Thursday, December 30, 2010

King Crimson “In the Court of the Crimson King” (1969)

Released in progressive rock's ground zero year of 1969, King Crimson's debut instantly upped the ante in terms of expanding the possibilities of where rock music could go, it's expansive songs and the individual members' mastery of their instruments defining the genre. One seriously heavy and hyper-intelligent statement, In the Court of the Crimson King explodes with the primal, scalding venom of "21st Century Schizoid Man," as lyricist Peter Sinfield's Vietnam-era imagery of "innocents raped by napalm fire" delivered through Greg Lake's distorted vocals are encircled by a torrent of lacerating Fripp guitar chords, tightly controlled high-octane ensemble passages, and free-jazz discord from Ian McDonald's layered sax solo. "21st Century Schizoid Man" sets you up for an almost reverse-whiplash effect, as tracks like the exploratory "Moonchild" and lush chamber balladry of "I Talk to the Wind" widen the scope further with their fragility, while the stately "Epitaph" and bombastic title track are carried on the towering waves of a booming, primitive/modern mellotron orchestra, as images of doom and destruction abound. In the Court of the Crimson King would set the template for much of King Crimson's work, despite the band's multiple lineup changes, with it's ability to bludgeon, soothe, and strike a nerve throughout this landmark release resulting in a distinguished rock institution. –Ben

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Miles Davis “Get Up With It” (1970)

Without a doubt, one of the greatest albums of them all, a double set only comparable to the likes of the Stooges' "Funhouse" in its darkness, intensity and raw, funky sexuality. Now for starters let's get something straight: I loathe "fusion", and to even CONSIDER putting Miles' music of the '70s in that category - a genre filled with lilly-livered chumps like Return To Forever and the Yellow Jackets - is a great disservice to Miles and his music. From 1969 to '75, Mr. Davis pioneered and created his own unique sounds, a mixture of hard funk, psychedelic rock, avant-garde electronics and free jazz, that has never been equalled in regards to its sonics or its "vibe". There is NOTHING that can touch the raised-middle-finger jab in the guts felt when one puts on discs like "Dark Magus", "Live Evil", "Agharta", "Big Fun" or "On The Corner". The feelings of utter loathing and despair, the overwhelming EMOTION of these discs can be too much, yet nothing can prepare you for 1974's "Get Up With It", a disc of such wildness and total lack of any commercial forethought (and thank the heavens for that) that it was granted pretty much instant deletion upon release and has mainly only been available from Japan for the last 25 years.

Start with the cover: a big, slightly unflattering, grainy photo of The Man. It's the sight of a man against the world, battling for his own identity. Hit the first track, "He Loved Him Madly" (a tribute to Duke Ellington), a 32-minute ambient piece only broken up occasionally by Peter Cosey's mumbling guitar lines. It's one of the saddest damn songs you'll ever hear, and you can bet yer booty that if it was made by a bunch of white guys in Berlin ca. '71, every Krautrock freak in town would be hailing it as a classic. Next track "Maiysha" is a schizophrenic one. For ten minutes in merely putters along like a lite Latin number, interrupted sporadically by Miles' Sun Ra-like organ, then it stops, gets into a hard groove and proceeds to move along to Peter Cosey's awesome guitar screeches for another five minutes. Hot. "Honky Tonk" is up next, a brief interlude of stop-start rhythms and noisy organ crunch. It prepares you for the next track the unstoppable "Rated X", THE peak of Miles' - or maybe anyone's - sonic capabilities. Part hyperdive breakbeat rhthyms, part uber-funk, and nine parts pure noise, there is no other sound on earth as MOVING as this song. Get up with it. Disc two starts with "Calypso Frelimo", another 32-minute piece that starts where "Rated X" finishes off. Ecstatic peaks of dark psychedelic jamming, aided by Miles' wah-wah'd trumpet, gel and compete. "Red China Blues" is a brief number that kicks it in a Chess-Records-meets-Ornette way, and the 15-minute+ "Mtume" once again takes you for a ride with its collision of Cosey's guitar (a highly under-rated player in a field with the likes of Sonny Sharrock) and about half a dozen percussionists. Finishing is "Billy Preston", more chilling mid-range avant-funk to close the set. "Get Up With It" is the perfect summation of what was filling Miles' head at the time: the avant electronics of Stockhausen, the cyclical funk of James Brown, the wailing psych guitar of Hendrix, the improvised freeness of Ornette Coleman and as The Man himself put it, "a deep African thing". Many words have been written on Miles' music of this period, but to really GET it, you have to LISTEN to it. Not a word is spoken on GUWI, yet it speaks volumes on its creator's alienation and sense of despair. As far as so-called "out-rock" goes, this is about as "out" as you could get, and certainly about as purely "psychedelic" as music has ever gotten, so do the done thing and get with it. –Dave

