Hospital On A Hill

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The Clearinghouse continues, with Hospital On A Hill

Get it at:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/484591

Hospital On A Hill test copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember that everything released in the month of October is pay what you want, which means that if you are short on funds you can pay nothing if you want. What’s that Lassie? There’s no excuse not to download copies of everything I’m putting out? It’s true, pups, but when did you learn to speak perfect English?

More stuff on the way, including a big release on Halloween. Stay tuned!

 

9th Street Blues

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The Clearinghouse begins:  9th Street Blues, a short piece about a boy, his bicycle, his father’s drugs, and the second Dust Bowl, is out now on Smashwords/everywhere.

9th Street Blues (2) test copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get it here:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/482608

Description:  Tommy spends his days riding his bicycle on the dust-drifted streets of Woodward, Oklahoma, delivering the chemical compositions of his adoptive father Sal to the few customers that remain. The fields pull up little but dust and poison, and the majority of the citizens have departed for greener pastures in resurgent post-war California. On his last day as bicycle courier/drug mule, Tommy makes his rounds – but with one vital difference. 9th Street Blues originally won the top prize in Chapterfy’s inaugural short story contest.

 

The October Clearinghouse

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The traditional publishing industry is a tough go, isn’t it?  Books that would sell twenty years ago are now getting passed up in favour of retreads of books that are proven sales magnets.  That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing – it’s just the way the industry works now.  You can’t blame a business for making business decisions, after all.  I hang out on writer’s forums and I see a lot of writers kvetching about how no one wants to take chances or produce “art”.  The industry isn’t in the business of producing art, they’re in the business of making a profit – something that is damn hard to chase after these days, and is getting harder all the time.  It’s not like books are the hot entertainment medium du jour, after all; in fact, in terms of the major forms of entertainment, I wouldn’t be shocked if they came in dead last.

This is all just a long-winded justification for my making the decision to self-release my second novel, Prospero’s Half-Life, on Halloween.  I’ve been told by a few that it’s good, but it’s not what the industry is looking for in terms of it’s post-apocalyptic tastes.  That is, it’s not the Creed to Divergent‘s Bush, and it’s not by someone with a track record of magazine sales (as are several of this fall’s wave of literary post-apoc).  Too much Algis Budrys, not enough Veronica Roth, as it turns out.  In the past this would be what is quaintly termed a “trunk novel”, but these days there’s little point in stuffing it into a trunk and letting dust gather on it.  There are people out there that will enjoy it, and for them I’ll put it out there.

In addition, I’ll be putting out a few shorter pieces – the kind that are a little too long for an obscure author to sell to the magazines, 10,000 + words.  The first of these I’ll be announcing in a post shortly.

Sample Chapter of Disappearance, For Fun and Profit

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Just as a reminder, I have a book for sale, you can access a link to it in the Books page to your left.  People like it.  You probably will too, unless you get squeamish about the darker aspects of human existence.

A sample chapter is available here:  http://goo.gl/qJWSLH

The book itself is available here:  http://goo.gl/JMC22k

 

It Takes An Ocean Not To Break: A Guide To The National

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The National are a band that filter the mischances of love through a thick layer of whiskey in an upscale Soho bar.  Transplanted from Cincinnati at the end of the 1990s, the band members came to New York mostly to chase the dot-com boom that was still a viable way to make good money as a designer.  In between their regular jobs, they had regular lives filled with regular human relationships – meaning there was light and darkness in equal measures, love and infidelity, lust and long walks on the arc-sodium-glittered city streets late at night.  Even after they found enough success to quit their jobs and pursue their music full-time, this basic conceit never changed.  They are a band obsessed with the deep problems of stable people:  growing old, losing the wild days of youth, finding and losing love, getting too drunk too often and wondering where your life is headed.  This is the same territory mined by Tom Waits, but the National play it straight, avoiding the gutter and crafting lush, graceful creations instead of pushing the envelope.  They’re also a perfect example of a band’s struggles along the way to success.  When they put out their first album, way back at the end of the dot-com bubble, they thought that it was their ticket to stardom.  When they began playing strings of shows to audiences that ranged from little to none, they realized that success in music, especially in the age of p2p software and the share-everything culture of the internet, is a product of luck, talent, and heaps of hard work.  They possessed all three in spades; by the time Trouble Will Find Me was released in 2013, debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200 was old hat.  The path between, however, is one of the greatest success stories in modern indie rock.

 

THE NATIONAL (2001)

After two years of individually playing free shows at the Luna Lounge on the Lower East Side, The National put together a debut album that was partially indebted to the country-tinged pop of Wilco and the Jayhawks, but also very much a beacon for where the band would go throughout the first decade of the 21st Century.  Matt Berninger sang like an on-tune Tom Waits, spinning sodden tales of love and lust through the whiskey-soaked lens of reclaimed Americana.  Some at the time dismissed them derisvely as being a bar band; what they should have recognized was that the band simply played songs that seemed most at home in the hopeless crush of a neighbourhood bar.  Songs like “Cold Girl Fever” and “American Mary” are unmistakably The National; “29 Years” was reused later on Boxer‘s “Slow Show”.  Before they made the album they’d never played live together as a unit; they told Drowned In Sound that the album was the sound of them making introductions to each other.  Afterwards they went out on tour with stars in their eyes; thinking that they’d earned the right to play out their dreams on tour, they played to very small crowds throughout the U.S., including one show in Orange County that was attended by precisely no one but the venue’s staff.

SAD SONGS FOR DIRTY LOVERS (2003)

Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers would be the first band with multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner  and producer Peter Katis, and would have the overall bones of the sound that they would perfect on their subsequent four LPs.  After the Wilco-studded bar-country of their debut, the band expanded their horizons into what they termed “a pastiche of…different genres”.  Their second album remains their most experimental, featuring codas that go on for whole fifths of songs, synth moments, and some rather intense hard rock moments from Matt Berninger, who would never after go as hard as he did on “Slipping Husband” or “Available”.  While they stuck primarily to the country-rock forms of their first album, indie folkists Red House Painters and then-critical darlings The Shins are other apparent influences throughout.  Lyrically the album is exactly as advertised on the tin:  Berninger spins sad stories of infidelity and relationship holding patterns.  “Slipping Husband” relates a man getting lost in himself, dreaming of an important life he feels he should have had while his wife gets lonely and finds comfort outside their marriage.  “Murder Me Rachael” is an exercise in self-castigation (or maybe admittance of violence) after seeing a lover with someone else.  “Available” wakes up the morning after and wonders if it’s been used.  “Trophy Wife” and “Cardinal Eyes” share a similar sentiment, about sleeping with the wild wives of unknown men.  Unlike later albums, however, when the band slows down here they tend to wander off into boredom, especially on “90-Mile Water Wall”, “Thirsty”, and “Patterns of Fairytales”.  Still, there was enough strong tracks on the album to make the critics sit up and take notice; Uncut and the Chicago Tribune would place it in their year-end lists and Hipster Bible Pitchfork reviewed it favourably.  More importantly, people were turning out to shows, particularly in France where the band was picking up a following.

CHERRY TREE (EP) (2004)

Cherry Tree is the point the band credits as their turning point, the moment where their sound as The National came together.  Certainly the first three songs – “Wasp Nest”, “All Dolled-Up In Straps”, and “All The Wine” (which would be recast on Alligator) are all top-notch indications of the glory that would be due the band by the next year.  “Cherry Tree” and “About Today” both outlast their welcome by a wide margin, however, and “Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind)” gets over that only by liberal usage of violinist Padma Newsome.  The live version of “Murder Me Rachael” is nice enough but largely unessential.  While the actual EP is so-so, it did get them a spot on tour with The Walkmen, who were riding on the success of “The Rat”; the tour would also see them signed to UK tastemakers Beggars Banquet, who would release their breakthrough follow-up.

ALLIGATOR (2005)

The band’s first album for Beggars Banquet is their breakthrough, and it’s a major leap forward for them.  It’s on Alligator that you can hear The National, as they were meant to be:  slow-burning songs that verge on being hymns at times, drum-driven, mournful tracks about doomed relationships, exhausting materialism, and the propulsive power of love.  Matt Berninger’s lyrics fall flat here and there, but they still display a certain sort of power, the kind of feeling you get on the city streets after the bars let out and you realize that you’ve grown tired of the hard pavement and the harder hearts of the yearning couples that surround you.  They are very much lonely songs; “Well, whatever you do, listen, you better wait for me / No, I wouldn’t go out alone into America” he sings on “Karen”, before collapsing and saying “Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink, I’ve lost direction and I’m past my peak”.  “Val Jester” warns that “you should have looked after her better / you should have looked after her more / you should have locked the door”, while he murmurs “Break my arms around the one I love and be forgiven by the time my lover comes” on “Daughters of the Soho Riots”.  “Abel” and “Mr. November” are the most uptempo tracks on the album; “Abel” questions its writer’s sanity, while “Mr. November” was originally written for John Kerry and became an anthem for Barack Obama’s initial 2008 Presidential run.  A lot of the anxiety and loneliness on the album stems from the band’s changing fortunes; they quit their jobs to focus on writing, recording, and touring behind the album, and the free-fall that they found themselves in drove them into a sort of paranoid state.  By the time the next album would arrive, that anxiety would pay off huge dividends.

