Friday, April 29, 2011

Josh Homme to Appear on the Travel Channel's "No Reservations"

Josh Homme
Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Eagles of Death Metal, Kyuss) will be joining author and Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain for an episode of Bourdain's critically acclaimed food/travel show "No Reservations" set in the Southern California desert. Tony Bourdain's Travel Channel blog, and the No Reservations twitter account have confirmed that Josh will also be writing some original music for the episode.

Monday, April 25, 2011

If Only - Queens of the Stone Age (1998) - Free Download from Amazon is currently giving away the Queens of the Stone Age track "If Only" from their 1998 debut album. If you act fast, you can get your copy here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

2011 Revolver Golden Gods Awards - Avenged Sevenfold dominates.

On the night of 04/20, Avenged Sevenfold proved to be an unstoppable force taking home the awards for best guitarist(s), best vocalist, best drummer, and album of the year at the third annual Revolver Golden Gods Awards. The full list of winners is below:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy (2008)

Probably the longest awaited album in rock history, Chinese Democracy finally arrived in November of 2008. After fifteen years of development hell, numerous personnel changes, legal battles, internet leaks, and endless accusations flying between former members and lead singer Axl Rose, expectations for the new Guns N' Roses album were set incredibly high. The story of the fifteen years of development hell sounds like a story out of the video game industry- notably "Duke Nukem Forever" - the long awaited sequel for the early first person shooter that pushed the boundaries of the genre with it's over-the-top attitude and snarky style. Did Chinese Democracy live up to the hype?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I Should Have Known - Foo Fighters (2011) - free download available on amazon!

Currently, is offering the track "I Should Have Known" from the new Foo Fighters album "Wasting Light" as a free promotional download. Check it out here. I will probably buy the album eventually, but for now, a little free taste is a good thing.

I'm particularly happy with the track chosen for the promotion. "I Should Have Known" features a guest appearance from Dave Grohl's former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic on bass. The entire album was also produced by Butch Vig - who previously worked with Nirvana, making this track a long-awaited reunion.

In the documentary "Back and Forth" which chronicles the Foo Fighters' 16 year history up to 2011, Dave Grohl reveals that "I Should Have Known" was originally written about someone he was involved with, and that at the end of the day, he should have known how things would eventually end. Near the end of the film, Butch Vig muses that the song may have started that way, but became a way for Grohl to express some of his feelings about Kurt Cobain's suicide on April 5, 1994. While Dave Grohl never explicitly confirms this, he never denies it- and even seems to be ok with that association.

Previously, Dave Grohl went through great lengths to distance himself, and the Foo Fighters from Nirvana- ostensibly out of respect, and a need to succeed on his (and the band's) own merits rather than riding on Nirvana's coattails. I suspect it was as much about avoiding the demons he's been carrying with him as anything else.

The song begins as a mournful dirge, starting with just Dave Grohl's vocals and simple guitar arpeggios. As the tune progresses, more instruments begin to layer into the mix. The middle section moves into a more mid-tempo rock feel, gradually building intensity until Krist Novoselic's raw, punchy bass asserts itself in the last third of the song. The ending of the song intensifies into a grunge/punk style rage worthy of Nirvana's rhythm section.

The lyrics clearly speak of a heavy guilt. In the beginning of the song, that guilt is tempered with sorrow- /I should have known that it would end this way/I should have known there was no other way/Didn’t hear your warning/Damn my heart gone there/. In the middle of the song, the tone is more conflicted- /I should have known/I’ve been here before/I should have known/Don’t want it anymore/One thing is for certain/I’m still standing here/I should have known/.

At the end of the song, the lyrics indicate anger- following the normal pattern seen in most people grieving over a lost loved one. /No I cannot forgive you yet/No I cannot forgive you yet/To leave my heart in debt/I should have known/.

Assuming that the song is really written as a sort of catharsis for both Grohl and Novoselic, I can only imagine how painful Kurt Cobain's death was fro them. I remember back in 1994, I was about to leave to visit a friend, and I heard about it on the radio as soon as I started the engine. I was stunned, even though whatever connection I felt to Cobain through his music could not even begin to compare to the connection Grohl and Novoselic had. I drove around aimlessly for a while, blasting "Nevermind" as loud as I could, thinking that we had just lost a person who really spoke for the angst and uncertainty people in my generation were feeling at the time. It made me think that we had just lost my generation's answer to John Lennon. For me, that sadness wore off quickly- I had no real connection other than as a fan and as a young adult still carrying some of the angst of my late teenage years. These guys lived and breathed those few moments at a thousand times the volume for years.

In my opinion, the song is a way for them to make their peace with their demons, and to say goodbye to a good friend who had a profound impact on their lives and careers. Are they over that grief? Probably not judging from the lyrics and the angry ending. Hopefully they've gained a little closure, and hopefully they'll inspire the rest of us to remember the man, and the music that was such a huge part of our social consciousness back in the early 90s.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Zakk Wylde guest appearance on American Idol

Zakk Wylde, legendary guitarist from Black Label Society, former Ozzy axeman, and recipient of the 2010 Revolver Golden Gods "Guitarist of the Year" award made a surprise appearance on American Idol this week. Zakk performed Sammy Hagar's "Heavy Metal" from the film "Heavy Metal" supporting Idol hopeful James Durbin.

According to the article on blabbermouth the appearance was arranged with a little help from Chris Jericho, Professional Wrestler, frontman for Fozzy, and contestant on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

Zakk Wylde was more than happy to oblige, and gave the usually pop-oriented Idol audience a healthy dose of metal. What did he think of James Durbin's take on Sammy Hagar? According to Wylde, James "sang his balls off last night, man."

