Monday, October 2, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #72 - King Crimson - Red (1974)

It probably says a lot about King Crimson frontman Robert Fripp's sense of humor that the cover of an album called Red is almost entirely black and white. Or maybe it's just a stark and somber image of a band falling apart, as King Crimson almost always was. For their last album of the 1970s, the group had been reduced to the power trio of John Wetton on bass and vocals, Bill Bruford on drums, and Robert Fripp on guitar, helped along in a few places by former bandmates Ian McDonald, Mel Collins, and David Cross.

The album consists of just five tracks, but boy do they pack a punch. All of the experiments of the previous two albums come to fruition here in perfect concert. It's simultaneously a shame and fitting that the group disbanded after an achievement like Red.

The title track, which opens the album, is a dense, heavily overdubbed slab of instrumental proto-metal, built on riffs in odd time signatures and still sounding ahead of its time more than forty years later. It's hard to imagine any progressive metal or math rock band not devouring and internalizing this track.

The second song, Fallen Angel, is a lyrical ballad reminiscent of the band's debut album. Still, never content with simplicity, the track is spiced up by virtuosic drumming, the creative use of guitar harmonics, squalling sax solos, and the rarely heard Oboe setting on Mellotron, the most characteristic of all progressive rock instruments.

One More Red Nightmare develops themes from the title track into a somewhat more traditional song, although retaining the weird overtones of the original. I don't know what Bill Bruford is using as a drum kit here, but it sounds like he went out back behind the studio and found some trash cans to bang on. Maybe there are some flanged handclaps in there too? Whatever the case, it lends the whole song a very unique feel.

Providence is another instrumental, an eight-minute live track that, like the previous album, showcases the band's improvisational skills. This leads into the monumental Starless, a track that was mysteriously rejected from the previous album, but which combines emotion and virtuosity into the most thrilling twelve minutes in all of progressive rock. It's a hell of a way to close this chapter in the band's history.

I was never keen on 80s King Crimson, when New Wave and post-punk had eclipsed the classic sound of Prog Rock, so for me this album always represented the end of King Crimson as I knew them. While it's still not my favorite in their catalogue, it's hard to deny that the band ever sounded any better and more together than they do here. Truly a wonderful record that stands out, even for such a consistently creative and talented band.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #73 - Van Halen (1979)

In my review for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, I mentioned that I think there have been three major revolutions in guitar technique since the invention of the electric version of the instrument. The first was Chuck Berry, who really developed a style unique to electric guitar, rather than simply mirroring acoustic technique, the second was Hendrix, who exploited feedback and distortion in ways no one ever had before, as well as extending the possibilities for the instrument in general. The third revolution came at the lightning fast hands of Eddie Van Halen.

The technique of tapping on the guitar fretboard with the right hand was hardly new; blues musicians had already been using it for decades, and Brian May performed a memorable electric version on Queen's 1976 album News of the World. But this occasional dabbling for the purposes of special effect could never have prepared the world for what Eddie managed to accomplish through systematically employing the technique in a heavy metal context. The resulting sound influenced every hard rock and metal band of the 80s, and defined entire genres of music. 

The instrumental that forms the second track on Van Halen's debut album, entitled Eruption, remains jaw dropping to this day, and learning it is a rite of passage for aspiring shredders everywhere. The world of the electric guitar would never be the same. But it's too easy to get hung up on Eddie Van Halen's guitar chops, for while they certainly do a lot to add character to the band's first album, there is a lot more going on than simply instrumentalists showing off.

No review of Van Halen would be complete without mention of David Lee Roth, the frontman whose raw energy and enthusiasm carried Van Halen from something rooted in technical proficiency to a real rock band, driven as much by adrenaline as musicianship. If there is any doubt that Diamond Dave's yelping and hollering were instrumental to making Van Halen great, take a listen to the pale efforts of Sammy Hagar to inject enthusiasm into an otherwise limp and plaid out band. Regardless of whose name is on it, without Dave, Van Halen just wasn't Van Halen.

Then, of course, there are the songs themselves. While there are admittedly a couple of duds, these boys sure knew how to write a catchy tune. It's astonishing to think that Eddie was almost too embarrassed to perform Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, maybe the best song on the album, because it is only based around two chords. Elsewhere, I'm The One, Runnin' With The Devil, and Atomic Punk keep the listener engaged with unrelentingly high-octane performances. I'm particularly amused by the faux-retro Ice Cream Man, which starts off as an acoustic number before turning into another crazy shred-fest.

Even the Kinks' You Really Got Me, a great tune but arguably the most over-covered song in the rock canon, finds new life under the fingers of Eddie and in the vocal chords of Dave. The energy they give the song makes the original, once a roaring rock anthem, sound almost quaint in comparison.

I'll admit that Van Halen is not one of my favorite bands, and I find that their schtick gets old after a while, but in terms of both energy and influence on later acts, it's impossible to deny that their debut, coming right at the end of the seventies, certainly ranks as one of the most important albums in rock.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #74 - Leonard Cohen - Songs of Love and Hate (1971)

I've been remiss in my music review duties lately, partly due to being busy and partly due to a lack of inspiration. In truth, this album is pretty dreary and it took some time for me to come up with something to say about it.

