Metallica – Ride the Lightning (1984)

I will get a lot of flak about this, but I’m not a big fan of this album. It’s not horrible, but to me, it’s nothing more than a mid-point between the near-perfect Kill ‘Em All and the completely perfect Master of Puppets. It doesn’t have any of the raw aggression of the former, or the fine detail or complex workmanship of the latter. It’s got good songs, and sounds okay, but it’s not an album like …Puppets.

Okay, a few things should be said here. Metallica went out with their first album and did good, and Megaforce pulled them back in the studio in 1984, pretty much with the intention of releasing another album with ten clones of “Seek and Destroy.” And moving from one good thing to the volume two of it is always problematic. Do you copy your success? Do you try to go that extra bit you didn’t get to do on the first album? Do you try completely new formulas? And Metallica (or let’s be honest, Cliff Burton) decided to do a bit of each.

There are some songs that follow what happened on the first album closely, like the anti (or maybe pro)-military “Fight Fire with Fire,” that has the fast riffs, the barking lyrics, and some screaming leads. Ditto for “Trapped Under Ice” and even more so for “Creeping Death,” a very riffy little number that actually tells the story of Moses and his battle against slavery in Egypt. But it isn’t a good-times, Davey and Goliath bible story; it’s got a real edge to it that makes it much more rockable, and forecasts the kind of work the band does on their next album. It’s also got a nice little chorus part with the lyrics “die/by my hand/I creep across the land” that people love to chant when the band plays the song in their live sets.

Another song that shows the band’s movement in a new musical direction is “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” about the Ernest Hemingway book of the same name. It’s a slow dirge that seems to almost be the antithesis of thrash metal at the time, but the sludge of the guitars and the eerie lyrics (plus the giant bell that they used) make the song so authentic and true that it still remains a hugely popular number for the band, who still play it live. The album, while not a concept album in the strictest sense, features songs that all have to do with death in very intense circumstances, and this song fits that theme well.

There is one song here that alone deserves a perfect ten, and that’s the ballad “Fade to Black.” The song, which deals with suicide, was apparently written after the band’s entire equipment truck was stolen, almost derailing their entire career. It starts with simple acoustic guitar and haunting lyrics, then builds to very powerful rhythm chords and an incredible hook brought through the distorted Marshall stack sound. The tune swaps back and forth between totally clean acoustic guitar for verses and this blinding power chord riff before launching into a much faster ending, complete with absolutely perfect, harmonic lead guitar work by Hammett. This song is probably one of the most perfect examples of heavy metal I could think of. If I were going to Mars tomorrow and could only bring one mix CD for my voyage, this song would be on it. It’s a flawless production and I love it.

The album in general has good sound, and is the first production credit for Flemming Rasmussen, who also recorded the aforementioned Master of Puppets and remained one of those strange names that every headbanger saw on the inside of their album cover and wondered if the dude was a Swedish Chef or something. (Danish, I think, and oddly enough, his biggest credit before this was engineer on a Cat Stevens album. Rasmussen also recorded …And Justice For All before getting the boot for Bob Rock and the black album.) My main complaint is that a couple of the songs, like the title cut and “Escape”, sound pretty atypical for Metallica songs, especially the vocals. It makes it sound like they were trying too hard to experiment with song structure, and it didn’t work well. And the album ends with “The Call of Ktulu”, a nine-minute instrumental snoozefest that sounds like they were listening to too much Rush that week.

Like I said, the album’s got some good cuts on it. But it doesn’t fit together well, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to listen to this start to finish without heading for the fast forward button. It’s good to see them taking the first step toward what I think might be their best album, but as an album, it doesn’t entirely work for me. I’m loath to say that, for fear of a slew of Metallifans telling me I’m wrong, but this was the kind of album for me where I’d take the two or three good songs on it and pad out that C-90 tape that I used for one of their other albums with those tracks. But it got better, much better, and it’s good to hear this in-between point.

Rating: 7.5



Metallica- Kill ‘Em All (1983)

There’s a rumor (not much of a rumor) that this album was going to be called Metal Up Your Ass until their label’s legal team got a little concerned, and I wonder if Metallica would have become the era’s first and biggest thrash metal band if this record were not injected into every mall and record shop across the country. The four horsemen took a pile of NWOBHM metal influences from earlier European bands and mixed them with some early punk/hardcore and a dash of Motörhead to brew up these ten tracks of aggression that pretty much set the gold standard for all thrash and metal bands to follow.

You probably already own this album, and if you don’t, maybe you should steal a copy and piss off Lars. You also probably know the boring history of how Dave Mustaine got kicked out of the band and all of that, so I’ll leave that to the VH1 specials. I wouldn’t say this is their best album (it’s probably Master of Puppets), or their most important (…And Justice For All showed they could go on without Cliff. The black album showed that they could become art collectors and rich snobs), but it’s a good introduction, and it may be the most listenable of any of their stuff.