BOXER (2007)

Boxer is where it all comes together – this is The National, and it’s the sound they would spend the subsequent two albums perfecting.  To be truthful, their sound arrives perfect to begin with; there isn’t a mediocre song on here, and more than a few people have suggested that it is at the very least among the best albums of the 2000s and quite possibly among the greatest albums ever released.  The band’s newfound mastery of it’s particularly soaring form of indie rock is evident from the beginning:  the dual-time-signature piano measure that opens “Fake Empire” leads slowly into an orgasmic drum sequence and a post-coital coda whose swirling instrumentation can be best described as utopian.  “Mistaken For Strangers” was the band’s strongest uptempo number to date, and was used in any number of pop-cultural moments (including an advertising campaign for the UK version of Skins).  The string arrangments found throughout (especially at the end of “Brainy” and “Squalor Victoria”) add a baroque nature to the songs that counterbalances the mournful baritone Berninger brings to his usual tales of fading or faded love.  There’s a sense that youth is slipping away through the album.  “Guest Room” is my favourite for this:  “We miss being ruffians, going wild and bright / In the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars / We miss being deviants”.  “Green Gloves” has another moment like this:  “Falling out of touch with all my / friends are somewhere getting wasted / Hope they’re staying glued together / I have arms for them”.  Sufjan Stevens shows up in two places – “Racing Like A Pro” and one of the album’s lesser-referenced highlights, “Ada”.  One thing that’s always stood out to me about Boxer – and to a somewhat lesser extent about their two following albums – is how much of a drummer’s record this is.  The drums are light and quick, but they hit hard and carry more of the songs than is typical with indie rock.  They form a snappy undercurrent that sets the album – and the band – apart from their contemporaries just as much as Berninger’s baritone does.

Boxer is also my wife’s favourite album, full disclosure.

THE VIRGINIA EP (2008)

An odds-n-sods collection comprised of B-sides, demos, and live tracks, The Virginia EP is better than it really has a right to be.  The Boxer sessions were obviously a hotbed of great songs, since “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia”, “Santa Clara”, “Blank Slate”, and “Without Permission” are all winners.  The demos are decent, if rather lo-fi and half-finished, but the live tracks are another real strength of this EP.  The Daytrotter Session of “Lucky You” adds some reverb to the original arrangement that breathes new life into it and reminds people who got on circa Boxer that The National existed well before Alligator.  The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion On The Hill” seems tailor-made for the band as well, and they acquit themselves well in their live version of it.  Most mop-up compilations are unessential and The Virginia EP is no different, but it’s a trifle better than most.

HIGH VIOLET (2010)

From Beggars Banquet to Beggars Group, courtesy of new label 4AD, and from critical acclaim to commercial success:  the backstory of High Violet is the story of a band in motion.  Boxer capitalized on the curiosity brought about by Alligator to debut on Billboard at #68.  High Violet had the pure goodwill generated by Boxer to jump off of, and it debuted at #3.  The album would create a huge amount of critical praise as well, and with good reason.  High Violet is easily the equal of Boxer, if not the superior album.  Point to a less-than-stellar song here – you can’t, because there isn’t one.  Every song has hooks that bite in deep and don’t let go, most of them driven by the snippets of Berninger’s lyrics that take up residence inside of your head.  “Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won” he sings on the aptly named “Sorrow”, and it sounds as though you’re listening to a contemporary short story writer sketch out another classic tale of urban ennui.  This is the closest comparison point to the songs on High Violet – they are tales of modern life in the city when you’re sort of well-off and chasing the kind of life you think you’re supposed to have.  They’re songs about stable people, and the unstable feelings they have in the pursuit of that stability.  “Livin’ and dyin’ in New York it means nothing to me,” Berninger sings on “Lemonworld”, “I gave my heart to the Army/The only sentimental thing I could think of/With cousins and cousins somewhere overseas/But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”.  Elsewhere, he admits to being afraid of everyone and not having the drugs to sort it out, gets obstinante about being led into the flood, and gets carried back to Ohio on a swarm of bees.  There’s a richness of detail that outdoes everything the band accomplished before, and by the end of “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks” there’s a sense that you’ve just listened to an album people will still be putting on and studying thirty years hence.

TROUBLE WILL FIND ME (2013)

A lot of bands will take success as a sign to change up the way they do things; the fabled Breakthrough Album is typically the moment where everything switches gears, for better or for worse.  For The National, though, the mainstream breakthrough of High Violet was a sign to double down on their sound.  Trouble Will Find Me is a refinement of the sound that they’ve been developing in earnest since Boxer, and to a lesser extent since their 2001 debut.  These are lush songs, simple on the surface because of the space that Berninger’s baritone takes up but possessed of a dizzying array of subtle details.  Some of these are instrumental – the woodwinds, the strings, the carefully crafted tone of the piano.  Some are the impressive guests – Sufjan Stevens shows up of course, but contemporary indie darlings St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and Richard Reed Perry of Arcade Fire.  The first five songs on the album are as unimpeachable as anything on either Boxer or High Violet.  Opener “I Should Live In Salt” harkens back to Berninger’s days of self-castigation (this time with his brother Tom in mind, in a preview of the 2013 documentary Mistaken For Strangers), but it glides by on such a slowly soaring wave that it’s hard to feel bad for him.  Lead single “Sea of Love” is as driving a number as they’ve ever written, and it constrasts nicely against the more relaxed pace of “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap”.  “I Need My Girl” and “Pink Rabbits” are both modern classics that bolster the last half of the album against some moments that drag a bit – mostly on “Heavenfaced”, “Slipped”, and “Hard To Find”. Aside from that, this is a remarkably consistent album that streamlines the band’s sound.  On previous albums the band spent much of the recording sessions arguing; these sessions were spearheaded by the Dessner brothers and were much more relaxed than usual.  Like its predecessor, Trouble Will Find Me debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, and met with widespread critical acclaim.  In the hands of a less talented band, an album like this would have engendered scorn and derision, with talk of diminishing returns and a dearth of creativity.  With The National, though, there is a sense that they’ve struck a rich vein of inspiration and are content to mine it for as long as is necessary.  Still, though, rumour has it that the band is changing up their songwriting process the next time around, so the next National album could be quite different.

 

 

 

Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang: A Guide to Metallica

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Metallica is the starter pack of metal.  Every 14 year old kid in the free world with darkcore inclinations and a penchant for marijuana gets introduced to Metallica, by their friends, their older siblings, their parents, and in some early-starting families, possibly even their grandparents.  They’re sufficiently edgy without actually possessing any edge, and they’re about as subtle as a hammer in the face (even in their quieter moments), so they’re perfect for raging balls of horomones.  All their friends will love them, too, so they’ll be a common link in that outcast group of proto-stoners gathering around the smoking pit outside your local high school.  One of those kids will be disdainful and claim that “real metal” lies in the death and black underground.  While that kid is right, they’re also kind of annoying.

When they got together, though, way way back in 1981, Kiss and Deep Purple were about as heavy as widely accepted mainstream rock got.  Sure, you had your Black Sabbaths and your Judas Priests as well, but they weren’t really “mainstream”, in the way you think of them now.  Hell, even punk rock was a strange and scary type of music back then, the sort of thing social outcasts, junkies, and psychos in back alleys and dank underground clubs listened to.  Nowadays every frat kid slaps on his Vans and goes out to Warped Tour, but back then (to paraphrase Social Distortion) if you listened to punk rock you were likely to get your ass beaten by frat kids.  Metal had a similar type of distinction.  If you listened to bands like Venom, or Saxon, or Metallica’s favoured Diamond Head, you were a greasy stoner lurking in shop class, ready to die in a drunken car accident or to become a petty criminal.  The long, unwashed hair and penchant for leather likely did not help in this regard.