The Idol judges responded favorably, Steven Tyler seemed thrilled, as expected. Jennifer Lopez discovered her inner metalhead, and Randy Jackson was throwing up the horns- which basically says it all.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell (1980)

In 1979, trouble was brewing in the ranks of Black Sabbath. For about a decade the band was known as one of the most important founders of the entire heavy metal movement - but they had fallen on hard times. Their previous two albums, "Technical Ecstasy" and "Never Say Die!" had a lukewarm reception, and tensions were running high between most of the band and long-time singer Ozzy Osbourne. The band started work on a new album, and Ozzy - who was already starting work on his solo project "Blizzard of Ozz" attempted to record vocals, but it was clearly not working out.

At the suggestion Sharon Arden (daughter of Black Sabbath's manager Don Arden, and future wife of Ozzy Osbourne) convinced the group to sit down with former Rainbow lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Dio had a radically different approach to singing and songwriting when compared to Ozzy Osbourne, and an intense work ethic that had a profound effect on the entire band. It was official, Dio would replace Ozzy as lead vocalist for Black Sabbath, and work immediately commenced on their ninth studio album - to be titled "Heaven and Hell" - an album that would redefine the legendary band, and leave a lasting mark on the heavy metal movement.

The band was going thorough several changes when writing for the album commenced. Geezer Butler, who was Sabbath's bass player since they first formed, was going through a divorce and left the band- at least temporarily. He was not around for most of the writing  sessions, and the band took on Geoff Nicholls, formerly with the band Quartz, was brought on board as a possible replacement. Former Rainbow and Elf bassist Craig Gruber was also involved at some point, but it is unclear how long, or how extensive his role was. When the majority of the songwriting for "Heaven and Hell" was complete, Geezer Butler rejoined the band, and Geoff Nicholls stepped aside, assuming the role of "unofficial" fifth member on keyboards (and sometimes rhythm guitar for live shows). Geoff Nicholls would stay with the band for many years in an "unofficial" capacity, but was almost always placed off-stage, and usually not given any writing credits.

Long time drummer Bill Ward was involved throughout the writing and recording of the album. His longstanding problems with alcoholism began to catch up with him, and he had to bow out in the middle of the album's tour- to be replaced by Vinny Appice (who appeared on several of John Lennon's recordings, and also performed with Rick Derringer). Vinny Appice quickly became close with Ronnie James Dio- and stayed with him for most of Dio's solo career.

Of course, it is not possible to discuss anything about Black Sabbath without mentioning the one member that remained constant through every lineup change the group has ever been through- guitarist Tony Iommi. Iommi is considered by many to be the original heavy metal guitarist. Many modern guitarists both in and out of the heavy metal scene consider him to be a major influence. Tony Iommi was the first rock guitarist to "detune" his guitar on a regular basis - in part to gain a darker, heavier sound, and in part to help compensate for the discomfort he experienced after losing the tips of two fingers on his fretting hand in an industrial accident at the age of 17. Iommi has always been known as prolific riff writer, and an incendiary soloist. On the "Heaven and Hell" album, he continued this tradition, although he adopted a relatively cleaner sound than in the early Sabbath albums, and incorporated more acoustic elements as well.

The first song on the album is "Neon Nights" - it sets the tone for the whole album, and makes a strong first impression. The song is based on a pulse-pounding, up-tempo riff that never lets up. Dio's operatic vocals run counterpoint to the guitar, and let the listener know that this is a new and revitalized Black Sabbath. By today's standards, the song, and the entire album, seem almost a conventional 80s metal album. The difference here is that the album came out in 1980- so was one of the albums that actually set the tone for the decade.

Two songs are real standouts- "Children of the Sea," and the title track "Heaven and Hell." Children of the Sea was built around material from the very first writing/jam session between Dio and Iommi. The mood of the song alternates between moods. The verses feature a calm clean guitar part with the bass running a counter-melody with a smooth flowing vocal above them. The chorus is a more pounding, insistent riff with a harder edged vocal. The bridge section features a vocal-like keyboard part with vocal improvisation by Dio, and a tragic sounding guitar solo. The lyrics speak about how progress often outstrips wisdom- putting ourselves and our world in jeopardy- with lines such as /We'd glide above the ground before we learned to run, run/Now it seems our world has come undone/.


The song "Heaven and Hell" is the longest on the album at nearly 7 minutes in length. Ronnie James Dio has stated on numerous occasions, that it is his favorite song from his entire career- the song he is most proud of. The lyrics throughout the song are juxstapositions of images of good and evil. Dio has also stated in VH1's "Heavy: The Story of Metal" that the song is about how everyone has heaven and hell inside of them, and that they have to choose between good and evil. The song features sparse guitar solos trading phrases with the vocals, tied together by a galloping bass line. The second half of the song is up-tempo, building intensity to the ending, which switches gears abruptly into an acoustic guitar solo with a medieval feel that slowly fades out.

The song has been frequently cited as one of the best metal songs of all time. It is clearly the work of a group of talented musicians at their peak, and represents and idea that most metal fans can easily relate to. When it was performed live, the middle section of the song was extended to give Dio an opportunity to improvise and lead audience participation moments. The song quickly became the centerpiece of the live show as well.

The tour supporting the "Heaven and Hell" album was where Dio first began using the now familiar "devil horns" salute. This gesture, also sometimes referred to as "the fist of metal," has become synonymous with heavy metal worldwide. Dio was not the first person to use it, but he certainly played a major role in popularizing it. The sign is based on the old Italian "malocchio" or "evil eye"- in Italian folklore, the sign can be used to put a curse on someone, or ward off a curse- fitting with Dio's love of things that combine the dual nature of good and evil.  

