Friday, April 27, 2012

Music Review: Funeral In Heaven / Plecto Aliquem Capite - Astral Mantras of Dyslexia

The term “black metal” was coined way back in 1982 as the title of Venom‘s second album. The band proudly took their music into the darkest territory metal had dared to trod, and it was pretty shocking at the time. Back then, any group tarred with the “Satanism” brush were persecuted as if it were the Salem witch trials. In the 1980s, mainstream acts Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were actually put on trial for their music. The ridiculous allegation was that their songs had “caused” their fans to commit suicide. It was recognized that these actions were nothing more than political posturing, at least until the 1990s. The metal-related church burnings and murders in Sweden during 1992-1996 were all too real to be dismissed.

It is against this background that I have followed the black metal movement, although it has been some time since I have listened to the music. And I can honestly say that I have never heard a metal band (black or otherwise) from Sri Lanka. So when I heard about a new split album featuring two Sri Lankan black metal bands, I was more than a little intrigued. The groups in question are Funeral In Heaven, and Plecto Aliquem Capite, and the album is titled Astral Mantras of Dyslexia. As it turns out, there is some wild stuff going on in Southeast Asian metal these days.

Astral Mantras contains seven tracks, three from each band, plus a collaborative final cut. Funeral In Heaven go first, with “Transmigrations Into Eternal Submission (of Altered Consciousness)” (11:30). I was practically certain I had been taken for a ride when I heard this one. “Transmigrations” features traditional Hindu instruments plus keyboards playing what borders on a tribal chant. It is definitely not what I expected to hear on this album, especially as the opening cut.

The darkness descends with the next tune though, “Bandhana (Gatahaththey Kathaa Wasthuwa)” (12:41). The black metal is present here no question, with heavy, down-tuned guitars, and some truly otherworldly vocals. It becomes clear that “Transmigrations” was there to set an atmospheric stage where anything is possible. And with “Bandhana” that promise is fulfilled.

Funeral In Heaven’s final piece is almost superfluous at this point, because we definitely get what they are all about now. So they throw another left-turn by covering “Buddhang Saranang,” (7:12), which was written by fellow Sri Lankans Thapas. The occult feel of this tune remains fully intact, and with their atmospheric (and lengthy) arrangement, Funeral In Heaven definitely live up to their name.

Plecto Aliquem Capite translates to “Suffer Capital Punishment,” which is a philosophy they live up to. Plecto’s side begins with another ethnic instrumental number, titled “Lament” (4:14). Their take is a bit different from FIH’s more tribal feel, as they seem to almost go into an almost folk direction.

Next we are treated to “Stoned Guru Ramblings” (6:31), a wild track which takes black metal to the very edge of sanity thanks to some truly ungodly sounds courtesy of the entire band. PAC’s final entry is “Cemetery of the Deep” (4:38). The doom is heavy in this uncompromising and disturbing slab of metal. The return of some of the older, “traditional” instrumentation just adds to the overall haunting feeling of the song.

“Crestfallen: Immolating Shakthi” (8:33) features both Funeral In Heaven and Plecto Aliquem Capite. This collaboration is as extreme an example of Sri Lankan black metal as can be imagined. The vocals alone are enough to make one’s hair stand on end, but it is only part of the story. All the classic black metal elements are in place, and the inclusion of the more traditional music at the tail end of the track wraps things up perfectly.

I’m not sure what I expected to hear on Astral Mantras of Dyslexia, but I know it wasn’t this. Both of these bands are moving the genre of black metal forward in ways I never thought possible. Although the music is different, I am reminded of the first time I heard the classic Roots from Sepultura. While I would never call this “world music” or “world metal” for that matter, the inclusion of the traditional instruments on Astral Mantras definitely raises the bar for everyone.

This is as powerful and as adventurous an album as one is likely to hear this year. But make no mistake, at heart both of these fully embrace the ethos of black metal. Check out the Dunkelheit Produktionen label (based in Germany) for more information on this incredible album.

Article first published as Music Review: Funeral In Heaven / Plecto Aliquem Capite - Astral Mantras of Dyslexia on Blogcritics.

Music Review: The Moog - Seasons In The Underground

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” was what my mom always told me. And wouldn’t you know it, she was right. Take Seasons In The Underground by The Moog, for instance. From the title's Slayer reference to the picture of the band on the back, the last thing I was ready for was shimmering power pop. But sure enough, much of this album is exactly that, and it's a welcome antidote to the gloom and doom I was expecting.

Actually, there are a lot of influences I hear on this Budapest, Hungary five-piece’s third album. The way the drums, guitars, and vocals come together during “March of the Unholy Truth,” hearken back to the better moments of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, for example. And “Highway” could have found a home somewhere on Weezer’s Blue album back in 1994.

What works best for me are the references to classic New Wave. Not the cheesy stuff though. No, I’m talking about the bands who may have been lumped in with that movement, but had much more to say than “Karma Chameleon.” In fact, from the moment the laser hit the aluminum on the opening track “Seasons Change In The Underground,” I thought maybe Roddy Frame had returned from exile to put out a worthy follow-up to the classic Aztec Camera recording High Land, Hard Rain. This is a truly great song, and a great way to begin an album.

The harmonies recall that of other classic British bands of the early '80s, such as Squeeze. How do these moody looking bastards (one is even smoking!) reconcile this? Obviously they don’t care and nobody else should either. While I mention a couple of obvious influences (to me, at least), The Moog are still very much their own band.

There is an inherent difficulty in these comparisons, because The Moog are certainly not a soundalike group, or a retro act for that matter. I just mention the power pop genre as a reference point. They really are not power pop, it's just one element of what makes this album sound so good to these ears. Another one is the music of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, just in case I have overused the skinny-tie group references.

The 11 songs that make up Seasons In The Underground show a band who have absorbed a great deal of music over the years and have put their own stamp on it. Seasons In The Underground is a great album.

Article first published as Music Review: The Moog - Seasons In The Underground on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era

The title is pretty self-explanatory, but it does not do justice to the incredible beauty contained in the two-volume Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era. The first book features magazine ads from the 1950s, and the second focuses on the 1960s.

The advertisements for practically every product under the sun reflect an amazing alternate view of history. It is an idealized world full of promise, and every single item here was meant to improve your life. The post-war surge of consumerism in the United States was on, and Madison Avenue were there to guide us every step of the way.

As the most critically-acclaimed television show since The Sopranos, Mad Men has inspired a lot of bandwagon-jumping. Hopefully, the reference to the program will help get these books into more hands. You will not find anything crafted by Don Draper here, but the artwork and copy contained here is something very special indeed.

I thought I might have been alone in being a person who gets a kick out of old advertisements, but evidently that is not the case. They often say much more about the culture of the era than the articles themselves. Not that you will find any mention of civil rights or other issues of the day in them of course. But we are able see the culture at large slowly accepted sweeping societal changes through the lens of mainstream advertising.

One example is men’s hair. The books span the 20 years between 1950-1970, and the pictures speak for themselves. As we know, the idea of “long hair” on men was once a very visible form of rebellion. As the years progress though, the look became more and more acceptable.

What I found much more intriguing is how certain ads (and admen) were able to completely alter societal perceptions. Volkswagen is an excellent example. Their “Think Small” was so revolutionary that it was even mentioned in an episode of Mad Men.

In the Introduction, the editors discuss what they found especially noteworthy among the hundreds of examples that have been reproduced in the books. The entire Volkswagen campaign is one, and their points provide excellent food for thought. To quote: “Witness the Sixties campaign for Volkswagen created by Doyle Dane Bernbach that took a little Nazi ‘people’s’ car designed in the late 1930s under Adolf Hitler’s auspices and instantly made it the best-selling economy car in big-car-loving America by claiming its perceived deficits were truly advantages.”

Brilliant. And what is even better is that we given the opportunity to see how this process worked over the years through the full-sized ads themselves. Each book’s Introduction is reproduced in three languages, English, German, and French. Since all of the ads are from American magazines though, they are all in English.

The two volumes of Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era are housed in a sturdy cardboard slipcase, with the book covers represented on the front and back. Most importantly though, great care has been made to authentically reproduce the original ads. Since many were full-pagers in Life magazine, the books are an oversized 13.9 x 10 inches (the size of the original Life).

This is a beautiful package, worthwhile on a number of levels. It works as a wonderful “stroll through the past,” as a very informed history of this incredible era, or simply as a collection of some very stunning artwork. No matter what your particular interests are, the books are highly recommended. Taschen Publishing have done a magnificent job with this package.

