“Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Review

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Unlike many people, I am glad the Bat Chain Puller album got canned and wasn’t released until 2012. The shelving of his first decent work in years was the first of several setbacks that led to Captain Beefheart’s final trilogy of albums, a significant event in the odyssey of a guy who had made repeated moves at the mainstream and was each time rejected. He was affable and in high spirits upon the release of Shiny Beast, according to at least one interview, and expected that now that he had abandoned the tiresome simplicity of Clear Spot and those albums everyone rags on he would be received well. He got great reviews for his new album and all the fans were hyped: the Beef was back!

And of course the promotion got fucked up and no one in the philistine United States took much interest in Shiny Beast and the European issue was delayed by two years for no good reason and the hype had died in the meantime. He didn’t gain much of an audience and his next two albums show his disappointment: Doc At the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow are obstinate, noisy and above all cranky. The fucked-up-ed-ness of his record-business misadventures had crushed his aspirations, but they seemed to do wonders for his creativity. More on those later.

The first of his final run of records is all the better for having been re-recorded. Some of the tracks, particularly “The Floppy Boot Stomp” and “Bat Chain Puller,” were better on Bat Chain Puller, but no one had them around to compare with for thirty-four years and ultimately the definitive released versions are still very good. And the reverse is also true: tracks that improved for Shiny Beast are heads and fucking shoulders above the unreleased versions. “Candle Mambo” and “Harry Irene” sound very nice in their final forms, but most of all I praise “Owed t’Alex,” which in its Shiny Beast version stands as one of the greatest Beefheart songs. The Bat Chain Puller take is beholden to a weird lyrical scheme which doesn’t mesh as well with the lyrics, and the sound is disappointing; on the Shiny Beast “Owed t’Alex,” Jeff Tepper’s slide parts yearn when clean and burn when distorted, the majestic trombone-guitar riffs evoke a chugging trans-desert journey, and the Captain himself pitches in with his meanest fucking harmonica solo on record. The band also reworks the clomping Mirror Man-style “Big Black Baby Shoes” into the careening, beautiful “Ice Rose,” which is distracted for only a short period in the middle, and blusters through a galumphing but still powerful new track called “You Know You’re a Man” — not Beefheart’s first macho song (or macho sentiment, if his Spotlight Kid-era interviews are credible), but by far the most goofy fun.

Some of the tracks composed after the rejection of Bat Chain Puller are less stellar. For one I fail to see what everyone loves so much about “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” which is not only cheesy but also presents Beefheart as a sexual “monster” (an unappealing idea, I imagine, for most women), and “Love Lies” just isn’t memorable. It’s also too long. And the mix, while it is bright and novel and promotes all sorts of previously unutilized textures and instruments, is also not of especially high fidelity and begins to grate a little after a while. Even with these flaws, however, Beefheart and a new Magic Band managed between disappointments to deliver a hearty and colorful comeback. And I, at least, would call it one of their best.

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“Los Angeles” by X – Review

X Los Angeles

Let’s start by saying that I may not be fair to X. I am of the belief that punk should never have anything to do with major scales, and this has always been my position; I don’t care if X came first, that shit reminds me of Green Day. I think several of the tracks on Los Angeles are set back by Billy Zoom’s insistence on playing the major seventh as a power chord, like he does on “”Your Phone’s Off the Hook” and the meh version of “Soul Kitchen.” I accept the use of same technique in “Sugarlight” because G is a key of pathos and I can live with a little misstep when it’s attached to a hook like that.

The songs besides are rambling and strangely structured, with John Doe and Exene lingering on key phrases from their beatnik cutup bullshit lyrics and giving the verses weird numbers of beats and bars. The inner sleeve is printed with the words, pasted together serial killer-style in different fonts at crazy angles, and they make only a little more sense read than sung. Los Angeles definitely takes some getting used to.