So, in that fabled year, James Hetfield, son of Christian Scientists, answered an ad in The Recycler for a guitarist who could jam on some New Wave of British Heavy Metal – specifically Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden.  The man who placed the ad was Lars Ulrich, the Danish son of a pro tennis player and godson of jazz legend Dexter Gordon.  Ulrich had first been introduced to the power of rock and roll at the age of 9, when his father had used one of his five free passes to take his son to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen.  By the time he came to America, at the age of 17, he’d already been playing drums for five years. Somehow, despite this early start, he’s never quite figured out how to play them well.  Ha, I kid.  Sort of.  Hetfield and Ulrich began jamming and eventually reached out to find a lead guitarist.  When I say “eventually”, what I really mean is “because Lars asked the founder of Metal Blade Records if he could record a song for their upcoming Metal Massacre comp without actually having a band first”.  The guitarist they found was Dave Mustaine which, as anyone familiar with Mustaine knows, was a colossal mistake.  They also needed a name, of course, so Lars stole one.  Literally.  A friend of his was starting a metal zine and had two names picked out:  MetalMania and Metallica.  Lars told his friend that Metallica was a terrible name in order to turn around and nick it for his band.  Intellectual property theft is okay as long as you’re the one doing the theiving, right Lars?

Still, they recorded a song (“Hit The Lights”) and found a regular bassist in Ron McGovney.  They recorded a demo called Power Metal, which of course nowadays is the term for cheesy heavy metal about dragons but back then probably sounded pretty cool.  After cutting the demo they stumbled across a righteous dude by the name of Cliff Burton, who was playing bass in a local band.  Out went McGovney, in went Burton, and they would record a couple of further demos, including the famous tape-cassette circuit favourite, No Life ‘Til Leather.  Right Lars, trading music for free is only cool if you’re benefiting from it.  Finally a concert promoter by the name of Johny Zazula would sign them to his nascent Megaforce Records and the band would move to record their debut.

KILL ‘EM ALL (1983)

Look at the back of this album.  Look at it.  These guys are basically kids.  The acne hasn’t even left their faces yet.  They’re so amped up on their own youth and it comes across in the recording.  This is mile-a-minute heavy metal that would, a year later, be termed “thrash metal” by Kerrang!.  Hetfield’s voice hasn’t really come into it’s own yet, more of a strangled yelp than the Danzig-esque sing-shout he was going for, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t still a huge amount of power in it.  If you’re looking at the back of it, you’ll also notice that Kirk Hammett is there, and not Dave Mustaine.  The reason for this is that, while the band was in Rochester, NY recording the album (which was to be called Metal Up Your Ass, charmingly enough) Mustaine’s alcohol and drug addictions, as well as his penchant for being a complete belligerent asshole, became too much for the band to bear.  Now, think about this for a second.  This is a band that has been nicknamed “Alcoholica” and is legendary for the amount of booze they’ve ingested over the years.  For a band of complete alcoholics to kick out Mustaine for being too drunk should tell you a little something about Dave Mustaine.  Mustaine would go on to cry endlessly about this ‘betrayal’ for the rest of his career, despite his finding fame and fortune with his own band, Megadeth.  Hammett terk his jerb, stole all his guitar work, and on and on.  The first part of most of the solos are Mustaine’s work, of course, but Hammett trained under guitar wunderkind Joe Satriani and proved himself more than capable of filling the role.

As for the album itself, it and Slayer’s Show No Mercy are the birthplace of thrash metal.  Technically precise riffs, blazing guitar solos, relentless energy.  The band veered away from their contemporaries, however, by embracing a more punk rock-like attitude towards the lyrics at the same time as they nicked the speed and attitude from it.  Check out something like “Hit The Lights”, “Jump In The Fire”, and “Seek and Destroy”, and compare it to what Slayer or Iron Maiden (or, Christ, Mercyful Fate) were singing about at the time.  The band appealed to stoner kids who weren’t D&D nerds too, which gave them an important edge over their mystical, fantasy-obsessed brethern.  Still, there is something exhausting about the album; that relentless energy flags a bit when you’re no longer cruising on horomones and there’s little to break up the album dynamically, aside from a moody Cliff Burton bass solo partway through.  Plus, those drums.  I’m pretty sure you could replace Lars Ulrich with a well-programmed drum machine and no one would tell the difference.  Still, it did it’s job, and it provided a solid foundation for the quantum leap of their second album.

 

 

RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1984)

If the rating didn’t clue you in, here’s the thing:  I LOVE this album.  Unequivocally.  As far as thrash metal goes, it’s the tops, with Reign In Blood coming in a close second (and this album’s follow-up coming in third, natch).  This was a massive reinvention of what Metallica could accomplish, an admission that they were the best thing to ever exist in heavy metal.  Classical flourishes, harmonized leads, melodies, actual choruses, and, in “Fade To Black”, their first and best power ballad.  Themes.  There are themes here beyond Kill ‘Em All‘s dicta of “Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang”.  Most of the songs here deal with events spiralling out of one’s control, whether through nuclear war (the thrash epic “Fight Fire With Fire”), capital punishment for a crime you didn’t commit (“Ride The Lightning”), the horror of modern war (“For Whom The Bell Tolls”), suicide (“Fade To Black”), being “Trapped Under Ice”, “Escape”ing…I mean, you get the idea.  “Fight Fire With Fire”, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, and “Creeping Death” are the metal classics; “Fade To Black” starts off as a minor key ballad and gets blown wide open by Kirk Hammett’s masterful electric soloing; closing number “The Call of Ktulu” is a blown-out full-blown instrumental epic that signalled that this was a band that could conquer the world.  Hell, even Ulrich’s drumming is passable, although the sheer fury with which Hetfield carries the rhythm work probably helps in that regard.  Hetfield once said of this album that “You have 18 years to write your first album – and six months to write your second”.  They spent those six months well.

 

MASTER OF PUPPETS (1986)

Master of Puppets is Metallica’s last truly great album.  Look at the release date and think about that for a second.  Three years into their career, 28 to go.  Oh boy.

This is the consensus pick for best Metallica album, aside from the drunken yahoos who pick the Black Album.  The reason is that this is the apothesis of their abilities.  They would get more intricate on their next album, but there are of course some…problems…with that album.  Master of Puppets is eight tracks of forward-thinking headbanging thrash metal, with a majestic sense of dynamics.  The theme here is power and control:  Drug addiction, madness, ordinary soldiers at war, evangelical religion.  “Battery” is the greatest thrash metal song of all time that isn’t “Angel of Death”.  “Master of Puppets” is eight minutes of instantly recognizable fist-in-the-air metal.  “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Welcome Home” are a welcome dynamic shift, adding a creepy, eerie vibe to the proceedings that makes the atmoshpere.  “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage, Inc” are lethal slabs of explosive guitar work.  “Orion” is a sad note on the album, as it features some sublime work from Cliff Burton.  While on tour for Master of Puppets in 1986 (with Ozzy Osbourne) the band would get into a bus accident in Sweden and Burton would die.  You will notice that they didn’t make a truly great album after Burton’s death.  I don’t think that this is a coincidence.  Burton was a master, a great bassist with eclectic taste in music that drove the innovative part of the band’s career.  After he left, that innovative soul left them, and they slowly ossified into the walking cliche they are today.  He left behind a legacy of great music, and his presence would be sorely missed over the following 28 years.

…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1988)

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh where’s the bass?  I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t the band’s ultimate gesture of disresepct for their new bassist, but longtime producer Fleming Rasmussen attributed it to his not being present during the mixing process.  Still, the album sounds weird.  The tone is dry, sterile, with clicks for drums, thin guitars, and no bass.  Newsted recorded his bass separately from the band and it was mixed into the same frequency with Hetfield’s guitar.  Still, for all of that, this is the album that proves that Metallica can play this shit sideways.  These are lengthy, intricate songs that, if they were produced properly, would be the absolute pinnacle of thrash metal.  This is progressive thrash, the kind of thing that had both punk and metal bands sitting up and taking notes on.  It was also the mainstream world’s first real look at the band; perennial crowd favourite “One” had a music video made for it, and it got some serious play on MTV courtesy of Headbanger’s Ball.  In terms of themes, it was heavily political, painting a picture of an America where justice had been sold to the highest bidder, warmongers ruled over all, and the government was in collusion with moneyed intersts.  Twenty years later, in an interview with German-language television network 3SAT, Hetfield would try to claim that the band was apolitical because “politics and music, at least for us, don’t mix”.  Ha, good one James.

This album is also totally to blame for the way I wrote songs when I was 14-15.  Everything had to be modular, with airtight riffs, and there had to be at least two guitar solos in the course of every song.