Article first published as Book Review: Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era on Blogcritics.
Four Shibusa is Monty Adkins’ latest release for the Sheffield-based Audiobulb label, and it may well be his finest yet. The artist has been working in the electroacoustic music field for some time now, and is in fact a professor at England’s University of Huddersfield. His previous album, Fragile.Flicker.Fragment (2011) was pretty incredible. In fact, it has been nominated in the ‘Album of the Year’ category at the 2012 Qwartz Awards, Paris. As good as that recording was however, Four Shibusa is even more impressive.

As the title indicates, the disc contains four tracks, or Shibusa. The word “shibusa” is Japanese in origin, and describes the inherent simplicity and beauty in everyday objects. It is the perfect conceptual starting point for these pieces, which are the result of a year-long collaboration with the visual artist Pop Dickens that Monty Adkins has been involved in.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “electroacoustic music,” it is somewhat broad, and covers a wide range of sound experimentation. Some of the forms include musique concrete, computer music, tape music, basically electronic music of all sorts. Unlike last year’s Fragile.Flicker.Fragment however, Professor Adkins has included a great deal of traditional instrumentation in the music of Four Shibusa. The results are spellbinding.

The most notable addition to Monty’s musical palette are the clarinets of Jonathan Sage and Heather Roche. There can be something especially lonely about the sound of the clarinet, and this quality is utilized to great effect in throughout. “Sendai Threnody” (9:00) opens Four Shibusa on a soothing and somewhat contemplative note. The clarinet tones provide a perfect compliment to Monty’s atmospheric bed of sound here. It is a marvelous combination.

“Entangled Symmetries” (11:01) is next, and here the clarinets take something of a backseat to the electronic ambience Monty creates. I first happened upon the Audiobulb label in a quest to find new sources for electronic, and in particular, ambient music. Fragile, Flicker, Fragment was an exceptionally brilliant discovery. With “Entangled Symmetries,” Monty again pursues this avenue, but his work is never predictable. While the piece is for the most part quite soothing, he adds a few left-of-center moments (which almost sound like static), just to keep us on our toes.

If I were forced to choose a favorite track of the Four Shibusa, it would be the third, “Kyoto Roughcut” (14:35). While the ambient electroacoustic mood is continued, the blend achieved by Monty Adkins, Heather Roche, and Jonathan Sage on this composition is otherworldly. Monty’s electronics are front and center, but the quiet, soothing mood of “Entangled Symmetries” has been upended this time around. There is much more of a “tale” being told here, with a very definite beginning, middle, and end.

The most prominent use of the clarinets are as bookends during this piece. The “middle” (if you will) is where Professor Adkins’ machines are most prominent, taking the listener on an adventure that is at once dark, and exhilarating. One of the recurring motifs (to these ears at least) is of water. The gentle give and take, especially towards the end, are very effective, almost like the waves of the ocean. This is a most illuminating piece of music in every way.

I mentioned the use of clarinets as bookends during “Kyoto Roughcut,” and that characterization applies to the programming of Four Shibusa as a whole as well. During the final “Permutations” (8:30), much like the opening “Sendai Threnody,” they are utilized much more significantly than on “Entangled Symmetries,” and “Kyoto Roughcut.” Monty’s more ambient use of electronics to provide the most advantageous atmosphere for the woodwinds here strikes the perfect balance.

The Audiobulb label is dedicated to “exploratory electronic music,” and Monty Adkins is a master of the form. Adding clarinets to his music certainly takes things in new directions, although it is still quite recognizable. Many elements come into play besides what one might consider the “soothing” ambient tones as well. Monty Adkins has developed one of the most unique and compelling albums I have heard this year. For more information, check out the Audiobulb site.

Article first published as Music Review: Monty Adkins - Four Shibusa on Blogcritics.
Sandy Bull‘s recordings for the Vanguard label during the 1960s were incredibly influential. He is often credited for “inventing” world music, although that distinction is somewhat dubious. There is no doubt that he brought a wide range of possibilities into the musical world, however. The Beatles and Hunter S. Thompson are just a couple of those who sang the praises of such albums as Fantasias For Guitar and Banjo (1963) and E Pluribus Unum (1969). Unfortunately, drug use derailed his career for years after his final album for the Vanguard label Demolition Derby (1972). He continued to write and perform, and the new Sandy Bull and the Rhythm Ace Live 1976 documents a marvelous show he played that year.

Sandy often performed solo, with pre-recorded tapes to back him up. He added the Rhythm Ace drum machine to this set-up in the mid-seventies, which he demonstrates at one point during the concert. Sandy was well-liked in the Bay Area, where this was recorded. He was opening for Leo Kotke that night. Although he would not release anything new for quite some time, he had cleaned up his act by this point, as his playing and demeanor make clear. It is obvious that Sandy Bull (and his audience) were having a fine time.

Sandy Bull’s biggest contribution to music was his interest in Arabic and other “exotic” forms of music, which he blended with folk to create a new unique sound. In 1963 this was revolutionary. He never lost his interest in expanding various musical forms, which is quite evident throughout Live 1976. From the opening instrumental “Oud,” the audience is enraptured by his magnificent playing.

From there, Sandy goes into a very amusing demonstration of the then-new Rhythm Ace drum machine, before he begins “Love Is Forever.” While his voice is a bit worse for wear, it is still a lovely tune. “Alligator Wrestler” gets quite an introduction as well, and one wonders if Sandy should have gone into the stand-up racket as a sideline. The song “Alligator Wrestler” displays his interest in the lilting beat of reggae to great effect. “New York City” rounds out the all-too brief performance in rousing style.

Galactic Zoo Disk/Drag City should be commended for releasing these tapes. Sandy Bull may not be as well remembered today as those artists he so deeply influenced, but he is where it really began. John Fahey is another very well respected guitarist who acknowledged just how important Bull‘s music was to his own. Live 1976 captures a very special performance from this extremely talented man.

Article first published as Music Review: Sandy Bull and the Rhythm Ace - Live 1976 on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Strange Fruit - The Beatles' Apple Records

The saga of Apple Records is a long and very strange one. Although most fans know the basics of the story, the new documentary Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records lays it out in the most thorough manner so far. At 162 minutes, the film is exhaustive, and even a bit repetitive at times. What I found most fascinating though is the way the movie illuminates the individual tastes of John, Paul, George, and Ringo during the final two years of The Beatles’ existence.

Every Apple signing was championed by at least one member of the group, and they were often deeply involved in the artist’s career. Take Mary Hopkin for example. Her “Those Were The Days” was the first big non-Beatle hit on Apple in 1968. Mary was Paul’s pet project, and his penchant for old-fashioned show-biz was channeled through her. She was merely 18 years of age, star-struck, and went along with whatever he suggested. Mary eventually began to rue the situation though, and ultimately retired from the spotlight.

The case of Badfinger is one of the saddest and most unusual in music history. They started out as The Iveys, a Liverpool group who were brought to Apple by Mal Evans, who was one of The Beatles’ most trusted associates from the very beginning. An Iveys album was released with very little fanfare in 1969. Then Paul McCartney stepped in, and offered them the opportunity to record the soundtrack to the film Magic Christian Music, and more importantly his own “Come And Get It.” The song was a hit, and Badfinger were on their way. It was George Harrison who really worked with them though, in producing the classic Straight Up in 1971. Their career with Apple ended with the Ass album, when they left to record for Warner Bros. Both Pete Ham and Tom Evans later committed suicide, but the music they left behind remains a marvel.

George Harrison’s real pet project turned out to be another old friend from Liverpool, Jackie Lomax. He is on hand to recount the experience in detail, and it is one of the better segments of the film. George wrote a song for him titled “Sour Milk Sea” that is simply brilliant, although it went nowhere. He was deeply involved in the production of Lomax’s sole Apple album, Is This What You Want? (1969).

The most curious case of all is that of whom Ringo Starr chose to bring into the Apple stable. Although today he is known as Sir John Tavener and is one of the leading lights in British classical music, in 1968 he was unknown. Of the four Beatles, Ringo seems the least likely to have brought him in, yet that is exactly what happened. Tavener wound up recording two albums for Apple, which is more than many of the label’s artists were allowed.

Most conspicuous by his absence is John Lennon. One gets the impression that the initial Utopian ideals behind Apple stemmed from Lennon. But as many of the interviewees mention, he met Yoko Ono shortly afterward Apple’s launch, and she became his primary focus. When Allen Klein was brought in to clean up the mess the venture turned into, the whole thing collapsed. What followed was an awful series of disputes over waste, rip-offs, lawsuits, and the eventual breakup of The Beatles.

In the end, it is just a sad story. Had Apple been run in an even moderately professionally way, it could have become something very special. Simply by the virtue of Apple being The Beatles’ very own label, it had a cachet that no other record company could hope to duplicate. A telling detail is the fact that James Taylor’s first album was on Apple. But since the label was in such disarray, it went nowhere, and he asked to be let out of his contract. After signing to Warner Bros., he became one of the biggest singer-songwriters of the '70s.

