Tag Archives: Musical Roadmap Series

Musical Roadmap: Part 11

While maintaining a steady diet of metal and punk rock during my teens I also wandered off into different territories of music. Aided by my ever growing appetite for needing something new to listen to as well my father’s musical influence I began looking farther outside the realm of the heavy and anti-authoritarian music that was my core and found stranger and greater things out there.

When I was 16 my Dad and I moved out of my school district and instead of changing schools I decided to walk to school every day. Something roughly 5 miles gives someone a lot of time to think and I listened to music on my long strolls through all kinds of weather. I can factually say that I walked 5 miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways. I loved listening to tunes because it gave me something to focus on outside of my wandering teenage thoughts of girls and school. 

One regular tape (this was back before CD’s were accessible to me and a tape walkman was still infinitely less expensive than a portable cd player) that was always in rotation was a compilation album, The Very Best of Grateful Dead. Now some of you may be wondering how I could be a metalhead and stand to listen to the classic rock/jazz combination that the Dead produced, the answer is simple. Great. Fucking. Songwriting. 

Through the Grateful Dead and others of their ilk I found the importance of songwriting. Not just from the perspective of something catchy and fun but also from the view of the craft itself. If you listen to almost any Grateful Dead song you will hear musicianship at its finest. No small feat considering the copious amounts of drugs that the members were infamous for taking. The Dead took me down a rabbit hole of music that expanded the mind and the ears. Even listening today I can hear new things all the time. Thankfully the technology we have now allows for this with higher quality audio versions of the songs as well as higher quality speakers, headphones, and audio equipment. 

This compilation spreads over about two decades of the band’s career with many songs coming from the earlier days between 1970-1976 with the most recent song being 1987’s “Touch of Grey” which I would have to say was my first actual exposure to the band through the music video being on MTV. Styles range from rock to jazz, fusion to country but the combination of songs written by various members of the band manage to come together in a good representation of their overall work and feel.

I am able to proudly confess that I was a musically weird kid in high school and managed to have a circle a friends that spread the spectrum of my musical tastes. We were a tight knit group of nerds, band geeks, musicians, and artists that liked what we liked, stood up for each other, and didn’t care what anybody else thought. If anything, I think we managed to sum up the philosophical standpoints of our musical input.

I remember I was listening to the radio on my walkman while delivering papers on my route the day that Jerry Garcia died. They announced it on the air and then played a few songs back to back. It was an odd day considering the hippies (if you can call them that in the mid 90’s) all knew and admired him. Music really hasn’t been the same since at least in my head.

vbAlbum Highlights:

“Truckin’” a moderate shuffle tune that you can chill or dance to. The Dead were great combiners of genre’s and feels and this song kicks off the album with a upbeat song musically, however; listen to the lyrics and you get a different story.

 

“Touch of Grey” as I mentioned earlier this was my first exposure to the Dead through MTV. The video for the song was always interesting because the band eventually turns into skeleton puppets of themselves throughout. Lyrically the song touches on the changes in your life with age as well as the cynicism that you tend to gain with experience but ties it all together with a sentiment of just going with the flow.

“Casey Jones” how can you resist singing a lyric like “Driving that train, high on cocaine”?

“Uncle John’s Band” this song comes from one of the Dead’s best albums and speaks to the communalism and search for joy in difficult times that their generation faced at the end of the late 1960’s.

“Box of Rain” a slower tune in the catalog but that does not make the song any less great. The harmonized vocals at the end of each phrase showcases the vocal ability of all of the members. Mainly sung by Bob Weir, there is a smoothness to the lyric singing that puts you at ease.

“Ripple” every now and then you find a song that keeps changing meaning over the years and seems to speak to specific events in your life. “Ripple” is one of those that age along with you and stick around like a good friend reminding you of old times but is there for the current ones as well. The lyric “There is a road, no simple highway, Between the dawn and the dark of night, And if you go no one may follow, That path is for your steps alone” gets me pretty much every time. 

The Grateful Dead opened doorways in my mind. Doorways that I did not use drugs to find even though the stigma of anybody listening to the Dead are burnouts and potheads. The path to where I am now in live would be missing a nice stroll around a lake without the Grateful Dead and for the easy going and musically enlightening elements of their music. You don’t have to be stoned to enjoy the music you just have to be in the right mindset. These days if I feel too bogged down in the minutia of life I will throw on this album and sit back. 

Until Next time… Keep listening!

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Musical Roadmap 10

I have to be honest and I’ve been putting this post off for a while. Not because I was avoiding it but because it’s hard to put into words how much of a live changing experience a single album can be. Words like ‘incendiary’, ‘futuristic’, ‘brutal’ and ‘masterpiece’ come to mind when I think about Fear Factory’s second album (not counting the remix of the bands first album Soul of a New Machine) Demanufacture. While I was kind of a fringe metalhead in my ‘tweens and early teens, once I heard this album the days of listening to R&B and Rap in the mid-1990’s was over. 

So many things to say about this album. Another in the long line of bands that my older brother introduced me to this one has probably the most lasting impression and loyalty that I give to few bands. The first song I had actually heard was the track “Scumgrief” (Deep Dub Trauma Mix) when it was included for a short time in the movie Hideaway which was based on the Dean Koontz novel.

This was the first album of the “Classic” lineup of Singer Burton C. Bell, Guitarist Dino Cazares, Bassist Christian Olde Wolbers, and Drummer Raymond Herrera an is still regarded as their best work (although, in my opinion the back to back albums of Demanufacture and Obsolete are probably the most solid of their career). 

Fear_Factory_-_DemanufactureReleased on Roadrunner Records on June 13,1995, this album was one of, if not the first, album to successfully blend industrial and metal together into a powerful and provocative combination and, along with Bell’s ability to go from screaming to singing, predates Five Finger Death Punch’s Ivan Moody style by a decade. Demanufacture was also one of the first futuristic metal ‘concept’ albums that I ever remember being released. 