METALLICA (1991)

This album is the 800 pound gorilla of the hard rock world.  It’s sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide, including the super-fancy Diamond level of sales from the RIAA in the U.S.  It’s a staple of every rocker, from acne-scarred thirteen-year-olds to grey-hairs convinced that they still rock hard.  Ask any long-haired, vacant eyed adolescent male about their favourite albums and this will be listed.  You’ll hear a certain inflection when they talk about it as well:  “The BLACK album”, as though the cover sums up all the light-eating qualities they ascribe to the album.  It’s become a fetish amongst a certain demographic, a beacon for a time that was less complicated and more rock ‘n’ roll.

Unpopular opinion time:  it’s also shockingly mediocre.

The band pushed the reset button after …And Justice For All, trading in the intricate, sprawling progressive thrash they’d perfected for much slower tempos and much more introspective lyrics.  That slower BPM is the biggest problem with the album – it thuds and plods in more places than is strictly comfortable, and while some of the riffs stand the test of time too many others seem content to crawl along and get by on the weight of Bob Rock’s production.  It comes off like the band made a conscious decision to change their sound up but flubbed the delivery because they weren’t really sure how to play slowly and menacingly.  “Enter Sandman” has a classic riff, but “Sad But True” ages badly, marred perhaps too much by Kid Rock’s sampling years afterwards.  “Holier Than Thou”, “The God That Failed”, and “My Friend of Misery” are clunkers unless you are wrapped in a cloud of either heavy nostalgia or adolescent hormones.  “Don’t Tread On Me” brays senselessly, echoing the Gadsen flag’s slogan without any sort of real bite and unwittingly becoming an anthem for the American Tea Party’s reactionary politics twenty years later.  “The Unforgiven” still holds up well – that spaghetti-western guitar line still gives me chills to this day – but “Nothing Else Matters” has become somehow even more boring nearly a quarter-century later.  It’s the sort of song that screams class to people who think tuxedo t-shirts are the height of formal wear, a pseudo-profound ballad that untold numbers of teenage couples have had their first dance (vertical or horizontal) to since it was first released.  I have heard any number of Metallica defeners get belligerent about how the song is this complicated icon of how worshipful Kirk Hammett is as a guitarist, despite the fact that its oh-so-stately opening measure could be finger-picked by a monkey with a lobotomy, and the fact that he still can’t play his way out of a pentatonic scale.

Still, there are classic hard rock songs here:  “Enter Sandman”, “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Through The Never”, and “Of Wolf and Man” all stand up.  This counts for five songs out of the twelve on display, of course, but it’s better than a lot of their hard rock contemporaries could manage.  Does that fact alone mean it deserves its legendary status?  God, no.  Forcing themselves to slow down and play something besides progressive thrash was an interesting decision, but they fumbled it.  Stacked against the rise of college alt-rock and the decaying forces of Sunset Strip glam-metal, it was a beacon of heavy music that caught a fire amongst disaffected adolescents.  This fact – that the album was in the right place at the right time – tends to cover up the more glaring bits of cringe that runs roughshod through the album.  Put simply:  the album is truly great only through consideration of nostalgia.

LOAD (1996)

“Oh my god Trevor, did you really just rate Load better than the Black Album?  They went grunge!  They cut their hair!  They betrayed their trve kvlt rvvts!  RHUBARB! RHUBARB!”

To be fair, a change had to be made.  The band had reached the apex of their take on New Wave of British Heavy Metal by 1988 and there was simply nothing left to be done without devolving into self-parody.  With Bob Rock at the helm and a newfound focus on mid-tempo traditional biker metal (a la Judas Priest) Metallica found worldwide success despite all of the leaden problems I outlined above.  After touring the shit out of their Black Album they finally released a follow-up five years later and took a lot of heat for it.  The problem, of course, was that they had found mainstream success in 1991, before Nirvana, with a set of wooden, stodgy heavy metal numbers that were honestly pretty awkward to bang your head to.  By the time Load came out in 1996 grunge was over; Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years and the specter of Creed was not far off.  Metallica tempered their trad-metal with a bit of swing – southern rock and the bluesier side of Black Sabbath – but so had everyone else.  To the clueless ninth-grader and his old-school rockin’ uncle of 1996, it sounded at first blush as if the band had forsaken true metal for a kick at the Stone Temple Pilots/Pearl Jam can.  The fact that they had cut their trademark long metal locks in the interim did not help matters.  I had long hair in the ninth and tenth grade.  When I finally cut it short in the eleventh grade, one of my best friends accused me of “going Metallica” – which is how deep the betrayal went in the high school stoner subculture.

The facts, though, tell a different story.  Load was an album that followed directly from the Black Album, although a distance of eighteen years is helpful in realizing this.  The songs are just as heavy as anything off of the Black Album, but they’re played mercifully looser, with more swing and a bigger spark of life.  A song like “Struggle Within” or “Holier Than Thou” is wooden and uncomfortable; a song like “Ain’t My Bitch” or “King Nothing” coils and strikes with grace.  The band takes chances, with lengthy side closers “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn” eating up minutes and combining a bluesier approach to guitar playing with crushing choruses that evoke actual emotional intensity.  This intensity is helped along by Hetfield’s focus on introspection when it comes to his lyrics; he’s still nowhere close to being the world’s greatest poet but the lack of cheese that infested the Black Album is a welcome change.  Even the token ballad is miles beyond what had been offered five years previous; while “Mama Said” is not in the same league as, say, “Fade To Black”, it beats out “Nothing Else Matters” by virtue of that same emotional connection that Hetfield achieves throughout Load.  It also serves as a great reminder of country music’s place in the history of hard rock.  The main problem with the album is the lengthy running time; at nearly 80 minutes (they filled the capacity of a compact disc) it gets a bit exhausting, although the next year would show why cutting it back would have been impossible.

Load makes one thing clear:  there are really two Metallicas.  One started off with a young, brash, awkward album that told everyone within earshot that this was a thrash metal band.  The other started off with an older, more conservative awkward album that proclaimed the band to be the epitome of traditional heavy metal.  The second Metallica would be much more scattershot.

RELOAD (1997)

As the name implies, Reload is made up of the leftovers of the Load sessions.  The band had recorded so much material that it was able to make two very lengthy albums out of it. That Reload is not quite up to the same standards as Load is perhaps inevitable, since it’s populated by the B-list side of the sessions, and a lot of the songs could easily have been left comfortably in the vault.  “Devil’s Dance”, “Better Than You”, and “Slither” crawl on for far longer than they need to.  The cringe factor returns to the lyrics, notably on tracks like “Bad Seed”, “Carpe Diem Baby”, and “Fuel”.  At the same time, “Fuel” features a great guitar solo, a future-ready melody that sounds like it was lifted whole out of a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk video game.  “The Memory Remains” is a stellar southern rock gothic, featuring a spine-tingling vocal melody from Marianne Faithfull.  “The Unforgiven II” is largely unnecessary but at the same time it’s a testament to the power of big gestures and bigger guitars.  “Low Man’s Lyric” employs a hurdy-gurdy to craft the band’s most eclectic ballad to date, and the closer “Fixxxer” is an epic crunch-fest that rivals Load‘s “The Outlaw Torn”.  Besides those tracks, however, the band rehashes the southern rock groove that lay at the heart of Load, only with less success and more repetition.

GARAGE, INC (1998)

Metallica has always had a sweet spot for covers.  Their 1984 “Creeping Death” single featured a Diamond Head cover that would become part of their regular repertoire, and 1987 would see them release the fabled $5.98 EP, whose five covers are reprised on this compilation.  Following the Load/Reload releases, the band retreated to the garage to record a full album of covers, and to compile the covers they’d released for various singles.  The result is really the highlight of the post-1988 era, an album where the band lets go and plays with abandon.  Garage, Inc. introduced a generation of stodgy adolescent fans to bands that they might otherwise never have been exposed to:  it’s where I found out about Discharge, Nick Cave, the heavier side of Blue Oyster Cult, and where I gained an appreciation for early Mercyful Fate.  Their version of the classic Skynyrd ballad “Tuesday’s Gone” gets a little long-winded, but their take on Bob Seger’s road-weary “Turn The Page” is spot-on.  The second side compiles the “Creeping Death” single, the $5.98 EP, the “Harvester of Sorrow” single (where we all learned to appreciate Budgie), the b-sides to “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven”, and a quartet of hard-hitting Motorhead tracks that close out the album in a big way.  It’s a good reminder that the band were fans before they were world-spanning rock stars, and it helps to put their career into perspective.