I have listened to it for about eight months now and am starting to like a lot of it. Most of the songs are anchored by fascinating choruses that are the main reason I keep coming back. I wish I were more impressed by the verses, which often forsake tunes to highlight the band’s ambitious lyrics. “Sugarlight,” of course, is the exception, with dynamic melodies throughout the verses and an absolutely killer hook. I really adore that track. Rhythmically X aren’t much different from other punks and play at the only two speeds hard rock bands know: sorta-fast and slow-ish. Their feet land too hard to make it rockabilly, which is obviously what Billy Zoom wants to play, and they never approach a good solid hardcore doop-chick so the songs just kind of move along. Maybe I’m not listening to it loud enough.

Los Angeles is fun in parts and genuinely brilliant in a couple (“Sugarlight,” title track, “The World’s a Mess”). I think it’s dubiously uneven and I usually skip most of side 1, but I’m not much of a traditional punk so I refrain from final judgment. You can decide for yourself. Your friends probably have higher opinions of it than I do. Let them convince you. Talk about it. Make music friends, like I never had. But decide for yourself.

“Discipline” by King Crimson – Review

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I’ve always thought that John McLaughlin was a sloppy, amateurish and overexuberant musician and had only three things going for him: his technical facility, a knack for deracinating Indian music enough to make it palatable to American rock audiences, and a bitchin’ band (the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its first two or three years). Now imagine that he one day acquiring the self-restraint necessary to make even better music than Birds of Fire — music that was based primarily around tunes and tight structures, not inconsistent bursts of inspiration. He was allowed to thrive in jazz because of its emphasis on improvisation, so no one could detect what a spaz he was. I think the secret to Jack Johnson lies in the fact that Miles made him slow down and comp instead of wanging away at a million miles per hour. Patience.

Discipline.

Now imagine that this reformed McLaughlin, with his new concentration and understanding of how an audience would hear his playing, met up with the Talking Heads. They would commiserate over their love of non-Anglocentric music — McLaughlin for India, David Byrne for Saharan and Central Africa — and decide to make an album together. And McLaughlin, knee-deep in guitar synths and funny pedals by the end of the Seventies, brought a lot of these into the studio. And the Heads would bring their drum machines and their bongos and all sorts of funny instruments into the studio, and maybe grand architect Brian Eno would lay down wiggly pissy guitar solos as McLaughlin realized how badly he needed to calm down and decided to put improvisation aside for a little while.

Yes, it is ridiculous to describe what King Crimson was working at entirely in terms of what other bands were doing (or might have done), but whether or not the album contains strong traces of those other bands’ works is moot because Discipline is fucking superb. Almost every track is powered by a tight, lithe group performance that bears little resemblance to the clanking medieval monster that was King Crimson in 1974, and where (like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, actually) they used to play around with time signatures tentatively, like records they didn’t want to scratch while cleaning, here the Crims bat 15/16 and 7/8 and 13/77 round and round like the Insurrections or the Magic Band — they are fully baked and ruthlessly rehearsed for Discipline. I only wish they had forced Adrian Belew to sit down and compose a tune for ALL of the ones he sings on because “Frame By Frame,” “Matte Kudasai” and the chorus of “Thela Hun Ginjeet” have fantastic melodies.

Master musicians, developed in their chops and unafraid to cover somewhat old ground with a vengeance — now that is the meaning of craftsmanship. I have heard some other tracks from their other ’80’s albums and it seems that they put the rhythmic bend and flex, which makes Discipline’s best backing tracks so groovy, aside for inept 4/4 rhythms with little feel. Too bad. At least while it lasted we got this fine recording.

Look at this clip of them performing “Elephant Talk.” Robert Fripp smiles.