Inspired by the move The Terminator, the lyrical theme throughout the album is man’s struggle against a sentient machine army and the struggle for humanity to survive. This album’s content was ahead of it’s time in regard to creating a story throughout all of the tracks. Later bands like Mastodon continued this tradition with great concept albums such as Leviathan, but at the time nobody else was doing this kind of storytelling set to heavy music. 

The pairing of the dark apocalyptic future with the machine precise music created a whole experience through the speakers. It was as if you could hear the pounding of the machinery through the guitar and drums playing in precise lockstep rhythms. Cazares’ guitar parts were brutal and tight. I had started playing guitar before this album came out but Dino’s weight (both lyrically and physically) inspired me even more. You could be heavy, write great guitar parts and be a bigger guy!? Inconceivable! This was awesome for an overweight kid like me because unlike all of the other skinny guitar players it finally gave me one that I could identify with on a size scale. 

The album is full of great songs, however; on a “mainstream” side, the only track that got any notice was the song “Zero Signal” as it was included in the movie based not the video game Mortal Kombat. The album starts off with the title track which leads in with an ominous collection of mechanical sounds and keyboards and then goes straight to the the signature sound of Dino’s guitar in perfect time with Herrera’s drumming. Even listening to it now it gives me goosebumps and makes me want to prepare for war. “Self Bias Resistor” the album’s second track keeps the hammering going with quick, tight rhythms and blast furnace vocals switching off with the hauntingly heavy sung vocals of the chorus. 

The third and fourth songs are two of the most listened to songs on the album, for me at least. The aforementioned “Zero Signal” starts out menacing with large sounding open chords that quickly change to chugging rhythms overlaid with amazing synthesizer work by Rhys Fulber. The next song “Replica” is the musical cock-punch of the album. Probably one of the most accessible guitar parts to play is powerful and the chorus has amazing lyrics. “Filled with pain/bruised and darkened soul/ spare me from the life that’s full of misery”, chills.

Continuing to the mid section of the album tracks like “New Breed” keep the pace and story moving forward while the slower track “Dog Day Sunrise” shows some hints of a groove and showcases one of the few songs where the guitar and base are not blasting the beat at high speed. The vocals on this track are completely sung instead of the switching between heavy and melodic that encompasses the style of the majority of the album.

“Body Hammer” is probably one of my all time favorite songs on this album. I can’t quite put into words what it is about this song that makes it stand out but its chugging heavy beat could match up against any Pantera lick of the same era. The chorus “As of now I am a tool of severe impact” is perfect for pumping iron or playing first person shooters. Musically the song blends the synths over the brutal music perfectly, making sure to leave them hanging just above the heavy grounding like clouds above a dark barren landscape. 

Another song that I tend to favor on the album is the 9th track “H-K (Hunter-Killer). Machine precise, heavy, menacing. You can almost see the machine army marching through the streets while listening to this track. Re-listening to the album today having known the story it really gives scope to the cinematic capability of this album.

Next to last on the album is probably one of the most EPIC heavy songs every with the greatest lyrical ‘third act’ ever written. The meat of the song has chugging metal guitar with the snare accenting the sonic equivalent of a hammer striking nails. “Pisschrist” is easily my #1 favorite metal song of this era hands down. I cannot ever listen to this track without a feeling of intense conflict and without singing the ending “Face down, arms out/ nailed to the cross of doubt, blood runs like rain/drowning for this world in vain/crown of black thorns, human skin ripped and torn/Where is your savior now?” Damn if that is epic. This song even ends on the final question in Bell’s amazing etherial vocals slightly electronically distorted. 

The album closes out with “A Therapy for Pain”. A slower song that serves as a fitting end to the first part of what continued to be a multi-album series of themes of man vs. machine, the singularity and the re-rise of humanity among a world of machines. This song is the musical equivalent of the end of the Dark Knight in that the hope that once was, is lost with the ones who died in the struggle, but the story is not over….

This album also was was re-released as a remix album which blended more techno beats to the industrial heaviness. This strategy was previously used on Fear is the Mindkiller remix album as well and helped the band eventually as the remix albums counted in their contractual album count with Roadrunner. 

As far as albums that push you in one direction or another this one shoved me off the edge of a cliff where my love of sci-fi and metal finally came together in a band that I have remained intensely loyal to throughout the last 20+ years. 

Musical Roadmap Part 9

Teenage years are often the most enlightening time in a young persons life. I’m not just talking about bodily changes and attitudes being solidified but also the exploration of ideas and the general rebellion against establishment that happens in the middling years. The seeds of later life opinions and tastes are becoming solidified in the teenage era. Mentally, you are past the whimsical early years where nothing mattered to the extreme opposite side of the spectrum where everything matters. 

I was a teenage outcast. I didn’t fit into any particular subgroup of people in junior high and high school. Too nerdy and un-athletic for the cool jock kids, too rebellious for the nerds and so eclectic in my musical choices to fit into anything remotely normal. Eight grade was a bit of a turning point. In eight grade I became friends with Mike. He was cool to me. He played in a band, was a great artist, and just a great guy to know and be around. He was funny and fun to hang out with. 

That year I went from being a mostly religious nerd to an inductee into a strange world where all of the kids that didn’t fit into any group seemed to collectively land. Our group of friends ran the gamut from nerd, to goth, to punker, to hippy and (at one time or another) I fit into every one. Out of this group came the strongest high school friendships I ever had (on one side my smart, goth, outcast friend JohnRobert was always there to talk about industrial music and Lovecraft books and the other was Mike, my punk rock, band geek friend). 

This year also began my transition from just a fan of music to a musician. This was the first year I was in a guitar class (even though it didn’t last the entire first semester due to some shady shit from the teacher). My friend mike helped me to understand reading tablature and fumble my way through the first songs I ever learned. Ever patient Mike would help me in class learn how to play the main riff from Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on my cheap little classical guitar. 

Outside of class, my friend Mike helped me explore a new world of music that I had yet to discover. Through both his own family band SPUD (I grew up in Idaho) he introduced met a number of punk and ska bands that were still moderately underground at the time. At the time in our little Boise suburb there was a healthy youth underground punk and ska scene with kids from all over town either playing in bands or producing their own Fan-zines. 

