Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

When I first got into Rush, my friend Derik Rinehart (now an accomplished prog-rock drummer) made me a tape from his LPs, with this on one side and Moving Pictures on the other. Of course, I played the hell out of both sides, and I probably liked Moving Pictures a lot more because it rocked, and everyone likes it more, right? But I still listened to Grace Under Pressure because I didn’t want to waste my precious Duracells rewinding the D-90 in my walkman, and the album burned it into my brain. And I’m not sure if it’s the content of the album, or the thoughts back to that era, but when I think of this LP, I think of a sterile bleakness. My pal Simms once told me, “It’s the Cold War, man. I love it!” And maybe he’s right. But it’s something that now, 20 years later, I can’t completely reconcile when I try to decide how meaningful this 39 minutes and 26 seconds of music is to me.

Here’s what might be throwing me: This is the first album since their sophomore effort that wasn’t produced by Terry Brown. It’s said the switch to Peter Henderson had to do more with accessibility, which seems strange following Moving Pictures, which produced the only song for which 90% of the population knows of the band at all. (Henderson was previously known as the producer of Supertramp’s biggest albums, as well as an engineer for Frank Zappa, among others.) And I guess the soundscape might match pop back then a bit better. (It’s also worth noting that Steve Lillywhite was supposed to produce this album, but pulled out of the project at the last minute, almost derailing the entire project. Henderson was their last-second replacement.)

The easiest way to describe this album is to first go into the differences between it and previous albums. First, there’s not a lot of bass on this album. And while I mean thin-sounding bass, I also mean that there’s at least one song with NO bass, where Geddy Lee just plays synth and sings. And there’s a lot more synth on this album. Previously, the band just filled out their sound with bass pedals, and Geddy reached over to play a line or two here and there, like a solo opposite from Alex’s guitars. But here, there are more places where MIDI madness has taken over not only Geddy’s performances, but also those of the guitar. This album is the first to have markedly less guitar, or more “atmospheric” sounds of droning chords for a measure or two at a time, but less leads and powered strumming. The drums are still there, and Neil Peart still lives behind the 97-piece drum kit, but his playing is much more methodical and exact. There aren’t many stray or extra beats anywhere, and certainly no heroics in the solo department. It’s all very exact. And I guess that reminds me of the era, of everything becoming so exact. Computerized watches! Fuel injection! Mechanized assembly! Welding robots! 2000 would be here soon, and we’d all be living on the moon, so make your prog-rock as efficient and exact as possible.

The other thing is that this album takes a rather dark turn toward social and political issues. The opening song, “Distant Early Warning,” describes how the nuclear war is going to start in moments, and what humanity has brought onto itself. “Red Sector A” (the bassless song, for those keeping track) talks about concentration camps in World War II, a place where Geddy Lee’s parents survived before fleeing to Canada. “Between the Wheels,” “Kid Gloves,” and “Red Lenses” are all political gesturing to the superpower-driven Cold War.

All of these songs are interesting sonic paintings of the time. But if you’ve ever seen them performed live, they’re also very tedious. I seem to remember a videotape of a concert from this era, and it was seriously like sitting through the Canadian Socialist Worker’s Party convention. I’m surprised that “Distant Early Warning” remained a staple for live sets as long as it did. For me, I was always thankful for this song, because it was a good time during their live sets to get up and go to the can. (This was later replaced with “Nobody’s Hero.”)

Oddly enough, the album as a whole seems to be greater than its parts, despite the fact that it’s not a concept album in the strictest sense. When you play it from the beginning to end, it flows well, and has an even sound that carries you easily. When I’m working on some writing or taking a long car trip and I need something to kill some time, this album always seems to end up in the player. There are songs that I like (“Red Lenses,” “Between the Wheels,” “Afterimage”), and like I said, it’s a very true look at what 1984 was like for me (no Orwellian pun intended.) The only reason I can’t give this a higher rating is that it doesn’t rock. Go listen to “Tom Sawyer” or “YYZ” and then listen to “Red Sector A.” Where are the guitars? The solos? The rock? Rush is a rock band! They took themselves too seriously on this one, and that’s why I’m saying it’s only slightly above-average.

Rating: 8



Passafist – Passafist (1994)

I’m surprised I didn’t throw this album out a long time ago. I’m not saying that it’s that repulsive, I’m just saying that it never really clicked with me, and it went away in a box for a long time, until recently, when it popped into my head and I had to dig it out of storage to give it another listen. Then I had to get on google and see exactly why I ever had a copy of the record in the first place.

Here’s the deal. There was this contemporary christian artist called Steve Taylor who had a decent solo career but pissed some people off for making fun of the jesus types a bit, including a song called “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good.” This was followed by a band called Chagall Guevara that’s best-described as CCM alt-rock, and their debut had some degree of mainstream crossover success. When label MCA did their annual juggling of the bands, CG faltered and split. Taylor went on to discover and produce Sixpence None the Richer, and that’s where his story ends very happily, but it’s where Passafist’s story begins.

Chagall Guevara guitarists Lynn Nichols and Dave Perkins reinvented themselves as the Caruso Twins, Waco and Reno, and picked up John Elliott of Dessau, a Nitzer Ebb-like dance/industrial band, and two members of the band Afrikan Dreamland. This is one of those combinations that could only work in a city like Nashville, filled with session players with lots of time on their hands and numbers in their rolodexes. The group somehow got a contract, and did this one-shot studio album, somehow capturing a brief sample of 1994, while also proving what kind of strange albums get made when semi-famous people from other bands somehow roll the dice correctly and get a chance to go into the studio.