Strange Fruit: The Beatles' Apple Records provides some fascinating insights into one of The Beatles’ most glaring disappointments. Most of the Apple catalog had been out of print for decades, which made hearing much of this material a very difficult (and expensive) prospect. In 2010 EMI reissued it all, which allowed us the opportunity to reevaluate things. There are some real gems to be discovered, such as the previously mentioned Is This What You Want? by Jackie Lomax.

While this documentary has its flaws, it is definitely the most detailed account of the Apple Records story ever made. I think for Beatles fans especially, this is something of a must see. The whole affair wound up being something of a disaster, but it is a one of a kind tale. Strange Fruit lays it out better than anything I have ever come across, and is definitely worth a look.

Article first published as DVD Review: Strange Fruit: The Beatles' Apple Records on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Nothing But Noise - Not Bleeding Red

For those of us who are enamored with the sound of vintage synthesizers, Not Bleeding Red is a feast for the ears. Both the title of the album, and the name of the band, Nothing But Noise are ironic, for these are some of the warmest sounds I have heard in decades. The double CD (or LP if you prefer) is the culmination of a 20-year project by Front 242 founder Daniel B to revisit the analog days of the Moog, ARP, and other early electronic instruments. The results of his work are stunning.

Nothing But Noise are actually a trio. Besides Daniel B, the group includes former Front 242 member Dirk Bergen, plus Erwin Jadot. Front 242 pioneered what has come to be called Electronic Body Music. Without going into the full story, they were pioneers of what later became known as Industrial. Front 242 were one of the preeminent Wax Trax! bands whose take on “dance” music was about as brutal as possible. The music was electronic, and their choice of equipment was cutting edge.

While I completely dug the direction that they, and other like-minded outfits took, I also missed the older, obsolete synth sounds of the '70s. For years, I always felt like a voice in the wilderness with these thoughts. Is not the very nature of electronics geared towards Moore’s Law of smaller and faster is always better? Even worse, those old-school synths were practically joined at the hip with the '70s prog of Tangerine Dream, ELP, Yes, and Pink Floyd. How does a post-post-post-punker reconcile that?

It is easier than I thought. Now that all the generational hoopla has been erased in music, thanks to Steve Job’s dream of every song ever recorded being available in your pocket being (practically) here, we are able to look back and see what has been lost. I yell about missing the artwork of the long-playing reocrd constantly, so we’ll let that one go. But the digital synth/sampler technology that Daniel B embraced over 30 years ago represents a serious loss as well. Not Bleeding Red is the first acknowledgment of this I have heard.

The basic template is synth-driven progressive rock from approximately 1972 to 1978. The work of Edgar Froese, Klaus Schulze, and Jean Michel Jarre are the most obvious antecedents. Yes, I know that sounds simplistic, but then again, what Nothing But Noise are doing is very specific. For the most part, this type of music was once called “space-rock.” It takes titanium-plated balls to release material like this in 2012. I probably would not bother reviewing the album if it were purely conceptual though. The fact is, Not Bleeding Red is an amazing piece of work in and of itself.

Yup, the old prog-review warhorse comment, “It’s a journey” is the one I’m gonna pull up. Because that is what it is. There is a definite beginning, a middle, and an end to this collection of songs, and the group obviously put a great deal of thought into the programming.

I mentioned Jean Michel Jarre earlier, and it is his 1976 album Oxygene with the very prominent ARP synthesizer that I find such a strong influence on this album. It is especially noticeable on disc one, including the CD-only tracks “Gravity,” and “Mooglish.” I would give this record five stars if it ended there, but the second disc is even more intriguing. What I would consider the “middle-section” is the nearly 19-minute song “CK,” which stands alone, and is simply magnificent.

As we move into the final three cuts, the mood of Not Bleeding Red becomes darker. But like Klaus Shulze's Moondawn, or Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, the undercurrent is never over the top. We are not talking the good (but obvious) Goblin here. The places Nothing But Noise go in the final three cuts are very subtle, and very cool.

There is nothing subtle about the rubber-band bass-lines of “Silenzio Monofoniche." The way Nothing But Noise present a truly incredible electronic bass-line goes back to the first time I ever heard such a thing, on Parliament’s “Flashlight.”

Daniel B’s embrace of the history of electronic music is all-encompassing. And there is a lot more going on in this record than I have even mentioned. The quote from Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” during “Gravity” is just one example. This is an absolutely brilliant album, and one that fans of this music need to hear.

I sort of want to shout "We are not alone" about it, because it is that good. There is a history to electronic music that goes back at least as far as those recordings of Robert Johnson do. But will any of the pioneers ever be nominated to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Unlikely. Nothing But Noise pay enormous tribute to them with this album though.

Article first published as Music Review: Nothing But Noise - Not Bleeding Red on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Blue Oyster Cult - The Essential Blue Oyster Cult

Forget the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, not even one screaming diz-buster would care if that crappy movie didn‘t exist. No, the real event to celebrate in 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the debut of Blue Oyster Cult. Sony Legacy have done just that with the release of the two-disc-set The Essential Blue Oyster Cult. I must say, it is a nice to hear these bastards again.

And yes, I use the word “bastards” as Noah Webster originally intended it to be used. Blue Oyster Cult were the ultimate abandoned band. Purists will tell you that their first three studio albums plus the live On Your Feet Or On Your Knees were all that ever mattered by them.

Wrong, but I can understand the argument. For a minute, BOC represented the Long Island division of the New York/Detroit hipster milieu that sold no records, but had one hell of an influence. Critics not only loved them, they were practically a part of the group. Patti Smith and R. Meltzer are just two who are still receiving royalties for their work with Blue Oyster Cult.

Agents Of Fortune appeared in 1976, and it changed everything. Talk about an album that gets under your skin. I both love and hate the fact that “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is now also known as “The Cowbell Song,” thanks to the SNL skit. You ever heard any of the rest of the album though? It is phenomenal all the way through. “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence),” and “This Ain’t The Summer Of Love” are just a couple of examples of why this became BOC’s breakout record. I’m a little surprised Sony did not include “The Revenge of Vera Gemini,” which Patti Smith not only co-wrote, but also sang on.

Agents was the tipping point. Afterwards, Patti broke up with whatever member of the band she was going out with, and they were suddenly considered a viable commercial property. Blue Oyster Cult’s next album was Spectres, and it remains my favorite. Was it “commercial?” I suppose, although those paragons of integrity The Clash chose Agents and Spectres producer Sandy Pearlman to produce their second effort Give ‘Em Enough Rope, so what does that say? The evergreen track from Spectres is the hilarious “Godzilla,“ but for me the greatest tune BOC ever wrote was “I Love The Night.” Absolutely brilliant.

In his liner notes Lenny Kaye brings up Nosferatu in regards to “I Love The Night.” He also makes the comment that somewhere in the world at this very moment a radio station is probably playing “Burnin’ For You.“ For all intents and purposes, that was their last hit, back in 1981. The story does not end there though, as the group have forged on, to ever diminishing audiences.

The 31 tracks on The Essential Blue Oyster Cult are a great introduction to this influential band, and rock most convincingly. I have two minor complaints. The version of “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)“ is the live version from Some Enchanted Evening rather than the superior studio version, and the title track from the 1979 album Mirrors is not included. Otherwise, this is a marvelous collection. And yes, more cowbell is always better.

Article first published as Music Review: Blue Oyster Cult - The Essential Blue Oyster Cult on Blogcritics.

Music Review: David Sylvian - A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012

David Sylvian first came to prominence as leader of the group Japan. Their early work was often lumped together with that of fellow Brits such as David Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music. In a word, glam. By the time of their 1978 debut Adolescent Sex, Japan had developed a look and sound all their own. I discovered them in 1980, with the Gentlemen Take Polaroids album. Many of us felt that Japan had a lot in common with the Midge Ure-led version of Ultravox at the time, although I am pretty certain the group themselves hated the comparison.

Gentlemen Take Polaroids was Japan’s first album on Virgin Records, where Sylvian remained until the recent formation of his own Samadhisound label. He left Japan for a solo career in 1982, and the new A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012 compiles tracks from the past 30 years. The process of distilling three decades of music into a 31-track, double CD collection must have been a difficult one. A Victim of Stars is presented (almost) chronologically, and displays a continuous and admirable process of growth over the years.

For whatever reason, the set opens with a remix of “Ghosts,” which initially appeared on the Everything And Nothing album from 2000. What follows are three tracks he recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Bamboo Houses,” “Bamboo Music,” and his first international hit, “Forbidden Colours.” The two worked wonders together, and it is little surprise that “Forbidden Colours” became so popular.