Much like the punk scene in DC in the 80’s, we were the producers, consumers, and journalists of our own universe. The 90’s were great for kids learning instruments because the grunge and alternative music genre’s showed us that anybody could play an instrument and write songs. Punk and Ska were gateway’s to a fun time and it allowed both the traditional instruments of bands to flourish with new talent, but also allowed the brass band kids to have fun outside of the notes on the page of decades old music. 

Where am I going with all this blabbering about my adolescence you may ask? Well, in the pre-internet days, we shared music through either tape dubbing or in some cases early cd burning. It happened one day that I was hanging out at Mike’s house after school and listening to music that he put in a tape by a band called Green Day. This was my first listen to Dookie (Green Day’s 1993 major label release). 

From the get go I loved the songs on Dookie. This was slightly before the band’s wide spread success from when “Longview” broke out on MTv. The songs were catchy. The melodies were great, and the lyrical matter spanned a lot of the same topics that my friends and I would talk about. From being bored, to relationships, to feeling like you’re going crazy it was like Billy Joe Armstrong had tapped into the teenagers at the time and just wrote whatever the pulse was. It also helped that the guitar parts were simple enough to learn and the vocals were not particularly difficult. 

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Dookie stands the test of time and could have populated my 90’s Albums That Refuse To Age list, but I’ve included it in my musical roadmap for the sheer impact it had on my listening. When we finished listening to Dookie all the way through I asked Mike if Green Day had any other albums and they did. I brought Mike a tape the next day and asked if he could record one of Green Day’s other albums for me and after a few days he ended up handing me the tape back with Kerplunk on it.

Even earlier than Dookie, Green Day had the formula down for great songs. Every song on Kerplunk was just a good as everything on Dookie, the only difference was the production quality. Dookie was a gateway album for me to a lot of punk that I ended up finding on my own later. Everything from The Offspring to Pennywise and Bad Religion. 

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Dookie was so good that it could have been a ‘Greatest hits’ album by itself. Not only was “Longview”, “Welcome to Paradise”, “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case” the radio staples, but other great songs such as “She”, “Pulling Teeth”,  and “Burnout” were sprinkled within the tracks. The album proved that a band could have the aggression and speed of punk, but also the pop sensibilities to create anthemic sing along songs.

I have to thank my friend Mike for a lot he did in those days. Not only did he help me with guitar but he also helped mentor me on double bass in orchestra. He also helped open the door to the world of punk rock that I dove into and still inhabit today. While he provided the starting point I later discovered other great artists on my own like Fugazi, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, MXPX, The Clash, The Ramones and tons of others. 

I identified with punk back then because it spoke of everyday life in its lyrics. I continued to identify with it even more deeply as my attitudes and stances on things became more intellectual and sometimes even anti-authoritarian. Music is a thermometer for your own feelings. It can identify your current sickness and provide a relief to it through aggression, silence, noise and a myriad of other dynamics. 

This article is both an exploration of an influential album in my life but also an opportunity to thank my friend for his influence and help. While I may have let my passion for the instrument of guitar wane over the years my passion for punk and my love of Dookie have never waned. So to that, Thanks Mikey!

Until Next time.. Keep listening!

Musical Roadmap Part 8

The_Real_Thing_vinyl_cover

As a child of the 1980’s and 1990’s, MTV often dictated the tastes, styles and attitudes of any given day with whatever videos they decided to put on heavy rotation. For a period of time they dictated what was popular in music more than the record companies did. A band could have a moderately good song yet have an amazing video and be the most popular act of the day. Yet out of all of the noise generated from videos and music in the two decades, some acts had enough different about them to really stick out.

There are a few things that stick out in my mind about the turn of the decade between the 80’s and 90’s. One was listening to a radio station that listed off a number of phrases that were being retired along with the decade (this is memorable to me because “You’re dead Meat” was on the list), the other was the two songs that seemed to mark the start of the new decade, EMF’s “Unbelievable” and Faith No More’s “Epic”.

During the end of the 80’s and the early 90’s Faith No More was one of the big acts on MTV. Videos for “Epic” and “Falling to Pieces” were odd collections of motion art. “Epic” was the monster video with the fish flopping on the end to the tune of the closing piano notes. “From Out of Nowhere” had stop motion camera shots mixed in with neon paint explosions. Singer Mike Patton’s wardrobe choices for the video are both hilarious and insightful into his personality.

The Real Thing was not standard pop/rock fare of the time, however. The album is a showcase of how the blending of many styles of music can become something incredible in itself. Being a 9 or 10 year old when I first was exposed to FNM, I was very rooted in the few genre’s that I had gravitated toward or was open to. I knew nothing of Funk, Punk, or any of the wide variety of styles that the band merged into their music.

At the time, it made sense that all of these styles could be amalgamated into a single style. MTV had not started creating shows geared toward specific genre’s (at least that I remember) so it was almost a game of roulette as far as what video would come next. The station could go from Bruce Springsteen to Madonna to Motley Crue without batting an eye. Later the communal spirit of the early MTV was gone as the station started blocking musical genres into specific time slots. With the creation of Yo! MTV Raps and other shows the musical landscape seemed to be fenced off between genres. It always bugged me that I had to stay up until 11PM on Saturday to watch Headbanger’s Ball but that is a rant for another article…

It has been argued that Faith No More was the first “Rap Metal” act due to the Rap verses and heavy guitar of “Epic” which pre-dated the Anthrax/Public Enemy version of “Bring the Noise” by two years. However, this is a title which the band itself has denied. Whether they helped create the genre which would be one of the most popular at the end of the 90’s or not can be debated by music pundits, the fact remains that Faith No More managed to elude a genre specific categorization throughout their career.

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The Real Thing still remains an amazing album almost 30 years later due to its ability to move and blend different musical styles. As a young kid listening to this album I was mesmerized by the mix of everything on the album. From funk to metal to rap to atmospheric, the compositions allow the band to wear its influences on its sleeves.