This album has been reissued at least three times, and that’s fitting, because there are essentially three groups of Metallica fan. There was an original release of the LP with just the ten basic tracks. If you are a die-hard, “go against the grain until the end” fan, as the song “Whiplash” might say, you’re going to have a tape that doesn’t have any bonus tracks. If you were a metalhead that got into the band in the first few years, you got this tape and played it until it fell apart. To you, Metallica meant raw aggression, total brutality, the loss of all control. Songs like “No Remorse,” “Seek & Destroy,” and “Metal Militia” were your way of life. You probably got started on Judas Priest and Motorhead, and needed to go that extra step. While you were banging your head to this album, all of the other dorks in your high school were listening to Stryper, or maybe Journey. You either thought that Ride the Lightning was the sell-out point for the band, or it’s possible you never heard any of the band’s later work because you were put in a Supermax prison for killing 14 cops while on angel dust.

The second release of Kill ‘Em All came with two bonus tracks, the covers “Blitzkrieg” and “Am I Evil?”. If your tape (or CD, if you were rich) had these songs, you probably got into the band later, but still in the late 80s, when they were little more than a minor phenomenon in the greater music world. That meant that you probably heard a lot of other thrash, some better than this, and some bands that were much sicker than Metallica. But you still had to listen to Metallica because they were the originals. They were the band that would never release a music video, never cut their hair, and never make the top of the music charts, but that’s what you liked. And maybe their later albums seemed a little plastic or conceptual, but you could always go back to that first album that contained the core of the band’s energy.

If you bought Kill ‘Em All in the late 90s or so and it didn’t have the bonus tracks (again), you got in after Metallica released the Garage, Inc. collection and decided to remove the bonus tracks from their albums so you’d have to buy more stuff. Metallica’s fan base obviously completely changed after the black album, when they switched to hard rock-oriented, mid-tempo ballads that were played at about every Midwestern prom in the mid-90s. What’s strange is that many of the fans of their later AOR bullshit phase still claim allegiance to the early albums, despite the fact that they are two kinds of music. It’s possible that people picked up a copy of Load, liked it so much that Metallica was their new favorite, and then went back to buy up all of their old stuff. Metallica still plays “Seek & Destroy” at their concerts, and people still love it. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, if you were a fan of Fleetwood Mac at the very peak of their Rumours, Stevie Nicks-with-poofy-hair era, would you seriously go back to their late 60s, blues-oriented records and truly “get” them as much as their sickly-sweet lite-rock radio-friendly stuff?

Okay, so I’ve rambled on too much about the socioeconomic whatsis without even mentioning how the album SOUNDS. First, it’s loud. It’s got this crushing guitar attack that has Marshall amp written all over it, with a chunky rhythm that fits behind these screaming leads. Kirk Hammett’s playing at this point was fast, but almost blues-oriented in his solos. Later, after spending time with Joe Satriani and working on a modal approach to his solos, they went from the screaming blast attacks to a more organized and complex approach, but that’s later. The album doesn’t have the production that the later ones do, but it’s acceptable enough. Cliff Burton’s bass playing is good, although it’s not as present as it could have been. The one obvious exception is “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth),” a three-and-a-half minute bass solo that pretty much started the notion (at least in the metal world) that a bass player wasn’t just a bar-per-measure guy that sat in the back and did little. Burton, although he was a late addition to the band’s existing lineup, pretty much had the most musical chops in the group, and would show this later as the band wrote more material.

The thing that surprises me about this album is how listenable many of the songs are. Some of them, like “The Four Horsemen” and “Phantom Lord” seem a little goofy after all of these years, like they were trying too hard. But songs like “No Remorse” and “Seek & Destroy” have such perfect riffs, and an incredible wall of sound to them, the chunkiness that makes it possible to put tracks 8 and 9 on repeat for a day at a time with no problems.

I’m going to say something that will piss off all die-hard Metallica fans, and it’s the reason I don’t give this a higher rating, but I think it’s true. Overall, the album is very uneven, which isn’t surprising; half of the tracks were written by Mustaine before he got the boot, and Burton’s genius doesn’t really show up across the whole album. This album is not a start-to-finish player, and what’s weird is, it never was for me. One of the advantages of having the tape way back when is that I always listened to “Whiplash,” then flipped it over, fast-forwarded a bit, and skipped “Phantom Lord.” I also used to hate “Jump in the Fire,” although it grew on me. And I almost always skipped “Metal Militia.” Now, coming back to it, some of the songs are total classics, and a few are a bit goofy. That said, this album is not perfect, but it’s still great.

Rating: 8.5



Metallica – …And Justice For All (1988)

After assuring their fans that they were alive and kicking with Jason Newsted on the bass, the remaining three horsemen plus newkid went into the studio with Flemming Rasmussen for the first five months of 1988 to record the successor to Master of Puppets. What came out was something that people either considered a great album, more conceptual and a bit speedier than the prior, or a bloated, badly produced example of a big band getting too big. Either way, it stands as an interesting historical note, because it’s after Cliff Burton, the major driving force of the band’s early career, had died, and it’s right before the band decided to trade in metal for hard rock and go to producer Bob Rock for their self-titled black album, which many new fans consider the real start to their career.