“Music For Insect Minds” by Halo of Flies – Review

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Halo of Flies is the best tightest punk band ever assembled. They sound so locked in with one another that at low volume they can seem a little dinky, like the Byrds or the Mike Watt songs on Double Nickels On the Dime played at 78 rpm, but turn it up and you will hear the raw power they funnel into their superlative studio recordings. Only on a few slower songs (“Drunk In Detroit,” “How Does It Feel”) and the noise bridge of “D.D.T. Beat 13” do they allow themselves a little looseness — any improvisation or deviation, at the speed and complexity of “Death of a Fly” or “Richies Dog” or “Sinner Sings,” would wreck the careening songs on the hairpin turns Tom Hazelmyer is so fond of inserting. On their greatest single work, “No Time,” they play in divisions of 6 throughout the entire song — there are parts in 6/4, there are three or six bars of 4/4, and to their credit they don’t play a single 3:4 polyrhythm. “No Time” is all forward motion, pounding antipathy against somebody who wants Tom Hazelmyer to acknowledge their feelings. Killer composition.

Obviously, since the record is twenty-nine tracks and almost eighty minutes long, it contains shit songs. Halo of Flies lists “I’m a Bug” as a Urinals cover, and I wouldn’t want credit for it either; “Pipebomb” is the dopiest punk song in recent memory; and “Drunk In Detroit” is somehow boring and hysterical at the same time. The fact that these are spread so thin between the great songs, though, and Halo of Flies’ ability to breathe life and attitude into some of the most generic riffs I’ve ever enjoyed, makes Music for Insect Minds a superlative punk album. I’ve heard that their concerts were inconsistent and often pretty sloppy, and I can only shrug. Who needs a show to get the Halo of Flies experience when they leave behind a comp like this?

P.S. That’s John Bigley growling on “Sinner Sings,” apparently to pay Tom Hazelmyer back for playing guitar on the U-Men‘s “Pay the Bubba.”

“Skin Yard” – Review

Skin Yard

In Skin Yard’s first and best album I detect traces of Red-era King Crimson, Killing Joke’s dumber “ambient” horseshit and the angry active funk of the Pop Group, all coalesced into a sleek band effort by professional musicians and pursued with the punk-band-as-bar-band ethos of Scratch Acid (a popular group in Seattle). The lyrics are conspiracy theories and Paul Kantner garbage about oppressive society and robotic nature of modern life. If Ben McMillan weren’t just that committed to the shit he says he’d be pretty funny, but as it is I can mostly ignore the words and concentrate on his fantastic fake-lounge singer voice, one of my favorites in the business. He had a good career with Skin Yard, rest his soul.

Hallowed Ground, the second Skin Yard album, comes close to being as great as the first but is unhinged by a glut of bland songs with plodding triple-meter sections (“G.O.D.,” “Throb,” “Burn”) slotted in between the terrific ones which make up the rest of the album. Fist-Sized Chunks has abysmal production and I’ve only listened to it a couple times (have not yet sampled the re-mix). And the last two albums are barely recognizable as Skin Yard because, I suspect, Jack Endino had been hooked by the 1991 release of his first solo album Angle of Attack and began hoarding all the good song ideas for his second one, Permanent Fatal Error, which was released in 2005. (And boy, are they good ideas.) 1000 Smiling Knuckles and Inside the Eye mostly just have one or two power chords per riff, and two riffs per song. It’s not really a “Skin Yard” mode of writing, and I never listen to those albums anymore.

As for Skin Yard, its great tracks are spread across both sides: “Skins In My Closet” is a bracing boogie about being true to oneself; “Reptile,” “Stuck In a Plan” and “Scratch” contain intricate interlocking parts in the style of the best progressive rock; and “Epitaph for Yesterday” and “Dear Deceased” resemble New Wave with no synths. I love “Jabberwocky,” a deceptively “free” track that invites comparison to the Beefheart of “Bellerin’ Pain” or “Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat,” and am disappointed in “The Blind Leading the Blind,” which is the reason why I mentioned stupid ambient Killing Joke horseshit above. The bonus tracks are surprisingly good — the only (partial) stinkers, once again, are slow jams “Bleed” and “The Birds.” When they get fast and funky Skin Yard are at their best, simultaneously lighter on their feet and heavier on the beat than the Minutemen. And much better songwriters, too. I urge any fan of classic rock and post-hardcore punk to bump the first Skin Yard album on YouTube, and to purchase a CD from either Discogs or Jack Endino’s website.