The rest of the album contains a great deal of variety- blazing shred-guitar solos on "Wishing Well" - a infectious hook of the main riff on "Walk Away," A mid-tempo cautionary tale in "Lady Evil" - the more gloomy "Die Young" - and the tragic dirge of "Lonely is the Word" (which features a long guitar solo that reminds of of David Gilmour's solos from "Momentary Lapse of Reason" (albeit with an added dose of darkness and attitude) round out the album.

Tony Iommi lightened up his guitar sound considerably for this album (it does, however remain VERY heavy, it is just a long distance from the dark, sludgy tones of his early work with Ozzy). Iommi's background in the blues is less to the forefront than in his early work, but is still plainly evident in his solos. In the band's old days, the bass and guitar would stay in unison for long periods of time- while that idea has not been completely abandoned, the bass typically runs counter-melodic to the guitar most of the time. Also, in the Ozzy days, Osbourne would typically sing vocal melodies that followed the guitar parts closely, while Dio had a completely different approach. Dio's melodies would frequently run in counterpoint to the bass and guitar- resulting a very layered soundscape. The album clearly represents a major change in style and attitude, while retaining some of the band's trademark heavy sound that they nearly abandoned on their two previous albums.

Dio's lyrics retained much of the fantasy inspired subject matter and images that were his trademark in his Rainbow days. This is especially evident in the song "Neon Knights" - /circles and rings, dragons and kings/weaving a charm and a spell/, and in "Lady Evil" - /lady evil, evil/she's a magical mystical woman/.

With Geezer Butler out of the picture for most of the songwriting, the band called upon very different influences for their writing that appears to have injected a new vitality into the band, and new songwriting approaches. The band took these ideas to heart, even through the lineup changes, continuing to run with the ideas first explored here on their next album "Mob Rules." This renewed outlook would not last long though, in 1982, during the mixing sessions for their upcoming live album "Live Evil" - tensions ran high between Dio and Appice on one side, and Iommi and Butler on the other, and the group split in half, with Dio and Appice moving on to form the band "Dio". The lineup would reunite again in 1992 for the album "Dehumanizer" but the bad blood from 1982 was still present, and they parted ways again.


The "Heaven and Hell" / "Mob Rules" version of Black Sabbath would have one last hurrah- in 2007 a compilation of Dio-era Black Sabbath songs was released, and naturally, there was talk of a supporting tour. Iommi, Butler, Dio, and Appice set aside whatever lingering differences they had, and came together to produce a new single for the compilation, then planned to tour together. They set aside the "Black Sabbath" name however, and took the name "Heaven and Hell" to avoid confusion with the Ozzy-era lineup who was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As "Heaven and Hell" they enjoyed considerable success, releasing a boxed set of remastered older material, and finally an original album in 2009 titled "The Devil You Know." After a successful tour in support of the new album, the band went on hiatus while everyone pursued their own projects, but would not reunite- while making preliminary plans for another tour, and another possible album, Ronnie James Dio took ill, and after a long battle that he appeared to be winning, was finally silenced by stomach cancer in may of 2010.

I first heard the "Heaven and Hell" album in college in 1988 - I became friends with the guys in the next dorm room, and after one night of "youthful celebration" they noticed I had a copy of Sabbath's old live album "Live After Death" in my collection, and started asking about it. After I admitted that I'd never heard the Dio-era albums they basically sat me down and said "you have to listen to this," put on "Heaven and Hell," and turned it up to about 11. I was hooked. I listened to Sabbath casually before that, but "Heaven and Hell" had a powerful effect on me. While Sabbath is one of the pioneers of the heavy metal genre, there is always something about them that sets them apart from mainstream metal. The ever-present blues influence, the "heavier than heavy" sound of the earlier albums, the lyrics, all worked together in a way that set them apart. The band, for obvious reasons, were frequently labeled as "satanic" - however, if you really look at what they say in their songs, there is remarkably little to lend credence to this in most of the earlier Ozzy-era work, and especially in the Dio-era songs.  The band's subject matter has always been wide ranging for me- sometimes psychedelic, sometimes political, often capturing the same kind of scare quality of a horror film. The band has simply had an enormous influence on the world of heavy metal- "Heaven and Hell" being one of the albums often cited as a standout. It is a must-have for any serious metal fan.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Fountain of Lamneth (1975) by Rush - a twenty minute journey through life

The now legendary hard rock / progressive rock band Rush was beginning to taste real success in 1975. Initially though of as the "Canadian Led Zeppelin" - mostly due to their unorthodox approach to songwriting, hard rock roots, and wailing, high-pitched vocals, the perennial power trio took up the difficult task of penning a very progressive, concept-rich third album, intended to be their big breakthrough. Things would not work out so well- at least not yet.

"Caress of Steel" was meant to be their big progressive rock breakthrough- fueled by virtuoso level playing by all three members, and the highly unusual lyrics by drummer Neil Peart. Peart was a voracious reader, and his lyrics reflected his literary preferences for science fiction, fantasy, objectivist philosophy, and poetry. The vast majority of the album was written while actively touring in support of their second album "Fly by Night" as the opening act for the popular band "Kiss".

In the documentary "Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage" - members of the band state that one of the first people to hear the finished version of "Caress of Steel" was Kiss' lead singer Paul Stanley. According to guitarist Alex Lifeson - "...we played it in our van for him one night. You could see he just... he didn't get it. A lot of people didn't get it. We wondered if we even got it."