All of the different styles helped to spark my curiosity in other forms of music which I had not yet been aware of at the time. While it took me a few years to get into a lot of other styles, the funk of Faith No More started an interest in Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone. The rap element became more immediate with the advent of early 90’s Gangster rap. The heavy elements or rock and punk were also an immediate influence in my tastes as the Grunge Rock revolution came only a short time after.

Another thing that subconsciously seeped into my mind from listening to The Real Thing was a gravitation towards great vocalists. Mike Patton is one of the best, yet underrated, vocalists in music history. He has the dynamic range and natural ability that very few people can even come close to. While his singing on the album may not show his real versatility every album he has released since has shown that he is far above the crowd in both vocal and musical ability.

While the front half of the album contains what could be considered the “popular hits”, the middle to end contains the most interesting and enduring tracks. To me, “Zombie Eaters”, “The Real Thing”, and “Underwater Love” are the three songs that really sum up Faith No More on this album. All three songs are dynamic and sonically interesting. Only Mike Patton knows what the lyrics are about but he sings them so well that who cares?

The musical chops of the band can be heard on these three songs along with the instrumental “Woodpecker from Mars”. The song is over five and a half minutes long and shows the avant garde style which would start to show more in FNM’s later albums. The song ranges from an almost hurdy-gurdy intro to a psychotic funk with plenty of atmospherics and metal guitars. The album finishes off with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and “Edge of the World”. The latter starts off as an acapella doo-wop and becomes a jazz tinged track. These final two tracks were either bonus tracks or located elsewhere on the original pressings.

Years later I cannot understate the importance of The Real Thing in my musical journey. While Faith No More has remained one of my favorite and go-to artists to listen to, their expansive sound and blend of musical styles paved the way for my later forays into jazz, funk, doo-wop and countless other styles of music.

Well, that is it for now. Until next time.. Keep Listening!

Musical Roadmap Part 7

Metallica_-_Metallica_coverIt is an undeniable fact that Metallica had a huge impact on any kid who grew up in the 80’s-90’s that was in to music. I know that my last piece in this series was about …And Justice for All but having two back to back Metallica albums shows just how influential their music was and is for any kid who wanted to learn an instrument back in those days. The first songs I learned were the main riffs on guitar to were written either by Metallica or Nirvana songs and it was the same for a lot of kids just starting the instrument at the time.

This album was huge for me for a lot of reasons. This was one of the first albums my brother and I bonded over. While my Dad had a huge impact on my love of a wide variety of music, my brother is solely responsible for my love of heavy music. Aside from introducing me to Gun’s & Roses as much as MTv did, he also exposed me to four of the most important albums in my catalog of heavy music.

Heavy music later took an huge role in my life. It was a way to let out my frustrations about my “tween” and teen years as well as about my home life and socioeconomic circumstances of having grown up in a poor family. It was an outlet to rebel against a lot of things. It helped me through dark times of being bullied and being a social outcast. It also has given me a creative outlet to let out anger, confusion, and (contrary to the naysayers) love.

I have to thank my brother for my introduction to the music and for providing more than a few directions on the roadmap of my musical discovery over the years. I also have to thank him for blasting Metallica whenever I saw him. It was something that I bonded not only with him over, but it also helped me get my Dad into heavy music.

Metallica was one of the first few concerts that my Dad and I went to together. We saw them in concert somewhere in the early to mid 2000’s (I cant remember for the life of me what year) and I was super excited. Unfortunately, whoever was running sound for the band that night was either drunk or bad at his job because we ended up only hearing half of the band and barely any vocals in the mix. You may ask how I know it was their sound guy, well… Godsmack had opened the show and they sounded awesome (not to mention it was just after Shannon Larkin had joined which made the show even more amazing), but Metallica sounded like shit, so unfortunately, what could have been an awesome “Bucket List” moment was ruined by somebody turning in a bad day at work. I guess even though my live experience with the band was lackluster, at least I still have amazing albums to listen to. Speaking of which…

Metallica’s self titled album also known as the “Black” album came out in 1991 when the musical landscape was changing to something completely different from the previous decade. Nirvana had managed to kill the hair metal acts that had dominated the scene for the ten years prior and changed the musical landscape completely. I would like to think that Metallica, at the time of making the Black album, were trying to create something that sounded fresh but also was more commercially successful than their last albums.

A lot of people will say that they “sold out” with their self titled effort but those people have never had to navigate the waters of being one of the most successful underground bands that still had to fight for every meal and play 340 days a year just to make it. At the time of gangster rap and grunge, Metallica managed to forge one of their most dynamic and enduring albums while appealing to a larger audience.

Many things can and have been said about this album but its impact cannot be disputed. It was simple and heavy. It has more depth lyrically than some of their earlier efforts, which in and of itself is something considering earlier albums had produced “The Four Horsemen”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “Disposable Heroes”, “One”, “Fade to Black”, and “Master of Puppets”.

Another great departure from the previous albums were both the album’s production level as well as James Hetfield’s voice.  The songs sounded a lot fuller than previous albums. A lot of people can fault Bob Rock for ruining the Metallica they loved, but without him producing the album I do not think that it would have sounded as good as it did. Along with the fuller sounding music, James Hetfield’s voice sounded a lot better than on previous albums. It had more dynamics and just sounded more mature than ever before (and this was only a short time after the Justice album).

The songs on this album were so significant both for the band but also for pop culture as a whole. The songs are still played and overplayed on the radio and have not been forgotten even 26 years later. The songs are ever present in the landscape of movies, television and sports. like an effective toxin, it has permeated the pores of society.

The album starts off strong with the openers “Enter Sandman” and “Sad but True” two songs which are still some of the heaviest and catchy riff oriented songs in history, and continues punishing with “Holier than Thou”. The fourth song let off the gas a little with the “Unforgiven”. Still infinitely heavy during the verses, the real surprise to listeners came during the choruses which were subdued and melodic. “The Unforgiven” also showcases one of the best solos that Kirk Hammett has ever committed to tape.