Sunday, December 26, 2010

ZZ Top - Tejas (1977)

1977s Tejas is a transition album for Texas rockers ZZ Top. It is the beginning of their step away from the Blues Rock that had brought them fame and a lot of record sales and towards the 1980s Electronic Blues that would eventually make them a worldwide phenomenon. There is more of the former Blues Rock than the latter Electronica here though. Tejas is almost as good a ZZ Top's masterpiece Deguello, but is held back by some weaker tracks, something Deguello didn't suffer from. Still there are some amazing songs here, notable the blazing, yet tongue in cheek Arrested for Driving While Blind, the countrified and rollicking She's a Heartbreaker, and the achingly beautiful Asleep in the Desert. Overall Tejas is an important part of ZZ Top's discography, and a very good album. –Karl

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Ventures “The Ventures Christmas Album” (1965)

The Ventures, who seemed to crank out a dozen-odd albums every year during their heyday in the 1960s, released this gem in 1965. It distinguishes itself from its holiday brethren by using a mixture of two styles that should be antitheses of each other: the Christmas carol and surf music (or more fundamentally, winter and summer). Traditionally, the heart of each of these styles lies in evoking a mood. The danger in trying to evoke two moods simultaneously is that it might become a hokey mishmash (like those "Santa-in-a-Hawaiian-shirt" tourist trinkets for sale in the islands). Through the skill of The Ventures and their producers, however, the two are combined into a fairly seamless whole, both heartfelt and fun - a pretty nifty trick. As on their other surf records, the guitar tones of Don Wilson and Nokie Edwards are still king, but sleigh bells (more or less subbing for the hi-hat) and glockenspiel challenge for supremacy in the mix. This elf approves! Favorites from the album include the majestic "What Child Is This" and "Silver Bells." –Wilson

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yes “Time and a Word” (1970)

1970s Time And A Word is one of the greatest first-generation Progressive Rock albums, and a wonderful musical snapshot of a young and unsettled Yes that hadn't quite yet settled into their later Prog Godhood role. Only two-thirds of the "classic" Yes lineup is here, Jon Anderson at Frotman, and the wondrous Chris Squire at Bass and Bill Bruford at Drums. Otherwise it's part-time Yes man Tony Kaye on Keyboards and Yes's original (And quite substandard compared to Steve Howe) Guitarist Peter Banks. Still Time And A Word is a wonderful solid album with some truly amazing songs hidden in it's grooves. The title track is, in my opinion, the most gorgeously beautiful song Yes ever created. And No Opportunity Necessary No Experience Needed is simply thrilling. If you are a fan of Yes, or Progressive Rock you need Time And A Word. –Karl

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Van Morrison “Astral Weeks” (1968)

“If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream...” and so opens the poetic dream masterpiece, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.” It's one of those monuments to human emotion that has the power to carry the weight of your life with it. The funny thing is, I really wasn’t feeling Van for the longest time, always shelving him away in the “mom-rock” bin. Then all of a sudden something hit me and quickly snowballed into the realization of his genius. With Astral I find the strength lies in the fact that, although the production is both classical and traditional in instrumentation, the record comes across as highly psychedelic from the mysticism of the arrangements. It’s similar in that way to the first few Leonard Cohen records or Townes Van Zandt’s “Our Mother the Mountain,” And for being such a contender among quality poetic-psyche LP’s, it’s easily available and usually pretty cheap, so there's no reason why you can't check it out. –Alex

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band “Express Yourself” (1970)

Somewhere between the Funk formalism of James Brown and free-spiritedness of Sly Stone can be found Charles Wright. In a perfect world, this enormous talent would be mentioned in the same breath as Redding, Gaye, and Green, but Wright's long-term success was hobbled by the line-up changes of his various backing bands, inconsistent records, and other music biz unpleasantries. Though he recorded lots of great music–even his weakest efforts are at least worth hearing–this record is his shining moment. Its title track is its most famous (and most sampled), but other tracks like I Got Love and the free-form funk freakout, High as Apple Pie parts 1 & 2, give it a Gospel-like sense of joy. Few reissued records have caused as much confusion as this one. The original release kicked off with a tight little number called A Road Without End. Future pressings, however, replaced that track with Love Land, which appeared on his previous LP, In the Jungle Babe. Love Land is a great song in its own right, but it doesn't suit the feel of Express Yourself as well as the track it replaces. For this reason, an original pressing of the record is well-worth tracking down. –Richard P