Bassist Geddy Lee has also said "I think we were  pretty high when we made a lot of that record, and it sounds like it to me." in the same documentary. Neil Peart also related that the reaction was a huge disappointment for them "Everything took an awful downturn, it was off the crest of a wave too, because we were so in love with what we'd done. You know, we were so into it and so proud of it. When Caress of Steel pretty much met a deaf ear- the ensuing tour, we were opening acts on smaller tours and playing backwater clubs, we called it, at the time, the Down the Tubes Tour."

That reaction would prove prophetic. Album sales were weak- indicating that a lot of people "didn't get it" Their record company was very unhappy with the outcome, so the supporting tour was mostly small venues- and is generally regarded as the lowest point in the band's storied history - they began to wonder if their careers were coming to a close.

The centerpiece of the album is the twenty minute epic "The Fountain of Lamneth" - the piece shows that a large amount of thought was put into the album- and on many levels is a great artistic achievement. At the same time, I think it is also the key to the album's lukewarm reception. In my opinion, the piece represents a huge change in direction and tone that alienated many of the band's previous listeners- mostly young, mostly male hard rock fans that were neither ready for, nor interested in a heady concept piece that explored a softer sound than they were expecting. After a year of touring with Kiss, their fan-base mirrored that of Kiss- people who liked straightforward hard rock backed by a dynamic, larger-than-life stage show. While Rush's previous effort, "Fly by Night" was not the best fit for this group of fans, they were impressed by Rush's hard rock sensibility, and sheer talent. The sudden mutation of that hard rock sensibility and headlong dive into conceptual "art" music, such as "The Fountain of Lamneth" was a sudden left turn that left many fans behind.

The song is actually structured as a series of standalone pieces rather than a through-composed piece with planned segues between each section. One piece fades out, and the next fades in. This is a bit of an oddity- I think the overall work would have been more digestible if it were either through-composed, or presented more obviously as a cycle of songs tied together by their unifying theme. The overarching theme that unifies the piece is a journey through life starting "in the valley" and progressing towards "the mountain" and the nebulous goal represented by "the Fountain of Lamneth" that resides atop the mountain. The song also has an overarching theme that can be interpreted as either reincarnation, or the passing on of ideas and goals to a new generation. The title does not seem to contain a specific literary or pop culture reference aside from it's obvious similarity to the idea of the mythical "fountain of youth."

Part I - In the Valley

Part one of the piece is titled "In the Valley." The section begins with a quiet acoustic guitar with Geddy Lee singing a soft introduction:

I am born
I am me
I am new
I am free
Look at me
I am young
Sight unseen
Life unsung

The lyrics here state the intended ideas clearly - the beginning of a life- being newly born without preconceptions, and starting our journey through life.

The intro moves into a harder edged guitar driven riff, in Rush's more familiar, Led Zeppelin inspired sound and character - the rest of "In the Valley" maintains this mood- one familiar to fans of the time. The lyrics continue with the idea of a newborn coming into and discovering the world for the first time, and sets the stage for the rest of our nineteen minute journey through life.

My eyes have just been opened
And they're open very wide
Images around me
Don't identify inside
Just one blur I recognize
The one that soothes and feeds
My way of life is easy
And as simple are my needs

The first set of lyrics should seem familiar to anyone who has spent time around a newborn child. When a baby opens it's eyes for the first time, they typically see blurry images that they are not yet able to interpret in any meaningful way. One of the first things they begin to recognize is the face of their mother "The one who soothes an feeds" - identifying that image as the source for food and comfort is how just about every human being begins to understand their environment.

Yet my eyes are drawn toward
The mountain in the east
Fascinates and captivates
Gives my heart no peace
The mountain holds the sunrise
In the prison of the night
'Til bursting forth from rocky chains
The valley floods with light

The chorus introduces the motivation for the rest of the song cycle with "the mountain in the east" that "fascinates and captivates" - implying that even in the earliest stages of life, the seeds for the hopes and dreams that will drive us begin to take hold. The verse also uses the image of a sunrise- typically representing a beginning. A sunrise can also represent an awakening or revelation as "the valley floods with light" the world around us is revealed, and illuminates things we have not seen before. The overarching story traces a path from this "valley" to "the mountain in the east" where the sun rises. While it is clearly a path through life from beginning to end, the image of the sunrise coupled with that of an ultimate goal at "the mountain" implies that the journey moves forward to it's own beginning- this idea will be make more sense at the end of this analysis- so keep it in the back of your mind as you continue to read.

Living one long sunrise
For to me all things are new
I've never watched the sky grow pale
Or strolled through fields of dew
I do not know of dust to dust
I live from breath to breath
I live to climb that mountain
To the Fountain of Lamneth

This next verse speaks of an outlook on life we normally associate with the young- the idea that everything is new, the lack of knowledge and/or fear of a (usually) distant end in death "I do not know of dust to dust," and the general approach of living in the moment "I live from breath to breath." Even here in this time of innocence, something tugs at us and inspires us to move forward to a goal we do not necessarily understand "I live to climb that mountain" - and we introduce the allusion to the fountain of youth "To the Fountain of Lamneth."

The image of "a mountain in the east" also contains a thinly veiled literary reference to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy- which, to an extent, parallels similar references made by one of Rush's major influences of their early days- Led Zeppelin. In Tolkien's world, "the east" is home to the trilogy's powerful villain- and is the ultimate goal of the main character's quest- to face death in the east in their attempt to save their civilization. This reference foreshadows the inevitable and of any life journey- in death. This end, however, is still very distant, and while the thought of death may already have been introduced, youthful innocence allows us to ignore or dismiss it.