“The Unforgiven” offers only a short reprieve to the listener, however; the next three songs on the album go right back to kicking you in the nuts with their heaviness. “Wherever I May Roam”, “Don’t Tread on Me”, and “Through the Never”move the album forward with a heavy and unrelenting attack that is coupled with iconic and poppy choruses which make the songs still accessible and memorable.

The song that pissed as many die hard listeners off as it turned new “casual” fans on to Metallica’s music is #8 on the album. While Metallica were not strangers to somewhat softer tunes, a ballad was almost taboo in the world of Heavy Metal music. Many diehard heavy metal fans associate the ballad with the hair metal bands that dominated the late 1980’s and not to their “True Metal” heroes like Metallica. Be that as it may, “Nothing Else Matters” occupies an important place in the history of both Metallica and heavy music in general. It proved that the band not only had the musical chops to pull something like a ballad off, but also proved that even heavy metal can make you fell something other than aggression. Another important part about this song that is often overlooked and often mistaken is that James Hatfield actually played the solo and not Kirk Hammett.

The album finishes out on a heavy note. The last four songs are often overlooked considering the commercial success of the front half of the album, however; this section contains three of my favorite songs on the album. “Of Wolf and Man”, “The God that Failed”, and “My Friend Misery”. Two of the songs are my favorite because they show Jason Newstead’s talent but also brings attention to the one thing that the previous album (1988’s …And Justice for All) lacked, bass.

However; the additional meaty bottom that is apparent on these songs isn’t the only reason that they are my favorites. They are consistently good songs. They show that Metallica was not content with putting ‘filler’ on the back half of an album, but wanted to produce a complete album with great and fully realized tracks throughout. These many years later I also think that these songs stand out may have to do with the fact that you rarely hear these songs on the radio. Over the last two and half decades I have been burned out on the “hits” of this album from radio overplay, but the overlooked songs I never tire of listening to.

Looking back over the course of the last three decades of Metallica’s musical output it is easy to see why so many people have endeared themselves the “Black” album. For some it was their gateway album to heavy music, and many people who love heavy music now may not have been fans had it not been for the album. For others, the album was the last really good album that the band put out for 17 years. While the Load and Re-load albums served their purpose and had a few great songs (See “The Outlaw Torn”) and St. Anger failed to live up to the promise that is could have had (this could be due either to the issues surrounding the band at the time or because of the poor choice of snare sound in the production), it remained as the one thing that long time fans could hold on to for the long years before the band returned to form with the Death Magnetic album.

I guess one lesson that I learned from all of this was my endearing love of heavy music. A lot of people don’t understand it, a lot of people hate it, but the fact remains is that it endures. The people who don’t understand the music will often call it “Evil” or “Noise” but there is something about heavy music which pulls people together instead of pushing them apart.

You will never see a more dedicated fan base than that of a heavy metal band. There is a shared love of a band that becomes the catalyst for many enduring friendships. Heavy Metal has been accused of leading some people to ending their lives, but what is never talked about is the number of lives it has saved.

Until next time… Keep listening.

Musical Roadmap Part 6

220px-Metallica_-_...And_Justice_for_All_coverIt seems strange to think of the path of my musical discovery would go from the album Body Count to …And Justice for All by Metallica, but at the same time, you have to understand that anything new in the realm of music came from visits from my brother. In my Mother’s household the only music heard regularly (when the parents were home) was either country or Mexican music from my Step-Dad. When the parents weren’t home, the latest pop music from my sister or from MTV would fill the house. So when my brother came to visit from his house (he lived with his father) we would listen to whatever he would bring with him.

Like all roads, at some point you reach a fork and end up taking one path or another to reach a destination, however, some paths weave and intersect at more points than we are aware at the time we choose. Music discovery never has a set destination if your mind is open enough and is willing to explore the side roads and tributaries of the form. While the camps of both rap and metal normally are at odds, for me both of the musical forms continued to cross paths with each other throughout the span of my life so far.

My sister was pretty resistant to anything heavy. She would just tell us to ‘turn that crap off’ because she was busy listening to Debbie Gibson, Paula Abdul and music of their ilk. As explained in a previous post, Body Count was first introduced to me from one of these visits. Next was …And Justice for All.

Much like other kids in my generation, we learned about Metallica mostly through an older sibling. A few years later everybody would know the band with the Release of their self titled “Black” album in 1991, but the people who got into Metallica at any time prior to that knew what the band was originally about. Long before the MTV airplay and radio hits Metallica were about thrash. The combination of the English heavy metal of the early late 1970’s and early 1980’s coupled with a punk “fuck you” attitude and the DIY ethos turned Metallica into an underground giant in the 1980’s.

The three studio albums that Metallica prior to ‘Justice’ show the natural progression of a band that was refining it’s craft and strengthening it’s songwriting ability over the course of album/touring cycles. While Master of Puppets is considered an early masterpiece, the band was missing one of the key ingredients of the previous albums when recording ‘Justice’, bassist and songwriter Cliff Burton. Burton had died prior to the making of the album and the band had recruited Jason Newsted to replace him on the album.

The mythos around the album has been oft repeated but bears a reminder on this post as well. In the ultimate form of hazing, the tight knit and grieving band members largely removed the bass tracks from the album. However, the lack of the lower register on the album ends up producing a razor sharp guitar attack that makes the album stand alone in the long history of the Metallica machine.

The album is epic. Not one of the 9 album tracks are less than six minutes. The dynamics are sharp and the timing both quick and precise. As a newcomer to the heavier side of things, I was fascinated by the intricacies of the album and the sheer heaviness. After listening to your first “true” heavy metal album you don’t go back. While I cannot honestly state that I never listened to the hair metal of the 80’s ever again, I can confess that I started listening to my Poison albums a lot less after this.

When I was in middle school there were roughly three albums that you would learn when starting to play guitar. Metallica’s Black album and Nirvana’s Nevermind were two and often times …And Justice was third. Looking back, these albums were a great gateway to learning the instrument. Not just heavy for the sake of being so, the first two albums helped you develop the heavy sound in your equipment, but also were simple enough to learn the parts. …And Justice allowed you progress your accuracy and speed while building on what you learned from “Enter Sandman” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The album was also a “gateway drug” to the sprawling landscape of the metal genre. While too heavy for the casual listener, it was really just the jumping off point for what would come.