The Death of Kurt Cobain – Review

by Q. Rick Delta

In which Nirvana’s downward spiral accelerates.

A number of mainstream publications, with the approval of the general public, have already given high grades to the death of Kurt Cobain. These critics claim that they do this out of respect for the sacrifices he apparently made to produce this spectacle, that he deserves some award for all the pain he suffered in bringing us his art. This is admirable but misguided. In fifty years people will look back at the work of a band like Nirvana, who had a great career up to now, and critically examine this band from a different perspective. I ask on their behalf: Yeah, but is it good entertainment?

For one thing I cannot find the slightest bit of drama in Cobain’s life story. Attempts to make narratives of the lives of characters like Kurt, or Srinavasa Ramanujan, or Jimi Hendrix have always run into the same problem – they end so early that they have absolutely no arc. We can all get invested in his early childhood, and feel pity as he navigates the cruel nowhereville of Aberdeen, Washington – bask in his success with the band in his twenties – cry at his suicide on the floor of a filthy smack house, sure, but in the end we will come away missing some sense that such a character faced down demons and briefly collapsed in the face of defeat before eventually winning and claiming his earnings with head held high. The resolution, like the worst sort of Hollywood generica, provokes cheap tears without providing closure. Cobain’s death feels senseless. It’s as though he wasn’t even attempting to send a message to his sizeable audience.

For another Nirvana ended things musically with a final insult to injury – their new album, In Utero, is a disappointing foray into Chicago-style “noise rock”, forsaking the usual tunes (their only attractive aspect) in favor of the pretense of indie-rock abrasiveness. I’m not sure if they realized how lousy it was and tried to divert our attention with their singer’s equally unsatisfying conclusion, but we can’t put anything past these people when they were clearly desperate to get back their punk cred. And anyway it still isn’t possible to fix this record’s egregious flaws with any amount of sympathy. I doubt I will listen to it again.

Which brings me to the biggest problem I have faced in writing this review. I speak not of the termination itself but of people’s collective reaction to it, because let’s face it – Nirvana fans are fucking crazy. Bob Christgau gave the death of Kurt Cobain an A, Mark Coleman at Rolling Stone gave it five stars and a glowing pseudo-philosophical review and the letters from readers of our very own magazine are pouring in, imploring me and my colleagues to join the orgy of appropriate bereavement (and cajoling us with ever-so-subtle threats of lost readership if we even think about playing the Loki to Kurt’s Balder). Everyone at the magazine agrees with me that this whole mess is a major letdown after Nirvana’s previous work, but none of them would be able to stomach all the hate mail this review is bound to incur; I took the job on because I knew I could be fair about the artistic quality of Kurt Cobain’s extinguishment, even when under pressure. And if I thought I could find a decent answer I would question these sad, angry people as to why they feel a need to live vicariously through the tragedy of a man who existed at an impenetrable emotional distance from them, why they act out the payment of homage to a dead celebrity for a brief instant and then resume their boring lives, pretending that they have anything novel or compelling to say about what he died for; I would ask why they act with such grotesque shallowness, “parachuting into other people’s tragedy” as the satirist Keith Spillett wrote. But I suspect that I would not learn a damned thing, and neither would you readers, many of whom probably decided at least a paragraph ago to join the coming boycott. And so with no friends left to lose I argue: Kurt Cobain’s death is not art. It just sucks.

The Death of Kurt Cobain: Final Score: 4/10

“Desolation Animals” by Zack Freitas – Review

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I just checked my stats and discovered that my …And Justice for All review has been visited by a browser on the island nation of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of this blog.