From this point on the songs appear in chronological order, with one exception. What is striking is how strong both the music, and the voice of David Sylvian remain throughout. Besides the three Sakamoto tracks previously mentioned, the first disc contains eight more tunes hailing from the 1980s.

If there is one minor quibble, it would be with the dated synth sounds. But what are you going to do? At the time, Sylvian was definitely cutting-edge, and that is what the cutting-edge sounded like. Even the '80s albums of someone considered as “authentic” as Bruce Springsteen suffer from this situation. To be honest, this is an aspect I kind of enjoy anyway. There is a certain retro, even campy fun in hearing those tinkly synthesizers.

Disc one concludes with another Sylvian/Sakamoto collaboration, this one from Ryuichi’s 1992 Heartbeat album. The full title of the song is “Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki III),” with words by David Sylvian and music by Sakamoto and the great Arto Lindsay. The brilliant guitarist Bill Frisell also appears. As always when it comes to the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the atmospherics are all enveloping. This could just be wishful thinking on my part, but “Heartbeat” even seems to nod in the general direction of P.M. Dawn at times.

The second CD begins with a track from 1993, “Jean The Birdman.” This again shows the high level of musicians who chose to work with Sylvian, in this case it is Robert Fripp, from the album they recorded together titled The First Day. While Sylvian’s voice has always been its own instrument, certain influences and comparisons are unavoidable. With his earlier material, I was reminded of Bowie at times. On disc two of A Victim of Stars it is Bryan Ferry who I sometimes think of.

David’s voice has deepened, which completely suits his music. If his '80s work proved that serious artistic statements could be made within the fashionable MTV-friendly confines of synth-pop, his music of the past 10 years or so represents a very graceful maturation. This is no back-handed compliment. It is my fervent belief that Sylvian has written some of his finest material in his later years. For me, the finest track of all came from his 1999 album Dead Bees On A Cake, and the 9:25 of “I Surrender.” It is an amazing piece of music, from what I consider to be his very best album.

The remainder of the collection spans the years 2003-2012. David Sylvian’s music over these years is some of the most interesting of his entire career. Right up there with Dead Bees On A Cake is Blemish (from 2003). Blemish is certainly his most personal recording, as “A Fire In The Forest,” “The Only Daughter,” and “Late Night Shopping” certainly attest.

While Sylvian collaborated with various musicians often over the years since leaving Japan, he finally took the plunge and worked in a full band context again in 2005 with Nine Horses. They are represented here with three outstanding cuts, “Wonderful World,” “The Banality of Evil,” and “Darkest Birds.”

The final song on A Victim of Stars is the newly recorded “Where’s Your Gravity?” It is a wonderfully evocative piece, and allows the richness of Sylvian’s voice the opportunity to fully engulf the listener to an understated and gorgeously atmospheric background. This is a perfect song to close the collection with.

A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012 is about as good a compilation as I have ever come across. David Sylvian’s music has always inspired a very deep connection with his fans. Virgin has done a tremendous job in the packaging also, with a gatefold sleeve that somehow captures the mysterious charisma of the artist. I cannot think of a better way for the uninitiated to get to know him. It also works quite well for those of us who may have lost touch with him from time to time over the years. Well done, all the way around.

Article first published as Music Review: David Sylvian - A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012 on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Stevie Wonder - Innervisions (24K+ Gold Edition)

Although Motown boss Berry Gordy had to be dragged kicking and screaming (practically) into the 70s, his label wound up releasing some of the most important black music of the decade. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and Let’s Get It On certainly contributed to this, but nobody could hold a candle to Stevie Wonder. The string of albums he released between 1972 and 1976 stand among the greatest of any major artist, Beatles and Stones included.

Stevie basically grew up at Motown, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he was ready to make his first very personal statement as an artist. Actually, that year saw two incredible records, Music of My Mind and Talking Book. As the old cliché goes though, he was just getting started. In 1973, he released Innervisions, which many consider to be his first out and out masterpiece.

The good folks at Audio Fidelity certainly believe in the record, as it is one of the latest releases in their 24K+ Gold Edition series. It never fails to amaze me just how much these older recordings can be improved with the technology AF brings to the table. After remastering the original tapes, the digital master is then etched onto a glass disc surface in real time by laser. From this, the CD is made out of real gold, rather than the standard and often imperfect aluminum. The end result is a remarkably clean and “warm” sounding product, with the original analog depth intact.

I hate to get too bogged down in these details though, because it all really boils down the music. If the songs weren’t there, then no amount of audio improvement is going to help. The songs are certainly there on Innervisions, without question.

Let’s start with the trio of radio hits, “Livin’ For The City,” “Higher Ground,” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” Not to get too over the top on just how great this album is, but honestly, a lesser artist would be satisfied to have written just one of these classics.

I have heard “Livin’ For The City” described as Stevie’s “epic.” That term brings to mind too many long-winded prog efforts for me, so I would prefer to call it “cinematic.” Maybe this is politically incorrect, but I have long felt that during the middle, “street-scene” section, Stevie was able to express the sounds so well because of his blindness. Even as a little kid, I was astonished at how much I could visualize a busy city street when hearing this song. Oh yeah, and the funk is as hard as anything one could imagine as well.

Although Stevie’s funk credentials have been weakened over the years by songs like “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” they were there in full force on Innervisions. Give “Higher Ground” a shot for verification. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had a hit with a version of this song, but you gotta hear the original to hear it done right. Nothing against Anthony Kiedis, but Stevie’s voice just kills, as does the whole arrangement.

“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” does not swing as hard as most of the rest of the album, but it is still a great song. There is something about Stevie Wonder’s vocals (again) that just makes this track work for me. The lyrics themselves are pretty great as well. There are a total of nine tunes on Innervisions, and each one has its own merits. Check out the opening two, “Too High,” and “Visions” for some lesser known, yet truly excellent additional album songs.

The bottom line is simple. A record that is very possibly Stevie Wonder’s finest has been given the audiophile treatment it deserves, and has never sounded better. Just go out and get it.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder - Innervisions (24K+ Gold Edition) on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Alice Coltrane - Huntington Ashram Monastery / World Galaxy (Impulse 2-on-1)

I have often wondered why Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) never received the credit she was due as a musician. She was clearly considered a peer among some of the heaviest players in jazz, but I guess that was never enough. Most of us first heard her when she replaced pianist McCoy Tyner in the final incarnation of her husband John's legendary ensemble. Her style of playing was a bit different than Tyner’s, a bit more “traditional,” to these ears at least. Along with the drums and percussion of Rashied Ali, I believe her playing would have played a major part in the next step in John Coltrane‘s music, had he lived longer than his 40 years.

Alice Coltrane played with a number of tremendous artists, both before and after the death of John in 1967. Some of these include Bud Powell, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Rashied Ali, and Carlos Santana. It was her collaboration with Santana, titled Illuminations (1974) on which I first heard her outside of her former husband’s band. This is probably the least known release in Santana’s lengthy catalog, but the two of them created real magic in the studio.

As part of the Impulse 2-on-1 series of reissues, two long out-of-print Alice Coltrane albums have just been released. The disc contains Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969), which was recorded in a trio format with Carter (bass) and Ali (drums) supplementing Alice’s harp and piano. This is a unique album in that the majority of the tracks feature harp solos. It is a little strange hearing an instrument like the harp taking solos, especially when the majority of the numbers are what one might consider traditional jazz arrangements. There are a couple of exceptions to this though. For example, during “Via Sivanandagar” Carter takes a very cool bass solo, while “IHS” is almost an 8:45 solo piano piece from Alice.

World Galaxy is so unusual, it is unlike anything I have ever really heard before. In contrast to Huntington Ashram Monastery, Alice has assembled a huge cast of supporting players. A total of 22 musicians are credited, although not everyone appears on every track. There is much more of an overall concept to the album as well. It opens and closes with two very explicit John Coltrane-related cuts. Although he did not write “My Favorite Things” (from The Sound of Music), the song became one of his signature tunes. World Galaxy begins with a truly wild version of it, and is quite an introduction. The finale is a powerful take on the title track of A Love Supreme.

These two bookend Alice’s “Galaxy Around Olodumare,” “Galaxy In Turiya,” and “Galaxy In Satchidananda.” The overall flavor is very different than that of Huntington Ashram Monastery. Especially on her originals, there is a real dichotomy between some of the more “difficult” music her husband was famous for, and her very celestial sounding harp and string arrangements.