As the cover indicates, Songs of Love and Hate is a bleak, monochromatic collection of songs tackling such cheery subjects of death, suicide, and more death. Comparisons with other singer-songwriters are inevitable. Cohen is more somber than Bob Dylan, less personable than Johnny Cash, and more authentic than Tom Waits. His earnest and painful writing in tinged with an icy frost of alienation.

Even in the relatively uptempo number, There Are No Diamonds in the Mine, when backed by gospel singers and a twangy country lead guitar, Cohen comes across as desperately unhappy. I suppose that's part of his appeal. Where Dylan cuts his bitterness with jokes, Cohen maintains steadfastly committed to his grim outlook on life.

Apocalypse always feels just around the corner, with Cohen serving as a prophet resigned to the fate of the world, an aura that is helped by larger than life topics such as Joan of Arc and the suicidal ruminations of Dress Rehearsal Rag,

One of the surprising things about the record is Cohen's intricate style of guitar playing, over which his world weary voice drones and groans. Particularly evident in the album's opener, Avalanche, his style is a blend of classical guitar techniques and folky fingerstyle that's terribly effective in what is otherwise a very stripped down form of music.

Another oddity is the inclusion of a single live track, seemingly for no reason. It maintains the overall feel of the album, however, and doesn't really detract from its mood.

I have to be in a pretty gloomy mood to enjoy this sort of music, but when I am, it really hits the spot. There's definitely something to be said for wallowing in all of humanity's most negative emotions at once. It can be cathartic and therapeutic, and after all, isn't that what music is all about?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #75 - Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin always liked to experiment with different genres, but perhaps never so much as on their fifth album, Houses of the Holy, in which the band stretches itself beyond their hard rock/proto metal roots to create a record that enigmatic, fascinating, and at times brilliant.

What Houses of the Holy lacks in a unified sound or consistent themes, it makes up for in exuberance and experimentation. It's not always successful, but it does include some of the highlights of the Led Zeppelin catalogue.

The album's opener, The Song Remains the Same, is a traditional Jimmy Page guitar-workout rocker that is made no less powerful by its familiarity.  Next, The Rain Song finds the band in a mellower mood than is typical for them, with Jimmy Page's twin guitars separated out into the stereo channels, providing a wide and full sound that soon is joined by warm strings. By this point, Page's layered guitar technique was well established, but this is a good example of how far the band had come in terms of production, and really sounds great through headphones.

The Tolkien-influenced flights of fancy are still around, with songs like Over the Hills and Far Away preserving the Celtic influences that allowed Zeppelin to give a nod to its native Britain while still reveling the in the sounds of American blues. 

On the second half, things start to get a little odd. D'Yer Maker (pronounced Jamaica) is a particularly weird genre experiment in which the band attempts reggae. The result doesn't exactly sound like something out of the Caribbean, but it is a fun enough to forgive its technical and stylistic shortcomings. 

No Quarter is even weirder, but instead of being a pastiche, it comes across as a genuinely frightening piece of nightmare music. It also proves that Robert Plant can do things with his voice other than shriek. It's one of my favorite things the band has ever done, and resembles nothing else in their oeuvre.

Elsewhere, the songwriting suffers, as on the mediocre Dancing Days and The Crunge (did they ever find that confounded bridge?) But if Houses of the Holy is not as consistent as the previous album, it must at least be given credit for how adventurous it is. It's not my favorite Zeppelin album, but it's certainly up there. As Robert Plant says in the last two words on the album, "so good."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #76 - Blondie - Parallel Lines (1978)

Blondie is that most unlikely paradox, a polished punk band. Emerging out of the New York punk/new wave scene, the band started out raw enough, blending aggressive modernism with sweet girl group-inspired melodies. But with their third album under producer Mike Chapman, they reached a level of professionalism equal to their energy and creativity.

Reportedly, relations between Chapman and the band were not especially friendly. He demanded perfection from a group that was used to knocking out sessions in a couple of loose takes. The resulting friction resulting in Chapman having instruments occasionally thrown at him by exasperated band members, but you can't argue with the results. Every note on Parallel Lines is as good as it could have been, with zero tolerance for sloppiness in any area.

The squeaky clean production highlights the essentially quality of the songwriting, and brings out the best in both the band and in Deborah Harry herself, whose instantly recognizable voice constantly rides the line between tender and tough. As her scowl on the cover photo suggests, she is not just another honey-voiced pop singer.

No one has a voice like Harry, and she uses it very adeptly. One Way or Another, about a stalking experience, would have the potential to be very repetitive, but she sings the chorus a different way every time. She growls and coos with equally potent effect.

What makes Blondie stand out among their peers is that, while the anarchic energy of fellow New York punk acts is present, they can't seem to help writing irresistible pop hooks. Picture This and Sunday Girl have killer ones, and Just Go Away is built around not one, but three hooks that other bands would give their bassist for.