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Back “Sea Change” (2002)

Covering The Zombies, John Martyn, and Nick Drake during his sessions and tour of Sea change, Beck's influences are clearly heard and channeled this time around. While Mutations was all over the place, here Beck works on a very focused playing ground yet stretching some songs to the limit like the bare "Paper Tiger" or very solemn "It's All in Your Mind". His voice reaches such a level of power and beauty that could never have been foreseen coming from Mr.MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack, especially in the country tinged "Guess I'm Doing Fine". There is just such a chilling yet peaceful tone to Beck's voice and overall melodies that fully captures what the man must've felt to put out such an unpredictable yet honest record.

Beck has always channeled his place in life and views throughout his albums, whether people could see it through his bizzare language and theatrics is something less debatable. Mutations was his Moon & Antarctica (read: Hopeless, disenchanted sad sack record) but you would have never known, but here we see the most straightforward lyricism yet from Beck. The bitterness ("Is that what you thought love was for?"), the one sided love ("I can't cry them anymore/I can't think of what they're for"), and hopeful hopelessness ("Let it pass on the side of the road/What a friend could tell me now"); Everything here is easy to read into yet nonetheless powerful or mysterious.

As much of a downer Sea Change was in 2002, it gave me a real sense that Beck went on this sorrowful, soul-draining spiritual journey so I wouldn't have to. It was quite the opposite but Sea Change turned out to become one of the best friends I've had. Life's turned out to be less of my own private award show of Mr. Holland's Opus and more of a grim train ride passing by everyone I've hurt and everyone that's failed to see how I've helped them. I guess I'm at the "Already Dead" part of my life working up to "Side of the Road", so it makes sense that the 2nd half of the album has began to click with me. It's also has begun to make sense how strangely beautiful the most awful moments of your life can be, especially when Sea Change is your soundtrack. –Allistair

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Fleetwood Mac “Tusk” (1979)

I believe that the true power in this world is love. There's obviously a strong universal relation to the longing of the soul. I also believe that Fleetwood Mac just might be the best musical representation of love. I could probably write about any Mac record, making similar points, TUSK just happens to be living on my turntable at the moment. It's not a perfect album by any means, but when you dive deep into this band, it all hits the spot. TUSK is the double-LP follow up to their multi-platinum break up monster, Rumors. Of course there's no way Tusk could ever have been nearly as much of a commercial success, but that's what's nice about it for me, there's at least one full-length records worth of killer pop "anti" hits that still satisfy the listener in the same way, beautiful vocal coloring over lindsey buckingham's percussive strumming and driven home by that wonderful snare crack that mick fleetwood perfected in the pop years. Plus this seems to be the point where Buckingham really took over the production and, for lack of a better term, went insane. So the arrangements are wacky as hell at some points and he must have played at least 50 different stringed instruments on it, but what's love without craziness? Give this a chance if you haven't already. For lovers only. –Alex

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Repost: King Crimson “Red” (1974)

A caged beast of a record, and easily this group's best, it strips away most of their obscurantist pretensions to serve up a guitar bass and drum assault that runs frequently into the red and is something to behold: Bruford's drumming is jaw-dropping, while Fripp plays with a dark metallic intensity that suggests he's one of rock's wasted talents. I can even put up with John Wetton here, whose ferocious bass playing is more like a second (maybe third) lead instrument and whose singing has a kind of macho bravura that suits this music's seething intensity. Still, the beast is caged. I'm always a little let down by the second side, which is what keeps Red from essentially essential status, with the wandering "Providence" (another crack at the improv-based excursions heard on the previous album) and the somewhat undercooked "Starless." No, I'm not kidding: "Starless," which many listeners seem to think is a masterpiece, could've used a little more work. I'm forever disappointed by the whole trajectory of this track, which at 12-some minutes would've benefited from a few more (the majestic ending should've been lengthier, to provide a kind of bookend equivalent to the sturm-und-drang of "Red;" it may be quibbling, but it's my party and I'll cry if I want to). So, instead of the Godzilla of prog-rock tracks, "Starless" is merely a woolly mammoth. This group never made the great record they should've made. This one's the only one that comes close. And oh so close. –Will