S&M (1999)

Jason Newsted’s final album with the band was a live effort, a pairing of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Metal has always had a fascination with orchestral suites and classical composers – witness the entirety of symphonic black metal – and there has always been a parallel tendency to think in terms of large pieces.  With Metallica in particular, Cliff Burton had been a big fan of classical composition, including Bach, and the album’s conception was in a way an homage to his memory.  The actual execution is a bit hit and miss; the classic thrash metal songs pair well with a symphonic accompaniment, especially set opener “The Call of Ktulu” and the ever-popular “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.  Some of the tracks fall a bit flat even with accompaniment:  “Devil’s Dance” is still a clunker no matter how many strings you pile on, and “Hero Of The Day” seems strangely diminished.  “Nothing Else Matters” comes off much better than the original, however, as the orchestral accompaniment adds in the meat that the original was missing.  The album included two new tracks, neither of which are particularly essential.  “No Leaf Clover” got some radio play after the album was released, and “- Human” was included in NHL 99, but of the two only the former is still played in concert.  All in all S&M shows off the power of the band live, especially with the boost brought by the orchestra; as far as live albums go, you can do a lot worse.

ST. ANGER (2003)

St. Anger is a confusing record, largely because it’s trying to be a lot of different things at the same time.  It’s the first album without Jason Newsted, who left in 2001 due to some personal issues and the band’s rigorous touring schedule.  Around the same time, the original recording sessions for the album came to a screeching halt after James Hetfield entered rehab for addictions to alcohol and other substances.  Even after Hetfield returned to the group, the band faced internal problems (the kind you get when your band consists of two assholes and a wishy-washy lead guitarist) and hired a personal coach to help them get over themselves.  These group therapy sessions (as well as the album recording sessions) would be recorded and later form the basis for the metal therapy documentary Some Kind Of Monster.  The film is really only worthwhile for one scene, the one where Dave Mustaine cries about being kicked out of Metallica way way back in the 1980s.  The album itself is an attempt to play catch-up with the metal world, which had moved on past heavy groove-rock by the time the 21st Century was underway.  It’s notable that the tempos on St. Anger are much faster than anything they’d recorded since …And Justice For All, although the riffs are nowhere near as complex as that watershed point.  Instead, the band sort of speed-strums through the fast parts while Lars wails on the drums in a manner which can be best summed up as a clatter.  Literally:  he forgot to tune a snare in the recording at one point, discovered that he liked it, and decided to record all of the drums as though he were playing a gigantic metalworks, or a bunch of copper pipes.  I made jokes back in 2003 that he’d taken inspiration from Stomp.  The problem with all this is that there’s no real definition to the speedier parts of the songs – it’s all fierce attitude without craft, and it’s only the dynamic downshifts that really save the songs from being second-tier thrash metal.  There’s also a notable lack of guitar soloing, as though Bob Rock and Ulrich/Hetfield decided that guitar solos weren’t cool anymore because the kids weren’t playing them, and in my mind the songs tend to suffer somewhat from a lack of orgasmic release that the solos usually provided.  It’s not anywhere near as bad as Brent DiCrescenzo made it out to be, though, and while it’s not the best album the band ever did I actually prefer it to most of the rest of the Bob Rock era.  The fanbase, of course, thinks differently; people really dislike the album, which I find a little confusing because it’s not actively offensive for any particular reason.  Some of it may be backlash for the band’s hypocritical stance on P2P sharing and the Napster debacle, but I think that a lot of it can be summed up by the fact that metal fans are fucking weird.

DEATH MAGNETIC (2008)

It’s tempting to call Death Magnetic a comeback, because that’s really what it feels like.  It’s a definite break with the era that came before, and it’s telling in the two people who aren’t present for the recording.  Bob Rock, the producer who helmed them from the Black Album through to St. Anger, was replaced by Rick Rubin, who of course not only produced a slew of great hip hop albums (including some definite comebacks) but also kept Slayer on course for their career.  Jason Newsted, who joined them before …And Justice For All and left just before the recording of St. Anger began, was finally, permanently replaced by Robert Trujillo.  Rubin radically redid the band’s tone, scrapping the muddled, everything-in-the-middle production of St. Anger with a sharper, clearer style (albeit one that falls into the same ultra-compressed Loudness Wars problem as every other major label recording of the time).  Trujillo’s presence seemed to spur the band to revist their musical direction as well.  After spending nearly seventeen years following mid-tempo trad-metal that grew increasingly indistinguishable from heavy alt-rock, and capping it off with a stripped-down album of Slipknot-level riffs, Death Magnetic marks a return to the thrash metal stylings they last visited on …And Justice For All.  The most notable signifier of this is the return of Kirk Hammett’s blazing guitar solos; the warp-speed fingering that rockets out of “That Was Just Your Life” is all the more mind-blowing for the complete silence that occurred on St. Anger.

My thoughts on the Bob Rock era are pretty clear, I think.  To me it feels as though the band wandered through a wilderness from 1991-2003, chasing mainstream rock acceptability and arena rock crowds.  Mid-way through the 21st Century, sober and at peace for the first time, it felt as though the band came full circle back to the music they made their name on in the first place.  They were scarred, sure, but they’d learned something about shading, subtlty, and dynamics in those years as well that allowed them to take their burning thrash to the next level.  A song like opening track “That Was Just Your Life” barrels along like they decided to cover Slayer, but “The Day That Never Comes” combines “Fade To Black”, “The Unforgiven”, and the ballad experiments they tried out on Load/Reload to great effect.  It feels like a logical progression from 1988, and is a welcome addition to the thrash metal canon.

LULU (2011)

Lou Reed and Metallica.  What, exactly, were people expecting?  Lou Reed didn’t give a fuck anymore by this point.  He said in an interview for the album’s release that he’d chased away any fans he’d had with 1975’s Metal Machine Music, and that he was doing music mainly for fun by 2011.  Lulu is a messy album, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.  It’s more of a work of art than a piece of commercial music, and this sort of thing usually makes people angry, because most people don’t really get art, and those that do are not normally in Metallica’s target audience.  So, there’s the thing.  It’s a set of songs originally written for a play called Lulu, which amalgamated two German plays.  This alone will make the typical acne-riddled Metallica fan’s eyes glaze over.  It comes off as metal-backed poetry, kind of like…well, like Lou Reed collaborating with Metallica.  The real problem is that most of the songs come off as two different songs layered on top of each other; the execution is clunky, and in the end I think that the outcome is alright, but Metallica was probably the wrong band for the project.  Fun fact:  the recording sessions were apparently fairly relaxing except for one moment where things got so intense that Reed challenged Lars Ulrich to a “street fight”. That’s the kind of stuff you would get into when you hung around Lou Reed enough.  At the time of the album’s release, many said that it was the end of Metallica, a final joke that would kill off the band.  People take this stuff way too seriously.  Interestingly, critics like Robert Christgau opined after Reed’s death in 2013 that the album hadn’t gotten enough love; avant-garde mag The Wire gave it their #9 spot on their year-end best-of list.  As divisive as anything you’re likely to find in modern mainstream music, Lulu shows the fault lines where music-as-art butts up against music-as-entertainment.

 

Gluttony and Lust: A Guide To Melvins

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The alternative revolution, and later the internet, have made it difficult to remember those heady days before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” invaded the radio and the rock world shifted towards punk rock for ever more.  When the Melvins formed, in 1983, REM was putting out its first album for a Gen X audience going off to college for the first time.  The first wave of punk had petered out, a victim of its own excesses.  The metal underground was spinning up both it’s thrash varieties (Metallica, Slayer, Venom, et al.) and the Sunset Strip pop variety (Motley Crue and friends).  The nascent Pacific Northwest scene was just forming high school bands and banging out Black Sabbath riffs in grungy basements and garages.  Amongst these, of course, were the Melvins, named for a particularly obnoxious supervisor at a Thriftway in their hometown of Montesano, WA.  They shared their scene’s love of 70s hard rock but tempered it through the grinding, off-kilter noise-riffs that were featured on Black Flag’s My War album.  As far as local scene bands went, they became minor-league famous by the time Ratt was making it big and attracted a following of stoners and miscreants, first and foremost their sometime-homeless roadie, Kurt Cobain (who claimed the Melvins as his favourite band – and why not, he ripped them off enough).  Cobain, of course, would go on to slay the hair metal bands with a single album and usher in the post-Boomer era of rock ‘n’ roll, and the Melvins would get briefly caught up in that wave of mass major label signings.  By 1997 magazines like Guitar World were referring to them as part of the unfortunate wave of “boomerang bands” that went from major labels to indie labels when they failed to sell millions of albums, but the band has had incredible staying power over the years, putting out a slew of albums that have been all over the map when it comes to ambient doom-drone, sludgecore metal, chunky classic rock, and a thick filter of weird humour.  What follows is a guide to their studio albums, eschewing their live albums except for one key recording.