Part II - Didacts and Narpets

Part two of the piece is titles "Didacts and Narpets" - and is composed mainly of a drum solo, with interjections by the guitar and bass that accent the spoken/shouted lyrics. The solo is at an almost frantic pace, and gives a tone of conflict. The title is the key to understanding how this section of the work fits with into the whole. Drummer/Lyricist Neil Peart explained the meaning himself in a 1991 news release to the "Rush Backstage Club" in the quote "Okay, I may have answered this before, but if not, the shouted words in that song represent an argument between Our Hero and the Didacts and Narpets - teachers and parents. I honestly can't remember what the actual words were, but they took up opposite positions like: 'Work! Live! Earn! Give!' and like that." In support of this, the word "didact" means teacher, and the made-up word "narpets" is an anagram for the word "parents" - so this part of the song cycle represents an argument or conflict with the most prevalent authority figures of our childhood and teenage years- our teachers and our parents.

Stay! Go!
Work! No!
Learn! Live!
Earn! Give!
Stay or fight? What's right?

"Diacts and Narpets" is clearly more than just a drum solo with strange voices shouting over it when viewed from this perspective. It represents the later stages of childhood when we live in a world dominated by the rules given to us by our parents, and laid down by our teachers. We gain knowledge and understanding, but at the same time gain the confidence and insight to form our own opinions, and stand up for our own beliefs. We may also lack the experience needed to know when we are wrong, or to deal effectively with people who have different opinions. This phase of life naturally brings a tendency to rebel against authority as we learn to follow our own path rather than one dictated by someone else. These factors lead to an inevitable conflict of interests such as the one depicted here.

Part III - No One at the Bridge

"No One at the Bridge" moves on to the next stage of the allegorical journey through life- it uses nautical imagery to depict the trials and tribulations of young adulthood, and the feelings of helplessness that often accompany our first experiences as independent adults. Musically, the piece is dark and brooding- capturing a feel of impending doom. As the song progresses, the music intensifies as the lyrics depict progressively greater levels of distress and desperation. The song ends with a mournful guitar solo that also captures the spirit of this dark phase in life- alternately soaring, and brooding.

Crying back to consciousness
The coldness grips my skin
The sky is pitching violently
Drawn by shrieking winds
Seaspray blurs my vision
Waves roll by so fast
Save my ship of freedom
I'm lashed helpless to the mast

The first verse paints a picture of a stormy, troubled sea- representing the pitfalls and troubles we begin to face as we become independent. This is a point in life when we first take control of our own destinies, but, as most of us quickly learn, life is more like a dangerous storm at sea- throwing troubles at us that make it hard to predict what is coming next "seaspray blurs my vision" and we begin to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of responsibility "waves roll by so fast" to the point of being paralyzed with helplessness "I'm lashed helpless to the mast."

Remembering when first I held
The wheel in my own hands
I took the helm so eagerly
And sailed for distant lands
But now the sea's too heavy
And I just...I just don't understand
Why must my crew desert me?
When I need...I need a guiding hand...

When we first strike out on our own, there is a great sense of relief that we are finally the masters of our own lives- no more "diacts and narpets" to tell us no! We often begin this part of our lives with a great sense of adventure and wanderlust "I took the helm so eagerly," and dive into life with little regard for danger, often going places and doing things far removed from our previous experiences "and sailed for distant lands." All too often life throws us problems that we are not prepared to deal with "but now the sea's too heavy, and I just... I just don't understand" - and we falter. Life may teach us tough lessons in this stage, the people that were always there to support and help us (those diacts and narpets again) may no longer be there to pick us up when we fall or give us advice, and we may feel abandoned "why must my crew desert me? when I need... I need a guiding hand," or even betrayed as we reach out for help - tied down and adrift in a sea of troubles we do not know how to address. This is the "sink or swim" period of our life.

Call out for direction
And there's no one there to steer
Shout out for salvation
But there's no one there to hear
Cry out supplication
For the maelstrom is near
Scream out desperation
But no one cares to hear

This is one of life's most difficult lessons- that independence, while it seems to be something we can't wait to achieve, also means having to face difficulties independently- even if they are completely overwhelming, and we are completely unprepared to handle them. We can call out for help, but independence also means that no one else is obliged to help you "but there's no one there to hear" - since they are usually facing their own problems. We may grow desperate, and resent the very independence we once craved- and face the classic saying "be careful what you wish for, you may get it" - that independence means facing danger with no guarantee of help "scream out desperation, but no one cares to hear."

As a standalone song, I feel that "No One at the Bridge" is the strongest work in the entire piece. Other sections may feel more connected to the overarching concept, but this one stands out when each piece is considered a separate entity. While it is poetic in nature, and relies heavily on symbolism, the symbols and images depicted are very clear and easy to relate to, and are complemented perfectly by the brooding mood swings of the music that goes with the words.

Part IV - Panacea

Panacea is presented as a love song- primarily driven by acoustic guitar and a more mellow, cleaner electric guitar sound than we've heard since the intro to part I. The song picks up the loose narrative where "No One at the Bridge" leaves off.

The whiteness of confusion
Is unfolding from my mind
I stare around in wonder
Have I left my life behind?

The first part of the opening verse seems to depict the aftermath of the troubles from part III - "the whiteness of confusion" seems to refer back to the line "Seaspray blurs my vision." The calm nature of the music seems to indicate a peaceful lull- perhaps the "ship" from part III was wrecked, and we are in the calm after the storm. It often seems the same way in life after facing a major life shaking problem- successfully or not, what comes next seems calm and comforting in comparison- perhaps from wisdom gained from our past troubles. That same calm may come with a nagging feeling that we've lost our way, and are no longer on the path we once chose "have I left my life behind?"