While most people think that metal in the 1990’s was not in fashion, if you look at the landmark albums that were released just before and during the decade you will see that, while largely ignored by the mainstream media, metal was alive and well and breaking new ground during those years.

We all know that regardless of the strength of the albums prior, Metallica was largely ignored by the general public and widely panned by critics prior to the Black album, however; ‘Justice put the band in the public eye with their first ever music video for “One” which still was pretty epic, even after the song and video itself were shortened to a more “playlist friendly” time from the original seven minute plus original.

The album is a masterpiece in brutality. I’m not saying that there were still things that needed to be improved upon at the time. James Hetfield’s vocals were still not as strong as the were starting with the Black album and the production still was not the greatest, but this was the last great thrash album by the band for a long time. And Justice for All was the end of an era for the band. With the new decade came the Bob Rock years and the slick production and “alternative” sound of the Load/Reload products, but when you look over the career of the band, the mid-point had to take place in order for them to return to their thrash sound. Sadly, most of us had to suffer the strange results of the interim 20 years between …And Justice and Death Magnetic. Sure the band did start back in the direction of their original sound with the St. Anger album but, for me, that album’s production is so bad that even with the strength of some of the songs it is still unlistenable by any standard.

People sometimes criticize the long song length on ‘Justice,’ but each part is needed for each song to be complete. There were no parts that sound ‘tossed in’ to artificially increase the song length (one of my complaints about Death Magnetic) and the seamless transitions keep you interested in what is going on in the song enough that they do not get boring over their duration.

…And Justice for All remains fresh upon listening, even almost 29 years after it’s release, and will continue to be a gateway to a heavier vein of music for a lot of kids like it was for me. Body Count introduced me to both heavy music and rap, both paths I would venture down in my personal discovery of music, and oddly enough would end up melding together again within a decade after my discovery of both genre’s. The off ramp to Metallica was just the first real exit I took from the highway of the mainstream, but it certainly was not the last trip down Metal Lane that I ended up taking as you’ll see.

Until next time, keep listening.

Musical Roadmap Part 5

When trying to remember one’s life path in terms of music there are a lot of decisions to be made, along with remembering and forgetting. It took me a little bit to get to the installment of the series because I was going back and forth between a few albums and weighing whether they left enough of a lasting impression on me that I can legitimately place them on a road map of musical discovery. Ultimately I settled on this album after weighing its impact on my tastes since it was released.

I first hear Body Count’s self titled album when my brother had stolen it from my cousin Body_Count_Album_CoverBilly, (and I subsequently stole it from him and then I believe it ended up stolen back by my brother). Anyway, the tape made the rounds between us. Looking back, I can’t remember if it was the music or the fact that something like Body Count was very taboo in my household. Prior to that I never had listened to an album with that much profanity and anger. Rap was not something that was looked at with much regard in the house, but a rap/metal album…?

The first Body Count album was ahead of its time. Being released in early 1992, it came about at a time when gangster rap was starting to become mainstream and almost a half a decade prior to any other major acts attempted the feat and was successful. The album blended two genre’s of music that I was starting to explore and love, Rap. Metal. I was attracted to rap because of the groove, metal for the intensity.

Being only 11 at the time the album was released I was less aware of the meaning of the lyrical content than I am later in life. This album could very well be in my 90’s albums that refuse to age series because the lyrical themes of racism (both overt and structural), overall distrust of colored people against the police, police abuse of authority and social decay are still very much part of the post millennial landscape.

BODY-COUNT

The album also played out differently than most albums I had experienced prior. Songs with skits placed throughout. Though mostly comical some of the skits were controversial in content such as the opening skit/track “Smoked Pork” which plays out the assassination of a police officer. This coupled with the memorable and controversial track (subsequently left off of later versions of the album ) “Cop Killer” almost guaranteed that the album would sell to youths in the inner city who dealt with racial profiling by the police every day. However, the lyrical themes of social injustice were not the only things that set this album apart from others released at the time. Ice-T (pre-acting and reality tv) also ventured into lyrical content more normal in varied sub genre’s of metal such as voodoo and murder.

The music on the album was also very important to the strength of it. Although the production sounds less polished than other albums of the time, I think it adds to the atmosphere of anger and aggression. It almost sounds like it was recorded in some shady cinderblock club somewhere in the city. While striving for a metal feel, Ernie C’s guitar parts and Beatmaster “V’’s drum parts give it a feel of a cross between metal, hardcore 80’s punk, and death metal’s blast beats.

While Faith No More may be credited with the first rap metal song with “Epic” anybody who actually listens to The Real Thing knows that Faith No More was coming from a more funk based approach than the hardcore metal/rap of Body Count.

Ice T also broke a lot of ground for black men in the metal genre. At the time that Body Count came out there was virtually no black men in the metal genre. While this still hasn’t changed much (there are about as many black frontmen in metal as there are black hockey players) it made the genre more acceptable for non-whites to participate. With the exception of Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust and Derrick Green of later Sepultura there really hasn’t been a huge lasting presence of colored men fronting metal bands. However, the process of co-mingling in metal is a slow process and it does continue to move forward with both minorities as well as women finally being accepted in the genre more an more over the last 20 years.

Both rap and metal continued to evolve through the 90’s a the focus on flow and groove would expand in both. This new emphasis would eventually spawn the larger rap metal genre just a few years after the albums release that included bands like Limp Bizkit and Darwin’s Waiting Room as well as many others. While distinctly different and with less speed, the developments in the genre made the music more palatable to a younger white suburban audience in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. While I am not ashamed to admit that I did listen to and still enjoy albums from a number of these bands, they just didn’t have the lasting effect that Body Count’s album did. This album set up the dual interest in the genre’s and the enjoyment of them being combined skillfully even today. Body Count just recently released a new album Bloodlust, proving that the O.G. approach of their hardcore rap metal is still in demand. While the names of the major players at which the lyrics are pointed have changed, sadly many of the societal ills first rapped about on the debut album have not. This is something we should consider when we stop and look around today.

Until next time.. Keep listening…

 

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Musical Roadmap Part 4

When I was younger my sister and I would visit our Grandma in Las Vegas every summer. Outside of the occasional outings for fun and clothes shopping we spent a large amount of the time trying to keep from being bored and out of trouble while she was at work during the day. Being that Vegas is pretty miserable outside in the summer we would stick mainly to the confines of the air conditioned house. In her house my uncle had a bunch of VHS tapes of music artists that we would watch again and again and the only one that I can actually remember was a collection of the Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music videos. Svaughan

Sadly I only came to know about Stevie Ray Vaughan after his passing. His musical genius
I didn’t get to see live but his music changed my life in a number of ways. I discovered the blues through him and, looking at the writing credits of the songs on his albums, I was given lesson after lesson about the masters through him. Names like Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Albert King were unknown to me at that time, but through Vaughan’s interpretations of their songs I got to know some of the titans of Blues long before I knew it.

I listened to every album of Stevie’s and just loved them. The man almost singlehandedly brought blues to a new height of popularity in the 1980’s and introduced many people of
a new generation to the sound of the blues. While his recording career was short, his influence and power cannot be overstated in the halls of the blues. Along with only a few other guitarists which I would discover after, Stevie was one of the main influences that prompted me to want to pick up the guitar myself.

While his albums are timeless and his sound signature, you cannot fully appreciate the phenomenon that was Stevie Ray Vaughan without watching one of his life performances. Recently I watched the Austin City Limits footage of his two performances and could not help but remembering exactly why this man managed to make me love the blues. Stevie didn’t just play the blues, he channeled it through his body and his instrument.

One of the things that always amazes me about his playing is that you never see him look at where he is playing on the neck of the guitar. He knew where he was, where he was going, and how to make a it sound fresh every time. Many people say that one of the great things about him is that he never played a song the same way twice and having watched a number of recordings of his live shows, I can honestly say that is the truth.

Vaughan managed to blend the Texas blues with the rock of Hendrix and the soul of Stevie Wonder with ease. While he fought through his addictions in the mid 1980’s his output was still stellar. Even the album Live Alive recorded in 1985 near the height of his alcohol and drug use, shines in musicality. After getting sober in the late 1980’s, Vaughan re-emerged healthy and with the same musical prowess that he showcased over his entire career.

Unfortunately, fates hand took Stevie from this world in the fall of 1990 but his death only cemented the legend that he had built through stellar performances and music. The fraternity of blues musicians is especially tights, more so because there are so few that can play the blues as well as Stevie did. The level of respect and friendship that he shared with his fellow musicians was made apparent in the posthumous release of the Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan album.

When it comes to giant billboards on the road of life, the one that displayed Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music for me to witness was one of the biggest and most memorable. Without using him as a spring board I would never have discovered so many great blues musicians and later branched off into other forms of music. While I will never be able to play even a quarter as well as Stevie did, I can send a thank you to him for inspiring me to play guitar and to love blues music.

Musical Roadmap: Part 3

GuitartownI realized when I saw this album on my list of “Musical Roadmap” albums, that it actually pre-dates both of my first entries in the series. While I didn’t personally purchase the album until years later I find that some of my earliest memories were riding around in my Mom’s huge LTD with this album in the tape deck of the car.

Country music these days is more a tangy form of Pop that I can’t really get in to. With few exceptions (notably, Jason Aldean, Zac Brown, and Jamey Johnson) I rarely venture into the genre looking for new music. As pointed out probably more often than not in my posts, I grew up in the 1980’s and was coming of age and awareness of music while there were still really good artists in the Country music genre.

While I am a self professed “metalhead” my musical roots all started in country. When you’re a kid you listen to what your parents listen to because you don’t really have a choice. Our earliest likes (or hates) stem from our parents music. While my Dad was the rocker, my Mom was very much the Country music fan. I can’t pick a memory out with my Mother in my early years that didn’t have the soundtrack of 80’s country. The Judds, Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Randy Travis were just a few of the artists that I absorbed in that formative state.

While I didn’t know it then, Steve Earle would turn into one of my favorite songwriters in any genre. While he has had ups and downs in his career (including a very bad heroin habit which he actually used as background for his character Waylon on HBO’s “The Wire”) he has managed to be respected within the genre for over three decades.

Most people today wouldn’t know his name (or his music) but he is actually one of the best writers and performers in what would become the “Outlaw” country genre. His beginnings stem from the Texas music scene between Austin and Houston. He was an early convert of Townes Van Zandt, another seminal singer songwriter who is widely unknown outside of the genre diehards.

He came up through the Texas scenes along with the Nashville rights of passage like the Blue Bird Cafe to hone his craft and secure a recording deal. Guitar Town was Earle’s major label debut. Released in 1986 on MCA it managed to get to #1 on the US country charts and remains his highest charting album on the charts.

The album starts with the Title track “Guitar Town” which is a moderate shuffle. Like a number of Earle’s songs this one is biographical and talks about growing up and life on the road. The song sets the expectations of the album with acoustic and twangy guitars along with an organ adding to the soundscape.

“Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” is a good country breakup song. Not of the standard ‘my woman left and took my dog’ fare that is often stereotyped with Country music, the song is about coming to the realization that a relationship is over but not giving in to the anger and just coming to terms with the situation changing.

A number of the songs on the album are geared towards getting out of a small town and family life. While the title track touches on this theme, “Hillbilly Highway” and “Someday” (one of my personal favorites) extend this conversation about his life with the listener. Anybody who was born or grew up in a small town know the urge of wanting to get out of the “one stoplight” town. I come from a town that still has less than 10,000 people so I can relate to the “small town mentality” that the songs express wanting to escape from.

“Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough) talks about life in Middle America in the Reagan era. Much like John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” this song talks about the hardships of the mid-west farmer trying to make ends meet in an economy that is in the midst of depression.