 

 

Six Songs (EP) (1986)

The earliest Melvins collection straddles the line between snarling punk rock and Black Sabbath worship.  Matt Lukin plays bass here, predating his more ‘famous’ days in Mudhoney.  Had anyone been paying attention (beside the Seattle underground anyway) they would have seen the way forward for hard rock:  you didn’t need cheesy high-pitched vocals about Satan and you didn’t need pretty riffs.  What hard rock really needed, circa 1986, was garage-recorded grime – something thick, sludgy…grungy.  The term would become synonymous with the early 90s but what it really boils down to is what Osborne, Crover, and Lukin show off here:  a gripping mixture of Master of Reality and My War.

 

 

Gluey Porch Treatments (1987)

By 1987 most heavy bands were either Sunset Strip Crue-wannabes or engaging in speed wars in the thrash metal underground.  The Melvins, on the other hand, were playing damaged Black Flag riffs at Black Sabbath speeds with gobs of off-kilter vocals courtesy of Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne.  Their debut album ups the ante on the previous year’s EP, sounding like it has a bigger recording budget solely through the typical cost-cutter of the Seattle underground:  cranking the volume up until it won’t go further.  Two of the songs were rewrites of tracks from Six Songs, and a third (“Leeech”) was a cast-off Green River song the band had fallen for.  Part of the writing credit on that track would go to Mark Arm, who would nab bassist Matt Lukin shortly afterwards to form Mudhoney.

 

 

Ozma (1989)

After switching out Matt Lukin for Buzz’s girlfriend Lori Black (daughter of Shirley Temple) they decamped to San Fransisco and began tinkering with their sound.  The heart of the band on Ozma is still that careening, chunky sludge, but there are moments of further experimentation here and there.  “Oven” has a moment that is just drums and Osborne shouting, with some muted guitar serving only to emphasize Crover’s pounding.  “Let God Be Your Gardener” starts off almost clean, in comparison to everything else they were up to, and “Revulsion/We Reach” features chimes and weird feedback.  The Kiss cover (“Love Thing”) though an instrumental slice, shows an influence on the other side of Osborne’s voice:  it’s a bit Ozzy Osbourne, to be sure, but it’s also a lot of Gene Simmons love filtered through the belligerent shout of Henry Rollins.

 

 

 

Bullhead (1991)

As the alternative revolution began to break over the radio, the Melvins lengthened their songs and deepened the sludge.  Whereas their first two albums would feature a large number of tracks, inflated by several under-2-minute sketches, Bullhead trims the track list down to eight songs with only two clocking in at less than three minutes.  The opening track, the nearly nine minute glacial “Boris”, gave the Japanese noise rock band its name.  It also features a great last-minute breakdown that shows off exactly how deliciously unhinged Buzz was (and still is).  While contemporaries like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were busy cutting the bongloads with Boston and the poppier parts of the Kiss discography, the Melvins were doubling down on their ice-covered pummeling.  There’s more Ozzy than Rollins on here:  witness a track like “Ligature”, which approaches the haunting, soaring aspects of the best of Black Sabbath much more than their earlier albums.  “It’s Shoved” should sound familiar to anyone who owns a copy of In Utero while at the same time proving Black’s worth in the band (she would leave shortly after).   Bullhead is an intimidating slab of a album, a thick album that holds its own as a doom rock classic.

 

 

 

Lysol (“Melvins”) (1992)

Following a 1991 European tour, the joining of Joe Preston on bass, and three simultaneous solo EPs, the band recorded Lysol.  It would prove to be their last album on Boner Records and the first record of the drone/doom movement of the 2000s (Sunn O))) foremost among them).  Bullhead may have been a slower, denser album than either Gluey Porch Treatments or Ozma, but Lysol slowed everything down into a near-singularity.  “Hung Bunny” – the first third of the album – draws out rumbling guitar noise and punctuates it with spectral moans.  The rest of the album grinds on slightly faster, but not by much.  In amongst everything are another pair of covers, Flipper’s “Sacrifice” and Alice Cooper’s “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”, both of which the band wrestle into submission.  The band had to alter the name of the album when the actual Lysol brand complained about the use of their trademark; black tape was originally used to cover the name on the side of the album art but eventually they took it out entirely.

 

 

 

Houdini (1993)

While the band was busy making strictly non-commercial drone metal, their former roadie was busy becoming the Voice of a Generation.  As sales of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains drove a new revolution in rock ‘n’ roll, hungry major label executives began to scour these bands for compatriots and influences to fuel continued growth.  One of the odder choices was, of course, the Melvins, although after Kurt Cobain declared them his favourite band their move to major was likely a foregone conclusion.  Signed to Atlantic Records for a three-album deal, they attempted an album that was true to themselves, despite their expensive new surroundings.  Early production efforts with Cobain grew futile as the Nirvana frontman fell deeper into his heroin addiction, and Osbourne and Crover basically recorded and produced the album themselves.  It returns to the same sort of stuff they were peddling on Bullhead – crushingly dense sludge-metal – but the budget is bigger and every instrument hits like a punch in the gut.  Even the Kiss cover (“Goin’ Blind”) grinds like the grungiest song ever recorded.  Tracks like “Honey Bucket” and “Set Me Straight” lurch like a seasick sailor into punk territory while “Hag Me” and closing track “Spread Eagle Beagle” drive it back home into the drawn-out noise drones of Lysol.  “Sky Pup” adds a bass-heavy, bouncy air to the proceedings, showing some more of that Alice Cooper influence that hides beneath the monolithic sludge at times, and along with “Pearl Bomb” showed willingness to experiment with their sound.  It’s hard to pick a prototypically “Melvins” album, but Houdini is pretty close.

 

 

 

 

Prick (1994)

 

Released on Amphetamine Reptile and titled backwards in order to get around their Atlantic contract, Prick is an album that can be succinctly summed up by King Buzzo himself:  “Complete and utter nonsense, a total joke”.  Prick was an outlet for weird experimental noise, fiercely non-commercial even by Melvins standards.  New bassist Mark Deutrom doesn’t really get up to much as it’s pretty much a colletion of noise, jokes, feedback, country-twang sketches, and field recordings of buskers in the London Underground.  Originally to be titled “Kurt Kobain”, the band changed the name to Prick at the very last minute due to Cobain’s suicide.  “Larry” and “Rickets” are the only traditional songs on Prick, and both are quite rewarding.  Beyond them, however, this one’s for collecters only.

 

 

Stoner Witch (1994)

The band’s second album for Atlantic widens their scope quite a bit.  Right from the get-go the band adds more melody than they’d shown in their entire career to date, brought to a heady life by the addition of Garth Richardson (GGGarth) as producer.  “Queen”, “Sweet Willy Rollbar”, and “Revolve” all strike out for hard rock territory rather than the sludge-noise they’d perfected on Houdini.  “Goose Freight Train” brings all of that to a halt, bringing up a creepy ‘stalking you through the deserted streets’ vibe instead.  “Roadbull” features schizophrenic dynamic shifts and a moment that achieves a spaghetti western version of glory.  There are plenty of noisy moments on Stoner Witch – especially epic meltdowns like “At The Stake” or “June Bug”, or the pure art-noise bleeding into uptempo riffing of “Magic Pig Detective” – but the album really showed a band that was willing to push the envelope of their sound regardless of what their label might have wanted.

 

 

 

 

Stag (1996)

The sitar that opens up “The Bit” shows the way for this album:  that old Melvins crunch, now with more *stuff*.  Check out the horns and the scractching on “Bar-X The Rocking M”, or the trippy-as-hell middle of “Buck Owens”.  Hell, check out Buzz’s mild-as-milk singing on “Black Bock” or “Skin Horse” for a real trip-out.  This is the same guy that sang “Hooch” three years prior.  Even a lengthy stomper like “Goggles” doesn’t follow the same tried-and-true sledgehammer path of Bullhead or Houdini; these are more like sludge tracks for the thinking person, full of weird deviations and odd nooks and crannies.  On tracks like “Sterilized” and “Lacrimosa” they take the ambient drone-metal ideas they brought to Lysol and update them, adding in more of everything – more ambiance, more creepily unfocused vocals, more crashing, glacial drum hits.  Stag is a wildly experimental album – probably too experimental for Atlantic, who dropped them after the album was released.  After signing the band in hopes of finding the next Nirvana from a list of Cobain’s favourite bands, an album that was about half burbling, creeping noise-drone and weirdness was probably a bit too much to bear.