The easiest way to describe this seven-track LP, aside from the staple “alternative,” would be to call it a very studio-sterile industrial, taking every possible approach to be as widely liked by as many people as possible. It seems like they wanted an album that would go to dance floors, but maybe yield a single, but get picked up by some people just cruising the CMJ for good college rock, but not offend the CCM crowd and possibly get a few purchases from old Chagall Guevara fans. That ultimately means the album is so soft and pliable, I’m not sure anyone could like it.

There are a lot of obvious tongue-in-cheek religious or social awareness issues painted across this album like ketchup on a four-year-old’s plate. Even the band name – Passafist – well, I’m not going to explain it, it’s so stupid. There’s a song called “Glock” that’s about guns. “Christ of the Nuclear Age” is like some kind of REM-like jolly singing, a quick departure from all of those electric drums and Skinny Puppy posturing on the other songs. All lyrics are heavily basted in effects processing, with the Korn-like “singing through a bullhorn” used frequently. Guitars are all over the songs, but more rhythmic than metallic. They even cover the Stones song “Street Fighting Man,” in a very pathetic way. Most of their songs sound like if Nokia or Ford or Revlon were making a commercial and needed “Street Fighting Man,” but couldn’t pay the Rolling Stones, so they got Anonymous Studio Band #57 to re-record the song, and a producer said “Make it edgier! we need to sell these cars to kids!” Add that to the fact that the seven songs here barely sound like they were recorded in the same genre, let alone by the same band, and you have a pretty uneven and unlistenable album.

The one song that is interesting closes up the album, and it’s called “The Dr. Is In.” It’s a ten-and-a-half minute song that’s based on and filled with samples from the dark comedy Doctor Strangelove, which is of course about nuclear war. At first, the song is very mellow, with slower drums, ebbing guitar, and almost spoken lyrics that sound like Roger Waters. It also uses an occasional chorus in the song, anonymously singing an “oooooh” here or there. It seriously sounds like some lost Pink Floyd song about nuclear war, maybe by the new ‘Floyd. It’s not bad, though. Then, as the “countdown” continues in the pseudo-concept song, the drums get more percussive, and it switches to more of the bullhorn lyrics, as the guitars get louder and frenetic. It all leads up to the big nuclear blast, and not a bad little song. It does beg the question as to why you’d write a song about nuclear war with the USSR a few years after the whole thing fell apart, but what can you do.

I don’t even know if you can get this album anymore, but even if someone handed it to you, it’s probably not worth more than a cursory scan of the first six tracks and a single listen of the last one. I enjoy listening to this only in that it’s one of those strange curiosities, like Crystal Pepsi or Laserdisc movies, that seemed like a really good time to an executive, and then he probably lost his job at the end of the year over it. I am glad I didn’t throw out this CD, but only because I’d still be trying to figure out who did “The Dr. Is In,” and I’d never find out.

Rating: 6 (but an 8 for the last song)


Geoff Tate – Geoff Tate (2002)

Look, I’ll start off the review by saying the obvious, and scaring off the 90% of you that just won’t get this album. First, this isn’t a Queensryche album. Second, it’s not even really a metal album. And if you best remember Tate as a guy racing through eight octaves of scales like an opera star on crystal meth, you aren’t going to like this at all. If any of these three things disturb you, go ahead and say “man, what a gyp,” and go back to downloading Dream Theater bootlegs.

Okay. In 2002, Queensryche lead singer Geoff Tate took a sidestep and decided to release this solo album on Sanctuary records. Instead of doing a prog-metal album with a different cast of musicians in his band, he decided to utilize his voice for a much more pop-oriented effort. That might sound quite crazy to some, but I can think of at least two good reasons for this. One is that he’s very talented and he could create something that would transcend the metal world and crack at all of the Peter Gabriels out there in the music world. The other reason is that Tate’s voice isn’t exactly as full-ranged as it was twenty years ago. You can notice this on Queensryche live albums where he really struggles with the older material. Yet, in the studio, he always finds a way to work around this and do “thicker” sounding things in lower registers that sound great, but aren’t the shrieking high-end opera wailing like the old albums. That’s the basic litmus test for this album: if you can enjoy the “newer” Geoff Tate vocals.

As I am not one of those “you must do it the exact same way your entire life and never change” metalheads, I welcome the change, and I found this album very interesting. The music here is much more laid-back than Queensryche, but Tate really takes the effort to try a few different things. Stuff like “Flood” almost sounds like it would belong on the new Peter Gabriel album, a slightly electronic backing with great vocals. That and “Forever” both sound like the kind of modern synth-pop song that makes a great single, and also lends itself to a good dance remix. “Helpless” goes into a more romantic sounding adult contemporary number, with Spanish guitar and sweeping choruses.

As far as the music, this is very much the type of contemporary arrangement with anonymous background players, lots of Pro-Tools, expert programming on the drum sounds and filling synths, and perfectly sculpted sound. There are no wailing guitar solos, thumping bass, or other metal-oriented dramatics. Imagine the sort of hit factories that turn out records for Alanis or any other FM superstar, and that’s where the mix here is aiming. And that’s not bad, because it’s got Geoff’s voice on top. He’s not breaking any wine glasses with his high register here, but damn, he is putting together such a smooth and complete sound here, that I’m surprised none of these songs ever broke out on the charts. It’s as if he’s been doing this all of his life, and somehow on a fluke ended up putting on some leather pants and fronting a prog-metal band for all of those years.

