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Not Much to Say Today

 

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The Real World Fades to Black

Last night I dreamed of waking up.  I awoke calmly, responding to external stimuli rather than internal volition.  It was the sound of a hyper-agitated dog, actually more wolf than dog, clawing spastically from the other side of the wall behind my headboard that had stirred me from sleep.  I felt comfortable and safe in my ground-floor bedroom, with its dark wood-paneled walls and dull red color scheme.  I inherently grasped an atmosphere of danger in the sparse surrounding rural landscape and knew that I would not open the curtains to look.  The wolf-dog trying to scratch its way in was one of many and I had an awareness of the predatory canines routinely and viciously tearing into some species of rodent that inhabited the “out there.”  It was too early to get up so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Even as the thought came though, I knew it was unnecessary as I would easily fall deep asleep as soon as I closed my eyes.

The closing of my dream eyes and tranquil drift back into figment sleep was exactly and oppositely matched by the opening of my flesh eyes and a gentle, genuine wakening.  I felt comfortable and safe in my sixth-floor bedroom, with its plaster walls and off-white color scheme, but I was nonetheless deeply confused.  My mind could not reconcile the sparse, rodent-filled plains and middle-eastern urban landscape I knew to dually exist on the other side of the curtain-covered window.  I wondered why I could no longer hear the wolf-dog’s clawing even as I questioned why I was thinking about wolf-dogs at all.  It was too early to rise so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Just as my thoughts coalesced on a specific album but before I could act, my eyes closed and sleep returned.

This morning, I awoke with a strong desire to hear the latest album by Bloody Hammers, Lovely Sort of Death, which I had just received in the mail yesterday.  I read of the gothic rock / doom metal band only recently and have quite enjoyed some of their earlier recordings I’ve been background streaming at work.  I fixed some French toast and watched last evening’s PBS Newshour online while I ate, but the album kept infiltrating my thoughts.  So, comfortably fed and updated on ongoing catastrophes both natural and political back home, I grabbed the iPod and headphones and headed for the elliptical.

Lovely Sort of Death

As first track “Bloodletting on the Kiss” begins, I get an immediate Type O Negative feel — a vibe that carries through the entire album — but also find the mid-80s new wave of Simple Minds repeatedly coming to mind.  The Simple Minds free association continues with “Lights Come Alive,” but third track “The Reaper Comes” conjures instead thoughts of Gary Numan’s dystopian coldness, a sense that proves to permeate the subsequent tracks as well.  While the pace of the album is generally slow, even verging on sluggish early on, things pick up as you go deeper into the tracklist.  In fact, “Infinite Gaze to the Sun” and “Astral Traveler” offer legitimate headbanging opportunities.

This is not warm music.  It is cold and calculated, giving off no feel of having been played by a collaborating set of musicians.  The sense of separate recording of each instrument and vocal is stark, although the impression of an expert hand in the careful, deliberate layering of the individual parts to engender the whole is also clear.  The stratified notes and beats that bind together to form each song give the album a potent, doom-laden heft.  Accomplished in composition but simple in the playing, this music seems crafted in black and white.  Any addition of color would sound out of place, so look for no guitar solos or drum breaks as the songscapes unfold.

I rate this LP highly but imagine it being more for the recoiling rodents out there than for the stirred-up wolf-dogs.  It evokes dim bars sparsely inhabited by moody locals rather than neon-lit clubs filled with enthusiastic partyers.  I’d confidently recommend it to anyone who stoically hopes for happier times to come but doesn’t truly expect them in their heart of hearts.  If you strive to keep hidden a deep sense of cosmic aloneness and regularly find yourself irrationally mired in your own dispiriting thoughts, I think you’d like this one.  On the other hand, if you are generally content with your life and its path, I suspect you may find Lovely Sort of Death somewhat plodding and hard to connect with.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

 

 

You Send Me: Mom, Steve Miller and Sam Cooke

I didn’t know who this guy was and I certainly had no interest in being forced to extend feigned cordiality to his interloping ass.  My recently divorced mother had been set up with him by friends and had apparently found much to like.  He was someone with whom she thought there could be a deeper connection and so for this, his first visit to our house to pick Mom up for dinner and a movie, she hoped for a mutually positive first impression with us kids.  Before he came, Mom took 14-year-old me aside – possibly doing the same with my 12-year-old sister – and admitted to liking the gentleman, expressing her wish that I would like him too.  Regardless, she asked me to be polite when he arrived.

With a surly attitude attributable to normal adolescent contrarianism but exacerbated by the then personally unrecognized yet nonetheless real hurt and jealousy roiling within a confused child of a breaking home, it was all I could do to stand there and shake the 30-something intruder’s hand and mumble a “Nice to meet you too.”  Having complied with the letter, if most certainly not the spirit of my mother’s request, I quickly exited the uncomfortable scene for the reassuring refuge of my room and my music.  I placed side two of Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle LP on the turntable and sought to escape from whatever incomprehensible bullshit was occurring upstairs.