First off, AJFA is long. It’s 65 minutes and only 9 songs, with only two of them being under the six minute mark, and two of them landing just short of the ten minute mark. Everyone’s first comment about this album is that things are just too damn long, and I’d agree. Most of the songs have an extra repetition of the chorus or an extra verse that grates on my nerves, and I think if I had a good copy of the master tapes and Protools, I could probably turn out a 45-minute remix that would be just as strong as the original. But maybe that’s just me.

This album has a really eerie, sinister tone to it. Many think it’s thin, and I guess it is in parts. The biggest thing to me is that Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos and the general composition of most songs show that he’s become a much more modal player, probably based on his training with Joe Satriani. Solos go from sounding vaguely Egyptian to Mid-eastern to minor and eerie, instead of the standard blues-box licks he used on Kill ‘Em All. This trickles down into the songs a bit, changing structures and sound to be much more unique. The guitars in general are also layered and deeper than they were in the early days, and it makes the album more progressive than just straightforward thrash.

The songs on the album mostly have to do with injustice in some way or another. The title cut, which sprawls out to 9:44, talks about the loss of justice in society, in pretty simple terms. Compare that to the opening track, “Blackened,” which describes a biblical end to the world due to man’s woes. With two exceptions, most of the songs are fairly interchangeable in theme. Although they are musically different and offer varying solos, it would have been hard for me, even in 1988, to distinguish between “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” and, say, “Eye of the Beholder” without checking the liner notes first.

As far as those other two songs, one is “To Live Is to Die,” an almost-ten minute instrumental that’s built up upon a little fragment of poetry left behind by Cliff Burton. The song builds up layer after layer of creepy guitar sound by Hammett and Hetfield, with overlays of distortion and signal processing, quickly dropping into clean acoustic in places and then coming back to establish new themes. Halfway through, someone (who? Not sure…) reads the Burton poetry. The song continues on the tradition of “Orion,” an instrumental on their last album, while leaving tribute to Burton. It’s not as good of a number as “Orion,” but it’s still awesome. I remember many a night listening to this in my car alone as I drove through the darkness, and always loved it for the eerie mood it produced.

The big song on this album is “One.” It’s based on the Dalton Trumbo book Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel about a man in World War I who is hit by a shell blast and loses his arms, legs, and all senses. Many people think it’s about Vietnam, and I’m sure there are Metallica fans dumb enough to now think it was written about Iraq, but you should probably hunt down the book and read it at some point. The song starts out slow with clean guitars, then breaks into more of a power ballad, as the soldier pleads for help. Later in the song, as he realizes he’s trapped forever in his comatose body, he wants to die, and the song speeds up to a frenzy of double-bass and shredding guitar solos. It’s an excellent composition, although I’m still unsure as to how it exactly became a big hit. After years of shunning MTV, the band created a video using live performance in a loft-warehouse sort of space intercut with pieces of the movie based on the Trumbo book.

The most interesting thing to me about going back to this album is to reverse-engineer some of what happened. I listen to pieces of “Harvester of Sorrow” and hear that black album, and think that if this was produced just a little bit differently, it would have ended up one of the tracks there. What if Bob Rock had been hired at this point instead of an album later? What would have survived? What would have changed? I also look at something like “To Live Is to Die” and see how much it tries to hang on to the legacy of Cliff Burton. And I try to listen to any bass by pre-Metallica Jason Newsted, and imagine what this album would have been like if he were allowed to actually play. How did this happen? I imagine a weepy Lars Ulrich in the studio, crying “Cliff just died! Dammit, turn down the bass, Flemming!” and the producer just caving in to his demands. “I can’t cut out the 17th chorus-verse-repeat! Cliff died!” And of course, I try to imagine what this album would have been like with Cliff alive, how songs like “One” would have had even more intensity with his bass, and how lamer numbers like “Dyers Eve” would have been more aggressive with his musicwriting behind them.

Overall, this is a decent album. I’m biased because I listened to it so much in 1988 and 1989, so much that my tape of it is completely worn clean of any lettering on either side. But after about 1989, I pretty much completely forgot about this album for 15 years, which should also tell you it’s not a real contender. Maybe with shorter songs… maybe with better production… maybe with more bass… I don’t know. It’s still an interesting look back, and unfortunately, it’s also the last entry for the band before they became hard rock dandy boys.

Rating: 8



Joe Satriani – Dreaming #11 (1988)

This four-song EP was released in 1988 after Satriani’s big breakthrough Surfing With the Alien, and was largely a keep-alive of tracks from the tour, with a single studio number. At only 22 minutes, it’s not a high-value purchase, but it was the first look at Joe’s live work, and has a great new song on it, too.

The live tracks are okay, nothing special. What really got me about that is that I read a review in an issue of Guitar Player or whatever, and Satriani basically admitted that he had no idea how he could take such a crazy studio album on the road. But he got Stu Hamm and Jonathan Mover, and made it happen. “Ice Nine” sounds pretty close to the album, with little trills and frills to keep it interesting. “Memories” starts with a totally solo piece that is very ambient and bluesy, just him noodling around and playing with his tone, before he catches the song by it’s first little riff. The song takes off and seems to have more tempo than the studio version, although everything’s just as precise. At the end of the nine-minute performance, he gets into a jammy little improv breakdown before closing it up, which is pretty sweet. They finish with “Hordes of Locusts,” which is an odd choice for a closer, but it’s cool that they can do something that intricate live.