Reminiscent of the Hank Williams Sr. and Buck Owens era in Nashville, “Think It Over” is an uptempo two step about the hindsight of relationships. “Fearless Heart” is a mid-tempo number about taking a chance on a relationship with someone new and putting yourself out there for the opportunity while opening yourself up hurt.

The second to last song on the album is what brings up pretty strong feelings in me even to this day. The song “Little Rock ’n’ Roller” lyric contains one side of a conversation between a guy on the road to his son. When I was a kid my Dad was a long haul trucker and most of our conversations or time spent together were either over the phone or at 2AM at the Cowboy truck stop when he was on his way through town. In my own parenthood I’ve had to be a “distance” parent, so when my own kid came along this song took on a new level of meaning for me.

The album ends with another mid-tempo travel song about life. “Down the Road” offers some good advice about not taking bad breakups too hard and to keep looking for that person you’ll end up loving because if they aren’t the one you’re with, you will eventually find them if you keep looking.

While it may be a wholly sentimental album for me in terms of my childhood, I think anybody who has an appreciation for good songwriting within the Country music genre would do themselves a service by listening to Guitar Town. The level of songwriting craftsmanship only gets higher the deeper you get into Steve Earle’s catalog. While Guitar Town may be considered by some as the highpoint in his career it shows the solid songwriting skills of a man who paid his dues in the community and gave the artist an excellent starting point to continue from. Now some 20 albums deep into his career, Earle shows no slowing with regular tours and album output. Check this out if you’re a fan of Country or even just a fan of good songwriting.

Until next time.

Musical Road Map: Part 2

AppetitefordestructionOn the musical journey of life there occasionally is an event that turns you completely sideways. A side trip that manages to re-align your perception of all things like an oil puddle that manages to land your car on it’s hood as you sit strapped in, hanging upside down. My side trips often were things that were caused by my older brother. I can honestly say that outside of my parents, my older brother has had more impact on my musical tastes over my life time than anybody else. Without him I would never had known a number of bands/albums that will come later in this series.

When it comes to being an 80’s kid, MTV was really THE outlet for new music forms and acts that were as varied and interesting as Saturday morning cartoons (back when the things were worth watching with a bowl of sugar cereal). Every once in a while there would be something that came across the rotation that would completely knock people on their ass.

The next album on my musical roadmap changed the lives of countless impressionable pre-teens and teens in the year of our lord 1988. “Welcome to the Jungle”was the first taste of what soon after became known as the “World’s Most Dangerous Band,” the one and only Guns N’ Roses.

The Appetite for Destruction album hit music at the time with the impact of a meteor and was just a few years prior to when Nirvana’s Nevermind came along and completely napalmed the shit out of the status quo. If you managed to escape the late 80’s without hearing the opening chords to “Welcome the the Jungle” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or the opening drum beat to “Paradise City” you were either in a commune with no electricity or handing out copies of Watchtower magazine around the neighborhood (and even then you would have heard it as a million doors were slammed in your face).

Not quite a “Greatest Hits” album,  Appetite managed to carve an ugly scar on the Heavily made up faces of the glam rock scene which, at the time, was bloated on drugs, alcohol and it’s own ego. While Guns did have some of the glam touches they were more influenced by the New York Dolls than the girly rock of the time. The band was a little more punk rock than the “grab my pussy” rock that dominated the scene. The guys were dirtier, sweatier, and more artistic than a number of the glam bands on the scene. Many of which were just cookie cutter acts that showcased their version of the Van Halen knock off on guitar.

These five guys managed to fuck up the system with songs that were about the social ills that they witnessed, and took part in, during the era in L.A and its Sunset Strip.  Songs about drugs (Mr. Brownstone) and crime (Welcome to the Jungle) managed to provide a rocking social commentary about the times.

While the usual fare of party and ballad songs of other bands had  diluted the musical gene pool at the time Guns N’ Roses were a different animal. They managed to collectively seep into the pores of America and taint all that they touched. There were kids doing the “Axl skank” from coast to coast in the late ‘80s.

While G N’ R did have a hit ballad with “Sweet Child O’ Mine” they still managed to make the ballad rock harder than the “Ballad of Jane’s” and “Home Sweet Home’s” on the charts. I mean the solo break still kicks ass. They managed to make ‘relationship’ songs seem a bit edgier than the glam bands at the time.

While the album had it’s share of aforementioned hits and set staples, there are some deeper tracks that still stand up almost 30 years later. My favorite tracks include “It’s So Easy”, “Night Train”, “Mr. Brownstone”,  “My Michelle” and “Rocket Queen”.

The members of G N’R were veterans of various other L.A. bands and their time ‘paying their dues’ showed in the songwriting ability of the members. The strength of the songs is what makes this album still one of the highest grossing debut albums of all time.

This was the hard rock album that your little sister, who was just listening to Madonna and Duran Duran, was able to get into. It had a universal appeal to kids in the 1980’s and still has a similar impact today. To date the album has sold close to 30 million copies and I’m sure that it will continue selling more copies as the younger generations are introduced to one of the best hard rock albums of all time.

In the pantheon of hard rock Appetite for Destruction is one of the most highly regarded albums. It fits in snugly with the likes of AC/DC’s Back in Black, Judas Priest’s British Steel, and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and is cited as being just as influential as any of these albums. Fans still show up all around the world in droves to hear these songs live (as evidenced by the sales figures of the most recent partial reunion tour of the original line up).

This album is almost 30 years old which, in and of itself, makes me feel old. However, if the Appetite album were released today I think it would still have the same impact on music that it did almost three decades ago. Hard rock these days is in a slump just like at the time the album was released and the pop arena is about as muddied up with same sounding acts as it was in 1987-’88.

It seems that the musical universe reaches a critical mass of bullshit once every decade or so ever since the 1960’s and that being the case, I’ve been waiting for something new and exciting to change the road that music travels on both in the world and in my life. I hope that somewhere out there there is a new Appetite for Destruction waiting in the wings for a new generation, otherwise we may be in trouble and so are future generations of music listeners.