 

 

 

Honky (1997)

“Mombius Hibachi” was the first Melvins song I ever heard (on late-night MuchMusic), and as far as introductions went I could have done a lot worse.  On an album that’s easily as weird and experimental as Prick, it’s one of the few tracks that kicks out the atmosphere that they were going for on Stag.  It’s wilfully noisy but compelling for that.  “They All Must Be Slaughtered” is reminsicent of the opening drone of Lysol; “Lovely Butterfly” is the reimagining of their sludge metal through overdriven noise-bursts; “Air Breather Deep In The Arms Of Morphious” draws out an ambient drone and bisects it with a distorted, fuzzed-out mid-section and coda.  The funniest moment is “Laughing With Lucifer At Satan’s Sideshow”, which amalgamates everything that must have been said to them by coked-out record execs during the Atlantic era.  Taken all together it’s the most experimental album in the Melvin’s canon, and amongst the most divisive.

 

 

 

The Maggot (1999)

The end of the 20th Century brought the Melvins onto Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records and their sound back to something approximating the halfway mark between Houdini and Stoner Witch.  There are still weird ambient moments (like the first couple of minutes of “Manky”) but for the most part The Maggot is a return to the sludgy metal that they made their name on in the first place.  It doesn’t hit as hard as Houdini, it doesn’t have that classic snap like Stoner Witch, and it doesn’t have the out-there experimentalism of Stag, but it holds it own.  It forms the first part of a trilogy along with the next two albums, which were released as a packaged vinyl trilogy some time afterwards.  It’s also an incredibly frustrating album to listen to on Spotify, since the band split each track in half and the commercials kick in at the worst times.

 

 

The Bootlicker (1999)

The second part of the band’s 1999 trilogy is a much more subdued affair than its predecessor.  The songs come off much more like alterna-rock pieces than they do the stomping sort of sludge the Melvins made their name on.  The guitars are muted, the drums are produced very quietly, and Osbourne’s whisper-singing takes up a lot more sonic space than his molten howl ever did.  The bass is mixed very high, giving tracks like the sprawling “Let It All Be” and “Mary Lady Bobby Kins” a propulsive feel that comes off as a more mature version of their distorted dynamic leaps on Stoner WitchThe Bootlicker brought back the experimental side of the band that had been mostly missing on The Maggot (especially when you take into account the closing track, “Prig”), and affirmed them as not only the Gods of Metallic Stomp, but also as a peachy-keen laid-back stoner rock band as well.

 

 

The Crybaby (1999)

And just like that the trilogy went from weird to completely out-there.  The Crybaby is a mixture of cover songs and original material and features a heavy guest list.  The album kicks off with 70’s teen heartthrob Leif Garrett singing on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.  Given the band’s history with former roadie-turned-generational touchstone Kurt Cobain, and Garrett’s history as a commercial unit, is this some sort of a meta statement?  Who knows.  The cover is pretty faithful, for what it’s worth.  Elsewhere, the band covers the Jesus Lizard with David Yow (who also shows up later on with an Osbourne collaboration), Hank Williams with the man’s grandson, Foetus, Bliss Blood, label head Mike Patton, and Merle Haggard on a particularly inspired version of “Okie From Muskogee”, also featuring Hank Williams III.  As eclectic an album as you’ll find in the band’s catalogue, it also ranks among their best.

 

 

 

 

Electroretard (2001)

A sort of odds-n-ends collection, a post-Trilogy stopgap.  One out-there experiment in back-masking, three covers (including Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”) and four reworkings of older Melvins material from the Gluey Porch Treatments/Ozma/Bullhead era.  In other words, largely inessential and useful only for completists.

 

 

Hostile Ambient Takeover (2002)

The 21st Century found the Melvins forging their own way through the changing music world by weilding a spiked sledgehammer.  Their first proper album of the century found them straddling a line between the molten sludge they’d become known for on tracks like “[untitled]” and “The Fool, The Meddling Idiot”, and intricate, proggish tracks like “Dr. Geek” and “Little Judas Chongo”.  The “The Fool, The Meddling Idiot” features an ending that bursts open into electronic work that resembles EDM on bad opiates.  “The Brain Center At Whipples” evolves into an orgy of speed and crunch.  The real hostile ambient takeover is saved for the sixteen minute closing track, “The Anti-Vermin Seed”, which meanders along in a low-frequency thud for ten minutes before blossoming into one of Buzz Osbourne’s best vocal takes.

 

 

Pigs Of The Roman Empire (2004)

With the Melvins’ dabblings with variants on industrial and ambient music, it was really only a matter of time before they hooked up with Brian Williams, the Welsh dark ambient pioneer better known to the dregs of society as Lustmord.  The results are pretty much as you’d expect:  Melvins sludge mixed with industrial-tinged ambient stretches.  The centrepiece is of course “Pigs Of The Roman Empire”, a 22 minute piece that follows a lumbering sludge riff through moaning, abandoned vistas.  “The Bloated Pope”, “Pink Bat”, and “Safety Third” are Melvins-oriented riff-fests while the rest of the album (especially the opening and closing tracks) are exercises in the creepy mood-building that Lustmord is best known for.  As far as collaboration albums go, you can do a lot worse.

 

 

Never Breathe What You Can’t See (2004)

Another collaboration album, this time with punk legend Jello Biafra, and the first album that really finds the band playing second fiddle.  After witnessing the Dead Kennedys “reunion” (which, after long years of acrimonious lawsuits, happened without Biafra at the mic) the Melvins approached Biafra about doing an album.  There is no sludge on display here; the Melvins put together a snarling punk rock record that sounds a lot like what Biafra’s later band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, would sound like, which in itself is a lot like what a modern Dead Kennedys would likely sound like.  The star of the show is Jello Biafra, and the success of the album lies directly in what you think of him.  Fans will find a lot to like; detractors will find little to recommend here.

 

 

Sieg Howdy! (2005)

The Melvin’s second album with punk rock political firebrand Jello Biafra combines some leftovers from the Never Breathe What You Can’t See sessions, a couple of remixes from that same album, and a couple of covers.  The first of the latter is “Halo of Flies”, a favourite Melvins cover that was performed the first time Biafra saw the Melvins play live.  The other is an updated rework of the classic Dead Kennedys screed “California Uber Alles”, which rails against the recall campaign that placed action star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s mansion.  The end result is pretty much the same as Never Breathe What You Can’t See, albeit with some interesting tweaks on older material.

 

 

 

Houdini Live:  A Live History of Gluttony and Lust (2006)

I don’t normally include live albums in these discographies because they’re often stopgap albums, meant to keep the band’s name out there while they tour or fight over how the next album is going to sound.  They’re rarely satisfying and they’re often quite disappointing (Hold Steady I’m looking in your direction).  Every once in a while, though, something either iconic or completely out-there comes along and I’ll have to mention it.  Case in point:  A Live History of Gluttony and Lust.  There are other live Melvins albums, and they’re all okay, although not really essential.  ALHGL turns the concept on its head though, in much the same way as Type O Negative’s Origin of the Feces once did:  it’s a live album without an audience.  The album captures the band playing their iconic Houdini album live to an empty warehouse.  Why?  Who knows.  For that matter, who cares?  Houdini was an album crying out for a visceral live treatment, and the band delivers amazingly.  Just find a small room, roll in a keg full of cheap beer, invite some friends over, and crank this album to the maximum volume.  Bam.  Instant Mevlins show.

 

 

 

(A) Senile Animal (2006)

The revolving door that is the bass position for the Melvins revolved again for A Senile Animal, but with a slight difference.  Instead of replacing the departing Kevin Rutmanis with yet another disposable bassist, the Buzzo and Crover decided to join forces with Jared Warren and Coady Willis of Big Business, giving the 2006 lineup of the Melvins not just a bassist but a second drummer.  The outcome is a sort of return-to-form, Stoner Witch-style, featuring a blend of metallic sludge riffing and classic rock arena anthem making (“Civilized Worm” especially seems like a slowed-down Deep Purple, or maybe classic-era Cheap Trick).  “Civilized Worm” actually shows off the strength of the double drummers, ending as it does in a landslide of drum sticks, and the intricate prog-level rhythms of “You’ve Never Been Right”, “Blood Witch”, and “The Hawk” all point to the idea that having a second drummer does not necessarily mean that you’re self-indulgent.  “A History of Bad Men”, meanwhile, reprises the best ideas off of Houdini as a headbanging epic, and “The Mechanical Bride” lurches along like the best of Bullhead.  Easily the best Melvins album since Stag.