Two songs in and after six or seven minutes of much friendlier exchange with my 8-year-old youngest sister and her visiting playmate, Mom came downstairs to open my door and say they were headed out.  I don’t recall my exact response but am sure that today’s teenage equivalent would be along the lines of, “Fine, whatever.”   As she headed back upstairs leaving my bedroom door open, Steve Miller’s version of “You Send Me” drifted out of the speakers.  Just before they left, I overheard the stranger say something to my mom like “Do you think he has any idea where that song comes from?”  As the front door closed, I heard Mom reply in a tone of sincere pride, “Oh, he knows.  He knows everything there is to know about music.”

Nearly 40 years later I still remember the feeling Mom’s words spurred in me as if it were happening right now.  My mommy understood me, was proud of me, and was not leaving me.  I don’t know how I would have described it then but the sense of relief flowed over me like a warm wave.  I may have even shed a few tears.  Somehow in those few words offered to someone else, Mom had managed to reassure me that she would remain my protector and advocate even as our lives changed drastically and against my will.  There would still be plenty of rocky road ahead to traverse, but from that fleeting moment forward, I never doubted that Mom would be there to support me through it.

THANKS MOMMY!!

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Now, the dark, hidden truth about the above is that I actually had no freaking idea where “You Send Me” came from.  To the extent I thought about it at all, I figured it for a Steve Miller original.  Oops.

There was no question that I needed to make Mom’s words true post-haste.  Even in those pre-cellular, pre-internet days, it didn’t take long to uncover that Sam Cooke had composed and first recorded the song back in the late 50s.  So, when just a few weeks later I spotted a used copy of the Cooke’s Tour album at a local thrift store, I enthusiastically handed over my 25 cents.  The record didn’t include “You Send Me” but I felt confident that my owning it would forever preclude any doubt about my musical knowledge should I be tested on my mother’s matter-of-fact assertion.

In the end, no such challenge ever came.  The interloper became my step-father before the year was out, staggeringly within one day of another invader, this one allowed in by my father, being declared my new step-mother.  In hindsight, I can happily affirm that, for all the bumps, things turned out well.  In fact, where most poor buggers have to make do with at best two parents to assist, love, and guide them into adulthood, I was blessed with four.  And throughout all of it, music continued, and continues, to magically provide escape, embrace, and enlightenment just when I most need it.

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Steve_Miller_Band_Fly_Like_an_Eagle

 

A quick note on Fly Like an Eagle:  The cover of this excellent album from 1976 has to be among the most misleading ever when it comes to giving a sense of what’s inside.  The gale-force electric guitar histrionics promised by the cover photo of Mr. Miller are nowhere to be found on the LP.  Instead, Steve’s brilliance is demonstrated mainly in acoustic – and acoustic-style electric – playing on a set of grooving rockers, spacey interludes and emotive ballads, all of which evoke a warm, breezy California feeling for me.  To be honest, the somewhat vanilla version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” is probably the album’s least-impressive moment, although the acoustic guitar accompaniment still rates it a winner in my book.  As the big hits “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “Rock’n Me” are well known and widely loved, I’d draw new listeners’ attention to “Serenade,” an acoustic-driven, mid-tempo melodic rocker with unique harmonized vocals that conjures a campfire-lit beach under a vast, star-filled sky.

Steve Miller Band – Serenade

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Sam_Cooke_-_Cooke's_Tour

 

A quick note on Cooke’s Tour:  Sam’s first record for RCA Victor after a string of solo hits on Keen Records, this 1960 album has much more of a 1940s Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole traditional pop/orchestral feel than the soul/R&B of his late 50s hits.  Marketed as an “adventurous travelogue,” the LP offers the singer’s take on a series of “international” songs such as “Under Paris Skies,” “Bali Ha’i,” “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way),” and “Galway Bay.”  Despite the shift in style, there’s no mistaking Sam’s stunningly beautiful voice as he makes these far-flung songs very much his own.  I’m especially fond of “Jamaica Farewell” with its softened (diluted?) Caribbean rhythm and Sam’s lilting vocal, which together wonderfully evince longing for a lost love.  Best of all however is the album’s American offering, “The House I Live In,” which carries a message we statesiders would do well to remember in this divisive electoral year:

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races, all religions
That’s America to me

The place I work in
The worker at my side
The little town or city
Where my people lived and died
The howdy and the handshake
The air of feeling free
The right to speak my mind out
That’s America to me

Sam Cooke – The House I Live In

Curved Air Live: Treasure for Your Pleasure

I sat in my driveway in awe after arriving home as the album played the rest of the way through.  What I was hearing was a revelation; I had no choice but to defer everything else and keep listening.  I’d known the band Curved Air for a few years and, in the right mood, considered myself a fan of their early 70s output of folk-tinged progressive rock.  But what was coming out of the speakers was something different.  The songs were familiar, but were altogether sharper, more alive, and seemed to just plain rock harder.  They were filled with zeal, anger, and raw energy, words that I would never have used to describe the Curved Air I had previously known.  I was experiencing 1975’s Curved Air Live for the first time and the experience was good.

Recorded during a late 1974 tour that the original band members had been compelled to undertake following two years of separation in order to pay off a tax bill, Curved Air Live was not the sound of a joyful group reunion but rather of five supremely talented artists working out their Curved Air Live (front)individual issues together on stage.  The reunion would last only for the tour and album release, but what a statement they would leave behind in this record.

That this is not your hippy uncle’s Curved Air of old is made clear from first track “It Happened Today” as it opens with tight, amplified keyboards replacing the piano flourish of the studio version and biting electric guitar and grooving bass brought far forward in the mix.  When Sonja Kristina’s vocal kicks in at the half-minute mark, it carries none of the twee quaintness of the original.  Instead we hear the slightly-gargled rasp of a woman on the verge, all antagonism and fury, and wonderfully so.  Wikipedia cites Kristina as explaining that, at the time of this recording, she was in a distraught emotional state following the breakup of her first marriage, and this had provoked wild, raw singing.  While sorry at the cause, I enthusiastically celebrate the result.

Second track “Marie Antoinette” probably represents the greatest, and most stirring, change in tone and feel from its studio version.  The original is a fantastic progressive folk rock song that tells the tale of the French revolution over theCurved Air Live (back) top of some excellent bluesy electric guitar wailing by Francis Monkman.  It looks back on a momentous historical event and imagines it from afar.  The live take here casts off the sense of the past and instead transports the listener directly into the scene.  The words are the same, but rawness and wrath now replace stoic storytelling.  One feels the “anger, born of hunger” viscerally, no longer just listening in but shouting along:

“We are the people of France, we demand that the
Elegant blue-blooded leeches that bleed us
Are taught what it means to grow fat and not feed us
We are the people of France, you must heed us!”

The mainly instrumental “Propositions” is another one that becomes something new here.  From Kristina’s gravel-voiced introductory shriek to the extended, echo-laden guitar and synth solos that double its run-time as compared to the original, this version leaves its earthbound, rollercoaster feel behind to launch itself into orbit on a Hawkwind-like rocket ride.

Curved Air’s best-known song, “Vivaldi,” is likewise transformed.  The opening bombast is turned up tenfold, and leads into a hootenanny-worthy fiddle workout by Darryl Way in lieu of the classical violin of the studio version.  This is followed by an extended, spacey electronic excursion in multiple parts, occasionally punctuated by hoarse yelping from Kristina and Way’s staccato violin bursts.  Awesome!

 

Curved Air

 

The overall musicianship demonstrated on Curved Air Live is exceptional.  In setting aside the focus on harmony and gloriously pompous crescendos, diminuendos and other prog/folk affectations that characterize their early studio albums, the band members are free to truly fly as instrumentalists here.  Monkman lets escape the inner guitar hero that we always knew was lurking in the wings, with violinist/keyboardist Way and drummer/percussionist Florian Pilkington-Miksa also allowed ample space to shine.  It is vocalist Sonja Kristina however who best takes advantage of the on-stage freedom to demonstrate her range, the precious chanteuse of the studio replaced by a take-no-prisoners woman with attitude.

The “folk” side of Curved Air is not to be found in this outlier offering.  This is progressive hard rock.  I’d recommend this even as a one-off exploration for rockers put off by the artifice and pretense of early 70s “art rock.”  As for those who only know Curved Air from their studio output, prepare to spend some time dumbstruck in your driveway.

 

Marie Antoinette (live): 

Black Sabbath: Witness to The End

When I realized I was going to miss my opportunity to see the reunited original line-up of Black Sabbath live by only the slightest of Black Sabbath - 13margins, I was bummed. Their tour on the back of the 13 album, a record I liked unreservedly, was to pass through the Washington D.C. area only a few days before I would finish my three-year assignment in Bolivia. Callous fate had already conspired to rob me of the chance to see the Dio-led version of Sabbath back in 1980 (as described here), and now yet again an indifferent universe casually overlooked me.

Among the many important changes in the 33 years since the earlier Sabbath letdown was one in particular that would greatly ease the pain of this repeat disappointment. I was now a father and therefore endowed by natural law with the dual blessing/curse of experiencing life not solely individually but also vicariously through my offspring. My son and daughter would both return to the D.C. area weeks before me in order to prepare for their respective entries into graduate school and university and could therefore make the pilgrimage to the Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater in Bristow, Virginia, to see theSabbath at Jiffy Lube Live show. I purchased two tickets for the 2 August 2013 concert and presented them to the kids as well-received high school and university graduation gifts.