I should mention a few other songs on here that are relevant. The song “Every Move We Make” is a slower romantic number which is good, but it segues into “This Moment”, which is a great little ballad that sounds like it could have been sung 50 years ago by one of the crooner greats. “A Passenger” is one of my favorite songs, and almost sounds like it could have been a slower Queensryche song, or maybe something they would have done at the unplugged gig, because it’s got a mellower beat and a very smooth hook. “Off the TV” is the “radio” number, and the production and compressed verses of vocals sounds right for it; “Grain of Faith” is another poppier number that’s in the same vein. The two styles collide a bit for the closer “Over Me”, which is one of those songs with some power behind it, but it’s really talking about losing someone, so it’s not exactly happy, but that’s what you need to close up an album with a good punch.

Problems? There are a few. The album seems more like a grouping of eleven demos that were done in a sort of “see what I can do” fashion, like he was auditioning for a big label to pick him up. And because of that, there are little issues, like that some of the percussion was obviously dialed in on a synth or computer or whatever, like you’d do on a demo, before the drummer came in. Plus some tracks (like “Off the TV”) sound so much like a producer or studio tech said “this is what everyone wants, patch number 45A on ProTools, so let’s use that,” and I don’t entirely like when producers try to second-guess listeners like that – it’s a reason I don’t listen to adult contemporary all the time. There are also some continuity issues with all of these tracks, in that the album doesn’t flow as well as it could. Individual tracks are all great, but it’s a little hard to go through from end to end.

Overall, I like this. It’s one of those albums that didn’t take off, for all of the obvious reasons, but that I’ll always enjoy listening to. I know in ten years, nobody is going to know what the hell this is, but I’ll always go back to it and enjoy it.

Rating: 7.5


Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)

You can divide the history of Rush into different discrete eras – in fact, the band did a good job of this themselves by putting out a live album exactly every four studio albums, wrapping up their career into nice little leather-bound volumes of history that chronicled their change from a Zep Clone band on the Toronto bar circuit to the prog-rock juggernaut they became by the 1980s. But if you had to look at their album output and find the one album that signaled (no pun intended) their high-water mark, the place the trio of long-haired, polyester flare-pant wearing Tolkein lovers switched into a tech rock genre unto themselves, you’d have to say Moving Pictures.

Listening to their eighth? studio album today, almost thirty years later, it’s surprising to me this was produced in an era before digital recording, compact discs, widespread off-the-rack solid-state synths you could buy at the neighborhood Guitar World, and personal computers that could fit in a room and boot up without dimming the entire neighborhood’s lights, let alone fit thousands of MP3s on a tiny hard drive. It astounds me that even Rush’s own albums later in the decade pale in dynamic comparison to this disc. (Listen to this and Power Windows back-to-back; PW is cleaner, but to the point of sterility, with no feel whatsoever in the guitar. It sounds like Lifeson did away with mic’ing the Marshall stacks and fed his guitar through a DI box directly into the mixing board, with no effects whatsoever.) There’s incredible depth, full range, and a complete sonic experience here. It’s the kind of disc you bring to the store when you’re shopping for a new amp or speakers for your car, because you know in three minutes, you can hit every conceivable combination of notes in every type of range, from laid-back noodling to frenetic soloing to groovy prog-rock, with a solid low-end from Geddy Lee’s bass, and a gutsy midrange of Lifeson’s guitars over the top of it. Add to it a crystal-clear drum kit from the professor himself, and you’ve got a seven-song Maxell tape commercial, with everything but the crystal glass to shatter when you turn it up to 11.

This album isn’t about loud, and it isn’t about prog-metalling through every major and minor mode scale at the speed of light to let everyone know you can jerk off with your four or six string as well as they jerk off in their parents’ basements. It’s one of those ‘perfect storm’ moments that the band could record an album with more pop sensibilities than when they were trying to record AOR pop albums that charted, and yet they still managed to write things like the one prog-instrumental track (“YYZ”) that both carved the mold for every prog-rock band that wanted to record a complicated yet jamming instrumental track, as well as instructing a generation of music fans what the IATA three-character airport code for Toronto was. Every drummer that I’ve ever known that could play worth a damn went through a phase where they thought this was the greatest drum album ever recorded, and for good reason. Neil laid down absolutely perfect percussion here, including his innovative use of plywood, which is listed in his musical credits. (How do you play plywood? Wear gloves, hold it by the edges, and hit a metal chair sharply. It’s that bullwhip-meets-shattering-glass sound in “YYZ”.)

One thing that’s firmly gelled in this album is a lyrical sense that examines the 80s more than it examines comic-book scifi and the land of talking trees, magic elves, and twenty-minute epic concept songs. “Limelight” takes an honest look at a life of stardom and the road, in a more sincere way than your typical Motley Crue long-road-ahead-of-us-baby-baby sense of the theme. (It’s also helped by one of the most warm and emotion-piercing feedback-touched solo by Alex Lifeson, one that he claimed was his favorite ever, well after this was released.) “Witch Hunt” and “Red Barchetta” metaphotrically compare future fiction and possible past of Orwellian and MyCarthyist society, something everyone would be whining about in Reagan era new wave pop saturating the MTVs at the same time. Peart output a solid Humanist theme in the album’s lyrics, the kind of thing that works on multiple levels and opens up the band to a wider audience, even if the underlying musicianship of the band is still math-rock odd-meter and blindingly complex instrumentation.

Rush is and always will be a band of the Eighties. Yes, they’ve released many good albums in the nineties and beyond, and there was some pretty solid output in the seventies, too. But with the “one hit” track “Tom Sawyer”, the one song that much of the population equates with the Canadian Trio lands you right to this 1981 classic LP. And most of what I equate with Rush – the synthesizers, the electric drums, the high-tech recordings, the sound of my childhood and when I stopped listening to my parents’ Billy Joel records and started building my own musical identity, this all puts every Rush album as some extension of the Eighties. And if you’re looking at Test for Echo or Caress of Steel, you’re looking at some genetical precursor or successor of that one cornerstone album. Moving Pictures is that fly trapped in amber that will forever be used to carbon-date the crest of this movement in music.

There’s little I can say that’s bad about this album. I can still listen to it from start to finish, which is pretty much rule zero for good album-oriented rock. Maybe if I had to pick nits, I’d say “The Camera Eye” is a little bit repetitive and adds a side two lull that’s slow to pick up until “Witch Hunt” breaks out in its second half. And for the longest time, I held some sort of generic resentment toward the song “Tom Sawyer”, because so many people that didn’t like Rush liked that song, so naturally, I had to not like it, and would skip forward to “Red Barchetta”. But that faded, and not just because in the era of tape, it was such a pain in the ass to fast-forward past a song, and I eventually listened to this one from start to finish every time.

But “Red Barchetta” – perfect driving music. “Vital Signs” is the perfect mellow outro of a bookend for the tail of the album. “YYZ”, probably the greatest instrumental ever, at least in the rock world. The part of “Witch Hunt” that picks up from a slow dredge to a full blowout of rising energy still floors me every time I hear it. There’s so much thickness here, so much perfection, it’s hard to rate any other Rush album as being anything but an inferior product in comparison. It makes me feel old to pull the “they don’t make em like this anymore” shit. And it makes me even older to think about how much this transports me back to my teenage years, how much this album encapsulates the mid-1980s for me, and reminds me of every frustration and carefree moment of my early teens. But I just can’t think of another album that wraps it all up in a nice, seven-song package like this, which is why it easily gets a perfect rating.

Rating: 10



GTR – GTR (1986)

You know how now (with now being 2008), all of the major phone companies and wireless companies are merging together and buying each other out, so where before maybe you paid Southern Podunk Bell for your local line and ABC Wireless for your cell phone, and now you just make one check out to some huge monolith like Verizon? Well, basically the same thing was happening with prog-rock groups back in the mid-eighties, with all of the loose members of Yes and Genesis and Marillion and Asia and whatnot being all rolled together into big megagroups designed to succeed on the corporate level. GTR is an example of one of these prog-supergroup things. It’s also, unfortunately, a good example of how that doesn’t work, and indirectly, why Verizon is evil, but I’ll stick to the music part here and leave the phone company stuff for another forum.

Okay, so GTR was the meeting of Steve Howe (from Yes) and Steve Hackett (from Genesis), both guitar virtuosos. (Get it? GuiTaR -> GTR?) They got together with unknowns vocalist Max Bacon and bassist Phil Spalding, and session guy on drums Jonathan Mover. I’ll get the nice things out of the way first. This album went gold really fast, and a lot of people liked it, for about ten seconds, which dumbfounds me. I’m not saying that it’s total shit; I’m just saying it’s weird that they had a song get up to like #14 on the pop charts. That one song, “When the Heart Rules the Mind” had a lot of hook to it, but that’s it. Anything good you can say about this album is immediately negated by its problems.

As for problems, first of all, this album sounds like shit. Maybe this was before they learned to get that extra 7dB out of a CD or something, but seriously, it’s mixed together so compressed and tinny, that I seriously thought I got a defective one when I re-bought this recently. It sounds really bad. I’m sure the mixing is great, and if you listen to the original pressing vinyl or sat in a control room with the masters it would be like Dark Side of the Moon on a uranium disc. But the One Way reissue I have sounds so bad, it’s like you had a cheap tape and the felt thing inside the head part of the shell broke off.

Second, this is a classic example of “too many cooks,” because in every song, Steve Howe tries to totally bogart the sound stage with his weird Asian-sounding (no pun) scales and solos, and every once in a while, Hackett breaks in with his own weird style of noodling. They don’t alternate solos, and they don’t alternate songs; they just collide. I think if it was one or the other of them and just some lackey studio axe that laid down a steady rhythm, this would sound much more straightforward, especially if you’re going for the arenas, which these guys were. I think they spent all of their energy working back and forth against each other, and in the process, the band ended up being a low-quality clone of Asia. The other issue is that these guys basically just bent over and did every single thing their image people told them to do, as far as creating a totally homogenized 80s pop record. Both Hackett and Howe are talented guys, and I think if they would have been at a label that said FUCK MTV and fuck the radio and everything else, just get out those guitars and throw down as many notes as you can on the page in the coolest melody possible, they could have produced a completely kick-ass record. But, that isn’t what happened.

As far as the lyrics, I am not going to completely piss on Max Bacon, because I’m sure he just did what he was told so he wouldn’t get fired. Rumor has it he was so scared the whole thing wouldn’t work, he kept his day job as a milkman during the project. But I can’t not say anything about his delivery, because everything is sung very sweetly, and there’s no real breaks between phrases. I wish I could describe music theory a bit more to explain that, but imagine how someone in church choir would sing “haaaaalleeeeeeeiiiiillluuuuuuiiiiaaaaa” and then how someone in a punk band would sing “FUCK! THE! PIGS!” and compare the difference in phrasing. Maybe I’m thinking about this too much. Actually, I’m still thinking about who the fuck is still a milkman in this century. Do English people drink that god damn much milk?

I might also complain about the bass and drums, but you totally can’t hear them, at least on my CD. So good job, guys. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were playing like motherfuckers and I just couldn’t hear you.

There are a couple of interesting spots on the record. First, Hackett recorded the song “Hackett to Bits,” a guitar solo number, from a solo album. I had that album (Highly Strung) and loved it, so the new version was a treat. The final track, “Imagining,” isn’t bad, either. Otherwise, it’s a pretty mediocre disc, with a couple of the tunes (“The Hunter,” particularly), being really bad.

The band toured for a year after this release and then self-imploded. (Hackett was the first to quit, followed by Mover.) It’s interesting to note that they have a few other music connections that they made as they were in their downward spiral. First, Robert Berry, who was in England working on the 3 album with Carl Palmer, was pulled in to songwrite and cover guitar, although he clashed with Max Bacon and caused more turmoil within the band. Also the drummer’s throne was briefly taken by Nigel Glockler of Saxon. The band recorded part of a second album, which was never officially released. Howe is allegedly sitting on the masters, but the songs appeared on bootlegs and are rumored to be out there on a Japanese release called Nerotrend. Also, derivatives of the songs appeared on the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album.

This is, unfortunately, one of those records that I remember really liking 20 years ago, when I bought up anything that was somehow related to Rush, Genesis, or Yes. I remember my friend Derik being completely mesmerized with this album, learning “When the Heart…” and playing it on drums all the time. For whatever reason, I seriously didn’t hear this album at all for two decades, and got excited when I saw the reissue on CD. Unfortunately, it totally didn’t hold up. It’s too bad, because I still love the old Steve Hackett solo material. Oh well.

Rating: 4


Dream Theater – A Change of Seasons (1995)

Dream Theater has never been known to show up at a gig, play the songs from the new album, throw in a few old numbers, and call it a night. Similar to Frank Zappa, they’ve always been known for having a large amount of material available to play at shows, and they’re known to mix things up a bit. That includes playing stuff that’s never been on an album before, including songs that will make it to disc in the future, and other bits that are just place-holders, or things that happen live just for the fans. Dream Theater is also a band that listens to fans, both in emails and from the mail that comes in to their fan club.

That’s where this EP came up. The guys were playing out this huge song called “A Change of Seasons,” a piece written for the album Awake, but at twenty-plus minutes, was considered too long by studio execs. Although the song was shelved, the band played it live several times, and it appeared on a few poorly-recorded bootlegs, becoming a thing of legend among DT fans. Tape traders and fan club members built up a fever pitch about the song, and when the band heard, they decided to go into the studio and record it properly for a release to EP.

The song itself is a seven-part, 23-minute epic, which alternates very skilled instrumental parts with actual lyrics which describe a man going through a cycle of life. He goes through innocence, darkness, paradise, blindness, and later wiseness. Most of the lyrics have to do with drummer Mike Portnoy and the loss of his mother. Although singer James LaBrie came onboard for the previous album, this song fits his smooth and operatic lyrics well, and further introduces him to the band. Also new to this CD is the addition of Derek Sherinian on keyboards. I honestly don’t think he did much on this album, and it wasn’t until the next full LP that he became more integrated into the band, but you can hear him here.

Okay, great 23-minute song and all, but this is actually a 57-minute EP, because the next four tracks come from a live set at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. The band covers Elton John, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin in full-sized and fairly serious renditions, showing their influences but taking the guitars up a notch and making things sound much more prog-rock. They finish the album with a ten-minute medley of Pink Floyd, Kansas, Queen, Genesis, Journey, and the Dixie Dregs, all smashed together and played at full speed. It’s funny to hear LaBrie cheeze out a bit on “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'”, while the band prepares to launch into the next cover in a millisecond.

This was the first time, to me, a band had ever done such an odd little record, and I loved it. Since then, Dream Theater have recorded a shitload of cover tunes, even playing entire albums like Metallica’s Master of Puppets live, and then releasing it on CD. That dilutes things a bit, and it introduces the paradox where bands releasing more and more things to their fans are making it harder and harder to be a fan, because you have to buy truckloads of rare CDs. But in 1995, when this came out, it really hit the spot, giving me something to play over and over until their next album came out. The cover songs are not infinitely replayable, but I still do like the title track, and love that a band could come out with an EP like this, instead of just recording a bunch of reworked B-sides and scattering them across all of their Japanese CD-singles.

Rating: 8



Queensryche – Operation:Livecrime (1991)

After the 1988 release of Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche weren’t in a position to put on a lavish stage show or three-hour
headlining concert yet; in fact, they spent their time opening for Metallica on the epic …And Justice For All tour. (Unfortunately, they were only on the first leg of this tour; by the time I got to see Metallica supporting this album in the summer of 1989, we had to endure The Cult as an opener.) But after the huge success of 1990’s Empire, the band had enough clout to book an extensive headlining tour, which included all of the video screens needed to produce a show that could feature the rock-opera album in its entirety.

In October 1991, EMI released this limited-edition box set containing a CD (or cassette – remember those?) and VHS video of the entire Mindcrime album, performed live, along with a booklet and a box, of the “long” sort (for those of you old enough to remember CDs sold in long boxes.) This limited edition release could both be seen as a nice tribute to the fans, or a “why did they do that?” misstep, depending on how you look at it.

As far as the CD goes, it’s the entire Mindcrime album, exactly. Exactly. No extras, no bonus, no covers, just the album, and that’s it. The performance is pretty good, and it’s upbeat and doesn’t drag, plus Geoff Tate’s vocals are pretty good and aren’t scratched or busted, as they were on the latter half of this monstrously long tour. There are some issues with levels in places; sometimes, a sample from the album is too quiet or muddled, or a guitar isn’t as up-front as it may be on the album. I’m sure part of that problem is that I listened to Mindcrime about 20,000 times before I heard this album, so I tend to notice all of the little bits here and there.

The video is also exactly what’s on the album. They did a good job of having lots of cameras and many angles and stuff moving, which is decent. They also captured a lot of the video projection screens, and showed clips of the story as it’s going on. It’s not as good as watching all of the actual videos back-to-back, which are compiled together in another release, but it’s much more than just watching the band play live.

The problem? The band just came off their biggest tour ever, with all of these new songs on Empire, and all of the classic stuff from the older albums, and this box set captures only those exact songs on Mindcrime. No “Silent Lucidity,” no “Queen of the Reich,” no other tracks are added to the CD, either from the same massive 3-hour set from which this live album was removed, or from their b-sides or other catalogue. (If you were lucky enough to find the Japanese release, it came with “The Lady Wore Black” and “Roads to Madness” as bonus tracks.) If I was a new fan of the band, this would be a pretty bad purchase to make, unless I bought it specifically to find out more about the prior album. It also means there’s no real reason to listen to this CD when one can just listen to the far superior studio version. In fact, I don’t think, prior to this review, I’ve even cracked the case on my copy for a good six or seven years.

There’s also a big disconnect here as far as formats. The old version was a VHS and a CD (or tape). I never, ever watch old VHS anymore, so this thing sits in the case gathering dust. But if I wanted to listen to the CD or rip it to my iPod, it’s there. This was the only version available, and despite the fact that this was a “limited edition,” you could occasionally find a new copy in the back of a music store, five years later. (I think I got mine at a Wherehouse in 1997.) But they were hard to find, and in that pre-eBay world, it meant you either had to buy a boot, pay someone a hundred bucks for a used copy, or try every record store in a thousand-mile radius.

In 2001, when their record label was performing necrophilia on their back-catalogue, Capitol re-released this box set as a regular DVD. This means you don’t have a CD, which might not work in your car or when ripping the audio to your MP3 player. (Actually, they released the CD as a standalone also – but if you buy that, you don’t get the video.) But you have everything on a DVD, and they also added some bonus features, like an interview, some graphics and fan photos, and a few crumbs of nebulous information that might help you figure out the story, if you’re still struggling with who really killed Mary. I don’t know what the packaging or liner notes are like on this version, but if they are anything like the other reissues and box sets Capitol put out for the band’s other material, I’m guessing “shitty.”

But, I have the BOX SET which makes me more elite than you wankers who first got into the band in like 1999. Don’t worry, you’re not missing much. It’s a good collection, and a good intention, but I wish they would have released a 3-CD live album of the 1991 tour instead.

Rating: 7


Queensryche – Hear in the Now Frontier (1997)

This oddly-titled release is often bemoaned as being too “alternative” or “grunge” by many fair-weathered fans of the band, which is a pretty inaccurate comparison. This came at a time when many bands were cutting their long hair and trying to move out of the strictly-defined world of metal to survive, and bands from Metallica to Tori Amos were being called “grunge” or “like Soundgarden” by disgruntled purists. The funny thing is that this album was recorded in Nashville, and probably owes more to country, or at least the new alt-country sound of the era. And it’s also produced by Peter Collins, who desked Queensryche’s two most popular albums (Operation: Mindcrime and Empire) and is more of a direct connection to the band’s metal background than anything else.

One thing is true about this album: it was the last studio album to be recorded by the original lineup of the band; Chris DeGarmo split after this release. (Yes, I know he came back later, but that’s not really the same.) It’s pretty clear that there were differences within the band as this album came together, and its failure to be another Empire was probably just the gasoline dashed on the fire.

This isn’t a pseudo-concept album like Promised Land, and it isn’t aimed at that kind of niche listener, either. It starts out with
the slightly metal single “Sign of the Times,” and the album proceeds to trade off writing credits between singer Geoff Tate and guitarist Chris DeGarmo. The DeGarmo tracks are much more laid back and almost border on the kind of stuff you could see on the Country Music TV channel. Tate trades off with more socially-aware tracks like “spOOL,” which features lyrics like “Focus on a strategy to / open up our minds and then, / together… turn another turn.” It sounds like something Jefferson Airplane, but it rocks out well.

It’s worth noting to those who are interested in this (usually inept metal purists stuck in the past) – Geoff Tate can’t sing
anymore, or at least he can’t sing the crazy operatic stuff. He’s slowly lowered his ability to do this, a pack or two a day. To be
fair, he can sing, and he does it well, but he’s not going to do any of those breaking-glass shrieking howls anymore. And for the most part, that stuff’s been written out. “spOOL” is a good example of how he really tries to reach his old limits, but he can barely make it.

I’d hate to hear that song live at the end of a tour. (In fact ,they didn’t play this song live on this tour, although Tate did play it later when he was touring for his solo album.) The good news is that on this album, he has really started to write his stuff in a
slightly lower register, and his voice still has a great tone to it. But if you’re one of those “god damn it, he hit that high note 20
years ago, what the fuck” people, I don’t know what to tell you.

And I should give an obligatory mention to the one song that’s sung by Chris DeGarmo and not Tate. It’s “All I Want,” and it’s truly horrifying. It’s like the bad b-side to an Oasis single, and it’s in your best interest to program your CD player accordingly, or remove it from your iTunes playlist. The only thing interesting about this song is that I’m sure it came to be because of a major inter-band argument, and I could imagine DeGarmo pouting “I want to sing one song or I’m going to quit!” and then locking himself in a bathroom for four hours.

Going back to this album, it really reminds me of 1997 in a lot of ways. I mean, I did listen to it constantly back then, (except for
that “All I Want” song) and it’s just such a pleasant little mix of metal and a slightly more contemporary blend of pop. It came at a time when the whole grunge thing was long dead, but when metal was also completely slain by this alt-rock beast (or not). I remember at that time really stretching to find something new to listen to, because I was getting bored of just re-buying old metal albums, and I wasn’t about to cash in to the electronica craze or the Smashing Pumpkins or whatever the hell was going on at that moment. And for me, this album just sounded RIGHT. It was smooth, it wasn’t just a metallic collection of screaming solos, it had substance, but it wasn’t a giant rock opera or some pretentious format that would make me only listen to it twice a year. It was intensely enjoyable, and had unlimited repeat playability.

And of course, it was the last album before the group fell apart, and that’s my typical luck. In other bad luck, EMI, the band’s label, went bankrupt during the tour for this album.  The band financed the rest of the tour themselves, but I’m sure the financial strain and lack of label support for the album didn’t help tensions in the band.  (It also guaranteed a worthless box set and “best-of” album to get out of contractual obligations once the label was bought out of bankruptcy later.)

But despite the fact that everyone thought this album was “Queensryche meets Soundgarden” or some insipid nonsense like that, I really do enjoy this record, and I still do, over a decade later.

Rating: 9



Queensryche – The Warning (1984)

While their self-titled EP sounded like some kind of generic heavy metal, this Seattle once-covers band started down the path of prog-metal with their first full-length release. This nine-song album features some great long-form metal pieces, excellent sound, and the beginning of the formula the band grew with over their career.

The band headed to London to record their album, and hired James Guthrie as producer. He’s best known for his engineering and producing work on pretty much every Pink Floyd album that matters, plus producer credits on Judas Priest’s Hell Bent For Leather. Mix those two bands together, and you’ve pretty much got Queensryche; it explains how he captured the mystical, ethereal quality of the band, without losing the metal edge. Also add in arranger and conductor Michael Kamen, who wasn’t a super-soundtrack-ultrastar like we know him today, but he did work with everyone from ‘Floyd to Johnny Cougar to Jim Croche to the Eurythmics to David Bowie, and it seems odd that he picked this little-known metal band to work with. But you can find his symphonic touch on the album, which is a cool feature with the songs here.

The album starts with “Warning,” which seems to trod a bit, without really bringing things up to pace. It’s a much thicker texture than the EP, and ties in with the album artwork, a mystical hand selecting a tarot card with a titular reference. (The press kit uses the tarot as a theme, showing a very cool one for each song on the album.) But the slow pale of the album is immediately brought to speed with “En Force,” a more conceptual piece about surviving an apocalypse and fighting for the survival of a future. It begins with these Kaman-esuque chimes that follow the song, like gothic church bells, then hands it over to the guitars. The song doesn’t have much as far as actual meaning or context, but it does have a lot of guitar hooks that take it at a gallop and show that Queensryche can mix a longer song like this and still make it rock. “Deliverance” follows this theme with a slightly more straightforward guitar-oriented song. It’s worth mentioning that Tate’s operatic lyrics are used to full effect, and he’s hitting high notes and using excellent vibrato and sustain all over the place.

“No Sanctuary” slows the tempo down considerably. It’s almost a ballad, but not the hair band sort of arena rock ballad, but more of a clean, acoustic guitar sound, finishing with a bit of an up tempo melody. It’s a great demonstration of Tate’s lyrics, and it shows that the band doesn’t just need to play faster-faster-faster. It’s very well done, although at just over six minutes long, it does drag a bit.

One of my favorite songs on the album is next, “NM 156”. It’s sort of an Orwellian, anti-technology piece like something Rush would do, but with much more of an epic metal edge. It starts with some computer-type sound effects and some synth sound and vocoder work, and breaks into a faster number, with some great guitar solo work. The only real complaints I have with this song is that 1) it’s only 4:38 long, and by the time you tack on the digital intro/outros, it’s too short for me, and 2) there’s not another song on the album that has this kind of raw energy and futuristic vibe, although some songs have brief bits in them that are this cool. “NM 156” is one of my favorite old Queensryche songs, and I must not be the only one, because the band still brings this one out for their live shows. In fact, the Live Evolution double CD from 2001 opens with it. And  this album was supposed to open with it too, but EMI changed the track order against the wishes of the band, putting the title track first. Oh, and a trivia hint for fans born after 1985 or so: the sound effect at the end of the song is called a “dot-matrix printer.” Old people used to use them before laserprinters were invented.

