Jagger was paying it forward by discovering, producing the demo for and promoting Living Colour for all the blues artists the Stones had been ripping off since the 60s. I think Mick just knew the real deal when he heard it.

To this day, lead guitarist Vernon Reid has got to be among the most undersung axeman in the business. With the monster riffs he picks off on “Cult of Personality” and “Middle Man,” for which the video was the first clip to be featured on both MTV’s alternative music show “120 Minutes” and its heavy metal program “Headbangers Ball,” Reid can arguably be ranked right up there with Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore on “Smoke on the Water” for most immediately recognizable song intro.

The rest of the CD still sounds crisp and au courant with the mind-blowing meat grinder “Desperate People” still capable of singeing your eardrums with the whammy bar squeals, soprano high notes and unfortunately relevant-to-today anti-drug message.

Not to be outdone, the rhythm section of Living Colour—bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer William Calhoun—is excellent, keeping the beat steady and—pardon the pun—rock solid yet still funky when the need arises. Overall, Living Colour laid the foundation for many multicultural rockers that followed to build on, but upon which they could never construct an equally structurally sound second story. Maybe that lawsuit against the Wayans for the sketch comedy show “In Living Color” was too much of a distraction.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Monster Mosh—Punk-O-Rama 4: Straight Outta the Pit

Admittedly, I was late to the punk rock party—30 years late. But making up for lost time, I’ve managed to see some of the godfathers of punk in the last few years: The Damned, Agent Orange, Misfits, The (New) Germs and even Bad Religion (the Cross Busters smoked at Bottle Rock Napa)! So when I was digging through the CDs in my collection and I came across “Punk-O-Rama 4: Straight Outta the Pit” (1999), I was stoked. Again, I’ve lost track of when or where I gathered this one up, but apparently, the CD gods were smiling on me that day.

Something of a greatest “hits” of Epitaph Records recording artists, this one volume disc contains 25 noggin knocking 2-to-3-minute classics of the mosh pit. Even as good as Bad Religion is on “Generator,” and that’s as explosive as “a f-ing atom bomb,” as the song goes, they aren’t even the best “P4” has to offer. As lyrically bright and brutally honest as they have always been known to be, Bad Religion takes no prisoners. Another cut I was looking forward was Agnostic Front on “It’s My Life.” As the progenitors of the New York hardcore movement, this group is aggressive and driving, and they always “do things their own way.”

A group I wasn’t familiar with going into this CD is Zeke. The lead singer really belts it out on “Twisted” going down on the 69, metaphorically. But I dunno it is punk rock, maybe they mean it literally. The guitarist sounds like some kind of dangerous power tool, buzzsawing through the riffs. It’s as serious as a heart attack. However, there is plenty of fun left on the album with the likes of Voodoo Glow Skulls letting the horns fly on “They Always Come Back.” Hearing that “bah-ba-na-na-na | bah-ba-na-na-na” of the brass section makes me think of the Stanford band and the crazy dancin’ tree!

H2O on “Faster than the World” and The Bouncing Souls on “Hopeless Romantic” keep the fun going with playful words and lightning fast two-chord progressions. So the take the Souls’ advice, don’t be hopeless; if you can find this one, give it a listen.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener