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Fractal – Sequitur (2009)

A fractal is a geometric shape that has a fine structure at arbitrarily small scales, and is too irregular to be easily described in traditional Euclidean geometric language. That’s also a decent description of the latest release from the Bay-area quartet Fractal, because this sixteen-track album is a cohesive musical work with a focus on great detail and complex composition, but offering a wide swath of style.

Last time around, on 2003’s Continuum, the band was an instrumental trio (Nic Roozeboom on guitars/synth, Jim Mallonee on bass/synth, and Paul Strong on drums). This time, Josh Friedman comes to the fold on vocals and guitar, and the band pulls away from their previous instrumental moorings to explore new territory. If there’s any comparison to be made between this effort and Continuum, the prior album had more of a fusion-y freeform feel to it, while Sequitur is much more structured and focused.

Friedman’s lyrics pull the compositions in another direction, with some of the numbers being almost ballady, in working with his vocals. A good example of this is “Giving Tree,” which is a very smooth and conventional ballad. It’s not something you’d expect from a band that’s usually flogging out full-bore in an irrational meter with notes all over the page. But it works well, and it’s an enjoyable piece.

In a similar vein is one of my favorite tracks is “A Fraction of One.” I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan, and this draws from the same type of phantasmagorical lyrics over an ethereal soundtrack you’d find on the first few of Gabriel’s albums or in his soundtrack work. The song builds to an evil crescendo, with the guitar thrumming away, and the conclusion marked with the gong of an ancient clock. It’s an example of a completely different direction than the earlier three-piece instrumental recording.

There are a couple of interesting diversion that veer away from the center of the prog-rock highway. One is “The Monkey’s Paw”, which has angsty lyrics sung like a 90s alt-rock band, but draped over a complex beat that slowly spirals into a speed metal guitar solo. The band gets back into the fold with the big payoff, the three-part “Churn”, which ends with an almost electronica-oriented zip through with a trance-like synth beat, and a very screaming, fusion-esque guitar solo that I enjoyed.

This isn’t a straightforward album that everyone is going to “get” on the first listen, but that’s a big part of its appeal. It’s a lot more of an artistic challenge, structuring songs with odd-meter bits and complex drumming, lying underneath a complex soundscape of advanced melodic guitar riffage that ranges from playful to intrinsically powerful. It’s the kind of thing you’ll have to give repeat listens to fully appreciate everything that’s going on.

The self-produced CD was recorded all-digitally by the band “all over the Bay Area” – no word if that means a series of extensive home studios or picking up shifts at local booths, but it features pretty clean production and a tight sound overall. The cover art was done by Derek K Nielsen (www.daementia.com).

Fractal is very much worth checking out. Go to http://www.fractal-continuum.com to find out more; you can also pick up this CD at CDBaby.

Rating: 8.5

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Queensryche – Sign of the Times (1997)

The first single from Queensryche’s Here in the Now Frontier album was the first song on the album, “Sign of the Times”, the somewhat political/societal rocker written by Chris DeGarmo. (This is not to be confused with the 2007 greatest hits compilation of the same name.) It’s not a bad song, and an okay choice for a single, so it appears in original studio album format on this four-song CD.

There’s also a new song as a b-side, somewhat rare for the band, who have only let a handful of cuts drop from their studio albums. This one’s called “Chasing Blue Sky,” and it’s a very moody and laid-back number, written by Geoff Tate and drummer Scott Rockenfield. It actually sounds much more like something Tate would later do on his self-titled solo album a few years later. I’m not a big fan of this track myself, partially because it’s so wallowy and uninteresting, and because it’s the first Queensryche song to have a harmonica solo in it, which is just plain stupid. But prior to all of the albums being re-released with bonus tracks (and, I guess, before Napster, Kazaa, and the like made it easy to just steal these kind of tracks without much effort), this was a somewhat elusive track to find, which means people were willing to pay twenty bucks for four songs.

The album’s also rounded out by two cuts from that 1992 MTV Unplugged show that was broadcast exactly once and then milked by record labels but never released in a proper fashion. Here you get “Silent Lucidity” (probably the big money shot for most part-time fans of the band) and “The Killing Words.” (I think you can now get all of the tracks for the unplugged show if you buy a certain number of the re-released albums, but I haven’t done the math to figure it out; there might be one or two tracks missing. The whole show, including false starts and second takes, is widely bootlegged.)

Trivia: the liner notes say “Queensryche is still:”, and then Chris Degarmo left about ten seconds later.

The whole idea of buying this is somewhat moot now. If you buy the new re-release of HitNF you get all three bonus tracks here, plus the unplugged version of “I Will Remember”. But back in my day, when eBay didn’t exist and you couldn’t file-share this stuff or buy the re-release, you had to buy this. It’s an okay grouping of tracks, but only for completists.

Rating: 8

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Dream Theater – Hollow Years (1997)

The CD-single for the song “Hollow Years” came out to support the album Falling Into Infinity, and contains two versions of the song “Hollow Years”, the album version and a radio edit. That’s not what interests me about this CD, however, as I think that’s one of the weaker songs on the album, probably because it was made to be all “radio-friendly” and was probably likewise pushed by the record company. It had a video made that was never seen on TV and was a waste of approximately $100,000, but is hoarded by Dream Theater completists.

There are two things of interest on this CD. The first is a demo of the song “You Not Me.” It seems that during the demo stage, this song was called “You Or Me,” and the words were a bit different. That’s cool, in the sense that you get to see that even perfectionists like these guys change their minds (or have their minds changed by producers) and don’t just instantly shit out perfect songs. It’s also cool to hear what one of their songs sounds like at the demo stage. It’s not as low-quality as portastudio or jambox recording; it’s higher quality than most amateur bands who self-produce a CD. But it’s markedly different than the final product you get through the real recording.

The other interesting thing is a b-side called “The Way It Used To Be”. The track starts with a slower but upbeat verse before taking off a bit. There’s also what sounds like a theramin, or maybe it’s the creative use of a Leslie stack, for a weird wobbling sound. The song starts out great, but it’s too repetitive and drags on, with a total length of almost eight minutes.

Overall, this is a curious little single. I really do like the two new songs here, but you have to weigh in the cost of actually finding one of these things versus what you’ll get.

Rating: 8

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Dream Theater – Greatest Hit (…and 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs) (2008)

Well, here’s a tough sell. How do you compile a greatest hits album for a band that only has one arguable “hit?” And furthermore, how do you sell a compilation album when a band’s core demographic are fanatic completists who most likely buy every single item ever issued by the band? There aren’t many casual Dream Theater fans, and it’s not like someone’s going to hear one of their songs on the local hot-100 radio station and rush out to buy this. So is it worth the $15 to buy this?

Well, maybe. This compilation includes two discs: a “dark side” of heavier metal numbers, and a “light side” of the more melodic songs. It’s an interesting way to group things, with the down side that I never realized Dream Theater recorded so damn many ballady songs until they were all presented back-to-back. At any rate, you get 22 tracks, which is a pretty decent value for $15. Plus you maintain continuity in owning every one of the band’s releases, which might calm the OCD demons in your head if you suffer from the “must have every release” syndrome.

And there are a few kinda-new things here. First, there’s “To Live Forever”, a B-Side from the “Lie” single. That wasn’t on any studio album; that’s also as far as you get with regard to original stuff. You also have a lot of remixes and radio edits and slightly different tracks. And three of the tracks from Images and Words are remastered. This is a big deal to some, because the original mix used a snare trigger throughout, and many a fanboy bitched and moaned about the production. Now, those three songs are mixed with a real snare. Unfortunately, after almost two decades of hearing the triggered snare, the regular one sounds weird to me. The remix does bring out some of the other percussion sound though, and the sax on “Another Day” sounds pretty crisp, too.

There’s not much else to say here. It’s a good grouping of songs, but it might not be an essential purchase to you, especially if you have other albums to catch up on. I don’t like greatest hits albums in general, but this isn’t bad.

Rating: 6

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Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)

When an album is in the making for almost two decades, and the band goes through an almost 100% lineup change, serious questions emerge about the final product. And this means that most reviews of said product aren’t about the production or if the songs groove, but rather ask a million questions about what the hell happened. And that’s why two major questions clog the beginning of this review: did such a long wait damage or distress this work? And, is this even Guns N’ Roses?

For those not familiar with the chronology (maybe because you were born after their last album came out, which is entirely possible), The Spaghetti Incident? came out in November of 1993. This half-baked collection of covers and old punk tunes did contain Slash for the last time, but it also didn’t do well sales-wise, caused tension in the band, and generally flew under a lot of people’s radar. There was also a 1999 release of live recordings from 1987-1993, featuring the old lineup. But if you’re talking about originals, the last real release by the band was 1991’s Use Your Illusion albums. That’s a 17-year gap, and a lot has happened in the last 17 years.

Could a heavy metal band take a few decades off and come back with anything relevant? If you’ve listened to recent albums by any of the old monsters of rock from the 80s, it’s generally a disappointment. You typically get a retread of the simplest 80s hard rock, with a thin veneer of industri-synth beats and samples duct-taped over the gaps. GNR also dominated in a world with larger sales across fewer genres. When I was in high school and college, everyone was a GNR fan to some extent, from the preppies to the motorheads. It was not uncommon for people in my high school to be fans of New Kids on the Block and Guns N’ Roses. Now, music is so segmented and divided by the mass number of channels available for sales; people go to iTunes and buy the one song they like (or steal it). There’s no need to go to a record store and buy from their limited selection of displayed albums, which are put out by major labels and competed for shelf space in a system just short of collusion. Now there’s more of everything, but you get lost in that sea of everything, and a band like Guns N’ Roses isn’t going to pull a “Sweet Child” coup and go wall-to-wall with mass FM radioplay and MTV exposure. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a song on an obscure XM radio show that only metalheads listen to, and maybe maybe a ten second clip of a guitar solo will be used when some d-list skateboard dude trashes a grocery store on a reality TV show.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness of this album. I thought maybe Axl started writing back in 1996 or 1997, and started with something akin to an old dude’s Korn, and then attempted to pig-lipstick the thing with a series of session dudes and fancy studio tricks. Then in 2008, it would sound like when a show like CSI has to have music at a heavy metal club (“ripped from the headlines”) and they hire four studio musicians/actors, dress them up in Hot Topic, and make them play a network executive’s idea of what down-and-dirty metal sounds like.

But that didn’t happen! First, the production is over the top good. Yes, given a decade of knob-twirling, it should be. But it sounds absolutely excellent. And it has a lot of riffage that gives it the feel of a hip, new metal sound. Without going into specifics right now, they do a lot of extremely impressive guitar solo work everywhere. It has this “dirty New York slum metal” sound, for lack of a better term. And the laid-on industrial bits and samples are nowhere near as bad or involved as I’d thought. There was a track on an Ahnold movie soundtrack a few years ago (titled “Oh my God”) that was very NiN-esque, but that isn’t on this album, and there isn’t anything approaching it. That’s good, because pretty much everyone hated that track, and it’s good that Rose didn’t continue in that vein.

Now, about the lineup issue. Of course, Slash left, along with Duff McCagan. That means every “original” member of the band except Axl had left, although late-replacement Dizzy Reed, remained on keys. The rotating door of guitar was held by Tommy Stinson and Robin Finck, with other key members including Buckethead, Bumblefoot, and Paul Tobias. (The actual personnel list is far too complicated to summarize, but there’s a wikipedia article out there with a giant chart explaining it. Seriously, the leadership of the Italian government over the last century is easier to explain.)

What this means though, is this could be considered an Axl Rose album, with a cast of dozens and the legal possession of the name of the band. And that radically changes the dynamics of the thing, because this kind of metal isn’t just a collection of music as much as it is a lifestyle, and a group’s collectiveness. The Rolling Stones would not be The Rolling Stones if the Mick/Keith combination was Mick Jagger and a half-dozen of whatever hotshit guitarists were looking for work at the time the album was recorded. Even if the guitarists were technically better than Keith Richards, the idea that you have these two musicians angling for the head spot in the band adds to the tension and ultimately the personality of the band. If you replace Slash with a dozen session musicians, it isn’t a band as much as it is a project. And despite the fact that there’s some incredible guitar work on this album, that’s the big issue here.

Another complaint is that there aren’t any songs on this album that “rock” from start to finish. There’s not a lot of consistent verse/chorus/verse “Mr. Brownstone” songs that work within the construct of a standard rock song without going off onto a strange tangent. The structures are more complicated, which are impressive, but it means the songs aren’t as accessible. That said, it isn’t like Rose bought a bunch of Yes and King Crimson records and went off writing odd-meter, 24-minute compositions. But as an example of this weirdness: in “Sheckler’s Revenge”, it starts sort of slow and dark, and about 40 seconds in, there’s what could best be described as a “disco hustle beat.” But within a dozen seconds, it swaps for a huge metal chorus riff with screaming, fret-tapping guitar. This odd arrangement is repeated again, and I wouldn’t doubt it if the same section was copied and pasted in whatever multimillion-dollar version of ProTools is used in the studio. If I was producing this song, I’d swap out the weird disco part and put in something that matched parts A and C, and then used different solo parts to make it more of a straightforward rock song. And you’d think in a dozen years, someone else would have thought of that, and maybe it was recorded a hundred times the way I described, but that’s not what you get.

The album as a whole is very ballady, and much more like the Illusion albums, especially in the sense that both of the 1991 albums could have been trimmed into one kick-ass CD with half the tracks left on the floor or sent to the Japanese market as B-sides. Chinese is like that, in that half of it completely clicks, and the other half is filled with WTF moments and didn’t resonate. Unfortunately, this isn’t on a song-by-song basis. In 1991, it was easy to make a mix tape and exclude “Get in the Ring”; with 2008’s release, I can’t trim out the grating “Now I know you” verse in “Better” that sounds like it doesn’t belong. Same thing with “There Was a Time” and its repetitive “It was the wrong time for you” pre-chorus bit that’s like hearing your annoying neighbor say “Where’s the beef” for the thousandth time, decades after any relevancy.

Axl’s vocals are impressive, but it worries me that he’ll blow out his voice within the first three shows of a tour (which will inevitably cause a full-scale riot with a death count comparable to a mid-sized aviation disaster.) Add to this the fact that any given part of this album is at least 128 tracks of sound laid on top of each other, some of them multiple vocal tracks from Rose, which won’t work at all live. If any band should take a page from the Beatles’ playbook and never play live again, GNR would be a great candidate. Besides, even after perfecting these 17 cuts, when they hit the road, everyone’s only going to want to hear “Sweet Child” anyway. And while Axl does some impressive work, there are other parts where he tries too hard. The screaming at the start of “Scraped” sounds like Rose is being anally raped, which is slightly off-putting.

The one thing I can say about the album is that it has the same haunting quality as Illusion that makes it easy to listen to it repeatedly. Maybe it’s that all of the songs have to do with that vague interpersonal struggle mixed with inner self-doubt and depression that made me listen to the double albums nonstop back in college. Or maybe that weird mix of not-rock structure keeps it fresh or burns it into my brain. Either way, after I get past all of the political issues behind this album, I did really enjoy it, and at the end of the day, I think it will be an album I will put in ten years from now and get instantly transported back to 2008, which always earns high marks in my book.

Rating: 9

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Rush – Roll the Bones (1991)

Ugh. For Rush’s sophomore effort on Atlantic records, they slid further into mediocrity with more standard hard rock numbers, an unusually bright and bland production, and a general lack of noteworthiness that got them an album that somehow peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200, but failed to do anything interesting musically.

Let’s face it: at this point, Rush stopped selling mass numbers of albums because they were interesting or good, and managed to sell a lot of records because they were Rush records. I’m sure there are many people who would argue that this was the greatest stuff ever, but I’m not one of them. However, there are plenty of completists that will buy anything released by Rush without question.

I won’t deny that the trio was still trying new things and attempting to progress musically. If you look at the albums between Hold Your Fire and Counterparts, there’s sort of a bell curve of writing style where the band wavers, overcorrects, and eventually drops into a good groove. Fortunately, that means Counterparts is excellent. Unfortunately, that means there are many missteps along the way.

One interesting example is an instrumental track, “Where’s My Thing?, Pt. 4: Gangster of Boats Trilogy.” It’s great that the band dipped back to their prog roots and decided to do their first instrumental track since “YYZ.” Unfortunately, it’s a synth-laden, fake-brassy track that’s doesn’t stand out as a feat of technical prowess. Most of the album has the same dynamic; things aren’t catchy, and songs blur into each other, with none of them standing out. The only ultimately memorable songs to me are the opener, “Dreamline,” which has a catchy chorus, and “Heresy,” which is Rush’s “the wall fell down” song (which was a big fad of the time. I blame The Scorpions for this didn’t-age-well trend.)

And then there’s the title track. And the rap. Geddy Lee raps. I don’t even know how to process this. A RAP. Jesus H. Christ on a cross – I mean, I have nothing against rap, and I even own a few records of the genre and can enjoy them, but this is like when your parents try to act cool and learn like one word of youth slang and then use it incorrectly to gain some kind of cred with you. I wish I could just pretend this whole album never happened.

Anyway, I have a minor conspiracy theory about how such a shoddy album could chart so well: RTB was the first Rush release in the Nielsen SoundScan era. Prior to SoundScan’s adoption on March 1, 1991, the weekly Billboard 200 chart was assembled together from vague statistics reported manually by store owners based on inventory changes and normalized with secretive statistical voodoo. But starting in May of 1991, actual barcode scans in stores with computerized point-of-sale systems were directly used to measure performance on Billboard charts.

This led to a strange shift; instead of being based on a weighting of store owners’ perceived sales figures, they were based on actual sales figures. This meant that some albums that you wouldn’t think were chartable would show up and rate high. The first #1 album on the post-SoundScan Billboard 200 was a Michael Bolton album. Heavy metal albums, which traditionally were not well-reported, suddenly tore up the charts. Skid Row’s second album, Slave to the Grind, entered the charts at #1, and then rapidly fell back off, because a surge of people bought it during a single week. And remember when Guns ‘N Roses had the big Use Your Illusion midnight purchase rush? Actually, pretty much every big band started having those Tuesday night come-in-at-midnight store events, mostly because it was a good way to juice SoundScan stats. (It was also a good way to get people to line up to buy a crappy Guns ‘N Roses album of cover tunes, but that’s another review.)

Amazon and iTunes have similar rating systems, in which titles with large purchase numbers at very specific time periods skew statistics. A perfect example of this in 2008 was when Stephen Colbert urged all of his fans to buy his Christmas album on iTunes at one specific time. This threw off the system and unseated a much larger-selling Kanye West album from the top position. So when you have a band with tons of loyal fans that all rush out at midnight on a certain day to buy the band’s new album sight unseen, it just might chart very well, even if it sucked total shit and had Geddy Lee doing a god damned rap in one song.

I remember this album coming out, and being excited that a new Rush song was on the radio, but I didn’t hurry to the record store and wait in line all night for this one. In fact, I think I listened to it once at a record store and decided to pass on it. Much later, I picked up a used copy, listened to it a few times, and must have sold it back, because I had to go out and buy another copy on iTunes to write this review. Maybe the reason I never got into this album, aside from its contents, was that so much else was going on at that point in music. A ton of excellent metal albums came out around then (Entombed – Clandestine; Carcass – Necroticism…; Death – Human; Motorhead – 1916) and this got lost in the shuffle.

Rating: 4

 

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MARS – Project: Driver (1986)

MARS stands for MacAlpine Aldridge Rock Sarzo, and it’s a fine little example of only-in-the-Eighties guitar rock, courtesy of Shrapnel records. They’re best known as the small indie label that put out guitar super-genius Tony MacAlpine’s first album out to rave reviews. In 1986, they gave him a shot to do something different and put together a “super-group,” playing some more rock-oriented tunes, rather than his instrumental and highly progressive guitar-oriented stuff. He rounded out the band with Ozzy drummer Tommy Aldridge and Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo, as well as the somewhat unknown crooner Robert Rock. (And no, it’s not that Bob Rock.)

Turns out this lineup happened almost at the last minute. The band was simply called Driver at first, and Craig Goldy was the original guitar player, but he left the band to go play with Ronnie James Dio. Sarzo recruited MacAlpine, and they wrote music with Aldridge and later recruited Rock for the singer slot. This album came after Macalpine’s solo debut album on Shrapnel, an all-instrumental guitar number closer to the Vai/Satriani school of thought, so this was a big shift for his talents.

Project: Driver, at least in structure, is nothing more than Whitesnake-ripoff cock-rock. It’s not the kind of hair metal that slutty girls swoon over, and it’s not technically interesting enough to get away with it, like Dokken or something. MacAlpine’s guitar work is decent, but the straight-up, three-minutes-forty, verse-chorus-solo-verse songs don’t let him show anything off. Plus the production tries to go for a Poison/Motley Crue sound on a garage band budget. It’s not tinny as much as it is compressed. Add on top of it that this Rob Rock guy sings like an overweight Long Island dude in leather pants belting out some Bad Company karaoke after a few too many beers.

There are a couple of “theme” songs, like “Nostradamus,” which are so Spinal Tap in quality, you’d expect the band to pop out of pods on stage to those numbers. Oddly enough, the more sex-oriented tunes like “Fantasy” and “Slave To Your Touch” are actually a bit better, because Rock’s vocals seem more convincing, and the songs bound forward a bit better when they’re more conventional and not trying to re-live Stonehenge. (Oh, in the fadeout to the latter, however, Rock squeals “you can’t ex-cape!” Doh!) The album ends with two songs, “I Can See It In Your Eyes” and “You and I,” that I would never, EVER want to listen to in a car for fear of stopping at a light with my window down and someone pulling up next to me.

Here’s the kicker, though. As bad as this album is, I really LIKE it. I don’t know if it’s a shared memory experience thing, or if it’s that some of the songs are really catchy. I also really enjoyed MacAlpine’s solo stuff, and this dovetailed nicely because of his distinctive guitar sound. For whatever reason, I always found this tape sneaking back into the player, of course when nobody was around. And I was very excited when I finally hunted down a CD version of the 35-minute classic. (My tape, with white case, actually had black oil stains on it from listening to it when working on my old car.) Anyway, I don’t expect one god damned person on this earth to understand why I like this or to like it themselves, but it’s one of many guilty pleasures, and I still like listening to it.

Rating: 7

 

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Mr. Big – Mr. Big (1989)

It was all the rage at the time. It was what made Winger into a hit-producing machine. It was simple: take a couple of total shredmaster ultra wizards on guitar and bass, slap an obscure drummer behind them, and put a proficient yet largely unknown guy up front on mic and leather pants duty. But instead of launching through a Yngwie-like solo-fest that shows us all that you can hit every note on the fretboard four times a measure, take a big step back and write some laid-back numbers with a little feeling, and some good catchy melody. Put in a couple of good solos, have at least two or three ballads for the couples, but make it cool enough so that the Steve Vai types who are into total minor mode domination on the six-(or seven) string will still pick up a copy. Not only did this work well for Winger, but it was pretty much the formula of the Hagar-era Van Halen, too.

Mr. Big followed this formula after ex-Talas bassist Billy Sheehan finished his duties with David Lee Roth. (If you need more Van Halen connections here, it should be mentioned that Talas used to open for VH back in the day, and there was talk that Sheehan would replace Michael Anthony in the early 80s, which would have been pretty weird.) Sheehan is often called the Eddie Van Halen of the bass, as he does a lot of crazy ten-fingered tapping stuff on the four-string, including techniques like playing a chord progression on three strings while also tapping out a leading line on the other. It’s all total guitar geek shredder stuff, except on a lower register. Sheehan hooked up with Paul Gilbert, who is a bit of a guitar god himself. He started touring with bands when he was only 15, then went to GIT in California and after graduating, he immediately got an instruction spot. (He taught the guitar weirdo Buckethead, among others.) His band Racer X put out a couple of albums on Shrapnel records with a very high “whoa” factor, and he appeared in about every third page of Guitar Player magazine for most of the mid-eighties. Their four-piece was rounded out by semi-unknowns Eric Martin on vocals and Pat Torpey on drums.

The eleven-track self-titled debut from the band shows a good mix of proficiency and playability that demonstrates that you don’t need to blast through with super-fast drum beats and constant soloing to make songs work. That said, there are some faster numbers here. (I mean faster as in “not prom songs,” not faster as in Slayer.) The opening song “Addicted to That Rush” starts with Sheehan’s bass burbling at high speed like a nest of bumblebees before Gilbert jumps in and they duel lines a bit until the drums crash in and the song starts. The two work well in their ability to play together; there are parts where they are so synchronized, it sounds like one huge chord reaching from low registers to high, instead of two people playing their own lines. The album does sound slightly thin, but the bass has a very sharp and unique tone, not as high as a guitar, but almost like the sound of Stanley Clarke’s weird experimental solo basses that are tuned an octave higher.

There’s not much to be said about the vocals or lyrics on the songs. The lyrics, while bad, aren’t as bad as the way Martin has a tendency to whine or go nasal on certain things to make the lines seem really stupid. There’s a part where the lyrics are “A lover’s crime and punishment / Is do this, do that and put your eyes / Back in your head / Let’s play house instead.” Okay, that’s pretty stupid, just reading it. But the way he bunches words and emphasizes it makes you wish the verse was over and they’d go to the next solo.

Overall, each of the songs has its own groove, and they alternate between taking things easy (“Big Love”) and slightly rockier bits (“Rock & Roll,” “Merciless”). There’s one zippier song that’s my favorite on that end, “How Can You Do What You Do,” which almost seems like it was written as the “video” song, and I could see Eric Martin on a stage with no audience, wearing his leather pants and a bandana or two, singing into a large industrial fan. (They probably wouldn’t have the fan blowing trash around, like Skid Row or Motley Crue,¬†though.)

Did I mention ballads? There are two. The second one is total cheese, called “Anything for You.” I discovered by accident that if you played this at double speed, it makes a snappy little jazz fusion number. But at regular tempo, hearing Martin dredge out “aaaaanything for youuuuu” is a bit painful. However, the other ballad, a Sheehan-penned piece called “Had Enough,” is quite good. It starts with just bass, and then adds in some very casual guitar before building up on the drums and going into the song full-steam. It’s a breakup song, and I’d be a liar if I said this thing wasn’t in my walkman constantly after my first couple of big post-dumping depresso-fests. It’s a very touching little song, because it stays laid-back and really features how Sheehan’s bass can carry a song without blowing up into full-on bassmaster lines.

Oh, and since this was the era for it, there is a “bonus track.” It’s included on both the tape and the CD, so I guess that doesn’t make it much of a bonus, but it’s a “live” track called “30 Days in the Hole.” I say “live” because this band formed in about ten seconds and rushed into the studio, so I don’t remember them playing any arenas before they recorded their album. I don’t know the origin of the song, but it sounds like maybe it’s an old cover. [It’s a Humble Pie cover, dumbass.] I always remember it though because when I arrived at college in the fall of 89 and I sat down at a computer for the first time, it required me to create a password with at least 12 characters and two of them non-letters, and “30daysinthehole” was the first thing that came to me. So for at least a semester or two, I always thought of Mr. Big when I checked my email, long after I got bored of this album.

This album’s not bad, and it still holds up to me. It was not their most popular work – I guess right after this, they did another album that got some airplay and had a couple of prom ballads. I never checked out any of their other stuff before they dropped off the earth (actually, they are, predictably, HUGE in Japan, and recorded a bunch of Japan-only albums) but I always had a sweet spot for this album, so I still find myself going back and giving it a listen.

Rating: 8

 

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Rush – All The World’s a Stage (1976)

On the coattails of the wildly successful 2112, Rush decided to put out a quad-side, triple-gatefold live LP, named with a Shakespeare reference, recorded in their home town. This began a cycle where the band would release four studio albums, then bookend the era with a double live album. This time around, the band summarized their early career, an era that began as a bar band belting out Led Zeppelin-esque music, and progressing to a full-on art-rock band, complete with long-form concept pieces.

This album was recorded in historic Massey Hall in Toronto, a 2700-seat venue with a vivid past, serving as the location of classic acts from Charlie Parker to Frank Zappa. Terry Brown and crew captured their June 11-13 1976 shows on tape, from the tour supporting 2112, restructuring the order of their set into an hour-and-ninteen-minute series of two LPs’ worth of live tunes.

The older, hard rock side of Rush is solidly displayed here. They start by rocking out “Bastille Day” and then pounding through live versions of stuff like “Anthem” and “Something For Nothing,” plus medleys, like starting with “Fly By Night” and segueing into “In the Mood.” All of this shows Alex’s ability to plow through the rhythm and then switch to a screaming bluesy solo and back, without the aid of overdubs or a rhythm guitarist behind him. This is helped with Geddy’s bass, which is chunky and follows the guitar well.

If you’re looking for more in the prog vein, there is a truncated version of the first side of their latest album at the time, 2112, which removes the “Oracle” and shortens the “Discovery” sub-songs, clocking in at just over 15 minutes. (And a minor gripe is that this is tracked on the CD as a single song, so you can’t skip around easily, which sucks, because sometimes I’m in the mood to just jump to “Grand Finale” and rock that part out.) On the tail of that is a twelve-minute rendition of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which is pretty faithful to the album version.