The next track (first song on side B for those who remember tapes and LPs) is also the only single from the album, “Take Hold of the Flame”, a sort of power-ballady song that both features Tate’s swooning vocals, plus had enough of a rock edge behind it to sound cool. There are two more songs after this, “Before the Storm”, and “Child of Fire,” that are mid-paced and longish songs similar to “En Force” or “Deliverance.” Both are good, but nothing special. The only unique thing here is that the first song pretty much stops about 45 seconds from the end, and then leads up in this dredge bit that goes right into the next song. The album ends with the almost-ten-minute “Roads to Madness”, which trudges on at a very slow speed, and builds a bit, but at about five minutes in, it all but ends. But some haunting string synth pulls the music on a bit as the drums start up and keep the theme going. With about two minutes left, the whole band suddenly picks up again, Geoff Tate screams out an impossible note, and then the whole thing picks up in this total balls-out refrain that rips through the album at the very end. It’s an unexpected ending, and very rewarding if you stuck with everything up until then.

A lot of this album is like that. This is probably the first album I ever got into in which the phrase “rewards repeated listens” was completely true. Individually, not many of these songs (with the exception of “NM 156”) are that interesting on their own. But if you invest the 50 minutes to really go through this album, and spend the dozens of listens to let it really grow on you, it brings out a sum greater than the parts. And this seriously showed me that a band besides Rush or Yes could take on this progressive rock label and do it in such a way that was so non-Rush or non-Yes-like. This album isn’t for everyone, and by their next release, they were doing similar stuff but in a more accessible way, but it’s an excellent first shot for the band.

Rating: 8


Joe Satriani – Flying in a Blue Dream (1989)

Everyone remembers Joe Satriani’s third studio album as “the one where he started singing”, and it’s true. The guitar genius, for whatever reason, decided to add his vocals to some of the tracks of his otherwise instrumental discography, and it stuck out like a sore thumb at the time.  It’s also true that he released many more later albums without singing, and the people who stopped listening to his musical output in 1989  solely because “he sings now” are largely stupid, much like the people who claim Seattle grunge bands singlehandedly killed glam metal bands, even though most glam metal bands were a fad, and conversely, MTV was still kissing Guns N’ Roses’ collective asses and the Metallica black album was selling about 50,000 copies a day well after Kurt Cobain’s headless body had gone room temp. Satriani tried something, it didn’t work, he went on with other things. Right?

Anyway, this 18-track album covers a pretty wide area of sonic terrain. It’s a lot less straightforward than his previous two albums, but the guitar sound matured and progressed much more. I’m not saying he didn’t have a handle on his general tone before this, but his Ibanez-based notemaking is much more refined and deep on this album. Mix that with a bunch of new writing, and you have about an hour of pretty diverse listening ahead of you.

First, we start out with the title track. It starts off with a weird radio voice and the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The voice actually came from a time Joe fired up his practice amp in the studio and some weird radio interference crossed over with a radio or a cordless phone or something, and he immediately grabbed a mic and recorded it for the song. The guitar goes into a gentle, controlled feedback line with some very laid-back drum and bass behind it, to produce an extremely smooth melody. It builds up, as Satriani lays into it a bit more and does some shredding, mixed with more sustained notes and feedback. He’s often used this song as an opener live, and it still sounds as incredible as it did back when I first got this disc.

There are almost “groupings” of songs interleaved through this album. They would be loosely categorized as “songs like Surfing With the Alien“, “ballady laid-back stuff”, “bluesy stuff”, and “total experiments”. And that is roughly the order, from best to worst, I’d use to categorize them. So maybe I should just talk about each of them and why they did or didn’t work.

“Stuff like Surfing…” would include “The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing”, which is a slightly quirky but incredibly fun instrumental piece. “One Big Rush” is better known from the movie Say Anything, which basically means three billion people have heard Joe Satriani, but have no idea who he is. The more ballady stuff includes “I Believe”, in which he sings, and it’s incredibly sappy, but it probably found its’ way onto many mix tapes for girlfriends back when people made mix tapes (as opposed to just stealing music and burning CDs). As far as bluesy stuff, there’s “Big Bad Moon”, another singing track, but it’s not bad.

And the experiments. Some work, like a distorted harmonica bit in “Headless”, or the funky “Strange”. There’s a banjo piece in “The Feeling” that’s actually pretty interesting. (Of course, I also like Adrian Legg.) “The Phone Call” is probably one of the worst tracks he’s done. It’s a sort of four-bar blues thing, with all of the lyrics sung over a phone. George Thorogood is going to be forced to write songs like this in hell. “Ride” takes a close second in the worst song department. It’s a repeating ZZ Top-ripoff song with a really inept chorus that makes me wonder if this album should have been trimmed down to a solid 45 minutes, with an armload of really bad b-sides waiting in the wings.

I feel like I’ve only mentioned about half of the songs on this album. I really do like “Day at the Beach,” which is an entirely guitar thing, just him playing an intricate tune with two hands, and then halfway through, he goes back and repeats the whole melody at double speed. There are two two-part songs, “The Forgotten,” and “The Bells of Lal,” which both start with solos and then have a song as the second part, and they work well.

Like I said, overall this is a really uneven album. It’s the kind of thing I can’t listen to from start to finish without skipping tracks, but then I also find a great need to repeat some tracks over and over. This album seems to be a weird transition for Joe, because before this, he was really reigned in to record a typical “rock album” that was 40 minutes long, with 4 songs per side, and 2 tracks that are breakout singles. It seems like this time he was given total control, and he went over the line a little too much. He’s released many other great albums (some with no singing, too, if you’re still stuck on that), so we have this learning experience to show for it. But, it’s a great album, and I still find myself going back to it a lot. And the opening title track alone is worth the price of admission, so I’ll always love this.

Rating: 8