In the days leading up to the concert, I relentlessly bothered the kids by phone from my lair in La Paz. I demanded details of the vehicle and route they would take to the venue, suggested pre-concert playlists, and double-checked for sufficient funds to buy souvenir T-shirts to memorialize the event. I made one final call during the Andrew W.K. opening slot to confirm they were in their seats and of correct mind, and then settled down with headphones to listen to 13 while imagining myself alongside them.

The morning after, I was thrilled to receive separate rave reviews and detailed descriptions of the “amazing” show from both daughter and son. It was clear that they had not only enjoyed the concert itself but also experiencing it together just the two of them, something that had become naturally less routine as they grew toward adulthood and began to forge their own paths. I was a tad sad at having personally missed the show, but the disappointment was significantly lightened by the knowledge that I had successfully bequeathed the elusive riches to my children rather than having lost them outright.

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Fast forward two and a half years and the previously uncaring cosmos seemed to have actively arrayed themselves for the sole purpose of bringing me joy. Call it karma or coincidence at your whim, but I fantasize a supernatural hand in the mundane turn of events that fortuitously conveyed me from Egypt to New York City just in time to witness Black Sabbath’s 27 February 2016 show at Madison Square Garden in the first days of their announced final tour, denominated “The End.” I had all but given up on the idea that I would ever partake in the live Sabbath sacrament, but some unseen master of reality appeared to have lorded over this world in my favor.

 

The Beginning of the End

 

My first Sabbath concert and my first visit to the renowned Garden, how much better could it get? From my pie-eyed perspective, everything was perfect. Following a good opening set by Rival Sons – an energetic, young band I had previously enjoyed in a small Baltimore club less than a year before – the legendary patriarchs of a gazillion metal genres strode onstage to massive cheers before assaulting us with the relentless barrage of doom that is “Black Sabbath,” the first song from their first album. Any concerns about their playing ability in the wake of Tony Iommi’s cancer scare, the status of Ozzy’s voice, or the impact of the absence of original drummer Bill Ward were forgotten immediately. This was truly the mighty Black Sabbath, with full power and glory intact.

 

Sabbath at MSG

 

The set list was never going to fully satisfy; there is simply too much greatness in the catalog. I was pleased however at the inclusion of personal favorites “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Hand of Doom” alongside stalwarts “Paranoid” and “Children of the Grave.” Geezer Butler’s bass awed throughout, with the “Bassically” intro to “N.I.B.” an obvious standout moment. Why “Dirty Women” from the Technical Ecstasy album and nothing at all from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, or 13? It mattered only in hindsight for it all made perfect sense in the moment. I felt in no way cheated when the show ended; one of my loftiest musical bucket list entries had been checked off and I was ecstatic.

A word about touring drummer Tommy Clufetos and behind-the-scenes player Adam Wakeman: As anyone knows who has read my previous Sabbath-related post (linked in the first paragraph above), I have my own petulant, but honestly-held personal reasons for caring less about the absence of Bill Ward from the latter-day, reborn Sabbath than many of my fellow fans. Even so, it seemed objectively true, at least to me, that Clufetos is a formidable and worthy replacement skins-man. I felt both the power and the jazz-inflected swing that Ward was famous for in Clufetos’ drumming. Moreover, his lengthy solo during “Rat Salad,” while the elder Sabs likely took a restroom break, was naught less than amazing. As for Rick’s son, Adam, his offstage keyboards and second guitar seemed in no way meant to simply fill holes, but rather to provide a firm backing for the canvas on which Mr. Iommi painted his doom-laden art. A quick acknowledgement by the band and a wave from behind the curtain reinforced Wakeman’s unseen but vital role.

 

MSG Sabbath Tee-CD

 

I dropped nearly US$100 on the limited edition The End CD and two MSG-exclusive concert T-shirts. I give the CD a fervent thumbs-up, finding it pleasingly similar and a worthy companion to the 13 album. As for the shirts, I look forward to a future opportunity, probably involving a long drive, to compel my kids to pull on their own souvenir tees and join me in listening to a dad-crafted playlist in celebration of our “shared” Sabbath experience. (I happily note that the male heir has already purchased his own ticket to see “The End” when it passes back through Virginia this fall.)

 

Goin’ home, late last night
Suddenly I got a fright
Yeah I looked through the window and surprised what I saw
Fairies with boots dancing with a dwarf, 
all right now!

 

Kevin Mazur - Getty Images

Kevin Mazur – Getty Images

LONG LIVE SABBATH!!!