To me, this album is memorable for a few reasons. One, I had been a fan of Satriani’s since his first album, and I remember getting a flexi-disc (which I still have, somewhere…) that contained a radical arpeggio bit that segued into a song with an absolutely crushing melody played on a chorus pedal. About a year later, I picked up this CD, and found that very same song, “The Crush of Love,” as the first track! The CD sounded much better than the floppy plastic thing did on my cheap turntable, balanced by a bunch of pennies I put on the face to keep the needle from hopping. It’s a very cool little track, and it has no great heroics as far as the fretwork goes, but just a really hip sounding guitar part, the kind of thing I could listen to on repeat for an hour at a time. And that’s what Satriani is all about; a stellar tone, pretty good fingerwork, but just an overall melodic hook that totally brings you in.

Oh yeah, I skipped school the day that album came out. There was a fire drill before first hour, and the firemen were telling everyone to get the fuck out, so I left and didn’t come back. I was going to drive to Chicago and hang out for the day, but I chickened out, went to University Park Mall in South Bend, and picked up the album at the Camelot records. I remember listening to it in awe, maybe three times in a row on my car deck, before I slept in a Sears parking lot for two hours and then went to the crap pizza store in the mall for a slice.

This album is neither a stellar collection of b-side marketing or a formidable live EP, but the one studio song pretty much made the purchase price for me. Call me a sucker, but I really do enjoy this CD.

Rating: 8


Queensryche – Q2K (1999)

When I was in college, I dated a girl who was probably a bigger Queensryche fan than me. And when listening to a snippet of their music, she’d sometimes say things like “Oh, that’s such a Chris song,” and roll her eyes, apparently bemoaning the songwriting ability of guitarist Chris DeGarmo. The habit made me realize that up until that point, I’d never even considered how the power structure within the band operated. Queensryche has two guitar players, who initially formed the band, but they are usually both referred to as “lead/rhythm guitar” and without studying some videos or going to a bunch of live shows, it’s not apparent who’s taking what solos. Contrast that with a band like Guns N’ Roses, where you know Slash plays the lead and Izzy’s on the rhythm guitar. So after almost ten years of not thinking about it, I wondered, who was the driving force behind the band? Who was in charge? Was Geoff Tate the ringleader, or just the guy brought in by the real brains of the band to front them? Who was the John and Paul, and who was the Ringo?

All of that was answered when DeGarmo left the band in 1998. The remaining members jumped from the then-bankrupt EMI to Atlantic, adding Kelly Gray, a former bandmate of Geoff Tate’s from his old band Myth. They quickly went back to the studio for their new release, Q2K. I initially moaned at the news of the new album name, because Dan Quayle used the same slogan for his 2000 Presidential campaign (which, thankfully, died quickly.) And the album title happened during the surge of Y2K paranoia, when every other spam in my mailbox was about Y2K radio flashlights and Y2K survival food and Y2K fallout shelter plans and Y2K asbestos-lined condoms with emergency first-aid instructions written on every package.

I have to say that Q2K is the beginning of the end for me and my love for this band, and I don’t think I’m alone in this conclusion. The band took a serious turn with this mid-paced collection of eleven songs. Prior to this album, every Queensryche album had a mix of songs. For every slow-paced song like “London,” there was a faster-paced rocker, like “NM156.” Making a good album is like making a good can of mixed nuts; if you have no almonds or honey-roasted peanuts, and 90% of the nuts are those crappy tasteless ones they use to pad out the mixed nuts combination to make it cheaper, it’s not any good. And with Q2K, you’ve got a lot of those crappy mixed nuts.

What I mean is, most of the songs sound about the same here. Play a random five seconds of “Beside You” or “One Life” or “When The Rain Comes,” and it’s basically the same mid-paced, contemporary, almost easy-listening smooth rock music. Radio pros used to call this stuff MOR, for Middle of Road, and now I think they call it AAA, or Adult Album Alternative, to basically mean a wussier version of AOR that doesn’t rock and is suitable to play in elevators and dentist’s offices. It’s like it’s aspiring to be the Singles soundtrack. I’m not saying any of these songs are horrible; some of them are vaguely emotional or contain some interesting hooks. It’s just that they all sound roughly the same. WIthout DeGarmo to mix up the writing, it’s a very homogenized approach.

The problem is, there are too many of these mellow songs, and no rockers. They try, with “Burning Man” and “Breakdown,” but both are essentially boring attempts at it. And they put both of these songs back-to-back, which also makes no sense in the dynamics of the thing. “Breakdown” was their attempt at a single and I think it got a video, but it’s pretty flat attempt at a song. This is where the Chris song belonged, and there wasn’t one. And aside from the lack of his writing, there’s no conceptual or story-driven component to the album. That isn’t needed – their last album to do this was Mindcrime, and they had their share of decent albums since then.

The band has an almost-trademark habit of capping the end of an album with a longer, slower, but more powerful number, and they do that here with “The Right Side of My Mind”. It’s got a lot of force wrapped up in a mellower package, and builds and builds before it peaks and concludes the album. This is executed well, which makes me think it’s a Geoff Tate thing, but without an entire album of differing numbers before it, this doesn’t do much good.

I got this album, tried to listen to it for about six months, and then forgot about it entirely. When I switched over to iPod, I don’t even think I added this to iTunes for years, so it sat untouched in my collection of CDs I never used. Despite the fact that this album never spent any extended time in my current play cycle, I have two very distinct memories of it. I’ll mention them both, with the caveat that memories of an album don’t affect my rating as much as the actual contents of an album, something that other reviewers consider in the intrinsic value of an album.

Anyway, the first is that I bought this album the day it came out at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, immediately after I had a job interview in the same building. I interviewed at Juno Online, and ended up getting the job, working in the BMG building for almost two years, and spending many a long lunch hour wandering around the Virgin store, feeding my music addiction. And when I bought the CD that day, Cheap Trick happened to be playing a gig at the bookstore, which was surreal because this band I thought was bigger than life when I was a kid was setting up their amps in a room about as big as my apartment, playing for two dozen people. So there’s a strange connection in that whenever I think back to those two years I worked in Times Square, or any time I returned to that Virgin store (or any Virgin store), I always thought back to this album.

The other memory I have of Q2Kis that I had a job interview the week after I bought it (I think I hadn’t yet got an offer on the Juno thing, and was frantically interviewing at every dot-com-bubble-funded e-sweatshop in the book), and listened to the album three or four times on my Minidisc player on the way there and back. That interview was in the World Trade Center, and was almost exactly a year before 9/11. So that’s a weird connection for me.

Despite those memories, there’s not much I can say about this below-average effort. They’ve done better albums since, but not by much.

Rating: 5



Psychodots – Blotter (1994)

If you’re not up on your extended Frank Zappa lineage, you might not know anything about this Cincinnati-based trio. I’m probably fucking this up, but I think the origins go like this: there was a band called the Raisins, and they recorded an album that was produced by former Zappa guitarrist Adrian Belew. Then they all got together and formed a Chicinatti-based band called The Bears. After two albums and a few years of touring, the band split up and Belew went solo. But the core trio of the band stayed together and called themselves the Psychodots. They also, oddly enough, toured with Belew, both opening for him and serving as his backing band. I saw them on that tour in ’94, and despite the fact that my friend Steve Simms is the biggest Zappa fanatic ever, therefore being huge fans of these guys too, I’d never heard note one of them until this show. I was so blown away, I bought the Blotter CD and then played it 20,000 times over the course of that summer.

First, Blotter is not a real album; it’s a 6-song compilation containing tracks from their first two albums. It’s just a simple clear slipcase with a photocopied track listing in it, nothing fancy there. On the contrary, this music is incredibly clear and present, the kind of production that reminded me of when everyone was analog and then bands like Rush suddenly went digital. Despite the fact that the trio is just a bass-drum-guitar group, there’s a lot of thick sound here. Part of this comes from the fact that vocalist/axeman Rob Fetters uses one of those Roland MIDI pickup systems that drives an external synth. I’d always heard horror stories of these things, but I saw the man do it live, and he effortlessly went from playing keyboard intros to slamming through guitar solos with no problems at all. Also, bassist Bob Nyswonger doesn’t just pluck a note here or there with a pick and then count to four; he plays the bass more like a guitar, even taking solos and pulling out chords when the need arises.

It’s hard to describe ‘Dots music, other than to say it’s not much like the twice-removed math-rock that you’d expect from a distant cousin on the Zappa family tree. It’s much more singer-songwriter oriented, with strong guitar parts, clean synth bits, and a tight sound overall. Songs like the opening “Moaner” are almost straightforward power-pop, while stuff like “Big Love Now” build strong anthems with harmonized and powerful vocals. I remember thinking in 1994 that these songs sounded so NEW, and it’s weird that over a decade later, they still sound fresh. The six-song sampler ends too fast, but I’ve also kept it on repeat a dozen times with no boredom. It’s very catchy stuff from an underappreciated Ohio band. I’ll have to hunt down their other albums and see it they also hold up. They’ve since been active and have some new material too, that I’m downloading from iTunes as we speak…

Rating: 8


Rush – 2112 (1976)

If you ask many music fans what the best concept album ever is, they will all answer 2112. This is because they’re stupid. I’m not saying that this is a bad album; I’m saying that it’s not a concept album. It contains one really long concept song on the A-side, and a bunch of useless filler on the B-side. And that mental disconnect is the difference between an album that everyone remembers as really great and an album that is really great.

Okay, so this album is supposed to be a big deal, because Rush put out a lot of nerdy Tolkein-rock on their first three (well, second and third) albums, and this is the one that got people to go to the record store and put down their cash. It’s arguable whether or not this album or the following All the World’s a Stage pushed their work out there more, since the live album carried these songs a bit more. But either way, this is the biggest of the first “set” of Rush albums, and it’s one that everyone wants in their collection.

I don’t need to say much about the Orwellian 2112 song. It’s 20:33 of rock opera that has some quiet moments, some other decent songwriting, and ends in a huge finale of dueling guitar and bass and a booming robot voice proclaiming “ATTENTION ALL PLANETS OF THE SOLAR FEDERATION: WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL.” Even though their record company tried to steer them away from writing another giant suite of conceptual music (on the heels of Caress of Steel which was a huge commercial failure), the band decided to belt out this giant story of a totalitarian society in the future that bans music and art. Meanwhile, a dude discovers an old guitar, learns how to play it (in just over three minutes, which is part III of the song), and then presents it to his masters, who smash it. The guy go hides in a cave and offs himself. The song ends with a giant space battle and an ambiguous ending, where either the high priests of the new order destroy everything and assume control, or some new power overthrows the priests and assumes control. (We don’t know which, although I’m sure I will get a few emails from people saying what the real meaning is supposed to be.)

Chief lyricist Neil Peart was heavily influenced by the Ayn Rand book Anthem for this story, although he later claims he didn’t realize how much he ripped off her story until he looked back at it later. Either way, he thanks her in the liner notes. Oddly enough, the band does another song, “Anthem,” also based on Rand’s work. And years later, the movie Footloose was based on the main premise of “2112.” (Okay, it wasn’t.)

“2112” is a cool bit, but it’s also a curse, because you don’t want to be forced to play a huge cumbersome twenty-minute piece during every one of your live sets. And decades later, when they pulled this out of the chest and reintroduced a shorter version to live shows, Geddy Lee could no longer hit all of his older shrieking high notes, requiring a pitch shift downward that made it all sound weird. Still, good stuff and pretty much a decent ref back to 1976 for all of us.

The rest of the album doesn’t hold up well at all. “Something for Nothing” is a straight-up rocker that still finds its way into modern setlists. “A Passage to Bangkok,” a little ballad written about smoking hash, probably seemed like all the rage back in ’76, but the band tried to later wash its hands of it during the Reagan-era “just say no” years, even deleting it from a live album when it got re-released to CD. “Lessons” is marginal (and one of few songs where Lifeson wrote the lyrics instead of Peart), and “Tears” is straight-up weepy (with lyrics by Geddy.) “The Twilight Zone” takes the mark for the strangest little song they ever released. The little romp through a handful of Rod Serling-hosted horror episodes was filller written at the last minute while the band was in the studio, something they admit used to happen on each of their albums. Aside from the titular cut, if they released this CD with none of the other tracks except maybe “Something for Nothing” and maybe padded it with live stuff, I’m not sure anyone will notice.

This is an interesting album for historical reasons, but it’s not a regular in my playlist. “2112” has been redone at least twice on live albums, plus any boots you might have, and they are all much more listenable as far as the other tracks before and after. Buy this if you’re a completist (and get the gold disc if you’re a completist with a lot of cash) but focus on the later albums if you’re on a budget.

Rating: 7.5


Metallica – Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987)

When this 1987 EP came out, every Metallifan immediately rushed to the store to pick it up, because it was the first release from the band since the death of bassist and mastermind Cliff Burton. It was also proof that the band could go on after the loss of their best member, because many people expected them to fall into a heavy alcoholic daze and jump off a bridge. But the band, in some kind of denial tactic, quickly auditioned a million bassists (and bass players), chose Jason Newsted, and rushed into a homemade studio to record this five-track EP of covers as a sort of proof of concept.

One thing you’ll remember if you bought this thing back in the fall of ’87 is that it was called the $5.98 EP if you bought the tape, and the $9.98 EP if you were a CD freak, which almost nobody was back in ’87. This was probably to prevent record stores from slapping a regular price on it and soaking the profit. (See also the SST Blasting Concept compilations.) I DID have a CD player and this was probably my 4th or 5th CD purchase ever. Another difference I found is that on the original pressing of the CD, the bands covered are not listed on each song, so I had to borrow someone’s tape during study hall and write down the info. Oh, and old skool fans will know that the “re-re” part of the title is because the first Garage Days was a tiny collection of covers thrown on the backside of the Creeping Death EP import, which were later added to (and then later deleted from) pressings of Kill ‘Em All.

That didn’t matter much anyway, because none of us knew the names of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and hardcore punk bands that were chosen to cover on the EP. Most of us had heard of The Misfits, or at least seen the t-shirt, but Budgie? Diamond Head? Killing Joke? Holocaust? They sounded interesting, but these weren’t albums you’d find in a Musicland in the middle of Indiana, so we had to trust that they’d be cool.

Going into the fast drum beat that leads of “Helpless,” you can tell this is going to be much more raw and less experimental and lofty than the previous Master of Puppets. Metallica manages to take the original Diamondhead version of the song and put their own mark on it, with thick rhythm guitar, fast leads that are almost a throwback to their first album, and bass. Yes, bass! Those of us who were plugged in at the time already knew newkid from his own band, Flotsam and Jetsam, and remember that he could really fucking play the 4-string. Pick up a copy of their first album and put on the song “Metalshock” and he is all over the place and totally up front with his bass sound. He’s all over Garage Days, and that made everyone happy that while he was no Cliff, there would still be mighty bass on future Metallica albums. (This was before the original three members thought it would be funny to totally mute the bass in every further album, making future fans think that Jason could not play at all.)

“The Small Hours” starts with a quiet and creepy guitar bit that sounds almost like horror movie music, and then slowly gets heavier and creeps onward before the group launches into full-on metal mode. It’s a very effective display of their musical ability, and makes you wonder what the original Holocaust version sounded like. Same goes with “The Wait,” which shows us that James Hetfield can occasionally sing rather than grunt and wince, as he belts out the chorus.

Probably my favorite cut from the album is Budgie’s “Crash Course in Brain Surgery,” because it showcases Jason’s bass skills in a fun little song. Yes, he plays a bass solo! And he’s got a groovy line through the whole thing, which also enables Kirk Hammett to lay down a couple of really shredding solos. (A word of warning: you really don’t want to hunt down the original Budgie album with this song on it. It seriously sounds like Jethro Tull’s backing band rocking out to their favorite Spock’s Beard tunes, with Geddy Lee’s sister on vocals. Seriously.) I’m not as hot on the final song(s), “Last Caress/Green Hell.” Yes, I like the Misfits, but it just didn’t fit the band or the rest of the songs on the album. I know at the time I probably thought it was the coolest thing ever, killing babies and raping mothers and all, but now I look back and wish they would have covered “Hybrid Moments” or something.

The best blessing about this little gem of an EP is that it quickly went out of print, and only the old Metallica fans knew about it. For at least a decade, the thing was completely unknown, except for the old-skoolers and a few people who found Japanese bootlegs on eBay for a hundred bucks. That ended when the tracks were reissued on the Garage, Inc collection, and they just didn’t work right mixed in with all of the other B-sides and rarities issued over the years. For me, this was the perfect burst of greatness the band needed before continuing on with bigger and better things. It’s a shame though, because seeing a Metallica do covers like this makes me wish there was an alternate universe where we could just see this band from 1987 belt out Saxon and Motorhead tunes from yesteryear, instead of what Metallica eventually turned into.

Rating: 9


Anacrusis – Screams and Whispers (1993)

Not many people remember this St. Louis-based metal unit, except for the music critics who claim they were one of the era’s best bands, but were simply lost in the shuffle of the whole Death Metal craze of the time. And guess what – I’m a bit of an amateur music critic, and when Marco at Metal Blade sent me these demos at the beginning of ’93, I loved the prog-gy rock band. Here’s the review I wrote in Xenocide back in the day:

ANACRUSIS – Screams and Whispers (Metal Blade) This is the fourth release from St. Louis’ claim to progressive metal. These guys aren’t a Death or Thrash band, they have some of the accent and meter of a doom band but they have the balls and sharpness of a hard rock band. Its like Cathedral meets Fates Warning or something. Kenn Nardi’s lyrics are strange, they are sung in places and the phrasing is abnormal, but it gives the album a good feel. The drumwork by Paul Miles and John Emery’s bass lay down a really offbeat and unique foundation for the lucid guitarwork by Nardi and Kevin Heidbreder. The guitars blend pretty decently into the mix except for a well planned jump out of the pit for a sharp, distortion-clear solo of precision, or a harmonic, dual guitar chorus. Don’t forget the clear standalone guitar passages here and there. This concept probably won’t sit well with most fanatic headbangers, and even some more broad-tasted individuals may have to give it a second or third spin before it catches. But to me, it was worth it.

For whatever reason, I never had a copy of this album on CD. I looked around, and found I had two prerelease copies, I think mixed differently (with the standard black-on-white photocopied Metal Blade labels) and also a reviewer/cutout of the actual release. But as far as listening to tapes these days, they might as well be wax cylinders to me, so I haven’t heard these guys in like ten years. Luckily, I thought to punch it in google one day and found the band’s web site, containing MP3s of everything, which I promptly copied to my iPod for another listen.

I’ve never checked out any of the band’s other stuff; their first two on Restless plus Manic Impressions on Metal Blade all sounded a bit uneven in comparison, with the band getting their act together as far as music and production. Screams and Whispers shows the band fully together, playing well and sounding excellent. They detune their guitars like a Death Metal band would, but instead of going for that Carcass-y grindcore sound, it instead makes things more doomy. Add to that the band’s first experiments with synth, in the form of artificial orchestral hits woven into the music, and you have a much thicker soundscape than the average thrash/death release of the time.

Back in 1993, when I was in college and doing the zine, I did not have a car, and used to walk miles and miles everywhere. And this album was one of the ones that I’d put in for a really long trek, when I needed something to push me forward, but not something that was completely manic and then over in 15 minutes, like most demos of the era. There are some highlights here that I really like, that pull me back to when this album was in the walkman constantly. One I really remember is the opener, “Sound the Alarm,” which starts with a very atmospheric, clean guitar sound with a bit of delay, and then slams into a faster beat. “Release” has a more straightforward march to it, but with Ken Nardi’s strange lyrics on top it, adding a weird sense of unease that makes the song more interesting. “A Screaming Breath” and “Driven” both showcase the band’s ability to go in different directions in the same song with complex odd-meter arrangements, which are the band’s trademark. What’s even more amazing is that they switched drummers just before recording, and were able to hash out such complicated meter with a new guy right as they went into the studio.

Like I said before, this album really isn’t for everyone. Even people well-versed into odd-meter, fast-solo prog-rock probably aren’t going to appreciate this, because it’s a lot more about the strange mood captured in the sound. This isn’t a Moving Pictures rocker that has solid AOR songs from start to finish, and even though I love the album for what it is, it’s not like I pop it in the car player when I’m out driving and having a good time. But it’s very well done, and the only chief complaint from me is that the metal world couldn’t really get this, and the band disbanded a short time later. That makes this the only little time capsule of the band’s brief career, and maybe that’s what makes it even that much more special.

Rating: 8.5


Rush – A Show of Hands (1989)

The first concert I ever attended was Rush at the old Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, supporting the Hold Your Fire album. Imagine my amazement when I found that the exact tour I saw was released as a live album! They didn’t record the same show (thank god – the sound at that place was similar to recording a live album inside a large oil storage drum), but they did capture the spirit with the fifteen tracks recorded for this CD. I think if I would have reviewed this back in 1989 when it was released, I would have given it a ten. I think it’s interesting to come back to this two decades later and give it a second look.

This is probably the cleanest recorded Rush live album of the five (or six) officially offered by the band. It’s hard to even tell it’s a live album during most of the songs, because there’s absolutely no crowd noise, and the conditions are absolutely perfect. It’s also important to note that Rush almost never deviates from the recorded version of the song, except maybe an extra “ba-bum” at the end of a song. Combine the two, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish if you’re listening to the live version or the studio version through a lot of the album. Rush fanatics absolutely love this, and think it’s the highest form of perfection and a demonstration how well the trio can play. I’d be more impressed if they could mix things up a bit more, maybe not as much as Frank Zappa did on his ever-changing, ever-mutating setlists, but maybe an extra or different solo here or there.

This album captures the era of Rush after Moving Pictures, but before the band slowed things down and became more irregular with their studio and touring schedule. They blew their wad on the classic, rockable stuff over their previous two live albums, and the only old tune that survives here is the closer, “Closer to the Heart.” Yes, they did play “YYZ” and “Tom Sawyer” on the tour, but this album is just a 75-minute collection of the best parts of the evening, not a historical bootleg-type capture of the whole show. So they really trimmed back the tracklist to only showcase the new stuff.

That means you’ve got a lot of the more dire, more synthified, less guitar-oriented numbers. We’re talking half of Power Windows, a lot of Signals, and a lot of Grace Under Pressure (although not the songs I’d want, and they do “Red Sector A” toward the end of the CD, which usually puts me to sleep.) The one advantage is that the live sound is much better than some of the studio sound on some of these numbers. For example, “The Big Money” (the opener, after a track of the Three Stooges theme music) has a much crisper and a slightly bassier sound to it, and I like it better than the cut on the original album. This is consistent across all of the tracks; without spending hundreds of hours spinning knobs in the studio for that polished sound, they introduce more of Geddy’s bass and a good live guitar sound that challenges the synth-heavy landscape.

There are only four tracks from the album this tour supported, which is also strange. It’s a good grouping from Hold Your Fire, though. They all sound pretty much identical to the album version, which doesn’t do much, but it’s always enjoyable to hear them again. “Mission” was a remarkable live track, because that’s the song where they dropped a million red balloons into the crowd, ala the three red spheres on the cover of the album. It was sensational to be on the first deck of this auditorium and see all of these red spheres float down into the crowd on the floor and then spread out like crimson paint. Unfortunately, you can’t hear this on the live album, but the song’s a nice reminder if you were there (or saw a video).

The highlight of this album is “The Rhythm Method,” Neil Peart’s drum solo. Unlike other albums, this is a standalone solo, not merged in the middle of another song. Peart does a bit of the old-school stuff, but halfway through the solo, his drum kit turns to reveal his electronic drums, and he plays between both sets, using the e-drums to trigger MIDI synth beats that sound like stuff from a big-band number. It’s a completely unique sound and approach, and even though it’s less than five minutes long, it packs a tremendous amount of drumming in a short space.

This isn’t a bad live album. At first, I thought I’d give it a lower rating, because I seldom listen to it, and it’s not a lot of things. It’s not long, and it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of stuff on it. It doesn’t have the old favorites. It doesn’t do anything dramatic or weird or neat (aside from Neil’s solo). It’s a very straightforward capture of one CD’s worth of a concert that was recorded well, end of story. But looking back, it’s such a great-sounding capture of the band at a very key time in their career that’s usually forgotten. I don’t think most people would buy this album to get started on Rush, because there are all kinds of collections and compilations of the old stuff, and I don’t think a fan looking for a good live album would pick this, when they could get one of the older classics, or get a much greater value out of the 3-CD Different Stages CD. But for some reason, I keep listening to this CD, and I think back to when I got it, and it’s just such a perfect little time machine to then, that I realize I do really like this.

Rating: 7