On a relevant note, Zack Freitas’s new album Desolation Animals is a mitigated triumph. It is a massive step forward from his previous CD, Blow Off the Steam, which I found a little wishy-washy and melodically wanting; several of its tracks were good but undercut by an inoffensive sound glutted with mid-range frequencies. I was going to review it but forgot. This time I will not.

The first important difference is in the sound of Desolation Animals. Only three people are credited — Zack, engineer Ryan Loomis and pianist Maxim Crist — because, Zack informed me, it was recorded in Loomis’s garage, and not at a professional studio like his last CD. The sound, consequently, is amateurish, harsh and trebly — think of the Minutemen’s Bean-Spill EP, but recorded to GarageBand. (This, I might note, is also the guitar tone he utilizes in concert.) The mix makes the best tracks as visceral as Blow Off the Steam was anodyne. On the whole Desolation Animals is also more rhythmically propulsive than Zack’s other work: while only a couple of previous songs (“Gold & Green”, “Hapless Again,” “Behind My Hands Are Tied”) were written with a decent beat in mind, a LOT of the new ones are propulsive rockers. Enough, at least, for me to rate the album higher. Zack even allowed Loomis to incorporate electronic elements into some songs — I will admit that when I first heard “January” I laughed out loud, and if another name were on this project I would have stopped listening. (Chris Cornell’s Scream, anyone?) Upon repetition, though, I have come to really enjoy its killer hook and superb editing, and I think it’s one of the best tracks here. The new synths shape songs like “January” and “Greyhound” without overpowering them.  And I really enjoy the songwriting — melodies a step above his past works and with harmonic twists aplenty, as he loves to use. My favorites are the first five tracks, “Greyhound,” “That’s a Woman” and “Angel In the Hospital”. Eight outta fourteen ain’t bad.

Of course, this is not a perfect album or anything approaching it. My main gripe is the preponderance of clichés in the lyrics. Several times Zack actually uses them in multiple songs (“rose by any other name” shows up in “Two to Tango” and “That’s a Woman,” “rabbit hole” metaphors appear in both “Desolation Animals” and the hook of “Greyhound,” he has used the “cover up [with] a tattoo” thing from “Reconstructed Heart Full of Dirt” on the Bitter Vanilla EP’s “Oklahoma (Come to Me)” and “you don’t have to lie” is literally the first line of “Reconstructed Heart” — AND THE TITLE OF ANOTHER SONG ON THIS ALBUM). I can’t figure out why these banalities show up so often, because if there’s a concept it makes about as much sense as The Story of Simon Simopath. Maybe he was rushed to write these songs and just threw together lyrics, but I can’t see how if it was made on a garage-recording schedule. And please understand that I enjoy “That’s a Woman” in spite of its lyrics, which reduce said gender to a cluster of gag-inducing stereotypes. Surely Zack knows better than this garbage.

I also take issue with the tracklisting. This was a problem on Blow Off the Steam, too: the kickass songs, most of them full-band efforts with great rhythms and tuff tunes, are clustered at the beginning of the CD, and the second half is of much lesser quality (with the exception of the [musically] superb “That’s a Woman” and [all-around great] “Angel In the Hospital”.) I was never a fan of his more saccharine folk songs, and the un-amplified, forgettable, nearly motionless likes of “Heather,” “Pure Imagination” (yes, the fucking Willy Wonka song) and “You Don’t Have to Lie” weigh brutally on this album. And “Americans,” “Two to Tango” and “Reconstructed Heart Full of Dirt” are only slightly better. If he could only winnow out the likes of these tracks Desolation Animals would be infinitely stronger.

In all I love to listen to the strongest songs on Zack Freitas’s new album, and I have no doubt that they will appeal to you too (yes, you) if you check them out. Don’t let the lame ones color your opinions of Desolation Animals — Zack is too good at this stuff, and too dedicated to improving his craft, to dismiss. What he needs is direction and probably a good producer. You know, like me. (He has my email if he ever wants help with that.)

Listen to it here on Bandcamp.