Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Music Review #156:
Gentle Giant
In a Glass House

1972's Octopus album was nothing short of a breakthrough record for Gentle Giant. Not only was it, stylistically, a seminal album in the history of progressive rock, but it was also the band's biggest broach into North American popularity up to that point with Columbia Records giving it a fair distribution throughout all of Canada and the United States. 

Though Octopus' release remains a brilliant light of success for this band that had never really achieved the "limelight", it also wrought its fair share of misfortune. Its success was able to land them a tour with none other than fellow Vertigo bedfellows Black Sabbath, wherein they attempted (and hilariously failed) to coincide Sabbath's Vol. 4 era with the comparably whimsical sounds of both Octopus and Three Friends, their two '72 records. This ultimately led to Giant getting a cherry bomb chucked at them during a certain show, to which Phil Shulman responded stoically with "you're a bunch of cunts!", followed by them getting booed off the stage. 

Though Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson was able to pull them into a much more fitting tour in the US, the sucker punch that was the Sabbath tour still took its toll on the group. It's certainly touted as one of the primary reasons for Phil Shulman's departure that very year, though seeking a teaching career, getting back to his family, unabashedly banging roadies and plain old "deteriorated relations" according to his brother Derek have all been similarly put forth as reasons over the years.

Phil's departure was indeed a shaking for the two remaining Shulmans, Gary Green, John Weathers and Kerry Minnear. If anything, it put a lot of unneeded stress on the group as they flocked back across the Atlantic to record their followup to Octopus. However his absence was certainly not Giant's death-knell. Sure, they had to lay off of the acoustics a bit more, but Giant's spirit was certainly not brittle enough to be broken by such an event. In fact Phil leaving caused quite the opposite effect as In a Glass House, the band's fifth album in 1973, turned out to be one of the most biting and impressive English records of the decade.

Let me just go ahead and lay it on the line; if you think that Gentle Giant's main weakness is their pretentiousness, then you will hate In a Glass House. I mean, Columbia (who had previously been accepting of GG's records in the US) refused to even publish it in North America simply because they thought the record's inaccessibility would make it bomb. But if you don't mind the bollocks or you're infatuated with the "pretentiousness" of Giant's music (like me), then In a Glass House is their peak performance.

Gentle Giant's sound, like a more by-the-books Frank Zappa, is a layered one. The virtuoso multi-instrumentalist chops of each of the band members allows for an extremely eclectic, complex sound that you rarely get in other groups. Not only that, it's all delivered in a tight fashion so that each creative turn, whether it be a great riff or experimental cobbling, hits you like the lashing of a whip. This is shown no better than on this record, with songs like the masterpiece 'Experience' being a brilliant collage of quiet keyboarding, folk-y gallops and pure, lashing blues rocking. The dynamics conveyed in this particular song are pristine and absolutely flooring, to say the least. These warm words can certainly be extended to the two other sister epics of the album, 'The Runaway' and the title track, though in comparison to 'Experience' are the more "conventional" tracks. 'Way of Life' is also a massive track, though comparatively a bit lacking in substance. Not it isn't great, because you bet your bottom dollar it is, it's just that it's certainly more straightforward and deviates far less than the other three. It's mainly comprised of a sharp, rapid staccato groove punctured only briefly by a short choral piece and a slower, by-the-books symphonic prog sections. Because it's exceptiona,l it still rocks. However because this is Gentle Giant, it certainly can feel a bit milquetoast at times especially when compared to the rest of their repertoire. The title track is a fast paced, medieval-inspired romp in the first half before quickly evolving into a heavy riff-laden rocker in the second. 'The Runaway' is likely the tune that appeals toward the progressive rock crowd, with it's steady staccato hooks underlayed by such things as Kerry Minnear's exemplary keyboarding and tenor vocals, silky choral breaks, and funky bass and drum fills. It still remains one of my all-time favorite openers to any album. 

The two shorter tracks that fill in the gap between these three legendary tracks are the conduits for Giant's more experimental ideas. 'An Inmates Lullaby' is a unnerving, vibraphone-headed ditty that delights in alternating between cheery vibe' tinkles and haunting vocal melodies. 'A Reunion' is an out-and-out neo-Rennaissance ballad, bereft of rockisms and instead chock-full of strings, strings and more strings. Delightfully simple and effective in its delivery.

In a Glass House was bestowed onto my ears at a very young age and likely has caused me to have my nostalgia goggles on when looking at this album to a certain extent. As I am human I cannot throw away my biases entirely, but what I can do is assure you objectively that In a Glass House is still one of the most sonically daring, creative, and wonderful records that I've heard in my lifetime.

2018 -  Frying Pan Media & Thatcher 
Have a nice day! 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Music Review #155:
Pounding the Pavement

DISCLAIMER: because this is Anvil, a band that holds a very special place in my heart, my words are bound to be much less formal and a bit loose as I will tend to ramble. Be warned. Also happy new year.