Monday, December 06, 2010

Go-Go’s “Beauty and the Beat” (1981)

Much as the Rock press would like to think, The Go-Go's were never Punk Rock. What they did take from Punk was the ethos rather than the music, the ability to form a band from a group of like minded individuals who perform music, disregarding technical musical ability or preconceived notion that rock is a masculine world, and for a brief moment they were the Darlings of the music industry. "Beauty And The Beat" is a testament to this ethic, brash, fun, slightly shambolic, but always heartfelt Power Pop. Formed in 1978 and originally called The Misfits and made up of Belinda Carlisle (Vocals), Jane Wiedlin (Guitar, Vocals), Charlotte Caffey (Guitar, Vocals), Margot Olaverra (Bass), and Elissa Bello (Drums), the band's major breakthrough would come through building a following from their support slot for British Ska nutty boys, Madness, and this led to a contract with Stiff Records for a one off single "We Got The Beat". The major record labels showed an interest in both the single and the live following the band were attracting, and The Go-Go's signed to IRS in early 1981. This, their debut would reach number 1 in the Billboard album charts for 6 weeks and would eventually go to sell over 2 million copies. Spiky Power Pop at its best, the Jane Wiedlin/Terry Hall co-composed single "Our Lips Are Sealed" would be the star attraction, along with other highlights including "We Got The Beat", "This Town", "Lust To Love", and the fine closer "Can't Stop The World". A surprisingly assured album, that carries alongside its demure directness, a touching astuteness. –Ben H

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Tim Buckley “Starsailor” (1970)

Tim Buckley had already begun to alienate his folkie fanbase with “Lorca” a few months earlier– what the hell was up with this golden-voiced disciple of Fred Neil? Why would he release an album filled with meandering free jazz-like structures and vocal gymnastics that made it sound as though he was being disemboweled? Well, if they wuz bewildered by “Lorca,” “Starsailor” musta felt like a kick in the groin. Not only was it a continuation of the avant garde themes which in hindsight, he’d barely scratched, it was a full-on operetta revolving around the pit of anguish that burned in his guts; he also began to fully utilize the five and a half octave vocal range he had at his disposal.

I’m gonna hazard a guess that Buckley had been listening intently to Leon Thomas– particularly his work with Pharaoh Sanders on “Karma.” He liberally borrows Thomas’ conventional-croon-to-absurd-yodel on several tracks, most notably “Monterey,” a dissonant Voodoo Blues that conjures a vibe equal parts atavistic ritual and sleazy mating call. Bunk Gardner, late of the Mothers of Invention, provides some Ornette-esque sax squawk, further pushing the song into uncharted territory– at least for the early 1970’s zeitgeist. “Moulin Rouge” is a brief slice of Franco-Pop that coulda easily been recorded by Edith Piaf– I only mention it as it is one of the few cuts that provides a respite from the suffocating melancholy and bordering on psychedelic experimentation that makes up the rest of the LP. For instance, the ethereal title track is akin to smoking far too much DMT, only to discover that instead of encountering the promised elves hiding in the artificial netherworld, you find yourself surrounded by bloodthirsty, shapeless abominations far outside the realms of HP Lovecraft’s worst nightmares. Lee Underwood’s stellar guitar work also deserves a nod. His connection with Buckley borders on preternatural– be it the spare, mournful licks he uses to accompany Tim’s wounded wail on the oft-covered/butchered “Song to the Siren,” or the majestic, fleet-fingered riffs that double Buckley’s vocal on “Come Here Woman.”

If you’re new to the elder Buckley, this may not be the best place to start. I’d recommend “Dream Letter: Live in London” for virgins, as well as for fans of his offspring, a certain Jeff. –Jake P

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mercyful Fate “Melissa” (1983)

Melissa unleashed the dark majesty of Mercyful Fate on welcoming hordes of eager metalheads ready to set sail on a lake of fire, the band picking up where Priest left off with their late 70's platters of pain and injecting an elevated sophistication and malevolence embodied in the angelic blasphemor wails of King Diamond. While the edge of Melissa's sacrifical blade is slightly dulled by the tangled fortress "Satan's Fall" on side two, the purity of purpose in classics like "Evil," grave robbing "Curse of the Pharaohs," and the pummeling "Black Funeral" let loose such torrents of spectral ferocity and hell-spawned riffage that Melissa stands as an all-consuming plethora of wicked delights. –Ben