There are times during the 9:54-long “Galaxy In Turiya” where I was at a complete loss as to where she was heading, or for who the actual audience was intended to be. The dichotomy between chaos and melodic beauty is so pronounced that it is almost schizophrenic. I love that type of unpredictability, but it is not generally a recipe for big sales. It could be said that John Coltrane trod a similar path, but the swings in his music were never this extreme. Fascinating is one word for it. But it also takes a very serious artistic commitment to go this far. To switch from one might consider “free” jazz directly into angelic harps and strings reflects an extraordinary personal vision.

The thought that Alice Coltrane’s music was dismissed out of hand as just a case of her trading on her famous husband’s name is not easily dismissed. The obvious comparison is to that of Yoko Ono, who was pilloried as a musical pretender during the same period of time Alice was recording these albums. That reaction to Ono is at least somewhat understandable though, considering the fact that John Lennon wrote some of the catchiest pop hits of all time, while her music was (for lack of a better word) demanding.

Alice Coltrane came out of the same jazz tradition as her husband though. If one were to substitute his sax for her harp on much of Huntington Ashram Monastery, you would hear songs that have a great deal in common with his '50s and early '60s work. Nobody has ever been able to reproduce his later “sheets of sound” approach, although many have tried. Thankfully, Alice Coltrane seems to have never considered going down that road.

On the surface, World Galaxy could be seen as a way of exploiting the legacy of John Coltrane, what with the opening and closing tracks being so thoroughly identified with him. But I find it to be one of the most brilliantly realized albums I have ever heard. My sincere hope is that this new Impulse 2-on-1 series is successful, and will inspire the label to continue releasing these long-deleted records. If ever there was an artist whose music demands a reassessment, it is Alice Coltrane.

Article first published as Music Review: Alice Coltrane - Huntington Ashram Monastery / World Galaxy (Impulse 2-on-1) on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Shipwrecked: A People's History of the Seattle Marinersby Jon Wells

Being a Seattle Mariners baseball fan has been a pretty tough proposition for most of their 35 years. For us locals, it has been sort of par for the course though. We have not had great luck in the world of professional sports. Although Seattle is now a “world-class” city (supposedly), the old lackadaisical attitudes toward such things are pretty well ingrained into our DNA. It is only the newbies who raise a fuss, and show us “how it should be.”

Such is the case with the new book Shipwrecked: A People’s History of the Seattle Marinersby Jon Wells. The author moved here in 1994 and was immediately taken with the fact that he could easily attend just about every home game he chose. All of the major obstacles he ran into in other cities were easily overcome here, traffic isn’t bad, the tickets are reasonably priced (and available), and even parking was generally not much of a problem. Outside of a few highly-coveted home stands, such as against the Yankees, those conditions remain pretty similar to this day.

What Wells breaks down in depth though is how screwed we as fans have been by the management of our team for most of these years. There is no denying that the fans have come last for decades in terms of consideration of what is best for the franchise. When he breaks down the performance of the team season by season over the years, it reveals a pretty sad state of affairs.

Except for the big year of 1995. Our town has never been as excited by the team as we were that season. It was definitely a Cinderella story, where the M’s came practically from the basement to within one game of going to the World Series. Did the fact that they were facing massive opposition to their dreams of building what would become Safeco Field contribute to management‘s decision to field a solid team? I think the answer is pretty obvious. Once the commitments were made, the M’s went back to business as usual. Superstars such as Randy Johnson, A-Rod, and others were soon on their way out.

The final chapter “Will The M’s Ever Win The World Series?” at least offers some hope. Wells cites a number of factors that bode well. It may be just good old-fashioned optimism, but I’ll take it. The team’s arguments about finances are shown to be patently ridiculous. What is most striking is the idea that since the Mariners are not in a major market such as New York or Chicago that the money simply is not there. This is a bald-faced lie, as Mariners fans are among the most loyal in baseball. Citing attendance figures for the 15 years between 1996 to 2011, the team have consistently ranked among the top five in all of baseball.

Once again this goes to the heart of the “personality” of the Northwest. We, as fans, and our local sports columnists do not make the type of noise that Yankees fans do when they feel they are getting screwed. Getting back to Wells’ point about the M’s winning a Series though, what it comes down to is management making that a priority. In ‘95, getting out of the horrific Kingdome and into a “real” baseball stadium was a major priority, and we were treated to an unforgettable season. But there is really no pressure at all on management to produce these days.

When Paul Allen took over the Seahawks, and hired Mike Holmgren to get them to the Superbowl, it happened. We got completely screwed at the game itself, but that is beside the point. The point is that we at least got there. After 35 freaking years, there is no earthly reason besides management choosing big profits every single time over spending the money to put together a truly dominant team is what has stopped the Mariners.

The people’s history of the Seattle Mariners that Jon Wells has written is exactly that. When we pull back the veil of excuses and caveats that the front office throws up, the truth is pretty damned clear. Until the fans rise up and really show management that they expect more than business as usual, nothing will change.

Frankly, the hubris is unbelievable. Just as I was closing this review out, I happened to catch a little local news story concerning a possible return of our beloved Sonics basketball team. There is a group of investors who are putting together a plan to build a new basketball and hockey stadium in the same industrial area of town that houses both Safeco field, and the Century Link stadium (home of the Seahawks). The Mariners oppose it, saying that it would be unfair to add another venue (read competition) nearby.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that response is total bullshit. It goes to the very heart of what is wrong with the relationship between the fans and M’s management. Everyone in this town who enjoys sports should tell those holier than thou dicks in the front office where to go. This is about as insulting a position as anything I can imagine. Where the hell do they get off? Although Jon Wells does not come right out and say that Seattle fans are constantly rolling over and allowing ourselves to be completely taken advantage of, the evidence presented is undeniable.

Shipwrecked is well written, with loads of facts and figures showing how poorly we as fans have been treated by those in charge. I’m hoping others will read this and get what I think is the main point. In the end, it is up to us as fans to rise up and say that enough is enough, and that we deserve better.

I think the book has a broader appeal as well. At one point or another, I am sure that every pro sports fan has had their expectations dashed by the owners. It is in the nature of the beast. I think there are very few who are forced to deal with this as consistently as those of us in Seattle are. The whole point seems to be just how much contempt can be heaped on the paying customers before they say enough is enough.

After reading Shipwrecked, I’m waiting for “Boot in the Ass” day at Safeco. It doesn’t seem far off. Pay $50 for a ticket, walk through the turnstile, and bend over. This type of treatment is unacceptable, but we allow these jackasses to get away with it. It is time for a change, and I think anyone who reads Shipwrecked will come away as disgusted with the way we as fans have been treated as I am. We deserve better.

Article first published as Book Review: Shipwrecked: A People's History of the Seattle Mariners by Jon Wells on Blogcritics.

Friday, April 6, 2012

DVD Review: Metal Evolution

Sam Dunn is responsible for some of the finest rock documentaries of the past few years. His main outlet is the cable station VHI Classic, who specialize in programming to the heavy metal audience. His first effort was Metal - A Headbanger’s Journey (2005), which was followed by the remarkable Rush biography Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2009). With Metal Evolution, Nunn is working on a whole new level. This 11-part series is the most thorough discussion of the music that has ever been done.

The episodes are all one-hour in length, and are presented chronologically. Thus we begin with “Pre-Metal.” I like what Dunn does here in tracing the music all the way back to some of the wilder classical composers of centuries gone by. Paganini is one example. One connection I had never previously made is that of the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets suite, and the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath. When Bill Ward points out the similarities however, it becomes quite obvious. Dunn then proceeds into the blues and jazz antecedents, and makes some compelling points.

It is these kinds of connections, along with other anecdotes which make Metal Evolution such a winning series. Sam Dunn has a knack for getting the metal legends to talk, and to share some genuinely interesting aspects of their lives as performers. I attribute this to the fact that he is a true fan, and not someone just going through the motions. For one thing, he certainly looks the part of the ultimate metal geek. But he also comes across as truly knowledgeable and curious as to how the various pieces of the history fit together. Probably the ultimate accolade is the fact that he was able to actually get the notoriously gruff Neil Peart (of Rush) to sit down and talk to him, and even open up with some amusing stories.

I think the series does an admirable job of tracing the various elements that came together to create what we now consider heavy-metal, but things fall apart in the later years. The Grunge episode is the first one I have trouble with. Dunn’s basic thesis for this one-hour show is simply “Does grunge belong in a history of heavy-metal music?” Dunn seems to think it does, although most of the actual grunge musicians seem to disagree. We run into a similar situation with discussions of Nu-Metal and something called Power Metal.

Actually the Power Metal show is the funniest one of the bunch. For those of us in the United States who are probably (like Dunn) not very familiar with this strain, think of (the band) Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” He goes to a Power Metal festival somewhere in Europe (the continent) where this stuff is a big deal. All the groups seem to be big muscle-bound guys dressed up like Thor, and playing the most god-awful dreck imaginable. Frightening.