I catch the scent of ambergris
And turn my head, surprised
My gaze is caught and held and I
Am helpless...mesmerized

As often happens in life, things that can alter your path come as a surprise. "I catch the scent of ambergris" - Ambergris is a fragrant substance produced by whales (continuing the nautical motif), that was once commonly used in high-end cosmetics. Often, a lifelong relationship can start with a single gaze returned from across a room "my gaze is caught and held and I, am helpless...mesmerized." We may struggle to find ourselves as young adults for success, for love, or other goals like a battered ship tossed in a stormy sea, but we often find what we're looking for when we least expect it- when we think we are at our most lost and alone, in the aftermath of some bad event- perhaps we've given up trying. These are the times when love has a way of finding us, and our lives are changed as we enter the next phase of life, and consider settling down, starting a family, and planting our roots.

Panacea, liquid grace
Oh let me touch your fragile face
Enchantment falls around me
And I know I cannot leave

The word "panacea" has it's origins in ancient Greek mythology- Panacea was the goddess of healing and recuperation. The word has entered the English language, and is used to refer to a medicine that cures any injury or illness. This implies the the blossoming love depicted here is the comfort and cure we've been seeking, and have been denied since our time with our didacts and narpets. This comfort is so compelling that we are drawn into it seemingly not by choice "enchantment falls around me" and overtakes us no matter how much we may want to continue our youthful wandering "and I know I cannot leave."

Here's a meaning for my life
A shelter from the storm
Pacify my troubles with
Her body, soft and warm

We feel a sense of belonging that we've been missing for our entire adult life "here's a meaning for my life." There is peace and solace- perhaps a reward for our earlier trials and tribulations.

Naked in our unity
A smile for every tear
Gentle hands that promise me
Comfort through the years

The allusion to Greek mythology also brings to mind Homer's "Odyssey" - specifically the portion where Odysseus' quest to return home across a perilous sea is interrupted by the nymph Calypso. Calypso imprisoned him as her lover for seven years- his journey towards his ultimate goal derailed (at least temporarily) for love (at least in the figurative sense).

Yet I know I must be gone
Before the light of dawn

A long-reaching, compelling goal (the Fountain) can still wear away at us. A lifelong resolve to reach a goal or destination is a powerful force, that can nag at us even when we are at our most comfortable. In Homer's Odyssey- Odysseus chafed against Calypso's advances- his quest was more important than love or lust.

Panacea, passion pure
I can't resist your gentle lure
My heart will lie beside you
And my wandering body grieves

Here it is unclear if the protagonist in our song cycle has chosen to stay, or to travel on, but it is clear that there are conflicting desires here "My heart will lie beside you, and my wandering body grieves." Perhaps this means he's moved on, and "my wandering body grieves" refers to regret over leaving a situation of comfort and happiness- or perhaps it is regret for abandoning his wanderlust.

Part V - Bacchus Plateau

"Bacchus Plateau" is a mid tempo piece with a soft rock feel that centers musically around a simple guitar riff that interplays with a more intricate bass line in an almost playful manner. The song represents a move into old age- where we are more set in our ways, and are usually living out our lives contentedly- at a plateau- even and steady but not really advancing. "Bacchus" is another mythology reference- the Roman God of wine and revelry. Old age may typically be more low key- but it is typically a time in our life when we have completed our more active labors, and we "revel" in our retirement and end of some the more difficult responsibilities of our lives- something we probably celebrate in some way.

Another endless day
Silhouettes of grey
Another glass of wine
Drink with eyes that shine
To days without that chill at morning
Long nights time out of mind

Days may seem to meld together as we drift through the rest of our lives. We've left the excitements of our earlier lives behind, and are resigned to lazy days "another endless day, silhouettes of grey" and simple pleasures "another glass of wine."

Draw another goblet
From the cask of '43
Crimson misty memory
Hazy glimpse of me
Give me back my wonder
I've something more to give
I guess it doesn't matter
There's not much more to live

From time to time, the passage of endless days may be interrupted by fond memories of our glory days that are no longer as clear as they once were thanks to the effects of time and age- "crimson misty memories, hazy glimpse of me." This comes with the occasional desire to recapture the sense of adventure and purpose of youth "give me back my wonder, I've something more to give." The ravages of time on this resolve, however, seem to take a heavy toll, and we once again feel resigned to our fate - "I guess it doesn't matter" and we begin to come to grips with out own mortality and understand that our life is coasting towards it's inevitable end- "There's not much more to live."

Another foggy dawn
The mountain almost gone
Another doubtful fear
The road is not so clear
My soul grows ever weary
And the end is ever near

As we progress through our old age, we realize that we are close to the end of our journey "the mountain almost gone" - and we may fear for ever reaching our elusive Fountain, or doubt that we still have the capacity to complete the journey "another doubtful fear, the road is not so clear." As the journey nears it's end, the weight of the world wears us down "my soul grows ever weary, and the end is ever near." This allusion draws another parallel to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" - as the hero of that story approaches his goal, he feels increasingly weighed down, to the point where he can barely move without help, much like a person in old age who's health is beginning to falter.

Part VI - The Fountain

The journey comes to end with "The Fountain" and the goal is revealed. Remember the seemingly odd and out of place idea that the goal is a beginning? Read on and you will begin to understand.

Musically, "The Fountain" is a reprise of "In the Valley" with one main difference (aside from the lyrics)- here the quiet, acoustic intro is skipped, and we go right into the harder edged main theme. The quiet intro is not completely removed though- it is instead used as the ending to the song cycle.

Look! The mist is rising
And the sun is peaking through
See the steps grow lighter
As I reach their final few
Hear the dancing waters
I must be drawing near
Feel, my heart is pounding
With embattled hope and fear

Here, the fog of age seems to lift - "look! the mist is rising" - in spite of adversity, in spite of pleasant distractions taking us off course, and despite of the weariness and indifference of old age, we draw close to the elusive Fountain. Whatever end that proves to be is something both to be happy for, and afraid of- "with embattled hope and fear"

Now, at last I fall before
The Fountain of Lamneth
I thought I would be singing
But I'm tired...out of breath
Many journeys end here
But, the secret's told the same
Life is just a candle and a dream
Must give it flame

The above phrase holds the secret- we have arrived at the fountain- in the beginning we thought it would be a moment of triumph, but instead it is a moment of exhaustion- "I thought I would be singing, but I'm tired... out of breath." Now that we can see the goal, it is revealed that this is something many people have achieved- "many journeys end here, but the secret's told the same."

The last phrases of this passage are the most important, and most powerful of the entire song cycle- "Life is just a candle and a dream, must give it flame." The fountain is not a real place, or a real goal in itself- it is a realization into the nature and purpose of life. That life itself is not the important part- the important part is to act as a steward for the "flame" that is that kernel of a dream or inspiration that set us on this path when we were very young. The flame is the thing that really holds life- we are only the candle that carries it. It is only natural that the journey should end at the fountain, and this realization, even though the quest seemed abandoned, forgotten, and out of reach. The fountain represents the realization at the end of life that the ideas and dreams we carry through that life are a life unto their own that are larger and more far reaching than any mere mortal shell can be. The fountain is the moment of death, made meaningful by achieving this moment of enlightenment. Like the flame of any candle, this greater life can survive after the candle is gone, by being passed to another candle, or igniting other fuel. That is the purpose of the quest- not to reach a destination (the end is death, you will end up there in any case) but to make the journey, and keep the flame alive to pass it's light and warmth to others.

The key, the end, the answer
Stripped of their disguise
Still it's all confusion
And tears spring to my eyes
Though I've reached a signpost
It's really not the end
Like Old Sol behind the mountain
I'll be coming up again

Here the end comes- but the moment of enlightenment means that this end is yet another beginning- "it's really not the end." Remember the lyrics of "In the Valley" - the image of sunrise over a mountain in the east- here we become "like Old Sol behind the mountain" - perhaps in this moment, the "flame" becomes the next sunrise that shines down on a new life, and ignites in it the spark to reach the mountain- the dream and the idea live on in those touched by the new sunrise in an analog for reincarnation- "I'll be coming up again."

I'm in motion
I am still
I am crying
I am...still
I'm together
I'm apart
I'm forever
At the start

Still...I am

The music segues into the quiet acoustic guitar figure heard at the very beginning of this tale. The lyrics outline the transition from life into death "I'm in motion, I am still." In death, motion stops, and do not ever "go" anywhere again, but we've become the start of a new journey- or at least our transcendent dream has "I'm forever, at the start." In that respect, we still exist past death in the way we inspire others, and impart some portion of our dreams and desires into them.  "Still... I am"

The song ends with a guitar chord that fades in, then sharply fades out- which mimics the doppler effect and gives the impression of something moving on past you at high speed- perhaps the soul of our protagonist moving out of this life (and back to a new beginning).

The reprise of music from the very beginning of the song cycle supports this figurative reincarnation idea. We've reached the goal, and musically, it sounds exactly like the beginning of our journey. Modern technology allows us to test how well this cyclical theory holds- if you have the song on cd or as an audio file, load it into your favorite player, and set it to repeat. It somehow seems fitting when you get to the ending, then hear the same acoustic guitar part start again paired with the "birth" lyrics of "In the Valley" The ending is meant to be the musical "top of the mountain" - beyond it naturally, is a new valley that leads up to another mountain.

So all this lengthy discussion of "The Fountain of Lamneth" brings us, again, back to the beginning. With this much effort and care put into it's construction, why was the entire album such a relative failure?

Personally, I think it has more to do with the rapid change in direction. A twenty minute epic is not an easy pill to swallow- especially when it spends more time with softer, calmer tones than the entire previous album did- coupled with the fact that the fan-base was primarily interested in more pulse-pounding music. Also add in the fact that "The Fountain of Lamneth" does not follow an obvious narrative like a conventional short story would. The narrative elements are there, but they are presented more as an epic poem than conventional prose- making the overarching story hard to follow for the casual listener. The breaks between each section of the song may also mislead the casual listener into confusion- are these separate songs, or are they supposed to be one unified piece?

Other outside factors contributed to the failure of "Caress of Steel" - the album is very uneven- the opening three songs are standard rock songs in the style of Led Zeppelin. While "Bastille Day" is the standout of the three, it's clear that the band's main focus was on the epic track- as a matter of fact- it's really two epic tracks. The album also contained "The Necromancer" - a twelve minute fantasy tale told in a more narrative, linear short-story format- making the album an even more difficult pill to swallow. The album was intended to be the next great progressive rock breakthrough, but in the end, came off as a mixed bag of material split between conventional rock, fantasy prose, and a massive epic poem. When viewed as a whole, it almost looks and sounds like a compilation of different bands- as if Rush went through all the stages of transformation from a conventional rock band to seasoned prog rockers over the course of the album's writing period.

Production problems only added to the confusion- the version of the album released on cassette tape (does anyone remember those things?) had the "Didacts and Narpets" switching positions with the song "I Think I'm Going Bald" leaving the tape and out-of-order mess. This was, supposedly, the work of the record company in an ill-conceived attempt to even out the length of both sides of the tape to limited wasted tape in production.