Ever since the release of the 2009 Netflix documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil", the sad tale of misfortune about the talented 80's group Anvil has garnered them the success and support that they've been seeking so dearly for almost 40 years. The members of Anvil have been very keen on stating how ecstatic they are to have found their success on numerous occasions through interview after interview. Hell, their newest effort is titled "Pounding the Pavement", a title that frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow postulates is referring to him "rustling up business for forty years and staying at it". That must mean, undoubtedly, that the product of this newfound success that is even titled as an acknowledgement to said success should be a glowing symbol of Anvil's victory. It should.

When bands like Slayer and Metallica started out, it only took them five or less years to have the hype of mainstream popularity hefted onto their shoulders. As such, they were rather quick to the mark to familiarize themselves with not only the expectations for themselves, but the expectations other put onto them. When Anvil, a band so good during the same time that it influenced the two aforementioned examples, received no such popularity. Though stagnant in this regard, Anvil was nonetheless able to forge on, providing continued quality for the past several decades. But now that Anvil has gained a somewhat of a higher level of popularity, with them providing live show after live show with an attendee count higher than anything they would have gotten in the 80s, the staleness that usually hits a band after an extended amount of time under the same level of popularity has hit Anvil drastically in a matter of a few years.

Yes, it's rather unfortunate, but this album is likely the worst Anvil album yet. It's surreal to say as just two years ago Anvil is Anvil hit the scene and was, although a run-through of Anvil's signature traditional heavy metal sound, a still creative and rather entertaining release. Songs like 'Up, Down Sideways' and 'Fire On The Highway' remain exemplary tracks in the band's repertoire. 

However with a lapse of creativity and a far more boiled down production, Pounding the Pavement lacks much of the charm and authenticity of it's predecessor. For one, this has to be the absolute worst Anvil lyricism yet, and that is definitely saying something. This is made clear with each time Anvil moves anywhere close to the political spectrum, such as on 'Ego' (likely the most laughably bad anti-Trump anthem put to music- "change your diapers", yikes) or on 'Don't Tell Me' (a lambasting of "fake news"). It isn't helped that Lips' vocals are seemingly more on the forefront of the sound, giving him ample opportunity to let loose his extremely cringe-inducing lyrics and similarly downsizing his fellow bandmates' place in the fray. With all that taken into account, Lips' vocal delivery isn't even that good. While adopting different tones and inflections on Anvil is Anvil (such as the Mustaine-esque one on 'Fire on the Highway'), his delivery seems to remain very bound to his default rasp that gets extremely grating, especially as it's not quite intimidating enough to come off as genuine.

Aside from the lyrics and vocals, Pounding the Pavement missteps in quite a few other areas. The aforementioned production muddies the overall sound quite badly. Chris Robertson's bass is almost completely drowned under the drums and guitar, giving him little room to be heard at all. Secondly, the charming songwriting that usually propels Anvil out of the halls of mediocrity have fused them to the spot on this one. On one end of the spectrum the songs are completely hook with little to no filling, i.e. trotting out the same (relatively boring) riff ad nauseum for three or so minutes. The other end sounds like what I believe my friend Khaliq put best: "a glam metal band comeback- and not a good glam metal band". 'Doing What I Want' is very true to the latter, with pseudo-swagger being backed by a contrived staccato riff. Other tracks like 'Rock That Shit' have a horribly cheesy arena-rock tone that would fit something done by latter-day Poison.

The magic that Anvil had on previous releases might be a bit stagnant here, but it doesn't mean that some things weren't objectively done right, particularly concerning the Anvil trio itself. Robb Reiner. All that needs to be said is that name. Reiner is perhaps the most underappreciated and balls-to-the-wall drummers to ever grace heavy metal, and his performance on this record is the biggest driving force keeping me going through it. On the other hand bassist Robertson, I believe, will never ascend to the greatness that was Glenn Five, nor will he get a truly explosive track like 2001's 'The Creep'. Definitely not with this sort of songwriting or production. It seems like that even in songs where his bass must be at the forefront like 'Warming Up', he's pushed unceremoniously into the background as he tries desperately to follow with Reiner and Lips. In the guitar section, Lips is still rather on top even if his riffs are fairly contrived. It is still wise for him to follow the advice that many have given him over the years and obtain a second guitarist as to add dynamics that Anvil so badly needs.

Song-wise, there's a few standout tracks here. The title track instrumental is a classic gallop of a tune, hitting quite a few good strokes in its grooving runtime. The cowbell is a nice, earthy touch too. 'World of Tomorrow' is a big, monumental track that's kind of funny with this hard-ass riff being the background to moments like Lips weakly shouting "peace and love!!!!" Nevertheless its pounding nature and the impressive clashing guitar tones towards the second half make it stand out quite well. Other than that, the tracks have a bad tendency to bleed into one another, or stand out in a not-very-positive way.

That ends this ramble. I must stress that I did very much want this album to be as good as Anvil is Anvil was. It just wasn't. Hopefully, this is not a signalling of Anvil breaking their near-perfect forty-year streak of good albums, because that would really be a shame. Knock on wood.

2018 -  Frying Pan Media & Thatcher 
Have a nice day!