I like the fact that he has gone all the way with this though, even if for all intents and purposes most of what passes for metal since the early '90s does not really qualify in my book. Still, when do you cut it off? Was Metallica’s black album the biggest metal record of all time, or the end of the genre? To his credit, Dunn takes no sides, although his credibility as a die-hard fan is never in question.

One thing is certain, the willingness of artists to participate in this series is impressive. Over the course of the 11-episodes he interviews over 300 people, be they artists, journalists, managers, or what have you - which allows for a very broad range of opinions on the various topics. Metal Evolution originally aired on VH1 Classic in winter 2011, and has just been released as a three-DVD set. The lone bonus feature is an interview with Dunn on the program That Metal Show with Eddie Trunk.

Article first published as DVD Review: Metal Evolution on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Franco Falsini - Cold Nose

In the mid-'70s, the Italian progressive rock scene was a strange and mysterious place. One of the most notable groups to come out of it where Sensation’s Fix, which featured Franco Falsini on guitar. In 1975, Falsini recorded his debut album, Cold Nose, which was the soundtrack to an underground film. The three tracks that make up the Cold Nose suite of songs are an intriguing mix of his guitar and various synthesizers. The music is an obscure treasure of sounds, as mysterious and beautiful as anything you are likely to hear.

“Cold Nose 1” (10:30) opens the set with some intriguing synthesizer atmospheres. Then Franco’s electric guitar comes in with an incredibly powerful sound. His leads are amazingly clean, almost poet in fact, but with a deep, and quietly dark statement of purpose. This is the very essence of what I have always looked for in prog, but have rarely found. There is nothing on this recording that even remotely hints at the clichés that would eventually make so many people dismiss progressive or space rock as a joke. Every note Franco Falsini plays has a purpose.

“Cold Nose 2” (6:36) is a bit more accessible than the first track, at least in the beginning. His guitar here reminds me somewhat of that of Steve Hackett, especially on the classic Genesis track “Watcher of the Skies.” I know it sounds strange, and may just be a fluke, but there are times where I swear Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains must have studied Falsini. His is the only modern guitar tone I have heard that sounds anything like this. It is definitely unique, and absolutely compelling all the way through.

After the introduction, Falsini uses the synthesizers much more prominently than on “Cold Nose 1.” While the guitar is still very much a dominant force, the synths take the song in a completely different direction midway. As the piece comes to its inevitable conclusion, we are left in a musical pocket that was once termed “space.” It is difficult to describe, but 70’s prog fans will undoubtedly know what I am talking about when they hear it.

On the original vinyl release, “Cold Nose 3” (15:32) took up all of side two, and as one might expect, it is a tour de force. Here Franco gets the time to really stretch out, and the journey is a brilliant explosion of sounds. I mentioned Steve Hackett earlier, and another major progressive guitarist who comes to mind is Steve Hillage. I offer these comparisons only for the sake of illumination though, as Franco Falsini’s style is very definitely his own.

One of the more fascinating bits of trivia about the recording of Cold Nose has to do with another piece of equipment utilized for the sessions. This would be a mechanism borrowed from the Bio-Electronic Meditation Society. The device monitored his brain activity while in the studio, and only when his brain produced Alpha/Theta waves would he write and record.

Cold Nose has been out of print for decades, and this reissue has been remastered by Franco Falsini himself for release on the Spectrum Spools label. There is a beauty to this music that I find incandescent. The washes of synthesizers blend with floating guitar lines and heavy leads in a glorious way. It is an amazing album.

Article first published as Music Review: Franco Falsini - Cold Nose on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: I, Claudius

What an experience it must have been to have seen I, Claudius when it first aired on the BBC some 35 years ago. It is one of the most exquisitely staged and acted programs I have ever seen. And in those pre-cable days, it was also magnificently risqué. The 12-part series has just been reissued as a beautiful five-DVD set by Acorn Media, in honor of the 35th anniversary of its original airing. I must say, they have done a tremendous job.

The epic series covers the years 10 BC to 54 AD, inside the court of the Roman Empire. It is presented as the autobiography of Claudius. The source materials are the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. These were adapted by Jack Pulman, with the resulting script directed by Herbert Wise. Many of the cast members gave career-defining performances. These include Derek Jacobi as Claudius, John Hurt as Caligula, and Patrick Stewart as Lucius Aelius Sejanus, among many others.

The palace intrigue is unrelenting, and always “For the Empire.” Of course it is nothing more than a series of petty jealousies and grabs for power, these people are compelled to justify their actions in the name of honor. Incest and the murder of family members when they get in the way of plans are just par for the course, as are practically every other outrage one can think of. It all seems to come to a head during the reign of Caligula, the most decadent Emperor of all time. Yet even after what truly seems to be the last days of Rome, when Emperor Caligula has turned the palace into a brothel, there is more.

Claudius is described as “A stuttering scholar who learns to play the fool to stay alive.” The period is seen through his eyes, beginning as a child in the court of Augustus. Because of his stammer, and shyness, Claudius is considered to be a “half-wit.” As he himself puts it at one point, “Whether I am a half-wit or not is irrelevant, for everyone else is gone. It does not seem that quantity of wits is more important than quality of wits.”

When Caligula is assassinated, the Praetorian Guards promote the (seemingly) hapless Claudius in his place. Claudius proves to be an astute Emperor however, although he has a dangerous blindspot when it comes to his conniving young wife, Messalina (Sheila White). When he is apprised of her activities, Claudius takes action, and is soon re-married, this time to his niece Agrippina (Sheila Ruskin), who turns out to be even worse.

As all of this unfolds, the motivations of Claudius become clearer and clearer. He is a wise man, and his goals are honorable, but the follies of those who surround him never cease to doom even the best laid plans. During his final soliloquy, we come to understand that this is not just the story of what led to the fall of Rome, but a timeless tale. The weaknesses and decadence of men and women over the years is a constant, and as the series wraps up this is brought home in a powerful way. I, Claudius has been ranked as one of the all-time greatest television shows for the past 35 years for good reason. This is one of the most incredible productions the BBC has ever mounted.

The fifth DVD in the set is devoted exclusively to bonus material. The one feature you should not miss is The Epic That Never Was (1965). This is a black and white documentary recounting the failed 1937 film adaptation by Alexander Korda, which fell apart after just a few weeks of filming. "I, Claudius, A Television Epic" is a behind-the-scenes look at the series, and is also quite interesting. Other highlights include the extended original versions of the first two episodes (both run 52 minutes), and interview with Derek Jacobi, and favorite scenes of the cast and director. There is also an interesting booklet discussing the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the series.

I, Claudius is a story of murder, lust, and intrigue on a grand scale. It resonates down through the ages as the timeless quest for power never ends and is a truly magnificent series.

Article first published as DVD Review: I, Claudius on Blogcritics.

TV Review: Being Elmo - A Puppeteer's Journey

On Thursday, April 5, 2012, PBS aired Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey as part of their Independent Lens series. The Whoopi Goldberg-narrated program concerns a young African-American man by the name of Kevin Clash, and his dreams of becoming a puppeteer. The story of how he went from a nine-year old fan, to actually working on Sesame Street with his idol Jim Henson, is one of the most heartwarming I have seen in some time.

Kevin was seemingly born to the task. The Clash family hail from Baltimore, Maryland, and they were solidly blue-collar. The house Keith grew up in was not in the best part of town, but there was obviously a lot of love in the family. Keith loved television shows such as Captain Kangaroo and The Wonderful World of Disney. When Sesame Street debuted, he was immediately smitten with the Muppets. Keith was enthralled by puppetry, and began making his own at an early age. He even cut up his father’s trench-coat to use the fur lining to fashion his own Muppet.

Kevin expected the worst when his parents got home that night. He was not acting out or anything, he says that when he discovered the materials, something just came over him. Their response goes to the very heart of what makes this show so memorable. When they saw what he had created, Mr. and Mrs. Clash realized their boy had a very special talent. Rather than punishing him, they encouraged him in every possible way. This could not have been easy, for there were Kevin's two sisters who needed to be taken care of as well, but somehow they managed.

While Kevin was still in high school, he auditioned for a position as a puppeteer on a local children’s show, and got it. When one of his high school classes took a field trip to New York, Keith was able to meet one of his early heroes, Kermit Love. Mr. Love was a Muppet designer, and Kevin was floored by what he found at the studio. The feeling was mutual, and he was taken under Kermit’s wing. When he graduated, he was offered a job there. As his mother says, “Kevin went directly from high school into his career, there was no middle ground.”

