Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Month: March 2018

3WA 2018 #13: Metallica – S&M

If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and paid attention to both the rock music scene and the action-film scoring scene, the fact that superstar composer & conductor (not to mention frequent pop/rock collaborator) Michael Kamen teamed up with superstar rock band Metallica for a live show wasn’t surprising in the least. If you didn’t, and you stop and think about it, it seems at least slightly ridiculous that the guy who scored the films Highlander, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard would go on stage with the guys who gave the world “Master of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman.”

And let’s be clear, it is ridiculous. In the best possible way.

What is it?

S&M is the late-1999 double-album release of material from a set of live shows by Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony (conducted by Michael Kamen).

How does it sound?

Then it comes to be there’s a sampler mix at the end of your tunnel:

Why this pick?

Because it’s a stunt that works.

Let me explain no there is too much let me sum up. At some point someone had to do this, to smash together these two varieties of loud, self-important, self-indulgent musical expression. The rock band had to be established, with mainstream appeal, and loud. The orchestral collaborator had to be established, with a track record of delivering high profile and high impact symphonic results. Anything less from either side and the whole project would’ve fallen apart with a series of dull thuds. It required ridiculousness.

While I listen to this album I’m occasionally struck by the absurdity of it all for a few moments, then it pulls me back in again and I forget to think about why it shouldn’t have worked and let it get back to working.

Which songs are the highlights?

The first disc kicks off strongly with a twenty-minute three-song sequence: The orchestra itself doing a bit of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstacy of Gold,” the orchestra and band together powering through the instrumental “The Call of Ktulu,” then a heck of a rendition of “Master of Puppets” rounds out the opening sequence.

Unsurprisingly, the two original tracks crafted for this project stand out as the strongest fusion of the two performance elements. “No Leaf Clover” and “-Human” are still two of my favorites, all these years later.

“Hero of the Day” translates surprisingly well to the new style. Likewise, the grim and dramatic “Outlaw Torn” and “One” both sound superb here.

The second disc closes with a really good take on “Battery.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

A lot of the radio-hit barn-burners don’t make very good use of the textures provided by symphonic accompaniment. “Of Wolf and Man” isn’t one of my faves anyway, and throwing a bunch of soaring strings on top of it doesn’t help its case here. “Fuel” just comes off as a noisy mess. “Until It Sleeps” tries and fails to gel. And somehow the biggest hit of them all, “Enter Sandman,” is just kind of… there. It’s not bad, but we know why it’s in the playlist and it has nothing to do with its suitability for this treatment.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

I suppose it might’ve been the so-called “black album” but there’s not much to say about it, really, so I probably would’ve gone with ReLoad.

Any final thoughts?

I mean, yeah, Metallica. Boy howdy do people have opinions about the band or what? Luckily I’ve only ever been a moderate-level fan so I can enjoy bits and pieces from their catalog without feeling like I have to justify my choices. “They sold out! They got terrible! The new bass player sucks!” Eh. Whatever. I’m one of those who started with Metallica (“the black album”) and wandered off some time after… well, this record actually. Clearly my opinion is suspect, from a fannish perspective.

Look, I can’t go all-in on every band or I’d never have any time or money left for anything else. It’s for the best.

Of course one could argue that I’m tempting fate by making that sampler mix. If this webserver gets nuked from orbit then I guess we’ll know why…


3WA 2018 #12: VNV Nation – Transnational

Now for a sterling example of a band getting better over time.

What is it?

Transnational is VNV Nation’s ten-track 2013 release, and is the most current regular studio album in their discography.

How does it sound?

Which of us the sampler, which of us the mix:

Why this pick?

I have a weird relationship with VNV Nation specifically and what’s called EBM (or EDM and let’s not even start on the pedantry involved in the differentiation) in general. When it works for me, it really works. When it doesn’t, it’s off-putting as heck. There’s very little middle ground here. I got into VNV in late 2010, just before Automatic came out. For that album, and for the several beforehand, I ended up really liking three or maybe four songs and can take-or-leave the rest.

Not so, for Transnational. I like a whole lot of this album a whole lot.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Everything” and “If I Was” are excellent examples of the “up” side of VNV’s songwriting, while “Retaliate” serves as an equally excellent example of their “grim” side. (More on that, later.)

Of the unvoiced tracks, you could take “Aeroscope” and use it in a Matrix-type knockoff action movie and it’d fit right in, while “Generator” serves as a nice lead-in to the album.

Which songs don’t work so well?

The first “Teleconnect” track is one of those stately, slow, serious tracks that tends to put me to sleep. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t work for me at all. The second “Teleconnect” track is half-again as long as the first; I wish there was a good-parts edit available but as it is, it’s still not too engaging.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

I nearly chose Automatic, my first “new” VNV album, released right after I’d gotten into the band. It’s a bit more front-loaded with the quality cuts than Transnational, however, and the later songs don’t hold up as well.

Any final thoughts?

What I find most amusing about the band’s work is its extreme dichotomy. On the one hand you get upbeat songs about the grace, power, and potential of humankind, such as “The Farthest Star” on the Judgement album. On the other hand you get grim diatribes about how humanity can’t seem to stop screwing everything up, such as “Testament,” the song immediately after “The Farthest Star.” There is no in-between, near as I can tell.

Basically, whichever mood you happen to be in regarding the world we inhabit today, VNV have you covered.

And yes, I somehow put together a sampler with absolutely zero vocals. Whoops.

The things I do for the rubber duck brand

40 cards in 8 stacks, 300 diamonds (in-game currency) to flip each card, and on the 32nd try I get this:

Admiral Nautica in her bathtime ducky costume

The game is Valkyrie Connect, a “gacha” mobile game of collecting fighters to defeat monsters blah blah blah whatever, it’s an amusing way to pass an hour or so per day, give or take. When this latest event appeared in which the publishers clearly expect folks to plunk down ridiculous amounts of money, my first thought was, “Like hell I will.”

My second thought was, “oh crap Nautica gets a rubber duck, I’M DOOMED.”

Turns out, I didn’t need to spend very much money. Ahem.

3WA 2018 #11: Yoshida Brothers – Best Of Yoshida Brothers | Tsugaru Shamisen

In my youth I railed against “best of” sets. “Go buy the regular albums, there are hidden gems to be found there!”

I got better.

What is it?

Best of Yoshida Brothers | Tsugaru Shamisen is a 2008 compilation of thirteen songs by the Yoshida Brothers. The brothers themselves play the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument which superficially resembles a banjo, while accompanied by a variety of instrumentalists.

How does it sound?

And now for something completely different:

Why this pick?

Years ago I quipped here that I like two kind of music: Pop, and Rock. That was somewhat facetious on my part. Hook me with the right kind of introduction and I’ll follow your band off the beaten path a little ways, at least. In this case the hook was the music video for “Rising.” (Don’t bother searching YouTube for it, it’s long since been scrubbed of any decent-quality versions.)

I waffled for a while on whether to track down several individual albums or just punt to the best-of. Since the best-of was the most readily available option and removed the task of figuring out which is the “best” starter record, here we are.

Which songs are the highlights?

The aforementioned “Rising” really is the star of the show, but I also recommend “Storm” and the remix version of “Kodo” (two versions appear on this compilation) as high-quality upbeat material.

Of the slower paced fare, I most enjoy “Overland Blues” and the compilation’s closing selection, “Morricone,” a piece which is the best homage to spaghetti western soundtracks since Metallica covered “The Ecstasy of Gold” for their S&M show.

Which songs don’t work so well?

And here’s where I cheat and break the format.

I couldn’t tell you which of the other tracks do or don’t work, because this entire style is so far outside my normal experience that I don’t have a frame of reference from which to adequately judge. Nothing on this album is actually jarring or unpleasant, and several of the songs I haven’t named are in my “BGM” mood list. This is a case where, if this is what you’re in the mood for, anything here will suit that mood.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

My other Japanese-culture pick would’ve been the Geinoh Yamashirogumi release of the music from the Akira anime film. That would’ve been too many 1988 records in an 80s-heavy lineup, however. While it might have been more interesting to write about, it also wouldn’t have been as joyful a recommendation. So here we are.

Any final thoughts?

I officially endorse “best of” records for when you aren’t sure where the hell to start with a new band.

Yes, my pre-millenium self would see the above statement and cringe in horror. Things change!

3WA 2018 #10: Genesis – Selling England By The Pound

It’s my birthday weekend, I’ll fanboy if I want to.

What is it?

Selling England By The Pound is the 1973 album by Genesis, totaling eight songs of wildly varying length. The album is not quite as old as I am.

How does it sound?

It’s mixing better in your sampler:

Why this pick?

Full disclosure time: Knowing that I was restricting myself to one album by a given artist, and knowing that I could easily have flooded this year’s roster with Genesis-related albums, I picked Selling England primarily because it’s my favorite album featuring the main five guys. That forced me to not end up picking a Phil Collins record and a Mike (Rutherford) + The Mechanics record and a record from one of Tony Banks’ projects and a Peter Gabriel record and, oh, GTR or something-or-other involving Steve Hackett.

It helps that this is a great Genesis album, though. This isn’t a gimmick selection.

Which songs are the highlights?

Two of the all-time heavyweight great classic Genesis pieces come from this album: “Firth of Fifth” and “The Cinema Show.” In an album well stocked with lengthy, meandering, somewhat-ridiculous prog-rock pieces, those are the standouts. I never tire of either song, in nearly any recorded rendition.

(Side note: There’s an album by Yngve Guddal and Roger T Matte called Genesis for Two Grand Pianos Vol 2 which features the best version of “The Cinema Show” not recorded by actual Genesis band members.)

We also get what’s considered the band’s first hit single with “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe).” Nowadays I mostly just quote the opening spoken bit: “It’s one o’clock and time for lunch, dum de dum de dum dum…”

The other two eight-minutes-plus songs on the record are good, if not really great. “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” is more interesting for its instrumental bridge section than for its lyrical content, while “Battle of Epping Forest” is nearly the opposite.

Speaking of instrumental sections, “After The Ordeal” is four enjoyable minutes of musical goofing-around.

Which songs don’t work so well?

“More Fool Me” is kind of a quiet dud. (Sorry, Phil. You do a better job as lead singer a few years later!) And “Aisle of Plenty” isn’t really a proper song so much as an odd two minutes of coda following up on “The Cinema Show” with a callback to “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” so it’s a bit unfair to call it out like this, but there you go.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

I briefly considered going with Calling All Stations. It’s criminally underrated, for starters, and it would’ve covered the last-added of the official band members (singer Ray Wilson) while freeing me up to use a Peter Gabriel album elsewhere in the year. And maybe one of Phil’s. Maybe.

Did I mention criminally underrated? I have opinions, y’all. The temptation was quite strong.

I could have done one of these project posts for each of nearly everything in the Genesis catalog. The decision-making wasn’t hard at all, though.

Any final thoughts?

While I’m on a tear about it, sure: I wish they’d gotten a second album out with Ray Wilson. The potential was huge, and hugely wasted. Seeing what would’ve happened once Wilson was a fully-integrated creative partner would’ve been fascinating and (I’m certain) enjoyable.

On the other hand, I want to travel to the alternate timeline wherein Kevin Gilbert survived to audition to be the new singer for Genesis. Arguably the biggest and most talented Genesis fanboy ever to record his own album, Gilbert would’ve brought something interesting to the table, make no mistake.

In this timeline, however, what we’ve got is what we’ve got. I’ll leave you with a quick list of essentials, the Genesis albums I love best:

  • Selling England By The Pound
  • Duke
  • A Trick of the Tail
  • Calling All Stations
  • Invisible Touch

I’m sure I just offended nearly every other Genesis fan on the planet with that list, somehow. Oh well!

3WA 2018 #9: The Church – Gold Afternoon Fix

Late February, 1990. An Australian band which had burst into the public consciousness of a U.S. audience with their previous record releases a follow-up, hopeful to continue and expand that level of success.

Yes, another one.

What is it?

Gold Afternoon Fix is The Church’s follow-up to the popular and highly-regarded Starfish album. Thirteen songs and nearly an hour long, it’s a real swing-for-the-fences effort.

How does it sound?

Back in the sampler mix, circuses and elephants:

Why this pick?

This is an easy one: It’s the only album from this band that I really like. It came out at about the same time as the Oils’ Blue Sky Mining, I knew The Church from the singles off their last record and I liked the lead-off single from this one, so I bought it. Note that going into the 1990s I worked a burger-flipping job and my only real expenses were my share of rent on a tiny apartment and keeping food in my belly, so most of my income was disposable. I was willing to buy pretty much anything that caught my eye. Or ear, as it were.

Weird thing is, The Church isn’t really my kind of band normally. Listening to other songs of theirs I’ve heard paints the picture of a band operating in a drug-addled haze most of the time. You get some of the same feel from Gold Afternoon Fix but it works better here, somehow.

Basically, through no intention or fault of the band’s own, they ended up making a record that veers into my preferred territory.

Which songs are the highlights?

“Pharaoh” and “Metropolis” start things off normally enough, then “Terra Nova Cain” brings in a new level of trippy sci-fi weirdness.

My standout favorites are the snarky little “You’re Still Beautiful” later in the record and the album’s six-minutes-long closing piece, “Grind.”

Which songs don’t work so well?

There’s a middle stretch to the album, from “City” to “Essence,” where the songs aren’t very engaging. “Monday Morning” has the benefit of being the shortest track on the album, at least.

Later there’s the somewhat-aptly-named “Disappointment.”

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

Had I not picked Gold Afternoon Fix I’d have not picked a Church record at all. Other than the two singles, most of Starfish doesn’t gel for me.

From numeric necessity, of course, I ended up passing over a bunch of artists entirely when selecting this year’s roster. Maybe I’d have gone with Disturbed’s Ten Thousand Fists or something. Who knows?

Any final thoughts?

While the band didn’t get what they wanted out of this album or the process of its creation, the results are better than folks generally give it credit for. The studio wanted another album loaded with hits like “Under The Milky Way” and instead we got… all of this. It’s a helluva thing and I genuinely adore this hot mess of a record. Every song here ranges from decent to great, and I don’t hate any of them. It’s hard to find an entire album of ten or more songs without a 2-star or lower blip in the lineup but here we are.

And that’s why Gold Afternoon Fix earned its place in this year’s run.

Comparing the two Australian bands’ albums which came out within days of one another was an amusing exercise. Pointless, maybe, but irresistible. My conclusion? While Midnight Oil made a very good record, I think The Church made a more interesting one.

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