However, I still feel the "The Fountain of Lamneth" is a very under-appreciated piece of music. While I think it could flow a little better, and could have benefited from a less vague transition between "Panacea" and "Bacchus Plateau" - it is a well thought out, imaginative, and fascinating example of mid-seventies progressive rock, and a must listen. I am certain others will have differing interpretations of the piece- but this is not a bad thing- art is meant to have multiple meanings.

The failure of "Caress of Steel" to produce strong sales, and the poor critical reaction to it almost spelled the end for Rush - their record company was not happy with the sales figures at all. The album, released in 1975, only reached RIAA "Gold" status in 1993 - 18 years. They demanded that the band produce more conventional material on their next album- radio-friendly songs, no more sword and sorcery lyrics, short three minute songs aimed at putting a hit on the top 40 list, and other such things. This proved, however, to be a new beginning for the band- they ignored the record company demands- figuring that if they were going to go out, they might as well go out with a bang, and produced a follow up album "2112" that featured an even longer epic science fiction themed story. The record company changed their tune when "2112" proved to be the smashing success the band hoped to achieve with "Caress of Steel" - becoming one of the most iconic examples of progressive rock in the history of the genre, and paving the way for the band's amazing 35+ year run that still continues today with no end in sight yet.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

This is Spinal Tap (1984) - the mockumentary to end all mockumentaries...

Unless you've been living under a rock since the 70s, you probably know the inspiration for the title of this blog. I shouldn't have to explain much about the film, or why it's important to rock music, and popular culture in general- but sadly, there are a lot of people who have never seen it, and go around using pithy catchphrases like "this one goes to eleven" without actually knowing why. So any of you younger people out there who have never seen the movie- stop reading now, and go rent a copy, or buy a copy, or do whatever you do to see it online, then come back and read the rest of this post. You won't regret it. If you have seen the movie- you won't need to read this post, but you will anyway just to share a few laughs, and relive a few funny moments with me.

For those of you that don't know- This is Spinal Tap is a "mockumentary" about a fictional has-been British band touring the US to promote their upcoming album. The band is basically reviled by critics, and nowhere near as popular as they think they are. The movie pokes fun at "rockumentary" films, the music industry, the stereotypes associated with hard rock/heavy metal bands, and anything else that gets in it's way. The movie depicts the fictional band in an array of absurd situations- most of which have an uncanny resemblance to real life incidents that actually happened to many popular bands.

The file is the brainchild of it's stars Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (as Nigel Tufnel), and Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls), along with director Rob Reiner. McKean, Guest, and Shearer made many public appearances in their Spinal Tap personas- and even went so far as to produce several Spinal Tap albums to act as a companion to the film- much like Sacha Baron Cohen's media blitzes in support of his film "Borat". They have periodically returned to their "Tap" roles for since then- and continues making albums to the point where they can be considered a legitimate (but goofy) band.

The movie was a small success when it first ran in theaters, but rapidly became a cult classic phenomenon- many quotes and gags quickly became a part of pop culture, and even music industry culture. Frequently, a band that takes itself too seriously will be referred to as being "very Spinal Tap" by their peers.

One scene that has become a major pop-culture hit is, of course, the "this goes to eleven" scene.

This scene is referenced in movies, music, video games, and even in general conversation. It could be considered one of the most influential comedic scenes in film history.

The "lost backstage" scene is one that several real-life bands have said they've experienced. The 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage contains a slightly humorous sequence where two of the members of Rush wander around the Toronto suburbs trying to find the place where they played their first live show. While the scene is not as direct comparison, the riff on the idea of "the band can't find the way to the gig" idea still comes off as a (possibly unintentional) homage to Spinal Tap.

The "stonehenge" scene is allegedly based on an actual problem that happened on Black Sabbath's 1983 Born Again Tour. The band wanted a 15 foot tall stonehenge replica as part of their stage set- however, at some point when the dimensions were written down, "feet" turned into "meters" (a British thing no doubt), and the band ended up with a 45 foot tall monument that was too big to fit inside (or through the doors of) any venue on the tour so only a few pieces were used. The tour also featured a dwarf in a demonic costume. Some sources claim that the mishap-filled 1983 Born Again tour was the inspiration for Spinal Tap- however, other sources reveal that this scene was written, and a demo film of it was made a year before. Sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction.

Spinal Tap's undersized Stonehenge monument descends to the stage

Only the top section of Black Sabbath's oversize Stonehenge could fit on stage
One of the running gags in the movie is the "Smell the Glove" album itself-  the band's original cover art concept was considered too sexist by the record company (the description is loosely based on actual racy album covers by bands such as Whitesnake's "Lovehunter" or The Scorpions' "Lovedrive"). The record company then surprised the band by printing the album cover completely black with no writing on it. This pokes fun at some of the album cover trends of the time- both in the description of the original cover, and the modified cover, which has no identifying lettering on it- mimics the tactic used by Led Zeppelin for their classic fourth album. The band Metallica later released their own "Black Album" featuring an all-black cover, but with slightly off-black lettering, as a tribute to Spinal Tap. Metallica went one step further and lampooned a scene from the film in their own documentary "A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica" while debating details of their own album art. McKean, Guest, and Shearer making a guest appearance as Spinal Tap in the scene as well, erasing any doubts about the inspiration for the Metallica cover.

The movie lampoons nearly every aspect of the music business, and the often crazy situations encountered by bands on the road. Several bands have stated that they the movie could have easily been about their own experiences. "Hey, that's about us" was a common first reaction amongst touring musicians when the movie first came out.

"This is Spinal Tap" is a classic, and a must-see for any die-hard music fan. I've only touched on all the gags and funny moments in the film- and honestly, if you haven't seen it by now, something just isn't right!