 

 

 

Nude With Boots (2008)

Nude With Boots continues in the same vein and lineup as A Senile Animal.   The focus here is definitely on the classic part of classic rock, with the ghosts of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath seemingly everywhere (check out the beginnings of “The Kicking Machine” and the title track for emphasis on this point).  There is nothing here to really distinguish it from A Senile Animal, except maybe that the sound is even crunchier than it was two years prior.  It touches all the right notes from their heyday, Bullhead-through-Stoner Witch, with some truly crushing moments, such as the dual-drum highlights of “The Savage Hippy” and “It Tastes Better Than The Truth”.  This is Melvins stripped down to the basics:  no Lysol-esque doom/drone interludes, no hostile ambient takeovers, no weird detours into multi-instrumental jamming.  Hard, whalloping riffs that sound heavier than compressed lead, like god intended.

 

 

 

The Bride Screamed Murder (2010)

It could be argued that the Melvins get bored every three albums.  Stag was certainly their most experimental Atlantic album; The Crybaby was the most out-there of the trilogy albums, and The Bride Screamed Murder is the oddest of the albums with Big Business as the rhythm section.  Songs like “Evil New War God” and “Pig House” are classic sledgehammer Melvins, to be sure, (well except for the whistles that carry out the latter), but there are tracks like opening number “The Water Glass” that marry strange call-and-response vocals to strident marching band arrangements, “My Generation” that melts the Who classic into molten metal, “Hosptial Up” which ends in a free jazz freakout, and the a capella version of “Peggy Gordon” here called “P.G. x 3″, which is amongst the more haunting versions of a Canadian folk song ever to be recorded.  While it’s not as elclectic as either of of their previous “third albums”, it was the most out-there the band had been since 2002.

 

 

 

Freak Puke (2012)

Out goes Big Business, in comes Trevor Dunn to take over bass duties, albeit with an acoustic standup bass.  This “Melvins Lite” lineup produced an album that moved away from the back-to-basics Melvins/Big Business records and moved on to a sprawling, acid-damaged sound that took the lumbering sludge and added in atonal strings, proggish arrangements, and a more harmonious set of melodies.  It’s alternately spacey and scuzzy, often within reaching distance of back-to-back songs, like the transititon from “Holy Barbarian” to “Freak Puke”, or the cracked-out Baroque art-damage of “Inner Ear Rupture” moving into the stomp of “Baby, Won’t You Weird Me Out”.  The best is saved for last, of course:  Paul McCartney cover “Let Me Roll It” is characteristically bludgeoning, and serves as a nice toss-up for the lethal freak-out of the closer, “Tommy Goes Beserk”.  Not the highwater mark by any means, but a solid effort for a band on their umpteenth album.

 

 

Everybody Loves Sausages (2013)

The Melvins have always thrown covers into their albums and live sets, but Everybody Loves Sausages is the first full cover album the band has released.  The track list is wide-ranging, including classic touchstones like David Bowie, Queen, and “Black Betty”, poppier choices from the Kinks and Roxy Music, a cut by underground metal pioneers Venom, and a nod to the 80s art-punk scene of their youth through The Jam and Throbbing Gristle.  The results are all over the place.  Queen’s “Best Friend” is largely unnecessary, consisting of a straightforward reading of the vocals backed with a broken circus synth, and “Black Betty” is just a slightly more breakneck version of the Ram Jam cover, but Mudhoney’s Mark Arm adds a sneering spit to The Scientists’ “Set It On Fire” and the mile-a-minute take on “Attitude” kicks the Kinks original up and down the street.  The full cover of Bowie’s epic “Station to Station” is also an interesting reading, adding feedback and existential dread into the coke-disco original.  It’s stylistically all over the place, and for a cover album that’s okay.

 

 

 

Tres Cabrones (2013)

Thirty years in to this weird experimental sludge metal band, Dale Crover switches to bass so that original drummer Mike Dillard, who left the band in 1984, can take over the kit.  Calling themselves “Los Melvins”, the band redo a bunch of songs they’d written way back at the beginning in 1983, throw in some traditional tunes (“99 Bottles Of Beer”, “In The Army Now”, “Tie My Pecker To A Tree”), a cover of The Lewd’s “Walter” and half a cover of The Pop-O-Pies “Fascists Eat Donuts”.  It’s a fun sort of reunion album, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it fits together an integral part of the original Melvins story that often gets lost in their improbable rise and fall from a major label recording contract.

 

 

 

 

Knock Knock

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Reddit’s WritingPrompts subreddit recently attempted to do a Guaranteed Critique Week where people would submit responses to a daily writing prompt for critique.  Unfortunately /u/fetfet50, the moderator who was undertaking the effort, had to cancel the week after day 2 due to a family emergency – their family is in my thoughts and wishes.  The first writing prompt generated a 3,100 word short story from me – more to shop around – but the second one was limited to 250 words.  Since the GCW is over I’m posting the shorter piece here, in hopes that you think it’s neato-frito and, you know, buy a book or even just a novella.

The prompt was:  “There is a knock at the door.  You weren’t expecting anyone today.”  I’m not typically a fan of first-person storytelling, but here we are.

 

Blinking.  Can’t stop blinking.  The room’s like a strobe light and I can’t stop wheezing.  Mouth is dry.  Skin’s crawling.  Shouldn’t have slept with her.  She was rotten and there are maggots squirming under my skin.  Try to get them out but I just bleed and bleed and bleed.  All my towels are covered in blood.  How do I get it out again?  Can’t remember.  Can’t remember much.  Need to smoke.

Smoke.

Better.  Knocking now, though.  Someone knocking, knocking, knocking at my door.  Won’t stop.  Little pig little pig let me in.  It’s going right through my skull.  No one should be coming by.  No one at all.  I bought the glass off of Surly Cue yesterday.  No one should be coming by here.  My teeth are grinding and they feel like they’re going to break.  Snap.  Crumble.  Who the fuck is at the door?  I pull back the curtains to peek out but I can’t see anything.  Cops?  Motel security?  Someone here to silence me?  Fuck.  Where’s the gun?  Not on the dresser, not by the bed, not on the mini fridge.  Find it in the bathtub.  Stupid.  Really fucking stupid.  Check the chamber and there’s four rounds left.  Perfect.  Sneak up to the door.  Thumb the safety off.  Hand goes onto the doorknob like I’m squeezing my first tit.

Knocking, knocking.  See how you like this.

Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.

In Keeping With The Name Of The Blog…

Link

http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html

Some disturbing food for thought on the continued silence of the night sky.  Well, I suppose it’s not all disturbing.  Just a few of the concepts, such as the one where the possible Great Filter is actually ahead of us and we have an infinitesimally small chance of proceeding into the wider universe.  Actually, come to think of it, the concept about possible predator civilizations lurking out in the stars cutting off attempts at proceeding outward into the galaxy is the cause of more of my sleepless nights, likely because I played Star Control 2 at a very impressionable age.  The idea is outlined rather well in the Wait But Why link, but I think it’s summed up best by the following passage from The Killing Starby Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski:

Imagine yourself taking a stroll through Manhattan, somewhere north of 68th street, deep inside Central Park, late at night. It would be nice to meet someone friendly, but you know that the park is dangerous at night. That’s when the monsters come out. There’s always a strong undercurrent of drug dealings, muggings, and occasional homicides.

It is not easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. They dress alike, and the weapons are concealed. The only difference is intent, and you can’t read minds.

Stay in the dark long enough and you may hear an occasional distance shriek or blunder across a body.

How do you survive the night? The last thing you want to do is shout, “I’m here!” The next to last thing you want to do is reply to someone who shouts, “I’m a friend!”

What you would like to do is find a policeman, or get out of the park. But you don’t want to make noise or move towards a light where you might be spotted, and it is difficult to find either a policeman or your way out without making yourself known. Your safest option is to hunker down and wait for daylight, then safely walk out.

There are, of course, a few obvious differences between Central Park and the universe.

There is no policeman.

There is no way out.

And the night never ends.

That’s the sort of cheery, smiling bit of thought-experiment that I’m always on the lookout for.

Haus Keeping

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So I’ve put the completed discographies in a page on the sidebar, right under where you can find links to my wonderful works of fiction that you are strongly encouraged to trade your hard-earned dollars/euros/whatever for.  If you want to check them out, they’ll load much faster through there than through the Discographies category.  Coming soon:  Melvins and the Tragically Hip.

Did I mention that I have books you can purchase?  Well, book, and a novella.  Visit the Books page to find out more.  Purchasing them is just like donating money to a worthy cause, only you get more out of it than just a sense of well-being.  Don’t get me wrong, you get that too, but you also get some nifty reading material.

Also, I’ll be attempting at some point to map this over to a top-level domain.  That should be fun, and will in no way be a frustrating experience filled with madness.