A big reason I like this album more than the other Rush live albums is there’s a lot more of the human element shown here; it’s probably the most honest of the live albums. The band isn’t spot-on perfect here, which is good. You can see the holes where overdubs weren’t compensated with walls of Taurus synth and triggered MIDI and other sampled wizardry. They got around the limitations the old-fashioned way: by improvising, cutting corners, and making it sound good. Add to this that Massey Hall isn’t a huge place. I myself am by no means a talented musician, but in college, I played bass (for one gig) for a band that played in a sold-out hall twice the size of this one. For me to think of Rush playing in a theater half that size boggles my mind. And you can hear it; There isn’t constant audience noise. For some numbers, the crowd is quiet, and then waits for the end of the song to applause. This is much more appealing to me than a giant arena where people are cheering for every second because Rush is the biggest thing in the world, or a “live” album recorded in a studio with a constant crowd sound dubbed in from a stock audio reel. This small venue dynamic shows them as a working band, just starting, still struggling. And I like that.

The small things add up, too. A few times, Alex gets a touch of feedback in places where it didn’t sound planned. Neil fills in with his cowbell here and there, and sounds like he’s having fun on the set. When they go from the slow to the heavy part of “In the End”, Geddy counts off with “one, two, buckle my shoe”. There are a lot of little fills and runs at the ends of songs that shows that they’re still organic.

Probably my favorite bit is the medley of “Working Man” and “Finding My Way,” which completely rocks out both songs, and adds a trademark drum solo by “the professor on the drum kit”. I have to say, compared to later stuff, you can tell Neil is still building his chops here. This is a pre-electronic, pre-trigger, pre-MIDI drum solo, nothing but skins and a little bit of cowbell.

A minor nit: the old CD had to clip the quad-side album at 75 minutes, and that meant dropping “What You’re Doing,” and also dropping this bit of chatter between the band members as they ran offstage and then slammed a door behind them. This got fixed in the 1997 remaster/reissue.

Overall, this is a nice time capsule and a great way to end the early hard rock era of the band. From here, things got a lot more proggy and the band left behind the desire to be another Zep clone. But it’s still fun to go back to this every once in a while and see a recap of what the band did for those first four albums.

Rating: 8

 

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Rush – The Story of Kings (1992)

I’m a sucker for “unofficial releases” that are nothing more than a journo’s taped interview with a band, later set to CD-R boot. And here’s a classic example of this non-canon release: a half-hour chat with Alex Lifeson. Although the internets give this a release date of 1992, the conversation dates it at 1987-ish, around the time of Hold Your Fire.

Listening to Alex talk is always an interesting proposition for me. I always think of Geddy as the voice of the band in the literal sense, but so much of what I’ve read over the years, both in books and in the actual lyrics, are written by Neil. So the thought of Alex doing anything other than playing the six-string is out of sorts for me. But it turns out he’s a wonderful conversationalist in this interview. A good chunk of the talk deals with how the band approaches music, and he details their unique writing process. When the band hides away on a Canadian farm for a few weeks to write, Neil is in one end of the house, shuffling papers and penning lyrics, while Alex and Geddy are at the other end, noodling on their stringed instruments, taping riffs and jamming away at embryonic songs. It seems strange that a band with lyrics and complicated music twisted tightly together can write like that, but it works well. Each night, the band regroups and laminates together the raw pieces into well-crafted songs.

One of the funnier bits in the interview is a discussion about the early days, in which Alex admits that back in the day, he used to work at a gas station pumping gas during the week, and then the band went out on weekends to gig. He also said in the early years (the mid-70s), he was barely making rent on a tiny apartment, and when he wasn’t on tour supporting albums like Caress of Steel, he was working as a plumber for his dad. It’s hard to imagine Rush as anything but successful, but according to this interview, they struggled until Moving Pictures.

Lifeson seems to have his head on straight, even if they are somewhat more famous by this point. He emphasizes that the music is most important to them, not the partying, which kept the band together for so long. He also talks about family, and how his then-17-year-old son was more of a friend than a kid to him (he was 34 at the time). He also mentions his son’s teenaged attempts at music and bands, which is humorous.

This interview sounds like it was recorded in a restaurant. Alex is recorded well, but the interviewer’s voice is a bit muffled and has a heavy accent, so it’s hard to hear exactly what he’s asking. There’s not a smooth start or stop on this, and it is by no means a pro release, but it’s an interesting snippet of conversation. You’ll have to hunt to find this one, but if you’re a fan, it’s a nice little view into the late-80s world of Rush.

Rating: 7