He was hired to work as a puppeteer on the Captain Kangaroo Show soon after this. Then came Kermit Love’s own series, the short-lived Great Space Coaster. When Jim Henson got to know him, he was offered the opportunity to work on The Dark Crystal film. The only catch was that he would have to quit his two series jobs, which forced him to do the unimaginable. He turned Jim Henson down.

Both of those series ended shortly afterwards however, and when Henson was casting for Labyrinth, Kevin Clash finally got the opportunity to work with his idol. Labyrinth led to a job with Sesame Street, where he remains to this day.

In A Puppeteer’s Journey, we understand why all of these people helped Kevin Clash so much. For one thing, his talent is undeniable. But the other element that comes through so clearly is just how good a man he has grown up to be. His personality comes through loud and clear, and it is little wonder why people would want to be there for him. On the one hand, he is a very warm and genuine person, and on the other, we find a bit of a scamp. It is a winning combination.

These qualities came together in a remarkable way shortly after he started at Sesame Street. The Elmo character was one that nobody at the Children’s Television Workshop had really “found.” Consequently, the Muppet was not used very much. At one point, Elmo was given to Kevin, to see what he could do with it.

Well, we all know how that turned out. When Kevin Clash took over Elmo, he became a Muppet superstar. In fact, Elmo became so popular that he was soon turned in to one of the biggest children’s toys ever, Tickle Me Elmo. One toy executive called the Tickle Me Elmo doll “The Beatles of toys.”

While we may not have known who the voice of Elmo was, we knew he had some very special qualities. On its face, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is the biography of the man behind one of the most popular Muppets of all time. But there is much more to this story. As we see Kevin Clash working with handicapped children, and the Make A Wish Foundation, we see him giving back, and paying it forward, as it were.

This is a film which reaffirms the basic good in people, and there are moments where I defy anyone not to shed a tear. Although it is unspoken, acting good and right seems to be the fundamental message here. By the end, things come full circle. A young girl is brought into the shop where the Muppets are made, and Kevin shows her around. Her questions are almost identical to the ones he was asking 30 years previously.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is very highly recommended, and an encore presentation of it will be shown on Monday April 9, 2012 for anyone who missed the April 5 Independent Lens premiere.

Article first published as TV Review: Being Elmo - A Puppeteer's Journey on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Paul Van Dyk - Evolution

“No E - Pure PvD” is the slogan, and it serves as a nice way of advertising that Paul Van Dyk is not into the rave-fave drug Ecstasy, and the fact that there is no “E” in his last name. Paul Van Dyk was one of the first “superstar” DJs, his very name is a brand in itself. One listen to Evolution provides ample evidence as to the reasons why. I imagine he gets tired of being compared to Paul Oakenfold, but it is what it is. There is nobody else working in electronic dance music who even comes close to making the type of music Van Dyk does. The 15 tracks on Evolution take the listener on quite a journey, and prove that he has lost none of his creative juice since his debut in 1994.

Evolution is a collection of collaborations between PvD and various artists. The disc begins with “Symmetries,” which features fellow DJ Austin Leeds. Although Van Dyk prefers the term "electronic dance music" to "trance," there is no escaping the fact that some of the material on this recording most definitely falls into the trance category. “Symmetries” is one example. I for one love this stuff, but I do understand an artist not wanting to be pigeonholed.

The first appearance of vocals comes in the second tune, a lovely piano driven piece titled “The Ocean.” The vocals are really wordless, or at least sung in a language I do not recognize. In any case, they add a great deal of atmosphere to this beautiful piece of music. The whole first half of Evolution falls into a similar category. The third song “Eternity” is a showcase for an epic vocal from Adam Young, and is the album’s first single.

A shift into high gear begins with the complex “Rock This,” the only track credited solely to PvD. This song contains all of the elements I enjoy so much about his music. We go from some very inviting piano tones in the opening, into a relatively standard techno segment, then off into the ether. “Rock This” has it all. The energy stays up for most of the rest of Evolution. I notice a sly Kraftwerk homage during “Dae Yor,” and the old-school 80’s New Beat movement gets a nod in “Lost In Berlin.”

Sue McLaren has an incredibly haunting voice, and while the music of “We Come Together” straddles the line between trance and techno, her vocals soar above it all. Finally we come to “Heart Stops Beating,” where the equally beautiful vocals of Sarah Howells are showcased.

It is hard to believe that Evolution is only Paul Van Dyk’s sixth album in 18 years. The man keeps busy with many other projects though, including the soundtrack to The Dark Knight (2008). He also very obviously puts a lot of care into his work. In any event, this is one of his finest albums.

If you have ever wondered what makes a DJ a Grammy Award winning superstar, look no further. Evolution is a fantastic example of electronic dance music, performed by a master of the form.

Article first published as Music Review: Paul Van Dyk - Evolution on Blogcritics

Music Review: The Tubes - Young And Rich / Now

During their initial run, The Tubes were one of the finest satirical bands around. The rock-star character Quay Lewd was introduced on the group’s self-titled debut album, in the anthemic “White Punks on Dope." So-called “shock rock” was a big deal in the 70s, and artists such as KISS and Alice Cooper were highly successful with it. It was kid’s stuff with those guys though. The Tubes went all out, and they had the chops to back it all up. In the end the problem may have been that they were simply too good at what they were did for people to really get it.

Sadly, (if predictably) their popularity grew in direct proportion to their “dumbing down.” Their biggest hit, “She’s A Beauty,” is a great pop song, but not a particularly great Tubes song. Nobody but The Tubes could have come up with something like “Poland Whole”/“Madam I’m Adam.” That tune is one of the highlights of their second album, Young And Rich, from 1976. They certainly beat the sophomore slump jinx with this record.

The stylistic diversity of Young And Rich is the main reason I find for it’s superiority to The Tubes. Right out of they gate they hit with the audacious “Tubes World Tour,” which lists all the (fictitious) highlights of these would be superstars. It’s hilarious all the way through. “Pimp” is where things really get interesting. Guitarist Bill Spooner wrote this one, and it sure helps to have amazing musicians such as Vince Welnick (keyboards), and Prairie Prince (drums) to bring it to fruition. In 1976 it took balls to send-up Steely Dan, who were at the top of their game. The Tubes did it, and the results are great fun.

Fun is what this group were all about, and they really let loose with the classic “Don’t Touch Me There.” This affectionate tribute to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound is just about perfect, at least until you listen to the lyrics and realize that this is a very different song than what it initially appears to be. Young And Rich is like a 1976 time-capsule. When else in history could a group of the whitest dudes (and one chick) get away with a track like “Slipped My Disco?” “Just another white-boy with the disco blues” goes the line, and it is so unfunky that it becomes funky by default.

Anyone who was around that year would be hard pressed to forget the Bicentennial-mania we were subjected to. Like every other band in the land, The Tubes had their American song, “Proud To Be An American.” It is some weirdly-inbred amalgamation of Elvis, redneck country, doo-wop, and Lord knows what else. The whole album is great, and while others will surely disagree, I think Young And Rich represents The Tubes’ finest hour.

The Tubes’ third and final album on the A&M label came out the following year, titled Now. The album is not quite up to the standards set by the previous two, but there are some great tracks on it regardless.

For starters, they chose a fairly obscure tune to cover. This would be “My Head Is My Only House When It Rains,” by Captain Beefheart. Although Don Van Vliet did not appear on the song with them, the recording of it was done under the influence of magic mushrooms (according to the liner notes), which helped provided the necessary weirdness quotient. They did manage to bring the Captain in to blow alto sax on their very own “Cathy’s Clone,” however.

Even with all of this strangeness going on in the studio, The Tubes were tightening up. Although I quite enjoy Now, they were beginning to play it a bit straighter at this point. While “I’m Just A Mess” and “Hit Parade” have clever lyrics, both tend much closer to the pop side of the tracks. And the other cover song they chose, “This Town,” was written by Lee Hazelwood for Frank Sinatra back in the 60s.

All in all, Now is a good, but not great Tubes album. They were definitely searching for the next step, and probably trying to get some sales as well. Taken together though, Young And Rich and Now provide a great peak at one of the great American bands of the era, before they had really sorted everything out. Real Gone have done a nice job here, and if you think that mushrooms story mentioned earlier is something, wait until you read about some of the band’s other antics during that marvelously decadent period we call the 70s.

Article first published as Music Review: The Tubes - Young And Rich / Now on Blogcritics.