Elsewhere, the band gets playful, transforming a Buddy Holly love song into a bratty punk anthem, complete with the obligatory rock and roll scream, and experimenting with disco on the album's most famous song, Heart of Glass.

Blondie is neither as hard as most punk bands nor as poppy as many New Wave acts, but their strength lies in combining the best parts of both genres into a tight and polished whole, that balances every sarcastic snarl with a shy smile. Parallel Lines represents the band at the height of their powers, both as songwriters and as musicians capable of delivering a professional product, even as they continue to have raucous fun.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #77 - David Bowie - Aladdin Sane (1973)

The third of four Bowie albums on this list, Aladdin Sane represents the hardest thing to do in music, to follow up a smash hit without either copying it or losing momentum. Bowie manages to avoid both these pitfalls, but only just.

Here we have Bowie attempting to build on his Ziggy Stardust persona while still treading new ground. And even if few of the individual songs have the catchiness or immediacy of the previous record, it's still an impressive feat of songwriting, musicianship and production.

Personally, I think the album shows a few signs of fatigue with glam genre, even though Bowie had only been treading that terrain for a year. He seems anxious to move on, to avoid repeating himself. While some artists are content to churn out album after album of similar material, Bowie’s restlessness is palpable. And indeed, he followed up Aladdin Sane with the arguably disastrous, but at least different Pin Ups, an entire album of covers from the 1960s.

The good news is that this means Bowie is in full experimental mode here, stepping into a variety of genres to see which ones fit. Time is influenced by German cabaret, but also seems to show signs of the Krautrock influences that would become dominant during the Berlin Trilogy phase. Watch That Man and Cracked Actor are hard rockers as good as anything else he has ever done. Prettiest Star and Drive in Saturday attempt to lighten the mood.

Avant garde piano flourishes are meshed together with tight pop melodies. It's clear that what Bowie is going for here is artier than a mere rock and roll record. Perhaps that's why his most straightforward attempts at rock music sound the most hollow in the context of the album.

For example, the only real misstep on the album is cover of Let’s Spend the Night Together. It's a sped up version of the Rolling Stones classic, and yet somehow feels less energetic than the original. It also feels out of place amongst Bowie’s more complex originals.

Ultimately, Aladdin Sane is a transitional album (aren't all of Bowie's records in one way or another?) building the bridge between the Ziggy Stardust era and the more adventurous period ahead, including the moody Station to Station, and the aforementioned Berlin albums. As a collection of songs, it has plenty of highlights, but to my ears it lacks the cohesion necessary for a truly great album.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #78 - Fela Kuti - Expensive Shit (1975)

This is the second Fela Kuti album on this list, predating the previously-reviewed Zombie by two years. Here we find Kuti and his Africa '70 engaging in a very similar style of Afrobeat, albeit this time in an extremely concise manner. The album comprises just two tracks and has a running time of under 25 minutes.

While Zombie was an overly, bitterly political record, Expensive Shit is a little more subtle in its attacks on the Nigerian government. The title refers to an incident in which Kuti was framed for drug crime by having marijuana planted on hi. To avoid arrest, he quickly swallowed the offending product, at which point the authorities held him prisoner until the could collect an incriminating stool sample. Yuck.

Thankfully, the music itself is not nearly so nauseating. The title track, stretching 13 minutes, is built around an electric guitar vamp, over which keyboards sprinkle jazzy riffing, while the drums beat out an active and busy rhythm underneath. After a couple of minutes, the obligatory horns come in, blasting out a syncopated melody in unison. The whole thing is made up of slow and subtle elaboration on repeated patterns, a style that informs other genres such as American minimalism and many kinds of electronica as well. Throughout, Kuti's solos as inventive and interesting to listen to, forming a nice counterpoint to the relentless rhythm section behind it all.

Lyrics come in about halfway through the song, but apart from repeated references to the title, they are largely undecipherable, and even then, they are fairly superfluous. The words are shouted amelodically over the instrumental backdrop, which would be no less interesting without them. It's a complain I often have with funk music, where great instrumental work is covered up by subpar vocals.

Speaking of great instrumental work, one has to be impressed with how tight the band as a whole is. This style of music only works if every player is function as a well-oiled part of a unified whole, and the Africa '70 carries it off with aplomb. It's quite reminiscent of James Brown's excellent band, who we'll come to later.

The second and final track, Water No Get Enemy,has a more laid back, almost Bossa Nova feel. The instrumentation is unchanged, with the same emphasis on keyboard and saxophone solos over a rhythm section of drums and guitar, with major melody lines being held down by the horn section. For its 11 minute length, the track is dominated by a more jazzy sound than its predecessor, with solos that would not sound out of place on many American jazz records of the time. The African feel is retained, however, in the horn and drum parts.

Once again, the lyrics are only partially in English, but appear to be about the need for fresh water as it relates to Kuti's political struggle in Nigeria. As a short slice of politically-tinged African jazz-funk,  it's certainly satisfying, and given the repetitious nature of the music, its brevity is probably more a strength than a weakness.