Book Review: On and Off Bass: A Photographic Memory by Mike Watt

Bassist Mike Watt formed the seminal punk band the Minutemen with D. Boone and George Hurley back in 1980. The trio became one of the most influential Southern California punk groups of all time. Along with Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime completely redefined the genre, and remains as powerful a set as ever. They seemed poised to break out of the punk “ghetto” at this time, but events conspired to make that impossible. In December 1985, D. Boon was tragically killed in an accident, and the Minutemen were over. Mike Watt has continued to record, and has made some outstanding music over the years since, but that horrible occurrence still haunts him.

In On and Off Bass, Watt has branched out from music to display some of his great photography. In April 2010, the Santa Monica gallery Track 16 hosted Watt’s first public exhibit. They displayed 35 of his works, which are included (handily enough) as the first 35 images in the book. Interspersed with these images are entries from Watt’s extensive tour diaries. The short, imagistic notes that accompany the photos provide something of a haiku-like explanation of what the pictures mean to Watt.

Hailing from the working-class town of San Pedro, California, Mike Watt has a natural affinity for the waterfront. The vast majority of the pictures in On and Off Bass are of various water-related scenes taken in his home town. He also has quite an affinity for pelicans. One of the best combinations of text and imagery comes early on, and is titled “Follow the Curve.” In this free-verse poem Mike Watt identifies with these birds, and the companion picture of them flying over a freighter is a timeless shot.

On and Off Bass will undoubtedly appeal to fans as something of a companion piece to Watt’s music. As the folks at Track 16 must have felt though, there is a universality here which could find a broad audience. This is a photographic collection that rewards repeated viewings, and is very well crafted.

Article first published as Book Review: On and Off Bass: A Photographic Memory by Mike Watt on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Eddie Hazel - Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs

I have waited a good 20 years for Eddie Hazel’s lone solo album Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs to be released on CD, and it has finally happened. Real Gone Music have put out some really cool items recently, but this one seals it for me. Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs is a lost classic.

Eddie made his bones as a member of Funkadelic, most especially with the 10-minute guitar solo “Maggot Brain” in 1971. The track is unforgettable. Reportedly, George Clinton told him to “Play as if you just heard your mother had died.” Hazel more than rose to the challenge, the emotions he wrings out of his guitar during this tune are heartbreaking.

Eddie was only 21 years old when he laid down “Maggot Brain,” but he was something of an old soul. Drugs were no stranger to many in Clinton‘s orbit, and Hazel was no exception. He floated in and out of various P-Funk projects, and worked as a highly prized session musician, but Game was the only album he made on his own. It was released by Warner Bros. in 1977, and sank like a stone in the marketplace. The album has been a highly sought after collector's item ever since.

Even though Hazel’s troubles had pretty much sidelined him from the commercial heights Parliament and Funkadelic reached in the mid-'70s, his friends helped out in a big way on his album. Game was co-produced by Hazel and George Clinton, and a number of P-Funk superstars appeared.

The album opens up with Eddie’s unique take on The Mamas & The Papas' hit “California Dreamin.” The song is virtually unrecognizable until you hear the lyrics. Eddie’s arrangement reminds me a great deal of what Jimi Hendrix did with Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” Hazel put his own indelible stamp on this one, and it set a high bar for the rest of the record.

The other cover Hazel chose was “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by The Beatles. Once again, he makes the song his own, and if anyone could reinvent a Beatles song, it is Eddie Hazel. He turns this one into a monster guitar showcase, and tosses off lick after lick with complete nonchalance.

The remaining five tracks are originals, save for a short reprise of “California Dreamin'” at the end. “Frantic Moment” is a full-on Parliament song in just about every way. The tune was written by George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Bernie Worrell, and and would have slotted in nicely on The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein.

This is followed by “So Goes,” written by the dream team of Eddie Hazel, Bootsy, and George Clinton. It is pure funk, with Bootsy’s rubber-band bass-lines front and center, although they never usurp Eddie’s almighty guitar. “Physical Love” is another wild one, and was written by Bootsy, Clinton, Gary Cooper, and Garry Shider. Shider even joins in as “second lead guitar” on this instrumental, which makes for a nice contrast.

“What About It?” is another funky instrumental, written by Clinton and Hazel. When Funkadelic's One Nation Under A Groove was released in 1978, it included a bonus seven-inch single with a live version of “Maggot Brain.” It wasn’t Eddie Hazel playing though, it was Mike Hampton laying down those incredible lines Eddie had improvised in the studio. Interestingly enough, Hampton joins Hazel on “What About It?” for a fantastic guitar duel. The album ends with the previously mentioned 1:38 reprise of “California Dreamin'.”

Eddie Hazel was a genius guitarist, and it is a wonderful thing that his solo album is finally available again. Although he left us much too early, the music he made was in a league of its own. Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs is a great monument to his legacy, and is a record every P-Funk fan should own.

Article first published as Music Review: Eddie Hazel - Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs on Blogcritics.

Book Review: The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw by Bob Friel

One of the most fascinating crime sprees of the past decade was that of Colton Harris-Moore, aka “The Barefoot Bandit.” In his new book The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw, Bob Friel traces the unlikely saga of the young man, which took him from Camano Island in Washington State all the way to the Bahamas over the course of two years.

The story is a fascinating one. Harris-Moore was a troubled teen, with a homelife that brings new meaning to the term “dysfunctional.” His alcoholic mother brought in a series of abusive men, and even married a couple of them.

The young man acted out in small ways in the beginning. He shoplifted and stole from his neighbors near his Camano Island home. Colton’s first conviction was at the age of 12, for which he was put into a detention center for 10 days. By the time he had reached 17, he was facing three years' time, and bolted from a halfway house.

This was in 2008, and marked the beginning of a run that eventually captured world-wide attention. Colton spent the majority of his time in the San Juan Islands, which is where the author is from. In fact, Bob Friel suspects that the young fugitive attempted to break into his home a couple of times, but was unsuccessful. Whether he did or did not is irrelevant though, as the two did have a unique correspondence going on through Friel’s blog.

As a freelance writer, Bob Friel took an avid interest in the exploits of Harris-Moore, especially so since he began his serious activities on Orcas Island, where Friel resides. As the break-ins and stories of his exploits grew, Friel started posting about Colton on his blog. It became crystal clear that the teen was following the blog when Colton’s mother Pam asked Friel to post something requesting a sign that he was still all right at one point.

The next day, Friel found a 13-foot human foot painted on the ground near his house. It seemed proof enough that the Barefoot Bandit was following his own adventures online, and wanted to reassure his mother that he was indeed ok.

Even though I live in the Seattle area, I had no idea of the full extent of Colton’s spree until I read this book. Of course the big stories concerning the airplane and boat thefts were reported in the local news, but there were many smaller incidents that were kept quiet. The author has painstakingly reconstructed a nearly day by day account of what Colton Harris-Moore was up to, and his adventures bring new life to the cliché “truth is stranger than fiction.”

One of the reasons the tale is so compelling is the fact that the young man was so successful in eluding the police at every turn. Although he was obviously addicted to the thrill of it all, he was a very smart criminal. Colton never fell victim to the lure of drugs and alcohol for one thing, which kept him sharp as a tack. He was also in excellent shape, and a seeming master of making himself virtually invisible once he hit the woods.

When things finally got too hot for him in Washington, Colton began to make his way across the country. As Friel notes, the young man’s MO became obvious early on. He would steal a small plane from an out of the way hanger, fly it some distance, then land. He would then steal a vehicle to move on to the next leg of his trip, which would invariably be the nearest small airfield. After a couple of instances of this, you would think that the authorities would catch on. But they never did. Colton repeated this process over and over as he worked his way across the US.

Colton eventually took his show international, by flying into the Bahamas. As anyone who followed the story knows, he left under armed escort. All tolled, the number of crimes the young perp committed add up to over 100, and there are probably more than that. On January 27, 2012, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

In addition to the odd personal connection the author had with Colton, he devotes a significant portion of the book to the young man’s pre-fame history. It is a sad story, and while it does not excuse what he did, it does elicit some sympathy, even from his victims.

Another element of the tale is the weird form of respect Colton (sometimes) exhibited towards his victims. He passed up all kinds of things that a “common” criminal would immediately grab, such as large amounts of cash, and expensive personal effects. I suppose completely totaling someone’s $100K+ plane or boat sort of makes up for that though.

As a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, I have no idea what it is that inspires so many headline-grabbing criminals around here. At least in Colton’s case, nobody was physically harmed though. The Barefoot Bandit reads like a modern Catch Me If You Can, and you cannot help wondering what he will do once he is released.

Even though I knew the outcome of the story, and felt for those whose property was stolen, I have to admit to a certain amount of “rooting” for the kid while I read this book. No matter how you cut it, the story of Colton Harris-Moore is a one of a kind adventure, and Bob Friel has done a great job in capturing it.

Article first published as Book Review: The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw by Bob Friel on Blogcritics.